The sun rose over a city stirring with barely-contained furor. A constant hum livened the streets, anger and incipient panic growing steadily. It would not be long before it exploded, one way or another. Already people were gathering around the walls of the Rock.
The sight of Puna Dara’s movers and shakers entering the fortress helped to deflect some of the rising unease, at least for a while. Punaji as a rule did not revere the powerful and wealthy, but by the same token, everyone in the Punaji nation who had accrued power and wealth had done it themselves. With the sole exception of the royal family, there was no hereditary nobility, and a hefty estate tax limited the wealth a person could inherit; anyone positioned as a leader in Puna Dara had earned that, and was treated with respect. Not the fawning that Imperial or Narisian nobles expected, but respect.
Even the royals could be deposed if enough public sentiment turned against them, which added another dimension to the arrival of over a dozen wealthy visitors to the Rock. That the Crown would seek council with the various guildmasters, merchants, and civic leaders of the city was a sign that action was being taken, and served to assuage some of the public’s fear. By the same token, though, if there was to be a change of leadership, it would almost certainly fall to one of those now summoned by the King.
And there was still the serpent making its slow patrol in the harbor. The thing was tireless, and bore no marks from the mag cannon fire it had suffered last night. One way or another, the tension rising would soon boil over.
They met with the Queen and her advisors in a formal dining room first thing that morning. The Rock’s throne room was mostly used for entertaining foreign visitors who expected such grandiosity from a crowned head of state; Punaji, particularly of the successful variety, did not respond well to being lorded over. Anjal had positioned herself at the head of the long table, and that was as far as the privilege of rank went on this occasion.
None of those assembled would have stood out among the rich in Tiraas; ostentation in Punaji culture was seen as an invitation to a comeuppance. Leathers and fabrics were of the highest quality, hats had more feathers than most and some coats had understated gilt trim; swords and daggers were of exquisite workmanship and in many cases not even bejeweled. That was how the Punaji displayed wealth, in quality rather than frippery.
Guards stood at each of the doors, servants along the back wall, and the Queen’s special guests behind her chair, which immediately brought comment.
“I see some interesting faces present,” said a woman a few years younger than Anjal and apparently high in the rankings, as she positioned herself close to the head of the table. “I do not see his Majesty. Has he something better to do this morning, Anjal?”
“And it’s a pleasure to see you too, Ashla, as always,” Anjal said dryly. “The King and Princess Zaruda are preparing to address the public, and in fact I intend to involve you all in that, but first we need to have a discussion. With me are some allies who have been sent by the major cults to assist with this Rust issue. Brother Ermon and Corporal Shahai have been most helpful already.” She turned and nodded to the incongruous pair standing against the wall behind and to her left. Both were impressive, Ermon in full regalia but for the fur cloak, which the climate did not permit, Shahai in Legion dress uniform borrowed from the local Avenist temple. “And this is Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu.”
“Toby is fine,” he said, bowing slightly. “A pleasure.” He was closer, standing at the Queen’s right.
“Interesting,” mused a tall man whose beard was more gray than black. “Shall we take this as the Crown’s formal declaration that it requires help with this crisis?”
“Neither my husband nor I have called for help, until this morning when we asked you to join us,” Anjal said calmly. “All these have been here for days now; their various masters dispatched them and we have made them welcome, as is not only polite but strategic. The last thing we need right now is various cults running around muddling the issue further.”
“You’d think they would have learned, after what happened to the Fourth Legion,” Ashla commented.
Nandi cleared her throat. “It is not often that Avenists and Shaathists find common ground, but we do have in common that we do not scare easily.” Ermon grinned.
“And this wasn’t a crisis until this morning,” Anjal continued, “merely a problem. Now it is damn well a crisis, as you can all plainly see, and we’d be fools not to accept any aid which is available, so be so good as to lose the attitude, Jandhar.”
“Of course, you’re quite right,” the man who had spoken replied, nodding deeply and giving her a smile. “My apologies.”
“I should clarify,” said Toby, “that I was not sent by my cult. I’m here as a personal friend of the Princess, at her request.”
