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“What the hell, Tricks?”

“Oh, don’t ‘what the hell’ me,” the Boss retorted scathingly. “What’re you suddenly so squeamish about, huh? The Falconers aren’t any of your business, Sweet, and just because you’ve got a paternal streak for Thorn doesn’t mean the Guild owes her so much as a say-so when planning jobs in her vicinity. I dunno what you’re getting so worked up over.”

Sweet stared at him, finding himself at a loss for words. Not for the first time in his life, but it was a very rare condition for him.

“You don’t…know. What I’m worked up over.”

“He’s not that worked up, Boss,” Style rumbled, regarding Tricks sidelong from where she stood against the room’s door. The counting room was busy at this hour, and this was no business which merited the use of Eserion’s inner sanctum, so they were speaking in the map room just off the central training pit.

“Whose side are you on?” Tricks demanded, giving her a grin that took any rebuke out of the question. Style, for once, didn’t respond to it, just studying him in silence.

“Okay.” Sweet held up both hands. “Okay, forget about the politics. Forget the Falconers, Duchess Madouri, Tar’naris, and all the delicate ongoing plots we have with each of them that might’ve been upended by this scheme.”

“Y’know, Sweet, there’s no point in saying ‘forget the politics’ if you just go and recite them all.”

“Trust me, that was the forgetful version; we could go into each at length. But seriously, never mind that. Boss, you sent two of our people to piss off fucking Vadrieny as directly and personally as they possibly could short of playing grabby hands with her wife. And you didn’t warn them she was even a factor! So yeah, I will goddamn well say it again: what the hell, Tricks?!”

“Just because I’m stuck doing desk work now doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about planning a job,” Tricks retorted. “Everybody I send out knows exactly what they need to. Teal Falconer is the kind of annoying pacifist who— Well, did you know she was actually bullied as a teenager? Girl could’ve had someone killed using just her allowance, and she let the children of her father’s employees push her around. That demon is as good as housebroken and has been for years.”

“Jasper is in the goddamn hospital!”

“Oh, you know Jasper pretty well, huh?” Tricks asked, grinning humorlessly. “Get up to Madouris a lot lately, do ya?”

“What the fuck does that have to do with—”

“Just that this is the Thieves’ Guild, Sweet. If I plan a job that puts somebody in the hospital, you ever consider that maybe they ought to be put there?”

Sweet stared at him for a moment, then pointed at Style. “Isn’t that her job?”

“I cannot fucking send Style to smack every head that needs it, much as she might prefer that.”

“I just…” Sweet rubbed at his temples. “Tricks, you don’t send Guild members into horrific danger without warning them what they’re in for! A job they’re not fully prepared for is gonna fail, that’s basic—”

“Sweet,” Tricks said flatly, taking a step closer to him, “I give you a lot of leeway, because we both know you’ve earned it and you’re worth it. But and the end of the day, you had your turn as Boss. You don’t tell me what to fucking do.”

They stared at each other in silence, Trick’s face expressionless while Sweet frowned in consternation.

“Right,” Style drawled after a few tense moments. “Should I call the twins in here to grow a tree for you two to piss on?”

“Look,” Tricks said in a softer tone, stepping forward again. This time, though, he reached out to grasp Sweet by the shoulder. “You do remember what the job’s like, Sweet. Sometimes you gotta keep people in the dark. There are things I have to do that I can’t explain to people, and the role of Boss sure as hell comes with hard choices to be made. That’s all right there in the job description. I get how you can feel left out of the loop sometimes, I do. But I do what I gotta do, and ultimately? You either trust me to do the job, or you don’t.”

He paused, then lowered his hand.

“Go ahead and take your time deciding which it is, Sweet. I wish I had time to hang out here all day chewing the fat, but just like every day I’ve got a thousand fucking things to be doing right now.”

Tricks turned and strolled toward the door, his gait for once free of the tension he usually displayed. Style stepped aside without comment and the Boss slipped out, leaving the door ajar.

“Style,” Sweet said quietly, staring after him, “is he…”

“Is he what, Sweet?” she asked, a hard edge to her tone.

Sweet frowned at the cracked door for a second longer before focusing his gaze on her face. “Is he okay?”

She worked her mouth once in a chewing motion, then turned her head to glare at the map of the Empire on the far wall. The muscles in her jaw clenched, and then the head enforcer shoved the door closed again with one hand.

“Sweet, what kind of shit did the Big Guy have you do, when you were Boss?”

“Very little,” he admitted. “The Guild more or less runs itself if you prioritize looking after the people doing its business. At least, that was my approach. I know we’ve had this conversation before, Style.”

“Yeah, and I know you know it isn’t like that for Tricks. He’s got… I dunno, Sweet, the Big Guy’s stuff is Boss’s ears only. It’s been like that ever since he took over. I’ve kinda gotten used to him making calls I thought were odd, but they always either worked out so I could see the point in hindsight, or nothing apparently came of ‘em in the end. And nothing ever crossed…this kind of line.”

“So it’s not just me?” Sweet asked almost plaintively. “I know I’m not crazy. This shit is seriously over the edge.”

“Well, he’s not tagged Tricks because he likes to do stuff the straightforward way. The man’s more than earned my trust, Sweet, and I’d like to think yours too.”

“Are you forgetting who put him forward to be Boss in the first place?”

She nodded once in agreement. “If he does something I don’t get, I can live with it and trust it’s going somewhere. He’s never done anything like sending a pair of goobers like Rake and Jasper up against a fucking archdemon, though. And…that last bit at the end, there. That is not the Boss I know. ‘Fuck you, I do what I want’ is not part of his personality. Hell, his vocabulary. At least… I wouldn’t’ve thought so,” she added, scowling deeply.

Sweet heaved a sigh, running a hand over his hair. “Fuck. I don’t like the way this feels, Style. Doing shit behind his back…”

“What shit?” she asked, her tone deceptively mild. “We’re just chatting.”

“Yeah.” He locked his eyes on hers. “You up for chatting about anything else the Boss has done recently that seemed…off to you?”

Style narrowed her eyes very slightly. “Didn’t you say you ran off and left Thorn in charge of a delicate political negotiation? Fucking Thorn?”

“That baby bird’s gotta get pushed out of the nest sometime. Thorn’s got it in her to be as sly as Keys ever was, she’s just spent her life being discouraged from developing that skill. Well, she needs it now, and nobody’s got time for her to practice on small fry. I think we’ve got something just as urgent to focus on here.”

“Yeah, well, that’s as good a starting point as any,” she said, grimacing. “You’re the people guy, Sweet; can you think of any reason for the Boss to send Ninetails to handle relations with the Avenists at a time like this?”

Sweet’s eyes slowly widened. “…why the fuck don’t we keep chairs in here? I gotta sit down.”


“So I hope you’ll understand if I am a tad out of sorts with the Guild right now.”

“I don’t understand at all,” Trissiny murmured, slowly pacing back and forth in front of High Commander Rouvad’s desk. “Ah, not you, Commander, your position is wholly reasonable. I just can’t make sense of this pattern. Now of all times, interfaith relations deserve both careful handling and a high priority.”

“Yes, I would have thought so, myself,” Rouvad agreed, her expression severe. “Nonetheless, here we are. I get more or less the same content from various Guild messengers, but in the last few weeks Bishop Darling is the only one who brings me anything slightly useful. And I could live with empty platitudes, but I am less amused when they come from people who try to start fights with my Legionnaires or generally behave in my presence like feral animals. Are you acquainted with this Ninetails character?”

“Not personally,” Trissiny said, shaking her head and not pausing in her pacing. “I’m not personally familiar with every thief in Tiraas, obviously.”

“Well, I would take it as a kindness if you’d inform Tricks that my patience is not limitless. It’s a delicate political time for the Sisterhood internally, to say nothing of dicey relations between cults and with the Church, and being seen taking a conciliatory stance with disruptive thieves is only going to cost me face within my own cult. Exactly when I can least afford it.”

Finally, Trissiny trailed to a halt, staring at the wall for a moment, then turned to face the High Commander directly. “This may be premature, but I am suddenly starting to see a pattern I don’t like.”

“Do tell,” Rouvad said flatly.

“I was privy to the aftermath of another strange Guild action today: two thieves attacked my friends Shaeine and Teal and tried to steal their dog.”

“Oh,” Rouvad snorted, lowering her eyebrows. “You mean their demon.”

“Hellhounds are from the same plane as the Rhaazke,” Trissiny said patiently. “They are infernally stable and lack the aggression characteristic of demon species native to Hell proper. F’thaan is, for all intents and purposes, a dog with unique magical traits. And for the record, he is a good boy. I’m only bringing this up because it parallels the situation here. There are all kinds of reasons for the Guild not to antagonize them; they are connected to Falconer Industries and House Awarrion directly, and less directly to House Madouri, all institutions with which the Guild has established relationships that should rule out such an aggressive action. And according to the actual suspects, they were ordered directly to do this by Boss Tricks himself. Bishop Darling is off verifying that with the Boss right now, which is the only reason he didn’t come here with me.”

“Where are you going with this, Trissiny?” Rouvad asked, her tone quieter but more serious.

Trissiny held her gaze, eyebrows drawing together in concern. “It may be too early to draw conclusions, but I have a sudden worry. I think… Tricks may be compromised, somehow.”

“Compromised,” Rouvad intoned. “By whom, exactly?”

“Do we really need to keep dancing around this? The cult most solidly behind Archpope Justinian’s agenda has been split by a major religious schism since Ninkabi, and all but neutralized as a political force because of it. Now, we have the first hints of similar schisms brewing within the two cults most directly opposed to him. Do you truly imagine that’s a coincidence? First these Purists, who have obviously been getting significant financial backing and organization from someone, and now an abrupt pattern of squirrelly behavior from Boss Tricks himself exactly when the Guild can least afford it.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Rouvad asked quietly. “An accusation like that, against a sitting Archpope, is not a small matter, Trissiny.”

“Do you believe it’s something I would say lightly?” Trissiny stepped forward and planted her fists on the desk, leaning toward her over it. “Commander, this is not something I just pulled out of my butt this afternoon. Justinian is pursuing an agenda of his own, which is not in alignment with the Pantheon’s, much less any of the member cults. Just this summer, a god of the Pantheon sent all three paladins on a mission to ascertain this fact, and we received aid from several others in the process. We learned definitively that he has been tampering with Elder God artifacts and attempting to affect the nature of the gods themselves. The man is an enemy. Or did you really believe he’s spent an unprecedented span of months blocking the Sisterhood from having Church representation out of personal pique?”

“Do I need to remind you,” Rouvad replied in a near-growl, “that you incited this entire dilemma by going behind my back to uproot Bishop Syrinx?”

“Do you really want to play that game?” Trissiny shot back. “Syrinx was an asset of Justinian’s and for numerous other reasons a major problem for the Sisterhood. We can discuss who caused that problem and who solved it, or we can put it behind us and deal with the situation we are in right now. I know which I’d prefer.”

Both women stared at each other in silence for five heartbeats.

Then, slowly, Rouvad leaned back in her chair. “You realize the story you’re telling me is incredible, Trissiny.”

“It’s more incredible than you can imagine,” she agreed. “You’re only hearing about it; I had to live through the whole thing. I have seldom been so rattled.”

“And rightly so.” Rouvad paused, pressing her lips into a line, and then shook her head. “You are not unstable, or a fool, or a liar, and clearly well within Avei’s good graces. Obviously I have no choice but to believe you, no matter how insane this tale sounds.”

“I appreciate your trust, Commander,” Trissiny said, straightening back up.

Rouvad shook her head again. “I do not care for the way you’ve gone about certain actions, Trissiny. But obviously, the same is true in reverse, or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we are on the same side.”

“And allowing ourselves to forget that is doing the enemy’s work,” Trissiny agreed, nodding.

“That being the case, what is it you suggest doing about this? If being frozen out by the Church is truly a malicious action meant to harm the Sisterhood, outside the usual run of politics…”

“In general terms,” Trissiny said, taking a step back, “the course I’d recommend is to turn the tables on Justinian: freeze him out instead of letting him do it to us. Bishop Darling has been attempting to rally support with the other cults against the Church. It’s not gone well; the Eserites have always held themselves somewhat aloof, and obviously the cults are reluctant to sacrifice their footing with the Church. Matters will be different if we lend the Sisterhood’s weight directly to the same cause.”

“Take our interfaith relations back into our own hands,” Rouvad mused. “Truthfully, I like the notion. My patience with Justinian’s waffling is even lower than my patience for Trick’s antics, and that was before I learned of… Well, this. I already see an issue, though, Trissiny. If the Guild is suddenly a notably unreliable ally, we’d only be isolating ourselves further.”

“Which is exactly why it’s important to bring as many other cults into alignment with us as possible. In the meantime, the Guild’s internal issues are going to have to be dealt with, just as we ourselves need to nip this Purist nonsense in the bud. I’ll work on that if I can; in the meantime, I can get you information on who within the Guild can be trusted. Bishop Darling, for one, and you can reach out to Tamisin Sharvineh for both a steady hand and widespread connections. If you’ll extend a little patience, Commander, I will get you more to work with as soon as I’m able.”

“Mm,” Rouvad grunted. “We’ll see. And you said all that was general terms.”

“I do have a suggestion,” said Trissiny, nodding. “Appoint a Bishop.”

Rouvad barked an incredulous laugh. “What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past five months? And didn’t you just declare that trying to do business with the Church is effectively useless?”

Trissiny shook her head. “You’ve been trying to work with Justinian—whose goal is obviously to waste time and hamper our movements. I’m saying, cut him out of it entirely. Appoint a Bishop, unilaterally, to take charge of the Sisterhood’s interfaith relations, and the Church be damned. What exactly is he going to do about it? Procrastinate harder? Taking action to render the Church’s voice in our affairs irrelevant is a decisive move that will turn the tables and marginalize him.”

The Commander was silent for a long moment. Then, finally, a smile cracked her reserve. Just as quickly, it faded back into an expression of contemplation.

“It figures. Just as the mission of Squad 391 become urgently applicable, they’ve been shuffled off to Viridill to train adventurers. That kind of mandate… I have to say, it calls for a different skill set and personality than a standard Church Bishop. I’ll have to begin reviewing personnel files anew to find a suitable candidate.”

“Actually, it seems to me an old candidate would be better than a new one. Nandi Shahai did excellent work as Bishop, during her brief tenure in the role. Can you think of anyone better suited for this iteration of the job?”

“Hmm.” A small smile continued to twitch at the corners of Rouvad’s lips. “You’re not wrong about that. Locke won’t like it at all, of course. She relies heavily on Nandi to keep her new band of rabble in line.”

Trissiny folded her hands behind her back, raising her chin and settling unconsciously into parade rest. “I apologize if this smacks of me suggesting how to manage your troops, Commander, but in my personal opinion, Locke’s development as an officer can only benefit from regular reminders that there’s a chain of command and she will obey orders.”

That brought an outright grin from the High Commander, but it faded quickly back into seriousness and she leaned forward again, staring intently at her paladin. “You do know, Trissiny, what happened the last time there was a major split of cults against the Universal Church.”

“This isn’t the Enchanter Wars,” Trissiny said softly. “Archpope Sipasian was a fool who let Magnan the Enchanter lead him around by the nose. Magnan did the same to the Emperor, and the head of the Collegium. Justinian is anything but a fool; he knows precisely what he is doing, and in my opinion, it’s just as urgent that he be stopped. More to the point, his power-grabbing has antagonized enough established powers that there are plenty of allies against him just waiting to be rallied. The Silver Throne would love nothing more than an excuse to push hard against him. We have only to plant a flag and gather others to it.”

“We have to get our own house in order before we can step into that role,” Rouvad warned. “Are you certain the sudden rise of the Purists is Justinian’s doing?”

“I can’t see any other explanation, but no, there’s no definitive evidence yet. I intend to acquire it in the course of removing them as a factor.”

“I’m not one to advocate for inaction, but you need to be careful. This is no time for another outburst like your performance in Calderaas this summer.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Commander. In fact, I think this has been arranged to capitalize on just such an act, if I repeated that mistake. That’s why I am taking an entirely different approach.”

Rouvad raised one eyebrow. “But no less decisive?”

“If anything,” Trissiny said with a grim little smile, “much more so.”


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“Well…this changes matters.”

Darling nodded, staring ahead across the street with a slight frown. Though they were clearly the subject of attention, standing in front of a police barracks with Trissiny in her silver armor, they enjoyed the slight privacy of distance; passersby in Tiraas were generally adept at minding their own business, and few people anywhere would be eager to approach a paladin with that look on her face.

“I gotta check with Tricks, obviously,” Darling said abruptly after a loaded pause.

“Okay,” she agreed, but slowly. “And…if he…?”

“Everything we do next depends on what he has to say,” said the Bishop, finally turning to face her. “If Rake was on the up and up, I doubt Tricks will deny it. If he does… Well, that’ll have implications that we then have to deal with. In the likelier outcome, I’ve got enough pull to demand to know what he’s thinking with this. Tricks doesn’t do things without good reasons, Thorn, and we better know what the hell they are before charging ahead.”

