The Rail caravans slowed dramatically as they approached the interchange at Veilgrad. It was a complex system; the town was not overly large, but it was a hub, connecting Rail lines that extended west to Calderaas, southwest toward the Tira Valley and the capital, north into the Badlands and eventually the border of the dwarven kingdom of Vjarstadt, and northeast into the Stalrange itself. The interchanges between these lines demanded such precision that speed limits were considerably reduced for miles out from the station, and by the time caravans reached the town itself they were traveling no faster than the average horse-drawn stagecoach.
There had never been a collision between two caravans since the founding of the Rail network; its enchanters went to enormous lengths to ensure this. Though the fact was not widely known outside the Imperial bureau that administered the Rails, the device from which they had been developed was originally an experimental weapon. Using them as transportation had been a stroke of insight initially laughed at, its designers conceiving only one purpose for any object moving that fast.
Unlike the Wyrnrange far to the west, which rose gradually out of the plains by way of rolling hills growing ever steeper as they approached the peaks, the Stalrange ascended abruptly out of the flat territory at its edge. Eons ago, it had bordered an inland sea, and slightly less distantly in the past, a deep swamp. The Great Plains were formed of sediment from beneath those long-ago bodies of water. This fact, plus the unusual geographic feature on which it sat, had made Veilgrad a place of great strategic import for the entirety of recorded history. The town stood atop a long peninsular outcropping of stone extending into the plain and towering twenty yards above it. Once its walls had been completed, the ancient fortress city of Veilgrad had been considered nigh-impregnable, one of the best-defended locations on the continent.
That was then; this was now.
The city had long since outgrown its walls, and roads now tracked up into the surrounding mountainside, where little pockets of construction were visible amid the surviving stands of Stalrange pines, overlooking the old city from above. More spread out from the base of the peninsula, patches of younger urban sprawl slowly creeping across the plain. The Rail platform was surrounded by the largest of these, due west of the farthest tip of Veilgrad and facing its ancient main gate.
The caravan eased to a halt, its hatches hissed open, and Professor Rafe bounded nimbly forth, planting his feet widely on the flagstones of the large platform as if he expected to be blown down by an errant gust of wind. He placed his fists on his hips and drew in a deep breath, his thin chest swelling.
“Don’t do it!” Toby exclaimed, dragging himself out of the hatch with a little less grace, still off-kilter from the Rail ride. “Don’t—”
“BEHOLD!” the Professor roared, throwing wide his arms to embrace the Rail platform, the looming shape of Veilgrad beyond, and the several dozen people crossing the area. Nearly all of them stopped, turning to stare.
Veilgrad was an important city, but not a large one, and was so far from the center of Tiraan civilization that its name was a euphemism for distant, unsettled places. These were not cosmopolitan urbanites to be unfazed by the eccentric professor, as their stares indicated.
“You stand upon the precipice of Veilgrad,” Rafe boomed, turning his back to the onlookers and brandishing a fist at his disembarking students with a melodramatic grimace. “The most eeeevil place in the Tiraan Empire! Step carefully, my children, for you shall never again see such a wretched hive of… Oh, what’s the expression I’m looking for…”
“Scum and villainy?” Gabriel suggested, rubbing his lower back.
“Arquin!” Rafe exclaimed in horror. “You can’t just say that about a place, all these people can hear you! Honestly, boy, were you raised in a barn?”
Gabriel stared at him. “…this is gonna be the trip where I finally shoot you, isn’t it.”
“You have been brought here,” the Professor intoned, “to uncover the putrid perfidy at the very heart of the—oh, hey, our ride’s here! Form a line, kids, let’s be civilized about this.”
Most of the onlookers had already backed away or gone on about their business, but several were still watching the University party, none with friendly expressions. The students drifted together in a knot as they followed their professor toward the edge of the platform.
A matched pair of stagecoaches were just pulling up at the side of the road running past the outdoor Rail terminal. They were glossy, ostentatious things, lacquered a gleaming black with a crest embossed in a lighter shade of black—or a very dark gray—on their doors, barely visible and that only because it was a matte interruption in the gleaming finish. The device was a heavily stylized letter M, bracketed by laurels bristling with overlarge thorns. Each coach was drawn by two matched horses, all four coal-black and all groomed to a glossy shine. Altogether the vehicles were a portrait of wealth and grandeur straight out of the last century.
