Ravoud was always precisely punctual, which aided the Archpope tremendously in timing his appearances. It was a small thing, but great things were only aggregates of smaller ones, and image was both his weapon and his battlefield. When people looked at him, they saw what he wished them to see, and it was the entire foundation of his power.
He stood, straight-backed and calm, with his hands folded behind his back, gazing through the windows of his office at the city, a view he could have painted from memory. Though his face was not visible from the door at this angle, he kept it schooled in an expression of thought. A scene was constructed of many pieces of scenery, and just because the audience did not see the work of the stagehands did not make it any less important.
“Enter,” he said calmly at the sharp knock on his door, his voice projected just enough to be audible without.
The office door swung open, then shut, and then came the footfalls on his floor, approaching him; he had learned to recognize Ravoud’s step even among those of his soldiers, whom he trained to mimic his precise gait.
Justinian turned exactly as the Colonel was kneeling behind him, giving the man a perfect view of the very moment when his expression transitioned from a contemplative frown to a kind smile at the sight of his subordinate, a split second before he lowered his own eyes.
Small things, in aggregation, made up all the world.
“Rise, my friend,” he said as Ravoud kissed his proffered ring. The Colonel straightened up smoothly, saluting—which Justinian had made it clear he did not need to do, but he valued the man’s sense of protocol and proper respect too much to insist on the point.
“Your guests have assembled, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported, “in the conference room as directed.”
“Then by all means, let us join them,” the Archpope replied, setting off for the door.
In the hall, the two Holy Legionaries bracketing his office door saluted, but at Ravoud’s gesture remained in place rather than following. Justinian liked to use these walks through the less-populated upper halls of the Cathedral to hold discussions to which he preferred there not be an audience.
“And how are the Bishops, in your estimation?” he asked as soon as they had rounded the corner.
Ravoud kept his eyes ahead, but his brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. “In most respects, much the same as always. Bishop Varanus is the only one of the four I feel comfortable turning my back to.”
Justinian smiled warmly. “Do not underestimate Andros’s cleverness. But yes, you judge him well. The man’s sense of honor is his greatest driving force. Most respects, though?”
Ravoud nodded. “There is more tension between them than before, since Syrinx’s return. And beyond her presence, I believe I’ve only just realized why.”
“Most of the time, Snowe and Darling are a moderating factor. The other two have strong and mutually hostile personalities, and the Eserite and Izarite deliberately keep the peace. Suddenly, though, they are not. In the conversations I’ve seen, Darling appears suddenly more neutral—not as if he is courting trouble, but more as if he wants to watch the others to see what happens. And there is a specific tension between Syrinx and Snowe, now. I suspect that is what caught his interest. I suspect he noticed it long before I.”
“How fascinating,” Justinian murmured. “And what do you make of this?”
“I think,” Ravoud said with the slower diction of a man carefully choosing his words, “Snowe has done something to antagonize Syrinx. A couple of times, when she thought no one was looking, I caught Syrinx giving her a look which frankly I think will keep me up at night. As a rule, any new tension between them I would attribute to Snowe; Syrinx is the aggressive one, and more hostility from her would change nothing. If the usual peacekeeper turned to bite her, though…”
“Nassir,” he said warmly, “I continually marvel at your perceptiveness when it comes to the motivations of others. Well beyond your military and organizational skills, it makes you a priceless asset to me.”
“I merely apply lessons I’ve learned from leading people, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, inclining his head modestly. “Soldiers are trained to follow orders and procedures, but even in the military, I find you get the best results from others by paying attention to their needs and strengths.”
“Indeed, that very observation is the cornerstone of my own leadership strategy. Hmm. I trust Branwen’s loyalty absolutely, but it could become problematic if she begins taking the wrong sort of initiative on my behalf. She could damage carefully laid plans by stepping into them unawares. Goading Basra would be exactly that kind of misdirected initiative…” Justinian came to a halt, tilting his head back and gazing upward as he often did in public to indicate he was thinking. Ravoud stopped beside him, folding his hands behind his back and waiting with no hint of impatience for the Archpope’s next pronouncement.
Justinian made him wait only a few moments before delivering it. “I believe I shall change my schedule somewhat, Nassir.”
