Tag Archives: Robin

4 – 18

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Trissiny led Arjen in a wide loop, charging directly at two mounted Riders who were approaching her column from the left flank. Two wand shots sparked off the shield of light surrounding her; when she didn’t so much as slow, both Riders peeled off and bolted for a nearby farmstead, just visible in the distance. Under the moonlight, flashes of lightning flickered among the buildings, and she spared a prayer for the residents and whatever elves were helping them. This was war, though, and strategy was strategy. She couldn’t afford to be diverted.

“I was afraid they were gonna go for the troops once they realized they weren’t making an impression on you,” Gabriel said as she trotted back to them.

“Better-trained soldiers might have,” she said, pushing down the urge to object to this disorganized chain of stragglers being called troops. “All right, men, form a line! Wands up at all times. Whatever happens, you will stay in step with the men to your left and right. You do not charge forward under any circumstances, and don’t retreat unless I call for it. Keep an ear out for orders to fire, but for the most part, I want you to fire at will! Don’t wait till you can see their eyes; we aim to herd them inward, not to cut them down here. I’ll be ranging ahead to scout and deal with problematic individuals. I am protected by Avei, but I would appreciate it if you’d try not to shoot me.”

She galloped Arjen up and down the line as she called orders, almost despairing at their slow, disorderly progress toward getting lined up, some of them chuckling nervously at her last comment. They got there, though, not as quickly as she’d hoped but faster than she’d feared, and their final line was suitably straight.

“Uh, ma’am?” called a man toward the right flank as she came abreast of him. “Does that mean you don’t want us to shoot to kill?”

“This is war,” she said grimly. “People die. The men who started the war have no right to complain. Don’t hesitate if you have a good shot, but no one is to break ranks and pursue. Is that clear?”

An uneven chorus of “Yes, ma’am!” sounded from up and down the line. Trissiny gritted her teeth, keeping her expression under control. They were not ready. This was war; people would die, and her soldiers—to use the word as loosely as possible—were terrifyingly vulnerable. No matter the situation was by no means her fault, their deaths would weigh on her.

“Goddess, grant us your favor,” she whispered, and not as a formality; if the goddess of war didn’t lend her support to this enterprise, it was not going to end well. Bringing Arjen around, she came to a stop in front of them, at the center of the line; directly ahead was the central street of Sarasio.

“The company will advance at a walk!”

Gripping weapons, they did so.


 

“All right, lads,” Ruda called out, stalking back and forth behind the line of men with her rapier in hand. She had declined the offer of a wand. “I could make a speech, but fuck it, we’ve got shit to do. You know what’s going on, and you know what’s at stake. We’re gonna stick to Trissiny’s plan, and that means you stay. In. Line. We move forward or not at all; we move together or not at all. You keep your wands up and if you get a bead on any asshole in a white cloak, you burn ’em down! This is the line of death for them; we want them to know that getting too close is a non-starter, because let’s be honest, this group is not gonna stand up to a cavalry charge. So we make sure no such charge happens! Nothing on horseback gets close enough to run us over without being a burned-out husk, is that clear?”

She exchanged a grim look with Toby while the men called out their agreement, then shouldered through the line, placing herself in front of them and looking into the town. Sounds of battle and flickers of lightning sparked at the edges of the outskirts, but at their approach, the two small groups of Riders harassing the nearest farmsteads had turned tail and run. They had a clear path into Sarasio.

Ruda looked over her shoulder at her troops, and grinned. They were staring forward, hard-faced, gripping weapons. Now this was a fine sight. These prairie folk were no Punaji, but once properly motivated, they weren’t going to take the Riders’ abuse lying down. She was born to lead men like this into battle.

“All right!” she called, brandishing her sword overhead and bringing it down in a flashing arc to point at the street. “Gentlemen: let’s fuck ’em up!”


 

The farmer averted his eyes from the discharge of lightning, grimacing, but when he raised the smoking tip of his staff, the horse was dead. It had been the only kindness they could offer the beast, which had broken two legs in the fall. Turning, he picked his way back toward the others, carefully avoiding the streaks of ice that marred the grass, one of which had brought the Rider to grief. It was plenty warm even at this late hour; the ice was steaming in the prairie air, already melting away. Good; the ground could use the water, and he limped hard enough without slipping on fairy magic in his own front yard.

Now, in addition to the talkative ball of light zipping around, there was an elf standing next to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say the situation is under control,” the elf was saying as he rejoined them, leaning on the staff. “However, the prospects are optimistic. The Hand of Avei is executing a workable strategy which, if successful, will bring an end to the Riders in Sarasio.”

“What strategy?” the old man demanded, keeping his weight on the staff and off his aching hip as much as possible.

She turned and bowed to him. “The men who attended the meeting in town are dispersed at the northern and southern edges, sweeping inward and pushing the Riders before them. My people have fanned out along the flanks to prevent them escaping that way. We will surround them in the center of Sarasio and finish them here.”

“Hnh,” he grunted, rubbing his chin. “Sounds pretty solid.”

“It is!” chimed the pixie, bobbing up and down. “Trissiny is great with plans, she knows all about war!”

“Agreed,” said the elf solemnly.

“Welp, seems to be all settled here,” the old farmer said, straightening up. “You’ll need every warm body you can get to herd ’em up proper. Which way next?”

“Oh no you don’t, Gramps,” Lucy said firmly, keeping a grip on the toddler, who was gazing raptly at Fross and trying to grab the pixie. “There’s no way you’re goin’ out there on that bum leg.”

“Girl, I been protectin’ this land since before you was a gleam in your daddy’s eye! If the men are finishing off the Riders, I ain’t about to sit this out.”

“I fear it will not be possible for anyone to sit it out,” the elvish woman said, turning her big, serious eyes on him. “The operation is aimed at controlling chaos, but chaos has a way of escaping. For exactly that reason, it makes more tactical sense for you to remain with your farm, elder. You have demonstrated your prowess with that weapon; lacking mobility, you better serve the effort holding this ground.”

He growled, searching for a flaw in her argument, but Fross chimed in before he could speak.

“All right, well, I’m still pretty mobile! I’m gonna head upward and see where they need the most help. Be careful, everybody! I’ll try to come back if you run into trouble!”

She shot skyward with a soft chime, leaving the humans and lone elf staring after her.

“Friendly little glowbug,” the old man said, then looked over at the dissolving patches of ice. “Scary, though.”


 

“Here they come,” Gabriel noted unnecessarily, raising his wand alongside the rest of the men in line. Trissiny nodded, her eyes fixed on the five mounted figures which had burst out of a gap between buildings. The townsfolk had reached the outer edge of the city, almost coming to the point where she would have to rearrange their formation to get them through the streets—a logistical mess to which she was not looking forward. Now, the Riders wheeled down the central street straight at the line.

Several of the men in their path shied backward, but at Trissiny’s roar of “FIRE!” lightning flashed forward from a dozen wands and staves, striking one down, glancing off the flank of another’s horse and causing the panicked animal to bear him to the ground, and making a third wheel and bolt back into the town.

She mentally added “poor shots” to her list of reservations about the men she was leading.

Two still came, though. Identical as they looked in their hoods and cloaks, Trissiny knew the one in the lead was one she’d met before.

“HOLD FIRE!” she shouted, and urged Arjen forward.

At her approach, glowing like the sun, the fourth Rider wheeled around and galloped back into the town. The leader, though, kept coming right at her, controlling his mount with his knees and taking aim with both wands.

The light he shot at her was more intense and more direct than most of the lightning bolts she’d seen hurled about this night. Also, he used it with a lot more technique. One wand kept up a veritable spray, hitting her shield hard in a roughly circular area around her face, nearly blinding her; Trissiny felt the impacts as if in her own limbs, that region of the glowing shield weakening and drawing more power to compensate. Then it got worse: a much more powerful single bolt smashed right into the center of the targeted region. Then another.

He had fought light-wielders before, clearly. Over time, assuming she did nothing, the technique would wear through the shield until she took one of those hits directly. Matters were different, though, with the two of them barreling at each other at top speed. Arjen whinnied and tossed his head, clearly understanding the danger; Trissiny did a quick calculation in her mind. Her shield was failing. She was seconds from getting within sword range. Was it enough time?

No.

Arjen lowered his head, and Trissiny raised her metal shield as her divine one shattered under a last bruising wandshot. Raw energy struck; the impact physically rocked her, and she felt the shield grow warm, felt a moment of real fear. That shield was ancient, not made to stand up to modern energy weapons.

Then the shield itself glowed gold. It had been forged before mass-produced wands were even dreamed of, but a shield given to the Hands of Avei had been meant to withstand curses, dragonfire and all the perils of the Age of Adventures.

She closed with the Rider, and bashed him with the shield in passing. He tried to wheel his horse around; Arjen followed with astounding agility, but he was a huge creature built for power and the Rider’s leaner mount proved more agile. Trissiny managed to bring her sword into play, but only felt the slightest snag as its tip nicked the Rider’s shoulder in passing.

Then he was vanishing back into the warren of dirt streets. She watched after him for a moment before turning Arjen back to rejoin her troops, who greeted her with cheers and brandished weapons. A few wands were even fired skyward in celebration.

“If they’re spread as thinly as the elves have suggested,” she said, “they can’t have enough manpower concentrated in one place to do that too many times. Luckily they tried it here instead of against Ruda’s line.”

Gabriel grinned up at her. “I’ll refrain from telling her you said that.”

“Thanks.”


 

Teal panted slightly as she came padding up out of the darkness on bare feet. “How’re we doing?”

“Apparently we are meeting with some success,” Shaeine replied, nodding to the elf who had arrived moments before to deliver a terse report. “Both lines have entered the city proper, and been slowed considerably by the need to navigate the streets, which presents obvious challenges. Only two Riders have slipped through the blockade; one was brought down by elven warriors, and Fross is pursuing the other as we speak.”

“The Hand of Avei just broke a Rider charge aimed at her lines,” said another elf, arriving out of the darkness. “One Rider slain, another dismounted and apprehended by our scouts. We don’t find a similar concentration of them anywhere else in the town. They have evinced no signs that they are in communication; it’s not clear yet whether the entire group realizes what is happening.”

“Good,” growled one of the humans nearby. They were a mixed group, standing at the western edge of Sarasio: a small, constantly rotating roster of about half a dozen elves kept coming and going, relaying information before darting back out to gather more. About twice their number of townsfolk had been gathered, all armed; most of Sarasio’s men having gone to the meeting and now forming the main battle lines, these were the leftovers, those rescued from beleaguered outer farms. More than half were women, the rest a mix of elderly and adolescents of both sexes, all armed.

“I suggest we press forward,” said the elven warrior who had remained alongside Shaeine throughout the night. “The battle enters a new phase as it enters the town, and it will not do to be left behind.”

“Sounds good,” a middle-aged woman with a staff slung over her shoulder said, nodding. “C’mon, everybody. You see anything in a white cloak, blast it.”

The group moved forward in a loose formation, elves fanning out to scout ahead and cover the flanks, townsfolk forming a rough line behind them. Shaeine walked in the rear, Teal falling into step behind her.

“Have you seen Juniper?” Teal asked.

The drow shook her head. “Not since we parted ways at the edge of the forest. I confess I worry more for her than any of our other compatriots; she is resilient, but we have seen her vulnerability to lightning. I can only trust that she knows how to take care of herself.”

“I guess we’d hear about it if anything happened to her,” Teal agreed, nodding. “Naiya apparently isn’t the subtle type.”

“Indeed.”

They slowed slightly, the outer buildings of the town looming ahead.

“You approached on foot,” Shaeine noted.

“Ah…yeah, I figured it’d be best not to startle the locals any more than we can help. On that note, I see you’ve been sticking by the other elves.”

“It seemed wisest,” Shaeine agreed with a faint smile. “Though after the initial shock wears off, I have been offered no hostility as yet, once I show myself to be allied with them. These people are admirably pragmatic.”

“Yeah…” Teal swallowed. “I hate that it had to come to this.”

“As do I,” Shaeine said quietly.

“I just… I know sometimes you can’t talk things out. It just seems like fighting in the streets is a failure.”

“I think you’re right on both points. Many failures have led to this disaster… But the situation is what it is. It can no longer be solved with words. Our best hope is decisive action, to prevent the crisis from dragging itself out further.”

Teal nodded. “I guess I’m fairly well invincible, but… Still. I’ve never been in a… I mean, it’s still terrifying. The though of losing… Someone I’ve come to care about.”

Shaeine looked at her and smiled gently. “I know.”

They had come to a stop, the others moving ahead at a very careful pace now. Teal swallowed, and took one of Shaeine’s hands in her own. The drow glanced down in apparent surprise, then lifted her gaze with an inquisitive look. Teal took a short but deep breath and leaned in closer.

The first naked emotion she had ever seen on Shaeine’s face descended: shock. The drow jerked backward, pulling her hand away. “I think there has been a miscommunication.”

“Oh,” Teal said weakly, going deathly pale. “Oh, I… Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t… I don’t…”

“It’s all right,” Shaeine said evenly, turning and gliding forward with her normal serenity firmly in place. Behind her, Teal gulped, allowing her own misery to show on her features for a moment before getting it back under control.

“I… Sorry, Shaeine, I don’t want—”

“It’s past,” she replied, her tone even and very nearly curt. “We needn’t discuss it.”

They reached the streets in silence.

At the rear of the group, Teal cleared her throat. “Seems quiet here. I’m gonna find where the trouble is and help.” There was a rush of flames the sound of beating wings, and then a fiery figure soared over them, vanishing beyond the rooftops.

One of the elves glanced over at Shaeine with a wry half-grin. “Smooth.”

She glided past him without response.


 

Toby straightened, helping a young man to his feet, the glow of healing around him subsiding.

“My thanks, friend,” the lad said with a smile. “Ah… I mean, sir. Mister. Your, uh, paladin-ness.”

“Toby’s fine,” he replied, grinning.

“Nice horse!” Ruda said cheerfully as two men calmed the rearing animal. Two others were roughly hog-tying the Rider who had been knocked from the saddle by a low-hanging sign he had tried to ride under to avoid their group after seeing all the wands pointing his way. “Maybe I should keep one a’ these. Course, I’d have to learn how to ride it…”

“We’re doing well,” said a voice from above. No matter how many times it happened, the soundless appearance of an elf made most of those present jump and aim their weapons. The slim woman now perched atop the general store sign continued, ignoring this. “Your pixie friend has brought down the last Rider to evade the blockade; all those still in action are within the town, being herded toward the center. Most are now dismounted; that flying demon has been chasing them down and scaring the horses into bucking them for the last fifteen minutes. She seems oddly reluctant to fight.”

“Yeah, that’s no surprise,” Ruda said, nodding. “Teal’d never forgive her for getting blood on her claws. How’s the formation overall?”

“Uneven and prone to buckling,” the elf said with a smile, “but impressively effective. Your friend Trissiny makes good plans.”

“I was afraid of that,” Ruda said sourly. “There’ll be no living with her now.”

Another form dropped from above, earning another round of curses, jumps and pointed weapons, but she similarly ignored this, making a beeline for the young man who had recently been injured.

He saw her at the same time. “Thassli!”

The two met in the middle of the alley and embraced, while the nearby men and elves averted their eyes, embarrassed, and Ruda grinned unabashedly.

“Hi, Jason,” Thassli said finally, pulling back enough to cup his face in both hands.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” he said.

“I told you, love, you just have to be patient.” Someone coughed.

“I can’t be patient anymore.” Taking both her hands in his own, he knelt before her in the dust. Behind him, Lucas Wilcox clenched his jaw, glaring. “Thassli, will you marry me?”

“What?” She laughed lightly. “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous.”

The silence that fell was awkward to the point of being physically painful. Ruda let out a low whistle.

“I,” he choked. “But…”

“Jason,” Thassli said with gentle reproof, ruffling his hair, “we’ve had fun. You’re a sweet boy, really. But, honestly, if I wanted to tie my heart to a hairy, overly exuberant creature who’ll die just when I’ve had time to get properly attached to him… Well, I could just get a dog, couldn’t I? Now c’mon.” She tugged the unresisting lad to his feet. “The night’s not over. I’ll come find you when we win this. Try not to get killed, eh?”

She blew him a kiss, then kicked off a nearby wall, grasped the overhanging roof opposite, heaved herself lightly up and vanished.

Ruda cleared her throat. “Yeah, well, anyway. On we go, stuff to do, assholes to shoot…”

“I did tell you, boy,” Wilcox said wearily, coming up to stand next to Jason.

“Yeah.” The boy sounded numb. “I heard you, pa. Always said that elf was trouble. I just figured…”

“You figured I had a problem with you carryin’ on with an elf,” Wilcox said, draping an arm around his son’s shoulders. “You don’t listen, boy. I said that elf was trouble.”

“Hell, I told you that,” Robin added from the roof above, causing another ripple of startlement among the men.

“Dammit, will y’all stop doin’ that!” somebody shouted.

“Here.” Grinning ruefully, Ruda handed Jason a bottle of whiskey. He took it in silence, pulled out the stopper with his teeth and took a long pull. “Now c’mon, boys. We’ve still got work to do.”

“Wait,” said Robin, her expression grim. “We’ve got a problem.”


 

“Hostages?” Trissiny said sharply.

The elven scout nodded, his eyes serious. “Four groups have managed to take them. They appear to have arrived at this plan independently, but as we’ve forced them into the middle of the town, more have met up and consolidated both their forces and their strategies.”

She drew in a long breath and let it out through her teeth. “You have archers?”

“Moving into position now,” he said. “But coordination is a problem. Our strikes would need to be simultaneous, and the Riders are adeptly making use of urban cover to prevent us from getting a clear shot.”

“All right,” she said, then raised her voice, turning to look back at the men following her. They had broken into multiple groups to push forward through the streets, and not all of those she’d set out with were present; those remaining were in a cluster rather than a line now. “Everyone, continue moving forward, but slowly, and do not fire on enemy targets until you are certain they have no hostages.”

“Ma’am?” one said, worry etched on his features. “What if they do? I mean… How’ll we get our people back?”

“If all else fails, we’ll negotiate,” she said flatly. “But before it comes to that, I’ll trust in the elves to pick them off. Now, move ahead.”

They didn’t have much farther to move before joining another group of townsfolk, followed by a third emerging from another alley. The noose had tightened significantly; they were not exactly in the center of the town, more like several streets to the east, but Trissiny sensed at once that they had reached the place where the endgame would play out.

Mostly because of the Riders who were there ahead of them.

She counted eight with a quick scan. Half their number were occupied with holding two young women by the arms, including one Trissiny recognized.

“Really?” Jenny was saying aloud as they approached. “Really? The damsel in distress? Oh, if you only knew how insulting this is.”

“Quiet,” growled one of the Riders, aiming a wand at her face. Jenny shut her mouth, glaring at him. To her credit, she didn’t seem much perturbed by her predicament, unlike the other hostage, who appeared to be on the verge of fainting.

“Not another step,” said the leader of the Riders, his distinctively eerie voice echoing through the street. He pointed one wand at Trissiny, and the other in the opposite direction down the street—where, she could see from her vantage atop Arjen, a large group of townsfolk with Ruda and Toby at their head had just rounded a corner into view. They were proceeding slowly and carefully, clearly having been warned of the situation just as she was, and came to a stop at the Rider’s warning.

More Riders arrived, drifting in from all directions, but now they pressed themselves against walls, under eaves; some kept their wands on hostages, of which there were now four, two more groups having arrived with victims in tow. The rest divided their focus between the two large groups of townspeople and students and keeping weapons trained on the rooftops. Obviously, they had managed to meet and compare notes, and were aware of the intervention of the elves.

Another Rider backed into view, keeping his wand aimed into the alley from which he’d come. A moment later, Juniper emerged, glaring at him. Trissiny’s momentary surge of hope died when two more Riders came right after her, also holding wands on her.

“I really don’t think you want to do that,” the dryad warned.

“Shut it, bitch!”

Trissiny unconsciously raised her sword.

“Enough,” said the leader. Just hearing his voice was like having wet burlap dragged over her ears. “Everyone stand down. Everyone. I want all weapons dropped.”

“And if we don’t?” Ruda called from the other end of the street.

“Don’t be disingenuous,” he replied, shifting his wand to aim at Juniper’s head.

“And then what?” Trissiny called. “Right now, you have a chance of being taken properly into custody and serving jail time. Play that card, and nothing I say or do will stop these men from tearing you to shreds. I may not be inclined to try.”

“I’m sure that will make you feel much better,” he replied mockingly. “Will it bring back the dead?”

Vadrienly landed on a nearby roof with a force that shook the building, slate tiles crunching under her talons.

“There are so many things,” she said, baring fangs down at the group, “that are so much worse than death.”

“I will not warn you again!” The leader raised his voice. “Drop your weapons! NOW!”

Occupied with the tense drama unfolding, Trissiny hadn’t realized what street they were on until the door of the Shady Lady opened and Joe Jenkins stepped out. Riders swiveled to aim wands at him; ignoring this, he calmly strolled across the sidewalk, stepped down into the street and paced forward till he stood at its center.

To his sharply-tailored suit he had added a knee-length leather duster with a matching black hat; he kept his head tilted forward at an angle that hid his eyes under its brim. The duster was belted at the waist, his holstered wands hanging at his sides. His hands hovered just above them.

He finally raised his head, staring directly at the leader of the White Riders.

“Gentlemen,” said the Kid. “Draw.”

