The central temple of Ryneas in Tiraas was a sprawling structure of multiple wings, arranged to divide different areas neatly and leave open courtyards between them. Most of these were rather dour places at this time of year, their flower beds dormant and trees starkly leafless, though several held exhibitions of statuary. The temple itself had a notably utilitarian design, attractive in its stonework but arranged in simple, squared patterns that made it easy to navigate. Architecture was among the crafts valued and taught by the Rynean faith, and among other things, that meant they had great respect for usefulness in design. There were sacred buildings which were, themselves, works of art, but in a temple designed primarily to display other art, the focus of the architect had been on making that art accessible.
Just because everything was accessible did not mean everything was equally popular, of course. Principia’s invitation had specified the Ajitram Gallery; it was somewhat out of the way, on the fourth floor of one of the side wings, but she didn’t fully grasp the reasoning until finding the directory in the main lobby. The gallery in question was currently hosting an exhibition of the works of Arthur Croswin, the first such to be held since his death forty years ago.
Unless a lot had changed in the art world in forty years, nobody was going to beat down the doors to see that. Whoever had sent that invitation, they’d done research before laying plans.
Squad One attracted a few curious looks as they marched through the halls, as well as a couple of disapproving ones from curators in the tasteful uniforms of the Rynean cult, but one benefit of the charms Principia had worked into their boots was that they made far less noise on stone floors than half a dozen people in armor ought to. At any rate, they managed not to disrupt anyone’s perusal of the art on display, and apparently, that was what mattered.
Rather than splitting up the squad to cover the accesses to the fourth floor Ajitram Gallery, of which there were two, Principia stationed the rest of the group at the foot of the steps she chose to climb. Whether they responded to a call for help would depend entirely on Nandi, so sending anyone out of easy range of her voice was pointless.
Nandi touched her lightly on the arm as she began climbing the steps. Principia paused and glanced back at her, but then just nodded and continued going.
Ajitram Gallery was a single hall, running the length of one side of that floor, with staircases on either end and two cross-halls leading deeper into the building to other galleries. At present, it was fully lined with oil paintings in a distinctive blurry style, which were rather pleasing to the eye from a distance but became increasingly fuzzy the closer one examined them. Her own eyes were at something of a disadvantage in appreciating the style; she had to concentrate on blurring her vision to see the overall effect and not the tiny smudges and blobs.
The entire gallery was empty, save for one person. She stood in a pose any soldier would recognize, straight-backed with her hands clasped behind her, brown hair tied in a simple braid hanging down the back of her slightly scruffy leather coat. By all appearances, she was studying a large pastoral scene.
Principia carefully approached from the side; it wasn’t as if she had much chance of sneaking up in armor, anyway, and it gave her the opportunity to observe her target’s face, rather than risk coming up behind her only to learn that this was a stranger about to spring a trap.
“I like this,” Jasmine mused when Principia came finally to stand beside her. “I’m not sure why. I certainly don’t understand it.”
“It’s called impressionism,” Principia said noncommittally. “Never really caught on. I’m actually surprised so many of Croswin’s works were preserved and collected. The man was a lunatic.”
“Not to your taste, I gather?” Jasmine said wryly.
“No, but that’s beside the point. An elf’s eyes are at a disadvantage here; I see too many details to properly appreciate it. But no, I knew Croswin. The man was brilliant and ahead of his time…but also completely nuts, and quite frankly, an asshole. I’m glad someone’s collected and still displays his work, though. Probably no one outside the Rynean cult really digs it, but that’s not nothing.”
Finally, the younger woman shifted her head slightly to look at her—sidelong, but it was something. “So. Three Nine One. A Squad One designation. Are congratulations or sympathies in order?”
“At the risk of sounding greedy, I’ll take one of each,” Principia said lightly. “We are being generously given the opportunity to succeed… With the firm understanding that we’re expected to dramatically fail.”
“I have a rather…unusual group of women in my command. All except Shahai were fobbed off as undesirables. Refugees from other cults, and one plea bargain case who’s here instead of in jail.”
Jasmine’s eyes narrowed slightly in an expression of mistrust. “Clustering them together would not be Legion policy.”
“I am well aware of that.” Principia sighed. “We’re… Well, I’ll tell you the story if you want, though parts are classified. It’s definitely an unusual situation. But is that really what you asked me here to talk about?”