“There is another errand I had intended to make after meeting with the Bishops, which instead I shall do now.” He turned to regard Ravoud directly, nodding once as if to indicate he had settled upon an idea. “Please inform them of the unfortunate and unexpected events when demand my attention; I expect I shall be with them in less than an hour. In that time, I would like you to observe them carefully, please. I shall be keenly interested in your analysis of what is revealed by having the four of them cooped up in a room together for a little while.”
The corner of Ravoud’s lips twitched once to the left, the only tiny sign of approbation he permitted to breach his professional reserve, and he bowed. “Yes, your Holiness.”
“I want you to know, Nassir,” Justinian said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “that I appreciate your willingness to aid me in these many little ways that you do. You have provided exemplary service well beyond that for which you were contracted.”
“It is my honor to serve in any way I can, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, his voice firm with conviction.
“Even so, it is appreciated, and you deserve to know that.” Justinian smiled and squeezed his shoulder once before letting his hand fall and stepping back. “Go, then. I shall not keep you waiting long.”
The Colonel saluted him crisply before continuing on in the direction they had been walking, at a far more brisk pace than the Archpope’s customary leisurely glide. Justinian watched him go for a moment before following more slowly, and turned down the first side corridor he reached, leaving Ravoud to vanish into the distance of the Cathedral’s hallways.
As he moved into more heavily-trafficked areas, he encountered more people—clerics, guards and servants he knew, as well as various visitors to the Cathedral. All of them stopped in their own tasks to bow deeply, and all of them got a smile and a nod from their Archpope. He was careful to vary his expression by small degrees, with the tiniest changes of the muscles around his mouth and eyes, as he made eye contact with each person. Just enough to create the expression that that smile was for them, for each of them in particular, and not a fixed expression he simply carried on his face. Another time he might have stopped to talk with several, inquiring after details of their lives about which he was careful to stay informed. Indeed, today he made silent mental calculations over how often he had done so with each recently; it wouldn’t do to become overly chatty with everyone, and create the impression that anybody could demand a slice of his time on a whim, but he thrived on the perception they had of him as a man who saw each of them individually, and not as the faceless masses many leaders saw in their servants. Not today, though; he had places to be, and without too much delay.
Near ground level in a wing which provided guest quarters for visitors to the Cathedral, he arrived in a quiet hallway and strode unerringly to a door whose location he remembered without need to consult any notes. A soft knock was followed by the rustling of activity within—immediate rustling, suggesting the suite’s occupant had been waiting for that knock, though it was several seconds before the door opened, so she had not been sitting eagerly beside it. About as he expected.
In the second between the door opening and the woman behind it recognizing him, he took note of her expression: intent and slightly tense, far too carefully neutral to belong on a happy person. That was only to be expected, considering the last few weeks.
“Your Holiness!” she gasped, immediately bending to kneel.
“Please, Ildrin, stand,” he said, reaching out to grasp her by one shoulder—on the side, not the top, making the gesture supportive rather than patronizing. “You have had a trying enough time without being expected to bow and scrape. I promise you, I shall never demand that of you.”
“I wouldn’t complain,” Ildrin Falaridjad replied, not entirely keeping the bitterness from her tone. “I’ve made enough of a mess of things…”
“You have done quite well with the resources and the situation you were given,” he said firmly. “Never think otherwise. I am told by the healers that you have been certified free of any lingering effects of mental tampering.”
“But,” she said, her face twitching with the effort to repress anger, “such tampering occurred. I… Even now I can’t believe…” The priestess had to pause and physically swallow down emotion before continuing, gazing intently up at him. “Do they…know who, or what, or how…?”
“I assure you,” he said gravely, “I am pursuing what avenues of investigation I can, but they are limited. And considering the circumstances in Athan’Khar, you must be prepared to be disappointed. It is very likely that your opponent in that situation was responsible, if not another completely undetected third party. Or fourth, or fifth party,” he added ruefully.
Ildrin heaved a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaking from her shoulders. “Well. I understand that both the Bishops have returned.” Once again, she didn’t quite manage to keep the ire from her face.
“Yes,” he said simply, granting her an encouraging smile. “They are here, in fact. At my request, Bishop Syrinx’s pursuit of your affairs has ceased.”
“Thank you,” she said fervently.
