16 – 48

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A/N: This is another half chapter.  The remainder will be posted ASAP.  As always, join the discord server to receive a notification when the complete version goes live.


“Do you realize how infuriating all this is?”

“I can only imagine the depths of your inconvenience,” Rogrind said dryly.

“Oh, to be sure, you and your bullshit are not a positive addition to my day, but frankly? You’re just the icing on the cake,” Rasha informed him. “I am having the most frustrating week. Do you know how many times I’ve been chased, attacked, or abducted in just the last few days? This is ridiculous. I joined the Thieves’ Guild in large part so I would never have to feel helpless and put upon again. The damsel in distress bullshit is getting old fast.”

She expected either a glib retort or silence, depending on whether the dwarf was more inclined to play the freelance adventurer or hardened government agent at this moment. Not that it much mattered; Rasha herself was merely filling the air with an admittedly desultory attempt to deflect his attention while she searched for something she could use to leverage herself out of this new mess. Even so, she was surprised when Rogrind canted his head slightly as if giving her words serious consideration.

“The truth is,” he answered after a contemplative pause, “you are a diminutive specimen of your race, Miss Rasha. If you pursue a religion and career which consist mostly of entering combative situations with established powers, I’m afraid that inevitably means you will be on the back foot, physically speaking, for much of your life. Obviously, much the same is true of your mentor, Ms. Sharvineh, but she is adept at avoiding situations in which she is physically imperiled. That, of course, is the result of years of skilled effort bent toward establishing her secure position. Until you are able to establish such a bulwark, yourself…here you are.”

“Here I am,” Rasha repeated, now peering back at him closely. “Well, since we’re chatting, how would you have avoided getting nabbed, in my position?”

“First of all, don’t wander off by yourself.”

She winced. “Yeah, fair enough. Though in my defense, somebody was supposed to be watching my back. He took a break to get laid.”

“I wondered.” The dwarf’s face melted into an expression of pure disapproval. “How grievously unprofessional.”

“In his defense, it was with a dryad. And if you’d seen her—”

“I did see her, and while I take your point, I don’t consider that a mitigating circumstance. Sexual enticement is one of the oldest ploys in the book to distract an enemy agent; to fall prey to it from one’s own allies is a truly lamentable display. I expect that from newly enlisted soldiers, not field agents, or even established Guild thieves. In any case, aside from not committing rookie blunders, there are preparations you can make to ameliorate your physical vulnerability.”

“The martial arts, so I’ve been told.”

“Formal martial arts require a significant level of mastery to be useful in real-world situations. A Sun Style grandmaster could perhaps have disarmed me from your position, but few others. For practical purposes, the basic Eserite brawling techniques you’ve been taught should suffice for situations in which fighting would do you any good at all. No, by preparation, I mostly refer to equipment, and practice in using it. For example, the style of dress you seem to prefer provides ample fabric in which to conceal quite a variety of devices.” He gestured toward her heavy winter dress with the hand not currently holding a wand aimed at her heart.

Rasha idly lifted her left arm to inspect the sleeve—not the one in which her wand was hidden. “I suppose I could slip a knife in here…”

“Weapons are only the most basic of options,” said Rogrind. “Skilled foes will be prepared for them. Your resources would be better spent on unconventional applications of enchanting, or alchemy. One always has an advantage when one possesses tools and techniques for which the enemy is unprepared.”

Slowly, she lowered her arm, definitely not making the compulsive twitch of her right fingers toward her wand, as they wanted to. A thought had just descended into her awareness, bringing with it a note of embarrassment that she hadn’t made this observation immediately.

He hadn’t searched her.

Rasha was a member of a faction known for carrying concealed weapons—and he himself had just pointed out that she was dressed in a way which facilitated that. Rogrind was a veteran field agent, government trained. He knew better than this. And yet, not only had he failed to make even a cursory check for any such weapons on her person, he hadn’t even secured her hands before putting himself in a small moving box with her.

There was something going on here beyond the obvious.

They stared at each other in thoughtful silence for a long moment. The carriage passed through the busy city in eerie silence, its walls clearly charmed to cancel noise.

“You’re surprisingly free with the advice,” Rasha said at last, “considering I’m pretty sure you’re taking me out of the city to be murdered and hidden in a ditch somewhere. Wasted effort, isn’t it?”

“It’s not often, these days, I get the opportunity to speak as an old professional to a younger one,” he answered lightly. “And on that note, Rasha, a relevant piece of advice one of my early mentors gave me: if you are in a position to ask ‘is this the end,’ the answer is ‘not yet.’ A situation may be futile, but it only becomes hopeless when you decide that it is.”

“You’re…actually encouraging me to keep on fighting you?”

“After all we’ve been through?” One corner of his mouth twitched upward in a wry little partial smile. “I confess I would be disappointed if you did not.” The dwarf hesitated, his eyes flicking away from her toward the window separating the passenger compartment from the driver’s seat, where Sister Lanora would be partially visible from his perspective. Rasha nearly took advantage of his momentary distraction, but was forestalled by the fact that she didn’t actually have a plan yet, except maybe to tackle him. Which she had tried once before, to a dismal lack of effect, and then they hadn’t been in an enclosed space, nor he armed. The moment passed and he returned his focus to her face. “Sometimes, Rasha, the needs of the mission require us to accept…unwanted company. For a short while.”

Interesting.

She made no comment in reply, mulling. Was he hinting at something? There were enough little indications to indicate this whole situation was more than it appeared, but not enough yet to suggest what. Rasha, clearly, was still in a very dicey situation, and most likely a lethally dangerous one…but not exactly the one she’d thought.

She looked toward the side window of the carriage, noting the soldiers manning the guard post right outside as they passed through one of the city gates. Then she considered, for a second and a half, the hints Rogrind had dropped that his intentions were not as immediately murderous as he had first suggested, and inwardly steeled herself, deciding to take a risk.

Rasha exploded suddenly into motion, hurling her body with as much force as she could against the side of the carriage, grabbing and yanking the door handle.

“HELP! I’m being abducted!”

Rogrind did not move—didn’t even shift his wand hand to continue covering her, just watched in silence. The entire performance was utterly fruitless; the handled didn’t budge, the military police showed no indication they could see her through the windows or hear her shouting, nor her pounding on the door, and even her body-checking the vehicle itself didn’t make it rock by so much as an inch. Slowly due to the pace of traffic but still inexorably, the view outside changed to the walls of the bridge linking Tiraas to the mainland beyond.

This was the west gate, she noted; they were heading into Tiraan Province, not Vrandis. The domain of Trissiny’s Duchess friend, Ravana Madouri. That made absolutely no difference to Rasha inside this carriage, but it might become relevant if she managed to get out of it.

Slowly, Rasha drew back from the window and re-seated herself, folding her hands primly in her lap. “Worth a try.”

“Only naturally,” Rogrind said with a gracious nod of his head and the supreme confidence of one who knew his prisoner had no options.

Rasha had not really expected anything to come of that, in terms of getting out; her goal was to gather information, and she had just succeeded at that rather well.

His lack of reaction proved little, as he’d been aware before she moved that she wouldn’t succeed in escaping the carriage. But Rasha had just learned several interesting things about the carriage itself. One-way darkening of glass was a common charm, and in fact, the only charm she’d just detected which could be called common. The kind of silencing enchantments which could be laid upon windows with common enchanting dusts would bar noise from either side, but not the thumps of impacts directly on the windows themselves, yet the soldiers hadn’t even glanced over when she pounded on the glass. More telling was that the carriage hadn’t rocked in response to her sudden movement. Shock enchantments protected the wheels; it was a heavier-duty balancing charm than was standard that would prevent a vehicle from being shifted by sudden motion within. Rasha was small, but no carriage was that perfectly balanced without some extra enchantments. Then, there was the door itself; the lock hadn’t budged when she’d twisted the little knob. The lack of any further mechanism suggested it, too, was enchanted, and the kind of charm which would key it to a specific person’s touch was both definitely not standard and required its own power source.

This was a later-model Dawnco sedan, the sort of vehicle the Guild commonly used for getaway carriages, and not unlike those the Svennish agents had driven when chasing Rasha and her friends about last year. And it had been modified with serious extra enchantments, which told her two things.

First, this was not some piece Rogrind, a disavowed ex-agent, could have picked up from a dealer. Custom charm jobs were expensive, and charms of this nature drew eyes from the government if they noted them being applied. After last winter’s events, nobody in Tiraas who did this kind of work for the Guild would sell to a Sven for fear of blundering into the latent hostility between Eserites and the Kingdom of Svenheim. Which meant Rogrind’s story about being sacked was a lie. Fired government agents might be lucky to walk away with the contents of their pockets, not expensive major equipment like this. That led to the question of just what the hell the Svennish secret service wanted with her now. That issue with the divine disruptors was long put to bed, and from everything Rasha knew of the dwarves the most believable thing Rogrind had told her was that they would want nothing to do with Purists.

And second, all these extra enchantments needed extra power. Basic carriage design had been part of Rasha’s unconventional training—not to the extent of being able to fix enchanted carriages, but specifically with an eye toward finding hidden modifications in them. She had re-positioned herself in a different spot on the seat, and already noted the difference in vibration. This might be a stroke of luck; beneath the rear-facing passenger seat would be one of the standard spots…

With that, Rasha had a plan. A desperate one with a high chance of backfiring catastrophically, but with the alternative being to trust that this old enemy, who had abducted her in concert with a new enemy, wasn’t really as hostile as he appeared… It was time to roll the dice.


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16 – 47

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“Don’t touch the equipment, obviously. The visual effects are harmless and not interactable unless you’re doing magic, so don’t do magic.” Rector paused, looking up from his instrument panel, a construction of modern enchanting parts and engineered dials and levers around a millennia-old Infinite Order data screen, and leveled an accusing finger at one particular member of his audience. “And for anybody who is a living incarnation of magic, that means don’t even think too hard about magic! No focused intent! Do not subjectivize any physical principles!”

Azradeh raised both of her clawed hands innocently. “C’mon, Rector, you know me better than that.”

A wrench bounced off the bridge of her nose. His aim had been steadily improving.

“I shall be the very soul of discretion and restraint,” she promised. “Demon’s honor.”

She didn’t push too hard; it was enough of a privilege to be allowed to observe this event, which was being held in one of the underground experimental chambers beneath the Church Azradeh had not seen before. She didn’t even know how many of these Justinian had authorized, but like the others, this one was a melange of enchanting and engineering equipment completely inscrutable to her built into and around various priceless relics of the Elder Gods. Azradeh had to wonder whether the Universal Church had always had what was probably the world’s largest collection of that old technology or it was all collected by Justinian for his purposes.

Currently, the equipment wasn’t even the most interesting thing present. In the air all around them swirled shapes and sigils of floating light, representing everything from mathematical equations to arcane sigils, rotating around the room in orderly patterns. Orderly, but fiendishly complex.

“Does anything look familiar to you?” the Archpope himself asked her quietly.

Azradeh turned to him, raising her eyebrows. “Is there a reason it should?”

“All right, fixed it,” Rector stated before he could reply. “Yeah… Good, good, piggybacked a translocation signal off the native displacement waves. Using the Golden Sea as a manifestation portal is never gonna be completely stable, but if you want distance, I got that at the cost of precision of placement. Should spit out the target a good distance out past the Great Plains instead of right on the frontier.”

“How much precision did it cost, Rector?” Justinian asked.

The enchanter shook his head irritably, still scowling at his instruments. “Dunno. This is frustratingly vague. Gotta stay at the controls, steer it in real time. Way too many variables to account for—this is just not proper engineering, gonna be at least somewhat intuitive. How much precision you need?”

The Archpope nodded gravely. “If the manifestation will be at a radius outside the Golden Sea, it must be along the southern half. The entire process will be wasted if the subject materializes inside the Dwarnskolds, or flies off over the Stormsea.”

“Doable, no problem,” Rector said brusquely.

“And it must not appear in the vicinity of Last Rock.”

Rector hesitated. “…shouldn’t be a problem. That’s prob’ly too close to the frontier anyway. Straight line from there down to Calderaas, more or less… Yeah, think I can keep it clear of that range.”

“And,” Justinian continued, noting the way Rector’s shoulders immediately tensed, “if possible, I would rather it did not emerge near Veilgrad.”

In the short pause which ensued, the enchanter actually took his hands off the controls to drum all his fingers on the panel. When he finally spoke, his voice was even tighter than usual. “How important is that?”

Justinian had found that dealing with Rector was quite unlike, say, Ravoud, who obeyed him with implicit trust even against his own better judgment. With Rector, he needed to explain his reasons as clearly and in as much detail as possible, as the enchanter would tend to disregard instructions for which he didn’t see the point.

“The entire point of this manifestation will be psychological. We must create shock, and horror. Apart from the benefits of spreading this widely, the people of Veilgrad have always been somewhat inured to that, and have grown especially so after the events of the last few years. In addition, Veilgrad has recently acquired new protectors of significant potency and as yet undetermined capabilities. I would not wish the creature to be dispatched before the paladins can be brought to face it.”

“Not much chance of anything but a paladin doing it,” Rector said, un-tensing slightly. “I will…see what I can do. Not promising anything. Aiming this at the southern half of the radius while avoiding the point in the center of that might be all the precision I can squeeze out of it. Upside is, Veilgrad’s one spot. Worst comes to worst it’s just straight unlikely it’ll pop out there as opposed to any other point.”

“Please do what you can, Rector,” the Archpope urged, nodding at his back. “I have faith in your abilities.”

The enchanter grunted, going back to work.

“So, uh,” Azradeh said quietly, edging up next to him, “aren’t those paladins doing politics at you right now? I’d’ve thought you’d put this on hold while dealing with that.”

“This is me dealing with that,” Justinian said, giving her a sidelong smile. “It’s called asymmetrical warfare; attack your enemy with whatever they can least anticipate and counter. The children did this by moving into an arena in which I have up till now decisively overmatched them. They’ll not expect an abrupt shift back into territory in which they are more comfortable.”

“Huh. Doesn’t that…just give them back the advantage?”

“Momentarily,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Rector’s form, still hunched over the controls and jabbing irritably at the screen. “In the moment after that, it will render all their efforts irrelevant.”

Azradeh idly reached up, letting one stream of symbols pass intangibly through her hand. The visible data swirling around the chamber was all focused upon a point in its center, a save ten yards away from Rector’s control station. There, an elaborate construction of magic and technology surrounded the object at the center of the entire effect, keeping it contained, but visible. Theoretically visible; it was difficult to look at directly. When stared at for a few seconds, the black sliver of bone began to waver, as if shifting color to something in a spectrum she could not ordinarily see.

“I appreciate how you’re always willing to explain things to me.”

Justinian smiled at her again. “Gladly. You were known to be quite the strategist in your previous life; I retain hope that thoughts in that vein may yet jar some memory to the surface. I only regret that I do not have more time to visit with you.”

“Nah, you’re busy, I get it.”

“Do you have to chatter back there?!” Rector exclaimed.

“Oops.” Grinning, Azradeh took a series of loud, stomping steps backward. “I’m withdrawing, Rector! Going back to the wall, out of your radius!”

“Do it quietly! I am trying to focus!”

Pressing her back against the wall, the archdemon raised her claws to frame her mouth and bellowed, “IS THIS FAR ENOUGH?”

He made a sound like a prematurely awakened bear and did not otherwise respond.

Behind him, Delilah slipped discreetly over to the Archpope’s side from where she had been hovering by the door.

“Has this personality clash become a problem?” Justinian asked her, softly enough that Rector could not overhear.

The priestess shook her head, answering in the same near-whisper. “I thought it would, at first, but… She’s very careful not to cross any of his hard lines. It took me a while to realize it, but he actually enjoys having excuses to shout and be grumpy at her. Throwing things at someone who can’t be harmed by it is something of a release. She actually may be good for him.”

“How intriguing,” Justinian said, smiling.

Several yards behind them all and out of anyone’s field of view, Azradeh stepped silently forward, reached out with one hand, and tapped a point in midair. Beneath the tip of her claw, a single fragment of incorporeal data, a paragraph-sized equation, froze in its orbit and adhered to her hand. She swiftly shifted it to a different orbit and then withdrew, leaving it to float off on its way.

Smiling aimlessly, Azradeh once more retreated and leaned against the wall again, humming.

“What is that noise!?” Rector exclaimed.

“Oh, not a fan of lullabies? I take requests!”


He had not hesitated in following Rizlith through the Conclave’s embassy, simply because it was so out of character for her to seek him out. The succubus was a presence Ampophrenon tolerated solely to maintain the peace with Razzavinax, a fact of which she was well aware, and wisely kept her distance from the gold dragon. Now, as she had begged his attention on an urgent matter, he let her lead him deep into one of the embassy’s sub-basements. Wordlessly, Rizlith opened a door Ampophrenon recognized and gestured him through with a deferential bow.

