“And so, you have come to me.” Ami Talaari smirked, folded her arms strategically under her bosom, and leaned against the frame of her apartment door. After having swept a disdainful look around at his entourage of junior Eserites, she had seemingly dismissed them from consideration and focused her gaze upon Schwartz. “Really, Herschel, you ought to have done so in the first place. Who else do you know who has her finger upon the city’s pulse?”
“Yo.” Darius, at the back of the little crowd outside her apartment door, raised his hand. Everyone ignored him.
“Aha, well, yes,” Schwartz said self-consciously, managing a weak grin. “It really hasn’t been all that long, Ami. I went to get these guys first because I thought they might be in immediate danger… But you’re the first person we’ve come to!” Meesie nodded vigorously, bounding from his shoulder to the top of his head and adding a squeak of affirmation.
“Because you’re being hunted?” She finally looked past him again, studying the apprentices with a bit more interest. “These are the Eserites you know, yes? Why not go to the Guild for help? I’m certainly not shy about my talents, but that seems, if anything, a better source of intelligence on movements in the city. Not that I can’t help, of course,” she added with a smug little smile. “Just…curious.”
“Well, the thing is…” Schwartz cleared his throat. “We’re not sure who to trust or where we can go at the moment, and even my rooms at the Collegium have been spied on, so that’s possibly not safe…”
“Yeeeessss?” Ami’s smile widened. “I’ll warn you I have little direct access to the Collegium except through you, Herschel. But give me a few hours and I’m sure I can turn up something.”
“Um.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, we just need to borrow your apartment for a little bit. I need a secure space to cast some divination, so we can figure out where to go next.”
Her smile instantly vanished. Ami stared at Schwartz in silence for two heartbeats, then took a step backward, grabbed the door, and swung it shut.
“Waitwaitwaitwait!” Schwartz squawked, sticking a foot in the doorway to block it. “It’s not just that, Syrinx is involved!”
She stopped trying to kick his foot out of the doorway, and pulled it a few inches back open, her eyes now narrowed in suspicion. “How?”
“That’s just it, I don’t know yet, and believe me all this is terrifying enough without her snooping around the periphery after the gods know what!” He surreptitiously wrapped his fingers around the edge of the door frame, seemingly unconcerned with the danger to them should she manage to shove his foot out of the gap. It at least gave Meesie the opportunity to scamper down his arm and add her earnest squeaks to his plea. “She’s not the only old familiar face that’s suddenly showing up in connection with this. Ildrin Falaridjad is involved; she tried to have Jasmine, Tallie and Layla thrown in jail so she could interrogate them!”
“Ildrin?” Ami’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why in the name of Boslin’s flute is she not in jail?”
“Being neck deep in a powerful conspiracy’s probably handy for that,” Tallie remarked.
“And,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “it was Syrinx who intercepted her and bailed them out. I know those two have a mutual grudge but I can’t help being very suspicious when Basra shows up being helpful.”
Ami heaved a deep sigh—very deep, and accompanied by a subtle shift of her shoulders and back that made her chest swell, prompting Darius and Ross to shift their gaze momentarily. Schwartz, at least, was apparently used to her enough to maintain eye contact. “Oh, very well,” she said with poor grace. “I suppose you’d better come in, then.”
“You are a lifesaver,” Schwartz said emphatically, following her inside as she stepped back and let the door swing wide.
“Yes, well, I suppose someone has to rescue you, since your good friend Principia is out of pocket.”
He paused, prompting an annoyed throat-clearing from Darius, and then shifted aside to let the rest of them in. “How’d you know about that?”
“Forget to keep me in the loop, did you?” Ami positioned herself in front of the window and folded her arms dramatically, tilting her chin up. “Just because that elf is nominally friendly toward us doesn’t absolve her of being one of the most suspicious people we know. Believe me, I take great pains to be notified of any change in her routine. For example, her whole squad not showing up at any of their usual posts for a day and a half.”
“That is a wise policy,” Jasmine murmured.
“Holy crap, this place is nice,” Tallie said, adding a whistle as she peered around the apartment. “And you’re…a bard?”
“You were going to say just a bard, weren’t you.” Ami smiled smugly. “In much the way that you’re just a thief. We all have backstories, my dear. Touch that instrument and whatever problems you are having, they will increase by an order of magnitude.”
