“Oh, the poor darling,” Ami cooed, leaning against the railing to peer down at the passersby in the street below, and one in particular. “All that money, and yet so alone. There’s no one in her life who could tell her she accidentally left the house wearing that.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Jenell replied with mock solemnity. “There’s a certain savage grandeur in dressing in the pelt of a slain foe. I wonder if she bagged that sofa herself?”
Ami giggled in wicked delight, and Jenell smiled along, folding her arms. Aside from the armor she still wore, for a little while, it was just like being back at home with the girls. Before…everything.
“You’re good at this game,” Ami acknowledged, grinning up at her. “I almost regret not having had the chance to play before we both had to embark on our very serious careers.”
Jenell raised an eyebrow, but kept her expression light and amused. “Almost?”
“Well, you know very well we’d have torn each other to shreds,” Ami replied, winking. “I can’t speak for you, but I was somewhat lacking in discretion as a girl.”
“Hm, I suspect you’re right,” Jenell said wryly. “Me too. In a way, that’s why I’m here.”
“Oh? Oh, let me guess!” Straightening up from her position, lounging on the bench against the balustrade in a way that showed off her figure (Jenell was fairly sure she wasn’t trying to flirt; anyway, showing off one’s figure tended to become a habit, and a good one in her opinion), she leaned forward, grinning eagerly. “You sharpened your tongue on the wrong person and had to join the army.”
“I’m sure it’s an old story you’ve heard before,” Jenell said, shaking her head. “Yes, that was it exactly; it’s rather humbling to learn I’m so predictable.”
“Oh, pish, tosh, and pooh,” Ami replied, waving a hand. “I know all the stories, darling; that’s both my job and my religion. Dare I ask who you clawed?”
“The princess of Puna Dara,” Jenell said, deadpan.
The bard blinked. “Oh. Oh, my. Oh, dear, forgive me for saying it, but that was considerably less than discreet.”
“Several people have made that point to me, yes.”
“What did she do?” Ami demanded with ghoulish eagerness. “I mean, here you are, alive, so it can’t have been as bad as it could have been.”
“The uncouth little thug actually threatened to stab me,” Jenell snorted, raising her nose. “At a ball! At General Panissar’s own house! Honestly, I don’t know why we have any kind of treaty with those people.”
“Punaji are indeed…charmingly brutish,” Ami said, eyes sparkling with mischief. “I assume someone came to your rescue, dear. A Punaji noble would stab you over an insult—and the Princess would probably get away with it. She might have to make a formal apology to the Imperial government, but unless you’re of a very high-ranking House, that would be that.”
Jenell sighed. “Yes, yes, lesson learned. I maintain the little wharf rat had it coming. Princess, my third foot.”
“Well, that’s a good story—one you might think about embellishing a bit before you tell it next time—but I think I can do better.” Ami lounged back against the balustrade, grinning. “I went to school with two of the three paladins.”
“Really.” Jenell straightened from her own position, leaning against the door frame. “Which—oh, never mind, it would have to be the boys. Avelea grew up in a temple, and forgive me, but you don’t seem the type.”
“I am most definitely not the type, and don’t you forget it!” Ami giggled.
“What were they like?”
“Well! Toby was always such a nice lad—and quite good-looking. Good enough to have a nibble at if he weren’t one of those cloyingly sweet ones. You know the type, so nice it’s like they’ve no spark to them at all.”
“I see you do know the type! But it’s Gabriel I devoutly hope I never meet again. Honestly, I don’t even care about the demon thing; he was just one of those juvenile blockheads you couldn’t not torment. I may be in luck if we do bump into each other—I doubt he remembers my face. I don’t think the little snot ever once looked at me above the collarbone.”
“What a fine crop the gods have summoned,” Jenell said dryly, shaking her head.
“Oh, you said it, darling. The world’s going right to Hell in a handbasket.”
