“Can you make anything out?” Darling asked quietly, settling down against the back of the little hollow in the dunes in which they had hidden themselves. The beaches of Viridill consisted mostly of thickly clumped sand carved into rough shapes by wind and surf, many topped with tough, scraggly tufts of grass that helped keep them intact. It hadn’t been hard to find an out-of-the-way hole in which to crouch that nonetheless afforded them a view of the action going on at the edge of the forest. In fact, the girls had shadow-jumped right into it; they had clearly scouted the area previously.
“Too far,” said Flora, shaking her head. “Which is good, because he can’t hear us, either.”
“And we have the surf at our backs,” Fauna pointed out.
“I’m aware,” Darling said patiently. “I was just hoping you might be able to see something useful.”
“They’re in profile relative to us,” Flora murmured, squinting into the distance. “Worst possible position for lip-reading.”
“A word, here and there, when they shift their heads,” Fauna added. “So far, things seem calm. Can’t put together a conversational thread beyond that.”
He nodded, sighing softly. At this distance, he could just barely see Basra and the headhunter; the assembled armies were a formless mass off to their right. While Mary and Khadizroth had gone off to do…whatever they could do, he and the girls had assembled themselves to keep an eye on developments, such as they could.
The Bishop and the headhunter were just sitting there, having a conversation.
“Have to give her credit for balls,” Flora observed.
“Lack of fear isn’t courage,” said Fauna.
“I didn’t say courage. I said balls.”
“That’s a woman, you know.”
“So the balls are internal.”
“Aren’t they all, technically?”
“I wonder,” said Darling, “if it’s possible to roll my eyes hard enough to be audible to you two. Am I close enough for that?”
They both turned to smile at him.
“Seriously, though,” Flora said, her expression sobering, “that exchange with Khadizroth…it kind of pointed something out to me.”
“Both of us, I think,” Fauna said, glancing at her with a hint of question in the tilt of her head.
“It was the part about you actually teaching us Eserite philosophy,” Flora continued, directing herself to both of them. “The skills we’ve learned are fantastic, but…”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking, too,” Fauna added, nodding. “A change in mindset takes time to develop; that was a moment when we could look back and really see it.”
“We appreciate it,” Flora said quietly.
He smiled in return before answering. “And…any other changes? How’s it been, this close to Athan’Khar?”
They glanced ruefully at each other.
“You actually noticed that?” said Fauna. “Impressive.”
“I noticed hints. Under the tension of the moment, you were awfully controlled, considering the proximity. And I know you’re both quite deft at controlling your expressions by now, but I know you well enough to get a feeling when there’s something extra afoot.”
“Yeah,” Flora said, nodding and turning back to watch the distant conversation. “It’s…definitely different.”
“Before there was a kind of oneness,” said Fauna. “The spirits in us, the ones in the land… Like water, ready to mix back together.”
“And there’s skill a recognition, a kind of kinship…”
“But distinction, as well. That sense that Athan’Khar might reach out to absorb us…it’s not there.”
“I’m not sure what to make of this, to be honest. Like the Crow said, we’re kind of unprecedented.”
“But I can’t help thinking it’s a good development,” Fauna finished very softly. Flora looked at her, nodding agreement.
“I suppose spirits are living things, even murder-crazy ones,” Darling mused. “Living things grow, and change.”
“Then that’s just one more thing we owe you, Sweet,” Flora said, smiling broadly at him.
“I doubt any of us could have predicted how much we’d gain from studying under you,” Fauna agreed.
“I mean, I guess the Guild would teach us how to manage anyway…”
“But it still wouldn’t be…you. Y’know?”
They both smiled warmly at him.
“Well,” he said dryly, “that’s some top-notch kissing up. On point, not too heavy-handed, just subtle enough to pass notice without failing to make the point. Well done.” He leaned forward, staring flatly. “Now knock it off, both of you. Your ass is still grass.”
Both their faces fell, shoulders slumping in resignation.
