Tag Archives: Vesk

10 – 34

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“Well, I do believe each of us who plans to attend has arrived,” said the woman with shifting patterns of light irridescing across her midnight black skin. “For whom of the mortal persuasion are we waiting, Izara?”

“No one,” said the goddess of love, currently no more dramatic in appearance than a somewhat homely young woman with unruly hair, her only odd affectation being the choice of peasant garb a century and a half out of date. “I appreciate you all going out of your way to join me; I realize not everyone enjoys coming here.”

“Some of us enjoy coming here very much,” Eserion commented from the table in the corner, raising his eyes from his card game to wink at her.

“Why here, then?” Salyrene asked with a reproachful frown, causing the ripples of blue and gold light decorating her form to shift subtly to more angular patterns. “Particularly if you’re aware that we do not all find this place equally comfortable.”

“This, I believe, is not a conversation that should be had in comfort,” Izara said seriously. “And forgive me for pointing it out, but we all know that assuming a discrete form improves our ability to focus.”

“Assembling on the mortal plane is an unnecessary risk,” Avei said, swiveling on her stool to put her back to the bar and giving Izara a very direct stare. No one took offense at her brusque tone, which they all knew was characteristic and signified no hostility. “We established this place to have a secure meeting spot wherein to speak with significant mortals, in neutral ground outside the aegis of our cults or the Universal Church. If no mortals are to be involved in this conversation, I suggest moving it to someplace less vulnerable.”

“Forgive me, sister,” Nemitoth mused, not looking up from the massive tome laid out on the small table at which he sat alone, “but ‘secure’ was the operative word in that declaration. No one presently has any designs on us. No one is aware that we are here.”

“You know the glaring weakness in that book,” Avei said pointedly.

Vidius chuckled, leaning back in his chair so that it tipped up on its hind legs. “Yes, and Elilial is always after us and usually hidden from view, but come on. If she had any weapon that posed a threat to the lot of us gathered here, we wouldn’t only now be learning of it. Besides, Izara’s right and you know it. Too much divinity is not healthy. Or have you forgotten how our…predecessors…ended up?”

Avei’s answering snort was evocative of a disdainful warhorse, but she offered no further comment, merely reaching for her whiskey on the rocks and taking a sip which did not lower the level of drink in the glass.

“Thank you,” said Izara, nodding graciously to the god of death, who tipped his broad hat to her in reply. “Then, in the interests of not keeping you all here any longer than absolutely necessary, I will come to the point. We need to discuss Arachne.”

From the assembled gods there came a chorus of sighs and groans, and two muted laughs.

The expensively appointed common room of the Elysium had rarely been this crowded; as a couple of its current occupants had mentioned, most of them did not enjoy coming here without good and specific purpose. For all of that, the majority of them would not at a glance have been taken for anything but a gathering of perhaps oddly-dressed friends at a posh bar. Of those present, only Salyrene and Ouvis made themselves visually striking, and only the goddess of magic did it as a deliberate affectation. The god of the sky sat by himself in a corner, facing the wall, and manipulating the tiny clouds and whirlwinds surrounding himself like a child lost in the inner world of his toys. In fact, he hadn’t even been specifically invited to this gathering; none of them were ever certain how much of their conversations he was aware of, much less paying attention to.

The entire Pantheon was not present, of course. Some of those whom Izara had included in her call had not troubled to show up, which was characteristic of the group as a whole. The usual absentees were, of course, absent. Shaath and Calomnar disdained any sort of gathering they weren’t firmly bullied into attending, and nobody went to the trouble except at great need; they generally weren’t missed. Vemnesthis, as usual, could not be bothered to tear himself away from his own ceaseless vigil, and even kind-hearted Izara hadn’t troubled to invite Naphthene, who these days tended to reply to social overtures with threats.

Most of them had clustered together at a few tables, though as usual Nemitoth had taken a private table upon which to lay out his book, and Avei preferred to seat herself at the bar, where she had a more tactically useful view of the room. Eserion and Vesk had tucked themselves away at a small table in the corner, playing a card game whose object appeared to be making up increasingly ridiculous rules and bullying or tricking each other into abiding by them.

“I have a very effective way of dealing with Arachne, which I’m surprised you haven’t all adopted,” Avei said disparagingly. “Just slap her when she needs it. She doesn’t even mind all that much; some people simply have to be constantly reminded of their boundaries.”

Izara sighed. “I’m sure you know very well why I’ll never embrace your tactics, sister.”

“Because you’re soft-hearted,” Avei replied, but with clear affection.

“And others,” added Omnu in a basso rumble, “because those tactics are about as productive as they are kind. I’m sorry, Avei, but I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the Arachne. Brute force is what she prefers to use, not what she is. She isn’t the least bit impressed by pain or the threat thereof.”

“And yet, my methods get exactly the results I want,” Avei said dryly.

Eserion chuckled again. “I’d have to say that most of you have never bothered to understand Arachne, you least of all, Avei. Arachne doesn’t continue to push at you because you don’t have anything she wants. Be grateful she’s running that school, now; for a while, there, I was seriously concerned she’d just get bored and start seeing how much she could get away with before we had to step in. Go fish.”

“You can’t tell me to go fish,” Vesk protested. “It’s a Wednesday and I’ve already played a ducal flush.”

“Oh, bullshit, that rule was retired when I annexed your queen.”

“Aha!” Grinning, the god of bards plucked one of the cards from his hand and turned it around, revealing a portrait of Eserion. “But I get to re-activate a retired rule of my choice, because I have the Fool!”

“Oh, you are such an asshole.”

Verniselle cleared her throat loudly. “In any case! The Arachne’s personality and general goals are not news. I assume, Izara, if you’ve brought us here to discuss her, there is new business?”

“I’ll say there is,” Vesk muttered, eyes back on his cards.

Izara sighed. “I’m afraid she’s rather worked up at the moment, more than ever before. She’s taken to barging into temples and threatening priests in order to get our attention.”

“Temples, plural?” Avei said sharply, glancing over at Vesk. “Our?”

“She’s done it to the both of us, now,” Vesk affirmed, nodding distractedly. “Checkmate.”

“Foiled!” Eserion proclaimed, laying his hand down face up. “Full suit of Cats! And since it is Wednesday and you forced me to crown your red piece, your entire hand is converted to wave-function cards!”

“Son of a bitch,” Vesk cried in exasperation, but grudgingly laid his hand face-down on the table, where they each became indeterminate, their values only determined when observed again.

Avei cleared her throat pointedly. Vesk ignored her, picking up his hand again and scowling at its new contents.

“Can you two keep it down, please?” Salyrene said irritably, her luminous skin patterns taking on a subtly orange hue.

“Sorry,” both trickster gods said in unison without looking up from their game.

“Well, that kind of behavior is not acceptable,” Avei said sharply. “Something must clearly be done about this. Thank you, Izara, for bringing it to us.”

“That is not why I brought it to you,” Izara said firmly. “Please don’t rush off and do anything drastic, or rash. I wanted to talk about this, because I’m not certain that she doesn’t have a point. Arachne is having trouble with Justinian.”

“Justinian?” Vidius inquired, frowning. “What’s he done now?”

A sudden hush fell over the room, even Ouvis’s clouds falling momentarily still. Nemitoth blinked, then frowned, flipping back and forth several pages in his book as if he had suddenly lost his place, which none of the other gods seemed to notice, each of them also frowning into space in apparent confusion.

The moment passed almost immediately, and Verniselle spoke in a sharper tone. “Nonetheless, we clearly cannot allow the Arachne to think she can bully us this way. I saw no harm in indulging her when her aspirations were lower, but if there is a repeat of what happened to Sorash…”

“That isn’t going to happen,” Vidius said wryly.

“No, it won’t,” Avei replied in an even grimmer tone than usual. “Because if she tries—”

“Oh, settle down,” Vidius said, folding his arms. “Honestly, I’m appalled at how little most of you have troubled to even understand how Arachne thinks.”

Both trickster gods cleared their throats pointedly, then shouted “Jinx!” in virtually perfect unison. Eserion, who had been roughly a quadrillionth of a second behind, let out an irritated huff and tossed two cards face-down in the center of the table, where Vesk selected one smugly and added it to his own hand.

“I said most.” Vidius gave them a sardonic look before turning back toward Avei. “Sorash was an extremely anomalous case; she is simply not going to light into any of us that way. Do you even know what he did to set her off? He tried to keep her on a leash.”

“Sorash was always obsessed with power and dominance,” Omnu rumbled pensively. “Arachne never failed to do her research; surely she knew to expect that before campaigning for his attention.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Vidius said darkly. “That was not a coy turn of phrase. It was an actual leash. It came with a jeweled collar and a skimpy little outfit, and a cute nickname.”

Salyrene winced, her lights abruptly shifting to a dark blue. “We don’t need to hear—”

“Silky,” Vidius said, giving them all a long face.

Avei’s whiskey glass abruptly shattered into powder. She hadn’t been touching it at the time.

“So, no,” Vidius continued, “there’s not going to be a repeat of that incident. Sorash went well above and beyond the call in antagonizing her, while simultaneously placing her in such a position that he was uniquely vulnerable to attack. None of the rest of us are foolish enough or, to be perfectly frank, assholish enough to do such a thing. And let’s not pretend that anybody here mourned Sorash’s passing. Those of you who didn’t actively express relief were merely being discreet, and you all know it.”

“I wasn’t discreet,” Avei said grimly, pausing to sip from a restored glass of whiskey, this time neat. “I made no secret that I was glad enough to be rid of him. In fact, I never knew the details of that; I find myself rather regretting the mild ire I felt toward Arachne for the sheer presumption.”

“This is why I wish we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other,” Omnu said sorrowfully. “It leads to nothing but misunderstanding. In Sorash’s case, his lust for privacy was his downfall.”

“It sounds like that wasn’t the lust that caused his downfall,” Vesk commented cheerfully.

“Hah!” Eserion grinned at him. “You said the L-word! And since you brought the Seven Deadlies back into play…”

“Oh, bullshit,” Vesk protested. “You do not have the—”

He broke off when the god of thieves plucked a card from his hand, turning it around to reveal the portrait of a succubus garbed in filmy scarves, looking coquettishly over her shoulder.

“Omnu’s balls,” Vesk said in exasperation, pulling out three of his cards and handing them over.

“Excuse me?” Omnu exclaimed. Verniselle placed a hand over her eyes, slumping down in her chair.

“Be all that as it may,” said Salyrene, “it is obviously a matter of concern if Arachne is going to start being overtly hostile. Even if we take it as given that there will be no further deicide, it’s just not acceptable for her to push gods around toward her own ends.”

“Especially if she is going to use such violent tactics,” Salyrene added.

“I really don’t think she would have harmed any priests,” said Vesk distractedly. “Complain all you want about the woman’s general lack of social skills, but have you ever known her to deliberately hurt someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it?”

“I had the same feeling,” said Izara, nodding. “Consider who she tried that on. Vesk and myself would both intervene on behalf of our people, and she knows us well enough to know that. I think she is wise enough not to attempt it with someone who would call her bluff.”

“Still,” Salyrene said pointedly.

“Yes,” Avei agreed. “Still.”

“Still,” Izara said doggedly, “at issue here is that she isn’t necessarily wrong—in her purpose, if not her methods. When, as appears to be the case, she is under an unprovoked and undeserved attack by the Universal Church, the matter reflects upon us.”

“So,” Vidius mused, “you believe this will sort itself out if we rein in the Archpope?”

Again, a momentary pall fell across the room, marred only by Nemitoth’s irritated grunt and the ruffling of pages.

“I think it’s worth appreciating the source of her hostility,” Vidius continued as if nothing had transpired. “She blames most of you for being selfish and cowardly when she came to you for help. And she isn’t wrong, there.”

“Not this again,” Verniselle groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Her story was sheer nonsense,” Salyrene said sharply, the patterns of light limning her shifting into a far more rapid speed.

“Elilial believed her,” Vidius retorted. “More to the point, Themynra believed her. Whatever you think about either of them, the fact is they have been dealing more closely and regularly with Scyllith than any of us since the ascension.”

“Have you even thought about what you’re suggesting?” Salyrene said heatedly, her lights glowing redder and speeding up further still. “It is simply inconceivable that Scyllith would have the power to do a thing like that. None of the Infinite Order could have managed it before we brought them down, and the survivors now are deprived of most of their power and agency. Scyllith, further, has never been anything but a troublemaker; if she could impact the world so severely, we would definitely have learned of it.”

“We know that the fundamental nature of the surviving Elders was changed by the ascension,” Nemitoth interjected thoughtfully. “That was the whole point of it. Don’t think in terms of sheer power—you of all people should know better than that, Salyrene. Naiya and Scyllith have both been trying to acclimate to their new circumstances ever since, experimenting with different methods. If Scyllith’s fundamental nature and approach to manipulating reality altered significantly from what we knew when last we had her directly under our gaze, it’s reasonable to conclude that she might be capable of things which would surprise us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that fairy tale now,” Salyrene exclaimed.

“I believe nothing,” Nemitoth said calmly. “There is not data to support Arachne’s claim—and notably, it is an unprovable hypothesis. Reasoning, however, suggests that it is not necessarily impossible.”

“And consider this,” Vidius added. “We all know how severely Scyllith was further weakened after her clash with Arachne and Elilial. It only makes sense that she wouldn’t be able to pull off a feat like that a second time.”

“That works the other way, too,” Salyrene countered, her lights moving in calmer patterns now. “Why would she suddenly have the capability in the first place? And how? Remember, Elilial took her down alone—and that while she was isolated from support in Scyllith’s own realm.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is,” Avei murmured, gazing into her glass. “Elilial was always the vastly superior strategist, and Scyllith’s brutality and overweening arrogance frequently caused her trouble. We all know about the Belosiphon affair. Elilial turned the demons against her, which was as much Scyllith’s fault for how she treated them as Elilial’s for suborning them.”

“This is an old argument, though,” Izara said patiently. “No, I can’t find it in myself to believe Arachne’s account of her history, either, which has little bearing on this situation. The question is this: is she right to be specifically upset with us now? Because if so, I feel she should not only be forgiven for her suddenly more aggressive moves, but we should also think seriously about defending her to Justinian.”

Silence held sway for a moment. Nemitoth narrowed his eyes, bending closer to his book as if having trouble making out what was written on the page.

“I’ll give you my two bits,” said Vidius. “Arachne is a difficult personality, yes, and it’s undoubtedly true that she takes full advantage of our need to protect her. However, I have never found her hard to predict, or even to work with. The key is simply to extend a little compassion and patience—more than we are accustomed to having to offer anyone, anymore, and for that reason alone I say she’s worth keeping around. We have all seen firsthand how badly it can go when gods have no one to keep them humble.” He nodded to Izara. “I support a patient approach.”

“I agree,” Omnu said quietly. “I cannot say I have troubled to know her as well as you have, brother, but the broad strokes of your analysis are borne out by my own experience. The Arachne is not more problematic than we can bear…and she does not inflict harm without provocation. If she has become more aggressive, we ought to consider that she may be justified.”

“That is not how justice works,” Avei said flatly. “She doesn’t get to invade temples and assault priests just to make a point!”

“It was a matter of threats more than assault,” Vesk commented.

“I consider them to be in the same category of actions,” Avei retorted. “Whether she was provoked or no, I see only trouble coming from indulging her in this behavior.”

“I abstain from this,” Salyrene declared, glowing slightly more golden. “It was not my temple she desecrated—if she had, I would certainly not have indulged her in anything but a blistering reprisal. What she has done to Izara and Vesk, I’ll trust them to have the judgment to address themselves. Until Arachne starts another campaign of dragging us all into her problems, I say leave her alone. This isn’t an issue the Pantheon as a whole needs to answer.”

