“Well, what did you think was going to happen?”
The man sitting across the table from Darling hunched in his chair, glaring sullenly. He was a relatively prosperous-looking fellow, pudgy enough to suggest he lived quite comfortably, but not overly fat. His suit was of relatively good quality but fit him too imperfectly to have been tailored. Balding, middle-aged, his only calluses on his fingertips, he might have been any clerk or banker to whom no one paid a moment’s attention until they needed his services.
That was precisely what made his presence here so intriguing.
“It’s the signs, you see,” Darling went on, leaning back in his own chair and grinning easily, which caused the other man’s glare to deepen. “’Mortal world for mortal races,’ I like that. Catchy. It sort of falls apart when you think it through, though, doesn’t it? I mean, were you guys protesting the gods?” He chuckled aloud. “I’ve got to figure you were counting on them not to notice you. You lot certainly weren’t prepared for what would have happened if one of them had.”
The man’s sullenness increased, slightly but visibly, and not for the first time during this interview; Darling had been winding him up for a little while now.
“That’s not even the best one, though,” he went on merrily. “’Better the Wreath than the Wrath.’ Come on, what does that even mean? It might interest you to know that that piece of poster board is currently on display in a local city watch barracks in the mess hall. Or anyway, it was an hour ago; the captain’ll probably make them take it down sooner or later. At least the troops got a good laugh, though, right? You can’t say your day was completely wasted.”
“We didn’t make the signs!” the man burst out, then immediately clamped his lips shut, firmly folding his arms across his chest.
“Who did?” Darling asked mildly.
The suspect glared at him. “Did you just bring me here to make fun of me? Have you nothing better to do?”
“Have you?” Darling countered, grinning. “But no, actually, I didn’t bring you here. I’m just the first in a long line of people who ask the questions.”
He grunted. “I know the law. You can’t keep me here forever.”
“Well, sure, there’s that,” the Bishop went on glibly. “You’re not guilty of anything worse than disrupting the peace, which is a day in a cell at the most. You’ll note I’m presuming you are not actually a member of the Black Wreath. As is Imperial Intelligence. For the simple reason, you see, that no member of the Wreath would have been out doing something as toweringly boneheaded as protesting. In dramatic black robes, no less! Did you know their actual ceremonial robes are gray?” His grin widened at the man’s expression. “Aw, you really didn’t, did you?”
“If I’m being charged with creating a disturbance,” he grated, “I would like to be formally charged, please, and proceed to my cell.”
“Ah, I’m afraid that brings us to a sticking point,” said Darling, leaning forward and folding his hands on the table between them. “You see, nobody cares about your little protest, Anders. May I call you Anders? How about Andy? Smashing. Seriously, though, a handful of kooks in robes making a mess in the street? Bah. Frankly, I suspect if you get before a magistrate for that, most of ’em would consider your rough handling by the Silver Legions adequate punishment and send you off with a stern talking-to. The issue is that you’re not being held as a criminal; you’re being held as a source of information. You, Andy, know something that could lead to the capture of actual Black Wreath agents.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Anders said woodenly, putting on an ostentatiously stubborn expression.
Darling heaved a sigh. “Well, then, you’ve got yourself a problem, Andy. Y’see, as a suspected source of information on a declared enemy of the state, you’re being held on military grounds. You are a prisoner of war in an active conflict. Which means you are going nowhere. You will sit in that cell until Imperial Command decides you’ve given them every little scrap of information you possibly can. Then you’ll probably be released, unless they decide you’re an authentic threat to the security of the state, which isn’t likely, seeing as…well, look at you.”
Anders had grown more wide-eyed and pale as Darling spoke, and finally jolted up, slapping his hands on the table. “You can’t—”
Instantly, both the soldiers standing next to the room’s small door shifted forward, aiming their staves directly at him. Anders froze, looking first at one, then the other, then very carefully sank back down into his chair.
