Ruda stopped in the doorway to her room, blinking sleepily at the scene in the lounge. “….the hell is all this?”
“Breakfast,” Gabriel said helpfully.
“What… Where’d you get it? I know that spread didn’t come from the kitchen in this hole.”
Everyone else was clustered around the low table in the center of the room, plates in their laps laden with an assortment of sausages, fried potatoes and honey cakes, the serving dishes of which lay steaming on the table.
“Fross bought it for us,” said Teal, waving a fork at her. “Wasn’t that sweet?”
“Aw, it was nothing,” the pixie said modestly. “Professor Tellwyrn left me with some money in case we needed anything, and you all were still asleep and I don’t sleep, so it really seemed like the most logical division of labor for me to go and get food, though I had a little bit of trouble at the market because I guess the people in this city aren’t used to doing business with pixies, but it all worked out in the end!”
Ruda blinked again. “…okay, three questions. How did you carry all this, and where are you keeping money?”
“Simple levitation and a very basic pocket dimension spell, just like the bag-of-holding enchantments on the pockets of your coat except anchored to my aura instead of a charmed object, and that’s only two questions.”
“Third question, why the hell did Tellwyrn leave you in charge of the money?!”
Fross chimed softly in apparent confusion. “Why wouldn’t she? What’s wrong with that?”
“Fross is very responsible,” Trissiny said. “It makes perfect sense to me. Stop gaping and come get something to eat, Ruda.”
Ruda, shaking her head, stepped into the room, picked up a plate and began dishing out potatoes and sausage. “Well, whatever works, I guess.”
“Exactly!” Fross said cheerfully.
“Try one of the honey buns, Juno,” Gabriel suggested around a mouthful of one.
“No, thanks.” Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Processed sugar, bleached flour… I’m mystified at some of the things humans do to food. What is the point of all that?”
“The point is they are delicious,” said Teal, picking one up.
“If you say so,” the dryad said with a shrug, taking another bite of sausage.
“Don’t want any potatoes, either?” Toby asked with an elaborately casual air. “They’re quite good.”
“Why is everyone so concerned with what I’m eating?” she demanded. Juniper had piled a plate with sausages and nothing else. “I don’t feel like starch this morning. I like these. Protein and fat, good for energy.”
“Okay,” Toby said carefully. “Just don’t, y’know…overdo it.”
“What?” Juniper frowned at him. “You mean, like, over-eat? I don’t do that.”
“Maybe leave her alone?” Trissiny suggested.
“Okay, sorry,” Toby said peaceably. “I’m probably going on about nothing. Just wondered…”
“Wondered what?” Juniper said sharply.
“How about you all settle down?” Ruda suggested blearily. “Bitch at each other after I’m awake enough to participate.”
“It’s nothing,” said Toby.
“No, really. Clearly it is not nothing.” Juniper set her plate down on the floor beside her chair and angled her body to face him directly. “What is it that has you so concerned this time, since you’ve appointed yourself my guardian.”
“Guys,” Gabriel said nervously. “Let’s have peace in the house, yeah?”
“It’s just that you’re eating nothing but meat,” Toby said quietly, ignoring him. “I’m not certain that’s a good habit to get in, while we’re in the city.”
Teal sighed, covering her eyes with a hand.
“Toby, come on,” Gabriel protested.
“I am not a shark,” Juniper snapped. “I am not going to go into some kind of blood frenzy. What is your problem?!”
“I don’t have a…” Toby trailed off, staring at her, then glanced quickly around at the group. He sighed, picking at his own potatoes with a fork. “Okay, Juniper, I’m sorry. I just wish I could help you. You’re clearly bothered about something, and I don’t know how to help you deal with it.”
“You could try doing what I asked, and leaving me alone about it! You’re acting like I’m gonna do something horrible if you don’t watch me every minute. How do you think that makes me feel? I’m not some kind of monster!”
“Actually,” Fross chirped, “according to the Imperial Army Encounter Manual—”
“Fross!” Trissiny said sharply. “Not the time.”
“Really?” Juniper exclaimed. “Really? From you, Fross?”
“No one has intended any offense,” Shaeine said firmly. “I suggest we table this subject before someone’s feelings are hurt by a careless remark.”
“If anything, you’re the monsters!” Juniper railed, standing up and beginning to pace back and forth behind the group. “What’s a monster if not an unnatural creature that’s destructive and out of balance? Does that sound like anything you know?”
“Hey, now,” Teal protested.
