The attic room hadn’t changed since she had last been here, though it had been a little troublesome finding it. Last Rock wasn’t a large place, but Trissiny hadn’t wanted to go around asking people for the address. She couldn’t have said why, but the thought of leaving a trail of people who knew she was sniffing after Principia didn’t sit well with her. Still, she allotted herself plenty of time, and remembered the walk back from it fairly well. The space had luckily been designed to rent out, and its door opened onto an exterior flight of wooden steps, which spared her having to walk through the large house atop which it perched and explain herself to the occupants.
Late afternoon sunlight beamed through the narrow window, staining the room red. Trissiny swept her eyes around the space by reflex, finding nothing amiss, before focusing them on the occupant.
Principia rose from where she had been seated on the bed, staring at her with an expression to which Trissiny couldn’t put a name.
“You got my message.”
“And you came.”
The elf smiled. “You even came alone.”
There was nothing menacing in Principia’s aspect, but Trissiny had been trained to be wary of anything that even hinted at a threat. Light flared up around her, overpowering the weak sunset and filling the room with gold. Principia leaned backward away from her, lifting a hand to shield her eyes.
“I am never alone.”
“All right, point taken,” the elf said. “I just meant… I’d half expected you to show up with Arachne or the Sheriff in tow, if at all.”
“I won’t deny that was my first impulse,” she said. “But…perhaps in this one case I can afford to be a little selfish. You being dragged away in chains wouldn’t leave us with much opportunity to talk.”
“A little selfishness never hurt anybody,” Principia said with a roguish grin.
Trissiny felt her own face fall into a frown. “That could not be less true.”
The elf’s amusement faded and the silence between them stretched out. Principia just…stared at her, as rapt as if Trissiny were a puzzle on which her life depended.
“How have you been tracking me?” Trissiny asked finally. “I gave that necklace to Tellwyrn.”
Prin shook her head. “I haven’t been. At least, not in the sense of following your movements. I have friends in Tiraas, though… Both ‘friends’ in the sense of people I like, and several whom I keep well-paid. I made sure to know of it if you ever visited the city. Which you not only did, but went straight to the main temple of Nemitoth and asked for help researching the archives. That’s the kind of activity that couldn’t be better designed to create notice and leave a trail. What did you want with the cult of Shaath and House Conover, by the way?”
“None of your business.”
She raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Fair enough, I was only curious.”
Trissiny sighed. “What is it you want from me?”
“Well…what do you want? You agreed to meet with me, so I know you have—”
“No,” Trissiny said sharply. “Do not do that. If you try to play word games or mess with my head, I will march right out of here and you’ll have as long as it takes me to reach the Sheriff’s office to get yourself out of town. Just because my primary talents are martial does not mean I’m stupid. I am, in fact, trained to deal with Eserites in particular.”
“Okay,” Principia said simply. “I…will try. Please don’t go for the sword if I slip up, though. The habits of a hundred years don’t vanish in one conversation.”
“My question was quite relevant,” Trissiny said. “I want to know what your interest in me is.”
“You mean, aside from me being the source of half your blood and your entire life?”
“That is a little too close to a word game. Professor Tellwyrn told me about the circumstances of my birth. Or are you going to claim she was lying?”
Principia’s lips twitched once, and she shook her head slowly. “I can’t say what, exactly, she told you…but I’m certain it was the simple facts as she perceives them. I’ve never known Arachne to lie to anyone. Not out of any point of principle; I think she just finds it beneath her to have to live by wits and guile the way most of us do. If it can’t be blasted to ash or teleported away, she can’t be bothered to deal with it.”
“Is it true, then,” Trissiny said softly, “you never so much as asked about me until I became a paladin?”
Prin closed her eyes, but nodded. “Yes…that is a fact. It’s not how it looks, though.”
“Well, I’m here,” she said tersely. “Explain if you’re going to.”
“First things first.” Turning and kneeling by the bed, she reached under it and dragged out a knapsack, which she held out, open, revealing it to be full of books. “Since there are so many ways for this conversation to go badly, you’ll want to take custody of this before you decide to storm out or go for your weapon or something. These are all volumes on diabolism, in one form or another. I was supposed to be working on Teal Falconer.”