She hadn’t even been looking in the direction of Layla, whose fingertips were inches from the guitar propped upright on a reading chair, but Layla froze anyway.
“Uh, yeah,” Ross rumbled, gently taking Layla by the shoulders and pulling her back a few steps. “You don’t mess with a bard’s instrument. Ever.”
“My apologies,” Layla said, uncharacteristically demure.
“In case it doesn’t go without saying, now that my home is full of Eserites, I would prefer that there be no casual appropriation of any of my possessions.”
“Ami, there’s no need to get hostile,” Scwhartz reproved. “We appreciate your help very much, but you know quite well that Eserites don’t just grab whatever’s not nailed down.”
She just shook her head. “So! You are being stalked, apparently, by the Church loyalists, who by implication have become much more organized recently. I’m still lost on the point where the lot of you didn’t approach your own Guild first for help.”
There was a silence, in which even Meesie did not squeak.
“Wait, who?” Jasmine said at last. “Church loyalists?”
“Oh, really,” Ami said disdainfully. “Surely you didn’t think all this began in response to you.”
“I like her,” Tallie said in her driest tone. “She’s a sweetie.”
“Perhaps it’s best, after all, that you came to an accredited bard,” Ami said with a sigh, and turned to gaze out the window. She had a lovely view of a nearby park, surrounded by historic townhouses. “All of this descends directly from the Enchanter Wars; you lot and your troubles are only the latest manifestation of this conflict.”
While her back was turned, Darius carefully nudged Ross with his elbow, and then held both hands up in a cupping motion a good distance from his chest, waggling his eyebrows. Ross just shook his head, but Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla all swatted him simultaneously from behind. Despite her seemingly inhuman sense for fingers in the vicinity of her guitar, Ami did not respond to or appear to notice the chorus of slaps, continuing with her spiel.
“The Silver Throne and the Universal Church have been jockeying for influence for the last century, all because of the way the Enchanter Wars were ultimately settled. Before that, the Church was little but a formality, a kind of interfaith negotiating service. But then, Archpope Sipasian contributed to the outbreak of war by taking sides in the Salyrite schism, persecuting witches, and ultimately making enemies of the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Veskers.” She clicked her tongue as if chiding the long-ago pontiff. “So immediately, when Archpope Vyara took over, she tried to scale back the Church’s power to avoid more infighting. But then she also participated in a scheme to place a new dynasty on the Silver Throne, under the control of the Church and a couple of the dominant Houses. Then it turned out they’d backed the wrong horse entirely; Sarsamon slipped his leash and positioned himself as Emperor in truth. So the Church was left with a mandate to avoid assuming direct control over society, but also organized in such a way as to surreptitiously do so, and without the mechanism for which that organization was designed. Which has led to a push and pull within the Church, and between it and the cults, ever since.”
“This is real interesting and all,” Darius began.
“This is important.” Ami half-turned, placing herself in profile against the window, and several pairs of eyes shifted again. Including Tallie’s, which were rolled heavenward. “This is what you’ve blundered into; not some circumstantial thing that’s just popped up like your nonsense with those dwarves a few weeks ago, but a struggle that has been ongoing for a hundred years! I’m flabbergasted that you’re only just hearing about this. What do they teach you in that Guild?”
“Hey,” Ross protested. “We’re apprentices. None of us’ve been learning more’n a couple months.”
She snorted, managing to make even that musical. “As someone who is already acquainted with Ildrin Falaridjad, let me assure you she is a known partisan in this business, and has been for years. Basra Syrinx also has a reputation for being friendly toward the Church, even more than most Bishops, which makes it interesting that she’s siding against them now.”
“Basra never does anything without wanting something,” Schwartz murmured, stroking Meesie with his fingers. “Also, she really hates Ildrin…”
“The point is,” Ami said patiently, “those two are hardly the only people involved in this matter. Given a little time, I could get you a list of names of people who would almost certainly be involved, based on their known reputations.”
“That would help tremendously,” Jasmine said fervently.
Ami held up a hand. “Two important points. First of all, I assume you have more to go on than just Ildrin acting up? Because I have seen her using a stolen Izarite shatterstone to interrupt diplomatic proceedings by assaulting one of the participants. Just because she of all people is disregarding basic rules of decent conduct is not inherently newsworthy.”
“What’s a shatterstone?” Darius asked.