“Look, Anders,” Darling said calmly. “I know and you know that you’re not a rebel or heretic. You’ve got objections to the Empire’s way of doing things? Welcome to citizenship. You have a quarrel with some or all of the gods? I think you’d be amazed how very common that is, even within the Church. You had a little lapse in judgment and created a fuss in public? You and every university student in history. Meanwhile, whatever Black Wreath agent set you and your chums up with those robes and masks is running around, free as a bird and up to the gods only know what. Shamelessly using you as a distraction and a fall guy is the least of what they’ve likely done in the meantime. The last Wreath agents I encountered in the city had just murdered a harmless old woman who happened to get in the way of their attempt to murder an Izarite priestess.”
He remained quiet for a few heartbeats, letting that sink in, watching the uncertainty growing on his subject’s face. Anders had a very open face, at least to someone like Darling.
“The thing that puzzles me,” he finally said quietly, “is why you would protect them?”
Anders dropped his gaze to the table, clearing his throat. “If…um… If I help you…I can go?”
“Each broke more easily than the last,” Darling reported. “None of these folk had the slightest training in handling interrogation, nor any experience at it; not so much as a criminal record among them. Imperial Intelligence found no links of any kind to Wreath or dissident activity before yesterday, with either divination or mundane methods. They’re just average citizens. Tradespeople, clerks. Hence Lord Vex letting me handle the questioning.”
“So it is with the common folk,” Archpope Justinian said gravely. “I fear too many of the systems of our society are designed to keep people complacent. It has the side effect of making them vulnerable to such manipulations.”
“With respect, your Holiness, I’ve found the opposite is true,” Darling said, frowning thoughtfully. “Average sorts living from one payday to the next tend to have a very solid handle on the immediate practicalities of their lives. They might get swept up in events, but they don’t just up and do stuff that’ll cause them trouble. That’s the key, here; none of these protestors had any kind of record. It’s as if they all decided to drop whatever they were doing, put on some robes and try to irritate the Pantheon. People don’t act so rashly unless under duress, or severely provoked. None of them were provoked.”
“Hm,” Justinian mused, falling silent as they walked. They were strolling along one of the Cathedral’s more beautiful settings, the Hall of the Falls. The dais and pulpit of the huge main sanctuary was backlit by a semicircular array of stained-glass windows. Behind this was another, larger circle of plain crystalline glass, subtly lensed, that gathered and magnified the light from outside. Sandwiched between the two arches of glass was a half-moon-shaped walkway, from under which water constantly streamed in a short fall to a pool below. It was a brilliantly lovely piece of architecture, and also a favorite place for conversations which needed to be private. The arch of the walkway was shallow enough that one could not approach unseen, and the constant roar of water made it hard to hear a normal speaking voice more than a few feet away.
They were escorted, as always now, by two of those heavily-armored popinjays from Justinian’s Holy Legion, with two more at each of the Hall’s entrances. Privately, Darling thought that even his Guild streetfighting would be a match for one of them, and he wasn’t really a fighter. A lone Silver Legionnaire could probably cleave through this whole squad.
“It was my understanding,” the Archpope finally said, “that Vex’s investigation had eliminated the possibility of any magical duress placed upon the suspects.”
“He determined there was no evidence of any such duress, using the best and most modern methods available,” Darling replied, “which in my opinion gives us a far more valuable avenue of investigation than the paltry intel we got from the suspects themselves. The Wreath was too careful to let any agents be identified or traced, and disguise spells are too easy nowadays. However, read between the lines: all of these people exhibited totally uncharacteristic aggression under strange circumstances, strongly suggesting that they were magically influenced. There were zero lingering traces of any such influence. The Black Wreath is known above all for its ability to hide its workings from perception, even that of the gods. Now, the key here is that in all the Wreath’s history, there are no hints they’ve ever been able to use infernal magic to influence emotions. That’s fairy magic, characteristically. If they’re using their infernal technique to hide it, then it’s infernal spellwork, which means they have a new trick. Well, another new trick.”
“Hardly encouraging news,” Justinian said gravely.
