Professor Tellwyrn’s office door opened without warning.
“Knock knock!” Principia sang, leaning inside with a cheery smile.
Tellwyrn stared at her over the rims of her spectacles for a moment, one hand still holding a quill poised above the papers on her desk. “Oh, this had better be good,” she said finally. “It won’t be, but it had better.”
“Don’t be such a grouch,” Principia replied, sliding in and shutting the door behind her. “We used to get along so well! Remember?”
“I remember paying you to do things you were going to do anyway to people I wanted you to do them to instead of the general public.”
“Uh…” She blinked. “You lost me about half—”
“I do know the basics of running a con, Prin. Trying to establish an emotional connection with your mark is amateur stuff. I’m very nearly offended; don’t I deserve the top of your game? Anyway,” she went on more loudly as the other elf opened her mouth to object, “you would be wise to say your piece before my tolerance wears out. You are specifically not supposed to be on my campus.”
“Yeah, well, there’s a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,” Principia said, edging closer to the desk. “We both know why you don’t want me around, and she’s not even on campus right now.”
“The fact that you know this isn’t helping your case. Spit it out, Prin.”
She sidled closer, letting the smile fade from her face. “I need your help.”
“Interesting. I’m leaning heavily toward ‘no.’”
“You haven’t even—”
“And it is not in my interests to even. I know how you operate; it’s not as if you’re terribly complicated. Whatever you may or may not be up to right now, I know your ultimate goal at this University, and you’re not getting that. Engaging with you is just a way for you to work a fingernail into some crack.”
“Arachne,” she said somberly, “I’ll give you my word that I’m not working any angle. I won’t swear that I might not change my mind and try to take advantage in the future…we both know me too well for that to be believable…but if you really think I’m nothing but self-interest, then I promise you that’s all this is. I might be in real trouble here. I’m asking for your help.”
“I have every confidence that you’ll manage to weasel your way out of whatever you’re into. Probably the same way you got into it in the first place.”
They locked eyes, Principia glaring, Tellwryn impassive. Finally, Prin heaved a sigh and shrugged.
“Well, if that’s how it’s going to be… I guess I’ll go throw myself out, then.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Tellwyrn said sweetly.
“All right, you’re down for two doubloons on the drow, despite my earnest advice.”
“Hey, I like me an underdog! Comes down to it, they’re the ones who fight hardest.”
“Whatever you say, Wilson. Ox, are you sure you want the dryad?”
“Positive,” the big man rumbled. “Put three doubloons on her.”
Hiram Taft, the owner of the town bank, shook his head and chortled even as he jotted down Ox’s name on the grid inscribed on the parchment rolled out between them. The men were clustered around an upturned barrel on the shaded front of the Sheriff’s office. Sheriff Sanders himself stood at the edge of the sidewalk with his back to them, working a toothpick and watching the comings and goings in the street.
“Well, I hate to take your money, Ox—”
“The gods frown on lies, Hiram.”
“—but if that’s the way you want it. Mind you, I’d have much stronger opinions about the green girl if I was twenty years younger, but there ain’t no way she’s a match for my demon.”
“’Your’ demon,” Sanders grunted, not turning around.
“That’s ‘cos I’ve read my Imperial Army encounter manual,” Ox rumbled. “Dryads are classified as a sapient monster race, neutral alignment, divine origin. Threat level of eight. I like my odds.”
“If you’re sure, then!”
“I have half a mind to go to Mayor Cleese,” Sanders said. “Or the council, or Father Laws. Hell, or Miz Cratchley. Somebody who’ll slap a ban on this foolishness so I can toss you galoots in a cell.”
“Aw, don’t be a spoilsport, Sam, it’s harmless fun,” Taft said jovially. “And who knows, the pool might actually pay out this year! You know there was a scrap between the Avenist and that half-demon boy already.”
“The pool has never paid out, and will never pay out,” Sanders grunted. “It’ll all go to the church fund like always, and you can all be damn glad of that. If the pool ever pays out, it’ll mean the freshmen have actually started takin’ blades to each other. And that will only happen if the whole place up there dissolves into complete anarchy, in which case this town is likely to be razed to its foundations.”
“What’s the harm, then?”
The Sheriff shook his head. “I live in fear of the day Tellwyrn finds out about this annual pool of yours. Dunno whether she’d knock all your heads together or join in. Frankly, I’m not sure which idea spooks me more.”