“An artifact kept in most Izarite temples for defense from attack,” Schwartz explains. “If you do any non-divine magic in its vicinity, it lets out a sort of pulse that neutralizes magic in the area and incapacitates all magic users except Izarite clerics. Well, briefly, anyway.”
“A typically Izarite notion of defense,” Jasmine said contemptuously. “Passive, indiscriminate, and easy to circumvent with a basic application of strategy.”
Ami cleared her throat loudly.
“Yes, right,” Schwartz said hastily. “Well, the thieves, here, did an operation to bust up some kind of extortion ring within the Sisterhood and the Collegium. I helped them get info from the inside…”
“You’re mixing up your crimes, Herschel,” Layla chided. “That was embezzlement, not extortion.”
“Yes, anyway,” he said irritably. “It’s in at least two cults and probably more, which was why we were uncertain about involving the Guild. Also, someone was scrying on my rooms, which means I specifically am being watched, and to get through the Emerald College’s wards they are either a very powerful mage or also a Salyrite. Probably both.”
“Ah,” Ami said, turning to face them again and nodding once. “Well, that brings me to my second point: You should have gone to the Guild immediately.”
“Once again,” Layla began.
“As I told you,” Ami said, “this is a new, more aggressive outgrowth from an existing matter. It’s about Church loyalists—people within the cults who believe strongly in the Universal Church, sometimes even more so than their own cults, at least according to rumor. Activity of that kind has increased markedly in the last ten years, though Archpope Justinian is always above anything tying him directly to such…antics. But we are still talking about people choosing to side with centralized power, at the expense of other loyalties.” She loftily arched one eyebrow. “And you really think the Guild is in on this? I assure you, in the entire century such activity has been waxing and waning, no Eserite has ever been involved. Other cults have wiggle room for attachments, but such goes against the most fundamental teachings of Eserion. Honestly,” she added acerbically, “it is incredible that I should have to explain this to you, of all people.”
“It’s really impressive how I wanna slap her even while she’s helping us out a lot,” Tallie said thoughtfully.
“Yes, Ami is very gifted,” Schwartz said with a sigh.
The bard, fortunately, seemed amused by this observation. “I seem to recall from Herschel’s description that you lot had help from one Alan Vandro?”
“Ugh,” said Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla in unison.
“Yeah,” Ross grunted. “What do you know about Vandro?”
“Only his reputation,” Ami said, grinning, “which includes the ugh factor. But also that he is an Eserite purist of the kind that annoys even other Eserites. If anyone could be relied upon not only to have no involvement in a Church loyalist campaign, but to do everything in his power to thwart one, it would be he.”
Jasmine drew in a long breath through her teeth. “Well…there’s that, I suppose. Personally, I think we’re better off dealing with the Guild directly, if it’s safe…”
“What about Glory?” Layla said. “Tamisin Sharvineh?”
Ami shrugged. “She, of course, is much more connected with circles of power, but again, still Eserite. Honestly, she is likely to more know about the ins and outs of this group if they are indeed beginning to organize something, as you imply.”
“They are definitely organizing something,” Jasmine said, frowning heavily. “I’d been thinking this was just a few opportunistic individuals, but if it’s instead a suddenly more orderly pattern of behavior by a long-standing group… Them skimming resources and money from two cults suddenly takes on a whole different aspect. That’s not just crime, it’s an insurgency strategy.”
“And further reason to turn to the Guild,” Ami added, again folding her arms. “The Thieves’ Guild’s intolerance for other people committing crime, especially organized crime, has always played a part in preventing rebel movements from funding themselves. It’s one of the reasons governments are so tolerant of Eserite activities.”
“So,” Darius said slowly, “if these people are suddenly ramping up their activities… They’re not just stealing money or liking the Church anymore. They’re planning to do something.”
“And,” Layla added, “the reaction to us suggests we came closer than we realized to finding out something they don’t want known.”
“Thank you very much, Ami,” Jasmine said. “You’ve helped us tremendously already.”
“You mean, by making you think about what you already knew?” Amy swept a grandiose bow. “A bard’s work is never done.”
Upon her return to the Rock, the royal family’s seneschal directed Teal to a chamber deep in the fortress, which he called an armory. There were, indeed, weapons along the walls, but it currently seemed to be serving as a combination laboratory and gathering place. Several more people were present than she’d expected to find when asking where her classmates were, one of them in the middle of a story when she entered.
