16 – 4

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“The one and only!” Rasha said with a broad smile. “Something I can help you ladies with? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

It was instinct, by that point: never let them see you’re afraid. Glory had not only schooled her apprentices in Eserite philosophy, but drilled them in roleplayed scenarios with herself and one another until she was satisfied that they would reflexively default to a Guild thief’s poise and confidence under any pressure. And so, in a situation wherein the old Rasha would have quailed and tried to run, or perhaps lashed out and suffered the consequences, she just smiled, giving them nothing.

Also, the well-practiced calm enabled her to keep in mind that she was a welcome guest in this temple and there were Silver Legionnaires within earshot. These three were working to project an intimidating presence, but if they actually did anything, it would be they and not Rasha who landed in hot water. Had Zafi already left? She didn’t dare concede her nervousness by turning to look.

“This isn’t a social call, boy,” the woman in the lead sneered, and Rasha was proud of herself for keeping her composure. They couldn’t tell, she knew it with an empirical certainty beyond even her own insecurities. Glory, a ruthless taskmaster as much as she was a nurturing mother hen, had deliberately put Rasha into social situations arranged entirely to prove to her that no one saw her as anything but a young woman after a year of transitioning, counseling, and coaching. Which meant…

“I don’t know exactly how you got your hooks into our paladin, but the last thing she needs is more of a corrupting influence,” the ringleader stated, tilting her head back to stare down the considerable length of her nose at Rasha. “It stops, now. Am I understood?”

Yep, there it was. Thorn was going to stomp these imbeciles into paste when she learned about this.

And as if by magic, that realization sucked all the menace out of their ambush.

Rasha kept her amiable smile in place, affecting an idly interested posture of her head while they prattled on.

“It’s bad enough the High Commander sees fit to indulge perverse men in…this,” the woman on the left said, putting on an identical sneer. “But don’t get too comfortable with it. Things are changing around here.”

“That’s a problem for another time, though,” added the third, folding her arms across her tabard. “Have your fun while you can. But you will keep away from General Avelea.”

“I don’t want to hear any more about you infecting her with Eserite nonsense, to say nothing of pushing the idea that your mental illness deserves to be recognized as Sisterhood doctrine,” the leader chimed in. “You thieves can be as sick as you want on your own time.”

“It’s Rasha, yes? Is that your made-up name? Well, whatever you’re really called, we know where you stay and—”

She broke off incredulously as Rasha yawned. Widely, but discreetly covering her mouth with her fingers. A lady, as Glory insisted, did not show off her molars.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Rasha said politely, managing not to betray her amusement at their expressions. “It’s been a long day already. Would you mind awfully getting to the point? It’s just that I don’t really have time for halfhearted schoolyard bullying today. Not that you’re not very good at it, I’m sure, but some of us are grown-ups, with jobs.”

They stared at her, the two on the sides with their mouths satisfyingly open. The leader managed to look even more belligerent, however.

“Oh, I see,” she snorted. “You think you’re clever. How very like an Eserite.”

“So, that’s a no, then?” Rasha said pleasantly. “Very well, you three have a lovely afternoon. I’m going to leave now.” She almost took a step backward to extricate herself from their formation, but then had a better idea. “And you,” she continued, polite as ever, “are going to get out of my way.”

The leader’s fingers shifted to grasp the handle of her longsword; the woman on the left actually gasped in outrage, while the other flushed nearly crimson, her Stalweiss coloring making it especially vivid.

“Oh,” the ringleader said quietly from behind clenched teeth. “Are we?”

“Yes, you are,” Rasha replied, batting her eyelashes. “I am an apprentice of the Theives’ Guild, and a welcome guest in this temple. Lay a finger on me or draw that sword, and you’ll be tossed out of here on your ear by Silver Legionnaires, just for starters. Then you will be dragged into an alley for an etiquette lesson by six enforcers before you can flee the city. And none of us wants that, girls. I don’t want it because stirring up drama like that would be a terrible repayment to all the people in the Sisterhood who have been very kind to me.” She smiled more broadly, again batting her eyes. Just because it was classically, stereotypically feminine, and they would hate it. “And you don’t want it because you’re cowards.”

“You little Punaji brat,” hissed the second woman, actually sliding her blade a few inches out of the sheath, but the leader reached across to grab her wrist. Rasha kept eye contact with the woman in the center, not looking around to check for intervention. The sanctuary was almost crowded; someone had to be overhearing this. Legionnaires might not have been able to see the almost-drawn sword, with the four of them clustered together, but it was only a matter of time before somebody stepped in.

“Cowards, are we,” the leader said very flatly.

“Well, you seem to think it takes three of you to corner a girl half your size,” Rasha simpered. “And there’s the fact that your entire spiritual philosophy is that the sex you were accidentally born into doesn’t feeeeeeel as special if just anybody’s allowed in. Yes, I think the word applies. Don’t you?”

“Now you listen to—”

“Nope.” Rasha took one step forward; the woman didn’t back up. “You’ve wasted enough of my time. Draw the sword, or get out of the way.”

She flexed her fingers once, adjusting her grip on the hilt, eyes narrowing to slits.

“Do it,” Rasha said softly, dropping the smile. “I dare you. Do. It. Coward.”

The woman tensed, and for an instant Rasha thought she actually might.

Before anything could come of it, though, a fifth person inserted herself into their cluster. Sliding in as deftly as an alley cat, she draped an arm around Rasha’s shoulders and pushed herself subtly to the fore mostly by surreptitiously forcing Rasha backward.

It was a woman with tousled black hair and angular Sifanese (or maybe Sheng, Rasha still couldn’t reliably spot the difference) features, wearing a ragged Punaji-style greatcoat over a clearly armored leather vest.

“Hiiii,” she said in a breathy voice, eyes vacantly wide, and let her head list deeply to one side as if drunk, staring up at the central woman. “You have really pretty eyes.”

The Purist’s leader frowned, and actually took a step back, her two compatriots squinting in confusion at the new arrival. “What? I don’t… Listen, young woman, this is a private conversation.”

“Pretty eyes. Pretty, pretty eyes,” the woman crooned. Her accent was local, despite the foreign features. Well, the Empire had birthright citizenship and Tiraas itself was a melting pot, so one couldn’t assume. Rasha’s inward attempt to size up the interloper who was still clutching her faltered at her next comment. “Can I have them?”

The Purists all three stepped back, incidentally opening up their tight formation and exposing the center of lines of sight from several directions. Rasha, glancing rapidly about, immediately noticed two Legionnaires and a priestess watching them intently.

“They sing to me,” the Sifanese(?) woman cooed, beginning to sway back and forth subtly, tugging Rasha along with her. “I hear them in my dreams. They want to be mine. Pretty please, pretty eyes? I’ll give them a good home.”

Grimacing in pure disgust, the Purist leader finally turned and strode away. Her lieutenants fell in alongside her, the Stalweiss one with a lingering glare. In seconds they had departed through the temple’s front doors, all of the nearby Legionnaires openly turning to watch them go.

The second they were gone, the woman released Rasha and turned to face her. The daffy expression had vanished from her face, replaced by a sharp glare.

“You, apprentice, will run straight home and inform your sponsor of the dumbass stunt you just pulled. If you explain exactly why that was a stupid thing to do and what could have gone horribly wrong, she probably won’t box your ears the way you’d be in for if you were my apprentice. Glory’s a soft touch.”

“Me?” Rasha protested, at once relieved and offended. It was good news that the woman was Guild, but this… “I was just—”

“Oh, I was so worried!” the woman squalled suddenly, hurling herself forward and throwing her arms around Rasha in a big hug. It probably looked like a friendly gesture from the outside; only Rasha could feel the rigid fingertips digging into the pressure points at the base of her skull.

“The Guild and the Sisterhood are both unrepresented in the Church right now,” the Eserite hissed right into Rasha’s ear while soothingly rocking them both back and forth for the benefit of the onlookers. “We don’t get along great at the best of times. Intercult relations are incredibly delicate, and strained enough with that fanatical splinter sect suddenly infesting the city. What I do not fucking need is untethered apprentices picking fights with them in the temple.”

“They started—”

Rasha cut herself off, a second too late. The enforcer slowly released her, pulling back and gaze down at her face with a condescending little smirk.

“No, please, go on,” she said sweetly. “Finish your thought.”

Punaji were raised not to complain about fairness; under other circumstances, Rasha might have gracefully accepted the rebuke. But she had been standing up to bullies, doing exactly what Eserites were supposed to do. Straightening her spine, she stepped backward, pulling herself out of the woman’s grasp.

“Well. I won’t keep you any longer, if you’re here on business.”

“Too right, you won’t,” she said brusquely, already striding past her toward the rear of the sanctuary. Her voice rang out as she went: “Straight to Glory, now! She won’t like it if she has to hear about this from me.”

Still practically quivering with repressed fury, Rasha herself set off for the front doors at a stately glide, spine rigid and nose upright. One of the Legionnaires actually opened the door for her, with a sympathetic look. She barely had the self-possession to nod politely in acknowledgment.

That had stirred her up even worse than the ambush. Purists and other assholes she expected to behave that way; where the hell did a Guild enforcer get off rebuking her for doing exactly what she was being trained by the Guild to do?

Fortunately, the frigid air of Imperial Square did a lot to clear her head. Rasha turned up the fur collar of her dress, surreptitiously thumbing the rune on the warming charm hidden underneath it.

The Square was as stirred up as the temple had been; apparently she wasn’t the only one having an eventful morning. Rasha slipped to one side, out of the path of traffic, and paused in the shadow of one of the great columns to study the comings and goings. A column of soldiers was just marching past, and there were knots of people clustered together in excitable conversation all across the temple steps. What had gotten under everybody’s skin this morning?

Picking out a piercing voice from the hubbub, Rasha set off sideways toward one end of the temple steps, just in time to intercept a young boy coming round the corner, pulling a wagon full of newspapers, waving one over his head, and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“EXTRA, SPECIAL EDITION! READ THE BREAKING NEWS ON THE ELVEN CRISIS! IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”

She mutely tossed him a silver coin, receiving a grin and a deftly thrown paper in response. Rasha ripped off the twine and unfolded it enough to read the front page while he carried on into the Square.

Though she wasn’t personally much interested in politics, one didn’t live under Glory’s tutelage without developing a careful respect for the web of interconnected forces that made the Empire work, and sometimes prevented it from working. Rasha’s frown rapidly deepened as her eyes darted across the lines of text.

“The elves did what?”


“Formed a united government, including the legendary high elves! As Veilgrad’s most celebrated elven resident, my readers would be very interested in your insight into these developing events.”

Macy poised her pencil over her open notepad, gazing expectantly at her target with a big smile of anticipation in place.

“I straight up don’t believe you,” Natchua said bluntly. “If you told me the Matriarchs and Elders all linked arms and went square dancing in Imperial Square, that would be more plausible.”

The reporter had the temerity to grin at her, not looking down at where she was scribbling on the pad. Omnu’s breath, was she really writing that down? “Well, assuming for the sake of argument that I’m right, can I get a quote on this from you, Natchua?”

“Here’s a headline for you: annoying reporter continues to abuse the fact that I don’t indiscriminately immolate people.”

She wrote that down, too, looking not the least bit discomfited. “You grew up in Tar’naris, I’m sure you have more insight than practically anyone into what the ramifications of this might be. Veilgrad really respects your perspective, Natchua, and it’s especially applicable here. A word from you would mean a lot to people.”

Flattery and manipulation, and both so ham-fisted they would have provoked only annoyance in Tar’naris. Natchua indulged in an irritated sigh. Macy Vaucherot, which was pronounced in zee authentic Glassian manner, the pretentious tit (even though Veilgrad was full of old families with Glassian names who had been fully Imperial for at least five generations), was actually one of the less irritating reporters who tended to buzz around. One of the more persistent and least intimidated by casual displays of infernomancy, true, but at least she only published what she actually heard in that paper of hers, without the embellishments or outright fabrications which had almost sent Natchua to kicking down some of her rivals’ doors before her entire household had frantically talked her down from that idea.

And for that matter, she certainly did have opinions about Tar’naris and what such a development would mean for the Empire, and came perilously close to starting in on them before the recollection of Melaxyna and Kheshiri’s hurried advice about the power of the press came back to mind.

Elilial’s remarks about Natchua’s so-called “cunning” had, over the last several months, frequently made her stop and second-guess her first impulses. There was actually a pattern, she’d found; while most of her actions were described with words like “reckless” and “harebrained” by those close to her, in hindsight she noticed that they tended to lead to success when she spotted a benefit others had missed and aimed right at it with no regard for common sense, whereas just acting out of temper or apathy rarely ended well. It didn’t take much reflection to see which of those it would be to rant at a reporter about what abhorrent monsters most Narisians were. It was true, but the knowledge wouldn’t do anything to help anybody who got their news from Macy’s rag. Riling up the local populace and pissing off the Imperial Foreign Service might be worthwhile in a hypothetical situation where there was a benefit to her in it, but this was not one of those.

“I wasn’t a noble or anything, in Tar’naris,” Natchua said carefully. “I came from the farming House, and most of what I was taught about the affairs of the powerful was to stay as far from them as possible. I don’t think I actually have much in the way of insight into this, Macy.”

“But you were selected to attend the legendary University at Last Rock!”

“Yeah,” Natchua said dryly, “I’m the one who got kicked out, if you’ll recall. Look, international relations are over my head. What I do know is that the Tiraan Empire has not endured for a thousand years by being stupid, and the Tirasian Dynasty deserves credit for stitching the whole thing back together within a few years of the Enchanter Wars and keeping it that way during a century of unprecedented changes of all kinds. I have no idea how international relations should be handled, but it seems to me the people whose job that is are pretty good at it. Unexpected surprises like this are a good time for all of us out here in Veilgrad to stay the course and let the diplomats work. I can’t think of any recent examples of them letting us down.”

“But what about—”

“Good chat, Macy, but you caught me on the way to an appointment. Bye,” Natchua said firmly, turning away.

“I just wonder if you have any thoughts on—”

At least this time she didn’t shout or try to chase after her when Natchua shadow-jumped fifty feet up the street; experience had taught her that would only drive her quarry away faster.

The short range jump had put her in front of a public house with an outdoor terrace, on which a cluster of students from the nearby college were gathered around a brazier holding pints. Upon her appearance, one of them pressed himself against the waist-high wall, brandishing his tankard at her.

“Veilgrad stands!” he yelled unsteadily.

“Veilgrad stands!” she shouted back, pointing at him. A roar of approval rose from the whole group, and Natchua carried on down the sidewalk, grinning as they clamored behind her, though she did mutter to herself. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, ya louts.”

Her destination was another pub, this one abandoned since the chaos crisis, after which its owner had packed up and moved his operations to Mathenon, where the climate was mild, the coin flowed like water and nothing even slightly interesting ever happened. The Mad Marquis had stood empty till the catacomb reconstruction efforts had brought Agatha Svanwen’s company to Veilgrad. Then, its empty condition, central location, and basement access to the catacomb system had made it an appealing headquarters for her stonemasons.

The Svanwen Company guards out front waved her in with a smile. Inside, the common room was filled with masons and miners sitting around at tables and notably not doing any work; they raised such a cheer at Natchua’s arrival that it took her a few minutes to get it quieted down enough to receive directions to the basement access.

At least it was quieter down there, though notably tense, as she observed immediately on arrival.

Svanwen herself was present, along with two of her employees, a dwarven man who’d come with her from Stavulheim and a Veilgrad local, both wearing suits and holding clipboards rather than stoneworking tools. Standing at the other side of the room and looking notably unhappy were five humans in Imperial Army uniforms, complete with the eye symbol on a blue background of the Azure Corps.

“Finally, here she is,” said the man apparently in the lead, who wore a captain’s stripes and a disgruntled expression. “Can we get this over with?”

“And hello to you too,” Natchua said, raising her eyebrows. “I’m quite well today, thank you for asking.”

“Thanks for coming, Natchua,” Svanwen said with that firmly calm voice she so often used to keep order among her laborers. “I appreciate you going out of your way. This is Captain Fedhaar, from the Azure Corps.”

“Commander of the Fourth Infernal Containment Unit,” Fedhaar said with a bit more grace, finally nodding to her.

“Enchanté ,” Natchua replied. “So what’s this I hear about demons in the tunnel?”

“Probably not more than one,” Svanwen said before the captain could reply. “A few of my people have been seeing odd tracks since last week, but one finally got a look at it yesterday. Needless to say, I ceased operations and pulled everybody out, and we’ve had a guard posted on every entrance we couldn’t seal up outright. By the description, it’s pretty clearly a rozzk’shnid.”

Natchua glanced at Fedhaar, then back to her, frowning. “Well, those do like tunnels, but they’re not sapient and can’t use magic. What do you need me for, exactly?”

“She wants you to clear the creature out. Isn’t it obvious?” Captain Fedhaar said sarcastically, folding his arms. “Nothing but the legendary Natchua will do.”

Another time she might have taken exception to the attitude, but in this case Natchua had to agree with him.

“Seriously?” she demanded, pointing to the disgruntled battlemages while holding Svanwen’s gaze. “You’ve got the most highly-trained professionals at demon containment on the continent, on loan from the Imperial Army, to deal with what amounts to an animal control problem? That’s already overkill, not to mention a situation that can only get messier the more people are involved. What the hell is my gray ass doing down here?”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Fedhaar, apparently meaning it. At any rate, he looked a bit less irritated.

“You’re right, as demons go, a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels isn’t much of a crisis,” Svanwen agreed. “Hell, I could take care of the damn thing myself with a battlestaff and a hunting party. At this point, it’s more a matter of morale and personnel management, Natchua. Sometimes, the best person for the job isn’t the best person for the job.”

Natchua blinked at her, then turned to Fedhaar. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

He shrugged. “Lady, I’m in the Army. The brass rarely uses the best person for the job, but I don’t think it’s on purpose.”

“It’s like this,” said the dwarf, now with some amusement. “My crew are composed of my own people from Stavulheim, who have no particular faith in the Imperial government, and locals who are of…divided opinions. Some of ‘em will no doubt be reassured by knowing the Army is on the case, but not all, and maybe not most. Like I said, this is not a big deal. All of us together are well more than a match for the creature. But what I need to get my people back to work is assurance that there aren’t demons in the tunnels, so they don’t have to be looking over their shoulders every five seconds. I asked you to come, Natchua, to lend your credibility. We track the thing down and kill it, and then I can get the say-so of everyone’s favorite friendly local warlock and hero of the Battle of Ninkabi that it’s safe to get back to work.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, then grimaced apologetically at Captain Fedhaar. “Well… Crap. I guess I can’t turn up my nose at that, can I? As the least actually useful person here, it’d be an asshole move to not contribute what relatively little I can. All right, Agatha, fair enough. I’m in.”

“Glad to have you,” the dwarf said with a smile. “I’ll earmark you an honorarium from the discretionary—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I mean, thanks, but what the hell would I buy? Anything I need, Sherwin is happy to squander his ancestral wealth on. Save your funds for the folks doing the real work.”

