“Where’d everybody go?”
Teal looked up at Principia’s approach, straightening from her crouched posture at the edge of the cliff. As a young girl she had been nervous of heights, but bonding with Vadrieny had caused that to fade over time, and even reverse, to the point that her parents and even Shaeine protested her habit of lurking on ledges and atop things. But if you could fall all the way from above the atmosphere without suffering ill effects, not to mention being able to fly anyway…why not?
“Nowhere,” she said, unconsciously straightening her coat. “They’re in the building, packing up. Well, that and goofing off, it’s not like we had much to pack. I went. Just wanted to be alone and think for a bit. Which, now that I think about it, you could already tell, right? I mean, you can hear everything happening on this plateau. So why ask me?”
“Halfway there,” Principia said cryptically.
“What?” Teal frowned at her.
“You looked past the surface, but not far enough. Why would I indulge in such a harmless, pointless deception?”
“Sheer force of habit?” Teal said acidly. Then, when the elf just smiled at her for a moment, she spoke again more slowly. “Or it’s just a way to start a conversation and get me talking.”
Principia cocked a finger at her. “Bingo. See, you can spot these things as well as any bard, you’re just not in the habit of it. Anyway. I’ll go spread the bad news to the others, but since you’re here, our departure has been delayed so everybody might as well unpack again. I’ve just spoken with our Order guides and they don’t want to leave until dawn.” She shrugged irritably. “I can see their point. The trail has only a few safe spots to camp and the way they’re spaced out… Well, they’re accustomed to hiking in a certain rhythm for a reason.”
“Did you explain why it was important to go?”
“Explain what?” Principia asked with a wry little grin. “That we have an incredibly dangerous weapon we need to dispose of and I’ve got this feeling it’s gonna be more trouble alone on this barren mountaintop than if we take it back down to where there’s people? I didn’t even get into how we planned to hand it off to Arachne Tellwyrn. Somehow I think that might’ve made them even less sympathetic.”
“That’s…” Teal frowned. “That seems ominous, though logically I can’t put my finger on exactly why.”
“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Principia intoned, putting on a sarcastically pompous aspect. “Seriously, though, you’re right. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think it meant anything, but the god of bards his damn self was right here, sticking his fingers into this pie. An arbitrary, barely-justified delay that keeps us isolated in the open for another day has ‘plot device’ written all over it.” She turned her head toward the building in which the other students could be faintly heard having an argument. “I can’t imagine what could happen out of the blue up here, but I’ve got the feeling something’s going to. Well. It’s not like you aren’t the most capable group of people alive when it comes to fielding threats, even without that crazy universal trump card you just created. I better go tell everybody to be ready for…whatever.”
She turned and made it five paces before Teal suddenly called after her.
“Locke, wait. Can you spare a minute?”
Principia paused, half-turning to look back at her with a raised eyebrow. “We’re not gonna be any less stuck here after a minute, sure.”
“You were an adventurer,” Teal said, her words slow as if she were pondering each with care as she spoke. “During the Age of Adventures. You must’ve known a lot of other adventurers, right? I mean, back when they were common and respectable.”
“For a sentence that’s basically not wrong, that one is full of a lot of misconceptions,” Principia said, turning to face her fully again. “You may be overestimating how common and how respectable adventurers were even during their heyday. And as for me, well, I was even less of both than the usual. Also I tended to be a pretty solitary type. Your average dungeon delving party has little use for thieves unless they’re hitting Manor Dire or someplace with a bunch of traps. I’m a con artist, I don’t do traps. But still… Yeah, I knew people. It never paid to stay too far out of circulation.”
Teal nodded, chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment. “Did you ever know any who were pacifists?”
“Sure, that wasn’t uncommon,” Principia said immediately. “Party healers, basically. The majority were clerics, and the majority of those who went adventuring and were more into healing than stabbing were Omnists, Izarites, and Salyrites. Of course, Salyrites will do pretty much whatever they can get away with, but Omnists are explicitly pacifist. Izarite dogma itself isn’t pacifist, but several Izarite denominations are, and have gone through phases where they predominate in the cult.”
Teal’s face had fallen while she spoke, and now she nodded again, a little disconsolately. “Party healers. That’s it?”
