Tag Archives: Trissiny

13 – 3

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“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—”

“Falconer.”

“…yeah. Sorry.”

“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.”

 

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13 – 2

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“YOU DO NOT FUCKING ROB THE FUCKING SISTERS OF FUCKING AVEI!”

“We didn’t,” Darius protested. “I mean, quite specifically, we did not rob them!”

“If anything, we un-robbed them!” Tallie added. “They were getting snookered and we—”

“Do not get cute with me,” Style snarled. “You entered their facilities under false pretenses and appropriated shit which was not yours. This is the fucking Thieves’ Guild, if you little wankstains haven’t noticed. I know what a fucking robbery is, and you just pulled one.” She stopped her pacing right in front of Tallie, and leaned in close. “ON THE GODDAMN SISTERHOOD OF FUCKING AVEI.”

“We’re not evading,” Jasmine said in perfect calm. “The matter just wasn’t as simple as you’re making it sound. We took things out of the temple, yes, but—”

“Let me see if I got the details,” the enforcer interrupted, straightening and turning to pace again. “You interrupted a Salyrite delivery of potions, reagents, magical shit in general, to a local temple of Avei. Jasmine, dressed in Legion armor, drags in Layla, pretending to be bringing her in as a prisoner. Scuffling ensues, everyone is distracted. Meanwhile, Tubby and Smarmy, here, drive a delivery truck up to the temple and accidentally block the Salyrite vehicle in.” She scowled at Ross and Darius in turn as she paced by them.

“How come the girls don’t get nicknames?” Ross muttered.

“While the scrawny one engages the Salyrite driver in an argument and generally adds to the confusion, the beefy one starts loading crates in and out of the place, and lifts the Salyrite shipment while they’re all distracted. And while this is going on, our little burgeoning cat burglar oozed first into the temple through an upper window and then the Salyrite truck to swipe documents.” Again, she stopped, folded her arms, and glared at them. “I miss anything?”

“After that,” Layla said primly, “we made copies of the documents from both cults, which prove that agents within the Sisterhood and the Collegium were massaging the figures of what had been delivered and how much paid to skim revenue and poach supplies from these transactions.”

“Which,” Tallie added with a grin, “we then had delivered to the central temples of Avei and Salyrene, along with giving the Salyrites their stuff back. So nobody lost any property, and both cults now know who in their ranks was screwing ’em over.”

“They’re welcome, incidentally,” Darius added.

Off to the side of the room, Lore chuckled, still lounging against the wall. “Not gonna lie, kids, that’s a pretty damn neat job. I’d expect full Guild members to do that kinda work, never mind apprentices on their first unsupervised heist. Only thing you forgot was how to get yourselves paid.”

“We are but lowly apprentices,” Jasmine said with a beatific smile. “Happy to work for the experience and prestige.”

“You, stop helping,” Style barked, pointing at Lore, then turned to glare at Jasmine. “And you. If you’re so insistent you didn’t actually rob the Sisterhood, wanna explain what the fuck you were doing with a set of Silver Legion armor in the first place?”

“I borrowed it,” Jasmine said blandly.

Style took two strides and leaned down directly into her face. “You wanna try again, squirt?”

Lore cleared his throat. “I’m not sure if any of your trainers have covered this explicitly, Jasmine, but the ‘borrowed’ defense isn’t regarded kindly around here. We’re thieves; we steal stuff. Taking without permission is theft, whether or not you bring the item back. Have some pride and don’t make excuses or beat around the bush.”

“Actually nobody had mentioned that, but thank you,” Jasmine said, glancing at him sidelong but keeping most of her attention on Style’s uncomfortably close glower. “Really, though, I wasn’t doing that. I did borrow it. Glory hooked me up with a dealer who had two almost-complete sets of armor. I helped him assemble them properly and showed him where to get the missing pieces, and he let me take one for the day as thanks.”

“I still say we should have borrowed both,” Layla huffed. “I would really have liked—”

“Layla,” Darius said in exasperation, “you couldn’t both be Legionnaires. If neither one was the prisoner, what the fuck would you have been doing there?”

“And if she was a prisoner,” Style growled at Jasmine, “how the fuck did you get out without her being in a cell?”

“The story we used was she was a runaway Legion cadet,” Jasmine replied, leaning subtly backward in her seat. “Which is breach of contract at the worst; it’s a legal gray area whether the Sisterhood has the authority to detain people for that. It made the perfect cover for her to kick up a fuss for half an hour and then still get to leave. Can I get some personal space, Style? I can taste what you had for lunch, here. Not everybody likes Punaji curry.”

Lore burst out laughing.

“Kid,” Style said, slowly straightening back up but not releasing Jasmine from her glare, “there are days when I think you were put on this world specifically to be a thorn in my ass.”

“I thought the expression was ‘thorn in my side?’” Tallie piped up.

“Thorn in the foot’s also used,” Ross grunted. “The ass thing is new.”

“Classic Style!” Darius chirped.

“Shut the fuck up,” Style ordered, and they immediately did; she had spoken calmly and flatly. Style cursed and yelled and threw things as part of her ordinary conversation. Everyone who survived a month of Guild apprenticeship knew to step very lightly, however, when she lowered her voice. “Lore, I can’t deal with this magnitude of horseshit. Explain their stupidity whilst I take a mental health break.”

She turned and stomped over to a cabinet against the far wall of the underground meeting room, from which she extracted a bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Lore coughed, suppressing his earlier laughter, and finally straightened up from the wall, stepping toward them. He was one of the Guild’s few actual priests, and its foremost specialist in Eserite philosophy and what little actual dogma the cult had. For the most part, that meant he stayed around the Guild’s headquarters, assisting the Boss and training apprentices.

“You kids have really stuck your collective foot in it,” he said more somberly. “You know our relations with the other cults can be dicey. There are long-standing tensions, such as the way we like Avenists more than they like us, and Vernisites like us more than we like them. In general, though, there’s a lot of widespread dislike of thieves. Lots of groups, religious and secular, have the attitude that Eserites are only tolerated because Eserion is a god of the Pantheon, and they resent having to tolerate us. And that, kids, is why any jobs pertaining to other cults are undertaken very carefully. Very carefully. Usually with the direct say-so of and organization by the Bishop and the Boss himself. Not a gaggle of out-of-control apprentices…you know, as a general rule.”

“Ohh,” Tallie said quietly, then swallowed. “Um…”

“In the time it took you to drive back to wherever you staged all this, transcribe those documents, arrange to have them delivered, and get back here, the beehive you kicked hasn’t stopped buzzing. Sweet has already had an earful from Bishops Throale and Syrinx. The Universal Church has gotten involved, trying to smooth things over, and the Boss has been fully occupied keeping some of our hotter heads in check, because all they can see is spellflingers and soldiers getting up in the Guild’s face apparently on their own initiative.”

“Oh, fuck,” Darius mumbled.

“WELL SAID,” Style thundered, slamming the bottle back onto a shelf and turning to glare at them. “Let’s have a little pop trivia! Who can tell me under what circumstances it is acceptable for the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild to have to clean up after a pack of goddamn apprentices?”

“Um…none?” Tallie ventured.

“Wrong! Who else wants to try?”

“Well,” Jasmine said carefully, “I suppose, theoretically, in a situation where the Boss himself was considered corrupt—”

“Jasmine, it’s a constant mystery to me how you can think so goddamn much and never about the right things. Anybody else got the answer I’m looking for?”

Ross hesitantly raised a hand. “…fucking none?”

“WINNER!” Style shouted, pointing at him.

Lore shook his head. “Look… How the hell did you kids find out about this in the first place? Shenanigans between elements in the Sisterhood and the Collegium aren’t the kind of thing into which random junior Eserites normally have insight.”

“Well, actually, that was just a right place, right time sort of deal,” Tallie said almost timidly. “See, our friend Schwartz is in the Emerald College, and he’s been involved in both interfaith relations and disseminating supplies. Apparently it was all part of his own plan to get to know Eserites, which, I guess, worked. But he mentioned he’d been seeing some funny activity…”

“And then there’s our other friend Rasha,” Darius added. “Who happens to have insight into some of the alchemical reagents the Avenists use, you know, cos he goes to them for—I mean, she—they… Dammit! I knew her all of a week the other way, why am I still not used to that?”

“Because you’re a clod,” Layla said fondly, ruffling his hair.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said quickly before Style could swell up any further, “has treatment sessions with the Sisterhood as part of transitioning. She’s not using alchemy yet because they do very thorough counseling before starting on that, but she talks with the sisters about the program, and they’ve mentioned there are unexplained shortfalls in some of their alchemical supplies.”

“Which was the other thing with which Glory helped,” Layla continued primly. “She really is the most fabulous source of gossip, and I enjoy very much being a guest at her salons. There, I heard rumors about some unexpected personnel changes in various cults; individuals who are known to favor the Universal Church have been maneuvering into positions where they serve as the intermediaries between cults. It’s all very subtle, and might never have been noticed at all except one has some kind of feud with the Avenist Bishop, who made noise about this particular priestess horning in on her territory, so to speak. Even so, only the sort of people with whom Glory associates follow these dealings. If not for our very fortuitous acquaintance, the likes of us would never have learned of this.”

“But we put that together, saw a pattern, and looked further,” Jasmine finished. “Black market dealings, places where those mislaid alchemical supplies might have been turned into untraceable cash. Pick’s connected to those, and he helped us out.”

“Surprisingly decent little prick, in his way,” Tallie added thoughtfully. “Prob’ly just cos he owes us for getting him away from those dwarves, but still.”

“Mm,” Lore grunted. “Well, you kids do impress. That was good work, spotting an opportunity and finding a way to exploit it. But what you should have done when you figured out something was fishy was go straight to Style with it. Apprentices have no business messing in other cults’ affairs.”

“But we were helping them!” Layla protested. “At least—”

“The man didn’t fucking stutter!” Style snarled. “Apprentices have no fucking business fucking around with other fucking cults’ business! You don’t help them, you don’t thwart them, you stay the hell out of their shit entirely! If you spot something fucked up going on in another Pantheon cult, or between two of them, you bring it to the Guild. The Boss will decide whether it’s something we need to intervene in, and if so, how. Not. You.”

“I realize we emphasize independence and distrust of structures,” Lore said much more gently. “It’s an understandable mistake; most of the time you’re expected not to bother the Boss, or rely excessively on the Guild. But for exactly that reason, in the few areas where the Guild does need to be involved, we take it very seriously when people go off on their own and create exactly these kinds of problems.”

“Sorry,” Ross mumbled.

Style snorted and threw up her hands, but Lore nodded gravely. “I believe you. Look… This was overall damn fine work, all right? You planned and executed an extremely neat job, and that after making excellent use of your connections and available resources. But you acted without considering the ramifications, or the role the Guild would have to play in this. That is what we can’t have.”

“And before you start getting big heads,” Style said, “he was warning you, not praising you. That’s a dangerous spot to be in, kids. If you’ve got the skills of Guild members and don’t grasp what it means to be Guild members, you’re a potential problem, if not a threat. People who land themselves in this position and don’t straighten the fuck out usually end up getting dealt with in other ways.”

Tallie swallowed heavily again. “Um…”

“No, I’m not threatening you,” Style said with a sigh. “If I thought you were gonna be that kind of problem, I’d be kicking your asses, not telling you about it. You’re students; I’m teaching. Now you understand where you went wrong. Fix your shit.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said quickly.

“I believe you,” Style replied. “Which just leaves the matter of putting this right. For now… Just leave it alone. Stay close to the Guild and wait for orders. Since you little shits are the ones with firsthand knowledge of what went down, you’re likely to be part of the process of smoothing it over, but first the Boss and the Bishop need to figure out what’s what and how to straighten it out. In the meantime, wait. And for fuck’s sake, behave yourselves.”

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Okay. And…since we’re not being punched, what’s it to be? Are we going to be scrubbing the kitchens again?”

“Jas, shut up,” Darius hissed.

Style rolled her eyes. “Punishment is for assholes; dumbasses get correction. You never have figured out the difference, Jasmine. No, when I said you were gonna make this right, that is what I meant. Now you understand how you fucked up; once you do your part to fix it, that’s that. Abusing you further isn’t gonna accomplish anything. All right, enough. Get outta here and stay in this district until I tell you otherwise. And I suggest you keep in mind that malice accounts for the lesser part of all fuckups. Trouble is much more often caused by stupidity. You wanna avoid getting in trouble, fucking think.”

“Surprisingly good advice,” Darius murmured as they filed hastily out of the room before Style could change her mind.

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed as quietly. “Actually, it reminds me of another teacher of mine. She’s fond of saying much the same thing.”

“But with less cussing?” Tallie asked with a grin.

Jasmine sighed. “It…depends.”


“I know you’re well aware of the phenomena, Professor,” said Wrynst, the designated spokesman of the group. “Demons which bleed or otherwise dispense bodily fluids inflict infernal corruption on whatever the substance touches—yet when they are killed on this plane, the bodies dissolve into ash which leaves minimal corruption behind, and in some cases none. In order to be magically reactive, spell components harvested from demons must be taken while the demon was alive. Yet, sapient demons which can use infernal magic mostly leave behind intact bodies, which may or may not be infernally active, depending on the situation. Vanislaads in particular appear to leave behind a fully intact body, and the very same demon may return later to this plane in a new body, while their previous one might still exist here. Altogether the nature of demons’ connection to magic, to life, and to this plane is not understood. We have only lists of observed effects and no understanding of the underlying principles involved.”

“Yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said neutrally, interlacing her fingers and regarding him over them. “And of course, you know why that understanding is lacking, even after thousands of years.”

“Actually, Professor, for most of that period, infernal magic was considered far more dangerous to use than it is today, and understanding of its use was correspondingly lacking. Until as recently as the Hellwars, ‘warlock’ was considered synonymous with ‘servant of Elilial,’ because no one without that goddess’s specific protection could even touch the infernal and not combust or mutate on the spot. The word itself is said to mean ‘oathbreaker,’ as the only people to whom it applied had specifically betrayed the gods. Now, though, there are not only the Wreath, but also organized warlocks in the service of Salyrene and many national governments and other organizations, not to mention independent practitioners—all because of the advancement of knowledge.”

“And you propose,” she said slowly, “to advance it again.”