“Flesh and blood is all it is,” the dryad ranted, continuing to pace like a caged wolf. The other students began shuffling back from her, some setting down their plates. “You’re animals. Why won’t you act like it? Why do you have to treat me like some kind of freak because I’m not like you?! It’s just…it’s hypocritical!”
“Hey.” Gabriel stood up, speaking gently, and stepped in front of her. Juniper came to a stop, glaring at him, fists clenched at her sides. “Juno, hon… That’s the second time I’ve heard you say something like that lately. Can I ask why you feel so strongly about it?”
“Why I— Why wouldn’t I?”
“It’s just…nature, you know?” he went on, keeping his tone quiet. “We all are what we are. Humans are just doing what they do. Believe me, I’ve had reason to give a lot of thought to this, growing up; people weren’t exactly thrilled to have me around, and all because of what nature gave me. So humans don’t act like, say…sheep.”
“Now there’s a political ow!” Ruda protested, rubbing her arm where Trissiny had jabbed her.
“Humans, elves, whatever else, we all follow our nature. Different kinds of creatures behave in different ways,” Gabriel continued, keeping his eyes on Juniper’s. “And…you seem to support that as a rule. Why is it that what humans do bothers you so much?”
She stared at him, flexing her hands. “I don’t… I can’t—”
He took a step closer. “You have nothing to feel guilty about.”
Juniper stepped back, eyes widening. “Guilty?! I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“You just…you are what you are, too,” he said. “Naturally. It was all before you’d gotten to know any humans. And maybe before you started to find out how much humanity you have in you as well.”
“I am not human! I’m less human than you are!”
“I’m not so sure,” he said, shaking his head. “Remember what Tellwyrn said? Naiya was once human. You’re made in a basically human image. There’s more to you, but at your core—”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Juniper raged, baring her teeth at him.
“Gabriel,” Toby said firmly. “I think you should leave her alone.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Ruda snorted, taking a bite of potato.
“It’s called empathy,” Gabriel went on, still soft but relentless. “We recognize ourselves in each other, and we feel for each other. Maybe being around all these people is starting to—”
“Shut up!” Juniper snapped.
“—make you realize that something in you is basically—”
“Shut UP!” she shrieked, then hauled off and punched him. Her wild swing only hit him in the shoulder, but Gabriel was hurled, spinning, into the wall, where he left cracks in the wood before slumping to the floor.
There was a chorus of shouts as the other students leaped to their feet; Teal and Toby rushed to Gabriel’s side. Juniper took a step back from him, looking stricken.
Shaeine crossed the floor with swift strides that set her long robes to fluttering. Juniper turned at her approach, trying to marshal her features; it was like seeing a child attempt to control her expression, so unpracticed at it was she. “Oh, don’t bother, Shaeine, that sleep trick of yours won’t work on—”
Shaeine drew back her whole arm and slapped Juniper full across the face.
Stunned silence fell. Juniper’s head wasn’t moved by so much as an inch; given her constitution, the blow had to have hurt the drow more than the dryad, but Juniper looked utterly shocked, slowly raising a hand to her cheek.
Shaeine was glaring at her.
“Is this how you treat your friends, Juniper?” she snapped. “I thought better of you.”
Juniper stared at her, then past her shoulder at Gabriel, who was slumped against the wall, clutching his arm. Tears welled up in her eyes; emitting a choked noise, she whirled and fled around the corner to the roof access stairs.
Silence held for a moment.
“Fucking ow,” Gabriel groaned. “Why am I always the one who gets hurt?! This is getting ridiculous! I’m supposed to be invulnerable, but noooo. Everybody has to take their turn finding a loophole.”
“Yeah, it can’t be that you do stupid shit like pick fights with paladins and agitate dryads,” Ruda commented. She was the only one still seated, and hadn’t stopped eating.
“Yeah,” Gabe said, baring his teeth at her. “And then there was the time you fucking stabbed me!”
“Are you still on about that? Let it go, boy.”
Shaeine, now as calm as she normally was, had knelt beside him and placed a hand over his shoulder, glowing faintly. “You seem to have suffered no damage from the impact; hethelaxi constitution is exceedingly durable, indeed, but ‘invulnerable’ may be overstating it. Fairy magic still cancels infernal, which is why you suffer broken bones on being punched by a dryad.”