“Huh,” Fedhaar grunted, staring at Natchua. “You weren’t kidding, Ms. Svanwen. Everything about her screams ‘cocky, irritating college kid,’ but damn if she doesn’t leave me with a positive impression.”

“Yeah, I’m a real fudge-dipped strawberry,” she drawled. “Everybody loves Natchua. All right, then! C’mon, nobody’s getting any younger. Let’s go fuck around in the dark demon-infested tunnels.”


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16 – 3

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“I spent some time thinking on it, like you asked. The thing is… Rasha isn’t exactly a name, at least not a traditional one. My sisters and all were all named like that, either after obscure literary references or just… Half-remembered bits of elvish or Sifanese our father heard once. It’s just not gendered, at all; it’s not rooted in enough tradition to be, either way.”

“It sounds like there’s an interesting story behind it,” Sister Iona said with her characteristic gentle smile, nodding. “Of course, what’s at issue is how you feel about it.”

“I feel attached,” Rasha said frankly. “It’s like you said a while ago: just because a lot of things need to change doesn’t mean everything does. You asked me to think about a name as an expression of my identity, and the only thing I can bring to mind is the one I already have. It’s mine. And… This sounds weird to say, but I find that now that I like myself, I like my name a lot more than I used to. Is that weird?”

“Nothing about it is weird,” she said with that gentle firmness she was so good at, helping to banish uncertainty without seeming pushy. “I’m glad you took the time to mull it over, Rasha. Remember, everyone’s journey is individual; if this is what’s right for you, then this is your truth. I hope I didn’t come across as pressuring you to take a new name.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” she replied hastily. “I mean, you didn’t. I may have nagged at myself about it a little; you know how I tend to get into my own head. When you described how common it is for people transitioning to rename themselves, I couldn’t help feeling like maybe I was doing it wrong.”

“And what do I always say about that?” Iona asked, smiling.

“There is no doing it wrong,” Rasha recited dutifully, unable to repress a smile in kind.

“Exactly! Everyone’s journey is individual, Rasha. I’ve helped guide a lot of women through these initial steps. It has given me a sense of how they tend to progress, usually, enough that I notice when someone is taking an uncommon path. At moments like that, I pay closer attention because there are often pitfalls on those paths. But in all these years, it has never become formulaic, or rote. All of these stories are unique. And in your case? I’ve watched you grow into yourself with amazing depth in the last year, Rasha. I am honestly not worried about your future, not with regard to this name thing, or in general. You are doing wonderfully. We’re simply at a stage where I find myself running through my checklist, making sure we’ve done everything as thoroughly as we can.”

Rasha’s smile faded slowly into seriousness. “Does that mean… Are we nearing the end?”

“There is no timetable,” Iona reassured her quickly. “The Sisterhood provides this support for as long as it’s needed. Many of the women I work with keep coming back for years, but then, some have ended their sessions as soon as their physical transitions are finished. How long we keep going is entirely for you to decide, Rasha. Consider me at your disposal.”

“I appreciate you, Sister,” Rasha said, her smile returning. “Has… Um, Sister Eivery said she wanted me to come for at least a couple more sessions, at weekly intervals, but she said as long as there are no surprising complications, I actually shouldn’t need any more alchemy.”

“Yes, she’s kept me appraised of your progress,” Iona said, nodding. “It’s quite a milestone. Are you feeling comfortable in your body?”

“So much so that it’s a constant euphoria,” Rasha said with quiet fervor. “I was so used to feeling wrong for years I just thought that was normal. Not feeling that way… It’s like being drunk. Is that weird?”

Iona tilted her head to give her a look over the rims of her glasses, a smile playing about her lips to soften the mock-severe expression.

“I know, I know,” Rasha said, grinning. “Nothing is weird.”

“Some things are a little weird,” the priestess demurred, still smiling. “It’s all right for them to be, and valid to feel that way. The question to which we’ve come, then, is how much longer you feel our sessions should continue.”

Rasha hesitated, her face falling still. The silence stretched out.

Sister Iona just watched her with patient, welcoming calm, and Rasha took a moment to turn her head to gaze out the window, knowing from experience that the priestess would give her as much time as she needed to marshal her thoughts.

The view wasn’t great; these rooms in the uppermost corridors of the Temple of Avei were designed to be comfortable and intimate, but they were in the medical wing, after all. Attached to the Silver Legion grounds as it was, that left it looking out over the descending arc of Tiraas rather than the famous Imperial Square, with a view that was half-blocked by an Imperial government building and a Rynean museum. Rasha had always found that it suited her, though. Having grown up on the docks, grandeur wasn’t really to her taste, though she had grown accustomed to Glory’s lavish standard of personal comfort.

She looked back at Iona’s eyes, prompting another gentle smile from the older woman, but the priestess just kept waiting for her to gather herself. Iona, she was pretty sure, was Thakari, to judge by her build and the shade of her skin. Identifying people by ethnic markers was one of the skills in which Glory was training her, and Westerners were by far the easiest: they ranged from the lean, almost-black Onkawi up in the tropics and grew thicker and paler the farther south one went to the sub-arctic N’Jendo/Athan’Khar border. Other divisions were subtler and still eluded her. Glory insisted that even among the Tiraan, an experienced eye could differentiate between the Calderaan, Tira, Vrandin and Mathena. Rasha still wasn’t entirely certain this was not one of Glory’s elaborate jokes.

“I am…sort of…torn,” she said finally.

Iona just nodded once, her silence encouraging.

“I don’t feel…ready,” Rasha admitted. “I still feel like I gain from every one of these sessions. I don’t want to quit them.”

“There is no hurry to,” the priestess assured her.

“And yet…I want to be done,” she said, lowering her gaze. “I just… I feel like I’m missing out, just sitting here and doing this. I keep remembering last year, how all my friends rushed off to Puna Dara to fight the Rust and save my own people, while I’ve done nothing but sit here in Tiraas learning…” She pursed her lips. “Learning how to be a girl. I feel like I should be doing so much more.”

“It is valid to feel that way,” Sister Iona said, nodding again. “But when you’re feeling something negative that drags you down and isn’t an accurate reflection of your situation, it’s very helpful to stop and remind yourself of what things are actually like. You can’t banish an emotion by denying it, but letting yourself feel a more positive one can be as simple as deliberately appreciating what you can about your life.”

“Isn’t it accurate, though? I’m nothing but an apprentice, after all. I study and practice with Glory and the others, I come here, and that’s pretty much…”

“Well, anything can sound tedious if you put it that way,” Iona countered, openly grinning now. “Not getting into the tensions between our cults, Rasha, I can absolutely assure you that no Eserite I’ve ever met has had a less than interesting life. Your dreary apprenticeship is with no less a luminary than Tamisin Sharvineh, who has the ear of dukes and generals and circulates with the Empire’s elite. And honestly, Rasha, you may have missed out on the escapade in Puna Dara, but… Do you still write to Trissiny?”

“Regularly, yes,” she said with a smile. “She’s actually going to visit soon. School is out for the winter and several of her friends are staying in Madouris over the break with Duchess Ravana.”

In fact, she was looking forward to that more than she admitted. Even after months of correspondence, she couldn’t help thinking of her friend as Jasmine, and couldn’t quite picture her blonde. Steady, reassuring Jasmine was sorely missed; she and Ross had been the calming presences in their group of friends.

“One thing I can tell you about Hands of Avei,” Iona said a little wryly, “is that if you’re going to stay in the orbit of one, you can expect to find yourself frequently outclassed to an extent that’s not great for the ego, while also being regularly dragged into adventures the likes of which you could never have anticipated. The truth is, Rasha, you are very young. Everyone your age is young, but you are also standing at the beginning of a lot of paths that lead in very interesting directions indeed. If there’s one thing you needn’t worry about, it’s that this is all you are. It’s only the beginning, I promise you. What we do here is by definition a transitional phase. None of use can know the future, Rasha, but yours isn’t going to be boring, that much I can confidently predict.”

Rasha found herself grinning at that. Before she could answer, the clock sitting on Iona’s desk chimed.

“Ah, I don’t have an appointment after yours today,” the priestess said quickly, “so this time there’s no need to rush off if you’d like to talk a while longer.”

“Actually…” Rasha stood, floating up from the settee in a smooth and poised motion in which Glory had drilled her; doing actual drills of that had felt ridiculous at the time, but she was very grateful in hindsight. Even Sister Iona had found cause to compliment the progress she’d made as a direct result of the courtesan’s tutelage. “Do you mind if we leave it at the usual time, today? I want to think some more on what you said.”

“Of course, Rasha,” Iona replied, also standing. “That’s half the benefit of having defined sessions, and you’re very good about progressing on your own. At the usual time next week, then?”

“Yes, please,” Rasha said with a grateful smile.

“And you know my office schedule, if you ever need to talk in a hurry.” Iona uncharacteristically hesitated, a small frown drifting over her features, which caused Rasha to frown worriedly in response. The priestess was one of the most consistently warm and composed people she’d ever met. “Actually, I do have to make a request of you today, Rasha, and I can only promise you that I don’t mean any offense.”

“What’s the matter?” Rasha asked, beginning to be actively worried now.

“I wonder,” Iona said, still with that concerned little frown, “if you wouldn’t mind leaving the temple through the side entrance today, the one just before the hallway transitioning to the barracks.”

Rasha drew her own eyebrows further together. “I don’t see why not… Is something going on, Sister?”

“I’m sure you recall my mention of the Purists,” Iona replied, momentarily clenching her lips in disapproval.

“You mean, that obscure Avenist faction that wants to murder me on principle?”

“They’ve never escalated to murder that I know of,” the priestess said reassuringly, “and between you and me, I hesitate to call their doctrine principle. But they’re somewhat less obscure right here and now, as over a hundred of them from across the continent have gathered in Tiraas to present grievances to the High Commander. And they first tried it in Viridill, at the Golden Legion headquarters and then the Abbey, and both Locke and Darnassy laughed them off. These women were already riled up beyond their norm by the time they got here. I’m just…concerned.”

Rasha put on a carefully sculpted expression straight from Glory’s training, a look that expressed disdain with just enough humor not to be offensive to the person she was talking to. “Really, Sister Iona, I can’t emphasize enough how little I’m afraid of a flock of bullying hens.”

“This is an Avenist matter, Rasha,” Iona said quietly. “You have your faith; I have mine, and it includes strict doctrines about conflict. No Avenist worth the iron in her blood would seek unnecessary confrontation, or allow noncombatants to be drawn into it. You are here as a guest and petitioner, entitled to the temple’s protection, and I don’t want you having to deal with this nonsense. Please, Rasha.”

It had been perilously close to a provocation, asking an Eserite to shy away from even the chance of confronting a confirmed asshole in need of a comeuppance, but at Iona’s soft explanation Rasha felt her rising pique melt away into chagrin. Of course, she wasn’t the only one here with a religious imperative, and while she naturally had issue with some of the Avenists’ ideas, it couldn’t be argued that the Sisterhood overall, and especially individuals like Trissiny, Iona, and Eivery, had been very kind to her.

“Of course, I understand,” she said, nodding in acquiescence. “No sense courting trouble, after all.”

“Indeed there is not.” Iona opened the door to usher her out into the hall, again smiling warmly. “You will always be welcome here, and I don’t want anyone trying to make you feel otherwise.”

“I’ll be sure not to listen to anyone who does,” Rasha promised. “See you next week as usual, Sister Iona.”

“Next week, then. Take care of yourself, Rasha.”

She was still smiling slightly as she glided down the hall after Iona closed her office door behind. By this point, the ladylike glide was practiced enough that she could do it without conscious concentration. A lot of things felt like they’d come together over the last year. Iona was right: building an identity was necessary work and took time. The more ready she felt, though, the more anxious Rasha was to get to actual work. Eserion’s faithful weren’t called to sit around in comfort while corrupt people had their way with society.

Fortunately, she didn’t have any more time to stew in her thoughts, as the path took her to a staffed checkpoint at the end of the upper hall, where the Sisterhood felt it prudent to keep track of who was passing in and out of these publicly available offices in their medical wing. This also afforded Rasha some extra practice at her poise and control, as the pretty Legionnaire was on duty.

“Hi there,” the woman said with an easy grin as she approached the doorway to the stairwell where two troops were always stationed. Half a head taller than Rasha (but so were most people), she was Tiraan, with her black hair twisted up in a regulation bun rather than cut short, and even in full armor and standing at attention she had a permanent twinkle in the eye, a way of looking roguish that would have better suited an Eserite. And she was friendly in a way that had several times left Rasha inwardly scrambling to figure out if she’d meant anything by it. “If it isn’t the cute Punaji lady! I thought this was the right day of the week.”

She slowed to a halt before the doorway, meeting the soldier’s eyes with some bemusement. That seemed a little more definitive… One of Glory’s lessons about not creating potential awkwardness in what should be safe places swam across her memory, but she let it float away, instead reaching for more pertinent recollections of her sponsor’s coaching. Posture, expression, just the slightest tilt of her head so making eye contact with the taller person made her look up through her lashes…

“And hello to you, too. My friends call me Rasha.”

The woman’s grin widened in response, and she made a little double-waggle with her eyebrows. “Does that mean we’re friends?”

This was new ground. Bless Glory’s tutelage, that question alone would have set a younger Rasha to blushing and stammering incoherently. Now, she knew how to harness emotion and control it, not allowing the very physical thrill prickling up and down her spine at being openly flirted with to determine what was expressed on her face. Conversations had rhythms, and her repartee had been not only coached by the courtesan with whom she was training, but deliberately practiced with Layla (and Tallie, earnestly pretending she was just helping Rasha while soaking up the same lessons).

“Better that than the alternative, isn’t it?” she rejoined, concentrating on her face. Left side of the lips turned upward in a half-smile, deliberately softening the muscles around her eyes so it didn’t look like a smirk…

The second Legionnaire on the other side of the door rolled her eyes, but Rasha’s new “friend” gave her a very similar not-quite-smirk in return.

“Glad to finally meet you, Rasha. I’m Zafi. Might I offer you an escort to the front doors? I’d hate to think of a guest in our temple getting lost.”

Yes! Not because she needed help finding her way, as Zafi had to know; she’d been on duty here off and on for half a year now, and they’d met at least once a month. Rasha kept the glee firmly contained, simply giving her a soft smile accompanied by a languid blink of her eyes. Glory had made her befriend a stray cat to get that one down.

“In fact, I would appreciate it. I hear there are dangerous extremists about today.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Zafi said solemnly. “Hey, Nimbi, do me a favor?”

“I will not do you any favors,” the other Legionnaire said irritably. “Not that you need one, as you well know escorting a guest is an acceptable reason to leave your post. Try to keep the dawdling to a minimum, would you?”

“You’re a peach, Nimbi,” Zafi said with an irrepressible grin, already stepping aside and gesturing to the door with a grand bow. “Right this way, if you please, m’lady.”

“Now, now, just Rasha is fine,” she replied, already sashaying past her. “I thought we were going to be friends, remember?”

Zafi laughed obligingly as she followed, and then they were descending the stairs in sudden silence. Still desperately keeping facial composure, Rasha groped about inside her head with increasing frenzy for something to keep the conversation going. Shit, what now? She’d practiced this stuff, why was it not…

“I’m sure you don’t need your personal business pried into, so by all means shut me down if I get too nosy,” Zafi said, and Rasha barely managed not to gasp with relief. “Is it true you’re Eserite?”

“Oh?” Rasha asked, channeling her sudden wariness into a coy sidelong glance. “Am I the subject of gossip in the ranks?”

“I hope you’re not offended,” Zafi said lightly. “You just can’t parade a mysterious and exotic lady in front of soldiers on a weekly basis and expect there not to be gossip. Simply isn’t done.”

“Now I find myself wondering where that rumor originated,” she murmured. It was a serious question; counseling was supposed to be absolutely confidential. And if there were Purists sniffing around the temple…

“Alas, I fear hunting that down is beyond my skill,” Zafi lamented. “You know how rumors work. It’s so hard to trace them back to their source it’s almost like they burst up out of the ground like cabbages. Why, is that one true?”

“I’m certain I have no idea where such a thing could possibly have come from,” Rasha said primly, while flicking a doubloon out of the wide sleeve of her winter dress into her palm. She made the coin roll smoothly across the backs of her fingers, flicked it in a flashing arc to her other hand where she rolled it the rest of the way and then made it vanish into the other sleeve. “Really, the very notion!”

Zafi whistled appreciatively at the performance. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for being intrigued! They do say Eserites are…dangerous.”

“Anyone with a mind to be is dangerous, darling,” Rasha said, shooting her a sly smile.

The soldier winked, and she felt a flutter in her chest in response. “You’re talking to someone with a sword, cutie, don’t have to tell me twice. It’s almost a let down, unraveling some of the mystery. Almost more fun to wonder what your deal is, the enigmatic lady of the upper hall! I’ve even heard a rumor you’re a personal friend of the Hand of Avei.”

And that, actually, might explain some things. Iona and Eivery had earned her trust, nor had she had cause to doubt the discretion of the specialists who administered the alchemy and magic involved in physically transitioning. It stood to reason, though, that within the Sisterhood there had to be countless parties watching Trissiny’s comings and goings, legitimately or not. All it would take would be one wrong pair of eyes having spotted her with the paladin during last year’s shenanigans…

She pushed that aside to be worried about later, shooting Zafi another coy look. “Would you like to meet her?”

The soldier almost tripped, but didn’t stop, giving Rasha a wide-eyed stare as they walked. “Shut up. Are you serious?”

“Now, I probably shouldn’t promise I can produce her,” Rasha said lightly. “Trissiny’s not a dancing pony, after all. But, she may be in town soon, and I’ve got a feeling if I pitch it to her as my in with the prettiest trooper in the Third Legion, she just might have a sense of humor about it. No harm in asking, at least.”

“Okay, I take it back,” Zafi said, and it was astonishingly gratifying how visibly impressed she was. “The odd little revelation only deepens the mystery. Now I want to unravel you like an onion.”

Oh, the subtext in that one was beyond clear, and Rasha’s first impulse was to seize it like a chunk of driftwood in a storm. But if there was one thing in which Glory meticulously coached her apprentices, it was the art of seduction. One must never be too hasty; one did not grasp or cling, but gently led along. She could tell by the eagerness in the woman’s eyes she’d successfully set a hook. Now was time to reel just a little bit at a time. The prey had to make an effort of their own, had to want to. That, Glory had emphasized, was the crucial difference between courting and harassment.

“Well, fortunately for you,”she said, coming to a stop and turning to smile directly at her, “you know just where and when to find me. Maybe by next week I’ll know a bit more definitively.”

“Oh, now that’s just unfair,” Zafi chided, but not without her irrepressible grin. “You can’t leave me hanging for a whole week!”

“Wow, you really must want to meet the paladin.”

“Yeah, sure. Paladin, whatever.” She waved one gauntleted hand absently, still holding Rasha’s gaze with a new warmth in her eyes. “But now I have to wait a week to see my lady of mystery? Have pity on a poor soldier, Rasha! Who knows if I’ll even be posted on that hall by then?”