Wrynst nodded, stepped forward, and laid a thick folder down upon her desk. “Yes, Professor. The full details of our proposal are there for you to peruse at your leisure. In brief, however, we have outlined an experimental protocol which will involve the repeated summoning of and experimentation upon lesser non-sapient demons to study the nature of their dimensional connection to Hell, and thus the nature of infernal magic itself. Katzils, mostly, as they are the most manageable. At present, infernomancy is more an art than science; its safe use is largely intuitive, and therefore difficult to teach and fraught with peril. We propose to study and quantify it. If our program meets with any success, it would be a great leap forward in magical understanding, as well as taking much of the inherent danger out of infernal magic. This will make it not only safer to use, but help in devising methods of resisting demons and their masters.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the folder without moving to touch it, then across the small knot of people assembled before her desk. Behind Wrynst stood the representatives from the factions which were backing Rodvenheim’s proposal: a warlock from the Topaz College of Salyrene, a magelord of Syralon, a robed Black Wreath cultist, and a battlemage of the Empire’s Azure Corps.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

“This is, of course, possibly the most dangerous research project ever undertaken.”

“Yes, Professor,” Wrynst said solemnly, not even quibbling with her obvious hyperbole. “We are well aware of the risks, and seek to take all possible steps to mitigate them. That fact is why this research has never been conducted before.”

“Oh, it’s been tried,” said Fedora, who was lounging against a bookcase off to the side. “By many a warlock throughout the years. In slow bits and bites over the millennia, they added gradually to the knowledge of the craft, while meeting a succession of swift and grisly fates.”

Tellwyrn shot him a brief, irritated glance, which was mirrored by each of the research delegates before her. “I’m sure this lays out your proposed containment methods. Leaving that aside, in brief, what do you intend to do about the dimensional effects of such repeated summonings?”

Wrynst coughed discreetly and glanced behind himself. At his look, Colonel Azhai nodded and stepped forward.

“In short, Professor, we intend to monitor them. This campus’s inherent protections, and the fae geas laid upon it, will do a great deal to mitigate the inherent dimensional thinning effect. Our containment protocols will do more. But as part of our research protocol, we will be closely observing the state of dimensional stability in the region. Our program calls for a cessation of summoning activity should signs of dimensional instability appear, and that only as an initial measure. You are of course aware of the methods of repairing such unintended rifts.”

“They aren’t easy,” Tellwyrn murmured.

“No, ma’am,” Azhai agreed. “Which is why our strategy emphasizes prevention. But we will be prepared to take whatever restorative action is necessary, should the need arise.”

Tellwyrn looked at Fedora and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll want to read over their protective measures, just to be in the loop,” he said with a shrug. “Ultimately, though, you know a lot more about this hoodoo than I. Suggest having Yornhaldt and Harklund sign off on it, as well. Long as everyone’s confident, that’s that.” He cleared his throat and straightened up. “I do have an additional thought on this, which I’d prefer to share with you in private, Professor.”

“Of course,” Wrynst said hastily, bowing and taking a step back from the desk. “We can come back…”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Tellwyrn. “Let’s not take up any more of your time than we must. If you will excuse us for just a moment?”

“Certainly!”

She nodded politely and gestured.

A distortion flickered across the office, as if a wall of frosted glass had appeared to separate Tellwyrn and Fedora from the guests. Behind it were revealed only vague shapes, and no sound penetrated.

“Well?” she asked, swiveling her chair to face him directly. “What do you think?”

“In short,” he said, “I think you have to go for it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I have to, do I?”

“C’mon, don’t get all Tellwyrn on me,” he said with a grin. “You’ll do what you want, and we both know it. But in this case, with regard to your stated goals for this whole program? This is just too perfect to pass up. It’s dangerous and potentially incredibly valuable if it’s a success. It’s exactly the kind of research you launched this whole initiative to do. This is the first real test of the whole plan. If you’re not willing to take this on, it all becomes kind of…moot. This research hasn’t been done elsewhere because nobody was willing to touch it. If you’re not…what’s the point of the new research division?”

“Mm,” she grunted, glancing at the obscured shapes behind the barrier, which were now shifting slightly as they interacted with one another.

“There’s more,” Fedora said in a less jocular tone. “This is also the perfect opportunity to deal with the other thing I warned you about when you hired me. It’s not only incredibly dangerous, it deals with warlocks and demons—exactly the subject that gets people riled up and frightened. It is the ideal avenue of attack for your enemies to use against you.”

“And so,” she murmured, “by controlling the path my enemies take, I control their fates.”

He tilted his head. “Huh. I dunno why it should surprise me that you’ve read the Aveniad, but it does.”

“If anything it’s more surprising that you’ve read it,” she sighed.

“Some good, solid advice in there,” he replied, winking. “Take a little time to review the proposal in detail; that’ll give me a little time to make preparations for whoever’s gonna take advantage to try it. This is it, Professor. Make or break.”

“All right,” she said, suddenly brisk, and turned back to the desk. The barrier vanished, and the assembled magical specialists turned expectantly to her. “Very well, upon consultation with my head of campus security, I am strongly inclined to endorse this program. Obviously, I will need to review your proposal in detail; there may well be adjustments upon which I will have to insist.”

“Oh, of course,” Wrynst said quickly, nodding.

“But, barring some absolute dealbreaker in the fine print, I believe you have just become the proud progenitors of this University’s first major research project. Give me a few days to review in detail, consult with my faculty and make some arrangements. I shall try not to drag my feet about it.”

“Professor, we are glad to grant you whatever you need,” Wrynst assured her, glancing back at his compatriots and getting a chorus of affirmative nods. “After all, you are being more than generous with us.”

A soft chime sounded, and everyone shifted to look at Fedora, who pulled a large silver pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open.

“Ah,” he said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Professor! You remember that thing you asked me to watch for yesterday? It’s happening.”

“What?” she exclaimed, shooting upright. “Already?”

“Yes, well,” Fedora said glibly, shutting the watch and putting it away again. “I may have encouraged it along a little bit.”

“I asked you,” she grated, “to watch for the sophomore class trying to sneak off campus, not to goad them into doing it!”

“I swear to you I’ve not said a word to them!” he replied, holding up his hands in surrender, but grinning unrepentantly. “I did, however, have a few selective words with Raffi at our poker game last night, on the assumption they’d find their way to Zaruda and onward from there. Sometimes, Professor, watching for bad behavior means strewing a few seeds. That’s how you find out which soil is the most fertile.” He winked at the delegates.

Tellwyrn growled wordlessly. “Mr. Wrynst, everyone, I’m sorry to cut this meeting short, but it appears I have something rather more urgent to attend to. If you will excuse me.”

“Not to worry, Professor, we…” Wrynst trailed off; Tellwyrn had vanished in the middle of his sentence.

“She does that a lot,” Fedora confided. “It’s all part of the charm.”

 

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11 – 42

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Trissiny exhaled sharply in relief as her boots touched down on the rooftop, though she did not fully un-tense until Kuriwa had let the rift she had opened close behind them.

“With all due respect,” she said fervently, “I devoutly hope I never have to travel that way again.”

Kuriwa gave her an amused smile. “Then, if you wish to keep making dramatic and surprising entrances, I suggest you keep company with friends who can teleport or shadow-jump. This is the best I can do with my craft; the divine offers nothing at all for rapid travel.”

Trissiny nodded, peering around to get her bearings. They were atop one of the mansion-like structures in Tiraas’s government district; just down the street, she could easily see the Svenheim embassy, which Kuriwa had just transported them into and then back out of by tunneling through a deeply creepy space between dimensions.

“I’m not sure about this morning’s work,” she murmured.

“I believe your ultimatum to the ambassador will have the desired effect,” Kuriwa replied, “coupled as it was with an alternative. Contracts for his country’s metalworkers to re-outfit the Silver Legions is by far preferable to having the Hand of Avei obliterate Svenheim’s intelligence agency. The stick always works better when the carrot is proffered as an alternative.”

“That’s what Commander Rouvad said. In almost exactly those words. That’s not really the part I’m concerned about, though.” She turned her back on the embassy, facing the shaman again. “I know Bishop Syrinx’s account of last night passes inspection, if just barely. But… Kuriwa, almost everyone we spoke with believes she honestly tried to kill Principia. And her entire squad!”

“Everyone,” Kuriwa said calmly. “Not almost. Don’t mistake Weaver’s mask of disinterest for disagreement.”

“It made sense when the High Commander explained it to me, but the more I think…” Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just not sure we did the right thing, letting her off that way. And apparently this is becoming a pattern. How many times is Basra Syrinx going to get away with literal murder and only face temporary exile or the loss of some possessions?”

“I would say,” Kuriwa mused, “that Farzida Rouvad is wiser than you, simply by dint of her longer experience. But one can be wiser and still be wrong—I know it all too well. In this case, however, I happen to agree with her assessment. Basra Syrinx, for all the disastrous potential she represents, is presently better left where she is.”

“I know why the Commander thinks that,” said Trissiny, studying her closely. “Why do you?”

“For entirely different reasons.” Kuriwa stepped over to the edge of the roof and seated herself on the low wall encircling it, tucking one leg under herself and regarding Trissiny seriously. “In fact, I strongly disagree with Rouvad’s assessment: she thinks she has Syrinx under control, and she is deeply mistaken. No, Trissiny, I am an old schemer, and I see the long-term value in this. Principia, for all her faults, is only a mere match for Syrinx because she allows herself to be constrained by her duty to the Legion and her care for her soldiers; when Syrinx pushes her too far, or when Principia advances herself enough to have the leeway, it will be swiftly finished. Then, too, the Bishop is rapidly accumulating enemies whose potency, or very existence, she does not realize.” She shook her head. “Basra Syrinx is not long to be a free agent…and perhaps, not long to be a living one.”

“So you think we should stand back and just let things unfold?”

“I generally don’t recommend that as a motivation, though as a course of action it can be valid. No… At issue is that Syrinx represents the rot that has accumulated in the heart of this Empire, as well as in the Church and the Sisterhood. Corruption, complacency, the triumph of individual profit over the greater good. It happens, when social structures grow too large. They begin to perpetuate themselves first and foremost, often at the expense of their original goals.”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “All systems are corrupt. Yes, I can’t seem to get away from that.”

“They really are, though,” Kuriwa said, smiling placidly. “Sometimes—well, often—one must swiftly excise rot when it grows. However… One treatment for infection, when magical means are not available, is to introduce maggots to the wound. They will eat the infected tissue and leave the rest healthy and clean.”

“That is revolting,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

Kuriwa shrugged. “The healing arts frequently are. So it is with other things. Sometimes, child, it is more profitable in the long run to let the rot spread, even help it along, so that it can eat away at old structures. When they collapse, new and better ones may be built. If Syrinx is simply removed as she undoubtedly deserves, well… There is nothing to stop another creature such as her climbing as high as she has, which itself indicates a serious failure of multiple safeguards. I deem it best to let her cause the destruction she inevitably will, and let the Church and the Sisterhood heal from the wounds which result.”

“That’s consigning a potential lot of people to significant pain,” Trissiny said quietly. “And possibly much worse. I’m sorry, but I’m still not sure I can stomach the cost.”

“Good.” Kuriwa nodded slowly, gazing up at her, then turned to stare down at the street four stories below. “Look at everyone, going about their day… They look so small from up here. Living too long can have the same effect. One sees the larger picture, sometimes to the exclusion of a thousand smaller ones. Having watched too many lives come and go, they begin to blur together, to lose the spark of significance… And yet, that is only perspective. None of those people are smaller than you or I, nor any less alive. We see the world differently, Trissiny, but your perspective isn’t less valid than mine. It may be less informed, but still worthwhile for that; too much information can introduce confusion. Just make sure, as much as you can, that you are thinking clearly and carefully before you act.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “That’s a lesson I’m trying very hard to learn.”

“All you can do is try.” Kuriwa unfolded herself, rising, and reached out to squeeze the younger woman’s shoulder. “For now, I believe this business is settled. Don’t hesitate to call me again if you need me, child…or if you just want to talk. I always have time for family. You can get down on your own, I trust?”

“Wait.” Trissiny turned back to her, frowning suddenly. “Before you go… What does iyai mean?”

Kuriwa tilted her head to one side, and then smiled warmly.

“It means no.”


“Man, it seems like we’ve been gone from here a lot longer than we have,” Darius commented, setting his tray down on the table in the Guild’s apprentice cafeteria and plopping himself onto the bench. “Been a hell of a few days, right?”

“I already miss Rasha,” Tallie said a little sullenly, taking the seat across from him. “I mean, I’m happy for him, I honestly am. But he’s, I dunno… Kinda the conscience of the group. Know what I mean?”

“Not even a little,” Darius said cheerfully. “Hell, Tallie, he isn’t dead. Glory said we’re all welcome to visit—if anything, he’s our in with an established Guild member with a lot of cred. Be happy he got himself a sponsor, and a cushy room in her mansion, and be happy we’ve got ourselves a Rasha!”

“Yeah,” Ross said. “Cos we’re not gettin’ sponsors of our own. Y’know that, right?”

“Thank you, Sergeant Sunshine,” Tallie said acidly.

“It’s like the Boss said,” Ross grumbled. “Politics. We’ve been too deep an’ too high up; we’re mixed up with too many big deals. Nobody’s gonna wanna touch us; no tellin’ what kinda mess we’re tangled up in, far as they know.”

The other two frowned at him, then surreptitiously turned to peer around the room. No other apprentices were sitting nearby, and no one was paying them any attention. That could have been normal, of course; lunch was always sparsely attended in the mess hall, and the Eserites in general stayed out of one another’s business—except when they didn’t. After Ross’s glum pronouncement, though, the way everyone’s eyes slid past them was suddenly suspicious and disheartening.

Their own perusal of the cafeteria enabled Tallie to spot a friend approaching, though.

“Jas!” she called, immediately brightening. “Hi! Where the hell have you been all day?”

“Hey, guys,” Jasmine said, striding over and sliding onto the bench next to Tallie. “Sorry, had family business to deal with all morning.”

“I’ll just bet,” Darius said, grinning fiendishly. “It’s okay, Jasmine—it’s always a shock to learn you’re related to a dragon fucker. That’s natural.”

“Thank you, Darius, for your concern,” she said dryly.

