Tag Archives: Sanjay

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“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”

She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.

“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”

“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”

“Quentin.”

“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”

“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”

“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”

“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”

“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”

“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.

“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”

“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”

“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”

She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”

He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.

Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”

It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.

“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”

Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.

“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”

“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”

“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”

“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”

“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”

“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”

“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”

“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”

“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”


“Unprotected?”

“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.

Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.

All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.

“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”

“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”

“How so?”

“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”

Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.

“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”

“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.

“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”

“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”

Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.

“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”

“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”

“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”

“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”

“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”

“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”

We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.

Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.

So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.

“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”

“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.

“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”

“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”

“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”

“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”

“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”

“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”

“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”

“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”

“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”

“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”

The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”

Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.

“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”

“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”

“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”

“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.

Ohh, yes. Chew on that.


“I’ll get it!”

“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”

“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.

“Sanjay! Door!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”

“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.

“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”

“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”

“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.

“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”

“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”

“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”

She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”

“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”

“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”

“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”

Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.

“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.

“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”

“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”

“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”

“Lakshmi—”

“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”

Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.

“Yes. I knew it.”

The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.

“You son of a bitch!”

“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”

“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”

She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”

“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”

“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”

“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”

She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.

“Get him the fuck out of my house.”

“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”

Danny sighed softly. “If I—”

“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”

He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.

Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”

“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.

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12 – 22

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“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Danny said cheerfully, rubbing a plate dry with a towel. “Almost fun, in a way!”

“Fun,” Sanjay repeated, shooting him a sidelong look.

Their houseguest grinned. “Satisfying, at least. You do the thing, and the thing is done—there’s an inherent substance to it. Or maybe I’m just glad it’s not turned out to be as onerous as Lakshmi suggested. She made it sound like I was being sent to a salt mine.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Shmi for you,” Sanjay said with a shrug, rinsing off a cup. “Always gotta mess with everybody’s head. And she wonders why she’s still single.”

“I can hear you,” Lakshmi shouted from the next room.

“Seems like an Eserite thing, doesn’t it?” Danny remarked, stacking the plate and reaching for the next one waiting in the strainer.

Sanjay snorted. “So, really? You’ve never washed dishes before?”

“Technically, I still haven’t. It’s my fond hope that, in my time with you, I’ll earn enough trust to work my way up from drying.”

“Yeah, but…never?”

“Not once,” Danny mused, eyes on his current plate. “I can’t recall ever actually cleaning anything in my life. Never cooked, either, or had to fix anything…”

Sanjay let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Must be pretty damn nice.”

“Watch your language!” his sister barked from the living room. Danny and Sanjay exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

“It’s been a charmed life, I must admit,” Danny continued, now working on the last plate, while Sanjay loaded the last cup into the strainer and began scrubbing the silverware. “It’s not that I’ve been bored… Actually, they keep me pretty busy. There are always decisions to be made, things to organize, people I have to coddle or bully or placate. Honestly, they keep me busy from dawn till dusk, most days.”

“You poor baby,” Sanjay said, completely without sympathy.

Danny grinned as he continued talking and working. “In terms of just…day to day tasks, like this? The things everybody has to do to take care of themselves? I’ve never had to learn. I didn’t test it, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, even if I’d tried. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to do… Anything. If I ever lose my position permanently, I’m going to be pretty well screwed.”

Sanjay snuck a glance up at the man; he was frowning pensively at the cups as he rubbed water from them with the dampening towel. Initially, he’d found little to respect in the well-groomed, sweet-smelling, uncalloused and unfairly handsome man who had been inexplicably in his home when he got back from school. Danny was personable and hard not to like, though. And now, incredibly, he began to seem actually sympathetic.

“Didja ever think about just…running away?”

“I did, actually!” Danny’s expression brightened, and he winked, lowering his voice. “When I was younger, my best friend and I used to sneak out all the time, to go drinking and chase girls. My mother came down on that pretty hard when she found out, so that was that. It’s a shame I was so young and dumb, then; I could’ve been teaching myself all sorts of useful things instead.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Sanjay said airily. “Sounds like you had your priorities in the right order!” Danny laughed obligingly.

Lakshmi’s face appeared around the doorframe, wearing a suspicious expression. “What are you two snickering about in here?”

“Nothing,” they chorused, turning innocent looks on her.

“Omnu’s balls, that’s disturbing,” she muttered, scowling at them before retreating.

“You hear that?” Sanjay complained. “And then she tells me to watch my language.”

“Well, half the fun of being older is being able to be hypocritical about stuff like that,” Danny said cheerfully. “Wait till you have kids of your own, and you can spend your time making them crazy. I’m told that’s the whole attraction.”

“About running away, though,” Sanjay said more thoughtfully as he deposited the last fork in the strainer and let the water out of the sink. “I meant, like…more permanently.”

Danny’s smile turned wistful. “You know what, I actually do think about it with some regularity. It’s a pretty stressful job, being responsible for people.”

“I bet having your a—” He broke off, darting a glance at the door to the living room. “…getting catered to hand and foot all the time helps.”

“It sure does,” Danny said frankly. “Not gonna lie, the perks are pretty da—pretty nice.” He, too, glanced at the door, then winked. “But they’re not what stops me. The truth is, I enjoy the work, even as tiring as it is. It’s satisfying. I get to make a difference and actually help a lot of people. And…when I mess up, a lot of people can suffer.” His expression faded to a frown and he paused in drying the silverware to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of them. “I sort of feel I blew my chance to walk away the first time I let a bunch of people down in a way that has real consequences for them. You can’t make something like that go away, you know? There’s nothing to do but keep going forward. With every success, I feel more motivated… With every failure, I feel more responsible.”

“Sounds grim,” Sanjay murmured.

“Well, standing here, right now, my recommendation is that if you ever have the option to step into a noble’s place, don’t. This seems much more…free.” He shrugged. “Truthfully, though, I probably know as little about your life as you do about mine. So my opinion there probably isn’t worth much.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree on that one,” Sanjay said with a grin. “The last part. If I ever get the chance to step into a noble’s place, I’m gonna be all over that.”

“Where do these fellows live?” Danny asked, patting the short stack of plates.

“Top cabinet, to your left, there.” He watched Danny put dishes away in silence for a moment. “How do you learn that? Do they have special schools for nobles?”

“Oh, yes,” Danny said. “Expensive ones.”

“Naturally.”

“Silverware?”

“In the drawer, right in front of you.”

“Thanks. And yeah, there are classes in things like economics… Mostly, though, the craft of ruling is taught a lot the way the Thieves’ Guild trains its apprentices. You learn it by being coached by someone who’s done it a lot longer.”

“Most of the Eserites I know think nobles are worse thieves than they are,” Sanjay said skeptically, folding his arms and leaning against the sink.

“Most of the nobles I’ve met think Eserites are basically boogeymen,” Danny said frankly. “My feeling is both are right. I’ve known aristocrats who I have to say are completely useless human beings, and a few—more than a few—who I’d call outright monsters. The thing is… You see that everywhere, I think. But nobles are supposed to be responsible for a lot. When a leader is useless or evil, it does a great deal more damage than when an average person is.”

“I guess that makes sense. I haven’t met any nobles—before you, I mean—but I’ve met some pretty useless idiots and ass— Jerks.” He shot a look at the doorway and rolled his eyes. “People I’d hate to see in charge of anything.”

“Yeah. The reverse is true, though.” Danny shut the silverware drawer and gave him a contemplative look. “You may not learn about it directly, considering where and how you’re growing up, but it seems like a disproportionate number of the Eserites I end up hearing about are some really vile individuals. Maybe—”

“OI.” A paperback book came sailing through the door and bounced off the wall a few feet from them. “So help me, if I catch you trying to turn my brother against our religion, I will glue your dick to your leg while you sleep, and Sweet can whine about it all he likes!”

“Yep,” Sanjay said quietly, grinning. “Still single.”

“Aw, now, a lot of gentlemen go for women with spirit!”

“Ew.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “That’s my sister. I don’t need to be thinking about that!”

“You’re probably right,” Danny said gravely. “It’s for the best.”

“Anyway, that’s not the same, though,” Sanjay said thoughtfully. “Nobles and thieves. Or nobles and anything else, really. You can apprentice to be a thief no matter who you are. Legacy families are actually pretty rare in the Guild; most Eserites come from other places, other cults, even. And, like, most crafts are that way. There are some family businesses, but I think most people come to their trade because they have talent for it, or just want to do it.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Danny acknowledged, turning to lean against the wall next to the sink and face him directly.

“Nobles, though, you have to be born noble.”

“Mm…not necessarily. That’s the most common way, sure. You can also marry into nobility, or be adopted.”

“Come on, how often does that happen?”

“Less often than it should,” Danny said ruminatively. “I think it would help keep the Houses fresh. You know, House Madouri has always made a point of marrying commoners, seeking out fresh blood. And they’ve been actual rulers of Tiraan Province for a thousand years, longer than almost any other House has even existed. I think there’s a lesson in that.”

“Does your House do that?”

“No, actually, my House is too young for that to have been a factor. And that’s the other thing. You always have to keep in mind that nobles got noble in the first place by accomplishing something, and then capitalizing on it. The gods didn’t select the Houses.” He smiled. “I’d have thought the Guild would make a point of mentioning that.”

“Well, I’m not old enough for proper Guild training yet, but yeah…I’ve heard that idea mentioned a time or two,” Sanjay admitted, grinning ruefully. “From Eserites and Punaji both. Shmi always says, the only reason she’s comfortable raising me outside Punaji culture is that Eserite culture is pretty much the same thing, with less fish.”

Danny laughed at that; Sanjay, emboldened, went on.

“So where’s your House from?”

“To the north of here,” Danny said vaguely.

Sanjay rolled his eyes dramatically. “Danny, Tiraas is on the southern coast. Everything is north of here.”

“Sanjay.” Lakshmi appeared in the door again. “That’s called an evasive answer, and you know it. Danny is in hiding, we’re being paid to help him, and we don’t ask questions about other people’s jobs.” She glanced back and forth between them and grimaced. “You know what, if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. And you,” she added, pointing balefully at her guest, “if you’re just gonna encourage him anyway, you can help him.”

“Sounds good!” Danny said gamely, even as Sanjay groaned. “More education! I shall be a wiser and stronger man when I go back home.” Lakshmi just snorted and disappeared back into the living room.

“Here,” Sanjay said with poor grace, tossing him a rag he’d just taken from the drawer. “The kitchen’s fine, just fix it up enough she doesn’t have an excuse to complain. Wipe down water off the sink and cabinet, see if you can find dust or something on the shelves. It’s not like we’re gonna be having tea with the Empress in here, anyway,” he added sullenly.

“You’d better hope not,” Danny agreed, already wiping off the edge of the sink. “I hear she’s pretty unforgiving.”

“Have you ever met her?”

“First rule of being powerful: try to stay away from people who are more powerful than you. They’ll cause you all kinds of headaches.”

“Hey, that sounds almost Eserite!” Sanjay glanced at him again, from his position standing on a chair, where he was halfheartedly flicking dust off the top of the cabinets. “So…who taught you? About ruling, I mean. You make it sound like your mother’s sort of strict.”

