“Nurdrakhaan,” the Archpope repeated, staring pensively at the ancient data screen affixed to Rector’s apparatus by a framework of commercially available brass fastenings. Currently it was displaying strings of text and numbers which conveyed raw data that the enchanter could evidently interpret, though Justinian understood only bits and snatches.
“That’s what I said,” Rector snapped, still testy from his morning’s excursion into the cold. He tended to wilt outdoors even when the weather was pleasant, hence his complete comfort with living underground for years on end. “Not a lot of data on those, rarely see ‘em on this plane, but size and configuration’s unmistakable. Nothing else makes an infernal signature like that. Apparently got banished back to Hell, too, that’s a first. Usually gotta just kill ‘em.”
“Demonology is not my field of specialty,” Justinian admitted, “but they are mostly magical, are they not? By description, they don’t seem very aerodynamic.”
“Aerodynamic,” Rector scoffed, still tapping rapidly at the screen. “Completely made of magic. Never mind flying, the square/cube law would kill those things just for existing if there was any mundane physics involved. So, no, they should not have been able to tangle with the chaos drake. Makes no sense. Obviously missing a lot of data here.” He irritably flicked the screen with the backs of his fingers. “But I don’t know why or how. This is a direct transcension interlink, it shouldn’t have blind spots like that.”
Justinian raised his head, inhaling slowly as he considered. “A chaos construct destroyed by infernomancy, with key details inexplicably obscured from magical oversight… An explanation presents itself, though it seems improbable.”
“Actually improbable in the mathematical sense, or just counter-intuitive?” Rector grumbled. “Go where the data leads. Data doesn’t respect your prejudices.”
“Point taken,” the Archpope replied with a small smile which Rector was not positioned to see. “I suppose, on further reflection, it does make a certain sense, in light of Antonio’s great research project. Hmm. Natchua…of House Leduc. An interesting choice, but then, the Dark Lady has always been fond of those who skillfully oppose her. We may be forced to adapt to this development, Rector. I would like you to adjust the final array plans to deal with the possibility of large-scale infernal interference.”
Rector let out a long hiss and finally took both his hands off the screen to clutch its edges in a knuckle-bleaching grip. “You told me to key it for divine and arcane effects. Adding another school of potential problems will increase its complexity exponentially!”
“I am sorry to lay it upon you, Rector, but this is now the situation. The final array cannot fail. Everything else can be worked around, but that…”
“Forget the difficulty, you do realize every extra layer of complication introduces more possible things that might go wrong?”
“I do. I must rely on your skill, as always.”
The enchanter heaved an exasperated sigh. “You want me to just go ahead and make adjustments for all four schools while I’m at it?”
“I fear that burden would be prohibitive. I cannot foresee the fae becoming a significant concern, but if the situation changes again I will give you as much advance warning as I am able. We must be prepared for infernal interference because it is now a significant prospect, but not a certainty. I do, after all, have leverage over Elilial, should she set herself against me. For now…” He paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. “…this development forces my hand. You are certain the construct summoning apparatus is stable?”
“I said it was, didn’t I? Completely solid, no significant errors. I even tweaked its efficiency to tighten up the core matrix, should work faster now.”
“Good. We will have to deploy it remotely. Please initiate the summons with all our remaining prepared shards simultaneously.”
Rector went completely still. For a protracted moment he was silent, still apparently staring at the device.
“All of them,” the enchanter repeated at last.
“We only have the one Angelus Knight.”
“The necessary components to make more are secured and on their way here already. The timing will be awkward, but should suffice.”
“Components,” Rector repeated in a flat tone. “If we let all of them loose with only one Angelus, plus the three paladins and whatever intervened at Veilgrad… There’s going to be a lot of damage. A lot.”
Justinian paused, studying the back of the man’s head; Rector remained still in his seat as if arrested by the ideas he was considering.
Rector could be difficult to read, even for a veteran Izarite. At this point Justinian suspected Delilah was the only person who was truly adept at communicating with him, though Azradeh had made surprising inroads in her brief time here, for all that Rector affected to dislike her. The man was not as oblivious as he often appeared, and certainly the farthest thing from stupid. He had, however, always seemed rather narrow of focus, incurious about politics or anything occurring above his subterranean lair with its sprawling complex of workshops in which he was provided everything an enchanter could dream. To Rector, the projects he worked on were absorbing as intellectual exercises. He had never expressed an interest in what the Archpope actually did with his technology, even when the Throne’s retaliation through the interlink had blown up one of his original labs.
