“Here,” said Basra, trotting down the front Cathedral steps to rejoin them. She held a small handful of wands, mass-produced models with thick grips and shiny new clickers that suggested they’d never been used. To Darling she gave two; Branwen accepted one, looking somewhat bemused.
“The shrine of Avei in there has wands?” Darling said in surprise. “I thought you lot were all about blades and traditional enchantment and whatnot.”
“That’s what I’m carrying,” Basra said, patting the sword now buckled at her waist, “but with all due respect—however much is due—I’m not going to assume either of you can handle a real weapon. And no, the shrine doesn’t, but the Holy Legion’s armory is pretty well-equipped.”
“I’m not shooting anybody,” Branwen insisted, holding the wand as gingerly as she might a live snake. “Izarites offer harm to no one.”
“That’s fine,” Basra said condescendingly. “I’ve given you the thing, so when you die from not defending yourself nobody can say it’s my fault. All right, you!” She pointed at the crow currently perched atop a nearby lamp post. “Which way are we heading?”
Fortunately, at this hour, even the Cathedral’s main steps were deserted. Tiraas was a city that never stopped glowing, nor truly slept, but it was a city whose weather often didn’t encourage sightseeing and lollygagging after dark. This was one such night; fog that couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be a gloomy drizzle had dampened everything, reducing the fairy lamps to fuzzy patches of disembodied glow and obscuring the architectural splendor of Imperial Square. There was probably nobody about but the local constabulary, and none happened to be close enough to see a Bishop of the Universal Church addressing a bird.
The crow ruffled is feathers, tilting its head to peer down at her inquisitively.
“Well?” Basra prompted after a moment, then scowled. “…is that her? That had better be her. If I’m trying to have a conversation with some random carrion-eating feather duster, I’m gonna stab somebody.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” said Mary, amused. As always, she didn’t visibly shift; she was just an elf now, and apparently always had been, standing on the toes of her moccasins atop the lamp post as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Those non-changing transitions were starting to give Darling a sense of vertigo. “At least, not before it’s time. For me to lead you directly through the city would garner more attention than I like, but I assume you can follow directions well enough. You should start with the attack site; the crime is still fresh, and undiscovered. The Jackal has made arrangements and is counting on it remaining so until morning. Get there now and you can begin disrupting his plans.”
“And where is there?” Andros demanded.
Mary grinned. “Go to the Temple of Izara. Ask for Hernfeldt, and when they try to stop you, insist.”
“Oh, no,” Branwen whispered, and took off at a near run. The others quickly fell into step behind her, Basra muttering irritably under her breath. Behind them came the flapping of wings as their guide disappeared into the night.
Branwen was in surprisingly good shape. Like most of the main temples, that of Izara wasn’t far from Imperial Square; the city planners, and/or whatever Izarites had lobbied them, had placed it prominently at another large intersection. Nonetheless, it was ordinarily a walk of fifteen minutes. They made it in five, with Branwen staying in the lead of the group and never growing so much as winded, despite her short stature and generally cushiony appearance. She didn’t visibly glow during the trip, but drawing on divine healing may have helped explain her sudden vigor.
“You know this Hernfeldt?” Darling asked as they went. He and Andros had long enough legs to keep up with her vigorous trot without breaking into a jog themselves. Basra was having a little more trouble, being forced to lope for a few steps every minute or so, and looked increasingly annoyed by it.
“Yes,” Branwen said, uncharacteristically terse.
“You don’t seem surprised to hear of this,” Andros rumbled.
She shook her head, neither slowing nor looking back at him. They passed a few people, now, some of whom recognized at least part of their group and bowed to them, but Branwen didn’t allow them to slow and engage in pleasantries. “No follower of Izara deserves…that.”
“All the so-called victims deserved what they got,” Basra said snidely from the rear of the group. “That’s what they all have in common.”
To this, Branwen made no reply.
