The hatch opened with a hiss, sliding upward, and Sheyann stepped lightly out, moving to the side to allow the other passengers to disembark. None seemed in a hurry to do so; lacking her relfexes and agility, most of the human passengers had been badly slung about by the Rail ride. The new caravans, she had been told, were a great deal safer and more comfortable than the old, thanks to the addition of safety harnesses, an apparent luxury of which she had not availed herself. Her fellow travelers had thus been furiously jolted against their own bindings, probably hard enough to bruise, while she had nimbly shifted in place, bracing herself against the walls and opposite bench at need.
The design of the Rail caravans was a puzzle. The ingenuity that led to their creation could surely have made them safer in a variety of ways, so why had it not been done? Despite the maunderings of Shiraki and some of his ilk, Sheyann had never found humanity to be institutionally stupid, incompetent or obstreperous—at least, not more than any other race, and never on a huge scale for any length of time, without suffering the inevitable consequences. The Empire had made the Rails this way for a reason. She couldn’t guess what, but the possibilities were rather ominous.
Only two people had been in her compartment, and they only because the other seats had filled. Sheyann was not offended by their reluctance to sit with an elf in obviously tribal attire; her own people’s reclusiveness had plenty to do with the problem. With any luck, the ongoing meetings between tribes and with the Narisian representatives would move toward remedying the issue, if they did not exacerbate it first.
She studied the station carefully. Despite Tiraas’s greater importance to the Empire, it was much smaller than its counterpart in Calderaas, though no less busy. Of course, that was due in part to its more efficient design. Tiraas had four Rail depots, two corresponding to each of its landward-facing gates, while Calderaas had only the one central terminal. Also, the city itself was physically smaller, constrained as it was by the available space on the island.
“Need any help, miss?” a slightly graying, slightly portly man in an Imperial Army uniform asked politely, tugging the brim of his cap in her direction. Beside him, a younger woman in the same uniform regarded her with a neutral expression. She never had bothered to learn what the different Tiraan insignia meant, but presumably the elder human was the superior officer.
“In fact,” she said, deciding this was as good a starting point as any, “I am looking for someone in the city. A Bishop of the Universal Church.”
The older officer raised his eyebrows. “Oh? What business would an elf have with the Church?”
Sheyann gazed at him in silence, wearing a small, fixed smile.
“No business of anybody’s but hers,” the female soldier said, nudging her companion with an elbow, and Sheyann mentally revised their relationship. The insignia wasn’t the same, but they were either very comfortable together or quite close in rank.
“Yes, right, of course,” the man said hastily. “Well, miss, the Bishops are a disparate lot; they all have their own business to attend to. I’d say your best bet is to look either at the Grand Cathedral or the central temple of whichever faith your Bishop represents. You may not find him—uh, or her—there, but there’ll likely be someone who can point you to them.”
“I see,” she said gravely, nodding. “Thank you. Would you know where the central temple of the cult of Eserion is located?”
At this, the two soldiers exchanged a look, their expressions growing almost imperceptibly grimmer.
“I could point you to the location,” the man said slowly, “but the Eserites aren’t going to let anyone into their actual temple. You could try your luck at the casino they run above it, but… They also don’t like people asking questions on their property. And…with all due respect, miss, you’d rather stand out.”
“I see what you mean,” she said thoughtfully. “Well. The warning is certainly appreciated.”
“I’d really suggest trying your luck at the Cathedral,” he went on in a more welcoming tone, turning to point at the great glass wall along the front of the station, beyond which was a busy street. “Just go outside onto the avenue, hang a left and keep walking uphill till you reach the city center. You can’t miss the Cathedral; it’s the building that isn’t the Palace and isn’t plastered with the insignias of Avei or Omnu.”
“By which he means,” the woman said dryly, “it’ll be the one on the left. North side of Imperial Square.”
“Yes, of course, right,” the man said, giving her a slightly exasperated look.
“Thank you very much,” Sheyann said courteously, bowing to them. “You have been tremendously helpful.”
“All part of the job, ma’am,” the man replied with a smile, tipping his cap again. “Welcome to Tiraas. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
She smiled, nodded, and glided off toward the exit. Even with the noise of the crowd and the Rail caravans washing over her, she could plainly pick out their voices as the throng closed behind her.
“Are you sure that was all right?” the woman asked. “Some random elf just tumbled out of the fairy tree, doesn’t know the first thing about the city, has business with the bloody Thieves’ Guild, and you point her right at the Church?”
