The cloud cover had broken not long after midnight, and the following day dawned unusually clear and cloudless for Tiraas. It was still cold, winter having apparently decided to stay now that it had come. The city itself was in fairly good shape, its army of civil servants having been hard at work through the night with salt and shovels. Only along the northern districts, where water mains had broken and frozen, was the clean-up still impeding business. Elsewhere in the city, particularly in its bustling central districts, life went on at its usual pace.
Of course, the High Commander of the Sisters of Avei would probably not have delayed her activities even for an active hailstorm, and so Principia was summoned to her office shortly after breakfast.
“He said that?” Rouvad demanded skeptically.
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “Obviously, I cannot attest to how serious he was or what he will do next, but Lord Vex’s exact words were ‘none of this happened.’ Considering the factions and individuals represented, I can understand how the Imperial government would prefer to avoid untangling the diplomatic mess that would result.”
“You implied there was more,” Rouvad prompted.
“Yes, Commander. The demolition of the fortress, he said, is to be recorded as a deliberate action by the Empire to remove an unsafe structure, preparatory to replacing it with a modern facility. And…he made it quite plain that, Imperial cover-up or not, the actions of everyone present would be taken into account the next time any of us have to interact with the Imperial government.”
“Splendid,” the Commander said sourly, then heaved a sigh. “Suddenly I feel a little nervous that I haven’t heard from Intelligence yet. It’s early, but I don’t believe that man actually sleeps. And he definitely saw the disruptors?”
“Saw, and demanded that they be handed over,” Principia said. “I refused. I apologize for any trouble that results, ma’am, but that seemed to me both the best thing to do given the tactical needs of the situation, and the course of action most compliant with Legion regulations.”
“That rather depends on the manner of your refusal, Sergeant.”
“I was forthright and completely honest, ma’am. I told Lord Vex those particular devices were made by me personally, on a mandate from you and using Avenist resources, and thus the property of the Sisterhood. I…mentioned that if he wanted them, he would have to take it up with you.”
“That will be an enjoyable conversation, I’m sure,” the Commaner said wryly.
“Yes, ma’am. I did not mention anything regarding how we obtained the specs for those disruptors. He will surely demand that information.”
“Then I’ll take great pleasure in passing the buck. Vex can try to drag his answers out of the Thieves’ Guild, and much good may it do him. You said there was another matter on which you wished to report.” Her eyes dropped to Principia’s hands; Rouvad had not asked about the objects she was carrying.
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, approaching the desk. She reached out and carefully laid a tiny ball of lead on its surface. “I wish to put Private Lang forward for a commendation. I realize that she cannot be awarded the Red Star due to it being on a mission not disclosed even to our captain, but she was wounded in the line of duty.”
“Reasonable,” Rouvad said with a touch of impatience. “I’ll instruct Dijanerad to approve it. Is that immediately pertinent, Locke?”
“Yes, ma’am. This object was removed from her arm. It punched through her shield, through the defensive enchantments on that shield—both of which were completely destroyed by the impact—and then through her armor and bicep. By that point it had lost enough momentum that it merely broke the bone on impact rather than taking her arm off entirely. That piece of metal had to have been moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound to have that much energy behind it.”
“I see,” Rouvad said noncommittally, glancing at the object in the sergeant’s other hand. “You have some insight, I take it, into the kind of spell which could do this?”
“That’s just it, ma’am. I don’t believe there was any spell. Shahai managed to retrieve this from the snow while Zanzayed was teleporting dwarves back to the Svennish embassy.” She laid the device on the desk. It was a simple thing, seemingly little more than a short length of pipe with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism. “We have both examined it and found no evidence of enchantment present at all, though there are burn marks and traces of chemical explosive inside the tube.”
“I see,” Rouvad repeated, picking up the object and turning it over in her hands. “What do you make of it?”
“The lead ball fits neatly in that tube,” Principia said. “From there, we can deduce how it works. An explosive powder is packed into the base of it, the ball is placed in on top of that, and the powder is ignited by a sparking mechanism triggered by squeezing that switch. The explosion, contained as it is, propels the ball with tremendous force, and the length of the tube guides its trajectory.”
“Ingenious,” Rouvad marveled.