“Now, I don’t say that to be judgmental,” he went on, airily gesticulating with a forkful of broccoli. “I, of all people! Why, you’d be amazed how many dragon fuckers there are among the nobility. We’re the ones, after all, who are so filled with ennui from our lives of tedious, idle luxury that we may be inclined to try something ridiculous to break the monotony. Like, you know, fucking a dragon. Not to mention that our womenfolk are often bred for beauty like prize racing hounds, exactly the sort who might tend to draw a dragon’s attention. It’s a deadly combination, really.”

“Anyhow,” Tallie said pointedly, glaring at him, “Ross may be right, but we’re not out of luck. So maybe we don’t get individual sponsors, fine, we’ll live. By the same token, we’ve got friends.” She grinned. “Glory, Webs, and Grip. C’mon, we all went through hell together! I bet we can finagle some training and maybe a few favors outta that!”

“I’m not sure I’d be willing to trust everyone on that list,” Jasmine said, frowning. “Two thirds of them, in fact.”

Tallie waved her off. “Pfft, this is the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not about trust, it’s about mutual interest. They all know we can be useful—we’re good people know!”

“Also,” Darius said thoughtfully, “we were involved in wrecking two very expensive carriages belonging to a couple of those.”

“I’m sure they will forgive us!”

All four turned to stare at the person who had just plunked a tray down next to them. Layla gazed challengingly back, wearing a simple and practical dress for the first time since they had met—with no jewelry or makeup, even.

“You can all just wipe those fish-like expressions right off your faces,” she declared, spearing a bite of her own fish. “Especially you, Darius. You surely didn’t think I was just going to toddle off back to my personal hell under Father’s increasingly heavy thumb where you so blithely left me, did you?”

“Uh, Lady Layla,” Jasmine began carefully.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla wagged a finger at her, smirking. “There will be none of that lady nonsense, understand? After all, I have it on good authority that we Eserites don’t have the highest opinion of the nobility. Really, putting on airs as they do. Just who do they think they are?”

“Kid,” Tallie said more bluntly, “no. This is a bad idea. Someone is gonna break your goddamn legs within a week.”

“Well, I’m not saying I necessarily will succeed all the way to full membership,” Layla replied, shrugging. “But I’m sure the education itself will be valuable, and in the meantime it’s something to do. Something which does not involve going home. And we make a good team, do we not? You lot can show me the ropes, and I’m sure we’ll be getting into and out of just all sorts of exciting scrapes in no time at all!”

She tucked the bite of fish delicately into her mouth and chewed smugly, clearly unperturbed by their expressions of dismay. Her own expression quickly began to wilt, however, and for decidedly different reasons, as she announced after finally swallowing.

“Eugh,” Layla said, grimacing down at her plate. “This is awful.”

“Yeah,” Darius agreed, still staring at her in something akin to horror. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”


The shadows were lengthening over the prairie when the Sheriff of Port Nonsense finally headed home for the day. Aside from its amusing name, it was a frontier village much like all its kind—a small patch of streets surrounded by outlying farms and cottages, one of which was her own home. Some Imperial sheriffs preferred to house themselves in apartments attached to their offices, so as to be close to the action, but there’d been none of that to speak of in this entire region since the days of Horsebutt’s crusade. Even the Cobalt Dawn had never struck this far south, and their annihilation seemed to have deterred any other elves or centaurs from leaving the Golden Sea, a mile or so to the northwest. As such, the Sheriff kept herself in the small house a good twenty minutes’ ride from town which she and her husband had bought. There she would stay, at the very least, until her remaining child was grown enough to leave home.

Rosalind Schwartz pulled her mare up just outside the gate to her own yard, studying the unusual scene unfolding there under the orange sunset. Her daughter’s presence was typical enough; Melody wasn’t one to stay indoors, or to stay still at all, and as usual had managed to get herself thoroughly dusty and inflicted a fresh hole on the already-patched knee of her trousers. This time, though, she’d had help.

It had been a good while since the Schwartz home had been visited by a Silver Legionnaire, and this one was a more unusual sight than most.

“Footwork!” the woman said, grinning indulgently at the teenager, bracing her own feet to demonstrate and extending her sword forward. “It all starts with how you stand. Stop that flailing around, an enemy could knock you off your feet with a good sneeze if you can’t balance properly in action.”

She wore a sergeant’s stripes on her shoulder, and was an elf—a black-haired elf. Rosalind had lived here long enough to know what that meant, though she’d never suspected one of them had joined the Legions, of all things. The elf, of course, had to have heard her coming, but for the moment kept her attention on the still-oblivious Melody.

“That’s so boring,” the girl whined, brandishing the stick she was using for a mock sword. “Come on, swords! Battle! Action! How can you—”

“Because the fundamentals are how you survive the battles and action,” the Legionnaire said dryly, sheathing her weapon. “Something tells me this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about it, either.”

“Yeah, it’s even more boring when Ma does it.” Melody moodily swiped at imaginary foes with her stick. “I’m gonna enlist as soon as I’m old enough, Ma said I could. I just wanna have some adventures before I have to settle down and get all stiff and boring.”

“Military service doesn’t have a lot to do with adventure,” the sergeant replied with an indulgent smile, “though ironically, if you go into it thinking that, a stint in the Legions might be exactly what you need. Probably not what you wanted, though.”

Lucy picked that moment to snort loudly and shake her mane, irked at standing around out here when she had her stall and bucket of oats to look forward to at the end of a long day. Melody whirled, nearly overbalancing (and underscoring her visitor’s earlier point), to grin at her mother.

“Ma! Hi! We’ve got a guest!”

“So I see,” Rosalind replied, nodding at the soldier, who had turned to face her and now saluted. “Can’t say I was expecting this. I’m Sheriff Schwartz. What can I do for you, Segeant…?”

“Locke,” she replied. “Squad 391. Don’t worry, it’s not Legion business.”

“Wasn’t especially worried,” Rosalind replied, raising an eyebrow at the salute; she was discharged years hence, and anyway had been a sergeant herself. “Seeing as how the Legions have no business with me anymore. That wouldn’t be Principia Locke, by any chance?”

“Ah,” the elf replied with a wry grin, “I see my reputation precedes me.”

“She says she grew up right over there in the grove!” Melody offered brightly.

“Mm hm, so I’ve heard,” said Rosalind. “I don’t get over to visit the elves very often, myself, but I do find reason every now and again. Enough times to have heard their opinion of you a time or two…Sergeant.” She slowly raised her chin, studying the elf down her nose. “I have to say, the sight of you in that armor is very… Incongruous, that’s the word. A more suspicious person might wonder where you came by it.”

“Mother!” Melody protested, appalled.

“It’s all right,” Principia said with a grin. “Yeah, I’m well aware what you’d have heard from those rigid old trees in the grove. I probably won’t be around long enough for it to matter, but you can check up on me if you are so inclined, Sheriff. I’m with the Third, currently stationed in Tiraas; my captain is Shahdi Dijanerad. Anyhow, this is a personal visit. I was actually a friend of your husband.”

“You knew Dad?” Melody exclaimed.

“I did.” Principia turned to her and nodded. “Anton was a fine man and a good friend; I was very sorry to hear he had passed. Sorrier still that I didn’t hear of it until very recently. We’d fallen out of touch.”

“Interesting,” Roslind said quietly, patting Lucy when the mare snorted again and stomped a hoof in annoyance. “Anton never mentioned you. Not once. You seem like a peculiar thing to just forget about.”

“Yeah,” the elf replied with a sigh. “He was a great one for not mentioning things. I happened to run into your son Herschel in Tiraas this last week, which marked the first time I ever heard that Anton had a family. I never even knew he was married.”

“I see,” Rosalind stated flatly, stiffening in her saddle. “And is there…a particular reason that fact is relevant?”

Principia met her gaze directly, but sighed again. “Yes. It is. You and I need to have a long, awkward conversation, woman to woman.”

The Sheriff studied her guest in silence for a moment before speaking—to her wide-eyed daughter, not Locke. “Melody, it’s getting late, and Marjorie’s still laid up with that ankle. Go help her bring the sheep in.”

“But Ma—” Melody’s protest cut off instantly when Rosalind shifted her head to give her a look. “…yes’m.”

The teenager flounced out of the yard, shutting the gate harder than was called for, and stalked off down the road toward the neighbor’s property, just visible in the near distance. Neither woman spoke again until she was well out of earshot.

“I’ve had years to come to terms with life,” Rosalind said finally. “It’s been hard without Anton, but I stitched myself back together. And it’s not as if I didn’t know he was an imperfect man, or had my ideas about how some of his…adventures went. But that’s all history. Before you say anything else, I want you to think very carefully about what you came here to talk about. Be sure it’s something that needs to be dragged up again. Because if it’s not, and you drag it… I’m not shy about facing hard facts if I need to, but I’d just as soon not dig up the past for no good reason.”

“There’s good reason,” Principia said, her expression dead serious. “I haven’t said anything about this to Herschel, because… Well, I consider it your prerogative. You’ll know best how to raise the matter with the kids, and this is all outside my realm of experience.” She grimaced. “This is not about reminiscing, though, and it’s not just about family. There are serious, practical reasons Herschel and Melody will need to know about their sister.”

Rosalind closed her eyes for a moment, drawing in a steadying breath, then opened them and swung down from the saddle.

“C’mon into the barn,” she said shortly. “I’ve a horse to look after and evening chores to see to. You can help while you talk.” She turned her back on the elf, leading Lucy away. “Apparently, it’s the least you can do.”


Daksh sat on the pier, gazing out to sea as the sunset faded over the mountains behind Puna Dara. He had been there for over two hours when the weirdo came and sat down beside him.

After nearly a full minute of silence, he finally shifted his head to glance at his new companion, who was attired in an all-concealing robe of brown sackcloth, tightly closed over his chest. As if the deep cowl weren’t enough to conceal his identity, he had a coarse cloth scarf covering his neck and face below the eyes. His exposed hands were tightly bound in bandages.

In Puna Dara’s climate, the outfit was ridiculous to the point of suicide, even now with the heat of the day beginning to dissipate.

“Do you want to talk about it?” the newcomer said in a deep voice muffled by his absurd mask.

“Why?” Daksh asked without thinking.

The robed figure heaved slightly in what Daksh only realized a moment later was a shrug. “It can help.”

He returned his stare to the darkening horizon. Somehow, even this absurdity did not make much of an impression. “It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s the same as saying you don’t matter.”

Daksh actually laughed, bitterly. “Clearly, I do not matter. Not to my daughters, who chase me away from my own house. Not to my son Rasha, who disappeared to Tiraas to become a thief. I certainly don’t matter to any of those who used to buy my fish.”

“Is something wrong with your fish?”

“They are Naphthene’s fish now, not mine. My boat sank.” Daksh caught himself, then shook his head. “No, that is not truthful. I sank my boat. I was drunk. My family’s livelihood… No, I do not matter. Not even to me.”

There was silence for a while longer before the stranger spoke again.

“Would you like to?”

Daksh heaved a short sigh. “Ugh. Which cult are you recruiting for?”

The man’s laugh was a hoarse rasp, with a strange undertone like metal grinding on stone. The odd sound finally drew Daksh’s full attention.

“Perhaps there is a better question,” the man said. “Regardless of what…cult, or whatever else I may represent. If you could matter. If you could be strong. Fearless. Powerful. Invincible. What would that be worth to you?”

“You are mad,” Daksh said matter-of-factly.

“I may well be,” the hooded figure agreed, nodding. “My question remains.”

“If you could do this?” He shrugged. “You can’t, but if you could? Anything but my soul. That is all I have anyway, now, so it seems I have nothing to barter. Which makes two of us.”

“You are so wrong.” The robed figure abruptly stood, grabbed his coarse garment at the throat, and tugged firmly, dragging the enveloping layers of cloth from him in one improbably powerful sweep. Daksh shied away from his sudden movement, and then found himself gazing up at the man in awe.

He now wore only his arm bindings and a simple wrap around his groin, exposing the metal which partially covered him. His entire right arm was lengths of copper and steel, slightly twisted as if they had been repurposed from scrap, bound together with hinges and springs—and yet, below the wrappings on his hand, his fingers seemed to be normal flesh. Metal was his left leg from the knee down, and fragments of scrap clustered on the skin of his right like barnacles, as if peeking through from structures beneath the skin. From the artificial joint of his right shoulder, irregular lengths of scrap metal crawled across his chest, forming a very rough triangle whose tip covered his heart, over which a battered compass with a green glass casing sat.

Half his face was covered in copper plates and brass wires, including his left eye, which was a small blue fairy lamp.

“You, my friend, are not dead,” the half-metal man proclaimed, grinning exuberantly and exposing—unsurprisingly—iron teeth. “And that alone means you have much to offer. You are still a man. You still matter. You are worth preserving!”

He leaned forward, holding out the wrapped hand of his metal right arm.

“But you can always become…more.”

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11 – 41

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The cloud cover had broken not long after midnight, and the following day dawned unusually clear and cloudless for Tiraas. It was still cold, winter having apparently decided to stay now that it had come. The city itself was in fairly good shape, its army of civil servants having been hard at work through the night with salt and shovels. Only along the northern districts, where water mains had broken and frozen, was the clean-up still impeding business. Elsewhere in the city, particularly in its bustling central districts, life went on at its usual pace.

Of course, the High Commander of the Sisters of Avei would probably not have delayed her activities even for an active hailstorm, and so Principia was summoned to her office shortly after breakfast.

“He said that?” Rouvad demanded skeptically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “Obviously, I cannot attest to how serious he was or what he will do next, but Lord Vex’s exact words were ‘none of this happened.’ Considering the factions and individuals represented, I can understand how the Imperial government would prefer to avoid untangling the diplomatic mess that would result.”

“You implied there was more,” Rouvad prompted.

“Yes, Commander. The demolition of the fortress, he said, is to be recorded as a deliberate action by the Empire to remove an unsafe structure, preparatory to replacing it with a modern facility. And…he made it quite plain that, Imperial cover-up or not, the actions of everyone present would be taken into account the next time any of us have to interact with the Imperial government.”

“Splendid,” the Commander said sourly, then heaved a sigh. “Suddenly I feel a little nervous that I haven’t heard from Intelligence yet. It’s early, but I don’t believe that man actually sleeps. And he definitely saw the disruptors?”

“Saw, and demanded that they be handed over,” Principia said. “I refused. I apologize for any trouble that results, ma’am, but that seemed to me both the best thing to do given the tactical needs of the situation, and the course of action most compliant with Legion regulations.”

