“It is inconvenient timing, of course,” said Andros, frowning into the distance ahead of them. “I have found you a dependable assistant in my dealings with the Church and the other cults. Restraint and careful social judgment are necessary traits in my work, and I’m afraid Shaath’s way does not encourage their development. Whatever aid I find is the result of either happenstance or the god’s blessing.”
“I am sorry to leave you alone like this, and so abruptly,” Ingvar replied. “I will try not to prolong the journey, of course, but this is not going to be an easy hunt. I can’t say even where it will lead me…”
Andros stopped, turning to face him. They stood near the front of the lodge’s main hall, for the most part alone; the few other Huntsmen passing through did not pause to pay untoward attention to a private conversation. The Bishop placed a hand on the younger Huntsman’s shoulder, smiling.
“Forgive me, that was poorly spoken. I didn’t mean to lay any guilt upon you, brother. Remember, we are an order dedicated to the wild and to its god; you have been given a clearly sacred task, and it must take precedence. Being stuck in this city, handling its intrigues, I sometimes worry that I begin to lose sight of the prey for focusing on the hunt. The sacred is always of greater import than the practical.”
Ingvar smiled back, hiking his travel rucksack up onto his shoulder. “Don’t worry, brother, your point was clear. Regardless, I don’t wish to prolong this any more than absolutely necessary.”
Andros frowned slightly. “Be very wary of the Crow, Ingvar. Yes, I know, you obviously would be. She lays plans built of smaller plans, and is no friend to mankind, except perhaps in certain individual cases.”
“That is just one of the things about this matter that trouble me,” Ingvar replied. “There is no way for me to proceed that doesn’t involve becoming a playing piece in her agenda. I shall do my best not to bring any harm upon Shaath’s interests, of course, but I don’t think myself a match for her cunning.”
“That is well,” Andros said firmly, nodding. “Nothing kills faster than arrogance out in the wild. Trust your skills and your instincts, and they’ll serve you well.”
Ingvar nodded in reply. “I’d best move out. Putting this off longer would be a show of weak-heartedness. And besides, I have a caravan to catch.”
“Hunt well, brother,” Andros said, bowing. Ingvar bowed as well, then turned with no more talk and strode out through the lodge’s front doors. So it should be, between men. Too many words were a waste of air.
Andros strode back through the lodge, following its corridors to the residence of the Grandmaster near the rear. He rapped once and waited.
It was only a brief span of moments before the door opened a crack, revealing the face of a pretty young woman peeking up at him curiously. Recognizing him, she immediately bowed and pulled the door wide, stepping aside to let him in. Andros entered, nodding politely at her.
“Sir, the Bishop is here,” Auri said deferentially to her husband, who sat at a desk near the hearth not far away. A very well-mannered young woman, and a fine acquisition for the Grandmaster; Veisroi had been notably less grim in the months since marrying her. Given his position, he could have been swimming in wives, but Veisroi had only the two. He had never had more than two, and for several years since the passing of his first wife, he’d had only his Jula.
Andros heartily approved of this restraint. A woman was a significant responsibility, not a plaything; he worried, sometimes, that the younger generation of Huntsmen did not properly appreciate their women—among their other failings. But then, every generation saw those who came after them as somewhat degenerate, or so he seemed to recall from conversations with his own father. Still, such attitudes caused problems. Had that strutting young cockerel Feldren paid more attention to his Ephanie, she probably wouldn’t be back in the Legions now, finding new ways to be an embarrassment to Shaath.
“Andros,” the Grandmaster said with a hint of annoyance, slapping a sheet of parchment down atop a whole stack of them on his desk. “If you’ve brought me more paperwork, I may have you excommunicated.”
Andros raised an eyebrow at this empty grousing. “Veisroi, when was the last time you took a day to yourself to go hunting?”
