“Why am I just now hearing about this?” General Panissar demanded.
“I would surmise,” Lord Vex replied, “for the same reason I didn’t learn about the existence of these disruptors until the Army lost them. We cannot all keep one another informed of every little thing our respective departments do. Experimental weapons are the Army’s affair; knockoffs of the Army’s experimental weapons popping up on the black market is the province of Intelligence. And as I said, General, this was two days ago. We had this meeting scheduled anyway. I have hardly been keeping it from you.”
Panissar subsided with a grunt, looking not particularly mollified.
“Both the letter and spirit of interdepartmental protocol has been observed,” said the Hand of the Emperor, planting his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers before his mouth. “Let us not waste time in recrimination. What is our course of action now?”
“I’ve been attempting to trace the path these weapons took,” said Vex, turning to face him. “Sergeant Locke refused to hand them over, and referred me to the High Commander. I did not think it best to press the issue at that time; my primary muscle on the scene was her cousin, and I’m sure you gentlemen recall how it went the last time I had both of them in a room.”
“Can she do that?” Panissar asked, frowning. “Legally?”
“Her defense,” said Vex, “was that the weapons on site were made by herself and property of the Sisterhood, which appears to have been the truth. So…yes. The Empire’s prerogative to seize property does not extend to the Sisters of Avei except in extraordinary circumstances.”
“Sounds like those were,” Bishop Darling noted.
“Indeed,” Vex agreed sourly, “but not in the right way. In any case, when I questioned Rouvad about this, she likewise declined to cooperate except to the extent of saying the weapons were seized by her troops in a raid on an illegal arms meet, where they were in the process of being sold to the dwarves in question by the Thieves’ Guild, or at least, by representatives thereof. I have asked the Bishop to follow up on that. Has there been any word?”
“It was quick and easy enough to get,” said Darling. “Boss Tricks declined to reveal exactly where the things came from, but he did acknowledge the affair in question was a setup, his ploy to put the weapons into the hands of the Sisterhood and bring those dwarves to their attention at the same time. By your description, Quentin, it sounds like half of it worked.”
“The originals were Imperial property, and clearly of a sensitive nature,” said the Hand, his eyes hard. Harder than usual, even. “Withholding information of that kind is potentially treasonous.”
“I know the law, thank you,” Darling said equably. “I mentioned this to the Boss, just to cover all the salient points, which yielded nothing. Well, there was a bit about Quentin’s father and some goats, but I didn’t consider it germane to the situation. Given time, I may be able to get more information using my personal connections, but I am frankly reluctant to do so. Considering the subject matter and my known affiliations, it’ll be a dead giveaway that I’m rooting around for dirt on Guild members to give the government. That’s the kind of thing that can damage my laboriously-built reputation and web of contacts. Unless this is crashingly urgent…”
“I really can’t see that it is,” Vex said when Darling trailed off and gave him a questioning look. “It’s far too late for containment to be a possibility, and that’s the only thing that could still have made it worth clamping down on.”
“We have all but two of the originals back,” added Panissar, scowling. “Weapons we can seize; what’s going around now is the knowledge of how to build them, and that’s another thing entirely.”
Vex nodded. “Narrowing it down to just the parties we know, those things passed through the hands of that now-extinct chaos cult, the Black Wreath, Tellwyrn’s sophomore class, Duchess Dufresne, the Thieves’ Guild and the Sisterhood of Avei, with Svenheim’s Exploratory Office being made aware of and very interested in them in the process. Far too many of those are completely inscrutable to us, for various reasons. I have directed polite and careful inquiries to both the Duchess and the Professor, but I doubt either will yield results. No, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.”
“Then,” said the Hand, “I believe that attempting to pressure the Guild or the Sisterhood is counterproductive. At this point, it may better serve our interests to mollify them. The Avenists, at least, might have taken it amiss that the Army is developing weapons that might as well have been specifically targeted at them.”
He shot a long look at Panissar, who sighed.
