“I just wish you’d at least take somebody with you, ma’am. Believe me, I understand not wantin’ to be cooped up in here anymore, but that’s exactly why it ain’t safe to just take off, with the town the way it is.”
“You’re a sweet boy, Joe,” Lily said fondly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Much too good for the lady you’ve got your eye on. But don’t you worry about little ol’ me. If I were worried about my safety, you can bet I wouldn’t be going.”
“Seriously, she’ll be fine,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “If anything, her leaving just means we’ll miss out on the accidental hilarity of somebody trying to harm her. I’m a little perplexed, though, Lil. It’s not like you to take off in the middle of the action.”
“Oh, this is far from the middle, Arachne,” Lily said, smirking at her. “Anyway, it’s not that I’m not interested in seeing how your little field trip goes, but an old acquaintance of ours has started sniffing around. One I’d rather not have a confrontation with at this time.”
Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “Oh? Who?”
“Don’t you fret your pretty head about it, dear. He was always fond of you anyway.”
The Professor’s nostrils flared in irritation, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “Be that as it may, I meant that when you vanish, you usually do just that. It’s the bothering to say goodbye that’s out of character.”
“Really, Arachne. Just because you have no regard for the most basic social graces doesn’t mean nobody else does.”
Lily picked up her carpet bag and strolled toward the door with an entirely unnecessary sway to her movements that commanded everyone’s attention. To her customary scarlet dress she had added an old-fashioned traveling cloak in deep crimson, and now pulled up the hood over her dark hair as she reached the exit. Pausing at the threshold, she half-turned to look back at those assembled.
“Bit of advice, kids,” she said. “A little less enthusiasm, a little more finesse. Toodles!” Wiggling her fingers flirtatiously, she turned and departed, leaving a momentary silence behind her.
“Didn’t she say she was pregnant?” Gabriel asked finally. “Sure doesn’t look it.”
Tellwyrn snorted and stomped over toward the bar.
“I wonder just who that woman really was,” Trissiny said slowly.
“She’s either pretty badass or a fucking idiot, goin’ out there alone,” Ruda agreed. “I mean, what’s she gonna do? Just walk out into the prairie? Try to flag down a caravan? The speed those things travel, I doubt the enchanter driving could even see someone waving.”
“There’s that,” Trissiny said, still frowning at the door, “and the fact that Professor Tellwyrn allowed her to talk to her that way. That’s what throws me off.”
The students, as well as Joe and Jenny, glanced in unison over at the bar, where Tellwyrn was now nursing a whiskey and ostentatiously ignoring them.
“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “I guess there’s no use putting it off. Everything ready, Robin?”
The elf shrugged. “They all know the time and place. I can’t guarantee everyone will turn up, but it’s not like there’s much else for them to do in this town these days. Most of the families are as fortified as they can get inside their homes; even tending their kitchen gardens is risky. Of course, I asked their wives to lean on them a bit, too,” she added with a grin. “That should improve the turnout.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “We’d better move out, then.”
“Just a moment, if I may.”
They turned in surprise at the voice, beholding Heywood Paxton approaching from the stairs to the upper floor, where the private rooms were. He looked much better, with none of the reddened eyes and nose that indicated he’d been at the bottle again. The man had lost weight, and his suit hung on him somewhat loosely, but it looked clean and freshly pressed nonetheless, and the silver gryphon badge of his office gleamed with fresh polish.
“High time this old fool started doing his duty to his Emperor,” he said, head high. “My friends, I thank you not only for coming to the aid of this town, but also for jostling me out of my stupor. You may count on Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor, to do his part.”
“I’m…not sure that’s such a great idea,” Joe said carefully. “You’re a big target, Mr. Paxton.”
“Less so that previously, my boy,” the Surveyor replied with a grin, patting his somewhat diminished paunch.
“You know what I mean,” replied the Kid, his expression growing drawn. “You’re a high priority for the Riders. They can’t have an official Imperial report getting back to Tiraas.”