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4 – 12

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“I just wish you’d at least take somebody with you, ma’am. Believe me, I understand not wantin’ to be cooped up in here anymore, but that’s exactly why it ain’t safe to just take off, with the town the way it is.”

“You’re a sweet boy, Joe,” Lily said fondly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Much too good for the lady you’ve got your eye on. But don’t you worry about little ol’ me. If I were worried about my safety, you can bet I wouldn’t be going.”

“Seriously, she’ll be fine,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “If anything, her leaving just means we’ll miss out on the accidental hilarity of somebody trying to harm her. I’m a little perplexed, though, Lil. It’s not like you to take off in the middle of the action.”

“Oh, this is far from the middle, Arachne,” Lily said, smirking at her. “Anyway, it’s not that I’m not interested in seeing how your little field trip goes, but an old acquaintance of ours has started sniffing around. One I’d rather not have a confrontation with at this time.”

Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “Oh? Who?”

“Don’t you fret your pretty head about it, dear. He was always fond of you anyway.”

The Professor’s nostrils flared in irritation, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “Be that as it may, I meant that when you vanish, you usually do just that. It’s the bothering to say goodbye that’s out of character.”

“Really, Arachne. Just because you have no regard for the most basic social graces doesn’t mean nobody else does.”

Lily picked up her carpet bag and strolled toward the door with an entirely unnecessary sway to her movements that commanded everyone’s attention. To her customary scarlet dress she had added an old-fashioned traveling cloak in deep crimson, and now pulled up the hood over her dark hair as she reached the exit. Pausing at the threshold, she half-turned to look back at those assembled.

“Bit of advice, kids,” she said. “A little less enthusiasm, a little more finesse. Toodles!” Wiggling her fingers flirtatiously, she turned and departed, leaving a momentary silence behind her.

“Didn’t she say she was pregnant?” Gabriel asked finally. “Sure doesn’t look it.”

Tellwyrn snorted and stomped over toward the bar.

“I wonder just who that woman really was,” Trissiny said slowly.

“She’s either pretty badass or a fucking idiot, goin’ out there alone,” Ruda agreed. “I mean, what’s she gonna do? Just walk out into the prairie? Try to flag down a caravan? The speed those things travel, I doubt the enchanter driving could even see someone waving.”

“There’s that,” Trissiny said, still frowning at the door, “and the fact that Professor Tellwyrn allowed her to talk to her that way. That’s what throws me off.”

The students, as well as Joe and Jenny, glanced in unison over at the bar, where Tellwyrn was now nursing a whiskey and ostentatiously ignoring them.

“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “I guess there’s no use putting it off. Everything ready, Robin?”

The elf shrugged. “They all know the time and place. I can’t guarantee everyone will turn up, but it’s not like there’s much else for them to do in this town these days. Most of the families are as fortified as they can get inside their homes; even tending their kitchen gardens is risky. Of course, I asked their wives to lean on them a bit, too,” she added with a grin. “That should improve the turnout.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “We’d better move out, then.”

“Just a moment, if I may.”

They turned in surprise at the voice, beholding Heywood Paxton approaching from the stairs to the upper floor, where the private rooms were. He looked much better, with none of the reddened eyes and nose that indicated he’d been at the bottle again. The man had lost weight, and his suit hung on him somewhat loosely, but it looked clean and freshly pressed nonetheless, and the silver gryphon badge of his office gleamed with fresh polish.

“High time this old fool started doing his duty to his Emperor,” he said, head high. “My friends, I thank you not only for coming to the aid of this town, but also for jostling me out of my stupor. You may count on Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor, to do his part.”

“I’m…not sure that’s such a great idea,” Joe said carefully. “You’re a big target, Mr. Paxton.”

“Less so that previously, my boy,” the Surveyor replied with a grin, patting his somewhat diminished paunch.

“You know what I mean,” replied the Kid, his expression growing drawn. “You’re a high priority for the Riders. They can’t have an official Imperial report getting back to Tiraas.”

“And that is precisely what I must accompany this expedition,” he replied, turning to face the students again. “Pardon me for eavesdropping, but there’s precious little else to do around here except drink, and I believe I’ve done far more than my share of that lately. As I grasp it, my friends, your plan is, in part, to provoke a response from the Riders Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Gabe said thoughtfully. “And…yes, you’re right that having you along would be even better bait…”

“I don’t like that at all,” Jenny said, eyes wide. “Heywood, no offense, but you’re no wandfighter. This is too risky. It’s crazy.”

“Ah, but I hardly expect to have to do my own wandfighting,” said Paxton with a grin. “I’ll be with a whole party of heroes! Paladins, clerics, dryads, wizards, even a bard! Safe as houses, I’m sure.”

“Having to look after a civilian does alter the equation somewhat,” said Shaeine. “I am confident that we can protect ourselves from attack, but… On this matter I defer to more tactical minds.”

“It’s doable,” Trissiny said immediately, then turned a sharp stare on Paxton. “Provided that the civilian in question strictly follows orders and stays far from the front lines when combat breaks out.”

“My word on it, Ms. Avelea,” he said, nodding firmly.

“Then it’s up to the healers; they’ll be the ones having to stretch their capacity by an extra head. Shaeine?”

“Ah, let me just cut in here,” said Gabriel. “It’d be better if he went with our group rather than Shaeine’s. An Imperial Surveyor has some official rank that may help us impress the townsfolk. The elves, on the other hand…”

“…may interpret an official Imperial presence as aggressive,” Shaeine finished. “That is a solid point.”

“I thought your whole plan for the grove was to try to agitate them out of their complacency,” said Robin. “That’d be a start.”

“I’d rather appeal to reason and higher virtues first,” said Teal. “If it does come to agitating, well, it’s probably better not to put them on the defensive the moment we walk in. They may already be annoyed with us for showing up a second day in a row. I think a lot of ’em were glad to see us leave the last time.”

“I will, of course, yield to your strategic expertise,” said Paxton, “but quite frankly I’m not sure I’d be much use in dealing with elves. Imperial citizens, now, those I know just how to motivate.”

“That’s settled, then. Right?” Teal looked around for objections. “Right. Okay, then, all we’ll have to do is try to jostle a bunch of hidebound immortals who don’t think our opinions are worth a squirrel’s fart. No problem.”

“You’ve been in this town too long,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’re picking up the vernacular.”

Teal rolled her eyes. “Robin, any guesses how many of the elves hate humans as much as your sister does? If they have a majority, this is pretty much hopeless.”

Robin barked a laugh. “If you mean how many of the elves are anti-human, it’s actually a pretty tiny minority. That’s not the problem. My sister, for your information, loves humans, in every conceivable sense of the word. She is throwing a sulk because her boyfriend’s family were rude to her—which, by the way, was entirely her own fault and has nothing to do with the Riders or anything else going on. That’s going to be the bigger part of the problem. Elves typically err on the side of caution and consistency. The current climate just exacerbates petty disagreements like that, gives leverage to the few who really don’t want to be involved in human affairs, and the whole thing is held down by our general tendency to stay put and wait for something to happen.” She shrugged expressively. “You’re not going to get all the elves behind you, no matter what you do. The trick will be getting enough to break with the group, which…isn’t something we like to do. Shake that complacency enough, though, and you just might walk out of there with some allies.”

“It is a start,” said Shaeine.

“It’ll have to do,” Teal agreed grimly.

“I’ll help,” Jenny said brightly. “I’m good at shaking things up.”

“Jenny,” Joe protested.

“Don’t you start with me, Mr. Jenkins,” she said, leveling a finger at him. “I told you I’m not one to just sit on my hands! I wasn’t about to go take on the White Riders myself, but if people are taking action, I’m in.” She turned back to the others, folding her arms. “And I know a thing or two about elves.”

“Well, we won’t turn down any help,” said Teal. “We’re not going to stop with the elves, though; the plan is to go after the Riders immediately after we finish whatever happens in the grove.” She sighed, glancing at Gabriel. “And, despite what I earnestly wish, I don’t think diplomacy is going to be in the cards, with them. You sure you’re up for that?”

Jenny cracked a lopsided grin. “I may have seen a little bit of action here and there. Don’t you worry about me.”

“Anybody else care to lend a hand?” Toby asked. “Joe? I don’t like the idea of fighting any more than Teal, here, but she’s right: it’s almost surely going to come down to that. An extra pair of wands would be helpful. Besides, you’re widely respected; you’d be a big help in getting people up off their butts.”

Joe shook his head. “My place is here.”

“He’s right,” said Gabriel. “Without him here, there’s nothing to stop the Riders from hitting the Lady as soon as we’re all gone. It’s the biggest holdout against them; burning it and scattering the people here would be their logical move if we left it undefended.” He nodded at Joe, who nodded back gravely.

“Very well, then,” said Trissiny, slinging her shield over her back with an air of finality. “Everyone knows their role. Let’s move out.”


 

Sunset made the streets of Sarasio positively spooky. It was a time when a town should ordinarily be winding down its business; subdued, but still alive, still active. In Sarasio, there was total silence. Orange light stained the pitted street and the dilapidated boards of the buildings lining it, but there was no one about, not so much as a horse or stray dog moving.

The total silence was made more ominous by what lay behind it. This was their third patrol in the streets surrounding the old barn, now converted to a tavern, in which the meeting was being held. On the first, they had been watched, carefully, from the shadows, but apparently word of Trissiny’s performance on their group’s first arrival in town had spread, and none had offered them a challenge. Now, even those dim shapes lurking in doorways and the mouths of alleys had vanished, leaving only the unnatural quiet.

And the prospect of a lightning bolt out of any window.

Gabriel froze as a clatter pierced the quiet, clutching his wand and pointing it first one way, then another, seeking the source of the disturbance. Seconds later, another soft sound followed it, this one clearly coming from a junk-filled alleyway nearby. Clutching the wand in both hands, he aimed it straight for the pile of broken furniture that clogged the narrow opening, then drew in a deep breath, steeling himself to call out a challenge.

He stumbled backward as a small heap of what looked to be barrel staves toppled, and a rabbit shot out of the alley, darting across the road and vanishing into the dried-out bushes opposite.

Gabe slowly let out the breath he’d drawn, some of the tension easing from his frame. He gave Trissiny a sour look.

“Don’t say a word.”

She shook her head. “Too easy.”

With a soft sigh on his part, they resumed their slow circuit.

“Relax,” she said in a low voice.

He gave her an irritated sidelong look. “How in the hell am I supposed to relax? We’re the worms on the end of a hook, here.”

“This was your plan, you know.”

“Yeah, well… It all sounds much less deadly from the comfort of a lavish…uh, brothel.”

“Anyway, I’m serious. You’re wasting energy by holding so much tension. You can most likely survive a wand shot, and I can shield myself.”

“Most likely,” he said sourly. “Could be better odds.”

“I should probably have said ‘almost certainly.’ Compared to what Vadrieny did to you, a bolt of lightning is nothing.”

The silence which ensued was even more strained. The pair of them walked, alone, down the center of the dusty street, eying their surroundings as much for the excuse of avoiding each other’s gaze as to keep watch for ambushers. They had managed, for the most part, not to discuss their brawl on campus and its aftermath; the subject was invariably awkward at the very least.

Turning a corner, they slowed slightly by unspoken consensus, passing the old barn. One of the few stone structures in a town mostly of wood, it, like the ruined one out behind the Shady Lady, had once been part of a farmstead before Sarasio had grown to encompass it. Lamplight blazed from its windows, now, along with the sound of voices. Specifically, the sound of arguing. Two men on either side of the broad front door, each holding staves, nodded at them. Trissiny nodded in return, Gabe saluting with his wand, and they continued along their route, gradually leaving behind the only sight ad sound of other life in the town, the oppressive silence falling around them again.

“They’ll be all right,” he said quietly, nodding at nothing. “Toby’s in there, and Mr. Paxton. If they can’t straighten those folks out, it can’t be done.”

“Ruda is also in there,” Trissiny said darkly. “She can create a fight out of thin air. I shudder to think was she can do from the middle of a whole web of petty vendettas.”

“I didn’t hear you nominating her to come on patrol with us.”

“Once again, you’re invulnerable, and I have defenses. Ruda would be felled instantly by a wandshot. She’s safer in there with the diplomats.” She grimaced, glancing around. “Though all this is for nothing if they can’t get at least most of those people working on the same page.”

“And Teal and Shaeine doing the same with the elves…” He kicked a stone out of the way, scowling after it. “And then we’re assuming the Riders will try something… And with the right timing, too… Augh, I’m an idiot. What was I thinking?”

“Don’t,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “Don’t second-guess yourself after the plan’s in motion. No strategy survives contact with the enemy. If it goes wrong, we’ll adapt.” He sighed, and they walked in silence for a while longer before she spoke again, even more quietly. “It is a good plan, Gabriel.”

He risked a glance at her; she was watching the road ahead. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Seriously? Have I ever gone out of my way to coddle your feelings? Can you imagine me doing that?”

“Fair enough,” he said sourly.

“We wouldn’t all have signed off on it if it weren’t solid. You’re not that persuasive a speaker. They Riders have to know what’s going on, and they have virtually no choice but to respond—and only one method they’re likely to use. The biggest risk is, as you said, the timing. If they strike before we can get in position… But then, most of this is getting these people to work together. An attack by an outside party is the best possible way to do that.” She nodded. “It’s a good plan.”

“What would you say,” he said thoughtfully, “if I told you Ruda’s smarter than any of us give her credit for?”

Trissiny raised her eyebrows, but still kept her attention on the street rather than on him. “I would ask what makes you think so.”

“I’m not sure I do.” He shook his head. “It’s just… A guy I met in the bordello said so.”

“Just…some guy? Someone who’s only seen us a few times, when we were mostly just squabbling?”

“Exactly. I’m not sure whether he was talking out of his ass, or if maybe his outsider opinion… That is, maybe he noticed something we’ve missed. She is royal. I mean, she has to have had training in politics and stuff.”

Trissiny shook her head. “What does it matter?”

“Just thinking out loud, I guess. The different kinds of intelligence. It’s been sort of on my mind, the last day or two, how a person can be really smart in one area and kind of an idiot in others.”

“You mean, the way you actually have a pretty strategic mind, apparently, but possess all the people skills of a billy goat?”

He grimaced. “Just for a completely random example, yeah, sure. Not that you’re one to criticize anybody’s people skills.”

She shrugged.

Gabe coughed softly. “You, uh…actually think I have a strategic mind, though?”

“Really?” She rolled her eyed. “Must we go over this again? I have no intention of stroking your ego, or anything else of yours.”

“Oh, ew. I just got the cold shivers. Don’t say things like that!”

“Yeah, that was ill-advised,” she agreed, twisting her lips in disgust.

“I just… Well, coming from you, ‘strategic’ is pretty high praise. I’m not used to high praise, uh… Coming from you.”

Trissiny shrugged again. “It’s fair. I’ve said your strategy was solid. And don’t forget, I’ve played you at chess, too.”

“Where you won two out of three games.”

“Do you really imagine I didn’t see what you were doing?” Finally, she glanced over at him, but only for a second. “The first two I won quickly, using two different strategies, while you played almost entirely reactive, defensive games. The last one you stretched out, using multiple, deep feints to counter the strategies you’d seen me use, and maneuvered me into exhausting my pieces while you set up a trap. That’s grand strategy, studying an opposing general’s patterns and thinking beyond the needs of the battle at hand. So yes, to my surprise, there does appear to be a highly functional brain lurking somewhere behind that mouth.”

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” he said modestly. “The way I was raised, it’s just good manners to let the lady win.”

She glanced at him again, eyes narrowed. “You are trying to make me stab you now, aren’t you?”

“Invulnerable, remember?”

“Specifically not against a blade crafted by Avei.”

“Well, that’s not really fair, then, is it? You’ve got all kinds of advantages over me in a fight. What say we move this back to the chessboard, next time we have a chance? Best three out of five?”

To her own surprise, Trissiny found herself grinning. “You’re on.”


 

It was out of the question, of course, if he was to keep any shred of control over this situation, but more and more, Toby wanted to plant his face in his hands and groan.

Well over two dozen men crowded the barn, coalesced into small clumps keeping a wary distance between each of them. Despite the palpable tension in the room, they were thankfully leaving one another alone, all their focus on the main table in the center, at which sat the heads of the four families, along with Toby, Ruda and Mr. Paxton. The Surveyor was doing his best to remain professional, but he had wisely left most of the talking to Toby, who actually had formal training in negotiation. Not in Shaeine’s league, of course, but diplomacy called heavily upon the virtues that Omnu sought to instill in his followers: patience, compassion, understanding, respect. Ruda leaned back in her chair, balancing it on its two back legs, her boots propped on the table. She was sipping intermittently from a bottle of whiskey, her hat pulled forward so that it mostly hid her eyes, and not contributing to the conversation. All things considered, Toby decided he was glad of that.

At least there was one thing to be glad of.

“All I’m sayin’ is, we need assurances,” Jonas Hesse said stridently. “Who knows what’ll get back to the Riders, all of us meetin’ like this? Nobody here’s exempt from suspicion!”

“Nobody ‘cept your boys, is what you mean,” snarled Jacob Strickland, the oldest of the four patriarchs at the table. His beard was short, but more gray than brown, and did little to add to his dignity. If anything, he did more shouting than any of the others. He did so now, thrusting a finger at Hesse. “Well? Ain’t it?”

“We all prob’ly suspect everybody else’s boys of bein’ in with the Riders,” said Lucas Wilcox, the youngest of the four, who was leaning back in his chair much like Ruda.

“Gentlemen,” Paxton tried for the third time in the last minute, but Hesse overrode him.

“Nobody calls my sons traitors!” he snarled, jerking to his feet and planting both fists on the table to glare at Wilcox.

“Oh, but you can say what you want about ours?” Ezekiel Conner snapped, folding his arms and glaring mulishly. “Just like a Hesse.”

“Oh, that’s it. You’re gonna eat them words, Ezekiel!”

“Yeah? I don’t see you makin’ me.”

“Gentlemen,” Toby said, much more loudly than Paxton—enough to grab their attention momentarily. “I know you all have issues to work out. Having everybody here at the table is an important first step. But with all due respect, this is not the time.” He held his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole barn and the town beyond. “Look around you. Sarasio is dying. You—and your families—will die with it if you don’t do something about the White Riders! And to do that, you are going to have to put these vendettas aside and work together.” He leaned forward, trying to hold them still with the sheer intensity of his stare. “Peace takes time and effort to build. I’m not asking you all to suddenly forgive everything and embrace each other. But, just for a little while, please. Put it aside.”

“Ain’t that I don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, kid,” said Wilcox, nodding to him. “And it ain’t even that you’re wrong. Fact is, though, you’re askin’ us to ride into what’s sure to be a firefight with the very real possibility of bein’ shot in the back.”

“The Riders know too much, we’ve seen it in the way they maneuver,” added Conner, still glaring at Hesse. “Somebody’s tippin’ ’em off. Several somebodies, ‘less I miss my guess.”

“I ain’t puttin’ my life on the line, and sure as hell not any of my family’s, until we straighten out just who the traitors are an’ deal with ’em,” Strickland declared. “An’ until these three dumbasses admit they’ve got Riders among their own families, that don’t look like it’s about to happen.”

“You shut yer foul mouth, Strickland!” Hesse roared, shooting back to his feet. “Your whole brood o’ weasels’re probably in league with the Riders! Hell, I bet you’re leadin’ the bastards yourself! You always did want more’n you deserved outta this town!”

“That does it!” squawked Strickland, also jerking upright. “I’m gonna hear an apology outta you if it’s the last thing you ever—”

Toby slapped both hands down hard on the table, startling them into momentary silence. “Please,” he implored, silently pouring more power into the calming aura he was using to keep this whole thing from exploding into violence. Already, it was a strain to keep enough concentration on that task while also trying to keep the conversation on target. He’d never been in a room with so may deep-seated resentments.

Into the brief quiet, Ruda snorted a laugh. “Listen to you guys. Everybody’s so sure that all the other families are corrupted. First step to dealing with this is you each admitting you’ve all got traitors in your midst.” She lifted her head, meeting their incredulous stares. “Every one of you.”

“Young lady,” Wilcox began.

“It’s Princess, if you wanna be formal. Me, I don’t. Formal doesn’t look good on me.” She jerked her boots off the table and let her chair thump to the ground, leaning forward to stare intently at them. “Use your goddamn heads, boys. Why would the Riders only infiltrate some of the clans populating this town? They need intel on everybody’s movements, or they’d never have been able to head off every effort you made to move against them.”

“Now, look here,” Conner began.

“Furthermore,” Ruda said doggedly, “look around you at what is happening right here, right now. You’re all about to rip each others’ fucking throats out. Is that normal? Is this what life was always like in this town? Or, if you think back carefully, do you find that stuff started getting real bad between you after the Riders started being a big problem?”

“What are you suggesting?” Hesse demanded.

“I’m suggesting the Riders in your ranks aren’t just passing information—they’re pitting you against each other. Think from their perspective: they can’t have the whole town uniting against them, which is the logical thing for a town full of sane fucking people to do when they’re basically under siege. You’ve all got the same damn problem. Now quit pointing fingers and fucking do something about it!”

“That’s all fine an’ dandy,” Strickland growled, “but it don’t change the problem. You wanna round up a posse and take on the Riders? Fine by me. Ain’t a man by the name of Strickland who’ll hang back if that’s what it’s gonna take to save our town. But the fact remains, we got bad apples in the bunch. We ride out, and our men’ll be vulnerable to fire from their own ranks!”

