The Rock looked almost squat from a distance, due to its subtly sloping walls. In shape, it resembled the bottom third of a pyramid, built from the dark volcanic stone of the craggy mountains surrounding Puna Dara. The closer they drew, however, the more its size revealed itself. The palatial fortress was easily the largest structure in the city. Square in shape and perched right on the shore with half its bulk extending into the harbor, it was set at a forty-five degree angle from the shoreline, one corner extending out past all but the longest of the piers.
“Right into the teeth of the storm,” Ruda said as they came into the shadow of the huge fortress. “Nobles in Tiraas, Sifan, Shengdu, everywhere, they like to build their palaces up on the hills, out of the way of…whatever might come. Not the Punaji. There are no weak leaders in Puna Dara; never have been, never will be. When a storm hits the city, it hits the center of government first.”
“Is that why the fortress is positioned that way?” Fross chimed curiously. “It looks aerodynamic! Like the storm winds channeled into the harbor by the shape of the mountains would part around that leading edge out there instead of hitting a big wall head-on.”
“Well, sure,” Ruda said, grinning. “Just ‘cos you lead from the front doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be stupid about it. Quite the opposite, takes strategy to live that way.”
“I am not much for cities as a rule,” Brother Ermon said mildly, “but in just a few days I’ve come to rather like the Punaji.”
Everyone glanced at him silently. That comment stifled the conversation for now, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the Huntsman in the least.
The Rock’s battlements bristled with mag cannons on its sides facing seaward, though no such weapons were aimed west at the city, clearly indicating from where Puna Dara’s leadership expected to find threats. Its city gates stood open, as well, but for all that the fortress was hardly undefended. Broad streets ran alongside it and nothing was permitted to be built against its walls, offering no structure which could provide a path to the ramparts. At its westernmost corner, a huge plaza spread out from the tower where the walls intersected, lined with stores and stalls and filled with a throng of people. The open gates of the Rock were symbolic of the relationship of the Punaji to their King; watchful soldiers, however, not only stood in the gates themselves, but were positioned all around the plaza, a column marching through even as the party from Last Rock drew close.
Ruda moved to the head of the group, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth; upon her arrival, the entire squad manning the gate saluted and stepped aside.
“Psst.” Teal nudged Juniper. “Take off the ring.”
The dryad frowned at her in confusion. “What? But I’m not allowed to be in cities without…”
“That’s Imperial cities. I don’t actually know what laws they have about dryads here, but in Punaji culture it’s an insult and a threat to enter someone’s home with your identity concealed.”
“Oh.” Juniper chewed her lower lip, and began toying with the silver ring she wore. “I guess…”
“It’s fine, Juniper, take it off,” Professor Tellwyrn said. “You’re Ruda’s guest, and Teal is right. Respect the tradition.”
“Okay, if you say so,” Juniper said with clear relief, and pulled the ring off.
Several of the soldiers twitched and turned toward her when her hair suddenly turned green.
“She’s with me,” Ruda barked. “At ease, boys.”
“Is it just me,” Gabriel said in a low voice, leaning closer to Toby, “or has she started swaggering more in the last five minutes?”
“She’s nervous,” Toby replied, just as softly. “Overcompensating.”
“About what?” Toby just shook his head.
They were at the back of the group, though still within Tellwyrn’s easy hearing. She didn’t so much as glance back at them. Teal, however, half-turned her head to give Gabriel a pointed look from the corner of her eye.
The thickness of the walls was incredible; passing through the gate was like entering a tunnel. Soldiers in baggy trousers, scarlet vests and turbans saluted Ruda, all seeming to recognize her on sight, once they emerged into the Rock’s enormous front courtyard. It seemed the fortress itself was built right into its seaward walls, leaving a triangular space inside the wedge which protruded into the city.
“Were we…expected?” Teal asked uncertainly as they stepped back into sunlight. There was a double line of troops extending toward the main fortress, forming a corridor. “I thought this was a sort of impromptu trip?”
“Fortunately for you, not everyone shares your apparent inability to plan ahead,” Tellwyrn replied. “I made arrangements. Yes, you’ll be expected, though they haven’t had much time to prepare. I’m rather impressed at this much fanfare.”
“Well, we all know how the Punaji think on their feet, eh?” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Right, Ruda?”