He gave her a nod of acknowledgment as he stepped in, and for a single instant when she started to close the door behind him he considered the possibility of some kind of trap—you could never lower your guard around a child of Vanislaas—but then again, with her errand complete it was just as likely she simply didn’t want to be shut in a room with a gold dragon.

Surveying the scene before him, Ampophrenon amended that supposition to conclude the succubus had probably not wanted to be shut in a room with any of what was going on here.

This was one of the “hoard rooms,” subterranean chambers below the embassy which they had enchanted to be far larger than their physical dimensions, so as to let the dragons have private spaces in which they could rest in their larger forms. None of them, of course, kept an actual hoard here, right under the noses of other dragons; that was a recipe for several kinds of disaster. But they were welcome sanctuaries, nonetheless. This particular cavernous chamber was the private residence Varsinostro the Green shared with his roommate.

Varsinostro himself lay stretched along the ground, half-curled in a protective posture with one arm, his tail, and the edge of his wing enfolding the diminutive figure he clutched against his side. Ampophrenon met the green’s eyes and bowed his head once upon entering his personal space, but thereafter focused his attention on the gibbering elf.

“Where is it, where is the light? It was calm it was so—no, no more. Stop! Stop!” Raash sobbed aloud, actually pounding his fists against the dragon’s armored hide, which of course had not the least effect. At least he wasn’t lashing out with magic. “It’s not dark or light, they’re so angry. It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Please, I can’t make them…” Burying his face against Varsinostro’s side, he heaved silently as he struggled to breathe.

“What has happened to him?” Ampophrenon asked quietly. “Our protections have failed, after all this time?” It had taken some trial and error to refine the magic through which they kept the mad spirits of Athan’Khar from driving the headhunter insane, but not even in his worst moments since coming to the Conclave had Raash been this bad. In fact, this was the worst Ampophrenon had seen him since the four dragons had originally rescued him from Athan’Khar after Khadizroth’s escapade in Viridill. Worse, possibly; then, the elf had been only babbling and incoherent. Now he appeared to be in pain.

“The protection stands,” Varsinostro answered, his voice soft even in the booming resonance granted it by his greater form. “It seems we crafted them to be…inadequate. It is the spirits which have changed; they are riled beyond anything we have seen since Raash came home with us.” With one huge claw, he very tenderly stroked the elf’s hair as he wept silently against the dragon’s hide. “I have been forced to intercede with brute power and prevent him from casting magic. Until this subsides, I can do nothing but stay with him and provide safety, and whatever comfort I may.” His expression was nearly as pained as Raash’s as he looked down at the maddened elf Varsinostro had taken the primary role in managing the headhunter’s condition, and the two had become quite close.

“Zanzayed has already departed for Viridill to check for activity in Athan’Khar itself,” said Razzavinax, who stood to the side in his smaller form. His own face was grave; despite the well-earned reputation red dragons carried, Razzavinax was a self-described people person and disliked seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially the companion of a fellow dragon. “I’m afraid that may be a mockingjay hunt, though, Ampophrenon. This agitation is severe; it has taken all of Varsinostro’s focus to keep Raash from hurting himself, and my own familiarity with the Athan’Khar spirits is much lesser. Still…I strongly suspect they are reacting to an outside stimulus. This is…reminiscent of the agitations observed along the Viridill border during recorded major chaos events.”

Ampophrenon inhaled slowly, mastering his own alarm. “Then Zanzayed’s errand is worthwhile, even if it is only due diligence. If your suspicion is correct…”

“Even our strength means little against chaos,” Razzavinax agreed grimly. “Raash wasn’t with us during the disaster at Veilgrad, but we all remember how that set off the oracles at the time, and…”

“And this is different,” Varsinostro rumbled. “Sudden, and acute. I can only hope it passes as quickly as it has come on. If not…” Raash groaned and began cursing softly in agonized elvish; the dragon gently rested his chin atop the elf’s head.

“While we’re talking of due diligence,” said Razzavinax, “I think it would be a good idea for you to visit your paladin friend, Ampophrenon; Zanza says she might actually like you more than him, anyway. And then the other two. If there is a major chaos incident brewing, they’ll be needed front and center, and we can provide them quick transport to wherever it occurs.”

“Yes,” Ampophrenon said, narrowing his own eyes. “That raises an ominous prospect, however. The paladins are right now—”

“We know what they’re doing,” the red dragon said, his expression growing steely. “And who will be most inconvenienced if they succeed. In light of what is strongly suspected about his previous involvement in chaos events, isn’t that suggestive?”

“Let us be aware of possibilities without borrowing trouble,” Ampophrenon cautioned. “You are right, though, it is perilously suggestive. And should this suspicion be borne out, his decisive removal will become an urgent priority.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Razzavinax replied, his mouth twisting with black humor. “I’m the wrong color to be safely making pronouncements like that toward the Universal Church or its figurehead. For my part, I’m going to go pull at my connections in the city. We need fresh information, and to be positioned as well as possible for whatever comes next. Varsinostro, I hate to leave you alone with this, but I think it would be a bad idea to have Rizlith in here. I’ll ask Maiyenn to come keep you two company, if you don’t object.”

“She would be welcome, if she is willing,” Varsinostro agreed softly. “Your lady has always had a gentle way with Raash.”

Red and gold nodded at him, and then Ampophrenon stepped forward, reaching out to lay a very soft touch against Raash’s shoulder where it emerged above the tip of Varsinostro’s wing.

“Courage, friend,” he murmured. “We will not desert you.”

Raash shifted his head so Ampophrenon could see one of his eyes, but his stare was unfocused and wild. It was unclear whether he could even see him.

Then the two dragons turned in unison and marched toward the door together. The sight of their grim expressions and purposeful stride would have been enough to make the world tremble, if it could see them.


Even after they had spread the population to well-constructed tents around the lodge’s grounds (well-made structures complete with modern heating charms that were almost like temporary houses, provided by Ravana’s generosity), it was still dense enough with lizardfolk refugees that relatively small incidents could create a stir felt by everyone present. The stir currently underway was not small. As such, Ingvar had been unsurprised when Ilriss, a young lizardwoman apprenticing as a shaman, had run to him frantically demanding his presence.

The Elder had made his semi-permanent home in the great hall of the lodge, with his belongings arranged around a simple pile of sleeping furs near the fire, no barriers or concessions to privacy added. Ingvar respected his dedication to making himself available to his people, and while the lizardfolk remained reluctant to discuss their religious rites, he had inferred that this accessibility was related to the fae ritual by which the Elder had divested himself of his very name.

Admirable as that was, it carried the downside that when something was wrong with the Elder, it spread panic. Now, Ingvar and Ilriss had to push their way through agitated lizardpeople as more received word and streamed into the great hall to spectate. The Shadow Hunters had also begun gathering, and were barely managing to keep order.

“He’s been like this ever since it started,” Ilriss fretted as she finally brought Ingvar to the Elder’s bedside. The old shaman lay on his back, eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of apparent pain; his entire body was tense, nearly arching off the furs, as if he were physically struggling with some weight despite his prone position. “It struck us all, but he…he…”

“The Elder has taken it upon himself,” interjected Fninn, the other junior shaman who most often accompanied the Elder, as Ilriss seemed about to succumb to her own worry. “Something has agitated our familiar spirits. Badly. They screamed in anger and fear, and… The Elder has gathered to himself all their voices, so the rest of us are not affected.”

“All fae spirits?” Ingvar demanded, now recognizing the reason for their alarm. Warnings like that usually heralded some world-altering disaster. He knew a bit about fairy warnings, himself. “Has anyone else felt…?”

He looked around at the onlookers, meeting Aspen’s eyes; she held up both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. Maybe if Juniper was here…”

“I didn’t feel anything either!” chimed Zap, who as usual was flitting about Ingvar’s head in little bursts of nervous energy.

“I think…not all spirits,” said Ilriss, having regathered some of her poise. “Because of our mission, we are more closely attuned to…certain events.”

“The Elder asked for you, Brother Ingvar,” Fninn added.

“A spiritual disturbance, related to you…” Ingvar trailed off, eyes narrowing as his mind raced ahead.

“Sounds like we better warn that Duchess,” said Aspen.

Ingvar shook his head. “Lady Madouri left very specific instructions; she’s not to be informed of any developments like this unless they affect her personally and are critically important.”

“Huh?” The dryad blinked. “But that’s… I figured she’d be way more of a control freak than that.”

“This is about magic, not conventional operational security. The very reason the Elder gave up his name, and the People have moved in secret.” He met her eyes, keeping his head partially turned so he could still peripherally see the beleaguered shaman. “Recognition by and through spirits. Every conscious mind that’s aware of this is another risk factor. We need to be…careful.” Ingvar returned his full focus to the Elder, who despite having apparently asked for him now showed no sign of being aware of anything beyond his inner struggle. “All right. I want people who can blend in to get down to Madouris and Tiraas and see what they can dig up. November, Dimbi… Is Tholi here?”

“Young hunter,” the Elder suddenly rasped. Ingvar broke off and knelt beside him. The old lizardman lifted one hand into the air, his eyes still closed; Ingvar grasped it and his clawed fingers clutched him as if he were a lifeline. The shaman’s grip trembled with the tension wracking his entire body.

“I’m here,” Ingvar said quietly. “How can I help?”

“The guilty are there,” said the Elder, his voice taut with strain. “Something dark comes. Great and terrible… But not the great doom. A weapon to distract and befuddle. It is not time to address the guilty. The innocent…must be protected. They will come here, the dark and light alike. A soul at the heart of the doom, in need of protection. To these wilds of yours…”

His grip went slack and he grimaced, baring pointed teeth. Ingvar waited for a few moments, but apparently there was no more. Releasing the old shaman’s hand, he slowly stood back up.

“Thank you for the warning, Elder.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna be rude,” said Aspen, “but are you sure…?”

“I’ve learned the hard way to respect the messages of spirits and the shaman who convey them,” said Ingvar. “Very well, you all heard the Elder. Ilriss, Fninn, I trust you to look after him until…whatever this is calms down. Shadow Hunters, we have our own duty. Gear up and prepare to move out.”

“What are we moving out for?” November asked.

“For souls in need,” said Ingvar. “This is why we’re here. To keep watch over these lands.”


“This is a prayer room,” Rasha hissed. “In the Temple! Of! Avei! Do you have any idea the hell there’ll be to pay if you’re caught? And that’s just from the Sisters, never mind when Glory gets her claws into you!”

“Rasha,” Darius said solemnly through the crack in the door leading to the small chamber, “I understand fully. All the risks, and all the consequences. There are just some things that are worth it.”

“Are there?” she growled. “Are they?”

He released the door, still staring at her with his eyes wide and pleading, and held up both hands with his fingers spread in a vulgar squeezing motion. “But Rasha, did you see…?”

She heaved a sigh. “Yes, I saw them. They’re magnificent. The stuff about which legends are sung and odes composed. But, again, this is the Temple of goddamn Avei and that is a prayer room and you two—”

“I know what an imposition this is,” he intoned, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Rasha, I didn’t want to play this card, but… If our situations were reversed, you know I’d do it for you.”

Rasha stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Juniper’s face appeared over his shoulder, the same earnest plea in her big brown eyes, and Rasha finally sighed again, even more heavily. “You would, wouldn’t you? Damn it, Darius. You’re such a…bro.”

“Always and forever,” he promised.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He was already edging back, the crack in the door slowly diminishing. “I owe you big for this, Rasha.”

“Too right you fucking do.”

“Thanks so much, Rasha,” Juniper added with a winsome smile. “You’re a good friend!”

“No reason you should be bored,” Darius chimed in the last second before he shut the door in her face. “You can go hang out with Zafi!”

Then it closed with a decisive click.

“Zafi is on duty,” Rasha informed the sigil of Avei carved into the wooden surface. “But then again, so are you, in theory.” She turned to look down at Sniff, who stood silently against the wall, peering up at her. “I dunno how you stand it.”

The bird-lizard-whatever made a soft croaking chirp deep in his throat.

“Well, the hell I’m gonna stand here for… Fuck, I give him five minutes, tops. Still not waiting outside. Hold down the fort, Sniff.”

Sniff raised his head crest in acknowledgment. Shaking her own head, Rasha turned and ambled down the hall.

Darius and Juniper were really pushing their luck; this was perilously close to the main sanctuary of the Temple, which was still roiling like a kicked beehive even with Trissiny’s big address concluded. Rasha was just another woman strolling through the furor, idly half-listening to conversations as she passed, many of which were about the Bishop announcement.

It was odd to find herself at loose ends like this. Thumbing the heating charm hidden under the fur-trimmed collar of her dress, Rasha made her unhurried way to the front doors of the temple and slipped out. The fresh winter air was just what she needed, at least with the charm active.

Imperial Square wasn’t a lot more quiet, between its normal traffic and ongoing agitation caused by the back-to-back paladins’ announcements. Rasha herself had been occupied being debriefed about the captured (and then rescued) Purists, but she likely wouldn’t have been inclined to watch politicians giving speeches anyway. No matter how important, and even with one of the politicians in question being a good friend. Somehow, knowing that Trissiny hated being a politician only further soured an arena of action in which Rasha had no inherent interest. With the Purists finally good and done for, she was looking forward to not having to think about any of this crap for a good long while. Just seeing the effect Trissiny, Toby, and Gabriel had had on the capital with three little press conferences was plenty satisfying to her.

Glory would be disappointed, of course, but Glory lived and breathed politics. Rasha appreciated the education in it she was getting, and didn’t deny the importance of understanding the forces that moved people, but she had already decided long since that she wasn’t going to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, at least not directly. Her own path wasn’t quite laid out, but she had time to consider it.

On the Temple’s front colonnade, she finally found a relatively clear space in which to breathe, all the way down at one end beneath the shadow of one massive column. Rasha wasn’t about to leave the Temple grounds; this was as far as she was willing to get from Darius, despite her frustration with both him and Glory’s insistence that she not go off alone. It was still a crowded public space; she could take two steps in several directions and reach out an arm to touch someone, and the babble of excited chatter washed over her from all sides. But it was a spot, clear and open, where she was in no immediate danger of being bumped into and knocked down. For a moment, she just paused there, people-watching.

A single point of pressure poked into the center of her back.

“Good afternoon, Miss Rasha. It has been some time.”

Rasha did not freeze, or panic. Among Glory’s more esoteric training programs had been teaching her to identify various implements being poked into her back; she knew the tip of a wand when it nestled between her vertebrae. She also knew how to act in such a situation. Rasha breathed in and out once, seizing calm like a shield, and then very slowly, giving no cause for a sudden reaction, turned her head just enough to see who was behind her.

As the proper technique for this maneuver dictated, he was standing close enough to her that his body concealed the wand from the numerous onlookers. She found herself looking at a square, bluff face, framed by red hair and a very neatly trimmed beard. Rasha had to pause and reinforce her carefully maintained calm facade. That was a face she had only recently stopped seeing in recurring nightmares.

“Rogrind. And here I thought I was done having to deal with your nonsense. I have moved on to fresh new nonsense, thank you very much.”

The dwarf smiled thinly. “After the catalog of insults and injuries for which you were directly or indirectly responsible? Only an Eserite could be so arrogant. I see your training is progressing well. Please walk forward, miss, at a steady pace, with your hands at your sides and not in or near your pockets.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said incredulously, glancing to one side. There were two Silver Legionnaires not eight feet away. “I don’t remember you being this sloppy. All I have to do is shout.”

The pressure against her back shifted as he adjusted the wand. “At this angle and at this range, a beam weapon of this caliber will sever your spinal cord and destroy most of your heart. Temple or no, there is not a healer alive who could help you then. Yes, I would receive a swift comeuppance; perhaps it would give you some comfort for your last thoughts to be of that.”

“That’s a bluff.”

“Call it, then. Do you know what happens to field agents whose identity is compromised in the course of creating a humiliating public debacle in a foreign capital? You have a great deal to lose, Rasha, including your life. I? Nothing. Walk forward, if you please.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just goad me into tackling you? C’mon, it’ll be like old times. We can go to jail, reminisce about—”

“That’s very droll, young lady, but my time is short, and thus, so is yours.” He physically pushed with the wand until she had to take a step.

So she did. Keeping her hands still, eyes darting about and mind racing, but moving. Complying, for now. Something would come up; there would be something she could use. There was always something. No situation was hopeless, for a properly prepared mind, and she wasn’t the fresh-off-the-boat kid she’d been when last she’d tangled with the dwarf.

Was he serious? It wasn’t impossible that he was that desperate, but it was also quite likely he was lying. That was the thing about professional spies. They were often both of those things.

“Well, anyway,” she said as they moved in lockstep through the crowd swirling in Imperial Square, keeping her voice even and at a volume he could hear without being loud enough to make him twitchy, “thank you.”

“For?”

“You didn’t misgender me. Or even start to. My own friends took a while to consistently remember.”

“Please. I am from a civilized country; Svenheim solved its Purist problem years ago.”

“Must be nice.”

“It is. I can see it has been an eventful year for you, but if I may say so, you appear to be flourishing.”

“Good of you to notice.”