Jasmine looked at her in silence from the corner of her eye for a long moment, then returned her gaze to the painting. Her eyes were unfocused now, though, clearly not fixed on the art. Principia waited in patient silence; finally, Jasmine stepped back and away, turning to face her fully, and folded her arms.
“What are you doing, Principia?”
“And that’s it,” Shahai said softly, turning to face the others with a slight smile. “It was a genuine invitation.”
The squad relaxed slightly, though several still wore quizzical expressions.
“So, uh.” Merry shrugged. “What’s going on, then, exactly?”
“Now,” said Nandi, glancing up the stairs, “our sergeant needs to have a private conversation.”
“And I guess we need to head back home, then,” said Farah.
Nandi shook her head. “Locke said that would be advisable, but it wasn’t an order. In fact, she left no specific orders for this situation; her concern was if it turned out to be a trap. Which means our next move is up to Corporal Avelea?”
The others turned expectantly to Ephanie, who frowned faintly in thought.
“Am I correct, Shahai, in inferring that you know more than the rest of us about what’s going on up there?”
“Yes,” Nandi replied with the ghost of a smile. “I don’t mean to keep you in the dark, but the decision is Locke’s. When she’s done, we’ll see what she wants everyone to know.”
Ephanie nodded impatiently. “In your estimation, is there any danger?”
“On the contrary,” the elf said dryly, “she is probably safer up there than she has been at any point in the last year.”
“Then the only issue would be that they might be interrupted,” Ephanie said. “All right, ladies, since Sarge failed to tell us otherwise and it’s not in me to leave a woman behind without good reason, we’re going to form a perimeter. Elwick, Szaravid, stay here. Lang, you’re with me; we’ll cover the other staircase. Shahai, circle around to the next hallway, take the stairs up and patrol the gallery beyond this one.”
Merry cleared her throat pointedly. “All due respect, ma’am, I don’t think we have the right to prevent people from entering the gallery. Trying sounds like a good way to start trouble with the Ryneans.”
“You’re correct, Lang, and everyone keep it in mind,” Ephanie agreed, nodding. “We’re not going to interfere with any patrons of the museum in any way. We will, however, keep an eye on who goes in and be ready to respond to…anything. Shahai, I’m giving you the most porous front due to your hearing and the fact that I don’t anticipate any danger.”
Nandi saluted, still with that little smile.
“All right, girls, you’ve got your orders,” Ephanie said firmly. “Move out.”
“Just what you said,” Principia replied quietly. “Gaining an understanding of your world.”
Jasmine closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. “The way I remember it, I told you specifically not to do that. It isn’t your life or your path, Locke. Trying to force yourself into it won’t lead you anywhere good.”
“Yes, well, I’m generally not good at doing what I’m told,” Principia said cheerfully.
“And so you joined the military?”
The elf actually laughed. “It’s not so bad. Different, yes, but the rules and chain of command aren’t a major factor in the actual problems I’ve been having. Anyway… I really did need to, Jasmine.”
“Hm. I’d sort of expected you’d call me…”
“Hsst!” Principia held up a hand, frowning. “When you’re under cover, you stay under it. Never assume there are no listeners just because you don’t see any.”
“Right,” she said with a sigh. “Still. I don’t see why you needed to do this.”
“Just as I said: to understand. There are things you really can’t grasp without doing them, putting yourself in a position to see from another perspective. I gather you’re becoming aware of that, yourself.”
Jasmine frowned. “I never wanted you to upend your life for my sake.”
“Hey, this was all my own choice; I’m not pinning anything on you. Whatever else you may think of me, know that I don’t shirk the responsibility for anything I’ve done. Besides,” she added more gently, “this is not nearly the imposition you seem to assume it is. Elves have a different relationship with time; a few years out of my life to do a few tours of duty is not a hardship, and not much of a cost. It’s well worth it for the perspective alone.”
“I know what they do to elves who enlist,” Jasmine said, still frowning. “That is a major commitment. The alchemy involved makes you stronger at the cost of your agility and speed. You may not get along with your own family, but don’t pretend it’s not a big deal to be made less of an elf over this.”
The corner of Principia’s mouth drew up in a sly smile. “I see no one’s explained elven biology to you in any detail.”
“In fact, I have been looking into it,” she said irritably. “Since it turns out to be relevant to my life, to my surprise.”