She didn’t answer. They all turned to look where she was silently staring: at a lone figure emerging from the Rock, heading toward them between the rows of soldiers. After a pause, Ruda suddenly broke into a run.
The woman approaching did likewise, grinning broadly, and they collided near the first rank of troops, spinning around in a bundle of exuberant laughter.
That close, the comparison was striking. The Queen of Puna Dara was exactly as tall as her daughter—which was to say, not very. Where Ruda was both muscular and curvy almost to the point of plumpness, though, Anjal Punaji was slim as a blade, making her look diminutive in comparison. She wore a blue longcoat trimmed in gold, with neither a weapon nor a hat, revealing the azure gem glittering between her eyebrows and the threads of silver in her black hair.
Anjal pulled back, holding Ruda by the shoulders and grinning. Abruptly, though, her demeanor changed, expression switching to a scowl, and she shook her daughter roughly.
“What do you mean by this, turning up out of nowhere? We don’t pay tuition at that crazy school for you to go haring off whenever the mood takes you!”
“I heard the—”
“So we have some troubles in the city and you think you have to come rescue your poor, helpless old parents? How do you think we ever managed before you came along, Princess? Everyone has their duty and yours is to be studying in Last Rock!”
“I don’t run or hide from trouble when my people need help!” Ruda shouted back, matching her mother’s glare, now. They still stood close enough to hug, clasping each other by the arms.
“Oh, we know that, don’t we? After you decided only you could handle a damned hellgate when everyone was ordered to evacuate!”
“You want I should abandon my friends to danger? Is that how you raised me?”
“I raised you to know your duty and to do it, you—”
“Well, not that this isn’t entertaining as hell,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “but it sounds like you might want to pick it up in more comfortable surroundings?” She looked pointedly at the students and Ermon, all of whom were staring in clear fascination.
The Queen gave the Professor an appraising look, then released Ruda and nodded to her. “Ah, yes. Welcome to Puna Dara! I believe I recognize everyone from Zari’s letters. We received your belongings just a little while ago, everything is in your rooms.”
“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.
“Ah, so this is as much a surprise to you as to us?” Anjal raised an eyebrow. “You work quickly, Professor. I had a suspicion this trip wasn’t of your planning—or at least, not at first.”
“Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt to the circumstances,” Tellwyrn replied. “While it is possible to effectively imprison my students in order to make them behave, rare is the situation in which that is the best choice. This time… They actually can help, and it makes for a very worthwhile exercise.” She turned a grim stare on the sophomores. “And afterward, we will discuss their respect for my rules at considerable length.”
“Well enough, I suppose,” said the Queen, finally giving the rest of them a smile. “Brother Ermon, thank you for finding our guests.”
“Fortuitous happenstance, your Majesty,” he demurred, bowing slightly. “I take no credit. I suspect none of them needed any guidance.”
“Come on, all of you, I’ll show you to the rooms we’ve prepared,” Anjal continued, stepping toward the castle. “It’s no floating tower, but we take good care of our guests here.”
“I’m looking forward to it!” Juniper said brightly. “I know we’re not here to sight-see, but after everything Ruda’s told us it’s great to finally visit Puna Dara.”
Anjal had begun to lead them toward the fortress, but suddenly slammed to a halt. Slowly, she turned to face her daughter. “And who,” she demanded, both eyebrows rising sharply, “is Ruda?”
The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”
“When did this start? Never mind, don’t tell me. As soon as you were out of my sight, wasn’t it? You’re so embarrassed by where you come from you had to rename yourself?”
“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.
Tellwyrn cleared her throat, stepping forward and patting the Queen on the shoulder. “I advise against taking it personally, Anjal. Kids leave home, they want to establish their own identity…take it from someone who knows, this is perfectly normal. I have a drow on the rolls right now who went so far with it her mother tried to call her home in disgrace. I assure you, Zaruda has been nothing but a credit to her upbringing.”
“Hmph.” Anjal fixed her daughter with another long look. “I can see we have a great many things to catch up on. Come along.”
She turned and headed off again. To either side, the lined soldiers stared straight ahead, earnestly pretending to have seen and heard nothing. Ruda sighed again, heavily, and pointed at Gabriel. “Not a fucking word, Arquin.”
“I?” he exclaimed, pressing a hand to his chest and adopting a look of shocked reproach. “Why, dearest classmate, what possible words could I speak that would besmirch your unimpeachable character? Except, I suppose, for possibly bringing up that time you fucking stabbed me.”