She could barely hear his soft sigh over the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. “I fear it makes what comes next rather embarrassing, but surely you of all people will understand the exigencies which can force one to accept…unfavorable allies.”

That was nearly as alarming as the weapon pressed to her spine. He had guided her over to one edge of the Square, and in fact up the sidewalk of one of the main avenues opening onto it. Now, Rasha observed that their destination was a carriage, active and idling in wait.

And in the driver’s seat, another familiar but unwelcome face. Rasha looked up at the grin of savage triumph Sister Lanora wore, and let out a hissing sigh through her teeth.

“Fuck.”


It came from the Golden Sea, a living streak of smoke and shadow marring the sky. Shooting outward toward civilization like a missile, it seemed to take shape as it progressed, growing in size, developing visible features, and steadily leaving behind a trail of thick black mist that lingered on the air like an ink stain.

The thing soared over an elven grove, sending several shamans into an uncharacteristic panic as fae spirits screamed in horror at its passing, and for the first time spread its wings. They were skeletal, with none of the membrane between their long fingers that should serve to hold it aloft, had its flight been a matter of aerodynamics.

In fact, it was entirely skeletal, a fact which became more clear as it traveled and continued to form. Black bones were rough, jagged as if every one had been repeatedly broken and improperly healed, and fully exposed. In fact, though its shape suggested a skeleton, it looked more as if it were formed of shards of volcanic glass, haphazardly glued together. Color emerged from the swirling darkness of the thing’s being as its wings began to beat against the air, spraying swirls of inky smoke. Ligaments and tendons materialized, growing more like fungus than tissue to connect its shattered bones. They were purple, glossy as jewels and faintly luminous, what little could be seen of them through the haze of its body. Rather than flesh, the creature formed a steady outward bulk of vapor, a black mist which continued to billow out behind it with the speed of its passing, roiling and only partially obscuring its craggy inner workings.

Mountains rose up ahead, and at their base, a city of spires and terraces perched along a peninsular plateau which extended out over the surrounding plains. As the thing shot toward this landmark, it finally opened its eyes.

They were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light. When they opened for the first time, a pulse burst out from the foul beast, flattening a stretch of tallgrass.

It shifted its trajectory, shooting upward with a powerful flap of its skeletal wings, and slowed as it soared higher… Only to descend upon Veilgrad from above, giving the unprepared city just enough time to see it coming.

Wings spread, it landed upon the cathedral, the impact collapsing part of the roof and sending its ancient stone spire tumbling to the streets below in pieces. The wings remained fully extended in an animalistic threat display as screams and alarm bells began to sound in all directions. Drawing its sinuous neck up and back, it opened its angular jaws and emitted a noise that was at once a roar, a hiss, and a scream, an unearthly sound which clawed at the mind as much as at the ears.

The chaos dragon howled its challenge to an unprepared world.

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16 – 46

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“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rehvad Salimon protested, his voice growing shrill.

“Master Salimon,” Ravana said in a calm and not unkind tone, “there is no one truly innocent. We all have something upon our conscience. The only person who makes such a blanket protest of innocence is, quite obviously, laboring to conceal guilt.”

He gaped at her for one fishlike moment, then began stammering. “I—but that—what does—”

Keeping her expression even as always, Ravana inwardly rebuked herself. It was a pointless observation, which a man less intimidated and out of his depth would naturally dismiss for the silly philosophical time-wasting it was. Playing such mind games with someone like this was purely self-indulgent, and needlessly cruel.

“More specifically,” she went on, cutting off his fumbling protests, “I should remind you that it is not customary for miscellaneous citizens to have a personal audience with their Duchess in the preliminary stages of an investigation. I am well aware of your role in organizing that lamentable incident outside Falconer Industries. Of greater import, I am aware that you did so at the instigation of the Universal Church, in exchange for a monetary bribe.”

“That’s not a crime!” he burst out, and then went pale. “I mean—that is, I don’t know what… My concerns about that archdemon were perfectly valid! Our concerns.”

The man was visibly sweating now. Ravana stared at him in silence. It was a favorite trick of Tellwyrn’s, one she’d not had an opportunity to learn before Last Rock. When her father had wanted to unsettle someone, he blustered and threatened. Cold silence was far more deadly to an already-burdened conscience, and easier to deliver with dignity.

This room was carefully chosen for such a purpose, a small office lined with dark-stained oak paneling and deep blue wallpaper that made it feel close, even claustrophobic, especially with five people present. Mr. Salimon occupied an uncomfortably small wooden chair in the center of the room, with two House Madouri guards looming behind him in positions flanking the door. Ravana sat across from him, in a comfortable armchair designed to evoke the aspect of a throne, Yancey standing like a solemn statue at her left. It was an interrogation chamber, designed for exactly this use, and all the more intimidating for a middle-aged shopkeeper like Salimon for being in Madouri Manor rather than a police barracks. Soldiers and police officers in the Empire scrupulously followed the letter of the law and handled citizens with care under the Tirasian Dynasty’s rules, with the occasional exception of Imperial Intelligence. The Madouris, on the other hand, were known to make inconvenient people vanish.

He drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, making a deliberate effort to square his shoulders, and raised his chin. “I believe that the Writ of Duties requires me to be represented by a qualified attorney before any judgment is rendered.”

Ravana lifted one eyebrow. “Of course. Master Salimon, our purpose here is to determine the details of what happened. It has not yet been decided that you are to be charged with any crime. Should it come to that, you will of course have access to a lawyer of your choosing, or be provided one by the state if you are unable to secure such services on your own. Why?” She subtly leaned forward, holding her gaze on his. “Is there something to which you would like to confess that would require a trial?”

Even more color leached from his cheeks. That was the only reply he managed to produce.

“So,” Ravana continued more briskly, “as a key witness in this ongoing investigation, you will naturally be our guest here until the matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or another.”

“Y-your Grace,” he said weakly, “I…I mean, my Lady… I have a family.”

She frowned in reproach. “Good heavens, man, we are hardly going to torture you. This is the twelfth century, and we are all professionals here. You will be interviewed at whatever duration the specialists I employ deem necessary, and until they are finished, housed here when not speaking with them. Comfortably, Master Salimon, not in a dungeon cell. With all due respect, I imagine my humblest guest chambers are more salubrious than your own home. Simply cooperate with your interviewers to the greatest extent you can, and this matter can be resolved with the utmost speed.”

“But I…” He wrung his hands, staring pleadingly at her. “Please, Lady Madouri, you must understand I only meant to do what was right.”

“And make some easy coin in the process?”

Salimon cringed. “It—it was just that—”

“These are the details you should explain at length when asked. Now you must excuse me, Master Salimon, as I have many other engagements today.”

“I beg you, Lady Madouri—”

“That will be all.”

The guards immediately stepped forward and helped their guest to rise and make his way to the door. Politely, even gently, but no less firmly for that. Ravana had taken pains to ensure that her House Guard understood the distinction.

When the door clicked shut behind them, leaving herself and Yancey alone in the chamber, she allowed her expression to descend into a flat stare at the wall.

“He is a small business owner,” she said aloud after nearly a minute of silence. “A lifelong resident of Madouris. Born and raised.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Yancey replied. “A bootmaker. His shop is not large, but rather successful.”

“And that,” she whispered, “due to one of the business loans furnished by my treasury, before which he was a cobbler in a factory. I consigned everyone I loved to the headsman to rescue this province, Yancey. Opened my House’s wealth and resources to improve my people’s lives to the greatest extent I could—and with amazing success, if I may boast, in only two short years. Now, here I find one of the most direct recipients of my generosity, paid in my family’s blood, trying to stab me in the back. For a handful of doubloons. I begin to understand why the powers of this world still insist on resorting to torture, despite centuries of accumulated knowledge to show how ineffective the tactic is. There’s an appeal to the simplicity, is there not? If the subject won’t comply, hurt them until they do.”

“Torture is indeed an extremely effective tool for securing compliance, my Lady,” the Butler said diffidently. “It is sadly counterproductive when used to acquire valid information.”

“And even so,” Ravana hissed, her fingers tensing into claws on the arms of her chair, “it is tempting. So very tempting, when the subject in question is an infernally presumptuous ingrate.”

Two heartbeats of silence ensued before Yancey discreetly cleared his throat. “Veilwin and Barnes have both successfully attached magical traces to the priority targets Barnes’s spirits identified. The ‘bigger fish,’ as he put it. Lord-Captain Arivani also has his best men observing their movements. It is my understanding, my Lady, that those are the anticipated sources of intelligence on his Holiness’s connections in the province. Mr. Salimon’s detention is more designed to provide a pretext for your upcoming declaration, and convince the Archpope that we have failed to identify his true agents. If we do not truly expect to garner worthwhile information from Mr. Salimon… Strictly speaking, it would seem not to matter what befalls him here.”

With a Butler’s customary subtle precision, he managed to express the suggestion without voicing it directly.

Ravana continued staring at the wall in silence for another long moment before very slowly shaking her head. “Such self-indulgent brutality all too quickly becomes a habit, Yancey, and I have seen firsthand what that habit in a leader does to a realm. No… I fear I have already indulged myself to excess, here. The wretch will be handled with all due care and then thrown back to his sad little life when he’s no longer useful. Perhaps that, at least, will teach him some caution, if not virtue.”

“Very good, my Lady.”

She could not fault him for the suggestion, for all that it ran against her practices and stated policies for the running of her province. In truth, this entire interview had been unnecessary; nothing about Salimon’s case had required her personal attention, and indeed only took time away from the actually professional interrogators she employed, not that she expected them to get anything useful from him anyway. All of this was simply because she’d wanted to look him in the eye, see the man and hear his excuses for aiding the enemies of his Duchess. Ravana had expected nothing from him, and still come away disappointed. From Yancey’s point of view, it was a purely logical extrapolation to suggest she might wish to vent her ire on the little toad of a man—and Yancey, of course, would not venture an opinion on the subject one way or another. Whatever his mistress chose to do, he would see done with the greatest efficiency.

Ravana did not have that luxury. As a leader, she had to make better choices. The monster within her that eternally snarled for vengeance must remain leashed, until there were more fitting targets upon whom to loose it.

And in fact, only for minutes longer. She was about to declare total war upon a worthy target indeed.

“Time?” she asked crisply, rising from the chair.

“The reporters you invited have begun gathering, and will be ready when you appear to deliver your address,” he replied smoothly, the Butler of course not needing to consult any messengers or even a watch to know the exact status of any project within his domain. “As you requested, my Lady, only journalists from Madouris have been summoned, though we have not limited the conference to representatives of papers under your direct control. The paladins will begin delivering their own speeches within the hour.”

“I hope they took my advice,” she murmured.

“It appears so, my Lady. All three will make their announcements in a staggered order, to avoid drawing attention from one another, and build political momentum.”

“Good. And we have magical oversight to notify us when the last paladin announcement is complete?”

“Yes, my Lady. Veilwin expressed her displeasure at the need for her to remain sober for the duration.”

“She will live, provided she does not antagonize her employer much further.” Timing would be important; Ravana had suggested to the paladins that they would achieve a greater effect by chaining their formal announcements one after another rather than delivering them simultaneously, and she planned to launch her own as soon as they were finished to further extend the chain, and avoid stepping on their toes. Against the right kind of foe, a rapid succession of blows could be more devastating than a single more powerful one.

Ravana swept toward the door and her much anticipated date with full-scale conflict, but hesitated with her hand upon the latch. “And Yancey, make arrangements for me to have a fencing tutor during my vacations from Last Rock. Professor Ezzaniel believes I am not without talent, and… I suspect this seething desire to pummel the crap out of someone is going to become a recurring part of my life. I should cultivate a properly graceful means of expressing it. As befits a Lady.”


She emerged in a split-second surge of darkness as usual, and immediately had multiple destructive spells aimed at her. For a given value of “immediately;” Natchua had the dual advantages of faster-than-human reflexes and preparation, since only she had known in advance the precise timing of her arrival. Infernal countermeasures were already sizzling at her fingertips before the stepped out of the shadows onto the rooftop, and had assembled mental preparations to neutralize or reverse every hex the other warlocks conjured before they could attack.

But they didn’t. After a tense second, most of them released their gathered energies, and the few holdouts kept their spells in a suspended low-power state. Natchua, frankly, was disappointed. Her life would be so much simpler if they would just throw down honestly so she could put a final end to all this. And yet, here they were.

“Only you weirdos would hold a picnic on a rooftop in Veilgrad at midwinter,” she snorted, folding her arms and looking down her nose at the assembled Black Wreath.

“Like it?” Embras Mogul asked cheerfully, gesturing around. They had dragged—or more likely shadow-jumped—a wooden table and several benches up here, and even set up a grill. None of the warlocks appeared to be cold, which meant they hadn’t actually done any serious infernomancy, as that would destabilize most commercially available arcane heating charms. No, it appeared they were simply relaxing in the open air, working their way through a big cauldron of mulled cider and sandwiches made of grilled sausage and a horrible local specialty called sauerkraut which Natchua didn’t care to be within smelling range of. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this, what with modern warmth charms. Hot food and cold air make for a delightful contrast! Rupa, get the Duchess a sandwich.”

“The Duchess can get her own fucking sandwich,” retorted a Punaji woman before taking a long draught of cider.

“No, thank you,” Natchua sniffed. “I don’t suppose the owners of this building even know you’re up here?” She was answered by a variety of disdainful expressions. For once, and for whatever reason—likely having to do with eating and drinking—the Wreath had their hoods down. They were a collection of humans of various ethnicities; Natchua wasn’t sure she liked seeing all their faces this way. Wiping them all out would feel easier if they could be dismissed as formless robed mooks.

“Really, how many flat rooftops are there in Veilgrad?” Mogul retorted. “They’re practically asking for it. We should demand payment for clearing off the snow; that’s exactly why they build those steep gabled roofs around here, you know.”

“I guess I can’t fault your inventiveness when it comes to finding new ways to get my attention.”

“Yes, that’s right, Natchua,” he replied with gratuitously heavy-handed sarcasm. “Everything we do revolves around you.”

She folded her arms, refusing to rise to that bait. “Well, here I am. So go ahead, Mogul, do your gloating. Don’t hold back, let’s get it all out of your system up front.”

He actually hesitated with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at her through slightly narrowed eyes. Several of his fellow cultists were regarding her with similar expressions, those who weren’t scowling outright.

“Gloating,” Mogul said slowly, rolling the word around as if to taste it.

“Are you really going to make me start?” Natchua demanded. “You know what, fine, whatever gets this done with faster. I’m big enough to admit when I’ve been beaten. So congratulations, you called my big bluff. I’ll own up to it: the thought genuinely never crossed my mind that you would actually grovel in public. I wouldn’t have. So, you win. And now I’m stuck with you freaks, because no, my word means too much for me to renege on a public promise, even to…you. I’m sure I have many long years of you finding ways to torture me with it to look forward to.”

She grimaced right back at their scowls, only belatedly noting that some of those scowls had melted into expressions of confusion. Natchua glanced back and forth at the displeased warlocks whose picnic she had crashed; now, for some reason, they mostly looked bemused or suspicious, as if trying to figure out what she was up to. Mogul himself was just staring at her with a curious blank face, sandwich still held halfway to his mouth.

“Well?” she prompted. “That’s it. If you were hoping for more, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. I just said I’m not willing to humiliate myself any—”

Natchua broke off again as Embras Mogul burst out laughing, then just stared while he appeared to fall into outright hysterics. Dropping his sandwich, the high priest of Elilial staggered into the picnic table, only haphazardly managing to slide onto a seat rather than tumbling to the frozen rooftop along with his spilled bread and sausage. Even the other Wreath were watching him with varying degrees of confusion and alarm, Vanessa stepping closer and reaching out but then hesitating, as if unsure how to deal with this.

“Does he often…?” Natchua gestured vaguely at the cackling warlock. Nobody answered her, except with a few spiteful stares.

“Y-y’see,” Mogul wheezed, removing his omnipresent hat and tossing it carelessly down on the table. “You see what she’s doing, though?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Natchua huffed. “What is it you think I’m doing now?”

“Not you,” he snorted, his laughter cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. “No, Natchua my dear, you pegged me right in the first place. I’m right there with you; I’d sooner chew off my own foot, if the alternative was making a degrading public spectacle of myself. Only a direct command from the Dark Lady could make me even consider such a thing.” He bared his teeth at her in an expression very much like a fox in the kind of trap that could only be escaped by the means he’d just suggested. “And so it was.”

Natchua narrowed her own eyes, feeling a chill down her back that was unrelated to the cold air. She had suspected at the time, having felt that moment of Elilial’s dark attention in the moment before the man had buckled to the ground. “I really don’t know how you can still trust her enough to do such a thing, after all that’s happened. Much less why she would see any advantage in humiliating you like that.”

“Why, that’s exactly what I just realized,” he replied, grinning bleakly up at her. “It’s a classic trick—but then, simple tricks are the best tricks. If you want mutually hostile people to get along, you give them a mutual enemy. And for people who are all, to varying degrees, averse to being ordered around, there’s no more tempting enemy than someone in authority over them. You see?”