Justinian sighed softly and shook his head. “I find Basra a very valuable agent—there are few more skilled at accomplishing the right type of tasks. She is not, however, a people person. Of course, I cannot advise High Commander Rouvad on the disposition of her assets, but personally, I would never have placed Basra in charge of others in the field. Well, what’s done is done. On the subject of Rouvad’s policies, it seems it will take some time yet to terminate the case the Sisterhood has laid against you. They are congenitally less inclined to accept our explanations about mental influence; the evidence seems not strong enough to meet Avei’s admirably high standards. Do not despair, I am more than confident we can smooth all this over, but it is likely to take more time.”
“I see,” she said, bitterness once more creeping into her tone, then took a deep breath and bowed to him. “Your Holiness, I greatly appreciate the effort you are expending on my behalf. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve it.”
Justinian smiled, tilting his head infinitesimally and regarding her pensively for a moment before answering. “I will tell you a secret, Ildrin. One which I’ve never voiced to an Avenist before, as I fear it runs counter to their doctrine. It has been my experience that no good comes from giving people what they deserve. I treat people according to the potential I see within them, to help them grow into it as best I am able. Never once have I been disappointed by the results of this policy. I foresee great things for you.”
He allowed her to stammer wordlessly in overawed gratitude for a careful space of seconds before continuing in a more serious tone.
“In point of fact, I would not inflict idleness upon you; I know you to be a woman of action. For the time being, necessity demands you remain my guest, beyond the direct reach of your sisters. If you are willing, I have a request to make of you.”
“Anything!” she said, eyes shining with fervor.
“I must warn you,” he said more seriously still, “this is an extremely sensitive matter. I believe the situation calls for your skills exactly, but your involvement will be…experimental. It may not work out, and I don’t want you to push yourself beyond your comfort if the job is not a good fit. Regardless of how the matter ends, it is a project which I insist must remain secret for the time being, until I tell you otherwise.”
“Your Holiness, I will not let you down in even the slightest way,” she promised avidly, nodding with almost childlike eagerness.
He gave her a gentle smile. “You haven’t yet. If you are interested, then, please come with me. There is something I would show you.”
Ildrin remained on point as he led her through the Cathedral, clearly eager to ask questions, but containing herself. Justinian held his peace for the remainder of the walk, taking in observations as they progressed deeper into the sub-levels below the Cathedral itself, through ever thicker doors with larger locks. Ildrin was self-disciplined and did not ask or push beyond what she saw as her place, but on the other hand hadn’t much of a poker face.
That, perhaps, was just as well.
He led her along corridors, down stairwells, and through increasingly secure doors, occasionally passing other personnel who stepped back and bowed to him, but for the most part they were more alone the deeper they went. She either had an excellent sense of direction or hadn’t considered that she would need help to make her way back out of here, he decided, based on her obvious interest untarnished by any sign of unease. Finally, Justinian stopped before a door made of actual steel, and turned to her.
“Remember,” he cautioned, “absolute secrecy.”
“I swear,” she promised, “I will do credit to the trust you’re placing in me, your Holiness.”
He smiled at her, then placed his hand against the metal door frame. Ildrin looked suitably impressed when, a moment later, the metal door—six inches thick—swung silently inward. He would, of course, have to explain how the enchantments worked, but that could wait.
Inside was another, much shorter corridor, terminating in another door, this one whitewashed wood and looking for all the world like the front entry of some country cottage. Justinian strode forward, Ildrin falling behind as she jumped and turned to suspiciously eye the metal door when it swung shut behind them.
He rapped once with his knuckles, then opened the door and stepped through, beckoning to Ildrin.
The room beyond matched the expectations set up by its entrance: it could have been anyone’s living room. Comfortable, just slightly shabby, yet clean. Ildrin blinked, peering around.
A woman had been sitting in a worn easy chair by the fireplace; upon their arrival, she rose smoothly, stepping forward with a broad smile. “Your Holiness!”
“Delilah,” he said warmly, coming to meet her and taking her hands in his own. “And how are you faring?”
“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “As always, I would love a nap, but generally speaking I am well. Just taking a short breather; he’s fully occupied making little adjustments. Actually, your Holiness, I think you have good timing. We appear to be close to another attempt.”
“How fortuitous!” he said. “And how is our guest of honor?”
“Very much the same,” Delilah said with a sigh, releasing the Archpope’s hands and stepping back. “I do the best I can, but… Well, you know, of course.”
“Indeed I do.”
She glanced past him at Ildrin, her expression openly curious. Delilah was a pale, dark-haired woman in her early thirties; she wore a simple shirt and trousers that didn’t look clerical in the least, but had a pink lotus badge pinned at the shoulder.
