“I’m thinking,” Principia said tersely.
“Well, you’re thinking on a schedule,” Merry shot back. “I don’t know the city all that well, but we’re at most a quarter hour from stepping into one or the other trap.”
“Less,” said Farah.
“I can think faster if people wouldn’t distract me,” Prin said, grimacing.
“So let us in on your thought process, then,” Merry replied.
Principia shook her head. “I have it in hand.”
“Shortcut here,” said Farah, pointing with her lance at an opening between tall buildings, a bit too wide to be called an alley, but still a little less than a street. “Are we wanting to dawdle so Locke can think, or shave a few minutes off the trip so we’re not late, if we’re going?”
At this hour of the morning, Tiraas was alive and vigorous despite the looming thunderheads above—its citizens were more than used to being rained on, anyway. The five Legionnaires had no difficulty getting down the sidewalk, though, given everyone’s tendency to step out of their way, either out of respect or unease.
“Let’s take the shortcut,” Merry said abruptly, breaking ranks and striding into the tiny side street. It was dim and presently unoccupied, a stark contrast to the main avenue down which they had been walking. The others followed her without comment.
Only for a dozen yards, though, enough to leave behind the bustle of the main street, before Merry came to a stop and turned around.
“All right, Locke, spit it out,” she ordered, planting the butt of her lance on the rain-slick cobblestones and staring flatly.
“Look,” Principia said irritably, “if you will just let me—”
“I don’t know if you’ve actually noticed this, Locke, but while you may still be in the Thieves’ Guild, you are not there now. This is a unit, inadequately staffed as it is. And this problem affects us all; you’re just the means of it. So, no, this is not a thing where you personally out-scheme Syrinx and we all trail along behind you like ducklings to marvel at your cleverness.”
“Do…are ducklings known for that?” Casey asked, frowning.
“I agree with Lang,” said Ephanie. “It’s not that I doubt your wits, Locke, but she’s right: you aren’t in command, here, and we all have a stake in this. If you’re laying plans, let us in on them.”
Principia looked back and forth between them, then sighed heavily in defeat. “I don’t have anything I’d call a plan yet, just… Ideas.”
“So, share your ideas,” Merry said.
The elf shook her head. “It’s a fairly standard rock versus hard place dilemma. When you can’t go in either of the available directions, you have to find or create a third one.”
“And what would a third direction be, here?” Farah asked.
“That is where I’m stalled,” Prin admitted.
“Well, that seems like a perfect place to ask your squadmates for help, then,” Merry said with a small grin. “The walls of this maze are made of regulations. And oh, look! We’ve got a walking encyclopedia of regulations right here!”
They all turned to look at Ephanie, whose cheeks colored slightly.
“I don’t know if encyclopedia is fair. I just have a history with the Legions.”
“Well, still,” said Principia, “Lang has a point. We’re in a trap between rules: we can neither obey nor disobey our orders. What would be something that gets us out of it?”
“You don’t get out of obeying orders,” Ephanie said with a faint scowl. “That’s the point of them.”
“Okay, well, the Silver Legions haven’t been the world’s predominant military for thousands of years by being too hidebound to function,” said Casey. “There has to be something that’s considered a good cause not to show up.”
“It’s not much more than a thousand years, actually,” said Farah, “and given the Tiraan Empire’s success over that period I don’t know whether—”
“Is that really important right now?” Merry exclaimed in exasperation. Farah flushed and fell silent.
“There is a precedent for the refusal of morally or tactically unacceptable orders,” Ephanie said with a frown, staring into the distance. “But this isn’t a moral dilemma, it’s a…clerical one. I don’t think that would fly.”
“All right, what else?” Merry prompted. “What’s a good reason not to report for duty?”
“Casualties bringing the squad below functional numbers would demand a retreat,” Ephanie said, still wearing a thoughtfully distant expression. “But as we started out below strength, that seems like a reach. Also, if some crisis arose in which we had a clear moral obligation to help, we would be expected to attend to that above a routine assignment like this one.”
“Well, I guess we could burn something down,” Prin said sourly. “Or maybe Avei will take pity on us and create a disaster.”
“That is…not exactly Avei’s style,” Farah said, lips twitching.
“Our orders also can be countermanded by a superior officer,” Ephanie continued.
“Wait,” Merry interrupted. “Back up. What was that about casualties?”
“I don’t see that just up and happening, either,” said Casey.