She did see, but found nothing to say, for once.

“I don’t believe it,” one of the warlocks growled.

“That’s too…” Vanessa trailed off mid-sentence, as though unsure what she’d actually meant to say.

“It fits, though,” Mogul said, still staring up at Natchua. “It has to be said there’s not a shred of trust here, nor even amity. You know, what with all the murder and torture and ambushing and all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Natchua managed at last, echoing one of Mogul’s own followers. “I can believe Elilial would be cruel enough to make you humiliate yourself, but not for no point. There’s no reason she would care enough whether we get along. There’s no reason we need to.”

“I think you know better,” he replied, his stare again gone flat and expressionless. “There’s a new paradigm brewing; none of us know what the new order will shape up to be. But the Dark Lady isn’t one to just let things happen without applying her own finger to the scales. And obviously, whatever plans she has are better off with her cult and her paladin able to work together.”

Wind whistled over the rooftop, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the bustling city laid out around them.

“So,” Natchua said at last, “you do know about that.”

“Oh, come on, why did you think we were here?” he scoffed, spreading his arms. “Our only business with you should have been a quick and lethal ambush. But we had to know, Natchua. What other question could there have been, except why. In all of recorded history, even we have no hint there was ever a Hand of Elilial. And she chooses an enemy? Someone who did to us what you did? Of all the possible prospects, why you?”

It would be so easy to seize that opportunity to say something spiteful, or simply deflect the question, but something stayed her impulse. They were all starting at her with an intensity which, if it didn’t exactly bring down the masks, said this question was absolutely sincere, and pivotal. That was only understandable, even if she couldn’t see the raw aspect of their faces. Natchua had been trying to pay attention to this feeling, and while she didn’t feel she’d made much progress in understanding it, she had learned to at least recognize these moments of decision, when an unknown impulse prompted her to do something that seemed irrational. So far, these had turned out better for her than she had any right to expect. This time, it pushed her to simply be straightforward with the Black Wreath.

“She said I was cunning,” Natchua answered him, fixing her eyes on Embras’s and ignoring the intent stares of the other warlocks—and not, of course, relaxing her defenses for an instant, just on the chance one of them got agitated and then impulsive. “Apparently the archdemons were her equivalent of a paladin, and with them all gone and Vadrieny effectively against her, she needed something to fill the gap. It didn’t make sense to me why an avowed enemy was a good choice, either, but…here we are. Cunning, she said. I got the impression your cult has been disappointing in that regard. Clever and deceitful rather than cunning. She spent some time lecturing me about the difference.”

She hesitated, once more glancing around; Mogul remained expressionless, but some of the other warlocks were starting to look angry again. On that, she couldn’t exactly blame them.

“As for what’s really going on, I couldn’t tell you,” Natchua snorted. “The whole thing was a crock of bullshit. I have no idea what her game is, but honestly. Cunning? I know my faults, thank you, and I’m not stupid enough to swallow that. I’m impulsive and lucky, that’s all. Whatever game Elilial is playing, I guess she didn’t feel the need to bring you into the loop either, and I’m afraid I can’t help. Cunning, my gray ass.”

“Hm,” a bearded man grunted from one side of the group, shifting his eyes to stare pensively out over Veilgrad’s skyline rather than at her.

“I know that grunt,” Mogul said with a sigh, turning back to him. “That is the grunt of forbidden wisdom. Well, come on, Bradshaw. Let’s not keep us in suspense.”

Bradshaw’s eyes focused on him, and then he glanced again at Natchua. “Are we giving explanations to the…her, Embras?”

“The her has deigned to be forthcoming with us,” Mogul acknowledged. “And it does seem we are stuck with one another for the time being. Let’s hear what you know.”

The other warlock’s nostrils flared once in a silent sigh which connoted annoyance, but he did turn back to Natchua. “What you did at Ninkabi was…or at least, could be interpreted as a ritual called an Offering of Cunning. Someone who out-maneuvers the Black Wreath in open combat and then…” He paused, gritting his teeth so hard the expression was visible even behind his beard. “Well, the spirit of the thing calls for withdrawing at that point before delivering a deathblow. You technically didn’t kill anyone with your own hands, though your next actions certainly were the next worst thing. For whatever reason, it seems the Dark Lady chose to interpret that as an Offering of Cunning. The reward is a personal audience with her, in which the successful offerer is allowed to ask questions and receive truthful answers.”

“That’s the first I ever heard of that nonsense,” she assured him. “I really was just trying to kill you and ruin her day.”

“Yes, well, the last time we got an Offering of Cunning was two years ago and at that time, none of us had heard of it, either, including Embras. Understand that for most of the Wreath’s history, our core operations have been concentrated on this continent, as with most of the Pantheon cults. And that led to a dramatic change in the nature of our operations a century ago, as the Wreath was damaged almost as badly as the Empire during the Enchanter Wars.”

“I didn’t know you fought in the Enchanter Wars,” Natchua admitted, beginning to be intrigued in spite of herself.

“Ugh,” Vanessa grunted, folding her arms.

“Oh, I assure you our forebears did their level best to stay out of that mess,” Mogul said wryly. “Unfortunately, other parties taking advantage of the chaos took their own toll. The Wreath’s leadership at the time was entirely wiped out by… Well, actually, your friend Kheshiri could tell you that story far better than I, as she was neck-deep in it.”

“You lost the right to complain about Kheshiri when you let her out of her bottle in the first place.”

“I have to give you that one,” he agreed. “Anyway, your pardon, Bradshaw. Please continue.”

“The point,” said Bradshaw, “is that the Wreath keeps a mostly oral tradition; few of our secrets were ever written down. That loss of important personnel cost us a great deal of our magical and ritual knowledge, and so the Wreath subsequently pivoted from a largely mystical to a mostly political organization. A lot of its more esoteric knowledge was left lost. After the battle at Tiraas two years ago when we were abruptly reminded of the Offering of Cunning, I’ve been focusing on digging up what I can of the Wreath’s past mystical traditions. Ironically, the best sources now are hidden archives of the Pantheon cults recording their various observations. It’s been slow, but I have turned up a number of fascinating things.”

“One of which you just recognized,” she said.

“The grunt of forbidden wisdom,” Mogul said solemnly. “Go on, Bradshaw, lay it on us.”

“I know of cases like yours,” Bradshaw explained, now studying Natchua through narrowed eyes, his stare more analytical than angry. “Not exactly like it; I’ve seen no record of the Dark Lady gifting someone the way she did you and that Masterson boy. But the old Wreath used to deliberately do a similar thing, using the auspices of greater djinn. Actually that practice had fallen by the wayside long before the Enchanter Wars, as it was more risky than rewarding. Given the kinds of people who’d be selected for a task like that, the circumstances in which the risk was considered warranted and what usually happens when a greater djinn is invoked, it was mostly a recipe for losing key personnel exactly when they were needed most. When it did work, though, the warlock could gain, all in one moment, vast knowledge of the infernal.”

“Sure, no great mystery there,” Natchua said with a shrug. “Obviously a more powerful warlock is more useful.”

“It wasn’t about power,” Bradshaw said irritably. “It has never been our way to go head-to-head with our enemies. Even if we weren’t heavily outnumbered in every contest, we serve the goddess of cunning. And cunning was always the point. A person who was abruptly gifted a vast command of infernomancy would usually become almost preternaturally devious. Able to think faster than any of their foes, taking actions that seemed nonsensical at the time but always seemed to work out to their advantage.”

That, finally, brought Natchua up short. She narrowed her own eyes to slits, and at last nodded grudgingly. “…go on?”

“Subjective physics,” the one called Rupa said thoughtfully. “What’s that old expression, Hiroshi, the one the Salyrites like to use?”

“Magic,” replied a man with Sifanese features in a soft tone, “is data processing.”

“That’s basic magical theory,” Vanessa agreed. “Magic isn’t about power; the power comes from mundane universal principles. Magic is…information. It bridges the gap between what conscious minds can conceive and sub-atomic phenomena, and then performs the vast calculations necessary to produce physical effects based on ideas.”

Bradshaw nodded. “If you already have the right personality type…say, an aptitude for lateral thinking, that probably wouldn’t manifest well before you received the gift. Would I be right in guessing your antics mostly caused you embarrassment and trouble before your first encounter with the Dark Lady, Natchua?”

She managed not to cringe at the forcible reminder of her behavior during her first years at Last Rock. “That’s…not inaccurate.”

“Some people are just dumb,” Bradshaw continued, raising an eyebrow. “Or thoughtless, or overly aggressive, or any number of other things. But sometimes, people who act unpredictably or unwisely are just trying to extrapolate too much from their surroundings. Sometimes, if gifted with a great deal of magic, the gaps are filled in. They start to draw information from sources even they aren’t consciously aware of, and process it faster and in ways most people can’t. Their actions appear random, but they are instinctively led by…magic. Data processing.”

“Huh,” she said, blinking. “I guess…people with odd magical mutations do exist. Tellwyrn sort of collects them. November, Fross, Iris…”

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as a unique and beautiful snowflake,” Bradshaw said with a disdainful sneer, “but no, I’m not talking about anything so interesting. It’s simply one possible effect of being suddenly inundated with magical knowledge the way you were, and it explains your subsequent pattern of blundering and failing your way into ever-greater success better than…well, anything.”

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Mogul demanded.

Bradshaw turned back to him with a shrug. “It’s just a theory, Embras. Another possibility is that she hasn’t actually succeeded at anything and is being used by more powerful figures for their own ends. This Duchess business is definitely an example of that. And after all, it’s usually wise to look for mundane explanations before exotic ones. We don’t know, but…given her description of what the Dark Lady said, it’s at least a possibility.”

“If our fate is to be tied to hers anyway,” Hiroshi said softly, “perhaps it behooves us not to allow rival powers to manipulate her too badly.”

To judge by their displeased expressions, none of the other warlocks were enthusiastic about that idea. But no one offered a word of rebuttal; the fact was, he was right. The same held true from Natchua’s perspective. As little as she liked any of these…people, she had given her word, in public. As long as they were willing to toe the line, they now had the right to demand her protection.

She and Embras studied each other in mutual reluctance. Despite the animosity here, this was the situation they were in. They could either struggle further, or try to make the best of it.

“Okay,” Natchua said grudgingly, “I see what you mean. She is a manipulative one, huh. Why are you so eager to be jerked around like this?”

“You’ve never devoted yourself to a cause greater than your own life, have you,” he replied, and it wasn’t really a question. “I could explain, but the result would only be another argument with no winner. You’ll come to understand in time, or you won’t.”

“That’s super fucking helpful, thank you.”

Mogul grinned unrepentantly. “Well, then… What now?”

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16 – 45

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“Miss Juniper! A moment, if you would?”

Juniper sighed and came to a stop. She’d barely made it into the alley. Ahead of her, the three Purists stopped also, clustering together like frightened sheep, a habit which in her opinion revealed a lot about their character when they didn’t have swords and a lot of backup; in any case, Sniff immediately circled around in front of them to bar their escape while the dryad turned to deal with whatever this fresh nuisance was.

She recognized the woman who approached from the broken gates, wearing a kind smile and a clearly expensive fur-trimmed winter gown. Also, she recognized the four younger people who had taken up a formation around their leader and were all staring at Juniper with much more visible unease. Or at least, one of them.

“Rasha,” she said, pointing at the young woman in question. “Which would make you… Glory, right? And Trissiny’s other friends.”

“Yep, that’s us,” said the only male in the group. “Trissiny’s other friends, that’s our identity.” The two other girls aside from Rasha both smacked him in the chest.

Juniper ignored that byplay, focusing on Glory, who had one of the most interesting scents she’d encountered on a human. Her sexuality was something avid, even fierce, and remarkably unconstrained; she didn’t seem to have an orientation so much as a hunger for new experiences. And yet, it was a controlled ferocity, smoothly integrated into the rest of her personality and harmonious in expression. It was strange. Most humans who smelled of that kind of sexual fervor were deviants of some sort, but this woman had firm self-control and a seemingly perfect serenity in her carnality. Actually, she smelled rather like an Izarite, except more… For once, Juniper found herself at a loss to define the extra element she was sensing. It was rather inspiring, really; she had long been of the opinion that humans in general needed to be more in touch with their sexual natures and less hung up about it.

The dryad couldn’t help feeling a bit sad at the awareness that what she was sensing meant this woman was probably more intellectually dangerous than any human she’d ever met. It was disappointing that the world had to be that way. People deserved better.

As always, she perceived these details without betraying any awareness, out of respect for everyone’s privacy. There wasn’t much of interest about the other four, anyway, save that Rasha smelled of fairly recent self-acceptance and the younger girl was going to be firmly bisexual when she finished grappling with a hangup about her attraction to women, something Juniper had noticed wasn’t uncommon in Tiraan teenagers. Glory replied before she had the opportunity to consider any of it in more detail.

“I am Glory, yes. Thank you for interceding in that…mess. Surprisingly, I think you created the least disastrous possible outcome.”

“Right, well…you’re welcome. Now, I gotta deliver three idiots to the Temple of Avei, so if you’ll ‘scuze me…”

Glory stepped forward, her four apprentices surging less smoothly to keep up their protective ring around her. “Wait, please. Before you go, there is some outstanding business regarding those three we need to settle.”

“I’m gonna give you the credit of assuming you know you’re not about to finish what your Boss tried to start,” Juniper warned. Rasha narrowed her eyes, but it was a pensive expression rather than a hostile one, as if Juniper were a puzzle she was trying to solve. The other three looked various degrees of nervous and angry at the implied threat, however.

“Please.” Glory shook her head. “Your action was the right one. To say nothing of the catastrophe that could have unfolded from those baggages being harmed by the Guild, Eserites of all people respect a show of force toward a noble cause. When we are the abusive parties forced to back down, we more than anyone should accept it as earned. No, I’m fully behind Trissiny on this matter—and thus, I infer, behind you. My intent is to help address the political situation here, not make it worse.”

Juniper glanced behind her at the open gateway. Somewhat to her surprise, no other thieves were emerging to involve themselves, though she’d be amazed if several weren’t lurking just on the other side of the wall to listen. Well, Glory was undoubtedly savvy enough to expect that, too, which meant she didn’t intend this to be a completely private conversation.

“What’s on your mind, then?”

Glory shifted her own eyes to the prisoners. “Just a simple question. How did you three get from the custody of the Church-aligned Huntsmen to that of the Church-opposed Thieves’ Guild in the space of one night?”

“W-we don’t answer to you,” the Purist with the most remaining spine (for whatever that was worth) stammered, trying to lift her chin. “We’re going back to the Sisterhood to be judged by our own—”

All Juniper had to do to silence her was turn and meet her eyes. She added some verbal encouragement anyway.

“Do you really think you’re in a position to get shirty, here? Give me any more backtalk and either Sniff’s gonna bite you, or I am.” Sniff obligingly hissed, spreading his wings and flattening down his head crest in a universal avian warning; two of the Purists squeaked in a manner any Avenist would have found shameful. “Answer the woman.”

After three seconds she began to be concerned she would have to back up that threat as the three just clustered together again; really, they were like traumatized pigeons. What had the thieves done to these women?

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as one of them burst out in a rush as if she needed to answer just to vent the building pressure.

“They just handed us over! We were separated from our sisters and, and herded here like sheep, we didn’t even know where we were going until—” She broke off and made a gulping noise.

“The Huntsmen did this?” Glory asked quietly. One of them, not the one who’d spoken, nodded jerkily. Juniper pondered whether she should find out their names. On reflection, she didn’t really want to; these women had been bullying assholes when they had power and were sniveling cowards now that they didn’t, and she preferred the comfortable distance of not thinking of them as individuals.

“Just Huntsmen?” the older girl who wasn’t Rasha piped up. “Not Church priests?” Juniper wondered whether the apprentice was speaking out of turn, but Glory just shifted to give her a nod of clear approval.

“The—yes,” the previous speaker said, nodding. “Huntsmen. We didn’t—we never actually saw any parsons. They never took us to the Cathedral.”

“Sisters,” Rasha murmured. “That’s right, Glory, there were more of them than this.”

“I see,” Glory said almost as softly, then raised her voice, turning back to Juniper. “Well! Thank you, that was what I needed to know. Now then, Juniper, please don’t take this amiss, but before you try to carry them off to the Temple of Avei I must critique your strategy.”

“Oh?” the dryad replied irritably.

Glory inclined her head with an apologetic smile that actually did ease the sting of criticism; Juniper had met grove Elders who didn’t have that degree of facial control. Yeah, this woman was not to be underestimated. “Do forgive the presumption, but this is, after all, an acknowledged area of Eserite expertise. You are planning to chivy three reluctant prisoners across a crowded city, using only your own two hands and an exotic animal helper, and relying on the power of fear to keep them under control. That, I’m afraid, simply will not work. Trust me, we employ fear as a matter of course, and are required to know both its uses and limitations. Fear makes people stupid, jumpy, and impulsive. At the first opportunity they will bolt in three directions and get lost in the crowds; in the best case scenario you will be able to secure two. That’s if the sight of you trying to bodily restrain a priestess of Avei doesn’t set the military police on your own head. I trust I needn’t explain the can of worms that would open?”