“There you are,” Basra said, striding onto the balcony and prompting Jenell to leap away from the door, landing at full attention with a salute. “At ease, Covrin, for heaven’s sake. It’s not as if this is any kind of base, and I’m not even enlisted. I see you’re back, Talaari,” she added pointedly, folding her arms. “That’s a bit of a surprise, considering you didn’t trouble to report in.”
“My sincere apologies, your Grace,” Ami said languidly. If anything, she shifted subtly into a more sensuous lounge, and Jenell didn’t miss the way Basra’s eyes darted fleetingly over her. She firmly repressed the several very unpleasant emotions that flickered through her, especially the faint twinge of jealousy, which revolted her to her core. “The morning’s investigations were hardly conclusive in any direction; it will take time to gather any useful results. A campaign such as this—”
“Regardless,” Basra interrupted, “in the future I want regular updates on your efforts, whether you consider them significant or not. I am starved for intel, here; I need every little scrap of information you can bring. And with regard to that, girls, come along. I’ve called the others to the library; we’ll all catch up over lunch.”
“Ah, yes, lunch,” Ami said with mild distaste, rising fluidly to her feet and following the other two women into the house. “What an…interesting…cook you have hired. I don’t mean to complain—”
“That’s a wise policy,” Basra said from the head of the line. “Have you considered not doing it?”
It was a tensely silent walk the rest of the way to the library.
Everyone else was indeed there; Schwartz sat behind the room’s huge desk, scribbling furiously on a piece of modern white paper with an anachronistically old-fashioned feather quill while Meesie ran manic laps over the books and papers cluttering the desktop. Branwen sat in the armchair by the fireplace, hands folded demurely in her lap and regarding the others with a beatific little smile; Ildrin was standing by the window, peering out onto the same street which the balcony overlooked. She whirled at the Bishop’s entrance, stiffening but not quite coming to attention. Though an ordained cleric in Avei’s faith, she had never served in the Legions, and Basra had already spoken sharply to her about mimicking military customs.
The townhouse was spacious, but the “library” deserved the term only for having bookshelves lining two of its walls, and those were only half-filled. It was really more of an expansive study, no bigger than the average bedroom or parlor. With the whole group assembled, it was rather snug.
“Falaridjad,” Basra said by way of greeting, “I thought I asked you to have a meal prepared.”
“I wasn’t sure when everyone would be gathered,” Ildrin said stiffly, “so it was hard to time the…preparation. I am not used to cooking.”
“You jest,” Ami said sweetly.
“Anyway,” the priestess added, tightening her mouth further, “that boy was adamantly against it.”
“You can’t bring food into a library,” Schwartz agreed, finally looking up from whatever he was writing and frowning at Basra in the most direct reproach he had ever shown in her presence. Meesie came to rest atop a stack of books, squeaking in indignant agreement. “Really, your Grace, everyone knows that.”
Basra sighed, momentarily pinching the bridge of her nose between forefinger and thumb. “All right, fine, whatever. I want a report on everyone’s activities.”
“I burned a pot of rice,” Ildrin said tightly. “Lunch will be sandwiches. Your Grace, quite apart from being insulting, you have me doing work at which I am not skilled; this is pointless.”
“We are all more or less twiddling our thumbs at his point,” Basra said, clearly unaffected by the priestess’s displeasure. “When more constructive work appears, I will put you to it. And you can always leave, if you’re not happy. Next?”
“The residence is secure, ma’am,” Jenell said when no one chimed up after a few seconds. “I’m afraid I’ve achieved little of consequence, either.”
Barsa nodded to her, then directed a distinctly sardonic look at Branwen. “Had a relaxing morning, have you, Snowe?”
“Quite, thank you,” the Izarite said pleasantly. “I have passed a few very calm hours re-acquainting myself with some of the classics. I can’t remember the last time I was able to just sit and read. And really, Basra, Herschel is correct. You can’t serve food in a library.”
“At this juncture I am still waiting to learn what it is you intend to do here,” Basra said.
