“Stop worrying,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Style said not to leave the district, and we’re not. If she hadn’t wanted us to leave the Casino, she’d have said that. Honestly, does that woman strike you as someone who has trouble articulating her intentions?”
“I know, I know,” Jasmine muttered, glancing around. “It just feels…”
“Well, you didn’t have to come.” Tallie gave her a sly sidelong look. “Unless, of course, you were feeling as cooped up as I was.”
“All right, fine, you caught me. Yes, I don’t like being cooped up. Which is why I agreed to join you on this excursion, which I will repeat is silly.”
“It is not silly,” Tallie said primly. “It is annoying and borderline mean.”
“Which is silly. It’s been weeks; we both know Layla doesn’t need a nursemaid.”
“Jasmine, honey, I understand that.” Grinning, Tallie jostled her with an elbow; her silent laugh manifested as puffs of mist in the frosty air. “That is exactly why it’s funny to nursemaid her. She hates it.”
Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t know what your issue is with nobles, but honestly, I think you need to get over it. We’re talking about one who specifically turned on her family to be here.”
“Wasn’t even her idea,” Tallie muttered. “She was just following big bro.”
“Regardless, she did, and I note you don’t give him such a hard time.”
“The balls I don’t!”
“Not nearly as—”
“And speak of the Dark Lady!” Tallie said loudly, stopping right in front of one of the ritzy shops which lined the streets around the Imperial Casino.
Layla Sakhavenid had just emerged, carrying an embossed shopping bag, and arched an eyebrow superciliously at her. “And hello to you, too, Tallie. If you’re going to give me a nickname, might I at least request something original? I don’t care to argue the right of way with the Queen of Demons.”
“Omnu’s balls, Layla,” Tallie exclaimed with borderline glee, “were you shopping? At a time like this?”
“Everyone has their hobbies,” Layla replied. “They are having a sale. I may be new to the need to hunt for bargains, but having tried it I find there’s an almost predatory satisfaction in snatching something at a great price. If I thought you were someone who would appreciate it, I’d gladly show you the scarf I…”
She trailed off, her expression going deliberately blank as her eyes shifted to look between them. Tallie and Jasmine stared at her in silent consternation for a second before catching on, and turned around.
Behind them stood a priestess of Avei, identified by her golden eagle pin despite the heavy coat she wore over her white robe. She was flanked by no less than four Silver Legionnaires, their faces unreadable behind winter helmets.
“I thought so,” the priestess said with grim satisfaction. “Sergeant…Collier, was it?” She fixed a stare on Jasmine, then shifted it past her to Layla. “Suddenly on remarkably friendly terms with this…deserter. How nice for you.”
“Hey, look,” said Tallie, subtly widening her stance, “we don’t want any trouble…”
“Yes, you obviously do,” the priestess said curtly. “You three will come with us to the nearest temple. We have things to discuss with you.”
“I think we would rather not,” Jasmine said quietly. “We’re under orders to remain near the—”
“Yet another thing you should have considered before stealing from the Sisterhood,” the priestess said implacably. “You are now in custody. Let’s move along, now, with a minimum of fuss.”
“You are making a mistake,” Layla declared, holding her ground even as two of the Legionnaires stepped around them, moving to box them in. The street was fairly busy, but people simply shifted out of their way on the wide sidewalk; few even bothered to stare. “We are apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild.”
“So I had assumed. Anything else you have to say will be listened to when we reach the temple. Now, move.”
“You can’t actually think you’ll get away with this,” Tallie blustered. “You don’t abduct—”
“The word is arrest,” one of the soldiers suddenly snapped. “And knowing the Guild’s policy on resisting arrest, we all know that won’t be an issue, so don’t bother. Sister Falaridjad, with all due respect, don’t engage Eserites in banter. You three, march. Now.”
“Feels kind of exposed,” Gabriel muttered.