“That rather depends on the manner of your refusal, Sergeant.”

“I was forthright and completely honest, ma’am. I told Lord Vex those particular devices were made by me personally, on a mandate from you and using Avenist resources, and thus the property of the Sisterhood. I…mentioned that if he wanted them, he would have to take it up with you.”

“That will be an enjoyable conversation, I’m sure,” the Commaner said wryly.

“Yes, ma’am. I did not mention anything regarding how we obtained the specs for those disruptors. He will surely demand that information.”

“Then I’ll take great pleasure in passing the buck. Vex can try to drag his answers out of the Thieves’ Guild, and much good may it do him. You said there was another matter on which you wished to report.” Her eyes dropped to Principia’s hands; Rouvad had not asked about the objects she was carrying.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, approaching the desk. She reached out and carefully laid a tiny ball of lead on its surface. “I wish to put Private Lang forward for a commendation. I realize that she cannot be awarded the Red Star due to it being on a mission not disclosed even to our captain, but she was wounded in the line of duty.”

“Reasonable,” Rouvad said with a touch of impatience. “I’ll instruct Dijanerad to approve it. Is that immediately pertinent, Locke?”

“Yes, ma’am. This object was removed from her arm. It punched through her shield, through the defensive enchantments on that shield—both of which were completely destroyed by the impact—and then through her armor and bicep. By that point it had lost enough momentum that it merely broke the bone on impact rather than taking her arm off entirely. That piece of metal had to have been moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound to have that much energy behind it.”

“I see,” Rouvad said noncommittally, glancing at the object in the sergeant’s other hand. “You have some insight, I take it, into the kind of spell which could do this?”

“That’s just it, ma’am. I don’t believe there was any spell. Shahai managed to retrieve this from the snow while Zanzayed was teleporting dwarves back to the Svennish embassy.” She laid the device on the desk. It was a simple thing, seemingly little more than a short length of pipe with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism. “We have both examined it and found no evidence of enchantment present at all, though there are burn marks and traces of chemical explosive inside the tube.”

“I see,” Rouvad repeated, picking up the object and turning it over in her hands. “What do you make of it?”

“The lead ball fits neatly in that tube,” Principia said. “From there, we can deduce how it works. An explosive powder is packed into the base of it, the ball is placed in on top of that, and the powder is ignited by a sparking mechanism triggered by squeezing that switch. The explosion, contained as it is, propels the ball with tremendous force, and the length of the tube guides its trajectory.”

“Ingenious,” Rouvad marveled.

“This is extremely concerning,” Principia said, frowning. “You are of course aware that all magical shields are weakened by contact with physical objects. That thing hits with enough sheer kinetic force to collapse any shielding charm I’ve ever heard of, and probably a lot of personal caster shields. A paladin or archmage’s shield could stand up to it, most likely, but… Ma’am, I know just enough physics and math to do my various jobs, but I am pretty sure this technology could be scaled up without any real limits. A cannon-sized version of that could destroy any magical shield in existence, and any fortification behind it.”

“Dwarven engineering at its finest,” Rouvad noted. “What intrigues me most is that I’ve never heard of such a device before. I don’t suppose you’ve analyzed the explosive used?”

“Not in detail, ma’am, but I did a very basic charm test on the traces inside the tube, and I think the results were the most interesting part of this yet. No alchemical agents were present; this was a completely non-magical explosive compound, which has to be a deliberate design choice, as the effect could be achieved far more easily with enchantments. This is a non-magical and anti-magical weapon. We can’t know the range without testing it, but it’s surely comparable to conventional wands. If a force armed with these faced off against a unit of the Imperial Army, they’d have similar firepower, and the Army’s defensive measures would be useless. It would be a rout.”

“Hm.”

“Of course, as soon as they use these where the Empire can see, countermeasures will be in the works. I think they must have been desperate and planning to wipe out everyone there, to have used it in sight of us last night. But if they pick the right battle, it only has to work once. If a dwarven force were able to secure or destroy the right high-value target, they could truly change the fates of the Five Kingdoms by forcing the Empire to terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said patiently, “I find your various skills and aptitudes useful in their place, but there is something backward about you lecturing me on matters of military strategy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Needless to say,” the Commander went on, “you may consider this as classified as everything else which occurred last night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you anything else to report, sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia stepped back from the desk, leaving the lead ball and its launcher with the Commander, and stood at attention. “The fortress was destroyed by the adventurers summoned by General Avelea, at the command of Bishop Syrinx, who was sent to fetch them. According to Avelea’s plan, which Syrinx knew, my squad should have been in it when that happened.”

“And so you both improvised,” Rouvad said flatly. “Basra with her pyrotechnics and you by involving the dragon who involved the Empire whom I’ll be dealing with for the forseeable future about this.”

“Ma’am, destroying that fortress was an action with no strategic application in that situation. I believe its only purpose was to destroy us.”

“You are, in fact, my third meeting today, early as it is,” Rouvad replied. “I have already been over this with General Avelea and Bishop Syrinx, who has explanations for every one of her actions last night. Something tells me you don’t particularly care to hear them.”

“That’s correct, ma’am. With regard to—”

“Locke, my patience for repeating myself to you is thin. I’ve already made it plain I’m not having this infighting. I will deal with Syrinx, and you will drop it.”

“No,” Principia said flatly.

Very slowly, Rouvad leaned forward in her chair, her face suddenly devoid of all expression. “What did you say, soldier?”

“I said no, Commander,” Principia repeated. “Attempts on my life don’t much bother me; it doesn’t pay to take these things personally. But if that woman tries to murder my soldiers one more time, I am going to murder her right back. And the difference between me and Basra Syrinx is that I accomplish what I set out to. If you want to keep your Bishop, get her under control before someone else has to.” She saluted. “I will now report for court martial if that is your command, so long as you understand that it won’t change anything.”

Rouvad stared at her in silence; Principia stared right back. It was almost a minute before the Commander spoke.

“Do you want to be removed from the Legions, Locke?”

“No, ma’am.”

“You have what you signed up for, now. Trissiny is on speaking terms with you; let’s not pretend that wasn’t your whole purpose for doing this. So why are you still here?”

“I—”

“Tell me the truth,” she ordered. “And don’t assume I won’t know if you don’t.”

The sergeant hesitated before replying. “I find serving here…much more satisfying than I expected. And I want very much to continue looking after my girls. Their potential is enormous, but with so much arrayed against them I don’t want to leave them.”

The High Commander suddenly sighed and eased back in her chair. “Trissiny reported on your performance, by the way. She said you are insubordinate and failed to follow her orders. She also said that your strategies on the ground were better than her own, and your refusal to respect the chain of command saved your soldiers’ lives and contributed significantly to her victory. I would suspect she was sugar-coating it were that not exactly what I have observed from you from the beginning.”

Principia kept silent while Rouvad studied her thoughtfully for another long moment.

“It’s useful, having someone on one’s side who isn’t a slave to regulations and the chain of command,” Rouvad finally continued. “It’s one of the things that has made Nandi so valuable to me, and to my predecessor, and why I was so reluctant to cede her to you. As I recall, you’ve seen firsthand that I tolerate backtalk from her that would send any other soldier immediately to the stockade. But she has devoted more time and energy to the Legion’s service than all of us combined; the leeway she has is more than earned. And then there’s you.” She paused again, peering up at Principia with an expression that was almost quizzical. “That’s the damnable thing about you, Locke. You’re just so…useful. For all the headaches you cause me, I can’t help getting the impression you actually are loyal to the Legions, and you do get results. But you’re just not ever going to be a good soldier, and I think I’d get no use out of you at all if I forced you to be.”

Rouvad folded her arms on the desk and raised an eyebrow.

“Dealing with you is a lot like dealing with Basra Syrinx.”

Principia let the silence stretch another moment before replying.

“That wasn’t called for, Commander.”

“No, I’m not going to have you court-martialed,” Rouvad said, suddenly more brisk. “Instead, I shall take it as a sign of the urgency of the matter that you’re willing to risk speaking to me that way—and only because we are alone here, Locke. Open your mouth like that where anyone else can hear it and by the time I’m done with you, I promise you will be grateful for the mercy of standing before a military tribunal. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is it believed?” Rouvad said more pointedly. “You think you’re smarter than I—don’t deny it. But I did not become the mortal leader of the cult of war without being as crafty and as ruthless as the situation demands. I certainly wouldn’t be keeping a creature like Syrinx on a leash otherwise. And let’s not forget the weight my words have with the only person alive whose opinion matters to you enough that you’d subject yourself to all this.” She smiled, as cold as the snow outside. “I can hurt you, Locke, if you make it necessary. So don’t.”

“…yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

“And just keep away from Syrinx, for now,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation and what she did, and she as usual has conjured sufficient justification to evade official censure for her actions. The thing she and you have in common is that you both seem to think I can’t punish or contain her under such circumstances.” She straightened up in her seat, that frosty little smile returning to her face. “You’re both wrong. Basra is being dealt with as we speak, by one of my more…unconventional assets.”


Basra whirled, scowling, when the door of her office was opened without the courtesy of a knock, but quickly marshaled her expression when she saw who had walked in.

Trissiny was still wearing her street clothes and slightly battered coat rather than the silver armor, and hadn’t removed the dye from her hair—yet there was a distinctive change in her demeanor. She had put enough effort into cultivating a casual, non-military bearing that her stiff spine and purposeful stride were now all the more distinctive for their return.

As was the black bird perched on her left shoulder.

“Good morning, General Avelea,” Basra said smoothly, shutting the cabinet in which she had been digging and stepping away to meet her guests. “And…Mary, always a pleasure. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you again so soon.”

The crow ruffled her feathers, but remained mute.

“Good morning, your Grace,” Trissiny said, staring pensively at her. “Sorry to interrupt so early in the day, but I have a full list of errands myself and I hoped to catch you before you headed to the Church.”

“Not at all, my time is yours,” Basra replied. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”

Trissiny tilted her head, making no move toward the proffered chair; on her shoulder, the crow mimicked the expression, which would have been comical if not for the suddenly fraught atmosphere.

“I wonder if you could clarify your tactics for me,” said the paladin, “as an experienced commander to one still learning. What purpose did the destruction of the fortress serve?”

“Considering our list of allies and enemies,” Basra replied immediately, “and the likelihood of those extremely professional dwarves discerning your procession’s goal and moving to intercept you, I realized, upon reaching and surveying the field, that that fortress was just waiting to be used as an ambush against you. Had they reached it first, your attempt to secure it would have led to your group’s downfall. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of any of this in the first place, but I was unfamiliar with that old ruin before seeing it for the first time last night.”

“I should mention,” Trissiny said quietly, “I have already spoken with Joe, Mr. Weaver, and their other friends this morning. None of them reported any sign of dwarves reaching the fortress. They simply said that you directed it to be destroyed.”

“And that bloodthirsty little gnome was more thrilled than I have ever seen anyone to oblige,” Basra said dryly. “Honestly, I was expecting her to start a fire or something. How or why she had munitions of that quality on hand I’m afraid even to ask. But the result was satisfactory. The purpose was to deny the enemy a fortification, not catch them in it; acting before they arrived was thus the entire point. You know this very well, Trissiny, it’s basic military strategy. The general who prepares the ground ahead of the battle controls the field.”

“And,” Trissiny said more quietly still, “according to my orders, Squad One would have been in that fortress at the time.”

“According to your orders,” Basra said with an indulgent smile, “there would have been no dragons and no Imperial presence. Your ambush would have succeeded, thanks to the adventurers you sent me to rally and my initiative in removing that fortification. Zanzayed was…overkill. And involving Vex will carry a hefty political price for all of us. I did not anticipate that, exactly, but I expected things to go south if we assumed Locke’s part in the plan would be carried out correctly. Believe me, Trissiny, I know how Locke thinks.”

“Did you scout,” Trissiny asked, “to make sure the squad was not inside?”

“We observed no tracks,” Basra replied. “In that snow—”

“In that snow, tracks would have faded quickly; it was still coming down.”

“Not that heavily, and only two of the squad are elves. Six women in full armor would leave easily discernible tracks—”

“And so you checked every approach to the fortress?”

“Why on earth would they have circled around to the back?” Basra tilted her head in a mimicry of their earlier gesture. “I must say I’m sensing a little hostility, here. Everything went exactly as I expected, and according to my plan—with the exception, of course, of Locke’s needless complications. Had it been any other squad, I would have considered it a risk. That woman is congenitally unable to do as she is told.”

“I came here,” Trissiny said, “hoping you would help me understand why such a risk was warranted. I confess that I’m still not there.”

“Perhaps,” Basra said more firmly, “you should be mindful of your own preconceptions. I understand you may have an emotional attachment to Sergeant Locke, that’s only natural. Just…don’t forget what kind of creature she is, Trissiny. Her interest in your existence began when you became someone it was politically useful to know. She is only here because of that, because she sees in you the chance to advance herself. Don’t let her deceive you.”

“I won’t,” Trissiny replied, smiling thinly. “Her, or anyone else.”

Basra sighed. “I see you’re not convinced. I have been over this in more detail with the High Commander already this morning; she accepted my reasoning. If you doubt me, I encourage you to take it up with her. And it might profit you to ask her opinion of Principia Locke’s performance as a soldier while you’re there.”

“Right,” Trissiny said, nodding agreeably. “You have all the angles covered just enough that nobody can authoritatively call you down. Well done.”

“I don’t think that tone is necessary,” Basra said mildly.

The crow suddenly emitted a soft croak, and very gently pecked at Trissiny’s ear, then turned her head to jab her beak toward the door.

“Well, then,” Trissiny said, smiling again. “I suppose that covers what I came to ask. I also wanted to offer a word of advice, Bishop Syrinx: you should not assume you’re the only one who can make things mysteriously explode.”

Basra raised one eyebrow. Before she could speak, however, the rapidly approaching sound of pounding boots echoed from the hall, through the door which Trissiny had left open a crack. The Bishop turned, frowning, and stepped toward it to investigate.

The boots skidded to a stop outside and the door was yanked open to admit Private Covrin, breathless and disheveled. “Your Grace!” she panted. “The—they sent—I mean, I only just learned, I’m sorry for the delay but I think my message was intercepted—”

“Spit it out, Covrin!” Basra said in exasperation. “Sometime today!”