Each was driven by a lovely young woman perched on the driver’s seat, reins in hand. They didn’t look alike enough to be related, but both were clearly of the local Stalweiss stock, being tall, pale and fair-haired. Both were attired in expensive-looking gowns with high collars, which appeared to be of identical cut, though the one in front was red while her counterpart wore dark green. They smiled in unison at Professor Rafe as he approached, the woman in red lifting a hand to wave.
Trissiny, however, had come to a stop, staring at the coaches. Beside her, Toby did the same; Gabriel squinted as if unsure what he was looking at.
“What’s the matter?” Teal asked.
“Something’s weird about those horses…” Gabriel muttered, frowning. “I’m not sure… They give me this feeling.”
“Congratulations,” Trissiny said tersely. “Apparently paladins of Vidius have the ability to sense evil.”
“I sense no evil,” Shaeine said serenely. “Your reactions suggest, however, that they are somehow in opposition to your gods. Are they perhaps demonic?”
“Well, they aren’t moving,” Ruda noted. “They just stand. Real horses look…alive. Those could be stuffed.”
“Not demonic,” said the driver in the lead coach, smiling languidly down at them. “Undead. Don’t worry, students, they are entirely harmless; there is no contagious element in their condition, and they’re quite docile. Kindly refrain from throwing divine magic at them. They would be difficult to replace.” Her smile faded slightly as she finished the admonition, and she fixed her stare on Gabriel.
“Professor,” Trissiny said tersely, “what have you gotten us into?”
“Now, there you go, being rude again,” Rafe admonished. “And here we’ve only just arrived! Honestly, I can’t decide whether you kids needed more spankings or more hugs growing up. Ruby! Jade! It’s such a delight to see your lovely faces again! Ladies, it has been far too long, and for once I’m not referring to anything of mine.”
“Good morning, Professor Rafe,” the woman in green said with a smile that appeared quite genuine. “It’s good to see you again, too. The Mistress will be anxious to catch up.”
“All right, little ducklings, in you go,” Rafe said briskly, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “Sort yourselves as you will; they’ll be a little roomy with just four each, but we can’t all crowd into one. Gabe, your coach isn’t here yet. You want us to wait and see you off?”
“Nah, you guys go on ahead,” Gabriel said absently, still staring at the chillingly immobile horses. An enormous horsefly had landed on the ear of one, eliciting not a twitch. Moments later, the insect tumbled off, lifeless.
“Whoah, hang on, what’s this?” Ruda demanded. “Why’s Arquin not coming with us?”
“A stipulation of our hostess, I’m afraid,” Rafe said solemnly. “You are all welcome in her house, with the specific exception of Gabriel. Did I not know better, I might think she’d met him at some point.”
Toby folded his arms. “Then I don’t believe we are welcome there, either. Or…I’m sorry, guys, I shouldn’t speak for you. But for my part—”
“Guys, guys!” Gabriel said, finally turning from his study of the horses to hold up both hands calmingly. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this; Tellwyrn’s orders. This isn’t a demonblood prejudice thing, the person we’re meeting actually has a pretty solid reason not to want me around. I… Ugh, I hate keeping you in the dark, but Tellwyrn was, you know, emphatic. As only she can be. You’re not supposed to hear about it till you get there.”
“Well, this is increasingly bullshit,” Ruda said acidly.
“I have a bad feeling about it,” Teal said, frowning. “Gabe…are you sure? If you know what’s going on, are we walking into a trap?”
“What utter nonsense,” Rafe huffed. “Our hostess is an alumnus of the University; she would never harm you. Would never have reason to, and even if she did, she knows firsthand what Arachne would do about it. You’ll be safe as houses!”
“The manor is one of the most secure and defensible structures in the entire province,” said the woman in red, presumably Ruby. “And the Mistress’s hospitality is second to none. We apologize for Mr. Arquin’s exclusion.”
“I don’t think I want to stay with someone whom one of our friends has to be afraid of,” Trissiny said flatly.
“That’s not it,” Fross said. “She’s afraid of him.”
There was a beat of silence, all of them turning to stare up at the pixie. Rafe rolled his eyes dramatically.
