“Touch me and she dies.”
Syrinx already had two wands aimed at her, to say nothing of the knives coming out; that sentence bought her a momentary pause.
“You’re gonna sit there and threaten my apprentice right in front of me?” Grip asked in a dangerously serene tone. “Ballsy.”
“Your…? Oh, Covrin’s here.” Syrinx barely glanced at Jenell in passing. “No, I was referring to Ninkabi. Forgive the dramatic phrasing, but you thugs clearly needed encouragement not to shut down your brains entirely. Now, here’s the situation.”
“Really, holding the entire city hostage?” Sweet said with a derisive little smile. “Well that’s…an approach.”
“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Antonio,” she snapped. “You know very well I am not behind the threats here, but without me you haven’t a prayer of thwarting them.”
“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” said Thumper. “She’s got nothin’, not even her crew anymore.”
“I cannot believe we’re still talking to this woman,” Schwartz exclaimed. “Jenell, do you want to do the honors or may I…?”
“I’ve gotten my pound of flesh from her,” Jenell said stiffly, looking away from Basra. “Knock yourself out.”
Syrinx slapped a hand down on the table, rattling the silverware again. “You’ve got nothing. You have neither the necessary forces to head off the coming attack, nor adequate knowledge of where it will come from. The fact that you’ve invited this into your ranks only proves how desperate you are.”
Bradshaw met her sneer with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I have no personal horse in this race, but if the consensus of the group is that we table other business and char Basra Syrinx down to her skeleton, I’m for it.”
“A person with a scrap of self-awareness would take note that others are more willing to ally with the Wreath than herself and reflect on that,” Grip drawled.
Shook snorted a bitter laugh. “Damn, woman, nobody doesn’t hate you. Even I don’t have a hundred percent aggression rating, and that’s literally my job.”
“Your inability to do your job is another topic, Shook,” Syrinx sneered. “Having to deal with me is the tax you lot will have to pay for this one and his cronies splitting my forces. I know that dragon is helping you track down the summoning sites; had he and you not run off on your own I could be sending troops to each one. But they did, so here we are. You can maybe keep tracking down those portal sites, but the cultists will just keep making more, and you quite simply do not have enough warm bodies to throw at them. Sooner than later they’ll have enough up and running to put their plan into motion while you’re still chasing your tails.”
“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.
“Oh, come on, you know she has nothing of the kind!” Jenell spat. “This is nothing but a ploy to get us off her back so she can prolong her existence another day.”
“She could have easily done that by not coming here,” Sweet pointed out. “It’s not as if anybody here has time to go hunting her down, we’re fully occupied with shit that matters.”
Jenell slammed a fist on the table in an ironic echo of Basra and started to rise from her seat. “I cannot believe you’d even consider—”
“Covrin!” Sweet did not raise his voice, but projected in a sharp tone that cut her off. “If somebody makes you mad enough to go on the attack without thinking, they’re beating you. Basra, you will either wipe that smirk off your face or Schwartz will burn it off.”
Meesie puffed up like a spikefish, hissing, and Schwartz cracked his knuckles, staring at Basra. Jenell sank more slowly back into her seat, deliberately marshaling her expression. Syrinx smoothed her own as swiftly as if a switch had been flipped.
“We’re gonna do this smart,” Sweet announced, again in a tone of calm. “If Basra has something critical to offer, we’ll get all the available info and decide logically what to do. If what she offers isn’t very good—and I mean, incredibly persuasively necessary—she doesn’t leave this room alive. Agreed?”
A few grudging mutters of assent followed, though most of those at the table just watched Syrinx in silence. She herself curled her lip disdainfully, but nodded.
“All right, then,” Sweet said with an unconvincing little smile. “Let’s hear your pitch, Bas. I assume you wouldn’t have risked coming here if you didn’t have something good.”
“I have the one thing you need and do not have,” she replied. “Men who can follow orders. As a designated emissary of the Archpope, I can take direct command of the Holy Legionaries in the city, and have pull with the local police and Imperial Army presence.”
“You seem to be forgetting that both of us didn’t get de-Bishoped,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I also have—”
“This isn’t Tiraas, Antonio,” she interrupted. “Nobody here knows you—and by the looks of it, you came in your Eserite persona, looking to rummage around in the city’s underground. Sure, you can prove your identity and your status…eventually. Except you’re forgetting that the Tiraan Empire is currently in a state of war footing, which means civilians do not have access to the Rails or telescroll network as of this morning. You were probably among the last people to be able to travel freely to get here. And let’s say the local police recognize you: the Eserite Bishop. We all know how much police love Eserites.”