An enormous POP sounded a few yards away, sending a blast of expelled air in all directions, which lifted off the Sheriff’s hat and forced Taft to lunge after his suddenly airborne parchment grid. In the middle of the street, at the epicenter of the disturbance, Principia Locke appeared from midair, about two feet off the ground. She landed with catlike grace, peering about in startlement for a moment, then a scowl fell across her features.
“Oh, you smarmy bitch.”
“Prin!” Sanders shouted, straightening up with his errant hat in hand. It took him all of one second to do the math on this situation. “You wanna tell me why you were up there pestering Professor Tellwyrn?”
“Ah ah ah,” she scolded, wagging a finger at him as she approached out of the street. “Just as soon as somebody passes a law against me visiting old friends, that’ll be your business. Till then, you can just butt out.”
“Hmp,” he grunted, folding his arms and leaning against one of the vertical wooden beams holding up the awning. “On your head be it, then. I have it on very good authority that Tellwyrn does not like you at all.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed. Ooh, hey, are you guys doing the annual pool? Put me down for three on the Hand of Avei.”
“Hah!” Taft chortled, grinning. “Any other year, sure, but you do know there’s a bona fide demon up there now? You’ve got no chance.” He did, however, mark her name and wager down on the appropriate spot.
“I like my odds. You whippersnappers may not remember what the world was like when paladins were running around willy-nilly, but I’ve seen the Silver Legions in action.” She leaned forward, peering over the map; three sets of eyes shifted momentarily to her low-cut bodice. “I see Ox is shafting you out of an honest ten doubloons, Hiram.”
“Bah! I have faith in my demon, even if she is attached to a bard.”
“Uh huh. I take it nobody’s informed you that demons are critically weak against high-level fae?”
“Yup!” she said cheerfully. “Their magic just peters out, like a fire underwater. That’s why witches are almost as good as priests against warlocks. Your demon isn’t gonna do squat against that dryad.”
“That…you… Ox! You cheating son of a bitch!”
“No takebacks,” Ox said smugly.
Sanders shook his head, still not looking at them. Instead, he glanced up the street at the mountain, wondering at the source of the bad feeling he suddenly had.
They didn’t call it the Grand Cathedral because it lacked grandiosity.
Bishop Darling was fully in character: serene, aloof, smiling vaguely at all he passed in humble benediction. No matter how many times he walked these halls, though, he could never quite suppress the inner voice of Sweet as he passed gilded columns, rich tapestries, extravagantly wrought furniture, masterwork paintings and statues of gods, all decorating halls and rooms of the finest white marble. That voice kept repeating to itself, these guys are just begging to get ripped off.
They weren’t, of course. Anybody daft enough to try stealing from the gods—and there had been quite a few, throughout history—would soon find that stealing from the Church was an altogether different proposition. The gods, at least, were often inclined to be merciful.
Ascending a broad marble staircase with a red-and-gold rug cascading down its center, Darling nodded to the two Papal Guards keeping watch over the door at the top, smiling with a mild, smug satisfaction that he did not feel. It was highly unlikely that these two mooks would bother to interpret his expressions, much less report on them to anyone who mattered, but appearances had to be kept up.
They certainly were resplendent in their burnished silver breastplates over golden coats, carrying upright spears that were ornamented so richly he frankly doubted they would hold up in actual combat. These men were definitely showpieces, but well-trained, as they proved in the flawlessly precise simultaneous bow they gave him. Under any other Archpope, Darling might have suspected they were only to be kept for show. Justinian, though, had not gone to the trouble of assembling his own force of guards because he liked to look at shiny things.
He pulled open the great gilded oak doors himself, stepping into the Archpope’s private meeting room. Behind him, one of the guards pushed the doors shut, but Darling ignored this, striding forward with his attention on those before him. More stairs… The architecture of this place was not subtle, forcing any who would approach the Archpope to climb, emphasizing that they were beneath him except at his sufferance. At the top of another broad flight of deep marble steps, a room lined entirely by windows was adorned with high-backed gilt chairs and a massive table. Four people were present; Darling initially ignored all but one.
“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kneeling and pressing his lips to the proffered ring, a thick gold band with an absurdly-sized round-cut diamond within which an ankh symbol glowed with the golden light of the gods.
