The sleek carriage drew a few interested looks as it pulled up to the curb at the edge of Imperial Square. Such conveyances were no rare sight in the city, but those who cared about such things could easily identify this as a new and top of the line Falconer model. Even those who didn’t know that could see it was low-slung and pretty; one did not need to be an enthusiast to know the vehicle was expensive.
The driver hopped lightly down from her perch, palming the control rune, and the low arcane hum of the carriage fell silent as its enchantments went dormant. A second figure, this one in armor, stepped down from alongside her, and side by side they set off up the broad steps to the entrance of the Temple of Avei. It was unusual, to be sure, to see such a high-value carriage left apparently unattended, but on the other hand, it was right under the eyes of at least a dozen Silver Legionnaires.
Onlookers paused, beginning to grow into an actual crowd and murmur speculatively as they watched the driver and her companion approach the temple. Especially after the events of the last year, a lot of people in the city knew exactly what her silver armor signified.
The Legionnaires, already at attention, stiffened further as Trissiny passed, returning her salute without otherwise shifting position.
Inside, the two paused, looking around the main chamber of the temple. Teal stuck her hands in the pockets of her coat, looking slightly nervous at the stares they were collecting. A woman with short hair and boyish clothes was hardly a rare sight in an Avenist temple; it was mostly at Trissiny that the attention was directed. Here, of all places, she was recognized instantly.
The paladin sighed softly and leaned closer to murmur. “Sorry… Someday I’m going to have to spend a while here and learn the layout of this place. I’ll need to get us some help.”
“No problem,” Teal assured her.
Trissiny stepped over to a pair of Legionnaires standing at attention at the base of a column; they stiffened slightly at her approach, like those in the front of the temple.
“Are you familiar with the temple?”
“Yes, ma’am!” said the nearer of the two women, eyes straight ahead. “The Third Silver Legion has been stationed here for eleven months, General. All of us are acquainted with the floor plan.”
“Good,” Trissiny said with a satisfied nod. “Show me to the Tapestry Hall.”
At that, both Legionnaires’ eyes shifted slightly, as if they wanted to glance at each other, but couldn’t without actually turning their heads. The woman who had replied to Trissiny spoke again, somewhat hesitantly.
“General, the gallery has been closed for several years at the request of the Archpope.”
Trissiny’s voice remained quiet, and perfectly calm. “Is that what I asked you, soldier?”
Somehow, the woman managed to straighten up even further. “No, ma’am! This way, ma’am!”
Teal tried not to look uncomfortable as they were led out of the chamber under dozens of curious eyes.
Their path kept to broader, more commonly accessed avenues through the temple, and as such they were rarely out of sight of the public for long. Various individuals of unidentifiable purpose were passing to and fro, and a good many of those seemed to recognize Trissiny; she had to politely decline to stop and talk several times, and frequently nodded and smiled in response to respectful greetings. Some of those were downright fawning, and Teal couldn’t help noticing she replied to those more coolly. There were, of course, numerous priestesses of Avei and Legionnaires present; the latter and some of the former universally saluted their paladin, though none of them attempted to delay her in her business.
Finally they reached a nexus of several halls which could have been a miniature chapel. Most of its boundaries were wide mouths of hallways, but where there was wall space there were fluted columns and niches containing bronze busts of women, some armored. It appeared actually to be the open interior of a tower, soaring to a domed ceiling some three stories up, with white banners bearing Avei’s golden eagle sigil hanging from above.
One side of the chamber, however, was dominated by a pair of closed doors. They were tall and looked heavy, despite their intricate carving. A sign stood before them indicating that the Tapestry Hall was closed to the public until further notice. The doors had large bronze handles, but no knob or latch, and had clearly not been designed to be locked. A chain had been wound around the handles, binding them together and itself secured by a padlock, which lacked a keyhole. Instead, its face was embossed with the ankh symbol of the Universal Church.
Their guide marched up to the sign, about faced, and saluted Trissiny. “Tapestry Hall, General Avelea!”
Teal wanted to wince. They were not alone here; five women in two groups were standing near alcoves, conversing quietly, and two other women were at that moment walking through the nexus. Three men in Imperial Army uniforms had just progressed a few feet down one of the adjoining hallways. At the Legionnaire’s announcement, all of them stopped what they were doing and turned to stare.
Trissiny nodded to the soldier. “Thank you. As you were.”
The woman saluted again and marched off back the way they had come.
