“But why dragons?” Merry demanded as they marched. “This is not what we’ve been training for! Damn it, if we’ve been busting all our butts for nothing…”
“You know, I think I had almost exactly this conversation with the Captain, only reversed,” Principia replied, glancing back at her. “Want to know what she said?”
Merry hesitated, then scowled. “That’s a trap, isn’t it.”
“There, see?” Prin said, grinning. “You’re learning. We’ll make a sly operator of you yet, Lang.”
“In all seriousness, though,” Farah piped up, “these orders…”
“Are orders,” Principia said firmly. “We can handle this assignment, and we will. Come on, ladies, we’ve dealt with orders specifically designed to break us. This is going to be more interesting than we’d like, yes, but it’s a real job, and it has a purpose. We’ll do it and do it well.”
“Sarge is right,” Ephanie added. “This is what Avei needs of us. Succeed or fail, there’s honor in the doing.”
“We will not consider ‘fail’ as a pertinent option,” Principia said. “All right, squad, pipe down. We’re approaching range of the Bishop, and I want her to see training and professionalism from us, and nothing else. Forward march, double time.”
They fell silent as ordered, falling smoothly into step. It was a little unusual to be quick-marching through the halls of the temple, but they were Legionnaires in uniform and it was the central bastion of Avei’s influence in Tiraas; no one attempted to interfere with them. The walk was relatively quick, anyway, and within another five minutes they had reached Bishop Shahai’s office.
It was one of the temple complex’s more idiosyncratic rooms, a small chamber four times as long as it was wide and lined with bookcases. Before a remodeling that resulted in the addition of a new wing to the temple, it had actually been a section of outdoor colonnade. Now, one wall—that which had previously been open—had panes of frosted glass between the remaining columns, giving a full view of the carpeted chamber and its numerous books. Those, too, were leftovers, entirely volumes of which multiple copies already existed in the temple’s library. Until Shahai came along, it had been a public space, its glass doors usually standing open and often serving as a spot for quiet reading, prayer or conversation. She had done nothing to make it her own, even to the point of making no objection to others being in the space. Shahai’s easygoing and humble attitude had already made her far more popular than her predecessor.
Not that the bar was set very high.
She was standing with her back to the entrance when Squad One marched in. Even from behind, she was a distinctive figure, slender and with long ears extending to either side of her pale blonde hair. There were few enough elves in the Sisterhood, and fewer still among the Universal Church’s personnel. The white robe of the Bishop’s office was similar to that worn by priestesses of Avei, though ankle-length rather than ending just below the knee, and with wide, billowing sleeves. Over that was the black tabard of her office with the Church’s silver ankh symbol, and over that she had belted on a sword in addition to the golden eagle pin at her shoulder. In contrast to Bishop Syrinx’s extravagant weapon, it was a plain leaf-bladed short sword doubtless straight from a Silver Legion armory.
“Squad One,” the Bishop said, turning to face them with a thoughtful expression. Nandi Shahai had eyes of a unique pale gray. The color itself was unusual among plains elves; its very light shade was a silver that verged on white under the right light. Those eyes flicked rapidly across them as they saluted. “Hm…five of you. That will make most ceremonial formations awkward… All right, Sergeant Locke, you are to position yourself as my personal aide. The rest of you will arrange yourselves as an honor guard. You know the requisite formations.”
It was not a question, but it required an answer anyway.
“Of course, your Grace,” Principia said crisply.
“You have a question, Private Elwick?” the Bishop asked mildly.
Casey blinked her eyes and glanced at Principia.
“Permission granted to speak freely,” Shahai said with a small smile.
Casey cleared her throat. “Ah, well… I don’t mean to question your decisions, your Grace. I was just wondering how important ceremonial formations are, considering what we’re to guard you against.”