“Oh, that she was.”

“Was?”

“She’s been gone for a few years now.”

“Oh.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” Danny said, giving him a quick smile. “She wasn’t that bad, though. Yes, she’s the one I learned from, mostly. In a way… Have you ever noticed how you can love someone completely without ever liking them all that much?”

“Yes,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Yes, I have. I think that’s called family.”

“I know where you sleep, y’little brat!”

“And there she is now,” he added, smirking. “Yeah, that’s not just you. That’s everybody’s family.”

“Well, good, I feel a little better about it.” Danny’s smile quickly faded, and he slowed the motion of his hands until he was just leaning on the sink. “I miss her a lot, though. She was my mother and I loved her, but it isn’t just that. I believe I’ll always feel she was just better at this than I’ll ever be. It seems like at least once a day I’ll find myself baffled by something, and my first thought is always, ‘Mother would know what to do.’” The smile returned to his face, more wistful now. “And oddly enough, she still helps me, in that way. Thinking about what she would do always points me toward a solution. Of course, I don’t always do what she’d have done, but it’s a reliable starting point.”

“I didn’t get to know my mother,” Sanjay said quietly, staring at the remaining dust on the cabinet.

“I don’t think you’re right,” Danny said frankly. Sanjay turned to frown at him. “A mother’s a lot more than the person who gave birth to you, I think. You’ve got someone who loves you, provides for you, makes sure you’re getting an education and an upbringing. Someone who cares enough to be certain you go out into the world with the best preparation she knows how to give you. Sorry if I’m being presumptuous, Sanjay, but it seems to me you have as good a mother as anyone can.”

Sanjay coughed awkwardly, his cheeks coloring, and lowered his eyes. A moment later, they both turned, noticing Lakshmi standing silently in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the frame.

“You,” she said to Danny, “are dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Oh, well.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Maybe a little.”


One could usually tell day from night, provided the sky was clear; beyond that, the passage of time in the Twilight Forest was inscrutable. In darkness, the ambient light was pale and blue, while by day it held a golden orange tone, and in either case, a haze hung in the air which inhibited the view even more than the underbrush and the shadows of the massive trees. It never grew brighter or dimmer, though. Dawn was a sudden thing, and dusk such a perpetual state that its arrival was impossible to notice. Aside from the light, it looked very much like any old growth forest, with the occasional path winding around the roots of ancient sentinel trees, and here and there the odd ruin appearing suddenly amid the shadows. The sounds, though, were eerie at best. The noises of insects, birds, and small animals were there, but less than in most such woods, and often one could hear what might have been the distant sound of laughter, the rapid patter of tiny feet, occasionally a note in the wind that could have been the agonized wail of someone far away.

Aside from the odd tauhanwe passing through one of the coastal cities, there were no elves in Sifan, and not because they were made unwelcome, either by the kitsune or the Sifanese. Elves liked their forests natural, and the full force of Naiya’s wild magic kept at a respectful distance. The presence of the Twilight Forest could be felt for miles out to sea in all directions from the archipelago, to those sensitive to it. In truth, there were no fairies of any kind, here, save those whose being sprang from the auspices of the kitsune. There were few clerics on the islands, the cults organized in ways that were often strange to their brethren elsewhere in the world. There were, assuredly, absolutely no demons. Sifan was a land unlike any other, and the Twilight Forest in many ways as alien as Hell.

But at least it was pretty.

Tellwyrn hadn’t been to Sifan often, and not to the Forest in decades. As frustrating as the experience of wandering aimlessly through the woods was when she was in urgent need of results, it did provide the opportunity to appreciate its oddly lovely scenery, an opportunity she rarely had. For now, that was the best she could do. One did not rush things, here.

“Why, hello there.”

She was not surprised at being suddenly addressed by someone standing very close, whose presence she had not detected through any of her enhanced senses, elvish or magical. It was unwise to let the Twilight Forest take you by surprise. Truthfully, it as unwise to be in it at all; best not to add foolishness on top of risk.

“Good day,” she said politely, bowing to the short old man who had appeared at the base of a tree next to the path. Little taller than her waist, portly, bald, and smiling beatifically with a face so wrinkled she could barely make out his eyes, he was dressed in the robes of a monk and carrying a staff more than twice his height.

“I don’t think I have seen you here before, my dear. Are you lost?”

“In fact, I am,” Tellwyrn replied. “Can you tell me how I might find the kitsune?”

The old man hummed softly to himself. “Dear me, what an unusual quest. Most who enter this forest would prefer to avoid the kitsune.”

“And yet, here I am,” she said with a patient smile.

He hmm-hmmed again. “The humans have shrines outside the woods, devoted to the fox-goddesses. That is the safest way to seek them out.”

“Alas, my business compels me to hurry. I have no time for the safest way.”

“Ah, so?” The old man rubbed his double chin with his free hand in a show of thought. “Well, perhaps I can help you, indeed. If you will do a favor for a fellow traveler, I shall do one in return.”

“What is it you need?”

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he said bashfully. “I seem to have lost my knapsack up a bush. It is wedged quite securely; I cannot prod it loose with my staff, nor reach it with my fingers. You, though, are so tall and graceful! I’m sure you could retrieve it for me with ease.”

“Why, however did you manage to lose it?” Tellwyrn asked with a smile.

The little old man sighed. “A mischievous monkey took it from me, and tangled it among the branches just out of my reach. They are such annoying creatures, monkeys. But if you will kindly help me retrieve my knapsack, I shall be only too glad to help you find what you seek.”

“Very well, it’s a bargain,” Tellwyrn said politely. “Where is this bush?”

“It’s just this way!” the old man replied, beaming happily. “I am fortunate you came along so quickly; who knows what might have happened to it, had I been forced to go down the path to seek help! Just through here.”

He turned and led the way off the little trail, Tellwyrn following without complaint at the slow pace he set. She didn’t bother glancing back at the path. Odds were good it wouldn’t be there the next time she looked.

The old man was as good as his word, at least. Despite the almost nonexistent speed mandated by his tiny stride and the rheumatic shuffling of his feet, they emerged after only a few minutes into a small clearing, floored with verdant moss and the occasional fern. Directly opposite this was a bush with dark, spiny leaves, and hanging in the upper branches, just beyond the reach of the little old man’s arms, hung a battered leather satchel by its strap.

“There, you see?” he said, pointing. “Look, we are in good time, it hasn’t been further disturbed!”

“How fortunate,” she said.

“I will wait here and keep watch,” he said seriously, nodding and thumping the butt of his staff against the ground in emphasis. “Thank you for helping an old man, traveler. Please bring me my knapsack, and then we shall see about your request.”

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied, giving him a smile, then strode briskly across the clearing.

Behind her back, the old man’s beatific expression melted to one of shock.

She reached the bush, finding the strap draped over a thick branch, and not excessively entangled at all. It took hardly any effort to lift it clear; the spiky leaves caught on the leather, but not enough to impede her, and the sack itself was not heavy.

Holding the knapsack, she turned, evincing no surprise to find the little man gone.

Panting, he scampered back through the underbrush as fast as his paws could carry him, chancing a glance over his shoulder toward the clearing, which cost him dearly; he plowed directly into the shabby bulk of his own knapsack.

“Here you are!” Tellwyrn said brightly, again standing right in front of him. “I see you found time to change into something a little more comfortable.”

His robes were the same, but his body had become furred, wrinkled old face replaced by a sharp snout, clever little eyes, and a pattern of darker fur forming a black mask. He gaped up at her, then yelped and turned to flee again.

Tellwyrn seized the tanuki by the scruff of his neck before he made it another step, hiking him bodily off the ground like his knapsack.

“Now, then,” she said briskly, “that’s my part of the bargain fulfilled. Take me to the kitsune, please.”

He squealed in agitation, then twisted himself around with astonishing agility and sank his needle-sharp teeth into her wrist.

Blue arcane light blazed from the skin-hugging shield invisibly lining her arm; it was like biting into a firecracker. The tanuki hung, dazed by the blast, while Tellwyrn carried him back to the clearing.

“Now, this is where we were,” she said, “in case you were lost. Which direction shall we go?”

“I can’t!” he squealed, having recovered enough to squirm. “They don’t want to be bothered! They’ll kill me!”

“That,” she replied, “is a problem for the future. They aren’t here; I am. And believe me, my furry little friend, I have neither their playfulness nor their forgiving nature.”

“You don’t know what they’re like!” he wailed.

“Here’s what I know,” she stated flatly. “This conversation will end with you helping me to find what I seek. What I tell them at the end of that search will depend upon how the conversation goes. Am I going to have a story about how helpful and courteous you were?” Calmly, she tossed his knapsack to the ground in the center of the clearing, and the whole thing collapsed as if made of paper, the wafer-thin coating of moss disintegrating and dumping fern fronds and the unfortunate knapsack into the yawning pit concealed below. Tellwyrn stepped forward and dangled the squirming tanuki above the chasm. “Or, will they hear a very sad tale of a very stupid raccoon who smears their good name by breaking his oath to travelers in their forest?”

“Y-you don’t scare me, elf! N-not nearly as much as they do!”

She hefted him higher, enough that she could stare grimly into his eye from inches away.

“You don’t know me,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “You really, really don’t want to.”

A soft giggle sounded.

Slowly, Tellwyrn turned, lowering the tanuki but not relaxing her grip, and making no note at all of his redoubled but still useless attempts to wriggle free.

A young woman perched in the lower branches of the tree behind her, clad in a silk kimono white as snow, embroidered with patterns of blossoms in palest lavender. Her complexion was like bleached ivory, even her triangular ears and bushy tail a snowy white, though they were tipped in black.

“You’re such fun,” the kitsune tittered. “I do wish you would visit more often, Arakuni-chan!”

“If only I could find the time,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “How lovely to see you again, Emi. Can you tell me where I might find Kaisa?”

“Oh, no.” Emi hopped lightly from the branch, landing on a nearby fern which hadn’t enough structure to support a sparrow and balancing effortlessly on her toes. “No, I don’t think that would be any fun at all, do you? I can, however, show you where you might find Kaisa.”

“Oh, good,” the tanuki said shrilly, “I guess you don’t need m—”

“Noisy,” Emi commented, the levity abruptly vanishing from her face, and he broke off with a strangled croak. “I believe you owe this honored guest a favor, Maru. I know you value your word far too much to renege upon such an obligation. I’m sure, sooner or later, she will find some…use for you.”

Tears beaded up in his beady eyes; he whimpered, which the elf and kitsune both ignored. Emi turned a once again sunny smile upon Tellwyrn.

“This way, if you please!”

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The warning bells continued to toll, a pervasive backdrop to the tension that hung over the entire city like a taut net, tugging people rapidly toward their destinations and pinning them in place once they got there. Since early afternoon, the bells hadn’t let up. Banner-sized copies of the Emperor’s full proclamation were displayed at every major intersection and in front of all Imperial offices; people still clustered around them, though not as many as when they had first gone up. By this point, most people were just trying to get home ahead of sunset. The rhythm of marching feet sounded through multiple streets as the city’s garrisons were systematically emptied, soldiers streaming into the Rail stations.