“She ain’t wrong, though,” Wilcox noted. “It ain’t just any one family’s problem.”

“What difference does it make?” Hesse demanded.

“It makes a difference,” Toby said firmly, “because you will all face the same peril together. Do you really believe there’s any way to do this without putting men in danger?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t lie to you, gentlemen, even if I thought you were naïve enough not to have realized the truth on your own: ride out to battle, and men will die. Right now, you are quibbling over the ways and means in which that might happen, and avoiding the larger truth.”

“You callin’ us yellow?” Strickland growled squinting at him.

“No!” He managed, barely, not to shout. Honestly, they were like children. “I’m pointing out that Ruda is right. You’ve been manipulated, gentlemen; someone has been trying to distract you, to focus your energies against each other.”

“Well, maybe our energies belong against each other!” Hesse shot back. “I ain’t seen one bit of evidence any man in my family’s sided with the Riders, and I’m not puttin’ any of ’em in harm’s way to save a bunch o’ chickenshit varmints who can’t keep order in their own clans!”

The whole table instantly dissolved into shouted pandemonium, the voices too loud and too rapid for any single thread to be clearly heard. All four men were on their feet, pointing and gesticulating at each other and growing increasingly red in the face. Now, other voices began contributing from all corners of the room, first shouting at the general mess at the round table, and then starting in on each other. Toby slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead; Paxton planted his elbows on the table, putting his face in his hands.

“Okay,” said Ruda, “this is bullshit.”

She stood up, tilted up the bottle of whiskey to gulp down the last of its contents, then hurled the empty bottle at Wilcox and punched Strickland in the jaw.

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4 – 8

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“Thou art welcome to the hospitality of our grove,” Elder Shiraki intoned. “Verily, thy visit ignites a fire of joy within the hearts of all who dwell herein. And yet, so seldom do thy kind partake of this hospitality. I sense that thou hast come to us, as have so many before thee, seeking the aid of the immortal elves.”

“Wow,” Fross breathed. “The way you speak…it’s so pretty! It’s like a poem!”

The elf smiled at her and bowed from the waist. Somehow, this didn’t disturb the golden flows of his hair, which were draped over his shoulders and trailing to the ground behind him in a way that suggested accidental placement but was just too perfect to have occurred without help.

“He’s only doing that to be difficult,” said Elder Sheyann with a sardonic half-smile. “It’s a statement that he’s far too important to bother keeping up with human trends. Languages don’t evolve that fast, and Tanglish isn’t hard to keep on top of.”

“You’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition,” the pixie noted.

“Fross,” Shaeine said firmly. “Please don’t correct the elders.”

“On the contrary, this is how we stay abreast of the flow of the world.” If anything, Sheyann’s smile grew.

“Let it nowhere be said that those of this grove turned away from the wisdom of the fae folk,” added Shiraki. He seemed much less amused, though it was hard to tell. The Elders had a gravitas, a stillness about them that made them difficult to read, even when they emoted deliberately.

The elves certainly did not lack hospitality, though several of those who had interacted with the visitors showed the same standoffishness as Thassli and Fraen. Nobody was outright rude, but there were a thousand subtle ways to slip into a conversation hints that they weren’t interested in getting to know humans. That attitude was far from universal, however, and of the dozens of elves crowding around the meeting area in which they were being hosted, quite a few seemed intrigued and delighted to meet Teal. Juniper was universally a celebrity; very few of them appeared willing to warm up to Shaeine. It made for a tricky social space to navigate.

The grove itself was a ring of enormous trees surrounding a wide glade. A stream, not broad but brisk and evidently deep, entered from the north and had been diverted into two channels which completely encircled the central meeting area, rejoining at the southern edge of the grove and departing back into the forest. Like everything else here, the stream gave the impression of great age; it had cut deeply into the ground through which it ran, and now mossy overhanging lips of stone protruded over the rushing waters. Bonfires built atop rough, ancient-looking stone slabs were positioned equally around the inner side of the stream, bathing the seating area in the middle in orange light, but despite that and the climate of the surrounding prairie, it wasn’t hot.

The actual homes of the elves were outward and up, woven into the branches of the trees themselves. The trees in the grove proper were absolutely massive, greater in diameter than the height of a human and rising impossible distances; the common area in the center of the glade was not small, but surrounded by those giant sentinels, it felt like a tiny island. Steps spiraled around many of the trunks, apparently grown outward from the wood itself. Some elvish residences had apparently been built into the trunks themselves, to judge by little doors appearing here and there, but the majority were constructed of wood, balancing on branches and systems of bridges. They were unpretentious in design, but beautiful, their proportions graceful and highly polished surfaces contrasting pleasingly with the rough bark and deep foliage surrounding them. The same design ethic showed in the wooden bridges which spanned the creek at intervals, and the low tables which dotted the central meeting area.

The welcome of the elves involved a meal, but a rather eclectic one, taken sitting cross-legged on the ground around low tables. Shaeine nibbled politely at the handful of fruit that had been arrayed before her; Juniper had been handed a haunch of deer. Literally, a raw leg off a deer, uncooked and apparently quite fresh. She had tucked in with enthusiasm, which resulted in a ghastly amount of blood dripping down her face and onto her chest. Though the elves were clearly acquainted with the habits of dryads, to have served her thus, even they seemed put off by the spectacle. Teal had been served baked beans and cornbread on a dented tin plate, and was trying to decide whether this was an honest effort at accommodating her or some kind of jab at humans.

“You see truly, Elder,” Shaeine said politely, setting down an oblong yellow fruit in a thick peel that she hadn’t figured out how to open. “We would not presume to trouble the peace of your grove except at need.”

“How very refreshing,” Sheyann noted, sipping her tea, “to meet an Awarrion who would not presume to trouble the peace of our grove.”

“Elder Sheyann speaks truly,” said Shiraki, his expression solemn. His long, lean face sported a small goatee, the only facial hair on any of the elves present, even among the other elders. “Thy family oft comes bearing gifts and pleasing words, seeking to curry our favor. Never have I heard one of thy breed ask aid of us. Verily, thy company pardons many a shortcoming, yet we dare not lay down our vigilance lightly.”

“I must make a clarification,” said Shaeine, “with apologies for not having done so in the first place. My friends and I are here as visitors and free agents; I do not represent my House or Tar’naris. To my knowledge, none of my people are aware of my presence here.”

“That may be fair news or ill,” Shiraki said, nodding. “Speak thy piece, child of the dark, and we shall decide.”

In their stillness was an absolute mastery of nuance. Sheyann merely sipped her tea, somehow conveying both a shrug and an eyeroll. Teal watched her in such fascination that she nearly missed Shaeine’s reply.

“We have recently come from the town of Sarasio, which as you likely know, is in a dire situation. It is our intention to help the residents as best we can, and hopefully find a resolution to their troubles. To do this without the aid of the neighboring elves would seem brash…and, in frankness, unlikely to succeed.”

A stir ran through the assembled elves, dying down as Sheyann swept a cool gaze around the clearing. “Then you have stepped into an established discussion,” the elder said, returning her calm stare to Shaeine. “We are in the process of deciding whether the matter warrants our attention.”

“It is hardly up for debate,” said Shiraki, giving her a cool look. “Did we stir ourselves from our lives each time the humans upset themselves, never would we have a moment to attend our own affairs. The suggestions of a paltry few younglings do not hint at division within the grove.”

“I do not consider any of our people ‘paltry,’ Shiraki,” Sheyann replied with weary reproof, “nor dismiss their concerns out of hand. Neither the elders nor the tribe as a whole have raised a quorum of voices proposing to intervene in Sarasio. The tribe, thus, does not move. This does not mean the views of the minority are without merit.”

“Merit they may have, but the fact is as thou hast spoken: our course does not stray. The humans must, as always, attend to their own problems, or fail in the trying.”

“But surely some of the townsfolk are friends of yours,” Teal protested. The expressions of several nearby elves hinted that she was right, while others regarded her with veiled hostility. Most held themselves carefully aloof. “Don’t you care about them at all?”

“That may be, though such attachments are concerns of individuals, not of the tribe. Yet our relationships with humans must always come at a price. Tell me, child, hast thou ever had a pet?”

“Shiraki, that is enough,” Sheyann said firmly.

“I’ve had pets, yes,” Teal said, frowning. “I don’t see what that has to do with it…”

“It’s a metaphor,” Juniper supplied, wiping blood from her chin. “Kind of an old one, actually; it pops up pretty often if you talk with the immortal races. I’ve heard it from my sisters. Basically, you can get attached to a person with a shorter lifespan, but you always know they’re going to die soon, so don’t get too attached.”

“Oh, wow,” said Fross. “That is really condescending.”

“Fross,” Shaeine warned.

“What? It is! We’ve been perfectly nice, here. There’s no reason to call us pets. It’s just rude!”

“It is pretty condescending, yeah,” Juniper agreed. “Honestly I’d have expected a lot more courtesy from an elder of a grove.”

“You are not alone in that,” Sheyann said wryly.

“I ask thy pardon if my frankness hath wrought offense,” Shiraki said in a stiff tone that belied his apology. “Look, if thou canst, through elven eyes. Condescending as our view may be, it is nonetheless ours. Year by year, we watch the generations of humankind rise and fall like the grasses of the field. Wherefore should we invest our hearts and energies into their care?”

“You will note, Shiraki,” Sheyann said, “that the validity of your perspective was not questioned, but only your manners in mentioning it. Be mindful that the tribe’s hospitality is represented here, and let us not insult guests we have invited to sup.”

“I feel like it’s sort of beside the issue, anyhow,” Teal said somewhat hastily. “So the tribe as a whole doesn’t wish to get involved, that’s quite all right, we can respect that. We know some of your people care enough to act, though. Elves have been supplying food to refugees in the bordello.”

Another soft ripple of reaction flowed through the surrounding crowd, and Teal glanced around somewhat nervously.

“We do not presume to dictate the actions of each member of the tribe, so long as those bring no danger nor harm down upon us all,” said Shiraki. “Those who choose to sprinkle water on the forest fire may do so; their time is their own to waste. We elders intercede only ere they burn themselves.”

“If I may ask,” Shaeine said respectfully, “what restrictions have been placed on the movements of tribe members within the town?”

“To date, none,” Sheyann said before Shiraki could reply. Five other elves had been introduced as elders, but they remained as silent as the rest of the tribe, watching the conversation. It was clear that the two elders who bothered to participate represented two factions of opinion…but beyond that, the politics of this group were opaque to the outsiders. “There is a somewhat delicate dance being carried out, there. Certain of our number have, as you say, rendered aid to their friends in Sarasio. As the tribe as a whole has withdrawn, they have been increasingly careful not to risk crossing any possible line. Should the elders deem it necessary to forbid their efforts…that would be that.”

“Okay…what about this,” Teal said carefully, shifting. She was unaccustomed to the position, and her legs were rapidly stiffening. “As it is, the elves helping out in town are being careful to stay safe and stay out of it. I understand you must be concerned for their welfare, but… I really think the best help they could offer doesn’t necessarily put them at risk. It would mean the world to the townsfolk to see a little solidarity. Most of them are basically trapped in their homes right now, or in small groups where there’s some safety. The White Riders can only intimidate a town that size into submission by keeping people afraid and separated; if somebody were to help rally the—”

“Thy suggestion treads upon dangerous ground,” Shiraki warned. “I tell thee true, ere any of this tribe involve themselves in the politics of that blighted human settlement I will bend my efforts to forbidding all contact. Far too often have I seen groups of mankind destroy themselves, and all in their purview. I will not watch as my people are caught up in their insanity.”

“Your whole plan is really to just sit in this grove and wait for everything to blow over?” Juniper tilted her head. She had finished eating and was busy cleaning herself off with a damp towel given to her by a nearby elf. “That’s, uh… I think that’s a survival tactic for a very different situation.”

“Little changes, in the long run,” Shiraki intoned.

“A great deal has changed, in fact,” Shaeine countered. “A century ago, could you have imagined my presence here, at this table?” There came a soft murmur from the onlookers; she allowed it for a moment, then went on before any of the elders interrupted. “The existence and the power of the Tiraan Empire completely alters the equation. Your tribe is already relevant to the situation, and the Empire will see it as such. If matters are allowed to run the course they are currently on, there is likely to be Imperial reprisal against everyone involved.”

“Thy concern gladdens my heart, child of Tar’naris,” Shiraki said dryly. “We do not worry for the retribution of mankind, however.”

“Shiraki is still adjusting to the notion that humans outnumber us,” said Sheyann wearily.

“What?” Fross emitted a discordant chime. “That tipping point happened like five centuries ago. It’s not even about that! The Empire is organized, they conquered pretty much the whole continent! They’ve got much better weapons now. If they get mad at this grove, you’re gonna have big problems!”

“Often in the past have I heard this rhetoric,” said Shiraki, his expression growing colder by the word. “Always, these threats prove impotent.”

Fross fluttered lower, her glow dimming. “I wasn’t threatening you. You guys might be in danger here, I just don’t want—”

“I thank thee for thy visit, travelers,” he said, standing abruptly. “It has been our honor to host thee. Please, enjoy the bounty of our grove until thy travels call thee elsewhere.” With a curt bow, he turned and glided away, the assembled elves parting to make a path for him. The elder’s departure was clearly a signal; may of the rest of the tribe began drifting off.

“What happened? Where’s he going?” Fross demanded.

“Leaving,” said Juniper. “I think we offended him.”

“What? Us? How?”

Shaeine sighed.


 

“Thank you for escorting us, Elder,” Shaeine said as they walked slowly through the forest.

“The pleasure is mine, child,” Sheyann replied. “I confess I rather enjoyed seeing my…beloved colleague’s feathers ruffled. I fear little will come of it, though.”

“The ruffling of feathers is seldom productive. I certainly did not set out to achieve that end.”

“Yes,” the elf said with a faint smile. “For a trained diplomat, to have attempted that meeting with the exuberant help you enjoyed must have been very like trying to weave a basket with the aid of three friendly woodland creatures.”

“Is that us?” Fross stage whispered. “Are we the woodland creatures?”

“I’ve been called worse things,” Teal replied, smiling.

“I could not say,” Shaeine said diplomatically. “I have never tried my hand at weaving.”

Sheyann’s light laugh was a pure pleasure to hear. It added to her ethereal aspect; she walked so smoothly even over the uneven ground that she seemed almost to hover.

“Wait,” Teal said suddenly. “We’re missing someone.”

“Your dryad friend backtracked to the grove, to visit Shiraki alone,” Sheyann said calmly. “You’ve tried your method of persuasion; she is trying hers.”

“What? What’s her…” Teal trailed off, then clapped a hand over her eyes. “Oh, come on, Juniper.”

“There is little use in arguing with her ways,” Sheyann said, amused. “In fact, I would advise against attempting to thwart a dryad under any circumstances. In any case, she is unlikely to shift him, but I cannot help thinking he will be much improved in mood when next I see him, for which I’ll be grateful. It’s been many a year since any of us have lain with a dryad. I’d rather hoped to mate with her myself before you leave the area, if she’s amenable.”

Teal flushed and looked down at her feet, ostentatiously picking her way with great care over the moss.

“Juniper, in my experience, is rarely anything but amenable,” Shaeine noted in perfect calm.

“Yes, she is one of the youngest. They, as with most kinds of people, are always the most eager to try new things.”

“If it is not too great a presumption to say so,” Shaeine went on, “I thought it seemed you were somewhat more sympathetic to our pleas than Elder Shiraki.”

“You really are an Awarrion,” the elder said wryly. “You needn’t worry so about ruffling my feathers, child. Yes, I don’t mind saying that I would prefer to see our tribe—and our people as a whole—take a more active role in the world. The issue of our friends in this town aside, the world is changing around us, and I foresee the day fast approaching when we’ll not have the luxury of ignoring it. Variants of this debate are happening among every elvish tribe, and unfortunately, each has its Shirakis. The satisfaction of seeing the look on his face when the Empire’s progress grinds us all underfoot will, I think, not be worth the cost.”

“The Empire isn’t quite that bad,” Teal protested.

“Now? I suppose not. It has at various points in the past been quite bitterly oppressive, and employed degrees and types of violence that would stagger your imagination. Human society is a tumultuous and changeable thing. Such days will come again…but in the future, they will come with wands and staves, and we will not be able to ride out the storm as we have always done.”

“Well, then, help us!” Fross chimed in exasperation. “This mess right here would be a great place to start! If you allied with the people of Sarasio and cleaned all this up, you’d be on good footing with the Empire, and—”

“If that were up to me alone,” Sheyann interrupted, “I would do so in a heartbeat. But we elves live in balance with our world, and with each other. The tribe moves as one, or not at all. That is our way, ancient beyond imagining.”

“Ways change,” said Shaeine. “They must change, if those who practice them are to survive in a changing world.”

“You, too, come from a society of immortals,” Sheyann replied. “I trust you have seen firsthand the pains that come from too much change, too rapidly.”

“I have indeed, and I have seen both the benefits of enduring it, and the price of failing to do so. Drow have never enjoyed the bounties you have here on the surface, elder. We are practical people—ruthlessly so, at times. We have made our accord with the Empire, and prospered mightily for it.”

Sheyann shook her head. “I applaud your intention and effort, child. Every part of it. The fact remains, though, you are trying to carry a snowball across the prairie in your cupped hands. No amount of skill or luck on your part will make this task feasible.”

They came to a stop; ahead the trees thinned markedly, and the town was just visible between them in the distance.

“Well,” Teal said with a sigh, “we really shouldn’t get separated, or let any of our number wander into town alone. I guess we’ll wait here for Juniper to…um. Finish.” She coughed, her cheeks burning anew. “Will she be able to find us okay?”

“Undoubtedly,” Sheyann replied. “But in any case she will have an escort. You will be safe here; we have taught the Riders not to enter the trees. Forgive me for leaving you, but I must return to the grove and attempt to wrest some order out of the eddies you have left in your wake.”

“I hope we have not disrupted your lives too much,” said Shaeine.

The elder smiled at her. “You came here to do specifically that. And, in all sincerity, I wish you fortune in your task.” She bowed once more, then turned and glided back into the dimness of the forest. Green shadows swallowed her up in seconds.

“Well,” said Fross after a few moments, “here we are.” She buzzed around in a lazy circle. “Hey, how come you two’ve never had sex with Juniper? I bet she’d be glad to.”

Shaeine and Teal looked at each other, then quickly away in opposite directions.

“What?” Fross darted toward one, then the other, then hovered midway between. “What’d I say?”


 

“Here they are,” Robin called, re-entering the lounge area of the bordello with the last four students on her heels.

Fross buzzed ahead, chiming excitedly, but came to a halt above Gabriel, who was sitting with his leg propped up on a chair, foot wrapped in a bloodstained bandage. “Whoah! What happened to you?”

“It’s kind of a funny story,” he said brightly. “Once upon a time, Ruda fucking stabbed me.”

“Language,” said Joe softly. Tellwyrn just rolled her eyes.

The Professor and the Kid were sitting at one of the round tables with Toby, Trissiny and Ruda, who flicked a cork at Gabriel, grinning. He was lounging a few feet away, where the space between tables gave him room to elevate his leg.

“Glad to see you’re all okay,” Toby said feelingly. “I hate to start making requests if you’ve had as exhausting a morning as we have, but Shaeine, none of us can safely heal Gabe’s foot…”

“Of course,” she said, gliding forward and kneeling beside the half demon, placing her hands on his leg. “You do seem to be experiencing the brunt of the excitement on this trip, Gabriel.”

“Oh, I dunno if I can claim that,” he replied. “Trissiny’s already killed a guy today. Ah, that’s so much better. Thanks, Shaeine, I’m sorry to keep putting you out.”

“It is never a hardship to be of service to one’s friends,” she replied with one of her polite little smiles, then lifted her gaze to Trissiny. “I gather you have an interesting story to tell?”

“It would be more accurate to say that Avei killed him,” said the paladin, “but yes, there is one less White Rider troubling the town.”

“That’s not good,” Teal said, frowning. “The rest will be out for revenge…and not on us. They’re the type to pick on people who can’t fight back.”

“I know,” Trissiny said grimly.

Ruda snorted. “So, do you give Avei credit for everybody you kill?”

“Since I’m guessing you’re not looking for a theological discussion, let me just clarify that in this specific case—”

“Oi!” Tellwyrn slapped a hand on the table, making most of them jump and Gabriel fall out of his chair as he tried to reposition himself. “Honestly, it’s been months. At this point I’m pretty sure the eight of you just squabble because you like it. I’ve had freshman classes full of bitter feuds who could put their heads together with less griping and general nonsense. Both groups, start at the beginning and tell each other plainly and sequentially what you’ve been up to.”

“We got fed and then sassed by some elves and then Juniper had some sex with one of them!” Fross declared.

“That’s it,” said Gabriel. “Next time I wanna be in Juniper’s group.”

“Oh, don’t be a grouse,” the dryad said affectionately, ruffling his hair, “you know you can just ask me anytime. Come to my room tonight and we’ll—”

“Can we please try to keep this a little more on point?” Toby pleaded, wincing.

“Yeah,” said Ruda with a grin, “those of us who aren’t into girls are being cruelly left out here. Where’s our muscly man-dryad to nibble on, huh? Am I right?” She prodded Trissiny with an elbow.

“Please don’t touch me.”