“Yes, Zaruda’s entourage,” replied a stately woman halfway down the table. Most of the women present wore Punaji attire of greatcoats and hats, distinguished from the common folk only by finer fabrics and brighter colors, but this one was in formal silk dress, her white hair held up by an arrangement of fine gold chains connected to the blue jewel set between her eyebrows. “I daresay we have all heard of you by reputation. She keeps fascinating company, our Princess.”
“That damned school,” another man muttered.
“As to that,” Jandhar piped up, “stop me if I’m just shooting my mouth off again, but how is it the lot of you haven’t already put this thing to bed? You represent quite the bundle of firepower, from what I understand.”
“Complex problems are rarely solved by hitting them hard enough,” Toby replied.
“Spoken like an Omnist, to no one’s surprise,” said Ashla, curling her lip. She had set her hat on the table and picked up one of the pastries laid out, but was now tossing it idly from hand to hand rather than taking a bite. “This one seems to occupy pride of place, Anjal.”
“We don’t get many paladins,” Anjal said brusquely. “With regard to the matter at hand—”
“This clearly is the matter at hand,” Ashla interrupted. “The Rust have been building themselves up for the better part of a year, and you’ve done nothing. They proved their will and capability to be a threat by striking down an entire Silver Legion, and you did nothing. Now you’ve got…what, a multi-cult strike force? Paladins? And somehow you’ve abruptly made this worse.”
“Oh, keep it in your pants, Ashla,” snorted the youngest man present, who didn’t look any older than Toby. “This is not the time for a political upheaval, and you aren’t going to be the next Queen. I want to hear what her Majesty and these fascinating people have to say.”
“I am absolutely flabbergasted to find you sober enough to be here at this hour of the morning, Khadesh,” Ashla replied with a cold little smile. “That’s how we know things are bad.”
“Ashla, if you want to take potshots at me, knock yourself out,” Anjal said sharply. “But anybody who’s just going to snipe at each other can go stand in the hall and do it. We do not have time for this childishness. We are here to discuss the situation, and options. We have not been doing nothing. The Huntsmen have helpfully located the Rust’s base of operations—their real one, not the harbor warehouse we all know they’ve been using. We are also in contact with the local Eserite chapter, who are gathering intelligence for us. Corporal Shahai’s squad is the first of several Silver Legion special forces units the High Commander has sent.”
“Don’t you have any actual Punaji to solve your problems?” Ashla exclaimed.
“We Punaji solve our problems by keeping our wits about us,” Anjal retorted. “For most of their existence the Rust were apparently harmless. Their involvement with what befell the Fourth Legion was unproven—until last night. Thanks to Toby and his friends we have confirmation of that from the Rust’s leader himself. Prior to this, the Crown had no excuse to clamp down on them.” She leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Had we attempted it, Ashla, you would have raised bloody hell—and unlike your posturing here and now, you would have been right to do so. The one thing the Punaji must absolutely never tolerate in their government is its clamping down on anything resembling dissent, which was all we could prove the Rust to be guilty of.”
“Hear, hear!” Khadesh exclaimed. “And furthermore, we all know this, so let’s not waste time and insult each other’s intelligence by making the Queen explain obvious decisions we all fully understood to begin with.”
“The Rust admitted fault for striking down the Legion, then?” the richly-dressed old woman asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Yes,” said Toby, “right before unleashing that sea serpent and instructing my friends and I to carry an ultimatum back to the Crown. They don’t actually want anything but to be left in peace; I gather they were quite alarmed by the display of force we represented to them. We were trying to negotiate when a third party intervened and spooked them.”
“Third party?” Jandhar demanded. “Who?”
“Someone anonymous,” Toby replied. “The rest of my group is working on that right now. Someone wielding powerful magic, which is why we cannot have them running around unsupervised any longer; I believe the current crisis would not have developed had they not antagonized the Rust while we were there. But they seem to have done it by interfering with those magic machines the cultists use, which makes me suspect they have valuable aid to offer once we catch them.”
“Probably Imperial,” Ashla snorted. “Tiraas just can’t leave well enough alone.”
“Perhaps,” Anjal said mildly. “If that is the case, there will be no official acknowledgment. Both because the Crown does not need to have the Silver Throne meddling in our business so intimately, and because if this rogue agent is not going to cooperate, I intend to throw them to the Rust as a chew toy to placate them.”