The city’s layout being what it was, they actually approached the Temple of Izara from the rear and had to proceed along its whole length to round the building and reach the front entrance. Apparently there was no back way in, which struck Darling as odd… Or perhaps it was just on the other side, or maybe underground. Regardless, there wasn’t a visible break in the towering wrought iron fence that enclosed the temple grounds until they rounded the corner into the square ahead. The archway leading into the front garden was bracketed by two Silver Legionnaires on either side, who stiffened and saluted Basra as they passed within.
While the Cathedral and the main temples of Avei and Omnu favored towering spires and sloped roofs, the Temple of Izara had a softer look. Set well back from the street, surrounded by lush flower gardens well-illuminated with fairy lamps, the white marble structure might actually have looked rather squat and blocky if not for its several gilded domes, stained-glass windows heavily favoring pink, and the vines and climbing roses ascending many of its walls. Overall it had a gentle look, even in the darkness, which the four Bishops didn’t pause to appreciate.
Branwen took the steps up to the main entrance at a near run. At this hour, the large doors were shut, though of course they weren’t locked; the acolytes of Izara made themselves available at any and all times, which resulted in good-natured jokes about “love emergencies.” Two more Legionnaires guarded the entrance. They, too, were stiffly at attention in Basra’s presence, which deprived Darling of the chance to observe some interfaith tensions in action. He’d heard that guarding Izarite temples was considered a punishment duty among Avenists.
The main hall was a similarly soft place, lit by fairy lamps and some exterior light through towering pink windows. It was full of pillows, low couches, the sweet scent of incense and the sound of gently splashing fountains. A few people were about, sitting or strolling together, some talking in low voices.
“Bishop Snowe,” a tall, willowy blonde woman greeted them, gliding over from the shade of a huge potted fern. “Your Graces, this is a surprise. How can—”
“We need Hernfeldt,” Branwen cut her off.
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Brother Hernfeldt is in seclusion in his chambers this evening,” she said carefully, “communing with the goddess. He is not to be disturbed.”
“He’s been pretty well disturbed, if our source is correct,” Basra remarked.
“One’s meditations are not to be—”
“Now!” Branwen said sharply. “This is a matter of life and death, Zoe!”
The priestess leaned back in surprise. “I…if you say so, Bishop. I hope we are not disrupting him frivolously. Abdul, please take the door position?”
Leaving another priest to assume her post greeting visitors, Zoe led them to an arched doorway off to one side of the hall. Apparently she was, indeed, taking Branwen’s orders seriously; at least, she set as rapid a pace as she could without causing a disturbance in the great hall. There was probably not much running in a temple of the goddess of love.
“You two,” Basra said sharply to another pair of Legionnaires standing inside the front doors. “With us.”
They exchanged a glance. “Ma’am, we’re assigned to guard—”
“Did I ask for your opinion, soldier?”
Zoe led them through the halls of the temple, the four Bishops right behind her and the two Legionnaires bringing up the rear. They walked in tense silence, the priestess having quickly picked up the mood. Well, Izarites were famously empathetic, after all. The temple’s layout seemed somewhat obfuscatory, assuming Zoe was taking them on as direct a route as possible; they changed direction and seemed to have to backtrack as they climbed floors, no single staircase apparently continuing for more than one story. Annoying as it was, Darling could appreciate the tactical benefit; anybody not familiar with these corridors would quickly become lost. Of course, Izarites being as they were, they probably had different reasons, but he didn’t understand their worldview deeply enough to interpret their architectural choices.
Finally, though, Zoe brought them to a stop outside a thick oak door on an upper corridor. Branwen strode up to this and rapped sharply with her knuckles. “Brother Hernfeldt?”
“Waste of time,” Andros growled. “We were told it was already too late.”
“Too late?” Zoe looked back and forth between them. “What is going on?”
“It’s locked,” Branwen said, jiggling the knob uselessly. “Blast… He really was in seclusion.”
“Allow me.” Darling knelt beside the door, extracting lock picks from within his sleeve.
“Oh,” Zoe fretted, “I don’t think you should be doing that…”
Before he could start working, however, Basra bumped him heavily with her hip, nearly sending him sprawling; he barely managed to keep a grip on his tools with one hand, catching himself with the other. She took one step back and drove her foot against the door in a powerful snap kick, wrenching it open with a crunch of wood.