“Bah! When was the last time I had time to breathe? Church business, Imperial business, that’s all just the wind in my hair. It’s these wretched lodges, Andros. What a pack of sniveling pups. Can none of these alleged men handle their own affairs? This idiot!” He picked up the letter again, shaking it. “He’s still after me to, and I quote, ‘do something’ about Arachne Tellwyrn. Do something! About Tellwyrn! All because his fool son wanted a drow wife and fell for that Masterson boy’s cruel streak. How many times must I explain this man’s stupidity to him before I have to have him removed as Lodgemaster? I’ve half a mind to call a Wild Hunt on the fool.”
“Wasn’t that Hranfoldt, from the Wyrnrange?” Andros asked. “That one’s politically minded, Veisroi. He might be jockeying to make you look bad—he hasn’t the seniority to try for your position, but I could see him planning ahead.”
“Don’t lecture me, young pup,” Veisroi grunted. “I know what he’s about. I suffer his schemes because the way the world is shaping up, I can’t afford to waste a schemer. Even one with eyes bigger than his belly. Anyway, you haven’t come here an your before lunch to listen to an old man’s griping. What do you need?”
“Merely to bring you an update,” Andros replied, folding his hands. “Ingvar just departed on his quest.”
The Grandmaster turned in his chair to face, him, twisting his thin mouth. “Another promising schemer, now out of reach. And that one is both loyal and sensible. I very much hope the boy’s not getting in over his head. Hrathvin is concerned about him.”
“As do I,” Andros replied, “but I trust Ingvar’s judgment. If he has one flaw it’s that he is too cautious and contained. He won’t be easily goaded into misstepping.”
“Well, it’s out of our hands until he comes home,” Veisroi said. “I’ll burn an offering for him; nothing else to be done from here. Surely that wasn’t all you came to tell me.”
“No, I wouldn’t interrupt your paperwork for that,” Andros replied. “I know how you enjoy it so.”
“I am this close, Andros, by Shaath’s paws!”
The Bishop grinned. “In seriousness, I just received an update by courier from the Archpope. If there’s to be a major move against him in the city, it will likely come soon, and may come here. As of this morning, of his core of trustworthy Bishops, I am the only one left in the city.”
Veisroi narrowed his eyes. “What happened to the Eserite?”
“He has just departed for points unknown. The notice he left said it was on personal business.
The Grandmaster snorted. “That’s what you and the others all said when Justinian sent you to Hamlet.”
“Indeed, and I never assume that what Antonio says has any bearing on what he’s up to. Words are just another layer of his camouflage. I don’t believe this is on the Archpope’s orders, however.”
“Another weapon, out of pocket,” Veisroi murmured, staring into the low fire and absently rubbing his forefinger and thumb together. “At least Snowe is actively working on Justinian’s orders.”
Andros curled his lip disdainfully. “That little bundle of fluff is in his Holiness’s inner circle purely on the weight of her loyalty. I’m glad she’s found some use as a propaganda tool; if not for that, she’d be wasting her calling by not warming someone’s bed.”
“I’ve come to expect a bit more perceptiveness from you, Andros,” Veisroi retorted, staring piercingly at him. “You know what kind of dangerous people Justinian keeps nearest himself. You, that mad dog Syrinx. Even the Eserite—we’ve seen that his foppish act is a smokescreen for something truly vicious. If Branwen Snowe appears useless to you, I suggest you start paying closer attention to her.”
Tellwyrn opened the classroom door, stepped in, shut it behind her, and paused inside, studying the room with hands on her hips. The cherry trees and ornamental screens softened up the stark angularity of the room nicely, but she hadn’t come here to admire the décor.
She descended to the dais in the front, stepping up to one of the folding screens. It was beautifully preserved, but clearly old, or at least a masterful reproduction of an old original. This style of ink-painting was no longer popular in Sifan, and newer pieces of such exquisite quality were unlikely to be produced.
“Hmm,” she mused. “Not bad, but could use a splash of color.” A brush tipped in red paint appeared in her hand, and she raised it toward the delicately inked silk. “Maybe right around—”
“All right, all right!” Professor Ekoi snatched the brush away from her from behind. “You can make your point less destructively, you absolute savage!”