“In point of fact, those were only the first stage in a much longer research project,” said the General. “Neutralizing divine energy is just about the least useful Circle of Interaction trick we could play, but it’s the one my enchanters cracked first. The plan was to crate those and use the insights gained from their creation to move on to more strategic types of disruptors. We would love nothing more than a way to shut down infernal magic with the squeeze of a trigger.”
“How is that proceeding?” the Hand inquired.
Panissar shrugged irritably. “Obviously, the whole project was brought to a near halt by the nonsense in Veilgrad. Virtually all the records were destroyed in the attack on the research facility. The Army enchanters have been working on reconstructing the project since then; we’re not yet back on track. The whole business was far too complex for them to have it all in their heads. At least we didn’t lose anybody, and they still have the prototypes to reverse-enchant. Among other people,” he added bitterly.
“Your thoughts on that, your Grace?” asked the Hand.
“Anti-infernal weapons would be a godsend, if you’ll excuse the pun,” said Darling. “With regard to the Sisterhood, I am of course not an insider but in my interactions with Commander Rouvad, I have had the impression she is too pragmatic to bear a grudge.”
“She took clear satisfaction in obstructing me,” Vex noted, “but considering the circumstances…”
“I can raise the issue with his Holiness, if you’d like?” Darling offered.
“Best not,” said the Hand with a sigh. “If the High Commander has issue with the Throne, she won’t go through the Church anyway. We’ll address that directly. On matters about which you doubtless are in the know, can we expect further action from the Guild?”
“I think the Guild has made its point,” Darling said with a thoughtful frown. “Developing sketchy weapons in secret isn’t so awful; considering the state of the world, nothing about it looks especially tyrannical. They’ll definitely react if leaned on further, but for now, I don’t believe the Guild is a further consideration in the matter.”
“Good,” said the Hand briskly. “That leaves us with the rather thornier issue of these dwarves.”
“Several things about that concern me,” said Vex. “For starters, the lead operative was able to mobilize dwarven civilians who clearly had no training and just as clearly did not want to be there. I’m still investigating those we identified, but I rather suspect they had no direct tie to their government beyond the taxes they pay. This is without precedent, which suggests it is more than just cultural. We should look into conscription laws passed in Svenheim in recent history.”
“Good,” said the Hand, nodding. “We shall direct the Foreign Service to do so, but it won’t hurt for you to add your own efforts, Lord Vex.”
“I already am,” Vex said with his characteristic sleepy smile. “There is also the matter of their extremely determined interest in acquiring Imperial experimental weapons. By itself, that would be merely troubling, but there has been a pattern of interest in weapons in general from the Five Kingdoms, and especially Svenheim, over the last five years. They have allocated more research funds than their economic state would suggest is wise to these pursuits. Particularly in the realm of explosives.”
“A suspicious person could draw the conclusion they were planning something,” said Panissar.
“Preparing seems more likely,” said Darling. “The dwarves have to know there’s no possible victory for them if they were to attack the Empire, and by this point we all know their declared war on Tar’naris is an empty gesture of pique. But when you live next to a huge, monolithic political entity that can accidentally collapse your economy and not show much concern over it, a certain amount of defensive thinking is just basic preparedness.”
“That makes sense to me, in fact,” Panissar agreed. “A key strategic factor here is the dwarven ability to call on divine light without a deity’s support. For thousands of years, that gave their armies and unquestionable defensive advantage. Our modern shielding charms pretty suddenly negated that advantage, and these devices have the potential to completely reverse it. They can hardly be blamed for feeling threatened.”
“That complicates matters,” Vex mused. “I have any number of ways to educate King Gjarten on the inadvisability of letting his spies run amok in Tiraas, but any such measure takes on an entirely different tone if he already suspects hostile intention from us. And yet, we cannot allow aggression of this kind to go unanswered.”
