Having some time to himself, in hindsight, had been too much to hope for. Not just because he was up to his ears at the best of times between Imperial business, Church business, Guild business and the various games he had to play to pit those interests against each other and keep them from tipping out of balance—or smashing him for being the meddling interloper he was.
It was a lovely day, the first such in quite some time, the sky clear and the air warm enough to dispense with scarves and gloves, though still with plenty of bite. Spring always came late to Tiraas. As such, it seemed everyone who didn’t have a good and specific reason to be indoors was out enjoying the relative warmth. Couples, families and miscellaneous individuals strolled the streets with the lackadaisical gait of people on no particular business.
Not that Sweet minded the crowd, aside from the added difficulty of navigating through them, but as an inveterate people-watcher, it was a challenge to get from one point to another without being distracted. The Guild mostly ran his spy network these days; it wasn’t as if going on his city rounds could truly count as business anymore. He kept himself in circulation through the city because he loved doing it, because it was personally satisfying and made him feel grounded. Today, though, he found himself caught up watching a hundred little tableaus in passing, rather than making his way to any of his stops with any kind of efficiency. After an hour or so, he gave up and just strolled like everyone else was, enjoying the humanity as much as the sunshine.
And maybe, subconsciously, he knew it would be his last opportunity for a while; there was just too much going on. Some people—most people—who had recently been targeted by Black Wreath assassins might have feared to be out in public alone, but in truth, Sweet was more at home on the streets than in the fancy townhouse which he regarded as little but a prop in his role as the Bishop. Just let anyone try to take him on in his own streets. It was nearly a disappointment that not even a hint of such hostility emerged.
It was a nice hour, while it lasted, but then the world caught up with him. So much for his day off.
He sighted the disturbance from a block away, being closely attuned to the currents of the city. Sweet turned down the street in question, making his way toward the fuss without hurry. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that required hurry, anyway. Not much was evident from that distance except for a forming crowd and raised voices, but he could clearly see the steeple, topped with an ankh, of a Universal Church chapel right at the thick of things.
As Sweet approached the upraised voices gradually became clearer, though he couldn’t make much sense of what they were saying. The last few feet he had to actually push through onlookers, which he did as gently as possible, with smiles and murmured apologies; soon enough he was standing at the very edge of the cleared space surrounding the disturbance.
There, he had to stop and just stare, his normal aplomb fleeing.
The demonstrators wore black robes—cheap ones, apparently dyed sackcloth. Somebody had thrown those together at the last minute, clearly. They contrasted starkly with the masks, which were identical and clearly well-made: each person wore the plaster face of a woman with red skin, surmounted by twisting horns. They carried signs with a variety of slogans: SHAME; ONE EMPEROR IS ENOUGH, JUSTINIAN!; BETTER THE WREATH THAN THE WRATH; MORTAL WORLD FOR MORTAL RACES. The seven people present appeared to be trying to chant, but weren’t making much of a go at it, each spouting their various phrases and tripping over each other’s lines.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked aloud.
“Less than ten minutes,” said a voice at his elbow. Sweet was too old a pro to visibly startle at being addressed, however much it surprised him. He half-turned to regard the speaker from beneath an upraised eyebrow.
“Grip. Dare I ask what you’re doing in the thick of this?”
“I’m not in the thick of it,” the half-elf said dryly. “I’m on the outskirts, where it’s safe. To answer your question, virtually every enforcer in the city is hunting Wreath after they came knocking on your door. I was staking out a magic shop known for peddling diabolist supplies when these ducklings came along.”
“Are they…Wreath?” he asked carefully.
Grip snorted. “Cavorting in the street like that? Hell, no. I’d dearly like to know who they are and where they came from, but the actual Black Wreath doesn’t do shit like this, as I should think you know. It evidently organizes shit like this, however. These clowns were at the shop collecting those robes, masks and signs.”
“Hmm.” Darling stroked his chin, studying the protestors through narrowed eyes. They certainly weren’t garnering any sympathy from the crowd; the onlookers were watching this display with expressions of revulsion and derision, some beginning to be openly hostile. Even as he watched, a thickset man shouted at the demonstrators to crawl back in their holes, quickly echoed by another voice.
Behind them, a Universal Church chaplain was standing on the steps of the chapel being protested against, looking more puzzled than alarmed. Darling couldn’t blame him. As Grip had pointed out, the Black Wreath just didn’t do things like this.
The enforcer cleared her throat softly and tugged his sleeve. “I suggest we get a more appropriate vantage, yeah?”