That brought grins and a few chuckles from around the table, quickly cut off when Ashla slapped her palm down.
“So that’s it?” she demanded. “Placate them?”
“As a first step,” Toby said. “That is not the only—”
“And this is who you’re getting advice from, I see,” Ashla barreled on. “Omnists would have us all sit and meditate while our city is overthrown by machine cultists! Do you not understand, boy, that that sea serpent represents the end of Puna Dara?! As long as it’s out there in the harbor, we have no trade. Our ships can’t sail. It will be days before the lack of fish causes widespread hunger, at most. Without our ships, we are nothing!” She finished on a shout, actually hurling the pastry at Toby’s head.
He caught it, looking bemused.
“Toby,” the Queen said in a deceptively mild tone, touching the jewel on her forehead with a fingertip, “did Zari ever tell you the significance of these?”
“Uh…” Toby blinked. “No, your Majesty, it hasn’t come up.”
“It was actually started by a foreigner,” she said. “Queen Sera. She was Calderaan, married to a Punaji King for political reasons.”
“Oh, come on,” Jandhar exclaimed. “Is this really the time for a history lesson?”
“Shush,” Khadesh said airily. “I like this story.”
“The Calderaan, of course,” Anjal continued lightly, “are a military society, and largely Avenist, but King Dakresh mostly thought of his new wife as foreign, and noble, and therefore delicate. So when Puna Dara was attacked by the Sheng, he forbade her to leave the fortress and fight. Not only did she take up a sword and join the fray, she took the time to place a target on her forehead.” Anjal grinned, tilting her head so that the gem flickered in the light. “It has ever since been the custom for Punaji women of a certain rank. Only one of sufficient power and importance that she is already a target wears the jewel; to put it on is to proclaim that you believe yourself such, which is not wise in our society unless you are prepared to back that up. It is a standing invitation, in essence.” Her grin widened. “A woman wearing the jewel is saying, ‘slap this off my head, if you think you can.’”
“Hm,” Toby mused. “I see.”
“If you’re quite done educating your foreign guests,” Ashla said, her voice dripping with acid, “I think we have a rather more urgent matter to—”
Toby’s hand was much faster than hers; he threw the roll hard enough that the impact on her forehead made her jerk backward.
“Wow, that’s on there good,” he observed. “You know, I always wondered how Ruda kept that thing on. Didn’t seem polite to ask.”
“It’s enchanted,” the grandmotherly woman explained with a wry smile.
“Who’s Ruda?” somebody inquired, but was drowned out by the scraping of chair legs on the stone floor as Ashla shoved her seat backward, standing and drawing her saber.
“Little boy,” she said in deadly calm, “I do not care whose Hand you think you are. If you issue a challenge to a Punaji woman, you are going to bleed.”
“You started it,” Khadesh pointed out gleefully.
Ignoring him, Ashla lunged at Toby with the sword.
He moved like water, flowing aside and toward her, spinning around the back of her blade and coming to rest behind her. Somehow, in that split-second, he had ended up with one hand on her sword arm and the other on her waist, as if he were guiding her through the swing.
Ashla emitted a high-pitched grunt of pure outrage, trying roughly to shrug him off. Toby continued to flow with her impetus, spinning the pair of them in a full circle like they were dancing and tugging the sword from her hand in the process, as a smooth continuation of her own attempted stab. He twirled them around, extending a leg almost as an afterthought to kick Ashla’s chair.
It slammed against the back of her knees, causing her to drop back into the seat with another grunt. In the next instant she froze, Toby having planted the tip of her saber against her belt buckle. He shifted it a few inches, however, guiding it unerringly back to its sheath. A single flick of his wrist sent the blade sliding home with a whisper and a click.
“The monks of Omnu exist to encourage peace,” he said, “as gently as possible.”
Pushing her chair back into the table required more brute force, but he did not seem to lack for it; Ashla’s midsection met the edge of the table hard enough to wring a squeak from her.
“The Hand of Omnu,” Toby said from right behind Ashla, both his hands resting on her shoulders, “exists to insist upon peace. No more gently than necessary.”
