The day was just getting its legs under it as they approached the city. The route south from the Abbey had passed partially through the Viridill foothills, but for the most part skirted the eastern edge of the mountains, leaving them a splendid view of the sunrise. Even when the road took them behind a hill, the Viridills were low and rounded as a rule, not much inhibiting the early morning light.
It was a mostly quiet ride, though Schwartz was far more alert this time; despite the early hour, he was finally fairly well rested after sleeping for much of the previous day. After he failed to get much response regaling his traveling companions about a dream in which he’d been trying to navigate a giant spider web, he had occupied himself chiefly by playing with Meesie and watching the scenery. Eventually, though, his curiosity got the better of him.
“So, your Grace,” he said hesitantly, scratching the mousy little elemental between her ears, “why are we setting out so early? I mean…by the time we get there, it’ll be barely past breakfast. I thought we were going to see the Governor. Will he even be up?”
“She,” Basra said bitingly. “And yes, despite the way Imperial politicians in general behave, no governor of Viridill could get away with being a layabout. We may have to wait a bit for an appointment, but she’ll hardly decline to see us. As for the why, we are avoiding Bishop Snowe’s company.”
Perched on the driver’s seat up front, Jenell half-turned her head to give Schwartz an inscrutable look out of the corner of her eye.
“I, uh…why’s that, exactly?” he asked. “Seems like more help is always good! And Bishop Snowe is…I mean, you know, she’s…”
“Yes, they’re pretty nice, aren’t they?” Basra said, raising an eyebrow. “I couldn’t help noticing you weren’t too sleepy to get a good long look at her chest yesterday.”
“I say, that’s hardly fair,” he protested, flushing. Meesie puffed herself up, tail quivering indignantly, and squeaked at Basra.
“Don’t feel bad, she has that effect on everyone,” the Bishop said dryly. “Izarite to her core, that one. But that is about all she’s good for. Branwen Snowe’s help would mean one more person for me to manage, and quite frankly I can do without the additional headache.”
Schwartz blinked. “Oh. But, I mean…she’s a Bishop, after all, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know how you Salyrites do it exactly,” Basra replied. “Bishop Throale and I have rarely had occasion to work together. But different cults regard the Universal Church in different ways. The Izarites use Church office to get rid of politicking annoyances they’d rather not keep in their own temples but who aren’t bad enough to excommunicate. Why do you think she’s allowed to go on tours and such instead of doing her job in Tiraas?”
“Oh. But, I mean…she’s a columnist, and has a book out…”
“Ghostwriters. The Archpope’s doing, all of it.”
“And…she gives speeches, did that whole revival tour…”
“Yes, Izarites make good public speakers. That doesn’t mean she has a brain in her little head. If Snowe is here on her own, she’s going to be an annoyance; if Justinian sent her, which I doubt, he needs to butt out. Church politics meddling in Avenist affairs will only cause more trouble.”
“I see,” Schwartz said softly, looking rather stepped on. Meesie stood on his shoulder, patting his cheek and cheeping in concern.
“You might want to look ahead, Mr. Schwartz,” Jenell commented after a moment. “It’s worth seeing, if you never have.”
He perked up at her voice, leaning out over the side of the carriage to look forward. Basra raised an eyebrow in mild amusement, but did not turn to see for herself. The sight of Vrin Shai was not a new one for her.
Mount Vrin was geologically unique, being unusually craggy for the Viridill range, and also taller by far than most of its neighbors; this close to the southern edge of the mountains, they were in the process of trailing off into foothills, and Vrin seemed to spike upward from the ground quite abruptly. In addition to being impassible from the north, it had a unique shape, with two lower “arms” stretching out to the southwest and southeast from its main bulk, leaving a sheltered area between them facing due south. Within this highly defensible alcove stood the terraced fortress city of Vrin Shai.