“Put it together, guys,” Fross continued. “She’s got undead horses and doesn’t want the Hand of the god of death on her property. It’s pretty obvious, right? This Mistress is undead herself. Haven’t several of the professors mentioned a vampire who was once a student at the University?”
“That does it,” Trissiny announced, folding her arms. “I believe I will stay wherever Gabriel is staying.”
“And this is exactly why you were not to be informed until you got there,” Rafe said in exasperation. “Honestly, kids, Malivette is just about the most cuddly person I know. Isn’t she, girls?”
“The cuddliest,” Jade said solemnly, her eyes sparkling with repressed mirth.
“But,” Rafe continued, scowling at Trissiny, “some of you are just bound to be on the defensive about her little condition. Because some of you are thoughtless and prone to making inappropriate snap judgments.”
“Hey,” Toby said, his voice quiet but firm. “Don’t glare at her; any of us with any sense would object to this. You are asking us to stay in the home of a vampire. Someone who, whatever her intentions, thinks of the lot of us as food. This trip is supposed to be at least a week, right? We’re expected to sleep in that place?”
“Um, point of order,” Fross chimed. “Ruda’s the only one who’s in the slightest danger from a vampire.”
“Everyone is in danger from a vampire!” Trissiny exclaimed.
“Well, not really, no,” the pixie said reasonably. “They can’t eat elves or half-elves, the inherent fae magic reacts badly with them. They can’t eat clerics or paladins; even trying would result in an automatic smiting from their patron gods. And they definitely can’t eat dryads or pixies.”
“Ain’t it a thrill to be me,” Ruda said fatalistically.
“Congratulations,” Gabriel said solemnly. “You now are in possession of the slightest glimpse of what my life is like. If you want to get even more insight, I could fucking stab you.”
“Children!” Rafe bellowed. “Enough! We are going to stay in the home of my dear friend and former student Malivette, for a variety of excellent reasons which I will explain when we’re no longer out in public creating a scene!”
“He’s getting onto us about creating a scene?” Juniper muttered.
“And if you fail to comply with this directive,” Rafe continued ominously, “I will toss my ass right back in that caravan, return to Last Rock and complain to Arachne that you little buggers are being difficult.”
“She’d make fun of you for that for the next ten years,” Teal pointed out.
“Yeah?” the Professor said smugly, folding his arms and smirking. “I’m sure that’ll make you feel better while she’s kicking your asses up and down the mountainside.”
“I hate every part of this,” Trissiny muttered, unconsciously gripping her sword.
“And if you didn’t make a point of hating half the crap you encounter, Avelea, somebody might care about that,” Rafe said, grinning.
“Guys,” Gabriel said soothingly. “I promise you, it is okay. Tellwyrn wouldn’t send us to someone who can’t be trusted, and I fully understand this Malivette’s concern, all right? All it would take is one little poke from a valkyrie’s scythe and she’d be dust; she’d never even see it coming. Wouldn’t you be worried about that?”
“I note,” Shaeine observed, “that it is you and not she who is being asked to extend trust in that regard.”
He shrugged. “That’s true, but come on. Is it really that unfair? She’s the one with the manor she’s letting us use, and an established life here. Well, unlife. Whatever.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” Toby said worriedly. “I mean…leaving you completely alone out here…”
“Oh, that’s very nice, thank you,” Ariel commented.
“Yes, yes, you’re great company,” Gabriel said soothingly, patting her pommel. “Particularly when you don’t talk. Anyhow, guys, you don’t need to worry about me.” He grinned smugly. “In fact, I might be the only one who’s gonna be put in better digs than you guys.”
“But why dragons?”
“There are several acceptable responses to receiving orders, Sergeant,” Captain Dijanerad said mildly, not slowing her pace. “None of them contain the word why.”
“Captain,” Principia said in a tone barely above a growl, “I have spent the last month vigorously drilling and training my squad as ordered. In keeping with our mandate we have been extensively studying the Church and its member cults so as to serve in a diplomatic capacity with other faiths. My girls have done a damn fine job, too, considering how little time they’ve had to work on it; I have every confidence that the High Commander will be pleased with our results. Or at least I would if we got to put that into practice. Instead, we’re apparently going to deal with dragons! Nobody knows how to do that! Why are we any better than any random squad?”