“Now, I know for a fact soldiers are allowed to trade assignments,” Rasha said with a wink. “I bet if you really wanted to, it wouldn’t be too terribly hard to make sure you’re there. After all, you can’t expect a lady of mystery to make it too easy.”

“You’re a playful little minx, aren’t you?” Zafi complained, but in a cadence which suggested it was mostly a compliment. “All right, Rasha. You’re on.”

“Am I?” Rasha retorted, re-using that sly little almost-smirking smile. “I guess we’ll see in a week, won’t we?”

She turned slowly, another maneuver in which Glory had meticulously coached her. One step away, angling her body gradually, holding eye contact all the way through the pivot until just before it became physically awkward to do so, and then smoothly completing the shift to glide away with her head high. Perfectly executed, if she did say so herself.

Only after completely turning and starting to walk away did Rasha realize she’d gotten caught up in flirting with the soldier and, completely ignoring Sister Iona’s request, taken the usual route through the main temple; now she was in the great entrance hall that opened onto Imperial Square. Well, she reflected ruefully, at least now she knew some attention and a pretty face was all it took to smack the sense right out of her. Rasha honestly had zero memory of any of the scenery through which they’d passed, though she could have recited every word of her conversation with Zafi.

It could have been worse. It was a common enough weakness, and knowing it meant she could coach herself to pay more attention next time. Live and learn.

She kept heading toward the doors without slowing, subtly glancing to both sides just out of common sense and wariness. Indeed, the great hall looked a bit more stirred up this morning than she was accustomed to, with more priestesses than usual milling about near the statue of Avei and half the usual Legionnaire posts unattended, suggesting the soldiers kept being sent off on various errands. There were more petitioners about, though mostly hustling through the sanctuary rather than gathering in prayer or discussion. At a casual glance, it looked more like the response of a public to some outer development than any tension stirred up by a renegade faction imposing themselves on the temple.

Which was good, as far as it went, but also raised some questions. It might behoove her to check out a newspaper vendor on the way home.

Rasha’s mulling was abruptly de-Railed by a sudden and terrifying question: did Zafi know what went on in that upper hallway, what she was there for? If she didn’t… Would she care? Should Rasha tell her? But when, and for the gods’ sake, how?

She kept walking mostly by reflex while these fresh worries thrummed in her brain. Eyes forward, face still carefully composed, Rasha proceeded without really seeing where she was going, and thus walked right into the ambush.

An ambush it was, and a skillful one at that. A woman melted out of the shadow of a column and stepped straight in front of her, and two more slid in smoothly from behind to finish blocking the path forward. They arranged themselves in a tight arc in front of Rasha, deftly creating the impression of hemming her in even if they hadn’t managed so much as a complete semicircle around her. It was very neatly done, the kind of maneuver that could only have been executed if they’d planned it out carefully and been watching for her to appear.

That fact alone sharpened her focus with a surge of adrenaline, even before she took in the spectacle of what they were wearing.

All three were priestesses of Avei, but clearly not of the same mainstream sect as those Rasha was used to here in the temple. They wore the typical white robes, yes, but with chain mail tunics over them, and over that gray tabards on which Avei’s eagle sigil was embroidered in white. Steel-backed leather bracers peeked out from the wide sleeves of their robes—a lightweight and easily concealed substitute for a shield very useful in hand-to-hand combat. Eserites made use of such pieces. Altogether, it required no imagination to guess that this was the uniform of a particularly militant sect of the Sisterhood.

Most alarmingly, they all wore swords hanging from their heavy belts. Not traditional Avenic short swords for massed infantry combat, but one-handed longswords better suited to dueling. The woman in the center had her hand suggestively on the heavy pommel of hers.

“So,” she said in a grim tone, staring down her hooked nose at Rasha, “you’re the one.”

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16 – 2

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“Those conniving knife-eared shits!”

The Empress of Tiraas threw her copy of the Constitution of the Elven Confederacy down on the table in a gesture as uncharacteristically violent as her crude language. Eleanora’s temper was famous, but so was her control of it. Now, she was pacing up and down the room like a caged wolf, while the assembled ministers watched her with varying degrees of alarm.

“This is…bleak,” said Minister Asvedhri, head of the Ministry of the Interior, lifting his pen from the map of the Empire he had just finished defacing. He had surrounded regions on it with black lines and marked off the Golden Sea with cross-hatching, and now leaned back to frown deeply at his handiwork. Several of the others around the table craned their necks to inspect it. “At least they’re not claiming the Golden Sea for themselves, but they most definitely assert the right to access and act freely within it. But just their territorial claims alone… Omnu’s breath. This so-called ‘constitution’ asserts their ownership of all extant elven groves, but doesn’t specify anything about the small spaces between them, and legal precedent could go either way. Both options are nightmares. Either that stretch of our territory has just turned into a jigsaw puzzle or Mathena, northern Calderaan Province and half of both Stalwar Provinces are cut off from the rest of the Empire.”

“That’s assuming the Empire chooses to recognize these territorial claims,” General Panissar said quietly. He was the only person besides the Empress not seated, though he stood calmly near the conference room’s door while she paced along the wall.

“It’ll be war if we don’t, General,” said Minister Rehvaad.

“And it’s my job to think of such things,” Panissar replied.

“Omnu’s breath,” Asvedhri repeated, rubbing his forehead and accidentally smearing it with ink. “We’re not even getting the worst of it. They claim Tar’naris! There’s no way to get to it from the rest of their territory without going through an Imperial military base! What were they thinking?”

“I believe that question was directed at you,” Eleanora said bitingly, slamming to a halt and turning the full force of her glare on Underminister Saradhi, who visibly quailed under it.

Though Rehvaad headed up the Foreign Ministry, the Empire’s chief diplomat had chosen to let his subordinate handle most of the discussion here, Saradhi being the lowest-ranked person present and only included as she was the senior diplomat in charge of elven relations. Given the pressures involved, Rehvaad’s reticence could be interpreted as throwing her under the carriage.

“I can’t— Your Majesty, there’s no way to know,” Saradhi protested, her voice shrill with stress. “This action blindsided us all completely!”

“And whose job was it to prevent that?”

The Underminister was saved from having to answer that by the opening of the door.

“Ah, Quentin,” the Emperor said in a mild tone. “Good of you to join us.”

“I sincerely apologize for my tardiness, your Majesties,” Lord Vex said, stepping forward with more energy than he usually showed in public and sliding into an open seat at the table. “I was tending to the matter of which I previously informed you in Tar’naris, with the assistance of the young Lady Nahil, and I’m sure I needn’t tell you that the timing was undoubtedly not a coincidence. Did the Narisians manage to distract and misdirect anyone from the Foreign Ministry, or should I feel personally flattered?”

“In point of fact, Underminister Trispin is still in Tar’naris,” Rehvaad answered. “It is, of course, not unusual for her to be there, but she is also engaged in active business with House Awarrion. Who, of course, would have been very aware of precisely when this announcement would go out. It seems clear enough to me that the drow have done their due diligence to ensure this would take us with the maximum surprise.”

“That’s an unequivocally hostile act,” Panissar noted.

“No, it is not,” Rehvaad retorted. “Not unequivocally. A nation is never more vulnerable than at the moment of its birth, and Tiraas is the preeminent military power in the world. As Minister Asvedhri pointed out, this new Confederacy is in an unavoidably tense position in relation to us, and we have rather famously involved ourselves in the affairs of our border states. I think it would be a mistake to assume hostile intent from this. It seems to me more defensive.”

“They almost needn’t have bothered,” Underminister Saradhi added, seeming to have recovered a little of her poise when her superior finally interceded. “Your Majesties, I am not trying to duck responsibility, but I will stake my career on the assertion that we could not have anticipated this!”

“Indeed,” Eleanora grated.

“She’s correct,” said Vex. “Intelligence has been watching these events as well. Discussions between Tar’naris and the surface tribes have been going on for barely a year. We were expecting to have at least a decade in which to figure out what they were up to and what should be done about it.”

“If anything, that assessment shows Intelligence’s characteristic paranoia,” Saradhi agreed, nodding fervently. “They’re elves. They don’t do anything this quickly. Anything! Tar’naris is the only elven society which has undergone any noteworthy social change during the entire scope of recorded history! And that was at the Empire’s instigation. Your Majesties…” She clutched at the sides of her head, planting her elbows on the table; at least she didn’t have ink on her fingers. “This can’t be happening!”

“Compose yourself, Underminister,” Rehvaad said quietly. Saradhi flushed, but quickly lowered her hands and straightened her posture.

“Well, obviously it is happening,” said Sharidan. “I think we can take it as given that this is an astonishingly hasty action for elves. That we failed to anticipate it is, perhaps, forgivable.”

“It’s hasty even by human standards,” Asvedhri murmured, still scowling down at his map. “Not just the time frame. A year, give or take, is on the quicker end of the necessary time for a reorganization of this magnitude to be prepared, but they’ve neglected what I would consider basic concerns. This Constitution seems to just assume their territorial claims will be respected.”

“The question is why,” said the Emperor. “Why this assumption? Why this haste?”

“I can only interpret the speed as a crisis response,” said Vex. “It’s unusual even so, for elves, who have numerous times nearly let themselves be overtaken by disasters simply because they could not react quickly. But my department has observed that all of this has been at the ultimate instigation of the Narisians, who have always been ruthlessly pragmatic even before the Empire lit a fire under them.”

“They are definitely following the example of the Conclave of the Winds,” added Rehvaad, “who also acted with uncharacteristic speed and chose to leverage the element of surprise in their initial announcement. Quite successfully, it should be noted, which doubtless is what inspired this imitation. I can only surmise that their motivations are similar: they perceive an existential threat in the prospect of continued isolation.”

“They’re not exactly wrong, if so,” Underminister Saradhi said with more composure. “Tar’naris was practically a client state of ours until this announcement, and Imperial expansion had pushed the tribes into virtual irrelevancy. The Cobalt Dawn and Sarasio incidents both illustrated the urgency of the rise of Imperial power, and provided a stark example of the benefits of cooperative versus combative methods of meeting it.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s hard to see this as anything but combative,” said Asvedhri, picking up his map just for the satisfaction of slapping it back down on the table. “They’ve declared a sprawling superstate whose claimed territory is a patchwork intercut with our own. There are only so many ways that can possibly play out, and most of them end with outright war!”

“General Panissar,” said the Emperor, still apparently calm, “based on your current understanding, how would you call the outcome of such a conflict?”

“Catastrophic,” Panissar answered immediately. “All other things being equal, I think we could win, nominally. Our military is bigger and better than anyone’s. We have more soldiers than there are people in Tar’naris, and the wood and plains tribes bring nothing but guerrillas and light cavalry, and not much of that. The problem is what they do have: fae casters. Remember what Mary the Crow did to Onkawa? It’s been twenty-five years and the sugar industry still hasn’t recovered. Imagine that, everywhere. What they can field is not what our troops are prepared to handle, and they’re positioned to inflict colossal damage to our infrastructure and especially agriculture. That ‘victory’ would leave us occupying reams of hostile territory while probably experiencing famines and plagues, with the Rail and telescroll networks uprooted at every point and the zeppelin fleet grounded—those are all vulnerable to fae and elvish methods. A win like that would destroy the Empire.”

He paused, working his jaw in distaste for a second, before continuing.

“And that’s just talking about the knowns. According to this…Constitution…this Confederacy places Qestraceel as its capital and counts the high elves among its signatories. I have zero data on their capabilities. Or location, or numbers, or anything. We only barely know that high elves exist. Plenty of people throughout the Empire don’t believe they do.”

“My department doesn’t know much more about the high elves than the Army,” said Vex, “and not for want of trying. They have all the usual elven love of privacy, plus vast skill in the arcane. Intelligence currently places Qestraceel somewhere in the Stormsea, with a population of around twenty thousand. But that is based entirely on the area where and frequency with which their navy is encountered, so the question is not whether those estimates are wrong, but by how much.”

“Any insight into how they hide an entire city?” Sharidan asked.

Vex shook his head, permitting himself a brief grimace of open irritation. “We know of grandiose spellcraft by which an entire island can be hidden, but not specifically how, or how it relates to the high elves. There is a vanished island north of Onkawa on which my predecessors compiled a file. It is absent from common knowledge or the memory of any living individuals, but was listed on charts and geographical writings that still exist.”

Eleanora planted her palms on the table, leaning across it toward him. “That sounds like a place to begin investigating.”

“Doubtful, your Majesty,” he demurred. “References to Qestraceel date back centuries at least; this happened less than forty years ago, and there are indications Tellwyrn was involved.”

“She vanished an entire island?” Panissar demanded, then shook his head. “What am I saying? Of course she bloody did.”

“So we know it can be done,” Vex finished. “More than that…remains to be discovered. Your Majesties, I would like permission to begin investigating the high elves. My department has never regarded the matter with any urgency, as they have shown zero inclination to intervene in the world’s affairs. That has just abruptly changed.”

“Can you do this without antagonizing them?” the Emperor asked pointedly.

“There are ways, yes. The most immediate is to investigate various arcane-using elves who are known to be at large in the Empire.”

“Those are just wood and plains elves cast out of their tribes for using the arcane,” Underminister Saradhi objected.

“Some, yes,” Vex agreed, nodding at her. “Perhaps most. Those whose points of origin I can trace to a specific grove are automatically disqualified. But I have long believed that others might be high elves, exiled either voluntarily or as punishment. Exiles can often be persuaded to provide information, at the very least, on their former society.” He paused as if considering his next statement before giving it. “At least three of my predecessors firmly believed that Tellwyrn is a high elf.”

A momentary lull fell over the table. The Empress straightened back up, her face inscrutable.

“Well,” Sharidan said at last, “we have an established relationship with her, at least. That sounds like a starting point.”

Vex grimaced again. “Actually, your Majesty, Duchess Ravana Madouri recently employed one of these elves; I intended to start there. She is both accessible and also allied with the Throne. Winter break began yesterday; Last Rock’s faculty and students are on a two-week hiatus. My agents have placed Tellwyrn in Tidecall as of this morning, at a seaside villa. I am sure I needn’t describe the poise and grace with which the good Professor will likely react to having her vacation interrupted by prying personal questions.”

Grimaces and a single muted chuckle went around the table, followed by a loud snort from Panissar. “This business is simply too urgent to dilly-dally while we wait on that woman’s convenience.”

“It can only be made more dire by winding her up,” Eleanora said thoughtfully, frowning into the distance. She abruptly nodded, as if to herself. “Very well, Quentin, make arrangements for me. I’ll go to Tidecall myself and approach her.”

“Your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad protested.

“Are you sure, Nora?” Sharidan asked with more calm.

“I achieved…a grudging rapport with her,” the Empress answered him. “And I think she will respond well to the respect shown by having someone of my rank approach her directly. The idea is to ask one of history’s most irascible figures to dish on subjects she’s stubbornly refused to discuss for thrice the age of our Empire; every last speck of respect that can be curried will be relevant. And I can shmooze her a bit, I think. Anyone else trying the same will only set her off.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, before nodding slowly. “Very well. You heard her, Quentin.”

“So I did,” Vex said with the scowl of a man who knew better than to argue with a bad idea. “I assume you mean your presence to be discreet, your Majesty?”

“Please,” Minister Rehvaad practically begged. “A state visit to the Tidestriders would require either weeks of formalities, or a mortal insult that could provoke several of the clans into open rebellion!”

“My presence will be as discreet as you can possibly make it, Quentin,” Eleanora promised with a smile. “Meanwhile, start your own investigations. What is Madouri doing with this possible high elf, anyway?”

“The Duchess has employed Veilwin in the role of Court Wizard to House Madouri,” Vex reported. “I met her today, in fact, where she was serving as her Grace’s transport by way of personal teleportation. The woman is a surly drunk; it’s not hard for me to imagine how she ended up unwelcome in wherever she came from.”

“I never heard of an alcoholic elf,” Underminister Saradhi said with a frown.

“Court Wizard?” Panissar demanded incredulously. “I didn’t think that office still existed, anywhere. Not after the Enchanter Wars.”

“It has fallen out of vogue,” Vex agreed, “between Magnan’s bad example and the availability of spellcasters for hire that came with the founding of the Wizards’ Guild. But the position itself is still enshrined in law for any House holding an Imperial governorship. I think it a grandiose affectation on the Duchess’s part. This woman, as I said, isn’t an impressive specimen of either her race or profession.”

“Then Intelligence has a place to begin addressing this mess,” Sharidan said briskly. “Learning more about the high elves will definitely help us regain our footing, but it doesn’t even begin to resolve this. How many nations has this Confederacy reached out to already?”

“We can’t speak for formal diplomatic relations, your Majesty,” Saradhi said when Rehvaad looked pointedly at her, “but copies of this Constitution and the proclamation of the Confederacy’s founding have been delivered to every embassy in Tiraas. All but those of the smallest and poorest countries have at least one magic mirror linked to a counterpart in their home capitals. The world will know of this within the hour.”

“I expect they will give everyone a short period to respond before opening formal diplomatic contact,” Rehvaad added. He pulled over the copy of the Constitution Eleanora had thrown down, quickly scanning it and then planting his index finger on a specific line. “Here, this caught my eye: the Confederacy itself claims sole prerogative to conduct foreign policy and bars member states from carrying out their own. That means the Narisian embassy isn’t one anymore, as the Narisians have just signed away their right to conduct their own diplomacy. I would expect it will house the Confederate embassy, once they have normalized relations with us.”

“Mmm.” Frowning pensively, the Emperor stared at the far wall for a moment, then half-turned to meet Eleanora’s eye. “As Minister Asvedhri has pointed out, this situation is rife with the possibility for conflict. Is there any chance that the elves want a war?”

“They have nothing to gain,” Panissar grunted. “High elves or no, the only conceivable outcomes would see both our civilizations in ruins. They can’t possibly be unaware of that.”

“Your Majesty,” Saradhi said hesitantly, “most nations only seek war when they are certain they can win, or at least profit from it. It’s not characteristic of elves to do so even then. At their worst, the Narisians only sent raiding parties to the surface, never an organized invasion. The Cobalt Dawn are the only recorded case of elves trying to seize human territory, and we are frustratingly in the dark regarding what happened within that tribe in the years leading up to their attack.”

“Then, if no one disagrees, I believe we should proceed upon the assumption that the elves will meet us halfway,” Sharidan stated, nodding once. “They are generally conservative and risk-averse, and are doubtless aware of the potential for all of this to go badly. It seems to me they would not have taken this risk at all unless they were confident that an accord could be reached with the Empire.”

“That analysis is reasonable to my mind, your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad agreed.

“Very good.” The Emperor smiled once at the Empress before returning his attention to Rehvaad. “Minister, I require a precedent.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Rehvaad said with an answering smile. “What does the Empire need history to suggest?”