“Yes, Teal. You didn’t happen to notice she’s sharing a body with an archdemon?” Principia grinned. “The Black Wreath is very interested in that. Their own people don’t operate this close to Arachne’s aegis, however. This is how I got my hands on the spellwork I needed to…well, all I wanted to do was create an opening to talk to you. I hope you can believe that… Anyway, I was meant to be striking up an acquaintance with Teal, gradually working her around to sympathize with their point of view. The books are full of stuff they want Vadrieny to be able to use.”
“Then,” Trissiny said carefully, “you’re not actually a member of the Black Wreath?”
Principia’s eyebrows shot up. “…seriously? Trissiny, the Black Wreath wants to overthrow the gods and end the world. Honestly, what has to go wrong in a person’s brain to make them think that’s a worthwhile use of their time? Not everyone who doesn’t share your outlook or theology is some kind of nihilistic idiot, kiddo.”
“Do not call me kiddo.”
“Okay,” she said meekly. “Sorry.”
“I’ll look these over and get them into the hands of someone appropriate.” She glanced down at the satchel as Principia set it on the floor, but didn’t move to take it.
“Send them back to Viridill,” Prin suggested. “Let the Avenists dispose of them. I doubt there’s anything in there that Arachne doesn’t already know about, but I try not to hand any kind of magic over to her on principle.”
“Oh? You had to know planting that necklace on me would end with it in her hands.”
“Sometimes you have to make sacrifices,” the elf said softly. “I’d have risked a lot more than that to have a chance with you.”
Silence stretched out again, even more awkward than before. Trissiny refused to drop her gaze, but the intensity of Principia’s stare made her deeply uncomfortable. She cleared her throat. “Then, I think you were about to give me an explanation.”
“Yes. Right. So I was.” Heaving a deep sigh, Prin finally tore her eyes from her daughter and sat down on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor. “It’s the damnedest thing… I’ve done practically nothing all day but work this over in my head and figure out what I want to say to you, here I still don’t know where to start.”
“Start at the beginning,” Trissiny suggested, “and stick to the truth.”
“The beginning. The truth. Right.” She laughed softly. “You do like to challenge me. All right, well…the truth. The truth is, eighteen years ago I thought the idea of having a child was nothing but a horrifying burden. It felt like the end of the world, like everything I enjoyed about my life—the freedom, mostly—would just be gone, like that. So…Arachne offered to take you off my hands and find you a home and I jumped at it. Thought I’d really dodged a wandshot. And…” Still not looking at Trissiny, she lifted her head to stare at the ceiling. “…and not one goddamn thing in my life has felt right ever since.”
“How so?” Trissiny asked quietly.
“I don’t know!” Finally, Principia looked at her again, and the frustration in her expression seemed to be pushing her close to the point of tears. “I just don’t have the vocabulary to understand any of this, Trissiny. Everything I am is… Well, I’m not an Eserite by accident. I believe. This is how I live: free, unburdened, the only rules my own and my wits and skills the only thing protecting me. I turned my back on my family and tribe because I couldn’t stand to exist the way they did. I can’t imagine how I could possibly have coped with raising a child. All I know is I’ve been thinking of you constantly for eighteen years, and trying my level best not to. It only worked sometimes.”
Silence fell again, and Trissiny didn’t dare break it. She waited, watching, while Principia gathered her thoughts.
“Well,” she continued finally, “I was just starting to feel like me again. Like I could put it behind me and focus on living the way I wanted to. And then…the announcement came out that Avei had called a new paladin. Some orphan girl named Trissiny. As if there could possibly be two girls raised in the Abbey at Viridill named the elvish word for a tree that doesn’t even grow in the Empire. A new Age of Adventures…or a new something, or maybe the return of an old something. There’s been a lot of speculation. All I knew was this meant you’d be involved in the world, in a big way. Your name and face would be all over everything.” She dropped her gaze, staring at the floor. “…that I would never be able to escape you. So…I gave up.”