“That’s by a wide margin the majority, yeah. Of course, you can pick any adjective and it applies to somebody who called themselves an adventurer at some point, including a lot weirder than ‘pacifist,’ but you asked about people I knew. That’s not a trait I seek out in my friends. I’ve known the odd pacifist who wasn’t insufferably preachy, but that combination of traits seems oddly uncommon.”
Teal made a wry grimace at her, getting a grin in response.
“You’re looking for a role model, then?” Principia said after a momentary pause.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure that must be hilarious to you…”
“Absolutely not,” the elf said with a totally serious expression. She turned fully and walked back over to stand by Teal at the edge of the cliff. “If you’re looking to adopt a given way of operating, modeling someone who mastered it is an excellent starting point.”
“Just a starting point, though,” Teal said quickly. “I obviously need to tailor my own approach, but…it’s hard to know where to begin. I figured following someone’s footsteps would get me pointed in the right direction, until I can figure out my own methods through practice.”
“That’s exactly how you acquire basically any skill,” Principia agreed. “Well, I’m sorry I lack personal connections that would apply to you, but I’ll tell you what. You might find a lot of inspiration in my own favorite trickster heroine, and I’m willing to bet you already know a lot of stories about her. Every young pacifist reads everything they can find about Laressa of Anteraas.”
“Of course,” Teal said, now frowning quizzically. “She was already a great inspiration to me, since I was a little girl. But…did you say trickster heroine? I never really saw her that way.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Principia replied with a wide grin. “Nobody does, not now or in her own day, and that is why she’s my favorite. Peak technique for con artistry is to avoid being known for it; that’s how you keep people off their guard. Then and now, everybody oohed and aahed over her ‘peaceful warrior’ shtick and the spectacle she made of that, and never really caught on to how she schemed rings around them.”
“Really.” Teal was still frowning, but more thoughtfully now.
“For example, you know the story of Safiya’s Shaming, right? It’s one of the most famous.”
“Safiya’s Persuasion, they call it in Calderaas,” Teal said, smiling in spite of herself. “Sure, of course, I always liked that one. Sultana Safiya was planning to invade Akhvaris, but Laressa walked into the Royal Palace and spent three days following the Sultana everywhere she went, reciting from the Aveniad until she abandoned that plan and swore to leave the drow alone.”
Principia was grinning, too. “And how about the Lasher’s Loss? That one’s dear to my heart, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine.”
“I don’t… Wait, no, that’s familiar. Lasher was a Thieves’ Guild boss, right?”
“An underboss in Anteraas, yeah. Basically, Laressa was warned by an oracle—or an insider, depending on which version of the story—that Lasher and his thieves were going to rob the local temple of Avei. So she emptied out the treasury coffer and locked herself in it. When the thieves took it back to their base, they opened it up and boom! Instead of a box of gold, box of paladin.”
“Oh, yeah, I did hear that one!” Teal said, growing more animated by the moment. “Lasher kept her there one night, and by the time he let her go he was so enraptured he asked her to marry him.”
“Again, depends on the version,” Principia said, matching Teal’s mounting excitement in gesture and expression exactly, “but whether or not that happened, it’s a fact that she thwarted a Guild job, was kept overnight at their mercy, and in the morning they let her leave on good terms. Oh, but I know you know about Laressa’s Stand in the Briar Wars.”
“Yes!” Teal exclaimed. “Where she faced down four armies!”
“Every major participant in the war,” Prin said enthusiastically, “armies from Tiraas, Calderaas, Veilgrad and Leineth. They all marched on the plain west of Leineth itself…”
“And they found Laressa there, sitting right in the middle of it in an armchair…”
“Eating grapes and reading a book!”
“And all four generals stood there watching her for an hour…”
Principia laughed aloud. “And then every last one of them turned around and marched the fuck home! And it’s not just the big things like that, either, Laressa was sharp and in control of every one of her encounters. One of her favorite tricks was letting people attack her, doing her Sun Style evasion and deflection thing with just a touch of divine shielding, and let them work themselves into a fury and get worn out doing her no damage while she talked them around to her way of thinking.”
Teal nodded eagerly. “Yeah, I’ve seen Toby do that.”