“Arquin, the only remotely suspicious thing we’re doing is you glancing around like you’re about to go for somebody’s wallet,” Ruda snapped.
“Hey.” Toby reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “Easy. We’ll be there as quick as we can.”
She heaved a sigh, and then nodded. “Right. Sorry, Gabe. I’m just tense about…”
“No harm,” Gabriel said, shooting her a quick smile. “And I know, you’re right, it’s just… I mean, everybody has to know un-escorted students aren’t supposed to be leaving the area.”
“Well, it was this or try hiking across the prairie,” Fross said reasonably. “It’s doubtful we’d all fit in one of the regular stagecoaches, and I’ve been practicing my teleportation but it’s at a level that I’m positive if I tried to ‘port all of us from here to Puna Dara we would all end up either dead or wishing we were, and upon consideration it turns out I have no appetite for either of those outcomes.”
“I think if anybody was gonna give us trouble, it would’ve been when we bought tickets,” Juniper added, grinning at the pixie. “I mean, Silas let us charter a caravan, so…that’s that.”
Nobody had an immediate comment after that, and a moment later, the group subconsciously edged closer together. They were positioned along the side of the telescroll office facing the prairie, rather than the Rail platform where they were waiting for their chartered caravan to arrive, the idea being to minimize their exposure to onlookers. The people of Last Rock certainly didn’t consider it their business to enforce Professor Tellwyrn’s rules, but a lot of them, as Gabriel had pointed out, knew the basics of campus policy. It would be relatively common knowledge that six students clearly waiting for a Rail caravan without an accompanying professor were up to no good.
It was less private than it had once been, though. Last Rock had begun growing last year, with Gabriel’s calling and the establishment of the Avenist and Vidian temples. The pace had exploded in just the month since Tellwyrn had opened the University’s research division and publicly named the school after the town. Now, they were looking out over a smattering of construction sites being actively worked on across the Rail line and the highway; off to their left, a large stone bridge was in the early stages of development, which would eventually span both, and likely render the current wooden footbridge obsolete.
Juniper casually draped an arm around Teal’s shoulders, and after a moment, the bard leaned against her. Teal’s hair was beginning to look almost shaggy, just long enough now to dangle into her eyes and onto her collar. She had grown comfortable in the Narisian-style robes she now wore, but her efforts at a reserved demeanor mostly made her look tired and sad.
Which may not have been a mask, after all.
They all edged closer again, including Fross, who fluttered over to hover directly above the group rather than drifting about as she usually did. They didn’t speak of it; they didn’t need to. Whenever the whole class assembled, anymore, the absence of its missing members was keenly felt.
“So,” Gabriel said at last, and before he could get another word out the whole world shifted around them.
Teal and Juniper staggered slightly, Fross shooting six feet straight upward with a loud chime of alarm, and Ruda and Gabriel grabbed at sword hilts, stopping just short of drawing.
“Ruda,” Toby said warily, looking around, “am I wrong, or is this…?”
“This,” she said, nodding, “is a wharf in Puna Dara.”
“Well…damn,” Gabriel muttered. “That Rail service is a lot more efficient than I remember.”
It was considerably warmer than in Last Rock and vastly more humid. The sounds of waves and the calling of seabirds formed a backdrop to the noise of conversation around them, which largely came to an abrupt end as their sudden appearance. They were standing on a large pier, with a merchant ship tied just in front of them and dockworkers all around in the process of offloading cargo—all brown-complexioned Punaji, mostly barefoot and the men bare-chested. To the east, the Azure Sea stretched away to a horizon on which light clouds had begun to gather.
“Oh, crap,” Teal muttered.
Slowly, they all turned to face the city behind them.
Professor Tellwyrn stood a few feet away with her arms folded, slowly drumming her fingers against her own bicep, and staring at them over the rims of her spectacles.
