“No, it’s not really in question,” Darling said. “Once the Boss got your letter, Style started looking into it, and the unanimous feeling from her enforcers is that the only surprise is it took this long for Thumper to try that crap with a Guild member.”
“The same old problem, then,” Prin said with a dry half-smile. “The Guild is the last to know.”
He sighed heavily. “Yeah. Honestly, Prin, what it comes down to is this: it is not okay for you to just take off when you’re wanted to explain a complicated matter. Not knowing what was going on was the reason the Boss made missteps, there. In a situation like that, withholding information can be actually damaging to the Guild itself. However, there are seriously mitigating factors, here. You automatically get some leeway because the Guild clearly mistreated you by setting Thumper on you, and the particular situation being what it was, it’s understandable why you’d be afraid of harsh, even unfair treatment.”
“Sooo… Do me a favor and spell it out, Sweet. After this last year I want things nice and explicit, please.”
Darling grinned at that. “Yes, fine. I’m not the Boss and don’t have final say here, but I have his blessing to talk with you. You’re not on the Guild’s bad list, Keys, and once I give Tricks my report on all this, including your actual report on all this, I expect it’ll go away, and you’ll be considered a member in good standing again. Just to cover my own ass, here, that is not a promise, since I don’t have the authority to make one, but in my personal and professional opinion, you’ll be one hundred percent in the clear. I’ll send you word of what the Boss says as soon as I hear it from him. I can promise you that Thumper is wanted back here on a much more severe basis. If you see or hear anything from him, let us know. The Guild is very interested in putting him out of your and our misery.”
“I’d appreciate that,” she said, nodding and not troubling to keep the small, triumphant smile off her face. She gestured to the door and the sanctuary beyond with one hand. “And…with regard to all this…?”
The huge sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was lined with small rooms, intended for quiet prayer or intimate conversations between priestesses and worshipers; they also made good spaces for private talks between others, which was apparently not disallowed as no one had told them to move along. That might, though, have had something to do with Principia’s bronze Legion armor. The small space had a golden eagle sigil engraved on its back wall, two low benches with thin, threadbare padding, and no door in its arched doorway. Darling and Principia had taken up positions right against the doorframe on either side, which enabled them to see anyone approaching their room from any angle, a standard Thieves’ Guild tactic.
“I have a feeling you didn’t do all this without making sure of the rules involved,” he said wryly. “Membership in multiple cults isn’t forbidden to Eserites. Conflicts of interest are, but as long as you’re not being sent on an anti-Guild operation, that shouldn’t be a factor.”
“I wouldn’t be, anyway,” she said. “Command probably wouldn’t try, and if they did I’d have to get myself exempted for exactly that reason.”
He nodded, then shrugged. “And you don’t owe dues as long as you’re not actually doing jobs, so… No, I don’t see this being a problem. I have to say, though, it’s a surprise. Even if I can see the reasoning, I would never have expected this.” He grinned. “Which was the point, right?”
Principia glanced to the side, out into the sanctuary. “Well, there was indeed a practical concern. I actually would really like to see Thumper try to get at me in here. But…I had other reasons, too.”
Darling watched her in silence for a moment as she gazed contemplatively at the temple space.
“She’s a good kid,” he said at last. “I had the opportunity to meet her a few months back. Actually…she asked about you.”
Prin’s eyes flicked back to his face, though her expression remained schooled and her voice cool. “Yeah? About what, specifically?”
“Just what I thought of you in general. I think she was trying to form an impression.”
“And what’d you tell her?”
“That I don’t like you,” he said frankly.
Principia blinked once, then burst into laughter. She quickly stifled it, easing backward so she was less visible from the sanctuary floor. “Ah, well, fair enough, I suppose. There’s a more pertinent question, anyhow: What did you think of her?”
He lifted his eyes to gaze abstractly over her head for a moment. “I think,” he said slowly, “she’s inherited her mother’s wits, but nobody’s taught her how to use them. She made quite a mess, to be frank; I saw a lot of really sharp tactics in pursuit of some really boneheaded strategy. No situational awareness or thought of consequences, but she thinks fast in the moment and stays focused on the job.”
Prin sighed softly, but nodded. “I guess that’s to be expected. Well. Arachne will straighten that out, if nothing else.”
“One almost feels sorry for the girl,” he intoned. Principia cracked a grin.
A short silence fell, in which he returned his gaze to hers.
“Well,” she said at last, “we have everything settled, then?”
“On the subject of conflicts of interest,” he began.
“Oh, no. I will not be helping the Guild to put one over on the Sisterhood, either. You may think of this as just another of my cons, Sweet, but I’ve made an actual commitment, here. Even if I were inclined to break it, which I am not, that would be rather dangerous.”