“The ongoing trade negotiations do not exist in a vacuum,” said the Hand. “While the virtually free mineral wealth we receive from Tar’naris is a boon, it has also made the Tiraan economy terribly dependent upon the Narisians, and we still don’t know if their increasing activity among the groves is pointed toward something or just general peacemaking. His Majesty has directed resources toward our native mining industries, which have been in severe decline since the treaty, and trying to reinvigorate trade with the Five Kingdoms is another measure. It is wiser, in general, to be on good terms with one’s neighbors, anyway. The more so if the Kingdoms suspect us of having designs upon them.”
“We are on good enough terms with Rodvenheim that I can be fairly certain they harbor no such fears,” said Vex. “We have all possible assurances short of an actual promise from Queen Jadhra that Rodvenheim’s support of the war on Tar’naris was nothing but a means to mollify her neighbors.”
“Which is the same as no assurance,” Panissar grunted. “Politicians will say anything, and Jadhra is cleverer than most. That brings up a thorny matter that has to have been a factor, here: our treaty with Tar’naris heavily emphasizes mutual defense, hence our military presence on their Scyllithene frontier and them sending a detachment to that recent mess on the Athan’Khar border. Technically, the standing state of war by the Kingdoms should require us to declare war in kind. Bless Queen Arkasia for seeing the whole picture and joining everyone else in politely ignoring this, but this is the situation, here. All it would take is one instance of the dwarves actually assaulting the drow, or the Narisians deciding to insist upon that clause in the treaty… The situation is already too volatile for Svenheim to take risks like these unless they already regard conflict as inevitable.”
“Hmm,” the Hand murmured, transferring his piercing gaze to Panissar. “How, roughly, do you think such a conflict would proceed, General?”
“Immediate stalemate,” Panissar replied without hesitation. “Our forces would crush anything they can field, but our military superiority does not negate the fact that pressing dwarves in their own caverns is a fantastically bad idea.”
“Didn’t the orcs invade them once?” asked Darling.
“Three times,” the General replied. “Only one was ever a threat to them, because of a plague in Stavulheim that left most of the population too weak to mobilize, and in that case two Hands of Avei held the gates until Svennish reinforcements could arrive. The other two, Svenheim actually let them get inside. Deliberately. Not one orc made it back out either time, and the second was the last time they ever tried to raid farther north than Viridill.”
“It seems clear that war doesn’t serve anyone, then,” Darling said, shrugging.
“War often doesn’t,” Panissar agreed. “Wars are declared for countless reasons, very few because they were in any way necessary. What concerns me is all this weapons development you’re talking about, Vex. Weapons, once built, very rarely go unused. You’re all familiar with the run-up to the Enchanter Wars.”
“The dwarves are working with explosives, yes,” said Vex, “but they seem to be specifically favoring non-magical weapons. They are hardly cooking up another Enchanter’s Bane.”
“The principle remains,” Panissar shot back. “You don’t build a weapon unless you’re planning to use it on somebody.”
The Hand of the Emperor cleared his throat, regaining their attention. “The commentary is useful, but please keep it focused. We, here, have no power to set policy, but these discussions make a significant impact on what ideas we bring to the Emperor. And pertaining to that…what ideas have we?”
“We appear to be between the rock and the hard place, diplomatically,” said Vex. “Some reprisal for Svenheim’s extremely aggressive behavior seems necessary, but given their already-raised hackles, any such could be a further provocation.”
“A couple of points on that, and correct me if I’m mistaken about anything here,” said Darling, holding up a finger. “The dwarves, I was told, were very careful to maintain deniability for their government, yes?”
“To the greatest extent that such can be done,” Vex replied, nodding. “No immediate traces to the King are apparent, but I can doubtless turn them up with some digging. I’m working on that, as I said, but just for the sake of thoroughness. It seems rather academic at this point.”
“Just so,” said Darling, nodding back. “And additionally, I’m not sure how necessary it is to retaliate against Svenheim, when we know and they know who the power on this continent is. Were there some disagreement, there, letting them do this could be taken as weakness. If anything, don’t we reaffirm our position by gently chiding the dwarves and refraining from coming down on them about this?”
“Is that how you Eserites enforcers keep order among the riffraff?” Panissar asked skeptically.