“I give up.” Tellwyrn stood and stalked over to the bar, where Lily sat, watching them and shaking with silent laughter, a hand pressed over her mouth.

Shaeine cleared her throat. “If I may? We very quickly made contact with the elves in the forest…”

Once they got started, telling the adventures of the morning went fairly quickly, most of the effort undertaken by Shaeine and Toby on behalf of their respective groups. Trissiny filled in details of her final encounter with the Riders, and then Juniper wanted to add some extra of her own last-minute efforts. The others hushed her and hurried on, over Ruda’s grinning protests.

“It seems to me,” Shaeine said finally, “that we have two variants of the same basic problem.”

“A completely intractable population,” Trissiny agreed, nodding.

“They aren’t completely intractable,” said Toby. “I mean, I can attest that there’s potential to bring together the different groups of townsfolk, and even the elves… I have to believe there’s common ground that can be built on.”

“Here’s a basic lesson in religion for the paladin,” said Ruda, pausing to take a swig of boubon. Everyone else was sipping water, Jenny having brought over a carafe and glasses while they laid out their stories. “Anything you believe because you have to is almost certainly wrong.”

“Let’s not derail this any further,” Trissiny said firmly. “As I said before, the problem isn’t that we can’t make the humans and the elves see reason, first separately and then together. I’m sure that could be done, at least in theory. The problem is that we don’t have time to do it.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “Unless either of our diplomatic aces has a grand scheme to hustle the process along?”

“Afraid not,” said Toby with a sigh. “Though I’m hardly a diplomatic ace.”

“I could not in honesty characterize myself as such either,” said Shaeine. “And, as a rule, when the goal is to build trust and mutual understanding, schemes are seldom a good approach. I concur; the diplomatic possibilities are there, but we haven’t the luxury of the necessary time it would take to fulfill them.”

“Okay.” Still staring at nothing, Gabriel nodded. “Okay. I think I know what to do.”

“All right,” said Trissiny, rolling her eyes. “How about we do anything except that?”

He looked up at her and scowled. “You haven’t even heard my idea.”

“I’ve met you.”

“Ease up,” Toby said reprovingly. “If Gabriel has a plan, we’re off to a solid start. He makes good plans.”

Trissiny stared at him.

“Um, whoah, hold up.” Ruda pointed at Gabe. “Just for reference, we’re talking about this Gabriel. Arquin. This guy right here. The one with his foot perpetually in his tonsils whose only known act of diplomacy was screaming cusswords at the Hand of Avei.”

“It’s so nice to be appreciated,” Gabriel groused.

“I know what I’m talking about,” Toby said firmly, holding Trissiny’s gaze. “In a diplomatic situation, I would follow Shaeine’s lead. Out in the wild, I’d follow Juniper’s. If we were going into battle, I’d want you to take charge, Triss. If we’re going to execute any kind of complicated maneuver that incorporates elements of all of the above, then trust me: we want Gabriel to lay the plans.”

She frowned at him, cut her eyes to Gabriel, then back. “You’re serious.”

“You don’t know him like I do.” He grinned. “You’ve never played chess with him.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly, then eased back in her chair, folding her arms across her breastplate. “All…right, then. Let’s hear it, Gabe.”

He stared at her with an annoyed twist to his mouth, then shook his head. “Okay, well… So the issue is we need to get all these people whipped into one unit, despite the fact that most of them hate each other and obviously would rather sit in their homes getting picked off one by one than unite. Fast. Sound accurate?”

“That pretty much sums it up,” Teal agreed.

Gabriel nodded. “Then it seems pretty simple to me. I say we don’t give them a choice.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

4 – 6

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The forest was like another world entirely. Rather than grasses, the ground was covered with a thick, springy moss, where it wasn’t interrupted by bursts of flowers, bushes and spreads of leafy ground plants. Trees rose all around, their bark an almost reddish brown, the lowest branches several times a human’s height above. They created the illusion of a cathedral, almost, a soaring space bordered by graceful columns. Only a relatively few yards into the forest, the intervening shade of branches and obstructing stands of underbrush almost totally cut off the outside world; the flat prairie might as well have been the fading memory of a dream. Here, even the light was green, and the air filled with birdsong and the earthy smell of moss.

“I thought I knew the beauty of nature at home,” Shaeine murmured, interrupting the quiet of their walk. “In the sun caverns, and in my House’s garden, lit by sunstones. Then I came to the surface world and saw how much vaster, more vibrant plant life is under the true sun. But even the prairie seems nothing compared to this. I wonder what glories are there in the world that I’ve never thought to dream of?”

“Nature is variety,” Juniper said. Contrary to her frenetic performance in the University greenhouse, and in other places where they had encountered plant life, she seemed almost half asleep, gazing languidly about as they strolled deeper into the woods. “Not all forms of life thrive, or even survive. It’s violent…brutal. They’re all beautiful, though, in their way. Alone, and especially in connection. The web is intricate, and life is different in every place.”

“I have to say I feel a little foolish,” Teal admitted. “Here I’m supposed to be the bard, and nothing I can add beats you two for poetry. I’m kinda stuck on ‘flower pretty, tree big.’”

Shaeine smiled at her. “There’s a purity in such stark observations. Remind me to introduce you to Narisian poetry when we are back home.”

“I will.”

“How deep do we have to go to meet elves?” Fross wondered.

“Oh, there’s a guy who’s been stalking us since we passed under the trees,” Juniper said blithely. “Don’t worry about it, he’ll say hello when he wants to. You can’t rush elves.”

Teal came to a stop, glancing around warily. Shaeine stepped up next to her, calm as always but with a pointedness to her expression that hadn’t been there before.

“You didn’t have to spoil my fun,” a voice complained, and then an elf materialized out of a bush. He was dressed much as Robin had been, in shades of green and brown, though the dyed patterns on his vest and leggings were purely abstract, obviously meant as camouflage rather than decoration. They certainly worked at that, blending into the shrubbery behind him even now, though how he had hidden his pale skin and long golden hair was an open question.

“Aw, sorry,” Juniper said, grinning. “Some other time we could play a nice long game, but we actually wanted to speak with your tribe.”

“It is, of course, an honor to host you, Juniper,” he said gallantly, bowing.

“You know him?” Teal said in surprise.

“Nope!” the dryad replied brightly.

“I’ve not had the pleasure before,” the elf said, his expression much more cool as he settled his gaze on her. “But we know of all the dryads, of course. It is curious that Juniper has left the Deep Wild; Naiya keeps the younger ones close to her.”

“We’re classmates! I’m Fross! It’s nice to meet you! Wow, this place is really pretty, it must be wonderful living here!”

“Fross,” he said gravely, nodding to her. “Such an interesting group. Dryad, pixie, human, and…” He trailed off, staring flatly at Shaeine. “You.”

“I am Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion,” she said, bowing. “It is my honor to be a guest in your grove, cousin.” There was a subtle emphasis to the last word; the elf’s eyebrow twitched as she spoke it.

“A kudzu, I should have known,” he said. “Well, that means I shouldn’t kill you, I suppose. Is that a good thing or a bad?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t be killing her anyway,” Juniper said earnestly. “Shaeine’s my friend. I’d pretty much rip you in half if you tried. And that always feels like such a waste, y’know? There’s just no point in killing elves. They take forever to grow, there’s hardly any meat and what there is is all lean and stringy. It seems wasteful. I hate that.”

“Then it’s a good thing,” he said gravely. “I certainly would not want to distress you.”

“No, you really wouldn’t want to do that,” Juniper said breezily.

“I’m Teal Falconer,” said the bard with a slightly tense smile. “Which makes me the second to last person here to give a name.”

“Oh?” His answering smile was equally tense. “I imagine you’re accustomed to being a person of importance in other company, Miss Falconer. Be assured, your surname carries no weight here.”

“I’m, uh, actually pretty surprised you’ve even heard of my surname. We don’t sell a lot of carriages to elven groves.”

“Ooh! Maybe he has a lot of human friends!” Fross buzzed in an excited circle, apparently not noticing the way the elf’s expression hardened.

“Let me guess,” he said. “You’ll be a group of Thaulwi’s foundlings, come to try to cajole the elders?”

“What’s a Thaulwi?” Fross asked.

“It’s a songbird. Dark feathers, with a distinctive red patch on the breast.”

“Oh!” said Teal. “You mean a robin—oh. Right.”

“I thought so.” The elf took a step back, his patterned clothing beginning to fade into the green shadows behind him. “I suppose I could go ask the elders if they want to talk to you. Or perhaps you would find a few hours spent wandering in the woods instructive.”

“You’re being mean,” Juniper said, frowning.

“More to the point, he is being an ass.”

The new voice came from directly above; even as they craned their necks to look, another elf dropped from the thick branch hanging over them, landing almost soundlessly on the moss in their midst. This one hadn’t made even an attempt at camouflage; she wore a loose blouse and trousers in silvery white, the latter tucked into snug moccasins, with a tight black vest embroidered in patterns of gold and red leaves.

“I’m Thassli,” she said, bowing with a sardonic grin. “This is Fraen, and for the record, he’s just trying to show dominance by giving you a hard time. I gather he’s been chewing the wrong kind of leaves if he thinks it’s a good idea to play that game with a dryad.”

“I wasn’t actually going to turn them away,” Fraen said testily.

“Welcome to our grove, daughter of Naiya,” Thassli said, ignoring him. “It’s a rare honor; none of your sisters have been through the area in many seasons. Welcome, daughter of Ashaele. I suspect whatever you’re here for is going to make a lot of dignified people very upset, which makes you aces in my book.”

Shaeine met her grin with a polite bow. “I very much fear that I shall not disappoint, despite my best efforts.”

“As a point of curiosity, did my sister actually send you here? I gather your well-groomed friend here,” she nodded to Teal, “recognized her Tanglish moniker, but actually sending a human into the grove is a new one even for her.”

“We have met Robin, yes,” Shaeine said smoothly. “Last we saw her she was introducing some of our friends to the townsfolk. She did not attempt to stop us from entering the forest, though in my opinion she didn’t seem excited about our plans to visit.”

“Feh, she’s never excited about anything,” Thassli said dismissively.

“Wow, you’re Robin’s sister?” Fross exclaimed. “It’s a small world! And a small forest. Well, even smaller. By definition. Obviously.”

“I think some tribes address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ by custom,” Teal said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, though. I don’t know how you guys do things around here.”

“You’re not wrong,” Thassli said gravely. “Thaulwi is my sister in the sense of being a fellow member of the tribe, of our extended family. Also, by a strange coincidence, we have the same parents. It’s funny how the surly, unfriendly one is so fond of humans and tauhanwe and outsiders in general, while the upbeat, outgoing one is less sanguine about people who behave like children as a cultural imperative, except with weapons.”

“Wow,” Teal muttered. “Hint taken.”

“So, you want to see the elders?” Thassli went on, not responding to her.

“Yes, thank you,” said Shaeine.

“Then so you shall. Right this way.” Sketching a mocking bow in their direction, she took off into the shadows of the forest at a languid pace, the visitors falling into step behind her. Fraen waited till they had passed before settling in at the rear of the group.

“So,” Teal said after a quiet few minutes, as it seemed their guides weren’t about to start a conversation. “That’s the second time I’ve heard you called a kudzu. Is that, uh, some kind of racial epithet?”

“Nothing so harsh,” Shaeine replied with a faint smile. “And it refers to my family, specifically, not my race. It could be fairly described as an epithet, though I like to think there is a certain wry fondness behind it.”

“Kudzu is a crawling vine,” Thassli said from ahead. “Attractive, has a pleasing smell, and renders several alchemically useful reagents. It also grows at an absolutely phenomenal rate and is incredibly durable, all but impossible to kill off if you miss so much as a fragment of the root. If left unchecked, it can choke whole forests. I have seen abandoned human towns completely smothered under kudzu.”

“I’m…not sure I see the resemblance,” Teal said carefully.

“When my people entered into the treaty with the Empire, the Queen determined that we must undergo a fundamental change in the way we relate to all the races on the surface. My family being the diplomatic branch of Tar’naris, much of this work has fallen to House Awarrion. Making headway with the dwarves has been slow and difficult; they blame us in part for their current economic woes, and several of the dwarven kingdoms have actually declared war.”

“Wait, you’re at war with the dwarves?!”

“They have declared war,” Shaeine said, smiling. “To prosecute war, they would have to either cross many miles of Imperial territory overland, or tunnel through multiple Underworld enclaves of Scyllithene drow who would like nothing better than for someone to bore then a convenient hole into the dwarven caverns. The hostilities are effectively limited to the dwarves refusing to speak with the emissaries we send to sue for peace. They have hosted them quite generously while keeping them waiting, however. It cannot be said that the dwarves are anything less than civilized. We have had much greater success overall, however, in approaching our surface-dwelling cousins.”

Fraen snorted loudly, Thassli actually laughed. “They just won’t quit,” she said, grinning at them over her shoulder. “You no sooner chase out an Awarrion than another one comes visiting. We’ve had a party of them camp at the edge of the forest for weeks, trying to flag down passing adventurers to carry gifts into the grove. Sadly for them, humans are even more leery of drow than we are.”

“Persistence pays off,” Shaeine said serenely. “In a mere ten years we have worn down virtually all the forest tribes from attacking us on sight to permitting our emissaries to approach. They still refuse to conduct any official correspondence, but my mother is confident that with time and continued goodwill—”

“I’ve always thought kudzu was an inappropriate metaphor,” Fraen said from behind. “Some kind of invasive fungus, perhaps?”

“Oh, stick a plum in it, Fraen,” Thassli said dismissively. “If you want to be passive-aggressive, do that, but don’t be churlish in front of the diplomats. It just makes us look bad.”

“Well, forgive me for having an opinion,” he said, raising his voice slightly. “I get a little worked up when we’re leading a human and a drow right into the grove.”

“He’s very young, yes?” Shaeine said.

“Very.” Thassli glanced back at her again, smiling. “I think of him like a puppy.”

“Excuse me?” Fraen demanded.

“You lack subtlety,” Shaeine said to him. “I’m certain your tribemates were aware of our approach already; all your warning accomplished was to let me know we are within earshot.”

“Which I let you do because it doesn’t matter,” Thassli added firmly. “There is no subterfuge going on here; we’re taking visitors to see the elders. If this were some kind of sensitive operation, I wouldn’t have kept you along.”

Fraen subsided into a sulk.

“Juniper? Where are you going?” Thassli asked when the dryad peeled off to splash across a creek.

“Um, to the grove?” she said, looking back and pointing in the direction she’d been heading. “Where the elves are?”

“That’s where I’m leading you,” Thassli said patiently. “This way?”

“Um, no, they’re over here.” Juniper pointed more insistently. “Elves smell really distinctive. Even in an elven forest like this, it’s not hard at all to tell where the settlement is. Are you lost, maybe?” She tilted her head curiously. “Were you trying to get us lost? ‘Cos I’ve gotta tell you, that would be really silly.”

“Good thing there’s no subterfuge going on,” Teal muttered.

“It is a very common thing to disguise the approach to one’s home when escorting visitors of uncertain intention,” Shaeine said soothingly. “Don’t be rude, Juniper; they have a right to their security.”

“Oh…gosh, I’m sorry.” Juniper splashed back across the creek toward them. “My fault, I just didn’t think. Okay, we can walk in circles in the woods a while longer; it’s a very pretty forest. Just, not too long, please? We do need to get on with our business.”

Thassli stared at her in silence for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Well! And that is what happens when I start to think I’m clever. Perhaps I’ll actually learn the lesson this time. Ah, well, no point in it now, is there? Let’s go upstream a bit, though. There’s an easier place to cross.” She smiled a little too broadly at Teal. “I know how humans wilt when you get them wet.”


 

“Well, what a complete waste of a morning that was,” Ruda groused.

“It wasn’t wasted,” Toby said thoughtfully. He wore a slight frown of concentration. “We walked into a complex situation we didn’t understand; obviously, our first round of meetings would be spent getting a handle on things.”

“Yeah? Well, now we’ve got our fucking handle, and I think I may have spotted our problem.” Ruda savagely kicked a rock; it went sailing down the road ahead, clattering off the side of a farmhouse in need of repainting. “These bastards all hate each other.”

“Told you,” Robin said noncommittally.

“They don’t, though,” said Gabriel. He, too, was frowning in thought, mirroring Toby. “We’ve talked to seven families, that’s not everybody in town, obviously.”

“They’re the big movers and shakers,” said Robin. “Before the Riders came and all this went down, they were the closest thing the town had to political factions, below the level of the Sheriff and his cronies. Even now they’re the ones who matter. Everyone else who’ll be willing to take any action will be looking to one of those men for a lead.”

“Right.” He nodded. “And they don’t all hate each other. It’s just that several of them hate each other specifically, and most of the rest have complex relationships, and all of them have their own extended family stuff to deal with, and all this is complicated by the fact that the town is besieged, terrorized and basically starving.”

“Oh, good,” Ruda deadpanned. “That’s just fucking great. Thanks for chiming in, Gabe, before you explained all that I was afraid this was gonna be hard.”

“My point is,” Toby said patiently, “this was a preliminary. We know who we’re dealing with, now; we’ve got a general sense of what the tensions are.”

“They were a lot of tensions,” Gabriel admitted. “Uh, I don’t suppose anybody was taking notes? I’m not positive I’m gonna remember…”

“I will,” said Ruda.

“I can spell it all out for you anyway,” Robin offered. “Probably more logically than you’ll get it from any of the men themselves.”

“And once we have that,” said Toby, “we can start negotiations. Diplomacy. I really wish there was a way to be sure we could get Shaeine into this without upsetting anybody. She’s much better at it than I am, but treaty or no, I don’t expect the folks around here will react well to meeting a drow.”

“That is the problem,” said Trissiny. “We have a starting point for what’s sure to be a long, involved process. We do not have time for this. The town is falling apart now, and there’s no telling how long we’ve got till the Empire reacts to all this. In my opinion we are already pushing that deadline. These men and their petty vendettas are going to be their own death.”

“These are the issues they’ve lived with for years,” Toby said gently. “None of it seems petty to them.”

“Oh, please.” She glared ahead, setting her feet down with more force than was necessary on each step. “Did you hear the things they were upset about? This man’s son eloped with that one’s daughter a generation ago. A dispute over a border fence; a dispute over ownership of a cow. Two housewives who got in a public brawl over who stole whose mincemeat pie recipe. Those are just the ones that stuck in my mind.”

“I’m with Shiny Boots here,” said Ruda. “I am just about out of patience with these assholes. Seriously, all of this is small-town bullshit, most of it’s from years ago. And they’re all still so fucking worked up about it, half of ’em were about ready to pick up their wands and round up a posse to go lynch their neighbors.”

“And all of this,” Trissiny concluded grimly, “while their town is a war zone. How can so many people be so utterly devoid of basic common sense?!”

“But that’s exactly it,” said Toby. “The situation has kept everyone tense, armed and afraid, prevented them from talking to each other. It’s not talking things out that causes little offenses to escalate to deep tensions, and then to violence.”

“I dunno,” Gabriel mused. “They did seem like rather petty grievances. But… Usually, if you give people a common enemy, you’ve got a ready-made way to bind them together. Did you hear the way those guys all talked? They were all for standing up to the Riders, but they know they don’t have the strength to do it alone, and they balked at siding with other families they have a feud with. It…smells wrong.”

“I still say it makes sense,” said Toby. “I mean, what common enemy do they have? The Riders are guerrilla fighters; their identities are kept secret, their meeting places are secret, they might as well be wraiths. They rule through fear. When fear is the enemy, reason is the first victim.”

“Very pithy,” said Robin, grinning. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

“What I meant is,” Gabriel went on, “maybe the Riders are doing something, or did something, to play on these tensions? It’d be a tidy way of preventing any resistance from organizing. That, and working up hatred against the elves.”

“That’s true,” said Ruda with a frown. “And since nobody knows who they are…they’re probably folks who can move around the town openly with their hoods off. Fuck, why did I think of that sooner?”

“I’ve thought of it,” said Robin. “As have others. It makes little difference, though, how all this came to be. As Trissiny pointed out, we no longer have the luxury of time to engage in this maneuvering. This knot must be cut through, soon. Somehow.”

“Horses,” Gabriel said suddenly, frowning. “The Riders actually ride horses, right? It’s not just a euphemism?”

“They ride, yes,” Robin replied.

“Okay, well…how many horses can there be in a town this size? Hasn’t anybody figured out who was on whose horse? Even if the men are masked, surely somebody must’ve recognized one of the animals.”

“No luck,” she said, shaking her head. “In the beginning they only struck at night and didn’t let anybody get a good look. They’ve gotten bolder, but by this point they’re using mounts stolen from the rich families that were the first ones killed. Probably stabling them at one of the old properties, too.”

“Shit.”

“It was a good thought, though,” said Trissiny.

“Hm, what if we tracked them to this stable?”

“Then we’re right back where we started, Ruda,” Trissiny said wearily. “Yes, if we can get these Riders to face off with us, we can almost certainly take them…but that is beside the point. What we need to do is unite the town against them. And as for that… The more I see of these people, the more I think it’s not possible. Honestly, I’m starting to question whether they even deserve the help.”

“That’s not like you,” Toby said quietly.

“It’s pretty much like me,” she replied, not meeting his eyes. “I find it hard to have patience for people who bury their heads in foolishness when their whole world is coming apart around them. But…it’s not a thought worthy of the Hand of Avei.” She heaved a deep sigh.