“Ma’am,” her aide said desperately, “there’s a fire. At—at your house.”

She gazed nervously at the Bishop, still regaining her breath, but Basra had gone completely still and expressionless. Slowly, she turned to stare at Trissiny.

The paladin had stepped to one side, and was now trying to roll a doubloon across the backs of her knuckles. She went at it with excruciating slowness, clearly unpracticed in the maneuver, tentatively shifting the coin one finger’s increment at a time.

At Basra’s stare, she looked up and smiled. “Well, that sounds rather urgent; don’t let me keep you any longer. Excuse me, private.”

Covrin stepped aside to let her leave, and both of them stared after the departing paladin in silence.

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11 – 40

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Both carriages careened to a halt, Vandro’s skidding slightly. Tallie and Schwartz both had to cover their eyes against the sudden brightness; the roar of the explosion was enough to blot out even Meesie’s screeching.

One of the passenger doors on the front carriage swung open and Vandro himself stuck his head out. “What the hell—”

Wilberforce leaped from the driver’s seat, pivoted even as he hit the ground, and lunged back into the passenger compartment, dragging Vandro bodily with him.

“DOWN!” Schwartz tackled Tallie right off the roof before she could recover her equilibrium. Landing was instinctive to her, though it got a lot harder with a gangly witch coming down on top.

“Oof!” She pushed him away. “Have you lost your—”

“DOWN DOWN DOWN!” he bellowed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her bodily at the side of Glory’s carriage. “All of you STAY IN THERE!”

Schwartz dashed to the open space between the two carriages, braced his feet, and made a double-handed lifting motion as if hoisting something heavy above his head.

Shafts of rock burst out of the ground at a steep angle, hurling clouds of snow into the air; more followed as Schwartz continued to gesticulate, grimacing, until after a few seconds he had drawn up a serviceable barricade extending up at a forty-five degree angle and blocking the ruined fortress from their view.

He was barely in time.

With a roar that put the initial explosion to shame, debris plummeted down in a massive wave, peppering the entire landscape with shattered masonry and old timbers, several of them on fire. Schwartz’s improvised rock barrier took a pounding; several large chunks broke off and one of the stone spires was broken entirely, falling to crush one fender of Vandro’s already-bedraggled carriage.

Tallie’e yelp of terror was lost in the noise; she wiggled under Glory’s carriage, arms reflexively over her head, and did not peek out again until the quiet which followed had held sway for a few seconds.

“Is it over?” Rasha asked tremulously from inside.

“Should be,” Schwartz said breathlessly, “for now. But stuff doesn’t just blow up. Somebody did that, and they have to be nearby.”

“Thanks,” Tallie said to him as she dragged herself out by one wheel. “How’d you…know?”

“It’s called fallout. My job and my religion involved being around a lot of experimental magic,” he said wryly, reaching up to soothingly pet Meesie, who was scampering back and forth along his shoulders in agitation. “Believe me, I know my way around explosions.”

“Fine work, my boy,” Vandro stated, emerging from the carriage and peering around at the damaged rock barrier.

“Hell yes!” Darius added more energetically, bounding out after him. “I told you we needed to keep this guy around! How ’bout sticking with us permanently, Schwartz? I don’t have the means to pay you a salary, but I can incentivize. You need any favors done? Pockets picked? How’d you like to marry my sister?”

“I can hear you, you preposterous oaf,” Layla snarled, leaping down from Glory’s carriage.

“Enough,” Glory said firmly, descending after her. “We are still in a predicament, here. This was our rendezvous point, and I think we have to assume we’ve just lost our reinforcements.”

Tallie gasped, turning to Jasmine, who had just emerged from the carriage and rushed to the edge of the rock barrier, staring at the burning ruins with a hollow expression. “Oh, Jas…”

“No time.” Jasmine shook herself off, turned and strode back to them. “Glory’s right; we’re now on the defensive. I suggest we pile back in and keep going. Whatever thinning of their numbers we have done tonight, it’s best to assume they have more—someone had to have done this, as Schwartz pointed out, and I’ve no way of knowing which if any of the help I called for got here…” Her voice caught momentarily. “Or survived.”

“Well, we may have a problem, there,” said Vandro. “Little did I know our boy Schwartz could do this kind of defensive magic; soon as we saw that tower go up, Wilberforce activated the shield charms on my carriage.”

“Whoah, wait, what?” Schwartz turned to frown at him. “You can’t shield a moving carriage—how’d you get around the magical interference?”

“That’s just the point, son,” Vandro said, grimacing. “I didn’t. Turning that on fried the wheel enchantments.” He patted the carriage’s abused fender. “I’m afraid this old girl isn’t going anywhere else tonight.”

Grip sighed, flicking a glance across the whole group as the lot of them finally piled out of the carriages. “Well, staying here isn’t a prospect. We’re sitting ducks in a snowstorm. Stay together and head for the treeline, the forest will hamper pursuit.”

“What if we went into the fortress?” Layla suggested.

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. “It’s not as if they’ll expect that, and it can’t be as dangerous as who knows how many armed dwarves!”

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

The others followed her line of sight and turned to face it at varying speeds, Jasmine and the senior Eserites fastest. A line of squat figures had appeared in the darkness just ahead; thanks to the still-falling snow, they were nearly upon them before being visible, the crunch of multiple sets of feet not audible until the last moment thanks to the wind across the open space and the sound of fire raging not too far away in the ruins.

By the time they were close enough to be seen clearly, it was apparent that more than half were carrying wands.

One figure near the middle removed his hat and casually tossed it to the snow behind him with one hand, clutching a wand with the other. The face thus revealed was familiar to several of them.

“Quite the exciting evening,” Rogrind said flatly. A hint of the jovial politeness he had always displayed to them remained, though it was a clearly strained veneer over simmering anger, now. “You know something, I do believe my greatest regret about all this is that I won’t have time to sit you ruffians down and make you understand just how much harm you have caused over the course of these events. Well, second greatest. You’ve manage to kill some good people tonight.”

“The harm we caused,” Tallie snapped, “by refusing to roll over like—”

“Young lady,” the dwarf growled, “shut up. You were seen bringing several of the modified staves which started all this idiocy into those vehicles. Despite everything, I am willing to offer you terms: hand them over, and we will leave without doing any further harm to anyone, because we are still—still!—the civilized parties here.”

Grip slowly panned her gaze across the assembled dwarves, then caught Jasmine’s eye and tilted her head at them significantly. There were fifteen present, all garbed in inconspicuous winter attire, an even mix of men and women. Eight had wands pointed at the party. Jasmine nodded once in acknowledgment of Grip’s point: only four had the same calm, alert aspect as Rogrind. The rest were visibly nervous, uncertain, in at least two cases seriously frightened by all this. Civilians, somehow drafted into his campaign. Dwarven sturdiness or not, this was an army that would break at the first sign of significant threat.

Wands shifted as Schwartz made a sudden gesture with his hands.

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

Whatever he released spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, causing luminous butterflies of multiple colors to appear in the air around them, as well as illusory stalks of greenery popping up through the snow and an incongruous scent like sun-baked grass and flowers in the summer.

One panicked dwarf fired her wand at Schwartz, followed by another. No one else tried, as both weapons sparked ineffectually, the first actually igniting its owner’s sleeve and causing her to drop it with a shriek and tumble over, burying her arm in the snow.

“Those of you with wands, don’t fire them,” Schwartz said aside to his companions before turning his gaze fully on Rogrind. “I see you didn’t take our little discussion to heart. I’m afraid I was quite serious.”

Meesie leaped down from his shoulder of her own volition, actually vanishing deep into the snow and leaving a rat-shaped hole in it. An instant later, snow was hurled everywhere as she burst up into her much larger form, shook her mane, and roared.

Three more dwarves tried to shoot her; all ended up dropping suddenly-hot wands that wouldn’t fire, one also having to roll in the snow to put himself out.

“Good boy,” Grip said, stepping forward with a truly unhinged grin. She had somehow slipped on two sets of iron knuckles and produced a brass-studded club the length of her forearm from one of her pockets. Jasmine paced forward in unison, both Butlers positioned themselves pointedly in front of the group, and Meesie crouched, wriggling her hindquarters in a clear gesture of imminent feline attack.

Two of the dwarves turned and ran; most of the rest shuffled backward, looking around in alarm, and incidentally placing the hardened professionals among them on the front lines.

“Have it your way,” said Rogrind with a clear note of belligerent satisfaction.

As the two fronts collided, there came a sharp retort like a small explosion nearby, and Meesie howled in pain, vanishing from her lion form instantly. That was as much time as Jasmine had to notice the others before Grip was fully occupied dealing with two hard-eyed dwarves, and she found herself face-to-face with Rogrind himself.

He suffered one slash from her sword across his chest, and she realized her misjudgment a moment too late. First, he had some kind of armor under his coat, and second, he was good at personal combat. Stepping into her swing as it raked him, he positioned himself perfectly and slammed his fist into her ribs just under her sword arm. She managed not to drop the blade, but he hit like a mule’s kick; she staggered sideways, gasping for breath and in pain. Years of training and her innate agility kept her from losing her footing entirely, even in the snow, but Rogrind continued to defy the stolid dwarven stereotype. He pressed her, striking bare-handed; she gained a few feet of breathing room by dodging to one side and stabbing him in the upper arm. He bared his teeth in pain, his left arm suddenly bleeding profusely and hanging useless, but was too disciplined to let it stop him.

Despite the past few seconds’ education in his surprising level of combat ability, she was still unprepared for his speed. He bulled forward as swiftly as a pouncing cat, using his weight and lower center of gravity to tackle her bodily around the midsection and bear her to the ground. Jasmine twisted, trying to bring her blade back into play, but he caught her wrist. It was with his injured arm, but thanks to the famous dwarven sturdiness, he had strength enough to keep her pinned down. She clawed at his eye with her other hand, but he turned his head aside even as he slipped a stiletto from his sleeve, and a moment later she had to grasp his descending wrist to protect her throat.

That close, in a wrestling match, he was considerably stronger than she. Her arm strained to hold it off, but the blade descended inexorably.

She gritted her teeth and reached for the light inside her. There was a time to break cover, after all.

“IYAAAAIII!”

Rogrind jerked his head up, then released her and tried to stumble back, not quite fast enough. The lance that flashed down at him nailed him directly in the shoulder. It didn’t penetrate deeply enough to stick, falling out as he continued to reel backward, but left him gushing blood and with two injured arms.

A second later, Principia’s boots sank into the snow on either side of Jasmine’s head, the elf landing protectively over her from what had to have been a long leap. She surged forward, drawing her short sword and slamming her shield against Rogrind. He was too heavy for the slender elf to physically force back, but she was a whirling storm in Legion armor, pounding with her shield, jabbing and slashing with the blade, and he had no choice but to retreat after his only counterattack, an attempt to grab her shield, ended with a stab through the forearm that put his right arm fully out of commission.

More boots crunched in the snow, and then Squad One was surging past her, forming themselves into a phalanx with their sergeant at the tip. She still didn’t have her lance, but held her blade at the ready.

“Right face, shield wall!” Principia barked, and they seamlessly formed up, allowing Rogrind to scuttle away in the snow and shifting their arrowhead formation to a solid line of shields, bristling with lances, and facing the rest of the dwarves. At this development, the two who were harrying Grip also released her, backing away.

“Wait!” Rogrind said, weakly holding up his left hand, the only one he still could. “Wait! We have no argument with—”

“CHARGE!” Principia roared, and the squad raced forward.

That was too much for most of the remaining dwarven conscripts, who scattered in all directions, leaving only the few who were engaged in melee with the other Eserite apprentices, none of whom appeared to be very effective. Jasmine rapidly assessed the battlefield and bit back a curse; the Butlers, easily their best physical asset, were hovering protectively over their charges rather than contributing on the front lines. Meanwhile, golden shields of light had flashed into being around the dwarves still standing their ground.

An instant later those shields vanished, prompting exclamations of surprise. Glory and Rasha were leaning out the door of her carriage, each with a disruptor still aimed.

Six armored women collided with seven dwarves, who would have proved heavy and braced enough to break their charge completely, had they not been running spears-first. Four of the dwarves went down, so thoroughly impaled that in falling they wrenched the weapons from their owners’ grip. The rest reeled backward in disarray.

Rogrind, though, had found a moment to reach into his coat with his weakened left hand. Jasmine could make no sense of the small object he withdrew and held out, but an instant later it produced a puff of smoke, a flash, and an explosive crack just like the one which had sounded before Meesie was felled.

Merry Lang screamed as she was flung backward out of formation, spinning around to land on her side in the snow.

“Not. Another. Step,” Rogrind snarled, twisting to point his mysterious device at Principia.

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

More dwarves, nearly a dozen, paced forward out of the swirling snow, grim-faced and armed. They came from the direction of the road, and several were clearly injured or with disheveled clothing, as if they had limped away from wrecked carriages.

“Where do they keep coming from?” Schwartz muttered, Meesie again perched on his shoulder. He held a fireball in his right palm, balanced to throw.

“I have had enough of this,” Rogrind panted, turning to the others. “You may fire at—”

A blast of wind hurled a wall of snow over him and directly into the faces of the newly arrive dwarves. Two more wands were discharged; the bolts flew wide of the Eserites, though several of them dived to the ground anyway.

Suddenly, as if the wind had been a signal, it stopped snowing. In the absence of the thick fall of flakes, a line of six people were visible, approaching the group from the north. On the left end of their formation was Kuriwa, just now lowering her arms after calming the storm.

In the center, sword in hand, behind a glowing shield of gold, stood Basra Syrinx.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a satisfied little smirk, “I believe you can discern friend from foe? We do not require prisoners. Destroy them.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” drawled the man on the opposite end of the line from Kuriwa, an older gentleman of Western descent carrying a mage’s staff and smoking a cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But I do believe the Sisterhood’s doctrine of war requires a clearly overmatched enemy be offered the chance to surrender?”

Basra gave him an irritated look past Joe, who stood next to her, but nodded. “Yes, in fact I believe you are correct. Very well. Your attention, miscellaneous dwarven rabble! I am Bishop Syrinx, of the Sisterhood of Avei and the Universal Church. With me are my very good friends the Sarasio Kid, Tinker Billie, Gravestone Weaver, Longshot McGraw and Mary the Crow. Ah, good, I see you understand what those names mean.”