The River Tsihar, one of the tributaries of the River Tira to the east, curved across the cultivated fields before the city gates, forming its first line of defense. Vrin Shai’s outer walls lay directly behind it, using the river as a moat; past that was another moat, this one artificial and filled with a variety of submerged hazards. Behind the moat stood the taller inner walls, with towers rising more than twice their height to give the artillery emplacements on top a clearer field of fire against attackers approaching the Tsihar. From the main gate in the center of the inner walls, a single street sloped upward to the east and west, where it switchbacked at small squared set against the mountain walls themselves, both blocked by gates set in fortified guardhouses. The street climbed further, coming together again in a final, innermost gate behind and directly above the first one. From there, the city rose in highly ordered terraces, its shape almost pyramidal against the looming mountain. It culminated in a grand temple at the very top, surmounted by a famous and truly titanic statue of Avei, carved from the living face of Mount Vrin and pointing a sword southward, toward Athan’Khar. Concealed passages carved into the mountainside accessed the looming watchtowers which rose from the peaks of Vrin itself, the tallest rising from its highest point above the center of the city. From the ground far below, the multiple telescope emplacements positioned atop the seven watchtowers were invisible, but the shapes of enormous mag cannons could be seen, aiming south.
This land had been the site of innumerable wars over the millennia, from the constant incursions by orcs and Narisian drow, to invasions from the humans of N’jendo to the west and the Tira Valley to the east, and occasionally even raids by distant elven tribes. Most recently, during the Enchanter Wars, it had faced down an assault by the dwindling forces of the Tiraan Empire itself. In all that time, Vrin Shai had never fallen.
“Wow,” Schwartz breathed, craning his head back to gaze upward. “Wow. You hear stories, but that is impressive. Wow! Those cannons up there… They must be able to shoot for miles! I bet no army ever got within range of the walls back in the old days…”
“In the old days,” said Basra, “those towers were only used for observation. Firing catapults from that height would be pointless; there’d be no way to aim them accurately and far too much risk of accidentally bombarding the city, not to mention the near impossibility of hauling ammunition up there. Being able to see anyone approaching was just as valuable. In war, information is a deadly weapon. But yes, with the advent of energy weapons, those are ironically Vrin Shai’s first line of defense. The topmost mag cannon has a clear line of fire all the way past the Athan’Khar border. Which is the only thing it even might be shooting at in this day and age, anyway.”
“Huh,” he mused, settling back into his seat and gazing raptly up at the city as they approached it.
He had time to gawk; even with the speed at which the enchanted carriage moved, it was another fifteen minutes before they reached the outer gate. Part of that was due to the increasing traffic on the road. Early as it was, the city was open for business and people were beginning to stream both in and out, forming a dense enough crowd of vehicles, animals, and pedestrians that Jenell couldn’t push for speed. As they neared the gates, the first Rail caravan of the day glided to a stop at the station, momentarily wreathed in arcane blue lightning. Vrin Shai’s Rail depot stood outside the walls proper, the Sisterhood having adamantly refused to allow any breach in its defenses for the purpose of Rail access. On paper, this was because the city was sacred to the goddess of war, and its fortifications were thus a sacrament; no one involved in the planning had bothered to mention that the last invading army to break itself on these walls had been Imperial. In practice, the discharging traffic from the caravans added another glut of people right at the gates. Their party arrived just in time to slip in ahead of these.
“Pull up beside the sentry house, Covrin,” Basra ordered as they eased into the gates.
The gates were, of course, staffed. Fully armed Legionnaires stood at attention, watching the traffic come and go, though in these peaceful times they were making no move to stop any of the travelers through the gates. As the carriage eased up to the curb against the inner side of the walls, a Legionnaire wearing a lieutenant’s bars approached them, noting Covrin in the driver’s seat, and saluted.
“I am Basra Syrinx, Bishop of Avei to the Universal Church,” she said, leaning against the carriage’s door to address the soldier.
“Good morning, your Grace,” the lieutenant said crisply, saluting again. “Welcome to Vrin Shai.”
“We are proceeding to the governor’s palace,” Basra said, nodding in acknowledgment. “My business is important but not immediately urgent. Dispatch a runner to inform Lady Tamsin of my arrival, and that I require an audience at her earliest convenience.”
“Immediately, your Grace,” the lieutenant replied, saluting a third time before turning to hustle back inside the guardhouse. Basra nodded up at Covrin, who then pulled the carriage carefully back into traffic.