Ahead, Anjal stopped again, this time so quickly she actually skidded, and whirled to face them. “You what?!”
The stagecoach rumbled toward the gates of Puna Dara in darkness, though dawn had come long since. As they drew ever closer, the mountains rose higher all around, obscuring the sunrise in the east; now, they were actually in the ancient dwarven tunnel leading to the city itself. It was late enough in the morning for there to be traffic on the broad highway now passing under the mountains, despite the darkness. Their coach proceeded in the company of wagons, travelers both on foot and on horse, and several enchanted carriages, though they weren’t the preferred vehicle for long trips away from cities. Carriages reliable enough not to need repair on such journeys weren’t exactly new, but the public’s tastes hadn’t yet caught up with the state of modern enchantment.
“It would have been near here,” Nandi murmured in elvish. “Where the Fourth was struck down. Or back at the entrance to the tunnel.” Principia glanced at her, but made no comment.
They were on schedule to beat the rest of their squad by at least a day. She and Nandi had made it this far ahead by hopping the stagecoach; two elves materializing out of the wilderness and begging for a ride did not make a particularly outlandish sight, though without the benefit of Avenist armor, they’d been greeted with suspicion. Finally, after paying twice the normal carriage fare, they had been relegated to riding on top with the baggage, despite the fact that there was room in the coach itself. Neither were fazed by these insults; what mattered was that they were on the way, and did not resemble an official presence of the Sisterhood, both being garbed as plains elves. Principia had dyed her hair a more conventional blonde, and if any of the humans they met were familiar enough to recognize the shape of her ears, well, there were any number of reasons a wood elf might have become part of a plains tribe.
In the interest of avoiding notice, the human members of their squad were proceeding much more conventionally. Thanks to Principia’s connections in the Wizard’s Guild, they had been teleported as close as was feasible to Puna Dara, which in the case of herself and Nandi meant the highway not far outside it, but the humans had been sent to Desolation, the last stop on the Rail network. Bypassing even the Rails, the whole squad would probably be the first of the Silver Legionnaires sent by Rouvad to actually reach the city. Elves wandering out of the wilderness might be a typical sight, but four human women doing so would have drawn attention, so they had embarked from the usual carriage line. The squad was to rendezvous at the Mermaid’s Tail as soon as possible. For now, though, the elves were alone.
“This is oddly nostalgic,” Nandi said suddenly, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and turning it over in her hands. It was authentic; the Sisterhood had surprising things in its armories. She carried a shortbow and arrows, Principia a tomahawk, and both hunting knives. “I honestly hadn’t expected to be dressed and armed like this again till…ever, really. It has been a very long time since I looked back at where I came from.”
Principia watched her face sidelong. The tunnels weren’t illuminated; some of the vehicles passing through them carried fairy lamps, but not their stagecoach. The dimness was no challenge to her eyes, though.
“I guess falling in love is one reason to leave home,” she said at last, also in elvish. “I wouldn’t know. Me, I just couldn’t stand anybody I was related to.”
Nandi smiled slightly, gazing ahead. The tunnel passed under most of a mountain, but they could both see the light in the distance, morning sun rising above the ocean. It would be a while yet before they drew close enough for the humans in their vehicle to make it out. “I didn’t find her until some time after I went wandering, actually. Odd as the idea may seem to you, we may not be so different. I really didn’t fit in among my tribe, either.”
Principia kept her face neutral. Since their early conversations when Nandi had been serving as interim Bishop, the other elf hadn’t seen fit to share anything about her past, and Prin had not inquired. If there was one thing she respected, it was the need to leave ancient history in the dust where it belonged. Still, the fact that Nandi had brought this up, seemingly out of nowhere, said she wanted to discuss it. And Nandi Shahai had never done anything without a reason.
“Not much of a traditionalist?” she asked after a short silence.
“Traditions exist for a reason,” Nandi said quietly, still gazing ahead. “Not necessarily a good reason, but not necessarily a bad one. It’s not that I’m rebellious…at least, not more than I could help. The Elders of my tribe simply found it frustrating that I only approached women as lovers.”
Principia blinked and straightened up. “Wait—they threw you out for that? I mean…I know plains tribes are more strict about some things, but where I’m from that would be an eccentricity, at worst. And where I’m from, Elders compete with each other to see who can be the most stuffy and hidebound.”