“We need a precedent for the application of an agreement between two legal parties to the relationship between one signatory and an organization which the second signatory unilaterally joins,” Sharidan said, his smile taking on just a hint of a smirk. Eleanora grimaced at him.

A moment of silence fell in which everyone digested that.

“It may be…challenging,” Rehvaad said delicately.

“It doesn’t need to stand up under arbitration,” the Emperor assured him, “just to have the veneer of established protocol, so it doesn’t appear we are throwing our weight around.”

“Ah.” Rehvaad nodded. “That is much more doable. I will have my assistants scour the law library; I believe I can have a draft before you in hours, your Majesty.”

“If I understand your Majesty’s intent,” Panissar said slowly, “you mean to approach the Confederacy under the assumption that our treaty with Tar’naris establishes the terms of our relationship?”

“As a starting point, yes,” Sharidan agreed.

“They will never go for that,” Eleanora stated.

Panissar shook his head. “Among other things, that treaty establishes open borders. Applied to the Confederacy, it would give every Imperial peasant the prerogative to track mud through Qestraceel itself. Whatever else we don’t know about high elves, I’m reasonably certain they would rather see every last human dead.”

“Not to mention that there are numerous other provisions of the treaty which are less applicable in this situation,” the Emperor acknowledged, nodding. “It is, as I said, a starting point. We should not forget that the elves launched this endeavor with an active effort to prevent us from responding until it was done; I interpret that more as a gambit to retain control of the situation than an aggressive act. The fact remains, they stand to lose as much as we from any hostilities that may ignite. No matter what happens, this is going to be delicate. My intention is to signal that we will make every effort to meet them halfway, and negotiate fairly and in good faith.” He leaned forward, his expression intent. “But, that the Empire will not be put upon. We are in a position of strength, and it will be important to leverage that. The difficulty is in doing so without signaling an intent to exercise that strength…or acknowledge our reluctance to do so.”

“Your Majesty has hit the nail on the head,” Lord Vex murmured. “Delicate.”

“If any of you can identify an aspect of this I have not considered,” said Sharidan, “now is the time to speak up.”

“Your Majesty,” Rehvaad said after a tiny pause, “in fact, I believe this discussion has overlooked an extremely important element which we must keep in mind as we make any plans for the future: the dwarves.”

Eleanora turned her frown on him directly.

“What in Avei’s name do they have to do with this?” Panissar demanded.

“Only that the Five Kingdoms have received the same notice of this as every other state,” Minister Rehvaad said seriously, “and there is only one course of action available to them: they must follow the example of the Conclave and now the Confederacy. The Alliance of the Five Kingdoms is, at present, basically nothing; it’s a treaty organization which serves no purpose but to express their solidarity in their nonsense war on Tar’naris. The nature of the Alliance will immediately have to change anyway, since as of this morning it is now at war with the combined wood and plains tribes, as well as Qestraceel, which unlike Tar’naris represents a serious threat to them.”

“So they’ll have to make peace,” Eleanora said, studying him narrowly. “That would seem to suggest the Alliance’s dissolution entirely.”

“That is one prospect, if the dwarves are stupid,” Rehvaad replied. “They are not. The situation on this continent since the Enchanter Wars has been our united Empire surrounded by smaller states which posed no major challenge to us. Now, with the Confederacy? There are suddenly two sizable power blocs on the continent, necessarily in competition. It must be said that the dwarves are as conservative as the elves, and nearly as incapable of reacting quickly; three of the Five Kingdoms are republics in all but name, and even the other two can do little unilaterally without navigating the intricacies of clan politics. Democratic organizations can’t do anything swiftly. But unlike elves, the dwarves believe in science and rationality, and part of the reason they move ponderously is because they look to the future and try to plan ahead. They are positioned to re-shape their Alliance into another, closer bond. And, I believe, they have to. Unless they take the opportunity to form a new counter to the Empire and the Confederacy, they will be pushed aside by one or the other, or both.”

“What, do you think, this would entail?” the Emperor asked quietly.

Rehvaad’s expression was downright grim now. “In the short term, it alleviates some of the pressure of conflict between us and the elves, your Majesty. A third party at the table makes everything more complicated, but does have the effect of lightening the tension. Anything which prevents us from being two opposites staring each other down in that regard will help. But in the longer term? The thing about trinary political structures is that there needn’t be parity of strength or position to keep them in flux. They are inherently unstable, but they serve to prevent any one party from gaining the upper hand. Whenever one begins to, the other two can apply concerted pressure to upset them, and start the cycle anew.”

He hesitated, grimaced, and finally continued, reaching forward once more to tap the copy of the elven Constitution resting on the conference table. “When the dust settles, your Majesty… I believe this presages the end of human dominance of this continent.”

Silence fell over the room again. This time, it lingered.

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16 – 1

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The residence of House Dalmiss was built into a great natural wall between the main cavern of Tar’naris and the secondary cave in which the city’s agricultural works had been built, with an enviable view overlooking both. The Duchess of House Madouri and her Butler were escorted by diffident guards to their appointment with the Matriarch in a colonnade open to the air on the agricultural side, lit by the golden gleam of its huge sun crystals.

The chamber was set up as a miniature throne room, with its entrance at one narrow end leaving a long approach to the opposite wall, where a dais held a single ornately-carved chair upon which Ezrakhai awaited them. Two House soldiers stood impassively at attention at the foot of the dais, bracketing the guests’ view of her, and a single chair was set up in the center of the floor, facing the throne.

“Duchess Ravana,” she said by way of greeting, with a single dip of her head.

“Matriarch Ezrakhai,” Ravana replied with a matching nod, seating herself without waiting for an invitation. Yancey stepped up to place himself behind her left shoulder, folded his hands behind his back, and assumed a stillness that would have suited even a Narisian.

“I ask your pardon for the sparse accommodations,” the Matriarch said tonelessly. “Your visit was unexpected. We are unaccustomed to entertaining guests of your esteemed rank with so little warning.”

A robed servant, the only other drow in the room now that Ravana’s guides had departed and closed the door behind her, stepped forward with a deep bow, and poured wine from a stone bottle into a goblet which she then handed to the Duchess.

“On the contrary, the fault is mine for so abruptly imposing upon you,” Ravana said smoothly, taking the cup without otherwise acknowledging the servant, who then backed away against the wall. “I can find no fault with your hospitality. My thanks for receiving me in person on such short notice.”

Ezrakhai inclined her head again, then hesitated, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly; Ravana had taken a tiny sip, grimaced, and set the goblet down upon the arm of the chair.

“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” the drow asked, her tone still even.

“There is but one concern we heads of House must always put first, is there not?” Ravana replied pleasantly. “The welfare of our people.”

“Indeed,” Ezrakhai said impassively, “though I am uncertain how I might aid you in the care of your own, your Grace.”

“Ah, but as it turns out, you can.” Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, still smiling. “I was recently made aware that several citizens of Madouris and Tiraan Province are currently held in Tar’naris against their will. According to my investigations, five have been placed in indentured servitude of unlimited duration to members of House Dalmiss.”

“I see,” Ezrakhai said with the faintest downturn of the corners of her mouth. “I assure you, your Grace, that enslavement in Tar’naris is assigned only as a just punishment for serious crimes of which the subject has been duly convicted.”

“Yes, I am aware of the politics involved,” Ravana said, languidly waving one hand. “I could, of course, argue with the procedural details of each trial; I have taken time to gather information on the various improprieties of all five convictions—”

“That would be something to take up with the courts, which answer directly to the Queen. I cannot intercede in their judgments.”

“—but we both know that would be missing the forest for the trees, as it were. At issue is that the very institution of slavery in Tar’naris is applied selectively to humans and enforced through corrupt trials, in order to secure a rare luxury for those able to purchase a miscarriage of justice. I’m sure it must shock and horrify you that any such exist among your House.”

“Again,” Ezrakhai said, now with a faint edge to her tone, “that is a matter you would have to bring before the courts. If you can prove that those trials produced an improper verdict, Duchess, you could have them overturned. The guilty would then, of course, be freed.”

“That all sounds rather tedious, does it not?” Ravana mused. “They could also be freed if those in custody of them relinquished their claim.”

“I think you would find that a rather hard sell,” the Matriarch said dryly. “A slave is a rare and prestigious acquisition.”

“To be sure, to be sure. Thus why I have requested an audience with yourself, Matriarch. I assume you have sufficient authority over your House to order the release of my people. I formally request that you exercise it.”

In the heavy silence which followed, Ezrakhai very slowly drummed the fingers of both hands upon the armrests of her throne.

“I am not thoroughly versed in the details of House politics within the Empire,” she said at last, “but I cannot imagine it is news to you that no aristocrat reigns by complete and incontestible fiat. Power is made of the agreement of one’s subordinates that one is to be obeyed, and can be damaged by excessive use. I’m afraid it is simply out of the question for me to make such demands of multiple members of my House simultaneously, your Grace. It would be at minimum deeply disruptive, and in all likelihood severely damaging to my rule.”

“I sympathize,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, inclining her head. “Nonetheless, that is, not to put too fine a point on it, your problem. I require the release of my citizens.”

Another beat of silence passed. This time, Ezrakhai stared down at her, silent and still as a gargoyle.

“That remains beyond my ability.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Ravana said, still smiling pleasantly. “Merely beyond your willingness.”

“As you say,” the Matriarch retorted, finally wearing open annoyance. “As such, I wish you good fortune in pursuing your dispute with Queen Arkasia’s court. Now I must excuse myself, as it is a particularly difficult time for my House and certain matters require my ongoing attention.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Ravana said, nodding. “The disappearance of your second daughter. I imagine that is most preoccupying.”

Ezrakhai had begun to rise from her throne, but now hesitated, narrowing her eyes again. “You are indeed well-informed, your Grace.”

“Oh, naturally,” Ravana said airily. “After all, I have her.”

Both House Dalmiss guards finally reacted, shifting position subtly to stare at her directly, one moving a hand to the hilt of her saber. Ezrakhai herself abruptly sat back down, leaning forward to stare at the Duchess.

“What did you say?” she whispered.

“It was quite easy,” Ravana explained, smiling broadly. “I simply had her snatched right off the street. That is a thing I can do, Ezrakhai, while your people must resort to elaborate trickery to do the same. I say that not to boast, but to emphasize an important point which I believe has gone over your head.”

The Matriarch shot upright, baring her teeth. “You will return my daughter immediately, you smirking child!”

“I have every intention of it,” Ravana agreed, folding her hands again. “The condition in which she is returned, of course, depends entirely upon you. Now, as I said, I require the immediate release of all citizens of Tiraan Province behind held in slavery by your House. You have forty-eight hours to remand them, unharmed and without exception, to Imperial custody. If this is not done by that point, you will receive…an ear.”

Ezrakhai’s eyes widened. “You dare—”

“At intervals thereafter,” Ravana continued, “unless these demands are met, further…bits and bobs. The other ear, fingers, feet… Eyes, tongue. You know, whatever protrudes and is accessible. This should afford you quite some time to carry out this difficult task, as I have no intention of killing Ezranat and there are so many things a person can lose and still live. One way or another, you’ll receive her back, alive. In the worst case scenario, a blind, mute, limbless torso. In any case, one who knows exactly whose intransigence resulted in her state. And if that somehow has still not moved you to comply, I will simply seize another member of your family and begin again.” Ravana’s smile widened, showing the tips of her teeth. “Which I can also do, Ezrakhai, regardless of any defenses you raise. For the simple reason that I am, by every measurable standard, your superior.”

The Matriarch pointed at her, barking a few harsh syllables in elvish, and both guards lunged at the human, bringing up their swords. With typical elven speed, they crossed the space faster than a human could have noticed them moving.

Most humans.

Yancey intercepted them just as rapidly, seizing the wrist of the closer soldier and snapping her arm with a jerk even as he tripped the other. The guard screamed as she was sent hurling over the side of the open colonnade to plummet into the fields below. By that point the second guard was already in the process of spinning back to her feet and slashing at him with her saber in the same motion.

The Butler hopped nimbly over the blade, once more kicking her, but this time hooking a foot under her body in the process and hiking her physically upward before she could regain her footing. It closed the distance enough for him to seize her by one ankle.

He spun in a full circle and hurled her in the opposite direction. The guard struck the servant, slamming both into the stone wall hard enough to crack it. They tumbled to the floor and lay unmoving, a puddle of blood already beginning to spread.

Yancey stepped back behind Ravana and resumed his formal posture. Exactly three seconds had passed.

“This is what I mean,” Ravana admonished. “A sensible, civilized person would have paused to consider that Ezranat’s life rests in my hands, and acted accordingly. You, Ezrakhai, are a savage, and that is why you are now in this situation. Your people thrive because the Empire wills it. You survive because the Silver Throne deems your existence advantageous. In the prosperity brought by the patronage of Tiraas, you have grown ungrateful and arrogant. As you have chosen to squander my goodwill, you shall now be relegated to dealing with me in a more proper manner: as befits a lesser civilization, existing at the sufferance of a greater. Yancey.”

She spoke with a subtle emphasis as Ezrakhai took two long steps across the floor toward her.

“If this overweening termite presumes to lay a finger on my person, break both of her legs.”

“Yes, my Lady,” the Butler intoned in perfect serenity.

The Matriarch froze, glaring with pure hatred. Ravana leaned slowly forward, her smile finally slipping.

“Forty-eight hours,” she repeated, “until the dissection begins. You needn’t worry for Ezranat’s life; I am actually able to guarantee the safety of people under my protection, as I am the ruler of a true noble House and not a cave-dwelling arthropod with pretensions of significance. I expect you to remember this lesson, should the opportunity arise for you to falsely enslave a citizen of my province in the future. If I am forced to put you back in your place again, I shall not do so as gently.

“And when you attempt to attack me in retaliation,” she added with a condescending smile, “which you will, because you are a brute savage with the capacity for only a few predictable thoughts, you will not be getting the personnel you send back. At least, not immediately. I mean to commission a very stylish drowhide trench coat in the Imperial style, when I have accumulated enough leather. I will send it to you, as a personal gift from House Madouri. Just the first one, though. After that, I believe I’ll begin work on a lovely sofa.”

“You are a sadistic little monster,” the Matriarch hissed.

“No, Ezrakhai,” Ravana retorted, the smile vanishing from her features. “You are a little monster. I am a far greater one. If, as I suspect, you are capable of absorbing no other lesson from this, get that into your head. The reminders will only grow more costly with repetition. Now, then!”

She stood smoothly, pausing to incline her head once more in a courteous gesture.

“My Butler and I are going to walk out of this House unimpeded. Either because you belatedly summon the basic sense not to interfere with me while your daughter’s fate hangs in the balance, or because you have nothing capable of impeding us. In truth, it makes no difference to me.”

Ravana turned and glided away, back toward the audience room’s door.

“You cannot be arrogant enough to think this ends it,” Ezrakhai snarled behind her. “No matter how this plays out, Madouri, for an insult of this magnitude there will be vengeance. On the last drop of my blood, I swear it!”

The Duchess paused, and looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “The mole bares its teeth. It would be endearing, were it not so sad. Come, Yancey.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

They departed the room in silence.


The namesake fortifications of Fort Vaspian physically barred the tunnel entrance to Tar’naris, funneling all commerce between the drow city and the surface through Imperial-controlled gates, but in the decade of peacetime a civilian presence had expanded around the battlements, until the label of Fort Vaspian was used to refer to what amounted to a mid-sized town as much as the citadel at its heart.

Thought it offered numerous accommodations, including several comfortable enough to suit the standards of an aristocrat, Ravana’s next meeting was deep within the old fortress itself, where absolute security could be ensured by the Empire, and more specifically, one of the individuals already waiting when she arrived.

“Ah, I see I am the last here,” Ravana said, gliding forward to join Lord Quentin Vex and Nahil of House Awarrion at the fireplace, while Yancey shut the door behind them. “I do hope I have not kept you waiting. Departing the city was surprisingly difficult; a large, apparently informal procession of some kind has slowed traffic along the main thoroughfare to the gates.”

“Not to worry, your Grace,” Nahil said serenely, “I’m just relieved to hear that was your only delay. I might have worried for your safety, if Matriarch Ezrakhai took offense at your demands.”

“I found the Matriarch eminently reasonable, after some judicious prompting,” Ravana replied with a smile, settling herself in a chair across from Nahil while Vex lounged against the hearth.

“Then everything proceeded as planned?” the spymaster inquired.

“Precisely according to our agenda,” she reported, “though I cannot say with certainty what the Matriarch’s response will be. Narisians are, I fear, rather inscrutable to me, and she is an aristocrat besides, with all the implied poise. I am confident I did what could be done, but I won’t predict with certainty that she will accede to my demands.”

“She will,” Nahil said with a humorless little smile. “Ezrakhai is a cautious and conservative person by temperament. In any case, I am already making arrangements for House Awarrion to ‘accidentally’ learn about this confrontation; if Ezrakhai proves resistant, my mother will apply pressure. We will have our precedent within the week. A confrontation between one Narisian and one Imperial House may not, in and of itself, make the necessary waves,” she added, directing her gaze at Lord Vex.

“It is only a starting point,” he assured her, “and I am already at work preparing the next steps. When it is believable for word to spread, the narrative we will seed through our press contacts is of the Duchess personally intervening to restore the affronted honor of House Madouri and Tiraan Province. The very fact of House Madouri’s diminished prestige will all but force other Houses who have lost citizens to the slave trade to follow suit, just to save face.”

“And once confrontation with the larger and wealthier Houses of the Empire becomes a serious prospect,” Nahil finished, allowing herself a smug smile, “the danger to Tar’naris’s very infrastructure will give Queen Arkasia plentiful leverage to pressure the Houses to turn against the slave trade. Even in the best case scenario, this likely will not obliterate it completely, but depriving the market of its primary buyers will be a crippling blow. It may be too early to celebrate yet, but I believe her Grace has now done the difficult part; so long as we manage the next few days carefully, all should turn out as we have planned. On behalf of myself, my mother, and the Queen, I thank you both for your assistance.”

“We all profit by this,” Vex replied, nodding deeply to her. “The Silver Throne thanks you and Matriarch Ashaele for making this possible, Nahil.”

“May our friendship continue to prosper,” she said, rising smoothly. “I hope you will both forgive me for rushing off, but it is a momentous day, and my mother will require a swift report on our progress.”

“Of course,” Ravana said graciously. “Please give Matriarch Ashaele my compliments, Nahil.”

“I shall. Goddess’s guidance to you both; please do not hesitate to call on me if House Awarrion can assist you in the future.”

With a final bow, she turned and strode to the door. Yancey opened and held it for her, bowing.

The second the Butler had shut it behind her, Vex turned to Ravana. “And the additional steps we discussed, your Grace?”

She didn’t bother to ask whether the room was secured against elvish hearing, though there was no visible sign of a warding charm, nor the distinctive prickle of arcane magic in the air. Such things could be hidden, and Quentin Vex did not make stupid blunders.

