Everything slowed down at night, but Tiraas never truly slept, nor slackened its pace to any great degree. Different kinds of business were done after dark in the Imperial city, but not much less business. Obviously, the more rural areas surrounding the city were a great deal sleepier once the sun was down, removed as they were from the capital’s omnipresent modern lights, but even there, human activity continued at all hours.
Consequently, while there wasn’t a great deal of traffic through the city gates at the late hour at which the mixed party of Huntsmen and Legionnaires finally reached them, the gates themselves were opened and manned. That, in fact, caused them a very minor delay.
The soldier standing on the right side of the road at the huge outer gate stepped forward, lowering his staff casually to extend in front of him—not blocking their way, but tacitly signaling for a stop. “Everything all right, ladies?” he inquired politely, pointedly ignoring the ring of Huntsmen and directing himself to Ephanie, who was the nearest Legionnaire to him.
“Everything is fine, soldier,” Andros rumbled, pausing and folding his arms. The uniformed man glanced at him momentarily, then returned his gaze to Ephanie. It was indeed a peculiar mix of people to the eyes of anyone who knew anything about either cult, but there was also the unmistakable fact that the Huntsmen had arranged themselves in an escort formation around the Legionnaires. In the absence of other cues, that could be taken as a sign of honor, or one of hostility. Altogether they made a strange enough sight to invite comment.
“Couldn’t be better!” Principia chirped. “These gentlemen were just guiding us back from a field exercise. You can’t ask for a better escort in the woods than a Huntsman, after all.”
The soldier eased back, slight but noticeable tension fading from him. “All right, then, Blessings, ladies, gentlemen.”
They passed through the gates into the wide square beyond, several nodding to the guards as they went.
“Arrogant pup,” Tholi grumbled. “You should’ve just told him who you were, Brother Andros.”
“Throwing force around is seldom the smart solution to a problem, Tholi,” the Bishop replied. “That is true socially as well as physically.”
The little towns at the foot of each bridge to the city were clustered around a fortification protecting the road itself. Inside the walls was a broad square, lined with shops and offices (now closed), and beyond that, the foot of the bridge itself.
Their mixed party had to reorganize itself somewhat upon reaching the bridge; most of its width was marked off for vehicles, and though there was comparatively little traffic at this hour, spilling out of the pedestrian lanes would have been grounds for a citation even if nobody was run over. In any case, there were stone barriers between the two, and the foot lanes were raised a good three feet higher, looking over the edges of the bridge itself. The view this afforded of the huge canyon with its churning river far below was both stunning and terrifying. They were protected from the drop by low stone walls surmounted by much taller iron fencing; people did still fall off, occasionally, but not by accident, and indeed it took some doing. The soldiers who regularly patrolled the bridges were on the lookout for would-be jumpers more than any criminals or threat to the city itself. Somehow, after reshuffling themselves into a space where no more than five could walk abreast, Principia wound up in the front rank with Andros and Ingvar, with Tholi and the rest of Squad Thirteen right behind, the remainder of the Huntsmen bringing up the rear.
Tiraas, approached this way, was a sight worthy to compete with the view over the chasm. Its walls were lit deliberately, powerful directed lights illuminating every inch of their exterior, their towers blazing from every window. Beyond that, structures rose into the distance, many also alight, with the crackling of factory antennae and pulsing of scrolltower orbs topping off the ambient glow of the city itself. As the group proceeded, a Rail caravan flashed past them down the fenced-off center lane of the bridge with a roar and a wash of blue radiance. It vanished into a tunnel leading below the main level of the bridge above, where the Rail line would come out in the terminal a few streets removed from the main gate.
The bridges themselves arched over a hundred yards of empty space, supported by nothing. Modern architecture and enchantment could reproduce such a feat, but when they had first been built, the bridges of Tiraas had been a wonder of the world. Their modification to accommodate present-day traffic had been a major project.
“What exactly is the plan, your Grace, if I might ask?” Principia inquired as they set out on the long bridge.
“I intend to speak with High Commander Rouvad about this day’s events immediately upon reaching the Temple of Avei,” Andros rumbled.
“Think she’ll see you?” Ingvar asked mildly.