They slipped carefully back through the crowd; it required more pushing, as thick as it had grown, but the spectacle was arresting enough that nobody bothered with them. From there, it was the work of moments to slip into an alley, up piles of refuse, drain pipes, and window shutters to land on the flat roof of the shop across the street from the chapel. A wall kick was necessary to make it all the way up; thankfully he didn’t stumble in front of Grip, but Sweet had to reflect ruefully, as he caught his breath, that he was getting to be out of practice at this.
“This can’t go on much longer,” he said. “If they’re not Wreath, they’re clearly sympathetic to them. I’m amazed the whole lot haven’t been rounded up by soldiers already.”
“As to that, I have a theory,” Grip murmured. She planted a foot on the short parapet and leaned on her knee to look down, but was peering in both directions up the street rather than at the robed protestors. As usual, she wore striking black, with prominently displayed knives strapped to her in various places and a cudgel hanging at her belt. Most Eserite thieves would have rightly disdained such ostentation, but Grip’s line of work was about inflicting fear more than inflicting pain. You couldn’t be an enforcer without breaking fingers and kneecaps as needed, but the scarier you were, the less you had to do it. A trail of rumors was much more efficient than a trail of blood; tails of blood were useful only because they started rumors. “It’s the reason I followed these guys rather than busting up the shopkeeper who was supplying them per the Boss’s orders. Call it a hunch, but I suspect a parallel between… And there we go. My timing is as flawless as always, it seems.”
Sweet followed her pointing finger to the opposite end of the street, where an entire phalanx in bronze armor had rounded the corner and positioned themselves to completely wall off the avenue. Grip then pointed the opposite way, to a second phalanx taking position.
“No,” Sweet breathed, staring at the Silver Legionnaires. “They wouldn’t…”
They were, and they did. The spears didn’t come up, but the two walls of shieldmaidens began to sparkle as divine shields formed over the front ranks, cast by the priestesses embedded in their formations, and they started closing in on each other. Seeing them come, people turned and tried to flee, including one of the black-robed figures.
“No, no, no!” he said in agitation, clenching his fists as he watched panicked city dwellers rebound off the phalanx, finding no place to slip through. “Not against civilians! And not just the Wreath, they’re hitting everyone! Rouvad, what are you thinking?!”
“They’re not hitting anyone,” Grip murmured, watching closely. “No weapons, see? They’re just…oop, I’m wrong.”
Another robed protestor had tried to flee, pressing himself against the wall of a storefront in an attempt to slip past the phalanx. The Legionnaire on the edge had broken formation momentarily to slam him against the wall with her shield. Sweet couldn’t hear the crunch from up there, but he winced, feeling it. Moments later, the front line had passed them, and two more Legionnaires gathered up the fallen man, none too gently.
They were not being so rough with the townspeople caught up in their trap, but they also weren’t letting them through the formation. People began forcing their way into shop doors and alleys to escape the press; Sweet clearly heard a window being broken. Two Legionnaires, one from each side, had slipped through the phalanxes from behind and now were taking position across from the robed protestors with shields and lances out, pushing them back as they attempted to bolt to an alley across the street.
From there, it was over in a few seconds. Abandoning their signs, two of the robed demonstrators fled up the short path into the very chapel they’d been agitating in front of; the black-robed priest stepped aside to allow them in. The rest surrendered and were quickly rounded up by Legionnaires. The phalanxes broke up, soldiers assuming guard formations, and the priestesses fanned out. In moments the street was lighting up in flashes as they administered divine healing to people injured in the scuffle—including to one of the protestors.
“And that’s why the guards didn’t come,” Grip said in a satisfied tone. “Imperial duty or not, most soldiers are at least nominal Avenists. If the Legions want to claim a prerogative, a watch commander will find reasons to delay dispatching his troops. As I thought, our cult wasn’t the only one that felt insulted by the Wreath’s roughhousing.”
“Oh, gods,” Sweet whispered, understanding dawning on him. Not the full details, of course; there was too much about this that made absolutely no sense. But the shape of it… “It’s another provocation.”
“Another?” Grip turned to him, raising an eyebrow.
“None of the Bishops were hit with anything nearly strong enough to take us out. The Wreath is playing a longer game. They’re trying to stir something up.”
“Mm.” She turned back to watch the soldiers securing the street, ushering the remaining civilians out of the way. “This is a bigger something than they usually go for.”
“A great doom is coming,” he murmured, then pointed at the chapel, where the priest was arguing vehemently with two Avenists, a woman in bronze armor and one in simple white robes. “What’s going on there?”