“Well, no, but useful,” Darling replied with a smile. “Aside from the fact we now know they can do it, Elilial does not just spin new spells out of the ether. It has been eight thousand years—she’s taught her followers pretty much whatever she’s going to by this point, and in fact by a point long ago. New spellcraft is a mortal innovation. It means they’ve been conducting research. Research means materials and equipment procured, which, given modern economics, means there’ll be evidence of it somewhere, no matter how well they hide their tracks. Research means byproducts that would need to be disposed of, magically volatile trash of the kind that leaves scryable residue. It means, furthermore, they’d have been working with unknown magical quantities, so their usual concealment spells couldn’t have been applied consistently. The Wreath having a new spell means that somewhere, there are traces of its development. We just have to find it, now that we know what to look for.”
“Excellent!” Justinian said, turning to face him and clapping a hand on Darling’s shoulder, beaming. “Truly excellent work, Antonio! Each day I am increasingly grateful to have your aid.”
He was so perfectly sincere that despite the thorny hedge of unspoken maneuvering between them, Darling couldn’t help but feel pleased at the praise. Damn, but the man was good at what he did.
“I have news of my own,” the Archpope continued, releasing Darling and turning to resume their leisurely stroll. “Information, in fact, that should be quite interesting to Lord Vex, as a fair trade for his willingness to let you share the results of his investigation with me.”
“Something he doesn’t already know?” Darling asked with a wry smile.
“Quite possibly,” Justinian said seriously. “My queries have led me to Svenheim; the dwarves are displeased to the point of hostility with Tiraas in the wake of the Narisian Treaty, and have developed a tendency to block official government actions. I am accorded somewhat greater respect when I ask for cooperation.”
“I understood that the dwarves were mostly pagan…”
“Quite so,” said Justinian with a smile of his own, “but they are also mostly practical. The Pantheon is a reality that wise people do not ignore, as is its Church. I have only been obstructed outright in Themynrite lands, and that only after pushing the limits of the local judiciary’s patience.”
Darling filed that away for later investigation, nodded and made an encouraging noise in the back of his throat.
“This information is weeks old by now,” Justinian continued, “but after the suicide devices found on the Wreath’s attacking warlocks this week matched those from the Tellwyrn incident in Hamlet, I am convinced of its relevance. I tracked those syringes to the dwarven industrialist who owns the patent on that technology. She, of course, vehemently denies doing business with the Black Wreath, but confirms their origin. Most importantly, the brass-bound devices with the lavish engraving that the Wreath has used were promotional prototypes, given away in large quantity to various medical and alchemical organizations.”
“Hm.” Darling frowned thoughtfully. “That means it’ll be very hard to trace their paths…”
“All but impossible, I am assured. However, they were a limited run of products. All such bodies who now buy syringes from the firm in question purchase more modern ones, which are far plainer in design and made of either steel or a nickel/copper alloy rather than brass. Those prototypes which were used have been so, as of more than three years ago. We may assume that any such brass-bound syringes now found are a link to the Wreath.”
“That is good news,” Darling said with unfeigned enthusiasm. “Vex hasn’t mentioned any such thing, but of course he doesn’t tell me everything. I will pass it along, of course.”
“Of course,” said Justinian with a beatific smile. “And now, Antonio, unless you have urgent business on behalf of your own cult, I would like to take further advantage of your skills as an interviewer.”
“Of course, your Holiness. Anything I can do.”
“This may seem somewhat intrusive, but I assure you it is a necessary formality…”
“…and we’re just building the most complete possible picture of yesterday’s events,” Darling finished with a reassuring smile. “You’re not suspected of anything.”
“I’m relieved to hear that,” Branwen replied. “Though honestly, Antonio, it never occurred to me that I might be suspected of anything until you said his Holiness wanted you to question me.”
“Let’s avoid words like ‘question,’” he said with a grin, settling back in his chair. “It raises implications that just don’t apply here. Of course we know where you were during the demonstrations and the Legion’s response, that’s all academic. Really, the only blanks we need filled in are about what happened the night of the attacks.”