He held up a hand to forestall further rebuttal. “Peace, Keys. I was going to preface my remarks with exactly that. Understanding that you’re in an awkward position between two cults… The fact is—pending the Boss’s acceptance of your report, of course—you are still a Guild member. If you need help, you can still come to us.”
She smiled. “Duly noted, and appreciated.”
“All right, then, I guess I’d better get outta here before I burst into flames or something,” he said with an insouciant grin, straightening up and nodding to her. “Take care of yourself, Prin. Not that you need the encouragement, I bet.”
Principia watched him thoughtfully as he took four steps out into the sanctuary before calling after him. “Sweet.”
“Mm?” He turned, raising an eyebrow.
“What,” she asked slowly, “are you doing with the Crow?”
Darling raised his other eyebrow, evening them up. “Why, Prin, I should think you would know this better than most. You don’t do things with the Crow; she does things with you. Best you can do is hold on and try to benefit from the confusion, if you can. See you around.”
Prin stared silently after him as he strode out of the temple, then sighed softly and emerged herself, making for one of the rear exits. It was a roundabout path to her destination, but there really wasn’t a straight line between here and the Silver Legion grounds at the other end of the complex. Taking the rambling route through the temple was, to her mind, preferable to going out the front doors and walking around the entire thing.
“Private Locke,” a crisp voice addressed her as she neared the doors in the rear. Principia turned, beholding a fellow Legionnaire, also with a private’s insignia. Human, Tiraan, apparently quite young and quite unknown to her.
“Yes?” she said.
“I’ll need you to come with me,” the girl said, her tone rather cold.
“And you are?” she asked pointedly.
The other soldier frowned. “Private Covrin, personal aide to Bishop Syrinx. She wants to speak with you. Now.”
“Have a seat,” Basra Syrinx said in a mild tone as soon as the heavy door thudded shut behind Covrin.
“No, thank you, ma’am.”
Syrinx was standing with her back to Prin and the door, apparently studying the blank wall. “Sit down, private,” she said with a warning bite entering her voice.
The chamber, in one of the subterranean layers of the complex, was as small as the meeting rooms off the main sanctuary, and built to the same plan. It had a very solid wooden door, though, and no decorations. For furnishings, there were only a single fairy lamp with a conical shade hanging from the ceiling, and a battered wooden chair.
Principia obeyed, seating herself and keeping her posture fully erect, eyes forward.
“So you have a little chat with the Eserite, did you.”
She resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow. A great deal of her time around this woman seemed to involve resisting various urges. “That is correct, your Grace.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing he did not already know, it seems. He only wanted to hear it from me and relay it to the Thieves’ Guild.”
“I did not ask your assessment, Private Locke, I asked for facts.”
Prin kept her breathing slow and even. She had been at this centuries, and so far, Syrinx wasn’t impressing her. “He wished to discuss the situation with Jeremiah Shook, who is currently wanted by the Thieves’ Guild for treason and mistreating a fellow Guild member, and by the Sisters of Avei for questioning with regard to threats of sexual assault.”
“In both cases, against you.”
“That is correct, your Grace.”
Syrinx finally turned around, glaring at her. “And you think it’s acceptable to discuss an ongoing investigation with a member of the Thieves’ Guild?”
“As I said, your Grace, nothing I told Bishop Darling was unknown to him in the first place. He only needed—”
“And did you know that going in?”
“I was reasonably sure of it.”
“You were reasonably sure.” Syrinx’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Do you even comprehend what a chain of command is, girl?”
“It has been explained to me, your Grace.”
“You watch that attitude,” the Bishop snapped. “Show me any further snark and you will be on your knees scrubbing every inch of this temple with a toothbrush, is that clear?”
“Yes, your Grace.”
“On the chain of command, Locke, you rate somewhere between ‘stain on the drapes’ and ‘nonexistent.’ You are a menial private in a paltry fragment of a squad in a newly re-formed cohort. There is no living person in all the Sisterhood of Avei who possesses the slightest interest in your opinion. You do not make judgment calls. You don’t get to be ‘reasonably sure.’ You will ask for and wait for orders before taking any action, especially anything that involves another cult, and most especially the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself abundantly plain?”
“I understand my rank and duties, your Grace.”
Syrinx’s nostrils flared once. “That is perilously close to an evasion, private.”
“You are plain, your Grace.”
The Bishop stared at her, visibly pondering whether the implied double meaning had been deliberate. Principia gazed back, her expression perfectly neutral.
“Divided loyalties are not acceptable in the Silver Legions, Locke. Even the hint thereof is not to be tolerated. You enlisted with the understanding that, for the duration of your enlistment, you would belong to the Legions, and almost immediately we find you canoodling with your old cronies. This behavior requires urgently to be dealt with.”