“Well, I was never an enforcer,” Darling said modestly, spreading his hands in a half-shrug, “but the principles scale up, don’t they?”
“In fact, there’s some validity to that,” Vex mused. “I don’t think this should be ignored, but there are many ways of quietly making a point that don’t involve threats of force.”
“It is one of the inevitable downsides of empire,” the Hand said, still regarding them over his folded hands. “The temptation to wield force increases concurrently with the repercussions of doing so. In our many problems, gentlemen—the Wreath, the dwarves, the elves, the last adventurers, the Punaji, even some of the cults—we are left wondering what to do, and specifically, how to avoid making it worse. Exercising the powers at our command does have a tendency to create disruptive ripple effects.”
“You speak as though you have an idea,” Darling observed.
The Hand smiled thinly. “You said something last year, your Grace, which has stuck with me. Sometimes, two problems are the solutions to each other. I think it suits us in this interconnected modern age to act without throwing our weight around, as much as possible, and what better way than by leveraging some of our…fringe allies? Lord Vex.” He shifted his gaze directly to the spymaster. “I understand you have enjoyed some success in working with Professor Tellwyrn.”
“Yes,” Vex said slowly, “largely because I am extremely careful to limit my interactions with her, and especially the situations into which I thrust her student groups. That is a very particular box of tools, which it will not do to upend upon the wrong project.”
“We agree,” said the Hand, nodding. “But it’s not as if Tellwyrn takes orders, anyway; I was hardly proposing to try and enlist her. However, the University’s graduates do represent a pool of significant talent which we have long allowed to go largely untapped.”
“What are you suggesting, exactly?” Panissar demanded, scowling. “That woman is a bad enough influence as is; the last thing we need on top of our troubles is for her to get snippy about the Throne trying to push her around.”
“Indeed, I am familiar with her profile. Consequently, I don’t propose to push.” The Hand smiled thinly. “After all, weren’t we discussing how interconnected entities can influence each other? And she does have problems of her own.”
Toby ordinarily cultivated awareness of his surroundings as a point of personal discipline, but that afternoon, Gabriel had to call his name twice before he jerked his head up and noticed his friend approaching.
“Gabe! Hi!” Toby waved back, a grin breaking across his features. “You’re back!”
“Yeah, I see that makes two of us,” Gabriel said wryly.
“Three of us.”
“Has it occurred to you,” he said to his sword, “that maybe people would talk to you more if you weren’t such an ass to them?”
“It has. I consider it an irrelevant point of data,” Ariel replied primly.
He patted her hilt. “Hush. Seriously, though, what’s on your mind, Toby? It’s been years since I saw you that distracted in public, and that’s back when you were first called by Omnu.”
“Oh, well, nothing that serious,” Toby said. At Gabriel’s encouraging expression, he glanced around. They had met on one of the lower terraces, just below the gazebo; Gabe was coming back from the main stairs down the mountain, and Toby hadn’t been going anywhere in particular. “I’ll…tell you later. Actually, I kind of do want to talk to you about it, Gabe, but it’s a conversation for, uh, someplace less public.”
Gabriel raised his eyebrows, but nodded. “Okay, then. Is everything all right?”
“That’s a thorny question,” Toby replied with a wry grin. “It’s no more or less all right than when you left the campus, let’s leave it at that for now. Enough about my maundering, though! How was it? Your first real Vidian holiday! I bet you were a hit in the capital!”
“Uh, actually, they kept me back from the public,” Gabriel said, frowning. By unspoken agreement they fell into step, setting off on a meandering path through the terraces. “Lady Gwenfaer held a private service, pretty much entirely for my benefit though some of the cult’s other muckety-mucks were there, and arranged for me to watch the main public ceremonies from concealment.”
“Oh.” Now Toby frowned. “Well, that’s… I’m sorry. I guess they’ll come around…”
“No, no, no!” Gabe said hastily. “That was my idea. Nobody fought me on it, or anything, it’s just… I was in no way ready to be held up as a pillar of the cult. Man, the more I learn about the faith, the less I can really think of myself as a Vidian. And the more I interact with Vidius himself, the more I get the impression that is exactly the point of this. He’s concerned about…um, corruption in the ranks. I think he has an idea of me as some kind of enforcer. An outside perspective, there to whip people back into shape.”