“Well, never assume an elf is physically weak just because we tend to be. It is harder for elves to gain physical strength than for humans, but when we do, it doesn’t show in bulkier muscles.”
“How much harder?”
“A lot,” she said frankly. “A very great lot harder, which is a big part of why few bother. It takes a good seventy years of consistent, devoted training to match a human for strength, and that’s about the point where it plateaus; very, very old elven warriors may be stronger than orcs, but warriors of any race tend not to live that long. Really, only braves of the plains tribes bother, as a rule. Woodkin prefer to play to their natural strengths.”
“And you?” Jasmine asked pointedly.
Principia smiled, a placid yet smug expression. “I passed the physical strictly on my own merits, no alchemy needed. Took me a good hundred and thirty years to train up to that point, due to a less than rigorous schedule, but considering I’m a thief as well as a skinny elf and nobody expects me to be able to punch out a drunken sailor… That alone makes it a worthwhile ability to have. When everyone knows the limits of your power, your days are numbered.”
“I see,” Jasmine said, studying her skeptically. “So this is neither a great hardship nor a particularly great gesture.”
“That’s pretty much it, yep,” Principia replied brightly.
Jasmine turned away and paced slowly down the hall, coming to rest in front of the next painting, this one of a mountainous horizon at sunset. Principia followed, matching her aimless gait and not stepping close enough to be pushy.
“So,” the elf said after a few moments of silence, “is that all you wanted to ask me?”
Jasmine sighed. “Well, I’ve certainly been curious about it, ever since I first saw you in that armor. But… I actually wanted to ask for your help.”
“What can I do?” Principia asked immediately.
She glanced suspiciously at her. “Let me state up front that I’m not interested in cutting any deals. If you want something in exchange for your advice, I am very unlikely to be interested.”
Principia sighed heavily. “Well. I guess we both know I deserved that. No…Jasmine. No deals. Tell me what you need, and if it’s something I can help you with, I will. No strings, no tricks, just…whatever I can do.”
Jasmine studied her for another long moment, then turned back to the painting.
“I…am trying to learn to be a better…” She glanced up and down the empty hall. “Well, to be better at what I do. And while I respect what the Sisterhood taught me, I’ve been learning more and more that I cannot go through life as I have been and expect to succeed. I keep finding myself…outmaneuvered. My inclination, both by personality and by training, is to fight when opposed. And that’s a losing strategy. The world is all about soft power, about connections, not force. That’s what I’m doing in the Guild. Eserites are sly, underhanded, and careful. What they know is what I need to learn.”
Jasmine glanced over at her again. “You’re not shocked?”
“Shocked would be putting it strongly, though I can’t say I expected this.” Prinipia shook her head, her eyes never leaving the girl’s. “Whatever else comes of this, and acknowledging my own bias, here… For my money, the fact that you’re making the effort makes you the best Hand of Avei since Laressa.”
“What happened to cover and listening ears?”
Principia waved a hand dismissively. “Lesson two: rules are for other people. There’s nobody within even elvish earshot except my snooping corporal who I’m not going to bother calling down since she’s the most discreet person I know. But seriously. I’m no pacifist either, but in all of history, Laressa was the only paladin of Avei who looked for solutions to her problems beyond ‘put a sword in it.’ And her methods probably wouldn’t work for you, but what matters is that you’re trying. You see the world has changed, and you’re changing to meet it. I get the impression you’re not feeling very good about your efforts right now, but just the fact that you’re making them means you’re ahead of the game.”
“This isn’t a game,” Jasmine replied, though her expression softened somewhat. “But…thank you. That helps a little bit.”
“It doesn’t sound like encouragement was what you went to all this trouble to get, though,” Principia commented, tilting her head inquisitively.
Jasmine sighed, turned away, and paced across the hall to stare sightlessly at another painting on the other side. “I haven’t been at it long, but the issue I’m having is, well, persistent. I just don’t get it.”
“Getting takes time,” Principia pointed out.
Jasmine shook her head impatient. “No, I mean… Ugh. Look, have you ever been in one of the old dungeons? Or something else…weird?”
“I have seen shit in my time that would flummox even Arachne,” the elf said with a grin. “Though as a rule I prefer to stay out of dungeons, and did even before they were all snapped up by the gnomes and the Empire. All loot, no purpose; I steal out of a philosophical imperative, not because I want money. Why do you ask?”