“Well, I’m never quite sure with you, Kaisa,” Tellwyrn turned just in time to see the arcane-conjured paintbrush disintegrate into sparks and ashes, swept away by fae magic. The kitsune pulled a silken kerchief out of thin air and carefully wiped off her fingers, grimacing in disdain. “Now that you are here, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
“Bah. Schedules, command performances, discussions whenever it’s convenient. You used to be fun, Arachne.”
“I have no memory of that,” Tellwyrn said, folding her arms. “The students from the morning exercise group brought me an interesting story right before my class. Apparently as they were wrapping up, Trissiny and Scorn sensed the presence of a demon. Scorn insisted it was a child of Vanislaas. Gabriel, Toby, and November were all there and felt nothing; Gabriel’s valkyrie friend did not sense anything, either.”
“Hmm.” Kaisa tucked her hands behind her back, tilting her head and twitching her ears. Her tail began to wave, a sure sign that her interest was caught. “When is an incubus not an incubus?”
“I questioned them closely on that point,” said Tellwyrn. “Trissiny didn’t feel anything quite so distinct; it was only Scorn was thought it was a Vanislaad. And while Scorn may not be the most reliable of witnesses, since I’ve no idea what kind of training she’s had, she is clearly a highborn Rhaazke. They are powerful and perceptive creatures.”
“Perhaps it would be wise to find out what kind of training she’s had, yes?” Ekoi said with a mischievous smile. “And you trust the accounts of the others? Students do love their little pranks.”
“Not this group,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “Half of them haven’t the imagination, and the others at least know better than to mess around with something like this. What gets me, Kaisa, is the differences in opinion. The paladins, at least, should have a fairly uniform perception of demonic activ—”
She abruptly whirled, a gold-hilted saber appearing in her hand, and stared around at the empty room.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Ekoi said airily, “there’s not actually a rawhead here. You see, Arachne, senses can be fooled, if you know the method. That holds true for magical senses as well as mundane ones. I wouldn’t expect you to know, given your disdain for subtler tactics, but there are ways of creating the impression that highly magical creatures are present when they are not. At least, to those attuned to them.”
“Who was it who was just talking about destructive means of getting attention?” Tellwyrn muttered, vanishing her sword and turning back to the kitsune.
Kaisa tittered gleefully. “You’re right, though. It’s very interesting that little Trissiny and big old Scorn would react, when the others didn’t. Almost as if something had been…aimed at them.”
“It remains an open question who would do that, and why.”
“Well, the why is at least partially obvious,” the kitsune said. “If you wanted to rile up those paladins…honestly, which of the three is the most easily riled?”
“That’s all well and good, as far as it goes,” Tellwyrn began. “But—”
“Yes, yes.” Kaisa languidly waved a folding fan which had just appeared in her hand. “There’s a finite list of those who can employ such subtle methods. One must have power—considerable power. Not to mention mastery of the given magical art. This is not a small matter, if it is what it seems.”
“You’re suggesting that a warlock or demon of seriously high rank is playing games with my students,” Tellwyrn said, a dangerous scowl falling across her features.
Kaisa grinned broadly, displaying her elongated canines. “Oh, indeed. And do me the courtesy of not pretending this isn’t exactly why you brought this to me, Arachne. You may consider me interested. If someone wishes to play that kind of game… Well, a lady does need hobbies, no?”
While he didn’t generally enjoy pushing through crowds, Ingvar had learned to appreciate the lack of attention people paid him in the busy streets of Tiraas. If anyone so much as glanced his way, it was generally due to his Huntsman gear; nobody stopped and stared, and rarely did anyone seem to note any disparity in his appearance unless he actually talked to them. City living was unnatural and stressful in many ways, but the jaded disinterest of urbanites was a blessing for those who didn’t enjoy attention.