“You have a point,” Juniper said grudgingly, turning a sour stare on the quailing Avenists. “Well, that’s a big old nuisance.”

“We won’t be any trouble,” one said tremulously, “we only want—”

“Oh, shut up,” the dryad interrupted in disgust. “Do you really think anybody’s going to listen to you? I assume,” she added to Glory, “that you’re about to offer your own help in handling this.”

“But of course,” the Eserite replied with a warm smile. “Perhaps not in the way you’re thinking; more force isn’t the best solution here. Rasha! Would you be so good as to do the honors?”

“Gladly,” the younger woman replied, stepping forward with a grim stare fixed on the prisoners. “All right, you three, I am going to recite several obvious facts. If this seems at all belittling, you’ll just have to forgive me on the grounds that you have not presented yourselves as intellectually noteworthy thus far. Right now, nearly everyone wants you dead. To the Huntsmen and the Church, you are inconvenient witnesses who need to be silenced. Most of the Thieves’ Guild wants your asses in retaliation both for what you tried to do to me, and the humiliation they just suffered. No, that second part wasn’t your fault, but do you really think that’s going to matter?” She actually paused, planting her hands on her hips to give them a long, skeptical stare. “Most of those people back there have a very similar approach to life as yourselves. Do you imagine they’re going to try to start shit with a dryad when they could just take it out on you? You wouldn’t.”

All three of her fellow apprentices grinned, the older girl braying a derisive laugh.

“Furthermore,” Rasha continued her lecture, “no one else into whose hands you’re likely to fall will be able or willing to protect you. The Church and the Guild can both get at you in Imperial custody, one way or another. None of the other cults are going to want anything to do with you; they’ll likely send you right back to the Church, where you will be silenced as the inconvenient political leftovers that, to Justinian, you are. You could try to flee the city, I suppose, but do you really think you can escape either of those networks of influence? To say nothing of the Huntsmen, who—well, it’s right there in their name. No, ladies, the Sisterhood of Avei is your only hope. After the way you’ve been behaving, High Commander Rouvad is not going to be gentle with you, let’s not pretend otherwise. But she will be fair, and she will not under any circumstances hand you over to any rival power.

“So!” Rasha folded her arms and lifted her chin superciliously, managing to look down her nose at the three cowed priestesses despite being a head shorter than any of them. “You will go with Juniper to the Temple. Not because she is scary and powerful enough to tear you limb from limb if you don’t cooperate. No, you will go with her because she is scary and powerful enough to protect you from anybody who might try to snatch you off the street, as you just saw. She is your best chance of still being alive in an hour, and you should thank Avei at the earliest opportunity that she happened along. I have to say, I didn’t see that coming, either,” she added, giving Juniper a speculative look.

“Wow,” the dryad said, looking back with much the same expression. “Triss was not kidding, you’re one to watch.”

Rasha’s face broke into a pleased smile. It made her latent attractiveness, which seemed to be at least half cosmetics, suddenly blossom into real beauty. Juniper might have been sexually interested, not having had the opportunity to have sex with a trans person yet, but the girl smelled of burgeoning infatuation with someone not present and she didn’t want to risk damaging that. Just because she wasn’t inclined toward long-term romantic attachments herself didn’t mean she valued them less in those who cherished such bonds. Love was too important to treat lightly.

“Our sisters,” one of the three said in a very small voice. “The…others. They’re still…”

Glory’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh, and her expression, for a wonder, was sympathetic. “The prospects are not good. Right now, you need to accept the reality that there’s nothing you can do for them from your position. Your paladin, as well as the other two, are working as we speak to break through the Archpope’s corruption. It may already be too late to help your comrades, but if you want to have any hope of helping General Avelea penetrate the Church’s secrecy, go to Rouvad and tell her everything you know.”

She stared intently at them until all three had nodded in acknowledgment. One began to silently weep again, scrubbing tears from her eyes before they could freeze.

“And Juniper.” Glory stepped forward, looking up at the dryad, who found herself surprised to notice up close that she was notably taller. The woman had a presence that made her seem bigger, somehow. “This is not a criticism of your own abilities, but I’d like to send two of my apprentices with you.”

“To do what, exactly?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not fight off attackers,” the Eserite replied with a grin. “In fact, if it comes to that, I must respectfully ask that you try not to involve my students. No, the Avenists, to their credit, are very particular about the procedures of justice. Rasha is a firsthand witness to the crimes of these three, and her testimony will be immediately useful to the High Commander.”

“They already have Zafi,” Rasha pointed out. “She was there, too.”

“But you were the intended victim,” Glory replied. “And the more witness corroboration, the better.”

“Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not dying to go see Zafi anyway,” the young man added, grinning broadly.

“And Darius,” Glory said, shooting him a look, “please accompany them. I would ordinarily come myself, for something as important as this,” she added to Juniper, “but politics are my area of expertise, and on that field there is a large battle about to unfold which demands all the attention it can be spared. I’m sure you will have your own business to return to afterward, and I’ll feel better if Rasha has someone to walk her home, given how frequently she has been the target of various ne’er-do-wells recently.”

“I am an excellent meatshield,” Dariues vowed, placing one hand over his heart and holding up the other. “Top marks in my class.”

“All the pastry he eats certainly helps,” his little sister added primly, poking him in the side.

“Sure,” Juniper said, a little bemused. “That all makes sense, and I guess some company I don’t automatically hate would be welcome.”

“Juniper…thank you.” Glory’s expression was solemn, almost grave. “For this, your intervention, the way you are supporting Trissiny. All of it. We owe you a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “But nah, I don’t consider myself owed for anything. A person has to do what’s right. Don’t you think?”

“I very much do,” the older woman agreed with a pleased little smile. “It pains me more than you know that we must meet under such…annoying circumstances. You have my standing invitation to visit me at my home, at any time of your convenience. I would dearly love to show you proper hospitality. Not as thanks, if you’d rather not think of it that way! Simply because I want to. Entertaining guests is my great joy in life.”

She gazed up at Juniper, proud and serene, smiling warmly. The dryad tilted her head, studying Glory’s expression, taking in her scent, considering implications. Then, after several long seconds, she nodded and smiled in return.

“I don’t know when that will be convenient, but… Yeah, I’ll take you up on it. That’s very kind of you.”

They both nodded in unison, eyes fixed on one another, and Juniper was quite struck by the experience of being so in sync with someone she knew so little. The two women had just mutually decided and communicated, without any outward sign that any of the onlookers could have called flirtatious, that they would be making love at the earliest opportunity, and that both, despite being each more experienced than the average person, expected it to be a very memorable occasion indeed. Juniper found herself looking forward to that meeting almost as much to satisfy her curiosity as anything else. It was so strange to find such an instinctive harmony with a non-fae, non-Izarite, non-witch human, of all people. Glory didn’t seem one whit less dangerous to her, but… Trissiny trusted her. And respected her. That counted for a great deal. Plus, she was so intriguing.

“Until then,” Glory said, stepping back. “Tallie, Layla, I will need you back at the house; come, let’s not waste any more time. Rasha, don’t pout. I know you don’t need a minder, but with all that’s happening this is no time to take risks. You are a lightning rod for exactly the trouble that’s wracking this city. All of you, please be safe.”

“Don’t you worry, boss lady,” Darius promised. “I plan to live forever or die trying.”

Rasha rolled her eyes and started moving up the alley, which proved to be the impetus for both groups to separate. Glory retreated back into the Casino grounds with her two remaining apprentices, and the others herded their prisoners off toward the opening onto the street in the near distance ahead. The three Avenists were still subdued, but they seemed less panicky than previously, which Juniper had to think would help make this trip easier.

“So! I’m Darius, as you heard,” he said, falling into step alongside Juniper with an easy grin. “Lemme just apologize in advance for anything stupid I say; you’re my first dryad. Actually, I heard you were at Puna Dara that one time, but I didn’t see you. Pretty sure I’d have remembered that.”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, “I had…a lot on my mind that day. It wasn’t a good day.”

“Really wasn’t, was it,” he agreed, his own voice dropping. “That was… Well, it wasn’t boring, was it?”

She turned her head to study him thoughtfully as they walked. The young man put on a very convincing nonchalant expression and idly ambling gait, but she could tell from his scent alone that it was entirely an act. A really good act, something the Guild probably trained its apprentices to do. Outward attitude notwithstanding, he was terrified of her. And, of course, he desired her. Badly. The inner conflict was probably confusing enough that he preferred to bury himself in the pretense of feeling nothing. It was a complex tangle of scents and might have been tricky to puzzle out, but Juniper had encountered this exact reaction from numerous humans since coming to Last Rock. Fortunately, she knew a reliable way to put them at ease.

“Okay, then,” she decided with a smile, shifting closer to bump him very gently with her shoulder. “You, too, I guess. When the opportunity permits.”

“Uh…” Darius shot her a sidelong look, fear spiking in his scent. “Me, too…what, exactly?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you when we get there.”

Rasha snorted.

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16 – 44

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“Why, hello, Juniper,” the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild said pleasantly, wariness in every line of his stance. “Are you lost?”

“Nope, I don’t think so!” she said with as much good cheer as she could muster. Juniper had developed a habit of quiet and calm, helped along both by elven and Omnist meditative practices and a series of traumatic epiphanies that had overshadowed her sunny disposition, but at the same time, she had not failed to notice the difference in how she was often treated these days, as opposed to her first year among mortal society. It was easy enough to put on a smile and a chipper tone of voice; it helped to put people at ease, right up until the moment when it started to make everything worse. For some reason it really unsettled people when she did something scary with a smile. “These are Avenists, right? Those Purist jerks who’ve been causing trouble?”

Tricks glanced fleetingly behind her at the priestesses, two of whom were trying to revive their collapsed comrade. “All due respect, little lady, but this is a private function. Tell you what, how ‘bout we offer you something to eat and a discreet ride out of the city?”

“Oh, thanks, but I’m not really hungry.” There were several audible sighs of relief from around the courtyard, which she ignored. “So I see you’ve got your own thing going on here, looks like pretty important religious business, right? I wouldn’t wanna intrude or anything. I’m just gonna take these three back to the Temple of Avei, then. Don’t mind me.”

“The fuck you say,” Style snarled, stomping forward as Juniper started to turn toward the Purists. “Bitch, I do not care who or what you are, this is the fucking Thieves’ Guild. You do not walk in here and give us orders.”

“Style,” Sweet warned.

“I’m afraid we do have a religious imperative not to be pushed around, Juniper,” Tricks added in a more careful tone. “That, in fact, is the very reason those three are here to begin with. It’s simply out of the question to allow—”

“Yeah, I don’t care about that,” Juniper said blithely. “My friends—you know, the paladins? All three of them?—have been working hard to straighten out the political situation with the Trinity cults and restrain the Church, and what you’re doing here would throw a big wrench in that. So, you’re not gonna, that’s all.”

“That a fact,” Tricks said quietly.

“This reminds me of a funny joke I heard!” Juniper kept her sunny smile in place and undiminished. “Where does a dryad sleep?”

That brought her a few moments’ pause, in which the three Guild officers in front of her visibly reconsidered their position; Glory was gently but firmly shepherding Rasha back toward the other apprentices and out of Juniper’s easy reach. A steady breeze of whispering and muttering passed over her from the thieves on all sides, in contrast the silence in the center. Juniper almost never heightened her senses to anything near an elf’s while in a city, as the noise made it impossible for her to think, but she did customarily keep her hearing more acute than the human norm, and picked up a lot of distinct commentary.

“Don’t even think about it, they’re a threat level eight. Even the Army doesn’t dare…”

“…the fuck does she think she is, comin’ in here…”

“One of ‘em ate my grandpa!”

“Why is it in the city!?”

“By Izara’s bloomers, would you look at the rack on her.”

“Put that away, she’s actually Naiya’s child! You wanna cause a fucking earthquake?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind that being the last thing I ever saw, know what I mean?”

“Fuck that, anything bleeds if you…”

“Screw this, I’m out.”

“Why do the pretty ones gotta be so scary?”

She kept her eyes on Tricks, still smiling, and pretended she didn’t hear any of it. Somehow, even the (technically) complimentary remarks weren’t exactly flattering, but Juniper couldn’t begrudge the humans their fear. Especially since she was about to specifically lean on it.

Apparently Antonio, even if he couldn’t hear as clearly as she, knew people enough to see where this was going and stepped in.

“In case there was some ambiguity,” he said in a carrying voice, “Juniper is a dryad. If you don’t know what that means, the short version is dryads are the demigod offspring of Naiya, impervious to most harm and strong enough to slap you into a spray of giblets. The only thing worse than getting attacked by a dryad is attacking one; if you succeed in hurting a dryad, you’ve just pissed off mother nature herself. Anyone who survives that gets to explain to the government what happened that caused half the city to be smashed.”

That only intensified the muttering, unsurprisingly, but at least the angrier voices abruptly went silent. Which wasn’t to say that the anger itself was gone, especially right in front of her. Tricks was now studying her through narrowed eyes, the very picture of a man rapidly putting together a plan, but Style took one long stride forward, close enough to lean in and plant one thick finger against the medallion Juniper wore on a braided cord.

“I’m gonna assume you’ve got some idea how faith works if you’re walkin’ around wearing the symbol of one, nature girl,” the chief enforcer grated. “Whatever else we are, we are a faith. Our central tenet is not getting pushed around by people with power. So unless you wanna kick off that local apocalypse Sweet’s talkin’ about, you’d better back the fuck off.”

She got quite a few mutters and several shouts of approval. Juniper just tilted her head, studying the taller woman with her eyes kept deliberately wide in an expression she’d been told made her look childlike and innocent, an idea she found bizarre in the extreme. Here and now, there was an obvious rebuttal to be made to Style’s statement, to the effect that pushing people around was the entire rest of Eserite faith, but getting into an argument here would defeat the purpose.

“It’s Style, right?” she said pleasantly. “You beat up Trissiny one time, didn’t you? Pretty impressive! That’s not gonna happen today.”

She planted her palm against Style’s sternum, and immediately the enforcer shifted the hand prodding at Juniper’s medallion to grab her wrist and attempt some manner of skillful arm twist, which was exactly as efficacious as trying to put a tree in a headlock. In the next second her grip was ripped free of Juniper’s arm along with the rest of her as the dryad stepped forward, straightened her arm, and pushed Style fifteen feet through the air. The chief enforcer crashed into the front rank of thieves, bowling the lot of them over and causing a general outcry around the courtyard.

With Juniper’s strength being a magical effect causing her movements to have the full weight of a tree behind them when she so chose, stepping forward into a movement didn’t add force as it did for most martial artists. On the contrary, Professor Ezzaniel had worked with her extensively to control her strength, mostly by controlling speed, on the principle that force was a product of mass and acceleration. If Juniper hit someone, she could reduce them to pulp. Learning to fight mortals non-lethally had been much harder, and the method they’d developed hinged upon smoothly accelerating from a dead stop after she had already made bodily contact. The timing was tricky, but Ezzaniel had drilled her without mercy until she could launch a watermelon across the quad from a standstill without bruising it through a combination of tightly controlled speed and smoothly increasing her own force mid-motion. Not that it was a perfect art; Style was going to have a badly bruised sternum, and possibly cracked ribs—not to mention whatever happened when she landed on a pile of people—but hopefully it would be nothing a good healer couldn’t fix in moments. And at least she still had ribs.

Obviously, the onlooking thieves didn’t like that one bit. There was a great deal of shouting; weapons were brandished and more than a few people actually stepped toward her, forestalled only by Tricks himself taking a step closer to the dryad, raising both his arms with palms out toward the crowd in a clear order for calm. He kept his eyes on Juniper’s as he approached, and after a couple of seconds, the spectators quieted enough that a mob was less immediately likely. The smell of fear predominated over anger, but Juniper knew that was no guarantee against violence. People in a panic were often more dangerous than people in a rage.

“All right, you’ve made your point, Juniper,” Tricks said once the noise had quieted enough that he could be heard throughout the courtyard without raising his voice. “You okay, Style?”

“Fucking,” Style wheezed, struggling upright and roughly shrugging off the hands that tried to help her. “…gonna…” Sweet had already disengaged from the confrontation, striding over to her and lighting up with a soft glow of divine light. He wasn’t so easy to dissuade, and based on what Juniper had observed of him, was probably aiming to prevent her from retaliating as much as intending to offer healing.

“Style also has a point, of course,” Tricks continued, his gaze holding Juniper’s. “You may be invulnerable, but you’re not alone. Those three you’re so determined to protect from the consequences of their actions are made of soft, squishy humanity. Not to mention that you yourself came here with somebody who I bet is a lot easier to bruise.” He finally tore his eyes from her face to look down at Sniff with a significant lift of his eyebrows, before focusing back on her and indulging in a faint smirk. “Didn’t plan this all the way through before you stepped in, huh?”