“This is extremely concerning,” Principia said, frowning. “You are of course aware that all magical shields are weakened by contact with physical objects. That thing hits with enough sheer kinetic force to collapse any shielding charm I’ve ever heard of, and probably a lot of personal caster shields. A paladin or archmage’s shield could stand up to it, most likely, but… Ma’am, I know just enough physics and math to do my various jobs, but I am pretty sure this technology could be scaled up without any real limits. A cannon-sized version of that could destroy any magical shield in existence, and any fortification behind it.”
“Dwarven engineering at its finest,” Rouvad noted. “What intrigues me most is that I’ve never heard of such a device before. I don’t suppose you’ve analyzed the explosive used?”
“Not in detail, ma’am, but I did a very basic charm test on the traces inside the tube, and I think the results were the most interesting part of this yet. No alchemical agents were present; this was a completely non-magical explosive compound, which has to be a deliberate design choice, as the effect could be achieved far more easily with enchantments. This is a non-magical and anti-magical weapon. We can’t know the range without testing it, but it’s surely comparable to conventional wands. If a force armed with these faced off against a unit of the Imperial Army, they’d have similar firepower, and the Army’s defensive measures would be useless. It would be a rout.”
“Of course, as soon as they use these where the Empire can see, countermeasures will be in the works. I think they must have been desperate and planning to wipe out everyone there, to have used it in sight of us last night. But if they pick the right battle, it only has to work once. If a dwarven force were able to secure or destroy the right high-value target, they could truly change the fates of the Five Kingdoms by forcing the Empire to terms.”
“Locke,” Rouvad said patiently, “I find your various skills and aptitudes useful in their place, but there is something backward about you lecturing me on matters of military strategy.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”
“Needless to say,” the Commander went on, “you may consider this as classified as everything else which occurred last night.”
“Have you anything else to report, sergeant?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Principia stepped back from the desk, leaving the lead ball and its launcher with the Commander, and stood at attention. “The fortress was destroyed by the adventurers summoned by General Avelea, at the command of Bishop Syrinx, who was sent to fetch them. According to Avelea’s plan, which Syrinx knew, my squad should have been in it when that happened.”
“And so you both improvised,” Rouvad said flatly. “Basra with her pyrotechnics and you by involving the dragon who involved the Empire whom I’ll be dealing with for the forseeable future about this.”
“Ma’am, destroying that fortress was an action with no strategic application in that situation. I believe its only purpose was to destroy us.”
“You are, in fact, my third meeting today, early as it is,” Rouvad replied. “I have already been over this with General Avelea and Bishop Syrinx, who has explanations for every one of her actions last night. Something tells me you don’t particularly care to hear them.”
“That’s correct, ma’am. With regard to—”
“Locke, my patience for repeating myself to you is thin. I’ve already made it plain I’m not having this infighting. I will deal with Syrinx, and you will drop it.”
“No,” Principia said flatly.
Very slowly, Rouvad leaned forward in her chair, her face suddenly devoid of all expression. “What did you say, soldier?”
“I said no, Commander,” Principia repeated. “Attempts on my life don’t much bother me; it doesn’t pay to take these things personally. But if that woman tries to murder my soldiers one more time, I am going to murder her right back. And the difference between me and Basra Syrinx is that I accomplish what I set out to. If you want to keep your Bishop, get her under control before someone else has to.” She saluted. “I will now report for court martial if that is your command, so long as you understand that it won’t change anything.”
Rouvad stared at her in silence; Principia stared right back. It was almost a minute before the Commander spoke.
“Do you want to be removed from the Legions, Locke?”
“You have what you signed up for, now. Trissiny is on speaking terms with you; let’s not pretend that wasn’t your whole purpose for doing this. So why are you still here?”
“Tell me the truth,” she ordered. “And don’t assume I won’t know if you don’t.”
The sergeant hesitated before replying. “I find serving here…much more satisfying than I expected. And I want very much to continue looking after my girls. Their potential is enormous, but with so much arrayed against them I don’t want to leave them.”
The High Commander suddenly sighed and eased back in her chair. “Trissiny reported on your performance, by the way. She said you are insubordinate and failed to follow her orders. She also said that your strategies on the ground were better than her own, and your refusal to respect the chain of command saved your soldiers’ lives and contributed significantly to her victory. I would suspect she was sugar-coating it were that not exactly what I have observed from you from the beginning.”