Trissiny nodded. “Sounds like sense to me. I guess…this means we split up, for now.”

He emitted the tiniest huff of almost-laughter. “Yeah, ‘fraid so. You don’t have much say with Tricks and he’s not likely to appreciate being questioned with you in attendance. And your business at the Temple had better not wait any longer.”

“Gotta wonder if this isn’t exactly the play,” Darius commented from where he was leaning indolently against the station’s wall in a manner that would have him immediately picked up by the first passing soldier had he not been with Trissiny.

“Surely you don’t suggest Tricks works for…you know who,” Layla objected.

“I bet lots of people who don’t work for you know who end up doing his dirty work, regardless,” said Tallie. “Without knowing it, or even against their will.”

“Let’s not get too deep into speculation,” Darling warned. “Big mistake, to form theories when you don’t have the facts yet. Then, when the facts come, your brain’ll tend to try to fit them into your theories rather than the other way round. You may not be wrong, though,” he added, nodding at Darius. “Eyes and ears open, kids. We can’t be paralyzed by indecision, but don’t forget there’s some real shit afoot.”

“Shit afoot, nice turn of phrase,” said Tallie, grinning. “Sure does look like we’ve stepped right in it.”

“I know Sweet’s off on Guild business, and I’m not the boss of you,” said Trissiny, turning around to address the apprentices, “but I would appreciate it if you all stuck with me for now.”

“You want us at the Temple of Avei?” Darius demanded, raising his eyebrows. “Wow. I thought you were just humoring us.”

“No, Darius,” she snapped impatiently, “you were just pretending to think that because it gives you another excuse to act huffy. If what you want is to be left behind, keep that up, because I haven’t got time to hold the hand of a big boy who shouldn’t damn well need it.”

“Tooooold yoooooouuu,” Layla sang sweetly.

“The issue,” Trissiny continued more evenly, “is that Rasha’s presence is going to be necessary for the plan, and I may have to spend some time squirreled away with the High Commander or elsewhere that I can’t bring her along. After what happened last time, I’ll feel better with someone else on hand to watch her back.”

“I can take look after myself, you know,” Rasha pointed out. “I managed last time.”

“Yes, and you can do it better with friends behind you,” Tallie replied, patting her shoulder. “Thorn’s right; this isn’t a dig at you, it’s basic sense.”

“Not that I encourage you kids to pick a fight in the Temple,” said Darling, “but it is true that bullies like these Purists are much less likely to try to ambush someone moving in a group. Any predator will try to isolate prey before striking. All right, let’s burn mileage before we burn any more daylight. I’ll swing back by Glory’s this evening and hope to catch you so we can compare notes.”

“Right, same goes,” Trissiny replied. “If either of us can’t make it, Glory can make sure everyone’s up to date.”

“Now, remember, Sweet,” Layla said sternly, “as with most nights, Glory is having company this evening. Scruffy characters like you had better come in the servants’ entrance.”

“Just for that,” he said, winking, “I’m gonna take the sewer access, wipe my boots on the carpet, and tell her you told me to do it. Don’t try to sass the master, princess. All right, kids, work fast and stay safe. Catch up with you as soon as I can.”

They separated, heading in opposite directions up the sidewalk toward their respective next confrontations.


Kheshiri was still laughing after half an hour, though at least her initial hysterics had subsided to intermittent giggle fits that allowed the rest of them to converse. A look into her aura had informed Natchua that, while the initial outburst of hilarity was purely genuine, by this point she was just being deliberately annoying. That, Natchua was inclined to indulge. Enabling the Vanislaads to make pests of themselves helped take the edge off, reducing the risk of them doing something truly disruptive.

“It’s the weirdest damn thing,” Jonathan commented, gazing abstractly into his cup of tea. “After all the weird shit we’ve stumbled into and through since this summer, seems odd that this would be the thing that gives me pause. But…here we are.”

“This really bothers you more than all the…well, everything?” Natchua looked pointedly at Kheshiri, currently rolling about on the floor in front of the fire like a cackling dog, and the much more laid-back Melaxyna, who stood behind Sherwin’s chair, massaging his shoulders and cradling his head against her chest.

“The thing about demons,” Jonathan mused, “is that they just are what they are. They don’t get a choice, and can’t reasonably be any better. And even despite that, some of them choose to be better, and succeed.” Staring into space now instead of his tea, he reached to one side without looking, and Hesthri took his proffered hand. “As incredibly hard as it is for ‘em, they do. Nobles, now… Nobles are pretty much the opposite, in every respect.”

“Your point is well-taken, but that’s a little more grim than the reality,” said Melaxyna. “Nobles, like most mortals, are as good or bad as their upbringing and the choices they make. At their worst, they are no more monstrous than any mentally defective violent criminal, just more destructive due to their power. But the good ones are potentially enormous forces for good in the world, by the same token.”

“Honestly, Jonathan, I am inclined to see it the way you do,” Natchua said softly, stepping over to crouch by his chair. He finally focused on her at that, smiling, and she leaned her head against his knee with a sigh. Jonathan had more than a little Avenist in him and had initially been uneasy about the symbolism of having a woman he cared for sit by his feet, but Natchua found comfort in the position and had eventually brought him around. Even if she was still obviously the one with the power here, it was a relief to feel protected for a little while. “From everything I’ve read, Narisian nobility may not be any worse than the Imperial kind, relative to the two societies… But that just means they’re twice as vicious and underhanded on average, Tar’naris being the festering pit it is. Every instinct I have bridles at the idea.”

“I don’t want you to make a decision like this on my account,” he said quickly, setting his tea down on the table to stroke her hair, and then letting his hand rest lightly on the back of her neck, the way she liked.

“You are going to be a big part of any decision I make,” she replied. “Not the only part, but you matter a lot to me. I want to know how you feel before I do anything important.”

“I feel…wary,” he admitted. “Having had a few minutes now to think about how I feel, I’m starting to realize that much of my unease is due to the fact that I think you’d actually be a better noble than most. And as selfish as it sounds, it’s a little alarming because I have no idea how I would fit into that.”

“Well, look at it this way!” Sherwin said brightly. “You two could get married, and then you’d both be nobles. And hey, then Gabriel technically would be, too. I bet a paladin could get a lot of political use out of that.”

Everyone turned to stare at him except Kheshiri, who set off on another round of cackling, actually slapping one hand against the floor. Sherwin’s smile faded under their scrutiny and he shrank slightly in his chair, pushing his head back into Melaxyna’s chest as if to hide in her cleavage.

“Sherwin, honey,” the succubus murmured, squeezing his shoulders, “it’s a bit inconsiderate to put that kind of pressure on someone else’s relationship. Especially in public.”

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, “I didn’t… That is, I’m sorry if…”

“This is one of those things that you’ll only make worse by trying to fix, Sherwin,” Natchua said, not unkindly. “Hesthri, you’ve been quiet.”

The hethelax stepped closer, folding herself down to sit cross-legged practically on top of Jonathan’s feet, close enough to Natchua to reach out and place a hand on her knee. “That’s because I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say.”

“And when has that ever stopped you?” Natchua retorted.

“When the matter is serious,” Hesthri said, gazing at her without reciprocating her levity, “and your feelings are on the line. I think it’s good for you to be regularly knocked off your high horse, Natch, but I never want to be the cause of real upset, not over something important.”

“I care what you think, too,” Natchua said, reaching out to clasp the clawed hand Jonathan wasn’t currently holding. “If it’s something important enough to worry you, I definitely need to hear it. I can take a rebuke, Hes.”

“Then I think you should do it,” she said frankly.

Natchua blinked once, then closed her eyes and turned her face slightly so that it was half-buried in Jonathan’s thigh. “Why do any of you think I would be good at this? I mean, specifically, why? I am not fishing for compliments or validation, here, I just don’t get it. I am just so very Natchua. It’s inconceivable to me that I would be good in this position. Am I really the only one?”

“I suspect,” said Hesthri, squeezing her fingers, “because all of us here are as suspicious of aristocracy as you are, for one reason or another, and that makes the very fact that you’d be such an unconventional choice comforting. But it’s not like I’d suggest any old fool off the street should be thrust into that position, even if I loved that fool as I do you. I think that Malivette hit the nail on the head, lovely. You would be good for Veilgrad, and Veilgrad would be good for you. Both those things have already been the case; this is really just formalizing it.”

“It’s because you’re such an apex asshole, mistress,” Kheshiri interjected suddenly. She had rolled herself around and was now stretched out on her belly facing them, chin propped up on her hands and grinning in continued glee. “You make your decisions based on pure principle, and your principles amount to protecting people from abuse if you can, and avenging them if you can’t. Your preferred strategy for doing this is always something so irrationally conceived and convolutedly executed that nobody ever manages to stop you. That, mistress, is precisely the profile of a reformer who comes along to burn all the bullshit out of a crooked system. ‘Natchua the Noble’ is one of those ideas no sensible person would think of on their own, but once it’s presented, damn if it doesn’t make an eerie kind of sense! It’s a classic Natchua idea, in other words.”

“That…is…actually quite well said,” Jonathan said slowly, studying Kheshiri, who winked up at him. “Puts my thoughts into words much better than I would have.” Hesthri nodded.

“That’s what succubi do,” Sherwin chuckled. “Well. Among other things.” Melaxyna bent forward to kiss the top of his head.

Natchua regarded Kheshiri sidelong, taking in her delighted expression and the magical signature which revealed the actual mental state it hid. She was in this habit for the obvious reason of trying to head off resistance and defiance from the succubus, but more and more lately, Kheshiri had regarded her with ever-increasing warmth and attachment. Something about that was even brighter and fiercer, now. Natchua couldn’t quite put a label to the demon’s feelings toward her, but they were intensely positive. Somehow, that was more unsettling than if the Vanislaad had meant her harm.

“Well,” she said aloud, “I have more thinking on it to do. Vette and Ravana want to move fast, for the sake of political shock value, but I am at the very least going to sleep on it. I’m interested in hearing more from all of you, too, if you have thoughts. For now, that’s not the only crisis brewing. Shiri, I have work for you.”

“Ooh!” Kheshiri executed a deft gymnastic maneuver by which she flowed from a lounging position to sitting upright without ever fully straightening up, the furor of delight behind her eyes only increasing at the attention. “I’m all yours, my mistress!”

Natchua winced at the phrasing, on purpose. Letting the succubus needle her and get reactions helped scratch that itch. “I’ve got the Black Wreath sniffing around me, and so far I can’t tell what the hell they actually want. They said revenge, but their actions don’t make sense in that context. You’re the Wreath expert, here. The way I heard it, you actually took them over a century ago.”

“Ah, good times,” Kheshiri said reminiscently. “I miss Onkawa. But yes, mistress, I recognize the pattern you’ve described. It’s a standard ploy: they are keeping you both in the dark and under pressure. The goals are variable—could be just trying to see what you do when stressed and confused, or they might be trying to weaken you in preparation for the real play.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “It does make more sense in that light. So as long as they retain the ability to move about mysteriously…they retain the upper hand. Even trying to figure out their movements slips me deeper into the trap. Hm. How would you suggest defeating a plan like that?”

“Now, just a moment,” Jonathan interrupted. “Not to doubt your expertise, Kheshiri—or reproach you for asking advice, Natch, that’s a very good habit to be in. But remember what we were just discussing about you and your plans? The Wreath are legendary schemers; facing them on their own terms seems like a bad idea. Better to retaliate with something they wouldn’t and can’t expect. If there was ever a time for a Natchua plan, this is it.”

“Yes, it is,” Hesthri agreed softly, but with a mischievous fervor in her expression.

“I do have insights, if you wish them, mistress,” Kheshiri added, “but I like the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts here. I would be delighted to see how you’d screw with Mogul and his crew.”

“How I would…” Natchua trailed off, frowning into space and barely feeling Hesthri’s gentle squeezing of her hand, or Jonathan subtly massaging the back of her neck in his grip. “So the game is to create confusion and pressure, then? You know what, I kind of love it. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

She snapped her eyes back into focus, finding Kheshiri grinning at her with a level of glee that verged on the psychotic. For once, Natchua found the expression, rather than alarming as usual, exactly what she wanted to see.

“First thing tomorrow, Shiri, you and I are going to have a prowl around Veilgrad with our respective knowledge of Wreath tactics and Elilinist magic. I don’t need to know what they’re planning, just where they’ve been and might be again. And then… If Embras Mogul thinks he’s pissed at me now, he’s about to learn how much worse things can always get.”


“All these…are not skilled enchanters?” Magister Danoris asked, visibly aghast. He did not go so far as it lean over the catwalk’s railing, but clutched it as if it were holding him up as he gazed down at the factory floor below.

“Well, yes and no,” Geoffrey Falconer answered in the same energetic tone with which he’d been playing tour guide since their arrival. Though in many ways he lived up to the stereotype of the absent-minded intellectual, Falconer was as intrigued as any expert in arcane magic would be at meeting high elves, and always pleased to show guests the workings of his factory. “Naturally we do employ quite a few enchanters by specialty, but the whole point of the assembly line is to make production as efficient as possible. We’ve set it up as best as possible to minimize the need for magical expertise; fully seventy percent of the positions along the line are manual. Some of those do require an application of magic, but using the standard inks and dusts—which we of course manufacture in house, from our own mana turbines. That increases the available hiring pool. We pride ourselves on paying well here at FI, but unskilled labor is still much cheaper than employing enchanters.”

“And these…laborers…will produce self-motivated vehicles?”

“Twenty an hour,” Falconer said proudly.

“How sophisticated are your horseless carriages?” Danoris demanded.

“It depends; we have a range of products. The higher-end models have more features, obviously, but they also require more specialized attention from enchanters and other artisans. This assembly line happens to be producing our most basic model, the FI-320. Full seating for four passengers, weatherproof wheel charms, maximum speed of forty miles per hour, and fully rechargeable power crystals—”

“I wish to inspect one of these vehicles.”

“Of course,” Falconer said, his good cheer seemingly undiminished by Danoris’s abrupt tone, though his fellow Magister shot him a reproachful look which he did not see. This was not even the first such grimace Ravana had observed, simply by hanging back and studying her guests as intently as they did the factory facilities.

Magisters Danoris and Talvrin had accompanied her on the tour while Veilwin systematically drained a bottle of wine in the lobby, along with two of their Highguard escort, leaving the other two soldiers and Magister Eveldion to oversee proceedings back at the Manor. So far, Ravana hadn’t teased out any differences in rank; Danoris and Talvrin had the same title, and while Danoris generally took the lead, that might just reflect the differences in their personalities as there had been no giving or taking of orders between them. Talvrin let him talk, but did not show much in the way of deference, preferring to walk somewhat apart and study their surroundings on her own time.

“What is a mana turbine?” she now asked.

“Ah, those are actually the very foundation of Falconer Industries,” Geoffrey said animatedly. “Also called mana wells, they are essentially just electrical generators situated on a ley line nexus, which produce steady quantities of the raw dust which can then be refined into various grades of enchanting powders, and further mixed with alchemicals to make enchanting inks that can be used to inscribe enchantments on spell parchment. We both use these in house on our own products, and sell the raw materials directly through outlet shops. FI started when the Enchanter’s Bane shifted ley lines enough that a major nexus formed on real estate my family owned; our activities here tugged them further so that there are now two smaller nexi nearby, which we also control. There are turbines on each. In fact, the nearest is just at the other end of this factory! Would you like to see it firsthand?”

“Yes, we would!” Magister Danoris snapped. Again, Magister Talvrin cast an irritated glance his way. This time, she caught Ravana’s eye. The Duchess gave her a bland smile.

“Right this way!” Geoffrey said, leading the way along the catwalk.

Their course took them to the end of it, down a metal staircase to the factory floor, and through a door at its end. The hallway beyond extended past the building itself, well-lit by both fairy lamps and broad windows which revealed the domed structure to which it led, some fifty yards distant.

Ravana let herself fall to the rear, studying her guests as they strode along, and only deduced halfway down the hall that the Magisters were engaged in conversation the whole time. They spoke in the minutest exhalations that only an elf could hear, but the argument irritated Danoris enough that he turned his head to scowl at Talvrin, enabling her to see his lips move.

She made a mental note to learn to read lips. Somehow it had never come up, but in the moment, Ravana could only castigate herself for overlooking such a clearly useful skill.

The door into the mana turbine was both locked and guarded, though of course the factory’s owner was not impeded by these things in the slightest. He led them through, and into the huge round chamber beyond.

They emerged onto another catwalk surrounding the circular pit dug fully ten yards into the ground, where the machinery of the mana well itself whirred ceaselessly, its mechanical arm spinning and filling the very air with static.

“This chamber is bristling with both conventional lightning rods and the best grounding charms available!” Geoffrey practically shouted over the noise as he led the way around the perimeter of the room toward the glass-walled control booth. “There is basically no chance of electric shock, though with the turbine running at this capacity there’s obviously a lot of static! This way, please, the booth is charmed against both the noise and the electricity.”