“Do you have any idea,” he said grimly, “the havoc you caused in Veilgrad? The whole city—the whole province was in an uproar when I left. I doubt it’s settled down much even by now.” He glanced past them at the pair still talking in the distance, careful not to raise his voice. The wind was on their side, blowing from the headhunter toward them, but one could never be too careful about elves. “What could you possibly have been thinking? I’m aghast, girls. You’re usually so much more sensible than this. Did something seriously go that wrong?”
Flora sighed heavily. “It’s… It was starting to get closer, anyway. The spirits were still mostly quiet, but we knew they’d be wanting satiation soon…”
“And then we found out you were coming to Viridill. Which is far too close to Athan’Khar.”
“It wasn’t like we had a lot of time to react, either; we were trying not to get close enough to the Crow to let her know we were there.”
“Not that we can be sure that worked anyway…but eavesdropping has practical limits, as you know. By the time we knew your destination, we had all of one night to deal with it before you’d have to set out the next day.”
“And being hungry close to Athan’Khar is a very bad idea. Especially since it turned out we had to go right up to it!”
“So in hindsight it all worked out well, right?”
Fauna ventured a tentative smile, which vanished under his stare.
“And that led to summoning and killing an incubus right outside a heavily fortified Imperial city?”
“It wasn’t right outside,” Flora said defensively. “We went at least half a mile out into the prairie.”
“And we couldn’t kill it right there, obviously,” Fauna added. “That would hardly have done anything for the spirits at all. It had to be a chase.”
“Before we get into what’s wrong with that,” he said, “I’d like to hear how you so dramatically failed to clean up after yourselves.”
They winced, exchanging a pained glance. “We, uh, underestimated the Imps’ response time,” Flora said.
“We certainly planned to scrub everything clean,” Fauna assured him, “but they were all over it almost as soon as we were done. If we hadn’t booked…”
“I figured that was probably it,” Darling sighed. “All right. Please tell me you at least did a thorough job of confusing your trail after that point…”
“Absolutely,” Flora said, nodding eagerly.
“Multiple shadow-jumps and teleportations…”
“Splitting up, laying false trails…”
“All over the continent and to other places besides.”
“The Crow or Tellwyrn couldn’t have followed us—nothing short of a god. We watched for the Imperials to try, and nothing came of it.”
“So that much is clear, at least!”
“At least.” He shook his head, glancing once more at Basra and the headhunter off in the distance. Not that he could see much from here, but they still appeared to just be sitting. Well, they hadn’t been talking long. “Do you understand what your mistake was?”
Flora sighed, looking downward. “Half a mile wasn’t far enough.”
“You’re damn right it wasn’t,” he said darkly. “That city was recovering from a massive magical catastrophe. The entire province is under regular scrying sweeps; Veilgrad itself is fortified by the best the Azure Corps can provide, not to mention strike teams and probably at least one Hand of the Emperor hidden away somewhere. And you summoned an incubus. A half mile from the city walls.”
He let the silence hang for a moment, watching them sit there and look miserable.
“I realize you were adapting on the fly,” he continued in a more moderate tone, “but that was a very serious blunder, girls. You have to be able to make good decisions under pressure and with very little time; that was not a good decision. People make mistakes. You will make more. But that was the kind of mistake that limits the kind and the number of mistakes you can get away with in the future, you understand? Even if they couldn’t follow a trail right to you, an event like that will leave the Empire curious. It’s an open mystery, existing in a situation where they’re under pressure to provide answers. The best case scenario is that this languishes in a cold case file, just waiting to be cross-referenced the next time Imperial Intelligence catches a whiff of your trail.
“A good thief is careful. Your power means you have to be more careful, not less.”
“Sorry,” Fauna whispered, not meeting his eyes.
Darling let it hang a moment longer, then sighed and rose to kneel, shifting forward toward them in the little hollow. He draped an arm around each of their shoulders and gave them an affectionate jostle. “As your sponsor and principal trainer I suppose I really ought to box your ears for this, but some fuck-ups I have to think are their own punishment. This can’t happen again, girls. No headhunter shit anywhere near a place where the Empire might pick up on it. That means we’re not using the sewers anymore. In fact… If you have to do this in the future, shadow-jump off the continent, okay? Find a desert or something in Araknia or Glassiere.”