“—two harpoon launchers, but mine were attached to treated cables that wouldn’t burn or cut under anything less than dragonfire or a mag cannon, and the heads discharged a spray of modified yggdryl sap which basically encased them and whatever they struck in a layer of rock. The release mechanism was in the launcher. So of course using ’em was expensive every time, but when I hooked another ship, they damn well stayed hooked, until I decided they could go again. The wonders of modern alchemy!”
Anjal Punaji was animatedly narrating, standing near an examining table on which were laid out a variety of arcane scrying tools along one side, while Fross flittered about over a bent metal arm that had clearly been taken from a Rust cultist. Ruda, Toby, Gabriel and Juniper were all standing nearby, listening to the pirate queen with varying degrees of interest.
“Told you,” Ruda grunted when her mother paused for breath. “Woman is fuckin’ obsessed with gadgets. You leave this thing in her sight and she’ll be trying to build her own cultist by nightfall.”
“So I’d let them herd me closer to the vortex, see?” Anjal continued, mostly directing herself to Gabriel, who was clearly the most wrapped up in her story. “So we snared her with both harpoons, and then dropped all sail, which basically made the Quarrel an anchor dragging the Sheng warship down with us. They immediately did everything they could to pull away, but with the weight of both ships and the vortex pulling at us, they had no chance. We stayed that way till we were both past the point of no return, then I released the cables and raised sail again.” She grinned savagely. “But my ship was outfitted with Imperial zeppelin thrusters below the water line. It was touchy for a bit there, but we pulled out of the vortex and left the Sheng to drown, and good bloody riddance to ’em.”
“Whoah, hold up,” Gabriel protested. “Zeppelin thrusters? Do those even work underwater?”
“I assure you, they do,” Anjal said with a wink.
“Cos I’m no sailor, but I’m pretty sure those things would shake a wooden ship to pieces.”
“Oh, that they would, which was precisely why mine was the only ship on the sea that had ’em. The Quarrel was a high elven caravel; toughest little girl I ever saw, and the wood healed itself after being damaged. You’re not wrong, she sprouted a dozen leaks after that abuse, but we bailed our asses off for the next day and a half and she gradually put herself right.” Anjal heaved a reminiscent sigh. “Gods, I miss that ship.”
Gabriel was frowning now. “I thought high elves were a myth.”
“Yeah, well, you’re better off. It’s for the best for everybody that they keep to themselves. They were real bloody curious what I was doing with one of their ships in the first place. By far the biggest pain in the ass I ever dealt with, and that’s including having half the Punaji privateers chasing me from Acarnia to Glassiere.”
“What is she doing here?” Teal demanded suddenly, glaring.
“Uh.” Juniper blinked. “She…lives here. This is kinda her house.”
“I don’t think she’s talkin’ about Mama,” Ruda said wryly.
Six other women were gathered on benches against the far wall, watching with wide eyes—including two elves, one of whom Teal recognized.
“Hi there,” Principia said diffidently. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Teal braced her feet, and emitted a low growl—a sound that clearly was not the produce of any human voicebox. Flickers of orange fire sparked across her eyes. All six women pressed themselves backward against the walls.
“Whoah, whoah, easy there, hon,” Ruda said soothingly, rushing to her side and laying a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “Short version is, she’s helping. This is Lieutenant Locke of the Third Silver Legion. They’re expected; after the Fourth got wiped out, High Commander Rouvad sent us some special forces units, much more discreetly. These are the first to arrive.”
“This woman, in the Silver Legions?” Teal said contemptuously. “And you believed that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Ruda countered. When Teal turned a glare on her, she shrugged. “Think about it. The one thing we know she wants is access to Trissiny. This crazy bitch was willing to piss off all of us, not to mention the various world powers we’re connected to, plus fucking Tellwyrn, just to get a two-minute conversation with Shiny Boots. Her signing up with the Silver Legions after that is such an obvious next step I’m a little embarrassed it didn’t occur to me at the time. Besides,” she added, turning a wry look on Principia, “I’m no High Commander, but if I was crazy enough to let this walking sack of pickled assholes into my Legions, I’d definitely route her into the special forces. She’d make a shitty-ass soldier under any other circumstances.”
“She really does know you,” Merry said, nudging Prin with an elbow.