Her face fell, and she lowered her gaze to stare at the carpet between them. They were in one of the Cathedral’s small chapels, lavishly appointed and used by wealthy and important worshipers for private meditation—or sensitive discussions such as this. It was smaller than a bedroom, really, containing nothing but two comfortable chairs and an altar over which hovered a golden ankh, in what Darling considered a wasteful and ostentatious display of magical excess.
“I know how hard this subject is for you, Bran,” he said very gently. “Take all the time you need. Look, if you’re not ready to talk about it now, there is no rush. As I said, you’re not under any kind of suspicion. If you want to gather your thoughts in private…”
“No.” She shook her head, lifting her blue eyes to his. “No…thank you, Antonio, but I promised his Holiness that I would be ready to serve in whatever way was needed. What do you need to know?”
He smiled warmly at her. “I only have one question, really, but it’s rather broad. It’s about the kankhradahg demon; when I got there, it was evidently under your control.”
“Influence,” she clarified, but nodded. “I couldn’t have given him very specific instructions, but he was responding well to me.”
“Influence, then,” he said, nodding. “You realize that’s a very…remarkable skill for an Izarite cleric to suddenly display.”
“It had only a little to do with my own faith,” she said quietly. “Izara’s gift of perception was part of it, though. I could feel what the demon wanted, which was quite simply to be out from under the sway of his master, to strike back against them… And to feel cared for. They’re quite smart, really, kankhradahgs. Not sentient, but clever. About on the level of dogs.”
“I see.” Darling leaned back in his chair, still studying her thoughtfully. “And it had—forgive me—clearly already attacked Tieris. How did you wrest control of it away from the warlocks?”
“Warlock, singular,” she said with a soft sigh. “A simple demon like that is generally only beholden to one warlock. You are aware, of course, that the Church employs summoners?”
“Well…yes,” he said slowly. “I must say I never suspected you were one.”
Branwen actually laughed, softly and rather bitterly. “Oh, I haven’t that level of skill… But as a ranking agent of the Church, I do have access to some training. So do you, and to be frank, Antonio, you should think about taking advantage. It saved my life that night. Clerics cannot become warlocks; too much holy energy infusing our auras makes it impossible. It is possible, though, to bring demons across the dimensional barrier through arcane means, as we did in Hamlet. From there, they can be controlled to an extent with holy magic. Mostly with brute force methods and a lot less precision than an actual warlock has, but if you know where to put the barriers and where to apply the whip, holy magic can keep a demon in line.”
“Hm,” he said noncommittally, gesturing for her to continue.
“With a little coaching and experience, you can perceive demonic energies more clearly. And understand what they mean. Like, for instance, the bond between a summoner and his minion. I simply applied a blessing to that, like an ax to a chain.”
“And set the demon loose,” he said, nodding. “Lucky it didn’t turn on you.”
She shook her head. “He was angry at his masters; his first act was to turn on them. After that… As I said, Izara’s gifts help us in dealing with everyone. Even animals, even demons. The poor thing was badly in need of a little care. He responded quite well to it.”
Darling nodded again, his mind flashing back to what Flora and Fauna had told him about Branwen. She had a way of subtly influencing people’s desires, as opposed to just picking up on them as Izarites did. Allegedly that was the very habit that made her own cult nervous about her, but he could see how it had likely saved her that night. “I think I may just follow your advice, then. If we’re going to be wrestling with the Wreath, it sounds like useful knowledge to have.”
She smiled warmly up at him. “That particular trick wouldn’t work in all circumstances, of course. A more alert or powerful warlock could counter it. Also, a sentient demon is likely to have a more complex relationship with their summoner. Some might be eager to turn on the human who enslaved them, but others might remain loyal. It depends on the individuals and the circumstances.”
“Well, yes,” he said with a faint grin. “I’m sure we both know I’ll never have your knack for feeling out the truth in such situations. The kankhredahg was destroyed after all that, I take it?”
“Of course not,” she said, frowning prettily. “I made sure the Church summoners sent him back to his own plane. He was an animal, Antonio; an abused animal. There was absolutely no need to punish him any further. Everyone deserves a little compassion.”