“We’ve just gotta change the situation, then,” said Gabriel. “We’ve got the ready-made enemy to hold up as a target. We just need to…engineer a scenario where they’re not all scared of the boogeymen and are inspired to fight back.”

“Hmf. Yeah, maybe that’d do it,” Ruda said. “Any ideas?”

“Um.”

“Yeah. Me either.”

Abruptly, Robin stiffened. “Only three. Stand your ground.” As swiftly as a fleeing squirrel, she shot across the road, vaulted over a dilapidated picket fence and vanished into a tiny patch of scraggly bushes that seemed hardly big enough to conceal her.

The four of them had another few seconds to be confused before they could hear the hoofbeats.

They were on one of the outer roads of the town, lined on one side by intermittent structures that were mostly abandoned, and on the other by the backs of houses. All four drew together as the first White Riders they had seen wheeled around the corner ahead and galloped toward them. The outfits were definitely impressive, white cloaks with the hoods up and masks covering the lowers parts of their faces, over loose white robes. They were windblown and dusty, however, and doubtless got that way minutes after being put on in this prairie town. Compared to Imperial or Avenist soldiers, the three men were not much to look at. Bearing down on them on horseback, though, they made a solid impression.

Light flared up around Toby and Trissiny; Gabriel hissed in pain and stumbled backward away from them. Ruda unsheathed her sword but didn’t take a step, leaving the two paladins in the forefront of the group.

The Riders came to a stop far closer than was safe, horses prancing restlessly.

“Leave,” said the one in the middle. The voice was terribly wrong, echoing cavernously and with a hissing resonance like the wind through the tallgrass. However cheap their theatrics, a little enchantment could go a long way if one knew how to use it properly. Nobody would ever place that voice as belonging to a human being, much less one they knew.

“Perhaps we can talk—”

“Leave,” the lead Rider repeated, cutting Toby off. “This town doesn’t need your help. It’s no place for you. Go back where you came from.”

“No.” Trissiny said flatly.

All three Riders raised their wands.

“Oh, fuck this,” Ruda snorted, and stabbed Gabriel in the foot with her rapier.

He let out a shriek of pure surprise and pain, his face twisting—then twisting further, hardening into defensive ridges of bone protecting his eyes, which suddenly went coal black and faintly reflective.

The horses screamed in panic, wheeling about despite the imprecations of their riders; the one in the lead reared, nearly unseating its master and almost falling over before it managed to get turned and moving. All three dashed away back where they had come, one nearly falling out of his saddle, all of them flailing without success to get their mounts back under control.

“Stay here,” Trissiny said curtly, running two steps past them and vaulting into Arjen’s saddle.

“What the f—where the fuck did that thing come from?!” Ruda squawked, stumbling backward and incidentally yanking the sword out of Gabriel’s foot, prompting another yowl from him. “Where did she—did she have that fucking horse on the Rail?!”

“You stabbed me!” Gabriel shouted. He was clutching at his head with both hands, hopping about on one foot.

“Oh, you’re fine, y’big baby. We’ll have Shaeine heal you up when she gets back and you’ll be good as new.”

“Why the fuck did you stab me!” he roared directly in her face. Ruda didn’t back away, but gripped her sword tighter. His eyes were still bottomless pits of darkness.

“Gabriel.” Toby turned from watching Trissiny, who had already galloped out of sight. “You’re getting angry. Nobody likes you when you’re angry.”

Gabriel glanced at him, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. Slowly, with visible effort, he forced himself to relax. He closed his eyes, taking deeper, slower breaths while the armor plates on his cheeks and forehead melted back into the skin; when he opened them again, they looked fully human.

“All right,” he said more calmly. “Let me rephrase that. Ruda, dear classmate and colleague, why the fuck did you fucking stab me?”

“Well, it’s something,” Toby muttered.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding sincere but in no way remorseful. “Tactics, though. This house behind us is smoking from the chimney; there are people in there. If shooting started, there’d be bystanders hit. Had to scare ’em off and they didn’t look too impressed by Trissiny’s sword.”

“And that leads by what circuitous logic to you fucking stabbing me?!”

“Animals don’t like demons,” she explained, grinning. “And horses are jumpy beasts at the best of times. I figured, we show them a bit of your inner monster, and they’d take the decision out of the Riders’ hands. Went off perfectly, by the way. Don’t everybody thank me at once.”

“That really hurts,” he complained, still holding his injured foot off the ground. “How the fuck did that even break the skin?! Did you have your sword blessed?”

“If it was blessed, you’d be burning,” said Toby. “Mithril is a natural magic-blocker. That’s why it’s so valuable; that sword could cut through a dragon’s scales, too.”

“Stab,” Ruda clarified. “It’d stab through a dragon’s hide. Rapier’s not a slashing weapon.”

“Okay, well, forgive me, but I’m still kind of hung up on the part where you fucking stabbed me!”

“So I noticed,” she said dryly. “Look, I am sorry, but I needed to upset you spontaneously. I figured that was more reliable than going off on a spiel about how your mother’s a whore.”

“My mother is a hethelax demon, you lunatic!”

“Oh. Really? I’d always assumed… Well, my mistake.” She grinned broadly. “A spiel about how your father’s a whore.”

“Ruda,” Toby said firmly. “Enough.”

“Man, you ruined my shoe,” Gabriel said petulantly. “I like these shoes.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I will buy you new shoes, just for being a good sport.”

“I am not a good sport! I’m whining and bitching and carrying on and I intend to keep doing it!”

Toby turned his back on them, staring in the direction Trissiny had gone, his face creased with worry.


 

Arjen was a draft horse, not built for speed; but then, he wasn’t just a horse. Despite the lead the Riders had, and the extra time they’d had to sort themselves out and turn their mounts’ panic into a controlled retreat, Trissiny was gaining on them. At least until, a few minutes after they had left the town behind, Arjen suddenly skidded to a stop.

“What?” she demanded. “What are you doing?! After them!”

He twisted his head around and gave her a look.

Up ahead, the three Riders also stopped, wheeling their mounts around to prance back and forth—not the behavior of fugitives fleeing a dangerous enemy. Trissiny glanced around, quickly taking in the scene.

Between her and them, the path narrowed into a small pass between two little hillocks, each crowned with a small thicket of trees. Plenty of space to hide armed men in each, and a good spot to rig a trap. It was still too open for a proper ambush, but with modern weapons, they wouldn’t need to enclose her fully.

“I see it too,” she said softly. “Thank you, Arjen. Good work.” She patted his neck and he whickered softly, lowering his head to stare at their foes and pawing at the ground with one massive hoof.

A golden sphere of light sparked around them as it was struck by a lightning bolt, then a second. It was reflexive, now. In hindsight, Trissiny understood how she had used so much divine magic against the centaurs without burning herself out; elves could carry and channel huge amounts of energy. She probably couldn’t match a full elf, but her capacity was clearly high enough to make a significant difference. Blocking the wandshots barely even registered.

“What’s wrong, paladin?” called the lead rider in his eerie, magically enhanced voice. “Lost your nerve?”

Goddess, they weren’t even being subtle about it. How had these amateurs managed to suborn the entire town so completely?

Trissiny considered her options. She could probably withstand whatever they had waiting, to judge by the way their wands were making no impression on her shield, but charging into a trap of unknown nature was deeply foolhardy. She could easily go around the hillocks; the forest was too thick on one side but there was plenty of open prairie on the other. That would take precious moments, however, and they’d flee as soon as she started. She’d lose them for sure; they knew this land, and she didn’t.

She could, of course, retreat, and it seemed to be the logical option anyway. This wasn’t the time or the place for a confrontation. But there was more to war than tactics and strategies; symbolic victories counted, and Trissiny now realized she had been maneuvered into this place for exactly that reason. If the Hand of Avei backed down from them, the White Riders would gain untold credibility and tighten their grip on the town without shedding a drop of blood.

The leader sat his horse patiently, watching her, but the other two wheeled their mounts back and forth, whooping and hollering. Daring her.

Trissiny nudged Arjen forward, taking him around in a wide arc to approach the gap from an angle. The Riders’ shouting rose in pitch and they mirrored her approach, wands up and aiming.

She drew back her arm and, with all her strength, hurled her sword at them.

The blade arced through the air, spinning end over end, and struck the earth equidistant between them, sticking upright out of the soil directly between the two little hills. Trissiny continued her wide arc, wheeling around again to regard the Riders from a greater distance.

Yipping and hollering in triumph, one of them galloped forward straight at the sword, leaning far to the right out of his saddle. It was an impressive display of horsemanship; held in place only by one foot in a stirrup and a hand on his saddle horn, he swept his other arm out, low enough he could have dragged his fingers along the ground.

The leader shouted a warning in his creepy voice, but too late.

The Rider closed his fingers around the hilt of Trissiny’s sword.

The world dissolved in light.

It wasn’t a bolt so much as a tower of lightning, a single shaft of blinding energy like a bar of solid moonlight, burning with the intensity of a furnace. For one fiery instant it connected the sword with the sky above.

The horse, now riderless and screaming in panic, went galloping away across the prairie, leaving behind the blackened and still smoking corpse of a White Rider, lying beside the sword stuck upright in the ground.

Both the remaining Riders spun their mounts and took off as fast as they could move.

Trissiny sat in her saddle and watched them go. When she finally nudged Arjen forward, leaning down to retrieve her sword, there came not a peep from either hillock, and she didn’t bother investigating them. Sheathing her weapon, she turned her steed and headed back for the town.

Behind her, the fallen Rider continued to smoke.

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4 – 5

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“Thanks, Horace,” Robin said, nodding to him as she squeezed past.

“My pleasure, ma’am,” the slim bartender replied. His tremendous mustache all but hid his smile, but he had the kind of eyes the conveyed it very well on their own. He stood aside, gallantly holding the door to the pantry open for the students.

“I don’t think we’re all gonna fit in there,” Gabriel noted.

“Won’t all be in here…” Robin’s voice from deep within the pantry trailed off, followed by a thunk and then the scrape of something heavy being moved. Then, slowly, the line of students began to shuffle forward.

It was a narrow space and not very deep, lined by shelves which were sadly rather bare at the moment. A few jars of preserved vegetables, two hanging hams, bags of dried beans and rice and several other odds and ends remained—clearly not enough to support the Shady Lady’s population for long. Nobody commented as they filed past, and stepped one by one into the hole at the far end of the pantry, where one of the floor stones had been lifted to reveal a makeshift ladder of rusted steel bars driven into bedrock.

This descended about ten feet into a tunnel, which ironically was more spacious than the pantry had been. There were no torches, but in the relatively small space, Fross’s white glow provided them ample light to see, not that there was much to look at. Once they were all down, Robin darted back up the ladder and pulled shut the hidden door, sealing them into the gloom.

“Right,” she said, descending again and sliding through them to the head of the group. They were in a dead end; she began leading them down the only remaining path. “This way.”

“Oh, really? That way?” Ruda snipped. “You sure you don’t want us to tunnel through the wall?”

“You can try that if you really want. At least you’d be kept busy.” Robin was already vanishing into the darkness ahead, and didn’t turn to look at them when she spoke. They hastened to catch up, especially after Fross fluttered on to keep right behind the elf.

“Joe is more aware of the situation in the elven grove than most of Sarasio’s residents,” she said as they walked. “He didn’t go into it because there is really not much to tell. Elves and humans alike are broadly divided into two camps: those who feel favorably toward the other race, and those who feel otherwise. There is a constant push and pull between them, with the bulk of the population falling somewhere in the middle…some apathetic, some prone simply to changing their minds. The only great difference is that while human political movements tend to be volatile by nature, elves… Well, we take the longer view. Most of the grove’s current population has seen entire human generations rise and fall. Dozens of such, in some cases. What seems like an apocalypse to the residents of Sarasio appears more like just another round of tomfoolery to us.”

“Do you agree with that?” Toby asked.

Robin shook her head without turning around. “I do not. That’s why I and a few others have been making use of this tunnel, and several like it. We bring food and supplies to the few secured spots in Sarasio.”

“How many secure spots are there?” Trissiny asked.

“In terms of permanent locations? Just the two, the Shady Lady and the other tavern. Joe is inclined to be modest: I assure you, the men guarding the Lady’s doors are not a deterrent to the White Riders. Even they don’t want to cross wands with the Sarasio Kid, however; most of them have seen him in action. The other meeting spot is likely to be full of armed, drunken townsmen at any time, and while the Riders could perhaps vanquish them if they struck in force, it would be a massacre. They are either reluctant to risk their numbers in a pitched battle or still holding to some code that disallows them to slaughter civilians in bulk.”

“Maybe both?” Toby suggested.

“Maybe.” She shrugged. “I can’t really say how they think. Any other safe spots are mobile and highly temporary. Some of us make an effort to keep an eye on things, look after the humans who deserve protection and won’t, for whatever reason, huddle up with the others. That’s very hard to do, however; as you saw above, my kind are not exactly welcome in Sarasio these days.”

“I bet,” Gabriel said slowly, “that has an effect on how the elves feel about the town.”

“That’s our problem in a nutshell,” she said, nodding. The tunnel began bending slowly to the right and climbing very slightly. “As yet, there are not enough elders in the grove who disapprove of having congress with humans that they can prohibit us. Their camp, however, has gained a great deal of favor in the last year. Even immortals who can remember many generations of human friends will tend to get their backs up when faced with a barrage of threats and insults. We sometimes have more pride than sense.”

“That’s pretty much true of all intelligent races everywhere,” said Ruda.

“So I have noticed. Here we are.” She came to a stop where the tunnel broadened into a roughly circular chamber, lined with dusty old wooden benches. A ladder was propped against one wall, leading up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Robin darted up this like a squirrel, not causing the rickety thing to so much as shift, and paused with her head just below the portal. “Quiet, please, I need to be sure the other side is clear.”

They stood there somewhat awkwardly, tense and uncomfortable. Even in the relatively broader chamber, there was scarcely room for everybody once they all made it in from the tunnel. Fross began to drift in slow circles around the perimeter of the room, casting shifting shadows across the walls.

“Can you turn down that light?” Robin hissed. “I’m trying to listen.”

The pixie came to a dead stop. “Uh. Why does that—”

“Shh!”

Fross chimed once in alarm and whizzed over behind Juniper to hide under her hair, plunging the chamber into blackness.

This was alleviated seconds later when Robin pushed open the trapdoor and peeked out. “All clear,” she said, hoisting herself up. Ruda was the first to follow.

One by one they emerged in the ruins of a barn whose roof had half-collapsed along the back. Once everybody was up, Robin carefully gathered up some of the moldy old straw that lay drifted against the walls and spread it over the trapdoor. Through the numerous gaps in the walls, they could get a general idea of their position: on the farthest outskirts of Sarasio, and not much more distant from the edge of the forest.

“All right,” said Robin finally. “We’d best make this fairly quick; people don’t do much moving around these days, but we can’t be found here. You were seen going to the Lady, and the tunnel will be compromised if anyone puts this together. Arachne said you’re to have free reign, so…what’s your plan?”

They glanced at each other uncertainly.

“We must speak with all factions resistant to the White Riders,” said Shaeine. “Ultimately they will need to be knitted into a single unit.”

“You’ll find that a tall order,” Robin noted.

“Very likely, yeah,” said Toby, nodding. “But she’s right: that’s exactly what we’ll need to do. More beating up bad guys isn’t going to save this town: we need the people here to start being neighbors again.”

“Nothing unites people like a common foe,” Trissiny added. “The Riders may have caused all this trouble, but they are also part of a solution.”

“So you’ll want to talk to the elves and the townspeople?” Robin shook her head. “That’s going to take more time than I think you realize.”

“We can split up, then,” Juniper suggested. She glanced around at the uncertain expressions this brought. “What? It’s a good idea!”

“It’s… Actually, I think you’re probably right,” Trissiny agreed after a moment. “We don’t know what kind of timetable there is for the final dissolution of Sarasio, but people are actively suffering for every hour we waste. I don’t feel good about it, though. As a unit, we’re a match for the Riders and whoever else. I hate to leave people vulnerable.”

“No more than two groups, then,” said Gabe, stroking his chin and frowning into the distance. “Any four of us should be plenty to handle themselves against whatever. In fact…yeah, that’s perfect. Me, Toby, Ruda and Trissiny can talk to the locals, the rest deal with the elves. Remember, these are simple frontier folk, and about half this group will either scare them or piss them off on sight, whereas Triss and Toby, at least, are Hands and have real authority. Ruda’s a pirate and a princess, so she’s awesome twice. I’ll just keep my mouth shut and that’ll be a good group to deal with them.”

“You want to send a drow into an elven grove?” Robin raised her eyebrows. “Either she poisoned your dog or you Imperials do not play gently with your practical jokes.”

“Shaeine’s actually a trained diplomat,” Teal pointed out.

“Trained and accredited,” Shaeine added calmly. “I have credentials and official standing. And my family have managed to have civil, if not terribly productive, conversations with the elders of this particular grove in the last few years. I do not anticipate a problematic reaction to my presence.”

“You’re a kudzu?” Robin asked in surprise. “Well…then yeah, I suppose that’d work.”

“What’s a kudzu?” Ruda demanded.

“A story for another time,” Shaeine said smoothly.

“Not to be a complainer,” said Teal, “but how come you didn’t stick me in the human group?”

“You speak elvish, right?” Gabe said, then winced. “And, uh…remember what I said about scaring or pissing people off?”

“I’m not gonna flare up at them,” she said, exasperated. “I usually don’t. How many times have you even seen Vadrieny?”

“It’s not that,” said Ruda with a broad grin. “Teal, you’re just about the nicest person there is, but a girl with short hair in boy’s clothes says ‘queer as an obsidian doubloon.’ Let’s not give the yokels a reason to get their backs up on sight, yeah?”

Teal narrowed her mouth into a thin, unhappy line, but declined to comment further.

“Having one obvious human in the group to approach the elders is a good idea,” said Robin. “Particularly if you seek to bring them into contact with more humans. Fross and especially Juniper will lend you credibility, as well. I will accompany those of you going into the town, then.”

“Wait, what?” Trissiny frowned. “You’re not going to introduce the rest of them to the elves?”

“Ironic as it may seem,” Robin said dryly, “my help will be more needed in town. The locals know me. Not only will you not find the right people without some guidance, you will never get them to talk to you unless introductions are made by a friendly face. Or, at least, a familiar one. The grove is another matter; they will not throw out visitors, particularly an exotic bunch such as you.”

“Especially if we mention your name?” Juniper said.

Robin shrugged. “That might or might not help. I’m not an important person in the tribe, but to my knowledge I have no enemies. If you appear to be in danger of being expelled, though, unlikely as that is, mention that you are Arachne’s students. Not unless it’s necessary, mind. That will ensure you are treated with a modicum of politeness, but it will not make you any friends.”

“Holy shit,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “Even the other elves are scared of her.”

“It’s more complicated than that, and not something we should get into now. Those of you coming into the town, come along.”

“Wait!” said Fross. “How will we even find the elves?”

Heading out the door of the old barn, Robin paused and grinned back at them over her shoulder. “You won’t. Just head into the trees. You will be found.”


 

“Your guests have departed, your Grace,” Price intoned, re-entering the dining room.

“Oh, thank all the fucking gods in alphabetical order,” Darling groaned without looking up. He was resting his head in his hands, elbows on the table. It had only taken Price a few minutes to get everybody set up with their coats and politely escorted out. She had not approved of the host’s absence from this little ritual, but Darling’s patience had taken all the punishment it could stand, and he’d sat here, ripping through the file compiled by the Avenists on Principia. He would go over it in more detail later, of course. For now, all he knew for certain was that his active headaches had just multiplied exponentially. “Girls,” he said more calmly. “Kindly rejoin us.”

It took a minute; they’d been upstairs. The elves, of course, didn’t make a sound as they re-entered the room, but Price cleared her throat at their arrival.

Finally, Darling lifted his head and leaned back in his chair. “See what I mean?”

“Yup,” said Flora.

He nodded. “Right. Did you do as I asked?”

“Once again,” Fauna said a little testily, “if any of them had been candidates, we’d have spotted them on our first pass.”

“I remember,” he replied, scowling. “And I asked you to check them out specifically anyway. Did you or did you not?”

“Of course we did,” she said. “And no, they don’t need killing. I wouldn’t describe any of those three as nice people. And frankly, I think we should kill Basra anyway on general principles.”

“For the record!” Flora held up a finger. “I disagree.”

Fauna rolled her eyes. “Right, well, anyhow…no, none of them meet the criteria you set. No shady business that can be linked to either Church or Wreath in any respect. Honestly, no shady business at all. The two women are career politicians, very careful to keep their own fingers clean, and Varanus…” She shook her head. “He’s actually a decent enough fellow, in his ass-backward way.”

“Hmm.” Darling rubbed his chin. “Mind going into a little detail on that?”

“Well, there are some interesting facts,” said Flora. “You said you wanted anything remotely pertinent, right?”

“Yes. Do go on.”

“Okay, so… You know how the Guild sent you to the Bishopric because they wanted a loyal agent close to the Archpope? Well, the Avenists and the Izarites sent Basra and Branwen to get rid of them. Those two are not well liked in their own cults. They just aren’t very devout or much interested in the principles of their goddesses, but they’re good at what they do. Too good to be discarded, and too careful to do anything that deserves punishment. Neither faith takes the Church very seriously, so this is basically latrine-digging duty.”

“Hm. And Andros?”