“Okay, before you start,” Fross chimed, “we’d already arranged transportation, and frivolously summoning a Rail caravan is misdemeanor abuse of Imperial facilities. It was in Ruda’s name and I’m not sure her diplomatic immunity covers—”
“Your conscientiousness is inspiring as always, Fross,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “even when misplaced. I’ll take care of it. So. I’m not going to claim omniscience, but after you insufferable twerps pulled that stunt at the hellgate last year, you’d better believe I watch for you to be shuffling off en masse to places where I don’t want you.”
“Hey, you pronounced that right,” Teal said nervously. “Most people don’t get Glassian quite—”
“I can’t help noticing that we’re here now,” Ruda said sharply. “You could’ve just as easily put us back in our dorms.”
“A lot more easily, yes,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Just a moment, kids. Hi, Sharad. Sorry to drop in on you like this.”
“Sorry? Sorry?!” The students turned to look at the man approaching them, and with the exception of Ruda now edged backward. He stood almost a foot taller even than Toby, with a full beard in which threads of silver had just begun to appear. Unlike the surrounding dockworkers, he wore boots, a traditional sailcloth greatcoat, and a wide-brimmed hat with feathers rather like Ruda’s. Also, he was coming at them very rapidly, with arms upraised. He stopped short, though, and a broad grin split the darkness of his beard. “Nonsense, this is the best news I’ve had in weeks! Pushta told me a bunch of people hast just appeared and I thought—well, never mind, it’s always a pleasure to see you, Professor! And, I presume, students?”
“Students indeed,” she said. “Class of 1182, this is Sharad Kapadia, an alum and proprietor of this wharf. I try only to disrupt the business of people I actually know.”
“Nonsense, nothing is disrupted,” Kapadia boomed. “Especially since my employees all know not to stand around gawking!”
Instantly, their audience dispersed back to their tasks, with the exception of several sailors who leaned over the side of the ship, watching with naked interest.
“So,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “Raffi Chadrakeran just happened to pass along to Miss Punaji, here, what was occurring in Puna Dara, and she decided to take off and deal with it herself. And you lot came along in a show of solidarity. Right?”
Toby lifted his chin. “We’re not about to abandon—”
“Caine, did I ask you for justifications? I’ll take the lack of denial as an affirmative. Well, here you are, and as Punaji herself pointed out, yes, I brought you here myself.”
“Why?” Juniper asked quietly.
Tellwyrn let out a sigh through her nose. “…how much do you know about what’s happening in Puna Dara these days?”
“Cultists,” Ruda said tersely. “Creating civil unrest, trying to disrupt my father’s rule, and now attacking a Silver Legion.”
“Neutralizing a Silver Legion,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “which is what make this urgent. Nobody knows how they did it, but the fact that they did it means this Rust is suddenly a real player—one that nobody saw coming. A lot of eyes are on Puna Dara now, and they’ll be shortly followed by a lot of fingers.”
“Which is why I need to be here, helping,” Ruda snarled. “This nation is not stable enough to deal with an internal uprising and meddling from the Empire at the same time, and you know damn well the Empire will meddle! We need to solve this fast.”
“And that, all modesty aside, is what we do,” added Gabriel.
“The Empire, in fact,” Tellwyrn said much more calmly, “or at least Lord Vex, has asked me to send a student group here. Let me emphasize how unusual that is. I’ve worked with Vex for over a year, to make sure my little class projects don’t disrupt Imperial business too much. He has pointed out potential trouble spots before, but his only requests to date involve asking me to stay away from certain places. This is the first occasion on which he has specifically asked for help.”
“Is that…bad?” Toby asked, frowning.
“It emphasizes the severity of the situation,” said Tellwyrn. “And the Empire’s dilemma. They cannot afford to overtly interfere in Puna Dara’s internal business. Care to explain why, Miss Punaji?”
“I already have,” Ruda said shortly, glancing at Mr. Kapadia. He was watching her speculatively, and inclined his head at meeting her eyes.