“There are points to be made on both sides of this,” Verniselle said thoughtfully, flipping a platinum coin back and forth between her hands. “Arachne’s nature does suggest that she would not be so assertive without reason…but on the other hand, there are lines she should not be allowed to cross. I think I concur with you, sister,” she added, nodding to Salyrene. “If anything is to be done, let it be up to those who have a personal stake.”

“Hm,” Nemitoth grunted, gazing abstractly at the wall.

All the gods present, including the onlookers who had abstained entirely from the convesation, turned to study the two card players in the corner.

Eserion slapped his hand down on the table. “Zoological flush. Eat it, banjo boy.”

Vesk carefully laid out three cards in a row, then pantomimed setting down an invisible fourth one. “Queen of Cups, Queen of Rods, Queen of Diamonds, and the Emperor’s New Clothes. The game is still afoot.”

“Oh, come on,” Eserion exclaimed. “You seriously expect me to believe you had the Taming Maidens just waiting for that play?”

“Would you like to phrase that as an accusation?” Vesk asked sweetly. “Of course, you know the penalty a Penitent Jihad carries if you are wrong.”

“Just deal,” Eserion said sullenly.

“I see,” Izara mused, then smiled around at the assemble deities. “Well, I’m sorry to have brought up such a difficult cluster of subjects…but I thank you all for your contributions.”

“Have you come to a conclusion, then, dear?” Vidius asked, smiling.

“I believe I have,” she replied. “Now the question becomes one of timing… In any case, I appreciate you all coming at my request. I’ll take up no more of your time.”

With a final smile around at them and a respectful nod, she vanished.

Avei drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh through her nose, then likewise disappeared. One by one, the other deities flickered out of being, all except Salyrene disappearing without fanfare or production. The goddess of magic made sure to leave early enough that she had an audience for the rather overwrought light show that marked her departure.

Quite soon, the Elysium was again as quiet as usual, nearly all of its inhabitants gone.

“You know,” Vesk said casually, studying his cards, “I really like Justinian. I think he’s a great Archpope.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion replied in an equally mild tone. “Stand-up guy. I don’t have a thing to say against him.”

“Exactly! In fact, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t think of anything I would change about him.”

“I’ve noticed the same. I don’t remember the last time I had a thought about him that wasn’t purely approving. All right, I didn’t want to do this, but I’m playing the One of Unicorns.” Smirking with intolerable smugness, he laid down a card face-up, which bathed the entire room in a glow of breathtaking silver purity. “All cheating is now suspended; lay down all the cards up your sleeves.”

“Oh, you did not just do that,” Vesk grumbled, setting his hand down face-down and grudgingly extracting five whole decks from various places within his coat and adding them to the cards already on the table. “You realize how long this game is going to drag on, now?”

“You could always yield.”

“You could always blow me.”

“I’ll take a rain check.” He drew another from the now-towering deck, adding it to his hand and gazing thoughtfully at his cards. “Yeah, though, great guy, Justinian. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with him. I can still think about thinking about him, though. Seems almost odd, when I think about thinking about it. I’m ordinarily so…critical.”

“I’ve thought about thinking about that myself,” Vesk agreed idly, studying his own cards. “Almost makes me glad I’ve got people who can do my thinking for me.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion said. “Very fortunately, I’ve a few of my more trusted mortals circling the very excellent Archpope even now. If anything in particular needs to be thought about him, I’m sure they can attend to it.”

“You know, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Vesk replied. “I’ve been thinking about considering such a thing myself. Perhaps I’ll make an idle mention of my thoughts in a few particular ears.”

“Oh, sure, that’s a good idea. There’s never any harm in spreading rumors, after all.”

“All right, wiseass, you asked for it.” Smirking, the bard god pulled two cards from his deck and stood them on end facing each other. “Facing Portal Jokers. I can now draw any face card of my choosing from the aether. You want to call this now, or shall I drag you down screaming?”

Smiling beatifically, Eserion selected a single card from his hand and stood it up between the first two. They were both instantly sucked into it, and the remaining card crumpled itself into a tiny ball, then vanished. “And my portable hole reduces your standing wormhole to a quantum singularity. Did you enjoy wasting your turn, buttercup?”

“Oh, you magnificent bastard!”

In the far corner, Ouvis idly played with his clouds, seemingly oblivious to the world.

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10 – 21

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It was unusual for Teal to be rushing across the campus alone at this hour, but she’d been forced to detour from the cafeteria back to Clarke Tower to retrieve her book before Ekoi’s class. More than anything else, she was frustrated with herself for having left it behind. Sure, she wasn’t the most organized person, but since she and Shaeine had been sharing a room, incidents like these had diminished dramatically. In addition to her numerous other very pleasing qualities, Shaeine not only reminded Teal to keep track of these things, but set an example the bard felt she had to live up to. The priestess’s reminders had been increasingly unnecessary.

In fact, today she had mentioned that Professor Ekoi had specified their spellbooks would be needed in class, which they weren’t always. And Teal had carefully made sure it was in her satchel. Or so she’d thought. She distinctly remembered putting it there. And yet, after lunch, it had been absent; she’d found it right on her nightstand where it had been left the previous night.

She’d worry about losing her mind later; for now she had to get to class. Professor Ekoi was of a similar mindset as Tellwyrn with regard to classroom discipline. People who showed up tardy tended by become the object of…demonstrations.

Teal rounded the corner of a terrace and slowed to a stop, staring.

Where the familiar path of the campus should have been, she was now looking at an overgrown trail through an ancient, ruined castle, abandoned long enough to have been overtaken by a forest. Slowly, she turned to look behind her as well. Nope, no University there, either. She was…somewhere else.

Vadrieny jangled within her in alarm, and Teal sent her calming thoughts. Tellwyrn’s protections on the University were serious business; it would take something like a god to just snatch her up from them.

The hellgate was obviously opened by a University initiate, Vadrieny retorted. And a good many gods might take exception to us. They aren’t all as forward-thinking as Vidius.

“Hm,” Teal said, frowning and fingering her Talisman of Absolution. She turned in a slow circle, looking around again. “I have a good feeling about this.”

What do you mean?

“I don’t know,” she admitted, focusing on the oddly serene sensation to share it with Vadrieny. “Just…good. It seems like I should be more alarmed about something this apparently alarming, but it just isn’t there.”

The demon replied with a wordless rush of sensations: caution, trust, acknowledgment. She was far from certain about this situation but was willing to follow Teal’s lead.

Teal set off down the path at a somewhat slower pace, peering around. It meandered through what had been some kind of avenue, with collapsing walls of old gray stone on either side. There were birds singing, but no other sounds.

“You know,” she said aloud, “Professor Tellwyrn isn’t going to be happy about this. And I do have a class to get to.”

There was no answer. She shrugged, physically, feeling a mirrored emotion from Vadrieny, and continued on.

The trail wandered through fallen gates into a huge courtyard. The half of it to Teal’s right had collapsed into a ravine which had apparently opened beneath the structures; the left wall was swallowed up by climbing vines, with trees pushing through in several places. Directly ahead was a half-fallen dome of considerable size, with broken towers and battlements rising behind it. The swaying tops of trees poked out through what remained of its roof.

Teal paused, took in the scene, and then set off for the central building.

The doors, naturally, were long gone. Whatever had been inside was as well; the only features on the mossy floor were fallen chunks of masonry from the ceiling and walls. Beams of sunlight penetrated the cool dimness, brightening up the otherwise greenish light filtered through swaying branches. Actually, it was a beautiful space, and peaceful to behold.

And there was a man in the center.

He was pacing in a slow circle, studying the walls with his hands clasped pensively behind him, below the lute case slung over his shoulder. His suit was over a century out of fashion, and surmounted by an absurd-looking floppy hat with a long ostrich plume trailing from it.

“I changed the scenery for you,” he said as Teal stepped cautiously forward. “Actually, all of this is underwater now; makes it hard to really appreciate. The theme is the same, though. One example of ruined grandeur is much like another, in all the important ways.” He turned to her at last, revealing a nondescript face wearing a sad little smile, and spread his arms. “Welcome to the hallowed halls of the Heroes’ Guild.”

“I think,” Teal said carefully, “I’m pretty much attending the new Heroes’ Guild, or the next best thing. And you’re making me late for class.”

The man grinned at her. “Really, would you rather go back to your scheduled courses? Because you need only ask. But if you’re interested in having a new experience…here you are.”

“Here I am,” she agreed, approaching closer. “And…you are…?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Vesk said, idly waving a hand. “You know who I am. I hate having to make introductions—there’s just no way to do it that isn’t trite and hackneyed after centuries of repetition in story and song.”

“I guess so,” Teal said, coming to a stop a few yards distant. “I have to say, this is…a surprise.”

“Very diplomatic,” the god said with a grin. “So hesitant, though. You have good instincts, Teal, but you’ve done very little to hone them. Tell me…why did you ever stop seeking me out?”

She frowned, hitching up her book bag self-consciously, and tapped the Talisman pinned to her lapel. “I think you know exactly why.”

“That’s a little disappointing, you know,” he replied. “You really thought I would begrudge you a possessing demon? You’ve read the stories, Teal; you managed to hear recitations of a good few of them. There have been no shortage of half-demon bards.”

“Well,” she said defensively, “it’s a different situation. The priests at the Cathedral were quite insistent with me about this.”

“Priests,” the god snorted. “Well, I can’t say they don’t have their uses, but this new crop attached to the so-called Universal Church are even more hidebound and less divinely inspired than most. Still, you’re not without a point, and I’m not about to pile derision on you over this. As a traumatized teenager in the grip of authority figures… One can hardly blame you for absorbing some bad ideas.”

“Bad ideas?” she repeated warily.

“I think you had a warning about this recently from the Avenist Bishop,” he said. “About politics, power, and those who chase them. It was excellent advice, and by the way applies to that woman more than most, which you should keep in mind if you meet her again. But no, Teal, you may take this as my official contradiction: there is nothing about you, or Vadrieny, that is inherently incompatible with the path of the bard.” He shifted to face her directly, his expression solemn. “But if that is truly the path you wish to pursue, you’re not doing very well.”

Teal gaped at him, barely able to stammer, half-occupied with quelling Vadrieny’s rising outrage. “I—I—”

“Here.” Vesk stepped over to a waist-high slab of fallen stone; it rested at a very slight angle, making a serviceable bench. He seated himself and patted the shelf next to him. “Have a seat, kid. Let’s talk.”

She hesitantly obeyed, perching gingerly on the edge of the slab and setting her book bag down by her feet. For a moment, there was a strained silence; she couldn’t think of a thing to say. Oddly, Vesk’s presence was not overwhelming or intimidating as it seemed a deity’s should have been. She simply felt awkward in the presence of an authority figure delivering a rebuke.

“I think the core of your problem,” he said at last, “or at least the beginning of it, is that you just haven’t known many bards. Most who are drawn to the path will have sought them out by your age. They either attach themselves to a bard as an apprentice or make their way to one of my temples. You haven’t had many good examples to follow.” He tilted his head, regarding her thoughtfully. “But you’ve read a lot of the old adventures, and that’s not nothing. Have you noticed the tendency of bards to be, shall we say…dramatic and very specific characters?”

“They certainly are prone to having large personalities,” Teal said. “I’m, um, not sure what you mean by specific.”

“Well, you’ve noticed the personalities, at least. Tell me, Teal, what do you make of that?”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Honestly? I never really questioned that. Maybe because it’s such a common theme among the adventuring bards in the stories. It just always seemed right. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Considering what a bard is, what they do… Personality is part of the equipment, alongside an instrument and a weapon.”

“Not bad,” he said with a grin, “and not wrong. But you’re missing a key observation. What I mean by specific personalities, Teal, is archetypal personalities. Think of the bards you’ve read about. They tend to fit one of the classic roles that occurs in stories. The wise old man, the spoiled princess, the dashing scoundrel. Of the two you’ve met since attending the University, we find the helpful merchant with a surprisingly important side-quest and the incorrigible asshole with a hidden heart of gold.”

“Ass… Hidden…” Her eyebrows rose further. “Surely you’re not talking about Weaver?”

The god winked. “Well, it wouldn’t be hidden if just everybody got a look at it, now would it? But back on point, Teal, there is a reason for this. It’s something not generally discussed outside invested members of the faith, but I’m going to spill the beans because this is an important lesson that you’re missing, and that the lack of which is going to lead you into trouble.” His expression grew more serious. “Most bards very deliberately and specifically craft their personal image, with the same care they put into crafting a personal instrument. Or, as you mention, a weapon, though not all have that particular skill, or need it. Image is another matter. The bard’s personality is made in the general form of something that anyone who has heard the stories will recognize. Or, in many cases, even someone who’s never heard a story in their life, though it’s blessedly rare to find such a deprived soul. Those stories are deeply held in the recesses of the mind, of all minds. They are primal archetypes, and wearing them like a suit of armor encourages everyone the bard meets to fit them into a role in the great drama of life.”

“Why?” Teal asked softly when he paused.

Vesk let out a soft sigh, turning to gaze abstractly at the far wall of the ruined chamber. “Because, Teal, by taking charge of their own story, their own characterization, they can avoid becoming the hero of whatever piece they happen to be in. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be the hero—in fact, almost everyone thinks they are, and that their own little story is the world. The difference is that bards, specifically, are the ones who know how stories work. They’re the ones who understand that no one…” He turned again to gaze solemnly at her. “No one suffers like a hero.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” she said, frowning. “Or maybe… Maybe I understand and it’s not making sense. Not to contradict you, but the world just doesn’t run on story logic.”

“Well, not this one, no,” he mused, leaning backward to gaze thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “There are younger universes where the rules of… Well, that’s neither here nor there.” Vesk straightened up, turning back to her again. “We can talk on and on about souls and cognitive functions, but in the end, what makes people different from lesser animals is narrative. There are plenty of sapient creatures in the rosters of livestock and vermin. Elephants and orcas, rats and crows… But they don’t build things, redefine their environments, re-shape the world around them to suit their own imaginations. Only people do that, and what makes the difference is story.

“Narrative, archetypes…no, these aren’t physical things. In the absence of people, they not only mean nothing, they don’t even exist. They are not expressions of the nature of the world, but rather of the architecture of the minds of that specific class of beings who re-shape reality, and that makes them part of the world.” He grinned with barely restrained enthusiasm. “Subjective physics, the imposition of made-up patterns on the concrete universe. Story, Teal, is the original magic. It’s the primal force of change, of originality, of creation. And you cannot escape from it. Every thought you have, every interaction you have with other beings, is guided by that common understanding of narrative. That’s why a bard must learn and deeply understand that language, know all the classic plots, the old archetypes, the stock characters. Regardless of what the world actually, physically is, everyone is living in a world of story. And you had better believe that story shapes your life, just as it does the lives of everyone around you. To be a bard is to be one who has the knowledge, the power, and the responsibility to actively guide that re-shaping, rather than bumbling along as the hapless protagonist in your own rambling, poorly-constructed fairy tale.”

“Wow,” she breathed, staring at him wide-eyes. “I mean…wow. How come nobody writes this stuff down?”

“Oh, people have,” he said, shrugging. “It’s a little…well. Every god and all their followers could tell you in exact detail how their particular obsession is what truly shapes the world. The fact that you find this revelation profound says a lot about your own mindset; lots of people stumble across the idea in one place or another and brush it off as grandstanding bardic nonsense. It is what it is, though, Teal. And with that in mind, let’s talk about you.”