Teal smiled awkwardly at the nearer group of women; one smiled back and nodded, while the other was watching Trissiny, her head tilted to one side.
The paladin, wasting no time, had picked up the sign and moved it carefully aside, then for good measure turned it around so that it was informing only the wall that Tapestry Hall was closed. She then stepped in front of the doors and lifted the padlock, studying it. The chains rattled softly; they were securely bound, offering only slight give.
“Maybe we should have started with someone in charge,” Teal suggested quietly, stepping over to her. “Unless you have a key to that…”
“There’s no key,” Trissiny said, releasing the lock. It clinked smugly as it fell back into place. “This was never meant to be undone. Which means… Well, from another point of view, I do have a key.”
She took one step backward and drew her sword.
The stillness of the onlookers increased palpably.
“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, “are you sure…?”
“Step back, please,” Trissiny replied calmly, reversing her grip and placing the blade, point-down, in the chain. Only its tip fit into the space inside a link.
Teal obediently edged back, then had to shield her eyes as Trissiny suddenly flared alight. Golden wings flared outward, all but filling the space. The sword blazed almost white, and she yanked it backward like a lever.
Steel snapped, and the padlock plummeted to the marble floor with a clatter, landing with its ankh symbol down. The rest of the chain, hissing in defeat as it went, unwound itself from the handles, sliding down under its own weight, until it lay in a sad puddle on top of the lock.
Trissiny let her light fade and neatly sheathed her weapon, ignoring the whispers that sprang up behind her. She grabbed one of the door handles and pulled it open, shoving the fallen chain out of the way in the process, revealing a dim space beyond.
“Well, here we are,” she said calmly to Teal. “Coming?”
Aside from being dark, it was a sealed off section of a major temple to which they had just forcibly gained access; a lot of that suggested going anywhere but inside. On the other hand, the option was to stay and try to explain this to the increasingly inquisitive crowd. She followed.
Teal had thought to slip through, but Trissiny pulled the door open fully and left it that way. Behind the girls, spectators edged closer, but none seemed quite daring enough to enter the darkened hall.
Tapestry Hall was wide, long, and curved; it was surely not a full semicircle unless it spanned the entire width of the temple, but its dimensions made the far end invisible from the door. Or at least, it would have been hidden around the curve even had the room not been dark. Teal could make out the shapes of statues, and even the frames of paintings. Only on those nearest the doors were the actual canvases visible. She also saw the silhouettes of fairy lamps with conical shades to direct their light, positioned so as to illuminate the artworks directly. None were lit.
A few steps ahead in the darkness, Trissiny sighed and drew her sword again. The blade began once more to glow white, casting a slightly eerie radiance all around them. It did not truly fill the space, but made the nearest portraits visible.
Teal drew in a slow breath, then let it out, glancing back once more at the door. People were watching… But she had made a promise, and now they were here.
The light increased and changed color as Vadrieny emerged, the warm orange glow of firelight adding to Trissiny’s divine golden-white.
“The Baniroven Tapestry is displayed at the center of the inner wall, inside a glass case,” the paladin said, glancing at her and showing no further reaction to the archdemon’s presence. “That’s what gives the Hall its name. It shows a… Well, I’ll bore you with it sometimes if you’re really interested. Almost all the rest of these are paint on canvas.” She gazed around at the shadowed corners. “I’ve always wanted to visit here… There are some artifacts and treasures at the Abbey in Viridill, of course. It is the original center of Avei’s worship. But most of the best art was brought here long ago.”
“Sounds like an interesting place to visit,” Vadrieny replied. “But we did come here for a reason…”
“Yes,” Trissiny said, nodding, and stepped forward, taking her light with her. “Be careful, please.”
“Of that thing you sometimes do when you’re upset,” the paladin said, glancing back at her with a half-grimace. “Clawing up the floor with your talons. There may be more trouble than I can deflect if you desecrate the temple.”
Vadrieny didn’t reply, being busy glancing around nervously. Nothing discernible had changed in the room, but at the reminder, she suddenly had a heavy awareness of Avei’s presence—and, given the combination of her main temple and her paladin, it was a certainty that the goddess was watching.
They made their way deeper into the long-deserted hall, stirring up dust as they passed. Both examined various landscapes, portraits and scenes of battle, painted in a wide variety of styles (and degrees of skill), all relating in some way to Avei and her worship. Most were historical; Avenists were practical as per their goddess’s preferences, not taking up a lot of space with adoring depictions of her.