Juniper immediately dropped her own smile, ignoring the several indrawn breaths that resulted from her suddenly blank expression. “I guess not,” she answered. “You’re not wrong. And if you hurt my pet, I will tear off your right arm and eat it in front of you.”

The dead silence which resulted was broken only by soft weeping from behind her; the three Purists were not handling this drama very well, despite no longer being the focus of it. Everyone else was just staring at Juniper, with no sign that they didn’t believe her.

Teal liked to say that a threat was, in and of itself, an act of violence. It was Trissiny who’d told her the most effective way to leverage them, which ironically was with the least violence possible. People expected threats to be delivered with passion, and were far more unsettled to hear an offer of terrible harm spoken with calm detachment. Juniper didn’t really understand why, expect that humans inherently didn’t like unexpected juxtapositions. At any rate, the Eserite technique Trissiny had taught her was to make statements, not threats.

And, most importantly, to mean them with absolute sincerity. Which she did. To judge by the chilled silence now surrounding her, it worked.

Tricks, after a moment, dropped his gaze to her chest, and for a change he wasn’t looking at her cleavage, but the golden sunburst medallion resting on it.

“That’s not very Omnist of you, young lady,” he said softly.

Juniper shrugged. “Omnu doesn’t expect perfection. Everyone fails; you just can’t let a sin become a habit. You’ll only be the second guy I’ve devoured alive while he screamed and begged me to stop, and it’s been a few years. I don’t think that counts as a pattern.”

Now people were shuffling backward, pressing each other toward the walls to gain precious inches of space from her. Not Tricks, though; he just held her gaze, and she made herself stare back despite the surge of self-loathing she was now riding out.

Teal, Trissiny and Gabe all had various methods they’d been taught for controlling their emotions and putting on a performance; even Shaeine had described the method of Narisian public face, though that seemed proprietary to the drow and she’d never offered to teach anyone. None of that had made a lot of sense to Juniper. Instead, it was just her own faith by which she kept her own expression even, despite the feelings raging in her. Omnism was big on meditative disciplines, which Toby had patiently walked her through, and practiced with her. What she was doing here flew against everything she had so laboriously tried to change about herself, invoking her own savage propensity to violence as a means of coercing someone; remorse, shame, and grief clawed at her from the inside.

But she acknowledged them, and let them go. Feelings were just that; they did not require a response, didn’t even have to stick hard enough to change one’s expression. Juniper wrapped that hard-learned stillness around herself like a warm coat, allowing her emotions to pass over her unimpeded, including the pride she felt at being able to do this. Just a few short months ago, the practice had been frustratingly difficult.

At any rate, it worked. She could see in the minute shifting of Tricks’s expression that he took her calm promise at face value.

But, as the seconds ticked past and his eyes bored into hers, he still failed to back down. In his squint she interpreted rapid thought as he tried to reason a way out of this. Why was he being so stubborn? All around them, the other watchers had clearly decided she was not a fight they wanted; no one else continued to offer her any resistance.

Juniper finally tore her own gaze off the Boss’s to study one side of the courtyard and the thieves clustered there, and in noticing that they were all watching her and Tricks, she finally realized her mistake.

This was not, as she had first assessed them, a single pack, bound together by emotional closeness and common cause. Of course not, the Thieves’ Guild was too big an institution to be so united. It was more of a…watering hole, a meeting place of multiple packs and herds and lone wolves. She stood amid a meeting of different factions and isolated individuals, all with their own agendas. Personal devotion was the lesser share of what kept Tricks in power; he also could not be seen as weak, or they’d turn on him. She had inadvertently pushed him right into a corner from which he could not do anything except order violence that they all knew would be hopeless.

Well, shoot. The god had asked her to neutralize the brewing conflict, not ignite it twice as hard. Fortunately, her realization of what was actually happening immediately suggested a solution she could still enact.

“You Eserites.” Slowly, Juniper turned in a full circle, dragging her gaze around the room and studying the various thieves disdainfully in passing. “So scary. All the rich and powerful are just so intimidated by your… What? Clubs and brass knuckles? I guess it works for you. ‘Cause after all, you do work in your nice, safe, clean cities, where other people are the worst things you’re ever gonna see.” She completed her revolution, coming back to face Tricks, but let her eyes slide over him, turning again to regard the assembled thieves. “None of you have ever actually come face to face with a real monster, huh?”

She turned further, tossing her hair and staring around at them, this time in an obvious challenge.

From behind her came a muffled curse, and then scuffing footsteps. Unhurriedly, Juniper turned around to regard one of the thieves approaching her with a deep scowl, fitting a set of spiked iron knuckles onto his right hand. Just the sight of him told his story: he was taller than she and far wider, thickly muscled, with a twice-broken nose, cauliflower ear and a scar over one eyebrow.

She turned to face him fully and just stared as he came. In seconds, his expression faltered, and then his steps did.

Juniper made herself see, not a man, but prey. Taking in his size and build, the distribution of fat and muscle, she knew what the meat would taste like, how tough it would be to chew. How much energy it would give her, and how long it’d be before she felt like eating again. She knew the temperature of fresh blood, the smell of it. Where and how to exert pressure to deliver a quick death—or not to, simply incapacitate the prey so the heart kept pumping and the meat stayed fresher and more tender while she began eating.

She was not good at putting on false faces, but Juniper had a real one that could be a thing of horror. A street soldier like this man possessed an animal cunning of his own, instincts that enabled him to sum up people at a glance; they were enough to warn him, when she held those thoughts in the forefront of her mind, that he was not looking at a person. Meeting her utterly dispassionate gaze as it weighed him, he found himself staring into the eyes of an apex predator, and by pure instinct, stopped approaching.

“Uh, Rowdy?” said another voice from across the courtyard, “I really wouldn’t. This may be a good time to mention that dryad was at Ninkabi. Hey, it’s me, Thumper!” he added irritably in response to a round of scoffs from nearby. “You think I’m gonna forget a woman who looks like that? Seriously, I saw her kill a baerzurg demon by punching it. Y’know, one of those big armored ones that’re, uh…invincible?”

Slowly, the now-unnerved looking enforcer began to edge backward. Juniper turned to find that Tricks had also retreated to join Sweet and Style among the crowd. Because she’d accomplished her goal, buying him the opportunity to do so. He hadn’t backed down from her; the entire Guild had. Not one of them was in a position to call him out for it.

Movement caught her eye. Between two heads in the crowd was suddenly Eserion’s face; the god mouthed Thank you, then vanished in a shift of the throng.

Juniper heaved a sigh, shook her head, and turned to stare at the Purists. “Well, all right then, now for you.”

“Please don’t!” one shrieked, covering her face with her arms in a singularly counterproductive survival strategy, while one of her compatriots screamed wordlessly and the other just wept.

“Oh, shut up,” Juniper exclaimed, giving vent to her exasperation. After the last few minutes it felt good to just express what she was actually feeling. “I’m not gonna eat you! If I wanted you dead, why would I go to all this trouble? You three are going back to the Temple of Avei so Commander Rouvad can do some justice on you. After the crap you jackasses have been doing, that’s probably gonna be no fun at all, but it’ll be a lot better than what you were about to get here. Or what would happen if it was up to me. But it’s not, that’s the entire point. You get real justice, from somebody who’s authorized to actually hand it out, and you’re not gonna give me any sass about it. Right?”

All three of them quivered and stared at her mutely, and she sighed again.

“Okay, here’s how it is: dryads aren’t build for sprinting, see? So if you try to run away from me, I’ll have to have my friend here chase you down, and that’ll be a problem for you. Sniff, show ‘em your claw.”

Sniff paced forward, causing the trio to edge away from him, but they wisely stared at the proto-bird as he, fanning his short wings for balance, balanced on one leg and extended his other foot toward them. He had birdlike talons—mostly. One of his claws was considerably oversized in relation to the others, and murderously hooked, a natural weapon designed to rend flesh.

“Thank you, Sniff,” Juniper said primly. “His species evolved so that if they’re chasing something down, it’s to kill and eat it, see? He’s not good with catching things, exactly. So if you try to run, it’ll end with you lying in the street in a puddle of your own entrails. And if you make me have to explain that to the police, I’m gonna be really annoyed! We understand each other?”

“Thank you!” the least rattled of the priestesses blurted. “We won’t—you’ll have no—we’ll go— Uh…thank you.”

“Good.” Juniper nodded once and slipped her enchanted ring back on, changing her coloring to a Tiraan average. She wasn’t built like most Tiraan in the face or figure, but it seemed the majority of humans didn’t look beyond coloration when casually sizing each other up.

She strode past them to the big double doors that apparently opened onto the alley beyond, leaving Sniff to hover around the terrified Purists. Herding wasn’t something she’d trained him to do, exactly, but Sniff was extremely smart and their druidic bond enabled him to pick up on a lot more of her intentions than a normal animal; she trusted him to help chivvy their prisoners in the right direction as needed. For now, Juniper stopped in front of the gates. They were heavy, solid, and locked.

“Any of you wanna help me out here?” she asked, turning to look over her shoulder at the assembled thieves. The crowd was already smaller as some of them had started to sneak off back into the Casino. Those remaining just stared at her, offering no response. “Well, okay,” she said with a shrug. “It’s not my house.”

Juniper had to spread her arms fully to grasp one of the doors, sinking the fingers of one hand into the crack between the two and the other between it and the wall. But with that done, all it took was bracing her legs and pulling. The wood groaned in protest for a moment, and then with a terrible clatter the lock burst open. She’d pulled from both sides, though, and when one of the upper hinges was ripped out of the stonework, she decided to just run with that instead of trying to swing the damaged door normally. Another yank ripped it fully off, leaving the other now-unsecured door to swing a few feet open.

Juniper trotted over to the wall and leaned the towering wooden gate against it, then turned around, dusting off her hands.

“Well?” she said imperiously, staring at the cowed Purists, and pointed at the opening she’d just created. “Go on. Out.”

They hesitated, and then Sniff hissed loudly from his position at their backs. A moment later, their odd little group was leaving the silent Thieves’ Guild behind.

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16 – 43

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“So he’s at least making an effort to keep all this on the level,” Grip explained as they strode rapidly up the sidewalk toward the Imperial Casino looming ahead. “Not gonna commence any proper beatdowns until there’s public confirmation, and that buys us some time while they get Rasha down there to ID her attackers. Hopefully more than some, if Glory’s got the sense to stall this.”

“Glory’s got no shortage of sense,” Sweet agreed. “Rasha’s no fool, either, and they’re both aware of the broader stakes, here. I don’t think Glory will go so far as to try to stymie Tricks outright, though.”

“Yeah, me either, but she really doesn’t need to. Better for us all if Tricks is persuaded to ease up on this, rather than making it a power struggle between him and…hell, anyone. Glory won’t make it any easier for him even if she doesn’t put her foot down.”

Sweet nodded. “So, you’re in the loop on this, Grip. Who else?”

“Pretty much goddamn everyone,” she said grimly. “He’s doing this in public, Sweet. Making a big fucking spectacle. Anybody working at the Guild itself knows, and everybody not actually on shift at the Casino’s come to gawk. At least, the ones who haven’t run to spread the word, and bring more rubberneckers home to see.”

“Shit,” he said with feeling. Grip nodded mutely. Neither felt a need to voice the obvious: the more people were there to watch Tricks put on the show he was arranging, the more pressure he was under not to back down. With effectively the entire local Guild looking on, it might not be possible to talk him down without posing an outright challenge to his leadership.

And the day had started so well, he reflected in resignation. Unless Sweet or someone else managed to come up with something extremely clever on the fly—or, as a dim part of him still dared to hope, Tricks was employing one of his classic fakeout schemes and not doing the damn fool thing he appeared to be doing—this could very well result in him having to topple the Guild’s leadership before lunch.

He didn’t know if it was better or worse that he stood a good chance of pulling it off. Webs and his faction were explicitly behind him, and he was reasonably sure Glory would lend her own influence if it came to a confrontation. Sweet, Webs, and Glory were the biggest players in Tiraas who dealt in networking and influence specifically, so that was as good as cinched. Grip famously disdained politics but her first instinct had been to come get him, which boded will for his support among the rank and file. Even Style, loyal as she was to Tricks, was recently questioning the Boss’s actions, and she had no reason to be negatively disposed toward Sweet. Yeah, he could almost certainly win that contest.

Damn it, he didn’t want to be Boss again. Quite apart from being personally done with the job, he was right now urgently needed in his role as Bishop. Even as they were dealing with this, the paladins were moving into position to launch their political attack on Justinian and upset the entire order of the Universal Church.

Sweet almost missed a step. How had he failed to put that together before now? Could Justinian have arranged this? He didn’t see how, but clearly something was up with Tricks and possibly the Big Guy himself. It was too perfectly timed to be a pure coincidence at the best of times, and where Justinian was concerned, coincidences never seemed to be just that.

“And speaking of rubberneckers,” Grip added after a dour pause, “does she really need to come?”

Sweet glanced back at Juniper, who managed to give him a smile despite being visibly somewhat out of breath due to their rapid pace.

He knew little about dryads, but it stood to reason that a tree spirit wouldn’t fare well moving at speed over a prolonged period. Some kind of metaphysical effect like that was the most probable explanation for her discomfort, as he had spent much of the previous night discovering that Juniper did not lack stamina or the capacity for physical exertion. She certainly wasn’t doing their discretion any favors, as even the jaded urbanites of Tiraas all had to stop and stare at her passing. The dryad was wearing a disguise ring that changed her coloring to a human normal, otherwise they’d be in deep trouble already, but even so, she was walking through the icy midwinter air in a short, elven-style dress with no sign she felt the cold. Moreover, striding along at her side was a hound-sized bird with a tail half again his length, which drew even more stares than her odd attire. Sniff, blessedly, was a well-trained specimen of whatever he was, sticking silently at his mistress’s side and not spooking or lashing out at the startled cries they passed, or the occasional child who unwisely tried to pet him.

“Don’t feel the need to push yourself if you’re having trouble keeping up, June,” he suggested with a kind smile.

“Oh, don’t worry about me!” Her voice was a bit breathless, but she smiled cheerily back and didn’t falter. “This is nothing. I should tell you about racing across half the Golden Sea sometime. That was a trial.”

“Right. Well, we are going to a fairly sensitive Thieves’ Guild…function. Most of the people there aren’t going to be really comfortable involving outsiders.”

“That’s okay,” she said brightly. “I’m with you!”

Sweet turned his eyes back forward, mulling. He didn’t know Juniper well, except in the purely physical sense. Obviously she wasn’t stupid; whatever else it might be, ULR was academically competitive. On the other hand, it wasn’t known for producing politically cunning graduates. There were institutions of higher learning which had that reputation, but Last Rock alumni were more known for being idiosyncratic. He simply didn’t have enough context to guess whether she was just a blithe fairy unfamiliar with human social nuances and failing to pick up the subtext here, or deliberately pretending to be.

Grip, as usual, favored an approach which sidestepped such dilemmas entirely.

“He means this is Thieves’ Guild business, and none of yours,” the enforcer snapped. “You should go back to wherever you came from. It doesn’t concern you.”

“This is about Church politics, though,” the dryad puffed, not slowing. “This whole thing Trissiny and the guys have been trying to straighten out all week, right? I’d better come keep an eye on it.”

Grip’s face settled into a calculatedly mulish stare she used on fools who needed a relatively gentle push out of the way rather than those who posed a significant threat, which warned Sweet that she didn’t appreciate what she was dealing with here. “Listen, you—”

“Grip,” he interrupted, “there’s an old joke about situations just such as this. Where does a dryad sleep?”

The enforcer hesitated, then scowled furiously and turned her own attention forward again, mutely leaving Juniper to trot along behind them. That was another thing neither of them needed to answer aloud:

Anywhere she wants.

This couldn’t be the first time Grip had come up against someone she could neither coerce nor intimidate, but it surely wasn’t a common experience for her. Nonetheless, the situation remained what it was. Sweet himself could possibly (probably, he figured) persuade Juniper to butt out and go about her business, but they simply didn’t have time to deal with the distraction.

So the two thieves and the dryad rushed into the Guild and the very heart of this fresh disaster.


It wasn’t happening deep in the shadowy bowels of the Guild proper, which was both good and bad. Tricks had assembled the thieves and his prisoners in an enclosed courtyard behind the Casino, a space occasionally used for events such as this but more commonly dedicated to receiving cargo for the kitchens. Doors opened on two sides into warehouses and larders, and a huge, sturdy wooden gate on the exterior wall faced a broad alley behind, wide enough to admit trucks and only not a street in its own right because all the buildings lining it faced the other way, with only their own rear delivery portals opening onto it.