She smirked again, while he regarded her impassively. Flanking him, Flora and Fauna narrowed their eyes to blue slits.
“How’d you find us here so fast, Basra?” Sweet asked lightly.
“That is not among the things you need to know.”
He shifted his gaze. “Mr. Bradshaw, if I might inquire, how much manpower can your group lend to this effort?”
“I trust you won’t be surprised if I decline to share exact numbers,” the warlock drawled. “But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that the Wreath is running low on competent and trusted personnel, since you in particular are the lion’s share of the reason for that, Darling. With shadow-jumping we can cover ground quickly, of course. But we have…let us say a bare handful of warlocks on the ground in Ninkabi, and it would be a very hard sell to get Embras to place them directly at the disposal of you or your pet dragon. We all remember well the last time we tried to protect a city from demon attack while you were involved.”
“I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” Sweet said slowly. He studied Basra for a moment, then Schwartz, and finally met Grip’s eyes. She nodded minutely. “All right. As I see it, this is a matter of weighing risks against each other. We can take out Basra since she’s offered herself up on a plate, and embrace the risk that we just won’t have enough people to stop the enemy from opening multiple hellgates, much less find and shut them down in person. We can agree to work with her, for now, and take the risk of whatever bullshit she’s planning to pull harming us or the effort, because it’s not even in question that she’s scheming something.” Syrinx made a sardonic face at him, but didn’t interrupt. “There is also an inherent risk in cooperating with the Wreath, of course. Even when they act in good faith, they never do so without ulterior motives, as they proved in Veilgrad, and as our new friend Bradshaw pointed out they have good and specific reason to feel unfriendly toward yours truly, and by extension now, the rest of you.”
Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he interlaced his fingers and turned his gaze on Jenell. “In my judgment, these risks are similar in both likelihood and severity—too close to call, even if we knew all the nuances, and the fact that we clearly don’t is another factor. So in cases like this, where the simple practicalities don’t tell us what to do, we must look to our ethics. And with regard to that, while quite a few of us here have reasons to be annoyed at Basra Syrinx, you have by far the biggest claim. So it’s your call, Covrin.”
Jenell blinked twice, then slowly raised her eyebrows. “I…what?”
“If you don’t want the pressure you can pass it right back to me and no one will blame you,” he assured her. “This is not an obligation. But it is your prerogative. You know the situation, the balance of risks. It comes down to whether this is a monster we can work with, and you’re the one with the biggest right to make that call, if you want it.”
She stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded once, turning her gaze back to Syrinx.
Basra had gone completely rigid in her chair, despite her insouciant pose straddling its back, watching Jenell with a complete lack of expression.
“So,” Jenell said quietly after a long pause, “that makes it twice now I’ve held your life in my hand, Basra. I’m officially ahead, now. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”
Basra’s left eyelid twitched and she drew in a breath to speak.
“Open your mouth and lose an eye,” Schwartz stated flatly. “You don’t need depth perception to make yourself useful.” Meesie growled in agreement.
Shook pointed at him, and then turned the gesture into a thumbs up. Grip shook with almost-silent laughter.
“Well, apprentice,” she chuckled, “I officially approve of your boyfriend, here.”
“Sweet, do you see any practical concern that tips the scales one way or another?” Jenell asked, turning back to him.
He leaned back against the rear of the booth, pursing his lips for a moment in thought. “I suppose…it’s two gambles against one. With Basra, we risk…Basra. Without her, we’re betting that I can drum up some manpower from the police and military by hook or by crook—definitely without the Holy Legion, because I have no pull at all there—and also that the Wreath will come through. I feel like that’s making it sound simpler than it is, is the thing. This city is crawling with extraneous factors. The Jackal is still jacking around and all of this is contingent on Khadizroth behaving himself, which is a hell of a coin to flip.”
The look Jenell gave Syrinx was purely contemptuous, and caused Basra’s eye to twitch again. “Then I say put her to work. The days when she was important enough to risk the safety of a city over are long past. None of this changes the reality of the sword hanging over Basra’s head. She may as well get to survive a little while longer, if it means she’ll be of some use for once.”
Syrinx shifted her head to face Jenell directly, opening her mouth.
Schwartz raised one hand from under the table and blew across it. A thin streamer of dust wafted forward, caught fire, and coalesced into a single needle of flame which then hovered in the air, pointed directly at Syrinx.
She shut her mouth.