Nandi grinned, just faintly enough to show teeth. “Oh, no, I wasn’t chased out; leaving was entirely my own decision. Life is different in the Golden Sea than in the groves, Principia. I don’t begrudge the Elders their concern…exactly. A tribe’s quest for enough food is eternal, and life is dangerous. We would lose people more often than a forest tribe usually does, no matter what care we took. For those responsible for shepherding the tribe’s future… It is a matter of concern to the tribe if a healthy female, for any reason, will not produce children.” She shook her head. “Concern it all it was, not condemnation. But it never stopped. It quickly becomes exhausting and demoralizing, having well-intentioned people constantly try to fix you when you aren’t broken.”
“Hm.” Principia heaved a deep sigh and squirmed slightly, shuffling down to sit more comfortably among the bags and suitcases lashed to the roof. “Now there, I can relate.”
“I bet you can,” Nandi replied, her smile widening.
“No offense,” Principia said carefully, “but you’ve never struck me as eager to trade backstories before…”
“Oh, I’m not prying, don’t worry. It honestly didn’t cross my mind that you would care to talk about your own history.”
“Good, because I don’t,” she said wryly, “but that’s not that I meant. Is this an ‘eve before battle’ thing? Not to understate the danger, here, but I think if we were going to be preemptively struck dead, it would have happened before now. It seems to me we’ve made it in, knock wood.”
“Nothing so dramatic,” Nandi murmured. “I don’t know. Nostalgia, as I said… And having no one for company but another elf, which is a very unaccustomed situation for me. I haven’t made an effort to interact with my own kind in the last five centuries, nor to spend much time apart from the Sisterhood. We have elves, of course, gnomes, dwarves…everything but drow. It is mostly a human organization, though. This is just…I don’t know.”
“Now, that’s not terribly reassuring. I’ve grown to thinking of you as the most self-possessed, even-tempered person in my squad.”
Nandi cracked another grin. “Don’t worry, I am not about to become hysterical. Perhaps I’m just feeling more comfortable with you, is all. One downside to one’s entire social circle being so short-lived: after five hundred years, one grows hesitant to make close friends. Maybe I’d just like to have someone with whom to talk about these things.” She shifted to give Principia an amused look. “You don’t exactly project an aura of reliability or trustworthiness, Locke, but after all these months I feel I do have a sense of your virtues and flaws. And you are a good friend.”
“Well,” Principia said airily, “thank you for not having this discussion in front of the squad.” Nandi laughed obligingly. The silence which followed was comfortable, and lasted until they emerged into the tropical warmth of the city.
She stood at the end of the pier, shading her eyes with a hand. Even so, staring more or less at the sunrise was more than she could handle, and after only a moment she had to turn away, grimacing.
“You’re closer,” buzzed the voice in her ear. “Still not enough that I can get anything directly from the facility from your position, though I can tell it’s a good two hundred meters below your level, as well as almost five hundred meters east by southeast. Can you get closer?”
“Walker, if I get any closer I’ll be swimming,” Milanda said quietly, touching her earpiece. No ships were currently docked nearby, and she had the area mostly to herself, but still, it was generally better not to be seen chattering with oneself in public.
“Hm… So it’s underwater, then, not just underground.”
“Is it possible the whole thing’s just flooded?” she asked.
“Very unlikely. The Fabrication Plant’s facilities could pump out water and secure itself with force fields in a crisis, but frankly, the physical material from which it is made…”
“Mithril, like the spaceport,” Milanda sighed, turning again to peer out at the harbor. She knew, approximately, what a meter was, but didn’t have an intuitive sense of how far that would be in feet or miles. Broadly speaking, though, it would be somewhere in the middle of the harbor.
“Besides,” Walker continued, “if your description of the Rust cultists is accurate, they did not acquire that technology from any contemporary source. Somehow, there is an access to the facility, and they either control it or know where it is.”
“Well, that’s almost a relief,” Milanda murmured, turning and heading back toward Puna Dara. “I wasn’t looking forward to chartering a boat.”
“I doubt very much you could make significant progress that way.”
“Exactly. But if it comes to getting my hands on this cult and getting answers from them?” The Left Hand of the Emperor indulged herself in a smug smile. “That, I am pretty confident I can do.”