“A smashing success,” Ravana reported primly. “I can say with all confidence that Matriarch Ezrakhai was left so bitterly affronted that she will never cease to seek revenge as long as I remain alive. I believe I can milk further insults from her inevitable attempts at retaliation, but ensuring that the resulting destabilization of House Dalmiss imperils Tar’naris’s food supply will fall to you, Lord Vex. I would gladly offer further aid toward increasing the Narisians’ dependency on the Empire, but Tiraan Province must still import crops to sustain itself. I gather we have been somehow outmaneuvered?”

He actually blinked in surprise. “What makes you say so, your Grace?”

“You look unhappy, Lord Vex,” she replied gently. “Given your famous self-control, that can only be deliberate. Either unexpected developments have derailed the plan, or you intend to double-cross me. I choose to err on the side of optimism.”

“Hm,” he grunted, reaching into his coat and withdrawing a folded sheaf of paper, several pages thick. “I appreciate your faith, Duchess Ravana. It is the first, I fear. While you were meeting with the Matriarch, the situation changed right out from under us.”

She accepted the sheets from him, opened it, and began rapidly perusing their contents. Half a minute passed in silence while Ravana’s eyes darted rapidly across the pages, and her brows slowly lifted.

“Well,” she said finally, turning to the third page. “I see. Indeed, we appear to have outsmarted ourselves. This will ensure the security of Tar’naris’s food supply without Imperial help, not to mention possibly granting Ezrakhai access to strategic resources I may live to regret.”

“That is the least of what this will change,” he said dourly. “Of course, your Grace, you shall have the full backing and protection of the Imperial government. You have been a staunch ally of House Tirasian and your involvement in this project was at my instigation. The Silver Throne does not abandon its allies.”

“I appreciate that,” she said with a nod, casually holding up the papers. Yancey ghosted across the room to pluck them from her hands, the Butler then stepping discreetly back to begin reading the documents.

“It’s too early to say what form that aid will need to take,” Vex continued, pressing his lips together in displeasure. “Rest assured, your Grace, I will be in contact. In the immediate term, however, this has left me with a thousand new fires to put out. I must touch base with my people on the ground here at Vaspian, and then return to the capital with all haste.”

“Yes, of course,” she said seriously. “You will know where to find me; I’ll not keep you any longer.”

The spymaster bowed to her, then turned and followed Nahil’s path to the door.

“Lord Vex,” Ravana said suddenly, “do you believe there is any possibility that Nahil suspected our secondary objective?”

“I don’t see how she could have,” he replied, turning to regard her with one eyebrow quirked. “Based on what she knows, needlessly antagonizing the Matriarch would have been both pointless and out of character for you. But it goes without saying that even the part of your mission she knew would make you an enemy of House Dalmiss.”

“Yes, of course,” Ravana mused. “And it is inconceivable that she did not know of this development…indeed, this entire affair very neatly kept you occupied while it unfolded. Well. Thank you, my lord.”

“My Lady.” He nodded again, and turned to step out, Yancey having already opened the door courteously.

The Butler closed it behind the spymaster, and only then returned to his mistress’s side, the folded documents already tucked into his own coat.

“His Lordship’s lack of admonition against pursuing a grievance against Nahil could be interpreted as tacit blessing, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently. “Shall we begin formulating an expression of displeasure at her maneuvering?”

“Now, Yancey, it does not do take these things personally,” Ravana mused, staring pensively into the fireplace. “This is how the game is played. Nahil acted with the resources and knowledge at her disposal toward the best interests of her House and monarch, precisely as a noblewoman ought. I feel no personal ire toward her. Even, I daresay, a touch of admiration. It was quite neatly done.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“For now!” Ravana stood, her gaze snapping back into focus. “Our guests will be arriving at the Manor by this evening, and indeed, these events are certain to send shockwaves across the continent. Even not being formally involved in international relations, there will be repercussions we shall feel directly. The politics of both our nations are about to be thrown into a tumult that no one can ignore. Come, we must dig Veilwin out of the tavern and return to Madouris immediately.”

“Very good, my Lady,” he said, preceding her to the door to hold it open.

“And later, when circumstances provide a suitable opportunity,” Ravana murmured to herself, “I will gently notify Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion that House Madouri does not forgive.”

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15 – 78

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She wasn’t laboring on the omnipresent, never-ending paperwork for once. The office was quiet and dim as usual by that hour of the evening, the moonlight pouring through its large windows not competing with the warmer glow of the fairy lamp sitting on her desk. Tonight, Tellwyrn had elected to take some personal time, brushing all the papers to be graded into a filing cabinet and indulging in one of the hobbies she was least inclined to admit to in public.

Not that she’d ever have contended that it was good poetry, but the satisfaction was in the creating, not the having. Most of them she shredded, anyway. Tellwyrn paused with her pen hovering above the parchment, considering syllables and studying the kanji already marked down. Haiku didn’t really work properly in anything but Sifanese, in her opinion, having tried it in several languages. It was an aesthetic matter of the syllabic structure of the language, not blind adherence to custom; had she been a stickler for tradition she would be using a brush, not a pen.

She sighed heavily at the soft flutter of wings on the windowsill outside. Setting down the pen, she blew gently on the ink to dry it, then carefully picked up and tapped the stack of papers into neat order, ignoring the tapping from the glass behind her. The professor continued not to acknowledge it while it grew steadily more insistent until she had meticulously filed away the pages in a desk drawer, locked it, stowed the key in her vest pocket, and capped her inkwell, all with careful and precise little motions.

Then she whirled, grabbed the window, and roughly threw it open.

“Fucking what?” Tellwyrn demanded.

Mary the Crow swung her legs into the room. “Arachne, we must speak.”

“Well, it’s not like I expected a social call,” Tellwyrn retorted. “What’ve you done this time, lost another dryad?”

“It was you who—no, never mind, I’m not going to play that game with you tonight. It’s about the Arquin boy, and that sword of his.”

“Yes, Ariel.” Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, scooting it back from the window and smirking faintly. “Who has never spoken in my presence. Arquin showed her to Alaric but has never asked my opinion about it. I think he’s afraid I’ll confiscate the thing.”

“He seemed to fear I would do the same,” Mary replied, her expression intent and grim. “It is an original Qestrali magister’s blade, Arachne. According to the boy himself, Salyrene confirmed this. Do you know anything of the significance of such weapons?”

“I figured it might be,” Tellwyrn mused. “Not many other mages have worked out the method. Yes, that’s what they do to the really naughty criminals, right? Not murderers or anything so pedestrian, but the ones with opinions the Magistry doesn’t care to hear.”

“You are barking up the wrong tree if you think I’m going to defend the Magistry,” Mary replied, eyes still intent on hers. “I went to Qestraceel before coming here to check on something. Arachne… They are not missing one.”

“Huh,” Tellwyrn grunted. “And?”

The Crow’s jaw tightened momentarily in annoyance, but she pressed on. “He found that thing in the Crawl, did he not?”

“Yes, during an excursion while the place was somewhat dimensionally unmoored, due to my incubus messing with some old Elder God tech he found. It’s probably from an alternate universe, Kuriwa, nothing to get your knickers in a knot over.”

“Arachne,” she said quietly, “I was… I visited the Crawl once, before you arrived. Before the Third Hellwar. It was my escape route from the deep underworld.”

Tellwyrn’s eyebrows rose slightly, but she remained silent.

“I understand,” Mary continued, carefully choosing her words, “you spent many years seeking out the gods to ask something none of them were able or willing to tell you. Was it about your own origin?”

“That’s ancient history,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “You had better have a damn good reason to be digging it up again, Kuriwa.”

“I am not proud of this,” she replied, “but I did the least wrong thing I could at the time. I thought it was necessary, even despite the price. To undo a curse Elilial laid on my entire bloodline, I had to deal with Scyllith.”

Tellwyrn worked her jaw once as if biting back a retort, then said in a deceptively mild tone, “So is that where the hair comes from? Always wondered.”

The Crow drew in a deep breath. “The price Scyllith demanded for her aid was one of my kin. She said they would be removed from all memory, excised from the timeline. Only I would know that someone had been lost, but…not who.”

The silence was absolute.

“You what,” Tellwyrn finally whispered tonelessly.

“Arachne, you have to understand—”

“You knew,” the mage hissed, leaning forward. “From the very beginning. You recognized my name. If you’d been in the deep Underworld before then, you would have recognized my accent. And you are telling me this now?”

“Listen, Arachne,” she said desperately. “It was suggestive, but not proof! You do not trigger my familial sense, your hair is the wrong color, you are an arcanist when none of my descendants are—”

“Are you trying to pitch to me,” Tellwyrn snarled, standing up so abruptly that the chair smacked against the desk behind her, “that it never crossed your mind that any of that could be explained by alternate-dimension fuckery caused by the sadistic Elder God you were playing around with? You’re going to stand here at the apex of all the history between us and claim you are that blitheringly stupid?”

“I had to be sure,” Kuriwa protested.

“YOU HAD TO BE IN CONTROL,” Tellwyrn roared, and a sudden shockwave of pure kinetic force blasted the office apart, smashing its furnishings and sending the door shooting across the hall outside, but also pulverizing the window and flinging Kuriwa out into the sky.

She caught her balance in the form of a crow, squawking frantically, and Tellwyrn shot out of the ragged hole where the outer wall of her office had been, landing nimbly on a square pane of blue light that appeared conveniently under her.

Kuriwa lit on the opposite end, in elven form again, and held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Arachne, listen, consider what—”

“Thee thousand years,” Tellwyrn raged, stalking toward her, each step sending ripples across the panel beneath them. “While entire civilizations rose and fell around us, I drove myself mad scrabbling desperately for answers in every dark corner of the world, and you had them the whole time?”

“It wasn’t that simple! Given what was at stake—”

“YOUR EGO WAS AT STAKE!”

The wind rose as Kuriwa gathered the attention of familiar spirits, but not fast enough; the blessing shielded her from serious bodily harm but the bolt of pure arcane power that hit her from point-blank range was comparable in strength to a mag cannon burst. She went tumbling moccasins-over-ears again, barely catching her balance on a leaf-shaped construct of green light which coalesced out of the air and hovered atop a constant updraft conjured from nothing.

“If you want to blame me—”

“Oh, you’re damn right I blame you!” Tellwyrn hurled a pumpkin-sized orb of lightning, forcing the shaman to glide swiftly out of the way. “Spare me your dissembling, you self-obsessed old carrion feeder! From the very beginning, you had everything you needed to answer both our greatest questions and you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it because I am something you couldn’t control!”

“The risk—”

“The risk was that you might have to acknowledge someone as an equal and then deal with them!”

“Would you let me finish a sentence?” Kuriwa snapped.

“Fucking NO!”

A spray of lightning bolts burst out of nowhere around them, forming a deadly obstacle course in midair. Kuriwa dodged nimbly, directing her leaf through the crackling haze with the deftness of an acrobat while Tellwyrn stood impassive atop her glowing panel, electrical discharges snapping harmlessly against the arcane shield around her.

“You may have swallowed your own bullshit, Kuriwa, but I never have, and in the end that’s what all this is about.” Tellwyrn folded her arms, her voice suddenly dead calm again. “You are so incapable of entertaining the possibility of not being in total control of something that you’ve squandered probably the widest window of time anyone has every had in which to do anything. Three thousand years, and you could have come to me at any point. Were you not such a walking bladder full of ego and spite, you’d have taken me aside the very day we met, but no. You had to wait.”

“Arachne, please.” Kuriwa brought the leaf to a hover again.

“You waited,” Tellwyrn continued, baring her teeth in a snarl, “until I tried everything I could try, and failed. You waited while I gave up on my whole existence and spent thirty years trying to die, in a place where you were quite possibly the only person alive who could have come to find me. You waited until I moved on, you selfish piece of shit. I gave up on the whole thing, found a true purpose in life and devoted myself to it, created an actual place in the world for myself that wasn’t just passing through it in every direction while trying to find my way back to somewhere I couldn’t remember. I was finally done, and happy, and this, this is when you chose to come here and tell me all this?!”

“I understand,” Kuriwa said urgently. “I am not saying I handled everything perfectly, but—”

“PERFECTLY?”

This time it was an actual mag cannon burst, or near enough, a barrel-thick beam of pure white light which impacted the prairie below less than half a mile from Last Rock, fortunately at an angle that sprayed the debris away from the town. Kuriwa tried to evade, but the deceptively wide corona of the beam finally caused her conjured leaf to explode, forcing to catch herself in midair on her own tiny wings.

A white sphere of divine light snapped into place around her, dragging the squawking and struggling bird forward until it rested right in Tellwyrn’s hand.

The tiny shield only collapsed when her fingers closed, clamping around the crow’s neck. Arachne held it up, glaring into Kuriwa’s beady little eyes from inches apart.

“I am done with you and your shit, Kuriwa,” she stated. “Stay away from my mountain. I don’t want to see you again.”

A sheer kinetic burst erupted, just like the one which had demolished the office, but stronger; centered on Tellwyrn as it was, she was not affected, but having released her grip on the Crow in the same instant as the explosion, Kuriwa was hurled over two hundred yards into the night sky amid a spray of dislodged feathers.

Tellwyrn stood impassively atop her floating panel of arcane magic, watching the little bird catch herself in the distance, flapping desperately to right her flight.

Kuriwa started to circle back to head toward her again.

Tellwyrn held up one hand, and a whirling vortex of sheer arcane destruction manifested in her grip, causing a steady breeze as the very air was drawn into it like a black hole.

The Crow veered off in defeat and glided away to the south.

The sorceress stood there watching until she had passed beyond the limits of even elven sight, even augmented by her enchanted spectacles. Then the pane of light beneath her turned and carried her back toward the hole in the wall, in which she could see and hear several of her faculty gathering. Explaining all this and then fixing her office promised to keep her occupied for a while.

She welcomed the distraction.


“The questions are growing more and more insistent, your Holiness,” Branwen said, her expression openly worried. On his other side, Colonel Ravoud walked in silence, but wearing a matching frown of concern. “I don’t think Imperial Intelligence has more than rumor out of Ninkabi yet, but the rumors are themselves damning, and there’s just too much evidence left, too many witnesses… They will piece together an account of what happened, at least in the broad strokes. The newspapers are already all but openly attacking the Church, including some I thought were in your pocket.

“And the symbolism,” she continued, her normally controlled voice rising in pitch. “The Guild and the Sisterhood haven’t formally left the Universal Church, but with both choosing to forego representation, it’s a very bad look. That’s two of the three cults that forced out Archpope Sipasian to install Archpope Vyara in the Enchanter Wars. If even one more cult turns away, this could present a major schism. The Veskers would complete that symbolic break and they’re the most unpredictable anyway, especially with Vesk himself having been involved in Ninkabi. Given that he actually forced a public surrender from Elilial, his credibility is at an all-time high. If they do withdraw it will be a political catastrophe, and I can’t get Bishop Tavaar to even respond to my messages.”

“And the Shaathists,” Ravoud added. “They are the most loyal to your cause, your Holiness, and thanks to this Ingvar character and his splinter sect, with all the dreams and visions and portents that heralded them, Grandmaster Veisroi is going to be too occupied trying to control his own cult to lend much in the way of help.”

“Thank you, Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said calmly. “I greatly appreciate all the work you do.”

“Your Holiness,” Branwen protested, coming to a stop. The Archpope did likewise, turning to regard her with beatific calm, and Ravoud trailed to a halt a few steps further on, glancing up and down the hallway. This corridor was deep within the tunnel system under the Cathedral; they were unlikely to encounter anyone and all but certain not to meet anyone who was not supposed to be there, but Ravoud took his duties as Justinian’s protector with the utmost seriousness.

“I understand your fears, Branwen,” the Archpope said, reaching out to lightly rest a hand on her shoulder. “They are not misplaced. All of this I have planned for with great care.”

“I believe in you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said firmly. “I knew you would be in control.”

“Control is an illusion, my friends,” Justinian warned. “All we can do is have faith, and act as best we can without fear, and with our utmost skill and effort. You are right to be concerned, Branwen. All of this is unfolding too soon, before I am ready.”

“What shall we do, your Holiness?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“I…have planned for that, as well,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I had hoped and prayed that it would not come to this. I have, ready and waiting, the means to keep the circling vultures at bay until the proper time for them to strike, but it will require me to do things which I had desperately hoped I would not need to.”

“We’re with you, whatever comes,” Ravoud assured him. Branwen nodded.

“I am deeply grateful for you both,” he said, smiling. “Come, there is little time to tarry. Preparations must be made to meet the unforeseen, but first, tonight’s business has been long awaited and should not be delayed.”

This wasn’t the first visit by either of them to this secret underground complex, though it was the first time he had brought both together. Grooming each of them to a state of assured loyalty had been a long-term project, more so in Branwen’s case than Nassir’s as she had a far more complex mind and intricate motivations. In the end, though, he felt assured of both their loyalties, now that the moment had come. As much, at least, as anyone could be assured of anything. Certainty was as much an illusion as control; a time inevitably came when one simply had to act.

Justinian led the way in silence to the iron door, tapping the proper code into the runes affixed to its frame. It opened with a soft creak under the power of its own enchantments, and he strode through, both hurrying after as the door immediately began to shut again behind them.

Delilah turned and bowed to him upon his entry, receiving a smile and a deep nod in response.

“Finally,” Rector snapped, barely looking up from his runic console. Ravoud, ever protective of the Archpope’s dignity, shot the enchanter a scowl, but held his peace. It wasn’t his first time encountering the man, and Delilah had done her best to explain Rector’s eccentricities.

The chamber was a chapel-sized apparently natural cave in the bedrock beneath Tiraas, only improved by having a door added and the floor smoothed down; the rest of the walls had been left in their natural contours, originally. Now, it was heavily built up with powerful fairly lamps to illuminate the space and its heavy-duty equipment. Machinery was arranged all around the walls, along with sturdy beams of iron and copper to hold some of it up, and intricate networks of wires, glass rods and brass tubes. Most of the structures were made of modern enchanting equipment, though there were several purely mechanical apparatuses in the dwarven style, and here and there, sticking out from the contemporary machines, ancient fragments of Infinite Order technology distinguishable by mithril surfaces and in two cases, glowing information panels. All of it was confined to the outer walls of the chamber, including the section on which they now stood, leaving a wide open space clear in its center.

“Rector,” Justinian said calmly. “Is everything prepared?”

“I’m ready,” the enchanter said peevishly. “Have been for an hour. You did your part?”

Behind Justinian, Branwen gently placed a calming hand on Ravoud’s back as the Colonel tensed in agitation.

“I have made all possible preparations,” Justinian assured him. “We should be able to proceed without drawing the interference, or even notice, of Vemnesthis.”

“Should?” Branwen asked quietly. “No disrespect meant, your Holiness, but the Scions are one cult I am simply not prepared to contend with.”

“Wouldn’t they have intervened already if they were going to?” Delilah asked.

“Not till the last second,” Rector grunted. “Their standard policy. Wait till the event is ready to occur, freeze time, disassemble machine, deliver warning. Maximum emotional impact.”