Once again, as it did every fifteen minutes, the magically augmented voice of an Imperial herald boomed out from every scrolltower in the city. There wasn’t one located in this neighborhood, but with the windows open, they could hear perfectly well.

“The Emperor has declared a state of emergency. A hellgate has been opened at the frontier town of Last Rock in northern Calderaan Province. In response to this crisis, the entire Rail network has been commandeered to evacuate the town and move soldiers to the frontier. This hellgate is in no way a danger to the capital. Forces from across the Empire are being re-routed to face this threat; due to the city’s garrisons being dispatched, a curfew has been ordered for this city. Once again, Tiraas is under curfew as of sunset. All citizens must be in their homes or otherwise off the streets in two hours, seventeen minutes. Persons without homes may seek shelter in any office of the Universal Church, its member cults, or designated Imperial facilities. Once again, a curfew will be enforced at sunset. All citizens must be off the streets in two hours…sixteen minutes.”

Lakshmi sighed, stepping back from the window.

“Oh, just close it already,” Sanjay huffed. “We’ve heard it, we’re already inside, and I’m tired of that guy’s whining.”

“You button it,” she ordered. “Once dark falls, believe me, we’re gonna want this shut and everything locked and barred. Let’s have some fresh air while there’s still air to be had.”

“C’mon, what’s the big deal?” he asked, lounging on their threadbare sofa in the narrow living room of the garret apartment. Sanjay had appropriated an apple from the fruit bowl, but so far was just toying with it, not taking a bite. “The soldiers are leaving and they don’t want anybody on the streets, fine, whatever. Doesn’t mean everybody’s gonna sneak out after dark and start burning the place down. The whole city isn’t full of psychos.”

“Don’t underestimate what people will get up to when nobody’s watching,” she cautioned. “The average person’s stupidity and incompetence is the only thing holding their malicious intentions in check.”

He groaned dramatically, throwing his head backward over the arm of the sofa. “Uggghhhhh, don’t quote Guild crap at me, sis. I’ve heard it all. Honestly, who is gonna take the opportunity of the soldiers being gone? The Guild won’t, and there’s nobody else who does crime.”

“There’s nobody else,” she said patiently, “because the Guild breaks their elbows if they try. And if the Guild is also indoors…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows.

Sanjay scowled sullenly. “I still think you’re overreacting.”

Lakshmi turned back to look out the open window. “Maybe. I’ve heard rumors, though, in the Guild. Something big is going to happen tonight.”

“Big is vague.”

“Yeah, and I’m a professional listener, so if that’s all I’ve got, that’s all there is.” She shivered. “There’s some weird shit in this city, little brother. After that business with Sweet, I don’t think I wanna be near anything the Guild considers ‘big.’”

“Well, that’s a career-advancing attitude,” he snorted.

“Career, bah. I’ll make my own opportunities. If the Guild wants to futz around with Imperials and the Church and the Wreath and whatever else, they can do it without my help.”

Sanjay sat bolt upright, the apple rolling from his fingers, and leaned forward, staring at her avidly. “Wreath? The Black Wreath?”

Lakshmi grimaced. “No. I didn’t say that, and you didn’t hear it.”

“Aw, come on—”

A sharp knock at the door made them both freeze. They exchanged a wary glance, then turned in unison to face the front of the room.

“Who is it?” Lakshmi demanded.

“Just me, ma’am,” the muffled voice replied.

Grinning hugely, Sanjay was off the couch and skittering toward the door before she could reply. He made quick work of the knob lock, both deadbolts and the chain, yanking it open.

“Hey, kid,” said Joe, grinning.

“Hey, Kid!” Sanjay replied.

“Mind if I come in for a spell?”

“C’mon in! Want anything? Let me getcha an apple!”

“No, thanks, I can’t stay long,” Joe replied, stepping across the threshold and removing his hat. “Hi, Lakshmi. How’re you holding up?”

“I was just fine until a minute ago,” she said, planting her fists on her hips and putting on a stern expression. “What have I told you about calling me ‘ma’am?’”

“Sorry. Force of habit,” he replied, grinning unabashedly.

“What’re you doin’ out, Joe?” Sanjay demanded, failing to contain his excitement. Lakshmi indulged in a smile. Out of all the nonsense that had occurred that night, her ongoing friendship with Joseph Jenkins was one bright spot, not least because her little brother’s hero-worship for the Sarasio Kid meant he had at least one positive role model. “The whole city’s about to be shut down!”

“Yeah, well, as to that, I’m afraid I don’t get to rest indoors with everybody else,” Joe said, wincing. “I’ve been officially deputized for the duration.”

“Deputized?” Lakshmi raised her eyebrows. “To do what?”

“Can’t really discuss it,” he said ruefully. “I doubt you’d be happy to hear the details, anyhow. I don’t even know all the details.”

“You’re still working with Darling, aren’t you?” she said. “Not knowing the details seems to be par for the course.”

“I’m getting’ that impression, yeah,” he said. “Anyhow. Jay’s right, it’s not really the time for sociable jibber-jabber. You’ve been keeping up with your practice, right?”

“You mean, aside from your own weekly sessions at the range?” She folded her arms. “Bet your ass I have. I am not getting caught helpless again. Ever.”

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “All right, remember that little test I had you do with my wand last time?”

“Yeah, the enchanter test? I don’t see what difference it makes, Joe. Spark or no spark, I’m not about to become a wizard. I have a job. I actually like it, when it doesn’t involve me being snared into chasing—” She broke off, looking at Sanjay, who gazed back with an expression of wide-eyed innocence that would absolutely terrify anyone who had ever raised a twelve-year-old.

“Yes?” he prompted. “Go on. You were chasing…?”

“Well, no one’s sayin’ you need to become a sorceress,” Joe said quickly. “It’s just like any other talent. Not everybody who has the capacity to do arcane magic ever does anything with it. But in your case, it means you can handle a better class of armament than that cheap spark-spitter you picked up at a sleazy pawn shop.”

“I take offense at that,” Lakshmi said haughtily. “What makes you think it was a sleazy pawn shop?”

“Is there such a thing as a non-sleazy pawn shop?” he asked curiously. Sanjay snorted a laugh.

“Okay, I may have to give you that one,” she said grudgingly after a moment.

“Well, point being, I brought you a gift.” Joe reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a long, glossy wand with a thick handle.

“I don’t need charity,” Lakshmi said sharply.

“I am well aware of that, Shmi,” he replied, unperturbed. “That’s what makes it a nice gesture. Here.”

She held his stare for a moment, then with a reluctant sigh, reached out to accept the weapon. “Yeah, well, I guess… Thanks, Joe.”

“It’s my pleasure. Be sure to bring it to our next session at the range, and I’ll help you get a feel for it. It’s a lot different than firing a wand with a clicker.”

“That’s great!” Sanjay beamed. “Shmi gets an upgrade, so I can have the cheap old one to practice with!”

“No,” they said simultaneously.

“Aw, come onnnnnn,” he whined. “You were shootin’ outlaws at a younger age than me!”

“That is not a good thing,” Joe said firmly. “Anyhow, it ain’t my business, Jay. It’s for the lady raisin’ you to decide when you’re old enough for a weapon.”

“Okay, well, hypothetically,” Sanjay wheedled, “as a matter of general principle, you agree I’m old enough to own a wand?”

Joe glanced at Lakshmi, who was giving him a very even look.

“Hypothetically,” he mused, “as a matter of general principle…”

“Yessss?” Sanjay practically vibrated with eagerness.

“…it’s for the lady raisin’ you to decide when—”

“Omnu’s balls!” Sanjay exclaimed, throwing up his arms and collapsing back on the couch in a huff.

“You watch your language,” Joe said sternly. Outside the window, another repetition of the herald’s warning began to undercut the constant tolling of the alarm bells. “And you should be grateful you’ve got somebody who cares to look after you, kid. I was shootin’ outlaws at your age because I lived in an unspeakable hellhole, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody. No one should have to grow up in a place like that. Your sister deserves some respect, at least—”

“Hsst!” Lakshmi said suddenly, making a slashing motion with her hand, and crossed to the window. “Listen! It’s changed.”

“…hours until the sunset curfew,” the herald was announcing. “Due to the departure of troops from the city, personnel from the cults of Avei, Shaath and Eserion will be patrolling the streets, enforcing curfew.” For the first time, he hesitated in his recitation before continuing. “It is vitally important that no citizen be out on the streets after dark.”

“Something big,” Lakshmi whispered.

“Yeah,” said Joe with a heavy sigh, replacing his hat. “It’s gonna be a long night.”


“Ten minutes,” Trissiny muttered, pacing back and forth down the dividing line in their tower bedroom. Or rather, just to her side of it, so that her boots clicked satisfyingly on the stone floor. Attempting to walk on the line itself would have been awkward; Ruda’s rugs were piled deeply enough to make the surface notably lopsided.

“It’ll be fine,” Ruda said with a sigh, sitting at the window. “Gabe and Fross know their jobs, and so does Juniper.”

“If I could just help,” Trissiny said, reaching the door and turning around for another lap.

Ruda looked up from her perusal of the town below. They had an incredible view, which was actually rather useful for this evening’s planned events. “You know what your problem is, Boots?”

Trissiny came to an abrupt halt and gave her a long, sardonic look. “If I asked very nicely, would you tell me?”

“You don’t have enough faith in your crew,” Ruda obliged, grinning. “C’mon, our friends know what they’re doing, and they’re not the same collection of numbnuts and airheads we started the year with. It will be fine. And if it’s not, Tellwyrn will be here to collect us, so it’s not as if anybody’ll die. I’m sure even Avei will understand if you get collared by the great Arachne Pigheaded Walking Magicpocalypse Fucking Tellwyrn.”

“She needs to get that printed up on business cards,” Trissny snorted, resuming her pacing. Ruda laughed.

The paladin made three more laps before stopping again. “I still don’t feel right about involving you all in this…”

“Tough shit,” Ruda said, looking out the window again.

“But…and it sounds horrible even to say this…the others just aren’t as important as you. Teal probably isn’t in much danger from anything that comes out of a hellgate, and even so…her family are just industrialists. Toby and I are supposed to be putting our lives at risk against demons. Even Shaeine is the third daughter, so her House won’t be in jeopardy if she dies. But you’re the only heir the Punaji have.”

“Not how it works,” Ruda said quietly, not turning from the window. “I’m no relation at all to most of those who’ve worn the name Punaji. The surname is attached to whatever family holds the crown, which changes. My people won’t tolerate weak, incompetent, corrupt or selfish leaders. You hold onto the people’s respect or your ass gets kicked out and someone more worthy takes your place. We have succession crises more often than other countries, sure, but on the other hand our royalty isn’t so goddamn inbred they need six servants to use the shitter.”

“Well…I guess that’s something,” Trissiny said, turning to resume her path.