They only got a dozen yards before a horse and rider emerged from the gatehouse stableyard, the mounted woman wearing the light leather armor of the Silver Legions rather than standard bronze; a pennant bearing the golden eagle was attached to her saddle. She saluted Covrin in passing, guiding her steed rapidly through the traffic on the way to the inner gates along the empty outer lane reserved for military personnel.
“I say, that was fast,” Schwartz noted approvingly.
“Military efficiency,” Basra replied, “can be a punchline or a way of life, depending on the military in question. In Vrin Shai, it’s a sacrament.”
“So I see.”
He resumed gawking at the scenery as they drove across the bridge to the second gates, up the right path to the third and back to the fourth and final set. Each time they passed through a gate, Schwartz commented anew on the thickness of the walls; by the last time, Basra was looking at him with visible annoyance.
“Ma’am, I’m not familiar with the layout of the city,” said Jenell as they finally passed through the innermost defenses.
Basra stood, turned, and seated herself beside Schwartz, facing forward; Meesie chittered at her, which she ignored. “The governor’s palace is just below the central temple, on the right. We’ll have to take the switchbacks all the way up; I’ll direct you.”
In addition to the terraces, and the switchbacking paths which not only lessened the steepness of the climb but provided defensive benefits, the city had canals, one running the full length of each terrace. To judge by the lack of boats and the distance between the water line and the street, they were not there to provide fresh water or transportation. They did form beautiful artificial waterfalls on their way down to feeding the moat the base of the city, and the bridges across them provided another layer of choke points. While no invading army had ever penetrated Vrin Shai’s walls, any that did would find their work only half done; it would be a long, brutal fight upward to conquer the city level by level.
Early as it was, the city was awake and going about its business; the passersby were plentiful, but thanks to its well-planned traffic routes the crowd did not slow their progress unduly. They also, unlike the people in the rural north of the province, showed little interest in the carriage. There were much finer examples to be seen; they passed later-model Falconer and Dawnco vehicles, and even a classic Esdel in excellent condition. Schwartz did far more peering at the city than the city did at them. Basra simply sat in regal silence for the entire trip.
The governor’s palace was near the top of the city, one level below the great temple with its towering statue of Avei. Made of the same local granite as the rest of the city, it was more distinctly Tiraan in style, notably smaller than either the temple above or the sprawling Silver Legion fortress with which it shared the second-highest level of the city, and also the first place they had seen Imperial soldiers. The uniformed guards stood atop battlements and at entrances, watching the carriage approach but seeming uninterested in it.
A thin-faced man with spectacles and a widow’s peak was standing outside the gates when Covrin pulled up to the curb.
“Bishop Syrinx?” he said diffidently, bowing as Basra stepped out of the carriage. “I am Raul Dhisrain, Governor Tamshinaar’s secretary. You are expected; the Governor will see you immediately, if you will be good enough to follow me?”
“Splendid,” Basra said, as if this were no more than her due. “Schwartz, Covrin, come along. Please have my carriage taken into the yard, Mr. Dhisrain.”
“Of course,” he said, gesturing to one of the soldiers standing near the gate. The man immediately approached, accepting the control rune from Covrin, and then the Governor’s secretary was leading them into the palace itself.
Though less stark than Vrin Shai in general seemed to be, the Governor’s palace was clearly an Imperial facility as much as a personal residence, if not more so. The decorations were minimal and tasteful, and ran toward Imperial iconography to a point that seemed almost excessive, perhaps in compensation for the overall Avenist flavor of the city. Or perhaps in defiance of the fact that the Imperial government here ruled only in name.
The Governor’s office was on the third floor, at the end of a broad hallway lined with columns and paintings of governors past. Dhisrain led them to a wide pair of double doors that could have belonged on a throne room, rapped once, then pushed one open without waiting for a response. He stepped aside, gesturing them through.
Basra entered immediately, and came to an instant halt just inside, forcing Schwartz and Covrin to peer around her.
The space was large for an office, though not as grandiose as its huge doors had hinted. Oval in shape, it was split in two levels, the higher of which contained the Governor’s huge desk and was backed by windows looking out over the city and the rolling hills beyond. None of that was what captured Basra’s eye, however, nor was the sight of Governor Tamshinaar, who stood upon her entry.