“Well, for one thing,” Branwen replied calmly, “I am a divine caster of—if I may flatter myself—not insignificant skill, which will be extremely relevant considering that we expect to be battling elementals.”
“Ah, yes,” Basra said, deadpan, “and we all know the vaunted skill in battle of Izara’s clerics.”
“And,” Branwen continued in a gentler tone, “I am a people person. You’re a politician, Bas. There’s a difference. For instance, right now your frustration is causing you to try to alienate half the people working for you. We’re a small group, contending with an elusive foe. One of Izara’s clerics may be exactly what you need to keep everyone functioning and pointed in the same direction.”
Basra shook her head. “Schwartz?”
He winced. “I, uh, I’ve done what I can. There’s a Salyrite chapel in the city; they were kind enough to send me some research materials I requested. Sister Leraine’s writ of support goes a long way, it seems! But, ah, no, there just isn’t a lot I can do from here. I’ve set up some wards and spirit watchers to protect the house from fae incursion, but without more information I really can’t extend that over a wider area. And, you know, some general-purpose wards over the whole city, but frankly I can’t see our mysterious antagonist bumbling into those; it’s more just on general principles. Patrolling the perimeter, and all that. Otherwise I’m, um, sort of… Well, a lot will depend on what Mr. Hargrave comes back with.”
“You can’t do anything from here to counter elemental attacks?” she demanded, turning to him with a scowl.
“Fae magic isn’t like the divine or arcane,” he said, quickly scooping up Meesie when she puffed up menacingly, squeaking at Basra. “It’s not just a matter of pointing your thoughts at an objective. It’s all about connectedness, about sympathetic principles, ab—well, no, I’m going off into a lecture, sorry. Um.” He rubbed his chin, frowning in thought for a moment. “Any working but the very simplest spells requires rituals, reagents, and contact made with various entities. In order to know which to use, I need to know rather specifically what I am doing. In general workings, the kinds of things meant to interact with just the physical world, well, that’s pretty straightforward. But we’re dealing with, specifically, a rival fae caster. One, who, I’m afraid, is rather more powerful than myself. Without information…” He shrugged helplessly, then offered a weak grin. “Now, if you point me at a warlock, I can have them crispy-fried and in a basket for you by dinner!”
“I can crush my own warlocks, thank you,” she said curtly.
“With that said,” Schwartz hurried on, “there is something I can do, but I wanted to clear it with you before taking action, because it’ll result in me being out of commission for a while.”
Basra narrowed her eyes. “Go on.”
“It’s about the shadow elemental we fought, you see. A creation that powerful and sophisticated necessarily has a lot of its creator put into it. With time to study it, I can potentially find a link that we can use to track it back to its maker!”
“It’s a little too destroyed to study,” Jenell commented.
“Yes, exactly,” Shwartz agreed, nodding. “Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to nail that down at the time. So! I’d like to set up a spell that’ll let me, ah, sort of reach back in time to get some of that information.”
“You can scry through time?” Basra demanded.
“Oh, goodness, no!” he said hastily. “Scrying is arcane craft—well, unless you’re a really advanced…um, sorry, that’s off the topic. No, and anyway, traveling anything through time is asking to get a visit from the Scions of Vemnesthis, which is not pleasant. But!” He tapped his temple, grinning. “I was there. And the memory, while it isn’t as good as firsthand experience, has a lot of data that I didn’t consciously note at the time. That’s just how the brain works, you know! So what I plan to do involves entering a very deep trance to explore my own mind in detail from within, to extract information from that memory and see if I can figure out anything useful. Anything that can give us more intelligence about the person responsible for all this.”
“I like it,” she said, nodding. “Sounds more concrete than anything else thus far.”
“As I said, though,” he continued soberly, “this is a major undertaking. I’ll be out of commission for…gosh, it’ll be hours at the very least. Could well be the whole day. Maybe longer. I didn’t want to just do that without getting your go-ahead. And, uh… I’d rather have the supervision of a healer, if Bishop Snowe or Sister Falaridjad would oblige?”