“Down in the Crawl,” she said, still scowling at the painting, “there’s a…place. Professor Tellwyrn had a name for it, but I can’t recall. It shows you things, possibilities of other lives. Deepest fears, and scenarios meant to disrupt your complacency. When my class was down there, it… Well, it sort of replaced me.”
Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Replaced?”
“Temporarily,” Jasmine said hastily. “And when it was over I was left with the full memory of the experience, of living as that other me. But for that time, I wasn’t me as I am. I was…an alternate me. One who had been raised by you.”
“I…see,” she said very slowly, frowning. “That must have been…”
“It really was,” Jasmine said fervently. “But at the same time, it was a worthwhile experience. There was a good lesson, there. That other girl…” She shook her head in frustration. “I can’t recall the details of her life, I don’t have her memories. I think all this would be a lot easier if I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have to bother with all this. But I remember, briefly, being her. The way she lived, and felt, and thought… Her means of always looking at angles instead of straight ahead like I do. The joy she found in cleverness and…well, defiance. She was a model Eserite: smart, sneaky, and loving every minute of it. She wouldn’t have gotten constantly tricked by the Black Wreath the way I seem to. But I can’t remember.” Her voice climbed half an octave in frustration. “It’s there, just the tantalizing hint to show me I have the capacity somewhere inside, or did once. But whenever I try to work out a way to do what she did, all I get is what I want to do, what I’ve always been trained to, which is to fight. And it’s only been a few days but I keep butting my head against that! I can learn to pick pockets and locks, but everyone keeps trying to make me an enforcer, to work on the skills I already have. I’m wasting my time here and—”
“Hey.” Principia took two steps forward, and finally reached out to touch her, laying a gauntleted hand on Jasmine’s shoulder. “Stop. Right now what you’re doing is torturing yourself. Quit it, breathe, and come back at this when you’re calmer.”
Jasmine obligingly drew in a deep breath and let it out, then another. After a few more repetitions, she turned to face the older woman, gently dislodging her hand. “Well. Thanks. Anyway… Did I manage to make any kind of point in there?”
“Yes, you did,” Principia nodded, “and right off the bat, I can tell you are making this harder for yourself than it needs to be. Look… You see this as some kind of great contradiction, don’t you? Having to reach out and embrace a completely alien viewpoint.”
“Maybe not alien,” Jasmine said, shrugging, “but certainly an opposite one.”
“Now there,” Principia stated, pointing at her, “is where you are wrong. That’s an extremely Avenist perspective, and it’s wrong. Take it from someone who has been living out an eerie mirror of what you’re doing for the last year. There’s not a huge difference between the Sisterhood and the Guild. They’re two organizations with exactly the same goal, who disagree on the methods of achieving it. That’s all.”
Jasmine stared at her, blinked twice, then frowned heavily. “You may need to explain that.”
Principia grinned. “It’s all about justice, in the end. Stopping those who mistreat others, and getting restitution for their victims. That’s really the ultimate purpose of both cults. Aside from the little quibble over methods, they’re left not redundant because they operate in different spheres. The Sisterhood’s goals promote an orderly society, which is necessary; the Guild deals with those who weasel their way around society’s rules. Also necessary, because nothing stops those bastards from cropping up; like rats, they just have to be dealt with. Eserites couldn’t maintain a stable living order for the general public, and the Sisterhood is too bound by its principles to catch everybody who needs catching. But in the end? You and I are in the same business. Always have been, and we’re neither of us in a different business for having swapped cults.”
“I think that’s taking it a little far,” Jasmien protested. “Avenists protect. Eserites steal.”
Principia held up a finger. “Eserites steal from those who deserve it. That makes all the difference.”
“Are you really going to argue that no one works under the Guild just to enrich themselves?”
“Of course not. There are bad apples in every barrel; I think part of your problem here is that in addition to imagining a great contradiction that isn’t there, you’re imagining the Sisterhood as something inherently more pure than the Guild. It is not. Both are organizations with similar goals, doing the best they can toward those goals with the means at their disposal.”
“But the people within them…”
“I’ve been in the Legions a little less than a year,” Principia said flatly. “In that time, I’ve had to fend off someone very highly placed in the Sisterhood who attempted to murder my entire squad. Because she found us politically inconvenient and a threat to her power base. She is still in a position of authority over us, and countless others.”