“Your attitude is proper,” Shahai said approvingly. “However, it is also a highly pertinent question. If one dragon were to attack me, soldiers, there is precisely nothing you could do about it except die alongside me. We will be meeting, hopefully, four. This is not a military exercise and you will not think of it as such. It’s a different kind of battle entirely, and in diplomacy, a little pageantry goes a long way. For purposes of this assignment, squad, your bearing and conduct is more immediately germane to mission objectives than your skill in combat. You will keep this in mind and behave accordingly.”
“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.
“And now Private Lang has a question,” the Bishop said, turning to her.
Merry quickly swallowed down a grimace. “Ah, well, case in point, ma’am. I was just surprised that you knew Elwick by name. And now me.”
“I assure you, ladies, I never enter a situation without knowing as many details and variables as can possibly be arranged,” Shahai said, folding her hands behind her back. “Almost everything about this situation is unknowable. It has no precedent, and while three of these dragons are known figures, they are not exactly familiar to any of us. Be assured, I have researched each of you as fully as the short span of time available to me allowed. Pertaining to that, and to your apparent inability to have a thought without expressing it on your face, you four will keep your helmets on when on duty. Locke, to further visually differentiate yourself from the rest of the squad, leave yours off. In fact, leave it here; I want you to keep a hand free.”
“I trust, further, that you do not lack facial control. Do you know what is expected of a personal aide?”
“I am familiar with the role, your Grace.”
“Good. I will have little in the way of papers to hold or errands to run; your primary role will be to be visually supportive. And as you are assuredly a practiced actor, I want you to convey the impression that we are old and familiar partners, if possible.”
“Yes, your Grace, I believe I can do that.”
“To that end, while I expect you to cultivate proper decorum, you may speak up and contribute to conversations when you deem it in the best interests of the Sisterhood and the mission. I am trusting both your sense and your loyalty, Locke. It is my opinion based on your records that this is warranted; if I prove mistaken, it will reflect on you in the High Commander’s eyes.”
“The rest of you, however,” Shahai continued, turning her head to address the remainder of the squad, “will keep fully in character as ceremonial guards at all times when we are at the Conclave embassy, among any dragons or their staff, or on duty pertinent to this mission. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open, and I will seek your opinions in private. In front of the dragons, though, you are scenery. Is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am!” all four replied.
“If addressed by them,” the Bishop said, her stare growing more intent, “or approached at all, you will politely but firmly redirect their attention to me. Trust me, ladies, you do not want a dragon growing more interested in you. They have a tendency to get what they want, and that has a tendency to disrupt one’s life to an astonishing degree. Whatever else these dragons are up do, I cannot conceive that they have come to Tiraas without expecting to acquire some manner of female companionship.”
“I’m not excessively worried about anyone falling head over heels for me, your Grace,” Farah said with a grin.
“Well, there’s Avelea to consider,” Merry said reasonably. “I mean… Dang. Just look at her.”
Ephanie’s cheeks colored slightly behind her helmet, but she did not otherwise react.
“These are immortals,” Shahai said, unamused. “They have lived to see fashions and standards of beauty shift as often as you have seen the seasons change. You are young, healthy, self-confident and strong-willed; there is a universal attractiveness in that. You will do nothing to attract draconic attention to yourself; you will not encourage it if it exists, and will coldly deflect it should it persist. Is that fully understood?”
“Yes, ma’am!” they barked more stiffly.
“A question, your Grace, if I may?” Principia asked politely.
“Of course, Sergeant,” Shahai said, nodding at her.
“I don’t mean to presume; I’m simply trying to get on the same page so I can help with your plans rather than impeding them. By singling out the two elves as obviously dominant members of this delegation, what impression are you trying to send to the dragons?”
“None,” Shahai said, a very faint smile hovering around her mouth. “No impression. In fact, I intend to leave the matter as utterly vague as possible and set them to wondering which of the obvious possibilities is the correct one. Dragons are wise and clever in addition to being powerful; every moment they spend trying to find nonexistent meaning in minutia is a moment they are not spending maneuvering us as they wish.”
Principia permitted herself a smile. “I see. I think, Bishop Shahai, I am going to enjoy working with you.”