“I suddenly feel very nervous,” she confessed.

“Good,” he said seriously. “You’re the daughter of privilege, who nevertheless grew up tasting social ostracism for something you couldn’t help. You tamed an attacking archdemon with the power of love—and honestly, I wouldn’t even write that story, it’s so improbably sappy—went on to attend what you acknowledge is a school for heroes, won the heart of an exotic noblewoman.” He shook his head sadly. “Teal, you’ve got protagonist written all over you. By this point, you’re inescapably the hero of the piece. And for all the traumas you’ve survived, you have not yet come to the point where everything completely falls apart around you. That fact should make you very nervous.”

“I think I need to sit down,” she said tremulously.

“You are sitting down,” he pointed out.

“Not hard enough.”

Vesk grinned, and patted her on the shoulder. “If I had one piece of advice for you, young bard, it’s to get on top of this pronto. Occasionally, a bard comes along who is the hero of the story, but unlike most heroes they know it and do it deliberately. And someone with a bard’s knowledge of story has to be a little bit crazy to want that. Far from crazy, you’re remarkably level-headed considering all that’s been piled on your plate.”

“Maybe I should just run with it,” she murmured, kicking her feet against the stone. “Is that…arrogant?”

“Of course it is, but never let that stop you. Grandiosity is a bard’s bread, butter, and replacement fiddle strings. Just be aware of what you’re getting into if you truly want to embrace that route. First of all, you’ll find yourself competing with your entire social circle. I mean, really, you’ve got three paladins, two of whom are half-bloods with mysterious origins. A rogue princess standing on the cusp of historical upheaval. The tortured demigoddess trying to fuse wild nature with tame humanity, and of course, Fross. Great me in fancy breeches, that pixie’s got a hell of a tale to tell, and it’s only just begun. Your ladyfriend’s modest outlook is probably her best hope of escaping a truly brutal narrative slap-down.”

Teal swallowed hard, unable to find words. Vadrieny was a knot of attentive tension, not venturing any argument now, but unhappy with what she was hearing.

“A hero,” Vesk continued more softly, “may or may not stop to help another hero in need, depending on the situation, but they will reliably drop what they’re doing to rain destruction on anyone who threatens their plucky comic relief. If you’re going to surround yourself with powerful, important people, the smartest thing you can possibly do is to very carefully and deliberately subordinate yourself to them. Don’t mistake that for weakness; what marks a skilled bard is the ability to remain in control of a situation in which they wield no actual power.”

“I don’t want to rain destruction on anyone,” she said in a small voice. “Ever.”

Vesk nodded. “Well, that’s another thing, Teal. I will never criticize you for being a pacifist; you’ll find more of those in the histories of Veskers than Omnists and Izarites combined.”

“I think that’s a slight exaggeration,” she said with the ghost of a smile.

“Not in the least,” he said solemnly. “The fact that nearly all Omnists and Izarites are pacifists is beside the point: hardly any of them make it into the histories. It takes a bard to pull that off, and quite a few have. No, Teal, what I have to criticize you for is being one of the worst pacifists I’ve ever seen.”

“Excuse me?” she exclaimed. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Think about it. How’s it usually gone for you, this last year and a half, when you keep finding yourself in conflict? Do you use your wits and guile to manipulate your enemies and your situation so that you avoid fights? Or do you continually let yourself get backed into corners and have to unleash your invincible, unstoppable counterpart to crack heads like some Stalweiss barbarian out of an offensively cliché penny dreadful?”

He lifted his eyebrows, gazing at her expectantly, and after a moment Teal had to drop her eyes in shame. “I… I just… I tried.”

“I know, Teal. And it isn’t that you aren’t trying hard enough, never think that. It’s just that you’re not trying the right things. In a way, having Vadrieny to fall back upon is one of the worst things someone with your convictions could have. Most people are forced to adapt themselves more aggressively; you have a luxury of nigh-invincibility that deprives you of that motivation.”

“It’s just that… You’re talking about manipulating people. Everyone. Enemies…friends. Family. Everyone. I don’t think I can live that way.”

“Okay,” he said with a shrug. “Then drop the pacifist thing and roll with that.”

“What?”

“The world’s violent, Teal. So are an awful lot of the people in it. You want to get through it without fighting? Then you’ll have to use guile. Lots and lots of guile, at every opportunity. That’s simply all there is to that. When you talk about living in peace, what you mean is imposing your will upon a world that very much doesn’t want to live that way. It’s the sword or the savvy. Pick one; you cannot exist without making that choice, and the choices you make by failing to make them on purpose always wind up being the wrong ones. Up to this point you’ve defaulted to the sword without truly understanding or taking responsibility for your own story. That’s a very weak position to be in, Teal. And to be perfectly frank, you’re better than this.”

She hunched her shoulders, staring down at her feet, and concentrated on holding back tears that suddenly wanted to come. Vadrieny extended a mental hug over her.

The thing is, love…he isn’t wrong.

“I know,” she whispered.

The god draped an arm around her and gave her a gentle, affectionate little jostle. “This is my edict: you, and your partner, are welcome in my temples and among my people. I know you don’t have the luxury of traveling around while under Arachne’s care, but there are opportunities even where you are to start shaping your own story, and your own character. Your friends are a great source of insight that you haven’t taken advantage of. Trissiny started it off by teaching you to fight without inflicting harm, but remember how she had to practically bully you into trying? She’s the only one of your little circle who’d be willing and motivated to do so. Gabriel and especially Toby have a lot of lessons they can teach you about coping in a hostile world without exercising force. Frankly none of you kids appreciate the amount of restraint Juniper exercises every day of her life. And, of course, you have a brilliant and vitally important tutor in the arts of guile in Ravana Madouri.”

Teal stiffened. “She…that one. You’re asking more than I think I can stomach.”

“Let’s call it what it is, Teal,” he said dryly. “Your antipathy toward her is projected guilt. You saw her exercise absolute cold-blooded cunning, and she saved you, your lover and your family in the process. That’s what you can’t stand.”

“I think that’s overstating it,” she said stiffly. “Duke Madouri did not appreciate what he was messing with.”

“Oh, to be sure, I don’t think anything he had prepared would have held Vadrieny down in the long run. But as Trissiny has told you—with characteristic asperity—you and your demon aren’t great at shielding others. You’d have lost someone you loved that night if Ravana hadn’t been such a cunning little snake.” Gently, he placed a fingertip under her chin and lifted her face. “And Teal, if you want to be a bard, it should always be you taking subtle control of that situation, not lashing out with your demon’s claws once it goes so far that you have no other options. Whatever Ravana’s character flaws—and yes, they are considerable—you are blaming her for your own issues, and that is wildly unfair to both of you.”

She swallowed and nodded, unable to form words.

“Educate yourself, bard,” he said, squeezing her shoulders once, then released her and stood. “If you’re willing to attach yourself to me as a devotee, you may consider that a divine command. I see absolutely vast potential in you, kiddo. I’m not going to watch you continuing to waste it. Work on this.”

“I…yes, sir,” she said, nodding, and brushed tears away from her eyes with her sleeve.

Vesk smiled kindly at her. “I’ll talk to you again, Teal, that’s a promise. And I look forward to watching your progress. Now, I’ve made you late enough for class—don’t worry, I’ll leave you with a note for Professor Ekoi.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s not—” Teal broke off, blinking and looking around.

She was standing outside the building in which her magic class was already in session, satchel slung over one shoulder. In her hand was a thin envelope of yellowish parchment, sealed with a golden lute symbol that glowed faintly even in the sunlight.

“…necessary.”


“Fairies and demons are both a simpler and more complicated matter than arcane constructs,” Professor Ekoi said, pacing slowly up and down the dais. “The underlying principles we previously discussed are the same: the composition of each determines the relationship of magical and physical properties, which varies widely by type of being. They can be understood as extremely complex standing enchantments, in that regard. The central difference is that while demons and fae are species which can be studied and cataloged via naturalistic principles, there are no naturally reproducing arcane entities. Such beings are created, without exception. A different method is therefore necessary to examine them—and it necessitates a firm grasp of the principles of arcane magic to apply, obviously.”

Everyone turned in their seats as the door on the upper wall of the classroom eased open and Teal peeked warily in. Shaeine allowed a rare expression of relief to flitter across her face.

“Miss Falconer,” Professor Ekoi said in a wry tone. “Welcome.”

“Hi,” Teal said, stepping in and pushing the door shut behind her. “Sorry I’m tardy, Professor. I, uh, have a note…”

She took a few steps forward, holding out the envelope, but Ekoi forestalled her with an upheld hand.

“That won’t be necessary, Falconer. I advise you to give that to Professor Tellwyrn as soon as possible, and do not open it. You may tell your new acquaintance, when next you see him, that I enjoy practical jokes as he well knows, but it is not appropriate to disrupt my class with such amusements.”

“Um…okay.”

“Are you quite all right, Falconer?” the Professor asked more mildly. “It can be a disorienting experience. If you would like to visit Miss Sunrunner…”

“Ah, thanks, Professor, but I’d sort of rather just attend class as usual.”

“Very good, then,” Ekoi said, nodding. “Take your seat, if you please.”

“Wait, hang on,” Gabriel protested. “What happened?”

“I have no doubt that you will all be informed of these events, Mr. Arquin,” Professor Ekoi stated, her tail twitching in annoyance, “when you are no longer in my class. You’re not the one who was…delayed; it is very peculiar indeed that you seem to be the one most perturbed. If I may continue?”

Gabriel folded his hands neatly on his desk and gave her a saccharine smile as Teal slipped into her own seat.

Professor Ekoi resumed her slow pacing. “Now then, while arcane-derived entities are highly individual, with a sufficient grasp of the principles of arcane enchanting, it is possible to make educated deductions about their nature based on several standard rules. Not that these rules are without exceptions; they provide a starting point of examination, not freedom from the need to exercise deductive reasoning. To begin with…”

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10 – 17

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Tellwyrn paused in chewing when the newspaper was slapped down on the table inches from her plate. She then resumed and swallowed her bite of fish before even looking up.

“You know, Emilio, there are countries in this world where you can be summarily dismissed for approaching your employer that way. Or beheaded.”

“Have you seen this, Arachne?” Professor Ezzaniel demanded curtly.

“No, of course I haven’t,” she said, delicately cutting off another piece of trout without even glancing at the paper. “I make a determined effort to have no idea what’s going on in the world, especially right after a Bishop of the Universal Church starts taking public potshots at me, and of course, you are the only person on this campus clever enough to think of bringing me a newspaper of course I’ve seen it. Let me eat in peace, damn you!”

“I have sufficient restraint not to interrupt classes for this, thank you,” Ezzaniel replied calmly. “It’s not as if we never discuss business over lunch. And this is most definitely business.”

“Pshaw,” Rafe snorted from the other end of the table. “How bad can it be? I wasn’t even mentioned.”

“Gods and ministers of grace preserve us,” Yornhaldt rumbled into his beer.

“Exactly!” Rafe cried. “I mean, really. They’re looking for embarrassing dirt on the University and don’t even hint at me? Bunch of amateur dilettante hacks, is all.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said without rancor, “shut up.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

“And it never works, but I continue to hold out hope. And the rest of you—yes, I see you gearing up to argue—just relax and eat, will you? Mrs. Oak did not slave away over a hot stove just so you could ignore today’s excellent main course in favor of gossip.”

The faculty lounge in Helion Hall was not full, many of the professors preferring to eat alone in their classrooms or living quarters (or the cafeteria, occasionally), but as usual several of the staff had assembled there. Including Professor Yornhaldt, who despite his protestations of enjoying his sabbatical, had become markedly more sociable since returning to the campus and finding himself with no academic duties.

“I am not one to get worked up about anything in the press ordinarily,” Ezzaniel said with a deep frown, “but I just received a telescroll from Marjorie Darke’s mother. She paid the extra fee to have a runner bring it up to me directly from the scrolltower office.”

Taowi Sunrunner looked up from her own plate, raising an eyebrow. “The scrolltower employs a runner now?”

“It turns out Silas Crete occasionally employs his granddaughter,” Ezzaniel said to her, “who incidentally has begun to reek of cigarettes since I last spoke with her, which I suspect is related. Regardless, this has officially reached the point where the kids’ parents are getting nervous.”

“Lady Annabelle Darke,” said Tellwyrn, cutting herself another piece of fish, “has nothing going for her except far too much inherited money and a surname that her grandfather was dashing enough to get away with and which just sounds laughably pretentious on anyone else. Marjorie is only here because Sebastian Darke and I did some jobs back in the day—which turns out to be lucky for all of us, as that kid’s the first one in the line who’s got some of the old man’s spark. The point being, we are officially hearing from the slow-witted, easily agitated demographic. Don’t rush to join them, Emilio.”

“I’m well aware of the Lady Annabelle’s shortcomings,” Ezzaniel said, seating himself across the table from her. “I am paying attention to her because the woman is a weather vane. Not an admirable character trait, but it does make her a useful sign of which way the social winds are blowing this week. It’s going to get worse, Arachne. This is in all the papers.”

“Really, you’ve read all the papers that came out this morning?” she mused, eying him languidly. “Who was teaching your classes, then?”

“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

“Calm yourself, Emilio,” Yornhaldt urged, reaching across to pull the paper toward himself. “Just because she is calmly eating lunch doesn’t mean she is ignoring the issue.”

“I prescribe a calm meal as the go-to treatment for many minor ailments,” Taowi added.

“It’s like this,” said Tellwyrn, finally setting down her fork. “Yes, I am aware that this is a concern. No, I am not going to run around in a panic, or in any other way interrupt my routine. The day I deprive myself of an excellent plate of fish over clumsy politicking by the likes of Justinian, I will probably drill a hole to the planet’s core and let out all the molten iron out of sheer spite.”

“From anyone else I would assume that to be empty hyperbole,” Ezzaniel said warily. Rafe cackled around a mouthful of steamed vegetables. “Anyway, isn’t it a leap to pin this on Justinian? It was Snowe who made that speech, and she’s definitely got contacts in the papers. Almost all of them run her column.”

“Branwen Snowe,” said Tellwyrn, “despite being possessed of considerable gifts—”

“They are very nice,” Rafe said, nudging Yornhaldt with an elbow.

“—has never had an original thought in her life,” Tellwyrn continued. “Sorry to disabuse you of this notion that I am sitting obliviously atop an ivory tower, Emilio, but I have been keeping track of political, social and theological trends. This secular humanism Snowe has been spouting for the last few months is a direct extension of ideas the Archpope has been promoting with more circumspection. And the fact that she’s an Izarite Bishop in and of itself signifies that she’s his creature; the followers of Izara regard Church politics as an unnecessary burden, and fob those positions off on people they want to get rid of.”

“If anything, that makes it worse,” Ezzaniel said with a scowl.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes, gesticulating disparagingly with her (fortunately almost empty) teacup. “There is not a damn thing Justinian can do to me or this University except earn my ire, and he’s far too savvy not to know it. This isn’t directed at us, Emilio. He’s using it for some other purpose. That is why I’m not rushing to take action. It would be rash to blunder into any plan without understanding what’s actually going on, and that has yet to be revealed. What is fascinating to me is that Justinian isn’t the first source of these up-with-people notions he and Snowe have been propounding. It’s point-for-point Black Wreath theology.”

“Oh, dear,” said Rafe. “How villainous. Do you think we should assassinate him?”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“Yes, you did, and may I just say your persistence in the face of impossible odds is one of the things I admire about y—”

His voice abruptly stopped, though his mouth kept moving. Rafe paused, blinking, and tried to speak again, then turned a scowl on Professor Yornhaldt, who smiled innocently back even as he lowered his casting hand.