“Well, there you have it!” Sweet said magnanimously. “Once again, Bas, you are the lesser evil, a position I know you find comfortable. How soon can you marshal these boots on the ground?”
She rose smoothly, swinging one leg over the chair and retreated a strategic two steps from the table. “I have Holy Legionaries I can send out immediately. Getting movement from city and Imperial forces is going to take some politicking, as you well know. By the time you and your dragon have useful targets, I’ll have forces ready to move.”
“Splendid,” he said, smiling. “And where shall I look for you?”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Syrinx retorted, her flat expression a contrast to his languid smile. “I can locate you cretins when I need you. I will decide when it is time to link up again. Just do your job with a minimum of your usual screwing around, and maybe we can prevent this city from being burned to the ground.”
She turned and strode out of the room without another word.
“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.
“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.
“No, not…her in general,” the enforcer said impatiently. “I think… Sweet, this whole thing where our crew was gonna join up with Justinian to keep tabs on him was the Jackal’s idea, though Big K basically took over leading it by the time it all fell apart. It was the Jackal who suggested I get out from under Syrinx’s thumb right before disappearing himself. He’s been carving up the local police, making damn sure there’s a shortage of manpower to protect the city, right when she’s got Holy Legionaries just where we’ll need ’em. And didn’t you start to say you had a brush with him on the way in, just before that bitch somehow found us here? You seein’ what I’m seein’?”
“Why, Thumper, I think you’re onto something,” Sweet said slowly. “And I was just wondering what the hell the Jackal could possibly be playing at. It seems he and Basra are Ninkabi’s newest power couple.”
Schwartz let out a low whistle.
“Soon as this is over,” Grip said in a resigned tone, “we’re gonna have to go on a serious murdering spree.”
“Thanks,” Merry said, accepting the steaming cup from Juniper. The dryad smiled and handed the other mug to Trissiny, who nodded in gratitude as she accepted it.
“How’s she doing?” Juniper asked, carefully seating herself on the floor beside Merry. They had brought Principia into the building where they’d camped the night before and laid her on a bedroll, covered with a blanket and with a portable fairy lamp resting nearby. In the hours since she had collapsed, Mary had checked on her several times, as had McGraw and Shaeine, but for the most part the others had preferred to respect their privacy. Given the various people assembled here, there was no shortage of conversations to be had elsewhere. Only Merry and Trissiny had remained by Principia’s side steadily.
“Asleep,” Merry said tersely, then offered a thin smile. “According to the Crow, that’s the best thing for her now.”
Juniper nodded again. Sniff padded around behind her and gently inserted himself between his mistress and Merry, making a cooing noise deep in his throat. Juniper smiled and leaned her head against him.
“I feel like I get what it must be like for you, Triss,” she said quietly. “At least a little. Not the same situation, but…I’m seeing parallels.”
“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.
“Family,” the dryad whispered. “The idea being new…and so much more complicated than I would’ve expected.”
“Well, that definitely sounds like my experience of the last couple of years,” Trissiny replied with a wry chuckle.
“I never thought I was an orphan like you,” Juniper said softly, staring over Princpia’s prone form into the fairy lamp. “I had my mother, and my sisters… It was painful, coming to understand that Naiya only ever thought of any of us as basically pets. That my sisters—just like me—were all immature, selfish monsters who’d never had a reason or a chance to actually grow up. Now, there’s pixies and kitsune and valkyries, and they’re all so strange and…in the case of valkyries, terrifying. But…good? It’s an amazing thing, to be loved by someone who actually understands what that means, just because they feel a kinship with you. Even if they’re a bossy know-it-all like Kaisa, or something like Yngrid who makes my blood run cold just looking at her. And that just reminds me what a cruel thing it was for Naiya to design us to have that reaction. It’s all so… It’s a mess. It’s sweet, and bitter, and generally confusing.”
“Yep,” Trissiny said, nodding and staring into her tea. “That hits the nail on the head. I have different weirdos, is all, but that’s exactly the feeling.”
“You guys are actually making me miss my parents,” Merry commented. “The worst thing they ever were was boring.”
“They sound very nice,” Trissiny said solemnly. Juniper laughed, then Merry did, and finally Trissiny herself had to chuckle. Her expression sobered again, though, as her gaze fell once more on Principia’s face. “I hope you don’t have to sympathize with this, too, Juno. It’s kind of a heck of a thing, finding yourself worrying over someone before you’ve been able to figure out how you even feel about them.”