“In the old days, clerics of Shaath and Avei might have refused to speak to one another. Not so long ago, they might conceivably have insisted any such contact go through the Church. It is too political an age now, however. The High Commander will not snub a Bishop. This one will not, at least; she is more intelligent than some of her predecessors. Insisting upon an audience with her will not gain the Huntsmen any sympathy with the Sisterhood, but I cannot imagine she would refuse outright.”
“Hard to imagine the Huntsmen gaining any sympathy with the Sisterhood anyway,” Tholi muttered. “Or caring.”
“You think Rouvad will call down Syrinx based on your say-so alone?” Ingvar asked. “With respect to our guests, here, we have only their assertion that Syrinx is even responsible for this.”
“First of all,” Andros said, turning his head to glance over his shoulder at the group and raising his voice, “that is not to be repeated in front of the Avenists or anyone else. Brother Ingvar is correct; it is an unproven claim, the repetition of which could be taken as slander. Do not add any arrows to Syrinx’s quiver. With that said, the point is not to have her punished for this on the spot, but to register our complaint immediately and personally, as far over her head as can be reached.”
“Seems the Archpope is even higher,” said Tholi, “not to mention more accessible to you.”
“I will be speaking to him as well,” Andros rumbled. “Consider, Tholi, the fact that I am taking these girls at their word, despite not knowing them, nor having any reason to trust them. When I am told that a snake has been hissing and slithering, I feel no need to be skeptical. Apart from the fact that Basra Syrinx is vicious, underhanded termagant who is more than capable of such as this, there are the facts of the situation. The forests around Tiraas are used by multiple cults for a variety of purposes, and one of the tasks of the Universal Church is to prevent embarrassing and possibly dangerous encounters such as occurred today. Such outings are arranged through the Church, as was your rite, Tholi.”
“I should’ve thought of that,” Principia said, grimacing. “Of course a Bishop would know where we could be sent to stumble across Huntsmen.”
“Apart from that,” Andros added, scowling darkly, “a Bishop would know what the Huntsmen were doing in that region. Even assuming these ‘reports’ of wife-stealing actually occurred, a quick check with the Church, via your cult’s Bishop, would have been the Sisterhood’s first action. It would have ruled out the specific area you were sent to search.”
“Finally,” Merry growled. “Got her dead to rights.”
“I doubt it’ll be that simple, somehow,” Principia murmured.
“It will not,” Andros agreed. “The Syrinx woman is clever enough to have prepared counters to the obvious means by which she would be caught, which is why I am proceeding directly to Rouvad. Those means relate to the Church bureaucracy; I will be very surprised if Syrinx has managed to arrange for interference to be run with her own High Commander. Also, my presence and Ingvar’s will have been a surprise to her. No one outside our lodge was informed of our hunt.”
“How did you happen across us, Brother Andros?” Tholi asked.
“It did not just happen,” Andros rumbled, glancing aside at Principia. “It seems you have an ally against Syrinx, girl. A little black bird led us to your rescue.”
“You have got to be shitting me,” Principia growled.
“What?” Farah asked. “Black bird? What’s he talking about?”
“It is the nature of family to look out for one another,” Andros intoned, looking down his nose at Prin. “Do not spit upon necessary help, whatever tension there is between you.”
“And why does he only talk to Locke?” Farah muttered.
“According to Shaathist dogma,” Ephanie said quietly, “the fae races are of different stock and the laws of the Wild not as applicable to them. We are borderline unholy, being women soldiers, but Locke can do whatever she likes.”
“Story of her life,” Merry said fatalistically.
More soldiers were on duty at the inner gate, of course, but while they gave the peculiar party odd looks (as did everyone they passed), they did not move to impede them. The group crossed into the city proper at a brisk walk; the broad street rose ahead, climbing gently toward the city center, where stood their destination, the Temple of Avei. It was a reminder to all of how tired they were. Legionnaires and Huntsmen alike were in excellent shape, but all of them had been out all day. Of course, none were willing to display the slightest weakness in front of the other group. There were no sighs or complaints, but it was hardly a jovial party.
They also didn’t get far before being ambushed.
Barely were they out of sight of the gate guards when half a dozen armed people in nondescript dark clothing materialized around the group. Their appearance was swift and professional—they stepped smoothly out of alleys before and behind the party, two hopping out of a carriage parked alongside the curb and one even jumping down from a second-story window.
Immediately, Huntsmen and Legionnaires alike dropped into ready stances, hefting weapons. The street around them was hardly deserted, even at this hour; at the obvious signs of an armed clash about to break out, people yelped and bolted, while some less intelligent others stopped to watch avidly.