“Delilah Raine,” Justinian said, stepping smoothly aside to gesture between them, “Ildrin Falaridjad.”
“Ildrin,” he continued, “is here to try assisting you.”
“Oh?” Delilah’s expression grew markedly happier. “That is wonderful news!”
“Delilah,” Justinian said to Ildrin, “is, for want of a better term, a caretaker. Beyond here, the primary occupant of this suite is…well, you’ll be introduced to him momentarily. He is a truly brilliant man, but…somewhat difficult. Delilah’s nurturing approach to looking after him has yielded great results, but I’m afraid it keeps her rather tired; this is a full-time job. In addition to lightening her workload, I would like to explore the possibility of trying another approach. He was quite irascible when he first came to us; now, after some months of progress under Delilah’s care, I believe it is an appropriate time to branch out. Ildrin,” he added, turning to Delilah now, “has ample experience as a novice trainer and interfaith mediator; she is well prepared to offer the sensitivity and understanding our friend needs, but in general is known for a sterner approach than is the Izarite way. It is my hope this can help not only hasten his work, but move him toward better adjusting to looking after himself. I will caution you both,” he added seriously, “that this is an experiment. Our friend is somewhat delicate, Ildrin, as you shall see, and not everyone is able to form a connection with him. It is entirely possible that this will not work out, through no fault of yours. You must be prepared for surprises, and disappointments.”
“I will, of course, do my best,” Ildrin replied, now looking somewhat nervous. “Just…who is this person?”
“Well, why don’t we introduce you?”
“I would recommend against that,” Delilah said, frowning. “At least, at the moment. He is in a working frame of mind right now. But this would be a good opportunity for Ildrin to see what that looks like.”
“Quite so,” Justinian agreed. “If you would lead the way?”
She dipped her body slightly in a curtsy which looked a little odd, considering she wasn’t wearing skirts, then turned and led them through the door at the back of the room.
Beyond that was a kitchen, with what could have been a back door set into a side wall. Delilah opened this and stepped out onto a neat little rear deck.
Instead of extending over a yard or garden, though, the back of the ‘house’ opened onto a cavern that was clearly natural, though parts of it had been carved to make it more habitable. The floor was even, and numerous fairly lamps hung from the walls, casting the stone chamber in bright illumination. The entire space was filled to bursting with machinery and enchanting paraphernalia, ranging from enormous structures of glowing glass rods and copper wires to miscellaneous drifts of partially-inscribed spell parchment and casually strewn bottles of enchanting dust.
Ildrin stepped forward to join the others at the rail, gazing about in awe.
In the center, a space had been cleared around another apparatus, which seemed to consist of a large magic mirror in the old style, surrounded by banks of various crystals, tubes, wires, and plates of stone and metal engraved with runes, some glowing. The mirror itself had been wired directly into a stand containing four sizable power crystals—the three-foot-long industrial kind that held charges for major factory machinery.
Laboring over this with a wrench in one hand and a feather quill in the other was a man in a ragged, dirty coat, with gray hair forming a wild nimbus about his head. He muttered continually to himself, making minute adjustments to his peculiar device.
“Very close,” Delilah murmured. “I’ve seen this many times. Fine-tuning before an attempted activation.” She sighed. “And of course, I’ll be needed for what comes next.”
“Who knows?” said the Archpope. “This might be the attempt that works.”
She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to wonder how to look after him if that happens. At least I know how to handle his failures.”
“There are no failures, Delilah, only steps in the process.” The priestess just shook her head again.
The man abruptly barked a laugh and stood back, planting his fists on his hips and breaking his quill in the process. He set off on a slow circuit around the device, studying it closely from every angle and incidentally giving his audience a better view of himself. He had a receding hairline,and a wildly unkempt beard beneath a hooklike nose, with piercing dark eyes which flickered rapidly across the structure he had assembled. His build was generally lean, though he had a noticeable paunch—the body of a man who did all his work with his fingers and brain. Despite the position giving him a clear view of the porch, he did not seem to notice them there.
“Ildrin, this is Rector,” the Archpope murmured. “One of the most brilliant enchanters alive today.”
“He won’t make eye contact when speaking to you,” Delilah said softly, “so don’t be offended by that. And he does not like to be touched. When he gets lost in his work this way, he’ll tend to think of nothing else until he reaches a stopping point, at which time it’s my job to make sure he does stop, to eat, bathe, and sleep. He hasn’t done any of those in four days. At other times, when he’s not in this state, you’ll find him fastidiously clean and actually quite devoted to his daily schedule. There are numerous other nuances. I’ll acquaint you with them as best I can as we go.”