Juniper heaved a sigh. “Sort of too late, there, too. Over the summer, we… I mean, me, Aspen, Fross, and Kaisa, we went back to the pixie grove.”
Trissiny looked up at her. “Oh. To see… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what her name was.”
“Jacaranda. It’s okay. We, uh…” She winced, then shook her head, causing Sniff to chirp softly in comfort. “Well, it was Kaisa’s idea. It seemed kind of harsh, but honesty harsh measures might be the only thing that could help. Even Kaisa wasn’t sure if it would.”
“The Pixie Queen is fully transformed by trauma, right?” Trissiny asked. “What did Professor Ekoi do?”
“We took her to a place where she could be… Kaisa wasn’t exactly clear. Tested, or treated, or possibly imprisoned? You know, she made it all sound very necessary at the time but in hindsight the more I think about it the less sure I am.”
Trissiny straightened up suddenly, setting her tea aside. “Hang on. This summer we also—that is, me, Gabe, Toby, and my brother Herschel—had to visit the Tower of Salyrene.”
Juniper’s eyes snapped back to her. “You did?”
“The talking sword there said something about a kitsune dropping off a transformed dryad.”
“He did?” Juniper herself perked up in excitement. “Did you see her?”
“Sorry, June, when we were there the place was empty. It was just us and Athenos.”
“Oh.” Juniper deflated just as abruptly, and Sniff rubbed his head against her shoulder. “I…hope that’s good. You didn’t see Petal or Bugsy, either?”
Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”
“The pixie and the imp. They were in the tower when we got there.”
“An imp? Uh…no, like I said, the place was dead empty. Gabe and I encountered some caplings in one of the testing rooms, and Toby and Schwartz said they had to fight a demon. That was it. Nobody who seemed intelligent enough to talk with us except the sword and then Salyrene.”
Juniper chewed on her lower lip. “I hope that means it helped her and she got out. Though that raises the question of where she is.”
“You guys have really interesting lives,” Merry commented.
Trissiny and Juniper both stared at her, then burst out laughing in unison. After a moment, she had to smile along with them.
“Well,” Trissiny said at last, catching her breath, “I really hope Jacaranda’s okay, Juniper. If she went through the Tower and got out, I’m pretty sure she must be at least better. The way it was described to us, the whole point of that place was tests of intellect, character, magical skill…”
“I sure hope so,” Juniper said with a sigh. “It’d be nice to know what happened to her, is all. I’m not sure how feasible it is to get a message to Kaisa all the way over in Sifan but I’ll ask Professor Tellwyrn about it as soon as we’re back home.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“And I hope Principia’s all right when she wakes up,” the dryad added.
“Kuriwa seemed pretty sure she would be,” Trissiny said. “Sounded like she just needed some rest.”
“This is jarring,” Merry whispered. “That’s the word. It’s just jarring. This is the least like her I’ve ever seen Locke.”
Both of the others turned their heads to watch her in silence. She stared down at the sleeping elf, her brows drawn together pensively.
“I’ve hated and loved and everything in between this crazy knife ear,” Merry continued at last. “And she’s just always in control. No matter what goddamn thing is trying to kill us on a given week, there she is, all smug and knowing and with a plan. You could look at her and just…just be able to calm down, because Locke was there, and she was working on it, and that was always enough because she always came up with something. The only thing I’ve never seen her pull off before is lose. Whatever happened, she had three schemes in place to meet it, and if something outmaneuvered her even so, she’d pull something else out of her butt and we’d still win, because she’s Principia fucking Locke and that’s what she does.”
Trissiny nodded slowly, also turning her eyes back to the elf.
“Until today,” Merry added in a bare whisper. “Man…she really got twisted around and then smacked down this time, didn’t she? That was… I mean, watching that… I still haven’t sorted out how to feel. Is it weird to be a little bit relieved?”
“No, I think I can understand that one,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve seen her vulnerable, too. I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to give her a chance.”
“It’s still a pretty good record,” Juniper offered. “Getting outmaneuvered by an actual trickster god isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Locke being someone who can scheme her way around anybody except Vesk… That’s plenty impressive.”
“And hey, look at it this way,” Trissiny added with a heartier smile, “maybe it was all part of her cunning plan. Letting herself get outfoxed just so she could look all pitiful in front of us and gain sympathy.”
Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.
“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”
All of them abruptly leaned forward, setting down drinks, as Principia’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper, but she still managed a weak grin as she continued.
“I like the sound of it. All according to plan. Omnu’s breath, my head hurts… So, what have I missed?”