Archpope Justinian was well over six feet in height, with broad shoulders that suggested a more athletic lifestyle than his ecclesiastical duties required. In his later middle years but still handsome, he wore his brown hair a touch longer than was fashionable, with a neat goatee surrounding his square chin. Two wings of gray swept back from his temples, with a matching pair of thin stripes in his beard, all as precise as if painted on; the only lines of experience on his face suggested a lifetime spent smiling. Though his office traditionally involved rich, fur-lined robes, glittering jewels and a truly massive crown, Justinian wore the simple black surcoat of a Church priest, with a white tabard emblazoned with the Church’s ankh symbol in gold. Only that and his ring announced his office. His humility had done wonders to endear him to the people.
“Rise, my friend,” Justinian said with a characteristic smile, and Darling did so. The Archpope radiated power and calm in a way that had nothing to do with any divine energies. As a student of body language and theatrics himself, Darling always felt he was in the presence of a master when he met with Justinian.
“I apologize for my tardiness, your Holiness,” he said humbly, finally glancing over at the others in the room. Three fellow Bishops, people he knew—they weren’t a large community—but not well.
“Nonsense, you arrived well before the stated time,” the Archpope replied, turning to stride back to his thronelike seat at the head of the table. Darling followed.
“It’s all relative, your Holiness. If everybody else is already here, clearly I’m late.”
“What makes you think everybody who’s coming has arrived?” asked the slim, dark-haired woman nearest him, smiling faintly.
“Everyone important, then,” he said with a wink. She gave him a raised eyebrow, but the other woman at the table laughed obligingly. Darling was known for being somewhat irreverent. Obviously he kept it subdued in the Archpope’s presence, but acting too out of his established character would have created suspicion.
He glanced over them swiftly as he sat, noting that they were all regarding each other—and him—with the same wary curiosity. This, then, was not a group accustomed to meeting with each other, unlike the Imperial security council in which the Archpope had placed him.
Lean and sharp-featured, with a coppery complexion and a dominant nose that didn’t spoil her looks, Basra Syrinx wore the traditional white robes of a Bishop, as did they all, with a brooch in the shape of Avei’s golden eagle pinned at the shoulder to identify her cult. Darling knew relatively little of her, personally, but nothing he’d heard suggested that the Empress’s assessment—sneaky, mean and less than devout—was inaccurate. Directly opposite him sat Branwen Snowe, a woman who was strikingly beautiful in a way that she clearly was well aware of and spent effort on. That was actually unusual for disciples of Izara, but her fiery auburn hair had been wound into an elaborate knot that had certainly taken time and probably needed help, and she actually wore cosmetics. Skillfully enough that they might not be apparent to everyone, but Darling knew a thing or two about disguises. The fourth Bishop present, Andros Varanus, was a follower of Shaath and truly looked the part. With his thick beard, untamed black hair and deep, glaring eyes, he looked out of place in the sumptuous surroundings and uncomfortable in his white robe. Doubtless he’d have preferred to be in furs as his cult considered proper for a Huntsman.
“Since you mention it,” said the Archpope, smiling serenely at them from the head of the table, “everyone invited is now here, and as such, we may begin discussing our business. My friends, I have selected the four of you according to very particular criteria. Despite what you may believe, it has little to do with your various efforts to acquire my political favor.”
As one, they stiffened slightly, like youths caught out in some mischief: urgently wanting to protest, but not sure how to do so without challenging an authority figure and making the situation worse.
“There is neither shame nor condemnation in it,” Justinian said gently, his kind smile unwavering. “You were all sent here by your various cults in recognition of your skill at the great game of politics. Indeed, there are few within the Church who do not pay that game, and none at or near your rank who fail to play it skillfully. I have no shortage of clever operators at my disposal. What I need from you…what I believe you are uniquely suited to provide, is something different entirely.” He folded his hands before him, leaning forward and somehow holding all four of their gazes without moving his eyes. “Faith.”
“I do not lack faith in my god,” Varanus said in a tone that was perilously close to a growl. “Nor do any of my people. The faithless are not suffered in Shaath’s cult.”