The tapestry in question was indeed at the middle of the hall; they had gone just past it when Trissiny stopped, facing the opposite side of the gallery, and spoke.
Vadrieny had to remind herself not to flex her talons; it was her default reaction to emotions of the kind stirred up by what she saw.
According it its placard, the wide painting, charmed against dust and sealed behind glass, dated from twelve centuries ago, at a time when such an artistic undertaking would have been a rare masterwork such as some king or high priest might have commissioned as a legacy to leave against their own approaching mortality. The style was somewhat less polished than more modern pieces, but beautiful and realistic enough for its purpose.
In its center, an enormous figure of Elilial stood, arms spread and wearing a confident smirk. Around the upper edges were dark vignettes of demonic and divine figures locked in combat, against a dramatic background of stormy clouds spitting lightning, but most of the width of the painting was taken up by the seven figures posing in a line below the dark goddess.
Trissiny leaned closer, reading the rather lengthy placard displayed below it.
“’The Queen of Hell and her Daughters’ was painted about eighteen centuries after the Third Hellwar, the time from which it drew its source material. Definitely not a firsthand source, then. The artist isn’t remembered, but this has apparently spent a lot of time being hidden in one place or another. Clerics and governments evidently thought it would be a bad influence on the public. Luckily none of them were thuggish enough to destroy such a masterpiece… It says theologians have pored over surviving descriptions of the archdemons, and consider this the definitive visual representation of them. Most think the artist was, her or himself, a scholarly cleric. Hm.”
She stepped back, gaining a better perspective of the large painting. It was nearly as wide as she was tall.
“I was never told any of their names,” the paladin murmured. “Or yours, obviously, or I’d have told you about this long ago. When I asked Mother Narny this summer, she said they had to be selective with my education. You can’t learn eight thousand years in the course of three, and they taught me what they thought I’d most need to know. None of them had been seen in three millennia. None of you, I mean…”
She glanced over at Vadrieny and cleared her throat. “And…I’m rambling, sorry. Your s—their names are on the placard, here.”
Vadrieny stood motionless, her gaze slowly tracking back and forth over the images. She stared intently at the smug-looking horned goddess towering over her offspring, then made another intensive pass across the depictions of her sisters.
“Not familiar,” she whispered. “I don’t remember…”
Trissiny sighed softly. “Well… It was a long shot. Perhaps it’s better this way. This is not the best history to have, Vadrieny. You have a chance at a fresh start.”
The archdemon stepped closer, bending forward to peer at the unmistakable portrait of herself, third from the right. All seven of them had the same burning eyes, but beyond that, their features were a mishmash. Horns, hooves, claws… Some had wings, though only hers seemed made of fire. Four had fiery hair. There was a more mundane commonality to their features, too, a certain angularity to their faces, a tall and rangy aspect of their build that spoke of their mother’s blood.
Unconsciously, she raised one hand, the clawed tip of her forefinger drifting closer to her own painted face.
“Please don’t touch!”
They both jerked back, turning to face the way they had come. A lean, sharp-featured woman with short dark hair was approaching out of the gloom. As she entered the light, they could see she wore the white robes of a priestess of Avei with a short sword sheathed at her waist, though the weapon was far more elaborate than Trissiny’s. The hilt appeared to be gold, and is pommel was shaped into an eagle’s head, with delicately wrought wings forming its crossbar. She wore the golden eagle pin of Avei at her shoulder, with a second, smaller one below that, depicting a silver ankh.
“Those claws are known to rend steel,” she said in a more conversational tone, coming to a stop a few feet from them and smiling thinly. “I shudder to think what they’d do to centuries-old canvas.”
“Sorry,” Vadrieny said, taking another step backward from the painting.
Trissiny’s eyes flickered across the woman’s two brooches, then to the Talisman of Absolution pinned to Vadrieny’s—Teal’s—lapel, and finally met their visitor’s eyes, nodding respectfully.
“You must be Bishop Syrinx.”
Basra nodded deeply in reply, never blinking nor changing that razor-thin smile by a hair. “Glad to finally meet you, General Avelea. Your visits to the temple are nothing if not dramatic. I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that I had to hear about the Lor’naris episode after the fact.”
Trissiny grimaced faintly. “Well, that was… I’d rather focus on the present.”