“I’m not going to seek out death,” Ruda said even more quietly. “That’s a coward’s way out. And I’d hate to make my parents grieve. But… If I’m not there to watch what’s going to happen to my people, I think I’ll be happier.”

Trissiny stopped again, turning to stare at her. “What’s… Why? What’s going to happen?”

Ruda turned her face from the window to stare at the floor in front of her. She was silent for so long that Trissiny had just decided she had nothing to say when she finally spoke.

“When I was thirteen, my papa took me out on my first actual raid. We overtook a merchant ship. Big, fat thing flying Lantonese colors. Big fat captain, too. When we boarded and had men looking over the inventory… I swear, that fucker acted like he was being inconvenienced by a valet taking too long to park his fucking carriage. Sneering and making condescending remarks to the goddamn Pirate King himself about how long this was taking and his fucking schedule.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very smart thing to do,” Trissiny said, wide-eyed.

Ruda snorted. “Hell, no, we tied a line to his ankles and hung him head-first over the side until we were done. Told his crew not to haul him back aboard till we were over the horizon. Dunno if they did or not…” She sighed heavily. “I’m not supposed to know this, but my father had to make a formal apology to the king of Lanton. With financial remuneration for the insult.”

Trissiny held her peace, unsure what to say. Ruda’s face was gradually falling into a bitter scowl.

“We patrol the sea, you understand,” she went on at last. “The days of slitting throats and burning ships are long since over. Actually, the Punaji never did that, which is why we’re still around when more brutal pirates have been stamped out. The Punaji stand for something. We were slaves, once, centuries ago, and when we overthrew our rulers and claimed Puna Dara for our own, we established a culture of freedom. Punaji raiders have toppled tyrants, wiped out slavers, rescued hostages… And we never take all of a ship’s wealth. Just some supplies to tide us over and a tithe of their cargo. And so, they tolerate us.

“You remember our very first class with Tellwyrn, when she made us do that idiot fucking get-to-know-you exercise? A ‘maritime vassal state,’ that’s what she called us. And it’s true. The Tiraan Empire swallowed up what’s now Upper Stalvar Province, right next to Puna Dara, and Queen Ramanshi saw which way the wind was blowing. Signed the treaty with Tiraas, ensured our independence…at the cost of just a little of our freedom. And the rest has just been chipped away, bit by bit. In a world of modern navies, of treaties and laws and tariffs and…” She paused, sighing heavily. “There’s just no room for pirates in the modern world. We’ve become one big band of ruthless, marauding tax collectors. Pay the Punaji so they’ll keep aiding ships in distress and not preying excessively on your commerce. Just a cost of doing business. If they overstep, you can always complain to the Silver Throne and have Tiraas lean on Puna Dara. Works every fucking time.”

“Is that…so terrible?” Trissiny asked gently. “All nations are having to make an accommodation with reality. All faiths are. Everyone. The world’s changing for us all.”

Ruda finally looked up at her, and rather than angry as Trissiny had expected, she looked haunted. “You know what happens in this century if you rescue hostages being held for political gain? That’s an act of war, interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Kill off slavers? Same fucking thing. Rescuing slaves is grand fucking theft. Theft! Of living people!” She slammed a fist ineffectually against the windowsill; to Trissiny’s astonishment, tears were glistening at the corners of her eyes. “If some asshole is living like an emperor while his people starve, well, that’s pretty much just fucking that, because if you attempt to raid his palace and do something about it, you get chewed to shreds by mag artillery emplacements, and even if it works, assholes always have allies now. Then you’re dealing with naval blockades and trade embargoes and your own people starve because you tried to stop some other people from doing the same. A world of rules only helps the people who make the fucking rules, Trissiny!”

“I don’t—”

“It’s all coming to a head,” Ruda barreled on, turning away again and scrubbing at her eyes with the back of a hand. “Within another generation, the Punaji will just be another bunch of folk, scraping by however they can. Our days as a people who mean something are over. And the one thing I pray for is that it holds off long enough that my papa doesn’t have to see the end.” She sighed deeply, closing her eyes. “I will. I’ve given it plenty of thought. The Empire’s friendly enough now, but the situation won’t last forever. It’s an era of social change and the Throne is focused inward, but eventually Tiraas will stabilize and start looking to expand again. That’s what empires do. I won’t repeat Ramanshi’s mistake and wait for history to force our hand.” She slumped her shoulders, looking more utterly defeated than Trissiny had ever seen her. “Kingdoms that voluntarily joined the Empire have gone on to be its most prosperous provinces. Onkawa, Calderaas… Compare them with Vrandis or the Stalweiss. No, I’ll make the first overture. Kill off everything my people once stood for, so the people themselves have a chance to survive.” She laughed, bitterly, hollowly. “I wonder what they’ll call me. Zaruda the Weak? The Betrayer?”

Trissiny stepped away from her to grab the other desk chair, dragged it over next to the window and sat down beside her.

“It won’t happen that way,” she said calmly.

Ruda looked up, scowling. “Oh, what the fuck would you know about it?”

“Not a thing,” she said frankly. “There’s a lot of history and politics here that’s completely over my head. I’ll tell you what I do know, though, and that’s you. You’re pretty much the smartest person I know, Ruda.”

“Pfft, grades are just—”

“Yes, I happen to agree, but I’m not talking about you being at the head of the class. You’re clever. You think fast, you can make complicated plans, you’re incredibly good at reading people, and most of all, I’ve only started realizing all this recently. That’s how good an act you put on. So, no, I don’t know the full situation in Puna Dara, but you are too intelligent and too cunning to be snared like that. You remember that thing in the Crawl that made us face fears?”

“Oh, that?” Ruda snorted. “No, that completely slipped my mind.”

“Well, I sort of understand your problem with accountants a little better,” Trissiny said with a smile, “but that’s not the point I’m making. The point the Crawl was trying to make, I think. If you hold onto a fear long enough, it starts to look like the biggest thing in the world. Like something you could never possibly contend with… But if you get out of your own head and look at the truth of the situation, there’s always something. Just listening to you, I can tell this has been weighing on you your whole life. No offense, Ruda, but I think you’ve lost perspective on it.

“And I’ll tell you what else,” she added. “You’re not going to have to deal with it alone.”

“What, you’re offering to help?” Ruda said skeptically.

“Yes, I am!” Trissiny nodded firmly. “I mean…think about what you’ve got here, what you’ve gained from this University. I’m still not convinced Tellwyrn’s ideas about education are doing any of us any good, but if nothing else, you’ve got relationships, and some of those are very powerful. Just politically, you have strong ties with two major religions, the diplomatic House of Tar’naris and Falconer Industries. Juniper is a pretty significant thing even without her connection to Naiya, and Fross is all kinds of talented.”

“Don’t forget Arquin,” Ruda said, cracking a smile. “Every court needs a jester.”

Trissiny laughed. “Look, you get the point I’m making, right?”

“Yeah,” Ruda swallowed and scrubbed at her eyes again. “Yeah, I… I mean, I still don’t think you grasp the extent of the situation…”

“There’s time to learn,” Trissiny said firmly. “I do not intend for any of us to die here. The gods ordered us to stay for a reason, and as you were pointing out, we are a formidable group. We’ll live past this, and past whatever else our University years throw at us. We have a purpose in the world, all of us. And we’ll all be connected to each other, one way or another.”

She laid a hand on Ruda’s shoulder and gently squeezed.

“It will be all right.”

Ruda actually laughed softly, reaching up to squeeze Trissiny’s gauntleted fingers. “You’ve been picking up new skills, too, Boots. I’d never have guessed you’d get good at comforting people. The Trissiny I barged in on the first day would’ve been shit at that.”

“Oh, I really wish I could argue with you,” Trissiny said ruefully, prompting another laugh.

“All right, well.” Ruda stood up, pushing back her chair, and straightened her coat. “That’s years in the future. We’ve got the small matter of a hellgate full of demons to deal with tonight. It’s about time, too.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, also rising. “Fross should be here any minute to report in, if it’s all gone according to plan.”

“Heh, wouldn’t that be nice, for once?”

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5 – 19

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“It’s amazing how you find time to walk me all over the place while you’re supposedly out earning us a living,” Sanjay griped.

“It’s amazing how you tend not to turn up at school if I don’t physically take you there,” Lakshmi shot back. “It’s not as if I have nothing better to do, you know.”

“How about we compromise and I stop going to the stupid school?” he suggested helpfully.

She heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Little brother, we have had this conversation so many times we could both recite it, so can we just not, please? Look, I know you find it boring…”

“And yet,” he prompted.

She gave him a critical sidelong look. “Your plan is still to apprentice with the Guild?”

“Yes!” Sanjay skipped a step and actually hopped up and down in place, looking up at her with shining eyes.

“Well, you know I can’t sponsor you myself, but I’m making good connections in the city. It shouldn’t be hard to get someone to—”

“Oh, gods, yes!” he crowed. “Finally! Where do I sign?!”

“Easy, squirt,” Lakshmi said, amused. “You’re not old enough.”

Sanjay deflated abruptly, his expression quickly morphing from disappointment to ire. “…you are a tease. Did you know that? This is why you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Maybe I’m into girls, ever think about that?”

“Oh, ew!” He planted both hands over his ears. “I don’t need to hear these things! I’m a child, damn it!”

“Exactly.” She swatted one hand away from his head and nudged him forward, resuming their walk. “Too young to apprentice. But, perhaps we can reach a compromise, yeah?”

“I’m listening,” he said cautiously.

“You go to the school—without making me drag you there like a sack of flour every day. You pass your classes every year, and don’t create more trouble than you can weasel your own way out of without me having to go smooth it over. Then, when you’re fifteen, I promise I will make sure someone sponsors you for Guild membership.”

“When I’m fifteen?” he whined, a portrait of despair. “That’s three years. That’s an age and a half! I’ll be as old and wrinkly as you by that time. Can’t you just tell them I’m fifteen? I’m huge for my age, look.”

He raised one arm, flexing a scrawny bicep, which would have been a meaningless display even had the arm not been swaddled in a heavy winter coat. Instead of responding, however, she mutely placed one hand on his shoulder. Sanjay looked up at his sister, confused, then fell silent at her expression. Only then did he peer around them and see what was wrong.

They had settled in one of the poor border districts, not far from Lor’naris. Sanjay didn’t know the extent of the money they had access to thanks to Principia, and Lakshmi strictly kept it that way. Anyhow, the slums were a more appropriate residence for Eserites than a posh middle-class neighborhood, for reasons ethical, spiritual and practical. Once she formed enough connections that it became known who she was, they had nothing to fear from their neighbors. Everyone knew better than to get rough with any member of the Thieves’ Guild.

The public school Sanjay attended was, of course, in a more well-heeled area, several blocks up the hill toward the city’s center. They were passing through one of the intermediary districts, a mercantile street whose occupants were exceptionally shady and extremely practiced at minding their own business. The business in question was by nature quieter than in streets occupied by more legitimate tradesmen, with no hawking of wares and little attempt to attract attention in general, but it was still business; it still made noise.

The street had gone all but silent.