“Gave up trying not to love you,” she said quietly. “May all the gods help me, I have spent the entirety of your life trying with everything I have not to care about you, and it just doesn’t work. You’re still my daughter. And yes, I realize I’ve thrown away any possible claim I had on you, but…” She lifted her eyes again. Tears glittered in them in the dimness. “I love you. I’m sorry for everything. That’s…really all I have to say.”
Only sheer force of will enabled Trissiny to hold her gaze. “I… I really don’t have anything to say to that.”
To her surprise, Principia actually laughed, breaking eye contact to brush tears away with one hand. “Well, that was a better reaction than I was expecting, anyway.”
“You went through all this… All the scheming, antagonizing multiple cults, not to mention Tellwyrn, just to say that?”
“I may have overcompensated,” she admitted. “When I first had my little epiphany… Well, all I can say was I was in a pretty stupid frame of mind, so much so I can hardly understand what I was thinking, looking back. I think I had some idea about making everything right, admitting my faults, and then you’d forgive me and we’d be some kind of family. Fortunately, that extremely scrappy old lady running the place tossed my ass down the stairs, which was not only exactly what I deserved but a much-needed wake up call. I haven’t lived this long by being fluffy-headed and delusional. It shook the wits back into me, anyway, and I resolved I’d approach you more in my own way next time.” She shrugged, wearing a rueful half-grin. “At the end of the day, tricks and schemes are what I do. What I am.”
“That is exactly what troubles me,” Trissiny said grimly. “It might have been better if you were just some shifty con artist using the cult of Eserion for a free ride. If you are truly devoted to his ways… You have to know your faith and mine have virtually the most hostile relationship between any two cults that doesn’t come to actual violence.”
“We don’t see it that way, you know. It’s more like…a dance. Avei has the judges, the police, the lawyers and the soldiers… Eserion has the thieves, sure, but the Guild makes sure that more dangerous forms of organized crime never get a foothold wherever Eserion’s name is honored, better than the law ever can. We put the letter of the law against the spirit of justice, and it drives you guys crazy. Truth be told, most of the Eserites I know think pretty well of Avenists. If we had nothing to deal with but cold, hard law, life would be a lot more challenging.”
“And there we have it,” Trissiny said with a despairing shrug. “It’s not as if I can redeem you or anything… There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just that everything you believe, everything you are, stands in opposition to everything I am.”
For a fleeting, horrified instant, she thought Principia was about to cry, but the expression passed so quickly Trissiny wondered if she might have imagined it. The elf shrugged, managing a slight grin.
“So…that’s it, then? There’s no chance at all?”
“Chance for what? You’ve said your piece. What else do you want from me?”
“I…” She paused to swallow painfully. “I would like to be part of your life, is all. In…in whatever capacity you have room for me.”
“My life is service. Protection, justice, and likely war. I will spend it going wherever the goddess needs me, in the company of my sisters and whatever comrades I meet who share the mission. I…” She sighed. “If not for that, if it was just me… I don’t know. I think I’d like to… Well, it doesn’t matter. My life isn’t mine, Principia, it has a purpose, and I cannot imagine you having any part of it. You are just… You’re not the kind of person the Hand of Avei needs to know.”
Principia kept her expression neutral, but her eyes glimmered and she was twisting her hands fiercely in her lap. “And…what if I were? What would that take, to be someone you could let into your life? I’m pretty sure I’d be a dismal excuse for an Avenist, but…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Trissiny said firmly. “We are what we are. You have your path, your calling. Turning away from it for the sake of someone else is a terrible idea. You’d just end up resenting me for it, at best.”
The elf swallowed and dropped her gaze again. “So…that’s it, then? Is that really all there is to it?”
Trissiny opened her mouth to speak, closed it, glanced around the room for inspiration and said a silent prayer for peace.
“I’m glad,” she said finally, “we got a chance to talk.”
“Yeah,” Principia whispered. “Me too.”
The Hand of Avei picked up the satchel of books, turned and left the room, leaving the thief behind.