“That also works,” he acknowledged, getting up. Before anybody could say anything else, Zoe screamed.
There was a brief traffic jam as all four Bishops tried to crowd into the door to look. Branwen was ultimately bumped forward into the room itself, Darling and Basra filling the opening and Andros craning his neck to see over them.
Brother Hernfeldt’s room was not large, nor ostentatious, but in keeping with Izarite aesthetics, it was more comfortable than the chambers of priests of other faiths tended to keep theirs. A large bed predominated the space, along with a cushy-looking sofa lining one entire wall and a much more modest desk and low bookcase opposite. He had apparently liked quilts; they were draped over the bed, couch and desk chair. The large one on the bed was a predominantly white and pink pattern, which very well showed off the blood drenching it.
Hernfeldt himself was a dwarf, or had been. He lay with his feet toward the door, pinned to his bed with the poker from his small fireplace driven clean through his chest.
Darling frowned. This was, indeed, not the work of his girls; too sloppy, no touch added to signify a Wreath link. The Jackal, from what little he knew of the elf, could certainly have done it. But then, so could Mary. She was definitely playing some kind of game with him. How willing was she to sacrifice pawns to achieve her ends? What were her ends?
“The killings,” Zoe whispered, one hand over her mouth. “Oh…oh, no, Hernfeldt. I told him to leave the city…”
“What’s that?” Basra turned to her, arching an eyebrow. “You do know the killer’s been targeting the corrupt, then? What was this fellow about that drew his attention?”
“He…he had…” She swallowed. “…urges. He controlled himself, though! He would never have acted on… That is, the worship of our lady helps us to channel our desires, to emphasize what’s healthy over… Hernfeldt is—” Zoe choked on a sob, but continued. “He was a good man, he’d never have actually done…anything.”
“Uh huh,” Basra said dryly. “What was it, eh? Goats? Corpses? Little boys?”
“Enough, Bas,” Darling said firmly, pushing into the room and swiftly casing it. The Jackal—or whoever had done this—was good. The locked door meant he hadn’t gone in and out that way. There was one window, narrow, but big enough for a person to slip through. He crossed swiftly to this, studying it. Closed, but not latched. It wouldn’t latch from the outside.
“Pretty girls pissing on decoupage—”
“Basra!” he shouted, turning to glare at her. “Needle the Izarites on your own time.”
“Fine, fine,” she said, following him into the room. “Our perp is gone, I take it?”
“This was his exit.” Darling knelt, touching the thick carpet under the window. “Damp here… The rug’s color makes it hard to see, but these are footprints, not just splashing from a loose window. This is how he came and went. Look, there’s a roof right outside here… It’s almost too easy.”
“You two,” she said more curtly, turning back to the Legionnaires standing just outside the room. “This needs to be reported immediately. Notify your captain and have word sent to the city watch and the Church.”
The two soldiers exchanged another glance.
“And the High Commander, ma’am?” one prompted.
“Yes, yes,” Basra said impatiently, waving them off. “Go.”
They saluted in unison, then whirled and dashed back down the hall. Branwen had slipped out of the room and was now trying to comfort Zoe, who appeared nearly catatonic.
Darling pushed open the window and lifted one foot to rest on the frame. “I’m going to have a look, here, see if I can determine the route he used.”
“Foolish,” Andros rumbled, “to follow a badger into his den.”
“He’s in Tiraas,” Darling said grimly. “This isn’t his den. It’s mine.” He slipped nimbly through, splashing down on the stone outside.
Hernfeldt’s view had been somewhat obstructed by a sizable dome that terminated right outside his window, but it did make for a convenient escape route. Being a round roof on a square building, the dome left a lip of flat stone all around this section of the temple, widest at the corners and guarded by a low, crenelated wall. Just below this was another half-dome over a lower wing of the temple, providing an easy slide down—or, for someone as nimble as an elf, a path up. Right now, everything was slick with the spurting drizzle, but Darling didn’t doubt the Jackal could have made the climb.
Of course, climbing was a complete non-issue for the Crow…
He wasn’t terribly surprised when Andros and then Basra joined him outside.