“That would, of course, be ideal,” the Bishop said calmly, “but never forget that we are here for duty, not enjoyment. All right, ladies, fall in; it’s time to go pay a visit.”
“That was fast,” Darling noted, leading the returning adventurers into the dining room with Price on their heels.
“Yeah, that’s the convenient thing about failure,” Weaver said sourly. “It has a tendency to happen so much faster than success.”
“No sign of Mary at all?”
“Sign, no,” said Billie, “but you were right. She’d been there; Tellwyrn had apparently spent enough time with her lately to grow tired of it. But she’s up an’ fluttered off, and we’ve no idea where to or why.”
“The Professor knows we’re looking, though,” Joe added, “and I think she’ll be helpful if she can. I mean, she’ll point Mary at us if she goes back to Last Rock before coming back here.”
“And,” Weaver added pointedly, “we reached an agreement with regard to the other matter. We now have a prearranged secure place to get rid of the skull. Assuming we can get our hands on the damn thing.”
“That’s one worry down, then,” Darling murmured.
“Where’s McGraw?” Joe asked.
“Got a little antsy, waiting around,” the Bishop replied with a grin. “He went off ahead to Desolation to have a look around.”
“You sent him where?” Joe exclaimed.
“C’mere, have a look,” Darling said, ushering them into the dining room. Flora and Fauna were present, both studying a large map unrolled on the long table. Darling led the group over to this and placed a finger on one labeled dot, the two elves shifting back to make room while the rest crowded around to see, Joe pausing only to tip his hat to the girls. “Desolation is the last stop on the Rail line in the Badlands.”
“I thought it went all the way to the Dwarnskolds,” Billie said. “Isn’t the kingdom of Rodvenheim less hostile t’the Empire than most o’ the rest?”
“Less hostile, yes,” said Darling, nodding while keeping his eyes on the map. “That doesn’t mean they don’t share the traditional dwarven interest in their privacy. The dwarves have a cultural imperative to discourage the kind of melting-pot phenomenon that’s been developing all over the Empire; all sorts of random people having access to their gates doesn’t serve their interests. All right, I actually have further point to make pertaining to that, but first I need to bring you guys up to speed—there’ve been developments in Tiraas while you were out today.”
“Anything good?” Billie asked.
“That remains to be seen,” Darling said, frowning and finally lifting his head to look at them. “Lord Vex briefed me; this is what I was called away for this morning. Today, four dragons landed outside the city.”
“Dragons?” Joe said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Four?”
“One of each extant color,” the Bishop said, nodding. “They came to announce that the dragons of the Tiraan continent have banded together and formed a government. They are requesting formal recognition and the opening of diplomatic relations.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Weaver said, staring at him.
“The Empire is handling this as slowly as they can, of course,” Darling continued, “but one doesn’t generally say ‘no’ to a dragon. Saying ‘no’ to all the dragons isn’t even on the table. They’ve been granted the use of a small palace that used to belong to some noble, which is already being considered an embassy in all but name. Anyhow, concerning our business, this obviously changes the character of the prophecies.”
“I should damn well think so,” Billie said in awe. “I mean…dragons. The politics o’ this alone… Could that be the chaos the books were goin’ on about?”
Darling shook his head. “The word ‘chaos’ wasn’t used; from the context, it was pretty clearly referring to chaos as a magical phenomenon. And the dragons aren’t necessarily the direct cause of it, but perhaps simply a significant enough event to draw prophecies of their own. This is entirely without precedent in the history of the world. But no, they wouldn’t be dabbling with chaos themselves. As a race, they have better sense.”
“Belosiphon sure didn’t,” Weaver noted.
“As you of all people likely know,” Darling retorted, “it was other dragons who brought him down. That kind of cooperation was rare even then. This… The whole world is changing, right out from under us. I can’t honestly say I still know what I’m sending you into, my friends. I want to raise the prospect of calling this whole thing off, or at least calling a halt until we can find more information, or at least find Mary.”