“Oh, it’s broken?” he said, wincing. “Doesn’t hurt that much…”
“You are likely resistant to pain, given your heritage. This is beyond my skill,” Shaeine said gravely. “I could heal it, but… You have crushed muscle, torn ligaments and yes, broken bone. Healing it as is would cause all this to calcify in its current position, rendering your arm permanently unusable.”
“Fuck,” he said feelingly.
“Can you stand? We must go to a more capable healer.”
“Fuck,” Gabriel repeated, looking increasingly agitated. “Healers are no good for me, they’re all about the light…”
“The clinic in Lor’naris is run by an elvish shaman and a much more experienced priestess of Themynra than I,” Shaeine said gently. “And it is unconsecrated. You will be fine. You need their attention, Gabriel.”
He allowed Teal and Toby to help him to his feet, wincing when his arm was jostled.
“Hey, um,” Trissiny said hesitantly, catching Shaeine’s eye. “Did you just…emote?”
“I am sorry you had to see that,” the drow said calmly. “Anger is an exception.”
Shaeine sighed softly. “Explaining cultural concepts in a few words is…difficult. Teal, I recall that you summarized it rather succinctly?”
“Basically,” said Teal, “the Narisian practice of emotional reserve is all about respect and keeping harmony within the group. In certain circumstances, it’s permissible to show anger. It’s a warning, a way of letting someone know unequivocally that they’ve pushed too far, so as to ward off a more serious confrontation. If a drow ever gets visibly angry, you need to stop whatever you were doing.”
“I see,” Trissiny murmured.
“Just for the record, Gabe,” Toby said, helping Gabriel limp toward the stairs, “telling someone not to feel guilty is pretty pointless. Feelings don’t work like that.”
“Fuck it, I tried,” Gabriel muttered.
“It was perceptive of you to discern the cause of Juniper’s discontent,” said Shaeine. “I confess I myself failed to interpret her actions so well.”
“Surprisingly perceptive, but clumsy in execution,” said Teal, grinning.
“Classic Arquin!” Ruda said cheerfully around a mouthful of sausage.
“Is this a bad time?”
They all stopped again, staring. Bishop Antonio Darling stood at the head of their stairs, wearing a slightly shabby suit and looking around the room with a raised eyebrow.
“Little bit,” said Gabriel. “’scuze us? Off to the sawbones.”
“Need a hand?” the Bishop offered. “I’m not much for healing but—”
“No!” Gabriel squawked.
“Thanks, your Grace,” said Teal, “but he’s a half-demon. That wouldn’t help him any.”
“Ah. Gotcha.” Darling stepped to one side. “I’ll just get out of your way, then.”
“Much obliged,” Gabriel grunted, still leaning on Toby as they hobbled past. “Fuck, this is just stupid. It’s my shoulder. Why is it hard to walk?”
“Impact from footsteps,” Toby explained. “Also, your muscles are all connected. Damaging anything in your torso will pretty much mess you up…”
“Life is unfair.”
They vanished down the steps, Teal and Toby flanking the injured half-demon with Shaeine trailing along behind them.
“Mornin’, your Graceness,” Ruda said pleasantly, waving with her fork. “Care for a bite? This is good stuff, our pixie really knows her way around a kitchen, somehow.”
“I try,” Fross offered, sounding bemused. She had been uncharacteristically silent throughout the exchange with Juniper.
“No, thanks, I’m just here on business,” said Darling, fixing his gaze on Trissiny. He had a thick folder tucked under his arm and a leather pouch in his hand. “I’ll be out of your hair pretty quickly.”
“What can we do for you, your Grace?” asked Trissiny, stepping forward.
“Well.” He kept his eyes on her, something oddly tense in his expression. “I have some deliveries for you, Ms. Avelea. Here.” He tossed her the bag, which she deftly caught. “Your coin, which my apprentices were completely out of line to have taken.”
“Thank you, but…” She opened the bag, blinking in surprise at its contents. “This is considerably more than they took. There are decabloons in here.”
“Yes,” he said grimly. “In addition to returning your property, that is their wages for the month. Yes, yes, I know you have little regard for money; drop it in a collection plate if you wish. For my purposes, what matters is not you having it but them losing it, and that’s only part of the discussion I had with them last night. The Guild does not steal from Silver Legionnaires, nor antagonize powerful people just to be snarky, nor harass the mortal representatives of major deities. They were seriously out of line, for which I apologize.”
“No harm done,” Trissiny said carefully, tucking the coin purse away in one of her belt pouches.