The elves were visibly grateful to be shut inside the calm and quiet of the control booth, even the two soldiers. Two enchanters in hard hats and coveralls embroidered with the FI logo gawked at their guests; their employer and even Ravana they knew by sight, but the high elves were well worth staring at even among dignitaries. They seemed both reluctant and relieved when Mr. Falconer himself asked for privacy in the booth, taking his seat before the runic control panel as they slipped back out.

“Is it always so…extreme?” Danoris demanded once the six of them were again alone, fingering one of his long ears.

“Actually, no!” Geoffrey said brightly. “This turbine is the smallest and oldest still in service, and borderline obsolete. We’ve perfected a method of producing much higher-grade mana powder which will enable the creation of far more sophisticated and powerful enchantments. Well, actually, we already have the capacity to make those enchantments, but dedicating a new turbine to mass-producing that quality of dust will finally make them economical and thus more widely available. But it’ll require completely dismantling the turbine and building a new one, which will of course seriously cut down our production while it’s being done. So! We’ve installed heavy-duty safeguards in here to ensure there won’t be any kind of magical event when the machinery breaks, and are running it round the clock at four hundred percent capacity to build up a backlog of dusts. Once it gives out, we’ll replace it with the upgrade.”

Both Magisters looked distinctly alarmed at that.

“Ah, but I don’t mean to sound boastful,” Geoffrey added with a wry grin. “Obviously, none of the magic we’re doing here is anywhere near on a par with what you’re used to back home.”

“Obviously not,” Danoris said dismissively, even as he frowned in clear worry through the noiseproof enchanted windows at the overworked turbine. This time, Talvrin didn’t bother to express disapproval at his rudeness. She was also frowning at the same sight, though more pensively.

Ravana looked rapidly between them and chanced a glance at the Highguard who had each positioned themselves to cover one of the booth’s doors; both were likewise studying the mana well. This, she decided, was the moment to strike.

“Naturally,” the Duchess stated in a light and airy tone, “our magical capability itself is not the source of the Magister’s worry.” Danoris whirled to glare at her, but she just carried on speaking with a blithe smile. “Rather, it is the fact that he came here expecting to see fur-wearing primitives in stone castles, with scarcely one individual in ten thousand an arcane user. And before the Enchanter Wars, that might have been the case. Tell me, how much has Qestraceel changed in the last hundred years? The last thousand?”

All the elves were staring at her now, Danoris in open anger, Talvrin with eyes narrowed intently. Geoffrey Falconer also watched her with a knowing little smile. Ravana quite liked Geoffrey, in large part because he liked her. Not that she craved his approval in and of itself; he had been present when she’d finally gotten rid of her father. While Teal had been deeply unnerved by that event, Geoffrey took grim satisfaction in the unmaking of the Duke who had caused him so many headaches over the years. Ravana respected pragmatism, and his appreciation of revenge.

“Young woman,” Danoris began.

“It must be quite a thing,” she said sweetly, “to be winning a race by default, and only realize you have competition when you feel its breath upon your neck.”

Danoris did not like that at all, and it showed all over his face. Talvrin remained thoughtfully focused upon Ravana, though for the moment, neither spoke.

“It seems to me,” she mused aloud, stepping forward to look out over the mana well herself, “that we have a great deal more to offer one another beyond today’s specific business. Clearly, your unparalleled mastery of the arcane makes your people a font of wisdom from which mine would be both honored and delighted to learn. And even if we can reciprocate little along the same lines, it is obviously advantageous for you to have a weather eye upon the state of human advancement.”

“That,” said Danoris, recovering some of his hauteur, “is hardly worth the—”

“You are by far the most inept politicians I have ever seen,” Ravana informed him, causing the Magister to stammer in incoherent offense. “You control your emotions no better than children. Every thought you have is displayed far in advance of expressing it. Were we truly at cross purposes, your transparent predictability would render the briefest conversation a strategic victory for me. How fortunate that I am not ill-disposed toward you!”

“Most fortunate indeed,” Magister Talvrin said quietly.

“If this is the way even the ranking dignitaries of the Qestrali comport themselves,” Ravana continued, staring aimlessly out the window, “it goes without saying that the Narisians have taken you for a ride in every negotiation between your peoples thus far. I am, as you have cause to be aware, on unfriendly terms with certain factions in Tar’naris; I’ve had cause to grow adept at handling them. I should be delighted to assist my new friends from Qestraceel in getting the better of any further dealings with the drow. And while I am a loyal and devoted subject of the Silver Throne, I would not consider it to be against the Empire’s interests to assist such valued comrades in mitigating the utter spanking your delegates are undoubtedly receiving in Tiraas even as we speak.”

Danoris physically swelled up, which was downright comical given his thin build and the way his ostentatious hovering shoulder armor shifted with the motion. Less amusing was the way his fingers twitched hungrily; for a moment, Ravana thought he might cast some spell at her out of sheer outrage. The much more composed Talvrin turned her head to stare at him.

After a few seconds, however, the Magister composed himself with a visible effort. It took him another heartbeat to put on a small and insincere smile, but he managed, for the first time, to direct a shallow bow toward Ravana.

“Perhaps,” the elf said with obviously strained courtesy, “there is potential for…useful intercourse between us after all…my lady Duchess. Once this day’s work is settled to everyone’s mutual satisfaction, I should be…willing…to discuss further…business. With you.”

Ravana regarded him sidelong, thankful she’d taken the risk of annoying Natchua earlier in the day to press her for details of her encounter with the Highguard squad she had disabled. There were political differences between them, and in fact, they apparently had formal means of addressing these in the field. It was time to take the second risk.

She turned to face Magister Talvrin directly and inclined her head. “It would be my pleasure, not to mention and unmatched honor, to develop a direct relationship between House Madouri and the Magistry of Qestraceel. For such a privilege, I should naturally do my utmost to be as accommodating and useful a friend as I am able. On one condition, of course.”

“Oh?” Danoris grated, further aggravated at being given the cold shoulder.

Ravana pointed at him with one hand, keeping her gaze fully on Talvrin. “This individual is never to be in my presence again. I am certain that so ancient and graceful a civilization as yours must have countless members who are able to conduct themselves appropriately in the presence of a Duchess. I therefore see no reason I should be subjected to the company of those who do not.”

“Now, see here!” Danoris barked.

“Such a trifling request is more than reasonable, Lady Madouri,” Magister Talvrin assured her with a broad smile. “I can only apologize for any offense my colleague has caused you thus far. I shall be glad to ensure that you see only the better face of our society henceforth.”

“Talvrin!” he exploded.

Geoffrey had turned his back to all of them by that point and was pretending to be absorbed in the dials and levers of the booth’s runic control panel.

“I mean no offense,” Ravana said pleasantly, “but I am honestly curious how such an obviously sophisticated civilization ends up with such boorish individuals in positions of power.”

Danoris had gone scarlet in the face; it was the first time she had seen an elf do that.

“Qestraceel all but runs itself,” Talvrin explained. “Manual labor is done by autonomous constructs—what you call golems. More physical functions than otherwise are performed by fully automated enchantments. The city’s functions need maintenance more than they need actual oversight. Even much of the necessary decision-making is handled by intricate and permanent data processing spells running sophisticated algorithms. In addition, our culture prizes above most other concerns its ancient and direct lineage; our society began immediately following the Elder War and more than a few Qestrali elves remember that time. Thus, political power tends to accrue those who have seniority and magical aptitude, rather than…people skills.”

“Magister Talvrin!” Danoris shouted shrilly. “The Magistry will hear of your divulging of our secrets to outsiders!”

“And then,” she shot back, whirling on him with a fierce scowl, “they will hear about how you made a spectacle of every weakness we possess before Imperial nobility, and the measures I was forced to take to keep said nobility positively disposed toward us and disinclined to hostility! You have rendered your presence diplomatically offensive, Magister Danoris. It would be appropriate for you to absent yourself from further engagements, or at the very least, remain silent.”

“Witnessed,” both Highguard stated, in unison and with audible satisfaction. Falconer’s shoulders quivered and he hunched further forward over the console.

Danoris looked as if he might vibrate through the floor.

“After all,” Talvrin continued, turning back to Ravana with a gracious nod, “the Duchess impresses me as a pragmatic woman who would rather benefit from our friendship than initiate needless friction.”

“Oh, very much so,” Ravana agreed brightly. “Revenge, as the Eserites say, is a sucker’s game. I look forward eagerly to a bright future. As friends.”

Eventually, she actually would have to teach them some of the sly circumspection a politician absolutely needed to survive on the surface; it wouldn’t be long after that before they adapted their own. But for a while, at least, there was much more candy to be taken from these babies.

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16 – 16

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“I’m sorry I missed ‘er, though,” Maureen said wistfully. “It’s been a real treat gettin’ to catch up with the junior class as well as you girls while everybody’s here. Seein’ Natchua woulda been a grand addition to the week!”

“I am not sure why,” Scorn grunted, idly playing with her expensive disguise ring now that she had taken it off. “Natchua behaves better now than she ever did at school, but it does not make her pleasant to be around.”

“Well, that just makes me actually want to catch up with her,” Iris said, grinning. “Which I never did before. Natchua was always a jerk; I’m suddenly real curious to see what she’s like, mellowed.”

“Her hair is less spiky,” said Scorn. “Still green, though.”

“Sometimes,” Ravana said with a beatific smile, “all it takes for a person to begin to flourish is the right environment. Apparently, Last Rock was not that for Natchua. It never occurred to me ahead of time, but I can entirely see Veilgrad agreeing with her.”

“I am just as grateful to have missed her,” Szith murmured, “and not out of any personal antipathy. Given Natchua’s situation with regard to Tar’naris, duty would have compelled me to bring a detailed report of any encounter to her House. I consider that prospect awkward in the extreme.”

“In point of fact, that occurred to me,” said Ravana, nodding to her. “Otherwise I would have invited her to stay a bit and chat with everyone. Perhaps it worked out for the best, in any case. She seemed in a hurry to return to Veilgrad. Also,” she added with a mischievous little smirk, “I don’t believe she cares for me, personally.”

“Hard to care what she cares about,” Scorn opined.

“Well, what’s done is done,” Ravana said briskly, glancing at the door of the lounge as it opened to admit Yancey. “I’m glad to have that bit of business over with, at least. Fortunately it ended early enough in the day that we’ve plenty of time to make the afternoon show I mentioned over breakfast. That is, if you are all still interested?”

“Aye, sounded a right pleasure!” Maureen chirped. “Ain’t often I get ta see a new art form bein’ born!”

“Moving lightcaps, though?” Iris asked skeptically. “As much as you like to chatter about lightcaps, Ravana, it seems like we’d have heard about it before today if that was a thing.”

“As I understand it, they are not true moving pictures like a magic mirror or scrying surface, but a sequential progression of images set to music and projected upon a large stage. For just that reason, Iris, I am extremely curious. If this works at all well, I may be inclined to invest in the company producing them. Is the carriage ready, Yancey?”

“Your pardon, my lady,” the Butler said, bowing deeply. “There is a situation in the grand hall which requires your attention.”

Ravana’s smile instantly disintegrated. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what now?”

“I am deeply sorry to have interrupted your afternoon plans, my lady.”

“No.” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily. “No, Yancey, I’m sorry. It is the absolute height of stupidity to castigate a good servant for performing his duties well. I ought never vent my frustration at you.”

Yancey bowed again, his face adopting an astonishingly expressive little smile; only a Butler could have conveyed without words both forgiveness and the assurance that no forgiveness was necessary. “I shall redouble my efforts to protect your free time during this brief vacation, my lady. A delegation has arrived from the Elven Confederacy, accompanied by seven citizens of Tiraan Province liberated from captivity by House Dalmiss. You instructed that this be brought directly to your attention should it transpire, and in any case, the leader of this embassy demands your presence.”

“I see,” she said, chewing her bottom lip for a moment. “Well. That, in fact, is an extremely important matter. Girls, I am so sorry to do this yet again,” the Duchess continued, turning to her friends with a rueful expression.

“I shall never resent you for placing duty first,” Szith assured her with a deep nod.

“Yeah, you told us up front this was likely to happen,” Iris agreed, stepping forward to give Ravana a quick hug. “It’s okay, don’t you worry about us. We’re being ridiculously pampered by your staff, it’s not like it’s an imposition.”

“How about this, then?” Maureen suggested. “Tonight, we’ll all ‘ave a sleepover, an’ swap gossip like we used to back at the dorm. It’ll be just like old times!”

“I say, I like that idea!” Ravana said, smiling broadly. “We can stay in my chambers; goodness knows I have the room. After the Wells, my own bedroom feels rather like a museum.”

“It’s a date!” Iris promised.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Ravana, nodding to each of them. “I apologize again for running off on you like this, but I’m afraid it doesn’t do to leave foreign dignitaries twiddling their thumbs. Especially not after I’ve gone to all the trouble of blackmailing them.”

She turned to go, but not before seeing a cluster of alarmed expressions


There were fourteen individuals awaiting her in the great hall, seven elves and seven humans. Ravana’s first observation, even before she took note of her own liberated people, was that not one of the elven delegates was a drow.

In fact, it seemed clear that all seven were high elves. Four were evidently military escorts rather than diplomats, standing stiffly at attention in a formation enclosing the cluster of humans and all clad in armor that seemed made of blue glass and gold plating. Just as Malivette and Natchua had described, though at the time Ravana had privately thought it sounded wildly implausible. It looked wildly implausible, but…there it was.

To judge by the other three, Qestrali fashions ran to long robes, inordinate amounts of jewelry, and lavish hairstyles. There were two men and a woman, all with long hair; one of the men wore his down his back in an elaborate cascade of braids, while the other two had theirs wound about their heads in extravagant styles. The woman’s was actually draped over a sapphire-encrusted halo of gold which hovered along behind her head under some enchantment, bobbing like a buoy as she paced slowly up and down the columned hall to examine the hanging banners. All three had robes woven with glowing patterns; the man in the lead, whose ostentatious coif was held in place by three bejeweled hairsticks, actually had large and heavy-looking shoulderpads of solid gold which hovered above rather than resting upon his thin shoulders.

Any Imperial House worthy of the title could afford to bedeck its members in such wealth, up to and including the decorative enchantments. Ravana was less sure about the feasibility of enchanting accessories to float along with clothes, simply because it would never have occurred to her to do such a thing. By Imperial standards, such ostentation was gauche in the extreme. In her opinion, excessive flaunting of luxury revealed a critical weakness of character. The question was whether this was the standard in Qestraceel, or they were trying to impress her specifically.

If the latter, they were broadly ignorant of Imperial customs, which had significant implications.

The seven humans were clumped together in clear unease bordering on outright fear, staying as far as they physically could from the Highguard escorting them. All wore dark robes of Narisian style, looking downright plain next to the surrounding elves. No coats were in evidence, but they showed no sign of having been recently chilled, so at least their escort had provided some magical protection from the cold. She also noted that they were all under thirty, five men and two women, and all notably attractive specimens of humanity.

A reminder of exactly what the Narisian elite usually wanted human slaves for, those execrable darkling bastards. Ravana had definitely arranged all this for broader political goals, but when now faced with the reality of it, the surge of revulsion and outrage she experienced was genuine. Not that she allowed any of it to show upon her face. There was a time and place for such openness, but this was not it.

Most of the elves and all of the humans were watching her and her own escort long before they met them midway through the great hall, though the man with the levitating shoulderpads was the last to look up; he was staring up at the hall’s chandeliers with a fixed frown until Ravana herself was barely five yards away. Surely he’d seen magical lights before. His clothes alone carried far more impressive enchantments than her fairy lamps.

“Ah,” he said in a peremptory tone, meeting her eyes and lifting his chin. “You are Duchess Madouri, then?”

She arched one eyebrow at his rudeness, saying nothing.

Ravana had arrived flanked by Veilwin and Lord-Captain Arivani, the commander of her House guard, with Yancey following discreetly and four of her own soldiers marching in formation behind—a detail Yancey had no doubt ordered to mirror the elves’ display.

Arivani was sufficiently disciplined not to scowl openly at guests in a formal greeting, but his expression was icy as he lifted his battlestaff to strike its butt against the marble floor with a sound that rang through the cavernous hall.

“You are in the presence of her Grace, the Duchess Ravana Firouzeh Laila Madouri, High Seat of the House of Madouri, Imperial Governor of Tiraan Province and Lady Protector of Madouris.”

That was not technically the correct greeting, nor his place to issue it, but she employed Arivani for his military competence and his personal loyalty to her, not his diplomatic skills. Besides, in this specific case, asserting who was in charge in this house did happen to be the correct action.

“Welcome to Madouris,” she said simply, a far cooler greeting than she’d so recently given the delegation from Veilgrad.

The other two high elves executed shallow bows in her direction, but the man who was apparently in the lead just pursed his lips in visible annoyance, his green eyes flicking over each of them in turn. It ultimately settled, but not on Ravana.