Shook had blown most of his ready money taking Rail rides around the countryside, and by this point the combination of sprains and bruises from time spent on that damnable thing and his general frustration at the lack of progress had worked him into a fury that was above and beyond, even by his standards. He had ostensibly come back to Calderaas to withdraw more funds from his accounts to continue his search, but truth be told, there was nothing like a big city to work off some pent-up energy. There were whores to be had, and no shortage of seedy taverns and dark alleys full of brutes who’d serve as an outlet for his stress.
As such, when the door of his rented room burst inward off its hinges, his initial response was a sort of savage joy.
What came through, however, was tall enough it had to stoop to get through the doorway, broad enough in the chest that it cracked both sides of the frame on the way through, and appeared to be made of biological armor, like a misshapen amalgamation of crab shells. Its massive hands were tipped in serrated growths that resembled no claws Shook had ever seen, though their purpose was obvious, and rather than legs it had a pair of thick tentacles lined with suction cups.
Shook couldn’t put a name to the creature and had never been in a room with a demon before, but it wasn’t hard to deduce what it was. It certainly had no business being on this plane of existence. The thing looked like it had been created with nothing in mind but sheer destruction.
He threw both the knives he’d drawn in the general direction of the thing’s eyes, let out a roar of challenge and charged it, driving his cudgel at its throat.
The demon moved with impossible speed. It backhanded him in the chest, slamming him against the wall and knocking over the room’s wobbly table in the process. He staggered, barely keeping his footing. Winded and with his vision swimming, Shook lost precious seconds while the monstrosity positioned itself.
“Now, now, let’s all calm ourselves, shall we? There’s no need for any rough stuff. Perhaps we can have us a little chat, like civilized folk.”
The voice came from his right side, from the corner of the room opposite the door. Shook turned his head, blinking to re-focus his eyes.
A man with a well-lined, dark brown face stood there, wearing a pristine white suit and a smug grin. Behind him yawned a shadowy gap in reality which shrank as Shook watched, dissipating back into the mundane shadows of the corner.
The man in the suit appeared to be unarmed, so he returned his attention to the demon. It had stepped into the room and stopped, however, and now stood guard, offering no aggressive action. Two figures in dark gray robes had followed it in; one covered Shook with a wand while the other lifted the fallen door with much grunting and cursing, wrestling it back into place.
“Wreath,” he spat. Well, they weren’t exactly being subtle about it.
“Quite so,” said the suited man, bowing. “Name’s Embras Mogul. I wonder if I might have a moment of your time, Mr. Shook?”
“I’m half tempted to say ‘no,’ just to see what happens,” Shook growled.
Mogul grinned at him. “You won’t, though, and it’s not because you’re afraid of my little friend, here. Man like you isn’t afraid of much, is he? Most especially not when he ought to be. I respect that. No, this is a curious development and you’re interested in learning where it leads, in spite of yourself.”
“You presume a lot, mister. You don’t know me.”
“I know enough.” He tossed a small object from hand to hand; it glinted in the light. “This, for example, is one of my means of getting at information I’m not meant to have. A travel talisman. Know anything about shadow jumping?”
“Just get to the point.”
“It’s not as efficient as a wizard’s teleportation, or so they tell me,” Mogul went on, ignoring him. “Course, a mage has to study for years, not to mention building up a considerable store of personal power, to manage a trick like that. You can shadow jump the same way if you devote enough time and energy to the command of infernal magic, but there are easier ways if you have a travel talisman. Crafted in the bowels of Hell at the behest of the Black Lady herself, they are. These are handed out to our cult as a way to make our lives…easier. So many folk go out of their way to give us trouble. But look who I’m telling! I’m sure a member of the Thieves’ Guild can suss out very well how handy it’d be to be able to go where you want at a whim.”
Shook glanced at the demon and at the cultist holding him at wandpoint before turning his attention back to Mogul. “What the fuck is this? A Black Wreath cultist comes hopping out of the shadows to rough me up and monologue at me? Did I get transported into a novel or something?”
Mogul laughed. “I salute your candor! Very well, I’ll come to the point.” Still grinning, he held up the travel talisman. It was made of bronze, shaped in the twisted symbol of a wreath, and apparently formed of two interlocking pieces. “Now that you know what this is, would you like one?”