He held that position for a few seconds before releasing her and taking a step back.
Khadesh applauded until his neighbor reached over and swatted his hands down.
“I do prefer peaceful solutions,” Toby continued, stepping back over to the Queen’s side; Anjal was grinning openly at him. “I certainly tried to reach one with the Rust’s leader. But if any of you are worried that I am going to try to broker a solution which will not reflect the best interests of your nation, let me put that fear to rest. There was a moment, talking to him, listening to him, when I wanted to believe. As little respect as I have for the Rust’s philosophy, as long as they weren’t harming anyone, as long as they just wanted to practice in peace, I really wished I could support them in that. Reassure them, and persuade the Church, the Empire, and whoever else to leave them alone. But that was before. That man, Ayuvesh, acknowledged attacking and all but destroying a Silver Legion—just because they might have been a threat to him. When startled and faced with the possibility of my friends and I intervening, he set loose that beast in the harbor. He operates through fear, securing his needs by the threat of force. He is a bully and a terrorist, and he has to go.” He nodded firmly to the Queen. “I speak for my friends as well when I say that we are fully behind the Crown in this. The Rust must fall.”
“So when we talk about placating them,” Anjal continued, nodding back, “it is a tactic only to buy time. We must acknowledge that at this moment, the upper hand is theirs; so long as their pet is swimming around the harbor, they have a hand on Puna Dara’s throat. Our first priority must be to break that grip, and persuading them to release it, as galling as it may be, is our clear best bet in that regard. But in doing so, however we must, we will not lose sight of the fact that the Rust have declared war upon the Punaji.” She bared her teeth, and the expression was no longer a smile. “And the Punaji do not suffer tyrants.”
There were fervent mutters of approval at this, and one outright cheer from Khadesh.
“Well said,” Jandhar stated, nodding. “What, then, is your plan?”
“The situation is this,” Anjal said, folding her hands lightly. “We have two paladins, a pixie mage, a dryad, and the archdemon Vadrieny—together enough sheer force to crush almost any opponent. Unfortunately they can’t be used directly on the serpent because none of them can fight while swimming. The Rust did not do what they did to the Fourth Legion, which suggests that they aren’t able to. Conjuring that sea serpent guaranteed them the enmity of all Puna Dara, not something they would have done lightly if they had a cleaner option.”
“Back up,” said Ashla, not much the worse for wear for her recent manhandling, aside from an even more annoyed expression. “Vadrieny? That one’s the worst of Elilial’s get. Mindless destruction personified. Are you certain you have her under control?”
“Vadrieny is not under control,” Toby said quietly. “She was nearly destroyed five years ago and has no memory of her existence before that point. She is a friend, and has earned my trust. These…are interesting times,” he added wryly.
“I note that your assessment of the situation made no mention of conventional military assets,” said Jandhar. “Are we just not going to bother solving this ourselves, with soldiers?”
“This is not a conventional military situation,” the Queen replied. “We do not know what additional tricks the Rust have yet to play, and more to the point, they have made it plain that if they are further antagonized that serpent will begin destroying the docks and the ships there. What we need is to get to a point where we can use our forces. That means we need, first, to neutralize that serpent and cripple the Rust’s magical abilities. And that is being worked on as we speak.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense,” said Khadesh, grinning.
“I am in here talking to you while my husband is out there addressing the public for one reason,” Anjal said with a smile. “He is a much better public speaker than I. For the time being, the Crown is forced to comply with the Rust’s demands, to prevent the destruction of the docks—but the Rust have made a critical mistake in that regard. They depend upon Puna Dara for…everything. They have to eat. They have to move freely through the city to get any supplies they need. They wish to spread their gospel, which requires a public that will listen to them and not, for example, hurl bricks. The King is reminding the people right now that the government serves them, not the other way round, and while the government is forced to wait—for now—the Punaji people, themselves, are far from helpless.”
“So that is why you need us,” the old woman said slowly. “We can command action from our various employees. More to the point, we command respect from the general public. A united plan enacted by everyone in this group will spread throughout the city.”