The dwaves, indeed, had whirled to direct their aim at Syrinx’s reinforcements, now completely ignoring the Eserites, and even the cold-eyed professionals among them were visibly alarmed. One of their few remaining conscripts appeared to be weeping softly.

“If you do not instantly drop your weapons and surrender,” Basra continued pleasantly, “you will be scoured off the face of the earth with both efficiency and relish. And if, by some unthinkable miracle, you insist upon a firefight and manage to win, be assured that my goddess’s attention is fixed upon these events, and you are meddling in matters you do not understand.” Her eyes flicked rapidly from Principia to Jasmine and then back to Rogrind.

Nandi and Ephanie were both kneeling in the snow beside Merry, who was alive and monotonously cursing despite the crimson stain spreading through the snow around her. Principia had eased backward out of the remains of Squad One’s formation to hover near Jasmine.

“Win here,” Basra said, her voice suddenly as icy as the night air, “and there will be nowhere for you to hide. You may be able to bamboozle Imperial Intelligence, but you are not a match for Avei. If those weapons are not on the ground in the next five seconds, everyone dies.”

“How the hell,” Tallie hissed at Jasmine, “do you know all these people?!”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only know Joe. Guess we should be glad he has friends, too.”

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

“Well, this is altogether unfortunate,” Rogrind said with a sigh.

“They’re government intelligence on a sanctioned op,” Grip whispered. “Shit. They can’t be taken alive. Everybody down!”

She was right; the dwarves, in unison, raised their weapons again. Joe, Billie, and Weaver did likewise.

And then the whole earth shook.

He dived down so rapidly they didn’t even hear the wind of his approach until he struck the ground hard enough to knock several of them right off their feet. The whole assemblage turned in unison, gaping in awe up at the enormous blue dragon suddenly standing a bare few yards away from them.

He swiveled his long neck around to lower his angular head directly into their midst, and bared rows of arm-sized teeth in a truly horrifying smile.

“Good evening. Nice night for it, eh?”

“By the way,” Principia said to Jasmine, “in addition to not positioning my squad in that fortress where Syrinx knew we were supposed to be, I took the liberty of calling in some additional reinforcements of my own. I apologize if this disrupts your plans.”

“Ah!” At her voice, the dragon twisted his head around to face her from a few feet away. “Prin, there you are! I must say, you throw the most terrible parties. Why is it, cousin, I only ever see you when people are getting shot in all directions?”

“C-cousin?” Jasmine’s voice jumped an octave in the course of one word and then cracked.

The dragon turned his sapphire eyes on her. “Hmph. That sounded like an exclamation of surprise. Been keeping me a secret, Principia? A less charitable person might think you were embarrassed to be related to me.”

“Well,” Principia said glibly, “I guess a less charitable person might have met you. How is she?” she added, turning away from the dragon.

“I have rarely seen anything like this injury,” Kuriwa replied. Somehow, in the intervening seconds, she had moved from across the battlefield to Merry’s side, and now paused in working on the fallen Legionnaire. “It is not excessively difficult to heal, however. Here. This was lodged in her arm.” She handed a tiny object to Principia, then lifted her head to smile at the dragon. “And hello, Zanzayed. It is a great pleasure to see you again.”

The dragon shifted to stare ominously at her. “Oh. You.”

“Since we are both in the vicinity,” she said calmly, returning her attention to Merry, “I hope you will find time to catch up. We so rarely get to talk anymore.”

He snorted, sending a blast of air over them that was hot enough to make the snow steam and smelled of brimstone and, incongruously, spearmint.

“Well,” Zanzayed huffed, “this has been fun, and all, but I’m just the transportation, here.”

He lowered his body to lie in the snow, revealing for the first time a man in a dark suit perched astride his neck, who had been hidden by the dragon’s wings. Now, he slung his leg over and slid to the ground, where he paused to straighten his coat.

“Uh oh,” Principia muttered, her eyes widening. “I didn’t order that.”

“Good evening,” said Zanzayed’s passenger, striding forward. “I am Lord Quentin Vex, head of Imperial Intelligence. With regard to this matter, I speak for the Emperor.”

He paused to sweep an expressive gaze around them, at the dwarves, the Eserites, the Legionnaires and the adventurers, all of whom had gone silent and still, staring back in alarm.

“His Majesty,” said Vex, raising an eyebrow, “requires a god damned explanation.”

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The carriage attempting to flank them on the left suddenly skidded, veering back and forth as its driver fought for control. There had been no sign of magic used that was visible from within the passenger compartment of Glory’s vehicle, but Schwartz had told them that with so much snow already in the air, manipulating ice to deprive their pursuers of traction would be one of the easiest spells available to him. He was probably responsible for the sliding of that carriage, since he apparently did nothing to prevent the other one from pulling up almost even with them.

Rasha had snatched up one of the wands Glory had distributed and now pushed open the window, stuck it out and fired.

The lightning bolt flew wide, sparking against a tree trunk in passing, but the pursuers fell back slightly, rather than try their luck against random wandshots. The Eserites didn’t have a better angle of fire without opening the doors to lean out, the rear window being fully attached to the frame. Rasha jerked back in, leaving the window opening and ignoring both the snowflakes and icy wind which blew in and Layla’s shriek of protest at them.

“Here,” Glory said in the momentary lull, tugging a piece of the seat beside her. A section of it slid partly forward, exposing a hidden compartment, into which she reached to pull out a gold-hilted Avenic short sword in a glossy leather sheath. She handed this to Jasmine. “Best to be prepared.”

“What in the world is she going to do with that?” Layla screeched. “Has everyone forgotten what century it is?”

“Not much use right now,” Jasmine allowed, “but the plan is to engage them on foot at the end of this.”

“She can do more damage with that blade than you can with a wand,” Glory added.

“Hold on!” Rasha shouted.

The carriage at which he’d fired approached again, this time almost directly from behind, cutting off the view of the truck bringing up the rear; the angle kept it out of the way of wandfire from their windows. All four of them looked back at Rasha’s shout, then braced themselves barely in time to keep their seats as the pursuing vehicle slammed into their back right fender.

The carriage rocked, but Smythe kept it on course, quickly adjusting out of the resulting skid and then accelerating until they were very nearly tailgating Vandro’s carriage up ahead. The dwarves’ vehicle did not fare so well from its attack; it swerved and barely kept from sliding off into the trees, forced to drastically reduce speed to regain control and compelling its own allies to quickly maneuver out of the way. It had lost one front lamp in the impact.

“Falconer traction charms really do beat Dawnco,” Jasmine muttered, still gripping the bench. “I know someone who’ll be smug…”

In the meantime, the carriage first deflected by Schwartz had recovered its traction and was coming up again; Rasha and Glory both shifted to the opposite side, ready to lean out the windows with wands. The window next to the driver’s seat on the oncoming carriage opened as well, and a bearded dwarf leaned partially out, aiming a wand of his own at them.

“Get down!” Jasmine shouted.

Before they could, however, a tiny streak of red struck the dwarf directly in the beard, and while he flailed, bounced into the driver’s compartment of his vehicle.

An instant later, the compartment was literally full of a huge, glowing cat.

Meesie’s roar was audible to them even over the road noise; her sheer bulk popped open both doors on the vehicle’s driver bench. The driver kept his seat, barely, though his passenger was flung out into the road, and immediately run over by the pursuing truck, which rocked alarmingly but did not capsize or lose significant traction. Meanwhile, the carriage with Meesie in it now lit up a fierce gold as multiple occupants channeled huge amount of divine magic. It had the desired effect; the elemental vanished with a bellowing yowl of protest, but that was an empty victory. The carriage itself veered entirely off the road even as she disappeared, spinning about ninety degrees and toppling over on its side, where it continued to skid on the snow until its front fender smashed against a tree.

“One down,” Glory said with grim satisfaction.

“Oh, no.” Layla pressed both hands to her mouth; in the brief time between Schwartz’s arrival at the townhouse and their departure, she had been immensely taken with the tiny elemental. “Oh, poor Meesie.”

“She’s fine,” said Jasmine. “According to Schwartz, if damaged enough to disappear she’ll just come back to—look out!”

The other carriage had pulled forward again; this time, one of its passenger doors swung wide open, and out leaned a dwarf clearly being held by another inside the compartment, considering he had both hands occupied aiming a battlestaff at them.

All four hurled themselves to the floor as lightning flashed past outside.

More bursts of white light flickered through their windows, accompanied by the crack of thunderbolts and the deeper retorts of trees being struck by the discharges, but nothing hit their carriage. After a few more seconds of this, Jasmine warily crawled up onto the back seat to peak out the window.

“He’s missing,” she reported.

“Well, obviously,” Layla said scathingly. “Why is he missing? Did they designate their only blind confederate as the trigger man?”

“The lightning bolts are being diverted away!” Jasmine replied, grinning.

“Bless that witch,” Glory said fervently, lifting herself back into the seat and retrieving her wand, which she had dropped in her lunge to the floor.

“Yeah,” Rasha agreed, peeking warily out beside Jasmine. “The question is, how long can he keep that up?”

Suddenly their carriage shook under the thump of something impacting the roof, and swerved momentarily before Smythe got it back under control.

“And what the blazes was that?” Layla cried.


Perched precariously atop Vandro’s speeding carriage with one hand clutching the edge of the roof and the other holding to her staff, Tallie watched the confrontation behind them with a lot more worry for her friends in the line if fire than her own very immediate prospects of falling to a particularly ugly demise. Heights and unstable footing were downright comfortingly familiar to her. Granted, speeding down a dark highway in a snowstorm was new, but hey, you had to shake up the act now and again or the punters got bored.

She grinned savagely as the first pursuing carriage went down. In the next moment, though, she reflexively ducked, nearly losing her footing, as lightning began to flash around to the side. It kept shooting off to the left of Glory’s carriage, and it took only a moment’s study for her to understand what must be happening. She could see Schwartz, silhouetted in the glare of the truck’s powerful lights, standing upright somehow despite the snow, wind, and motion of the carriage. He was also holding one hand forward toward their pursuers.

Tallie didn’t know a thing about witchcraft, but she knew how exhausting anything that demanded concentration and physical stamina could get. And she knew what would happen when Schwartz’s energy flagged. How far were they from the point Glory had suggested?

The gap between their vehicles had narrowed when Smythe pressed forward to gain room, but now Wilberforce began to accelerate, pushing Vandro’s carriage to a truly dangerous speed in order to create space between them again. The gap began widening, and Tallie came to an abrupt decision.

She didn’t bother trying to get a running start; she could never have kept her balance doing that under these conditions. Instead she slid her body forward, planted one foot against the rear edge of the roof, and kicked off as powerfully as she could without sacrificing her footing.

The moment of arcing through the snowy air above the highway was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating of her life.

She had misjudged the jump slightly—forgivable, under the circumstances—and slipped upon landing, coming down on her knees instead of her feet. The pain was sharp and bright, and Tallie ignored it completely, being fully occupied with losing neither her staff nor herself over the side. Throwing her body flat, she managed to grasp one edge of the carriage’s roof, dig one toe in against the ornate molding lining it (bless Glory’s extravagant tastes), and stop her horrifying slide over the edge. For a moment she clung there, one foot hanging over the windscreen probably right in front of Smythe, before rallying and pulling herself back up to kneel. This position put more pressure on her already-traumatized knees, which she continued to ignore.

Tallie looked up in time to spot Schwartz glancing back at her; he quickly returned his attention to their pursuit, but at least that mean she could speak to him without accidentally frightening him off the roof. He struck her as being of a generally nervous disposition—or at least, had before she saw this performance.

“I thought you couldn’t use an energy shield on an enchanted carriage!” she shouted over the wind.

“Arcane shields, no,” he replied, strain evident in his voice. “Not shielding, anyway, redirecting. Lightning is practically natural, easy to do with my craft… If they’ve got a proper enchanter wand in there, we’re in serious—”

He broke off suddenly, falling to his own knees and holding out his other hand. Only when another barrage of lightning bolts went flashing harmlessly off to the opposite side of the carriage did she realize that their pursuer’s opposite door had opened and another dwarf was attacking them with a wand.

Meesie, who had been too small to be visible from Vandro’s carriage ahead, squealed furiously at Tallie, despite having to cling to Schwartz’s collar with all four paws to avoid being blown away.

“Now,” Schwartz snarled, “would be…a good…time!”

Tallie was already bringing up her staff; she had to creep forward till she was next to him and take aim from right under his arm to avoid the very real prospect of blasting him point-blank, given the way their perch was rocking.

She had never fired a staff before; she’d fired a crossbow, though. This had much less recoil, which seemed ironic.

Tallie wasn’t a great shot, but she managed to rake the side of the carriage, causing the dwarf with the wand to fall out with an audible cry. The carriage itself bucked from the impact, its upper left edge a scorched ruin and actually on fire in a couple of places, but the driver regained control and kept on after having to sacrifice a few yards of proximity. That was still easily within staff range.

Given that only one side in that firefight had any defensive measures, that pretty much decided the matter.

The barrage coming at them from the dwarf’s staff intensified so much that the weapon had to be in immediate danger of overheating; clearly their foe could analyze the tactical reality just as well. Tallie’s second shot punched right through the windscreen, though not on the side where the driver perched. She had been aiming for the driver’s seat, but these were hardly optimal shooting conditions. Her next shot at the driver didn’t hit him, either; their carriage bumped right as she fired, causing both herself and Schwartz to slide terrifyingly backward, and her staff jerked straight down as she fought for balance.

However, that meant the shot blasted one of their pursuer’s front wheels clean off.

The carriage crumpled forward onto itself like a horse with a broken leg, its fender plowing into the highway and causing its back end to reel upward. Too close to avoid it, the following truck plowed right into its ally, the driver managing to swerve only just enough to make the collision relatively indirect. It finished the work of smashing the vehicle, though, and knocking it fully off the road.

The truck came on, now missing one of its brilliant running lamps, but apparently undeterred.

“Nice shot,” Schwartz said breathlessly. Meesie squeaked and nodded.

Tallie grinned at him, not about to argue despite that shot being a complete accident. “Not so bad yourself. Hang tight, though, we’re not nearly out of this yet.”


“I say, is this ominous?” Layla asked nervously, peering through the rear window at the sole remaining lamp of the truck following them. “I mean, it seems odd that we’re doing so well. We are outnumbered, and I learned long ago to be suspicious of anything that seems to be going like a bard’s story.”