“What bloodline are you from?” he demanded, staring at Veilwin.

“Ah, ah, ah,” she chided, wagging a finger at him. “I’m honest grove stock, not from your fancy-pants city under the sea. If you’re thinking about trying to haul me back there, forget it.”

“Under the sea,” Ravana said aloud, allowing her eyebrows to lift in surprise. “Why…of course! I’d always heard it floated, but that makes so much more sense. There’s no need even to hide it if no one can dive that deep, after all.”

All three high elves fixed glares on Veilwin.

The Court Wizard grinned broadly and uttered the single most insincere “Oops” Ravana had ever heard, even after two years at Last Rock.

Finally tearing his gaze off the sorceress, the elves’ leader squared his shoulders and turned back to Ravana with a curt little nod. “I am Magister Danoris of Qestraceel, representing the diplomatic interests of the Confederacy. We’re here to oversee the previous agreed prisoner exchange. As soon as you produce Matriarch Ezrakhai’s daughter, you may have these…people, and we can all return to our own business with a minimum of further fuss.”

“She took the Matriarch’s daughter?” one of the Imperial women burst out in shock, then immediately clapped both hands over her mouth and tried to hide behind several of her fellows. In fact, the majority of the group huddled more closely together in a manner that made Ravana freshly furious at what must have been done to so cow them.

Not all, though. The shorter of the two men actually surged forward, ignoring the two Highguard who shifted to face him. They did not physically stop him, though, and he came up to stand abreast of the Magister, where he fell to one knee and bowed his head.

“My Lady,” he said in a voice coarse with emotion, “I swear by Omnu’s name, I am your man for life.”

“Rise,” Ravana ordered, keeping her voice calm. “And welcome home. You are a citizen of the Tiraan Empire, and now safe in your own land. This is a civilized country. Here, you will not be compelled to any obeisance that deprives you of basic dignity.”

He did stand, but hesitantly, and raised his head enough to peek shyly up at her. The expression on his face held a fervor she had usually only seen on people at religious services.

Interesting. Ravana made a mental note to keep track of these seven as they were re-integrated into society. Pawns they might be in this game, but a pawn which crossed the entire board as they had could be shaped into any piece.

“Right,” Danoris said, clearly unimpressed. “The prisoner, if you please?”

“Yes, that was the agreement,” she replied, turning a wintry little smile upon him. “I have given orders that she be prepared and can be handed over quite shortly. Of course, we must execute due diligence to ensure our own interests. As soon as the identity of these citizens has been verified, the exchange can be completed. Lord-Captain, please escort the civilians to the specialists I have arranged.”

“My lady,” Arivani acknowledged, saluting.

“Excuse me,” Magister Danoris interjected sharply, “but the essence of a prisoner exchange is that you get yours when we get ours. Not before.”

“This is a formality,” she stated, still wearing that tiny smile, “but a crucial one. I have fae magic users standing by who can verify true identities; imagine the embarrassment for all concerned if the Matriarch had sent me the wrong people. And since I am not the party here who has made a long-standing practice of enslaving citizens under false pretenses in a violation of treaty, it is not my word which is in question here.”

“You forcibly abducted—”

“Prove it,” Ravana demanded, widening her smile at his incredulous expression. “But! As a gesture of good faith, in acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s interests and to emphasize that my dispute is solely with House Dalmiss and not Qestraceel or the Elven Confederacy as a whole, I of course invite you to delegate one of your magic specialists and as many of your military escort as you deem necessary to observe the process. Perhaps you will find it intellectually interesting; I’m told fae magic differs vastly in methodology from your own.”

“My lady,” the man who had knelt to her said earnestly, dry-washing his hands, “my name is Samir Talvadegh, I’m from Tiraas and my family lives right here in Madouris, they’ll vouch for me—”

“I believe you, Mr. Talvadegh,” Ravana said gently. “I do not suspect foul play, but it is critically important that these things be done in the proper manner, and duly witnessed and recorded. This is not Tar’naris. As I am certain our noble guests from the graceful civilization of Qestraceel can attest, in an actual society the documentation of important events is an absolute necessity. Particularly when it concerns something as crucial as the relationships between sovereign nations.”

“It is to the advantage of all parties,” the female high elf said softly, “to have a verification on record to which observers from both sides have agreed, Magister Danoris. Not to mention,” she added with another shallow bow toward Ravana, “that we are all cognizant of the stakes involved, and none here would risk the ongoing negotiations between the Confederacy and the Empire by dealing falsely with one another.”

“Just so,” Ravana agreed, nodding courteously. “In particular, further diplomatic incidents must not be risked, after this morning’s events in Veilgrad.”

At that, Danoris’s scowl deepened, and two of the Highguard shifted to glare at her directly. Ravana took note that these elves were as well-informed as they were undisciplined. Really, she had never met either diplomats or professional soldiers who had such poor control of their emotions. Was this the result of too many millennia at the bottom of the sea, never having to test their wits against legitimate rivals? If this was what all high elves were like, the Imperial nobility would devour them like a school of piranha, and the Narisians had undoubtedly already made puppets of them.

Which, now that she considered it in those terms, would explain a lot.

“I’m given to understand that fae spells can be imprecise in execution,” Ravana said when no one else spoke for a handful of seconds, “but rest assured, I will take every measure to ensure the comfort of guests while the necessary is attended to, however long that may take. I pride myself on hospitality. In fact!” She put on a sudden broad smile as if just having an idea. “I believe I know just the thing to entertain such distinguished visitors while necessary formalities are carried out. This Manor is but a short distance from the Falconer Industries factory, the pride and principal economic pillar of Madouris. Veilwin can teleport us there for a quick tour and right back with no time lost.”

“We are not here to sightsee,” Danoris spat.

“I would welcome the opportunity to observe an Imperial enchanting facility firsthand,” the other male Qestrali said, his softer tone a deliberate counterpoint to their leader’s overt ire.

“Indeed, it sounds fascinating,” agreed the woman, fixing Danoris with a very pointed look.

“It goes without saying,” Ravana added smoothly, “the elves of Qestraceel have nothing to learn about arcane magic from the likes of us. Nonetheless, I believe you will find this…instructive, Magister.”

And even if he did not, she would.

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16 – 15

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The group which set out from the townhouse, in the end, was six strong. Only Darling and Trissiny were specifically needed for their planned business at the Temple of Avei; of the rest, only Rasha had a personal stake in the outcome. The other three apprentices, though, had clamored to come along, what with the alternative being essentially to twiddle their thumbs at home. Glory, having spent years laboriously building a web of connections centered on her own house, by far preferred to conduct business from the middle of it—especially, as she smugly reminded them, now that she had a flock of apprentices to do her bidding. As Trissiny was glad to spend time with her old friends again and Darling had opined that even apprentice thieves would be handy to have around, that settled the matter.

Their plans were thoroughly de-Railed almost the moment they all reached the sidewalk.

“Look alive,” Tallie said from a bit ahead of the group as they all clustered outside the gate. “We’ve got a… Wait, is that Flora?”

The figure approaching was just distant enough to be a confusing sight, before they recognized the slim, blonde elf surrounded by her black cloak, billowing amorphously in the winter breeze, one hand upraised to wave at them as she came forward at a near-run.

“It is,” Darling said tersely, pushing past Tallie to meet the oncoming elf. “Flora! What happened to Fauna? Is she okay? Are you okay?”

Flora slowed, lowering her hand and frowning quizzically with her head tilted as she entered conversational range. “What? Of course. Two people can cover more ground when they…y’know, cover more ground. I’m fine, she’s fine, I just came here looking for you.”

“You’re sure?”

At that, she scowled outright. “Is it seriously a cause for panic to see me alone? Surely you didn’t think we were biologically connected at the hip.”

Darling paused, then turned to Trissiny and the others, raising his eyebrows. “Well, gee, I dunno, why don’t we ask the jury? Kids, did you think they were connected at the hip?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Maybe not biologically…”

“Man, you look weird on your own. Kinda lopsided. Were you always that tall?”

“All right, yeah, fine, you’re all hilarious,” Flora huffed. “Believe it or not, I didn’t run across town to enjoy your awkward comedy stylings. I’m glad I caught you, and still together. Thorn, Sweet, there’s been an incident you two in particular are gonna want to come see to.”

“Oh, so I guess our original plan is just yow!”

Trying to trot around the group so he could address Flora more directly, Darius abruptly lost his footing and ended up flat on his back in the slush filling the gutter.

“Darius!” Layla exclaimed, kneeling beside him. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve just had an important realization,” he said, staring at the overcast sky. “People who are not elves should not run on ice.”

“Seriously, kid, leave it to the professionals,” Flora said, visibly unimpressed. “Your slapstick isn’t any better than your wordplay.”

“Can you elaborate, maybe?” Trissiny asked. “What kind of incident are we talking about?”

“Well, first things first,” Flora replied, grinning. “Nobody panic, everyone’s all right. Even the dog.”


Trissiny summoned her armor during the trip across the city, and it was immediately useful upon arriving. A Bishop and the Hand of Avei got a lot of leeway in most places, and the pair of them were able to get deep into a police barracks based on rank alone, though they discovered upon reaching the crowded conference room which was apparently the whole debacle’s center of operations that rank only got so far.

“What the hell is all this now?” demanded the tall woman who seemed to be in charge, a gray-haired soldier wearing a captain’s insignia. “Who do you—actually, no, I don’t care. All of you, clear out. None of this is any of your business.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” Trissiny said mildly, “but I think I outrank you.”

That did not help.

“And I think,” the captain retorted, glaring, “my youngest kid is older than you, Avelea, and has more experience in actual soldiering. Your Imperial rank is honorary, and a courtesy for when there’s a dragon that needs slaying, which is the opposite of what’s going on here. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have half my station tied up in what should’ve been a simple snatch-and-grab case report, I’m now up to my stripes in Guild laywers, Falconer lawyers, Madouri lawyers, and just before you came, an official communique from this goddamn Elven Confabulation!”

“Confederacy,” a younger soldier holding a clipboard corrected softly. The captain made a slashing motion at him with one hand, her attention still fixed on Trissiny.

“I don’t know what stake the Sisterhood thinks it has in this, but go tell them to think otherwise, General. The absolute last thing I need right now is you stomping around. And if you have an issue with my failure to yield to your rank, feel free to take it up with my superiors. Go get a head start on the paperwork while I deal with this.”

Trissiny blinked once, then swept her eyes quickly around the various people in the room. The captain and her apparent aide were the only two Imperial soldiers present. Shaeine and Teal sat in chairs at the table, the former looking regal and aloof as she tended to when displeased, the latter holding F’thaan in her lap; the hellhound’s ears perked up when he looked at Trissiny, but otherwise he appeared mostly nervous, leaning heavily into Teal. The rest of the individuals already there were in suits, and apparently where the aforementioned lawyers, only one of whom she recognized.

“Madouri lawyers?” Trissiny asked finally. The captain outright bared teeth at her choice to ask questions rather than leave, but Teal piped up before an argument could break out.

“Somebody informed Ravana, who has more of a stake in this than I expected,” she explained, soothingly stroking F’thaan’s head. “Apparently she’s got an established relationship with the Thieves’ Guild. So does my family. Neither of us should’ve been targeted by the Guild.”

“I see. And which…”

“Yo.” The most disheveled of the three attorneys raised one hand, grinning at her. “Your gal pals here have a dispensation from House Madouri to be keeping that hellhound, so obviously there are questions of jurisdiction when they bring it into Tiraas but the order is still valid, because I’m here to make it valid if anybody wants to pick a fight. And just look at you! Hand of Avei, that’s the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. You still hanging out with those chuckleheads? Where’s the fat guy?”

“Hello, Ms. Savaraad,” Trissiny said patiently. “I didn’t know you worked for House Madouri.”

“I’ve done work for the Duchess and the Guild, hence my being here.”

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” Tallie piped up.

“Would be if they were at cross-purposes, but her Ladyship’s position is that this unprovoked insult by the Thieves’ Guild is clearly some kind of misunderstanding and I’m here to make sure it’s all resolved amicably on all sides.” Bird managed to make the sentence both cloyingly sweet and bitterly sarcastic.

“That doesn’t seem like your specialty,” Tallie observed.

“Who the hell are you people?” the captain bellowed.

“Oh, don’t mind us!” Darius said, raising his hands. “We’re just the Paladin Pity Squad, here because the General felt bad about ditching us to handle business.”

Darling laid a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to murmur, “A police station’s not the worst place to get a chip on your shoulder, son, but it’s in the top five.”

“This is Bishop Darling, from the Guild,” Trissiny explained in a deliberately calm tone. “He has enough rank with them to give orders, and is very skilled at smoothing things over.”

“Consider me at your disposal, Captain,” Darling said, inclining his head courteously. “We are sorry to just descend on you in the middle of this, but I promise you we’re here to lessen your headaches, not add to them. And this lot are Guild apprentices, who don’t strictly need to be involved. They can fetch tea, and otherwise stash themselves somewhere out of the way.”

Surprisingly, the captain seemed somewhat mollified by that. “Well, finally. Someone with pull and sense. That doesn’t explain your interest in this,” she added, turning the force of her glare back on Trissiny.

“Also here to help,” she said. “I agree with Savaraad and the Bishop: this needs to be calmed down, not kicked further.”

“Uh huh. And you can just wave your magic sword and make that happen?”

“Maybe not that simply,” she acknowledged, smiling, “but I bet I can get them to talk.”

The captain narrowed her eyes again. “Of all the problems I’ve got right now, him talking is the least urgent.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, I was briefed on the move getting here. You’ve got two Guild thieves who used an infernal weapon, which means you very much need to find out where that came from and plug the source. This job was bungled, but they were obviously working with some inside information to know where and how to hit their targets, and considering those targets and the fact that the thing failed—really, couldn’t have succeeded—there’s at least a possibility this is all politically motivated. If Intelligence isn’t breathing down your neck to suss out who set this in motion, they will be within the hour. And since these guys are Guild, they’ve been cooperating up to a point but refusing to yield any information. Am I more or less right?”

Though her eyes were still narrowed, by the end of that the captain’s expression was more thoughtful than angry. “And you think you can get answers, is that right?”

“No guarantees, but I believe so.”

“Paladin,” she warned, “if you think you’re going to come into my station and beat up a prisoner—”

“I said get answers, not a confession,” Trissiny interrupted. “I’m assuming we want accurate intel and not desperate fabrications, right? Nobody professional uses torture to get information.” She glanced over at Darling, who nodded once in encouragement. “I know the right questions to ask a Guild thief, Captain, and I think hearing them from me in this armor will make your boys reconsider the position they’re in.”

“Boy, singular,” the captain grunted. “I’ve got the bag man in lockup. Your friends here did a real number on the driver. Healers tell me he should pull through just fine, but not before spending some time in the hospital.”

Trissiny looked over at them, frowning in concern. “You okay, Teal?”

“Mrs. Falconer is the victim, here,” one of the lawyers interjected, “and is under no obligation to answer questions to law enforcement.”

“She’s a friend, not law enforcement,” Teal said with a sigh.

“Ma’am, given the role she is taking here and your own—”

“That will do,” Shaeine stated, quiet but utterly implacable. The attorney clamped his mouth shut, giving the drow an openly annoyed look from behind.

“I’m not having a great day, Triss,” Teal said wryly, “but it could be a lot worse. F’thaan’s okay, and we’re both unharmed. If you think you can help settle all this mess, I’d be grateful.”

“House Madouri’s in favor of this,” Bird said cheerfully. “The Duchess has the utmost confidence in General Avelea. She filed a brief about it and everything.”

“My clients are not,” snapped the remaining lawyer, who by process of elimination had to represent the Thieves’ Guild. “I object to—”

“No, you don’t!” Darling exclaimed, raising both hands in a pacifying gesture. “It’s fine. General Avelea is known and trusted by the Guild. She is not going to mistreat our people or break any laws. Getting all this straightened out quickly is in everyone’s best interest. We’re not throwing anybody under the wheels here.”

The Guild lawyer studied him suspiciously for a moment, then grudgingly nodded, apparently already familiar with Darling’s position. “Objection withdrawn.”

“Well,” the captain said resignedly, “I guess it’s not like you can make this any worse. All right, Avelea, you get a shot. I will be watching, though, and I don’t want to see any funny business. This is an Imperial Army station, not an Avenist temple.”

“I don’t really do funny business,” Trissiny said solemnly, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb at Tallie, Darius, Rasha and Layla. “Ask them, they’ll tell you.”


Like most government structures in the city, the station itself was centuries old, but the interrogation room was obviously a modern renovation, complete with one of the newest features in police work which Murgatroyd Fedora had boasted was one of his inventions: a wall of glass enchanted to be a simple mirror from this side, but transparent from the other and blocking sound in only one direction. Behind it would be the captain and whoever else she judged needed to be privy to the ensuing conversation.