“Andros…” Fauna twisted her lips in distaste. “Andros is a devout family man. His wives wear collars, call him ‘Sir’ and have to kneel to greet him, but…they’re there voluntarily. The younger one wasn’t even a member of the faith before she fell in love with him. He’s not into anything corrupt because he’s just not a corrupt person. He’s a true believer, like you. His religion is just fucking creepy, is all.”

“And,” Flora added more grimly, “he is a Bishop because the Huntsmen are firmly behind the Archpope and he’s the best they could spare for Justinian’s work.”

Darling frowned deeply. “Now that is fascinating. How certain are you of this intel? Where’d you get it?”

“As certain as we are of anything,” said Fauna.

“A combination of divinations and good old-fashioned listening at keyholes and rifling through people’s mail,” Flora added.

“Excellent work. Fauna, I’m interested in this antipathy you have toward Basra.”

The elf’s face drew into a taut expression of loathing. “She’s heartless.”

“Well, yeah, she’s known to have a mean streak, but…”

“No. No.” She shook her head emphatically. “I wasn’t just being descriptive… Anth’auwa. The word translates as ‘heartless.’ A person without compassion, remorse, without any connection to others. People are just…just objects to her. She plays the game well, but she cares about nothing.”

Darling leaned forward, staring at her intently. “That’s a serious accusation, Fauna. Very serious.”

“You know what I’m talking about, then?”

“With regard to Basra in particular? Not as such. I’m familiar with the personality type, though; the Guild tends to attract them. Our whole credo is to live free.”

“What does the Guild do with them?” Flora asked warily.

“It’s one of the few matters for which we trouble the Big Guy,” he admitted. “Generally he wants us to solve our own damn problems, but… For something like this, the absolute certainty of a divine being’s perspective is necessary. Because if we know we’re dealing with one of those, they get a quiet knife across the throat. There’s just not much else you can do with them.”

“Yes. Agreed.” Fauna nodded emphatically. “And that is why we need to kill Basra Syrinx. She cares about no one and has too much self-control to reveal herself. That is a bad combination.”

“Again,” said Flora, frowning at her sister (Darling still thought of them thus for the sake of convenience, though he was fairly sure they weren’t), “I don’t agree. We do not have enough information to diagnose the woman. She’s deceitful and has a mean streak, yes, but…”

“Divinations,” Fauna said stubbornly. “They don’t always show exactly what we ask for. They showed us Basra as a child. Torturing a cat with a knife.” She clamped her lips shut and swallowed heavily. “Children who do such things… It’s a warning sign.”

“Flora’s right,” he said. “That’s not conclusive. But!” He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to argue. “I do respect your insight, Fauna. In addition to the solid information you’ve given me, this about Basra is very much worth knowing, whether or not she proves to be completely broken in the head. Even if she’s just a rotten bitch, it’s worthwhile to know how deep that rot goes. All right… How’re you doing on your list?”

“We are running out of names,” Flora said. “The good news is the spirits are… Well, glutted. It does accumulate, we’ve tested; after all this slaughter they’re likely to be quiet for a year or more.”

“That,” he said feelingly, “is very good to hear.”

“Do you want us to start scouting for new names?” Fauna asked.

“Hmm…” He stared accusingly at the sideboard for a long moment, eyes narrowed in thought. “How thorough were you the first time around?”

“As much as we could be,” said Flora. “If you want to expand the list… We’re either going to have to broaden our criteria or start looking outside Tiraas.”

“It’s doubly hard because we made it so obvious what the point was,” Fauna added. “The city is all but emptied of crooked clerics who’ve antagonized the Black Wreath. The ones we didn’t do for have seen which way the wind blows and gone to ground.”

“Then no,” he said decisively, “don’t go fishing for new names, and especially don’t relax your standards. What matters is we’ve sent the message we meant to. If the killings stop as suddenly as they start, that’ll make it plain that the killers are still in control, operating on their own terms. It suggests they might come back at any time. Fading out, scraping for applicable targets…that just looks desperate. Weak.”

The elves nodded in unison.

“I’m gonna have other problems in the immediate future.” He picked up his still-clipped sheaf of papers with Basra’s list of the Empire’s most dangerous and heavily-armed loners. “Starting with these jokers. Once again, Justinian has us out beating the bushes to scare out the boars, and I still haven’t decided whether the point of this is to get us killed off, or because we’re actually the people he trusts to get the job done. The answer to that question will tell me a lot about what to do next, which is part of why I was so interested in some intelligence on my fellow Bishops. Basra and Andros, sure, I can see that. The Huntsman and the Legionnaire, they’re both good people to have in a fight. Me, even; thieves are known to be sly, and I’m known to be a good thief. It’s Branwen’s inclusion in the group that keep throwing me off. I am obviously missing something there.”

“The redhead is an utterly useless piece of fluff,” Fauna said dismissively. “You should bone her, though, and have done with it. She’s into you, and not good for much else.”

“While she does look like a cuddly armful,” Flora said with a grin, “I’m not sure I agree about her usefulness. She doesn’t have the same general kinds of talents as the rest of you, which does make all this harder to tease out. But she’s far from useless.”

“Oh?” Darling raised an eyebrow.

“Izarites are good at reading people,” Flora went on. “From there, as I understand it, what they’re supposed to do is help people find whatever answers they need to improve their own lives.”

“I’ve never understood what that has to do with screwing everyone,” Fauna snorted.

“They don’t screw everyone,” Darling said, smiling faintly. “You walk into a Temple of Izara and you’ll be given whatever it is your heart needs. Lots of people, maybe even most, end up getting laid, because the goddess of love seems to think everybody needs to.”

“I think that’d be good for a lot of people,” Flora said, glancing at Price, who didn’t react.

“Thin ice,” Fauna warned.

“I was talking about Style.”

“Sure you were.”

“I’ve known a lot of people who have gone to an Izarite temple and not gotten what they wanted,” Darling went on, “but I have never talked to a single person who walked out disappointed with whatever it was they got. Izarites are good therapists, too, and just good people to talk to. I went to one when I was fifteen, looking to lose my virginity. A beautiful girl gave me a fantastic meal, two hours of good conversation and the best hug I’ve ever had, and I left happier than I could ever remember being.”

“Aww,” they said in unison, beaming.

Darling cleared his throat and straightened in his seat, wiping the reminiscent smile from his face. “Somehow, we’ve wandered off the subject of Branwen.”

“Right, Branwen,” said Flora. “Branwen is good at getting people to do things. Her record suggests she does it for people’s own good, nudging and manipulating people in the direction of their own best interests, but…it makes the other Izarites nervous. They’re not into being that proactive with other people’s lives. Also, she’s kinda vain, which I understand is a pretty big sin over there.”

“I’ve noticed the makeup,” said Fauna. “It’s subtle, but she’s the only Izarite I’ve ever seen who wears any.”

“And that hair. Must take her an hour every morning.”

“I bet she’s not even a redhead.”

“Oh, now, she’d never get away with that. Can you imagine how many, heh, worshipers have been in a position to check?”

“Pff, she shaves. You can tell; she’s the type.”

“While this is some of the most entertaining of ignorant gossip I’ve ever been privileged to hear,” Darling said dryly, “it’s not helping us any.”

“Right. Sorry.” For a wonder, Fauna actually looked somewhat contrite. “Anything you do need us to do?”

He slid the list across the table to them. “Ladies, you belong on this list. The only reason you’re not on it is nobody knows you exist, and priority number one is keeping it that way. If anybody finds out I’m keeping headhunters in my house, all our asses are grass.”

“Buuuut?” Flora prompted, grinning.

“But.” He nodded. “My buddies and I are about to go poking these bears with inadequately long sticks, and there’s a distinct possibility that all this is set up for the express purpose of getting us killed. If that’s so, we’ll need to find a way to turn it around on the Archpope. If it’s not, we need to play along until the real game is revealed. Unfortunately, making the right choice here requires us to know what’s what…which we won’t know, in all likelihood, until we’ve made a choice, one way or the other.”

“Tricky,” Fauna murmured.

“Boy, is that putting it lightly. I need you two to be the aces up my sleeve, girls. Someone I can count on to meet these assholes on their own level if need be. The tricky part is going to be finding them, and having you in the vicinity without setting off alarm bells in anybody’s mind about how my maids are always following me around whenever something violent goes down.”

“That’s not a concern,” Flora said dismissively. “If we don’t want our presence to be known, it won’t be.”

“When dealing with the average run of clerics and Imperials, sure,” he agreed. “But against these guys? Can you play these games with, say, a dragon?”

They glanced at each other, then at the floor. Their silence was answer enough.

“Exactly,” he said. “So, first of all, we’ll want to do some gentler test runs, which will mean starting on any of these who are currently in the city. The group will be doing that anyway, so there’s nothing suspicious about it. Thing is…” He chuckled ruefully. “I have no idea how to begin going about that.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Fauna. “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”

“Yeah,” Flora said brightly. “She hangs around our favorite pastry stand!”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

4 – 3

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“Hi, Lily! I’m Fross!”

The others introduced themselves with a little less enthusiasm, still bemused by the situation. Lily greeted everyone politely, but with a grin that Trissiny couldn’t help feeling was rather predatory.

“And this,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “is Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” Paxton simply stared at the center of the table; her brows drew together. “Hey!”

He jumped, finally raising his eyes; they were notably bloodshot. “Oh! I’m sorry, drifted off… Ah, yes, hello, everyone. New faces, how good to…” Paxton trailed off, catching sight of Trissiny. His eyes widened, and to her surprise, he looked downright crestfallen. “Why, Ms. Avelea, we meet again. I dearly wish it was under better circumstances.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite know what the circumstances are,” she said carefully. Several things about this situation were giving her a very uneasy feeling.

The boy next to Tellwyrn had stood, and now bowed to them. “Joe Jenkins. Right pleased to make your acquaintance, all of you. And it is, of course, an honor to meet the great Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh, gods, don’t do that,” Ruda groaned. “Her head is swollen beyond capacity as it is; you’ll rupture her or something.”

“I assure you, Miss Punaji, my ego reached its maximum capacity long before your ancestors crawled out of the muck and hasn’t wavered since,” Tellwyrn said with one of her wolfish grins. “Now, we’ve some things to discuss; Mr. Paxton and…Lily…” She shot the woman a distinctly unfriendly look. “…have found themselves trapped by circumstance, but Joseph, here, is a longtime resident of the town, and has agreed to help fill you in on the situation. From there, we shall proceed to what I expect you to do.”

“Happy to oblige,” said Joe. He spoke with the drawling inflection common to prairie folk, but seemed both polite and articulate. There was a world-weary intelligence well beyond his years on his face.

“So,” Tellwyrn went on, “assuming our hosts don’t mind us rearranging a bit, everybody squeeze in. Pull over some chairs and let’s all have a sit down.”

“Hang on,” Gabriel said suddenly, staring at the boy. “Joe Jenkins? As in Joseph P. Jenkins?”

“The same,” he replied dryly. “I gather you’ve heard of me.”

“Holy shit,” Gabe breathed. “You’re the Sarasio Kid!”

“Let’s watch our language, shall we?” Joe said coolly. “There are ladies present.”

“Does he mean us?” Ruda stage-whispered to Trissiny. “Boy’s in for an epic letdown.”

“Oh, uh, sorry,” Gabriel said distractedly. “I just… I mean, I’m a little taken aback. You’re, uh… I pictured… You’re so…”

“Fifteen,” said Joe, now smiling faintly. “As of last month. And now you know why the bards don’t sing the legend of That Guy from Sarasio.”

“Oh… I just figured they called you that because you were twelve when you wiped out Hoss Calhoun and his gang.”

“Eleven, actually, but that is essentially the case. It was a little over three years ago.”

“Da—ang,” Gabriel caught himself, barely. Joe smiled, his dark eyes glittering with amusement. Truly, he only looked youthful until one looked into those eyes. “Seems like it’d take longer than that for a legend to spread.”

“Once upon a time, yeah,” said Teal. “But now we’ve got scrolltowers, newspapers, mass-printed novels and comics… Truly, we live in an age of wonders.”

“All of which is very fascinating,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone, “but I note that none of you are pulling over chairs and sitting down. If you really want to stand around uncomfortably, that’s your lookout, but I’m not best pleased at my instructions being ignored.”

“You have such a way with people, Arachne,” Lily murmured, smiling coquettishly. Tellwyrn just stared at her through narrowed eyes.

“So…you two know each other?” Toby asked, pulling over a chair.

“Oh, we go way back,” Lily purred. “In fact, Arachne had just sent me a little note a few weeks ago suggesting we ought to catch up! I’m afraid I just haven’t had the time to sit down and arrange something—busy busy, you know how it is. But, fortuitously, here we all are! Isn’t it funny how life works, sometimes?”

“Funny,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “Fortuitous. In any case, Lily, I am here with my students on a matter relevant to their education. I will have to object in the strongest possible terms if they are in any way interfered with.”

Tension gathered around the table; Tellwyrn stared at the woman in red with a cold intensity that spoke of deep hidden meanings. Lily, however, seemed completely unaffected, waving a hand airily.

“Oh, honestly, you silly goose, why would I meddle with your students? I’m not one to enjoy being cooped up, but this really is a lovely place; I’m not nearly that bored. Since none of us is going anywhere immediately, surely we can find a moment to ourselves to chat.”

“We aren’t going anywhere?” Juniper tilted her head quizzically. “Why not?”

“Hey there, neighbors,” said a new arrival before anybody could answer her. They twisted in their chairs to behold a young woman with short dark hair approaching, carrying a large tray weighted down with glasses and two carafes of water. “Welcome to the Shady Lady! Drinks are on the house—I’m afraid food is strictly rationed, so if you want to graze socially all we’ve got is water and a prodigious collection of booze.” She sidled in between Toby and Ruda, laying the tray down on the table. “Joe, I know you don’t drink. Any other takers…?”

“Take note of the new faces,” said Tellwyrn. “They are not to have alcohol while they’re here.”

“Duly noted. Heywood? Lily?”

“I’ll spare you having to ask again every time, dear,” Lily said cheerily, patting her belly. “None of the hard stuff for me. I’m expecting.”

“Oh, by all the gods in heaven,” Tellwyrn groaned, covering her eyes with a hand and causing one earpiece of her spectacles to come loose and stick out at a crazy angle.

“Congratulations, Lil!” the girl said brightly, beaming. “I’m sorry you got stuck in this hole of a town at a time like this.”

“Not at all, dear. Believe me, I’ve been in worse places.”

“I’ll have the usual, please, Jenny,” Paxton said wearily. She gave him a concerned look, which he seemed not to notice.

“You’re, uh, the waitress?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Wow, not what I’d have expected for a place like this. You look more like an adventurer, to be honest.”

“Thanks!” Jenny said brightly, winking at him. In fact, she wore a leather jacket over a sturdy ensemble of shirt, trousers and boots, with a long scarf wound about her neck and a pair of goggles perched atop her head. “I am an adventurer, truth be told. But, well…here we all are. I hate just twiddling my thumbs; serving drinks is something to do. Makes people happy, y’know?”

“Heh. Happy,” Paxton muttered, staring at the tablecloth.

“Okay, that’s the second time in two minutes,” said Ruda, scowling. “Why the hell does everyone act like this place is some kind of prison?”

“I’ll…just go get Heywood’s drink,” Jenny said, edging away.

“If we’re all settled, then?” Tellwyrn readjusted her spectacles and looked around at them. “Good. Joseph, if you would be so kind?”

“Ma’am,” he said politely, nodding to her. “I assume, neighbors, that Robin brought in in through one of her careful routes, so I couldn’t say how much of the town you’ve seen. But even a casual look should be enough to tell you this place has gone right to the dogs.”

“Actually, she took us right through the main streets!” said Fross. “Some men tried to rob us or something and Trissiny broke a guy’s hand.”

“Robin,” Tellwyrn exclaimed, exasperated. “Seriously?!”

The other elf hadn’t joined them in sitting; she leaned her hip against a nearby table, watching the group with her arms folded. At being addressed she shrugged, looking as unperturbed as ever. “Talk is fine, but nothing beats a visual demonstration. If you’re going to drop eight kids in a place like this, they deserve to see what they’re getting into. Also, I figured it’d help matters here if it was quickly understood that the new arrivals are not to be trifled with. That succeeded a bit more than I expected, actually. This one’s got quite a flair for the dramatic,” she added, nodding at Trissiny.

“These men who accosted you,” Joe said, his eyes sharp. “How were they dressed?”

“Uh…not very noticeably?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Shirts, pants… A little scruffy, but nothing that caught my attention.”

“Good,” said Joe, nodding. “There’d be trouble if you’d run into… Well. We’ll get to that in a moment. The reason the food is being parceled out and we’re all drinking water is this town does not have any kind of functioning economy at the moment. Goods and services are effectively shut down; money is so much dead weight. We’re at the point of nothing but food and a few bare essentials being worth our notice. The Shady Lady is… Well, not so much a prison as a fortress. One of very few decent places left in Sarasio, and the only one that could be called remotely safe.”

“The bordello is the last decent place?” said Ruda, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. This place must be pretty fucked up.”

A fleeting expression flickered across Joe’s face, as if he wanted to wince but wouldn’t be so rude. “That’s…a fair assessment. Let me start at the beginning, then.” As he spoke, he began deftly shuffling the deck of cards under his hand. “As little as a year ago, Sarasio was a prosperous town with an adventurer-based economy, much like most of the more significant frontier outposts. You know the type, I’m sure, being from Last Rock. There were shops and amenities catering to those launching expeditions into the Golden Sea, and those returning from it.”

Paxton stirred himself as Jenny returned, reaching up to take a glass of amber liquid from her without even looking. “It was quite the boom town, in fact,” he said, then tossed back the drink. Jenny stood behind him, grimacing with obvious concern, but he paid her no mind. “That’s why the Rail platform is so infernally far away. It was meant to give the town room to expand, and also grant a measure of access to the nearby elf grove that wouldn’t make the inhabitants come into town if they’d rather not.” He fell silent abruptly, staring down at the now-empty glass in his fingers.

“All that aside,” Joe went on slowly, “Sarasio’s always been a little…corrupt. More or less harmlessly so, for most of its history. The Sheriff, the mayor and most of the richer folk were good ol’ boys, looking out for each other. It was inconvenient, but I’m told not much worse than that for some years. At least, until Hoss Calhoun and his gang set up shop in the area.”

His eyes narrowed and he glared down at the cards, now flashing through his fingers at blinding speed. “I don’t rightly know what manner of hold Calhoun had on the Sheriff and the powers that be, but a blind eye was turned to his activities, even when they started…crossing lines. This wasn’t a matter of waived fines and selective enforcement of tax laws anymore; they were robbing and worse, all across the area, and Sheriff Yates wouldn’t touch ’em. Well… To cut a long story short, I put a stop to all that.”

“That actually sounds like a pretty damn good story,” Ruda said.

“It’s been written down enough times,” Joe said almost curtly. “What matters for our purposes is that the immediate problem of the Calhoun gang was solved, but there was still a town run by a cozy cadre of backroom dealers, and after a few months of borderline terror, everybody had a lot less of a sense of humor about it. Yates decided to let me be and I returned the favor, provided he didn’t go overboard.”

“Why?” asked Toby.

Joe finally stopped shuffling, and began rapidly laying down a game of solitaire. He kept his eyes on this as he spoke. “If you only know how that question has hovered over me. I could’ve probably warded off a lot of what’s happened to this town if I’d been a bit more proactive… But things were simple, for a while. Never seemed to me that doing favors for your friends and leaning a bit too hard on the taxpayers were the kinds of offenses that warranted getting’ shot dead in the street. Conversely, the Sheriff wasn’t eager to start trouble up with the kid he’d just seen take down nine grown men with wands.”

“You did fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed. “How is that mathematically possible?!”

“Have you seriously never heard of the Sarasio Kid?” Gabriel asked her.

“Arquin, I’m Punaji. We have different heroes. Have you ever heard of Anjal the Sea Devil?”

“…okay, point taken.”

“It was a comfortable little truce,” Joe went on, ignoring the byplay. “I could’ve blasted him and his whole social circle to Hell—pardon my language, ladies—but on the other hand, he could’ve called down Imperial help, bein’ that I was technically an outlaw by virtue of multiple manslaughter.”

“Sounds like that was pretty obviously self-defense,” Toby noted.

“Oh, sure, I probably would’ve won that in court,” Joe said with a shrug. “My policy on court, though, is not to go if you don’t absolutely need to. So things continued much as they were…which was the problem. Yates never did get it through his head that folk just didn’t have the same patience for his games as they had before. If he’d been smart, he’d’ve backed off a bit and reined in his cronies. He wasn’t smart. And that’s what brought us the White Riders.”

Mr. Paxton heaved a heavy sigh and raised his glass. “Jenny? Another, if you please?”

“Heywood, don’t you think you’ve had enough?” she replied, placing her hands on his shoulders from behind.

He grunted a bitter little stump of a laugh. “That and more, long since. I may’s well do my part to hold down the floorboards, my girl. Seems all I’m good for, after all.”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk,” she said firmly. “C’mon, it’s barely past breakfast. Let that settle for a while. Look, we’ve got help finally! Stay and maybe you can help Joe lay out the details.”

Paxton grunted again, staring morosely at the tablecloth. The students exchanged a round of glances.