“Well, now, hang on a tick,” Billie said reasonably. “Even if it’s just chaos… The skull o’ Belosiphon is still out there, aye? An’ if that’s in circulation, it needs to be taken out of it.”
“We also know the Archpope’s other team is active,” Joe added.
“We assumed both of those things,” Darling said, raising a finger. “Our assumptions may not still be valid. The situation is more unpredictable and likely more dangerous than we know.”
“That being the case,” said Weaver, “it sounds to me like McGraw had the right idea. An Eserite once told me if your only available options are probably mistakes, it’s always better to err actively than passively. This seems to me like a good idea to head to the Badlands, get a look around, see if we can find something out and report back. If there’s a chaos artifact loose anywhere in the region, there will damn well be signs of it.”
“I suppose it can’t hurt to look,” Darling said thoughtfully. “…and having said that, I really hope I haven’t just jinxed you. All right, I’m going to trust your judgment on this. Be careful. Kindly don’t attempt anything too assertive until we’ve got more data to work with.”
“If nothin’ else,” Joe noted, “we’ll wanna link up with McGraw, see what he has to say. If I remember my frontier stories, the Badlands are his old stomping ground. The place where he made his legend, in fact. He’s likely still got friends up there.”
“Sounds like a plan t’me!” Billie said cheerfully. “An’ if nothin’ comes of it, we can still come back.”
“More Rail rides,” Weaver grumbled. “Ah, hell with it, too much comfort just makes me soft.”
Darling sighed. “All right, well… Just keep in mind what you’re seeing here, yeah? Desolation is right on the edge of the Badlands; assuming the skull is in that area, it’s not gonna be sitting on a convenient pedestal in town. This is a large stretch of country, and its pretty much the geographic center of nowhere. Your nearest major outposts of civilization are Rodvenheim, Puna Dara and Veilgrad, and none of those are exactly cosmopolitan epicenters. They’re also more than three hundred miles away, each.”
“Are we lookin’ at the same map?” Joe asked, pointing. “Shaathvar is right there.”
“It’s right there across the most impassible mountains on the continent,” Weaver said scornfully. “To get to Shaathvar from the Badlands, you’d have to go back down to Veilgrad and follow the roads up through the Stalrange. There’s a limited number of usable passes.”
“Shaathvar is also the’world’s most ass-backward place with a population o’ more than twenty,” Billie added. “Talkin’ o cosmopolitan epicenters.”
“Before this veers any further off topic,” Darling said firmly, “my point was, if you go adventuring into the Badlands, that’s that. You won’t be getting any more resources or help until you either succeed or quit. So yes, head to Desolation, find McGraw, look around. Please don’t be in a hurry to go haring off. I want everyone to be damn sure of what they’re doing before committing to something like that.”
“Don’t you worry yer pretty li’l head about us, poppet,” Billie said, winking. “We’re professionals.”
“Please don’t call him pretty,” Flora said, grinning.
“He’s vain enough as it is,” Fauna agreed.
Darling gave them an irritated look. “Don’t you two have something to clean?”
“Something can be found, if your Grace wishes,” Price offered.
“No, no, let them stay and learn,” he said somewhat gruffly. “That’s what we keep ’em around for, after all. All right, let me clear this out of the way and then we’ll get you guys some dinner.”
“Best we set out as quick as possible,” Billie said, frowning. “Every moment we delay, Khadizroth an’ the Jackal are getting’ ahead of us. Those two arseholes cannot be allowed ta get their ‘ands on the skull.”
“Assuming,” Weaver said, “they’re actually after it…”
“Aye, which we’ll find out by goin’ up there, right?”
“It’s almost dark,” Darling noted. “The Rails aren’t going to running by the time you can get to a station. C’mon, guys, I’m sending you face-first into chaos, conflict and possible death. You can’t reasonably embark until tomorrow morning anyway. Let me offer a little hospitality first, all right?”