“And that is precisely what I must accompany this expedition,” he replied, turning to face the students again. “Pardon me for eavesdropping, but there’s precious little else to do around here except drink, and I believe I’ve done far more than my share of that lately. As I grasp it, my friends, your plan is, in part, to provoke a response from the Riders Am I correct?”
“Yes,” Gabe said thoughtfully. “And…yes, you’re right that having you along would be even better bait…”
“I don’t like that at all,” Jenny said, eyes wide. “Heywood, no offense, but you’re no wandfighter. This is too risky. It’s crazy.”
“Ah, but I hardly expect to have to do my own wandfighting,” said Paxton with a grin. “I’ll be with a whole party of heroes! Paladins, clerics, dryads, wizards, even a bard! Safe as houses, I’m sure.”
“Having to look after a civilian does alter the equation somewhat,” said Shaeine. “I am confident that we can protect ourselves from attack, but… On this matter I defer to more tactical minds.”
“It’s doable,” Trissiny said immediately, then turned a sharp stare on Paxton. “Provided that the civilian in question strictly follows orders and stays far from the front lines when combat breaks out.”
“My word on it, Ms. Avelea,” he said, nodding firmly.
“Then it’s up to the healers; they’ll be the ones having to stretch their capacity by an extra head. Shaeine?”
“Ah, let me just cut in here,” said Gabriel. “It’d be better if he went with our group rather than Shaeine’s. An Imperial Surveyor has some official rank that may help us impress the townsfolk. The elves, on the other hand…”
“…may interpret an official Imperial presence as aggressive,” Shaeine finished. “That is a solid point.”
“I thought your whole plan for the grove was to try to agitate them out of their complacency,” said Robin. “That’d be a start.”
“I’d rather appeal to reason and higher virtues first,” said Teal. “If it does come to agitating, well, it’s probably better not to put them on the defensive the moment we walk in. They may already be annoyed with us for showing up a second day in a row. I think a lot of ’em were glad to see us leave the last time.”
“I will, of course, yield to your strategic expertise,” said Paxton, “but quite frankly I’m not sure I’d be much use in dealing with elves. Imperial citizens, now, those I know just how to motivate.”
“That’s settled, then. Right?” Teal looked around for objections. “Right. Okay, then, all we’ll have to do is try to jostle a bunch of hidebound immortals who don’t think our opinions are worth a squirrel’s fart. No problem.”
“You’ve been in this town too long,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’re picking up the vernacular.”
Teal rolled her eyes. “Robin, any guesses how many of the elves hate humans as much as your sister does? If they have a majority, this is pretty much hopeless.”
Robin barked a laugh. “If you mean how many of the elves are anti-human, it’s actually a pretty tiny minority. That’s not the problem. My sister, for your information, loves humans, in every conceivable sense of the word. She is throwing a sulk because her boyfriend’s family were rude to her—which, by the way, was entirely her own fault and has nothing to do with the Riders or anything else going on. That’s going to be the bigger part of the problem. Elves typically err on the side of caution and consistency. The current climate just exacerbates petty disagreements like that, gives leverage to the few who really don’t want to be involved in human affairs, and the whole thing is held down by our general tendency to stay put and wait for something to happen.” She shrugged expressively. “You’re not going to get all the elves behind you, no matter what you do. The trick will be getting enough to break with the group, which…isn’t something we like to do. Shake that complacency enough, though, and you just might walk out of there with some allies.”
“It is a start,” said Shaeine.
“It’ll have to do,” Teal agreed grimly.
“I’ll help,” Jenny said brightly. “I’m good at shaking things up.”
“Jenny,” Joe protested.
“Don’t you start with me, Mr. Jenkins,” she said, leveling a finger at him. “I told you I’m not one to just sit on my hands! I wasn’t about to go take on the White Riders myself, but if people are taking action, I’m in.” She turned back to the others, folding her arms. “And I know a thing or two about elves.”