“I like it,” Ashla said suddenly, nodding to the Queen. “Make it impossible for the Rust to do any business—even to exist in Puna Dara. As long as it’s not soldiers refusing to sell them food or let them walk down the street unmolested, they cannot claim the Crown has challenged their ultimatum. They may have cut off trade in Puna Dara, but Puna Dara can cut them off just the same.”
“And making that point,” Jandhar mused, “might just encourage them to call off their snake. Which brings us back to the other point: how, then, do you plan to neutralize their magic and put a stop to them?”
“That,” said Toby, “is what the rest of my friends are doing right now. We know someone who has insight into the Rust’s workings; it’s just a matter of bringing her into the fold.”
Milanda had given up on sleeping and gone in search of breakfast. All she’d managed after coming back to her rented hovel was a quick nap before another eyeball-gouging nightmare had catapulted her back out of bed, and she hadn’t dared try again. Worry and remorse made for poor company, but they sure kept her occupied.
They had occupied her mind, too; she was stymied as to her next move, and keenly aware that stress and lack of sleep were wearing down her faculties. If she still had that Infinite Order screen she could maybe have kept working at it, but as Walker had rightly pointed out, that thing would undoubtedly lead the Rust straight to her. So she’d ditched it back in the mines, and now here she was, alone, probably responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs in Puna Dara…
This mission was altogether not going well.
Dawn found her out on the street, heading for the nearby market where she could obtain some bread and fish. Milanda honestly felt too anxious to be hungry, but it was an excuse to move. Maybe a little air and exercise in the tropical sunlight would help clear her head. Maybe it would tire her enough that she could actually get some rest.
Of course, that was before she felt the blazing beacon standing out from the sea of candles that were the people around her, perceived through her life sense. She recognized that bottomless font of fae power from having followed her around last night, and from working with her sisters. Well, actually, she couldn’t distinguish between dryads at a distance this way, but how many could there be in Puna Dara right now?
And more to the point, what the hell was Juniper doing here?
Walking along with her attention on the dryad some two streets off to her left, she was sufficiently blinded to her own surroundings that only the reflexes granted by her fae attunement enabled her to catch the object tossed to her.
“Here ya go!” a voice said cheerfully. “On the house. You could use it, hon, you look half dead.”
It was a steamed honey bun, and it had been lightly pitched to her by a black-haired elf. There were few enough of those, but Milanda had taken pains to be able to recognize this one in particular, and her stomach dropped further. She resisted the urge to glance down at herself; the disguise charm on her gear should make her look like an unremarkable Punaji woman. Maybe this was a coincidence?
And maybe Justinian would spontaneously drop dead of a heart attack and she could go home.
“No, thank you,” she said politely, holding out the bun to the elf.
“Take it,” Principia bloody Locke said in a gentle tone that made Milanda want to punch her. “I know the look of somebody who hasn’t slept or eaten all night. A full stomach’ll help you get some rest, too.”
What the hell was going on? Was this a Legion special forces thing, hunting her down in connection to the ongoing Rust debacle? Or was it Locke on personal business as Trissiny Avelea’s biological mother, trying an even more indirect route? Milanda wasn’t on speaking terms with her grandmother, but she was aware that Narnasia had bodily ejected the elf from the Abbey last time she came sniffing around.
And in either case, how the hell had she found her?
Plus, that dryad was still wandering about not far away. Not getting closer, but…
“Guilty conscience?” Locke inquired innocently, and Milanda very nearly hurled the sticky bun at her face.
“What do you think I have to be guilty about?” she snarled.
The elf shrugged. “No idea. Worries, then? Or recently in love? Those are the big three, when it comes to insomnia.”
She could run. Of course, even with all her new gifts, she likely couldn’t outrun an elf. And even if this elf didn’t chase her down… Now that she was here, Milanda had to learn how much she knew and how she’d found it out. That this was a coincidental meeting was simply beyond the scope of possibility.
She started walking again, slowly, and Locke fell into step beside her. Obviously, she did not take a bite of the bun; gods only knew what the wretched woman had done to it.
“Conscience,” Milanda said suddenly. “And worry.”
Locke nodded, strolling along and apparently not watching her. There was silence for a long moment.