“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“My pleasure,” Yornhaldt replied while Rafe dug in his belt pouches for the anti-magic potions he always kept on hand.

“Arachne,” said Taowi, “you seem to be trying to reassure us, but each revelation you drop about Archpope Justinian is only more alarming than the last. Now you suggest that he’s involved with the Black Wreath?”

“Hardly,” Tellwyrn snorted. “If anything he’s been more persistent than his last three predecessors in hounding them. No, those ideas are basically good ones, I’ve always thought so. There are cults within the Pantheon that have similar priorities, notably the Eserites and Veskers. It has never been Church doctrine, though, far from it. Justinian’s not with the Wreath, but he’s up to something that he knows the general public is likely to be leery of. Hence designating a scapegoat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, when you want a great mass of people not to notice what you’re actually doing to them.”

“You’re very calm, considering you speak for the scapegoat in question,” Yornhaldt noted.

Tellwyrn shrugged, picking up her fork and resuming work on her fish. “Even if I considered this a crisis, I’ve never found freaking out to be a useful strategy for anything. It’s not a crisis, though, and even so I’m not ignoring it. Just stay the course, ladies and gentlemen—if you have any more irate communications from parents, handle them as best you can while I deal with this.”

“Why would we be fielding communications from parents?” Taowi inquired. “In fact, come to think of it, why did Lady Annabelle send that directly to you, Emilio?”

“I may have incidentally encouraged her to think of me as a sympathetic ear,” Ezzaniel said noncommittally.

“What he means,” Rafe said with a deranged leer, “is that he nailed her. Good on you for not boasting, old man! I would. She’s quite the hottie for a dame her—”

He fell abruptly silent again, paused, and then snatched a handful of vegetables from his plate and hurled them at Yornhaldt. They splattered across a shield of blue light that appeared around him.

“Boys,” Taowi said scathingly. “Cease that immediately. And clean it yourselves!”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “As I was saying, I am dealing with this. I’m not going to ignore it, but managing public opinion is a task outside my usual skill set. As such, and since I have no afternoon class, I am going to seek the counsel of an expert. But not, I repeat, until I finish my lunch.”


 

“Well, well, wouldja look at that,” Ruda drawled. “Arquin’s figured out the dog-in-the-park trick.”

Scorn came to a stop, frowning at the scene on the lawn before them. “Trick? Is for what?”

“Is for gettin’ girls,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Getting…” The demon blinked her eyes. “Where is dog? That is thing… The word I am told is ‘horse,’ yes?”

“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.

Gabriel was, indeed, surrounded by several girls, including most of those from the freshman class, as well as Hildred and a couple of seniors. As they watched avidly, with a variety of high-pitched noises of approval, he drew back his arm and hurled the branch he was holding the length of the lawn.

Whisper’s invisible hooves were soundless on the grass as she charged after it; her ephemeral mane and tail streamed behind her, leaving a wispy trail of smoke like the exhaust of a dwarven engine. She skidded to a halt by the stick and picked it up in her teeth, pausing to prance a few steps in place before trotting back to her master, head held high.

“I have never seen a horse play fetch,” Trissiny said.

“I think you had the right of it, Boots,” Ruda replied. “That thing’s just barely a horse. Hey, maybe Arjen would like a game of fetch!”

“He wouldn’t,” Trissiny said curtly, walking forward again. Ruda and Scorn trailed after her, the pirate chuckling.

“Oh, c’mon, have you ever tried? Or do you just treat him like a big, armored carriage for your convenience?”

Trissiny let out an irritated snort. “Arjen doesn’t need to eat and exists in a state of perpetually perfect grooming, but I still brush him and give him apples. I am not neglecting my horse just because I don’t play fetch with him. Horses don’t do that!”

“And yet…” Ruda grinned.

“I thought we’d established that Whisper is barely a horse.”

“Well, hello to you too,” Gabriel replied, the girls having drawn close enough to be heard by the end of that comment. Whisper nickered a greeting.

“Don’t make that face, Arquin,” Ruda said lightly. “You’ve apparently just finished demonstrating she’s at least part puppy.”

“Yeah, she’s fun, isn’t she?” he said, grinning up at Whisper as he stroked her nose. She whinnied in delight, bouncing once in place, very much like an overeager dog. Szith, Maureen and Ravana all took a couple of steps back from her at this; the “puppy” in question was still big enough to crush someone if she moved too carelessly.

“She is pretty,” Scorn breathed, stepping forward and reaching out with one clawed hand to pat the horse.

Whisper immediately bellowed in outrage and reared up, slashing at the Rhaazke with her front hooves. Scorn yelped and bounded backward, and the rest of Gabriel’s audience scattered in fright, even Iris, who had been stubbornly sticking by his side.

“Whoah, whoah!” he exclaimed, fearlessly stepping in front of the rearing horse and reaching up to pat her on the neck. “Easy, girl. Be nice to Scorn, she’s a friend. Easy, now.”

“Your dog-horse is a butt!” Scorn shouted, baring her teeth. Whisper thrust her head over Gabriel’s shoulder and snorted disdainfully, ears laid back.

“And you be nice, too,” he snapped, pointing at her. “Whisper is from the divine plane—she’s not going to take to a demon easily, or quickly. You have to be patient with animals. She’s very smart; as long as you’re not a jerk to her, she’ll come around.”

“Why am I being not the jerk?” Scorn snapped, stomping a foot childishly. “I being the nice and horse stupid dog get rrhaash k’thavkh nhak drroughn!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said firmly, “Tanglish.”

The demon swelled up in fury. For a moment she tremble with repressed anger, clenched fists vibrating at her sides, then she whirled and stomped away. “Bah! Not being my problem, your horse is cannot behave! Come on, we go see the town. Find your demon trails!”

“Oh, that sounds like a great fuckin’ idea with her in this mood,” Ruda muttered.

“Come, paladin!” Scorn shouted, stopping and turning to glare over her shoulder.

Trissiny folded her arms, braced her feet, and stared at her.

For just a moment, it seemed like Scorn was on the verge of another outburst. After a moment, however, she drew in a deep breath and spoke in a slightly less furious tone. “Will you please to come, yes?”

Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but strode off toward the demon. “We’re not going off this campus unless you calm down, Scorn. It’s going to be enough of a challenge to introduce you to the townspeople, especially with all this newspaper nonsense going around. Animals don’t like demons, and you absolutely cannot react this way every time something snarls at you.”

“I being am calm!”

“Then why are you shouting?”

“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”

Whisper snorted again, pawing at the ground. Her hooves weren’t visible, but nonetheless tore up a clump of grass.

Gabriel let out a low whistle, patting Whisper on the nose. “Well, none of that was encouraging.”

“What was that about demon trails?” Szith inquired. “I’m not certain that was translated correctly… But she did sense the same demon Trissiny did. Are they actually hunting for one?”

“Honestly, all that worries me less than the dialect,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, still petting Whisper and gazing in the direction in which Trissiny and Scorn had gone. “Her Tanglish hasn’t made any progress in a while.”

“Well, give the girl a bit o’ credit,” Maureen said reasonably. “She’s only been learnin’ it a handful o’ weeks, aye? I’d say she’s doin’ pretty well, considerin’ that.”

“That’s the thing,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “She does speak it pretty well for being new at it… But most of that progress she made in the first week. It was crazy how fast she picked up the language. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Scorn’s intelligence, quite the opposite. But then she just quit. She’s been talking that way ever since.”

“Why d’you think that is?” Iris asked, gazing at him with wide eyes while patting Whisper’s neck. Behind her back, Hildred repressed a grin, winking at Maureen.

“Mm,” Gabriel mused, finally turning back to face the rest of them. “I grew up in Tiraas, which is a big melting pot of a city. People from all over settle there, including lots of immigrants. And you can kind of tell the degree of investment someone puts into fitting in. There were people from outlandish places like Shengdu and Glassiere who had basically no accent after just a couple of years, because they were constantly working to improve their diction. And then there were those who still speak this barely comprehensible pidgin Tanglish after living here for decades and raising their children in Imperial culture, who just couldn’t be bothered.”

“Languages do not come to all with equal facility,” Szith noted. “They are much easier to learn if one starts young.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel acknowledged, nodding to her.

“I think I see what he’s getting at, though,” said Ruda, frowning. “And it’s a good point. There comes a point where someone decides they’ve learned enough for their purposes and just doesn’t fuck with it anymore. Arquin’s right, Scorn’s as sharp as a tack when she wants to be. It’s a real issue if she’s just not gonna worry about improving her Tanglish now she’s gotten mostly understandable, most of the time. She’s supposed to be proving she can fit in and make her way on this plane. Proving it to Tellwyrn, who doesn’t accept ‘meh, good enough’ as a valid attitude from anybody.”

“What’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t learn to fit in?” Iris asked.

“Not sure,” Gabriel mused. “I highly doubt it’ll be pretty, though.”

“I think we might wanna bring this up with Teal,” Ruda said to him. “Scorn’s doin’ okay with listening to people in general, but Vadrieny’s still the only one she seems actually motivated to please.”

Behind them, Ravana was still gazing down the path the paladin and demon had taken, her expression deeply thoughtful. After a moment, a faint smile crossed her features.

“Hmm.”


 

The central temple of Vesk in Tiraas was a deliberate study in contrasts. Most of it was built in rounded patterns, a rather chaotic arrangement of white marble towers and domes, surmounted by a minaret wreathed by a spiraling staircase, atop which musicians would perch to entertain the entire district on days considered holy to the Veskers—who considered any occasion holy when they could get away with creating a spectacle. Its uppermost great hall, however, was almost like a Shaathist lodge in design and layout, right down to its enormous exposed timbers. It had better lighting and a sloping tile roof, but even its décor seemed deliberately evocative of the Huntsmen’s aesthetics, with old instruments and weapons prominently displayed in place of animal trophies. Along its walls, between the windows, stood statues of various gods of the Pantheon, Vesk himself notably not among them.

Despite being called the great hall and serving as the center of the temple’s own society, it was actually not meant to be accessible to the general public. The temple’s entrances led to public spaces outside its various theaters and performance halls—the areas used by the bards for their own purposes were reached by networks of spiraling, deliberately confusing hallways, which themselves were peppered with barriers ranging from simple locked doors to enchanted alarms and force fields, and a couple of rather whimsical booby traps. It took quite some doing to reach the great hall, which was why everyone congregated there looked up in surprise when it was entered by someone not of the faith.

By the time she had crossed it to the dais at its far end, those who recognized Professor Tellwyrn had whispered her name to the others, which of course explained the matter of how she’d gotten in. The bards began drifting toward her, eagerly anticipating a show. There was nothing they loved like a good show.

Master Harper Roundol was seated on the dais, having been in conversation with two other bards. They all broke off, staring, as the legendary elf made a beeline for them. At her approach, all three rose and bowed respectfully.

“Professor,” Roundol said, straightening back up and absently stroking the neck of his guitar. “This is an unexpected honor! What can we do for you?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop in front of the dais, planted her hands on her hips, and looked him up and down. Then she studied the other two bards for a moment, and finally glanced around the hall.

“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.

She pointed at his guitar. “Can I see that for a moment?”

Roundol protectively tightened his grip on the instrument. “Ah… Might I ask why—”

In the next instant, with barely a puff of displaced air, it was out of his hands and in hers.

“Perfect, thank you,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Stand back.”

Grasping the guitar by the neck, she lifted it over her head. The sound of wordless protest that tore free from the high priest’s throat was almost musical in its poignancy.

A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.

“That instrument,” said Vesk, gently but firmly taking it from her, “is an absolute masterwork. It has passed through the hands of seven of my high priests, cherished by each as if it were a child. The wood from which it’s made is simply not attainable anymore; in addition to being possibly the finest example of its craft to be found, anywhere, it is one of the most sacred objects in the world which is not actually overlaid with divine blessings. And in utterly typical fashion, here I find you threatening to smash it, just to get my attention.”

With another soft breath of air, the guitar was back in its owner’s hands, and Roundol lost not time in retreating from the elf, glaring reproachfully at her as he clutched it protectively to his chest. The god, incarnated as usual in his nondescript form, completely with absurd floppy hat, smiled thinly as Tellwyrn turned to face him. “For once in your interminable existence, Arachne, as a personal favor to me…”

And suddenly layers of reality peeled back, Vesk’s presence filling the temple and beyond. Without seeming to change physically, his very identity blazed forth with such sheer pressure that lesser mortals were driven back against the walls and to the floor, even before he bellowed in a voice that seemed it should have cracked the mountain.

“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”

“You know, I like this much better than the last time I had to seek you out,” she said smugly, folding her arms. “This is altogether a lot easier when I don’t need your full cooperation. And much, much quicker.”

The god’s awesome presence retreated as quickly as he had brought it forth, leaving only an apparently mortal bard scowling at the Professor. “I suggest you watch that attitude, missy. The Pantheon has several excellent reasons for tolerating your shenanigans—that doesn’t mean each of us has endless patience. You can fulfill your most important purpose in the world just as well sealed away in a dimensional bubble as you can running around on your own. Arguably a lot better, in fact. Several suggested it, after that nonsense you tried to do in the Deep Wild.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “Remember, I’m the one who’s spent a full human lifetime researching each of you megalomaniacal fuckers. I know who can be pushed, and exactly how far.”

The assembled bards watched all this avidly; with the reality-rending grandstanding apparently over, they seemed mostly interested in the conflict and not unduly impressed by the presence of their primary object of worship. Vesk and Tellwyrn stared flatly at each other from mere feet apart, she smirking, he scowling.

“Oh my gods!”

The new voice belonged to a young woman with somewhat unruly dark hair, who came skittering into the great hall as if late for her own wedding, the lute case slung over her shoulder bouncing against her as she pelted forwards. “Ohmygodsohmygodsohmygods!”

She skidded to a stop barely before crashing into the glaring pair. “Professor Tellwyrn, Arachne, oh gods this is so awesome, it’s such an honor, I’m a huge fan!”

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”

“I’ve read all the stories about you, even the ones that are obvious lies because honestly those are the funniest. You have the best stories! I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I first heard the Plavoric Epics recited—I sat through the entire Saga of the Third Hellwar sung in Sheng because nobody performs it anymore just for the parts at the end where you came in. You’re the reason I became a bard! This is just, wow, I can’t even… Will you sign my face?”

“That’s weird,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “You’re weird. Go away.”

“Eeee heeheehee!” The girl actually did a little jig, clapping her hands in pure delight. “Classic Tellwyrn!”

“Kelsey,” Master Harper Roundol said gently, taking her by the shoulders from behind and starting to pull her away. “The Professor is here on business with Lord Vesk. Let’s give them a moment to chat before she vaporizes somebody. Or worse, my guitar.”

“Oh, she’d never do that,” Kelsey protested, still staring avidly at Tellwyrn. “I mean, the second one—she blasts people to dust all the time, but she’s super respectful of valuable art. She’ll threaten to break things but like in the battle with Almophriscor the Red she only lost cos they were fighting in his lair and she kept pulling her punches to avoid damaging his hoard, he had basically the world’s best collection of marble statuary, and after that he was so impressed he let her stay there to recuperate and even gave her…”

“Yes, yes,” Roundol said soothingly, dragging her bodily back to the dais. “Shush.”

“There, y’see?” Tellwyrn said smugly, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Kelsey. “Research. You should give it a try, Vesk; I bet you’d be less vulnerable to obvious and transparent ruses.”