“Well, that’s the point of casualties,” Merry said with a grim smile. “They happen because someone makes them happen.”
“Self-inflicted injury to get out of duty is a serious offense,” Ephanie warned.
“Let’s come back to that,” Merry said impatiently. “If one of us were injured, would the squad be obligated to retreat?”
“It’s…hard to say,” Ephanie admitted. “By regulations, yes. But by regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out with only five of us in the first place. By regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out without an officer. I think our whole problem is that for our cohort, the regulations say whatever Bishop Syrinx wants them to.”
Merry rubbed her chin with a thumb, frowning in thought. “If there were one injured member of the squad… Two of us would be needed to carry her to help. That’d leave two to report for duty. There’s understaffed, and then there’s ridiculous.”
“One would need to be sent to tell the squad we’re to rendezvous with what happened,” Ephanie said, “but yes, still. You’re right.”
“And Locke is the only one who can’t report for this,” Casey added, her face brightening. “So if she’s the one injured, we sidestep the whole problem!”
“This discussion is veering in a direction that makes me nervous,” Principia said, scowling.
“Have you managed to come up with a better idea?” Merry demanded.
“Time’s wasting,” Farah warned. “At this point we better do something; if we’re going to report in, we’ll be late now even if we run.”
“Aw, hell,” Principia muttered. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve subjected myself to for the sake of a job.”
“All right, ladies, here’s what went down,” Merry said crisply, peering around the alley. Her gaze fell on a particularly deep puddle, and she stepped over and planted a boot in it. “I was walking in the lead, Locke right behind me. Stepped in this here puddle, slipped…” Slowly, she pantomimed flailing with her arms, including the one holding her lance, which she then brought backward, jabbing the butt at Principia’s face. “Thwack.”
“Ow,” the elf said, grimacing.
“It’ll be fine, you’re wearing a helmet,” Merry said with a grin. “For real this time, though. Don’t dodge.” She planted her feet and raised the lance again, her grip much more serious.
“Hold it,” said Casey. “About face, Locke. Elves have reflexes like cats; no one will believe she failed to dodge a wild hit she saw coming.”
“And why the hell would I be walking backwards?” Principia demanded sourly.
“You weren’t walking,” Casey said, frowning in thought and nodding slowly as she went along. “You were…turned around to… Argue with Farah about this alleged shortcut. Yes, and Lang tried to turn mid-stride to see what the trouble was, and that’s when she slipped in the puddle.”
“You’ve done this before,” Merry said approvingly. Casey shrugged, lowering her eyes.
“Just to state the obvious,” Ephanie said grimly, “we are all trusting each other very deeply, here.”
“Some more than others,” Principia snapped.
“Conspiracy, assault, evading duty… We’re all going to be in serious trouble if anybody finds out what happened here,” Ephanie said. “The kind of trouble that gets people who are already on short notice dishonorably discharged.”
They glanced around at each other.
“Oh, the hell with it,” Principia said with a grin. “I trust you girls.”
“You do?” Casey asked suspiciously. “Why?”
“Elwick, nobody is truly trustworthy,” Prin said. “Trusting someone is a choice. It’s something you do because you have to, or because it improves your lot. If they’re important enough to you, you keep trusting them even after they let you down.”
“That’s a very Eserite philosophy,” Farah commented.
“Well, if we’re doing this, best be about it,” said Merry, hefting her lance again. “Like the girl said, Locke, face the other way.”
Principia sighed heavily, but obediently turned around. “You’ve just been waiting for an opportunity like this, haven’t you.”
“I am not even going to dignify that with a flimsy denial,” Merry said cheerfully, and slammed the butt of her lance into the back of Principia’s helmet.
Szith was first into the room, and came to a dead stop right in the doorway.
“Is there a problem?” Ravana asked after a moment.
The drow slowly stepped forward. While the others trailed in behind her, she crossed to her own bed, and picked up a sheet of ripped fabric that had been laid out atop the quilt.
A banner had been hung to the wall beside her bed. It now lay in two pieces, the larger of which she now held in her hands.
“Oh,” Maureen said softly, raising a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear…”
“Szith,” Ravana said softly, “is that your House flag?”
The drow nodded slowly, still staring down at the swatch of ripped spidersilk in her hands. Her expression, usually calmly aloof, was frozen and blank.