“Excellent,” she said in a clipped tone. “Well done, Schwartz. Get started on that as soon as you can make the arrangements, and keep me informed.”
“As of this moment,” she added in a much drier tone, “Schwartz is by a substantial margin the most useful member of this group. All of us should pause and reflect upon our shortcomings.”
“Basra,” Branwen said in gentle reproof, “we are all in the same position you are. Without more information, what can we do?”
“That brings us to our last member,” Basra said, turning to Ami, “who has actually been doing something all morning. Or so I sincerely hope.”
“Yes, yes, you needn’t worry,” Ami said haughtily. “I have been out in the city, listening and learning. There are indeed stirrings of unease regarding the incidents in question, but information is scarce. In an environment such as that, rumor flourishes, which muddies the waters. Rumors, now, those I can chase down—given time. However, like Mr. Schwartz, I am only in the very beginning stages of my own campaign. These things take time. I have visited several of the city’s most upscale establishments under the pretense of seeking permission to perform; I had a productive time overhearing gossip and asking innocent questions, but of course, nothing is open at this hour. Actually getting to the gentry will have to wait till they are free from their hangovers and pursuing the next ones.”
“Never been to Viridill before, have you?” Jenell asked dryly. “You seem to be expecting more excitement than there is.”
“Upscale establishments?” Basra said sharply. “I’d prefer a broader range of investigation. Even here, are surely a variety of taverns, tea rooms, shroom farms…”
“Your Grace,” Ami said in evident horror, “I have a reputation! A method, a persona, and for a bard, all of those are interconnected! I simply cannot be loitering about in unclean hellholes—really, a person like me!”
Basra closed her eyes. “Goddess, save me. Bards, witches, glorified temple prostitutes… This is what I have to work with.”
“In any case,” Ami continued, sticking her nose in the air, “I have chosen my methods for a reason, not simply because I enjoy the finer things in life. One learns so much more from the rich and powerful; they know things that no one else does, and have a perspective that sees farther as a rule. True, one sacrifices some of the more wide-reaching viewpoints of the common folk…but where the high and mighty congregate, so too do their servants.” She winked roguishly. “And those frequently offer the best of both worlds.”
“Hang on.” Basra turned her back on the bard, frowning suddenly at Schwartz. “If you’re in as much of a waiting phase as the rest of us, Schwartz, what were you working on so furiously there? That needed materials from your cult?”
“Oh!” Schwartz cleared his throat uncomfortably, shuffling papers. “Ah, well, I did try a basic divination. The fae arts don’t give precise detail like scrying, as you probably know; oracular divinations are all but impossible to block, but, ah…how shall I put this…”
“Tactically useless,” Basra said, grimacing.
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say… Okay, yes, that’s kind of a fair point. But still, I figured, what’s the harm in trying, right? Any little thing we learn, after all!”
“Since you didn’t see fit to report on your results,” she retorted, “I gather they were, in a word, useless.”
“Oh, well, um…yes, I’m afraid so.” He shrugged awkwardly. “It’s like dream imagery. All symbolism and…well. I have managed to identify the broken tree I saw!” he offered, holding up one volume whose cover labeled it a book of the mystical correspondences of plants. “But as for what it means… A lame wolf and a broken aspen, a snake that turned into a man, a crow circling overhead.” Again he shrugged. “I’ll be keeping an eye open in the coming days, needless to say, but sadly, things like this are seldom clear except after the fact.”
“Well,” Ami said archly. “That all sounds tremendously morbid.”
“All right,” Basra said curtly. “Then unless anyone has anything else?”
A chilly silence met her. Branwen sighed very softly into it.
“Fine,” said Basra. “That’s it for now, then. Snowe, Talaari, keep me appraised of your comings and goings; the rest of you, stay in the house unless I tell you otherwise. And Falaridjad… Look, just put together some sandwiches. Can you manage not to burn that?”
Outside the library window, a shadow detached itself from the wall and slid silently down it to the street below, where it vanished into a storm drain.