“Yes, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “You’ve trained specifically in one field and are now being sent off to do a random task that has no bearing on your specialization. Welcome to the military, Locke.”
“Captain, permission to kvetch!”
“Denied. I think.” The Captain glanced curiously at her. “What is that, orcish?”
“Not exactly,” Principia muttered.
Dijanerad came to a stop, forcing Principia to follow suit. They were in an out-of-the-way intersection of the Temple’s halls, not far from the exit to the rear parade grounds around which the Ninth Cohort were bunked.
“Squad One has drawn this assignment,” the Captain said, “because I recommended you for it. I have, in fact, seen the way you’ve been training your squad, Sergeant Locke, and taken notice of your results. To be frank there was some initial disagreement among the cohort’s officers about whether you would take your position at all seriously, but that, at least, you’ve put to bed. Now it only remains to be seen how well the results will stack up in a real-world situation.”
“So we’re being sent into a real-world situation that has nothing to do with what we’ve trained for?”
“Locke, shut up. I’ve also taken note of the way you and your girls have been repairing your relations with the rest of the cohort, which is no small thing considering you went overnight from being the resident punchlines to having the much-coveted designation One. You can do diplomacy. The basic principles are the same whoever you’re dealing with, be they fellow soldiers, priests, or yes, dragons. I recommended you because I am confident that you can do this. The High Commander either things so as well or places a lot more value on my opinion than I thought, and frankly I suspect it’s the former.”
Principia drew in a deep breath and shook her head. “Veth’na alaue…”
“Watch it,” Dijanerad warned. “I’m a career soldier, Locke; I speak only Tanglish but I can cuss fluently in every dialect used on this continent. That is approaching a type and degree of obscenity I’d have to reprimand you for.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said tersely. “Captain…with apologies for using the word again…why are Legionnaires being sent to deal with this at all?”
“They aren’t,” Dijanerad said, resuming her walk, “at least not officially or directly. The city’s only just come down from a state of alert; our word of what the dragons want is less than a hour old. We don’t know enough to make any detailed plans. But the bones of it is they’re establishing some kind of government and want to open diplomatic relations with the Empire. If that’s what they’re doing, the cult of Avei has an immediate interest in making similar contact.”
“I have a very hard time picturing dragons converting to Avenism, Captain.”
“There’s a lot more an organized religion can do with people than convert them, Locke. Besides, the Sisterhood is both a civil and military organization; we don’t have the option of ignoring the formation of what is sure to be another major world power. It makes sense to get on good terms with them if possible; the alternative would be a nightmare. And that’s all I have to say on the subject, because your specific orders are to present yourselves to Bishop Shahai, who will be heading up this effort, and my analysis of the situation is irrelevant. Hers is what you need to care about. Officially, on the books, you are to be merely her bodyguards; unofficially, she requested women who could be called upon to do more than a soldier’s duty in dicey political circumstances. That’s how you, in particular, ended up nominated for this.”
“Interim Bishop Shahai,” the elf murmured.
“You know very well how she is to be addressed while she’s doing the job, and once again you are flirting with insubordination. Bat one more eyelash in its direction and I’ll be obligated to rip it off your face and feed it to you, is that clear?”
“Clear, ma’am. They aren’t ready for this,” Principia said more quietly. “I don’t mean to sound insubordinate; I’m concerned for the state of the mission if it’s given to us. I have the highest opinion of the women in my squad, and of their skills, but the fact is we don’t have the experience for something of this magnitude. These stakes. Are there no more seasoned units available?”
“Yes,” Dijanerad replied, “but they have not been given this assignment. You have. These are your orders, Sergeant, and I have discussed them with you as much as I intend to, and this much only because your unique situation demands greater understanding than an average soldier needs to do her job. You need to not be in the habit of questioning orders this way, Locke; keep that firmly in mind next time you’re given a mission. You will assemble your squad and report to Bishop Shahai’s office at fourteen hundred hours; she will inform you of what she expects. For the duration of this assignment, which means until I tell you otherwise, I am placing you directly under the Bishop’s command.”
“That will be all, Locke. Dismissed.”
They emerged into the courtyard, finally, and Dijanerad stopped and gave the sergeant a flat look. Principia saluted and said the only thing she could.