Principia kept silent while Rouvad studied her thoughtfully for another long moment.
“It’s useful, having someone on one’s side who isn’t a slave to regulations and the chain of command,” Rouvad finally continued. “It’s one of the things that has made Nandi so valuable to me, and to my predecessor, and why I was so reluctant to cede her to you. As I recall, you’ve seen firsthand that I tolerate backtalk from her that would send any other soldier immediately to the stockade. But she has devoted more time and energy to the Legion’s service than all of us combined; the leeway she has is more than earned. And then there’s you.” She paused again, peering up at Principia with an expression that was almost quizzical. “That’s the damnable thing about you, Locke. You’re just so…useful. For all the headaches you cause me, I can’t help getting the impression you actually are loyal to the Legions, and you do get results. But you’re just not ever going to be a good soldier, and I think I’d get no use out of you at all if I forced you to be.”
Rouvad folded her arms on the desk and raised an eyebrow.
“Dealing with you is a lot like dealing with Basra Syrinx.”
Principia let the silence stretch another moment before replying.
“That wasn’t called for, Commander.”
“No, I’m not going to have you court-martialed,” Rouvad said, suddenly more brisk. “Instead, I shall take it as a sign of the urgency of the matter that you’re willing to risk speaking to me that way—and only because we are alone here, Locke. Open your mouth like that where anyone else can hear it and by the time I’m done with you, I promise you will be grateful for the mercy of standing before a military tribunal. Is that clear?”
“Is it believed?” Rouvad said more pointedly. “You think you’re smarter than I—don’t deny it. But I did not become the mortal leader of the cult of war without being as crafty and as ruthless as the situation demands. I certainly wouldn’t be keeping a creature like Syrinx on a leash otherwise. And let’s not forget the weight my words have with the only person alive whose opinion matters to you enough that you’d subject yourself to all this.” She smiled, as cold as the snow outside. “I can hurt you, Locke, if you make it necessary. So don’t.”
“…yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.
“And just keep away from Syrinx, for now,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation and what she did, and she as usual has conjured sufficient justification to evade official censure for her actions. The thing she and you have in common is that you both seem to think I can’t punish or contain her under such circumstances.” She straightened up in her seat, that frosty little smile returning to her face. “You’re both wrong. Basra is being dealt with as we speak, by one of my more…unconventional assets.”
Basra whirled, scowling, when the door of her office was opened without the courtesy of a knock, but quickly marshaled her expression when she saw who had walked in.
Trissiny was still wearing her street clothes and slightly battered coat rather than the silver armor, and hadn’t removed the dye from her hair—yet there was a distinctive change in her demeanor. She had put enough effort into cultivating a casual, non-military bearing that her stiff spine and purposeful stride were now all the more distinctive for their return.
As was the black bird perched on her left shoulder.
“Good morning, General Avelea,” Basra said smoothly, shutting the cabinet in which she had been digging and stepping away to meet her guests. “And…Mary, always a pleasure. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you again so soon.”
The crow ruffled her feathers, but remained mute.
“Good morning, your Grace,” Trissiny said, staring pensively at her. “Sorry to interrupt so early in the day, but I have a full list of errands myself and I hoped to catch you before you headed to the Church.”
“Not at all, my time is yours,” Basra replied. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”
Trissiny tilted her head, making no move toward the proffered chair; on her shoulder, the crow mimicked the expression, which would have been comical if not for the suddenly fraught atmosphere.
“I wonder if you could clarify your tactics for me,” said the paladin, “as an experienced commander to one still learning. What purpose did the destruction of the fortress serve?”
“Considering our list of allies and enemies,” Basra replied immediately, “and the likelihood of those extremely professional dwarves discerning your procession’s goal and moving to intercept you, I realized, upon reaching and surveying the field, that that fortress was just waiting to be used as an ambush against you. Had they reached it first, your attempt to secure it would have led to your group’s downfall. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of any of this in the first place, but I was unfamiliar with that old ruin before seeing it for the first time last night.”
“I should mention,” Trissiny said quietly, “I have already spoken with Joe, Mr. Weaver, and their other friends this morning. None of them reported any sign of dwarves reaching the fortress. They simply said that you directed it to be destroyed.”