The god heaved a sigh. “What do you want, Arachne?”

“To seek your inimitable advice,” she said. “I trust you have noticed the issues I’m having with your Archpope. I must say I’ve never been the target of a campaign of slander that I actually had to care about before.”

“I am not getting rid of Justinian for you,” Vesk said with the ghost of a smile. “And get with the times, Arachne. Slander is spoken—or sung, for that matter. Printed slander is called libel.”

“I don’t need him gotten rid of,” she said in exasperation. “There’ll always be another one. You’re the expert on manipulating public opinion. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you helped us to both dismantle the Empire during the Enchanter Wars and put it back together afterward. You owe me, Vesk, both for that business and for wasting sixty years of my time!”

“I never told you to do any of that,” he complained. “See, this is why nobody’s happy to see you when you visit—apart from all the smashing, I mean. All this blaming everybody for failing to contend with your various bullshit. You’re like an emotionally abusive old mother. Have you been hanging out with Naiya much lately, by any chance?”

“Actually…wait, that’s right. It was sixty-three years.”

The god of bards groaned dramatically and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “If I help you, will you cease harassing my clergy and bugger off?”

“That is the deal I was offering, yes,” she said with a feline smile.

“Fine. Loath as I am to encourage this behavior, your problem really is so incredibly simple it almost pains me to see you floundering with it. Honestly, Arachne, the fact that you don’t have better people skills after three thousand years of this has got to be history’s greatest failure of character.”

“Less character assassination, more practical advice,” she said sharply.

“Justinian’s campaign is a political one,” Vesk said, staring intently at her face now. “Political campaigns are never won—they are only lost. Right now, the attention is on you, as is the onus to refute or validate his accusations. In that position, you have no winning moves. Honestly, your policy of ignoring him could conceivably be used against you, but it might also be your safest way to go. If, however, you decide to actually engage with this issue, what you need to do is make the matter about him, not about you.” He leaned forward, gazing deep into her eyes, and spoke with deliberately excessive emphasis. “And if that is what you intend, then I am not the one you should be speaking to.”

“All right, all right,” she said, leaning back as if he had bad breath. “Point taken. Really, I’d have expected less ostentatious delivery from you of all people.”

“Well, forgive me,” he said sardonically, straightening back up. “I may not be the best at research, but I have met you, after all. Seriously, though, that was all you wanted? Any number of political operatives could have told you that much.”

“Yes, no doubt,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t trust any number of political operatives.”

“And there it is,” Vesk said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “The real reason I continue to tolerate your crap. For being such an apparent brute, you do know how to pluck the right strings.”

“I had some good teachers,” Tellwyrn replied cheerfully. “All right, then! Seems I’ve some more planning to do. As you were, ladies, gentlemen…and bards.”

She turned her back on the deity and strolled off toward the door through which she had entered, leaving most of her audience looking incongruously delighted at the spectacle they had just witnessed. Except, of course, for the Vesker high priest, who was again clutching his guitar protectively and giving her back a resentful look.

“Arachne,” Vesk said in a suddenly knowing tone. “You realize that since you think it’s acceptable to show up at my place and take liberties with my people, I’m going to consider that a mutual arrangement.”

“Well, it’s past time, I’d say,” she replied, pausing to glance back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Honestly, I do my best, but there are things that girl needs to learn that I’m just not a good person to teach her. Just try not to disrupt my class schedule too much, please.”

She resumed her path toward the door, and almost got there before being intercepted by Kelsey.

“So, hey, since you’re here, I would love to chat a bit, hear some stories, maybe buy you a drink? Wouldja like to hear the song I’m composing? It’s about you!”

“Oh, I would,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, brushing past her, “but I’m very busy doing absolutely anything except that.”

“My treat! I’ll take ya to the best restaurant in town! Fancy a hundred-year-old scotch? Or a quick screw? Or a slow one? Honestly I’m not even into women—or skinny people, for that matter—but it’d just be such an honor—”

“Young woman, you are one more ill-advised comment from being transformed into something small and edible.”

“Ma’am, that would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

“You’re a creepy little snot, aren’t you?”

Roundol approached Vesk, staring thoughtfully at the door through which the two women had just vanished. “M’lord, do you think we ought to go do something about that? The poor girl’s setting herself up for more trouble than I think she understands.”

Vesk grunted. “She’s survived three thousand years of trials and tribulations, Tamelin. She’ll survive Kelsey. Probably.”

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9 – 29

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“And this is where we part ways,” said Grip, turning to grin at Squad One. “See you girls in a little bit.” The enforcer slipped silently into a side alley, her footsteps inaudible within seconds.

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

“Good choice for this operation,” said Principia, starting forward again. “C’mon, forward march. Grip is a good intimidator; since we’re about to interrupt a bunch of citizens meeting at a privately owned warehouse, that may be a useful skill. If they aren’t as dumb as the ones in the carriage, they won’t attack us or do anything hostile, in which case the presence of scary Thieves’ Guild personnel will be important in getting them to turn themselves in. We can’t arrest people for talking about how much they hate dragons.”

“I really don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Casey. “Any part of it. Even if it all goes well, and disregarding that we’re basically hoping to get people to attack us, I don’t like using the Guild to lean on people like that.”

“And that is why Grip is leading the Eserite side of this,” Principia replied. “I don’t know who else the Guild sent, but she’s good at toeing the line. She won’t let any of them inflict any harm that’s not immediately necessary. Which will mean none; this won’t be more than a dozen people if our intel is correct, and if they do attack trained Legionnaires, so much the worse for them.”

“If our intel is correct,” Merry repeated dryly. “I like how you just say that, as if it’s a given.”

“Nothing’s a given,” Principia murmured. “Life is a sequence of bullshit surprises.”

“When we met this Grip before,” Ephanie commented, “you didn’t seem to know her that well, Sarge.”

“True,” Prin agreed. “Hence, I’ve been taking pains to get the gossip while I was out gathering resources for us. I know what I’m doing, ladies.”

“If I knew what you were doing half the time I think I’d feel a lot better,” Merry muttered.

It was barely past sunrise, and would have been dim even had Tiraas not been shrouded in heavy fog that morning. Fairy lamps were eerie floating witch-lights in the gloom, their supporting poles invisible; everything else was washed-out and obscured by the mist. It was quieter than usual for the hour, creating an impression that even sound was quashed by the oppressive fog, though in truth it was just a matter of people avoiding going out in it. Everyone who could get away with staying indoors this morning seemed to have jumped at the chance.

In short, it was a good morning for clandestine meetings, and for sneaking up on them.

Squad One was passing through a poorer district, tenements rising on all sides; up ahead, less than a block distant but not yet visible through the gloom, was the warehouse district in which the anti-dragon rendezvous was to take place. Grip and the other Thieves’ Guild enforcers would be assembling on roofs around the warehouse in question, preparing for the Legionnaires to make their entrance through the front.

Suddenly, Principia slammed to a halt, peering about in alarm.

“What is it?” Farah demanded. “Sarge? You okay?”

“Sorry about that,” a voice said cheerfully, and a human man in an offensively colorful suit stepped around a corner directly in front of them. He was carrying, of all things, a lute, heedless of the effect the damp air would have on its strings, and wore an absurd floppy hat trailing a long ostrich plume. Beneath his maroon coat and pants he wore a pink shirt, with a loosely-tied cravat of powder blue. “Okay, well, to be totally honest, not that sorry. I do so enjoy a spot of dramatic effect!”

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

“Avelea, stand down,” Principia said curtly. “All of you.”

“Now, now, Prin, don’t agitate them,” the man admonished. “I assure you, I mean you no harm. In fact, I’ve come to help!”

“That,” she said, “may be the most horrible news I’ve ever heard.”

“Who is this guy?” Merry asked her in a low tone while he burst out laughing.

“Ah, haha, me?” The fellow grinned hugely, waggling his eyebrows beneath his absurd hat. “Just a simple bard—no one to be concerned with. Prin’s just being overcautious. Not that I blame her! Anyway, though, time’s a-wasting, and as much as I love pausing to indulge in a bit of banter, you have an appointment to keep.”

“Yeah,” said Casey, “and you’re kind of standing right in the way of it.”

“Oh, but that’s not the one I meant,” the bard said merrily. “Now, I normally don’t give out spoilers, but everything is about timing. What’s happening her doesn’t quite reflect the synchronicity evident in other parts of—well, that’s neither here nor there, quite literally.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Merry exclaimed.

“Lang,” Principia said sharply, “respect!”

“Now, now, she has a fair point,” he said, waggling a finger at the elf. “Here is is, ladies. If you continue on with your mission, well… Things will proceed as they have been. You’ll be one step closer to your goal—but only one step. How would you like it if I could get you to the very end of that ladder? Right now, today, this morning?”

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

“Good,” the bard said, grinning broadly. “It may interest you to know that dear Saduko is not…trusted. That fact makes her very useful to her various employers; letting her overhear things is an easy way to get information into the hands of her other contacts. For example, the meeting you are now going to interrupt is a diversion. The real event is on the other side of the city. If you proceed to the south gate, you will find the way…suspiciously clear. Follow the path marked by a lack of the soldiers who should be defending the gate, and you’ll come to the organizers of this little movement. Who knows, you may be able to apprehend them! Probably not, but just disrupting their meeting should be enough to move yourselves out of the quagmire of other people’s agendas in which you are currently stuck.”

“Who are you?” Farah asked, frowning. “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

“You probably have, Farah my dear,” he said with a kind smile. “Not in person, but there are pictures. Anyway! That’s all I’ve got for you, ladies. It’s already more than I’m in the habit of giving most people, but what can I say? A great doom is coming, and it doesn’t suit my interests to have everybody bogged down in pointless intrigue. The rest is up to you.”

“Why are you doing this?” Principia asked tersely.

The bard grinned, and winked. “Oh, Prin. Dear, clever little Prin. Why do I do anything? Because when we’re all looking back on this, it’ll make a hell of a story.”

And then he was gone. There was no pop of disturbed air, no swelling of shadows, no arcane flash. Where the man had stood, suddenly, there was nothing but fog.

“What the hell?” Merry demanded. “Sarge? Who was that? What’s going on?”

Principia drew a deep breath. “Shit. Fuck. Veth’na alaue. It’s never good when they start talking to you directly… Oh, hell, I’m more than half tempted to just ignore that whole thing and go on as we were…”

“Sergeant Locke,” Merry said shrilly, “either you are going to start making sense or—”

“His aura,” Principia interrupted, “was…enormous. The size of the city, almost. It was like standing next to the sun.”

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

“I’m an elf,” Principia said acidly. “I am an aura. We’re as much magical as biological. Yes, I can tell when I’m next to one of that size. And it wasn’t there until a second before he appeared. Now it’s just…gone. There’s really only one kind of being that can do that.”

Farah emitted a small squeak; everyone turned to look at her. She swallowed heavily.

“I—I just remembered where I’ve seen him. That guy. In…illustrations, like he said. He—he looked like…” She swallowed again. “Like how Vesk is depicted.”

There was a long moment of silence. The fog swirled gently around them.

“Why us?” Merry asked plaintively. “Why is it always us?”

“Avelea,” Principia said, turning to Ephanie, “what do the regulations concerning divine intervention say?”

Ephanie blinked her eyes twice as if to clear her vision before answering slowly. “If…as long as the deity in question is not opposed to Avei’s aims, and nor is the request they make, a Pantheon god’s orders supersede anyone else’s, excepting potentially that of the High Commander or a Hand of Avei, depending on the circumstances.”

Principia drew in a breath and let it out in a huff. “Szaravid, you know your lore. Does Vesk have a reputation for leading people into trouble?”

“Only people who deserve it,” Farah said weakly. “When he gives advice to heroes in the stories, it’s always good advice. That’s…rare, though. Even in myth. Really, really rare. He hardly ever appears to anyone who’s not a bard.”

“Apropos of nothing,” said Casey, “the last Vesker we met was involved in trying to dupe us…”

“She was as much a dupe as we were,” said Principia. “All right. Well, he wasn’t making a request, per se, but I think I can defend this to an officer if challenged.”

“Are we really going to…” Merry trailed off at Principia’s nod. “Bugger. Never mind the officers; we’d be running off on the Guild. They’re not forgiving types, are they?”

“I will worry about that,” Principia said grimly. “He said going to the south gate would skip us ahead in this. After the unending and ridiculous bullshit this whole thing has been, ladies, I find I quite like the sound of that. About face and march.”


 

Dawn, as always, came late to Veilgrad. The city was awake and alive well before sunrise appeared above the towering mountains that walled off the eastern horizon, its streets lit by a mixture of fairy lamps and firelight that reflected its blend of modern and classic Shaathist sensibilities.

The courtyard of the old trading guild hall which the Army had taken over was mostly in shadow, the lights being positioned primarily to illuminate the bays surrounding it. There were properly enclosed offices, but for the most part the sprawling structure was an open-air market, its roofless central area surrounded by roofed but unwalled spaces, with the actual building along the side opposite its broad gates. Those opened onto one of Veilgrad’s central squares, providing a lovely view of the fountain in the center and the cathedral beyond.

“Yes, it’s less secure than the barracks,” Major Razsha was saying in response to Gabriel’s question, “but security isn’t our primary concern, here. The gate guards are adequate to keep the public out. For purposes of this operation, the main attractions of the old trading hall are its central location in the city and its direct access to the catacombs.”

“I see,” Gabriel said, panning his stare around at the bay in which the Army had set up. Others had been used as staging areas for the search teams being dispatched, but all of those had gone underground an hour ago, thankfully taking the Huntsmen with them. The Shaathists, though eager to be helpful, were also eager to be boastful and several had made a point of trying to antagonize Trissiny. Now, the students and Razsha’s strike team, along with Adjavegh and the mages coordinating with the search teams, were clustered in the roofed bay closest to the catacombs access. Waiting.

Gabriel heaved a sigh and resumed pacing back and forth, Razsha watching him with open amusement. “This is insufferable.”

“This is an actual military operation,” Trissiny said calmly. She had been standing by a pillar next to the courtyard for nearly an hour, radiating patience. “You guys haven’t actually been along on any of those until now; they involve a lot of tedium. There is a reason armies run according to regulations, you know. Patience and enduring long waits are necessary skills in the army. More soldiers are killed by carelessness, disease, and accidents than battle. By far.”

“It’s not like you’ve ever been in an actual war,” Gabriel said, giving her an annoyed glance as he passed.

“Any contest of wills and powers is war,” Trissiny said quietly. He sighed and altered his trajectory to pace on the other side of the bay. Colonel Adjavegh glanced between him and Trissiny expressionlessly before returning his attention to the battlemage overseeing the large rack of runic charms being used to keep in contact with the search teams.

“Hey, Fross?” Trissiny said, still in a soft voice. The pixie had been making a slow circuit of the rafters, and now fluttered over.

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

Razsha, standing at the other side of the opening into the courtyard with the rest of her strike team, glanced over but did not move. The other students began drifting closer.

“Ah,” said Fross. “Can I assume you’ve been pondering this since yesterday?”

“I probably should have brought it up at the manor last night,” Trissiny murmured, glancing at Gabriel, who seemed lost in thought. “But, well… The downtime here…”

“Yeah, I getcha.” Fross emitted a descending series of chimes like a sigh. “Well, of course, modern golems operate on logic controllers—their intelligences are assembled, step by step. Which is why they have very simple minds: an actual intelligence is too complex to just build. Honestly, Crystal is probably the most advanced golem intelligence in the world, and I have no idea how Professor Tellwyrn made her. And even she’s got glitches and giveaways that betray her nature. And then…there’s the older method, that was used to make things like Ariel.”