Still, the Rail station was something else again. People were crammed in here like canned sardines, somehow managing to push through one another without acknowledging each other. He kept his bow tucked against his body and his other hand on his backpack, mindful of pickpockets. Allegedly the only such in the city would be operatives of the Guild, who didn’t prey on just anyone (again, allegedly), but Ingvar had been warned that Huntsmen, in their eyes, were not just anyone. He had never personally been targeted, but Andros had had to send requests to the Thieves’ Guild several times for the return of personal objects of spiritual significance, which were often the only things of value a Huntsman carried.
He made his way through the heaving throng to Platform 6A, where Mary had directed him to meet the companions she was sending along on his journey. She had said they would be individuals who would benefit personally from being along on his quest, and not simply hired muscle, which was fine as far as it went. Ingvar did not have a good feeling about this, however. He had excellent reason to be mindful of his privacy, and wasn’t enthused about the prospect of going on a long journey with complete strangers. If he had to have anyone along for this, he’d have much preferred known and trusted Huntsmen from the lodge.
Mary, clearly, had no interest in what he preferred. And he had no option but to cater to her plans. She hadn’t even told him where he would be going, only where to meet his new companions. It was a very neat way to get him out of the city without letting him catch his balance, which didn’t bode well for this whole enterprise.
The platforms were clearly labeled, at least, and 6A was in a quieter end of the station. According to the sign he passed, that was because these tracks were for specifically chartered caravans, not the regularly scheduled ones. Well, the Crow probably didn’t lack for funds after however many thousands of years she had been operating. Then again, Ingvar wouldn’t put it past her to have made one of the others pay for the trip.
Hopefully she wasn’t expecting him to. He had a little money, but not the kind of money that would charter a Rail caravan. He hadn’t even been given a ticket before coming her.
The platform was positioned behind wooden privacy screens—apparently the people who chartered private caravans could not be expected to mix with the common public any longer than they absolutely must. Ingvar paused to make sure he had the right one. Yes, 6A, this was it. He stepped into the space and froze.
There were two other men present—well, a man and a boy. The youth looked to be in his mid-teens, and was wearing a hat and duster of clearly expensive make over a dark suit, with a bolo tie inset with a large piece of tigerseye. Two wands were holstered at his waist on a leather belt bulging with pockets. He was lounging against the wall with his arms folded, and looked up upon Ingvar’s arrival. The Huntsman took in the boy at a glance before fixing his startled attention on the other man present.
Dressed in a slightly scruffy suit over a loud red shirt and scuffed snakeskin boots, occupying himself by doing tricks with a doubloon, there stood Antonio Darling. He looked up, grinned broadly and exclaimed as though delighted, “Ingvar!”
Ingvar stared at him, then very carefully backed up and looked again at the sign outside the platform. Yes, 6A.
Darling laughed. “Yes, yes, not what you were expecting, I take it?”
“That…is putting it mildly,” Ingvar said very carefully. Somehow, and he had no idea how, he was going to make the Crow pay for this.
“Well, c’mon in, don’t be shy,” Darling said cheerfully. “Let me introduce everyone around. Ingvar, this is Joseph Jenkins, who you may know as the Sarasio Kid.”
“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tipping his hat. Ingvar nodded back, mind whirling. The Sarasio Kid? Legends of frontier wandfighters were popular among Shaath’s followers; frontier folk in general were well thought of in the cult. He was definitely familiar with the name.
“Joe,” Darling went on, “this is Brother Ingvar, Huntsman of Shaath and the reason for this little outing of ours.”
Ingvar managed not to grind his teeth. Little outing. “Why would you want to come along on this journey, your Grace?” he asked somewhat curtly. “I thought you were principally a creature of the city.”
“Oh, that much is definitely true,” Darling said lightly. “Everybody needs a change of scenery once in a while, though, don’t you think?”
“If you can manage to get a straight answer out of him about anything,” said Jenkins in a distinctly dry done, “I will be immensely impressed.”
So. There was already some mistrust here. Ingvar’s opinion of Jenkins rose further.