“I’ll bet.” The Bishop’s smile widened fractionally. “You’ve made quite a stir this time. Again. The whole temple’s already abuzz with whispers, how you smashed a Universal Church talisman while blazing with Avei’s favor. I wonder if you understand the symbolism of that act?”
“I do,” Trissiny said quietly, “and it was quite deliberate. I am a warrior more than a poet, Bishop Syrinx, but a gesture that obvious I would not make accidentally.”
At that, Basra smiled widely enough to show the tips of her teeth, though her eyes did not change in the slightest. It was a faintly unnerving expression.
“Well, Trissiny, I am a politician. Words are my weapons, and symbolic gestures an unfortunately large part of my job. Given my position as liaison between the Sisterhood and the Church, I was chiefly responsible for negotiating the agreement that had this gallery sealed off.”
“I’m sorry—” Trissiny began, but Basra actually laughed, interrupting her. The Bishop’s expression finally changed, to one of more genuine humor. It soothed a great deal of the tension in the room.
“Just because it’s my job doesn’t mean I necessarily enjoy it,” she chuckled. “I confess I was rather disappointed when High Commander Rouvad chose to go along with this. It never sat right with me, nor a lot of others, having some man tell us what we can and can’t do in our own temple. I’ll tell you what I plan to do as soon as you two leave: I’m going to get acolytes in here to sweep out the cobwebs and replace the fairy lamps. Art is to be seen; paintings in a dark room are like swords left to rust. If Justinian wants this room sealed so badly, he can come down here and re-lock it his holy self.”
“Why did he want this gallery sealed off?” Vadrieny asked, easing back again from the priestess.
“What I am curious about is why Rouvad chose to accommodate him. As for Justinian, isn’t it obvious?” The Bishop raised one eyebrow, then nodded to the painting. “Same reason he’s had the temples of Nemitoth lock away their direct references to the archdemons. Because of that, and because of you.”
“I’m not sure that was a wise policy,” Trissiny said, frowning. “I understand not wanting to provoke her, but it doesn’t seem sustainable…”
“With the greatest possible respect,” Basra said, her smile suddenly gone, “you need to wise up, Avelea. Fast. And you as well,” she added to Vadrieny. “There is absolutely no way the Archpope could control information thoroughly enough to keep this from you. If nothing else, you’re attending a school run by an immortal who has met several of your sisters. Yes, interestingly enough, Arachne’s first appearance in history was during the Third Hellwar. Actually, her very first mention in records considered authentic involved her slapping Invazradi around like a gnomish mail-order bride. No, this wasn’t to be kept from you, Vadrieny. It was to be kept from you for a while. I rather suspect Justinian won’t bother to ask that this room be re-sealed at all. That ship has sailed, now that you’re here.”
“I don’t understand,” Vadrieny said, after glancing at Trissiny, who was frowning deeply at the Bishop.
“Suppose you had something volatile, potentially dangerous, and generally inconvenient rolling around,” Basra said, ostensibly studying the painting now. “Just for example, an amnesiac archdemon. You have reason to tolerate this for a little while, but once that’s over with, you can’t just reverse yourself and have her put down—you’d lose credibility, flip-flopping like that. So…suppose you had hidden any convenient references to this archdemon’s family, and the fact that they’re all dead? Then you just have to sit back, wait for her to learn the truth from another source…” She smiled coldly, shifting her gaze back to Vadrieny. “…and react to that the way most people reasonably would. Your pain and shock would look an awful lot like a very big threat in the wrong circumstances, with those claws attached to it.”
They stared at her in stunned silence.
“But you dodged that shot, didn’t you? Seems like you would be wise to be on the lookout for more.” The Bishop shook her head and stepped away from the painting. “Well. You girls take your time; I won’t intrude on your privacy any further.” She turned and took a step toward the exit.
“Wait,” Trissiny said. “You suggested— I mean, if Justinian wanted to get rid of Vadrieny, why go to all this trouble? He had Teal at the Cathedral itself for months, being examined and assisted by all kinds of clerics. Wouldn’t it have been easier to have her destroyed before she had a chance to prove to so many people that she meant no harm?”
“Why, yes, I believe it would have,” Basra mused without turning around. “Makes you wonder why he was so eager to examine an archdemon, doesn’t it?” She resumed walking, raising her voice to call back at them as she vanished back into the shadows. “Don’t underestimate the number of enemies you have, nor mistake allies for friends. In politics and in war, all relationships are temporary.”
Then she was gone, around the curve of the wall, leaving them alone, in silence.