But that was before he’d been taken out into the world, seen a nearly headless corpse firsthand and been present when twelve willing souls sacrificed themselves to form a construct of which he had been the principal designer. Considering him now, it occurred to Justinian that Rector’s tense, annoyed demeanor since that morning’s events might arise from more than the inconvenience and cold.
“I’m afraid so,” Justinian answered, glancing back at the closed door to the chamber. Rector hadn’t overtly mentioned the events at the ruins that morning, the risk of which was exactly why he had not invited Delilah to be present for this conversation. Even Nassir was beginning to have questions; she would definitely not have been sanguine. “Everything we do here is toward a greater purpose, Rector. The great difficulty of our work is that it is the greatest purpose, an unprecedented elevation of the whole of humanity. In any complex endeavor there are costs to every benefit, and when one operates on this level… Well, as the saying goes, you can make a desert verdant, but it might empty an ocean. Some of our actions will have unforeseen consequences, and some will carry costs of which we are forewarned, and must choose to accept anyway.”
“And this.” Rector paused abruptly; knowing him, more likely for thought than emphasis. “This will be worth it?”
Justinian exhaled deeply. “I have calculated as best I can to ensure it is so. Life is unpredictable, Rector. I have erred in the past and others have suffered for it; that is a burden I would not wish upon anyone. That is why I have to continue on this course: to spare others having to do so, and to ensure that we meet our goal, and that everything will have been worth it. There are no guarantees, but I swear to you that everything I do is designed toward the greatest possible good, using information and resources to which no one else has access. If I believed anyone could do this task better, I would gladly step aside and let them.”
The enchanter was still for a few more moments, then finally, slowly, released his grip on the machine and returned his hands to their position over the touch screen, beginning once more to scroll through the data.
“Simultaneous deployment should be possible. The array isn’t set up for that, but the difference isn’t qualitative and it’ll be a…relatively minor adjustment. The power source is more than adequate, so…” He tapped a sigil in one corner of the screen and began poking and flicking at the resulting diagrams. “Mm, yeah, it’s more a software than a hardware issue. I can make most of the changes from right here, then go augment some of the conduits, lock in the necessary foci…should just take a few hours.”
“Thank you, Rector.” Anyone else Justinian would have patted on the shoulder, but the enchanter did not like to be touched. “I appreciate all you do.”
He didn’t answer, already fully absorbed again in his device.
Behind them, and behind the illusion of a closed door, the actual door to the room was pulled carefully shut as Azradeh, invisible under the same magical camouflage, eased back out into the hall. She retreated back toward her room, claws silent on the floor. She had only recently worked out how to do this; it was tricky, experimenting with the latent magic within her in moments when she was certain she would not be observed, but some judicious testing on Rector, Delilah, and Nassir had confirmed the stealth worked. Branwen was another matter; Azradeh didn’t want to risk trying to get too sneaky around an empath. But Branwen wasn’t here right now.
For now, she kept her secrets close. Every little advantage could be crucial, and based on what she’d just heard, the moment when they might was fast approaching.
Amazingly, the day just continued to get more interesting. Rasha fancied that she handled the arrival of several huge, glowing wolves which shifted into people rather well, being by that point somewhat inured to outlandish magical bullshit. Glowing wolf-people didn’t hold a candle to what the Archpope had just done right in front of her. At any rate, the Shadow Hunters (as they introduced themselves and she carefully avoided laughing—really, what a name) did, just as Eserion and then Rogrind had suggested, work for the provincial government. Rasha had somewhat ignored the details of political news outside the capital, but confronted with this it did not escape her that by fostering the reformist Shaathists the Duchess Madouri had, contrary to customary practice for nobles, inserted herself in a bold and direct way into cult politics. This was most relevant to Rasha’s concerns because it showed Madouri had aligned herself firmly against the Archpope. Firmly, and rather more aggressively than she would expect from an Imperial governor.
All of this danced about in the forefront of her mind when, scarcely an hour later, she found herself sitting down for tea with the Duchess in person.
The Shadow Hunters had decided to escort her and Rogrind straight to Madouris, since they were apparently a distance from their own headquarters that would have required magic to reach before the two bedraggled refugees began to succumb to the cold. There had followed a flurry of introductions and polite escalations, as Rogrind and Rasha between them had sufficient connections that dropping Trissiny’s name just proved the straw that broke the donkey’s back. The dwarf had ultimately vanished without so much as a farewell, not that she particularly missed him, and no sooner was Rasha herself bandaged, clean, and freshly attired than she was informed by Yancey, the Duchess’s Butler, that she had been invited to join the Lady for tea.
It was Lady, he diffidently made certain she knew in advance. The Duchess did not care for the more traditional epithet of “her Grace.”