“I see,” Ildrin said thoughtfully. Justinian took it as a very positive sign that she seemed intrigued and contemplative, not disgusted or even startled, as some tended to be when meeting Rector in one of his moods.
The enchanter came back to the front of his device, rolled his shoulders once forward and once backward, and began systematically cracking his knuckles. One joint at a time, at precisely one-second intervals.
“This is the pre-attempt ritual,” said Delilah. “Here it comes…”
The attempt, when it came, was almost disappointingly simple after all that buildup: Rector simply grabbed a lever attached to the side of the rack of large crystals and pulled it downward.
A low hum of magic at work filled the air. A powerful hum; even one of those crystals could have powered a mag cannon. Runes and glass tubes at various points along the apparatus blazed to life, and finally, the surface of the magic mirror itself did.
Its silver face flickered once, then turned stark black, and a peculiar symbol appeared in its center, rotating slowly. A circle formed around it, then broke at the top to make a partial ring and began slowly disappearing along one side, like a fuse burning down. No, given its pattern, more like a clock ticking down.
Rector dry-washed his hands, gazing avidly at the mirror and absently shifting his weight back and forth.
When the “clock” reached zero, the circle completely consuming itself and vanishing, the mirror flashed once more, and a figure appeared.
It was a man—purple, translucent, bald, and strangely dressed. His image flickered and wavered erratically.
“YES!” Rector crowed in a reedy voice, pumping both fists in the air.
The purple figure moved its mouth; a half-second later, out of sync, words sounded from the mirror, the voice strangely resonant when it wasn’t stuttering and halting.
“Av-av-avatar temmmmmmmmmmmplate lo-lo-loaded. Wa-wa-warning: critically in-in-insufficient processing power detec-tec-tec-tec-tected. Advise—warning, critical—cri-cri-cri— System fail—”
The mirror flashed once more and went dead, again nothing more than a simple reflective surface. An array of rune-engraved spell plates connected to it by wires and glass tubes began to smoke faintly. The hum of arcane magic faded rapidly, the slight glow of the power crystals cutting off.
“NOOOOO!” Rector howled, falling to his knees and clutching his hair with both hands. “So close—SO CLOSE! WHY won’t you just WORK!” He doubled over, sobbing and pounding at the floor with his fists.
Delilah had already stepped down from the porch and went to him, circling around front where he could see her approach and making no move to touch him.
“Rector,” she said firmly, kneeling.
At the sound of her voice, he bounded abruptly upright again. “Yes! Right, you’re right, no time for carrying on, I think I know what went wrong. I know what to try, I just—”
“Rector,” Delilah said, kindly but implacably, “it’s time to take a break.”
As she had said, he didn’t even look at her, bounding over to a nearby table laden with scrawled diagrams, power crystals, and vials of faintly luminescent enchanting dust. “No, no time, I can take a break later, I have an idea…”
“We talked about this,” Delilah insisted, moving around to the other side of the table so she was in his field of view again. “The mind and body are machines, too, Rector; you have to maintain them. Yours are far too valuable to risk being damaged from neglect.”
He froze at that, staring down at his table, but doing nothing with the pen and paper he had picked up. “I…yes, I know. But my work. I’m close!”
“You will still be close after some food and sleep,” she said gently. “You’ll be able to work better then, too. Isn’t this too important to approach it at less than your best?”
She was clearly adept at handling him; his recalcitrance slowly but surely melted as Justinian and Ildrin watched from above.
“And so you see,” said the Archpope gravely. “This is a peculiar task I’m asking you to undertake, Ildrin, and not an easy one. There will be no recrimination if you decline to take it on.”
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I think…I can do this. I want to repay your kindness, but… I actually think I can do this. He certainly seems more difficult than anyone I’ve worked with before, but I’m not a stranger to difficult personalities.” She snorted softly. “Quite frankly I think this will not be as bad as working under Bishop Syrinx.”
Justinian allowed himself a wry smile at that, even though Ildrin wasn’t looking at him. She did, however, look up to frown at him after a long moment.
“Your Holiness… What, exactly, is he building?”
The Archpope nodded slowly, keeping a sage smile in place.