“Now, no need to be like that, Joe,” Darling said cheerfully. “In seriousness, Ingvar, I took some convincing when Mary asked me to come along, but honestly, even aside from the case she made, I do have an interest in this. It’s past time I got out and got my own hands dirty again—too much politics is turning me soft. Besides, Joe and I both have some recent business to follow up on in our first destination. Ah, speak of the Dark Lady!”
Ingvar’s hair tried to stand up as the Rail itself began to glow a fierce arcane blue. The caravan arrived, barreling into the station at terrifying speed and decelerating similarly swiftly. In mere seconds it had hissed to a stop alongside the platform, one compartment lining up neatly with the short ramp extending from beside them. A moment later, the door hissed open with a soft sound like escaping steam.
“It just…goes?” Ingvar said doubtfully. “It doesn’t need to stop for…fuel, or maintenance, or something?”
“Nah, they fix ’em up overnight,” Darling said brightly, bending to pick up the suitcase sitting by his feet. “We can chat more on the way—no sense in wasting time! All aboard for Veilgrad!”
They had to leave the carriage at a farm at the end of the road. The Old Road ran out of Viridill all the way to the dwarven kingdoms in the mountains at the northernmost end of the continent, but that road quite deliberately passed between patches of forest rather than through them; going into the Green Belt meant taking a smaller road which did not go all the way there. The elves would never have tolerated that.
“Are you sure it’ll be okay?” Schwartz huffed, not for the first time. “I mean…they were nice enough, but they’re just folks. It’s not as if we were parking it in an actual garage…”
“Where, in this country, would you expect to find a garage?” Basra asked. She led the group, plowing through the fields toward the forest up ahead. The road and the farm were lost to the distance behind them; they had already passed out of cultivated fields of barley and corn and were hiking through a patch of prairie. Rather than the clean tallgrass of the Great Plans, this was a scrubby kind of prairie, filled with rocks, thorns, and hefty bushes that sometimes neared the status of trees. It wasn’t easy going, but Basra did not slow her pace despite Schwartz’s discomfort. “You saw how taken they were with the vehicle. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Well, that’s sort of it,” he panted. “I mean… Who knows what they’d…”
“They will not damage it,” she said curtly. “We made it clear it was Legion property. They wouldn’t dare.”
“Also, they’re not animals,” Covrin added. “Not a sophisticated class of people, to be sure, but even the peasants in this province are a respectful lot.”
“If you say so,” Schwartz said, then fell silent, having to concentrate on walking and breathing. Meesie had clambered up to perch atop his head, where she peered about, whiskers twitching. Now that it was clearly visible, Basra could tell the creature wasn’t quite a rat—in shape she was a bit more like a weasel, but with overlarge ears and dextrous little hands, not to mention a long, tufted tail. Actually, it was rather cute, in a garish way.
“All right there, Covrin?” she asked. “I know you weren’t planning a hike in that armor.”
“Perfectly, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply. Basra had guided her cadet experience toward more political than military training, but they didn’t graduate someone to the rank of Legionnaire unless she was in good shape. “We may want to stop, though. Mr. Schwartz is clearly not used to this kind of exercise.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry ’bout me,” Schwartz wheezed. “Onward and upward!”
Basra did come to a stop, turning to study him critically. The man was half-staggering now, clearly tired and out of breath. Useless boy… So far he’d contributed nothing to the mission. The last thing she wanted was delay, but if he collapsed out here it would slow them down a great deal further.
“It’s not quite noon, yet,” she said, carefully moderating her tone and expression. “We shouldn’t need to push ourselves to make good time. And I suppose it’s wise to give the elves time to prepare for our approach; they likely appreciate abrupt visits even less than visits in general.”
“Well, when you put it that way, I suppose,” Schwartz said gratefully, sinking down to sit on the ground right where he stood. Whether by accident or design, he ended up perched on a large rock rather than sprawled in the dirt. He slumped there, head hanging and struggling to catch his breath. Meesie hopped down to his shoulder and reared up, sniffing at his head in concern.