“She left class before us,” Iris said in a low growl, subconsciously running her fingers across the front of her white dress. Afritia’s alchemy had proved as effective as she claimed, and there was no sign of the smear of paint that had been there that morning. “She was moving so fast we didn’t even see her coming back… I should’ve known.”
“This crosses a line,” Ravana said, and there was real anger in her expression. “One does not deface a House insignia. Even in war it is a needless insult. Duels and assassinations have been prompted by considerably less!”
“Addiwyn!” Szith said sharply, raising her voice above normal speaking tones. Maureen, wincing, crept over to her own bed, where she pulled off the omnipresent backpack she always wore and stuck a hand into one of its pockets. There was no sound of movement behind the door to Addiwyn’s private room. After waiting a few seconds, Szith spoke again, this time in an outright shout. “Come in here now!”
There came a thump from behind the door. Finally, it opened and Addiwyn herself leaned out, one hand on the knob, and scowled at them.
“For heaven’s sake, what? This had better be important; you trollops have wasted enough of my time for one day already.”
Szith held up the ruined banner. “What possible satisfaction could you get from this?” she demanded.
Addiwyn stared at the ripped flag, frowned, and then straightened up. Her expression cleared, then morphed into an outright smirk.
Szith let go of the length of fabric with one hand, in order to grip the hilt of her sword.
“Oh, I see,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms and lounging against the frame of her door. “Allow me to let you in on a little secret, girls: I didn’t come here to make friends.”
“That’s your idea of a secret?” Iris snapped.
“I’m not interested in being buddy-buddy with any of you, or anyone, really,” the elf continued. “I mean to get my degree and get out of here. I don’t expect you to like me, nor do I care. So, since I’m the least liked person present, I guess that makes me the natural choice when there’s blame to be thrown around. Thus, whoever is taking it upon herself to trash all your belongings has a ready-made scapegoat. You won’t even think to look anywhere else.” She shrugged, straightened up, and grabbed the doorknob. “Think about that. Think about which of you seem to have a proven knack for being underhanded and cruel. And think carefully before you decide to do anything about this. Mess with me or my things and you’ll barely have time to regret your own stupidity.”
With that, she ducked back into her room, slamming the door far harder than was necessary. The assembled roommates stared at it with varying expressions of outrage and disbelief.
“This is just nasty, this is,” Maureen said from behind them. Szith whirled to find the gnome standing beside her bed, holding up the other half of the torn flag. “It’s authentic Narisian spidersilk, aye? That’s basically un-rippable. Aside from how tough it is, it stretches. Right?”
“Yes,” Szith said in a hollow tone. “It’s used in armor.”
Maureen nodded. “So, this wasn’t torn, it was cut. But see, look here, how the ends are jagged and frayed? As if it was torn. Somebody went well out of their way to use a special tool fer this. Made it as ugly as possible, so it’s less likely to be mended.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry, Szith, fabric arts ain’t exactly me strong suit. I’m better with tools and gadgets. Mayhap it can be fixed with magic?”
Wordlessly, Szith took the other half of the banner from her, and began tenderly folding them together.
“I had hoped this was a mere case of poor social skills, or overcompensating for the nervousness of being in a new place,” Ravana said, staring at Addiwyn’s door through narrowed eyes. “This behavior, however, is only escalating. This act demands retaliation.”
“Here, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Gettin’ into a feud ain’t exactly smart. I don’t think Professor Tellwyrn likes it when people scrap on her campus, somehow.”
“I am hardly proposing to ambush her,” Ravana said, “nor participate in some kind of prank war. These antics are sickeningly juvenile; I would like to think that each of you, like myself, are above such foolishness.”
“The bitch can hear you, y’know,” Iris pointed out.
“That’s fine,” Ravana said with a shrug. “She’s the one flouting rules and disrespecting the personal space and possessions of others. That will carry its own repercussions. There are innumerable ways to add a little extra sting to the whip when it finally falls.”
“If she is the one doing this,” Szith said suddenly. While the others turned to stare at her, she gently tucked the folded banner into her armored tunic. “Excuse me. I am going…out.”
“Okay,” Maureen said in a small voice. No one else spoke as the drow strode across the room and back out through the door, shutting it gently but firmly behind her.
“We really ought to go get Afritia,” Iris said after a moment. “Even with Szith gone, she needs to know about this.”
“Agreed,” Ravana murmured, staring at Addiwyn’s door again with a thoughtful frown. As the other two watched her warily, the expression shifted, momentarily becoming a smile. A very small, subtly unpleasant smile. “By all means, let us do things through the proper channels. For the moment, at least.”