“Whoah, whoah, keep ’em in your pants,” said a hatchet-faced blonde woman, holding up her hands in a peaceable gesture, but grinning fiendishly. She was the one who’d bounded down from above, and now swaggered forward to plant herself right in front of Andros and Principia. “We’re all friends here, aye? Let’s have a quick chat. You can call me Grip.”
“Speak your piece, woman,” Andros growled.
“You’re Grip?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. By your rep, I’d picture someone twice the size, with a lot more scars.”
“And by yours I’d picture someone less armored and more smug, Keys,” Grip replied, lowering her hands and adopting a cocky posture. “Anyhow, we’re not here to interfere with you.”
“Then you’ve chosen a strange way to introduce yourselves,” Andros snorted.
“Well, you know how it is. We each have our little dramas to keep up.” Grip produced a shiny new doubloon from inside her sleeve and began rolling it across the backs of her fingers. “In fact, you might say we’ve come to join your hunt.”
“No way,” Principia breathed. “That fast? It’s barely been a day.”
“That fast,” Grip replied, raising an eyebrow. “Apparently Tricks places a high value upon rescuing your perky little butt. Hell if I know why; last I heard, the orders were to haul you back to explain the shit you’ve been up to, posthaste. But what do I know? I’m just a grunt; I go where I’m kicked.”
“We can relate,” Merry remarked.
“You speak in riddles and nonsense,” Andros barked. “Explain yourself!”
Grip eyed him up and down, then pointedly turned to Principia. “Are we explaining ourselves to this guy?”
“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Prin replied. “He is helping us out; kindly be nice.”
“Ah. Good to meet you, your Grace,” the enforcer said, turning back to Andros with just the faintest whiff of respect now in her expression. “I’ll give you the short version, then: when Bishop Darling learned what Bishop Syinx has been doing to this little squad, here, he passed the word along to the Boss, who then demanded to know which followers of Eserion had been helping her do it. One guy came forward immediately; Link is an information man, a professional fixer-upper and greaser of wheels. He identified the back-alley mage Syrinx had employed to scry on this group. We only just got our hands on him, as he’d been out of the city until this afternoon, but that worked out as what he was out doing was setting up the trap you fell into today.”
“A mage decided to accommodate a bunch of ruffians?” Tholi asked scornfully.
“A mage, like anyone sensible, does not want to be the object of the Thieves’ Guild’s ire,” said Ingvar. “Nor should you. Hush.”
“So,” Grip continued with an unpleasant grin, “we’ve got that guy, and subsequently we have a certain Ami Talaari, a Vesker apprentice who was under the impression she’d been hired to participate in a Silver Legion training exercise. She was quite alarmed to learn she had instead been used to goad your squad into a trap.”
A burly man standing silently behind Grip’s shoulder held out a thick leather folder, which she accepted, and produced a sheet of parchment from within, extending it forward. Andros moved to take it; Grip pointedly jerked it out of his reach, handing it to Principia. Prin, with a sigh, accepted and glanced over the letter before handing it off to the Bishop.
“That looks authentic enough as far as I can see,” she said. “Forgery’s not really my thing, but I bet it is. I don’t recognize this officer’s signature, though. I wouldn’t necessarily know whoever would hire a bard, but…”
“Syrinx is not daft enough to place her own seal upon any such document,” Andros growled, handing the letter back to Grip.
“And by the way,” Principia added sharply, “I trust you’re not being too rough with Miss Talaari.”
“Ms,” Casey murmured. Everyone ignored her.
“Oh, she’s being treated like a princess, I assure you,” Grip said dryly. “Annoying one bard is good fun; annoying all the bards leads to unending nightmares. We’re not about to get rough with a Vesker apprentice. No, once we explained to Miss Talaari why it’s in her best interests to cooperate, she’s been an absolute dream to work with. We’ve got signed testimonials from her and the mage, receipts for work done, and,” she added with relish, hefting the folder, “a strongly-worded letter from Boss Tricks to High Commander Rouvad concerning this mess. Our boy in robes already had your scent, Keys…or whatever the magical equivalent is…so we’ve been watching for you to re-enter the city. Scrying doesn’t provide sound on the level he does it, so we weren’t sure what was going on, with all this.” She raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly around at the Huntsmen.