“Go on,” Trissiny urged when the pixie paused for thought.

“Well, Ariel’s much more realistic, y’know? She conversese just like a real person. It takes some long-term exposure to figure out the ways in which she’s incomplete. Her personality is totally static—she can’t adapt or change her behavior at all. Also, she doesn’t really have any compassion or the ability to relate emotionally to other beings. That’s standard for things made in that method. There are some friendlier ones, but that’s very hard to do. It’s because… A magical intelligence made that way is an imperfect copy of a soul.”

“A soul?” Teal asked, leaning forward. The rest of the group had wandered over by now, their attention on the pixie.

Fross bobbed up and down in affirmation. “Yeah. To do that… Well, the procedure is seriously banned, so I was only able to look up the broad strokes. Gabe and I researched this when Ariel first started talking to us, you see. Um… Basically, you have to release a soul from its mortal body and capture a sort of image of it in the instant between its release and it departing this plane. You can’t do it while it’s on another plane, or part of a living person.”

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

“You know what she means,” Trissiny said flatly. “You have to kill someone. Right?”

“Right,” Fross chimed, her glow dimming slightly. “And…that’s not the worst part. This process… Well, it’s incredibly hard to time that exactly right, and even if you do it perfectly, there’s a random element. To duplicate a soul’s function like that… Um. Every successful talking sword probably represents multiple attempts.”

They digested that in silence, staring at the black sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt. He glanced up at them and stopped his pacing, frowning.

“What? Do I have something on my face?”

“Contact, team nine,” the battlemage suddenly said crisply in response to a rhythmic flickering of one of the runes on the control apparatus. A moment later, others began flickering. “Contact, team six…team seven… Teams four, eight and—sir, all teams are reporting enemy contact!”

Adjavegh narrowed his eyes at the display. “This is not a coincidence. How close together are the teams?”

“Triangulating,” she said, fingers flickering across the runes lining the rim of the control rack. “…minimum distance between any two teams is two hundred yards. Team four reporting overwhelming numbers. Team six reporting a severe threat…”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh hissed. Razsha stepped over to stand at his shoulder. “They were ready for us. Lieutenant, signal a retreat. Get them back here!”

“Yes, sir!” the mage said, rhythmically tapping the control rune that made its counterparts in the search team’s hands flicker a coded message.

“That’ll draw whatever’s attacked them back here,” Razsha pointed out.

“We have firepower concentrated here,” Adjavegh replied, glancing at her team and the students, who had now pressed forward to stare at the suddenly flashing runes on the control board. “If it chases them that far, we will deal with it. If any of the teams signal distress, we’ll send forces down to assist, though it may be hard to navigate to them. Lieutenant, status?”

“All teams except two and six have acknowledged—team two has just—wait. All teams acknowledge and confirm retreat order. They’re on the way back, sir.” She paused momentarily, eyes flicking back and forth at the flashing lights. “None are signaling for reinforcements. Team six just downgraded their threat assessment. Team four repeating overwhelming numbers, but not asking for help.”

“Massed skeletons,” Razsha said. “Like two of the cults we took out up here. What kinds of threats are they facing, Lieutenant?”

“Unknown, ma’am, the codes are not that precise. No teams have used the prearranged signal for chaos effects. Team four just downgraded their threat assessment, persistent but falling off—teams three and eight have signaled no further pursuit.”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh repeated. “Either they knew we were coming, or they’ve got an enormous force blocking off the catacombs below a certain level.”

“Given the complexity of the tunnel system, sir, likely the former,” said Timms.

“Agreed. Shift our remaining personnel to cover the entrance, and put the healers on alert for—”

He broke off as a bell began to toll over the city. A moment later it was followed by another from a different direction, and then a third.

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

“Major!” the Colonel barked. “Get your team out there, see what that is and put a stop to it.”

“Sir!” She saluted even as the other three members of her team sprinted to her side. With a crackled and a blue arcane flash, they vanished.

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

“Those are alarm bells,” said Trissiny, even as a fourth one began chiming. “Some disaster is unfolding in the city, at multiple points. Right as our search teams came under coordinated attack in the catacombs.”

“Should we move out?” Toby asked. “If we can help…”

“Not yet,” Adjavegh snapped. “You! Demon and pixie, get aloft, see if you can spot what’s happening. Report back here, though, don’t rush off to interfere!”

Fross immediately zipped out from under the roof and fluttered skyward, followed a moment later by Teal dashing into the courtyard. She burst alight with hellfire as soon as she was in the open, and then shot straight up.

“The Colonel’s right, we need intel before moving,” Trissiny said tersely. “This could be a ploy to divide our forces.”

Before anyone could respond, shouts and the crack of lightning bolts sounded from the office complex just beyond their improvised headquarters. Everyone was moving in seconds.

Trissiny and Gabriel were first into the office where lay the trapdoor access to the catacombs, watched over by four soldiers. All four were firing their staves non-stop into the morass of bones pouring out of the opening, to little effect. Skeletons surged out like spiders, clawing and clambering over each other in their haste to escape the tunnels. The bones were mostly old, many coming apart from the simple effort of pushing up through their own numbers; many more were blasted to charred fragments by lightning bolts. And still, they kept coming, their sheer numbers pushing into the room through the onslaught. In only seconds, piles of bone fragments began to form around the trapdoor, drifting higher and doing nothing to inhibit the skeletons continuing to crawl over them.

Gabriel shouted something, the words lost amid the screams, blasts, and the dry clatter of bone upon bone; he pointed at the hole with his wand, which swelled in his hand into a wicked-looking scythe. Immediately, every skeleton in the throng collapsed into disconnected fragments. Seconds later, the soldiers ceased their fire, staring at the hole. Pieces of bone poured downward with a relentless clatter, the drifts of now-lifeless bones moving under no force but gravity.

“Valkyries,” Gabriel said into the sudden quiet. “Like I said, that kind of undead is simple. I’ve got nine here; they all went down the tunnels to help the search teams. That means we’re on our own if that happens again,” he added, turning back to face the others.

“Good man,” said Colonel Adjavegh from the door behind them. He was carrying a stave, currently leveled at the hole, but had not fired. “Timms! Get this mess cleared out; this is our people’s exit from those tunnels. We will not sacrifice this position.”

“Getting us to do so was the obvious purpose of that attack,” said Trissiny.

Fross zipped into the room, already chattering as she arrived. “Sir! Colonel! Everybody! We’ve got fires at four places in the city, a lot more people seem to be panicking in multiple areas for reasons I couldn’t see from that altitude, I really suggest getting Vadrieny down out of the air ‘cos I think she’s scaring people even more, and there’s five Shadow Hunters at the gate to the courtyard being stopped by your soldiers asking for Trissiny.”

“Come on!” Trissiny barked, turning and pushing back through the others out of the office. The group moved with her, streaming toward the courtyard, even as Adjavegh ordered Fross to find Vadrieny and get her back down.

They skidded to a halt outside as, with a sharp pop, a spinning wheel materialized out of midair, dropping half a foot to stand in the middle of the opening to the courtyard. It rocked for a second before settling.

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

“Okay, I know I say this a lot,” said Ruda, gesturing at the wheel, “but really, now. What the fuck?”

“I don’t sense anything dangerous from that,” Trissiny said, frowning. A silver bubbled formed around the spinning wheel. “Oh. Good idea, Shaeine.”

“Thank you,” the drow replied as everyone stepped carefully around the shielded appliance.

“Let them through!” Trissiny barked at the soldiers in the front, striding toward the front gates. “Raichlin! What’s happening!”

“General Avelea,” the bearded hunter said in obvious relief. “Trouble is what’s happening. We’ve got undead cropping up all over the city. Almost every cemetery and tomb—it’s bad.”

“Shit,” said Gabriel. “All right, where is it worst? I just sent my valkyries into the catacombs…”

“That probably is where it’s worst, but that’s not why I came,” Raichlin said urgently. “We have more trouble than that. There are a lot of tombs and graveyards in the foothills around the city; those started acting up first, well before the cemeteries in the city proper. They’re also spewing skeletons and zombies, but none of them are getting close to the walls.”

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

“Because,” the hunter said grimly, “they are being beaten back by demons. There are warlocks in gray robes at multiple sites, spawning waves of katzils and khankredahgs. They are doing a very good job of keeping the undead in check, but there are other problems. Objects, people and skeletons have started teleporting around apparently at random.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said in horror. “If the warlocks are opening multiple dimensional rifts in proximity to a known chaos effect…”

“And this,” Trissiny snarled, “is why you don’t let the Black Wreath help!”

“That has to be dealt with,” Adjavegh barked, striding toward them just as Vadrieny dropped to the pavement nearby, followed a moment later by Fross. “We can’t establish any kind of secure perimeter with that going on. There’s no way to get the civilians into safe areas if nothing’s going to stay put! Fross, find Razsha’s team and brief her—I want her back here immediately. Securing this space is now priority one.”

“Yessir!” the pixie chimed, shooting back aloft.

“You—Raichlin, yes? Can you deal with the warlocks?”

“My people are trying to keep the werewolves from getting into the city,” he said. “What you see here is all I’ve got left. The weres are agitated, too—and transformed even though it’s not night, which is making it worse. If one of them randomly teleports into the walls…”

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

“Stay frosty, corporal,” Adjavegh snapped. “Someone has to shut down those warlocks. How many sites are active, Raichlin?”

“At least half a dozen.”

“Then we’ll have to divide forces to deal with them all…” The Colonel drew in a deep breath and let it out through his teeth, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“We need to send the paladins,” said Ruda. Everyone turned to stare at her. “Think about it—they’re chaos-resistant, not to mention the best choice to stop warlocks, and Trissiny’s horse is big enough to carry all three, so they can move fast. Drop Toby and Gabe at two sites and proceed to the next. Raichlin’s people can guide them; split three ways you can shut ’em down faster.”

“We can keep up with a horse,” Raichlin agreed, nodding. “Even a divine one. For a while, at least.”

“The Wreath will listen to me,” said Vadrieny, “and I can reach them faster…”

“Yeah, but they’re trying to get to you,” said Ruda. “After this bullshit, I think giving the Wreath anything they want is a bad idea. You’ll be needed here in case we have another undead outbreak. You, Juniper and Fross have offensive power, Shaeine can provide shields and healing, and my sword’ll be necessary if a chaos effect happens here.”

“Good,” Adjavegh said crisply. “I like it. Get it done. Timms, signal the barracks to enact protocol… Oh, damn it, which is the one that orders civilians to gather here and in the cathedral?”

“On it, sir,” Timms said, whirling and dashing back toward the battlemage still manning the runic signal array.

“It’s a plan, then,” said Trissiny, vaulting into Arjen’s saddle and holding out a hand to Toby. “No time to waste.”

The sun finally peeked over the mountains, beaming down upon a city in the grip of chaos.


 

Joe almost didn’t want to stop running, so exuberant was the experience of dashing along under the influence of Raea’s blessing. He covered over a dozen yards in each bound, and his feet placed themselves precisely on secure footholds on the rocky upper plane of the Badlands. Was this what it was like to be an elf all the time? If anything, the precise data his senses constantly fed him was a little disorienting, leaping along at these speeds, but he quickly moved past that and into the sheer joy of the exercise. It must have been even better for the others; even McGraw and Billie were keeping up without effort, the gnome with many a shrieking laugh of pure delight.

Dawn had just come when he finally skidded to a stop on a flat stretch of stony ground, kicking up a spray of dust; the others alit beside him, Billie pinwheeling her arms frantically and nearly pitching forward into the cracked ground.

The enormous panther arrived a second later; the other elves had all peeled away as they ran, now doubtless taking up positions around the town.

“Be still a moment,” Raea said, again in her bipedal form. “I need to cancel that blessing on you, and it’s best if you aren’t moving around. Otherwise you may find yourself quite fatigued by the experience. Give me a moment to concentrate.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe said, already regretting the loss of the effect—but she was right, there was no way they’d be able to fight like that. He had already discovered that only his feet were enhanced, along with the instincts to control them properly. Actually using his wands while bouncing about like a jackrabbit would have been prohibitively challenging even for him.

While Raea closed her eyes and whispered to herself, he studied Risk. The town was tiny, a bare dozen dusty little stone and adobe buildings clustered around a well. He detected not a twitch of movement.

“Is this the right place?” Weaver asked, scratching beneath his hat.

“Yes,” Raea said curtly, opening her eyes. “You may move again. And yes, they are present—in that largest building, there, just off the central square. My scouts have been in place since sunrise, watching. The dwarves have all been sent away.” She turned her head to face McGraw. “All to the same mining tunnel, unlike their previous pattern. It appears Khadizroth knows we are coming, and wanted them out of harm’s way.”

“Mm,” the old wizard grunted, leaning on his staff with both hands as he studied the town. “I trust you’ve got your folk takin’ care of that as we speak?”

“Of course.”

“Here, now,” Joe said worriedly. “Not to sound soft-hearted, but those dwarves are just doin’ a job. In fact, they were willin’ to leave their homes and risk their lives for the purpose of takin’ Belosiphon’s skull out of commission. Them, at least, we oughtta handle respectfully.”

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

“That is being taken into consideration, Joseph,” Raea said with a little smile. “Dwarves are slow, absurdly strong and incredibly durable, at least from an elf’s perspective. Incapacitating them harmlessly is, if anything, easier than killing them. Meanwhile, we should lay plans while my people are engaged dealing with the miners.”

“No,” McGraw said softly, still staring at the town through narrowed eyes.

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

“No, that’s…what we would do. Khadizroth knows us; he’s fought us, knows our strengths. He’ll be expecting us to come in careful-like, position ourselves an’ try to take out his allies one by one.”

“Yeah,” Weaver said in exasperation, “because that’s the only sensible thing to do here!”

“Wait,” said Joe, “I think I see what he means. Khadizroth’s strength here isn’t just his power—remember what he was doin’ with the Cobalt Dawn? He’s a planner. An’ we know he goaded us out here deliberately, knowin’ how we’d react. So…how would we not react?”

“Hm.” Weaver frowned deeply, then just as suddenly smiled. “Well. I guess the thing we’d be least likely to do is charge in, wands blazing, with no plan.”

“I think not doing that would be an excellent idea,” Raea said sharply.

“Hey, Fallowstone,” Weaver said, ignoring her. “What’s the biggest, explodiest, most ridiculous thing you’ve got in those pockets?”

“Aw, Damian,” Billie said with a huge grin, already pulling lengths of metal out of her pouches. “Just when I think I’ve got a handle on you, y’have to go an’ say somethin’ that makes me all tingly.”

“Ugh. Why do you always have to make it weird?”


 

“That’s them, all right,” the Jackal said, staring out the window of Khadizroth’s office and fingering the long scar running across his right ear. True to the dragon’s word, it had been successfully reattached, but not without leaving a livid mark. “No sign of Raea’s little rats, it’s just the adventurers. The gnome’s doing something…”

“Are they just gonna stand there all morning?” Shook growled, pacing back and forth.

“You know, my boy, you’ve been getting positively antsy since your demon squeeze was sent off on assignment,” the Jackal said, turning to leer at him. “I’m concerned it’ll affect your performance. Wanna step around the corner and work off some of that steam? I mean, I don’t have nearly as impressive a pair of tits, but—”

“Enough,” Khadizroth said firmly as Shook rounded on the elf, clenching his fists. “This is not the time to be sniping at one another. For the moment, things are going well; our foes received our invitation and responded just as planned. This is a critical moment, my friends. They will either step into the noose, or exhibit more forethought than I anticipated.”