“The Punaji nation is an ally, not an Imperial protectorate,” Teal said softly. “And due to current political and cultural factors, the King can’t be seen to be accepting any outside help; it would make him look weak.”
“Which would just be a problem most of the time,” Gabriel added, “but with these Rust assholes suddenly challenging his authority, Blackbeard acknowledging that he’s not in full control could trigger a complete change of government.”
“Which, most of the time, is a strictly internal matter and usually only a temporary disruption of Puna Dara’s business,” Fross chimed, “but with the Rust as a serious contender for power, the Empire can’t afford to let Blackbeard’s government be destabilized, because they can’t tolerate the continent’s entire eastern seaboard being in the hands of an unstable sect that’s willing and able to attack the Silver Legions! Did we miss anything, Ruda?”
“That’s the long and the fucking short of it,” Ruda said bitterly. “The Punaji have to fix this problem, now, and without foreign help. If we don’t, we’re gonna end up very likely at war with the Empire. And I don’t care who these Rust are or what they’ve got up their sleeves, there’s no power in the world that could win that fight. They’ve gotta be stopped, fast, without undercutting my father’s reign. Otherwise, we’re looking at the end of the Punaji as a sovereign people, very likely with a shit-ton of bloodshed involved.”
“Well, thank goodness for small favors,” Tellwyrn muttered. “I do like it when I don’t have to explain everything for a change. The truth is, I had not planned to send anyone out here for the simple reason that I test my students against challenges I know they can beat. Whatever the Rust did to the Fourth Silver Legion is…without precedent. I don’t understand it at all—nobody does. That means I would be sending a student group to face an undefined peril with no guarantee of their safety, much less success.”
She stopped, and heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m giving you the go-ahead for three reasons. First, thanks to Miss Punaji’s investment in this, and yours in her, it’s clear I would have to ride herd on the lot of you until this was all settled if I decided to keep you from it, and quite frankly, I have too many other things to do. Second… You, of all people, might just be safe, even with the danger as unknowable as it is. Two of you are paladins, and that kind of direct connection to a god changes matters. People who cast any kind of incredibly potent curse on a Hand of the gods draw the direct attention of the deity in question. Hopefully these Rust will have the sense not to try, but if they do, that just might end up putting a stop to the whole business. Juniper may be blocked from Naiya, but she and Fross are inherently quite resistant to such effects anyway. The lot of you will need to keep watch over Zaruda, but you’ve already shown you are inordinately willing to do that.”
“And me,” Teal added.
Tellwyrn shook her head. “Falconer, you just might be better off even than the boys. Elilial isn’t an interventionist deity as a rule, but after losing the other six archdemons, anybody who manages to put any kind of whammy on Vadrieny is asking to have an apocalypse shoved right up their butts. Even Naphthene would hesitate to pick that fight. Which doesn’t mean you should go around pissing on wave shrines like Zaruda’s ancestor.”
“Why in the blazes would I do such a thing?” Teal exclaimed.
“I have been working with teenagers for fifty years and I still don’t understand why you lot do anything. If I did, maybe I could control you. Anyway, I have a third motivation for allowing this.” The sardonic levity leaked from her expression. “Honestly…I think you kids have the best chance out of anybody of pulling it off. And beyond the needs of your education, this is a big problem. This isn’t Sarasio or Lor’naris. The fall of Puna Dara would send shockwaves across the continent. Around the world. Much as it pains me to use the term, this city needs heroes. You’re the best I can think of for the job.”
She let that sit for a silent moment before turning back to the wharf master with a sudden smile. “So! Sorry to keep you away from your business, Sharad, but can you direct us to the nearest hub of Rust activity?”
“In fact, I can take you there!” he said. “It’s far closer than I would like—just barely beyond my own wharf, in fact. I’ve had some of my own people come around spouting their philosophy, which is…a difficult situation. Puts me in the same position as the King, on a smaller scale. If I try to shut that down, it raises the question of why I feel threatened by it, not to mention that any fool knows nothing validates a religion like oppressing it. It really is abominable stuff, though. Anyway, don’t you worry about my business, Professor, it’s booming! Since you’re in town, you really must come by for dinner. I think my wife doesn’t actually believe I know you.”