“Well, we won’t turn down any help,” said Teal. “We’re not going to stop with the elves, though; the plan is to go after the Riders immediately after we finish whatever happens in the grove.” She sighed, glancing at Gabriel. “And, despite what I earnestly wish, I don’t think diplomacy is going to be in the cards, with them. You sure you’re up for that?”
Jenny cracked a lopsided grin. “I may have seen a little bit of action here and there. Don’t you worry about me.”
“Anybody else care to lend a hand?” Toby asked. “Joe? I don’t like the idea of fighting any more than Teal, here, but she’s right: it’s almost surely going to come down to that. An extra pair of wands would be helpful. Besides, you’re widely respected; you’d be a big help in getting people up off their butts.”
Joe shook his head. “My place is here.”
“He’s right,” said Gabriel. “Without him here, there’s nothing to stop the Riders from hitting the Lady as soon as we’re all gone. It’s the biggest holdout against them; burning it and scattering the people here would be their logical move if we left it undefended.” He nodded at Joe, who nodded back gravely.
“Very well, then,” said Trissiny, slinging her shield over her back with an air of finality. “Everyone knows their role. Let’s move out.”
Sunset made the streets of Sarasio positively spooky. It was a time when a town should ordinarily be winding down its business; subdued, but still alive, still active. In Sarasio, there was total silence. Orange light stained the pitted street and the dilapidated boards of the buildings lining it, but there was no one about, not so much as a horse or stray dog moving.
The total silence was made more ominous by what lay behind it. This was their third patrol in the streets surrounding the old barn, now converted to a tavern, in which the meeting was being held. On the first, they had been watched, carefully, from the shadows, but apparently word of Trissiny’s performance on their group’s first arrival in town had spread, and none had offered them a challenge. Now, even those dim shapes lurking in doorways and the mouths of alleys had vanished, leaving only the unnatural quiet.
And the prospect of a lightning bolt out of any window.
Gabriel froze as a clatter pierced the quiet, clutching his wand and pointing it first one way, then another, seeking the source of the disturbance. Seconds later, another soft sound followed it, this one clearly coming from a junk-filled alleyway nearby. Clutching the wand in both hands, he aimed it straight for the pile of broken furniture that clogged the narrow opening, then drew in a deep breath, steeling himself to call out a challenge.
He stumbled backward as a small heap of what looked to be barrel staves toppled, and a rabbit shot out of the alley, darting across the road and vanishing into the dried-out bushes opposite.
Gabe slowly let out the breath he’d drawn, some of the tension easing from his frame. He gave Trissiny a sour look.
“Don’t say a word.”
She shook her head. “Too easy.”
With a soft sigh on his part, they resumed their slow circuit.
“Relax,” she said in a low voice.
He gave her an irritated sidelong look. “How in the hell am I supposed to relax? We’re the worms on the end of a hook, here.”
“This was your plan, you know.”
“Yeah, well… It all sounds much less deadly from the comfort of a lavish…uh, brothel.”
“Anyway, I’m serious. You’re wasting energy by holding so much tension. You can most likely survive a wand shot, and I can shield myself.”
“Most likely,” he said sourly. “Could be better odds.”
“I should probably have said ‘almost certainly.’ Compared to what Vadrieny did to you, a bolt of lightning is nothing.”
The silence which ensued was even more strained. The pair of them walked, alone, down the center of the dusty street, eying their surroundings as much for the excuse of avoiding each other’s gaze as to keep watch for ambushers. They had managed, for the most part, not to discuss their brawl on campus and its aftermath; the subject was invariably awkward at the very least.
Turning a corner, they slowed slightly by unspoken consensus, passing the old barn. One of the few stone structures in a town mostly of wood, it, like the ruined one out behind the Shady Lady, had once been part of a farmstead before Sarasio had grown to encompass it. Lamplight blazed from its windows, now, along with the sound of voices. Specifically, the sound of arguing. Two men on either side of the broad front door, each holding staves, nodded at them. Trissiny nodded in return, Gabe saluting with his wand, and they continued along their route, gradually leaving behind the only sight ad sound of other life in the town, the oppressive silence falling around them again.