Shopkeepers were deliberately turning their backs to the street, pretending to rummage in the shelves of their stands or vanishing into the depths of their own shops. Pedestrians expeditiously removed themselves from the area; loiterers slunk away into the deeper shadows of alleys.

It was alarming, because a city was like the woods in that vermin fell silent in the presence of their natural predators. It was doubly alarming because they tended to offer solidarity, even if just in glances and little hand signals, to their fellow vermin, but everyone was studiously ignoring Lakshmi and Sanjay, just as they were the two men following them.

Lakshmi half-turned her head to casually glance behind. Those men did not belong. They walked along with their gazes fixed on herself and her brother; their clothes were unremarkable, but they strode with the stiff purpose of soldiers who had never learned to disguise themselves in public. Worse, a third man was up ahead. He leaned against a store front, arms folded and head down, seeming to ignore everything around him, but he was still there, when all the toughs who frequented the neighborhood had judiciously made themselves scarce. In moments, they would reach him, and find themselves pinned between him and those following.

“Shmi?” Sanjay said, a quaver in his voice.

She calculated quickly, keeping her pace even and taking her little brother’s hand. They could cross the street easily enough, but at the first sign they were aware of the trap, their pursuers would drop pretenses and be after them at full speed. Lakshmi did a rapid visual survey of the surroundings. There… A food cart just ahead stood just below a drainpipe that led to an overhanging sloped roof, itself an access to an exterior staircase in the next building over.

“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, keeping her expression neutral. “When I give the signal, you run—”

“I’m not leaving you,” he said fiercely.

“You will do as you are told.” She did not raise her voice, but spoke with a full authority that she never used with him. It had the desired effect; he nodded miserably. “Don’t go home. Head for Lor’naris, go right to the inn where the paladin’s staying. If you find anyone from the Guild you know, or they spot you first, get their help; if not, get Trissiny or any of the people traveling with her, bring them back here. I’ll stall these guys long as I can. Love you, little brother.”

They drew abreast of the cart, and time was up.

Lakshmi seized Sanjay under the arms and grunted, heaving him up; she didn’t have to bear his weight long, luckily. Once he got a grip on the wooden frame of the cart, he was up it and onto the roof in a flash, climbing as deftly as a squirrel.

At their sudden motion, the man ahead straightened, turning to face them, and the two behind broke into a run.

Sanjay was already darting away, quickly gaining the rooftops and putting himself out of their reach. Lakshmi, the sounds of pursuit slapping behind her, bolted across the street, moving her legs as fast as they could pump.

She didn’t waste time with prayers. The Big Guy helped those who helped themselves.


 

The Corner Garden wasn’t much of a garden, but then, the only things in Lor’naris that remotely qualified as gardens were the window boxes in which a few residents grew flowers and herbs—and at this time of year, even those were barren. It was a fairly pleasant little spot, though, originally a very tiny warehouse space sandwiched between two sturdy limestone buildings which, after having burned down, had been cleaned up by the residents and nothing rebuild there except a couple of benches lining its walls. With a worn gravel floor and provided seating, it made for a popular gathering spot in a district that didn’t have much open space.

Now, it was filled with grunts, the crunch of boots on gravel and a constant clacking of wood against wood as Trissiny and Ruda danced back and forth, sparring with practice “swords” made of bundled reeds capped with rubber balls. Several of the residents had stopped to watch, some (none drow) offering cheers and good-natured advice. Both girls ignored the onlookers, tightly focused on their duel.

They were closely matched, comparable in skill and the differences in their styles compensating each other to an extent. Trissiny was taller and had longer limbs, and thus the advantage of reach, but didn’t make as much use of it as Ruda, who darted forward aggressively and retreated just as quickly. Her rapid footwork and swift-striking style made her more mobile, but also consumed more energy; the previous two bouts had both ended in Trissiny’s favor after dragging out for long minutes, the paladin letting the pirate tire herself out until she made a mistake. This one was looking likely to trend in the same direction.

Trissiny did have a tendency to guard weakly on her left, perhaps due to habitual reliance on her shield, and had several times barely managed to parry rapid strikes at that side. Now, Ruda darted forward again, lunging at a brief faltering of her guard, just a hair slower than she had been moving.

However, when Trissiny swung her weapon to intercept, Ruda’s sword was not there. Suddenly moving at her usual snake-like speed again, she whipped the blade around Trissiny’s parry, under her sword arm and clapped her smartly across the ribs on the right side.

The paladin staggered back, hunching over to clutch at her midsection, and a chorus of “Ooos” sounded from the onlookers, followed by a smattering of applause. Ruda halted as well, grounding the tip of her practice sword and breathing heavily.

Trissiny raised her head, wearing a grin beneath the coating of sweat on her face. “Nice!”

“You walked right into that one,” Ruda replied smugly, somewhat out of breath.

“Yes, good strategy. In an actual fight you’ll only be dead twice before finishing off your opponent.”

“You wanna go for real, Boots?”

“Hah! Best three out of five?”

Ruda laughed, casually tossing aside her practice sword. “I’ll pencil you in. Seriously, though, I’m calling it for now. One of us is gonna fall over at this rate, and you know how it is. We wouldn’t both bounce as well.” Leering, she patted herself on the chest.

Trissiny rolled her eyes, not rising to the bait, but set aside her own weapon more gently, taking a seat on one of the benches. The crowd, slightly disappointed, began to drift away as Ruda flopped down beside her roommate and drew a bottle of whiskey from within her coat.”

“Want a swig?” she offered. “Just the thing to ward off the cold.”

“I don’t drink, as you know. I’m also not exempt from Tellwyrn’s rule against drinking; that’s just you. And how does it warm you if alcohol doesn’t affect you?”

“Trissiny, my poor, sweet child, a person who drinks as much as I do inevitably has all kinds of reasons why they’re perfectly justified and entitled to. Everyone of of them, without exception, are bullshit.” Grinning, she tilted her head back, taking a long gulp.

“An impressive show of skill,” said a tall man in an Army uniform, stepping forward. Both girls looked up at his approach, their expressions sobering immediately. Most of the residents had departed, but Avrith and a male drow whom Trissiny didn’t recognize were loitering casually by the entrance to the Garden.

She flicked her eyes to his insignia and back to his face. “Thank you, Colonel. Something we can help you with?”

He bowed—respectfully, but notably not the salute owed a superior officer, a subtle reminder that whatever honorary rank Trissiny held, she was not part of his chain of command. She was unsure what the actual protocol in this situation was, and made a mental note to find out. “Andrel Covrin, at your service. Actually, I’d hoped to speak for a moment with Princess Zaruda. I owe you an apology.”

“Do you, now?” Ruda asked, wiping sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. “I don’t recall us having met. What’d you do that needs to be apologized for?”

“It is a family matter, I’m afraid,” Colonel Covrin said, his expression grim. “At General Panissar’s party, I understand you had a regrettable encounter with my daughter, Jenell.”

“Jenell?” She blinked, tilting her head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”

He sighed, squaring his shoulders as if facing down an enemy. “You may perhaps recall a young woman in a spectacularly immodest dress who approached you with a barrage of unprovoked ad completely inexcusable insults.”

“Well, that describes most of the bitches there, as I recall,” Ruda said lazily, “but yeah, now that you mention it, it’s all coming back to me.”

Covrin nodded stiffly. “Her treatment of you was unconscionable. I assure you, she is being disciplined. You have my heartfelt apologies for any embarrassment suffered.”

Ruda waved a hand dismissively, bending to pick up her sheathed rapier. “Well, you didn’t do any of that. Doesn’t seem you’re the one who ought to be apologizing.”

“Call it a matter of family honor,” he replied, a sour twist to his mouth.

“Ah.” Ruda nodded. “In that case, apology accepted. Seriously, no harm was done to me. I haven’t given her another thought, starting the second she walked away.”

“I appreciate that,” he said, nodding again. A somewhat tense silence fell, the Colonel standing stiffly at attention, seeming at a loss for words.

“Anything else?” Ruda prompted.

“There is, in fact,” he said. “I realize I am in no position at all to ask you favors, but there was another matter I’d hoped to broach with you.”

“Go on,” she said when he fell silent. Trissiny discreetly moved off to one side, picking up her own sword and shield and carefully settling them back into place on her person.

“There is an ancient tradition, practiced among the noble houses, of fostering,” said Covrin. “Young people are given education in the homes of allied and even rival families, to expand their understanding and give them perspective into the broader world. I… My wife and I come from humble roots. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a soldier, but Amelie has grown…very comfortable with the lifestyle afforded by my rank. As she has had the bulk of Jenell’s raising while I attended to my duties to the Empire, I fear my daughter has grown up somewhat…spoiled.”

“I’d never have guessed,” Ruda said solemnly. To the side, just out of Covrin’s range of view, Trissiny bit her lip to repress a grin.

The Colonel sighed, not missing the sarcasm. “Yes, well… Placing the blame on Amelie is disingenuous. I should have put a stop to this long since, but… No, no buts, I take responsibility. In any case, following the party, my wife has quite sharply relented in her protective attitude toward our daughter. I’m embarrassed to say she is more concerned about this ‘pregnancy scare’ than the fact that our only child chose to harass and insult visiting royalty for no discernible reason.”

“Well, you can’t fault the girl’s pluck,” Ruda said cheerfully.

Covrin sighed again. “I suppose. Anyhow, the result is still the same. I have an opportunity to inject a little much-needed discipline into Jenell’s life, and it seems both practical and poetic to…if you are at all willing…send her to Puna Dara to learn something of the ways of our closest allies.”

Ruda was already shaking her head before he finished speaking. “Colonel, I like where your head’s at, I encourage your line of thinking, but that particular idea is a terrible one. Your kid would get killed among Punaji.”

“I realize her attitude could do with some shaping. If anything, your people’s reputation for forthright—”

“I don’t think you understand,” she said wryly. “That wasn’t hyperbole. If I talked to my servants the way that girl does to her betters, one of them would draw steel on me, and my father would say I had it coming. In all literal seriousness, Colonel, if you send your daughter to Puna Dara, somebody will straight up slit her throat.”

“Ah,” he said after a moment. “Well. I suppose that’s to be avoided, then. Might upset her mother.”

“Mothers are funny like that,” Ruda said gravely. “However, if you’re serious about this, perhaps we can help you after all. I have it on excellent authority that there’s no better way for a girl to learn some discipline than a good long period spent training with the Sisters of Avei.” She turned a broad grin on Trissiny, who grinned back. “And what do you know, I just happen to have an acquaintance who can probably get her a spot.”

“Oh?” Clearing his throat, Covrin turned to the paladin as well. “If you are so inclined, General Avelea…”

“How old is your daughter, Colonel?” Trissiny asked.

“Seventeen.”

“Mm… That’s just barely too old for a slot at the Abbey barracks. However… The Third Silver Legion is presently stationed in the city, and has a regiment of cadets currently in training. The Legions don’t sign on women under duress or for any kind of punitive duty… But if you would like Jenell to go through the full course of cadet training without the expectation of Legion service thereafter, I could probably pull strings and make that happen. Who knows, she might find she actually wants to serve after all that. Basic training changes a person, as I’m sure you know.”