“You’d know ’em if you’d seen ’em,” Joe continued. “They dress in white, as the name suggests. Robes and hoods—they look almost ecclesiastical. They started interfering anonymously with the folks running the town, and… Well, you don’t really care about the whole story nor need to know. End of the day, we had a corrupt office of law run by a man who refused to back down, and now a gang of vigilantes who also wouldn’t back down. It came to shootin’, inevitably. This place starting going downhill fast when the Sheriff was killed. The mayor went not long after, and then they started in on the landowners and cattle barons, everybody who’d wielded influence in Sarasio. Even patrolled the Rail platform to make sure none of ’em could get away and report what was happening here to the Empire.”

“And the scrolltower?” Trissiny asked.

Joe nodded. “Yup, that was their work too. Only took ’em a couple months to eliminate everybody who’d been involved in oppressing Sarasio. Amazingly enough,” he added bitterly, “things did not get better at that point.”

“It’s the story of most political revolutions everywhere,” said Tellwyrn. “A corrupt system is still a system. It knows how to run things. People who rise up and kill the rulers don’t necessarily know anything about ruling and frequently acquire a taste for blood in the process. All they know how to do is destroy those who oppose them…”

“Which,” Joe finished, nodding, “was what they continued to do. The results are as you see them now. Sarasio’s crawlin’ with vermin, and decent folk—such of them as are left—are afraid to step foot outside their own doors.”

“Wait a second,” said Toby, frowning thoughtfully. “If those men who confronted us weren’t these White Riders, who were they?”

“They may have been, for all I could tell you,” Joe admitted. “Those hoods aren’t just a fashion statement. But it’s not just the Riders anymore. The only law in Sarasio is the law of the wand, now. The Shady Lady is a safe haven because we’ve got armed men lookin’ after is, and because I live here. Everywhere else…it’s survival of the strongest, period.”

“How long can this possibly go on?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean, the Empire has to know what’s happening here! Don’t they care?”

“I may have failed to emphasize how quickly all this went down,” Joe replied. “The Empire heard rumors, all right, and sent an Imperial Surveyor to check out the situation and report back.” He nodded at Paxton, who heaved a deep sigh. “Well, obviously, the Riders caught wind of this. Luckily we were able to get Mr. Paxton in here with us, but he’s now pinned down. Comings and goings from the Lady are observed very carefully. They’ve taken out the scrolltower and they make sure nobody gets on the Rails.”

“That’s not security,” Gabriel said, scowling. “The Rail conductors passing by have to know something’s going on. And there are other ways in and out of the town—the whole place is surrounded by prairie. People can hike through the wilderness with the right know-how, they do it all the time. How can these Riders possibly think they can get away with this?”

“People are dumb,” said Tellwyrn.

“That,” Trissiny replied coldly, “is dismissive and reductive.”

“You’re correct,” the Professor replied, nodding. “It is both of those things and a gross oversimplification besides, and I’m encouraged to see that you realize it. If you’re ever to sort out the tangle of other people’s motivations, you have to consider their perspectives carefully and take into account all kinds of information that may not seem relevant from your own point of view. All sentient beings take action for what seems to them like good reason; most pointless conflicts stem from people dismissing one another’s reasons and going mindlessly on the offensive. That is the main thrust of what I teach in your history class, kids: understanding. Tease out the meanings and motives behind the actions of other people, and you will be in a position to change the situation according to your own aims.”

She leaned her elbows on the table, interlacing her fingers in front of her mouth and slowly sweeping her gaze across the group as she continued. “However, there is a time and a place. In the thick of a tense situation, it is sometimes—in fact, it is often simply not possible to consider all these things. In order to protect yourself and accomplish anything in the immediate term, you will often have to dispense with deeper understanding and act, as best you can. In such moments of crisis, there are generalities you can usually rely on, shorthands for understanding the behavior of people that will warn you what they are likely to do and help you see at a glance what you must do in response. One of these is that people are fucking dumb, and frequently, also assholes.”

“Oh, Arachne,” Lily sighed. “Ever the sourpuss.”

“I’m comfortable with the conclusion that a lot of people around here have been exceedingly dumb over a long stretch of time,” Joe said with a grimace, “myself not excluded. I couldn’t tell you what the Riders are thinking at this point. Given what they’ve been up to lately, I can’t find it in me to believe they’re still trying to act for the greater good. Still… Those men you saw, and others like ’em, they’re a mixed bag. A lot are former adventurers who found the lawlessness here to their liking. Some are just folk, citizens of Sarasio who came to the same conclusion. I’m of the view that most folks are basically decent, but anywhere you go there’s always a few who’re only held in check by the rule of law. Take that away, and you see their true faces.”

“The problem,” said Tellwyrn, “is the specific nature of Sarasio’s ailments. These men have raised an organized militia, overthrown a legitimate civil authority, destroyed and denied access to Imperial communications and travel networks, killed and attempted to kill Imperial representatives and set themselves up as a savage puppet principality. This goes beyond anarchy, and into the legal criteria for rebellion.”

“And when the R word gets tossed around,” Joe said grimly, “the Empire starts getting a whole lot less understanding in general. Might be they’d listen to our side of the story. Maybe not. If not… They might simply relocate everyone and abandon Sarasio. On the other hand, it ain’t inconceivable the Empire will decide to make an example out here. There’s not been an open rebellion on this continent in decades. The Imperials can’t have people gettin’ the idea they can get away with it.”

“The Tirasian Dynasty isn’t so ham-fisted, as a rule,” Tellwyrn pointed out. “Also, you have Mr. Paxton here to vouch for you.”

Paxton let out another little half-grunt, half-laugh that held more bitterness than humor, still gazing blearily into the table as though it promised a solution to the dilemma of Sarasio.

“I am somewhat less comforted by these facts than I might be,” Joe said carefully. “And a lot of folk agree with me. You’re not wrong in that the town ain’t exactly secure, Gabriel. People’ve been slipping away…well, not in droves, but in as steady a trickle as they can manage. The Riders discourage it in the most brutal way possible, but it happens. It’s only a matter of time, and not much of that, before the Empire comes down on us. Then, only the gods know where the chips will fall.”

“They’ll come,” Paxton mumbled. “I’m weeks late making my report. Someone’ll be sent to find out what happened to useless old Heywood Paxton sooner or later.”

“And so there you have it,” said Tellwyrn, spreading her hands wide. “The town divided against itself, subjected to a reign of vigilante terror, and under severe strain in its relationship with the nearby elves.”

“Wait, what? There’s more?” Gabriel groaned. “What’s going on with the elves?”

“Robin can explain that in detail,” said Tellwyrn. “For now, you understand the basics of the situation. You have been brought here to perform a field exercise which will determine the bulk of your final grade for this semester. Your task: save Sarasio.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “We’re an academic exercise?”

“There are much worse things you could be,” Tellwryn told him, “and likely will be if something isn’t done quickly. There are two reasons I have chosen this task for you, students. In the first place, your previous expedition put you in a series of brute-force situations, which you severely overcomplicated and thus outsmarted yourselves. Be assured, we will be working on that before you leave my University, but I am interested in seeing how you handle a more cerebral problem. Given the makeup of this group, it might be more in line with your various talents. The situation here won’t yield to such straightforward measures; you are going to have to make a solid plan and execute it carefully.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Ruda demanded. “This could not be simpler. We round up these White Riders, end them, and boom. Everything goes back the way it was.”

“Except it won’t,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “They already tried that, Joe and the Sheriff both. There’s been too much bad blood…too much blood spilled. Everybody here’s at each other’s throats, and that’s just the ones we know about. Gods only know how the elves fit into this.”

“Poorly,” Robin commented from the sidelines.

“Gabriel’s right,” said Toby. “There are a whole chain of breaches that need to be healed. Getting rid of the Riders will have to be part of the solution, but that won’t do it by itself. Saving the town will mean…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “I don’t even know.”

“Which brings me to point two,” said Tellwyrn. “Sarasio is in a death spiral. One way or another, whether the White Riders manage to depopulate the town before the Empire does, within another half a year there’ll be nothing here but the coyotes.”

“The Lady looks pretty,” agreed Joe, “but that’s because it’s full of refugees who have nothing better to do than look after the place. It helps keep us sane. Nobody here is doing any kind of business; we’re low on food and all but out of all other kinds of resources.”

“The point being,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smirk, “you cannot possibly make this situation any worse. Even if you manage to botch it as enthusiastically as you did your last field assignment, it’ll only mean granting this town a clean beheading rather than a lingering death by infection. The Empire won’t care about saving Sarasio; if it’s not done before they get here, it won’t be done. It’s up to you now, kids.”

There was silence around the table for a moment. Then Toby stood, pushing back his chair. “Well, then… I guess we’d better start making plans.”


 

Once in motion, the students lost no time heading off to a corner with Robin to get the rundown on the local elven population; it took Jenny only slightly more effort to coax Mr. Paxton up and off to his room for a nap.

Joe glanced back and forth between Tellwyrn and Lily, who were watching each other far too intently, the elf as if planning to invade a fortress, the woman in red with amused detachment. He cleared his throat softly.

“I believe I’ll stretch my legs a bit. No doubt you’ll want some privacy to catch up.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” said Tellwyrn without taking her eyes off Lily.

“Ladies,” he said courteously, bowing once before backing away and heading off.

The faintest tingle across the skin was the only sign of a silencing spell going off, a subtle effect that would likely have gone unnoticed by anyone not looking for it. Lily’s smile widened till she was nearly laughing outright; she stood, paced around the table and dropped herself into Joe’s seat, next to he other woman.

“Still paranoid, I see. You really needn’t bother with such touches, Arachne. I am never overheard when I don’t wish to be. By definition.”

“Mm.” Tellwyrn just stared at her.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You wanted to talk, remember? You went to considerable trouble to send me that little message, you heartless ghoul, you. Don’t blame me for not being fool enough to approach you in your own nest. Anyhow, this is much more interesting! What an intriguing little town this is. Did you know the Shifter was here?”

“The Shifter’s always somewhere. You’d be a lot less impressed if you spent as much time on this plane as you claim to wish.”

Lily’s grin widened. “Well, we can’t all just do whatever we want, you know. On the other hand, look who I’m talking to.”

Tellwyrn looked at her in silence for a moment before answering. “I’ve been in communication with Quentin Vex. He doesn’t tell me much, but he did point me to the remaining possession sites. I know, now, Vadrieny was the only survivor.”

Lily’s smile vanished like a snuffed candle, replaced by an icy look of fury. “Straight to the point, is it? If you insist on sticking your nose into my business, Arachne, you should know better than to try to provoke me as your opening move. I have not come all this way to—”

Tellwyrn reached out and grasped Lily’s hand in one of her own, then simply held it, squeezing. Lily fell silent, looking down at their clasped hands in confusion, then up at the elf’s eyes.

Arachne simply held her in a white-knuckled grip, and said very softly, “I’ve seen four of my own buried.”

In the silence that followed, the rage melted from Lily’s face as though she simply didn’t have the strength to hold onto it. Her lips twitched, eyes squeezing shut; little slipped past her mastery of facial expression, only hints of the turmoil within. But she tightened her grip on Arachne’s fingers, squeezing till it hurt both of them. Neither let go.

It was long minutes before Tellwyrn spoke again. “I still need to know why. What possessed you to take such a risk?”

“It was perfect,” Lily whispered. “Flawless. It had been worked on for years, decades. Everything set up in advance, everything just so. Those girls were selected with the greatest possible care, each a perfect match. They’d have bonded fully, innocent mortal spirits with archdemons, and by the time the full plan had unfolded, the world would have changed its mind about me. The Church’s pillars knocked out from beneath it, the Pantheon’s lies held up to the light. And someone interfered.”

Her grip on Tellwyrn’s fingers tightened until their hands shook with the strain, but the elf didn’t so much as flinch. “Who?”

“Oh, who do you think?” she spat, finally releasing her. “I don’t know which of them did it, but I know it was more than one. To see through my fog of war, to alter those exquisitely designed spells so perfectly that neither my warlocks nor my demons, on either side of the dimensional barrier, saw anything… No one god could have done such a thing. If not the whole Pantheon in concert… Well. I will find out who it was. They will suffer unimaginably for this.”

“That kind of power and subtlety…” Tellwyrn shook her head. “An Elder could have done it unaided.”

Lily’s laugh dripped with scorn. “Oh, please. Scyllith is sealed away in her caverns, and if you’re going to try to pitch the idea that Naiya has decided to start taking an interest in divine politics now, after all this time…well, try harder.”

“I’m concerned by the lack of subtlety I see here,” Tellwyrn said. “You forget, I know your real face. It’s startling to see you wearing it openly. I’m playing a hunch, here, but would I be wrong in guessing that Sharidan would recognize that face, too? And then there’s your little trick outside my office. Writing messages on the wall really isn’t like you, Lil. You’re beginning to come unglued.”

“They killed. My. Children.” She didn’t raise her voice, but the lights in the room flickered, the temperature dropping a few degrees, and the entire building trembled faintly. The people around the room paused, looking up in alarm, the sounds of conversation and piano music faltering. Then Elilial’s aura reasserted itself and everyone present resumed not noticing that anything was or ever had been amiss. The goddess herself, however, met Tellwyrn’s eyes with a fierce glare. “All these years I’ve played the noble demon, never brought harm to their followers when I didn’t have to, never been more cruel in battle than I must. Even after everything they did to me. And now, they do this? No. I am done, Arachne. All these millennia I’ve wasted trying to win the point of principle when I should have just been destroying the bastards one by one. Well, lesson learned.”

“You know, one of the more reliable ways to outmaneuver someone smarter than yourself is to make them so angry they can’t think straight. I get excellent mileage out of that technique. Always have.” Tellwyrn’s eyes bored back into Lily’s, not giving an inch. “You are being played. What alarms me most is that you don’t even seem to see it. You’re better at this; this is your game, after all. You need to wake up before you’re goaded into making a mistake that will damn us all and the whole world with us, Lil.”

“Don’t talk to me about mistakes,” she snapped. “You really think I’m so dense I don’t see what’s happening here? I’m not about to go on a city-smashing rampage, that would be playing into the Pantheon’s hands. Those who think me less cunning because I’m angrier have made what will be their final and greatest mistake.”

“I’m not letting you wreck the world, Lil,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “I like the world. It’s where I keep most of my stuff.”

“You know very well I have no argument with you, Arachne, except when you stick yourself in where you don’t belong. Like this new idea you seem to have, that you’ve the right or the capacity to punish me for my transgressions.” A cold smile drifted across her face. “This is not a good idea, what with you having finally put down roots and all. Someone with as much to protect as you now have shouldn’t be shaking the coconut tree.”

Tellwyrn’s hand slapped down on the table. “I will tell you this once, and once only,” she hissed. “You do not come at me through my students. I’ve told you before, Lil, I don’t have an argument with you on principle. I’ll do what I think is best, but I am not your enemy. You mess with my kids, and that changes. Then it will be you and me, until only one of us is left. That is an oath. I don’t honestly know which of us would come out on top, but I do know the survivor would be reduced to almost nothing. And that is what will happen if you bring those students into this confict.”

Lily simply stared at her for a long moment, allowing naked surprise to show on her features. “My, my. You’re actually that confident you’re a match for me?”

“I don’t commonly go for the throat, with gods,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Only twice. I won both times.”

Lily grinned. “I remember. The first, with my help.”

“And I couldn’t have done that without you,” she acknowledged, “nor you without me. You’re good, but you’re no Scyllith. Besides, that was then; this is now. I finished off Sorash without anybody’s help. And as I was recently telling my kids…” She raised an eyebrow, the faintest hint of an icy smile crossing her features. “When a god dies, all that power has to go somewhere.”

Lily regarded her thoughtfully. “Very well. You have my oath: I mean your students no harm and will do them none.”

Tellwyrn nodded, relaxing subtly. “Good. Then—”

“I have to tell you, Arachne, I’m rather offended that you thought I’d do such a thing in the first place. I was referring to the fact that you can’t just swagger through the world, not caring what it thinks of you anymore. Your University is an institution. You get away with so much because people aren’t willing to challenge you; you take advantage of so many systems and structures you’ve never bothered to appreciate. I wouldn’t need to do anything as barbaric as threaten your kids to rip the whole thing from under your feet. So let’s not start this, hmm? Just mind your business, Arachne. Raise up the next generation of heroes and villains and whatnots. By the time I’m done with my business, there’ll be plenty of work for them all.”

Tellwyrn rubbed her forefinger and thumb together as though fondling a coin. “Not good enough,” she said after a pause. “I’m serious, Lil. You doing your thing, as per your particular idiom, that doesn’t bother me. Frankly the world needs more people—and more gods—acting with care and a sense of balance. But I know the pain you’re in, and I see the slaughter behind your eyes. This is what brought me into this in the first place. That business, those poor girls you immolated: that’s not like you. You are making a mistake. You need to stop. Step back, see what’s happening and try something else.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Something that doesn’t result in a great doom, preferably.”

Lily shook her head. “It’s just too late, Arachne. Time was close to up before they committed their final sin. It’s been all I can do to re-work my strategies without my girls to count on. I will not be stopped now.”

They stared at each other, the silence stretching out between them.

The goddess was the first to look away. “How is she?” she asked quietly.

Tellwyrn slowly eased back in her chair, suddenly weary. “As well as I can say, considering how rarely she comes out? Actually, quite well. Teal is a good influence on her, I think.”

Lily nodded. “Teal Falconer is only of the most exceptional people of this or any age. I’ll never be able to fully repay her.”

“No, you really won’t. But you can start by not dragging her into a war between you and the gods.”

“That hasn’t ever been an option,” Lily said with a sigh. “All seven of them? Maneuvering just right, that would have been a movement. More than cults: social change on a vast scale. But just one? She’d only be a target. She’s fierce and durable, but the gods and their Church would find a way to put her down. No… Just…” She swallowed. “Just…please look after my girl, Arachne. She’s all that’s left. Let her sit this out.”

“You are talking about two women in one body, one an idealist and the other a nearly literal fireball. They won’t be sitting anything out.” Tellwyrn shook her head, smiling ruefully. “If I do my job right, though, they’ll be ready for whatever comes by the time it does.”

“Do that, then.”

“Lil.”

The goddess met her eyes, and Arachne reached out to briefly squeeze her hand again. “When you have calmed enough to consider it, remember what I said. You haven’t seen everything going on here. You’re not the only player with a stake in this game; someone is pulling your strings. If you continue to let them, you won’t have a prayer of winning.”

“It’s been a very, very long time since I had a prayer,” she replied with a smile. “I tend to win anyway. And perhaps, Arachne, it’s not only I who don’t know as much as I think. Hm?”

She stood, raised one eyebrow sardonically, then turned and sashayed away without another word.

“Well, I know that,” Tellwyrn grumbled at the empty table. “Otherwise why would I bother?”


 

“The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.”

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Gabriel was first off the caravan. He stumbled to his hands and knees, gasping. Juniper practically threw herself out of the car to his side, looking distressed.

“I’m sorry! I don’t think I can do anything for… I mean, injuries, that’s another—”

“Excuse me,” Shaeine said politely, stepping around her to kneel at his other side.

Gabe lifted his head, eyes widening as a silver glow lit up around her. “Wait,” he said hoarsely.

She placed a hand on his shoulder, and like a ripple in a pond, silver washed across him. Gabriel blinked twice in surprise, then slowly straightened up. “Oh…wow,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Wow. That’s amazing. Is that what divine healing always feels like?”

“I’m afraid I have no basis for comparison,” Shaeine said, straightening. “Are you well?”

“Mostly just embarrassed,” he admitted, accepting a hand from Juniper to get to his feet.

“That dovetails nicely with a little history lesson,” Tellwyrn remarked, stepping down from her own car. The rest of the students had already assembled on the Rail platform and were clustered around Gabriel. “The divine energy we know was created by the Pantheon when they first organized. It is, basically, the collected corpses of the previous generation of gods.”

Ruda wrinkled her nose. “Fucking gross.”

“Yes, well, the good stuff in life usually is,” said the Professor with a grin. “Gods are beings of unfathomable power. When they die, that energy has to go somewhere. It was, in part, by killing off the Elder Gods that the future Pantheon rose to godhood. There was more to it, but I really couldn’t tell you what. Apotheosis is not well understood.”

“Sounds like they might not want anybody to know how,” Gabriel suggested, “if it’d mean someone doing to them what they did to the Elders.”

“You are flirting with blasphemy,” Trissiny warned.

“He’s not wrong, though,” Tellwyrn said. “In fairness it should be acknowledged that the Elder Gods were nightmarish things. They brutalized the mortal inhabitants of the world; the Pantheon’s rebellion didn’t just happen on a whim, and it wasn’t about seizing power. The gods acted to free their people. Anyhow, once all this was done, they gathered up as much of the remaining free energy of the slain Elders as they could and created the wellspring of divine light we know today, establishing certain rules in the process. One of those, of course, is that the light burns demons and their kindred. This was just after Elilial had been expelled to Hell, and they had every reason to expect she’d be out for vengeance.”

“And Themynra isn’t part of the Pantheon,” Toby said, nodding at Shaeine.

“Just so,” Tellwyrn replied. “She is, in fact, the goddess of judgment. When you call on power from the Pantheon gods, there’s something rather mechanistic about it; the light does what it does according to its established nature. Shaeine’s method is different. She is inviting her goddess’s attention and intervention, which means that rather than a simple exercise of energy, Themynra is passing judgment upon the situation.”

Gabriel blinked, then wrapped his arms around himself. “That’s… A little creepy.”