“And that bloodthirsty little gnome was more thrilled than I have ever seen anyone to oblige,” Basra said dryly. “Honestly, I was expecting her to start a fire or something. How or why she had munitions of that quality on hand I’m afraid even to ask. But the result was satisfactory. The purpose was to deny the enemy a fortification, not catch them in it; acting before they arrived was thus the entire point. You know this very well, Trissiny, it’s basic military strategy. The general who prepares the ground ahead of the battle controls the field.”
“And,” Trissiny said more quietly still, “according to my orders, Squad One would have been in that fortress at the time.”
“According to your orders,” Basra said with an indulgent smile, “there would have been no dragons and no Imperial presence. Your ambush would have succeeded, thanks to the adventurers you sent me to rally and my initiative in removing that fortification. Zanzayed was…overkill. And involving Vex will carry a hefty political price for all of us. I did not anticipate that, exactly, but I expected things to go south if we assumed Locke’s part in the plan would be carried out correctly. Believe me, Trissiny, I know how Locke thinks.”
“Did you scout,” Trissiny asked, “to make sure the squad was not inside?”
“We observed no tracks,” Basra replied. “In that snow—”
“In that snow, tracks would have faded quickly; it was still coming down.”
“Not that heavily, and only two of the squad are elves. Six women in full armor would leave easily discernible tracks—”
“And so you checked every approach to the fortress?”
“Why on earth would they have circled around to the back?” Basra tilted her head in a mimicry of their earlier gesture. “I must say I’m sensing a little hostility, here. Everything went exactly as I expected, and according to my plan—with the exception, of course, of Locke’s needless complications. Had it been any other squad, I would have considered it a risk. That woman is congenitally unable to do as she is told.”
“I came here,” Trissiny said, “hoping you would help me understand why such a risk was warranted. I confess that I’m still not there.”
“Perhaps,” Basra said more firmly, “you should be mindful of your own preconceptions. I understand you may have an emotional attachment to Sergeant Locke, that’s only natural. Just…don’t forget what kind of creature she is, Trissiny. Her interest in your existence began when you became someone it was politically useful to know. She is only here because of that, because she sees in you the chance to advance herself. Don’t let her deceive you.”
“I won’t,” Trissiny replied, smiling thinly. “Her, or anyone else.”
Basra sighed. “I see you’re not convinced. I have been over this in more detail with the High Commander already this morning; she accepted my reasoning. If you doubt me, I encourage you to take it up with her. And it might profit you to ask her opinion of Principia Locke’s performance as a soldier while you’re there.”
“Right,” Trissiny said, nodding agreeably. “You have all the angles covered just enough that nobody can authoritatively call you down. Well done.”
“I don’t think that tone is necessary,” Basra said mildly.
The crow suddenly emitted a soft croak, and very gently pecked at Trissiny’s ear, then turned her head to jab her beak toward the door.
“Well, then,” Trissiny said, smiling again. “I suppose that covers what I came to ask. I also wanted to offer a word of advice, Bishop Syrinx: you should not assume you’re the only one who can make things mysteriously explode.”
Basra raised one eyebrow. Before she could speak, however, the rapidly approaching sound of pounding boots echoed from the hall, through the door which Trissiny had left open a crack. The Bishop turned, frowning, and stepped toward it to investigate.
The boots skidded to a stop outside and the door was yanked open to admit Private Covrin, breathless and disheveled. “Your Grace!” she panted. “The—they sent—I mean, I only just learned, I’m sorry for the delay but I think my message was intercepted—”
“Spit it out, Covrin!” Basra said in exasperation. “Sometime today!”
“Ma’am,” her aide said desperately, “there’s a fire. At—at your house.”
She gazed nervously at the Bishop, still regaining her breath, but Basra had gone completely still and expressionless. Slowly, she turned to stare at Trissiny.
The paladin had stepped to one side, and was now trying to roll a doubloon across the backs of her knuckles. She went at it with excruciating slowness, clearly unpracticed in the maneuver, tentatively shifting the coin one finger’s increment at a time.
At Basra’s stare, she looked up and smiled. “Well, that sounds rather urgent; don’t let me keep you any longer. Excuse me, private.”
Covrin stepped aside to let her leave, and both of them stared after the departing paladin in silence.