“It’s a great trick, if you’ve got the skill. But with all respect to Toby, you’ve seen him do half of it. Laressa was also a master of, shall we say, conversational Sun Style. You’ll never persuade someone by proving them wrong, that just makes people dig their heels in. Most thought is emotional more than it’s logical. Changing people’s minds requires salesmanship and manipulation. Laressa was sly enough to do that, while also fighting physically. Honestly, I don’t think there have been many people who even could do the kind of things she did.” Her expression sobered by degrees until she was left with a small, knowing smile. “And it all worked because she decided what people should think about her and made it happen. To the point that even now, her biggest fans think the big deal about her was her pacifism.”
“Wasn’t it?” Teal countered. “Who but a pacifist would even have thought to do such things?”
“Well, for starters, every Avenist ever, if they were smarter and actually meant that high-minded talk about how the art of war applies to all confrontations, not just violent ones. I may be a bit biased here, Teal; I’m no pacifist, but I’m definitely not a fan of violence. It’s wasteful and destructive at best, brings out the worst in people and creates a mess that somebody’s going to have to rebuild from. It is far and away better to accomplish your goals through cleverness and maneuvering than by hurting people and breaking stuff. You can’t achieve that just by showing up and being all serene and peaceful. People who try that are usually the first to die. But it can be achieved with the proper technique, and Laressa of Anteraas had technique in spades.”
“How do you mean?” Teal’s eyes were narrowed in concentration now, as if she could read insight straight from Principia’s face.
“Well, think about just those examples we talked about. Stalking a Sultana through her palace until she buckles sounds like an effort of sheer brute force pacifism, until you read between the lines. There’s a lot of politics, there. Hands of Avei are traditionally given the run of the Palace in Calderaas, but do you really think a crowned head of state would submit to that kind of treatment if she felt it within her power to get rid of the person doing it? You have to understand that whole situation. The core of Calderaas’s army has always been heavy cavalry—basically the worst possible choice for invading a drow city. Safiya was young, inexperienced, and pretty painfully naive, and being given a lot of deliberately bad advice to cause her to blunder severely enough that the Calderaan Houses would be justified in removing her so one of her rivals could take over.”
“By, for example, getting most of the army massacred underground,” Teal murmured.
Principia nodded. “The Aveniad is basically a series of romanticized war stories; it’s laid out to teach lessons in Avenist battle doctrine and military strategy, not so much moral principles. It’s pretty incredible how anybody thinks you can shame someone with that. Laressa used her position to insert herself forcibly into Safiya’s inner circle, and you had better believe they spent the whole time trying to remove her. She fended off physical and political attempts to get rid of her—already requiring a broader skill set than most people will ever have—and protected the young Sultana from the same while giving her a crash course in military and political leadership. Safiya’s advisors had built up her ego til she wouldn’t hear contradiction from anyone, so Laressa spent three days making her realize for herself what was going on. She did all this while dancing around the temper of a spoiled teenager who was in the habit of ordering people who said things she didn’t want to hear out of the city. That whole affair ended with most of Safiya’s inner circle banished or beheaded, and Laressa her most valued advisor. Pacifism, my ass; if I was half that sly I’d be Empress by now.”
Teal was frowning deeply, her eyes slowly tracking from side to side as she formed connections. Principia watched her for a moment before continuing.
“Then there was Lasher. There are so many version of that story specifically because nobody knows what exactly happened between Laressa and the thieves that night. But what is known is just…general knowledge. Eserites have no respect for Avenists, very little sense of humor about having their operations busted up by outside forces, and an immediate strategic need not to let people see inside their hideouts and then leave to tell tales. And let me assure you, the Thieves’ Guild is not impressed by pacifist ideals. Laressa barged into the middle of that and got a bunch of Eserites to embrace her as a friend. I’m pretty sure Hands of Avei have achieved that exactly twice now.”
They both glanced at the building where the other students were still talking, then exchanged a small smile.
“And the Stand?” Teal asked, her expression and tone showing simple curiosity.