For a beat, only the slightly wet sound of the demon’s breathing disturbed the quiet.
“You came here to offer me a magic gizmo?” Shook said finally, narrowing his eyes.
“Well, yes and no,” Mogul replied. He made a complicated flourish of his fingers and the talisman vanished, no doubt up his sleeve. “I need this one, for obvious reasons. I want to convey my blessing to you, however, to obtain one of your own. It’s currently in the hands of someone I recently employed to do some work which, wonder of wonders, did not get done. If you can get your hands on the talisman currently in the possession of Principia Locke, you may keep it.”
“All right,” Shook said after a long pause, “maybe you’d better explain.”
“Oh, had I better?” Mogul’s grin widened. “Well, if you insist.”
Shook straightened slowly, feeling at his midsection. He was going to be a rainbow of bruises, but his ribs appeared to be intact. He kept his attention focused on this for the moment, refusing to gratify Mogul’s posturing with a response.
“I do, in fact, have a little present for you, compliments of my goddess.” He produced an object from behind his back and tossed it too quickly for Shook to get a good look before reflex took over and he snatched it out of the air.
He found himself holding a small reliquary, a tube of green-tinted glass not quite as long as his forearm, capped on both ends and supported internally with rough-shaped iron. A slim chain hung from one end, no doubt for it to be affixed to a belt, and inside was a single rose, suspended in the center of the glass tube, touching nothing. Even the drops of dew on its petals were undisturbed by motion. The color of the flower was impossible to guess; the shade of the glass made it look sickly.
“That,” said Mogul, folding his arms with a satisfied expression, “is the prison of the succubus Kheshiri. Whoever holds it can command her, and she will obey him absolutely. Twist the cap on the end, there, to loosen it; that will summon her to corporeal form. She can’t see or hear anything being said while it’s sealed, so you needn’t worry about your privacy. You’ll forgive my pointing it out, Mr. Shook, but your talents run more toward breaking things than finding things. I think you’ll find her assistance invaluable in locating your quarry.”
“I don’t need help from some whore demon,” Shook spat, but did not drop the reliquary.
“It’s like this,” Mogul went on amiably. “I have been having all kinds of trouble with your Guild lately. Nothing too onerous so far, but the little annoyances are starting to pile up. If it’s not Principia running off with our equipment and not doing the work we contracted, it’s Antonio poking his nose into matters that are no concern of his or his god’s. Everywhere I turn, some Eserite is causing me headaches and having a giggle over it. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.”
“I don’t know anything about any of that,” Shook said carefully.
“Dear fellow, I know very well that you don’t. I have just handed you the means to both outfox and overpower our wayward Miss Locke, and you know it. It’s exactly the thing you need to get everything you want.” His grin widened to downright skeletal proportions. “Of course, it’s still a demon. A trickster demon, a corrupter demon. Kheshiri is trouble enough that someone went to the effort of binding her; that should tell you everything you need to know.
“I see this playing out in one of two ways. Either you prove a much more capable fellow than I expect you are, hunt down Principia and beat some much belated respect into her… Or, more likely, you come to grief screwing around with that thing and become a walking hazard which Darling and his crew will have to go well out of their way to clean up. Either way, some Eserite ceases to be my problem and learns a valuable lesson about messing with the business of the Black Wreath.
“Alternatively,” he went on with a chuckle, “you do the sensible thing, drop that reliquary where you stand and forget you ever met me. Of course, what are the odds of that?”
Shook glared at him in silence.
“Well, this has been fun,” Mogul said cheerily, rubbing his hands together, then flicked his fingers, making the travel talisman slide back into his grip. “But I’ve got just all kinds of things to do today, and not much free time to socialize. You’ll pardon me, I hope, for dropping off your gift and running. Maybe next time we can catch a drink? Till then, ta ta!”
He twisted the talisman in his hands with a soft clatter of its tiny thorns against each other. The shadows swelled around him, engulfing his form in blackness, then receded, leaving nothing behind. A second set of tiny clicks sounded at the same time, and the other cultists and the demon vanished similarly.
Shook was left standing in a disheveled room with a broken door, staring at the reliquary resting in his hand.