Principia sighed and stood up. “Well! Now that everybody’s here that’s coming I can say it: I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” Teal snapped.
“Well, I am,” the elf said quietly. “The fact is, I was thinking of nothing but myself. All of you were just things in my way, as far as I cared. I have no excuse. It was unpardonable asshole behavior on my part, and I truly am sorry. That doesn’t change anything, I know, but there it is.”
“That was less than two years ago,” Teal exclaimed. “And now she’s calling herself a Lieutenant? That’s not even believable!”
Suddenly, warm arms were wrapped around Teal from behind, and Juniper pulled her close, resting her chin on Teal’s shoulder.
“She’ll wake up,” the dryad murmured. “She will be fine, Teal. And she wouldn’t want you to be so angry, or so sad.”
“She’s got a story to explain that, too,” Anjal interjected. “And we checked with the local Avenist temple, which has been kept in the loop. This actually is Squad 391, and Locke is who she claims. They’re an interesting bunch, aren’t they?”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Farah said politely.
“Girl, I’m Punaji,” Anjal replied. “There are no Majesties here.”
Principia cleared her throat again. “Well. Now that we’re all assembled, I’ve got something more relevant to the mission to bring up. Unless I’m wrong, which I kind of hope I am, did I hear you refer to the Rust as the Infinite Order a few minutes ago?”
Ruda narrowed her eyes. “Our intelligence says that’s their own name for themselves. What of it?”
Principia ran a hand over her hair, letting out a long sigh. “Oy vey… All right. Have you guys had the chance to eavesdrop on any of their sermons?”
“A couple of times now,” Toby said, nodding. “It’s all mind over matter, self-empowerment humanist stuff.”
“Jibbering nonsense, is what it is,” Casey added disdainfully.
“I wish it was that simple,” Principia replied. “Okay, without going into excessive detail, let me just remind everyone that I was an adventuring thief for two hundred years, back when ‘adventure’ was a respectable career path and not a punchline. I have been places people should not go and seen shit that’s better left forgotten. Such as, specifically, a number of relics of the Elder Gods. Rather…instructive ones.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about where this is heading,” Gabriel muttered.
“Infinite Order,” Principia said grimly, “was what they called themselves. The name of their organization, like how our gods are the Pantheon. And this stuff the Rust are spouting, this self-empowerment piffle… That was their religion.”
“Okay, hang on a fuckin’ second,” Ruda said, holding up a hand. “Let’s say for the sake of argument I believe you know this. Why would the Elder Gods need a religion? Wouldn’t they each have their own?”
“They weren’t gods like our Pantheon,” Principia explained. “They had a totally different relationship to their own power, and the people of this world. Our gods are each a god of something; the Elder Gods were just beings of incredible, nearly infinite power. Everything they did was calculated to protect that power, including the religion they preached and enforced. Like, the system of measurements we still use? That was a very old one which was long discredited by the time they arose. They used a system based on tens, each unit derived from some physical constant.”
“Like the dwarves use!” Gabriel said.
“Maybe the same one; it wouldn’t surprise me if the dwarves had dug up Elder God relics themselves. My point is, everything the Infinite Order did was designed to suppress people. They gave our ancestors food that barely nourished them, prohibited things like libraries and museums, insisted on a system of measurements that made any kind of science harder to do and mandated a religion based on nonsense and circular reasoning, all to inhibit people from rising to power the way they had.”
“So,” Toby said slowly, “this unprecedented cult with inexplicable powers…is actually some kind of direct continuation of the Elder Gods themselves.”
Gabriel let out a low whistle. “Oh, fuck, that’s bad.”
“It may not be as bad as that,” Principia cautioned. “The Elder Gods left all kinds of junk. Most of it’s been destroyed or locked away by now, but I suspect there’ll always be bits and bobs left for somebody to stumble across once in a while. Whoever leads the Rust may have just got his hands on some records and/or artifacts.”
“Sounds to me like we’d better be prepared for the worst, though,” Anjal said flatly. “Records and artifacts don’t wipe out Silver Legions.”
“Uh, yeah, about that,” Fross chimed, finally drifting away from the arm she’d been examining. “I would be more worried about whatever source of knowledge or power the Rust has being able to propagate itself somehow. Cos I’ve triple checked to be sure about this and right now I’m about ninety-five percent certain this hunk of metal is alive.”