“I don’t think it likely, with all respect,” he said, “or I’d simply make her join the Army. But if you’re willing to do this, General, I would consider myself in your debt.”

Before she could answer, there came a rapidly approaching patter of small feet moving fast; Avrith and her companion had both turned to look up the street. A boy of about twelve with a dark Punaji complexion came pelting down the sidewalk past them. Catching sight of Trissiny, he tried to stop, skidded on a patch of ice and would have taken a tumble if the drow man hadn’t caught him.

“Trissiny,” he gasped, fighting loose. “Paladin…please…help…”

“What is it?” she demanded, striding forward. “Are you all right?”

“My sister,” he said desperately. “Lak—Peepers! You know her! They’re after her!”

“Who is?” she asked sharply.

“Fuck that, we’ll sort it out later,” Ruda snapped. “Where?”

“This way!” Breathless or no, the boy turned and set off back the way he had come at the same frantic pace, pausing only to beckon them urgently forward.

Trissiny and Ruda dashed out of the Corner Garden right on his heels, racing for the mouth of Lor’naris.

Above them, two dark shapes detached themselves from the eaves of a flanking building and kept pace, bounding across the rooftops.


 

“It was here!” he said frantically, coming to a stop in the middle of the street and trying to look around even while doubled over in near exhaustion. “Right…here…”

“Oy, you!” Ruda bellowed, stalking toward a woman who was trying to duck behind the counter of her stall. “Yeah, you know what we’re lookin’ for. Where is she?”

Fauna landed in the middle of the sidewalk with a barely perceptible thump. “This way!” she barked, pointing up the street. “Second alley ahead, we can hear them.”

Sanjay took two steps in her direction and staggered, winded; Trissiny and Ruda set off on the elf’s heels, not bothering to react to her sudden appearance. Fauna bounded as swiftly as a deer, and reached the alley first, whipping around the corner with near-impossible agility. Instantly, she dived back out, hitting the ground in a roll, and a lighting bolt blasted through the air above her.

Trissiny hopped over the huddling elf, a golden shield flaring up around her as she charged into the alley. Another wandshot sparked against her aura; she barely noticed it.

Ahead of her, three men stood around a woman huddled on the dirty floor of the alley. One was pointing a wand at her; of the other two, one held a ragged plank as a makeshift club, and the other was in the process of kicking the woman in the midsection. She was curled into a fetal ball, arms over her head, but in the glow of Trissiny’s divine light, she could unmistakeably see blood. On the floor, on their boots, on the club.

White-hot rage burst to life in her, and she was moving forward again before deciding to. Even in her fury, years of training clicked into place; she charged silently, sword and shield coming up in perfect form. At her side, Ruda clearly experienced the same reaction and handled it very differently, letting loose a wordless roar. Side by side, they pelted straight at the knot of attackers. Two more lightning bolts impacted uselessly on the shield before they arrived.

Trissiny slammed the man to one side with her shield and Ruda drove her rapier straight through his stomach, viciously ripping it out sideways and splattering the alley wall with blood and viscera.

The man with the board let out a furious howl and charged her senselessly; his makeshift weapon shattered against her upraised shield and she smashed her fist, braced around the hilt of her sword, into his teeth, sending him rebounding off the wall and slumping to the ground, stunned.

Only then did she realize her mistake. The third man, standing farthest back, now had a clear shot at the un-shielded Ruda. The pirate was lunging at him, sword first, but he had a wand out; there was no way she could reach him before he squeezed the clicker. Trissiny had over-committed to her lunge, and couldn’t change her momentum in order to get back between them in time. She didn’t have Shaeine’s skill with shields, couldn’t place a barrier of light in front of her friend.

Time slowed in that instant, and she tasted true helplessness, the despair of it cutting through her fury.

A whooshing sound like a huge gliding bird came from above; a shadow fell across them, blocking the illumination from the gap high overhead between buildings.

Flora struck the man feet-first, her cloak trailing through the air behind her. Wrapping her legs around his neck, she spun entirely around him once, throwing him off balance and leveraging her momentum such that even with her meager weight, she was able to hurl him to the ground. She sprang loose as he fell, landing lightly on her feet.

Ruda managed to slow her charge, and now stomped hard on the man’s hand, pinning the wand to the ground and almost certainly breaking a few fingers. The tip of her rapier came to rest against his windpipe.

“Give me an excuse,” she snarled. “Doesn’t have to be a good one.”

Trissiny knelt beside Peepers, laying her hands on the woman’s shoulder and channeling light as best she could, keenly aware that her gifts were not in the realm of healing. The light did as it did, however, despite her inadequacies. From this angle, she could see half the woman’s face, and watched the bruising recede from around her eye, blood stop flowing from her nose and a bad scrape across her cheek close up.

Peepers shuddered, then did so again, then twitched and uncurled somewhat. “Oh…gods. Whew. That stuff tingles.”

“Shmi!” the boy wailed, pelting into the alley; he’d have bowled Fauna over had she not deftly side-stepped him, which he didn’t notice, hurling his arms around Peepers’s neck.

“Hey, little brother,” she said somewhat hoarsely, hugging him back. “You found ’em! Good work, kid.”

“Are you all right?” Trissiny asked, as gently as she could with adrenaline and moral fury still blazing through her.

“Yeah, sure, I’m…” Peepers trailed off, then closed her eyes, shuddering. “I dunno. Not really. Nothing seems broken, though.”

Trissiny nodded, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. “We’ll get you to a proper healer straightaway.”

In the corner of her vision, she noted movement; the man she had disabled was drawing himself up to hands and knees.

Trissiny was on him in a flash, seizing the collar of his coat in one gauntleted fist and hauling him upright, where she slammed him back against the wall. “Who are you,” she demanded icily, “and what are you doing here?”

“Fuck you,” he snarled.

“Wrong answer.” She cracked his head against the brick again.

“Just…mugging,” her prisoner choked, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain.

“Oh?” Trissiny barked. “You were mugging a member of the Thieves’ Guild? Do not insult my intelligence. One more chance.”

He opened his eyes; they were still somewhat unfocused, but he turned his gaze to the fallen woman. “She… What? No!”

“Oh, yes,” Trissiny said grimly. “Now I want to know why you were attacking her.”

“Don’t tell her—” The man on the ground broke off with a squeal as Ruda kicked him between the legs.

“Wait your turn, shit for brains,” she advised him.

“There was a lot of talk about me learning to mind my own business,” Peepers said, in the process of being helped to her feet by her brother.

“Last chance,” Trissiny warned her captive.

He sneered at her. “You’re not gonna do anything to me, paladin. You’re too noble.”

“You see these two elves?” She wrenched his head around to bring Flora and Fauna into his view. Fauna grinned nastily, toying with a large hunting knife; Flora folded her arms, draping her cloak around herself, and stared at him flatly. “They are also members of the Thieves’ Guild. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You don’t start talking right now, I will drop you, walk to the mouth of this alley, turn my back and not react to anything I hear that isn’t you telling me what I want to know.”

Wide-eyed, he looked from the elves to her face, then back, then shook his head once.

Trissiny growled wordlessly and released him, stepping back.

“No!” he shouted, actually reaching out for her. “She stuck her nose in, dragging you into this! You can’t give these scum an inch—sometimes the law just isn’t enough. You have to lean on them. We had to!”

Trissiny drew in a long breath through her nose and let it out slowly, seeking calm in the familiar breathing exercise. It didn’t work.

“How can you be this way?!” she burst out. “You are soldiers! You’re supposed to protect—you took oaths! Why is it you are so willing to throw everything away, just to protect your own prerogative to be an asshole?!”

“Us!?” he shrieked back at her. “You’re supposed to protect us! You’re supposed to be on our side! We are law and order, and you’re backing drow scum and criminals against the soldiers in this city? Just whose fucking paladin are you?!”

They stared at each other, both breathing heavily.

Then Trissiny punched him again. His head banged against the wall, and he slumped to the ground.

“Ruda, would you kindly incapacitate—thank you,” she said as the pirate deftly applied the toe of her boot to the side of her own prisoner’s head, rendering him unconscious. “We’ll need to get these two to healers very quickly. Head trauma can be devastating if left untreated. Peepers, you too.”

“No argument here,” Peepers said shakily, leaning on her brother.

“This guy’s dead,” Fauna said helpfully, nudging the third man with her boot. The puddle of blood in which he lay was steaming in the cold air; in that moment, Trissiny suddenly became aware of the smell. It wasn’t just blood Ruda’s sword had spilled.

“I think I should feel worse about that than I do,” she said.

“I don’t,” Ruda snorted. “Fucker brought every bit of it on himself.”

Trissiny shook her head. “Healers first. I’ll need some guidance to the closest one.”

“It’s not far,” said Flora.

“Good, we just need to get these two stable and then transfer them to the Temple of Avei. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to trust them to the custody of the city guard.”

“No shit,” said Ruda.

“And then,” Trissiny went on, her expression growing grimmer, “…ugh. I had so hoped it would not come to this, but I don’t think they’ve left us any choice. This cannot be allowed to stand; the people need protection, and those who are supposed to provide it are their most immediate danger.” She sighed heavily. “I need to summon the Legion.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

5 – 16

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“You’d think she could hang out with us a little,” Gabriel grumbled as he and Trissiny stepped into the inn’s stairwell. Behind them, Ruda appeared already to be making friends—despite having left them just seconds ago—by swaggering up to the most crowded table in the common room and offering to buy a round.

“Ruda’s a social creature, and she sees us all the time,” Trissiny said with a shrug. “Let her relax in her own way. We still see plenty of her during study sessions and our activities on behalf of the district.”

“I’m half tempted to ditch the studying, what with Tellwyrn not even being here,” he grumbled. “I was really hoping to have time to visit my dad while I’m in the city. Should’ve done that today, while Juniper’s having her sulk.”

“Tellwyrn would know.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “She always knows.”

“Perhaps you could send your father a message?” she suggested. “If he’s not too busy to join us briefly, I’m sure he’d be glad to see Toby again, too. And I wouldn’t mind meeting—”

“Oh, no you don’t,” he said sharply. “Seriously, not a good idea. My dad… He’s not as bad as Elspeth, but he doesn’t much enjoy the company of cleric-type people. Too many have asked pushy questions about my, uh, origin.”

“The word is ‘conception,’” she said dryly. “And yes, I can imagine. I’m a little curious myself about—”

“And that is why this isn’t happening,” Gabe said firmly. “Perhaps I should have said ‘smug, disdainful accusations disguised as pushy questions.’ We don’t talk about it. You will just piss him off, and he doesn’t need or deserve it.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Trissiny said slowly, keeping her eyes on the stairs as she climbed. “It isn’t right to impose. I just can’t help…wondering. Clearly he had his reasons. I mean, you’ve got your issues, Gabe, but you’re generally too well-adjusted to have been raised by some kind of deviant lunatic.”

“Be still, my heart.”

They arrived at the top floor and came to a stop in unison. There were strangers in their lounge area.