“Of course,” he said soothingly. “Forgive me, I’m still growing accustomed to the nuances of dealing with demons. For so long demonology has been an academic interest of mine; something that occurred in history, not right under my nose.”
“Oh, I’m not blaming you,” she assured him, smiling again and even fluttering her lashes a little. “Like you said, none of us need to cast blame on each other. I assume, of course, you’re having these little conversations with the others, too?”
“Of course,” Basra said dryly, lounging back in the chair and crossing her legs in a rather mannish posture. “Questions are only natural. Don’t worry, I’m not offended; if Justinian suspected me of something, it wouldn’t be you doing the asking.”
“I’m glad to hear that, anyway,” Darling said carefully. “I’m still somewhat stuck on your little revelation, though. That was your idea? Forgive me, but I didn’t realize you had that much…pull with the Legions.”
“It’s a gray area,” she said with a smug little smile. “I’m not in the chain of command, per se, but due to the Church’s agreements with the Sisters of Avei, the sitting Bishop has certain prerogatives. Until Justinian put together his own adorable little legion, the Sisters provided the Church’s military arm, and the Avenist Bishop was always the link there. I can give orders to the Legion stationed in the city at need; Commander Rouvad can overrule me, of course—which she did this time—as can the officers directly in that chain of command. Funnily enough, most of the rank-and-file didn’t seem to have a problem with being sent out to crack Wreath heads.”
“Bas,” he exclaimed, “those weren’t Wreath you were rounding up! They were patsies being used by the Wreath, and by the way, I was watching one of those events. Your troops were a lot more casual about roughing up bystanders than I’m accustomed to seeing the Legions act.”
“Anyone who was injured was immediately offered healing the moment the combat zones were secure,” she said in a bored tone. “Why is this sounding exactly like the very tedious conversation I had with Commander Rouvad last night?”
“At a guess, because Commander Rouvad possesses basic common sense,” he said in exasperation. “You played right into the Wreath’s hands with that action, Basra. They couldn’t have asked for anything better if they’d been giving the orders themselves. In fact, until this little chat I was operating under the assumption the Wreath had got its fingers into the Third Legion somehow and you’d be able to help me figure out where.”
“So that’s it, is it?” she said very quietly. Her posture did not change, but there was suddenly an indefinable menace about her. “You think I’m a Wreath agent?”
“No,” he said without hesitation. “That isn’t even a prospect. I’m seriously questioning your judgment, but you being in the Wreath is an extreme explanation; there are much simpler ones.”
“Such as?” she asked wryly.
“Basic personality profile,” he replied in the same tone. It wasn’t a deception, either; the very traits that made Basra a likely traitor, at first glance, all but ruled out her involvement in the Wreath. She was a purely self-interested person, and someone like that did not join a cult that was at war with the gods and virtually every mortal society in the world. Wreath cultists came in two kinds: true believers and thrill-seeking fools who hadn’t considered what they were in for. Basra wouldn’t have lasted a week in either group.
She grinned, which wasn’t a pleasant expression, but the air of hostility had faded from her, at least. “I could take that amiss, Antonio. You think me unreliable?”
“I think you’re exactly the person I’d want on my side if we were alone and surrounded by Wreath agents, seen or unseen,” he said, leaning forward and regarding her seriously. “You’re dangerous and crafty, Bas.”
“Aw, you’ll make me blush!”
“But you aren’t sensible. I’m not in the habit of lecturing you, but seriously, you cannot afford to be this easy to manipulate. The Wreath is just getting started; they’re going to keep pushing our buttons, trying to work us into a corner. Please think before you do anything violent; thanks to your crusading they’re actually making progress toward gaining popular sympathy, which is completely without precedent.”
It actually wasn’t completely without precedent, but widespread Elilinist belief among a civilian population hadn’t existed anywhere in centuries. Basra didn’t need to know about it.
Basra shrugged; the motion was casual, but her dark eyes were fixed on him with a burning acuity. “If we’re going to be criticizing each other, Antonio, I would turn that one back around on you. The short term has your full attention and you’re not thinking of the long. Yes, yes, I know, you’re looking ahead of the specific street battle to the Wreath’s larger campaign, fine. I wasn’t thinking of their campaign, I’ll grant you that. What I’m thinking of is society at large, and what the Wreath’s actions will mean.”