“Oh, relax,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “you just got a free healing, didn’t you? Honestly, Mr. Arquin, I can’t imagine Themynra is impressed with your judgment, but that evidently doesn’t mean she thinks you deserve to suffer. Anybody who believes you are in any way evil is suffering from a severe case of narrow-mindedness.”

Ruda and Juniper looked at Trissiny; the others very pointedly did not. Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth, but said nothing.

“Anyway!” Tellwyrn said brightly. “Welcome to Sarasio, kids. Let’s unload our junk, we don’t want to keep the caravan waiting.”

They drifted toward the baggage car, belatedly studying their new surroundings. The first and most immediate thing the students noticed was that they were not in Sarasio. The Rail platform stood alone on the prairie, with subtly rolling land dotted with a patchier, more uneven sort of tallgrass than grew around Last Rock dusting the area. To the west, the ground smoothed out into the Golden Sea, and there were other interesting features in the near distance. A forest grew about a mile to the east, and the road north led to a huddle of buildings beneath a drifting cloud of firewood smoke, evidently Sarasio itself.

The platform itself was severely run down compared to its counterpart in Last Rock. There was no ticket office to be seen, just the flat stone platform and a small wooden frame over which a canvas awning had been stretched as meager protection from the elements. The wood had been painted at one point—blue, to judge by the flecks that still remained. The awning had holes and had fallen entirely on one end, waving dolorously in the faint breeze. Old cans, broken glass, scraps of wood and other miscellaneous trash littered the ground.

“Suddenly I’m glad we packed light,” said Gabriel. “Damn, never thought I’d find myself missing Rafe and his pants of holding.”

“I’ll be sure to mention to Professor Rafe how eager you are to get into his pants,” Ruda said cheerily.

Gabriel sighed. “You just had to, didn’t you?”

“I really, really did.”

Trissiny hefted her own knapsack, hoisting it over one shoulder so it left her hands free, keeping an eye on their surroundings. They weren’t alone. Sitting around a small, weak campfire were three men in denim and flannel, with scuffed boots and ten-gallon hats that had clearly seen better days. Though they were just sitting, their postured hunched and uninterested, two were clutching wands and the third had a staff in his hands, and all three were staring fixedly at the group on the platform, unease written plain on their faces.

“What’s their story, I wonder,?” Toby murmured, glancing at them.

“Oh, they’re probably just waiting there to rob anybody fool enough to ride the Rails to Sarasio,” Tellwyrn said brightly, loud enough to be plainly audible. “Of course, they probably weren’t expecting a paladin, a dryad and a drow. If they knew how dangerous the rest of you were, they’d already be running.”

Apparently the three men thought this was good advice; she hadn’t even finished speaking before they bolted to their feet and set off for the town at a run.

“Hey!” Trissiny shouted, grasping her sword and taking a step after them.

“Leave it, Avelea,” said Tellwyrn.

“They were actually going to—”

“Leave it. That is an order.”

“This is my—”

“Young lady, you are going to drop this and accompany the rest of us into town. You can do this under your own power, or be levitated and pushed ahead with a stick. Go for whatever you think best serves Avei’s dignity; I assure you, I have no preference.”

“Y’know, Professor, you could really stand to work on your social skills,” Gabriel commented.

“All my skills are at precisely the level I require, boy. Ah, here’s our escort, splendid.”

Another figure was rapidly approaching from the direction of the forest, this one mounted. She was, it quickly became clear, an elf astride a silver unicorn. She was dressed somewhat like Professor Tellwyrn, with a leather vest over a blousy-sleeved green shirt and trousers, but while Tellwyrn tended to wear simple pieces in fine fabrics, this elf was the opposite; her pants were coarse leather, but they and the vest were decorated with bright embroidery, and her blouse had been tie-died in shades of green and brown that would have made it effective forest camouflage. She had a short staff slung in a holster on her back, its end poking up over her blonde hair, which was tied back with a green bandana.

Drawing up adjacent to the platform, the elf hopped nimbly down from her mount before it had even stopped moving, landing lightly among them. This close, the small but beautifully engraved tomahawk hanging at her belt was visible.

“There you are,” Tellwyrn said in a satisfied tone. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten.”

“No need to be insulting, Arachne,” the elf replied. “I try not to loiter close to humans obviously bent on mischief. I was watching for you.”

“Students, I’ll let you all introduce yourselves as the opportunity arises, but this is Robin. She’ll be escorting you into town, and hopefully helping us deal with the local tribe.”

“Deal with them how?” Ruda demanded. “What are we doing here?”

“All in good time,” Tellwyrn said, smiling with a hint of smugness. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go arrange quarters for us. You catch up at your own pace.” She vaulted neatly from the platform onto the unicorn’s back; the animal pranced nervously at the unfamiliar rider, but plunged into motion at the merest squeeze of her knees. It bounded away in a series of fluid horizontal leaps, like a deer, with Tellwyrn balanced skillfully on its back.

“Huh,” said Gabe. “For some reason it seems odd that she knows how to ride.”

“She knows how to do a great many things,” Robin said dryly.

“Not how to plan ahead, apparently,” Ruda grunted. “Who packs nine people off to a town without arranging things ahead of time?”

“Many of Professor Tellwyrn’s actions seem calculated to force us to adapt and learn,” Shaeine noted. “Perhaps this is more of the same.”

“That may be part of it,” Robin said, nodding, “but in any case it would have been hard for even her to make arrangements anyway. Communications in and out of Sarasio are difficult at the moment. I suspect that’s why you’ve come.”

“What’s going on in Sarasio?” Trissiny asked with a frown. On her Rail trip to the University, the Imperial Surveyor she’d met had indicated the town was a trouble spot. But that had been months ago; surely he’d been on the way there to deal with it?

“It’s a long story, which you’ll be told in due time,” Robin replied, hopping lightly down from the platform. “Come along, now, no need to dawdle. Arachne will have plenty of time to make arrangements without us dragging our feet.”

They followed her, picking up baggage as they went. Per Tellwyrn’s instructions, they had packed lightly, everyone carrying no more than basic toiletries and a change of clothes. Evidently this wasn’t expected to be a long trip. Still, that was more than they’d been allowed to bring into the Golden Sea, the aim of that excursion having been outdoor survival as much as anything.

“So, you’re a friend of Professor Tellwyrn’s?” Toby asked their guide, walking with her in the head of the group.

Robin was silent for a few moments before answering not taking her eyes from the town ahead. “To the extent that she has friends, yes, I would like to think that I am. Arachne is, as you have doubtless discovered, a person who goes her own way.”

“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Ruda snorted.

“It is not something very widely discussed among elves. The individual is respected, of course, but our tribes live in harmony with one another and the world as a way of life. Persons who run out into the world to do their own thing are seen as…disruptive. Tauhanwe are not widely welcomed among most tribes. My acquaintance with Arachne is, at best, tolerated.”

“Ansheh used that word, too,” Teal said, frowning. “Remember, Rafe’s friend from the Golden Sea? I thought I’d heard wrong, though… It translates as something like ‘person who stirs a pot.’”

“Tauhanwe translates more directly as ‘adventurer,’ Robin said, turning her head to smile at Teal. “But you have a solid grasp of the etymology. You studied elvish in school?”

Teal shook her head. “One of my parents’ best friends is an elf. He sorta helped raise me, actually; they work a lot.”

Robin nodded. “To be quite precise, the ‘pot’ referred to is what you would call a chamber pot.”

For a moment, there was only the sound of their footsteps.

“Hold on,” Gabriel said. “So basically Tellwyrn is known among elves as a shit-stirrer? That may be the single most appropriate thing I’ve ever heard.”

Trissiny did not join in on the round of laughter that followed, frowning into the distance ahead. By Robin’s description, Principia would be tauhanwe, too. What did that make her? If anything…

“So how do you know Tellwyrn?” Ruda asked.

“It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got time!”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said patiently, “when someone tells you ‘it’s a long story,’ that usually means they don’t want to get into it.”

“Yeah? And when someone keeps picking it it, that usually means they wanna hear it anyway.”

“No harm meant,” Gabriel assured their guide somewhat hastily, though Robin seemed totally unperturbed. “It’s just hard not to be curious. For being such a straight-shooting in-your-face person, Tellwyrn is damn hard to figure out.”

“Oh?”

“It’s tempting to conclude that she is simply mentally unbalanced or obstreperous,” Trissiny said. “But then out of nowhere she’ll do something…oddly kind. Or perceptive.”

“Wait, what?” Ruda said, frowning. “What’s she done that’s kind or perceptive?”

“You’ll know it if you see one,” Gabriel replied, “which is kinda the point. She’s so…cranky most of the time, it takes you by surprise.”

“Don’t judge Arachne too harshly,” Robin said, still watching the town. The monotonous nature of the prairie made perspective tricky and distance hard to judge; they hadn’t covered more than half the path. The Rail platform was a long way from the town…why? The elf went on before Trissiny could start considering it in any detail, however. “She has always been somewhat difficult, but she is generally reasonable. And she is devoted to her students, in her own way. Keep in mind that she is grieving; that will explain much of her behavior.”

“What?” Juniper looked shocked. “Grieving who? What happened?”

“I tell you this because knowing will help you understand her,” Robin said, “but I don’t advise raising the subject with her. Arachne lost her husband a little over a century ago.”

Gabriel let out an explosive sound of surprise that started as a laugh and finished as a gasp in reverse. “What, a century? I dunno how much that excuses. I mean, sure, it’s very sad, but that’s plenty of time to get over it.”

Robin glanced over at him. “You must be Gabriel.”

He turned to watch her warily, the levity fading from his face. “Yeeeaah. That’s me. For some reason, I suddenly feel offended and I’m not sure why.”

“That’s the little voice inside your head that tells you when you’re being a fucking dumbass,” Ruda informed him. “You might try listening to it before talking, just for a change of pace.”

“How would you like it, Gabriel,” Robin went on calmly, “if I pointed out in conversation that you are a snub-eared land ape with the lifespan of a prairie dog?”

Gabe actually stopped walking, staring at her in shock. “Excuse me?”

“No?” Robin glanced back at him, but did not slow her pace, forcing him to start moving again or be left behind. “Then let us not pick at one another’s racial traits. In a group such as this, I would expect you to have learned that lesson long since.”

“He ain’t the quickest learner,” Ruda said with a grin, thumping Gabe with her elbow.

“What the hell are you even talking about?” Gabriel demanded.

“Immortality is not without its drawbacks,” she explained. “Humans do not live shorter lives so much as faster lives. You mature faster, and you heal faster, both physically and emotionally. For an elf, a papercut is an inconvenience for several weeks or months. A broken bone means a year at least of inaction. Luckily we do not cut or break as easily as you. To an elf, however, a heartbreak dominates the mind for longer than the average human lives. I assure you, to an elf, the loss of a mate a century ago is a very raw wound indeed. So have a little patience with Arachne. She lives with a great deal of pain, and yet devotes her energies to educating people who will likely be dead before she herself is fully healed.”

Nobody found anything to say to that, and they walked on in silence for a while. At least until the edges of the town drew closer, and they came within viewing range of Sarasio’s scrolltower. It was harder to spot than most of its kind because this one was horizontal.

The metal framework of the tower itself was in pieces, bent and snapped in multiple places, forming a ragged line between the shattered crystal orb that now lay on the prairie and the burned out husk of the office that had been at its foot. Only the two largest pieces of the orb remained; they were probably the only two pieces too big to carry away. The larger of the two would have been difficult to fit into a wagon. Scrolltower crystal wasn’t high quality and would degrade quickly once separated into bits, but it was still laden with potent magic. There was value in such things.

“What the hell…” Gabriel whispered, frowning.

“Welcome to Sarasio,” Robin said dryly. “Keep your eyes open and your wits about you; this is not a friendly place.”

She wasn’t kidding.

The town wasn’t as badly repaired as the Rail platform had been; obviously people lived here and took at least some care of their environs. Next to Last Rock, however, it was a shambles. A number of windows were boarded up, and nearly every building had some small touch that was in need of repair—peeling paint, broken gutters, missing shingles. The streets were dirt, and in awful repair, marred by deep wheel ruts and potholes, with a liberal spattering of animal droppings, which added unpleasantly to the sharp smell of wood smoke hanging in the air.

Worst, though, were the people.

The only individuals out on the street were men. None were well-dressed, and all were armed. Most could have done with a bath and a shave. It wasn’t their general scruffiness that made the group draw closer together, though, but their behavior. At this time of day, townsfolk should be working, or possibly socializing, depending on their jobs, but the men of Sarasio—at least, those currently visible—seemed totally idle. They lounged against storefronts on the mouths of alleys, faces blank and eyes narrowed, staring—in many cases, glaring—at the new arrivals. Far too many hands crept toward holstered wands.

“Good gods,” Gabriel murmured. “Professor Tellwyrn just ran this gauntlet. I wonder if she killed anybody.”

“The body would still be here if so,” Robin said quietly. “These people are not quick to care for each other. But this is more hostility than they usually show, even accounting for my presence. I suspect she did something.”

“Your presence?” Shaeine asked softly. She had put her hood up as they approached the town, despite the early hour and her shaded glasses, and now kept her hands tucked into her sleeves. Without skin or hair showing, her race was hidden, which was doubtless to the good.

“Elves are not well thought of in Sarasio at the moment,” Robin replied dryly.

“Here we go,” Toby muttered as a cluster of four stepped out of an alley ahead of them, pacing to the center of the street. Two more men crossed from the other side to join them, placing themselves in a staggered formation to bar the whole road. One stepped forward, his thumbs tucked into the front of his belt.

“Morning, gentlemen,” Toby said more loudly as their group came to a stop. “Something we can help you with?”

The man in the lead eyed him up and down once, then twisted his mouth contemptuously and spat to the side before addressing Robin. “Get on outta here, elfie. Your kind ain’t wanted.”

“I have a simple errand to run,” Robin replied calmly. “I’ll be on my way then.”

“You’ll be on your way now,” he snapped, then grinned unpleasantly and took another step forward. “’less you wanna make yourself useful, first. Only one use I can see for an elf bitch that don’t involve stringin’ them ears on a necklace.” He dragged his eyes slowly down Robin’s figure, smirking, while his companions grinned and snickered.

“Boy, it’s like they want to get smote,” Gabriel muttered. Indeed, Trissiny dropped her pack in the street and stalked forward, pushing past Toby, and stepped right up into the man’s face until her nose was inches from his. She was very nearly his height. He reared back slightly in surprise, but didn’t give ground or move his feet.

“Move,” she said simply, her voice deadly quiet.

“Yeah?” he drawled. “Or what? This ain’t no place for a Legionnaire, girl. Or didn’t your mama ever teach you not to bring a sword to a wandfight?”

Another round of guffaws followed this, instantly cut off as light erupted from Trissiny. The man in the lead threw a hand up to shield his eyes, staggering back; with his other, he yanked his wand from its holster, but not before Trissiny slammed her shield into his chest.

Reeling, he nonetheless managed to bring the wand up and fired a lightning bolt directly at her torso at point blank range.

Sparks flew from the sphere of golden energy that had formed around her; those standing closest felt their hair rise from the static electricity.

“What the f—” He got no further as Trissiny stepped calmly forward, reversed her grip on her sword and slammed the pommel into his solar plexus. The man crumpled to the street with a wheeze, and she stomped hard on his wand hand. He emitted a strangled sound that didn’t quite manage to be a scream, the breath having been driven from him. It wasn’t loud enough to cover the crack of breaking fingers.

Trissiny pointed her sword at his head, the blade burning gold. From the nimbus of light around her, golden eagle wings coalesced, flaring open in a display of Avei’s attention.

“Never point your wand at a paladin, fool,” she said coldly, then lifted her gaze to the nearest of his allies. “Does anyone else want to try me?”

They broke and ran, vanishing back into the alleys. All up and down the street, figures shifted backward, sliding into doors and alleyways or just folding themselves into shadowed corners. Within a minute, they had the street to themselves.

“That was overly dramatic,” Robin said, her neutral tone giving no indication what she thought of it. “You very likely just bought yourself another visit from this poor fool’s friends, when they think they have the advantage.”

“What will be, will be,” Trissiny said, removing her boot from the fallen man’s hand. He gasped, cradling his crushed fingers against his chest and scuttling backward away from him.

“We could offer him a healing,” Shaeine said.

“We could,” Trissiny said coldly, “but we won’t. Right?” She gave Toby a sharp look. He returned her gaze, then looked back at the man who had now scrambled to his feet and was fleeing to the nearest alley, leaving his wand lying in the street. Toby’s mouth drew into a thin line, his eyebrows lowering, but he only shook his head and said nothing. Trissiny felt a sharp pang, but dismissed it. She had her duty. The light faded from around her.

“Well,” Robin said with a shrug, “on we go, then.”

They made no further conversation until they reached their goal. Down a couple of side streets, they came to a fairly large building in somewhat better repair than most of Sarasio seemed to be. The wooden sign above its doors proclaimed it to be the Shady Lady in a curly font. Two large men wearing grim expressions flanked the doors, ostentatiously carrying wands. Unlike most of the town’s inhabitants, though, they were clean-shaven and well-dressed in neat suits. They looked over the group but made no move to challenge their approach.

“What’s this?” Juniper asked curiously. “What makes you think Tellwyrn is here?”

“There are exactly two places in Sarasio where a party of this size can find room and board,” Robin said. “The other is neither clean nor safe. The Shady Lady is not my kind of place, but it is, in a sense, an island in a sea of squalor. In we go.”

So saying, she hopped lightly up the steps and pushed through the swinging doors. The two guards watched her enter, then returned their stares to the students, but held their peace. One by one, the nine of them stepped inside.

True to Robin’s word, the interior of the Shady Lady was a sharp contrast to the rest of Sarasio. The wide-open main room soared two stories tall and was well-lit and spotlessly clean. The furnishings and décor were of good quality and showed understated good taste, running toward highly polished wood and fabrics in dark jewel tones, with subtle brass accents. It had clearly all been decorated with an eye to theme; everything matched. A spiral staircase led to a second-floor balcony; a grand piano sat in one corner, being played right now—the music wasn’t audible from the street, suggesting a sound-dampening enchantment on the building—and a heavy wooden bar lined one side of the room, behind which were a huge assortment of gleaming bottles. Most of the floor area was taken up by round tables encircled by chairs.

More startling, though, were the people present. There were three more burly guards in suits, as well as a man with a handlebar mustache behind the bar, presently polishing a glass mug; he looked up at them and smiled. A lean young man was playing the piano, his attention fully focused on the keys. Several of the tables were occupied by customers. Most of those present, though, were young women, and most were in nothing more than lingerie. Perched on the bar—and on the piano—seated with customers and laughing flirtatiously, leaning over the balcony rail, they had scattered themselves around the area like merchandise on a showroom floor.

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “…never mind.”

“No, go on,” Ruda insisted, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s on your mind, Gabe?”

“I said never mind. I’m following our advice, Ruda. The little voice is telling me I’m about to say something dumb.”

“Is it telling you to ask if we’re in a brothel?” she asked, her grin stretching till it looked almost painful. “’Cos if so, your timing sucks, as usual. You picked the one moment when you’d have been right to start keeping your mouth shut. Because we are, in fact, in a brothel.”

“How?” Teal demanded, then lowered her voice. “I mean… I know brothels exist, but how could somebody run one this big, and this…fancy?”

“Supply and demand,” Toby murmured. “Can you really see someone setting up a temple of Izara in this town?”

“Okay, that’s a point.”

“What’s a brothel?” Juniper asked curiously. Shaeine leaned in close and stood on her tiptoes to whisper in her ear. The dryad’s eyes widened. “You can sell that?!”

A hush descended on the room, all eyes shifting to the party at the door. Then the pianist resumed his piece, and others gradually went back to what they’d been doing.

Juniper, meanwhile, shook her head slowly. “Man, humans are bonkers.”

“When you’re right, you’re right,” Trissiny agreed.

“Um. Well, yes. When I’m right, I by definition am right. I’m not sure why that needs to be said.”

“It’s one of those figures of speech,” Fross told her.

“Oh.”

“Yoo hoo!” Professor Tellwyrn sang. She was seated at a large round table across the room with several other people, and now waved enthusiastically at them. “Over here, kids! Chop chop!”

They dutifully trooped over to join her, Robin falling to the rear as they crossed the room and arranged themselves in the empty space near her table.

Tellwyrn, uncharacteristically, seemed to have made friends. A teenage boy in an extremely well-tailored suit sat next to her. He looked a few years younger than the University students, certainly not old enough to be hanging out in a place like this. A deck of cards sat under his gently drumming fingers on the table; the huge piece of tigerseye set in his bolo tie flashed distractingly. He nodded politely to them at their approach.

On Tellwyrn’s other side, Trissiny was surprised to note, sat Heywood Paxton, the Imperial agent she had met and blessed several months ago on his way to Sarasio. He didn’t even look up, now, staring morosely at the center of the table, his mind clearly elsewhere. He had lost weight, and to judge by the bags under his eyes, sleep.

The fourth person present was seated with her back to them, but on their arrival she turned in her chair, draping her arm across the back to eye them over. She was a slim woman with a bronze complexion, with a long, sharp face that was subtly lovely though disqualified for true beauty by a slightly beakish nose. She wore a close-fitting red dress that showed a daring amount of cleavage, and had her black hair pinned up in an elaborate bun bedecked with scarlet feathers and rubies.

“Well, hello,” she purred. “So you’re Arachne’s students? What an absolute pleasure. You can call me Lily.”

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