“…huh,” Toby said after a long pause. “I… I really wish I had something more helpful to say, there, Gabe. That’s just…so very outside the realm of my experience…”
“Yeah, I don’t think Trissiny could help me much with this, either,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Both your cults think the sun shines out of your respective butts. I appreciate you listening, nonetheless. I’m unprecedented in a lot of ways. Anyhow, it was a good experience, all in all. I’ve never really paid much attention to Doom’s Day before; it’s not like I had anybody to mourn. Dad’s folks were gone by the time I was born, and…” He made a wry expression that tried to be a grin but never quite made it past a grimace. “Yeah, I don’t even know if my mother is alive, but if not, somehow I suspect praying to Vidius for the peace of her soul would end badly for all three of us.”
“Have you ever…wondered?”
“Course I have,” Gabriel said, his eyes straight ahead. He had never talked about his mother; in all the time they’d known each other, it had never come up. “But, um, not enough that I really wanted to know. She isn’t part of my…anything. Someday, I guess I’d like to know what my dad saw in her. You know, what happened. But his perspective is really the only part that I’m curious about. I do not need more demon shit in my life.”
“There has always been a surprising core of wisdom beneath your habitual inanity, Gabriel. It is gratifying to see you making more use of it.”
“Thank you, faithful sidekick,” he said sardonically.
“Did you have a chance to see your dad while you were in the capital?”
“He’s not there, remember? The Church found him a place in Mathenon out of the public eye.”
“Oh!” Toby slapped a hand to his forehead. “For heaven’s sake, I knew that. I’m so sorry—”
“I’m just gonna cut you off there,” Gabriel said, peremptorily holding up a finger. “You are allowed to be distracted and think about your own stuff, man. I know you like to be everybody’s big brother, but sometimes you gotta focus on yourself.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Toby said with a sigh. “I’m sort of tired of focusing on myself right at this moment, though. Got any recent foolishness you want to get off your chest? Y’know, for old time’s sake.”
“Excuse me,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I am deep amidst a program of personal self-development, and no longer go in for such diversions. I’m a new man, Toby. No more foot-in-mouth half-demon designated comic relief, thank you.”
“You’re not going to mention that you very nearly bedded the High Priestess of your cult?”
Toby came to a halt, turning to stare at him. Gabriel did likewise, rolling his eyes so hard he tilted his head back to bring more sky into their range of view.
“Thank you, Ariel.”
“Gaaaabe,” Toby said warningly.
“Okay, first of all, no part of that was my fault!” Gabriel said defensively, holding up his hands and taking a step backward. “She came on to me. Um…quite aggressively. Honestly, until we were alone in that room I had actually not even made especial note of the fact that the woman is searingly hot.”
“And approximately twice your age.”
“Yeah, true,” Gabriel agreed, a slightly dreamy smile drifting across his face. “But damn, does she wear it well…”
Toby cleared his throat. “And yet…?”
“Yeah, and yet.” Gabe’s expression cleared and he focused again on Toby’s face. “It’s just that… Okay, this may sound odd, but I don’t think Gwenfaer was really seeing me there. I might be reading too much into things, but I am pretty sure she was not remotely interested in Gabriel Arquin, fascinating enchanter-in-training and the hero of many adventures—”
“To give yourself a tremendous amount of credit.”
“But,” Gabriel continued doggedly, “she seemed rather aroused by the thought of the unprecedented paladin of her god, and maybe a bit by the twin taboos of a demonblood who is, as someone made a point of mentioning, about half her age.”
“Really, you picked up on all that?” Toby whistled. “I’m impressed. Not long ago you weren’t at all perceptive about…people.”
“You were going to say ‘women,’ weren’t you,” Gabriel accused.
Toby grinned. “Well, as Trissiny would emphatically remind us, women are people.”