“Um,” Gabriel said slowly. “Afternoon, ladies. Sorry to be pushy, but, uh, this floor is reserved…”

“Yes, and you took your time getting here,” said one of the elves, grinning.

“But you’re here now,” added the other. “So let’s talk business! What can we do for you?”

The visitors were both elves, dressed in simple clothing that might have belonged to any factory laborer if not for a striking preference for very dark shades. Grays, browns and deep blues, specifically, rather than black. One wore a suitably heavy winter coat; the other had a thick cloak draped around her shoulders, which ruined her otherwise passably normal look.

“Do for us?” Trissiny asked carefully. “And…you are?”

“I’m Flora,” said the one in the cloak, flourishing it as she bowed, then arranged herself atop it in a chair.

“I’m Fauna,” added her counterpart, offering a mocking salute.

“You called for aid from the Thieves’ Guild, yes?”

“So, here we are. Whatcha need?”

“…seriously?” said Gabriel. “Flora and Fauna?”

“They use tags rather than their real names,” said Trissiny. “It’s a religious thing, don’t be rude.”

“While she’s not wrong,” said Flora, “we’re apprentices; no tags yet.”

“Those actually are our names.”

“I see,” Trissiny said slowly. “And which of us are you following?”

The two elves exchanged a quizzical glance. “Following?” Flora asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Gabriel has just come back from speaking with Elspeth. It would take time for a message to be sent and responded to—much more time than this. You, or one of your compatriots, were waiting. Since you managed to get back here ahead of us, you’d almost have to have been there when he spoke with Elspeth.”

“Well, well,” said Fauna, smiling. “And here we were told she wasn’t quick on the uptake.”

“This is much better,” Flora added. “Dense people are such a pain to work with.”

“Consider it our audition, then,” Fauna added, smiling broadly at Trissiny. “We know what we’re about and can get the job done.”

“Which brings us back to our increasingly tedious original question…”

“What is the job?”

Trissiny drew in a slow, calming breath. “This is a very sensitive matter. Can I trust you two to be…discreet?”

“That’s a little like asking a Legionnaire if she’s ready for a fight,” Flora remarked.

“Not quite insulting,” added Fauna, “but missing the point to a nearly insulting degree.”

“Fine, sorry,” said Trissiny. “I’ll just have to trust you to keep this to yourselves, then. I’m sure you’ve heard about the increasing problems Lor’naris is having with the city guard. Are you aware of the firebombing attempt this morning?”

“Of course, we’re not blind.”

“And yes, we know who was behind it.”

“You weren’t exactly subtle with the guy.”

“Okay, do you two always talk in tandem?” Gabriel asked. “I’ve gotta tell you, that’s more creepy than cute.”

The elves grinned broadly at him.

“And what makes you think we intend to be cute?”

“I need evidence!” Trissiny said loudly, shooting Gabe a glare. “Something concrete to tie the corrupt soldiers of that barracks to the bombing. Any such will be inside the barracks itself.”

The elves exchanged a glance.

“What, you expect them to have a log of their illegal bombing attempt?”

“No I don’t—why does everyone keep—” Trissiny cut herself off and breathed deeply again. “Look. I don’t anticipate there’ll be a signed confession. That operation, like all operations, required resources, and those came from somewhere. The Army’s bureaucracy being what it is, there will be a paper trail. If there’s anything definitive, I’d like you to find and retrieve it.”

Flora and Fauna regarded her in silence for a moment, then shifted to look at each other. They seemed to be having a mute conversation. Finally, Fauna stood from the chair she’d commandeered and paced over to the windows, where she peered out at the street. Flora crossed her arms, leaning back in her own seat. The cloak draped over it and under her created the suggestion of a queen on a throne.

“Robbing the Imperial Army itself, hm,” Fauna said at last. “That’s dicey.”

“Not the central headquarters, obviously,” said Trissiny.

“It’s more plausible than it sounds,” Flora mused. “People who it would be absolutely crazy to try to rob tend to skimp on their security. It’s unlikely anyone has ever tried this.”

“At least not at that particular barracks,” Fauna added, earning a grin from her counterpart.

“All right, General, we’re in.”

“There’s one important point,” said Trissiny. “I know how important credit for successful thefts is to you people, but it would really be best if your involvement in this is kept scrupulously quiet. For something so illegal and guaranteed to antagonize the soldiers in question…well, it’s better if the weight of it falls on me.”

“Hang on,” Gabriel interjected. “You said that if it’s for the greater good and we successfully prove the guards are corrupt, any charges for the break-in will be forgiven.”

“No,” she said patiently, “I said there is a precedent for that. Imperial magistrates have discretion in such matters, but they don’t pardon vigilantism in general—that’d be a recipe for anarchy. Hands of Avei are useful to the justice system because we operate with but outside the law.”

“Sharidan’s a pretty laid-back sort of chap,” added Fauna, “and the whole Tirasian Dynasty espouses the philosophy of the velvet glove, but at least on paper, the Empire is still a military dictatorship.”

“Imperial magistrates have an admirably ruthless appreciation for whatever gets the job done,” Flora agreed, “but she’s right—a Hand of Avei doing it is a whole different subject from a couple of apprentice thieves.”

“They take a very dim view of folks undercutting the power of Imperial authorities in particular.”

“Anything that smacks of rebellion, really.”

“So, no, Trissiny, we have no problem with you hogging the credit on this one,” Fauna said, grinning.

“All right, then,” Trissiny said. “You’re certain you can handle this? You’ve mentioned you’re just apprentices; I don’t want to be responsible for you getting hurt. Adding Bishop Darling to the list of people annoyed at me wouldn’t be a good move.”

“We wouldn’t have agreed to help if we weren’t confident,” said Flora.

“And I thought we’d already passed our audition,” Fauna added, “but if not…here, catch.”

Trissiny turned and snagged the object the elf tossed out of the air, then frowned. “…this is my coin purse.”

“Sure is. Have I made my point?”

Flora rose gracefully to her feet and joined her compatriot. They bowed in unison, smiling cheekily. “You’ll be hearing from us as soon as the job’s done. Hope you’re not a heavy sleeper.”

“I’m not one to care overmuch about money,” said Trissiny grimly, looking into her coin purse, “but I had a little more silver than this.”

“Consider that a fee,” said Fauna cheerfully. “Not for the job—that’s just our civic duty—but for summoning a couple of thieves and then impugning our skills.”

“See you soon!” Flora chirped, and they set off down the stairs at a good pace that wasn’t too efficient to disguise an obvious swagger. The two students watched them depart.

“Man,” Gabriel said at last, “you make friends everywhere you go, don’t you?”


 

“Well. Well well well well well well!”

Shook froze, stiffening. Beside him, her arm tucked through his, Kheshiri shifted to look over her shoulder at the voice from behind them.

Strolling through the courtyard wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time, but he was running out of ways to keep himself occupied, and in any case needed some time to think. Even Vandro’s endless supply of amenable girls were losing some of their novelty, largely because Shook had become rather spoiled by having a woman on hand who obeyed without question, refused him nothing, never complained about her treatment and always came back for more. He was now wondering if this was just the natural side effect of having a captive succubus or if Kheshiri was deliberately messing with his head. He’d told her to be quiet, so there was little harm in having her along while he contemplated her wiles. Anyhow, it made her happy; she’d actually been acting jealous of him and the time he spent around other women, which was almost endearing.

Slowly, he turned to face the speaker, who was framed in the open gate to the villa’s grounds, hands on her hips, wearing a particularly shit-eating grin.

“Look who’s out and about and not in jail,” Arachne Tellwyrn said brightly. “Those Guild lawyers really know their stuff. And Kheshiri! Someone finally let you out of your bottle, I see.”

Kheshiri, who was in her standard mortal disguise, scowled in blended puzzlement and irritation. “Excuse me? Have we met?”

“Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know I was watching… Well, never mind, that’s all ancient history. Whatever are you doing with this galoot?”

“And why wouldn’t I be?” the succubus asked, twining both of her arms around Shook’s and resting her chin on his shoulder, smirking. “He’s a demigod in the sack.”

Tellwyrn snorted loudly.

“May I fucking help you?” Shook grated.

“Why, Jerry, you found us an elf!” Alan Vandro exclaimed, strolling up to them with a cocktail in one hand. “Why don’t you introduce us? I see you two have met.”

Shook wasn’t quite sure what Vandro did with his time when the man was out of his sight, but this was not the first time he’d seen his host appear as if by magic in time to prevent a tense situation from going sour. Vandro described his estate as a haven of fun and relaxation, and it seemed he had the will and the means to prevent anyone from ruining the atmosphere.

“Alan Vandro,” Shook said tensely, not taking his eyes off the new arrival, “this is Arachne Tellwryn.”

At that, Vandro actually looked startled. “Wait—really? Are you sure? The Tellwyrn?”

“The the herself,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “Good, you’re the fellow in charge of this joint. I understand you like to throw a lot of frivolous parties.”

“Why, yes I do!” Vandro said, beaming. “Some of the best and most frivolous people in the province put in appearances at my little shindigs, but I must say you would be an honored guest indeed.”

“Uh huh,” she said, deadpan. “I’m looking for someone who’s been loitering in this city, likely crashing the most hoity-toity events being held, if I know him. Unfortunately I’m having the damnedest time tracking him down, as just mentioning his name seems to make people wet themselves and slam the door in my face.”

“Oh. Really?” Vandro frowned thoughtfully. “You’re looking for Zanzayed the Blue?”

“Ah,” she said with satisfaction, “then he is here?”

“Well, I certainly hope so,” Vandro replied, grinning. “I’m having one of my asinine little get-togethers two nights hence and I’ve already ordered all his favorite hors d’oeuvres. It’ll just break my little heart if he doesn’t come.”

“You want him to come?”

“Are you kidding?” Vandro grinned even more broadly, idly swirling his drink. “Everyone practically shits themselves at learning they’re in a room with a dragon. Ever seen a bunch of rich, powerful assholes in that sweet moment when they learn they are not the biggest, baddest thing around?”

“Frequently,” she said with a reminiscent smile.

“Glorious, isn’t it?”

“Definitely has its points.”

“Yeah, Zanzayed was still in the city last I heard, but there’s no telling how much longer he’s going to stay. Apparently things went sour with that noblewoman he was trying to work over. If I were him, I’d find the place serving the most free drinks and put them out of business, but who can say how dragons think?”

“Mm. As long as the drinks are of good quality, served by pretty girls in the company of well-dressed nobles…that’s more his scene.” Tellwyrn sighed, glancing around the courtyard. “Day after tomorrow, then? Damn it all, I’d really hoped to have this dealt with faster than that, but there’s just no running him to ground when he doesn’t want to be…”

“Well, now, I’d hate for you to have come all this way only to leave disappointed,” Vandro said magnanimously. “We’ve got all kinds of room, and it’s full of absolutely tasteless amounts of luxury. Why not stay and enjoy my hospitality until you find your friend?”

“What?!” Shook burst out. “Alan, have you lost your mind? This creep lives to wreck other people’s business!”

“Jerry, son,” Vandro said, suddenly tense, “let’s not be needlessly provocative with the charmingly eccentric archmage.”