“A rider is only as good as his mount,” Glory replied calmly. “Those are cheap, mass-produced vehicles acquired locally for the sake of anonymity. Our carriages were the absolute top of the line even before Webs and I commissioned our various personal enhancements, and both are being driven by Butlers. No, this is proceeding more or less as I expected. The real test will come once we’re off the road.”

A persistent chiming rapidly grew in volume and their carriage swerved to hug the right edge of the road, following Vandro’s ahead, and followed a moment later by the truck behind. Another vehicle shot past them on their left—actually moving far slower than they, but quickly lost behind due to their speed, along with the sound of its driver frantically yanking his alarm bell in panic.

“That’s an important reminder,” Jasmine said grimly. “Storm or no storm, this is a public highway scarcely a stone’s throw from the Imperial capital. It’s amazing there’s not more traffic.”

“What do you want to bet that guy goes right to the nearest police with this story?” Rasha asked. “I mean, even if he couldn’t see the damage to these carriages, he’s about to pass two wrecked ones that have obviously been shot, and probably bodies in the road.”

“All according to plan,” Glory said soothingly, patting Rasha’s shoulder. “Official vehicles will be out soon anyway; this storm came on quickly, but they try to keep up a presence in dangerous weather in case anyone needs help. Secrecy is more than we can hope for. Remember, getting the Empire involved will be to our benefit. It’s the dwarves who attacked first.”

“Which means,” Jasmine reminded them, “they have an urgent need to stop us before the Imperials catch up.”

“It’s that thing I want to know about,” Glory murmured, staring back at the truck through narrowed eyes. “Those little Dawnco rigs didn’t last long, which was no surprise. That one, though… What have they got in there?”


“Why are we slowing—oh.”

Schwartz turned to face forward as the carriages decelerated. Up ahead, lights rose through the gloom, and after only moments longer the forest fell away to both sides.

Imperial foresters kept the immediate surroundings of Tiraas as pristine and natural as possible, a policy established by Emperor Sarsamon, the founder of the Tirasian Dynasty, but this forest was scarcely a century old. Before that, Tiraan Province had been thoroughly settled farming country, but during the Enchanter Wars battles had torn up the landscape, and in the lawless and tax free years which followed, much of the land had been despoiled by opportunistic companies, strip-mining and mass-logging until the once-proud capital stood surrounded by a virtual wasteland. Tirasian conservation efforts or no, however, this was still a populated region; the cities of Tiraas, Anteraas and Madouris stood quite close together, and there were numerous smaller towns and villages in the vicinity. The highway now passed straight through one.

Here, even more than in the capital, people had retreated inside to escape the cold, dark, and the rapidly thickening blanket of snow which had piled nearly a foot deep in only a few hours. It was far from deserted, however. Lights blazed from many windows, and as the quality of the highway’s paving improved with its transition to village main street, regularly spaced lamp posts appeared lining the way.

Two people were trudging along the snow-buried sidewalk, heads down and hands jammed in coat pockets; they ignored the short convoy of enchanted carriages which now passed through the town, having decelerated to a speed that would not garner attention. Another man stood on the corner of a cross-street, however, smoking a cigarette. Or at least he had been; it was blown from his fingers into the slush-filled gutter by an errant gust of wind, which he appeared not to notice, being occupied staring at their procession.

The two lead carriages were both clearly expensive, though Vandro’s also bore the significant scars of its rough treatment back in Tiraas. The hulking delivery truck bringing up the rear had also taken a beating, its front fender totally smashed by the recent impact with the wrecked Dawnco sedan, the lamp on that side torn clean off. Only Glory’s carriage bore no signs of damage. It did, however, have Schwartz and Tallie sitting on the roof, in the snow, he with a cheerfully burning little elemental on his shoulder, she clutching a battlestaff.

In the light of the village’s street lamps, they could, for the first time, see the dwarf ensconced in the truck’s driver seat. He tipped his hat politely to the staring man as they passed.

“We could make a fuss,” Tallie said quietly. “There must be police close to here, either Imperial or House Madouri. Tell ’em what’s been going on…”

“Glory picked out a destination for the ambush,” Schwartz replied quietly. “Jasmine has a plan, and anyway, we’ve got allies waiting for us who will be left high and dry if we don’t show. At least one is a friend of mine. Besides,” he added, directing a scowl at the truck behind, “I think Jasmine’s plans can be trusted, as a general rule.”

Catching his look, the dwarf driving the truck smiled and waved at him. Tallie calmly made a crude gesture in reply.

“Did you know Jasmine before we all wound up in that jail?” she asked him.

Schwartz grinned in spite of himself. “Well, I mean, sure. We were all in that warehouse before we were in jail.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped.

“Yes, I do,” he said more soberly, not meeting her eyes. “And no…I didn’t.”

“Mm.” Tallie studied him critically, the light fading around them; they were already moving toward the opposite fringe of the village. “And yet, you know something about her that I don’t?”

Schwartz glanced at her, then shifted uncomfortably. Meesie turned to give Tallie a look, pointed one paw at her and squeaked a warning.

“Mm hm,” Tallie said smugly. “Ah, well, people keep reminding me others are entitled to their secrets.”

“It’s probably significant if people have to keep reminding you of that,” Schwartz said pointedly.

“Let’s table this for later,” she suggested. “Sound like it’ll be a fun argument, and right now I just don’t think we can spare it the attention it deserves.”

Up ahead, Wilberforce signaled the end of their reprieve by pouring power into the wheels, his carriage blazing off into the darkness. Smythe kept Glory’s smoothly right behind it, and for a few moments they started to leave their pursuer in their wake. After dropping back until the truck’s remaining lamp was almost a pinprick, though, it began rapidly swelling again. The truck could not match a Falconer carriage for acceleration, but even with the best available traction charms and Butler drivers, everyone’s top speed was limited by what they could safely do in the snow and the darkness. In only another minute, the truck was once again bearing down on them.

Now, however, the vehicle emitted a sudden bang, and the flat roof of its cargo compartment—which made up the majority of its size—suddenly shot into the air, falling to the road behind them.

“Oh, what the hell now,” Tallie groaned. “Look at the size of that thing—they could have a mag cannon in there!”

“You can’t put magical artillery on top of anything running on wheel enchantments, either,” Schwartz said pedantically even as he stared at the truck. There was definitely some kind of mechanism in it; groaning and clacking noises were emerging, loud enough to be clear despite the wind blasting past them. “Mag cannons work by channeling a burst of otherwise standard wandfire through two tiny dimensional portals affixed back to back, which exponentially increases the power using the ambient energy that causes the universe itself to function. Most of a mag cannon’s bulk is the charmed apparatus that safely contains those spells, and even so, unstable portals mess up all kinds of other charms, especially anything designed to be specifically mobile and adaptive. Believe me, the military would love…

“Why in hell’s name does he think I care about this?” Tallie muttered to herself, taking aim with her staff. Meesie glanced over at her and shook her tiny head.

This time, her shot was true and struck the target head-on, but this time, it accomplished virtually nothing. Lightning veered off course, arcing over and into the open back of the truck.

“What the fuck?!” she screeched.

“I say, how clever!” Schwartz exclaimed.

“I thought you said you can’t shield an enchanted carriage!”

“You can’t, the innate wear on shields increases hugely at the speed carriages travel, and more importantly the necessary phasing to allow airflow catastrophically disrupts wheel enchantments—” He noticed her glare and broke off, wincing. “Ah, yes, but anyway, that’s not shielded, it’s got a lightning rod!”

“What the f—I thought those have to be grounded!”

“They do!” Schwartz said enthusiastically. “Which means it’s being redirected into some kind of power storage unit inside the vehicle! If I could only get to it, I could easily overload the thing—”

They both had to drop down and hold on for dear life as the highway went into a wide curve; despite Smythe’s obvious skill at the control runes, the carriage skidded, only righting itself properly once the road straightened out again an interminable few seconds later. At least the same disruption put a temporary halt to whatever was going on in the back of the truck, though the loud ticking and grinding resumed almost immediately.

“Then you’d be in there when it blew,” Tallie pointed out when she felt she could spare the attention for talking.

“Hmm.” Schwartz scowled back at the truck. “I bet I could get Meesie into there, but with no way of knowing exactly what she’d find, it’s impossible to give her the right tools or instructions. She’s not a very adaptive oh come on, are you kidding me?!”

The machinery finally revealed itself, a huge apparatus rising up above the truck’s driver compartment, its wide arms snapping outward and locking into place. It truly was an ingenious piece of engineering, and altogether remarkable that the dwarves had such a thing on hand. Of course, as military hardware went, the thing was so outdated the Imperial Army would have scoffed at it, but in their present situation, there could be no doubt what the ballista would do to their carriage at that range.

A bolt almost as long as Schwartz was tall was already locked into place; the pointed end aiming at them had been machined in a spiraling pattern like the head of a screw.

Tallie fired her staff right at it, with exactly the same disappointing result as before.

Schwartz, however, stood upright and held his hand aloft; after a second’s concentration, a ball of fire burst alight in his palm. Before the ballista could fire, he hurled it directly at the front of the truck.

The fireball missed the driver compartment, but impacted the truck directly on the flat wall behind it. Like nearly all carriages, the truck’s body was made of wood, and whatever lightning-deflecting apparatus it possessed did nothing at all against fire.

The truck’s frame caught as if soaked in oil; clearly Schwartz’s weaponized fireballs were packing more than just fire. Blazing merrily and spewing smoke, the truck kept after them without so much as slowing. And the entirely metal structure of the ballista itself was visible through the flame, still aimed right at them.

Another loud cranking noise sounded from within.

“Dodge!” Tallie screamed at the top of her lungs, throwing herself flat and pounding a foot on the roof of the carriage. “DODGE!”

The sound the ballista made was oddly melodic, though far too deep and powerful to be rightly called a twang.

Smythe got the message; the carriage abruptly swerved as widely as the space of the highway would allow.

Tallie felt the wind of the massive projectile whip past her. If she had not lain flat and if Smythe hadn’t adjusted their course, it would have gone right through her body. The bastards were either worse shots than she, or weren’t even aiming at the carriage.

There came a crash from ahead, followed by the screaming of braking wheels on the highway, and she turned her head to look, horrified by what she might see.

Vandro’s carriage was not a loss, however. The ballista bolt had grazed it, ripping off a chunk of its roof, but Wilberforce fought it back into a steady course even as she watched. Smythe had to decelerate sharply to avoid plowing into his rear fenders, causing Tallie and Schwartz to slide toward the front of their rooftop.

“All right, that is it!” Schwartz growled, and hurled Meesie at the truck.

She transformed in midair, plummeting to the road to land directly in front of it. The truck did not slow.

Its front bumper, what remained of it, crumpled completely upon impact with the huge cat; the truck rode high enough off the ground that she was swept beneath it rather than smashing directly through its body. However, in that form, Meesie was too big for its wheels to simply roll over.

The entire truck bucked off the highway, veered, skidded, and flew into a spin. As their carriages accelerated away, their pursuer was traveling completely sideways when it finally toppled over, smashing the intricate collapsible ballista protruding from its bed, still burning fiercely.

Tallie’s scream of triumph managed to compress a surprising number of obscenities into only a few seconds. In the middle of it, Meesie popped back into existence on Schwartz’s shoulder, herself emitting a shrill tirade that sounded unmistakably of cursing despite containing no words.

“Look!” Schwartz shouted, pointing ahead of them. The forest opened up to reveal a broad field; Wilberforce and then Smythe slowed their respective vehicles, turning through a gate which lead into the middle of it. If there was a road, it was completely buried under the snow. Up ahead, there loomed the landmark Glory had pointed out to Jasmine as the ideal ambush point: an old fortification from the Enchanter Wars, abandoned but left there by the Imperial government as a reminder. Its crumbling battlements covered nearly an acre, with the round central structure rising five stories from its center almost wide enough to appear squat.

“We made it!” Schwartz crowed. “Principia and her squad are in there waiting for us!”

Before she could even reply, the night lit up like noon.

The size of the explosion was such that the century-old fortress dissolved entirely in a column of fire.

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11 – 38

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Behind Glory’s property stood a stable with a walled yard attached, its gated drive leading onto a little side street shared with her next door neighbor, opening onto the street proper. The stableyard was crowded to the point of bustling, now, as the entire household sorted themselves into the two enchanted carriages waiting at idle, their enchantments powered up to warm them before embarking. Both Glory and Vandro drove late-model Falconers, though hers was a smaller, sportier model without as much passenger space. Layla’s horses were carefully bedded down in warm stalls; though Glory herself did not keep animals, she maintained facilities for guests who did.

“Interesting girl, that one,” Vandro mused, watching Jasmine talking quietly with Schwartz and Glory by the door of the other carriage, the girl apparently showing them how to work one of those disruptor staves she’d brought back from the Temple of Avei along with her witch friend. “Got brains and muscle, but clearly isn’t the ringleader of this little pack. Doesn’t wanna put herself forward. No, I’d peg little Miss Tallie in that role—or she will be, when she grows into that bluster of hers. Frankly, those two are the only ones I mark as having a future in the Guild. The boys are sadly unremarkable.”

Wilberforce, sitting beside him on the carriage’s driver bench, cleared his throat softly, directing his face toward Grip, who lounged by the gates, watching him watch Jasmine. Vandro gave her a grin and a wave; she made no response to this, and after a moment pointedly turned her head away.

“I trust, sir,” the Butler said softly, “that you noted Miss Tallie’s remark about the Avenist Eserite mother.”

“Mmm.” Vandro took a swig from a silver hip flask, smiling to himself. “Now, we know damn well from our research that Keys doesn’t have a daughter—or at least, not one that she raised. That business with House Takhvaneh ’bout twenty years back, though… Everybody figured she nixed the pregnancy first chance, but Jasmine’s the right age, and I’d believe from her looks she’s a half-elf. Thrown away by her shiftless mother as a baby, just now trying to reconnect… Why, there’s just all kinds of ways for that to go badly, eh? Especially with the right encouragement.”

“Conversations between her friends have hinted at an Avenist upbringing,” Wilberforce noted. “A possible motivation for Locke to seek out the Sisterhood as she has.”

“I didn’t miss that either, old friend. Keys, it would seem, wants this a lot more than the girl does. How delightfully fraught with possibility.”