The thief sat on one side of the table to which his wrist manacles were chained, looking slumped and annoyed but not particularly cowed. He looked up when the door opened, and his eyebrows shot upward in surprise at the sight of Trissiny in her silver armor, but just as quickly his expression closed down again. He just stared at her as she pulled out the other chair and sat down across from him.

“So, it’s Rake, right?” she inquired. “Where are you from?”

His eyebrows drew together slightly, but he said nothing.

“I ask because I was told there was a guy tagged Rake here in Tiraas a couple of years ago, but apparently he got into some bad business with the Imperial government and ended up dead. Bishop Darling tells me there’s more recently a Rake operating out of Madouris. That you?”

“You talked to the Bishop?” he asked finally.

“Yep. The thing about that is, if you work in Madouris, you’re under Pizzazz. Right?”

Rake squinted at her in silence.

“And everybody in Madouris should know that the Falconers are strictly hands off,” she continued, holding his gaze. “Have been since Underboss Rogue’s time, and Pizzazz has upheld that. You could maybe argue that doesn’t hold here in Tiraas, but I’ve never met an Underboss who had a lot of patience for rules lawyering.”

“You meet a lot of Guild Underbosses?” he asked.

“A few,” she said noncommittally. “So, Rake. Whose big idea was this job?”

His face went blank again.

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny continued, folding her gauntleted hands atop the table. “I’m sure you remember the big flaming demon who demolished you when you tried to kidnap her pet.”

He twitched.

“Her name is Vadrieny. Ever heard of—ah, I see you’re fairly well read. Yes, that Vadrieny, the Ravager of the Third Hellwar, last living daughter of Elilial. It’s a very long story, but she is currently incorporeal and sharing the body of the Falconer heiress. This isn’t a secret, you understand, just something those in power have not encouraged to get around. Anybody connected enough to set up this job and prep you for it would have been aware of that. So quite apart from the fact that they sent you to piss off arguably the most murderous creature in existence, who you never had the slightest chance of escaping from, you—a representative of Eserion—just broke the historic truce between Elilial and the Pantheon. So, good job on that.”

Rake swallowed heavily.

“In more local news,” Trissiny went on, “the other owner of that dog is the daughter of the Matriarch of the Narisian noble family who handles Tar’naris’s diplomacy. Yeah, you attacked a diplomat, which by itself would be grounds for the Throne to offer your head to Tar’naris on a plate in appeasement. But somehow, you arranged for that to not even be the worst part, since you pulled this job right as this Confederacy thing is kicking off, relations between the Empire and the elves are tense and very uncertain, and nobody has any patience for shenanigans. This is when you chose to commit a major diplomatic provocation.”

He had gone almost white, but still said nothing.

“Shaeine and Teal are personal friends of mine,” she stated evenly. “I have petted that dog. So yes, Rake, I won’t lie: I kind of want to punch you until your whole face is concave, let me just admit that up front. But I want to reassure you that I’m not going to do that. Even in the worst case scenario, if you continue to be obstreperous, you’re not going to get any further grief from me. You know the Guild’s codes on revenge. Beating you up wouldn’t solve any problems or make me feel better, and definitely won’t serve to discourage another incident like this, since we both know you’re not the one who had the bright idea in the first place.”

“You’re…pretty well-informed about Guild stuff,” Rake said warily. “Wait, is it true you infiltrated the apprentices last year?”

“Please don’t make me remind you who’s asking the questions here, Rake,” Trissiny said pleasantly. “That is just such a drizzt.”

He blinked in confusion.

“I think it’s better, in cases like this, to deal in positive reinforcement. So in fact, Rake, I’m going to offer to do what I can to protect you from the multiple world powers you’ve just pissed off. Right now you’ve got House Madouri, Falconer Industries, Imperial Intelligence and the Elven Confederacy wanting a piece of your hide. That would be pushing well beyond the bounds of what the Guild can protect you from just by itself, but taking into account the fact you just undercut Pizzazz’s authority by flouting the rule against ripping off the Falconers—and come on, that was a company carriage you robbed—odds are very good you’re not going to get even that much protection.”

“I don’t need—” He caught himself mid-sentence, clamping his mouth shut again.

“Don’t need Pizzazz to back you up?” she finished, watching him carefully. “Well, you must be pretty confident in your backer, then. Confident they can shield you from…well, do you really need me to recite the list again?”

Rake’s eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, settling for a moment on the mirrored wall and then back on her face.

“You should really think about this, though,” Trissiny added in a mild tone. “Your backer sent you right into Vadrieny’s claws. Considering how much intel you obviously had to plan this job? I’d say it’s even odds whether they just didn’t know what the stakes here were…or deliberately sent you to die like a stray dog in the street. Functionally, Rake, it doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s someone who either can’t protect you, or just isn’t going to bother. I think you really need my protection right now.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while he slumped lower in his chair.

“But for that, I’m going to need a name.”

He swallowed again.

“Jasper, too.”

“Excuse me?”

“My partner. They had to take him to the healers. If I tell you who sent us, you have to promise you’ll look after him, too.”

“You have my word,” she said, nodding her head once. “What I can do, I will.”

Rake fidgeted for a moment, grimaced, and then burst out, “It was Tricks!”

Trissiny blinked once, slowly, and then shook her head. “Rake. I believe I made it fairly clear that I don’t actually like you that much, correct? I am still willing to help you, but not out of the goodness of my heart; you need to help me first. Telling me fairy tales isn’t helping me.”

“I swear to you,” he babbled, “it was Boss Tricks himself who sent us. That’s the only reason we were willing to go after a Falconer target—yeah, we know about Pizzazz’s deal with the Duchess and FI, only the Boss himself can overrule that! Tricks didn’t just give us permission, this was his whole idea. He planned it, every step, had us rehearse it till he was satisfied we could pull it off.”

“Boss Tricks,” Trissiny said flatly, “does not pull half-assed schemes or make wildly stupid mistakes. He definitely doesn’t throw away the lives of Guild members to make some kind of point. That rules out every explanation for Tricks being behind this, which leaves me to conclude that you’re wasting my time.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Rake exploded, desperation audible in his voice. “I don’t have explanations! Gods help me, I trusted the bastard—we both did, or we wouldn’t have done this. I will swear on anything you want—I’ll go under with a mind-priest or take truth potion. I’m not lying, paladin! This wasn’t our idea. This job was a sanctioned Guild operation!”

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16 – 14

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“Uniforms?” Trissiny had gone perfectly still in her chair, listening to whoever currently spoke (mostly Rasha, though Glory and Sweet had chimed in with clarifications) with narrowed eyes and her full attention, her cooling tea forgotten in her hands. “What can you tell me about the quality of them?”

“Ah…” Rasha glanced guiltily at Glory. “This is embarrassing. Fabric, cut, and fashion details in general are part of my education, here, but I have to confess that in the moment I didn’t even think to examine them.”

“Observing minutia while under stress is an important skill, Rasha,” Glory said with a gentle smile, “but not one in which you have yet been trained. Don’t reproach yourself.”

“In any case, if I might interject?” Sweet added. “I suspect their fashionability isn’t what Thorn was curious about. I’ve seen these Purists here and there around the temple all week, and I can at least attest that they are actual uniforms, not somebody’s slapped-together costume collection. They fit, they match, and they’re solidly constructed. About on a par with the Sisterhood’s own uniforms, I’d say.”

“Then someone with serious resources is bankrolling this,” Trissiny murmured. “Equipment doesn’t just tumble out of the ether.”

“They are clothes, though,” the Bishop offered. “Not in the same league as Silver Legion armor.”

“But they include chain mail under the tabards,” Rasha added, “and metal-backed bracers. And their swords all match, and aren’t like Legion swords.”

Trissiny had let her gaze drift toward the wall, frowning, but now zeroed back in on her. “Can you describe them?”

“Longer,” Rasha said. “Bigger, overall. Longer blades, handles, and crossguards. Oh, and I remember they had heavy… What’s that part called, at the other end of the handle?”

“The pommel. Yeah, a bigger blade needs a heavier one to balance the sword, and if it’s heavy enough it can be almost as dangerous as the blade, at least in skilled hands.”

“Straight blades, too,” Rasha added, now narrowing her own eyes in thought. “Long and straight, not with the curved sides Legion short swords have.”

Trissiny nodded once. “I suppose it’s too much to hope anyone’s seen these used in combat.”

“I have a feeling if the Purists had been actually fighting with people, you’d have been one of the first to hear about it,” Sweet said, grinning.

“Damn, girl, curb that bloodlust,” Darius added reprovingly.

“It’s not that I want people to take swords to each other,” she said, shooting him an annoyed look. “That’s dueling equipment. Longswords, chain mail tunics, wrist bracers. There is an Eagle Style combat form that utilizes such tools, but it’s the kind of thing blademasters learn, and that’s through the civilian Sisterhood; Legionnaires don’t usually train in it. If these women are walking around carrying weapons they don’t actually know how to use, that’s grounds to call them down doctrinally.”

“I can only imagine what a grave sin that is in Avei’s service,” said Layla.

“It’s not so much grave, in and of itself,” Trissiny replied, “as an indication that you don’t respect weapons or warfare and are engaged in behavior that gets soldiers killed if you do it in an actual military situation. Someone who gets that reputation can forget about advancing through either the Sisters or the Legions. Anyway, I was thinking more about the alternative. If these women have just been gathered together and issued equipment by someone with deep pockets, that’s one thing. If they have received training, this could be a real problem.”

“Well, I can tell you they haven’t been trained in anything they’d need to actually accomplish what they’re allegedly here to do,” said Sweet. “Both from what I’ve personally seen and what I’ve heard from other Guild members who’ve had business in the Temple lately, these Purists are rapidly making themselves even less popular than they were to begin with. Smart religious radicals try to build a widespread power base before making a move, and are adept at recruitment. These are hostile and full of themselves and leaving a trail of pissed-off fellow Avenists wherever they go.”

“It sounds like someone’s using them as a meat shield, then,” Trissiny murmured, again staring at the far wall. “Or a distraction. Whatever the scheme is, they aren’t the main play.”

“This probably goes without saying,” Sweet added, “but we all know who has access to the necessary resources to gather together a bunch of fringe weirdos and issue them full kits of equipment, and a specific interest right now in creating trouble for the Sisterhood of Avei. Yes?”

Everyone nodded, expressions grim.

“You know the worst part?” Tallie said softly, staring at the window. “Everything we went through so those Justinian loyalists could be brought to justice, and all of that, all of it, was just him…cleaning house. Now, here we are again, with more Church loyalists. And apparently, they’re also expendables he’s just throwing at us.”

“Someone should really look into cutting his throat,” Layla said primly.

“I know the feeling,” Sweet said with a sigh. “I danced on his string for a good long while, told myself I was doing the smart thing by staying close to him… Hell, maybe I was right and it’s this show of defiance that’s the mistake. No sense crying over spilt milk now. I bring this up because we also know of someone who would be well-versed in Avenist philosophy, and uniquely qualified to train them in an esoteric dueling form.”

“It takes years to actually train in any martial art,” said Trissiny. “Besides, of all the things I heard about Syrinx during her tenure, there was never so much as a hint that she had Purist sympathies.”

“I don’t think Basra actually has any theological opinions, or opinions about anything but herself and what was best for her. I just mean she’s got the inside knowledge to set this specific thing up, and we know she’s on the leash of our primary suspect.”

“Yeah, point taken,” she said, nodding at him. “So the question is, what to do about this?”

“Didn’t we answer that up front?” Darius asked. “Clobber ‘em. Apparently, nobody’ll even mind.”

Trissiny just frowned again. “I smell a trap.”

“I agree,” Glory said before any of her apprentices could chime in again. “Unpopular as the Purists may be, there will still be consequences if they are undone by any abrupt or violent means. At minimum, it will be a further disruption within the Sisterhood at a time when they can ill afford such. And that is the course of action most likely to be taken by either a Hand of Avei or the Thieves’ Guild—the two parties most directly goaded into this by singling out Rasha for attack.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we should just leave them alone?” Rasha exclaimed.

“That’s also a trap,” said Sweet, idly swirling his teacup and staring down into it. “Good instincts, Glory; I’m inclined to agree. This whole business puts all of us between the ol’ rock and hard place: either let asshole fanatics run loose, or come down on them hard. Either one means, at minimum, further weakening of the Sisterhood, and possibly also whoever is involved in dealing with them. You can bet there will be other agents in place and poised to react to either move.”

“So, we have to widen the net,” said Tallie. “Find the string-pullers behind all this and lean on them.”

“That will take time,” Rasha objected. “Time while all of this is unfolding. It’s almost as bad as deciding to let the Purists run rampant.”

“At minimum,” said Trissiny, “I need to talk to the High Commander and others within the Sisterhood; it’s certain they’ll have more intel that we don’t yet. But as a general rule, if your enemy maneuvers you into picking between two options that both serve them…”

“You do something else,” Rasha said, a grin lighting up her face. “Any ideas, Thorn?”

“In point of fact,” Trissiny said, her answering smile more than a little malicious, “I have a really good one.”


The main streets of Tiraas were always at least somewhat congested, even in the middle of the night or under pounding rain. Currently neither condition prevailed, but traffic was moving even slower than usual, thanks to the winter; snow had of course been cleared off the streets, but it was still cold enough that any standing moisture turned to ice, especially where the salt-spreaders had missed a spot, and there were deep banks of slush in the gutters. Allegedly, some of that stuff glowed in the dark in the industrial districts, thanks to the precipitation gathering up loose mana on its way to the ground. Teal had seen this phenomenon around her family’s factories, though it wasn’t evident in the daylight and anyway, they were not driving through any factory neighborhoods.

She much preferred to drive her sleek little roadster, but it had no rear seating and would have been cramped with both of them and F’thaan, and impossible to give Trissiny a ride in. Anyway, it wasn’t as if she could really unleash its motive charms in city traffic, not to mention that the overpowered racing carriage wasn’t the best vehicle for teaching a new driver. It all worked out for the best, as the company showpiece she was borrowing was a luxury model with built-in radiator charms that kept the interior pleasantly warm and the windows free of frost and fog despite the winter chill.

“Whoof,” Teal grunted, grimacing, as F’thaan poked his head forward between their seats, panting excitedly. At that proximity, his sulfurous breath was overpowering. She reached up to cradle his chin with one hand, scratching at his cheek for a moment while he leaned ecstatically into her touch, his tail thumping against the back seat, then gently pushed him backward. “Sit, F’thaan.”

The hellhound whined softly in protest, but obeyed. Despite being a little over-exuberant with youth, he was well-trained and obedient. Shaeine brooked no lack of discipline in her household.

Glancing to the side, Teal caught her spouse’s garnet eyes studying her, Shaeine’s face wreathed in a warm little smile that all but forced a similar look onto her own face.

“What?”

“I love to watch you drive,” Shaeine murmured, reaching over to rest a hand on Teal’s knee. “So much power, such a sophisticated machine, and you control it so deftly it seems you’re not even thinking about it.”

Teal’s grin widened of its own volition. As the carriage had just pulled to a stop at an intersection while the well-bundled soldier in the middle directed the traffic from the cross-street forward, she gently took Shaeine’s hand in her own and raised it to kiss the backs of her fingers. That was more intimacy than Narisian manners allowed in public, but as another perk of driving a vehicle designed for the comfort of the rich rather than speed and power, the windows were charmed to be opaque from the outside.

“Comes with practice,” she murmured, lowering their clasped hands but not releasing Shaeine’s yet. She wouldn’t need to handle the throttle until they were directed to start moving again. “Don’t worry, you’ll get there; I bet you’ll find you have a knack for it.”

“I wasn’t worried about that,” Shaeine murmured, squeezing her fingers lightly and rubbing her thumb across the back of Teal’s hand. “I do indeed have a knack for combining a delicate touch with just the right amount of force. As I believe you are aware.”

“You just like to see me blush,” Teal complained, inadvertently obliging.

The elf’s laugh was low, throaty, and entirely unsuitable for public, but she relented. “Actually, after seeing these streets, I am somewhat concerned about the status of the place you chose for me to practice. Is it going to be as slick as this? Learning to drive on ice seems less than ideal.”

“Yeah, the weather sure didn’t do us any favors,” Teal agreed, leaning forward to look up at the overcast sky. “I was hoping the dry winter would hold for a while, but that was probably too much to ask of Tiraas. We may have to make alternate plans if we get there and it’s too terrible, but actually it might be okay. The fairground is a huge gravel lot, and last night it snowed without sleeting, so it should still have decent traction.”

“Well, in the worst case scenario, I’m sure we can find a way to pass the—”

She was interrupted by a loud thunk against her side of the carriage, which set F’thaan to barking furiously. Both of them turned to behold an object stuck to Shaeine’s window: an innocuous-looking black stone dangling from a short chain whose other end was attached to a small adhesive charm that now kept it in place. Alongside them, the carriage in the next lane had its side window swung open to reveal the driver, whose face was mostly concealed by a cap and a thick scarf.

Teal leaned forward again to stare at him around Shaeine. “Did he just—”

Then the other driver raised a wand to point at them.