“There,” he said, pointing over the edge. “Down that roof, and from there he could jump to that pillar in the fence. Flat-topped…not very good for keeping people out.”
“The Izarites don’t want to keep anybody out,” Basra said disgustedly. “Unfortunately for what’s-his-name.”
“Or he could have climbed the vines,” Andros said. “The pillar is too far to jump.”
“To far for us,” Darling corrected. “An elf could make that.”
“Elves are fast, but they are not strong,” the Huntsman growled. “Jumping a long distance requires muscular legs.”
“Look, I don’t presume to know how they do it, but believe me, I’ve seen firsthand what elves can and cannot jump. Trust me, one could get across that. I’m gonna take a closer look.”
“You’re gonna catch your death of three-story drop, is what,” Basra said. “Look, it’s not like you can—and there he goes.”
Darling vaulted over the edge, sliding neatly down the half-dome below to land on the lower rim of stone without losing his footing. Behind him, Andros slid down a little more carefully and less gracefully, but also without falling.
“Yeah, you two take the more dangerous route,” Basra called from above. “It’d be just awful if everybody failed to see how big your dicks are. I’ll meet you at the bottom.”
“Funny thing is,” Darling mused aloud, peering across at the thick pillar, “this is probably the one temple in the city where this isn’t the first time somebody’s said that.” Inwardly, he filed that away against Fauna’s theory about Basra. The heartless, as elves called them, were usually the most reckless members of whatever group they were in, and never the least. That was what got most of them caught.
“You are more adept on your feet than I expected,” Andros remarked.
“I’m not just a pretty face, Andros.”
“You were right,” he said, peering over, “there’s a thick vine cover here. Hm… Also no lights nearby. This would be a perfect place to climb up.”
“It makes no difference,” Andros growled. “Tracking in the rain is hard. Tracking in the city is hard. Tracking elves under any circumstances is prohibitively hard. Together they add up to an impossibility. We are dependent upon that woman to tell us which way he went. Assuming she actually knows.”
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it,” Darling mused, “what kind of game she’s playing. Seems to me that bringing us here to see all this first is just…”
“Yup.” They exchanged a grim look. “Bas didn’t give you a wand. I assume you’ve got your own?”
“Good.” He slipped nimbly over the side and began to descend; the vines did, indeed, provide an excellent grip. Getting up this way would have been easy enough for him, probably as simple as a stroll through the meadow for an elf. “Don’t trust the Crow any farther than you absolutely must.”
“Obviously,” Andros said disdainfully, following him over. Though he was much bigger, his weight didn’t prove too much for the vines, and he was deft enough in his descent. Once he was relatively certain the Huntsman wasn’t going to fall on him, Darling didn’t give him any more attention for the rest of the way down.
Not trusting the Crow was, indeed, obvious, but he wasn’t just making conversation. Mary had all the knowledge she needed to turn the other Bishops against him with a few well-chosen words. He could choose words, too, and it was never too early to start cutting into her credibility.
She ruffled her feathers, scattering raindrops, watching the two men descend from a convenient roof across the street. They’d regroup outside, once they’d finished setting the Church, the Imperials and the Avenists on the Jackal’s trail. By the time she re-convened with the four Bishops to give them their next breadcrumbs, the forces set in motion would be great enough to make this his last visit to Tiraas even if these humans failed to deal with him themselves. It would be ideal if they managed, but if push came to shove, she could arrange for him to confess his involvements to whoever brought him down. It would be trickier to pull off, and carried less certainty that the information would lead to the result she wanted, but it would be something.
Could the Bishops deal with him? The Sister and the Huntsman were potent threats, and Darling was not to be underestimated. Even the Izarite had tactical use against a stealthy foe; it was very hard to sneak up on an empath. Still, she might need to give them a few nudges. Subtly, of course. It was important they think they’d done it without her help.
Mary felt the howling presence of dozens of maddened spirits even before she saw the two materialize on either side of her. Impressive. Invisibility was a parlor trick to eldei alai’shi, but few of them had mastered the subtleties of their expensive gifts well enough to hide from her.