“Omnu’s breath, Welles, you need to read fewer novels and more of your encounter manual. She’s not going to scalp somebody; elves are exactly as savage as anyone else, no more, no less. And she wanted the Eserite Bishop, not the Guild. If she wanted the Guild she’d no need to beat around the bush. Talking with Eserites isn’t illegal. Plus, she was polite. Always refreshing to see a young person with some respect, unlike some I could name.”
“She’s an elf, Lieutenant. She could be older than you.”
“Nah, the old ones are more standoffish. They hardly even breathe. Trust me, I’ve been around elves. I can tell.”
Sheyann permitted herself a smile of amusement as she slid through the crowd and out the doors into the Imperial capital.
There she had to stop, staring.
She had grown steadily accustomed to the faint, unpleasant buzz of arcane magic everywhere since passing through Calderaas. Tiraas, though, was…taller. Buildings seemed piled atop each other, climbing skyward in a way it would never have occurred to her to construct a dwelling. Many of them were taller than trees. Not to mention that a good few in the distance were surmounted by towers bearing the flickering orbs of telescroll transmitters, or branching antennae which crackled with artificial lightning. Artificial lights were everywhere, lit even in the day due to the gloomy sky overhead, some hovering in midair rather than supported by poles. Vehicles passed in the street, only a few drawn by animals. The horseless carriages emitted a thin hum of magic at work, their voices blending together into a constant, oscillating whine that bored unpleasantly into her ears.
So much they had done, in such a short time. So much glory and progress…such potential for carnage.
Her work with the other tribes and the drow was even more urgent than she had realized. The ancestors send that they were not already too late.
Sheyann turned left and set off down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.
Even in the relative quiet of the Grand Cathedral, Sheyann drew suspicious looks. She ignored them as she had all the others, pacing slowly down the central aisle of the enormous sanctuary, her moccasins silent on the threadbare carpet. It looked like it had been expensive, but this room must see vast amounts of traffic. It was a suitably vast space for it, the ornately carved stonework and beautiful stained glass almost lost beyond the cavernous emptiness.
Nearly her entire grove could have been squeezed into this room. And if she was any judge, it was far less than half the total volume of the cathedral complex.
There were two smaller aisles on the other sides of the long rows of pews; only a few people slipped between the benches to walk there rather than having to pass her, but they were not subtle about it. One woman made the action quite ostentatious, her nose firmly in the air. Most of the people present, however, either paid her no mind or just nodded quietly to her. This place, it seemed, encouraged a quieter way of being, which came as a relief after the city, the Rails, and the other city. What a day this was turning out to be; she was already thinking fondly of the relative serenity of Arachne’s University.
A few people strolled, admiring the stained glass, while several dozen more were scattered throughout the pews in individual prayer. At the front of the chamber, though, was an open area below the wide steps to the main dais towering over it all. Looming behind it was a huge golden statue of the Universal Church’s ankh symbol, with behind that towering stained glass windows depicting Avei, Omnu and Vidius, with the other gods of the Pantheon represented around their borders. Sheyann gave this ostentation only a glance, however, before turning toward a smaller lectern tucked off to the side, at which stood an officious-looking Tiraan human in the long black coat of a Church parson.
She waited calmly while he finished speaking with a well-dressed woman, politely declining to hear their conversation. This, a basic social skill in elven societies, seemed to be quite above the capability of most humans. They finished within a few minutes. The woman jumped and gasped softly when she turned and beheld Sheyann standing there.
The Elder gave her a smile and a deep nod, and got only a wary look in return before the woman scurried off.
The parson was regarding her with more calm, but not any kind of friendliness. Of course, a cleric would comport himself with serenity. That he was not seemingly interested in reaching out to her gave Sheyann a sense of how this conversation was going to go.
“May I help you?” he asked politely.
“I would like to speak with Bishop Antonio Darling,” Sheyann replied, folding her hands.
A beat of silence passed. The parson’s expression did not waver, but the pause communicated his surprise quite effectively.
“And whom may I tell Bishop Darling is seeking him?” he finally inquired.
“He does not know me,” Sheyann said. “I was directed to him by a mutual acquaintance.”
“And…with regard to what do you wish to see him?”
“That business is personal,” she said evenly.
“Ah,” the parson said, lowering his eyes to shuffle a few pages on his lectern. Sheyann didn’t need to see his hands to know he was creating meaningless background noise. “Your pardon…madam…but as I’m sure you can understand, the Church must safeguard the time and attention of its highest officials. So, you do not know Bishop Darling, yet you have unnamed personal business with him?” He raised his eyes, re-affixing his polite smile. “I don’t suppose you can offer anything more than that?”
“The rank of Bishop…” she mused. “It exceeds your own?”
He blinked, then his lips twitched in a quickly repressed smile. “Ah…considerably, yes.”