Flora sniffled once, but smiled weakly. “You do know there aren’t any deserts in Glassiere, right?”
“Come on, half the country’s ice and snow,” he retorted. “It’s not a conventional desert, but nothing grows or lives there. Totally counts.”
They hugged him back for a moment, and then the three separated, settling back to more comfortable positions from which to watch the action.
If “action” was the right word.
“She might actually pull this off,” Darling mused after some minutes had passed.
“And then…” Fauna glanced at him. “We’re actually doing it the way you decided?”
“It feels like a defeat,” Flora murmured.
“Well, it would be, from a certain point of view,” he said. “It’d be Basra playing the hero, giving Justinian what he arranged all this for. Irrespective of anything else going on here, her handling that creature will unquestionably save a lot of soldiers if she pulls it off, not to mention a wide swath of the civilians behind them. Big heap display of courage and skill. If that happens, the fact that it’s not the disaster Justinian planned would be just an ironic but insignificant twist of fate. Rouvad would hardly be able to keep her on the shit list at that point.”
“So…it’s like Justinia forming his Holy Legion all over again,” Fauna said grimly.
“Just so,” he replied, nodding. “We have to consider the next battle, and position ourselves to fare better, which means not burning any bridges. Entertaining as it may be to bring the whole Empire and the Sisterhood and whoever else down on Khadizroth, the fact is he’s close to Justinian and not happy about it, which makes him too useful to discard. Protecting that asset means shielding him from blame.” He frowned, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the distant figures sitting on the grass just beyond the forest’s edge. “Whatever the headhunter tells anyone else, his testimony will be easy to contradict; the Empire thinks of them as wild and unreasoning. And Basra’s clever enough to follow my lead if I can catch her in time. That way we can present Khadizroth as an ally who was trying to help against the elementals.”
“And if you can’t?” Flora asked.
“Or she’s not?” Fauna added.
“Then,” he said with a sigh, “we’ll just have to leave things vague. In the absence of other factors, headhunters do make excellent scapegoats, as you well know. I don’t foresee a problem, though. Even if Basra comes right out and says the headhunter denied being behind the elemental attacks…well, like I said, nothing he said will be taken too seriously. Besides, she’s hardly going to thoroughly debrief right there in front of everybody as soon as she gets back. No, I should be able to arrange it, one way or another.”
Flora shook her head. “Almost makes me hope she fails.”
“That woman really, really needs to be dead,” Fauna agreed. “And we obviously wouldn’t mourn Khadizroth.”
“If she fails,” Darling said pointedly, “it comes to a fight. A very, very bad fight. The kind that has only survivors, not winners. If that.”
“They’ve been moving mag cannons into position,” Flora pointed out. “Both on the field and on the battlements of the two nearest forts.”
“If those things can hit, it’s over,” said Fauna. “We couldn’t stand up to a direct shot from one, either. He definitely can’t.”
“If someone fired a mag cannon at you,” he said dryly, “what would you do?”
They glanced at each other, and both grimaced. “Evade.”
“Teleportation or shadow-jumping.”
Darling nodding. “If Nintaumbi blankets the whole area in mag beams…maybe. But then the cannons will be slagged and their crews dead before they have time to re-charge. And don’t forget, the fact that we’re dealing with a headhunter instead of elementals means Aspen’s presence is a huge risk instead of an asset. If something hurts her, this whole place is going under. The best case scenario is that Mary and Khadizroth can subdue him, which sounds iffy, the way they describe it. And for that to work ideally, the Army and Legion will have to recognize they’re trying to help and not attack. Which I’d describe as fifty-fifty.” He shook his head and sighed. “No…we have to hope for a win for Justinian this time.”
“We could take him,” Flora muttered.
“We’re the same thing he is, but twice as much.”
Darling held up one finger. “First, you would be guaranteed to reveal yourselves to the Empire that way, and second…” He held up another, staring them down. “Can you honestly, positively be certain your spirits will let you fight his? Development or no, they don’t want to fight other headhunters; they’ll want to kill all the Imperials massed just over there.”
He patted them each on the shoulder as they slumped in defeat. “No, girls…now we simply endure the worst part of any job. Watching, and waiting.”