“I think,” Gabriel said more thoughtfully, turning and beginning to walk again, “it’s more that even if I had noticed it, not long ago I wouldn’t have thought of any greater consideration than the possibility to going to bed with a gorgeous woman who was into me. It’s hard to say exactly what’s changed…”
“It is called ‘maturity,’ and it’s bound to be uncomfortable for you at first, all things considered.”
“Could you stop helping, please?” he said in exasperation.
“No,” Ariel replied. “I can’t stop helping and I can’t stop expressing myself without regard for people’s feelings. You are a naturally occurring sapient and can evolve and modify your behavior. I am a constructed intelligence. My personality is rigidly defined.”
He grimaced. “I…yeah, sorry. I guess that’s kind of unfair of me.”
“Yes, it is. My feelings are not particularly hurt; given your general pattern of thoughtlessness you treat me with a surprising degree of consideration overall. However, I am still bound to point it out when you’re being foolish. For your own good, you see.”
“With friends like these,” Gabriel said to Toby, “who needs the ravening hordes of Hell?”
Toby’s answering laugh was interrupted by the rapid arrival of Chase Masterson.
“Whoah, guys!” he said, skidding to a halt after having pelted down the path toward them. “You may wanna clear the vicinity, it is about to get dangerous out here. Oh, hey, Gabe, you’re back!”
“What did you do?” Gabriel demanded.
Chase planted a hand on his chest and looked shocked and wounded. “I? What did I do? Gabriel. After all these years, after all we’ve meant to each other! Why do you say these things just to hurt me?”
“Because,” Gabriel said bitingly, “you came up grinning. I’ve only ever seen you grin when someone else’s day was about to be ruined.”
“Are you gonna let him talk to me like that?” Chase demanded of Toby, who shrugged.
“Well, he could stand to be a little politer, but he isn’t really wrong.”
“Now, that is just unfair,” Chase complained. “This is scurrilous character assassination and you both know it. I also grin when people’s days are in the process of being ruined, or when I happen to reflect upon a particularly impressive ruination which has already transpired. Honestly, I thought you guys knew me a little better than that. This is just hurtful, is what it is.”
“My gods,” Gabriel marveled, “he’s still talking.”
“Just for that,” Chase continued, again grinning, “I’m not gonna warn you about—oop, too late anyway.”
Both turned to look the way he had come, and their eyes widened in alarm.
Even without knowing the full situation, what they could glean from the spectacle of a visibly incensed Professor Ekoi chasing a gleefully cackling Professor Rafe up the path told a frightening story.
“Ohh, this is not gonna be good,” Toby whispered.
“Good is such a relative concept,” Chase replied, his grin now stretching so far it looked downright painful.
“Guys! Kids! Students!” Rafe skidded to a halt much as Chase had done moments before. “I don’t suppose any of you speak Sifanese?”
Ekoi came to a stop right after him, ears flat back, fangs bared and tail bristling; Rafe immediately spun around Toby and cowered behind him.
“What the hell did you do?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Professor Ekoi? Are you all right?”
Ekoi transferred her livid green stare to him, prompting him to take a step back, then hissed a few syllables in her lilting native tongue.
“Um, Professor,” Toby said hesitantly. “There’s not a doubt in my mind he fully deserves whatever you’re planning to do, but…can you please wait until I’m not in the way?”
“Don’t move,” Chase cautioned. “Don’t even twitch. Moving might prompt her to strike.”
“Urusai!” Ekoi snarled at him.
Chase immediately buckled to the ground, prostrating himself before her. She actually appeared to calm slightly, at least enough to look quizzical at this display.
Then, with a characteristic soft pop, help arrived.
“One afternoon,” Tellwyrn said incredulously. “That’s all. I leave you alone for one afternoon. Should I be disappointed, or gratified no one’s blown up the damn mountain? In hindsight it’s all so murky.”
Ekoi rounded on her and began chattering rapidly in Sifanese. Tellwyrn focused on her, narrowing her eyes, and occasionally replying shortly in the same language.