This was good because it was a quasi-public space, open to the air in the only part of the district likely to be trafficked by people the Eserites respected—servants and teamsters, not the fancy rich who entered the Casino’s front doors. That suggested Tricks wasn’t planning to do anything which would result in a lot of screaming. It was bad because Tricks’s actions were neither logical nor in keeping with his own customary patterns, and if he was about to make a truly ugly spectacle, the ramifications could hurt the Guild’s perception in more eyes than those of the Sisters of Avei.

Sweet arrived in the nick of time, striding out of the storeroom entrance to find the loading area thronged on all sides with thieves, surrounding the spectacle of their Boss as he stared down three miserable-looking women in the vestments of the disbanded Purist sect. Their swords had been confiscated, obviously, but they’d been allowed to keep their uniforms on, chain mail and all.

Without hesitating, he pushed right through the onlookers to the unfolding drama in the center, where Boss Tricks was already in the process of grilling Rasha.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the apprentice was saying, her eyes on the three Avenists, expression clearly unhappy. “But Boss, I don’t want—”

“Then that’s all we need from you, Rasha,” Tricks said, gently and briefly patting her on the shoulder. It was one of those little touches that reminded Sweet his longtime friend and ally was still the man he’d always known, skilled at offering a bit of comfort where it was called for but mindful of Rasha’s history and how women in her position were often leery of being touched by men. “I’m sorry to have dragged you out here and especially for making you relive that bullshit, but absolute certainty was necessary. You’re welcome to stay if you want the satisfaction, but don’t feel any need.”

“Boss,” Rasha said more forcefully, causing Tricks’s attention to snap back to her face. “Am I or am I not the aggrieved party, here?”

Tricks blinked once, raising his eyebrows. “Well, of course. I didn’t think that was in question.”

“In that case, I believe I’m owed a say in what happens to them?”

The three priestesses clustered closer together; Sweet didn’t know what kind of night they must have had, but he saw none of the backbone he was accustomed to in Avenists. They were hollow-eyed, bedraggled, and at least one had clearly been weeping recently. Gods above, how bad had Tricks made this already? Was it too late to prevent the situation from getting even worse?

A stir went through the crowd at Rasha’s words, Eserites shifting closer in malicious anticipation of watching vengeance unfold even as the prisoners pressed into each other. Sweet came to a stop within two yards of the Boss; Tricks acknowledged him with a glance before again focusing on Rasha, and Sweet took the opportunity to take a quick visual census. Style, of course, loomed behind the Boss with her arms folded, wearing a leather-and-fur ensemble that looked almost Shaathist and a thunderous scowl. Glory herself had actually stirred from her nest for this and also stood at hand, right alongside her apprentice in a clear show of support. He noted her other three apprentices hovering in a knot in the crowd, alongside Jenell, to whose side Grip had just silently returned. Juniper had, fortunately, stopped just inside the courtyard to watch, behind the back row of thieves. Good; Sweet wasn’t worried about her being recognized, but that bird-thing of hers was going to start drawing attention the second somebody noticed it.

Webs was not in evidence, of course, it being his habit to deal with people only from his own secure ground. Thumper and Gimmick, however, were both across the courtyard in the front ranks; both looked right at Sweet and nodded once with significant expressions. He did not nod back, for the same reason he didn’t let out a sigh of sheer annoyance. Honestly, he understood that those two were specialists and not in political maneuvering, but they’d both been on multiple infiltration missions. Had absolutely everybody forgotten the value of basic discretion today?

Tricks was regarding Rasha solemnly, his jaw working as he mulled an answer with care before finally speaking.

“You’re not wrong, Rasha. I will definitely hear you out, and you’ll be accommodated if possible. But this, I’m afraid, goes beyond just you and them. This is a matter for the Guild as a whole. The one thing for which we can absolutely not show the slightest tolerance is the deliberate and knowing assault of one of our apprentices. For this, we require blood.”

An ugly growl stirred through the crowd, accompanied by several louder jeers and catcalls.

“Is blood more important than justice?” Rasha asked, her quiet tone a deliberate counterpoint to the growing intensity of the onlookers. Sweet noted, with approval, Glory’s secondhand techniques at work.

“We don’t deal in justice,” Tricks said with a sardonic little smile. “That’s Avenist business. I know you’ve been taught our doctrines on retribution, Rasha. When dealing with beasts like these, we employ pain, and fear. That’s all they can understand.”

“Yeah, no argument there,” Rasha said, turning to dispassionately regard the three beleaguered Purists. “They look plenty scared already, to me.”

“Not enough,” Tricks stated, his voice cold. “What’s your request, Rasha?”

“Avenist business, like you said,” the apprentice replied. “I want this to be done with, Boss. Roughing these up is going to cause no end of trouble, and just…look at them. Look at these dregs.” she shot the priestesses another look, filled with pure contempt. “They’re not worth it. The Guild shouldn’t be so much as inconvenienced over the likes of them. Send them back to the Temple of Avei. Let these assholes be Rouvad’s problem.”

Glory, now, laid a hand on Rasha’s shoulder, her face lighting up with approval and pride. Sweet was equally impressed; he hadn’t followed Rasha’s progress closely, but Glory had clearly taught the girl how to work a room. In the space of a few sentences, much of the tension had leeched from the crowd, and now a number of the watching thieves were nodding in agreement.

Not the Boss, however.

“I see your point,” he said, already shaking his head, “but on this, we can’t bend. It is an inviolable rule. They went after a Thieves’ Guild apprentice. There has to be punishment. There has to be fear. That fear is the only reason any apprentice of the Guild is left in peace long enough to be fully trained. If the bastards aren’t afraid to come after you…you’ll be cut down before you have a chance to fight back.”

“I also know the Guild’s codes on retribution, Boss,” Glory said, her smooth voice projecting over the stir in the watching crowd. “We retaliate only when it both brings satisfaction and serves a purpose. What purpose does this serve?”

“Seriously?” Tricks replied, shooting her an annoyed look. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the thing I just explained.”

“Not really,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “How does beating up these spread fear? They are already terrified witless. The Purists are simple bullies; there’s nothing to them but inner weakness and a pitiful desire to project it onto others. The work here is done, Boss. Going further would be nothing but a provocation against the Sisterhood of Avei, at exactly a moment when we need their support.”

“Ah, yes,” Tricks said, his voice soft but carrying. “Politics. The old bugaboo we can never quite get away from. But there’s a line, Glory. A point comes where principle has to win out. As long as I’m Boss, I’ll decide where the line is drawn, and I draw it at assholes attacking our apprentices.”

The muttering swelled again, once more accompanied by a few shouts. Rasha kept admirable composure, but the wide-eyed look she gave Glory revealed her growing nerves. Glory herself drew breath to continue, but Sweet could already tell that was futile; clever as she was with her tongue, Tricks was equally so, and a contest of verbal acuity was pointless when only one contestant had the authority to order an end to it.

“Where’d you get them, Tricks?” he asked, lightly but loudly.

Everyone turned to look at him, the Boss himself with a faint lowering of his eyebrows. At any other time, Sweet would have assumed it was strictly performative; Tricks was too good to reveal what he was feeling. But then, he could usually tell when Tricks was playing a game, unless he snuck up on him in one of those disguises he loved so much. Now, he had the unsettling feeling his old friend was exactly as close to the frayed end of his rope as he seemed.

“That’s in the category of business you don’t need to worry about, Sweet,” the Boss said brusquely.

“Cos the way I heard it, these were last seen being hustled away by the Huntsmen of Shaath. Right?” Sweet turned to Rasha, who nodded emphatically. “Specifically, the Orthodox faction that’s loyal to the Archpope. The Archpope who we’re within a hair’s breadth of proving set up the Purists in the first place to fuck with the Avenists. The Avenists who got this trouble dumped on them specifically for sharing our position with regard to Justinian’s fucked up shenanigans in the Church.”

“Sweet,” Tricks warned.

“And now I gotta wonder,” he pressed on, “how the hell you got them from Shaathist custody to yours in the space of one night. Did you actually kidnap three hostages out of a lodge, or the Cathedral itself? Because that’d be a feat so incredible I’m pretty goddamn sure nobody in this Guild has the capacity to pull it off.”

Nods from around the courtyard. Eserites did not deal in kidnappings, for both doctrinal and pragmatic reasons. Professional ethics aside, it was messy to steal anything that could think and fight back.

“And the other option,” Sweet pressed on, staring at Tricks unblinkingly, “is that they were given to you. By Justinian’s Huntsmen.”

Silence. The crowd seemed to hold their breath.

“Hey, you’ve gotta protect your sources, I know how it works,” Sweet said with deceptive lightness when Tricks just glared at him. “No worries, I know who else I can ask. Hey ladies! A moment of your time?”

He had actually turned and taken a step toward the captive priestesses when the Boss answered in a much sharper tone.

“Do you wanna be Boss, Sweet?”

At that, he had to stop and turn back to him.

“I’m not challenging you—”

“That is not what I asked you,” Tricks snapped. “Do you want to be Boss again? Because quite frankly, Sweet, I’m pretty sure I enjoy sitting in the big boy chair even less than you did. If you want the job, you just say the word any damn time. We’ll go invoke the Big Guy’s presence and get it done, and that’s a promise. But until you say the word, I am still Boss. I’m the one who has to keep the big secrets and handle the ugly shit nobody else wants to do. As long as that’s the case, you can either fall in line, or shut your mouth. Those are the options, Sweet.”

“This doesn’t need to be a whole thing, Tricks,” Sweet said, facing him fully and not breaking eye contact. “I wouldn’t’ve backed you for Boss in the first place if you hadn’t more than earned my trust. All I’m asking is some reassurance. Tell me there’s more going on here than I know. Tell me you’re not swiping at obvious, low-hanging bait dangled by an enemy of the Guild. Because it looks like you’re letting yourself fall for a brazen con, and I know you’re way too smart for that. Just let me know what else is up, that you’re not about to undo every bit of my work for the last half a year and plunge the Guild into an unwinnable fight for fucking nothing. Come on, Tricks, that’s not much to ask. Is it?”

Tricks stared back at him.

The silence stretched out, until someone else pushed forward into the center.


“Whoof, what a mess.”

Juniper was watching Antonio push forward into the unfolding confrontation, where the Boss of the Guild was grilling Trissiny’s friend Rasha about three miserable-looking priestesses huddled together in the center of the courtyard. She could barely see between the heads of the crowd anyway, even though she was taller than most human women. It was no great loss to turn and regard the person who’d suddenly spoken immediately to her left, and then she had to stare.

He was a scruffy-looking Tiraan man of indeterminate age, wearing (oddly enough) a tuxedo with the neck open and untied cravat hanging down his chest. Sniff flattened his crest, staring up at the man in clear unease. Juniper, for her part, didn’t recognize him, but she could perceive at a glance what he was. Given his presence here of all places, that pretty much told her which one.

“But don’t worry,” Eserion continued in the same low tone, giving her a wink, “I have a plan. Now, thing is, it’s a pretty bad plan. Countless steps, lots of moving parts, no end of people to manage. A whole big thing, know what I mean?”

“Trissiny says the best plans are simple plans,” she replied carefully. “She said any plan with more than three steps is a daydream.”

They were speaking quietly, but not whispering, and yet none of the thieves immediately around seemed to be aware of them. It was odd that no one had reacted to Sniff yet. In the middle of the courtyard, the well-dressed woman with Rasha had just interjected, but her voice wasn’t so loud as to drown out their soft conversation in the back.

“Thorn’s a smart cookie,” the god agreed with a pleased grin. “Not one of our best people by far, at least not yet, but she learned from some of the best. Knows her theory. Yeah, this whole business has me really stretching my legs; gotta run around putting out fires, make a million little corrections when shit starts to go belly up. You see how it is. That, now, is another example.”

He nodded toward the drama unfolding up ahead, where Antonio had just interrupted the conversation. Juniper was only following with half an ear, but it didn’t even take that to see the quickly ratcheting tension between the Bishop and the Boss.

“Case in point,” Eserion said more quietly, his expression sobering as he watched the unfolding argument. “That’s a confrontation that needs to happen. But not now, not yet. It gets impossible to keep the timing straight, y’know? Right now, what I need is to put a complete halt to this whole affair, slap a hard wall between Tricks and Sweet and get those damn Purists out of here.”

He turned back to her with an amiable grin.

“So! Can I ask a favor, June, honey?”

“I’m…still very much learning how to use fae magic,” she said carefully. “I’m just a novice. Last night was the first time I felt spirits actually tell me I should do something, but they did, so I stuck with Antonio like they said. Did you have something to do with that?”

“It’s my policy not to mess with Naiya’s little helpers,” he said, winking again. “Honestly, I never really find a reason to, anyway. So long as I’m not up to any bullshit I shouldn’t be, it usually turns out their nudgings line up with mine. That being the case! If you’re willing to do me a solid, how about you go put a stop to all this?”

A chilly silence had fallen; she glanced aside to see Antonio and the Boss locking eyes. Juniper nodded once to Eserion, then turned and pushed her way none too gently through the crowd. So heavy was the atmosphere in the courtyard that few of the discommoded thieves even protested beyond irritated mutters, though a couple cursed as they caught sight of Sniff pacing alongside her.

She stepped out into the center, her sudden appearance causing everyone to turn their gaze on her, and took off her disguise ring.

That prompted a general outcry; enough people knew the basics about dryads to recognize when her green hair and golden skin meant. Juniper had found that even among humans not inclined to get it, her recent preference for elven attire often helped them connect the dots for some reason. Thieves pressed back away from her and Sniff, many cursing or shouting. She could smell shock and fear suddenly rising. And, oddly enough, more than a handful of cases of arousal, interlaced with nuances of scent that her sexual senses parsed as belonging to people particularly attracted to the monstrous and dangerous. Actually, there were a lot more of those scattered around than she’d have expected from a crowd of the general public this size.

Eserites. Who knew?

She strode forward to plant herself in the middle of the space, equidistant between the three prisoners and the knot of Guild leadership who were now staring at her in dismay, and put on her sunniest smile.

“Hi! I’m Juniper!”

One of the Purists fainted.

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16 – 42

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“All right, so. How did we mess that up?”

Breakfast in Madouri Manor was a somewhat subdued affair, due to the late hours everyone present had kept the night before. In fact it was a late hour now, closer to brunch than proper breakfast, but the Lady of the house had only just returned from her overnight stay in Veilgrad and many of her guests, for all that they were at least out of bed now, couldn’t be said to be fully awake. No one answered Gabriel’s question, at least not immediately; most of them just blinked blearily at him.

Yancey emerged from the servant’s entrance to the dining room in which they convened with his usual fortuitous timing, pushing a trolley laden with cups, saucers, and serving pots, one of which produced fragrant steam.

“Ah, splendid,” said Ravana, perking up visibly. “A spot of coffee is just the thing to begin a challenging day following another of the same.”

“Hard drugs for breakfast,” Raolo said with a raised eyebrow. “Damn, I should pal around with more nobles.”

Hard drugs,” Scorn chuckled. “You are a very cute elf, Raolo. I will have a cup, please, Yancey.”

“Right away, miss,” the Butler said with a deferential nod, already stirring sugar into the cup he had placed at Ravana’s hand.

“In point of fact,” said the Duchess primly, “coffee is explicitly not a drug within the Tiraan Empire, as of a Treasury ruling issued two months ago. On the grounds that its active ingredient is also present in tea and chocolate, and is no more addictive than alcohol and overall less deleterious to one’s health, coffee is classified as a foodstuff. Immediately following this ruling, I purchased one of the few domestic plantations in the Onkawa highlands. This is one of my own products, and quite splendid in quality if I do say so myself.”

“One of your products,” Toby drawled. “Somehow, I can’t picture you working on a plantation.”

“I can,” said Trissiny, “and I will call up the image whenever I need a laugh from now on. But seriously, Gabe asked an important question. How did we mess that up?”

“Well, it seems pretty clear that you underestimated the Archpope’s capabilities,” Fross chimed, swooping in a circle over Trissiny’s head. Despite not needing to eat, the pixie enjoyed socializing with friends and rarely missed a meal. “So I guess the pertinent question is whether you blundered or he’d hidden his powers well enough you really couldn’t have anticipated that.”

“In fairness,” said Toby, “we didn’t actually go in there planning to try to assassinate him. That just sort of…happened.”

“Three guesses which of you made that happen,” said Ruda, grinning and leaning over to prod Trissiny with her elbow.

“I saw the man turn off the entire Trinity like they were a fairy lamp,” Trissiny retorted, leaning away from her roommate. “I maintain it was a reasonable reaction.”

“I for one will not sleep well,” Szith murmured, “knowing that a man willing to flood entire cities with demons and undead has such power at his fingertips.”

A hush fell over the table, in which only the soft clink of porcelain was audible as Yancey distributed coffee to those who indicated they wanted it.

“Anyway, I’m not sure how we could have seen that coming,” Trissiny finally said, frowning at the center of the table. “That’s just not the kind of thing anyone should be able to do. That, and the power behind that divine shield he used…”

“I talked with Vestrel about that,” said Gabriel. “Apparently to resist the scythe like it did, it had to constantly rejuvenate itself. Which… I mean, if he’s drawing from the entire Pantheon, stands to reason, but the thing is that amount of power should theoretically be running through him, which should theoretically fry him like a fillet at a fraction of that intensity.”