Jasmine stared at her. “You’re…exaggerating.”
“I assure you,” the elf said grimly, “I am not. Oh, it didn’t start with murder; few people are ax-crazy enough to go for blood right away. It started with bureaucratic manipulation. As you pointed out, it isn’t usual policy to lump together the misfits and undesirables into one understaffed squad. But when we kept refusing to fail and get drummed out of the Legions, it escalated, until we found ourselves manipulated into a confrontation with some very angry Shaathists who’d have been quite justified—in their minds, of course—in filling us with arrows.”
“Yes, there are bad Eserites,” Principia said quietly. “No shortage of them. And there are plenty of bad Avenists. The differing natures of those cults acquired different kinds of bad people; a rowdy troublemaker would get nowhere in the Sisterhood, and a string-pulling politician wouldn’t last long in the Guild. But in the end, all systems are corrupt.”
Again, she reached out to lay a hand gently on Jasmine’s shoulder; this time, the girl didn’t move away.
“That doesn’t mean you abandon the systems, though,” Principia said gently. “People need systems in order to function in a civilized manner. You just have to have someone watching for the abusers. Avenists and Eserites both do that. And they both accidentally provide safe haven for exactly the kinds of monsters they exist to fight, which is why they also have to watch themselves, and each other. But despite how it often seems to the cult which keeps having to haul Eserites off to jail, they aren’t enemies. The world is better off when we work together.
“All that’s fairly abstract, though. As for you, and the problem you’re having now… I think you’re letting the seeming enormity of this matter confuse you. The truth is, strategy is strategy, and it’s applicable in a variety of places. It’s a very small shift you need to achieve. You don’t need to throw away the lessons of your youth to be an Eserite, you just need to find new ways to apply them.”
“But…that leaves me right where I was,” Jasmine said plaintively. “Being the thing I’ve always been, not finding a subtler way.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Principia said, smiling but implacable. “You’re doing exactly the right thing coming here. The world is no less a battlefield than it’s ever been; it’s just that the battles are different in nature. Learning to apply strategy and tactics to the subtler side of warfare is exactly what you need to do. The Guild can and will teach you that. And you, child, are much closer than you realize. You’ve got all the capacity you need; keep working, and the rest will come.”
She raised her other hand to squeeze her gently by both shoulders. “Just don’t stress about it, Jasmine. This is not a race, and you’re not under deadline. You are getting there. Be calm, absorb the lessons available to you, and trust that it’ll come together. Because it will. You are too smart for it not to. You just have to let it have the time it needs.”
With a final, gentle squeeze, she released her and lowered her hands.
Jasmine was staring at her with a peculiar expression. After a moment she cleared her throat awkwardly, glancing away, and took a step back.
“I…well, um, thank you. That actually does help.”
Principia nodded. “You can ask me for anything you need. It doesn’t make up for anything in the past, but… I’m here now.”
Jasmine cleared her throat again, then frowned. “Who was it who tried to murder you?”
“I would rather not say.” At the girl’s expression, she held up a hand. “Look, I’m not being coy. And given our respective ranks, you can make me tell you with a word. But for now, I would prefer it if you didn’t, please. An accusation against the likes of her from the likes of me would only harm one of us, and not the one who deserves it. I’d be okay dealing with that on my own, but I’ve got a squad full of women to consider, most of whom have nowhere else to go. It’s being handled—it’s just not going to be as conveniently quick or clean as justice ought.”
“I see.” Jasmine shook her head. “I guess I’d better start getting comfortable with things like that.”
“No,” Principia said firmly. “Never get comfortable with that. Cultivate a loathing of it, and fight it wherever it comes up. But yes, be aware that it exists, and is everywhere, and don’t get caught flat-footed when it rears up.”
“Was there anything else you wanted to ask?” Principia prompted more softly after a pause.
“For now… Well, somewhat to my surprise, I guess I did just need the encouragement.” She smiled, almost tentatively. “Thank you. And… I may take you up on the offer.”
“I hope you do,” said the elf, smiling back. “Especially since I’m under orders that require me to follow your group of friends around and pry into their business.”
Jasmine’s lips thinned. “Ah. Yes. That.”
“While we’re both here,” said Principia, “what can you tell me about those…things?”
“They’re called disruptors,” Jasmine said. “And…well, this is a bit of a story.”
“My time is yours.”