“They’ll be all right,” he said quietly, nodding at nothing. “Toby’s in there, and Mr. Paxton. If they can’t straighten those folks out, it can’t be done.”
“Ruda is also in there,” Trissiny said darkly. “She can create a fight out of thin air. I shudder to think was she can do from the middle of a whole web of petty vendettas.”
“I didn’t hear you nominating her to come on patrol with us.”
“Once again, you’re invulnerable, and I have defenses. Ruda would be felled instantly by a wandshot. She’s safer in there with the diplomats.” She grimaced, glancing around. “Though all this is for nothing if they can’t get at least most of those people working on the same page.”
“And Teal and Shaeine doing the same with the elves…” He kicked a stone out of the way, scowling after it. “And then we’re assuming the Riders will try something… And with the right timing, too… Augh, I’m an idiot. What was I thinking?”
“Don’t,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “Don’t second-guess yourself after the plan’s in motion. No strategy survives contact with the enemy. If it goes wrong, we’ll adapt.” He sighed, and they walked in silence for a while longer before she spoke again, even more quietly. “It is a good plan, Gabriel.”
He risked a glance at her; she was watching the road ahead. “You’re not just saying that?”
“Seriously? Have I ever gone out of my way to coddle your feelings? Can you imagine me doing that?”
“Fair enough,” he said sourly.
“We wouldn’t all have signed off on it if it weren’t solid. You’re not that persuasive a speaker. They Riders have to know what’s going on, and they have virtually no choice but to respond—and only one method they’re likely to use. The biggest risk is, as you said, the timing. If they strike before we can get in position… But then, most of this is getting these people to work together. An attack by an outside party is the best possible way to do that.” She nodded. “It’s a good plan.”
“What would you say,” he said thoughtfully, “if I told you Ruda’s smarter than any of us give her credit for?”
Trissiny raised her eyebrows, but still kept her attention on the street rather than on him. “I would ask what makes you think so.”
“I’m not sure I do.” He shook his head. “It’s just… A guy I met in the bordello said so.”
“Just…some guy? Someone who’s only seen us a few times, when we were mostly just squabbling?”
“Exactly. I’m not sure whether he was talking out of his ass, or if maybe his outsider opinion… That is, maybe he noticed something we’ve missed. She is royal. I mean, she has to have had training in politics and stuff.”
Trissiny shook her head. “What does it matter?”
“Just thinking out loud, I guess. The different kinds of intelligence. It’s been sort of on my mind, the last day or two, how a person can be really smart in one area and kind of an idiot in others.”
“You mean, the way you actually have a pretty strategic mind, apparently, but possess all the people skills of a billy goat?”
He grimaced. “Just for a completely random example, yeah, sure. Not that you’re one to criticize anybody’s people skills.”
Gabe coughed softly. “You, uh…actually think I have a strategic mind, though?”
“Really?” She rolled her eyed. “Must we go over this again? I have no intention of stroking your ego, or anything else of yours.”
“Oh, ew. I just got the cold shivers. Don’t say things like that!”
“Yeah, that was ill-advised,” she agreed, twisting her lips in disgust.
“I just… Well, coming from you, ‘strategic’ is pretty high praise. I’m not used to high praise, uh… Coming from you.”
Trissiny shrugged again. “It’s fair. I’ve said your strategy was solid. And don’t forget, I’ve played you at chess, too.”
“Where you won two out of three games.”
“Do you really imagine I didn’t see what you were doing?” Finally, she glanced over at him, but only for a second. “The first two I won quickly, using two different strategies, while you played almost entirely reactive, defensive games. The last one you stretched out, using multiple, deep feints to counter the strategies you’d seen me use, and maneuvered me into exhausting my pieces while you set up a trap. That’s grand strategy, studying an opposing general’s patterns and thinking beyond the needs of the battle at hand. So yes, to my surprise, there does appear to be a highly functional brain lurking somewhere behind that mouth.”