“Could your Grace elucidate which regulation I have broken, specifically?”
“Be silent,” Syrinx said curtly. “You are henceforth to have no contact with the Guild or any of its members. Any violation of this order will result in your court martial. Is that understood?”
“I understand, your Grace.”
“And you will comply with this order?”
“No, your Grace.”
Basra’s eyes narrowed, but her lips curled up in a slight smile. “That is the wrong answer, Locke.”
“With respect, Bishop Syrinx, neither regulations nor the Legion’s code of conduct prohibits socializing with members of the Thieves’ Guild, and you do not have the authority to give that order.”
“What did you just say to me?” Syrinx asked very quietly.
Principia’s expression did not alter by a hair. “I understand the chain of command, your Grace. You are an ex-Legionnaire, honorably discharged with the rank of captain to pursue a vocation in the clergy. Currently you are attached to the Third Silver Legion in an advisory capacity. You are not in the chain of command.”
Basra’s expression had gone as blank as her own. “Do you think yourself clever, Locke?”
“Yes, your Grace.”
“And yet, you run around with Eserites when you think no one is looking. Do you imagine you are the only one who can operate outside regulations?”
“I have not operated outside regulations, your Grace.”
Syrinx leaned forward, smiling grimly down at her. “I think, private, you may find yourself astonished to learn what you have done when the list of charges is read at your court martial. You’ve been busy for a very long time casting dark aspersions on your own character; something very damaging will stick to you, and without difficulty. If you wish to avoid this outcome, I had better start seeing some compliance.”
“I am willing to accept that outcome, your Grace,” Principia said calmly.
“Really,” Basra replied. “I think you fail to comprehend what you are playing with, Locke. The forces moving in this city would crush the likes of you without even noticing the smudge you would make on the cobblestones. Perhaps you’ll change your mind after you’ve experienced a taste of the suffering you are calling down on your head with these…interfaith dalliances of yours. I can be patient. Can you?”
Principia met her eyes coolly. “I can be patient longer than you can be alive. Your Grace.”
The silent staring contest which followed that was interrupted by the abrupt opening of the door.
“Don’t you knock?” Syrinx snapped, straightening up and glaring at the intruder.
Captain Dijanerad gave her an even look while Principia hopped to her feet and saluted.
“It’s a courtesy, sure, but I’m not obligated to knock when walking in on my subordinates.”
“I am not your subordinate, Captain,” Syrinx said icily.
“That’s correct,” Dijanerad shot back. “Nor are you my superior, Basra. I realize the…unconventional nature of your relationship to my cohort muddles things somewhat, but if I ever again find you taking it upon yourself to question or discipline one of my soldiers without involving me, you and I will be having a long discussion with High Commander Rouvad about the chain of command.”
“Are you threatening me, Shahdi?” Basra asked, very slowly raising an eyebrow.
“No, Basra, I am stating facts.” Dijanerad stared flatly into her eyes. “A threat sounds very different. For instance: I am aware of the runs of ill luck which have befallen those who’ve impeded your ambitions in the past. If I start seeing any such materializing among my troops, you will find you are not the only one who can make accidents happen.”
“No part of that was a wise thing to say, Captain.”
“No part of this was a wise thing to do, your Grace.. Locke, out.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Principia said smartly, and ducked through the door before Basra could say anything.
She expected the Captain to remain and continue her verbal sparring with the Bishop, but Dijanerad stepped out after her, slamming the door, and set off down the hall. Principia followed.
“I am aware of your history, Locke,” Dijanerad said as they strode briskly toward the stairwell. It was a bit of a hike; the Bishop had chosen a very out-of-the-way spot to conduct her interrogation, which raised interesting questions about how the Captain had found them so fast. “At least, as much of it as the Sisters know. It’s enough to tell me what you’re thinking now. Don’t do it.”
“Ma’am?” Principia said carefully.
“I have no doubt,” the Captain said, keeping her eyes ahead, “you could engage Basra Syrinx in a battle of wits and manipulations, and quite frankly I think you could wipe the floor with her. I forbid you to do so. The Legion and the Sisterhood cannot afford to have its members at each other’s throats. This is why we have a chain of command, and you will respect it. Is that clear, Locke?”
“Yes, ma’am. Permission to speak freely?”
“Denied,” she snapped. “I’ll say it again, Locke: you let me handle this. If you have any further trouble with Syrinx or anyone else, of any kind, you will report it to me and I will deal with it according to the Legion’s code. Understood?”
“With that established, you’ve acted properly so far, private. Keep it up.”
She was far too versed in control to let slip her feelings, but Principia experienced the first real worry she’d felt so far this evening. Basra she could deal with, and probably Squad Thirteen; protecting Captain Dijanerad as well was going to prove challenging.