Iris and Maureen exchanged a dubious look. Ravana only smiled more widely.
Captain Dijanerad strode into the mostly empty sick ward, fully armored and looking not in the least flustered, stressed or adversely affected from whatever crisis had kept her from the mess hall that morning.
Principia was under orders to remain in bed, but she offered a salute from her reclining position. Merry, standing beside her bed, came smartly to attention and saluted as well.
“Captain,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I take full responsibility. This was entirely due to my clumsiness.”
“I object to that,” Principia chimed in. “If I’d been paying attention I could have avoided this easily.”
Dijanerad came to a stop alongside them, studied each in silence for a moment, then turned to the only other person in the room. “What’s the verdict, Sister?”
Sister Tyrouna, the healer currently on duty, was a dark-skinned Westerner with a broad, subtly sly smile habitually in place. She picked up the helmet hanging from the bedpost as she answered.
“Private Locke has a rare medical condition named, according to the textbooks I’ve consulted, a ‘goose egg.’” She tossed the helmet lightly to the Captain, who snagged it out of the air. “That was the real casualty, here, and exactly why we make the troops wear them. In seriousness, she doesn’t even have a concussion, and that little bump was the work of moments to heal away, but I’m keeping her in the ward overnight for observation. She was unconscious, briefly. This is SOP for head injuries, as you well know.”
“Mm hm,” Dijanerad murmured, turning the helmet over to study it. There was a substantial dent in the back. “Good hit, Lang. Now, if we could just teach you to do this on purpose we might make a real soldier of you.”
Merry opened her mouth to reply, then closed it silently and swallowed.
“So, here’s a funny thing,” the Captain continued, studying them with a mild expression. “When I got back to the temple, I had paperwork waiting for your entire squad to be court-martialed for failing to report waiting for me. Actually, I got that before I was notified of Locke’s injury. Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if somebody had the forms all filled out and ready to file, just itching for a reason to materialize.”
Merry swallowed again. Principia frowned slightly. “The papers were sent to you, Captain?”
“I am your commanding officer,” Dijanerad said dryly.
“Of course,” Principia replied quickly. “It’s just….”
“It’s just,” the captain finished, “this business smacks of the kind of thing that by all appearances should have gone behind my back, yes? As it happened, I intercepted a certain Private Covrin en route to Command with the papers in question. Needless to say, I confiscated them. Discipline in my cohort is mine to hand out.”
“Covrin,” Merry murmured, frowning.
Dijanerad glanced pointedly at Sister Tyrouna, who smiled languidly and strolled off to busy herself at the other end of the room.
“I am not an idiot, ladies,” the captain said in a lower tone. “Nor do I want you to be. However, you should consider the fact that women in your position may be well advised not to be excessively clever, either. I told you once, Locke, if any political shenanigans occur, I expect you to leave them to me to handle.”
“I’m not even sure how you knew about that crackpate court-martial order,” Dijanerad continued, scowling, “but that was posted in response to some nonsense that happened in a completely different cohort and doesn’t have the force of the High Commander’s seal behind it. I am still in charge of discipline in our ranks, and the order to court martial you lot would have gone nowhere under me. As its author surely realized. Right now, ladies, I am dealing with a much more persistent bureaucratic hassle pertaining to your squad. Someone has opened an investigation suggesting that Squad Thirteen deliberately engineered an accident to get out of duty. I am reasonably sure I can also get that shut down, as by chance I got forewarning of it before it got into hands that outrank me. I don’t want to keep having to do this, though.”
Merry and Prin risked glancing at each other; the captain stared flatly at them both. “Clever people are ironically easy to trick into doing something stupid, ladies. You are soldiers, and whatever backroom deals are flying around here, none of them involve the kind of stakes that could get you seriously in trouble—unless, that is, you are goaded into doing something that’ll get you in trouble. Just be soldiers, and good ones. Use your common sense, not your animal cunning; follow your orders and trust the chain of command. And for future reference, Locke, you are to consider the prohibition on you getting between the Legion and the Guild to have greater force than any incidental orders that originate from outside this cohort.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said with obvious relief. “Thank you, ma’am!”
“For now,” the captain said with a cold smile, “since you have both so graciously taken responsibility for this horsewash… Well, Locke, I’ll deal with you once you’re out of the healer’s care. Lang, report to the cohort parade ground and mop it.”