“I admit it wouldn’t be amiss,” Joe said, grinning ruefully. “Not that I don’t take your point, Billie, but he’s right. We ain’t walkin’ to Desolation, an’ the Rails only run after dark for Imperial personnel. Might as well spend the night resting up.”
“I’m down for whatever lets me get some sleep before I have to stuff myself into one of those tin-can slingshot piece of crap Rail monstrosities,” Weaver snorted. “Sure, fine, dinner. Thanks for the hospitality, and all. It’ll give us a little more time to plan, anyway.”
“Hooray!” Flora said, beaming. “We never get to have guests!”
Later, with no lights outside the window of the parlor except the dim glow of street lamps, the fairy lamps within had been turned down to better allow the fire in the hearth to illuminate the room. It made a pleasing effect, both dimly relaxing and cheery. Darling said in his usual chair, an untouched brandy in his hand, staring into the fire with a dour expression that seemed to defy its best efforts to be uplifting.
With no one left in the house but its occupants, Joe having moved into lodgings of his own following the hellgate crisis, it was still in the evenings, especially when everyone was involved in their own thoughts, as tonight.
“That was really neatly done,” Fauna commented, coming over to sit on the arm of the loveseat near Darling.
“The way you got them to insist on heading out to the Badlands themselves, and think it was their own idea.”
“Don’t just admire,” he said softly, still watching the low flames. “Learn, and be able to reproduce the results.”
A brief quiet fell. The girls sat on either side, watching him without staring, letting the companionable silence stretch out. Finally, Darling sighed softly and leaned forward to set his brandy down on the low table.
“Everything I said to them was true,” he said. “The situation is changed to the point of unknowability, and the only certainty of what I’m sending them into is danger. It’d be one thing if I were still certain we’d find Justinian’s lackeys at work up there… I really don’t have a good feeling about this.”
“But you need boots on the ground,” Flora said. “Weaver was right.”
“For once,” Fauna added with a grin. “Typically, only when he’s quoting Eserites.”
“We’re not going to learn anything by sitting in the city,” Flora continued reasonably. “Justinian’s oracles are still freaking out, and it’s not like there’s intelligence here to be gathered about what’s happening there.”
“All true,” he said, nodding. “But even so, if they were a less capable group of people, I wouldn’t have sent them off like that. There are ethical considerations, girls, always. A little manipulation when it’s useful is one thing; sending good people to risk their lives while I sit in my comfortable warm house is walking a narrow line. On one side of that line is a short road to being exactly the kind of asshole the Thieves’ Guild exists to knock down a peg.” He drew in a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. “As it is… I can’t leave this where it stands. I have got to get them some backup, and some more data to work with. Joe still hasn’t forgiven me for this spring, and honestly I can’t find it in me to blame him. You take care of your people, girls, as much as you do yourself. More, even.”
“You take care of us,” Fauna said softly.
He gave her a small smile. “You’re family—that goes without saying. Other people, though. Anyone useful, or relevant, or just present. Manipulators—which we have to be—run the risk of starting to see everyone as pieces on a chessboard. Always keep your guard up against that. Once you start living that way, you become the enemy. For right now…” He drummed the fingers of both hands against the armrests of his chair. “Goddammit, I am stalled. I’ve got nothing else to give them. Is there any chance you two could find Mary?”
They exchanged a look, then grimaced in unison.
“We’ve…tried, actually,” said Flora.
“None of our own divinations so much as reveal that she even exists.”
“If she were dead or something, we’d be able to tell that.”
“She’s blocking us somehow.”
“Not really surprising. It’s an obvious precaution…”
“And the Crow doesn’t like people sniffing around her business.”
“Which is funny,” Flora added sourly, “since she sure does love to sniff everyone else’s.”
Darling rubbed his chin, again staring into the fire. “And that’s the worst possible area for Eserite backup… Dwarves hate thieves like you wouldn’t believe, the Guild presence in Puna Dara isn’t worth considering. Even if a trustworthy cell were nearby, thieves aren’t necessarily the best people for wilderness work.”
“Plus, they’re all three hundred miles away, or more.”