“Ah, well, you know how it is,” he said modestly. “The way I was raised, it’s just good manners to let the lady win.”
She glanced at him again, eyes narrowed. “You are trying to make me stab you now, aren’t you?”
“Specifically not against a blade crafted by Avei.”
“Well, that’s not really fair, then, is it? You’ve got all kinds of advantages over me in a fight. What say we move this back to the chessboard, next time we have a chance? Best three out of five?”
To her own surprise, Trissiny found herself grinning. “You’re on.”
It was out of the question, of course, if he was to keep any shred of control over this situation, but more and more, Toby wanted to plant his face in his hands and groan.
Well over two dozen men crowded the barn, coalesced into small clumps keeping a wary distance between each of them. Despite the palpable tension in the room, they were thankfully leaving one another alone, all their focus on the main table in the center, at which sat the heads of the four families, along with Toby, Ruda and Mr. Paxton. The Surveyor was doing his best to remain professional, but he had wisely left most of the talking to Toby, who actually had formal training in negotiation. Not in Shaeine’s league, of course, but diplomacy called heavily upon the virtues that Omnu sought to instill in his followers: patience, compassion, understanding, respect. Ruda leaned back in her chair, balancing it on its two back legs, her boots propped on the table. She was sipping intermittently from a bottle of whiskey, her hat pulled forward so that it mostly hid her eyes, and not contributing to the conversation. All things considered, Toby decided he was glad of that.
At least there was one thing to be glad of.
“All I’m sayin’ is, we need assurances,” Jonas Hesse said stridently. “Who knows what’ll get back to the Riders, all of us meetin’ like this? Nobody here’s exempt from suspicion!”
“Nobody ‘cept your boys, is what you mean,” snarled Jacob Strickland, the oldest of the four patriarchs at the table. His beard was short, but more gray than brown, and did little to add to his dignity. If anything, he did more shouting than any of the others. He did so now, thrusting a finger at Hesse. “Well? Ain’t it?”
“We all prob’ly suspect everybody else’s boys of bein’ in with the Riders,” said Lucas Wilcox, the youngest of the four, who was leaning back in his chair much like Ruda.
“Gentlemen,” Paxton tried for the third time in the last minute, but Hesse overrode him.
“Nobody calls my sons traitors!” he snarled, jerking to his feet and planting both fists on the table to glare at Wilcox.
“Oh, but you can say what you want about ours?” Ezekiel Conner snapped, folding his arms and glaring mulishly. “Just like a Hesse.”
“Oh, that’s it. You’re gonna eat them words, Ezekiel!”
“Yeah? I don’t see you makin’ me.”
“Gentlemen,” Toby said, much more loudly than Paxton—enough to grab their attention momentarily. “I know you all have issues to work out. Having everybody here at the table is an important first step. But with all due respect, this is not the time.” He held his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole barn and the town beyond. “Look around you. Sarasio is dying. You—and your families—will die with it if you don’t do something about the White Riders! And to do that, you are going to have to put these vendettas aside and work together.” He leaned forward, trying to hold them still with the sheer intensity of his stare. “Peace takes time and effort to build. I’m not asking you all to suddenly forgive everything and embrace each other. But, just for a little while, please. Put it aside.”
“Ain’t that I don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, kid,” said Wilcox, nodding to him. “And it ain’t even that you’re wrong. Fact is, though, you’re askin’ us to ride into what’s sure to be a firefight with the very real possibility of bein’ shot in the back.”
“The Riders know too much, we’ve seen it in the way they maneuver,” added Conner, still glaring at Hesse. “Somebody’s tippin’ ’em off. Several somebodies, ‘less I miss my guess.”
“I ain’t puttin’ my life on the line, and sure as hell not any of my family’s, until we straighten out just who the traitors are an’ deal with ’em,” Strickland declared. “An’ until these three dumbasses admit they’ve got Riders among their own families, that don’t look like it’s about to happen.”