“Have you ever done something,” Milanda finally said, painfully aware she was in no mental state for these games, “something unspeakably awful…that wasn’t at all your fault, but you were there. No matter how rationally you know you couldn’t have stopped it, you can’t help feeling…”
“Nope,” Locke said after she’d trailed off. “I’ve lived a long time—at least, by human standards—and done some pretty awful shit, but I am glad to say everything I did was my idea. Good or bad, for better or worse, I own my mistakes. I’d hate to be in your shoes, if that’s what’s eating you. It sounds…disempowering.”
“That’s a good word,” Milanda mused. “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”
The elf emitted a soft huff of breath that might have been the shadow of a laugh, or a grunt, or almost anything. “Oh, that’s easy. Abandoned my daughter.”
So…maybe this was a personal thing after all? That was not better. The absolute last thing she needed was this random event blowing her cover.
“I’ve lied and cheated like you wouldn’t believe,” Locke continued thoughtfully, “killed and maimed… And stolen, oh, gods. I bet I’ve lifted about the annual gross domestic product of Stavulheim, one way or another. But all that was for a purpose. Even the people who’ve suffered for it…well, I knew what I was doing and why, and I always considered it worthwhile at the time. My little girl, though. I was just scared, and confused, and stupid, and mostly pissed off about being those things when I’d spent two hundred years thinking I had all the answers. I did something for all the wrong reasons, something I didn’t understand, and it…huh. I guess maybe I can relate to you a little better than I thought.”
“Mm,” she said noncommittally.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asked, turning to give Milanda an inquisitive look.
Murdered a room full of soldiers? Accidentally provoked the Rust into unleashing a sea serpent on Puna Dara? The burning presence of the dryad was drifting closer; she was hemmed between Locke and Juniper. Was that an accident?
Gods, she was so tired.
“I don’t really care to discuss it,” she said shortly. “Thanks for the bun. I’d better be going.”
“Well, it really isn’t that easy,” Lock said, stopping and turning directly to her. Oh, great, here it was. “Y’see, I was hoping we could have a conversation. You know, connect, maybe find some common ground.”
“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Milanda said politely. What could she do to this elf, if it came to that? Her augmented reflexes worked to protect her; they were useless on the attack, and she didn’t think she was faster than an elf. Plus, there were people around. Ignoring the two of them, as people in cities did to each other, but that would change if she took a swing at somebody.
“The thing is,” Locke said mildly, “the pixie and the dryad have this trick where they can…okay, honestly, it’s a bit over my head. Something about attunements and tracking and I dunno from fae magic, I left all that crap behind when I fled my parents’ grove. But no, I don’t have you confused with someone else. I’m just the first envoy, lady. The polite one. Isn’t it best for everybody if we do things the polite way?”
Milanda dropped the sticky bun in the street, planted her feet, and loosely balled her fists.
“Try to do it the impolite way,” she said quietly. “Go on, Locke. Try.”
The elf raised an eyebrow. “She knows my name. That’s interesting. Anyhow…no, sorry, that’s not my job. I guess you’ve just removed me from the equation.”
And suddenly the dryad was right there.
The overwhelming presence simply shifted spontaneously from its distant position to mere yards away; Milanda spun, right in time to see a young Stalweiss woman remove an enchanted ring, staring at her, and resume her natural green-and-golden coloration.
“You’re new at this,” Juniper said condescendingly. “If you are very helpful, and I mean so helpful that I end up getting over how annoyed I am at you, maybe I’ll teach you a bit more about the attunement. Maybe.”
Before Milanda could decide on a course of action, the earth shook, and people began screaming and scattering.
She whirled back the other way, where Vadrieny had landed in the street hard enough to make a small crater in the dirt. Locke was backing away slowly, but Milanda paid her no attention. She had just spied something else out of the corner of her eye.
She hadn’t felt him at all, and still didn’t; it was like he was completely absent from her life sense, he and that absurd, smoke-and-fire horse he rode. Gabriel Arquin brought his mount to a halt a few yards distant and leveled his scythe at her.
“Morning, sunshine,” he said flatly. “I see you decided not to play nicely with our elf. Very well, by the power vested in me by this here life-destroying divine weapon, I hereby deputize your ass. Welcome to the team.”