Basra sighed, shaking her head in disgust, and began pacing slowly in a wide circle around him. More by reflex than because she expected any kind of attack, she studied their surroundings. The scrubby plain stretched out in all directions, leading to the forest up ahead and Viridill farmland behind, with the mountains themselves rising not far to the west; insects and birds sang, but there was no sign of any large animals, much less other people. They might have been an island in the utter wilderness, rather than a few hours’ walk from civilization.
Completing a circuit, she paused next to Covrin, who was standing still and gazing at the distant forest.
“Do you think they’ve spotted us yet?” she asked quietly.
“Almost certainly,” Basra replied. “Elves are prickly about their borders. They know we’re here and that we’re headed right toward them. For all we know there are a dozen crouched in the grass all around us.”
Covrin’s eyes darted back and forth. “That’s…surely not.”
“It’s a possibility,” Basra said mildly, watching the increasing unease on the girl’s face with satisfaction. “The stories about elves are not exaggerated; they don’t need to be. If anything, popular fiction undersells them, because some of the facts simply aren’t believable.”
The Legionnaire unconsciously lowered a hand to the hilt of her sword, and Basra had to repress a grin. “Don’t worry,” she said, patting Covrin on the back of her breastplate. “Elves are persnickety, but the woodkin aren’t violent unless provoked. Whatever they’re doing or thinking, they are very unlikely to attack us.” She paused, stepping up close from behind, and leaned in, near enough that Covrin would feel her warm breath on her ear, to whisper. “You’re safe with me, Jenell.”
From that angle, she just barely caught the twitch at the corner of the girl’s eye, and she stepped back, marshaling her expression against the thrill of amusement it brought her. That had yet to get old.
Basra turned and stepped back to Schwartz, who was sitting there playing with his fire-rat and looking generally more at ease. “Feeling better?”
“Much, thanks!” he said immediately. “Just a quick spell to lighten the fatigue—uh, oh, not that I was doing particularly poorly, of course,” he added hastily. “It’s just…general principles, you know. When out on a hike. Um, if you like I could…?”
“No thanks,” she said wryly. “I believe I’m doing fine. Come on, we had better keep moving.”
“Of course, of course,” he said, groaning very faintly as he stood up. Meesie clambered back up to the top of his head, ears twitching.
They set off again, Schwartz quickly falling behind again to lag in the rear. Basra, after a quick mental debate, slowed her pace, despite her annoyance. There would be no end of trouble if she let actual harm come to him.
Glancing over her shoulder, she started to speak, but suddenly figures materialized out of the grass around them.
The five elves were arranged in a neat semi-circle between her group and the forest ahead. Those on the flank were even with Basra; they had been about to blunder right into their formation. Clearly this had been arranged ahead of time. Despite her reassurance to Covrin, all of them were armed with a mix of bows and tomahawks, and three had arrows nocked and aimed at them.
The one in the center carried a staff in one hand and two tomahawks hanging from his belt; he was the only one without a bow. He stared flatly at Basra.
“You can go no further.”
She inhaled softly, gathering her composure, and bowed. “Good day. My name is Basra Syrinx; I am Bishop of the Sisterhood of Avei.”
“Well met,” the elf said, nodding. “You can still go no further.” His companions made no move to lower their weapons.
“I’m here on a matter of importance,” she said, still speaking calmly. “Believe me, the Sisterhood respects the privacy of the elves, and we would not trouble you were it less than urgent. It was my understanding that the people of Viridill and those of the groves were on good terms. Have we offended you?”
“I know why you’ve come, Bishop Syrinx,” said the elf. “And you are welcome in our forest. What you bring with you is not.”
Slowly, Basra and Covrin turned to stare at Schwartz, whose eyes widened.
“Oh, I say,” he squeaked. “Surely you don’t mean—”
Abruptly Meesie let out a shrill squeal, puffing up her fur, and scampered down his face to dart into the collar of his shirt and hide.
Behind him, darkness itself rose up from the grass.