“But what about that other city, Veilgrad? That’s Imperial, isn’t it?”
“No good,” he said with a wry grin. “Veilgrad is having a werewolf problem at the moment.”
“Werewolves?” Fauna exclaimed, straightening up.
“In the hills around the city,” he said. “It’s come up in security council meetings. They’ve moved a battalion, a strike team and some Intelligence personnel into the city to help keep a lid on things, but as quietly as possible. The Empire doesn’t want word of that getting out. Lycanthropy is contagious enough and scary enough to really spark a panic whenever enough of them gather to form a proper pack.”
“Hm…” Flora stroked her own chin, an unconscious imitation of Darling’s habitual gesture. “Okay… If we can’t get help to them, what if we get them to help?”
“What, now?” he said, blinking at her.
“Well, I mean… Suppose they find Khadizorth and the Jackal and whoever else. It’s likely Justinian has more adventurers working for him, right? What if they could lead them into a trap? Like, in Veilgrad? If it’s full of werewolves and Imps…”
“That’s a trap for everyone,” Fauna pointed out.
“Natural hazards are a trap for whoever doesn’t know they’re there.”
“I like the brainstorming, Flora, but remember, that’s three hundred miles to the south,” Darling said. “Goading someone into a misstep is one thing. You can’t incite a person to chase you that far into that kind of trouble; that’s just giving them time to form a counter-plan.”
“What if…it is just a step, though,” Fauna said thoughtfully. “Remember how they described their fight with Khadizroth? This group knows their way around portal magic. If they could get an enemy through a door they didn’t realize led somewhere else…”
“Like, to Imperials and werewolves,” Flora said, grinning.
“Hm…I could sort of see that working, under the right circumstances,” Darling said, a faint smile growing on his own face. “Still pretty farfetched, but increasingly plausible. I’ll float the notion when they check in. For now, though, I’m still more concerned with finding them some kind of backup. And these dragons raise issues, too.”
“What kind of issues?” Fauna asked.
He sighed heavily. “As you know, we’ve been operating under the assumption that Khadizroth hasn’t spilled your secret to Justinian. He’s clearly working under duress and won’t want to hand the Archpope any useful ammunition. But… A mortal institution gets a dragon on a leash for basically the first time ever, and suddenly the dragons are banding together and demanding to be a presence? No. That is not a coincidence. They know something about Khadizroth’s situation. It’s immediately necessary for us to learn what, because that’ll tell us what they know about you, and what they may want to do about it. Dragons aren’t necessarily interested in headhunters…unless they are.”
“What do you mean, suddenly?” Flora muttered. “That was months ago.”
“Excuse me, I thought I was talking to a couple of elves. To creatures with eternity to plan, putting something this unprecedented together in only a few months is astonishing. Something’s lit a fire under them.”
“How do you know they haven’t been working up to this for years?” Fauna asked.
“Vex had word on that when he brought me up to speed,” Darling said seriously. “Apparently he’s had dragons on his mind a lot for the last few months; they all went off to Sifan and have been talking something over. He hasn’t been able to spy on them, not only because Queen Takamatsu would justifiably take offense at having her guests snooped on, but you just don’t spy on eighteen dragons. But it gives us a time frame for how long they’ve been working on this. Considering who it is, the fact that they put this together so fast…yeah, they know.” He sighed again. “But what do they know? What do they think about it?”
“And…what do we do about it?” Flora asked, frowning worriedly now.
“The coming days are going to be very revelatory, one way or another,” Darling said. “If things go well… Or at least, if they don’t go too badly… There’s a chance I can work this to our advantage. Khadizroth unquestionably brought his fate on himself with his behavior. The Conclave will want him out of the Church’s clutches, but they probably won’t be happy with him, either. Considering that…” He rubbed his chin again, this time with a faint smile playing on his lips. “We just might find allies of the most powerful kind.”
“Or enemies,” Fauna said softly.
Darling nodded, the firelight glinting in his eyes. “This is not going to be boring.”