“There is also the fact,” Wilberforce added dryly, “on a less optimistic note, that you tend to get along poorly with Avenists.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” Vandro said with a sigh. “Well, hell, I’m not too old to make a few compromises. These kids are a lot more interesting than the momentary convenience I thought they were at first. We’ll have to work on cultivating ’em. Assuming, that is,” he added cheerfully, “we don’t all get murdered by dwarves tonight.”


“Hey, uh, Jasmine?”

She paused, having been about to climb into the carriage after making her farewells to Tallie, Ross, and Darius, who now strode up front to join Grip at Vandro’s carriage. The larger and more powerful of the two, it had been designated to carry more of the group. Schwartz was hovering by the rear fender of their own ride, looking nervous.

“Are you all right?” she asked, then winced. “Well, I mean, apart form the obvious. Believe me, there’s no shame in being apprehensive about something like this.”

He actually barked an incredulous little laugh, while Meesie squeaked reproachfully at her. “Oh, no, nothing like… Well, actually, I am quite nervous, that’s true. After Athan’Khar, though, this really isn’t so bad as all that.”

“Athan—wow.” Jasmine blinked. “You’ll really have to tell me that story someday.”

“Actually, I think I really will,” he replied, his expression growing grimmer. “That’s where I first met Bishop Syrinx…among other things. Look, that’s what I actually wanted to talk about, uh, Jasmine. I haven’t found a moment to grab your ear since the temple, and something about that Grip woman makes me think sharing possibly personal information in her hearing isn’t the best idea…”

“You’ve got good instincts,” she said with a sigh.

“It’s just…” Schwartz awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. Meesie stood up to tug on his ear and point at Jasmine, squeaking encouragingly. “Well, frankly, I think you were a little too hard on Principia. She means well, and that thing with the Bishop… Well, trust me, she is fully entitled to feel hostile. I don’t think you quite appreciate just how…” He paused and swallowed heavily. “Just what Basra Syrinx is like.”

“I have some ideas in that direction, in fact,” Jasmine said quietly, nudging the carriage door fully shut. “That was the whole point of that, Schwartz.”

He blinked. “I, uh…how so?”

“Of the two of them, Syrinx is the one who worries me,” she said seriously. “Locke is…well, she has more than her share of faults, but I know pretty well what they are, and she’s not a danger except to people who deserve it. It was Syrinx I needed to land on to bring her in line. And if I’d done that while going easy on Locke, Syrinx would have made her pay for it later, when I wasn’t there to see. She would almost have to, given the way she thinks. I tried to put them on equal footing to protect Locke, and I’m trusting her to be clever enough to have picked up on that.”

“Oh.” He blinked again, twice. “Oh, I see. Well, um… I quite frankly would never have thought of that.”

Jasmine shook her head. “Neither would I, not so long ago. We really do need to have some longer conversations about this, Schwartz.”

“Right, yes,” he agreed. “But…clearly not tonight.”

She smiled, opening the carriage door. “We’ll just add that to our reasons to be certain to survive, eh?”

After she had climbed in and shut the door behind her, he shook his head and began clambering up to the top of the carriage. “Well, I thought I had plenty of those, but I suppose a bit more can’t hurt.”

Meesie ran a complete lap around the top of his head, chattering her agreement.


Night and the snowstorm had reduced the streets of Tiraas to a lamp-lit netherworld; even more windows than usual blazed with light, as if those within sought to fight back the cold by sheer volume of fairy lamps. Outside, however, the city was nearly desolate compared to its usual level of activity. Pedestrians were almost nonexistent, the few other carriages about moving slowly and cautiously in the snow. Twice on their way to the west gate, they passed carriages that had skidded off the road and collided with lamp posts, one having demolished a row of mailboxes in the process. In both cases, military police and the presumed owners of the vehicles were standing by them, competing to look more put out. Compared to the mess Tiraas usually faced in the winter, this storm was downright gentle; there was little wind and no ice, just thick snowflakes continually tumbling down. After hours of this, though, the snow was accumulating to a difficult depth.

“This could be trouble,” Glory murmured, shifting the curtain with one finger to study the passing scenery. “I expected more activity on the streets than this. If we are caught in an area where there is no one to see…”

“Tiraas is the heart of the Empire,” Jasmine said. “The Tiraan Empire is the predominant nation in the world. The center of human civilization never sleeps. And this city of all places is used to snow; everyone was just unprepared by the mild winter. It won’t be shut down that thoroughly. Look, there are people around, even if only a few, and the police are patrolling more than usual. As long as we don’t venture into side streets like they caught us in last time, it should be fine.”

“This is a main street, right?” Rasha asked nervously. “The one going right from Imperial Square to the west gate?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Glory with a smile. “If Tiraas is the Empire’s heart, this is one of its arteries. Jasmine is probably right; I just can’t help feeling a little nervous. I’m accustomed to sitting in the center of my web and letting the trouble come to me.”

“I am sorry to involve you in all this,” Jasmine said quietly.

“I’m not,” Glory replied without hesitation, absently squeezing Rasha’s shoulder. “This needs to be done, and anyway, I clearly needed to be shaken out of my routine. It’s a terrible sin for an Eserite to grow complacent.”

“They still back there?” Rasha asked tersely.

Jasmine, who was sitting on the front bench facing backward, nodded, her eyes flicking to the rear window. “Still keeping pace.”

“Uh oh,” Glory said suddenly, again looking past the curtain. Layla, Rasha, and Jasmine all crowded over to see.

Another carriage had suddenly pulled up out of an intersection and was keeping pace alongside them, not quite close enough to be menacing. Its driver’s bench had its windscreen and canvas top raised, but as they stared, one of its side windows swung open, revealing the face of a female dwarf, who gave them a pleasant smile and casually held up a wand.

Glory pulled back the curtain entirely, smiled back with equal politeness, and lifted her hand to deliver an obscene gesture. Rasha barely suppressed an outburst of nervous laughter.

“They’re too good to make a mistake like this,” Jasmine murmured. “If they didn’t ambush us before we got out of your neighborhood, they won’t here. We’re obviously making for the gates; much more opportunity outside the city.”

“Unless they know it’s a trap, of course,” said Layla. To the annoyance of virtually everyone, the young noblewoman seemed to find this whole affair to be splendid fun.

“And that’s where our current measures—ah, there we go,” Jasmine said in satisfaction as the current measures went into effect.

Up ahead, one of the doors of Vandro’s carriage had swung open, and Tallie leaped out, catching the lip of the roof with one hand and nimbly swinging herself up top, clearly not encumbered by the full-length battlestaff she carried. There, she dropped to a crouch, aimed the staff directly at the new carriage, and lit up behind a sphere of blue light which sparkled continuously as snowflakes pelted it.

Snow wasn’t as bad as rain, but a personal shielding charm wouldn’t hold up long in this weather. As the seconds passed, it became increasingly clear that what protected her was not an ordinary shielding charm.

Enchanted carriages could be outfitted with much larger and more potent power crystals than they needed, which then could be keyed to any number of enchanted devices carried within range of the carriage itself—such as energy shields. This was military gear, and while its use in civilian carriages was not a criminal offense, it definitely violated the enchanted vehicle safety codes, not to mention any insurance policies on the vehicle in question.

Quite coincidentally, both Vandro and Glory’s personal carriages had these devices installed and ready to run. The carriages themselves, unfortunately, could not be shielded, as for some reason that interfered with the enchantments powering their wheels; even Tallie’s bubble hovered closer to her than normal, to keep it out of range of any important systems it might damage.

Beside their own carriage, there suddenly paced a glowing red lion nearly as large as an ox. Meesie turned her maned head to growl at the dwarves, loud enough to be plainly audible in both vehicles even over the hum of their wheel charms and the sounds of slush being crushed beneath them. Though they couldn’t see it, Schwartz up top would be doing something to show off his magic, too.

The carriage immediately veered to put a lane’s worth of space between them, and fell back to drive parallel to its counterpart a few yards behind.

“Yeah, you’d better run,” Layla said, grinning.

Jasmine gave her a quelling look, which she appeared not to notice, before replying. “If they attack us now, where the police will intervene, we win—they set that up themselves by facing down the Guild the way they have. They’re not backing off because they’re afraid, Layla; they’re encouraging us to stand down our defenses and not attract the military police. No, this is how all cons are structured. You have to present the mark with the opportunity to put one over on you. We’ve made it plain we’re ready for a fight; they don’t know just how ready we are. They think we are riding into their trap, and once we do, we’ll spring ours.”

“And…just how many cons have you run?” Layla asked pointedly.

Jasmine grimaced. “Uh, this will be my first.”

“I see,” the aristocrat muttered. “Well, I suppose our lives are a sufficient stake. Doesn’t the Guild traditionally start apprentices off stealing, I don’t know, pocket change? Fruit from street vendors? Candy from babies?”

“It’s a good grift, regardless,” Glory said firmly. “No plan survives contact with reality, but we are well-prepared to improvise. That is the important thing.”

“I see the gates up ahead,” Rasha reported. “And Tallie’s shield is off again. Just the two carriages after us, still…”

“The gate guards may stop us,” Layla said, frowning.

Glory smiled. “The gate guards aren’t going to intervene as long as Meesie is back to mouse shape and Tallie isn’t showing off a shield that works better than it should in the snow. The sheer amount of traffic in and out of this city inevitably makes it impossible to scrutinize anyone too closely.”

“Traffic’s pretty light,” Rasha said, frowning nervously.

“But habits endure,” said Glory. “Anyway, if we are stopped, we have our cover story. Two wealthy dilettantes and their entourages repairing to our estates in Madouris after a most unsettling encounter with dwarven toughs. Shock, dismay, and so on. Still, I’m quite certain they won’t trouble us. Both these carriages are, if I say so myself, distinctive…”

“Wait, what about highway patrols?” Layla interrupted, watching the gates draw closer ahead. Traffic had, in fact, thickened, though that only meant there were four other carriages visible, none driving close enough together to force anyone to slow down in the snow. “Surely roads are heavily monitored this close to the capital…”

“Actually,” Glory said with a smile, “the capital itself is directly administered by the Silver Throne, but the lands outside it are part of Tiraan Province, governed by House Madouri. Among the new Duchess’s reforms has been the dismissal of most of her father’s rangers and public guardsmen, whose primary skill was taking bribes.”

“Oh, splendid,” Layla huffed, folding her arms. “Then we shall only meet bandits. Well, I’m sure we can handle those.”

“There are no bandits in Tiraan Province,” Glory said, now openly amused. “While the new Madouri guard corps is being trained to her more stringent standards, Duchess Ravana has made a standing contract with the Thieves’ Guild chapter in Madouris. Guild thieves who apprehend highwaymen will be compensated equally to the value of whatever was stolen, plus a bounty, and she prefers that the courts not be burdened with prosecuting such scoundrels when their heads will suffice to prove the cessation of their activities.”

“That,” Jasmine said with a grimace, “is just begging for the worst kind of abuse.”

“For a run-of-the-mill criminal cartel, perhaps,” Glory replied, shrugging placidly. “The Guild acts out of principle, however, and the Duchess has played to that perfectly. Boss Tricks has made it very clear that her offer is not to be abused in any way. Between that and Ravana making sure this arrangement is an open secret in the province, the highways around Tiraas are actually safer than under the old Duke’s administration.”

“She sounds quite the charmer,” Layla said, looking pointedly at Jasmine, who made no reply.

The gate guards did not even flag them to slow. Apparently, two luxury carriages (one with significant physical damage) with armed individuals sitting on top did not warrant closer inspection, a fact upon which Layla commented with some asperity as they eased carefully onto the bridge across the canyon.

“Well,” Glory said idly, “some of us have standing arrangements with gate guards, as I was trying to say earlier. Any Eserite who moves in circles of a certain class, really. I would be astonished if Webs weren’t fully paid up with the local constabulary. He does so love spending his money on bribes.”

“I guess if the dwarves really wanted to put us neatly out of the picture,” Rasha murmured, gazing out the window at the dizzying drop into blackness just beyond the bridge rails, “this would be the place.”

“Oh, what a lovely thought,” Layla exclaimed. “Really, thanks ever so.”

“You have to climb to get off the side of this bridge,” Jasmine said with a smile. “And those walls are more than sturdy enough to absorb collisions.”

“It ends up being tested more often than you’d think,” Glory added. “In fact, the Emperor is rumored to be drawing up legislation governing the use of enchanted carriages, requiring one to pass tests and obtain a license to drive.”

“That sounds like an entirely superfluous administrative burden,” Layla sniffed.

Beyond the bridge was another walled and gated town guarding the approach to Tiraas, and beyond that, the Imperial highway extending forward into snowy darkness. The road forked just beyond the outer gates, heading westward toward Viridill and north to Madouris. The provincial capital was a proverbial stone’s throw from Tiraas itself; each city was visible from atop the other’s walls. From the ground, however, in the dark and in the snow, with a stretch of forest bracketing the road ahead, there was no evidence of civilization once the outlying farms and shops petered off into the dimness.

Both carriages accelerated as they eased past the last fairy lamps into the tree-lined woods, trusting their wheel enchantments to keep them grounded. A few ruts had been carved through the white blanket ahead by other vehicles, but no effort had yet been made to clear the road, and they threw up sprays of snow to both sides as they went.

Behind them, there were now three carriages pursuing. Two were cheap Dawnco sedans of the type which had intercepted them in the city, while another stood taller and more squared in shape; it was hard to tell from ahead, with its lamps shining directly in the eyes of anyone looking back, but it appeared to be a delivery truck.

“I really hope your other allies got themselves into position,” Layla said tersely. “Otherwise our evening is going to be rather more brief than we had hoped.”

“They wouldn’t let me down,” Jasmine murmured, her eyes glued to the pursuing vehicles. “Any of them. They know where to go. We just have to hold long enough to get there.”

Suddenly the lights grew brighter. The two sedans separated to both sides and sped up to a truly reckless velocity, clearly moving forward in an attempt to flank the Eserite convoy, while the truck kept its position at the rear.

Rasha grunted, lifting one of the gold-wrapped disruptors. “And here they come.”

“Well, they have us outnumbered and alone, with no witnesses or support,” Glory said calmly, settling back into her seat, her calm smile illuminated by the flash of hostile carriage lamps accelerating forward. “Those poor bastards.”

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