“Oh, I hope it’s the second one,” the Jackal whispered, turning back to the window. “It’s not nearly as satisfying to kill a trapped rabbit.”

“In other circumstances, I’d be inclined to agree,” said Shook. “Give me a straight-up, honest fight over this sneaking around any day. But against these guys…”

“They have considerably more strength than honor,” Vannae agreed quietly.

A blue light flashed from the plains outside the town. All four of them stood, stepping over to the window to stare.

It looked like a star ascending skyward; the blossom of pale blue fire burned brightly enough to be clearly visible, even against the morning sky. It soared upward to nearly two hundred feet, and suddenly erupted. Or, more accurately, shattered, dispersing into dozens of blazing points of light.

“The hell is this?” Shook marveled. “They’re putting on a fireworks display?”

“Probably signaling the tribesmen,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Looks like we can expect company momentarily!”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth in a tone of chagrin. “I might have known it wouldn’t be so easy. Gentlemen, if you would kindly cluster a little closer together?”

“Why?” Shook demanded, turning to frown at him. “What’s up?”

“When in an intractable situation,” said the dragon, “sometimes one’s best bet is to simply…shake up the playing field. Unfortunately, our guests seem to have come to the same conclusion. Closer, please. Now.”

“Wait,” said Vannae. “Are those lights getting…bigger?”

“Now!” Khadizroth said urgently, spreading his arms as if to embrace them. A whirling sphere of air formed in the office, sheathing the men inside a transparent bubble of wind, and not a moment too soon.

More than twenty burning arcane charges slammed into the town at nearly the speed of sound, reducing half of Risk to rubble in seconds.

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Darling couldn’t help noticing that he had never noticed this place before.

Positioned in the Steppes, an upscale mercantile district which had been formed into a series of terraces rather than flowing with the gradual slope of the ground as most of Tiraas did (hence the name), it was a little over a quarter of the way downhill from Imperial Square in the opposite direction from his own home. He had been here many times, both as Sweet and on the more aboveboard business of the Church, and knew it well, yet the Elysium was an unknown sight to him. From the outside, it could have been any upscale tea room or winery (the very wealthy did not loaf about in bars or pubs, at least not where their friends were likely to see), with an understated sign bearing its name and nothing else to distinguish its modest facade. This was exactly the sort of place that should have caught his interest many times before.

Of course, there were enchantments that could conceal a place from those who were not invited, or who were not looking for it specifically, or based upon any number of other variables. They were complex and expensive spells, though, which raised questions about what was hidden behind them and who would bother to place them there. Luckily he knew who he was here to meet, which answered several such questions, but he could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t being told everything.

He paid close attention to this feeling. It had saved his life repeatedly.

Thus, he loitered for over a minute on the sidewalk, studying the plain stone construction, the tastefully gilded sign—and wondering what “Elysium” meant, aside from sounding vaguely elvish—the wrought iron bars on its curtained windows and bordering the stone staircase descending to its subterranean entrance, which was lit only by a single fairy lamp.

He was already uncomfortable, dressed as he was in a simple but expensive suit, with his hair styled in the Bishop’s well-groomed coif rather than Sweet’s slicked-back look. Lurking between identities set off a dissonance in his mind that only exacerbated his general unease, but given who he was here to meet and how little he knew of what to expect, this was the best he could do.

With a sigh, he descended the stairs. At the bottom was a clean little nook containing an elegant stone bench and the entrance. The Elysium’s door was of redwood, polished to near luminosity, offset by clouded glass panels and a brass handle. Darling rolled his neck, straightened his shoulders, double-checked his aloof smile (in place and operating normally), then pulled the door open and strode in as though he owned the place.

It was a pub, though its target clientele would probably have disdained the word. A more expensively appointed space he had rarely seen outside of the mansions of the rich; everything was dark-stained wood, with accents of marble and gilt, with silken tablecloths and draperies, surmounted by a chandelier of actual crystal, which glowed without benefit of candles. The room was tall, easily a story and a half, but neither broad nor deep. Tables were scattered widely enough that those sitting at them would have relative privacy. A bench lined the wall adjacent to the street above, a long bar lined the other immediately to his right, and at the rear of the room a short flight of steps rose to an elevated nook containing a lavishly-appointed booth, at which his “date” for the evening waited.

Darling didn’t immediately fix his eyes upon her, however, first taking stock of the room’s other inhabitants. The Elysium was sparsely inhabited at the moment. Closest to the door was a woman in an Imperial Army uniform, sitting at the bar; she glanced up at him when he entered, then returned to nursing her drink, clearly dismissing him as unimportant. She was also, he noted, quite pretty: tall and strongly built, with black hair drawn back in a severe ponytail which cascaded down her back in an avalanche of curls. Women could and did serve in the Imperial Army—the Empire’s goddess of war being also the protector of women, there was no discrimination by sex among the armed forces. Most women who wanted to be soldiers joined the Silver Legions, though. Still, this wasn’t the first female Imperial soldier he’d ever seen. The Legions didn’t take everyone who applied, and besides, there were always the patriotic, the irreligious, and various other outliers.

Like the soldier, the bar’s other denizens gave him barely a glance before returning to their own business. In the corner opposite the door, a burly blonde man dressed as a laborer and a slim man in the black coat of a Church priest were hunched over a game of chess; they ignored him entirely. A young couple was canoodling in another corner. He made a point not to stare. The mix of people in here made little sense to Darling—from the rich trappings and extravagant magical security, not to mention the company he was to keep this evening, he’d have expected lords and ladies, high priests, possibly even the better class of criminals. Soldiers, preachers, farmers…the list of incongruities continued to grow.

He nodded respectfully toward the alcove at the back and moved forward to approach it.

“Evening, Antonio! Punaji Sunrise, right?”

Darling blinked in surprise, turning to look at the bartender, who had been hidden behind the soldier from his position at the door. This was a face he knew very well: lean, swarthy, with shaggy black hair and perpetual mirth lurking about the eyes. On the bar before him was a drink, a layered confection of different liqueurs and syrups that cost far too much and took far too long to make, which was exactly why Darling habitually ordered it. The man pushed it gently toward him.

For a moment, his mind went blank at the sheer enormity of the implications. Then, the pieces snapped into place, and he cast another swift glance about the room. The soldier, the farmer, the dark man…of course. No wonder he’d never seen this place before. None of them looked up to acknowledge him, but the woman took a contemplative sip of her whiskey on the rocks as his eyes slid across her. Realization did nothing to lessen his unease—if anything, it did the opposite.

Then he was back in character, the interlude having taken a sliver of a second that few humans could have noticed and the bar’s occupants surely had. “You remembered!” he said cheerfully, stepping over to collect his drink. “Should I be flattered, or concerned at the prescription?”

“Prescription, bah,” the bartender waved him away, grinning. “Worst you’ll get from that thing is a sugar rush. Best go on, your date’s waiting.”

“Aren’t they always,” he said vaguely, tilting the Sunrise toward him in toast, then turning to resume his course.

He ascended the steps carefully to the alcove. Quentin Vex sat above, at one side of the table, but Darling ignored him for the moment; it would not have done at all to greet him first. Instead, he bowed deeply to the person who had asked him here.

“Your Majesty.”

Empress Eleanora Sultana Tirasian was, needless to say, a strikingly beautiful woman. She was also a crafty and formidable individual who was known to have little regard for looks—her own, anyway. The reality was, however, that one did not marry onto the Imperial throne without being something of a showpiece. She certainly was that: waves of sable hair, deep mahogany skin, black eyes that glinted like daggers. She was tall and fell right into the combination of “slender yet curvy” that occurred so often in cheap novels and so rarely in biology. Indeed, she might have suited the (so called) Avenic ideal perfectly, except that she lacked the strong build of a woman who worked and/or fought for a living. Eleanora was a noblewoman and born politician; she had never run two steps in her life, nor lifted anything heavier than a wine bottle.

“Bishop,” she replied coolly, not inclining her head in return. There was probably no one in the world to whom she would bow. “Please, join us.”

“My thanks, Majesty,” he said, then set his drink on the table. Taking one of the gilded chairs by its back, he slid it around and seated himself at the side of the table, opposite Lord Vex, rather than directly before her as indicated. She raised an eyebrow and even the normally-somnolent Vex straightened slightly at this flagrant breach of protocol, but the hell he was putting his back to that room full of…them.

Eleanora flicked her eyes once to the main floor of the bar, then smiled very faintly. Darling took this for a sign of understanding; she was far too savvy to accidentally betray her thoughts with careless gestures.

“How may I be of service, your Majesty?” he asked once seated.

For a moment she just looked at him. There was a stillness about her, a piercing intelligence in her gaze, that threatened to ruffle his equilibrium. As both Sweet and the Bishop he was accustomed to the presence of dangerous people and rarely met anyone who penetrated his calm. Something about her, though… Eleanora had certainly not become Empress because of her looks.

“I am in need of a priest,” she said finally.

“I am flattered,” he replied. “And somewhat perplexed, I confess. Surely you could have your pick of the services of any priest in the Empire?”

“I have,” she said dryly, “and it is to my great fortune that my pick of priests is available to me, as I think you know that many are not.” This was skating close to the dangerous topic of the rivalry between Church and Throne, a subject he was eager to avoid in this of all company, but she went smoothly on. “The gods are fond of reminding us that no degree of mortal power entitles any human being to a greater stake of their attention, but the reality is as you see it here. For the leaders of the Empire, certain little courtesies are extended, to our great gratitude. One such is access to this…sanctuary.”

Again, she glanced past him to the bar area, and he did likewise. The barman winked.

“Here,” the Empress continued, “we are effectively outside the world and its concerns. Its bloody neverending politics. Here I can forget for a moment about being Empress, you can relax the tension that leading the multiplicitous existence you do must cause. Neither of us need pretend that we don’t all know exactly the nature of my relationship with the man I call husband.” She leaned forward slightly, holding his gaze. “I can approach you as a woman with a spiritual problem, seeking help from a cleric who happens to be the leading expert in this topic.”

“All right, then,” he said slowly. “Is there…something you would like me to steal?”

The corners of her eyes crinkled very slightly in amusement, but she quickly mastered her expression and spoke a single name. “Elilial.”

“Ah,” he said ruefully. “I’m afraid I was never one for kidnapping, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Vex cleared his throat. “I believe I warned your Majesty that the Bishop fancies himself…amusing.”

“He is,” the Empress said, not taking her eyes off Darling, “but I would prefer that we be serious now.”

“My sincere apologies, your Majesty.” He bowed to her from his seat.

“She was in my home,” she said, and from beneath her iron self-control there whispered hints of ferocity, barely contained. “She shared a bed with the man I think of as a brother. We talked, shared meals, even games.” The Empress clenched her jaw momentarily. “I once let her rub my shoulders. She was remarkably good at that.”

Darling put on and held his very best sympathetically attentive face. In truth, this was a situation he had little idea how to handle.

“Among the theologians who have studied Elilial extensively,” Eleanora went on, “most are so heavily wedded to Church dogma that every other word from them is a sermon in miniature. But Lord Vex tells me that you are something of an expert on her movements as well. More importantly, he suggests that you see her as an individual, not an…incarnation.”

“You know what invaded your home,” he said softly. “You want to understand who.”

“Precisely.”

Something tingled at the back of Darling’s neck, a sensation with which he was well acquainted: risk, and opportunity. “What, then, would your Majesty like to know?”

“First of all…how did you come to devote such time and study to Elilial?” Apparently she wasn’t one to come right to the point, but then, few politicians were. “It seems a peculiar hobby for an acolyte of the god of thieves.”

“On the contrary,” he said smoothly, simply running with it, “the cults of Elilial and Eserion have many similarities. Sometimes I am tempted to conclude that ours are the only faiths which inherently value subtlety.”

Below, one of the chess players—the thin man in the dark coat—cleared his throat. Darling carefully did not betray himself by glancing at him.

“As for why… I have often thought that the Church’s approach to warning people against Elilial’s schemes has done more harm than good. So much effort putting into portraying her as the destroyer, the deceiver, playing up her relationship to the demonic plane without ever mentioning how that is happenstance caused by the Pantheon and not her own choice. It warns the faithful and the casual away from seeking her out, yes—well, most of them—but leaves people frighteningly vulnerable to her when she does choose to move among us.”

“How so?”

“She’s a thief,” he said, warming to his subject. “A con artist, a trickster. All theatrics and misdirection, someone who plays as many parts as the job requires. You could say that from a certain perspective, I empathize with her. More to the point, I understand the broad strokes of how she operates, and why telling people that she’s some kind of slavering monster is the worst possible thing we can do. The Black Wreath is older than the Empire by a wide margin, older than the Church, and while it’s damnably difficult to track their movements, we know they’ve never suffered from a lack of membership. That’s because Elilial, when she wants to be, is just so bloody nice.”

“Nice,” Eleanora said flatly.

“I think, Majesty, that you are in a position to know that better than most, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

She held his gaze silently for a moment, then glanced to one side in thought, and nodded slowly.

“And so we shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “People meet this fearsome Queen of Demons, and find her warm, charming, rather funny, in fact. It throws everything the Church has taught them about her into question. That, by association, throws all the Church’s teachings into question. Thus, she gets one fingernail into their minds, and knows exactly how to work that until she has a loyal convert, willing to die for her.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes slightly. “Funny?”

“People are always so surprised when I say that,” he said wryly. “Yes, she has quite the sense of humor. Was that not apparent when you met her?”

“I didn’t merely ‘meet’ her, I knew her well for several months, or so I thought.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. “And yes…she did, in fact, have a sardonic wit that Sharidan and I both enjoyed. In hindsight, I’ve been second-guessing everything I remember about her in light of what I now know.”

“Don’t do that,” he advised, “it’s a trap. You are, by reputation, both perceptive and clever when it comes to people. Elilial is certainly sly enough to use that against you, but that doesn’t mean everything she said or did was a deception. Encouraging you to think it was gives her a kind of invisibility. If nobody believes what they know about her, they don’t really know anything, do they?”

She kept her gaze to the side, frowning slightly in contemplation. Vex sipped at his own wineglass, staying silent. Darling sat, not reaching for his Punaji Sunrise, allowing the Empress to think.

“How certain are you of the things you know? Why is it you know better, as you believe, than most of the Church’s theologians?”

“Simple scholarship, your Majesty,” he said modestly, refusing to back down from her intent stare once she returned it to him. “There are over eight thousand years worth of materials about Elilial’s movements to sift through, much of it muddled by simple time or tainted by the agendas of millennia of history. Not to mention that some incarnations of the Black Wreath have been quite adept at spreading misinformation. I simply hired a bunch of university and seminary students to sort through the information there was and single out the bits that met a good historian’s standards of believability. Thirty of them, for over two years…there really was a lot of material. In the end, only the tiniest amount could be considered reliable. That tiny amount was merely the work of another couple of years for me to study through, and the picture it painted of our girl was remarkably consistent.”

“Our girl?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.

“Forgive me,” he said contritely. “If one spends enough time studying somebody’s life, one tends to feel oddly attached. No matter how horrifying the subject matter may be.”

“Hm.” Whatever she thought of that, her face gave nothing away. “She had ample opportunity to harm Sharidan, myself, and many of those closest to us. As far as we can tell, she did not.”

“That is consistent,” he said, nodding. “Historically speaking, she only harms people in particular and for specific reasons. If anything, I’d say she’s more careful about collateral damage than some gods of the Pantheon.”

“Really. Regard for others?”