She couldn’t summon a full shield while constrained by the carriage, but Shaeine instantly lit up in silver with a protective corona that might or might not have stopped a wandshot at that range, prompting a yelp of protest from F’thaan. The surge of divine magic triggered a reaction from the device stuck to their carriage: the black stone immediately lit up with orange runes, but only for a fraction of a second before the entire thing exploded, shattering the window and causing Shaeine to jerk away toward teal with a muted outcry as her aura flickered out.

The carriage itself went silent and still as the surge of infernal power shorted out its enchantments.

“Shaeine!” Teal shouted, hurling herself across the front seat to shield the drow with her own body.

The driver of the other carriage leaned out his window slightly to fire the wand—fortunately not at them, but at an angle across the side of their vehicle, such that the lightning bolt smashed a burning scar along its lacquered paneling and destroyed the latch holding the rear door closed.

Immediately the other carriage’s rear door swung open and a second man leaned out. He moved with amazing speed, as if this motion had been drilled to perfection. Yanking the Falconer carriage’s broken door out of the way, he leaned in, seized F’thaan by one leg, and jerked backward.

The carriage spun forward into traffic in defiance of both the oncoming vehicles and the policeman directing them, ignoring both the officer’s piercing whistle and alarm bells being yanked by multiple other drivers. It accelerated around the corner, nearly skidding into a mailbox on the icy streets, and vanished out of view just as the rear door swung shut behind a still-yelping F’thaan.


“Can’t you shut that beast up?” Jasper shouted over the noise of the ongoing fight in the back seat.

“You just drive!” Rake shouted back as he struggled to fend off the infuriated demonic hound. The job had been meticulously planned and both of them, not just Rake, wore armored gloves and thick cloth padding under the sleeves of their winter coats, the better for handling a hostile dog. Jasper didn’t risk taking his eyes off the road, but to judge by the noises coming from behind him, Rake was having more difficulty than expected wrestling the hellhound into place. He’d brought a stun prod, but before it could be used he had to get the creature at least arm’s length away. Apparently the hound was fully determined to get its jaws around him.

Navigating around slower-moving vehicles in the slushy streets was hard enough without that going on. It seemed like every minute course correction sent the carriage into a slight skid; were he not such an experienced getaway driver he’d undoubtedly have wrapped them around a lamp post already. Still, that very nearly happened as the whole carriage lurched to one side, accompanied by a bellow from Rake as both bodies hit one door.

“Get it the fuck under control!” Jasper shouted.

“Concentrate on your job, asshole! Son of a bitch, mutt, you don’t settle down I’m gonna blow your—”

“Don’t you fuckin’ dare!” he snapped, eyes still on the road. “Dead things don’t breathe! No hellhound breath, no payday. Just break a couple of its legs if you can’t—”

It wasn’t that he failed to see the streak of fire plummeting from the sky, there simply was not enough time to react. The thing impacted the street with a force that smashed a crater in the very pavement. Yelling incoherently, Jasper did his best, avoiding the instinct to slam on brakes which on icy streets would have been fatal. He just didn’t have the space or time to go into a controlled skid around it, though, only managing to turn the carriage into a sideways slide so that struck the burning figure at an angle rather than head-on.

Good thing, too, as the person he ran over proved as immovable as a petrified oak. The entire carriage crumpled around her, one whole fender and front wheel obliterated by the impact and the windscreen reduced to a spider web of cracks. He was hurled forward and felt his ribs crack as they impacted the shipwheel. Had he struck her directly at that speed the thing probably would have been smashed right through him.

All Jasper could do was sit there, struggling to breathe against the agony. Not that he had much time even for that.

The creature reached forward, clawed hands punching through the windscreen as if it wasn’t there. One wrapped fully around his neck, and in the next moment he was yanked bodily out, through the remains of the windscreen and possibly the dashboard itself, to judge by how much it hurt. His vision swam and darkened as he very nearly blacked out from the pain, perceiving nothing but swirling colors and a roaring in his ears for an unknown span of seconds.

There was no telling how long it was or even if he ever fell fully unconscious, but the world swam back into focus, accompanied by pounding anguish from what felt like more of his body than otherwise. He heard screams, the frantic barking of the damn dog, running feet, alarm bells, and the distant but rapidly approaching shrill tone of a police whistle.

And right in front of him, a demon. She was a woman with hair of fire, eyes like burning portals into Hell itself, and blazing orange wings that arched menacingly overhead. In addition to Jasper, she now held Rake in a similar position, one set of murderous talons wrapped around each of their necks.

Dangling Jasper off to one side, she pulled the gasping Rake forward to stare at him from inches away, in a voice that sounded like the song of an entire choir despite its even, deadly calm.

“Excuse me. Did you just kick my dog?”

Rake had been clutching the hand holding him up, uselessly trying to pry it away. At that, he lost his grip and went limp, eyes rolling up into his head.

Jasper had lost his grip on his wand at some point, but he never went anywhere without at least two. The second was holstered at his side, fortuitously reachable by the arm that still worked. Despite the pain screaming from every part of him, he managed to claw it loose, trying to bring it up in a wavering grip.

The demon shifted her attention to him at the motion, just in time to find the tip of the wand pointed at her face.

Jasper tried to issue some kind of threat or warning, but found his voice muffled by the grip on his throat.

To his astonishment, the demon leaned forward, opening her mouth, and bit down on the end of the wand.

Instead of biting it off, though, she dropped the unconscious Rake, grabbed his wand hand with her now-freed talon, and mashed the clicker down.

Lighting blazed straight into her mouth, setting off a nimbus of static at that range which made his clothes and every hair on his body try to stand upright, not to mention sending painful arcs of electricity in every direction. It was the backlash of sheer heat burning his hand right through his heavy glove that made him choke out a strangled scream against the grip on his neck. It felt like his fingers were being burned right off.

Jasper didn’t get the courtesy of being dropped, unlike his partner. She simply tossed him away like an old rag; he flew most of the way across the street and hit the icy pavement with an audible crunch of something that felt important. This time, he definitely blacked out.


By the time the military police made it to the scene, Vadrieny had gathered F’thaan into her arms, stroking his fur and murmuring soothingly. He finally stopped barking when she picked him up, though he was whining and trembling violently. Checking him over as best she could, she found he didn’t appear to have broken limbs or any other serious injury, though of course at the first opportunity he’d get a much more careful inspection with Teal’s softer, clawless hands.

The cop who arrived was on foot, and in fact appeared to be the crossing guard from the last intersection. He had run the entire way, blowing non-stop on his whistle, and yet appeared barely out of breath, a testament to the fitness of the Imperial military police. He also had his wand out by the time he got here and skidded to a stop in a patch of loose salt, barely avoiding a fall, wide eyes taking in the scene.

Wrecked carriage, shattered pavement, two nearby bodies, and a flaming demon cuddling a horned dog in the middle of the street. She had a feeling this wasn’t covered in basic training.

“Don’t—you just… Put your hands where I can see them!” the officer barked, taking aim at her with the wand and quickly regaining his poise.

Vadrieny tucked the shivering hellhound against her body, wrapping one wing protectively around him and turning slightly to further put her pet out of the line of fire. She kept her head turned around to fix the officer with a stare, and slowly raised one eyebrow.

“…or?”

The man swallowed visibly.

Behind him, a carriage emerged from the mess of halted vehicles, actually driving up on the sidewalk to get around them. It was a late-model Falconer, with one side smashed and burned by wandfire, which explained only part of the difficulty it seemed to be having. The thing moved in awkward little surges at the direction of someone not familiar with how its throttle worked, veering drunkenly on the slick street, and actually went into a full skid when it tried to stop. Fortunately, it wasn’t going fast enough to do more than spin sideways before it ran out of momentum, still several yards from the soldier, who nonetheless sidestepped further away.

Shaeine emerged from the driver’s side, stepping forward toward the policeman with her hands raised disarmingly.

“Ma’am, get back!” he snapped.

“It’s all right, officer,” she said soothingly. “There is no danger, and everything is under control. I am extremely sorry for this disturbance, but I assure you, no one is being threatened here. All of this can be explained.”

His eyes shifted from her to Vadrieny and then back, incredulity plain on his face.

“The explanation,” she added ruefully, “might not be…short.”

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16 – 13

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They were met at the gates of Madouri Manor by an actual Butler, who introduced himself as Yancey and provided their escort into the house itself, where they were to meet the Duchess.

Compared to its counterparts in Veilgrad, Madouri Manor seemed more like the capital of a nation than the residence of a noble family. Uniformed guards stood at attention flanking the entrance despite the cold, and inside, the trappings were almost decadently lavish, with white marble columns and wall facades interspersed with suits of armor and tapestries, while from the towering ceiling hung banners in the House colors of crimson and gray. The great entry hall itself resembled a throne room, and seemed large enough to contain the entirety of Dufresne Manor.

“This place is ridiculous,” Sherwin grumbled, slouching along with his hands jammed deep in his pockets, partly against the chill; no amount of wealth made it practical to heat a space that size in the dead of winter. “Is this supposed to be a mansion or a cathedral? The Madouris were always full of themselves, even for nobles.”

“Sherwin,” Malivette said evenly, “try, if you are able, to imagine a person with basic manners and social skills. And then, for today, pretend to be that person.”

“How about you kiss my ass, Vette?” he suggested. “You’re the one who was so damn determined to make me come here today. Now you can live with it.”

Though he was facing away from her, she flashed her fangs. “Are you sure you want my mouth near anything sensitive, Sherwin?”

“Lay off him, you smug lamprey,” Natchua ordered. “All Sherwin wanted was to stay in his house and not bother anybody. That’s probably in everybody’s best interests. If you’re gonna keep dragging him out places, you can at least not bully him about it.”

“Thank you!” Sherwin exclaimed.

Perhaps fortunately, there was no time for further byplay, as they had drawn close enough to their hostess to be addressed.

Ravana Madouri herself stood before the centerpiece of the long hall, which was not actually a throne but a bronze statue of some ancient Duke of Madouris, atop a marble base itself taller than the human average, on the front of which was carved the crest of House Madouri; Ravana had, doubtless not by accident, positioned herself so that the coat of arms perfectly framed her golden head.

“Duchess Malivette,” she said graciously, inclining her head. “Duke Sherwin. It is an honor to finally meet you both. And Natchua! How wonderful to see you again.”

“I thank you for your magnanimity, Duchess Ravana, in agreeing to host us,” Malivette replied, inclining her head to exactly the same degree. “I apologize profusely for thus imposing upon you; my deepest gratitude to you for agreeing to this meeting.”

“It is no imposition at all,” Ravana assured her. “It suits me perfectly, as I’m afraid I cannot afford to be long away from Madouris while I have time home from Last Rock, and in any case hospitality is one of the great joys of my life.”

“Yo,” Sherwin grunted. “Seriously, just call me Sherwin. My House is barely a thing anymore, and good damn riddance to it.”

“Of course, Sherwin,” she said smoothly. “I’m so glad to be on such good terms already! Please, you must call me Ravana.”

“Hi, Ravana,” Natchua said a bit tersely. “Long time, no see.”

“I do hope you can stay long enough for us to catch up, Natchua!” Ravana said with an apparently sincere smile. “I believe the last time we spoke was during all that excitement when the campus was invaded.”

“Excitement is one word,” she agreed, then turned her head toward Sherwin. “Not to change the subject, but I didn’t know you were a Duke! You should’ve told me, I feel like I’ve been rude all this time.”

“You have,” he said frankly. “That’s why I like you, rudeness is more my speed anyway. Seriously, it’s just Sherwin. Say Duke and then my last name, Natchua. Go on, say it out loud.”

She didn’t, but paused to consider for a moment, then grinned. “Ah. I see your point.”

“I have a suitable chamber prepared for us to converse in private,” Ravana said politely, “if you would be so good as to accompany me. Natchua, will you be joining us?”

“Oh, I’m just the transportation,” Natchua said quickly. “Last thing I want is to intrude on noble business. If you’ve got a servant’s lounge or something where I can hang out until it’s time for Vette and Sherwin to go home, that’d be just dandy.”

“Actually, since you’re here, why don’t you come with?” Malivette suggested brightly. “I hadn’t planned on you being along for this trip, Natch, but I bet you’d be very interested in the discussion! In fact, the outcome might be important to you, too.”

Natchua turned to stare at her, sucking her lips back in between her teeth and biting down. The vampire just smiled innocently back.

“Yep,” she said after a moment, shifting her gaze to Ravana. “Figures. You two’ll get along great. Didja know, last time we met Ravana and I were both curse victims, and she somehow convinced our whole party to go torture a dryad instead of running away from a battle like sensible people. It was every bit as asinine as it sounds, but in the heat of the moment she starts talking and the next thing you know, you’re doing whatever harebrained thing she suggested and damn if it doesn’t seem to make perfect sense at the time.”

“Oh,” Sherwin said dourly. “One of those.”

“I apologize for that, and in advance for everything else Duke Leduc is going to say,” Malivette said sweetly, ignoring his twitch. “He is not accustomed to being outside his bedroom, or speaking to anyone except demons.”

“Oh, but this all works out splendidly,” Ravana said, her pleasant good cheer undiminished. “I should be delighted to have Natchua join us. In fact, if you don’t mind, I would like to include my lady in waiting, unless your business is too sensitive. May I present Daina Antevaan. Daina, these are the Duchess Malivette Dufresne of Veilgrad, Duke Sherwin Leduc, and my old school friend Natchua.”

Another woman approached from the shadow of a colonnade lining the great hall, a statuesque blonde who had hair a shade darker than Ravana’s and stood head and shoulders taller than her Duchess.

“It is an honor,” she said tonelessly, the brief greeting hinting at an accent that was neither Imperial nor Stalweiss. Her blue eyes fixed on Sherwin, narrowed slightly.

“The pleasure is ours, of course,” Malivette replied. “The matter I wish to discuss is somewhat sensitive, Ravana, but anyone who has your trust has my own. We don’t object in the slightest. Right, Sherwin?”

“I seriously don’t care about any of this,” he complained, looking somewhat unnerved by Daina’s continued appraisal of him, which was both intense and icy. “I’m just here because Vette is pushy, and she hasn’t even bothered to tell me what the big deal is yet. All of you do what you want.”

“Splendid,” Ravana said brightly. “If you would accompany me, then? I have had refreshments laid out for us.”

She turned and led the way toward a towering archway opening onto another long columned hall, this one far more compact than the great entryway but just as lavish in décor. Before following, Natchua, who had been staring bemusedly at Daina, suddenly gasped.

The blonde woman finally tore her eyes off Sherwin to meet Natchua’s gaze, and they stared at each other in tense silence for a moment.

Malivette finally cleared her throat. Pausing only to glance at her, Daina inclined her head once in acknowledgment, then turned and glided off after Ravana, who had paused under the arch to wait for them.

The party proceeded after their hostess in silence, even Sherwin apparently cowed by the tension in the air. It was a terse few minutes, which served to further accentuate the sprawling size and confused layout of Madouri Manor, but they finally came to another tall oak door with an arched top, currently standing open to reveal an ornately appointed sitting room far larger than was necessary for their small group. Ravana came to a stop next to the door and gestured them inside, still smiling.

Natchua drifted to the back of the procession, save only Yancey, who trailed diffidently along with several yards of space between him and the guests. Upon coming abreast of the door and their smiling hostess, instead of turning to enter the room, Natchua grabbed Ravana by the upper arm and kept going, stepping forward till the two of them were just out of sight of those within.

Yancey was on top of her almost as if he’d teleported, but he only placed himself nearby and pointedly within her field of view, holding off from any more direct action at a subtle hand gesture from Ravana.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” Natchua growled in a low tone, leaning forward. Malivette could probably still hear her, but at least Sherwin would be kept out of the loop.

Ravana, looking only mildly bemused at this treatment, raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be considerably more specific, Natchua.”

“I’m talking about putting Scorn in a room with Sherwin Leduc!” she hissed. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, drat,” the young Duchess said with a little pout. “You can tell that easily? And after all the effort it took to design a disguise ring that would work on her; Rhaazke seem somewhat resistant to applied enchantments.”

“Wh—no, I’m sure it’s fine, I’m the best warlock you’ll ever meet. That is not the point, Ravana!”

“What I am playing at, in your words,” Ravana murmured, matching Natchua’s low volume but with considerably more calm, “is testing her restraint. She is justifiably repulsed and enraged by the sight of him, and given Malivette’s presence, is unlikely to successfully harm him in the worst case scenario. Really, it’s an ideal opportunity!”

Natchua tightened her grip and tugged the girl forward, baring her teeth. “People are not toys for you to experiment on for your amusement, Duchess.”