“Further,” Darling went on, his expression notably not lightening any as he held out the folder, “here is the paper trail you requested they retrieve. You may find it less incriminating than you hoped; the soldiers at the local barracks are not, in fact, as bumblingly incompetent as villains in a cheap novel and had the basic sense not to fully document their abuses of power. There are, at least, budget records and even receipts detailing the acquisition of scrap wood and volatile enchanting powder, as well as requisitions from the barracks stores of lamp oil.”
“They still use oil lamps?” Ruda snorted. “And here I thought the Imperial Army was all modernized.”
“Well,” Trissiny said slowly, accepting the folder, “that’s something. Less than I’d hoped, but it will help build a case. Along with other evidence already gathered, I believe we are making progress. Thank you, Bishop.”
“Oh, you’re making progress, all right,” he said darkly. “You employed a pair of highly talented but inexperienced agents to retrieve those documents, so naturally they took them instead of copying them and replacing the originals. The barracks commander will notice they are missing, and I assure you he is not stupid enough not to figure out who’s behind it, thanks to your heroics. The only good news there is that he won’t know who did the actual lifting, just that the agitating paladin was the mastermind.”
“I see,” she said, tucking the folder under her own arm. “Well, I shall be cautious. Thank you for the warning, your Grace.”
“You’re not listening,” Darling said sharply, stepping forward. “You sent two Thieves’ Guild apprentices to steal legal documents from an Imperial installation. The sheer number of ways this could go tits-up-in-the-rhubarb wrong beggars imagination. If you were anyone else, Trissiny Avelea, you would be having this conversation with six of my burliest associates in an alley.”
Trissiny stiffened. “You’ll find I don’t respond well to threats, sir.”
“There!” He pointed a finger directly in her face. “That, right there! I make a point of how you are specifically not being threatened despite your behavior richly deserving that approach, and you take it as a threat! Everything is a fight with you, Avelea! Your enemies in this situation are prejudice and pride. This will be solved with words or not at all; if these issues could be overcome through brute force, don’t you think someone in the entire scope of human history would have done it by now?!”
Trissiny actually backed away from the Eserite’s tirade, clutching the folder. “I—I didn’t—”
“Yes, you bloody did, and you need to stop doing. For your information, this matter has been kicked up to the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild; you’ll be glad to know there’s now an official Guild presence in this district. Fully trained agents are keeping watch on the situation. Their orders are to prevent any harm being done with maximum possible discretion, summon legal help if any action by the guard makes it necessary, and I quote, ‘stop that airhead paladin from burning down Lor’naris.’”
“Now, wait just a minute,” she protested.
“That is excellent advice,” Darling pressed on. “For the sake of all the gods, girl, wait. Just because no one is jumping boots first into your pet cause does not mean nobody cares! General Panissar is working on this, as is Ambassador Shariss. Now, thanks to you, so am I, and you have just made it vastly more complex. Any more ham-fisted action on your part is likely to turn a very tense situation into a completely intractable one. So please, please, I’m begging you, sit back and let us work.”
“What work?” she demanded. “I don’t see anything being done!”
“In what, two days? Of course you don’t! These problems have been building for years. This is not a demon for you to slay, Trissiny. Rushing in with your sword out will only make things worse. In fact, it already has. Now, please, take a break. There is no way this is all going to be settled in the brief time you’re in the city; accept that. The best thing you can do for the people of Lor’naris is set an example, and by that I mean you need to embody calm and restraint.”
“They don’t seem to have a problem with restraint around here,” Ruda commented.
“Like all people,” said Darling, “they follow the examples of leaders. That’s the power you lot have in this situation. Your conduct will influence what people around you do, how they react to pressure. You need to be mindful of the example you’re setting.”
“I’ve been loitering around, shopping and drinking in common rooms,” Ruda said brightly.
“Good show,” he replied, nodding approvingly.
“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said, her voice weak.
Darling looked pensively at her for a moment, pursing his lips, then his expression softened. “I know,” he said more gently. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, Trissiny. Just…think a little more carefully before you act, all right?”
“All right,” she said, struggling for poise.
“All right,” he repeated, then sighed. “And with that, I need to go immerse myself in some of the delightful paperwork I now have. Have a good day, kids. Have a good, safe, calm, quiet day.” With a final, warning look at Trissiny, he turned and descended the steps.
There was silence for a long moment.
“Wow,” Fross said at last.
Ruda chuckled, forking another bite of sausage and potato into her mouth. “I really like that guy!”