“I can’t thank you enough for your generosity, my Lady,” she said, drawing on every scrap of the demure poise Glory had drilled into her.
“Pish tosh, I would be absolutely disgraced to do a whit less,” Ravana Madouri replied in an airy tone which belied the sharp focus of her eyes. “You are a personal friend of my own dear comrade Trissiny, and here I find you have been heinously mishandled on my own lands. I can at the very least see to your comfort and convenience. Consider it a matter of honor, if you wish, but rest assured this is no imposition.”
Whatever she might say, it was generous. Rasha was attired in a new dress—an expensive one in keeping with the latest trends in fashion, and which fit her. Not as perfectly as a properly tailored garment, but quite well. And that raised the question of just why such a thing was so readily on hand, as it certainly did not belong to the Duchess. It would not have fit her.
Rasha was deeply wary of this woman simply due to Trissiny’s description of her personality, but that description had largely omitted the physical and left her imagining the Duchess as some statuesque, imperious figure of impossible beauty and a downright draconic aura of power. To her surprise, Ravana Madouri was tiny. Unusually for Tiraan nobility, she was blonde, and shorter even than Rasha by a few inches. Not to mention just daintier in every proportion. Rasha herself was happy with her body as it had turned out, for all that Sister Eivery had tried to prepare her for disappointment as there were limits to what transformative alchemy could safely do. Far from being disappointed, she found that a tomboyish aesthetic rather suited her tastes, hence her shorter hairstyle. Still, she was not accustomed to being the the taller or more voluptuous of any two women, and yet…here they were.
The infamous Duchess was like a little doll. A tiny, pretty doll who gazed at Rasha with blue eyes like icicles sharpened to killing points. Meeting that dissecting gaze above that bland smile, she found herself believing every detail of Trissiny’s warnings about this woman.
“With regard to that,” she said aloud, “I do hope you don’t put too much blame on Rogrind. Given our history it feels odd to say that, but he actually is, to my amazement, an ally in this.”
“Quite so, quite so! Don’t worry, the situation was explained to my satisfaction. An unusual scenario, to be sure, but I, he, and I suspect you are all accustomed to, shall we say, extenuating circumstances?” She smiled again, then took a sip of her tea, eyes drilling into Rasha over the lip of the cup. “My people escorted Mr. Rogrind to the Svennish consulate here in Madouris. By this time I expect he is back in the capital; it would be standard procedure for them to have a portal mage on call. The gentleman’s account of your morning’s adventures was fascinating! Though somewhat incomplete, I must say.”
“Well,” Rasha murmured, “you know spies.”
“Of course.” Ravana’s smile was a shark’s. “Then, too, he appears to have been oddly incapacitated during part of the events in question. I understand you observed something of great interest?”
And there it was. The Duchess might even have been serious about that “matter of honor” business when it came to tending to Rasha herself, but a woman like that wouldn’t have only one motivation for anything she did. This was the meat of it.
“This is…difficult to talk about,” Rasha said, speaking carefully and thinking as rapidly as she could. Madouri would, of course, be an excellent ally, and already was politically aligned with her by default, but nothing she’d heard about the Duchess suggested she should or could be trusted. “For several reasons. I am entrusted with certain confidences, and also I’m afraid I understood relatively little of what the Archpope did there. High-level magical shenanigans are rather outside my wheelhouse.”
“So the Archpope was there,” Ravana mused. “Observed by you, without noting your presence?”
“It’s difficult to talk about,” Rasha repeated, affecting an abashed little smile.
The Duchess acknowledged that with a slight inclination of her head. “A pity. So much future trouble might have been avoided had you or Rogrind thought to slide a poisoned knife into his back.”
“Eserites don’t carry poisoned knives, my Lady.”
That had been a test, and the result was interesting. Ravana’s eyes shifted almost imperceptibly, crinkling with what looked like real humor. Of course, a person so self-possessed was more than capable of believably faking an emotion, but that wouldn’t be a likely choice of feigned feeling, given the innate rhythm of a conversation such as this.
“Oh?” she said aloud. “How surprising. I should think that would be stock in trade for a Guild agent.”
“The Guild doesn’t do assassinations, and poison is a poor choice of implement for the occasions when we find it necessary to dispense pain. It is more effective, pursuant to our goals, to see it inflicted by a conscious hand than some invisible agent. Also, in the Tiraan Empire, having any combination of poison and bladed weapons on one’s person at a time is considered evidence of murderous intent. A magistrate can impose a prison sentence for that alone.”