Grip laughed bitingly. Like most halfbloods she didn’t much care to be reminded of her heritage, but those ears were too useful in their line of work to be ignored. “Apparently those two assholes have claimed sanctuary in the chapel, and he’s choosing to honor it. Gotta admire the man’s pluck if not his judgment. Well, legally he has the right of… Yup, there they go.”
The Legionnaire and priestess had turned and retreated, looking so disgusted that Sweet could clearly read their expressions even from this distance. Not that he had the attention to spare for them.
“They’re actually trying to incite the population against the gods,” he marveled.
“That’s a new one,” Grip commented. “I can’t imagine they’ll get far with it.”
“In the long run? Hell, no, the Pantheon’s worshipers are far too entrenched. But if they play it right, they can stir up enough trouble over a short span of time to accomplish…”
“What?” she asked after he trailed off.
Sweet scowled, shaking his head. “If I knew, I’d be out putting a stop to it. Bloody hell, though, they’re doing it well. Rouvad must be mad to have allowed this; the Legions are usually a lot more careful around civilians.”
“Hnh,” she grunted. “Makes you wonder what the Huntsmen are out doing. Bet it makes this look like a Sunday picnic.”
“Makes me wonder what pins the Wreath set up for them to knock down,” Sweet muttered. “Clearly, the demonstrations were not the point. They’re creating just enough agitation that the offended cults have easy targets on which to vent their ire, in just the right places where innocents will be caught in the…” He stopped, his eyes widening. “Grip, did you say you were watching a shop?”
“I did,” she said slowly. “I mean, I was…”
“Tricks sent enforcers throughout the city, targeting known Wreath locations?”
“Well, we don’t know any actual Wreath locations, or we’d have beaten them down a long time ago. But there are all kinds of suspected contacts in the city…”
“You mean to tell me that right now, all over Tiraas, Thieves’ Guild enforcers are out smashing limbs and property of people who might have some connection to the Black Wreath? Some of whom—most of whom—assuredly don’t?”
She looked up at him, the blood draining from her face, then down at the scene in the street. “Oh, shit fire.”
“Get back to the Guild,” he said, already moving back toward the alleyway from which they’d ascended. “Get in to see Tricks, use my name and break whoever’s leg you have to if he claims not to have time for you. Get him to put a stop to this.”
“He can’t!” Grip protested, following him. They paused at the edge of the roof. “Sweet, everyone’s already in motion. All over. This was a massive strike, sent out to crush every fingerhold the Black Wreath has in the city. It’ll take every warm body left in the Guild to even get to all the targeted locations… If there’s anybody left at the Guild who actually knows where everyone went, it’ll be too late to stop it all, and—”
“Damn it, woman, we don’t have time for this!” he shouted. “Go try! I have to get to the Cathedral to try to stop the rest of the cults from playing into the Wreath’s hands!”
She obeyed without another word, slinging herself over the edge, bouncing off the wall below and catching a grip on a drainpipe, which shook with the impact but held. Sweet followed with a little more care, his brain churning so hard it threatened to damage his concentration on the task of climbing.
The Guild was, right at that moment, sending a very strong message to exactly the wrong people, which the Wreath had assuredly already made preparations to spin into the narrative they were going to sell to the general public. Doubtless there were more demonstrations like this being set up to bait the Sisters into making similar blunders, all over the city. The gods only knew what the Huntsmen were doing. And what about the Izarites? A more harmless group of people had surely never existed, but if there were a way for them to be manipulated into making a mistake, the Black Wreath were the ones to do it.
And what was Justinian doing?
“There is little I can do,” the Archpope said gravely. “Captain Ravoud, take a message to High Commander Rouvad; inform her of these developments and Bishop Darling’s theory. She, at least, has the communication networks in place to call back her Legions before they make this situation any worse. Have someone dispatch a similar message to Grandmaster Veisroi. See to it personally, Captain.”
“Immediately, your Holiness,” Ravoud said crisply, saluting, then turned and dashed off back down the hall. The Archpope, at this time of day, was busy; Darling had actually called him out of a prayer meeting for this. It was a rather sensitive discussion to be having openly in the halls of the Cathedral, but he had chosen to value speed over secrecy in this case.
Ravoud was a name he remembered from recent events in Lor’naris. The man now wore his Imperial Army uniform with insignia removed and the coat left unbuttoned, which was common enough for ex-soldiers. Clearly he was working for the Archpope now, though he wasn’t in Holy Legion armor. Darling filed away this piece of whatever puzzle it was to be worked at later.
“That, unfortunately, is the extent of my immediate power here,” Justinian said ruefully, his face a mask of patrician concern. “It is only the structure and nature of the Avenists that makes even that much possible; the cults of Eserion and Shaath are far more proactive. Commander Rouvad can, at least, rein in her people.”