“Had my Huntsmen been the ones to catch that girl desecrating a wilderbag, she might not have fared so well,” Tholi said, scowling.
“Indeed,” Andros nodded. “Syrinx’s actions placed an apprentice of Vesk in immediate danger. That makes three cults she has abused her position within the Church to mortally offend in the space of one day.”
“Holy hell,” Merry breathed. “If we can actually stick this to her, her ass is grass.”
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Casey advised.
“She’s a slimy one,” Principia mused, “but she lacks foresight. Bishop Varanus and the Guild are two factors I doubt she expected to intervene, here. His Grace is right; if we take all of this to Rouvad now, Syrinx won’t have much time to weasel out of it.”
“Then time is of the essence,” Andros declared. “Onward we go.”
The Guild enforcers fell into step alongside them as they set off again for the Temple, making the party even odder yet. The Guild had no uniform as such, but six heavily-armed, expensively-dressed thugs prowling along with the leonine grace of professional knuckledusters made a distinctive sight that most in the city would recognize. Their inclusion in a mixed group of Huntsmen and Silver Legionnaires made possibly the oddest religious procession that had ever passed through the streets of Tiraas.
Odd, but apparently not overtly suspicious; at least, they weren’t directly challenged by any of the city patrol soldiers they passed, even the two who arrived at the tail end of their conversation, no doubt in response to reports from some of the civilians who had fled the enforcers’ initial arrival.
It was a mostly silent walk the rest of the way to the temple. They were less than a block from the rear annex of the Silver Legion complex attached to the temple itself when Grip spoke again.
“By the way,” she said lightly, once again playing with a doubloon, “we had Syrinx’s pet mage carry on reporting as usual—with a few provisos. Expect to be greeted when we get there.”
“What does she know?” Andros growled.
Grip grinned unpleasantly. “That Squad Thirteen will be returning in the company of Huntsmen. The presence of Enforcers and Bishops will be news to her.”
“Oh, I am almost looking forward to this,” Merry said. Ephanie just shook her head.
The towering battlements of the fortress hove into view above them. For the third time that evening, they approached an armed checkpoint, this one staffed by Silver Legionnaires. The armored women guarding the rearmost gate into the compound’s parade grounds straightened up at their approach, their expressions mostly hidden behind their helmets. That was probably fortunate.
Principia stepped into the lead as the group reached the gates, saluting. “Squad Thirteen of the Ninth Cohort returning from maneuvers, with guests.”
“Guests,” said the guard, her helmet moving slowly as she studied the assembled group. “Right. And what business do they have here?”
“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Principia reported impassively, “and an emissary from Boss Tricks of the Thieves’ Guild, with their respective entourages. Both have urgent messages for High Commander Rouvad.”
“Well,” the gate guard said slowly, “you’d better go on through, then.”
Principia saluted again, then led the way through.
It was nearing midnight; there were Legionnaires patrolling the walls, but the parade ground of the Camp itself was all but deserted, illuminated only by a few fairy lights attached to the cabins. True to Grip’s predictions, a familiar dark-haired figure was cutting across the courtyard toward them even as the disparate group reached the middle of the parade ground, the armored form of Private Covrin right on her heels.
“I trust there is an incredible explanation for this,” Bishop Syrinx stated, stomping to a halt in front of the party. Her gaze panned across the assembled Legionnaires, Huntsmen and enforcers; if she was at all surprised by the group’s composition, no sign of it showed on her face.
Andros folded his brawny arms across his chest. “I will speak with High Commander Rouvad, Basra. Now.”
“About what, Andros?” she demanded.
“That I will discuss with her.”
“You’re a Bishop; you can make arrangements through the Church,” she retorted. “If you intend to bypass the bureaucracy, that can probably be arranged, but I’m going to need more than your say-so first.”
He stepped forward once, glaring down at her; she met his gaze coolly.
“I will speak to the High Commander,” he growled, “about the squad of Silver Legionnaires that was sent bumbling into a holy rite of the Huntsmen of Shaath today.”
Basra pursed her lips, turning after a moment to fix the fives Legionnaires with a flat stare. “And what, exactly, were you girls supposed to be doing?”
“Investigating reports of Shaathist activity, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply.
Basra scowled. “And you couldn’t do that without interfering with their religious practices? If I’m not mistaken, this cohort is supposed to be training to handle relations with other faiths. Would anyone care to explain this staggering failure?”