“And yet, you seem to be making judgments concerning the use of his time,” she said, matching his emptily courteous tone exactly. “Why not, instead, tell me where I might find him, and if he does not wish to speak with me, allow him to make that determination himself?”
The parson’s lips thinned, irritation finally beginning to show on his face. “And you are?”
“I am Elder Sheyann.”
“I see.” He fussed pointlessly with the papers again. “Well, Elder, Bishop Darling is not here. He is an extremely busy man, between his various responsibilities to the Church, to his own cult and the Imperial government. I can have a message conveyed to him if you like.” The faint smile returned, noticeably smug now. “I cannot, however, make any guarantees about how quickly he will receive it.”
Sheyann permitted herself a small sigh. “Perhaps my time would be better spent making inquiries at the Imperial government. I am given to understand the Empire boasts a generally competent bureaucracy. To which office, specifically, should I direct my attention?”
“I’m sure I do not know,” the parson said, all pretense of friendliness gone from his face now. “As you so kindly pointed out, Elder, it is not my place to monitor the comings and goings of the Church’s Bishops. Perhaps if you had specific business with him, of which he was made aware beforehand, you might find this encounter more productive.”
Behind her, a passing man suddenly stopped, turning toward them.
“Which Bishop are you looking for, shaman?”
She turned, studying the new arrival. He was huge—barrel-chested and towering head and shoulders over her, his hair slightly unruly and much of his face and chest hidden by a luxuriant beard. Sheyann did not need to see the wolf’s-head brooch pinned to his shoulder to know him for a priest of Shaath; she could feel the faint tug of fairy energies floating about him, mixing incongruously with the divine. Most interestingly, he wore a white robe under a tabard, a uniform she had already been prompted to watch for.
“Antonio Darling,” she replied, “of the cult of Eserion.”
The Shaathist Bishop raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Are you acquainted with him, sir?” she asked politely.
“Antonio and I have worked together.” He bowed respectfully. “I am Andros Varanus, Huntsman of Shaath and a fellow Bishop. Your quarry is not present now, and he ranges widely. There are places where you can wait for him without likely being kept too long.”
“So I have been told,” she said mildly. “Government offices and the Thieves’ Guild’s casino.”
“The Imperial offices are closing soon for the day,” he replied, his beard twitching with a hidden expression she could not identify. “And the thieves would entertain themselves by making you wait for no reason, or send you out to hunt mockingjays. However, I can direct you to Bishop Darling’s home. He will likely be returning there soon, and his Butler provides excellent hospitality, even in his absence.”
Ah, a Butler. What an interesting man this Darling was shaping up to be. Also, that answered one of her newfound questions about this fellow’s willingness to assist her; a Butler’s presence would mean even a mysterious visitor such as herself would be unlikely to pose a threat.
“You are extremely helpful, sir,” she said, bowing in return. “Forgive me, but I am unaccustomed to such courtesy from Huntsmen. Those I have met seemed rather put off at being forced to address a woman.”
At that, even his beard could not hide Varanus’s sneer. “Some men, even in Shaath’s service, are weak of mind. Not all follow Shaath’s ways; it is a weak-willed man indeed who feels threatened by the existence of other ideas. A Huntsman should be many things, but never weak. I will provide you with Antonio’s address, shaman. Paper and a pen,” he added curtly to the parson, who immediately scrambled to produce the requested objects.
“Thank you,” Sheyann said moments later, studying the names and numerals on the sheet of paper she had just been handed. “Hm…forgive me, but this street name. Where will I find this?”
Varanus blinked, then his beard rippled in a short exhalation that might have been the lesser part of a laugh. At the least, his eyes crinkled in amusement. “You are new here, then. Forgive me, I should have considered that. I am even now on my way out of the city, and expect to be gone for some time. More paper,” he added to the parson in a flat tone which made her suspect he had overheard more of their earlier conversation than he let on, then turned back to her with a more respectful expression. “I will draw you a map.”
Darling paused inside his front door, as was his custom, letting out a sigh and luxuriating for a moment in the quiet.
“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned. “You have a visitor.”
He scowled and opened his mouth to deliver a complaint, but she swiftly raised one finger to her lips, then pointedly tapped the upper edge of her ear. He was tired; it had been a long day even before he’d met with Principia’s squad, and the subsequent unpleasant conversations at the Guild had left him drained. It took him an embarrassing two seconds to catch her meaning.
An elf? What the hell now?
“Well, by all means, let’s not keep them waiting any longer,” he said lightly. “The downstairs parlor?”
“Of course, your Grace.”