“Those feats are a logical extension of what we know he can do,” said Fross, now drifting slowly in figure eights above the table. “He is the Archpope and thus a divine caster of significant strength, and you had firsthand knowledge that he’s been monkeying with the Elder God machinery that created the Pantheon in the first place…”

“I’ll tell you what you did wrong,” Ruda declared, resting an elbow on the table to point at him. She had declined coffee, tea, or anything else, having brought her own jug of local Last Rock moonshine to breakfast. “You shoulda gone in there and Ravana’d him right from the beginning.”

Ravana set down her coffee cup in its saucer with a soft but decisive clink. “I know that I will regret learning exactly what that means, and yet I must ask.”

“Oh, c’mon, it’s not like we blame you for all the evils of the world,” Ruda said, grinning at her. “It’s one specific and consistent thing. You dig up the most unconventional and horrifically overpowered insanity you can find and point it at the first person who pisses you off. That is the approach you guys should’ve taken with Justinian. The reason you didn’t know his physical capabilities is because he’s managed to never have to show them to anybody before; he’s that good a string-puller. You don’t try to get clever with a man like that, it’s just playing his game, on his terms. You drown him and everything in his vicinity with a tsunami of overkill.”

“Hey! You pronounced that correctly!” Fross chimed in excitement, swooping around Ruda’s head. “Most Tanglophones just substitute a silent t instead of properly articulating the tsu syllable! That’s actually a very ironic phenomenon, since ‘tsunami’ is Tanglish’s only loanword from Sifanese and contains one of the very few sounds that don’t—”

“Fross,” Teal interjected, gentle but firm.

The pixie immediately halted in midair, dimmed her glow and floated lower. “Aaaaand I’m being pedantic and de-Railing the conversation. Sorry, I was just happy. I like it when things are correct.”

“I’m not sure exactly what…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at Fross. “…tidal wave of overkill we could have leveled at him. I mean, that is more or less what we tried to do.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t Ravana him,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Ravana, care to explain the difference?”

“Your own capabilities are well established, frequently and in public,” Ravana explained, giving Ruda a somewhat dour look. “It sounds as if you attacked him with everything in your standard arsenal—all of which he would be aware of in advance and thus, being Justinian, prepared for. To destroy a target such as he, one must employ not only overwhelming firepower, but unconventional assets which he could not reasonably anticipate.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, again frowning at nothing.

“There was something I noticed,” Gabriel said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought. “Remember when he did all that with the Light to stop us beating on him? At the time I thought he just broke our concentration with sheer physical pushback, but looking back I noticed… Didn’t it seem like all our shields, Triss’s wings and Toby’s invocation shut down at precisely the same instant?”

“Well, it was an area of effect attack,” said Trissiny. “And it hit pretty hard. Naturally that would break our focus, and at the same time.”

“Not the same, though,” Gabriel said, shaking his head. “Toby was a couple yards further away. And look, if you’re hit with a big wall of energy and something you were trying to concentrate on goes belly up, you’d naturally assume that was why. It just seems really in character for that guy to do something sly under the cover of something overt, just to stop us from noticing. Divine magic is where most mental magic lies, right? Are there methods of disrupting enemy spellcasting?”

“There very much are,” Shaeine answered immediately. “Themynrite and Scyllithene clerics both employ them. That craft is exceedingly difficult to learn. Less difficult to ward against, but even that is not a skill one acquires in an afternoon.”

“That’s a really good observation, Gabe,” said Trissiny. “Something we need to be on guard for, next time. As for…unconventional overkill…” She leaned back in her chair, staring up at the chandelier. “I think I’ll pay another visit to the Conclave, as soon as I have the time. After our business in Tiraas today, maybe. Zanzayed seems to like having me around, but if I want to learn some divine craft, Ampophrenon is probably a better bet. I think I can get him to teach me. It’s hard to read a being like that, but he seemed to regard me positively.”

“Yeah, he mentioned you last night,” Teal agreed. “Quite favorably. Overall he comes across as surprisingly progressive for someone older than Tellwyrn.”

“I can begin coaching you in the basics of defense against a divine interrupt,” said Shaeine, “but yours is a good idea, Trissiny. As Ruda and Ravana point out, our enemy will be aware of what you can learn from me. The dragons are a likely source of magical skill he will not know.”

“Seems to me that learning divine skills is a good starting point,” said Gabriel, “but, and nobody hit me, it might be a good idea to pick up some specifically anti-divine techniques. At least, whatever we can safely use alongside our own magic.”

“I’m instinctively leery at the notion, but it seems strategically sound,” Toby murmured.

Gabriel nodded. “Yeah, if Trissiny’s got an in with the Conclave anyway, it might be worthwhile to ask… Oh, what’s the red guy’s name? Vaz something.”

“Razzavinax the Red,” Ravana corrected. “A capital idea, Gabriel. He is quite personable, and in fact an established teacher of magical technique to mortals. I doubt you wish to or even can study any infernomancy in detail, but he undoubtedly knows several basic tricks to use against divine casters.”

Everyone stared at her.

“I know,” Iris said, “I know I’m going to regret the answer, but… Why, Ravana, have you been hanging out with the red dragon?”

“Oh, I’ve not had the pleasure of Lord Razzavinax’s company myself,” Ravana said lightly. “I have struck up an amicable correspondence with his consort, Lady Maiyenn, after I sent her a baby gift.”

Everyone continued to stare at her.

“This is the bulk of what a lady in society does,” the Duchess explained, now with a sardonic undertone. “Form connections to be exploited at need. I am a very useful person to know, as is Maiyenn, and each of us recognized this trait in the other. Intelligent self-interest begets courtesy. You likely have sufficient contacts within the Conclave as it is, Trissiny, but should Lord Razzavinax prove resistant to aiding the Hand of Avei I would be pleased to arrange an introduction.”

“Thank you,” said Trissiny, a bit dryly. “So, the dragons are a good starting point for some extra tricks against Justinian. I also need to arrange another quick trip to the First Legion’s base.”

“Uh, hang on, there,” Ruda protested. “I know I told you to use overkill, Shiny Boots, but I dunno if bringing in more of your pet adventurers is exactly gonna help against the Archpope.”

“No, I tend to agree,” Trissiny said with a smile. “The team I brought to Tiraas has already performed beyond my expectations, but still, you’re right. Justinian isn’t the Battle of Ninkabi; in most situations, adventurers work better in small groups. It’s not about that. Talking of unconventional assets… I need to notify Billie Fallowstone that one of her pet projects has just become urgent. And, Captain Locke knows how to build divine disruptors.”

Another short silence fell, in which most of the junior class grimaced.

“Those things,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I never imagined a day would come when I’d want to have them around.”

“And yet, here we are,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “Good thought, Triss. If my scythe didn’t break his shield, I don’t expect any handheld weapon will, but even so. Most of his tricks are going to be divine in origin, or at least his minions’ will. Those damn things will come in very useful. That is, if Locke can produce some.”

“Um, if I recall correctly,” Fross interjected, “which, not to chime my own glockenspiel, I always do, those weapons are made largely from gold.”

“I didn’t say it would be convenient or budget-friendly, but this is urgent,” Trissiny replied, grimacing. “The Sisterhood can afford it. I may have to arrange some more resources for the First Legion, but it’s doable. Meanwhile, all of this is tomorrow’s battle. More immediately we’ve got our announcements with our respective cults, and that will begin putting major pressure on Justinian in the political and religious arena.”

“As such,” Ravana stated, “were I he, I would choose this moment while you are all thus engaged to launch a preemptive retaliation.”

“…fuck,” Gabe muttered.

“I think,” Iris suggested, “this would be an excellent day for all of us to have a little outing into Tiraas. We can do some sightseeing and shopping while the paladins do politics. And, you know…be around.”

“Some of us are…very unconventional assets,” Scorn agreed with a toothy grin.

“I am shamed to say this,” Szith replied softly, “but I cannot assist.”

“Right, Narisian politics,” Ruda said quickly. “Last thing we want is to land you in trouble with House An’sadarr, Szith, don’t worry about that. Teal, Shaeine, I assume the same goes?”

“On the contrary, we have more freedom to assert ourselves,” said Shaeine, taking her wife’s hand. “Both by virtue of our respective rank and position in our own societies, and our effective alignment as of Justinian’s recent attack on Falconer Industries and his general opposition to the Silver Throne, toward which the Confederacy desires a conciliatory stance. Szith risks censure by stepping into human politics, but I am positioned to do so with more impunity.”

“That raises a pertinent question,” said Ravana, adopting a sharp expression which was ominously familiar to most of them. “Have you, any of you, issued a formal and public accusation against Justinian regarding the various disasters we are relatively certain he has engineered during the last several years?”

“You know the problem with that,” Toby replied. “Just because we’re pretty sure it was him pulling the strings doesn’t mean we can prove it. And accusing someone that powerful of something we can’t compellingly back up…”

“Yes, I understand,” she said, nodding. “Very well, then. While you are launching your salvo on behalf of your cults, I shall make a formal announcement that yesterday’s altercation in Madouris was instigated by the Universal Church, and also accuse Justinian of arranging the disasters which befell Ninkabi, Veilgrad, and Puna Dara.”

“Whoah,” Gabriel protested. “Ravana, I know you’re already kind of neck deep in this, but that’ll make you a major target. And he’s covered his tracks too well—”

“So did my father,” she said coldly. “I was forced to lie to have him removed; that the lie in question happened to be the very truth he so skillfully concealed was beside the point. I realize you all enjoy making facetious remarks about my predilection for frontal attacks, but this, specifically, is the time for them. Justinian can attempt to discredit me, sue me for slander, and launch propaganda against me, but I am more than equipped to handle all of the above. With the three Trinity cults, the Eserites and half the Shaathists poised to turn on him, it is the optimal time to add House Madouri’s weight to the cause. The point is to put constant, widespread pressure on him from every side, more than he can wiggle out from under. Our enemy is a master manipulator who thrives when he can keep his foes dancing about; I submit that he has been indulged more than long enough. It is time, my friends, to declare war.”

This time the pause which fell was grim and intent. No one suggested disagreement, even by facial expression.

“Then I guess we better eat up good, and head to Tiraas for some ass-kicking right after breakfast,” Ruda said, grinning. “Uh, I guess that means we need to wake up our missing teammate first. Juniper was pretty tuckered out after getting home last night, huh?”

The usual number of seats at the breakfast table were filled, but that was because Raolo had joined them overnight. One familiar face was, indeed, absent.

“Oh, uh,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “Yeah, about that…”


“Thank you,” Juniper said, smiling up at Price as the Butler refilled her teacup. Price inclined her head graciously in acknowledgment as she retreated from the table.

“Don’t be shy, if you’re still hungry I’m glad to empty the larder,” Sweet assured her with a grin, lounging in his chair at the head of the table. He was attired in his Eserite style this morning, calculatedly shabby and wearing louder colors than befitted a Bishop of the Universal Church. In fact, he hadn’t had cause to put on the ecclesiastical persona of Bishop Darling for months, though ironically the pressure of the political situation behind it had been wearing on him. Today, he looked and felt more relaxed than he could remember being in ages. “I don’t often get to entertain guests; it’s a pleasure to roll out the red carpet!”

“Oh, this is already plenty generous,” Juniper assured him with a smile, forking up another bite of sausage. Behind her, Sniff chomped more of the same from a bowl set on the floor against the dining room wall. “You’re a good host, Antonio.”

“Oh, I just bet he was,” Flora said acidly.

“Not that we need to bet,” Fauna added, tapping the pointed tip of her ear. “That was quite a production last night, you two.”

“My apologies for the rest of the household,” Sweet said to Juniper. “I swear to you I have taught them manners, but they usually decide not to use ‘em. Elves are kinda like cats.”

“Well, sorry if not everybody at the table has as much reason to be as loose and relaxed as the pair of you,” Flora snorted.

“Yeah, some of us had to make due with not even sleeping properly in our cold, lonely beds thanks to the racket from yours!”

“Maybe we’d like to boink the dryad, did you ever think about that?”

“No! You only think about yourself!”

“Did I think about you two while cavorting after midnight with a bosomy bundle of carnal ingenuity?” Sweet mused, idly swirling his teacup. “No, I honestly did not. Not for a second. And it seems to me it’d be creepy as hell if I had any other answer to that question.”

Juniper finished swallowing her bite of sausage and smiled gently at them while scooping up a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Now, now, no need to be competitive. I’d be glad to make love to either of you. Or both, whatever you prefer.”

“Ugh.”

“Ew.”

The dryad paused with her fork halfway to her mouth, raising her eyebrows at their matching grimaces. “Well. That’s a reaction I don’t often get. It’s not great for my feelings, I have to say.”

“Oh, sorry, it’s not about you,” Flora hastened to assure her.

“Yeah, you’re a sweetheart and astoundingly gorgeous,” Fauna agreed.

“But he’s pretty much our dad.”

“Yeah, going after him would be…”

They both shuddered dramatically.

“Well, okay,” Juniper said with a shrug, tucking back into her meal. “I’m still a little bemused by the nuances of family relationships, so I’ll have to take your word on that. If you ever change your minds, I’m up for it.”

“And what an odd little family we are,” Sweet said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well, all joking aside, we should probably thank you,” Flora said with a grudging little smile.

“It seems like forever since we’ve seen him this relaxed,” Fauna agreed.

“I am pretty good at what I do,” Juniper replied pleasantly.

“Damn skippy you are,” Sweet said emphatically. “It makes me think the whole world could benefit from a night of the ol’ slurp and snuggle. Or at least, several people who specifically need to be unwound a little bit. Hm, I bet I could even find somebody to ever so tenderly extract the stick from up Thorn’s butt…”

“Hey.” Suddenly frowning, Juniper pointed her fork at him. “You leave Trissiny alone.”

“Whoah, whoah!” He raised both hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean me. I wouldn’t lay a hand on her, even if I thought she was interested. Maybe it’s arrogant of me but I think of myself as kind of a mentor to Thorn. That’s not something you exploit. Some things are sacred, y’know?”

“Yeah, Tellwyrn has a rule like that. And that’s not what I’m concerned about,” the dryad shook her head. “It’s… Okay, I can’t help sensing sexual details about people, and I make a point not to share anybody’s private business with anyone else…”

“Appreciated,” Sweet, Flora, and Fauna all chorused.

“But, this is relevant, so I expect you to keep it to yourselves. Trissiny has a very monogamous nature, okay? She’s not like you and me; we do just fine with various casual lovers, but not everyone does. And she does look up to you, Antonio, so if you told her to go out and get laid I think there’s a chance she might go and do it. But she’d feel really bad about herself afterwards, and then I would be mad at you!”

“Well, every step in that chain is more to be avoided than the last,” he said solemnly. “I’m glad you spelled it out, Juniper, thanks for that. I’d hate to accidentally cause more problems for somebody who doesn’t need any.”

She nodded primly and went back to her sausage.

A second later, Price turned her head toward the door, then suddenly strode out into the hall.

“Oh,” Juniper said softly, glancing guiltily after the Butler. “Did I go to far? Sorry, no matter how many times it happens I sometimes forget not everybody’s okay with frank discussions of sexuality…”

“Nah, it’s not you,” Flora assured her.

“She just heard somebody coming to the door.”

“We still haven’t figured out how Price always picks up on that before we do.”

“Yet! Give it time!”

On cue, the doorbell rang, as Sweet brandished his teacup at the two elves.

“If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times to leave Price alone. On the list of shit I don’t need, you two stirring up trouble with the Service Society occupies several slots!”

The sounds of a visitor being welcomed into the front hall grew steadily louder while he spoke, until after only a few seconds, Price returned, face impassive as always.

“Sir, you have an urgent visitor from the Guild.”

“There you are,” Grip stated, striding in past the Butler. “I was afraid you’d already be halfway across town at this hour of the—what the fuck is that?!”

She came to a stop, pointing incredulously at Sniff, who had just finished his sausage and now raised his head to peer back at her.

Juniper scooted her chair back from the table, bringing her more into Grip’s line of sight. “I’m a dryad. It’s nice to meet you, too.”

The enforcer stared at her, then at Sniff, blinking rapidly. “I—that—what’re—no, fuck it, I don’t have time for this. Sweet, you need to get your ass down to the Guild, pronto.”

He had already stood up, abandoning his half-eaten breakfast. “How bad is it?”

“Pretty goddamn bad, and the core of the problem is how little pull anybody but you and Style has with the Boss—and Style’s apparently isn’t enough, on her own. You heard about how those Purist rejects tried to corner Glory’s apprentice yesterday?”

“Ohh, I don’t like where this is going,” he muttered.

Grip nodded. “Yeah, somehow Tricks has got his hands on a few of them, and he’s about to send us to war with the Sisterhood of Avei.”

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