“Faith is a decision,” replied the Archpope smoothly. “It is a choice of alignment, a determination to believe a given thing regardless of what evidence presents itself.” He paused, his smile widening as he watched them glance uncertainly at one another. To hear the leader of the Church give voice to what was beginning to sound like agnosticism put them all off balance. “Faith is perhaps the most crucial aspect of human existence. We have faith that our loved ones will not betray us, that our government will shelter us, that our partners in trade will deal fairly with us… That our gods will succor us. And no matter how many times each of these disappoints that faith, we hold to it. Because without it, we are nothing. We would be eternally at each other’s throats, trusting no one, never able to rest. Faith, friends, makes all human endeavor possible. It is the one thing that binds us together while all our other impulses seek to rend us apart.
“My concern is not the depth or sincerity of the faith you have in your individual gods, or in me. No, I have gathered the four of you, specifically, because of the nature of the faith you hold. After all, one does not have faith in a spouse or parent the same way that one has in a deity. I have watched all my Bishops closely, and selected the four of you on one basis.” He lowered his hands to his lap and leaned back in his great chair, eyes roving across their faces. “You understand that the gods…are people. And as such, they are far from perfect.”
Absolute stillness reigned in the room. For excruciatingly drawn-out seconds, the Bishops stared at their Archpope in shock, afraid even to glance at each other.
It was Darling who finally broke the spell. “I feel like the only safe thing I can do here is take a pratfall to cut the tension.”
Branwen tittered nervously; Andros gave him a scathing look. Basra was still staring fixedly at the Archpope.
Justinian, for his part, nodded, still smiling. “In point of fact, Antonio has the right of it. Before the gods, what are mere creatures such as we? We dance for their amusement. I do not mean to suggest that we attempt to elevate ourselves above our station. On the contrary,” he went on, leaning forward and gazing at the intensely, “it is my belief that we serve the Pantheon better by acknowledging their limitations. By not expecting them to tend to every little thing that takes place on the mortal plane. There are matters which it is ours, their servants, to address, so that they can be about the business of holding up the firmament and maintaining the order of the world.” Slowly, he panned his gaze around the table, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of these matters, which I have called you together to attend to, concerns the Black Wreath.”
Darling felt a shiver begin at the base of his skull and travel slowly down the whole length of his spine. Too much coincidence…too many people pointing him in this one direction, the same direction he’d set out to search on his own, first. Or had he? Was he being moved by the gods—his, or others? How much did Justinian know? Or Eleanora?
The possibilities grew more disturbing the more he wondered. He felt…elated. The game was on.
“That, of all things, would seem to be the gods’ concern,” Basra said slowly.
“It is an easy mistake to make, Basra,” Justinian replied. “Elilial most certainly is a threat for the Pantheon to address. The Wreath, however, are mortal men and women…like ourselves. What power they have is the gift of a deity.”
“Like ourselves,” Andros said, his eyes narrowed in thought.
“Just so,” the Archpope nodded. “And they are becoming more active in recent days. The Church’s capacity to contend directly with such threats is growing, of course.”
“We saw the new guards,” Branwen commented.
“Indeed. However, some wars are not meant to be fought by armies. Some cannot be fought thus. That is why I’ve assembled you.”
“I assume I am missing something,” Basra commented, “if you intend the four of us to fight the Black Wreath.”
“Not directly, or in its entirety, nor all at once,” Justinian replied. “As I said, I chose you based on mindset, on your willingness to act in necessity and not be excessively bound by the traditions of your own faiths. Your willingness to see members of other cults as colleagues rather than rivals. Unfortunately, the lack of that same willingness still chokes some divisions of the Universal Church, despite my best efforts. However, despite my selection of you on that criterion alone, I see the providential hand of the gods in the array of skills before me. Warrior, hunter, thief, persuader. I believe you were guided to this task by the Pantheon themselves.”
There came another brief silence, while they all studied each other speculatively.
“Intrigue,” Branwen said at last. “You are talking about espionage, not combat.”
“Just so. We will begin with specific, individual missions, pursuing certain leads that have come to my attention, and work up from there. Elilial, in the end, is distinct from our gods by circumstance, not nature. Whatever leadership she provides the Wreath, she is not running every aspect of its actions, any more than your own gods direct every step you take.” A note of wry humor entered his voice. “If my own Bishops can manage to trip each other up in the halls of this very Cathedral, how much more effective will four of you prove against a single target?”
“What target?” asked Basra.