At that, Ravana’s pleasant expression abruptly cooled, and she finally grabbed Natchua’s hand with her free one and pried it off her arm. “Toys, is it? Scorn is one of the more physically and magically powerful individuals in the world at present, but arrived on this plane with a notable lack of nuance, subtlety, and self-control. With my help, over the last year, she has been gaining these qualities, and doing an excellent job, I might add. I am turning her into someone neither I nor anyone else could hope to control, because she is my friend, and I want what’s best for her. Everyone deserves to live free and empowered, yet most people never will. If I failed to share what I know of the method with someone important to me, that would be treating them like a toy. And given that you are blatantly using Sherwin himself for free room and board, Natchua, you should perhaps pause and consider your prerogatives before you begin flinging accusations.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes to slits. “If not for me, Sherwin would still be hiding in his room. I’m the reason your little campaign to draw him into your politics has yielded anything at all.”

“Why, there, you see?” Ravana said primly, suddenly all smiles again. “It’s just as I said. We do what we can for those close to us, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for them. And now, I believe we are keeping the others waiting.”

So saying, she nodded once, then stepped around Natchua and the door and glided in.

Yancey remained behind, watching Natchua impassively until she threw up her hands in frustration and followed the blonde Duchess into the parlor.

“There you are, I was beginning to worry,” Malivette said with deceptive mildness as Natchua perched beside her on the loveseat she’d chosen. A cozy arrangement of furnishings surrounded a low table on which was laid out a tea set complete with platters of sandwiches and scones. Sherwin was sprawled in an armchair with a disgruntled expression, while Scorn in the guise of Daina Antevaan perched on the edge of another seat in an almost excessively ladylike posture. She had finally broken off her grim stare at Sherwin, her eyes now tracking Natchua. Rhaazke hearing was no better than human, and Natchua had sensed no infernomancy at work in here, so the demon shouldn’t have caught any of her quick conversation with Ravana, but she was definitely sharp enough to know something was up. Malivette leaned toward Natchua, regaining her attention, and murmured, “Remember what I said to Sherwin about social skills? Same goes.”

“Remember what he said back to you?” Natchua muttered in reply. The vampire had the temerity to flutter her eyelashes at her.

“I must, woefully, apologize for the state of my hospitality, Malivette,” Ravana said once they were all seated, an ironic statement as Yancey was already deftly distributing tea. Without having to ask, he gave Natchua a cup with exactly as much honey as she liked. “In point of fact, more than one of my ancestors regularly played host to vampires, and there is a unique human blood cookbook among my steward’s hereditary effects. Unfortunately, it seems to presume means of acquiring the essential ingredient which were not ethical even then, and most definitely are not legal now.”

“On the contrary, I’d be a bit disturbed if you had provided me refreshments,” Malivette replied with a wink. “Don’t you worry, I get plenty to eat.”

“No, you don’t,” Sherwin grunted. “Look at you, Vette, you’re like a scarecrow. Those four thralls are enough to keep you alive without sucking any of them dry, and that’s about it.”

“That’s a very cheerful thing to bring up in mixed company, Sherwin, thank you,” she said with a tiny sigh. “Daina” shifted her stare back to him, thinning her mouth in overt dislike. “Under the circumstances, I hope you won’t be offended if I come right to business.”

Ravana glanced at Sherwin and then Natchua, her polite little smile widening to the point of real amusement. “Perhaps that would be best.”

“I’m for it,” Sherwin mumbled around a bite of cucumber sandwich.

“I’m going to narrate a bit,” Malivette continued, “for the benefit of those who haven’t been raised in the traditions of the aristocracy. Sherwin and Ravana doubtless know all this background detail, but it will help our newcomers to follow along.”

“Hey, works for me.” Sherwin took a loud slurp of tea, then waved his cup vaguely at her. “If I ever knew any of that shit I’ve worked hard to forget it.”

“The three houses of Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri are in the same predicament, certain specific details aside,” Malivette said, no longer paying him any overt attention. “Our bloodlines are reduced to a single individual each, with no heir available. In this situation, the meanest cobbler in the Empire can legally adopt someone to hand down whatever possessions he may have upon death, but as part of the reforms which followed the Enchanter Wars, the Houses are constrained in this ability. Most of those reforms actually expanded the powers of the aristocracy at the expense of the Throne, but this was an example of the Great Houses acting to enable themselves to…cull the weak, as it were. Once a noble House has been reduced to the point that it cannot perpetuate its own bloodline, it is forbidden from adding new members to the family through adoption. Thus, faltering Houses are encouraged to die off so that their rivals can more easily scavenge their remains.”

“Good fuckin’ riddance,” Sherwin grunted. A short silence fell, in which everyone turned to stare at him, and he had the grace to blush and straighten up a bit. “I mean, ah… I’m sure you both come from very nice families, I was just referring to my case. Nothing good has ever come out of House Leduc and nobody’ll miss us.”

“Daina” opened her mouth, Ravana shot her a piercing sidelong look, and she shut it silently.

“The adoption of new heirs can be done,” Malivette continued, disregarding the byplay, “but there are checks upon it. For any of the three of us to designate a new family member and heir to our legacies would require the approval of either the Silver Throne itself, or two other Great Houses. This, unfortunately, will not be forthcoming in our case. Though Ravana and myself have both worked diligently to prove our loyalty to the Throne, there is no advantage to House Tirasian in helping us to perpetuate our lineages when the Emperor benefits far more from keeping us subservient and dependent. And it goes without saying that none of the other Houses in the Empire want any of us to continue, least of all any of the Great Houses.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Natchua raised a hand, and Malivette nodded graciously to her. “What exactly is a Great House? I didn’t realize there was a hierarchy.”

“There is always a hierarchy,” Ravana said with dark amusement. “Those who are by nature obsessed with power tend to be…well…obsessed with power. Specifically, a Great House is one which holds an Imperial governorship. As the Imperial provinces are each on average the size of most nations of the world and mostly used to be independent kingdoms, they are effectively the families of kings and queens, subordinate only to the Emperor himself.”

“And there,” Malivette said with a grin, “is a loophole. Because, by the law, a Great House is one which holds or has held provincial rule.”

“Yes, like House Dalkhaan,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “You remember those thugs in ill-fitting livery who assaulted the University, as we were just reminiscing, Natchua? Guardsmen of House Dalkhaan, which by that point was nothing but a single bitter old woman presiding over a desiccated husk of a legacy. Yet because one of her ancestors was a Sultana of Calderaas, she was entitled to style herself a Duchess.”

“Oh!” Natchua turned to Sherwin. “And that’s why you’re a Duke! Because the Leducs and Dufresnes have been trading rule of Veilgrad back and forth for centuries.”

“Fat lot of good it did ‘em,” he grumbled.

“Ravana already knows the direction of my thoughts,” Malivette said with a coy smile. “You hinted at this from your earliest correspondence. But I believe, by now, you all understand what I now suggest.”

“Even though all three of your Houses lack allies,” Daina said softly, “you can form an alliance yourselves. Override the prohibition on adoption, designate heirs, and secure the continuation of your families, if not the actual bloodlines. Will that not invite retaliation?”

“None of us have much to fear from the other Houses,” Malivette stated. “Another point we have in common is that we have been left in peace by them because every sensible, self-interested noble family in the Empire fears to antagonize any of us, with some justification. I share a border with the holdings of House Daraspian, and even they haven’t dared try to stick their grubby fingers into Veilgrad. And I am but the newest monster of the trio; House Leduc has spent centuries demonstrating that to draw their ire is lethally dangerous. House Madouri’s reputation is a trifle less specifically fearsome, but it is still the single richest and longest-reigning House in the Empire, and not known to deal gently with rivals.”

“That leaves the Throne, though,” Natchua commented. “Can’t imagine Sharidan will be pleased about you going behind his back. Uh, just let me know if I’m talking too much, I realize this is none of my business.”

“On the contrary, Natchua, I’m quite pleased to see you taking an interest,” Malivette reassured her. “And yes, you are right. This suggestion is, by nature, somewhat antagonistic toward the Throne. But, as I said, the Dufresnes and Madouris of this age are established allies of House Tirasian, and this is not a direct attack upon its power—merely an assertion of independence, one which the Emperor is in no position to begrudge. I believe we can soothe any ruffled feathers through continued demonstrations of loyalty. Especially if we can bring House Leduc into the fold.”

“Right, well, I’m out,” Sherwin said shortly. “I don’t mind doing you two a favor; you seem like decent sorts, the both of you, at least as far as nobles go. Just lemme know when you’ve got all the paperwork and I’ll sign whatever. But House Leduc needs to die.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Malivette said, turning a serious expression on him. “Like it or not, Sherwin, Veilgrad needs the Leducs.”

“Bullshit,” he snorted. “I am by far the most benign member of my family since the conquest of the Stalrange, and let’s face it, the best thing that can be said about me is I’ve only ever harmed demons. Nobody fucking needs the Leducs.”

“There has been a balance in Veilgrad,” she said, her soft voice a pointed contrast to his gruffness, “one whose importance has only truly become clear to me since it was broken. We had the upright and righteous Dufresnes to reassure the people and provide guidance, and the sinister and dangerous Leducs to exert pressure on those who would encroach on our domain, not to mention the horrors that have a tendency to arise in the region. Let’s face it, our corner of the Empire is unusually prone to… Things that bump in the night. The vampire who destroyed my family may have been from one of the deadliest lineages, but lesser breeds have plagued the area for centuries. The werewolf problem has been ongoing for at least as long, there is a long tradition of necromancers infesting the area, and the mountain forests nearby are prone to coughing up some of the more disturbing breeds of fairy found on this continent. Not to mention that we are caught right between Avenist and Shaathist territory, with all the tension that implies, and the Daraspians aren’t the only house down in Vrandis who like to do the kind of business that spills trouble over into other people’s backyards. Veilgrad has always benefited from having its dark protectors, even as it has from its nobler family of leaders. I, finding myself alone, have tried to do both, and… I have to acknowledge, my hold is slipping. The chaos crisis was only the worst example, not by far the only one.”

There was silence in the wake of her soft admission, Ravana looking solicitous and even Sherwin frowning at the vampire in thought.

“My steward, Lars Grusser,” Malivette continued after a moment, “already effectively runs the province. He is both competent and popular, a reassuring presence who fills exactly the role that House Dufresne traditionally has. By adopting him into the House itself and continuing its name and holdings, I would only be legally legitimizing the de facto state of affairs. Ravana, of course, is still young enough to have plenty of time to produce an heir the old-fashioned way, but in the interim, having a designated successor will help to stabilize her rule.”

Ravana nodded once.

“And Sherwin,” Malivette went on, turning back to him.

“No,” he growled. “The last goddamn thing I want is more Leducs around.”

“Upon adopting an heir,” Malivette pressed, “you can immediately abdicate the High Seat and go back to enjoying your privacy while they handle the actual business of being Veilgrad nobility.”

“Anybody who might want that position absolutely can’t be trusted with it,” he snorted.

“He’s got a point,” Natchua agreed. “Not to rain on your parade, Vette, but take it from the world’s foremost expert: warlocks are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Ah,” Malivette said with a knowing smile. “But imagine if there was an ideally suitable candidate! Someone able to continue House Leduc’s tradition of infernomancy. Someone already known, liked, and trusted by the people. Someone well-regarded throughout the Empire and held in esteem by the Throne itself. Someone who has already shown care and concern for Veilgrad’s people, and involved herself in the community. Someone who, umprompted, is has even taken it upon herself to restore Leduc Manor to its former glory.” Her smile broadened, showing off her fangs. “Someone who, just as an added bonus, is functionally immortal.”

“Now just a goddamned minute,” Natchua squawked.

“Hmm,” Ravana murmured, turning an expression of delighted fascination upon the drow.

“And let me put it to you this way, Sherwin,” Malivette crooned, ignoring Natchua’s spluttering. “Tell me which would more enrage the ghosts of your parents: to let House Leduc quietly fade from the world, or to hand over their entire legacy to an irascible, stateless, juvenile dark elf?”

He, in turn, shifted to study Natchua. A malicious smile slowly blossomed on his face, followed by an exact replication of Ravana’s tone. “Hmm.”

“Sherwin, you backstabbing little earwig!” Natchua shouted.

“You even sound like my mother,” her replied, grinning openly.

“This is the single worst idea I’ve ever heard!” the drow exclaimed, waving her arms frantically. “I mean that, and I’m the one who deliberately picked a fight with Elilial! I am the last person who needs to be in charge of a province!”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Natchua,” Malivette said in a cooler tone. “It is still House Dufresne, not House Leduc, which rules Lower Stalwar Province. But that is just my point: the things you have already been doing for the city all this autumn are exactly what good non-ruling nobility should do.”

“I was just bored!”

“You were bored, and so you spent your time and resources making people’s lives a little better, in whatever ways were available to you. That’s exactly what people want in an aristocrat, and what so few aristocrats actually do in practice.”

“I—that—you—this isn’t—fucking—”

“Natchua,” Malivette said, softly and more seriously. “To be frank, not only do I think you would be good for the province, but I think this is exactly what you need.”

“You should see about sucking some of that blood directly to your brain!”

“There is your immediate problem with the Confederacy and House Dalmiss,” the vampire said relentlessly. “Right now you are stateless and thus vulnerable. You pretty much can’t apply for normal Imperial citizenship; all that demon-summoning is not going to be looked on positively, war hero or no. As an isolated exile, you’re one lapse in security from suffering whatever vengeance your erstwhile Matriarch sends at you next. But as the Duchess Leduc, you would be untouchable. Even if the Throne and the other nobles actively despised you—which, let’s be honest, isn’t unlikely—they would not tolerate such an assault upon Imperial aristocracy. The powerful will always protect their own position first and foremost.”

“Yeah, well… I mean, in theory, but I still don’t…”

“More to the point,” Malivette continued more gently, “I think this would be good for you. You had one purpose that was keeping you going, one you weren’t expecting to survive past its completion, and then… It was done, and here you still are. I know you’ve been floundering, Natch, trying to find your place. You’ve found it in Veilgrad. This is just making it official.”

“This is a little more official than I had in mind!”

“Welp, you’ve sold me,” Sherwin said cheerfully. “The more I hear about this, the more I like it.”

“Goddammit, Sherwin!” Natchua snapped.

“Hey, Natch, lemme pitch you the point that changed my mind,” he said, grinning. “Just take a moment and imagine your mother’s expression when she hears about this.”

That brought Natchua up short, staring at him with her mouth slightly open. After two heartbeats, she closed it, struggling against a small smile. “Well… Okay, that’s a pleasing thought, but…”

“I quite like this idea!” Ravana said brightly. “I do feel, though, that I may owe you an apology, Natchua.”

The drow narrowed her eyes, shifting them to the blonde Duchess. “Oh? What’d you do this time?”

“I am sorry to hear you have been having trouble from House Dalmiss,” Ravana said earnestly. “I confess, I may have been somewhat responsible for provoking them. You see, the Narisian slave trade has ensnared several of my citizens into involuntary servitude to various members of your former House. I felt that Matriarch Ezrakhai could do with a practical lesson in empathy on this matter. As such, I have her daughter in my dungeon.”

Everyone stared at her in dead silence.

“It is a very comfortable dungeon,” Ravana insisted. “I had it thoroughly renovated before installing anyone. I subscribe to the modern philosophy that there is more to be gained by showing consideration to political prisoners than by making them suffer needlessly. Of course, it may all be moot if Ezrakhai proves to be stubborn and I have to begin mailing her fingers and ears, but still. The principle of the thing, you understand.”

The silence continued for three more seconds, and then Natchua burst out laughing so hard she slid right off the loveseat.

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16 – 12

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The carriage eased smoothly up to the curb, a sleek and expensive model that would have looked entirely suitable for this wealthy neighborhood except for the Falconer Industries logo on its doors marking it a company vehicle. One of those doors swung open and Trissiny slid out, pausing the second her boots had met the pavement to point accusingly back into the rear seat.

“No! Sit.”

Behind her, F’thaan retreated, sitting down on the seat as instructed—with a whine of protest, but he did it.

“Good boy,” the paladin said with a smile, reaching in to scratch the demonic hound between his horns. He wasn’t quite full-grown, still possessing the lankiness and boundless energy of the puppy he’d been not long ago, but he had most of the height he would grow into, making it a very good thing that one of his owners was a strict disciplinarian.

“We’ll be back to pick you up at four,” Teal said from the driver’s seat as Trissiny finally stepped back, pushing the carriage door shut.

“Thanks again,” she replied cheerfully. “You two enjoy your day!”

“You, as well,” Shaeine said, favoring Trissiny with a rare smile of real warmth. Since their ritual at the Desolate Gardens, the drow had been generally more open with members of their group, but even still she was normally restrained in public.

Enchantments hummed back to full power as Teal guided the carriage forward and on up the street, and Trissiny turned to cross the short garden path with long strides, still smiling in anticipation.

The townhouse’s door opened exactly two seconds after her knock, revealing the familiar countenance of Glory’s Butler, who greeted her with a shallow bow and a small smile of genuine welcome. “Good morning, Ms. Avelea. It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Hello again, Smythe,” she replied. “How’s everyone?”

“Quite well, as they will tell you at more length.” He stepped back, bowing and gesturing her gracefully forward. “Please, come in. And brace yourself.”