“You have to know a bit of background to understand that one, too. Another of Laressa’s tricks—not a favorite, as there are only so many times a body can do this—was to let her enemies beat her. Physically, I mean. But she only did this in public, and after carefully laying the groundwork, so that the outrage at this abuse of the peaceful paladin prompted backlash that soon destroyed whoever had ordered her roughed up. Leineth came later in her career, by which time it was widely rumored that if you harmed Laressa of Anteraas, Avei’s curse would come down on you and cause your utter ruin. Of course, if Avei could be arsed to show up and fight her own battles, she wouldn’t need Hands, now would she? That was all Laressa’s cunning at work. The Stand was the payoff of years of strategy and building a reputation, till entire armies didn’t dare to even try fighting around her.”
Principia turned her head to gaze absently out at the Great Tree in the distance, a little smile playing about her lips.
“In a lot of ways, Laressa of Anteraas was the ultimate bard. She succeeded by carefully crafting a narrative around herself that guided people to fit themselves subconsciously into the roles she wanted. And by all accounts, especially to people she set herself against, she was annoying as hell.”
Teal had to crack a smile at that, but it faltered quickly. “So…within all that, where’s the role of principled pacifism?”
“There’s not a thing in the world wrong with moral pacifism as long as you aren’t stupid about it,” Principia said with a shrug. “Morality is a fine thing for your personal life. Laressa clearly had it in spades, as do you. The main difference between you was the strategic ability to get shit done.”
Teal dropped her eyes.
“Then again, maybe take me with a grain of salt,” Principia added in a lighter tone. “Gods know I’m hardly one of the world’s great moral philosophers. Although… I do have a pet theory I’ve been wanting to bounce off someone for a while.”
“Oh?” Teal said warily.
“It’s a universal principle across every culture: you take care of your group. Loyalty and love for whatever social clusters you belong to is paramount to being a person. I’ve been mulling it, lately, and I have come to think that the closest thing there is to an objective gauge of someone’s goodness is the size of their in-group.”
Teal frowned. “So, what, the better someone is, the more popular they are?”
“Oh, is that vividly not the cause,” Principia chuckled. “No, I mean, the extent of their empathy—where they draw the lines between friend, foe, and uninteresting stranger. So at one extreme end of the spectrum is the Omnist ideal: absolute, universal compassion for all living things, everywhere. There’s a reason even the Omnists consider that an ideal to strive for, not something you can just up and do. I’m pretty sure a person would go crazy from the sheer pressure long before they managed to fully invest themselves in the well-being of everyone and everything alive. And then, at the other end, is what the elves call anth’auwa, someone whose entire group is themselves, with no moral regard for any other person. Good and evil are just points of view in ninety percent of situations where they meaningfully clash; the least subjective measure I’ve been able to find is a count of how many people are so important do you that you would sacrifice your own well-being for their sake. Your family? Village? Nation? Your religion? The whole world?”
“Huh,” Teal grunted, also turning to look out at the Tree now. “I think…I’d have to ponder that for a while. It feels like you might be onto something with that, though.” She turned back to give Principia a sharp look. “So how good a person would that make you, Principia Locke?”
“Not fucking very,” the elf said frankly. “Mostly because I don’t aspire to be any better. According to my little theory, I’m a better person than I was the first time we met, and I’ve gotta tell you I’m not real happy about it. Being invested deeply in other people seems largely an experience of broadened vulnerabilities and the stress of trying to take care of them. Before all’s said and done,” she went on in a softer tone, “I expect to be a better person still, by far. Gods, I am not looking forward to that.”
Teal was still studying her from the corner of her eye, both of them facing the edge of the cliff now but with the human’s head slightly tilted toward Principia, who was now staring at the horizon and chewing pensively on her tongue.
“So you admire people who are crafty irrespective of being moral, then?” Teal said at last.
“Hmm…” Principia made a waffling gesture with her hand. “I admire cunning for its own sake, true. But even being a self-described amoral creature, it’s hard to feel positively toward people who abuse and exploit others, isn’t it? I’m still Eserite at my core. I would say, rather… I admire people who are crafty about being moral.”
“And that’s the hardest thing about dealing with you, of course. It’s so difficult to untangle your good advice from your agenda that just hearing you say something that sounds like good sense makes me question the concept of sense itself.”
“Well, now, that’s its own trap,” Principia said, turning back to her directly. “Being too trusting will lead you into trouble, sure, but second-guessing everything and trying to look for hidden layers of lies in every shadow will cause you to blunder just as badly, and drive you nuts to boot. What’s important is understanding what a person’s agenda is, and keeping it in mind when you analyze their actions.”