“Small ones, at first. By necessity. But eventually… You will do what Imperial Intelligence, what centuries of counter-action by the various individual cults of the Pantheon, have failed to do.” The Archpope smiled. “For in the end, what is a faith without a high priest?”
The sparse crowd in the square was drifting toward and around the Ale & Wenches, in preparation for the traditional lunch rush, and Principia let herself be carried along with the throng after she stepped out of the scrolltower office. Her eyes darted across the people present, seeking out navy blue uniforms and paying little attention to those who didn’t have them. In this, she was quickly disappointed.
And then chagrined by her lack of attentiveness when a hand closed around her upper arm.
“Heard you ran into a mite of trouble up there on the mountain,” Jeremiah Shook said mildly, smiling down at her.
“Oh, how people love their gossip in this town,” she replied dryly.
“Every town, as I understand it. The smaller, the gossipier.” He glanced about quickly at the idlers and strollers in the square, and she quashed an urge to smack him upside the head. Nobody was paying them any attention; the surest way to attract attention was to act like there was something more going on than two people pausing for a chat. “Now, you wouldn’t have gone and blown our business here, would you? Maybe counting on Tellwyrn to protect you from…the consequences?”
Principia gave him her most scathing look. “No, Thumper, Tellwyrn is not aware that you are sniffing around her business. Know how you can tell? Because your ass isn’t dead. I was just…ruling out a possibility. I didn’t really think it would pan out, but it had to be tried, and now I can focus on more likely prospects.”
“And now she knows to watch you,” he said, his voice gaining an unmistakeable threat, though he kept it too low to be overheard.
“She always knows to watch me. Now, duckling, she’s watching for the wrong thing. She thinks I’m running some kind of con on her. So she’ll keep me at arm’s length and feel smug about it, while I can maneuver around more reliable sources of information without having to worry about her overhearing something awkward. This isn’t my first rodeo, y’know,” she added, smirking.
“What reliable sources?” he asked curtly.
“Gonna start with those three soldiers the Empire sent over. They come to town for meals and booze. Getting intel out of sloshed soldiers is like taking candy from three big, tipsy babies.”
“Those three tipsy babies are at the heart of all this,” Thumper warned. “Be careful not too get too clever, Keys. This is not a mission you want to blow.” As he spoke, he kept his hand on her arm, but began moving his thumb up and down in a soft, caressing motion.
“Aw, are you worried about little ol’ me?” she asked sweetly, reaching up to pat him on the cheek. “That’s so thoughtful of you. Tell me, since you’re clearly the expert: exactly how clever is it safe for me to be?”
“That,” he said quietly, “is too clever. Don’t push me, Keys.”
Principia let her smile drop. “Look, wiseass, you can be in charge and as threatening as you want. But if you want this job to succeed, don’t forget who the expert is. You want me to work?” She gripped his wrist and extricated her arm from his grasp. “Then let me work. Tricks will get his info, if there’s anything to get. If there’s not, I’ll get verification of that. And you, meanwhile, need to not get under my feet.”
He allowed her to remove his hand. “Fine, then. When are you going to corner the boys?”
“I was hoping to see them in town for lunch, but no dice today, it seems. I’ll keep trying that, but according to the local scuttlebutt they’re only reliably here in the evenings. My next night off is in three days; I’ll spend it at the A&W chatting them up if nothing better comes along in the meantime.”
“Your next night off?” He raised his eyebrows incredulously. “Are you seriously confusing your bullshit job slinging drinks at that run-down little rathole with what’s actually important here?”
“That bullshit job is my cover,” she said, forcing herself to moderate her tone. They were already pushing the boundaries of polite conversation; it wouldn’t do to attract any further interest. “Without that, I’ve got no reason to loiter around this town, and then I can’t do the real job. And the Saloon is not a rathole.”
“Keys, you’re going native.” He shook his head. “It’s almost tragic, a fine little piece like you, wasted on this dust bunny of a town. Fine, three days, then. I expect to have some good news waiting for me on the morning of the fourth.”
“Oh, I will be sure not to disappoint,” she simpered.
“Good girl,” he said condescendingly, reaching up to pat her on the head.
Principia smiled broadly, showing more teeth than was necessary, and turned on her heel, flouncing off down the street. He stood for a long moment and watched her go.
Behind him and high above, the orb atop the scrolltower began to flash, sending out a message.