“M-mop it, Captain?” Merry stuttered.
“Have you developed a hearing problem, Lang?”
“Good. Mop it till it’s dry, private. Or until I tell you to stop.”
Merry looked at the window, which was currently being pounded with warm rain. Principia cringed sympathetically.
“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said resignedly.
“Very good,” Elder Shiraki said approvingly. The young shaman acknowledged him with only the barest hint of a smile, focused as she was on her task. Before them, a vine had risen out of the ground in the grove’s wide central space; it was currently standing upright, to the height of their shoulders, and under the apprentice’s gentle hands what minutes ago had been a single berry had swollen and hardened, gradually becoming a sizable watermelon. It was delicate work, producing the fruit while supporting the vine in an upright position not natural to it, carefully drawing energy and nutrients from the earth to supply all of this and not causing a backlash that would damage the other plants in the vicinity, which was why Shiraki preferred it as a training exercise. He stood by, ready to intervene in case of problems. He would certainly not salvage the apprentice’s melon, but he would prevent a mishap from adversely affecting her, or their environment.
The young elf was also getting practice in maintaining focus under mild duress. Though the others in the grove knew better than to interfere with or deliberately distract a shaman being trained by an Elder, they did not hesitate to stop and watch, and they were all certainly cognizant that an audience could, by itself, be ample distraction.
His praise was not idly given, however. She was doing quite well, especially in comparison to her previous attempt.
The warning was scant, a mere split-second, but the harsh buzz of arcane magic was alarming enough to provoke a reaction, and a split-second was plenty of time for the dozen elves present to spring into ready positions, those who had weapons placing hands on them.
Of course, the young shaman’s spell collapsed, and Shiraki had to reach out with his mind to prevent the suddenly uncontained energies she had been working from damaging either her or the soil. The melon withered, of course, but there was nothing to be done about that. Clearly not the student’s fault.
Before the watermelon had even started to turn brown, before any of the suddenly tense elves could call out a warning, there came a short, soft puff of displaced air, and then she was standing among them.
Tellwyrn turned in nearly a full circle, studying the assembled wood elves through those pretentious golden spectacles of hers, and then her gaze fell on Shiraki. She straightened up, holding out her arms as if for a hug, and grinned in evident delight.
Shiraki sighed heavily, gently allowing the last of the shamanic energies he had seized to dissipate harmlessly into the ground. His apprentice took two steps back, scowling at the mage; several of the other elves had similarly unfriendly expressions, though a few of the younger ones studied her with a degree of interest he did not like.
“In all the time that has passed, Arachne,” he intoned, “and all that has passed in that time, I begin to think it is a cruel cosmic joke at my expense that neither of us has managed to be killed yet.”
“Such sweet things you always say,” she retorted, her grin actually broadening. “I did save your life that one time, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied calmly. “I am quite clearly indebted to you for it. Considering that, it would take quite a long and intense pattern of deeply annoying behavior to leave me so unimpressed whenever we meet. And yet, you managed.”
Tellwyrn laughed. “Well, fair enough. I think the real issue is that I saved you from being saved by Sheyann. Face it, you’d be a lot more annoyed at owing her one.”
At that, he had to smile. “All that aside, Arachne, you’re hardly known for your habit of making casual social calls. What brings you to our grove?”
“Straight to business, then, is it?” She shook her head, the mirth leaking rapidly from her expression. “All right, the truth is, I need the help of a shaman. A powerful and learned a shaman as the grove can spare me for a bit.”
“Oh?” he said, intrigued despite himself. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard—or heard of—you asking such a thing before. What disaster has brought this on?”
Tellwyrn sighed and folded her arms. “To make a very long story short, I’ve got a sick dryad on my hands, and damn if I know a thing to do with her.”
“What have you done to Juniper?” Elder Sheyann demanded, striding toward them and dispersing the onlookers with a sharp gesture.
“Juniper is fine,” Tellwyrn replied, turning to face the new arrival. “Somewhat distraught at the moment, but unharmed. What I did,” she added with a rueful grimace, “was severely overestimate her capabilities and her knowledge of them. I let her attempt something she was clearly not ready for. The dryad who’s been harmed is named Aspen.”
Shiraki and Sheyann exchanged a sharp look, before returning their attention to the sorceress.
“It sounds,” Sheyann said firmly, “as if we had better hear the long version.”