He leaned back in his chair slightly, frowning in thought. “No…and yes, but no. It’s wasteful, inelegant. A good con artist uses only the lightest touch and leaves as little trace as possible. A good kneecapper relies on the threat of force rather than the use of force; you have to beat a few people down now and again to establish that you can and will, but nobody could do business if everybody were constantly attacking each other. It becomes…a code of honor, so to speak, a set of best practices that all good scoundrels follow, irrespective of any affiliations or moral leanings they may have. In time, that can be internalized to the point that causing unnecessary pain is troubling to the spirit, like a twinge of conscience. Not true compassion, but…” He groped silently for the word. “An ethic of restraint.”

“Again, you speak of her as you would a member of your Guild.”

“I think she’d do very well in the Guild. This business of infiltrating an organization in human guise… The recent events in the Palace are not the first time she’s done this. I’d be totally unsurprised to learn she has been a member of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”

Below, the bartender laughed aloud, but did not look up from wiping the glass he was working on. The soldier shot him an irritated look.

“To move this back to my original concern…how likely do you think it that she left some trap behind, some delayed way of harming my family?”

“Not very likely at all. At least, that would be wildly out of character.” He drew in a breath slowly, looking down at the table. “Your Majesty, I’m not certain how to phrase this with any delicacy…”

“Then don’t concern yourself with delicacy,” she said firmly. “I’ll neither break nor demand your execution if you ruffle my feathers.”

“Very well,” he said gravely, keeping amusement hidden only through a truly heroic effort. “Everything in the histories suggests that Elilial’s attachments are quite real, at least to her. She’s been known to discreetly watch over people with whom she has formed relationships through deception, giving assistance when they need it years after their part in her schemes is over, sometimes avenging them when necessary.”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “You suggest she is truly a caring person, deep down.”

“I am not sure I’d go that far,” he hedged. “No… My perception has always been that she’s a lonely person. Her only real peers are the gods she turned against, and who cast her into Hell for it. She’s down there with nothing but demons for company most of the time. All things considered I have a hard time seeing her as particularly soft-hearted, but able to form real attachments? Maybe even desperate to do so? That I have no trouble believing.”

“Then…with regard to my family…”

“I am not sure how much of the story I know,” he admitted, “but from the basics that I do… If there were any hostility, any animosity there, you’d know already. If she behaved toward you and yours with affection, that affection is likely to be sincere. Oh, she’ll use you in her schemes like she does everyone else, and I know I needn’t tell you how these schemes in particular could well kick the very Empire right out from under us all. But on a personal level? No, I don’t believe your family has anything to fear from Elilial. If anything…should you ever find yourself in truly desperate straits, you might find yourself with a very unexpected protector.”

There was silence. In the stillness of the chamber, the very soft voices of the two in the other corner were almost intrusive; the echo of a chess piece being set down seemed to reverberate.

“That should be encouraging,” Eleanora said at last, “but if anything, I find myself more disturbed.”

“I know what you mean,” Darling said with perfect sincerity. “This is why I am always careful to study Elilial and her people from a safe distance. Reading old stories, rather than interviewing those of the Wreath we’ve managed to capture. It’s terrifying, how easily she can suck you in.”

“We still have no Imperial heir, nor any sign of one forthcoming,” she said abruptly. “The court physicians are positive that the problem is not with Sharidan. But then, they say that about each of the women in his harem, as well, and it defies reason that someone hasn’t ended up with child by now. He’s quite energetic. You will repeat that to no one.”

“Repeat what? Your pardon, Majesty, I’m a trifle deaf on this side.”

“Good. Elilial has twice hinted broadly that she is now carrying his child. Once to his face, once to three hapless soldiers who, luckily for them, had no idea what she was talking about. Is there any chance she is lying?”

“Of course. Lying is the better part of what she does. I fancy myself probably most likely of those outside the Wreath itself to give credit to Elilial’s better traits, but even I won’t try to present her as anything less than a compulsive deceiver. Before the Fall, she was simply the goddess of cunning. The other gods didn’t turn their backs on her then, and that’s when they counted her an ally.”

“But on the other hand…”

“On the other hand, yes, she has birthed several demigods that we know of. One of whom is currently attending classes in Last Rock.”

The Empress’s mouth twisted in dislike, a curiously strong reaction, but she simply went on: “Could she have been responsible for the childlessness of the other women in the Palace?”

“It does seem consistent with her apparent scheme, but… I’m sorry, your Majesty, I’m glad to share my insights into what Elilial is likely to do, based on what she’s done in the past, but as to what she can do…nobody can really help you. The one thing we know she is very good at is concealing her movements, a trait which extends to members of the Wreath. Just as priests of Omnu have that calming aura, and Izarite clerics get the uncanny ability to discern someone’s emotional needs, invested followers of Elilial gain the gift of hiding their movements. Even from the gods.”

There were no fewer than three small sounds of activity from the floor below. He reflexively froze for a moment.

“Which, obviously, makes any other powers they possess…particularly unknowable.”

“Just so, your Majesty.”

“You have been very helpful, Bishop Darling,” the Empress said, leaning back in her seat. “Not that my mind is put at ease, but I feel I can worry constructively rather than generally, now.”

“I do what I can,” he said modestly.

“Well, that is another question,” she said in a mild tone that instantly made his hackles rise. “Rather like Elilial, it is a curious conundrum…what you can do, and what you are likely to do.”

“I beg your pardon?” he said politely. His mind was racing at the shift of mood. Vex, still silent, was watching him fixedly through half-lidded eyes. Eleanora’s attention was less subtle, and there was a hint of a satisfied smile hovering about her mouth that he didn’t like at all.

“Tell me, are you acquainted with Bishop Syrinx?”

“We have spoken in passing,” he said, tilting his head to the side in a gesture of innocent curiosity. “I can’t say I know her well.”

“She is possibly the worst Avenist I’ve ever met,” Eleanora went on conversationally, not even flinching when the soldier set her whiskey glass down hard on the bar. “Vindictive, underhanded, and altogether a better politician than a priest. But if I do say so, she makes an excellent Bishop.”

“I begin to wonder if I should feel offended.”

“There is an interesting layer to the power struggle in this city, you see. Not just between the Throne and the Church, but between the Church and the disparate faiths it is supposed to collect under its aegis. So many of their doctrines contradict one another outright that the Archpopes have always been forced to dance a very delicate line, keeping a unified doctrinal front.”

Darling nodded pleasantly, refusing to glance at the door. He knew this, she knew he knew it; everyone who was a player in this game, or even just a somewhat educated cleric, knew it. She was giving a monologue, like a villain in a novel. This was not a good sign; Eleanora Tirasian was clever enough and ruthless enough to make an excellent villain. Vex, even less encouragingly, had begun to smile. Both of them had a theatrical streak.

“This results in things like the Bishops,” the Empress went on, still in that conversational tone. “By and large, they are a consistent bunch. Crafty, better at rising through the ranks of religious hierarchies than at practicing any actual faith. I imagine their respective High Priests were just as glad to get rid of them, and they make excellent pawns for Justinian. And then there is you.”

“I’ll have you know I fit in splendidly with my colleagues,” he said mildly. “I get along with everyone.”

“I know you do, Sweet. You are everybody’s friend.” Her eyes bored into him; he refused to react to the use of his tag. “This city is just lousy with people who owe you favors, or simply like you enough to do you favors, which has been the secret of your success. And that is what makes you stand out among your fellow Bishops. You are actually a really good priest of Eserion.”

“You’re going to make me blush!”

“It may just be that Eserion’s cult is an inherently unusual one,” she went on, ignoring him. “Where most of the gods direct their followers to some beneficial end, or what they believe to be one, disciples of the god of thieves are sent to go out and steal things. So I have to wonder… Why would the Guild send their once high priest to the Church?” She folded her hands primly on the table and smiled pleasantly at him. “What, exactly, are you supposed to steal?”

Darling made a show of glancing back and forth, then leaned in close. “Can you keep a secret?”

Still smiling, she raised an eyebrow.

He grinned. “Everything. Every damn thing, down to Justinian’s fuzzy slippers. It’ll be the heist of the millennium.”

“I believe I asked you to be serious.”

“So you did, and so I was. And then you attempted to maneuver an avowed thief into a corner. I’m curious, your Majesty, what response you expected that to get.”

“There is a question here, Darling, about loyalty. I am intrigued by you on a number of levels, but it is hardly possible for me to take any action with regard to you before I know with whom you stand. Is it the Empire? The Church? Your god, or the gods in general?”

“This I know about gods,” he said, picking up his untouched drink. The layers had begun to blend into each other after long minutes sitting idle. “I am fully aware of and grateful for their gifts to us. But gods, like people, are individuals, with their own personalities and agendas. They are people, however fundamentally different. And like any other group of people, they can be a right bunch of bastards.”

Her eyebrows climbed at that, and a deathly silence fell over the room. Darling raised his glass to her in toast and focused his attention, reaching for that inner glow deep inside himself.

They were not encouraged to draw on it; thieves had little use for it. But Eserion, for good or ill, was a god of the Pantheon, and he and his followers were therefore entitled to certain benefits—including the healing light. Channeled through his hand, it caught the liquid in the glass, blazing from each of the slightly-muddied layers of the drink and causing it to glow like a stained glass fairy lamp.

“Those who have my loyalty know it. Those who would have my loyalty can earn it, in the usual ways. To them, and to you, your Majesty…good health.” He smiled at her, sipped his drink, and turned to look once out at the bar. It was a look he’d had ample occasion to practice on Guild business: not quite a challenging look, but more than simple acknowledgment. It was a look that said “Yeah, I see you, what of it?”

The gods were looking back at him, and most were smiling. The exception was Avei, who had swiveled around on her barstool to give him a look of weary disdain. Eserion, behind the bar, laughed aloud as he added a splash of whiskey to her glass. In the corner, Izara’s eyes twinkled merrily, brightly enough to be visible from across the room; beside her, Vesk, the god of bards, lifted his hands and patted them together lightly in a silent ovation. Both the chess players were staring at him now, Omnu with a gentle smile, Vidius wearing a grin of wry humor.

The Empress, when he turned back to her, looked decidedly less amused. “And I am left to wonder, still, at the exact nature of your apparently considerable interest in, and sympathy for, a certain goddess of cunning.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “so that’s it, then.”

“I have the Black Wreath running rampant in my Empire and in my city,” she went on, “more so than we had previously imagined. Aside from recent shenanigans in the Palace itself, an entire cell of them recently popped up in a little flyspeck town, with a suicide summoner and dwarven technology that we’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, Arachne bloody Tellwyrn demolished them before any useful questions could be asked, but the fact remains: they’re growing bolder, and stronger, at the same time their mistress is up to something well beyond her usual antics. This, obviously, is not acceptable.”

“Obviously,” he said dryly. “But if you’ll pardon my narcissism, what does it have to do with me?”

“Imperial Intelligence are the best in the world at what they do,” she said, absently patting Vex’s wrist, as one might acknowledge a favored pet, “but they face certain stark limits against the Wreath. To say nothing of the inherent challenges of chasing after diabolists and dark priests, we have no effective counter to Elilial’s gift of stealth. The Church doesn’t either, and while they are better equipped to contend with demons, they lack any personnel with the skill Lord Vex’s people have in this kind of skullduggery. Besides, I obviously cannot trust Justinian or any of his lackeys.”

“What, you don’t think I’m his lackey?”

“I don’t know whose lackey you are, if anyone’s,” she said evenly. “And that is where you may be exactly what we need. You said yourself that the Thieves’ Guild is very like the Black Wreath in its operations and general outlook.”

“The Guild is not going to start a war with the Wreath.”

“For innumerable reasons, obviously, no. But a man whose loyalties are stretched multiple ways to begin with provides deniability to all his putative masters.”

“Ahh,” he nodded, smiling, “now I see. If I were to go chasing after the Wreath, they wouldn’t know against whom to retaliate. Very clever. Quite elegant, really.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Of course, I’m absolutely not going to do it, but I do appreciate the merits of the idea.”

“I think you mistake my intentions,” she said with a smile. “You spent what had to have been most of your earnings in your first years as Bishop, not to mention the years in question, on a colossal research project just to build up a working understanding of Elilial’s psychology. Strange behavior, for a thief.”

“What, a man can’t have hobbies?”

“No. People like you…and like me…do not have hobbies, we have obsessions. One singular obsession for each of us, really, which fills our lives and colors every activity we undertake. You are an information man, Sweet, a connection man. You wanted to know the Black Lady’s ways for a reason.” Her smile widened a fraction of an inch. “You’re hunting her.”

“Or perhaps,” he offered, swirling his glass idly, “I’m looking to join her. She does run a most admirable outfit. Perhaps I already have.”

“And what would you do if you had? Wage war on the gods? Overthrow the Empire? No, Darling, she has nothing you want. You want the chase. We are talking about the single most challenging prey that has ever existed. I think if you ever manage to catch her, you’ll find yourself at a loss.”

“You presume to know me well, your Majesty.”

“Indeed so. And perhaps I am wrong.” Still she kept that smile, but her eyes burned with intensity. “I am not threatening you, nor will I ever. I’m not asking you to do anything. I am extending an offer.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“How is it the organized criminals always put it in the novels?” she mused. “You’ve done me a favor today. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position to do you a favor. Especially if it leads to progress in uprooting the Black Wreath from my city.”

Darling matched her smile. “Your Majesty has a fertile and eloquent imagination.”

“Thank you,” she said sweetly. “But my offer stands. Whatever aid I may lend you, should you need it in hunting the Wreath.” With that, she stood. Vex and Darling did likewise, as protocol demanded. On their feet, she was shorter than he, though not by much. Whereas most women of her breeding and upbringing would never miss a chance to look up at a man through their lashes, Eleanora tilted her head to gaze at him directly. “And, of course, should you decide that your loyalty lies against the Empire…I will not bother to threaten you then, either. You are a most valued subject, Antonio Darling.”

“There are not words in our inadequate mortal language for my appreciation at your acknowledgment, your Majesty,” he replied, bowing deeply.

“Thank you for your time, Bishop.”

He took the dismissal for what it was, backed up a step, and descended the stairs.

The gods were all watching him.

He nodded to Eserion, and then tipped Avei a wink. For just a moment he thought something very bad was about to happen to him, but Izara let out a peal of delighted laughter from across the room, and the goddess of war wordlessly turned her back on him. He didn’t breathe again until he was back outside, and not deeply until he had climbed the stone steps and stood safely on the streets of Tiraas. Already, the tense atmosphere within the Elysium was starting to fade like a dream.

Darling wondered, as he started walking, whether he would still be able to see the sign if he turned around. He didn’t check. His mind was already furiously at work, teasing apart the details of that conversation.

None of this made sense. The Empress had as much as accused him of having divided loyalties, offered her support, and then dismissed him. Vex, too, by implication. Those actions were totally self-contradictory. Why? One didn’t just baldly come out with such details right in front of the person one suspected of double-dealing, especially if one intended to secure that person’s aid. Traitorous people could be incredibly useful, but only if you knew they were traitorous and they didn’t know you knew. This disarming honesty…this was no way to play the game.

Unless…

Darling frowned as he walked, letting his feet carrying him home by sheer muscle memory.

Unless the game was not going in your favor, in which case the best move available was sometimes to introduce a little chaos. Forcibly change the board, realign the players, knock a few pieces out of place. It might improve your position, or might not. It was a gambit for when no sensible actions could lead to victory.

The Wreath, the gods, Elilial, Tellwyrn, the Church, the cults within the church…all swirled around and within the Empire, nipping at it from all directions. And, he now realized, the Empire, or at least its Empress, believed it was losing.

Interesting.

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