“Covrin,” Farah snarled, smacking her spoon down on the table. “That smug, smirking little lizard!”
“I’ve never seen a lizard smirk,” Principia noted mildly, taking a bite of stew.
“Well, she manages. That rotten, devious, nasty little bi—”
Ephanie cleared her throat loudly. “Gendered insults are against the code of conduct, Farah.”
“Jenell Covrin was in our training battalion,” Casey said much more quietly. “Daughter of some colonel in the Army. Her hobbies are sucking up to authorities and picking on anybody she can get away with.”
“Really?” Principia mused, eyes on her bowl of stew. “That’s odd. We had a couple of those in my battalion, but not after the first two weeks. The DS either beat that out of them or beat them out of the camp.”
“Yeah, well, matters are different when you have Bishop bloody Syrinx looking over your shoulder,” Farah growled. “Meddling in the training, blatantly favoring the little twa—” Ephanie coughed sharply, again, and Farah whirled on her. “Oh, come off it! The stick up your—”
“Hey!” Prin snapped. “Don’t take it out on her; she’s trying to help you not bring trouble down on your own head.”
Farah flushed, lowering her eyes. “Right. You’re right. Sorry, Avelea.”
“No harm,” Ephanie said noncommittally, picking up her own spoon.
“So,” Merry said dryly, “I take it you and this Covrin were the best of chums in basic.”
Farah growled wordlessly and crammed a spoonful of stew into her face, chomping as if envisioning Jenell Covrin between her teeth.
The soldiers in the mess hall were seated by squad, which left Squad Thirteen painfully isolated at their overlarge table. They had naturally gravitated together at one end; there was no real privacy, but they were at least left alone. In fact, it was harder to get the attention of their fellow soldiers than to avoid it. Whether it was a rumor going around or just natural assumptions based on their situation, Squad Thirteen were generally treated as if they had something contagious. Disfavor with command could be, in truth.
“I think,” Principia mused, “it might be smart if we make an effort not to be found alone like I was today. Even when off duty. Syrinx can separate us easily, sure, but that’ll leave the other member of a pair to fetch the Captain.”
“You keep going on about this,” Merry said, pointing her spoon at Prin. “Syrinx is after all of us. That’s one theory, sure, but let me just note that so far all we’ve seen her do is go after you, and get us caught up in your drama.”
Principia shook her head. “I’ve got nothing she would need. It doesn’t make sense for me to be the target of this kind of interest.”
“Connections in the Thieves’ Guild?” Casey suggested. “If this is going to be the politics cohort, that could be very valuable.”
“I am unequivocally not betraying either cult to the other,” Prin said firmly. “In fact, the regulations are on my side, there. If the cohort is up to anything that involves acting against the Guild, I’d be automatically recused from duty.”
“That’s correct, you would,” Ephanie agreed. “In fact, there are all sorts in the Silver Legions. Regulations and admittance standards don’t even require us to be Avenists, though most are, of course. We just have to conform to a basic standard of behavior that won’t offend the Sisterhood.”
Farah muttered something about gendered insults and had another unnecessarily savage bite of stew.
“So,” Principia continued, “I am not what Syrinx wants. I’m a means, not the end.”
“You sound awfully certain for somebody who admittedly knows no more than we do,” Merry said.
“I know a lot more than you do,” Prin replied with a grin. “Not about Basra Syrinx in particular, but about politics and schemes. I have been interrogated by some of the best, and let me tell you, Basra’s effort was ham-fisted, sloppy and unfocused. Hell, she outright said some things that would get her slapped down by the High Commander if I reported them. Of course, it’d be her word against mine and I wouldn’t win that, but still. It’s not a smart move for someone up to shenanigans.”
“Good,” Farah snorted. “Let her bumble around. Less trouble for us.”
“You’re not listening,” Principia said patiently. “This is the Sisterhood’s go-to politician, the one who handles their dealings with the Universal Church and the other cults, and who was tapped for this program to teach Legionnaires to move in those same currents. It makes no sense that she’d be this clumsy. No…this is not her game. It’s just the opening moves. In fact, it is probably some kind of misdirection; that’s the most likely explanation for her acting out of character and below her actual level of competence. I can’t see what she’s up to, yet, but I know we’ve only glimpsed the barest fraction of it.”
“Wonderful,” Ephanie said with a sigh.
Casey was staring at her bowl, not eating.
“Elwick?” Prin said gently. “Anything to add?”
“No,” Casey mumbled. “Just…be careful, Locke. Please. Basra is… She’s dangerous.”
“We’re all dangerous,” Prin replied, smiling grimly. “Some more than others.”