He didn’t allow himself to sigh as he stepped past her. An elf would hear even that. He’d developed a rather nuanced understanding of the range of their senses over the last year.
The reasons for this were also present in the downstairs parlor, in their severe black frocks that went with the guise of housemaids. Flora and Fauna weren’t doing anything in particular, however, just standing against the far wall, staring flatly at their visitor in a manner that made his hackles rise. The new elf, in turn, was regarding them with a similarly direct look, which she did not lift immediately upon his entry. Only after a few heartbeats did she turn to face him.
She was a wood elf, her ears a different shape than his apprentices’, and dressed in stereotypical costume, a simple green skirt and blouse dyed with shifting patterns, and a plain leather vest over that. Her moccasins were elaborately beaded, but looked well-worn, and she carried a belt with a large horn-handled knife as well as several heavy pouches. Well, no tomahawk; that was something, anyway.
“Good evening,” he said cheerfully. “I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting; I had simply no idea anyone was here to see me!”
“Not at all, your Grace,” she replied in a calm tone, bowing without taking her eyes off his face. “I apologize for my abrupt appearance. I will try not to take any more of your time than I must.”
“Nonsense, you’re a guest; my time is yours, Miss…?”
“Sheyann,” she said, still staring at him with an even look that was beginning to be unsettling. “I was directed to you by Arachne Tellwyrn.”
“Oh?” he asked mildly, increasingly intrigued. “And you are…a relative of hers?”
Sheyann raised one eyebrow. “We are all of us kin, Bishop Darling. The mightiest dragon and the meanest algae all rose from common ancestors, in the infinite mists of the deep past. With that said… No. No, I am not. However, Arachne and I have an acquaintance in common, whom I find myself needing to contact and not knowing how. Apparently you are the last to have had regular interaction with her.”
Darling sighed in spite of himself. “Oh, don’t tell me…”
The elf nodded. “You would know her as Mary the Crow.”
“Yes, that’s what I was afraid I would know her as.” He chuckled wryly, shaking his head. “Well, it’s bad news that I’m the likeliest contact, as I’m not sure how much help I can be. I do speak with Mary on a semi-regular basis, but she decides when and where.”
“I see,” she said, permitting herself a small smile. “I somewhat anticipated that; it would be consistent with her general patterns. If I may ask, how recently have you seen her?”
“Quite recently, in fact, no more than two days ago. I don’t actually know why; she popped in on me at the Temple of Izara, hovered around for a few minutes and took off. I couldn’t even tell you what that was about. I’ve learned not to ask.”
“And…you have no way of contacting her directly?”
Darling grinned. “Well. I’ve twice got her attention by placing a scarecrow on the roof. The third time, though, it disappeared and then I didn’t see her for two weeks.”
“An improvised one,” he admitted. “I’m afraid we sacrificed some of my old clothes and one of Price’s favorite brooms, not to mention that lovely pumpkin Flora and Fauna here had such fun carving.”
She smiled broadly at that, her eyes creasing with genuine amusement. “I am somewhat embarrassed that I never thought of that.”
“If I might ask a prying question,” he said, “does Mary know you, Sheyann?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, her smile fading. “We have been acquainted for a long time.”
“I see. Well, I find that Mary seems to keep herself appraised of my comings and goings. Not in any great detail—I hope—but she does always seem to know when someone especially interesting comes to my door. It’s possible she’s already aware you’re here, or will be soon.”
“Hm… That, too, would be characteristic of her. Well, then.” She bowed again. “I will take no more of your time this evening, Bishop Darling. It seems I had best make arrangements to stay the night in the city, and possibly for some nights to come. It would be better if I were able to find and speak with her quickly, but… One must, unfortunately, make allowances for the Crow.”
“That one must,” he agreed gravely, nodding. “If it helps, I will certainly tell her you’re looking, should she happen to visit me again.”
“I would appreciate that,” she said politely. “And I may call on you again if my quest is not immediately fruitful.”
“By all means, feel free! My door is always open.”
Ushering her out was a blessedly quick affair; elves, he had found, were not prone to linger over small talk and needless pleasantries. Darling ordinarily enjoyed small talk and needless pleasantries, but it was getting late and he was just as glad to get the mysterious elf out of his house.
After seeing her to the door, he made his way back to the parlor and watched through the window as Sheyann departed down the street. Only when she was out of view did he turn back to Flora and Fauna, who had remained unmoving the entire time.
“All right. Just what was that about?”
“She was looking for Mary the Crow,” Fauna said woodenly.
“Don’t get smart with me when I’m looking for simple,” he snapped. “And don’t look at me like that, I know damn well you can tell the difference. You and that woman were glaring at each other like a box of strange cats.”