“Hm.” Teal folded her arms, making a show of studying Principia. “What am I to think about you, then?”
“Now, now, you know what I’m after,” the elf chided gently. “Same thing I have been since before the first time I crossed your path.” She didn’t look again at the building where Trissiny was currently holed up with the others, but Teal did. “In a way, Teal, the lesson of Principia Locke is exactly the point I was trying to illustrate with Laressa. Whatever it is you’re after in life, if you get greedy and reckless and just charge in, you’ll make enemies and make a mess it’ll take you gods know how long to straighten out. The path to success is careful. The best victory is to find a way for everybody to win—and if somebody needs to lose, better to arrange for them to trip themselves than to walk up and punch ’em in the gob. That’s one of those things that’s regarded as a moral truth by a lot of people, but even to someone like myself without a lot of use for moral truths, it’s just good practical advice. I suspect that at the back of most morality, if you follow it to its original source, is something that a long-ago group of people agreed to do mostly because they got the best results from it.”
Teal nodded slowly. “So. Laressa of Anteraas. Hm… We haven’t had much luck in making the Mask show us specific people on request. But then, relying overmuch on a magical doodad like that is missing the point, isn’t it?”
“You don’t need me to tell you that,” Principia said. “I mean, I’ll tell you anyway just because it bears repeating: don’t mess around with that damn thing any more than you absolutely must. But I give you the credit of assuming you can figure that out for yourself.”
“And I do have at least one friend who probably knows a lot of stories about Laressa,” Teal mused. “And has both an Avenist and Eserite mindset. And who I’d trust more than you, no offense.”
“I’m never offended by good sense.”
“I’m not sure how much your…agenda…makes you a source of good advice, though.”
“Think in terms of what I’m looking to gain,” Principia suggested. “Above all else, I want Trissiny to be okay. To do that, I need the lot of you goobers to be okay; paladins historically don’t accomplish much or live long without their support systems. Their party, in a word. And sure, I could worm my way into your affections and make you uncritically regard me as a trusted source. Ruda and Shaeine would be pretty hard to bring around but I’m confident I could manipulate the rest of you pretty easily.”
“Wow,” Teal muttered.
“But that would be a lesser benefit,” Prin continued with a lopsided grin. “I’m a useful kinda person to have around, in certain specific circumstances. Of far more aid toward the goal of keeping you kids safe would be teaching you how to watch for people like me, and deal with us whenever we pop up. That skill is useful all the time, in every situation. And that even has the ancillary benefit of achieving the first goal; you’ll end up being able to get the best use out of me and my own skills when I happen to be around that way. Always go for the longer goal with the greater benefit, unless your back’s to a wall and you have no better choice. That’s what I fucked up two years ago in Clarke Tower. I got hasty, and greedy, and stupid.” She sighed softly. “And this is what I mean when I say it’s a lot of trouble, caring about people. I am very smart, Teal. Anything that makes me dumb, I have to resent.”
There was a silence, in which Teal frowned at her as if unsure what she was seeing.
“Well, anyway, that was well more than a minute,” Principia said, suddenly brisk. “I’m sure everybody is completely packed up by now, the better to be nice and pissed off at the news I bring. Allow me to go face the music.”
“You do know Shaeine can hear everything we’ve been saying. And I guarantee she’d be paying attention, just from the mere fact that it’s you and me, talking alone.”
Principia grinned and winked. “Then allow me to make a graceful exit. We’re perilously close to talking about my feelings, and I obviously can’t have that.” She backed up two steps before turning to walk toward the others.
“You’re missing the point, you know,” Teal called after her. “Same mistake Toby keeps making. Being connected to people is only exhausting if you insist on being responsible for taking care of everybody. You’re supposed to let the people you love take care of you too, Locke.”
Principia turned around without slowing, walking backwards while she spread her arms in a self-effacing shrug and grinned. “Well, that sounds like one of those pieces of excellent advice I intend not to take. I’ve gotta be my beautiful, flawed self, after all.”
She turned again and strolled the rest of the way to the shadowed doorway, her step a carefree saunter.
Teal stared after her, thinking.