“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “If I have failed and the Scions do register their displeasure, that will be the end of it. Apart from the probable loss of Rector’s entire construction, I will not engage in a futile contest with such an impossible force. And so, in more ways than one, this is the moment of truth. Proceed, Rector.”

“Thinning dimensional barrier,” he said curtly, rapidly manipulating runes on his console. “May be uncomfortable, but harmless. Stay calm.”

Massive power crystals began to glow and hum, energy lit several of the glass rods and brought several pieces of moving machinery to life, and in the next moment, the very quality of the air changed. It seemed to thicken and shift color, and a feeling almost of vertigo fell over all five of them, as if the floor had tilted. It did not, however, despite Branwen stepping unsteadily over to the wall to lean against it.

“Stable,” Rector reported. “Initiating major breach.”

In the domed ceiling of the cave, light began to swirl, quickly collecting into a visible vortex like the atmospheric effect caused by new hellgates. More lights activated and another bank of machinery hummed to life. Several brass connectors began to emit sparks, and a stray arc of lightning climbed one of the steel beams lining the walls.

“Rector?” Justinian asked calmly while the others ducked.

“All within normal parameters,” Rector grunted. “Triple redundancy in crucial systems, some circuit burnout planned for. Opening it.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Branwen muttered.

The vortex in the ceiling widened, till the swirling effect was not a spiral but a border, rimming a circular space that was pitch black, as if the machinery had opened a portal onto some absolute void. No more equipment came to life, but the energy coursing through the connectors visibly and audibly intensified. A red indicator began flashing on one of the Infinite Order panels.

Rector’s control panel put off a sudden shower of sparks, causing him to dodge momentarily to one side, but he did not otherwise react, even when Delilah rushed forward.

They seemed to form out of the very air, a network of gossamer strands fanning out from the portal in every direction. Most passed through the very walls, trembling as if their other ends were affixed to targets which moved and caused the whole web to shiver, but many of the streams of ephemeral spidersilk were connected to each of them. Ravoud grimaced and tried to brush at them.

“Be calm,” Justinian urged over the noise of the enchanted machines. “They have always been there, you are only now able to see them. The webs are a visual metaphor, delineating connections. They will not harm you.”

He himself was connected directly to the portal by a single, massive cable of gnarled silk. So many streamers of spiderweb radiated away from him it was as if he were a second portal in his own right.

“Portal stable,” the enchanter stated, brusque as ever. “All values locked in. Initiating temporal phasing. Stay on this side of the console, may be disorienting if you’re too close. If the Scions interfere it’ll be now.”

He grabbed a lever and slowly eased it into an upward position.

Around the center of the open space a swirl of golden dust arose, quickly forming a helix shape in the air and then fluctuating wildly about, a tornado extending from the dimensional portal to the floor. Or, looked at another way, the upper half of an hourglass.

The Archpope’s deflections held. No Scions appeared; Vemnesthis’s attention was not drawn to the portal they had made between two points in time.

But someone else’s was.

The entire network of webs shivered, then began to shake violently. And then, suddenly, more things poked out of the portal.

Long, segmented appendages emerged, amid showers of sparks and arcs of lightning from the equipment all around as the portal was strained beyond its intended limits at the entity’s emergence. One of the colossal spider legs drove into the wall, thankfully missing the machinery; unlike the webs, this was clearly a physical projection. Its tip made a crater in the ancient stone.

“Your Holiness!” Ravoud shouted. “We have to get out of here!”

“Peace.” Justinian held up one hand, noting the way the strands of silk binding it went taut at the gesture, quivering with tension as their other ends were collected by whatever now rose on the other side of the spacetime aperture.

Someone screamed, either Deliliah or Branwen, at the sudden pressure that fell over the room, the distinctive psychic force of a consciousness orders of magnitude beyond their own looking upon them.

Amid the blackness in the center of the swirling, eight crimson eyes appeared.

Justinian flexed his forearm in a circle, gathering a physical grip on the spiderwebs, then yanked hard.

The eyes shifted, fixing their gaze upon him directly. The mental thrust of it might have crushed another person. But he was the Archpope, and even while hiding his activities from the gods, he enjoyed certain protections.

Justinian nodded once in acknowledgment, and released his grip on the webs.

With a great tearing of metal, the entire portal collapsed. All the visible magical effects dissipated and the arcane hum of the machines began to power down. The last evidence any of them could see of the metaphysical forces they had summoned was the spectral shape of a spider the size of a dragon emerging into the chamber, fading from view like a shadow from a campfire.

It was only relatively quiet, with furtive fountains of sparks and several residual electrical discharges snapping around the edges of the walls. A significant percentage of the equipment built into them had either exploded or been crushed by falling stone and beams; this great machine wasn’t going to work again any time soon. More than half of the industrial sized fairly lamps had been burned out, leaving the chamber cast in odd patterns of light and darkness.

Ravoud stepped forward, planting himself in front of Justinian with his wand in his hand.

“W-what went wrong?” Branwen asked tremulously. “That wasn’t the Scions. What was that?”

“Nothing went wrong,” Rector said.

“Excuse me?” Ravoud exclaimed. “What do you call that?”

“Unexpected side effect,” the enchanter said noncommittally. “Experiment succeeded, worked exactly as predicted. Look.”

He pointed, and they all turned to stare at the unconscious figure now lying in a heap in the middle of the floor, directly below where the portal had been.


The swirling column of golden light had been bad enough. Prairie folk were very much accustomed to tornadoes; glowing tornadoes that came out of a clear sky and sat in one place for several minutes managed to conjure both their very reasonable caution for nature’s destructive power and the more primal fear of the unknown.

It did not help that the citizens of Hamlet could all tell at a glance exactly where it had centered.

But then it got worse.

Thankfully, the glowing storm didn’t approach the village, but when it abruptly dissipated, it left behind a column of pure fire that would have been visible for miles around, accompanied by the ear-piercing scream of a woman in the extremity of terror and pain.

Exactly as it had been only a few short years ago on the night June Witwill had died.

Now, Marshal Ross, having ordered the rest of the townsfolk to stay back, led his two deputies on a fast march across the prairie to the old basin full of flowers, wands in hand and expressions grim as the grave. Of all the things this town did not need dragged up again…

He slowed as he reached the rim of the little hollow, raising his weapon and peering down into the depression, ready for anything. Or so he thought. Ross was not ready for what he actually saw.

As it had been on that other terrible night, the entire basin was scorched black, every stalk of tallgrass and versithorae blooms scoured away by the unnatural firestorm. But this time, she was there.

She huddled in front of the stone marker, her gingham dress hanging off her in charred rags; even her hair looked to be half-burned away. But apart from that… What could be seen of her skin looked whole, untouched by fire.

And she was alive.

The Marshal stepped down into the basin, Lester and Harriet right on his heels. Their boots crunched on the charred ground, kicking up occasional sparks where the destroyed vegetation still smoldered. She had to have heard their approach, but she just knelt there, huddled around herself, staring at the stone memorial bearing the Omnist sunburst, and her own name and date of death.

He came to a stop a few feet away, glanced at the other two. Lester looked wide-eyed and on the verge of being sick; Harriet’s face was set in grim lines as if she still expected the worst.

“June?” he said softly.

Slowly, she turned. Her eyes were wide and terrified beneath a charred fringe of brown hair, but it was her. He’d known her all her life, mourned her and moved on. And there she was, alive and scared out of her mind.

“M-Marshal?” June Witwill said weakly, tears beginning to cut tracks through the soot smeared on her face.

“Harriet, go fetch Doc an’ the priest,” Ross ordered. Immediately she turned and climbed back up the rim of the basin, heading off for Hamlet at a run.

“Marshal Ross?” June whispered. “What happened? What is going on?”

He dropped his wands on the ground, already shrugging out of his coat, and knelt to sweep it around her shoulders. She grabbed and clung to him as if for dear life, trembling.

“June, honey, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”


“Data matches,” Rector reported, hunched over the repurposed telescroll machine affixed to his console. “Good thing I added the redundant circuit breakers. Didn’t lose any data in the overload. Perfect match for the values in the Vadrieny data, filling in all the blanks. Looks good, your Holiness, we can finish the Angelus Project with this.”

“Well done, Rector,” Justinian said softly. “Very well done indeed.”

“What was that thing?” Delilah demanded. “The spider? Where is it?”

“Didn’t actually emerge here,” Rector said distractedly, still pouring over the stream of markings being produced by the transcriber. “Looked like it cos of temporal effects, but she used the opening we made to…I dunno. She’s not here, or now, though. Probably not far off. Time travel’s confusing and dangerous, good reason there’s a whole god of not letting people do this.”

They all tensed, save Rector and himself, as the sprawled figure in the middle of the floor stirred. Claws rasped against the stone.

Justinian stepped forward at an even pace.

“Your Holiness, no,” Ravoud insisted, planting himself between the Archpope and the thing they had summoned.

“It’s all right, Nassir,” Justinian said kindly, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “This is according to plan.”

“But that creature…” The Colonel glanced over his shoulder, gripping his wand. “The risk. Without you, your Holiness, everything will fall apart.”

“Nothing of value can be done without risk, my friend,” the Archpope said softly. “But you know me, Nassir, and have been with me for a long time, now. Have you ever known me to take a risk that was not meticulously calculated?”

Ravoud hesitated, agonizing indecision written clearly on his face.

“Have faith,” Justinian said softly.

Finally, clamping his mouth into an unhappy line, the Colonel stepped out of the way. Branwen sidled up next to him, tucking her hand reassuringly into his arm, and they all watched the Archpope descend to meet the new arrival.

She groaned softly, in pain or confusion, twitching again, and then flapped her wings once with a force that sent a burst of air whirling through the chamber. There came an audible crunch as the claws tipping her fingers sank right into the stone beneath her.

Justinian stopped a yard away, and knelt. “How do you feel?”

With a jerk, she snapped her head up. Her eyes, wide and frightened, were whirling pits of orange flame.

“What—who are… Where am I? Who are you?”

Her wings were tipped with little claws at the joints, otherwise being decorated with a rather pleasing arrangement of red and blue feathers not unlike a Punaji macaw. She had hair of a fiery orange—but orange that human hair could actually be, not literally made of flame like her younger sister’s.

“My name is Justinian,” he said gently. “Take your time. You have just been through something deeply traumatic, but you are safe here. Don’t rush it. What do you remember?”

“I…I…” She sat upright, curling her legs under herself and letting her wings slump to the floor, clutching her head in both clawed hands. If she had been wearing anything, it had been burned away by the transition. “Nothing. Nothing! Who is… Who am I?”

“I feared this,” he said, sighing softly. “We have seen this once before.”

“My memory… It’ll come back. Won’t it?” Her expression was pleading, as desperate as her voice.

“I don’t know,” he said gravely. “It may not; you must be prepared for that possibility. I will do everything I can to help you, but I will not make promises that I don’t know I can keep.”

“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who am I?”

“I am someone,” he said slowly, maintaining calm in the face of the incredibly dangerous creature’s growing panic, seeking to help ground her, “who is supposed to be your enemy.”

“My enemy?” She bared fangs at him.

“Supposed to be,” he replied, voice even but firm. “We have been set against each other by those who would presume to rule us. By liars calling themselves gods; by those who were meant to give me guidance, and one who should have loved you above all else. But they seek to manipulate me into fighting unjust battles on their behalf, and condemned you to die for their own convenience. I tire of dancing to the tune of selfish creatures who presume to be my masters. I believe we should be free to choose our own fates. Me, you, all people, everywhere. And so I saved you.”

He bowed his head once in a deep nod.

“I am sorry I failed to do so more thoroughly. I had hoped to spare you some of this trauma, at least preserve your memory. We are laboring against colossal powers, and my efforts have been…imperfect. But I at least have managed to preserve your life.”

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Any of this. I don’t know who I am, let alone why I’m here. What’s happened…”

“All will be well.” Justinian extended a hand to her. Behind him there came several indrawn breaths as his companions tensed. “None of us can say what the future holds, but I will do my very best to protect you. And together, perhaps we can free ourselves of our enemies’ control.”

Slowly, she reached out and wrapped her murderous talons around his hand. She had, he knew, the strength to crush him with a single clench, but she just held onto him. Firmly, yet gently.

“I’ll tell you everything I can about your history, and what’s happened,” he said, slowly standing up. Still holding his hand, she did likewise, raising her wings in the process. “But that will take time, and we should get you somewhere more comfortable first. To begin with, though, your name is Azradeh.”

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15 – 77

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“And you know what the really surprising thing is? I’m not even angry.”

Tellwyrn had swiveled her desk chair sideways and leaned it back as far as it would go, practically lounging in it with herself in profile relative to the students crowding her office. The fingers of her left hand drummed a slow and steady beat against the desk; with her right she held up the Mask of the Adventurer, slowly turning the innocuous-looking artifact this way and that and watching how the afternoon sunlight from her broad window gleamed along its understated silver decorations.

“Barely surprised, even stranger,” she mused, studying the mask. “Oh, a little bit, sure. A person doesn’t have something like this dropped on their desk and not spend a few moments pondering what, in general, the fuck. But it’s really striking how quickly that faded into this vague yet all-consuming sense of ‘yeah, that sounds about right.’”

“I can’t decide if we’re being insulted or let off the hook,” Gabriel muttered.

“I’ll take the one if it comes with the other,” Juniper muttered back.

“Hell, there’s a nice compliment in there if ya squint,” Ruda added, grinning.

“It has to be said that I’m not without responsibility in this,” Tellwyrn continued, turning the mask over to examine its inner face. “You certainly went and did exactly what I instructed, didn’t you? I think I can be forgiven for failing to anticipate this outcome, but really. The combination of you lot, that location, and vague instructions to have a spiritually meaningful experience? Yeah, I’ll own it, on a certain level I was sort of asking for this. Not sending a proper University guardian with you, even. I swear I thought that was a good idea but now I’m sort of grasping for the reason why.”

“Locke performed…adequately in that role,” Trissiny reported. She had changed out of her armor, but was standing at parade rest with only her sword buckled over her leather coat to identify her rank. “She’s jumpier than I would have expected under certain kinds of pressure, but I can’t fault her intent, or results. It all worked out.”

“Yes,” Shaeine agreed, “upon balance I believe your experiment can be considered a success, Professor. Though you may, in the future, want to personally escort groups which present a similar set of risk factors as ourselves.”

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl, still not looking at them, “I find I’m less annoyed about this thing than by the lot of you fucking off two provinces away to throw yourselves into a battle. Surprised? No. But by the same token, I know this is a conversation we have had before. More than once.”

“It was necessary,” Toby said in perfect calm. “I am sorry we broke your rules, Professor. In a case like that, however… We always will.”

“Mm.” She lifted her other hand to grasp the Mask by both its edges and brought it down toward her face.

All of them inhaled sharply, going wide-eyed and rigid.

Tellwyrn stopped moving, then half-turned her head to smirk at them.

The whole group let out their suspended breaths in unison, followed by Ruda emitting a slightly strained chuckle.

“You’re a bad lady,” Gabriel accused.

“I’ll tell you what.” Tellwyrn gently laid the Mask down on her desk and swiveled the chair forward to face them directly, straightening up in the process. “This is a one-time offer, don’t expect it to become general policy. But on this one occasion, if you can satisfy me that this was a successful educational experience, I will consider the lesson imparted and we can proceed without any further punishment. So?” Planting her elbows on the desk bracketing the Mask, she interlaced her fingers and stared at the group over them. “What did we learn?”

There came a pause, while several of them turned to peer uncertainly at one another.

“Consider it a group effort,” Tellwyrn prompted dryly. “I don’t care which of you comes up with an answer, so long as I’m satisfied that it’s one you’ve all absorbed.”

“We should be more respectful of the unpredictable things in this world,” Shaeine said softly. “Of magic, in particular, but generally. There can be severe consequences for assuming that the rules will always apply.”

“Yeah…that’s a really good way to put it,” Toby agreed, nodding. “From everything we know about the rules of magic, there was no reason to think this exact thing would happen, but it was reckless to think nothing of this nature could.”

“It’s not so much we didn’t think it could as it wouldn’t have occurred to us, or any sane person,” said Ruda. “But…damn. No more fucking around with mixed magic in sacred sites. It coulda been a shit ton worse.”

“It is sort of ironic,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “For most of my lifetime, it would have been the baseline assumption of everyone, magic user or not, that much about magic was unknowable and not to be trifled with. Then along come I, to drive away the cobwebs of ignorance and instill you all with methodical thinking. Lo and behold, it worked, and here you are lacking fear of the unknown, when that is the exact quality that would have kept you out of this mess. It’s enough to make a person reconsider their whole life.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Fross chimed.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “That’s Nemitite doctrine. Have you been reading the theology textbooks now, Fross?”

“Yes, Professor, they make for really great light reading when I want a change of pace from magical theory. Also super helpful! A lot of stuff people do makes more sense when I understand the underlying philosophies that inform their behavior. But anyway, what I mean is, I don’t think your ultimate project here is wrong, not at all. Knowledge is never not better than ignorance. I guess we just hit a point where we got a little too full of our fancy University education and failed to respect the amount of ignorance we still had.”

“Well said,” Trissiny agreed.

“All right,” Tellwyrn said, finally cracking a faint smile. “That’s a good lesson indeed, and I am satisfied that you’ve absorbed it. All things considered, it worked out well. Whatever else happened, this thing enabled you to do a lot of good. Needless to say, if you ever again demonstrate a failure to consider the ramifications of tampering with unknown powers I will descend upon the lot of you like the personified wrath of Avei with a caffeine habit and a toothache. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Which leaves us with…this.” She leaned back again, picking up the Mask. “The thing itself.”

“Really sorry to dump this on you, Professor,” Teal said earnestly. “But, well, Mr. Weaver said you might be the best person to look after it, and I can really see the sense in that.”

“Oh, yes,” Tellwyrn said, now staring expressionlessly at the Mask. “I can take it, sure. Chuck it in the vault with the rest of the collection, can do. Ever since I started making it my business to get the really dangerous crap permanently out of everyone’s hands, nobody’s come close to even finding where I stored it all, much less cracking my defenses. Course, I never had a god make a stab at it before.”

“You…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at the others. “Is a god after that, in particular?”

“Well, you tell me, Avelea,” Tellwyrn replied. “Since it seems like Vesk was at least ankle-deep in the creation of this thing and then up to his balls in everything that happened afterward. You three should know what he’s like, after this summer.” She pointed at Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel in turn. “Imagine you’re in a story. In a story, if there’s a big fancy magical sword that gets its own entire chapter of exposition, that thing is getting stuck in somebody before the third act climax. Probably after being the object of its very own epic quest.”

“But it…sort of was stuck in somebody,” said Juniper. “Uh, metaphorically, I mean. The mask was used in the battle; it gave Jacaranda her power back and that pretty much decided the whole thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “When you put it that way, the fact that there are pixies spread across half of N’Jendo now is indirectly your fault, as well.”

“What, you got a problem with pixies now?” Ruda asked, grinning. “Are you gonna take that, Fross?”