“You shut yer foul mouth, Strickland!” Hesse roared, shooting back to his feet. “Your whole brood o’ weasels’re probably in league with the Riders! Hell, I bet you’re leadin’ the bastards yourself! You always did want more’n you deserved outta this town!”
“That does it!” squawked Strickland, also jerking upright. “I’m gonna hear an apology outta you if it’s the last thing you ever—”
Toby slapped both hands down hard on the table, startling them into momentary silence. “Please,” he implored, silently pouring more power into the calming aura he was using to keep this whole thing from exploding into violence. Already, it was a strain to keep enough concentration on that task while also trying to keep the conversation on target. He’d never been in a room with so may deep-seated resentments.
Into the brief quiet, Ruda snorted a laugh. “Listen to you guys. Everybody’s so sure that all the other families are corrupted. First step to dealing with this is you each admitting you’ve all got traitors in your midst.” She lifted her head, meeting their incredulous stares. “Every one of you.”
“Young lady,” Wilcox began.
“It’s Princess, if you wanna be formal. Me, I don’t. Formal doesn’t look good on me.” She jerked her boots off the table and let her chair thump to the ground, leaning forward to stare intently at them. “Use your goddamn heads, boys. Why would the Riders only infiltrate some of the clans populating this town? They need intel on everybody’s movements, or they’d never have been able to head off every effort you made to move against them.”
“Now, look here,” Conner began.
“Furthermore,” Ruda said doggedly, “look around you at what is happening right here, right now. You’re all about to rip each others’ fucking throats out. Is that normal? Is this what life was always like in this town? Or, if you think back carefully, do you find that stuff started getting real bad between you after the Riders started being a big problem?”
“What are you suggesting?” Hesse demanded.
“I’m suggesting the Riders in your ranks aren’t just passing information—they’re pitting you against each other. Think from their perspective: they can’t have the whole town uniting against them, which is the logical thing for a town full of sane fucking people to do when they’re basically under siege. You’ve all got the same damn problem. Now quit pointing fingers and fucking do something about it!”
“That’s all fine an’ dandy,” Strickland growled, “but it don’t change the problem. You wanna round up a posse and take on the Riders? Fine by me. Ain’t a man by the name of Strickland who’ll hang back if that’s what it’s gonna take to save our town. But the fact remains, we got bad apples in the bunch. We ride out, and our men’ll be vulnerable to fire from their own ranks!”
“She ain’t wrong, though,” Wilcox noted. “It ain’t just any one family’s problem.”
“What difference does it make?” Hesse demanded.
“It makes a difference,” Toby said firmly, “because you will all face the same peril together. Do you really believe there’s any way to do this without putting men in danger?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t lie to you, gentlemen, even if I thought you were naïve enough not to have realized the truth on your own: ride out to battle, and men will die. Right now, you are quibbling over the ways and means in which that might happen, and avoiding the larger truth.”
“You callin’ us yellow?” Strickland growled squinting at him.
“No!” He managed, barely, not to shout. Honestly, they were like children. “I’m pointing out that Ruda is right. You’ve been manipulated, gentlemen; someone has been trying to distract you, to focus your energies against each other.”
“Well, maybe our energies belong against each other!” Hesse shot back. “I ain’t seen one bit of evidence any man in my family’s sided with the Riders, and I’m not puttin’ any of ’em in harm’s way to save a bunch o’ chickenshit varmints who can’t keep order in their own clans!”
The whole table instantly dissolved into shouted pandemonium, the voices too loud and too rapid for any single thread to be clearly heard. All four men were on their feet, pointing and gesticulating at each other and growing increasingly red in the face. Now, other voices began contributing from all corners of the room, first shouting at the general mess at the round table, and then starting in on each other. Toby slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead; Paxton planted his elbows on the table, putting his face in his hands.
“Okay,” said Ruda, “this is bullshit.”
She stood up, tilted up the bottle of whiskey to gulp down the last of its contents, then hurled the empty bottle at Wilcox and punched Strickland in the jaw.