“Are you?” he asked warily.
She leaned forward, mirroring his posture. “They are always testing us in one way or another, Antonio. And they’re always manipulating us. In dealing with the Wreath, you simply have to accept that now and again you’re going to get maneuvered into conceding one of their objectives. But over the greater course of history, what matters is that they know, for a certainty, that if they step too far out of line the repercussions will be swift and brutal. These aren’t people like you and me. Frankly, I would hesitate to call them people at all. I mean, how do you reason with somebody who’s out to kill us all and flood the world with hellfire? What is even going on in the brain of a person who acts that way?” She shook her head. “They’re all about destruction and pain. It’s the only language they understand.”
“You were speaking that language in a very public venue,” he warned. “It wasn’t just the Wreath that heard.”
Basra actually sneered. “If we’re going to be truly honest with each other, I can’t find it in me to fuss overmuch about a few scuffed knees. In the long run, Antonio, the rest of society is better off for such actions as well. The world can see that the Wreath and its like won’t be tolerated. How else are they to sleep soundly at night? Okay, a few folk were roughed up. They were also healed afterward. They got a direct show of the gods’ power, right on the heels of vivid proof that there is a Legion standing between them and the demons. Frankly, I’ll bet those who were at the demonstrations are feeling safer right now than anyone else.”
Darling could only stare at her. That was the moment when he realized this conversation was going nowhere. Basra was adept at motivating, at manipulating, at getting people to do what she wanted; her whole career was proof of that. But it was a mechanistic understanding. She didn’t truly comprehend how human beings thought.
Fauna, he realized, had been right.
She smiled again, an expression that was more than half smirk, and leaned back in her chair, clearly taking his stunned silence of acquiescence. “Anyhow,” she drawled, “I’m not sure you’re in any position to be throwing stones. From the reports I’ve been getting, your cult was out very deliberately and literally twisting the arms of anyone who’s been near a warlock in the last year, and not offering so much as a ‘sorry’ to those who obviously had nothing to do with this.”
“I’m not my cult,” he said automatically. He leaned backward himself, gathering his thoughts; it was no time to look scattered or especially to reveal that he’d just been thinking too deeply about her. In fact, it was starting to look like showing any kind of weakness in front of Basra would be a bad idea. “Believe me, I’ve got some questions for a number of people in the Guild. Their actions are looking very much the way the Legion’s did to me originally: somehow the Wreath’s got levers to pull inside the organization.”
“Are you convinced the Legion doesn’t, at least?”
“No,” he said immediately. “Don’t scowl at me, Bas; the Wreath’s whole mode of operation is to infiltrate and influence. I am always working under the assumption that they have people in any organization I have to deal with. The Guild is tricky, though; we operate in much the same way. In a sense that’s lucky, as all I have to do is out whatever Wreath agent exists there, and the rest will take care of them without me needing to lift a finger.”
“Very neat,” she said with an approving smile. “It leaves you the problem of finding them, though.”
“Yeah…which is also made harder because, well… How do you spot a zebra in the tallgrass?”
“…what the hell is a zebra?”
“Nevermind, it’s a long story,” he said with a grin. “Point is, I’m gonna have to ponder this one, but please don’t get any ideas. I will handle the Guild; if you try to ‘help,’ a perfectly upstanding non-Wreath thief is likely to slit your throat.”
“Do I look like an idiot?” she scoffed. “I’m not going near your cult, especially after they showed up my Legions for brutality yesterday. That’s not to express disapproval, mind you, and I don’t know if I agree that they’ve been infiltrated. It sounds to me like your Boss understands exactly how the Wreath needs to be dealt with. I could wish Rouvad had such foresight. But, you’re clearly the expert.”
“Mm hm,” he mused, rubbing his chin. “In the meantime, I’m just left with Andros and the Huntsmen.”
Basra laughed aloud. “Best of luck with that.”
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