“She’s right,” Fross said quietly. “That is going to cause some real big problems.”

“So, yes, the Mask was used,” Tellwyrn said, “and it was a deciding factor in what can be understood as the big story arc running at the time. Hopefully… Hopefully that will be enough. The problem is the scale of it. What you’ve got here is the kind of thing that alters the destinies of nations for centuries to come, not a single event. At least, that’s how it would be in fiction. I’ll hide it away as best I can, because what else am I going to do? But I can’t help wondering exactly what’s going to happen to bring it back out again.”

“Okay, that’s already giving me a headache,” Ruda complained. “You sound like a fuckin’ bard. The world doesn’t run on fucking story logic!”

“Anything Vesk has his hand on this heavily is going to run at least somewhat on story logic,” Trissiny said, frowning deeply. “It would be a good idea to try to think in those terms, if you find him in your proximity. Which is annoying beyond belief because I am not good at it.”

“I’ll try to give you some pointers,” Teal promised.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Tellwyrn agreed. “In fact, in lieu of proper punishment, I have extra homework for you lot after this. I want you to go to the library, ask Crystal for copies of The Myth Eternal by Ravinelle d’Ormont, and write a three-page essay predicting possible next events resulting from your field trip, which you will justify citing the text’s description of tropes and narrative structure. This is a group project; I want you to compare notes and each turn in an individual essay describing a different outcome. On my desk by Friday.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to punish us if we answered your question!” Gabriel protested.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin, and as I said, this is not a punishment,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Would you like one of those instead?”

“Uhhh…”

“Irrelevant, because this is what you’re doing. All right, all of you out. Go rest, be in class as usual tomorrow. And see if you can try not to kick any more colossal metaphysical hornet’s nests for at least a week or so, hmm?”

Several of them sighed, but they turned and began filing out.

“Has anybody else noticed that something terrible happens to every city we go to?” Fross chimed as she drifted through the open door.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Ruda agreed. “You fuckers are never visiting me at home again.”

“Correlation is not causation, Ruda,” Shaeine reminded her.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel as he shut the door behind them. “I feel like ‘Causation’ could be the title of our biography…”

Tellwyrn stared at the closed office door for a few moments with a bemused little frown, then leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared down at the Mask.

It stared innocently back.


He was apparently the last to arrive.

“So I see this isn’t to be a private meeting,” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, gliding forward toward the base of the stairs in the Archpope’s personal prayer chapel. For once, Justinian was already standing at the base of the steps instead of waiting dramatically at the altar up a story-tall flight of steps, framed by the towering stained glass windows, one of which concealed the door to his secret chamber of oracles.

Bishops Snowe and Varanus were present, of course; that was almost a given. This was where the Archpope had most often assembled his inner circle of four—now three—Bishops. What was unusual was the presence of guards, two Holy Legionaries standing at attention to either side of the stairs, and Colonel Ravoud himself waiting behind the Archpope at parade rest.

“Antonio,” Justinian said gravely, inclining his head. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure you have much to tell me.”

“Mmm… No, I really can’t think of anything,” Darling answered, standing before him still with that serene Bishoply smile in place. Branwen gave him a wide-eyed look, Andros remaining inscrutable as ever behind his bushy beard.

“I confess that surprises me,” said Justinian, not sounding surprised in the least. “Especially after Branwen brought such an exhaustive report.”

“Why, precisely,” Darling agreed. “I’m sure she handled it just fine. And now, I believe there are some things you want to tell me.”

“You believe so?” Justinian asked in just as mild and pleasant a tone.

Darling smiled beatifically at him. “There had damn well better be.”

All three soldiers shifted their heads to stare right at him, Ravoud stiffening slightly.

Justinian’s eyes shifted past him to the door he had just come through, which now opened again. “Ah, good. The final necessary party to this conversation. Thank you for joining us, Basra.”

Keeping his pleasant smile firmly in place, Darling turned slowly to face her. In neither Church nor Avenist attire, she wore severe black garments which, he realized on a second glance, were a color-reversed version of Ravoud’s white Holy Legion dress uniform. The only insignia was a golden ankh pinned over the left breast. The dark color incidentally served to emphasize the white bandages peeking out from her left sleeve. An ornate gold-hilted short sword hung at her belt; well, that style of weapon only required one hand, after all.

Branwen drew in a sharp breath through her nose; Andros folded his arms, grunting once. Basra pulled the door shut behind her, then paced carefully toward them across the ornate carpet, her dark eyes fixed on Darling.

“Bas!” he exclaimed in a tone of jovial delight, spreading his arms wide. “How perfectly lovely to see you again! We have so much to catch up on!”

A practiced flick of his wrist brought the wand up his sleeve shooting out into his palm. She was still most of the way across the room; even with her trained swordswoman’s instincts Basra had time only to widen her eyes and stop moving before he’d brought it up and fired.

The crack of lightning was deafening in the acoustically designed chapel. A blue sphere of light ignited around her, the shielding charm of a sufficient grade to absorb the close ranged wandshot without flickering.

Basra bared her teeth in a snarl and dashed right for him, clawing her sword loose as she came. Darling shot her twice more before the pound of heavy boots on the carpet made him shift position to face the nearer of the Legionaries, who was bringing his ornate halberd down with the clear intent of barring them from reaching each other.

Darling grabbed the haft of the weapon with his free hand and spun, using his weight and the man’s own momentum to send him staggering right into Basra’s shield. It was disgustingly easy. Honestly, why had Justinian campaigned so hard to have his own private military if this was all he did with them? Not only was a halberd a hilariously dated weapon, the clod was using it indoors and obviously had no idea how, to judge by how easily it was taken from him.

It was heavy and unwieldy, and he had no chance of doing anything effective with it one-handed, but fortunately the quality of the Holy Legion remained constant; Darling was easily able to sweep it into the second soldier’s feet, sending the man stumbling to the ground. He hadn’t even tried to jump. It was an open question whether he physically could have in that ridiculous lacquered armor, but he’d done nothing except try ineptly to change course as the slow and heavy polearm came arcing at him. Never mind halberd technique, these guys hadn’t been trained in the very basics of hand-to-hand combat. What the hell was the point of them?

“Antonio,” Justinian protested in a tone of patrician disappointment.

“Be with you in a moment, your Holiness,” he said cheerfully, dropping the halberd.

Basra had just shoved the stumbling Legionary off her, and now received three more swift shots. Still the shield held; that thing was military grade. She was closer now, though, and lunged at him again with a feral snarl.

The shield was even phased to allow her to attack through it, which was cutting edge and really sophisticated charm work. Unfortunately for Basra, his more old-fashioned tricks were just as good. Her sword didn’t even draw sparks as it raked across the divine shield that flashed into being around him.

“Should’ve stayed down,” he informed her, winking. “It suited you.”

She made a noise like a feral cat and stabbed at him again, ineffectually. He fired back, the impact of the wand creating a burst of static and the sharp stink of ozone at that range. Basra stumbled backward, blinking the effects of the flash away from her eyes.

A thump and clatter sounded from behind him, and he re-angled himself to check the scene without letting Basra out of his field of view. The tableau told a story at a glance; Justinian looking exasperated, Branwen openly amused, Ravoud flat on his back on the stairs and Andros just lowering the arm with which he’d clotheslined the Colonel when he had tried to join the fray.

“Really?” Justinian said disapprovingly. “I would have hoped you two would try to reason with him, at least.”

“We are completely behind you, your Holiness,” Branwen assured him. “Rest assured, the moment Antonio begins doing something inappropriate, we will restrain him.”

“Eventually,” Andros rumbled.

Darling grinned and shot Basra again.

A wall of pure golden light slammed into place across the entire width of the chapel. It was a solid construction at least a foot thick, easily the most impressive Lightworking Darling had ever seen.

As rarely as they were called upon to exercise it, one could easily forget that a sitting Archpope was at least one of the most powerful divine casters in the world. Once in a while, one had found cause to demonstrate it, such as Archpope Sairelle’s famous binding of Philamorn the Gold.

Darling shot it, just to be sure. No effect.

“Enough,” Justinian stated, hand outstretched and glowing. “Antonio, I understand your frustration—”

“I am well aware that you do,” Darling stated, turning to stare at him with the pretense of conviviality gone from his features. “And I’m aware that you are aware that ‘frustration’ is in no way the word.”

“This of all moments is no time for you to succumb to impatience,” the Archpope said soothingly. “It is no secret that we have all acted upon complex agendas, Antonio. For this long, at least, we have all been able to relate to one another like—”

“Ah, yes, that’s really the thing, isn’t it?” Darling said with a bitter grin. “Because as we all know, I’m Sweet of the thousand agendas. Whose side is he on? The Guild, the Church, the Empire? I’m the guy who can smile nicely at everybody and play every side against the middle, committing to none. And I, I, am now officially done with this. That fact alone should warn you just what kind of line you’ve crossed, Justinian.”

Ravoud had bounded back to his feet, stepping away from Andros, and now strode forward, pointing accusingly at him. “You will address his Holiness as—”

“Pipe down, Nassir,” Darling ordered. “When I need someone to get humiliated by the Last Rock Glee Club I’ll tag you into this.”

“Please, Colonel,” Justinian said gently, making a peaceful gesture with his free hand. Ravoud clamped his mouth shut, looking anything but happy, but stepped back and folded his arms, glaring at Darling. “We have been through a great deal together, Antonio. I will not downplay the severity of recent events, but surely you do not think that now of all times it behooves you to throw everything away.”

“Do you know how many people died in Ninkabi?” Darling demanded. “Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Nobody knows, because they are still finding bodies. And oh, what a perfect storm of factors had to align to make that catastrophe happen! Basra here, Khadizroth and his crew, the Tide. Every one of them your pawns, Justinian.”

“And yet,” the Archpope said softly, “not even the first time I have been complicit in the mass summoning of demons into a major city under siege. Though as I recall, it was someone else’s plan, the last time.”

So he was willing to admit to that in front of Ravoud and these incompetent non-soldiers of his? Interesting.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Darling retorted with open scorn. “Tiraas was a series of small controlled summonings by professionals, with the full oversight of the Imperial government. In Ninkabi twenty hellgates were indiscriminately opened after your pet assassin went on a murderous rampage to cull the local police. The fact you’d even bother making that comparison shows you have no argument to make, here.”

Justinian lowered his hand, and the wall of light vanished. On its other side, Basra still clutched her sword and glared at him, but didn’t move forward again.

“So this, finally, is the price of your conscience?” the Archpope asked in utter calm. “It is steep indeed, Antonio.”

“Oh, is that what you think is happening here? My moral outrage compelling me to make a brave stand? I would have thought you knew me better by now, Justinian. I’m more than sleazy enough to stick right to all manner of perfidy just to keep a close eye on it. I’d have walked out on you long ago if I was going to do it out of anger or disgust. But you have burned way too many bridges with a single torch this time. You cannot keep a lid on the details of what happened in Ninkabi, not now that most of your own enforcers have run off to who knows where with all their knowledge. This rat is leaving this ship, Justinian, unless you can give me a compelling and immediate reason to think you can survive the backlash coming your way and guarantee that nothing like this ever happens again.”

“And what would satisfy you?” Justinian inquired.

“For starters?” Darling pointed at Basra without looking in her direction, keeping his gaze locked on the Archpope’s. “Kill her.”

“That is a trap,” Justinian replied before Basra could react. “A rhetorical snare, Antonio. You seek to manufacture an excuse to do what you wish and blame my unreasonable refusal, knowing very well that I cannot give any such cruel order.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to,” Branwen stated.

The Archpope shifted to look at her, his eyebrows lifting incrementally. “Branwen…”

“I know you believe you can control that creature, your Holiness,” she said, giving Basra an openly contemptuous glance. “Or at least, want to believe you can. I cannot imagine how you could still think so after the last week.”

“I have been saying it for years,” Andros grunted. “A rabid animal should be put down, not put on a leash. Events continue to prove me ever more correct.”

“The events in motion are greater than any of you can yet realize,” Justinian said softly. “Basra still has a role to play. As do you all.”

“One thing hasn’t changed, Antonio,” Basra herself sneered, stalking forward. “Anything you believe you can do, I can still do better.”

He turned slowly to face her. Then, suddenly grinning, Darling held up both his hands and began to applaud.

Andros let out a hearty boom of laughter, and Basra lunged at him with her sword again.

“Basra.”

The Archpope’s voice brought her to an immediate halt. She glared at Darling with her face a mask of truly psychotic hatred, literally quivering with the desire to attack, but she did not move.

“Of this I assure you,” Justinian stated. “Every bitter price I have levied, every sin with which I have stained my soul, is in service to a greater good which will be worth the cost when it has done. Too much has been paid, now more than ever, for us to stop. This must be seen through to its end, or all of this suffering has been for nothing.”

Darling turned back to him. “Boss Tricks demands all the assurances I just asked of you, Archpope Justinian. Until they are produced, the cult of Eserion will choose to manage its relationships with the rest of the Pantheon directly, forgoing the mediation of the Universal Church. So, bye.”

He turned and walked right past Basra toward the door.

“You know, it wasn’t Eserion who saved you.”

Darling slowed to a stop, but did not turn around, and Justinian continued.

“I had a similar experience, Antonio. I witnessed something the Pantheon prefers to keep far from mortal knowledge. I survived only by the intervention of another god, one who questioned the injustice of keeping their secrets at the expense of so many lives. That is what happened to you, is it not? And so much of the course of your life has proceeded to its current point because you believed it was Eserion the defiant who shielded you. Eserion allowed you to think so, but it was not he.”

Still, Darling didn’t turn, subtly rolling the wand between his fingers.

“Will you really throw away all those years of searching,” Justinian asked softly, “when you are so near to the end? The time is fast approaching for all questions to be answered. You have labored with such industry and cleverness to obtain these secrets, Antonio. I would hate for you to come so close only to miss them.”

“Okay.” Darling turned halfway, just enough for the Archpope to see his face. “Let’s hear it, then. Spill the big secret, tell me what the gods are hiding and what really happened at the end of the Elder War. I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

“You of all people,” Justinian said, spreading his hands slightly at waist height to indicate those gathered near him, “understand that this is no place or time for such revelations. But soon, Antonio.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s the thing,” Darling said, smiling again. “I don’t need you for that, either. Not anymore. Oh, and Baaaasra,” he added in a saccharine singsong, widening his smile to a wolfish grin as he turned it on her. “You can’t hide in here forever. You know it as well as I; you’ll go gibbering mad if you even try to keep yourself so confined. I will be seeing you again. Real soon.”

He turned his back on the silent assemblage and strode out, kicking the chapel door open, then kicking it again to close.

It shut behind him with a boom of echoing finality.

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15 – 76

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Adventurers?” High Commander Rouvad uncharacteristically slammed the hefty budget request down on her desk, atop all the other paperwork Principia had assembled. Fortunately, they were alone in the Commander’s office—or perhaps unfortunately, as an audience might have tempered Rouvad’s ire, or at least its expression. “Locke, your orders were to assemble an army!”

“Excuse me, Commander, but they weren’t,” Principia said calmly, standing at attention before the desk. “My orders were to assemble a force capable of defeating any extant military power. Leaving aside that I wasn’t given the time or resources to build a conventional army, especially not one up to modern standards, I don’t actually think one of those would accomplish that directive anyway. I found an approach that will.”

“You think you can counter modern military equipment and strategies using assets that were notoriously impossible to control even before they were obsolete?”

“Precisely, ma’am.”

The High Commander stared at her for a long moment in silence, during which the lieutenant just gazed back, perfectly composed. Rouvad finally sighed, and seated herself in her desk chair, notably not directing Locke to do likewise, or even stand at ease. “All right, Lieutenant. I suppose Avei wouldn’t have deliberately set you this task if it was anything that could be done conventionally. Go ahead, let’s hear your reasoning.”

“The Imperial Army is the most powerful military in the world right now,” Principia said immediately, “and not because of its size, but because of its constant embrace of new techniques and strategies. Most armies stagnate if unused for long periods, but the Tirasian dynasty has funded new enchantments and technologies for the Army’s use, had Imperial Intelligence keep regular reports on methods fielded by other nations, and directed the Army to constantly update itself even over the last century of peace. Thus, I began with the approach of hypothetically neutralizing Tiraan units, and settled on a strategy which will be universally applicable.”

“Adventurers,” Rouvad said, her tone utterly flat.

“Adventurers,” Principia agreed. “The Imperial Army’s greatest strength is its embedded magic users. In the field, infantry units deploy in small squadrons, relying on teleportation to obviate the need for supply trains, stay in communication, and even rapidly position themselves on the field. Using specialized mages, a commander can deploy infantry and mag artillery instantaneously via teleportation, and other specifically trained battlemages provide light magical artillery in the form of a standardized catalog of combat spells. The Army still employs its Corps of Engineers to erect field fortifications, bridges, and the like, but now relies more heavily on the Corps of Enchanters to position shield foci designed to be immediately salvageable even if they are broken by enemy fire. Spells and enchantments are also the source of most of the Army’s current use of traps and munitions. They even use conjured water to keep troops hydrated in the field.

“I think, in analyzing the disparity of capability between the current Silver Legions and the modern Imperial Army, it’s far too easy to view the Army’s advanced equipment and methods as an unequivocal advantage. I certainly fell into that trap with my own alternate weapons program. It misses the equally important fact that these advantages come with a critical drawback. Imperial units can be seriously interfered with by a warlock who neutralizes their enchantments, or a witch who causes them to blow up. They could be brought to a complete halt by coordinated action from both.”

“Asymmetrical warfare is Tiraan operational doctrine, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said impassively. “I hardly think you are going to beat them at that game. You will never assemble anything to compete with the Strike Corps out of antisocial misfits.”

“Yes, Commander, exactly. Trying to match the Army’s sophistication and overall power is a losing game. It’s an arms race, a question of who has the most money and warm bodies to throw at a problem—which aside from its practical drawbacks flies against Avenist doctrine. The strength of modern militaries comes from their systems. Technology, spellcraft, organization. And systems have weak points.”

“Those weak points are known and protected.”

“Protected according to structured doctrine and established methods. An army’s strength is organization; its enemy is chaos. Therefore, I propose to weaponize chaos. During the Age of Adventures, it was well known that experienced adventurers were a serious threat to military forces simply due to their ability to create unexpected hazards, target officers, split formations, and so on. In the absence of adventurers, these weaknesses have only grown. Heavy reliance on arcane magic makes them vulnerable to Circle effects, a weakness the Army has not remedied simply because there are no organized infernomancers of sufficient scope to threaten them, and even demons are as vulnerable to lightning weapons as anyone else. They have never faced any serious threat from witches or fairies simply because those avoid modern civilization precisely due to all the arcane magic. Not to mention that there are other ways of dealing with modern charms. I’ve already got one recruit who could neutralize an entire battalion’s energy shields just by making it rain on them.”

“Yes, the dragon,” Rouvad said, shuffling the papers on her desk and pulling out Principia’s personnel file on Khadizroth the Green. “Goddess preserve us, Locke.”