“A pity,” Ravana said with a soft sigh. “I’ve not found occasion to poison anyone, but I must say it seems too elegant a tool to be left in the drawer, as it were. Still, it does not do to criticize the experts at their own craft. I have been immensely satisfied with the Guild’s presence in my lands. It is my inclination to let them go about their business without interference from me.”
“It is unusual, my Lady,” Rasha said in the most carefully polite tone she had ever employed, “to meet an aristocrat who feels positively toward the Thieves’ Guild.”
“Do not mistake me, I rather doubt I would make a good Eserite myself. I believe in the importance of strong leadership and centralized power, you see. But I do highly regard the Guild’s approach to corruption. It must be excised without hesitation or mercy. Those who abuse the public for their own profit should receive not an iota of tolerance.”
Their eyes locked, and after a momentary pause, Rasha nodded once, slowly, in simple agreement. Ravana inclined her head again in response, and for just that second, the two shared a real mutual understanding. Not forgetting their respective places and agendas, of course, but it was a beginning.
Rasha decided to take a risk.
“You have a reputation, my Lady,” she said, allowing her delicate caution to relax just enough to meet the other woman’s gaze with open wariness, “for an interest in…unconventional assets, magical or otherwise.”
“I suppose I should be grateful that is the part of my reputation you’ve heard,” Ravana replied in a wry tone. “To be sure, I lack the magical expertise to understand exotic spellcraft, much less create it, but I do enjoy making myself at least aware of such…interesting assets. Especially if I can then employ specialists who are able to exercise them on my behalf.”
“Especially when there is…corruption to be excised.”
This time, the Duchess’s answering smile was slow, and somehow icy and warm at the same time. It was a complex expression, one Rasha took as another gesture of camaraderie.
“Just so,” Ravana repeated softly.
Carefully, carefully. Obviously, she intended to tell Trissiny, and Glory, every detail she could recall save those Eserion had asked her specifically to withhold. Those exceptions were enough of a personal burden without adding the guilt of offloading the entire responsibility for this onto the shoulders of her paladin friend. Rasha was not at all sure whether Trissiny would choose to involve the likes of Ravana in what was unfolding between their growing alliance and Archpope Justinian; the Duchess was a potent asset, but not a notably reliable one.
But in the end…Rasha was not her subordinate. This was not Trissiny’s secret, and thus not her decision. And after the day she’d had, it seemed to her that unleashing a monster against her enemies would be a fine payback.
“Hypothetically,” she said aloud, setting her teacup down on the table between them and leaning back in her chair, “as someone with at least a layperson’s interest in obscure magical powers… What would you do if your enemy could deploy what is effectively an archdemon, except powered by divine rather than infernal energy?”
The Duchess’s expression changed not by a whit, and her answer was smooth and immediate. “Well, one is tempted to immediately resort to esoteric magical measures to undermine and neutralize such a foe. What can be created by intricate spellcraft is often best undone by more of the same. And then, of course, it becomes a game of perpetual one-upmanship between those in control of these opposing magical forces. I do quite enjoy such contests of wit, skill, and organizational aptitude, myself.”
“Forgive me if I presume, my Lady, but I perceive an implication in your response that you might act otherwise than according to what you describe as best practices.”
Ravana’s answering smile was downright vulpine. “Indeed. My very inclination toward games such as those obligates me to be mindful of occasions when it is most appropriate not to play them. The best tricks, as they say, are often simple tricks. Facing such an enemy, I would recall my Circles of Interaction and blast it with the most intense concentration of arcane magic it is humanly possible to accumulate and deploy.”
She set her cup down on the table with a solid clink, still holding Rasha’s gaze.
“And then, when the great weapon of the enemy was weakened and near death, I would personally stand upon its neck until I could watch the divine light fade from its eyes.”
“It’s,” Rasha said slowly, “that last bit, there…”
“Come now, I should think an Eserite of all people would understand. Sometimes, it is not enough to defeat one’s enemies. Sometimes, they must be taught fear.”
A shiver traveled up Rasha’s spine, a warning that she was treading in very dangerous waters indeed. It was not, however, a shiver of apprehension, but excitement. With it came the anticipatory prickle of vengeance beginning to take shape. Rasha might not be able to match any of these great powers in strength or even wits, but that did not make her anyone’s football to be kicked around. And what better ploy was there for a weaker player than to set the stronger against each other?
“I hope I am not taking up too much of your time, my Lady,” she said with a gracious nod of her head. “If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I would dearly like to discuss these matters with you further.”
“My dear Rasha,” the Duchess Madouri replied with a smile of pure kindness and warmth, “you are an honored guest here. My time is yours.”