“I appreciate it, but I have pots simmering back in Last Rock that I can’t leave unattended for too long.”
“Nonsense!” he boomed jovially. “You can zip-zap halfway across the world in an eyeblink, it’ll be no trouble. We’ll see you tonight. I insist!”
She lowered her head to stare at him over her glasses. “I’m sorry, you insist? I’m almost curious what would happen if you tried.”
“In that event,” he said, suddenly with deep gravitas, “I would have to make a very sad face. I would do this all night. And you would be thinking about me doing it.”
“…you’re a monster, Kapadia.”
His laugh was practically a bellow. “Fantastic! I will ask Erika to make her curried rice with eel! We stopped arguing over native cuisines by learning to blend them, you see.”
Tellwyrn shook her head and turned to face the city. “All right, lead on, then. Come along, kids. Let’s go see what you’re up against.”
“Sister Falaridjad, this is a surprise,” said the armored woman who greeted them inside the temple. If “temple” was the right word. This was an Avenist facility, all right, but religious iconography aside, it was clearly more military than clerical in function. Its main entrance hall, in which they now stood, resembled a police station more than a place of worship, with desks along one side at which white-robed priestesses sat, speaking quietly with visitors. Armored Legionnaires stood at attention in every corner and bracketing every entrance, a rather excessive display of force for a temple.
“For me as well, Captain Leingardt,” the priestess who had apprehended them replied. “I wasn’t planning on this, but it seems the goddess smiled on us. Two of these I recognize from the robbery at my temple this morning. The third has already implicated herself in the same business.”
“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Tallie demanded.
Leingardt cast a cool glance across them, lingering momentarily on Tallie, before addressing Falaridjad. “I see. Fortuitous indeed that you came across them while accompanied by enough soldiers to bring them in.”
“Indeed, I don’t presume Avei’s favor lightly. Though they are Eserites. Apprentices, but still, they know better than to fight when fairly caught.”
“Guild, hm,” the captain said, her eyebrows lowering fractionally. “Then I hope you weren’t expecting to keep them long, sister. The Guild always extracts its own as quickly as possible.”
“All the more reason to interrogate them immediately,” Sister Falaridjad said firmly, “if you will grant us the use of a suitable room. We actually picked them up a stone’s throw from the Casino itself, so we’re likely to have one of those obnoxious lawyers of their knocking any minute. We are justified in holding them for interrogation, at least, given the charges. Conspiracy, theft, assault—”
“That is a lie!” Layla, when she chose to, could project at a startling volume without raising the pitch of her voice; it lent her an unexpectedly commanding aspect for a sixteen-year-old girl. All around the chamber, activity stopped as Sisters, soldiers and civilians turned to stare.
Falaridjad scowled in annoyance. “You’ll have your chance to defend—”
“Fabricating charges is a very severe offense for a woman in your position, sister,” Jasmine said sharply. She turned to the captain with a stiff nod. “We have no intention of prevaricating or denying anything we’ve done, Captain, but no one was assaulted. Sister Falaridjad was at the temple; I remember seeing her. She knows this.”
“Oh, please,” the priestess said with heavy disdain. “You really intend to press your word against mine? Here? Good luck, girl.”
“I don’t need luck,” Jasmine replied, turning to face her directly. “Just justice.”
A sharp clap echoed through the room, followed by another. Everyone shifted to look at the woman who had just entered the building behind the prisoners and their escort, and now approached them, continuing to applaud slowly while she came.
“Oh, good show,” said Bishop Syrinx. “Very dramatic, the Veskers would be proud. But if you’re quite done fooling around, we should get down to the business of how very much trouble you are all in.”