“The hell with it,” Shook snapped. “If she decides to incinerate everyone or turn me into a lawn sculpture, she’ll just fucking up and do it, and there’s not much anybody can do to stop her. I’ll be damned if I’m giving her the satisfaction of seeing me cringe and grovel first.”

“Why, Mr. Shook,” Tellwyrn said with a little smile. “You’d best be careful; keep showing that kind of backbone and I’ll find myself respecting you. Then I’ll be really annoyed.”

He just glared at her. Kheshiri, wisely, remained silent.

“There, see? All friends!” Vandro said cheerfully. “What do you say, ma’am? My home is yours as long as you need it.”

“Very generous,” Tellwyrn said skeptically. “What’s the catch?”

“Well,” Vandro said, stepping over and placing a hand at the small of her back, gently ushering her toward the main house. For a wonder, Tellwyrn let herself be ushered. “I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me clumsily trying to get into your pants.”

“Ah, I see.”

“I’m over-ambitious, y’see, and not terribly bright.”

“I believe you.”

“Honestly, hon, it’s not even that you’re my type, but… The bragging rights. You understand.”

“Quite.”

Shook, staring after them, clenched his fists until his knuckles crackled under the strain.


 

“You look like hell,” Gabriel noted.

“Nice to see you too,” Toby said wryly, massaging the back of his stiff neck and glancing around the lounge. Dusk was falling; the dim light from the windows had taken on a reddish tint. “Where is everyone?”

“Ruda is downstairs in the common room and looks like she plans to make a night of it; the lads just trooped down to join her. But you probably knew that. Shaeine and Teal took off for the embassy hours ago, and I suspect they found something a lot less official to occupy themselves after that. Fross and Trissiny went for a walk—well, a walk and a hover, I guess. About time, too, she was pacing like a caged tiger and looking about as friendly.”

“I assume you don’t mean Fross,” Toby said, grinning.

“Good catch, smartass. And of course, you know where Juniper is.”

Toby sighed heavily. “I’m ridiculously tired for as little as I’ve actually done all day.”

Gabriel shut the book in his lap, moved it to the low table and set down the clipboard with the paper on which he was writing on top of it. “I don’t think so. You’ve basically been holding yourself at maximum tension waiting for the hammer to fall all day. That’d exhaust anyone. And seriously, man, I know I say this a lot but right now you specifically need to lighten up.”

“I know,” Toby groaned, leaning against the wall. “So you keep telling me. And it’s not even that I disagree…”

“But…?” Gabe prompted.

He sighed. “I just… I don’t understand her.”

“She’s a fairy, man. You’re not supposed to understand her.”

“Yeah, but it’s…” Toby sighed again. “Tastes like pig. You know?”

“She’s not gonna start hunting people in the streets,” Gabe said. “You know the rules she’s operating under.”

“It’s not that. Something’s bothering her, and… With most people, I’m good at working out what’s wrong and helping if I can. Lots of them just need someone to listen. But with Juniper… I can’t read her. One minute she’s just this naïve, good-hearted girl who’s kind and cheerful and I know exactly where I stand, and the next she’s something terrifyingly alien. That’s what’s weighing on me. If she does snap and start… Well, I don’t know how to see it coming.”

“Toby, I hate to say it, but you’re probably making it worse.”

“Worse?”

“Seriously, you’re just pissing her off at this point. I really don’t think we have anything to worry about unless something specifically sets her off. Which you’re kind of doing.”

Toby frowned. “She told you that?”

“No, I haven’t talked to her since this morning. But she told us all she wants some space to herself with no people around, and you then spent the whole day hovering. Come on. How would you feel?”

“That’s…well, crud, you’re completely right.” Toby leaned his head back, thunking it against the wall. “Uh, I’m an idiot.”

“You’re overburdened with the cares of others,” Gabriel said wisely. “Sometimes, my friend, you’ve gotta let people make their own mistakes.”

“Well, it seems to have worked with you.”

“Exactly!” Gabe said cheerfully. “In any case, just…go relax, man. Take a nap, go down and hang with Ruda and the boys. Something to take your mind off all this.”

Toby glanced at the short hall which terminated in the narrow stairwell that led to the roof. “I don’t… Finchley, Rook and Moriarty only agreed to take a break because I said I wouldn’t leave her unwatched.”

“You’re not,” Gabriel assured him. “I will sit in this room until she either comes through and goes to bed or you come back out. Fair?”

“I…yeah. Thanks. In fact, a nap sounds like a really good idea. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

“Or, don’t try again. Try leaving her alone for a while.”

“I’ll think about it,” Toby muttered, turning and shuffling into their room and shutting the door gently behind him.

Gabriel shook his head and reached for his book again.

“Psst.” He looked up to find Juniper peering around the corner from the roof access hall at him. “Is he gone?”

“Uh…he’s in there, getting some sleep. Are you okay?”

She was still in her human guise, but had dispensed with all the mandated outer garments. After spending the whole day on the privacy of the roof, she was soaked with sleet, her hair wind-blown, sopping wet and actually twisted into odd shapes by patches of frost. Freezing water dripped down her, plastering her sheer sundress very distractingly to her skin. Despite all that, she didn’t seem at all uncomfortable.

“I’m fine,” Juniper said crossly. “I just wanted a little time to myself. There aren’t many plants in this city, and the only animals are humans. It’s all so…weird. Hard to center myself.” She sighed, turning to stare gloomily out the windows.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” Gabriel inquired, getting up and walking over to join her.

Juniper shrugged. “I’ve never understood this thing where people ask about asking. If you’re curious, ask. No harm in that.”

“It’s about respecting your feelings,” he said with a smile. “Giving you a chance to cut off the conversation if you don’t want to talk.”

“Oh. Well… I guess that makes sense. That’s actually very considerate.” She turned to give him a bright smile. “What did you want to know?”

“Well, it’s… A little awkward, I’m not sure how to…”

“Gabriel, you have had your penis in every part of me where it would fit. Seriously, just spit it out. I’m not gonna be shocked.”

He flushed deeply, then cleared his throat. “It’s just, if this weren’t a school sanctioned trip, if there were no rules… I’m just trying to figure out where we stand. Would you actually…y’know…eat me?”

“Of course not!” she exclaimed, looking scandalized.

Gabriel un-tensed a bit. “Okay. Yeah, I figured, but I just…”

“I mean, no offense, Gabe, but nothing eats demon. Blech. I realize you’re only half, but I can smell it on you, and… Yeah, it’s not unpleasant, you know, but definitely not appetizing.”

He had re-tensed while she spoke. “I…see. Um. What about the others?”

“Others? Our classmates?”

“Yeah.”

She shrugged, looking back out over the street. “Well, mother forbids us eating elves, so that rules out Trissiny and Shaeine. And Fross is basically a little clump of pure magic; no nutritional value except to other pixies.”

“And…” He paused to swallow heavily. “Ruda? Toby?”

“Sure,” Juniper said nonchalantly. “I mean, I’d have to be hungry. Not just peckish, but seriously needing nutrition. Otherwise I’d must rather keep them alive. I like Ruda and Toby. Even when he’s being an annoying mother hen.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand how you can think that way,” Gabriel said very carefully. “They’re… They’re your friends. Wouldn’t you miss them if they were gone?”

“Of course I would,” she said patiently. “And I will, when they die. Which they will. You’re all going to die, eventually, and when you do, something will be nourished by your flesh. I would think you’d care enough about me to prefer that would be me than some random bunch of microbes.”

“I, um… You should know there’s a kind of a disconnect there,” he said. “This kind of talk really bothers people.”

“You asked!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, I did,” he said soothingly, “and I appreciate you clearing it up for me. It’s just gonna be hard to…process. For humans, caring about someone… Loving someone means you wouldn’t eat them.”

“Oh, you people and your taboos,” she said, scowling. “Your laws and customs, and stupid square buildings and fences and domestications and all these completely arbitrary, made-up rules that don’t mean anything but you act like they’re the center of the world!” Juniper’s voice rose steadily while she spoke, until she finally slapped a hand against the windowpane. The whole thing rattled in its housing, but thankfully didn’t break. Gabriel began easing backward away from her. “I’m just so tired of it! How can you live like this? You’re animals! You are all. Just. Animals! Just act like it!”

Juniper stopped, drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Feh… Now I’m all tense and wound up. C’mon, let’s go have sex.”

“Um,” he said hesitantly. “I, um… It’s not that I don’t… I mean, I’ve just gained a sort of perspective about you and I, uh, I need time to think about it. I mean, I’ve kind of misjudged you, and I want to treat you fairly, and that’s gonna involve some sorting out how I really feel, and, y’know, what to do about it…”

“Gabriel,” she said impatiently, “you can do all that anytime.” A sudden, sly smile crossed her face, and she pressed forward, backing him against the wall and pushing her chest into his. Gabriel let out a soft squeak when she leaned in and nipped gently at the base of his throat. “You can do that after you spend a couple of hours enjoying every pleasure my body can give you.”

“I…well…that… Yeah, okay.”


 

“Yeah, yeah,” Lakshmi said, smiling fondly. “You can tell me all about it on the way home.”

“Aw,” Sanjay whined. “It’s still early! I wanted to go to the park!”

“Kid, it is nearly dark. You know what kind of creeps hang around in the park at night?”

“Creeps like you?” He stuck out his tongue at her.

“Exactly,” she said, nodding solemnly. “You wouldn’t want to meet them in the dark of the night, would you? C’mon, squirt, it’s getting colder and we still have to eat. Home.”

Sanjay fell into step beside her. The sidewalks had emptied enough for them to walk together without needing to weave and dodge around other passersby. “Home was in Puna Dara,” he muttered rebelliously.

“Yeah,” Lakshmi said softly, nodding.

Sanjay looked up at her in surprise. “What, really? You’re not gonna give me some speech about how this is our new home?”

“What, this ice city?” She shuddered. “Please. Tiraas is a place, like any other. We’re Punaji, and don’t you ever forget it. But…this can be a good place. There are opportunities here we’d never have found back home. Just takes a little work and cleverness, is all. If we do our part to take care of the city, it’ll take care of us.”

“So that’s why you were in such a hurry to tell that paladin about the bomber?”

“Exactly. That, and she’s a useful person to get on the good side of.” Lakshmi patted him on the head, which was covered by a thick knitted cap. “Now c’mon, pick up those feet. I don’t wanna be out in this miserable cold any longer than we absolutely have to.”

As they passed a small newsstand, boarded up at this hour, a young woman in a thick longcoat and heavy scarf who’d been leaning against the nearby wall reading the day’s paper looked up, honing in on their conversation. She stood in silence while Sanjay and Lakshmi continued up the sidewalk, letting them get a good twenty paces ahead before folding the paper and tucking it under her arm, stepping out onto the walkway after them.

As she fell in, she carefully adjusted her collar, making sure the heavy overcoat and scarf concealed the Imperial Army insignia below. Night was falling, people were hurrying to get home out of the cold, and nobody paid any attention to her, least of all the two Punaji she followed toward their home.

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