Trissiny had just stepped through the door and barely registered his warning before a whoop echoed off the marble and hardwood of the foyer and she was tackled from above.

But pure reflex she spun, gripping the person who’d just landed on her and tossing her in a flawless shoulder throw, which the acrobat negated by jackknifing her entire body around Trissiny’s and landing squarely on her back.

“Oof! Tallie, come on!”

“What is this?” Tallie demanded, clinging to Trissiny by wrapping her legs around her waist and grabbing two handfuls of her hair. “No, no, this won’t do it all! It looks wrong. Change it back immediately!”

“That’s its natural color, you goon. And don’t pull on it, what’s wrong with you?”

“It just isn’t right on you! You’re just so brunette, right to your core.”

“What does that even mean?”

“C’mon, let’s get you to a salon, my treat.”

“Oh, honestly, Tallie,” Layla sniffed, sauntering into the foyer from the nearby sitting room, “is there nothing you won’t nitpick? I quite like it, blondes are just so exotic. Hello, Trissiny!”

She stepped forward to wrap her arms around Trissiny in a hug, deftly slipping them in between Tallie’s grip.

“Hi, Layla,” Trissiny said resignedly, patting her back. “Good to see you, too. Is there some trick to getting her off?”

“Glory has had some luck with dog biscuits. Honestly, unless she starts gnawing your ears it’s simplest to just wait for her to get bored.”

“Wow, you just put on a show wherever you go, don’cha,” Darius drawled, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed. That lasted for one second until Rasha, who had plenty of room to slip through the door, nonetheless bumped him out of position in passing.

“Which part of this do you think was my idea?” Trissiny demanded, spreading her arms wide I a helpless gesture accentuated by the two young women clinging to her. “What, nobody else wants to pile on, too?”

“Excuse me,” Darius said haughtily, “but some of us remember how to be ladylike.”

“It’s true, he’s an inspiration to us all,” Rasha added, grinning broadly. “Gods, it’s good to see you again! Or it will be, I guess, when I can see all of you. Don’t listen to the wench, I love your hair. The blonde goes a lot better with your complexion.”

“I’m surrounded by traitors,” Tallie exclaimed, currently trying to braid Trissiny’s hair while still clinging to her like a monkey. “Tasteless traitors!”

“You know, until this moment, I’ve honestly never in my life spared a thought for how my hair looks,” Trissiny huffed.

“That’ll be the Avenist upbringing,” Layla replied solemnly, having finally released her and stepped back. “Don’t you worry, we’ll fix that. Just wait till I teach you how to contour!”

“Hey, wait a second,” Tallie protested. “Why am I the wench?”

“We all ask ourselves that, Tallie,” said Darius.

Smythe cleared his throat discreetly. “Glory and the other guest await in the green parlor. If you would follow me?”

“Well, I’d sure like to,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Wait, other guest?”

“Sorry to steal your thunder, Triss,” said Rasha. “This one was unexpected. Well, to us, anyway. I’m never sure how much Glory knows in advance.”

“And Glory likes it that way,” Layla added.

“Miss Tallie,” Smythe said diffidently, “I’m sure you don’t want another lecture about using the floor like everyone else.”

“This comes up a lot, does it,” said Trissiny.

“It’s usually about her clambering around on the ceiling,” Darius explained.

“I am unappreciated in my time,” groused Tallie, finally hopping down. “One day you’ll all be sorry!”

“Every day, hon,” Rasha assured her.

Trissiny found herself chuckling as they filed through the door into the parlor, herself in the middle of the line with Smythe bringing up the rear. “I’ve really missed you guys.”

In the green parlor, Glory was ensconced gracefully in the thronelike armchair with the high back, positioned before the windows and between two small potted fig trees, a bit of carefully arranged theater which was all part of her skill at controlling the room. True to form, she did not rise—no one who occupied an actual throne did so to greet a visitor—but leaned forward slightly with a smile of such warmth that her welcome was unmistakable.

“Thorn! It’s a delight to see you again; we’ve all been so looking forward to your visit. And your hair! That color is so fetching on you. Or I gather it was, before that unfortunate attempt at a braid. Tallie’s work?”

“Am I gonna have to take offense here?” Tallie demanded.

“Take two,” said Rasha, “and check back with us if the swelling doesn’t subside.”

“Thank you for inviting me, Glory,” Trissiny said, reaching up and grimacing as she tried to pull the braid loose with her fingers. “It’s good to see you, too! And also…” She turned toward the other person in the room, raising her eyebrows.

“There she is!” Sweet said brightly, waving in welcome with the hand not occupied with a small plate of butter cookies. “It has been a hound’s age, Thorn! Always a relief to see you haven’t been murdered yet.”

“Give it a week, it’s the holidays. All my enemies are on vacation. I didn’t realize you missed me this much, Sweet.”

“Alas,” he declaimed, “my normal roguish charm and Glory’s excellent cookies may give the wrong impression! But no, I’m afraid this is not a social call. For I am Sweet, crasher of parties and rainer upon parades!”

“Tooter of his own horn, yes, we’re all familiar with your resume. What can I do for you?”

“Why don’t we all make ourselves comfortable if we’re going to talk business?” Glory suggested in that skillful manner of hers which had the force of a command despite being light and gentle in tone. “I’ll not have a guest in my home pestered when she’s not even had something warm to take the chill off.”

Smythe was smooth to the point of being ephemeral, breezing through their formation like a hospitable ghost with such efficiency that by the time all five of them found their way into seats, each was carrying a plate of cookies and a cup of spiced tea.

“For serious, though, I am sorry to butt in on this,” Sweet said in a less playful tone, nodding to Trissiny and then Glory. “I know this is the big reunion and all, and I hate to make you talk business the second you’re in the door. Unfortunately, my job is about six times as difficult without the structure of the Church bureaucracy to help me along, and I’ve gotta grab what I can get.”

“What’s going on with that, by the way?” Trissiny asked. “I know why there’s still not an Avenist Bishop; Justinian’s dragging his heels on confirming any candidates. How long is the Guild planning to boycott the Church?”

“Oh, man, that’s a big question,” he said, grimacing. “Unfortunately, it’s basically a siege at this point. Tricks was hoping the embarrassment of having a member cult deliberately cut ties—which is unprecedented since the Enchanter Wars—would push Justinian into making some concessions, but he stood his ground, and now that the shock’s good and worn off, he is in exactly the same position he was before, but we can’t change course without so completely losing face that he’d have the permanent upper hand in every subsequent negotiation.”

“The other outcome we hoped for has also not materialized, despite Sweet’s efforts,” Glory added, nodding to the Bishop. “None of the other cults have seen fit to join us and the Avenists in solidarity.”

“Not that we don’t have sympathy,” said Sweet, “or even allies, but… Well, of the other cults that are skeptical of Justinian and inclined to agree with us, it’s not enough for them to want to disadvantage themselves, especially after they’ve seen how the Guild has been frozen out. In the last few months, Gwenfaer has taken to deliberately interfering with Justinian’s plans to the point he has personally called Bishop Raskin down on the carpet, but even so, Raskin remains at his post. I can relate; there’s a lot of advantage in maintaining access. That’s exactly why I stuck by his side for as long as I did. This was a risky maneuver, which…didn’t exactly work out for us.”

“There is also the case of the Izarites,” said Glory, pursing her lips in disapproval. “The Brethren have grown downright cold toward the Church, but Bishop Snowe herself is deep in Justinian’s pocket. At this point, it’s more likely that High Priestess Delaine will dismiss her from her position entirely than direct her to withdraw from the Cathedral. And she is reluctant to do even that, both to avoid the disadvantages the Guild and Sisterhood currently suffer, and because Izarites are traditionally very hands-off with their Bishop.”

“So what I’m hearing is the Pantheon cults are mostly a bunch of spineless chickenshits, that about right?” Tallie inquired.

“Some of ‘em,” Sweet said with clear amusement. “Some just have no care for politics, and many of those that do espouse the practice of keeping one’s enemies close.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “What a mess. I can’t help feeling some of this is my fault.”

“The Sisterhood’s situation, maybe,” Sweet said frankly. “But you did the right thing. After what we learned, there was just no ethical way to leave Basra where she was. In hindsight I am not proud of the years I spent making use of her, even given all the hints of what a warped piece of work she could be.”

“Well,” Trissiny said with a small grin, “use is one thing. In Ninkabi I did convince her to give me a hand.”

Darius choked on his tea.

“Yes, that must’ve been embarrassing for her,” Sweet said solemnly. “To have victory within her grasp, and then…”

“I guess her grip on the situation wasn’t as firm as she thought.”

“Y’might say you beat her to the punch!”

“Really, you two,” Glory said disapprovingly.

“Uh, what am I missing, here?” Tallie asked, glancing back and forth between them in confusion. Rasha leaned over and whispered in her ear; in the next moment she burst out laughing so hard Layla preemptively confiscated her teacup before it could spill.

“Well, anyway,” Trissiny said, suppressing her smile, “I gather all this wasn’t what you wanted to talk about.”

“No indeed,” said Sweet, leaning forward to set his cup down on the low table before his chair. “So, Underboss Pizazz informs me that you’re staying with Duchess Madouri over the break.”

“Yes, that’s so,” she said warily. “Is that…a problem?”

“Oh, not at all,” Sweet reassured her. “You’re not in any trouble, don’t worry. But Tricks and Pizazz are both curious about some points, and you being here is a handy opportunity for me to get a few questions answered, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I don’t see why I would,” Trissiny said, shrugging. “I’m under no obligation to keep Ravana’s secrets. Actually, I don’t think I know any of her secrets.”

“Wait, hang on,” Darius interjected, “I need to clear something up, here. Am I to understand that the Underboss of Madouris is called Pizazz?”

“A thief’s tag is a sacrament, apprentice,” Glory said coolly. “One attached to someone who knows multiple ways to kick your ass. Aside from proper decorum, you should consider whether someone who got to be a city Underboss with a moniker that makes people laugh is worth offending.”

“Noted,” he mumbled.

“The Guild’s leadership in general is quite curious about the Duchess,” Sweet continued, “being that she is a newer face in the political scene and already notably unpredictable, and especially due to her being far more willing to work with us than practically any sitting noble.”

“Really?” Layla asked, visibly intrigued. “The Duchess Madouri cooperates with the Guild? Who initiated that?”

“She did, in fact,” said Sweet. “After she took over the province, her first act was to start dismantling her father’s old network of corrupt cronies who were running it into the ground. A good thing to do, of course; equally of course, the network of corrupt cronies didn’t care to get dismantled. The Duchess found that deploying law enforcement was a lot slower, pricier, and less certain than informing the Guild in detail of what these bastards had been doing and how to reach them, and then making sure that neither the courts nor the papers took an interest in anything that followed.”

“Damn,” Darius muttered. “Sounds…actually like a pretty good ally.”

Trissiny made a face. “Ehhh…”

“And that is Tricks’s position exactly,” Darling stated, pointing at her and nodding. “That girl is…well, she’s a case, all right. We’re very interested in gaining some insight into her. She sensibly keeps everyone at arm’s length, but every hint that emerges points to a pretty spooky individual who is very good at maintaining a positive public reputation. You can see why we’re anxious to get a perspective from someone who knows her personally, good ally or no.”

“I think Ravana is…useful,” Trissiny said slowly. “Cooperating with her up to a point could be very beneficial indeed, but I wouldn’t recommend trusting her outright. You should be wary of what she might do. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the Boss and Pizazz have been doing. Guess that doesn’t add much, does it?”

“Well, you’re the one on a first name basis with her,” Sweet said, giving her an encouraging nod. “Any deeper insight to offer?”

Trissiny frowned at the window for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “This may not make much sense, but… Well, I actually had a fairly deep conversation with Ravana just last night, and the impression I was left with was that I’d probably consider her an absolute monster if I hadn’t seen glimpses of the little girl who grew up alone and unloved.”

“No contradiction there at all,” he said immediately. “That is exactly how monsters get made.” Glory nodded in silent agreement.

“She’s got this peculiar philosophy she’s developed,” Trissiny continued, “about how being a just and generous ruler is purely the act of a far-thinking pragmatist, with no room for sentiment. Honestly, I think Ravana truly wants to be a good person and do the right thing, but has to try to rationalize decent actions to herself to fit with her self-image as a ruthless tyrant, because she’s got it into her head that kindness is for fools and suckers.”

“Oh, come on,” Tallie scoffed, “nobody could be that twisted in the brain and function.”

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Trissiny said dryly, “let’s check with the actual nobles in the room.”

Darius and Layla were both already nodding.

“Oh, I could absolutely see an aristocrat ending up that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have never seen that specific mindset in person, but it really isn’t hard to imagine someone working themselves around to that perspective.”

“You have to understand what it is like, growing up with all that privilege, all those expectations and luxury and power,” Layla said more pensively. “You have to find a way to justify it, and as you get old enough to see what the world and other people are like, that grows progressively harder. Stupid individuals, of course, go through life never questioning anything, but those with an ounce of wit? Well, one of two things happens: they either double down on their self-obsession, or have to reach some kind of…accommodation. Some run away from it, like Darius and I; others build up a mental framework for their world that makes it seem fair and right that they enjoy their position, and then naturally get violent when that cage is shaken. People assume nobles are just arrogant and greedy—and make no mistake, they are—but the truth is that unless they reject their positions, they have to find a way to feel right, and justified. Otherwise their entire world doesn’t make sense anymore. And anyone will fight like a cornered animal if you try to take away their comfortable understanding of reality.”

“All that sounds like a lot of reasons why I should feel pity for the poor little rich kids,” Tallie said, her voice dripping skepticism.

“Layla makes a very good point, in fact,” Glory said softly. “I have observed that very pattern during my long association with the various rich and powerful of Tiraas. Empathy, Tallie, is a potent weapon you should never hastily discard. Only when you understand someone’s mind and can feel their heart can you truly destroy them.”

Rasha nodded thoughtfully.

“This is actually pretty helpful,” Sweet mused. “Maybe not in the most immediately strategic sense, but knowing the shape of the girl’s mindset helps me get a feel for where we stand. I did notice she backed off on pushing that narrative about you three paladins being the new heroes of the people not long into the new academic semester, Thorn. Your doing?”

“Oh, you’d better believe we all leaned on her about that,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Reading those papers, I thought you were in cahoots with her about it.”

“Everyone did,” Rasha said softly. “That, obviously, is why she did it.”

“Overall, I’m getting the impression you’re not overly fond of her,” said Sweet, watching Trissiny closely.

“In a personal sense? Honestly, no.”

“Hm. If you don’t mind my asking, why agree to spend the holidays with her, then?”

“She’s been pushing for it pretty much all semester,” she said, frowning ruminatively. “Most of us have other things we usually do during breaks, but Ravana was really set on having the whole group together off-campus. Ultimately, everybody had their own reasons for agreeing. I was…well, curious. All the nobles I know are either Last Rock fringe cases, deliberate self-exiles like Layla and Darius, or absolute vicious deviants who live permanently up their own butts, like that arrogant naga Irina Araadia. It’s like Glory said: you can’t really fight someone unless you understand them. Looking at the world now, I’m getting the impression I am going to end up butting heads with as many entrenched politicians as warlocks and necromancers and whatnot. Ravana is a convenient opportunity to observe the species up close.”

“The species,” Layla sniffed. “Very nice.”

“Accurate, though,” Darius said, grinning.

“Ah, so this is a learning opportunity for you, as well,” Sweet chuckled.

“A very wise approach,” Glory said approvingly.

“Overall,” Trissiny went on, “nothing I’ve seen makes me think Ravana is going to be a threat to the Guild’s interests. She has nothing like an Eserite mindset, but I think that in general she’ll be inclined to do what’s best for the people of her province, even if her reasons are a bit squirrelly. But I’d caution the Boss and Pizazz never to take that for granted. I don’t think the woman actually has any moral scruples; she actively disdains the idea of them. If she decides something is in the best interests of her duty, well, no moral consideration is going to make her even hesitate. But she does take that duty seriously.”

“All very good to know,” Sweet said, nodding. “Thanks for dishing with me, Thorn, that kind of insight is well worth me coming down here. Pizazz will be glad to hear your thoughts, too. But anyway!” he said, slapping his knee and leaning back, “with that out of the way, I understand there’s another interfaith matter closer to home everybody wanted to bring up with you. Rasha?”

“Rasha?” Trissiny turned to her, raising her eyebrows.

Rasha sighed softly. “Yes, well. I assume you’re familiar with the Purists?”

“Purists?” The paladin’s eyebrows rose further. “Wait, with a capital P? Did you have a brush with one of those ninnies? I am so sorry, Rasha. Quite honestly, nobody has much patience for them. If you just passed their name and location to Grip and let nature take its course, I don’t think anyone in the Sisterhood would even complain.”

A tense silence fell over the room. Trissiny looked at each of them in turn, then sighed grimaced and leaned forward to set down her cup and saucer on the table.

“All right, sounds like I’d better hear the long version. Who do I need to clobber this time?”

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