“I have little patience for your internal quibbles,” Andros growled. “Are you going to take me to Rouvad, or am I going to wait right here with my Huntsmen until someone more competent comes to address us?”
“We know very well this was all your doing!” Tholi added with a sneer.
Ingvar sighed and shook his head.
“Tholi!” Andros barked. “Silence.”
“Oh, really,” Basra said, her voice deadly quiet. Slowly, she panned her gaze over Squad Thirteen again, this time fixing it upon Ephanie. “And so, having caused an interfaith embarrassment, you decided to weasel out of trouble by pinning the blame on your Bishop? That’s very interesting.” She took a step forward, her eyes boring into Ephanie’s. “And I don’t have to ask which of you little twerps would have the bright idea of siding with the Huntsmen against your own Legion, now do I. Not when there’s someone present with a history of that.”
“That is not what happened, your Grace,” Ephanie said evenly.
“You can explain yourself fully at your court martial, Private Avelea,” Basra shot back.
“Leave her alone,” Principia said quietly.
“Shut up, Locke,” the Bishop spat. “For once, your nonsense is not the center of attention. Avelea, you are to hand over your gear and report to the stockade—”
“You will look me in the eye when I am speaking to you!” Principia roared, stalking forward until Basra had to physically step back from her to avoid being stepped on.
“How dare you—”
“Shut the hell up, you pathetic little bully,” the elf snarled, ripping off her helmet and tossing it aside. “I have had exactly as much of your bullshit as I intend to tolerate, Syrinx. This is over. You are done, is that clear?”
“I’ll have you—”
“Button it!” Principia stepped forward again, physically bumping into Basra and jostling her backward. “You have absolutely no comprehension what you are messing with, Basra. Do you think I let you push me around and talk down to me because there’s something forcing my hand? I tolerate you, y’little punk, because I choose to. Because you are so far from being a threat that your pretensions in that direction are a constant source of amusement to me. I was playing this game when your grandparents were in swaddling, and I’ll be playing when everyone who remembered you is dust. I am so far out of your league your only hope of anything resembling success in the long run is if you manage to annoy me enough to warrant a footnote in my memoirs, and I have to tell you, Bas, you’re not there yet. The fact that you are inconveniencing me yet again is a cosmic insult.
“And let me spell this situation out for you,” she went on in a hiss, pressing forward again; Syrinx gave ground, staring at her with wide, expressionless eyes. “You have utterly failed to understand the long-term consequences of your horseshit, Basra. Nothing you have the capacity to dish out is a serious threat to my well-being. To get rid of me, you’d have to kill me, and you’re simply too weak, too slow, and too stupid to make that happen. You best-case scenario is to get me booted out of the Legions, and believe me, you don’t want that. Because the moment I no longer have to play nicely, the hourglass begins running out for you. Is that perfectly clear? Now pipe down, grow up and start picking on someone your own size, you insignificant little bitch.”
Dead silence fell. The other four members of Squad Thirteen gaped with identical expressions of shock. By contrast, the Huntsmen and Guild enforcers all wore huge grins.
Then, after a long moment, a slow smile crept across Basra’s face.
“I dearly hope you enjoyed that, private,” she whispered.
Everyone turned at Captain Dijanerad’s voice. She stood off to one side; Grip was next to her, and the folder of Guild papers was in the captain’s hands. She kept her expressionless gaze fixed on Basra.
“You and Squad Thirteen are to report to the High Commander’s office immediately. She wants a word with all of you.”
“I require a few minutes of her time, as well,” Andros rumbled.
Dijanerad looked up at him, her expression not altering. “This may take some time, your Grace. I’m sure she would be glad to set up an appointment for you first thing tomorrow.”
“I will speak with her as soon as she is finished with these,” he declared. “I can wait.”
“Very well,” the captain said noncommittally. “Private Covrin, see that some accommodations are found for our guests, along with whatever they require. Within reason.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply.
“I believe you can count us out,” Grip said lazily, already strolling back toward the gate. “Just get that stuff into her hands, and our job here is done. The Boss will be eagerly awaiting the Commander’s response. Toodleoo, boys and girls.”
The rest of the enforcers fell into step behind her, making their way languidly out of the courtyard.
“As for the rest of you,” Dijanerad said grimly, dragging her stare across Squad Thirteen to fix it on Basra, “forward march.”