“There are other structural weaknesses created by the modern world of systems and connections,” Principia continued smoothly. “As Avei teaches us, the aim of warfare is to eliminate your enemy’s ability to wage war. Less than that risks defeat, and more abandons morality. The modern reliance on complex machines and charms creates opportunities to neutralized armed forces before combat occurs. A battlestaff is a device orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive than a spear, and you can break it just by getting dust in its clicker mechanism. And did you know there are exactly three factories in the entire Empire capable of producing power crystals large enough to run mag cannons, or zeppelin engines?”

Rouvad slapped the file down atop the others. “Let us say I consider your point valid, Locke. These…these are your recruits? ULR students? A Shaathist offshoot sect? Archpope Justinian and Bishop Darling’s personal hit squads? A gaggle of warlocks and demons led by a renegade drow? And, again, Locke, the dragon!”

“No, Commander,” Principia said serenely, “that is our recruitment pool. I have signed on Khadizroth the Green, the shaman Vannae, Longshot McGraw, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and Gravestone Weaver. Those names alone are weapons; most of them are modern legends. We both know it was the bards who decided the outcome of the Enchanter Wars as much as any soldiers. I rather think Xyraadi will take up my offer soon, which would likewise be a boon; she is an established ally of the Sisterhood, with a legend of her own.”

“A khelminash demon,” Rouvad said, rubbing her temples. “You do realize there are spiritual factions within the Sisterhood which consider the very existence of those creatures a living insult to Avei.”

“Yes, Commander, and I am also aware that those spiritual factions fixate on khelminash because they never expect to actually see one, and many of their fellow Sisters forcibly prevent them from picking on the women they actually want to bully. If there is any blowback as a result of this, I will requisition those spiritual factions a regulation spoon so they can eat my entire ass.”

“Watch it, Lieutenant.”

“I do not expect this Brother Ingvar or his followers to join up, which is probably for the best, but I do advise cultivating a relationship with them. His sect is half women and appears to be focused on fixing everything objectionable about Shaathism as its entire point. But that’s a matter for the Bishop, not my division.”

“We don’t have a Bishop, Locke,” Rouvad snapped. “Justinian has refused to confirm two candidates already. Given his spurious reasoning, I am pretty sure he means to just forestall the Sisterhood having representation within the Universal Church as payback for that whole business with Syrinx.”

“That’s above my pay grade, Commander,” Principia said pleasantly.

Rouvad leaned slowly back in her chair, staring up at the elf. “I truly, deeply hope that whatever the goddess wants from your presence proves worth the unmitigated pain in the ass you are, Locke.”

“Only time will tell. We must trust in Avei’s wisdom.”

The Commander shook her head and picked up the budget proposal again. “You asked for a facility in Viridill, specifically.”

“Yes, Commander, a remote one. Given the nature of the First Legion I have proposed, a rural headquarters is optimal both for security and practicality. And its location in Viridill will be important to underscore that this is an Avenist venture.”

“Yes, you made mention of that in this personnel request,” Rouvad said, picking up that document with an even more acid expression. “You want your pick of soldiers from First Squadrons throughout the Legions? This is going to make you even more enemies than your winning personality.”

“I much prefer volunteers, actually. At issue is that only Squad One soldiers are going to be of the kind I can even use, and it’s vital that at least half my personnel be gathered from the Legions, or the civilian Sisterhood. Adventurer guilds were still an active force during the first few decades of my career, Commander, and I’ve seen how they operate. Like any social group, each has its own culture and unique values. This thing is being commissioned by Avei, and needs to be specifically Avenist. In order to be effective, I’m going to have to acquire the best talent available, from wherever I can find it. I need at least their number in Sisters and Legionnaires to maintain the culture of the unit. I rather think the squad commanders won’t mind giving up a soldier or two if it’s made clear that we are assembling a support team for Hands of Avei.”

Rouvad’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “You indicated that, as well, in writing. Your plan is for the First Legion to be under Trissiny’s command?”

“Under the Hand of Avei’s command,” Principia corrected. “Right now, that’s Trissiny, but there will be more after her. Historically, paladins have very rarely acted alone, and I’ve always found it purely odd that the Sisterhood has not had a dedicated support team for its Hands since the Silver Huntresses. With this unit being formed in response to the changing world, it’s only natural. One woman acting alone, sword-first, isn’t going to get much accomplished in this day and age. Trissiny has done an admirable job of absorbing that lesson already. Not to mention that any Hand of Avei is going to be a more qualified commander than I ever could.”

“Your unit’s not even formed and you’re already trying to weasel out of command.”

“I’ve made no secret that I consider commanding a Legion outside my wheelhouse,” Principia said frankly, “but this is the job and I agreed to do it. It’ll be another year and a half before Trissiny’s done at Last Rock, anyway. I wouldn’t suggest this if I didn’t consider it in the best interests of the mission. The Sisterhood needs a versatile, permanent force directly under its paladins a lot more than it needs me in charge of anything forever.”

“I would hardly suspect Trissiny of trying to undermine me,” Rouvad mused, studying Principia through narrowed eyes, “but after that stunt you two pulled with Syrinx, you and Trissiny in combination… There is already a rift between us that I don’t like. Schisms between Hands and High Commanders have happened in the past, and always to disastrous effect. It can be difficult enough to justify the complexities of politics to a paladin without the likes of you leaning on her from the other direction.”

Principia hesitated, then straightened infinitesimally. “Permission to speak freely?”

Rouvad regarded her in silence for a moment, then her shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Trissiny understands the importance and the complexities of politics just fine,” Principia said, holding the High Commander’s gaze. “I won’t attest to how good she is at it just yet, but she’s young and learning. What matters is that she comprehends that someone in your position has to make tough calls and compromises, and I think she’s wise enough to recognize and respect when someone more experienced has to take the reins. If her faith in you was damaged by the Syrinx affair, it’s because you made a bad call. The utility of keeping that woman around was never worth the harm she did, and in the end it was Trissiny who had to clean up your mess. You can’t expect her not to have questions about your leadership after that, Commander. It doesn’t mean it’s unsalvageable. Trissiny is also intelligent enough to recognize that even experienced commanders make mistakes. If you want to mend that rift, you should talk to her, and acknowledge what went wrong.”

Rouvad slowly worked her jaw as if chewing the elf’s words, shifting her eyes to stare at the far wall. Only for a few seconds, though. Suddenly brisk again, she leaned forward in her chair, setting down the personnel request. “Your opinion has been noted, Lieutenant. Moving on, when I gave you permission to offer amnesty and the Sisterhood’s protection in order to recruit key personnel, I was not expecting you to make it a blanket offer to an entire assembly of random would-be adventurers. Which, of course, you knew, and didn’t say that was your intention because you were well aware I’d have squashed that.”

“It was not my intention, Commander, just how the situation transpired. I have made it clear the Sisterhood doesn’t have the legal authority to pardon crimes, and its protection has limits. Though it wasn’t my plan exactly, I think it worked out well. This gives me some wiggle room to apply the offer of amnesty to those who are worth it, and discreetly direct the requisite authorities to any other applicants if it’s deemed necessary.”

“Despite everything, Locke, I can’t find it in me to just blithely assume you know what you’re doing. The fact that you always seem to come out on top is not the same quality as being in control of your own life, much less the unit under your command. But… You have earned at least some trust. And there is always the fact that you were put here by Avei. She, I have to assume, knows what she is about.”

Another pause ensued while she studied Principia’s face. Then Commander Rouvad picked up the pen from its holder, dipped it in her inkwell, and began to sign forms.

“Goddess watch over us all.”


It was the same room in which the three of them had had their last meeting, close to two years ago. Being a basement space in the Thieves’ Guild underground chambers used for clandestine interviews, it was never the most wholesome of spaces, but the atmosphere between them the last time had still been particularly dour. Now, it was oppressively grim.

“And that’s it,” Tricks said softly, his tone giving no indication of his feelings.

Thumper nodded once. “Long and the short of it, Boss. I figure you’ll want me to sit down with Questions for the fine points, but I’m pretty sure that covers everything you need to know right off the bat. Whole thing was just a complete fuckin’ waste,” he added bitterly, dropping his gaze to scowl at the floor. “The whole plan to interfere with Justinian amounted to diddly shit, the Keys situation apparently resolved itself before I ever even ran into her, and all I did for two years was get conned and pushed around by every asshole who gave it a try. Omnu’s hairy balls, I don’t think I’ve ever fucked up that consistently or hard in my life. An’ that’s sayin’ something.”

“It matters that you recognize that,” Tricks said mildly. “I more than half expected you wouldn’t.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s worth a whole goddamn lot,” Style rumbled, “but not nothing.”

“And I’m not ready to completely write off the time you spent answering to Justinian and Syrinx,” Tricks added. “Yes, Thumper, you’ll definitely be having regular sessions with Questions until he’s fully satisfied. There may yet be something buried in that head of yours that you don’t even know is important.”

“Sure, however many sessions he needs,” Thumper agreed, nodding. A skilled interrogator had uses far beyond extracting information from the unwilling; one as talented as Questions was employed just as often to tease out details and secrets from the memories of those who didn’t even know they knew anything of value.

“So, you’ve had an interesting couple of years,” Style stated, striding forward. Thumper tensed instinctively at her approach but made no move even when she stopped, looming ominously over him. “Seen and done some real shit, apparently. But before that, there was the assignment the Guild sent you on out to Last Rock. Way I hear it, there are some teeny-tiny details you failed to report on, particularly with regard to your handling of Keys on site. She shared with us, after you left, exactly what you’d threatened to do to…what was it…ah, yes, motivate her. You wanna dispute that account, Thumper?”

He tensed further, shoulders lifting with an indrawn breath, but the enforcer leaned his head back to meet her eyes. “Nope. Sweet told me what she said. Sounds like pretty much how it went down.”

Style’s foot came crashing down onto the front of his chair right between his legs, missing him by a fraction of an inch and causing him to jump.

“And are you fully cognizant, Thumper,” she said in a sibilant hiss, “exactly why conduct like that is not fucking acceptable under any circumstances, but most especially toward a fellow member of the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I wasn’t…gonna actually do it,” he said weakly. “It was just a bit of…motivational theater.”

“Ohh, Thumper,” Style whispered, reaching down with one big callused hand to very tenderly brush his cheek with the backs of her knuckles. Thumper bit down on his lips, going white with sudden terror. “Taking that at face value, let’s just forget about the monumental failure of enforcer technique that is issuing a threat you don’t intend to follow up on. Hell, we will set aside, just for the moment, the fact that even threatening rape is, according to Avenist, Imperial and Eserite doctrine, an act of sexual assault. Let’s just brush all that under the rug for a moment, here, and address the fact that THAT IS NOT WHAT I FUCKING ASKED YOU.”

She seized his hair and wrenched his head to one side, bending down to bellow directly in his ear. Thumper cringed, grabbing the seat of the chair with both hands and going stiff as a board in her grasp, but made no physical reaction aside from that.

“No, Style, I get it,” he said, his voice tight with pain. “I apologized to Keys, for what that’s worth. It was a shit thing to do and I was way over the line.”

Style held him in place for three more heartbeats, then abruptly released his head and stepped back, staring down at her fingers. “Thumper, why the fuck does your hair smell like oranges?”

“Samivir’s Hair Cream,” he said weakly, lifting one slightly trembling hand to smooth his hair back down into a semblance of order. “For the discerning gentleman, it says on the tin. It doesn’t stay this flat by itself, y’know.”

“We’ve had some pretty interesting correspondence concerning you,” Tricks said idly, lounging back in his own seat in an utterly relaxed posture and regarding Thumper with an expression that was almost bored. “Webs vouches for you, because of course he does. Then again, his story about a succubus manipulating your actions has been corroborated, so… There’s that. Also, before you reported in, Sweet has informed me that in addition to the demon you recently had memory-altering infernomancy done on you, and then more mindfuckery by a green dragon. You understand how all this really muddies the waters when it comes to sussing out your exact degree of culpability for your actions.”

“I don’t think Big K would do me wrong,” Thumper said, frowning. “He’s a good sort, for a fuckin’ scary primordial lizard monster.”

“Which is more or less exactly what someone laboring under a magic dragon whammy would say,” Tricks observed. “I’m calling Glimmer down here from Mathenon to give you a good working over, too. I wanna know exactly what’s been done to your brain in as much detail as possible before we go deciding what to do about it. Meanwhile, we have also received a written communication concerning you, from Keys herself.”

“Oh, I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Style said with grim amusement when he tensed again.

“Keys,” Tricks stated with a faint, bemused frown, “has requested clemency from us concerning your punishment for anything done by you to her and forsworn any intent to seek restitution.”

Thumper blinked twice. “…huh?”

“In basically any other circumstances,” said Style, “that would mean I’d haul her ass in here for an analysis, because that’s the kind of thing victims of abuse are prone to do for somebody who’s got his tentacles worked into their brain. Now, we all know you’re not that specific breed of asshole and Keys would still be three times as smart as you after getting hit on the head by a whole tree full of coconuts, but still, it’d be policy. But this is Keys, she whose industrious labor over the course of lifetimes to be the greatest possible pain in everyone’s ass I have decided I shall respect. In fact, I’ll go so far as to caution you that she is clearly only doing this to get you to join that asshat adventurer guild she’s running for the Sisterhood, and don’t even get me started on that horseshit, because she wants you under her thumb to torment you at her leisure. Hate to spoil a sister’s grift, but it is, as I’ve mentioned, Keys, so if she wants to piss away her right to restitution, fine and fuck her anyway. But that still leaves us, and you, and what it is that we are going to do about you.”

She planted herself directly in front of him and leaned forward, stretching her lips into a psychotic death’s head grin, and said in a saccharine tone, “Would you like to know what we are going to do about you, Thumper?”

He swallowed once before answering. “It’s pretty heavily on my mind right now, yeah.”

“Well, you’ve got a monumental asskicking coming, that’s for goddamn sure,” Style said, abruptly straightening up and crossing her arms to glare down at him. “Sexual harassment of a Guild member, failure to report in when ordered, and a whole ream of shit that flirts with the boundaries of outright treason. Oh, yeah, you’ve got a foot up the ass in your future. But with each new revelation the curious case of Jeremiah Shook has become more layered, like the world’s most obnoxious shit-soaked onion, until what I recently assumed would be a very satisfying case of me stomping you into an orange-scented stain on the floor has turned into a whole ream of goddamn detective work before we manage to sort out exactly how responsible you are for everything you’ve been blundering around in, and how badly your brain has been fucked with already.

“So I have decided, Thumper, that we are going to give this aaaallllllllll the time it needs. You’re gonna spend as long with Questions and Glimmer as they want, and then a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer still, until the both of them are entire sick of your face and my meddling, because I am not gonna leave a pebble unturned in that greasy-ass head of yours.

“And then, once it has been established beyond all possible hint of doubt exactly what the fuck you’ve done and what you deserve for it… Then, and only then, will I kick your ass. And oh, Thumper, the asskicking I shall rain down upon you will be the crown jewel of my career, an unimpeachable masterwork of retribution.” She raised both her arms as if in benediction, gazing at the ceiling with a nearly rapturous expression. “Your culpability shall be known to the most infinitesimal degree, and you shall be stomped with godlike fucking exactitude. I will smite you with an exquisite fucking symphony of fairness, measuring every blow to the tiniest iota of its positioning and force until you have been punished so flawlessly for your two-year parade of shitheadery that not even your self-involved victim complex will enable you to walk away feeling you’ve been mistreated. Vidius himself shall descend from his throne on high to sit at my feet and learn the ways of fairly judging souls, that’s how precisely I’m gonna pulp you. I shall be a cleansing fire of fists and feet, and you shall emerge with the dross burned away to leave only a sore and chastened, but pristine and new, piece of shit of exactly the caliber the gods half-assedly created you. From the divine instrument of flawless retribution that is my size nine boot, you will ascend, born anew by the baptismal asskicking of Style which will echo down through the ages as a legendary arbiter of the very abstract fucking concept of justice.”

By that point, even Tricks was eyeing her askance. Thumper gaped up at the chief enforcer with his mouth slightly open as she finally lowered her arms, planted her fists on her hips, and grinned down at him.

“And I shall do all of this on your behalf, Thumper, not because you matter to that degree, but because I am sick of your bullshit. Now how’s that sound to you, hm?”

He finally shut his mouth, swallowed once more, then cleared his throat. “I… Yeah, okay. Let’s do that. Sounds pretty good, actually.”

Slowly, Style’s grin faded. “Thumper, I get that you’ve been through some shit, but the one thing I did not expect you to acquire from your travels was a sense of humor.”

“No foolin’, Style, I mean it,” he said, now frowning faintly. “I’ve been… I’ve been looking back at all the shit I’ve ever done over the last few days, and I can’t get away from the fact that I just don’t know what’s what anymore. Kheshiri sure screwed with my head, yeah, but it’s from a lot longer back than that. The farther back I think, the more I realize I’ve been fed a mix of real good advice and complete bullshit, and only listened to about half of each, and now all I know is that a lot of what I thought I knew is bullshit, and I’m not even sure which part. It’s like… Y’know when you go up a staircase without paying attention and don’t count the steps right, so you get to the top expecting more stairs and there’s this second where the whole world’s out of balance cos the floor’s not where you thought it should be? It’s like that, except all the time. And it fuckin’ sucks.

“Khadizroth said something to me about punishment, how’d he put it… Yeah, he told me when you’ve done somethin’ wrong, it puts you kinda out of balance with your whole existence, an’ from a state like that taking a punishment you’ve earned can be, like, medicinal. Puts you back in order with the world. Sounded like the dumbest fuckin’ mumbo-jumbo I’d ever heard at the time, but I dunno anymore. I can’t go on stumbling around with no idea who I am or what’s true or exactly why and how I keep fucking up everything. So… Yeah, Style, let’s go for it. You do what you gotta, I trust you to know what’s fair.”

Both Style and Tricks were staring at him, blank-faced. Thumper looked rapidly back and forth between them, then cleared his throat awkwardly.

“So, uh… Not to change the subject or nothin’, but while I’m here bein’ examined and all, am I allowed to leave the Guild?”

“What the fuck do you think, Thumper?” Tricks asked wryly.

He nodded. “Yeah, fair enough. Can I get people visiting me?”

“Depends on the people, but I don’t really see why not,” said the Boss. “Webs has moved his operation to Tiraas; I’m pretty sure he’ll want to chat with you at the first opportunity. Way I heard it, you owe him an apology, too.”

“Gods, I really do,” Thumper grimaced. “So…and I’m just askin’, here…if Sweet was to do his interfaith thing and could find one willing to come, could I get a priestess of Avei to come here an’ chat with me?”

They both stared at him again, now openly incredulous.

“It’s nothin’ urgent,” Thumper hastily clarified. “Just, y’know, spiritual stuff. Sweet’s got more important shit to do, so if it’s a problem don’t even worry about it. I just got some, uh, questions.”

“I think,” Style mused, “this may take even longer than I thought.”

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