“Uh, what happened?” Gabriel asked hesitantly when a lull finally fell in the tirade. “I’ve never seen her this mad. It’s like she’s forgotten Tanglish.”
Tellwyrn sighed heavily, turning to give Rafe one of her foulest glares. “Kaisa does not sully her graceful tongue with our barbarous gutterspeech. Universal translation is one of the effects of her inherent magic. Consequently, when some stampeding fuckwit slips her an anti-magic potion, she finds herself disadvantaged in several rather important respects.”
“Whoah, whoah, wait, stop,” Chase said, straightening and gazing up at Rafe in awe. “You…you started a prank war with a kitsune?”
“Seriously, Professor,” Toby said over his shoulder, “even by your standards, that is needlessly suicidal.”
“Why are you kids still here?” Tellwyrn barked.
“Because he’s got a grip on me,” Toby replied.
“And I’m not abandoning my oldest friend to this madness,” Gabriel added.
Grinning insanely, Chase spread his arms wide. “Need you ask?”
“You know, there really is a very good explanation for all this,” Rafe said, poking his head out from behind Toby’s. “I’m awesome, she’s hot, and we are both deeply annoying people. Something like this was practically predestined. It’s just math.”
He and Toby both shied back as Ekoi thrust her face forward at them, baring all her fangs. She spat a few syllables, then whirled on her heel and stalked back the way she had come.
“I suppose I should be grateful,” Tellwyrn said with a heavy sigh. “Admestus, you are going to make this right. You do not provoke a kitsune that way, especially not on my campus; this goes above and beyond your general run of imbecilic behavior into a realm I can’t afford to tolerate.”
“Fear not!” Rafe proclaimed, bounding out from behind Toby (now that the danger had passed) and striking a pose. “If there is one man in all the realm who can calm the affronted feelings of yon lady, tis I, the glorious Professor Rafe! Gaze upon my manly ingenuity and bask, mere puny mortals!”
“She took your pants,” Gabriel noted.
“Nonsense, her magic’s—son of a bitch.” Rafe stared down at his legs. “Even with her magic dampened. Hot damn, that is impressive! I do believe I’m going to marry that woman.”
“She, um…appears to hate your guts, Professor,” Toby pointed out.
Rafe barked a laugh. “All the great romances start that way! Ask Teal.”
“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said very evenly, “if you can swear to me that those don’t belong to a student, I promise to now and in the future withhold all comment on your choice of ladies’ bloomers as an undergarment.”
Rafe again bent forward to thoughtfully study his bare legs and the lacy scrap of clothing stretched far too tightly across his groin.
“…what kinds of comments would these be?”
Tellwyrn clapped a hand over her eyes, glasses and all, repeated the short phrase which had been Ekoi’s parting comment, and teleported out.
“’Bakka inoo,’” Chase enunciated carefully. “I gotta remember that one, it sounds nasty. I don’t suppose any of you have a clue what it means?”
“Library’s that way!” Rafe proclaimed, pointing. “And now, if you boys will excuse me, I must away to plot the mollification and subsequent seduction of my exquisite bride-to-be!”
“Excuse me,” Toby said sharply, “but do those belong to a student?”
“Hell if I know,” Rafe replied with a broad grin, “Ekoi put them there. I tell you, she’s the perfect woman! Ohh, this is gonna be a courtship for the ages! ONWARD TO GLORY!”
He took off down the path at a run, trailing maniacal laughter behind him.
“How old is he?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, I know he’s a half-elf and they have a longer lifespan. Do they age more slowly?”
“Really?” Toby exclaimed. “That’s what you’re most curious about?”
“I think I follow his line of thought,” Chase said solemnly. “The question is: why the hell has nobody killed him yet?”
“Yes.” Gabriel pointed at him. “That.”
While they were speaking, Ravana had arrived, carrying a few books and now glancing back up the path in the direction Rafe had gone.
“Could one of you gentlemen kindly explain to me why Professor Rafe is dashing pell-mell through the campus, wearing my underthings?”
Gabriel heaved a sigh. “Man, it’s good to be home.”