“She knows,” Flora said darkly. “About us. What we are.”
That brought him up short. “You’re sure? She said as much?”
“Not in terms that would hold up in court,” Fauna said, scowling. “But she hinted strongly and made it pretty plain.”
“I don’t know how she can tell,” Flora added. “Even a shaman shouldn’t be able to just spot it like that!”
“No need to reach for magical explanations when mundane ones will do,” he said wearily, dropping himself into the armchair. “Price! Fetch me a—oh, bless you.” He took the brandy from her proffered tray and downed half of it. “Mhn, that hits the spot. Anyway, she came from Tellwyrn, who you said was able to sniff you out as well.”
“Don’t know how she did it either,” Fauna said sullenly.
“So did Mary, for that matter,” Darling mused. “Tellwyrn is to mages what Mary is to shamans; best not to assume anything about the limits of either of them. In fact, this is what concerns me. Now we’ve got an elf foofling about my city who not only knows a secret that could get us all sent to the gallows, but learned that secret because she is apparently a trusted link between Tellwyrn and Mary. Just there being a link between those two is going to cost me some sleep.”
“What do you want to do?” Flora asked quietly.
He sipped the brandy once more, frowning at the far wall. “…is it too late for you to tail her?”
Fauna shook her head. “We can track her down easily enough. In fact, it’s probably best to give her a bit of a head start. Less likely she’ll be looking for us that way.”
“We can also hide from her, no matter what kind of shaman she is,” Flora added. “But if she actually meets with the Crow… Well, it’s like you said. No telling what she can or can’t do.”
“We actually snuck up on her once…”
“…or so we thought. There’s no guarantee she didn’t let us.”
He nodded. “Well, be careful, but do your best. I’d like you to keep an eye on Miss Sheyann while she’s in town—find out who she talks to, what she says to them and what she does about it. If the Crow becomes a factor, be discreet. Don’t get confrontational with that one.”
“We’re not idiots,” Fauna muttered. “Though for the record I think we could take her.”
Flora nudged her with an elbow. “Not without outing ourselves and wrecking a whole lot of real estate.”
“Please don’t do that,” he said fervently. “This is a priority for now, though; there’s too much at stake to leave it unattended. I’ll speak with Style and have your training appointments for tomorrow put on hold.”
“We’ll head out, then,” Fauna said, grinning.
“Wait.” He held up a hand. “While we’re here and discussing risky business, there’s something else I want to bring up with you. It’s been a good few months since you told me your spirits would probably be satiated for close to a year. How’re we doing on that?”
The elves exchanged on of their fraught looks. “Some…faint twinges,” Flora said reluctantly. “It’s nowhere near a dangerous level yet. We’d tell you long before it got to that point.”
“Attagirl,” he said, nodding. “I mention it because something’s come up that may be relevant to that, at least potentially. The Guild’s ongoing search for Thumper has hit a wall in Onkawa. Webs is holding it up.”
Darling sighed, idly swirling his drink. “An operations man, and Thumper’s Guild sponsor and first trainer. He’s being difficult, to the surprise of absolutely no one. His loyalties have always been more to his personal contacts than the organization. Webs is…a theological purist. He’s got a loudly poor opinion of the Guild’s current structure.”
“A renegade?” Flora asked, intrigued.
Darling shook his head. “An objector. Tricks mostly leaves him alone; I encouraged him. The Guild needs dissenting opinions to keep its management honest and on their toes. It becomes inconvenient at times like this, though, when we need specific cooperation and he’s of the opinion we don’t deserve it. Right now, he’s trying to pitch the idea that Thumper’s presence in Onkawa and the shitstorm left in the wake thereof were due to a succubus called Kheshiri.”
Both elves perked up visibly. “A succubus?” Fauna asked.
“Webs is covering for Thumper, that much is certain,” Darling said, leaning forward, “but the succubus’s presence there has been confirmed by other, more trusted sources. This bitch is bad news, even for a demon. She’s got thick files with both the Church and Imperial Intelligence. Even the Black Wreath has put an effort into getting her out of circulation in the past. It doesn’t seem to have stuck. What the hell she is doing with a goon like Shook is a complete unknown, but there are no possibilities that aren’t terrifying.”
“Vanislaad demons are good hunting,” Flora whispered. “The spirits were very happy with that incubus you got for us.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the issue from one angle,” Darling said grimly, pausing to take a much-needed sip of his brandy. “From another… If this Kheshiri is the piece of work it seems like she is, it might take a pair of headhunters to bring her down. Should it come to that, I want you two ready.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Fauna said with a predatory smile. “We always are.”