“Basra!” Branwen cried, waving enthusiastically. “Welcome!”
“Indeed, welcome, Bishop Syrinx,” the Imperial Governor said more calmly. “Bishop Snowe has been bringing me up to date on your findings.”
“Has she,” Basra said flatly.
“It’s gratifying to see the Sisterhood taking this matter so seriously,” she continued. Tamsin Tamshinaar was a statuesque woman in her later middle years, her hair going silver and drawn back in a severe bun, though her face bore only faint lines beside her eyes and mouth. She wore a stark, almost militaristic style gown clearly inspired by the fashion following Empress Eleanora’s tastes. “And the Church, as well. I’m honored to have such august personages assigned to aid us, but also a little concerned. Are matters even more serious than I have already been led to understand?”
“Oh, I’m not here on the Archpope’s orders,” Branwen reassured her. “Merely finding myself at liberty at the moment, and present to be of help in any way I can. Basra is the one you’ll really want to talk to about the mission.”
“As far as I’m aware, Lady Tamsin, you have been informed of everything the Sisterhood knows,” said Basra, finally stepping further into the room, her eyes never leaving Branwen. Covrin and Schwartz followed her at a circumspect distance, Dhisrain slipping into the office behind them. “Abbess Darnasia did not suggest anything should be withheld from you, and frankly I would not do so even if she had. This is no time for politicking.” That, she directed with a slight emphasis at Branwen, before finally turning her full attention to the Governor. “In fact, it may be that you have data on the elemental attacks that I do not, yet.”
“That it may,” Lady Tamsin agreed, nodding. “I have likewise not withheld anything from the Sisterhood, but I don’t know what was passed along to you. Regardless, Raul has copies of all reports and supplementary information we have gathered for you.”
The secretary glided forward, diffidently handing Basra the thick folder he had been carrying, while Branwen jumped back into the conversation.
“I hope you don’t mind me getting a head start on you this morning, Bas,” she gushed. “The Abbess said you and your companions were overtired—and I shouldn’t wonder, from what she told me of your adventures! Anyway, this is clearly your field, so I took the liberty of coming ahead to Vrin Shai to help set everything up for your arrival. Now, you just concentrate on doing what you do best, and I’ll do what I can to smooth the way!”
“This is a potentially sensitive matter in many regards, Branwen,” Basra said icily. “I would prefer it if you did not take liberties in Viridill without asking me, first.”
“Oh, of course,” Branwen said agreeably. “You’re in charge!”
“Bishop Snowe’s arrival has, indeed, given me time to make a few preparations for you, your Grace,” the Governor added with a calmer smile. “I’ve arranged a house for your party to use while in the city—it should be spacious enough to provide living quarters and serve your tactical needs.”
“I say, how generous!” Schwartz said, beaming. Basra gave him a dark look, which he appeared not to notice; Covrin’s eyes darted between them.
“I have the directions!” Branwen said cheerfully, holding up a small sheet of paper.
“Do you,” Basra replied.
“And I’ve called in a few favors of my own! It seems this is going to be detective work—we have to find the person responsible for these attacks before we can stop them. There are few people available I’ve, ah…taken the liberty of contacting. Last time, I promise!”
“At least one you already know!”
Basra’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Even better.”
“Well, I thought we could do with the sort of help who can circulate freely among the populace and get people to talk, and I realized, who better than a bard? Of course, the Veskers always love a good adventure, so I had a quick look through the Church’s active contacts to see who’s up for questing duty. And lo and behold, as luck would have it, there was a certain Ami Talaari who you’ve apparently worked with before! She’s now en route and should be here later today.”
“Why, thank you, Branwen,” Basra said with a toothy smile, folding her hands neatly behind her back. “How extremely helpful.” Hidden from the Governor’s view, she clutched one wrist hard enough to whiten her fingers, clenching the other fist till her nails gouged into her palm.
Covrin surreptitiously stepped between the Bishop and Schwartz.
“I’m so glad you’re pleased!” Branwen said, smiling beatifically. “I think we’re going to work wonderfully together, as always!”
“I’m sure we shall,” Basra said pleasantly. “I have so missed your company, Branwen.”
A droplet of blood squeezed out from between her fingers.