“You should understand something, if you’re going to be leading Sweet around on adventures in the city,” Flora said in a pleasant tone.
“You have tacitly taken responsibility for his well-being,” said Fauna, her smile doing nothing to offset the tension in her frame.
“You know something of our…kind, I take it?”
“Of course, someone like you has dealt with headhunters before.”
“Every one I could find,” Mary replied calmly, in her elven form again.
Flora’s smile widened enough to show just the tips of her teeth. “Ever killed one?”
“I never tried.” She shook her head. “Pointless. You were dead the moment you walked into Athan’Khar. All that remains at question is how much time passes before you lie down and accept it… And how many you bring down with you.”
Fauna cocked her head to one side. “Interesting. What would you seek them out for, if not to kill them?”
“Because they were elves,” she said simply, “because they suffered, and because no one should have to be alone.”
The two exchanged a loaded glance that made her wonder about the nature of their relationship.
“So,” Flora drawled. “Think you could kill one?”
“Let alone two?”
“Aren’t you two supposed to be at home, asleep?”
“We’re supposed to do a lot of things.”
“Our teachers are very disappointed with us.”
“When they catch us.”
“Which has nothing to do with this. You were asked a question.”
“I really don’t have time for this tonight, girls,” she said mildly. “Kindly make your threats and be done before I have to resume guiding the humans. They’re clever, but I hate to leave them blundering around unsupervised with the Jackal in town.”
“Very well, if you’re in such a hurry,” said Flora, still with that icy smile. “You’re an impressive piece of work, but so are we.”
“Whatever you do, we can track you down.”
“And if it comes down to it, you are not a match for the both of us.”
“So whatever it is you’re planning for our Sweet, I suggest you be extremely cautious of his well-being.”
“We will hold you responsible for what happens to him.”
“If he comes back with so much as a stubbed toe or a bump on the head…”
“Whatever happens to him, will happen to you.”
Mary kicked her legs idly over the edge of the roof. “Two of you…apparently a matched set. That’s only the beginning of what’s new and fascinating about you. Already you’ve made it longer than most, and you are more stable, more sane and well-adjusted, than any headhunter I’ve encountered. And…a great deal of the credit for that, it appears, goes to Antonio Darling.”
“Precisely,” said Flora, nodding. “Hence our attachment to him.”
“I’ve seen men try to control eldei alai’shi before,” Mary went on, still calm as though she weren’t bracketed by maddened avatars of death. “It ends quickly, and exactly as they deserve. With him, though… It’s not about control, is it? There is care there. He is not only invested deeply in your welfare, he has actually managed to secure it. Something that no one, even no elf, has ever thought to try. No… I don’t want Darling harmed. I’m not certain what to make of him, just yet, but I strongly suspect I’ll want to wait and see how he develops.”
“The curiosity of a scientist examining a specimen,” Fauna said coldly. “That’s not what we’re looking for. Do we need to repeat our warning?”
They tensed as she flowed swiftly to her feet, but Mary made no aggressive move. Instead, she placed one hand over her heart, bowing to each of them in turn. “An’shala nau selenai. Valthiis nau selenai.”
Both of them reared back from her in surprise, going wide-eyed.
“Does that satisfy you?” Mary asked dryly.
“I think,” Flora said slowly, “that will do.”
“Very good, I’m glad we could settle this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must continue to oversee my humans, otherwise they’ll probably fall in a hole or something. They’re such children.”
She took off in a flutter of dark wings before they had a chance to respond, leaving the two headhunters to stare after her in bemusement.
“Could she really be serious?” Fauna asked. “Would she go back on her word?”
“No. Not that one. She’s as tauhanwe as they come, but firmly, proudly elf. A vow like that… She won’t break it.”
“Then… I guess he’ll be safe, after all, with her watching over him.”
“Oh, well then, we can just go home and sleep safe and sound in our comfy beds.”
“There’s no need to be snide,” Fauna said reproachfully. Grinning, Flora gave her a quick one-armed hug.
No one could have seen, in the dark and the mist, the two shapes that soared silently across the street, leaping farther than even elves could have.