“I’ve sent a runner to the Boss with the same warning,” said Darling, “but I’m afraid it’s not going to be in time to accomplish anything.”
Justinian nodded. “And even if we could reach them in time… As I have mentioned, I cannot actually require any of the Church’s member cults to do anything. At most, I can intercede with their deities to ask that the cult leaders be overruled, but… That takes time and considerable effort, will have far-reaching consequences and may not even be necessary.”
“In most cases, I don’t think it would be,” Darling said with a frown. “The Shaathists might consider their vendetta more important than the strategic realities of the situation…”
“I’ve heard Shaathists and Avenists alike say similar things about Eserites,” Branwen noted, smiling and placing a hand on Darling’s arm to soften any sting in the words. She had, fortuitously, been with the Archpope when he had arrived; they now had the hall to themselves, aside from the two Holy Legionnaires who escorted Justinian everywhere.
“Let us not start that debate, please,” Justinian said firmly. “At present we don’t know what the Huntsmen may have done or will do. Veisroi, though as devoted to the principles of the wild as any Shaathist, has proven amenable to compromise in the past. He will listen to my messenger.”
Darling drew in a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “Which leaves only whatever his cult has already done. I can’t escape the feeling the Wreath has manipulated each of us from within, too. It’d be the only reliable way to ensure the cults reacted the way they wanted. We’ve always taken it as given that our cults have been infiltrated. Those Legionnaires… That operation just didn’t seem characteristic of them.” He turned to Branwen. “This may be a little out of line, for which I’m sorry, but is there any chance the priests of Izara might do something…rash?”
“Such as what, for example?” she asked archly.
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Bran. All I’m sure of is that we’ve all been played.”
“It is a fair objection,” said the Archpope, “but also a fair question. I will send a messenger to High Priestess Delaine. Whether or not she has taken any action, she deserves to be kept in the loop. I think we can consider the disciples of Izara a lower concern, however; it is not in their nature to offer aggression of any kind.”
“We’ve lost this one, haven’t we?” Branwen asked glumly.
“Second in a row,” Darling added, surprised by the bitterness in his own tone.
“Despair is a sin, my friends,” the Archpope said firmly. “To presume that hope is lost is to presume knowledge of the future that we mortals cannot possess. Trust in the gods. More importantly, trust in the better aspects of our own nature. The Wreath’s nihilism may cause untold damage in the short term, but in the long, I truly believe that humanity is better at the heart than they would make us out to be.” He came to a stop, turning to face them. “You are right, Branwen; we must consider this engagement lost. Steel yourselves to face further losses in the immediate future; the Wreath has planned deeply and prepared well, and we must assume they will be prepared for our next logical moves. Therefore, we shall place our focus upon a depth of future action beyond what they can foresee. Branwen.” He placed a hand gently on her shoulder, gazing solemnly down at the much shorter woman. “I have a plan, which will require me to lean heavily upon you in the coming days. I know your wounds are still raw. If you do not feel yourself up to this task, there will be no recrimination of any kind… But I must know now. Once it is begun, it will be too late to change course.”
“You can count on me for whatever you need, your Holiness,” she replied, meeting his gaze with uncharacteristic steel in her own. “I won’t let you down. And I will not let them win, or escape consequences.”
“Good,” Justinian said with a grim smile of his own. He nodded to Darling. “If you would, Antonio, please stay at the Cathedral for the time being, at least until we know what is happening with the other cults and can bring the immediate situation under control. There will be subtler currents moving; I will be counting on your mind to spot them and form appropriate plans.”
“Of course, your Holiness,” he said. “Anything I can do.”
Justinian nodded again, releasing Branwen. “Come, then, we’ll retire to my study to lay plans. I must also summon Basra and Andros; in the immediate days, I will be relying on each of you to interface with your own cults.”
He continued talking, setting out ideas as they walked; Darling listened enough to be aware, but did not give the Archpope his undivided attention. It wasn’t even that he had strategies or questions distracting him. It was still too early in the game for those to have taken a meaningful degree of form, for all the uncertainties that surrounded them.
No, what tugged at his mind was excitement. The Wreath, finally, was making their play. Elilial was making her play. While she lurked in the background, there was little he could do but wait.
Now, after all his years of seeing to what the Church wanted and the Empire wanted and the Guild wanted, and his recent days of managing what his team of adventurers wanted, to say nothing of rogue elements like Tellwyrn and her gang of teenage meddlers, he could finally see about getting what he wanted.
Elilial was the goddess of cunning, after all. He had to wonder if she would see him coming.