16 – 30

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My help?”

Natchua made a wry expression. “Is that so astonishing? You’re a paladin, I thought helping people was all part of the job.”

“Well, yes, but… I mean, in very specific… I’m just surprised you need something from me.” Trissiny cleared her throat, grasping for the remnants of her poise and studiously ignoring Gabriel’s insufferable grin. “Is this somehow related to your, ah, social event this evening? And congratulations on that, by the way.”

“It is, yes, and thank you,” Natchua replied, grimacing.

“Okay, not to de-Rail this,” Gabriel interjected, “but I’m sorry, I’ve just gotta. You’re going to be a noble, now? An Imperial noble?”

“A Duchess, so they tell me,” Natchua grumbled, her expression growing if anything more unhappy. “Look, I’m aware this whole thing probably seems like me conning my way into… Well, let me just be clear, this is something Malivette and Ravana have cooked up between them, and Sherwin’s on board because, honestly, can you imagine him holding out with those two trying to wheedle him into doing whatever thing they have in mind?”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I can see it.”

“How has nobody murdered him yet? I shoulda taken that bet when Ruda offered it.”

“I,” Natchua continued irritably, “am going along with this because I have been persuaded that it’s in the best interests of Veilgrad, and of…me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations.”

“Yeah, funny how becoming a high-ranking aristocrat can be in the best interests of you,” Gabriel said innocently.

“Being involved in that kind of power is very much a double-edged sword, Gabriel, and I know you’re smart enough to know that. For one thing, after this summer, apparently it carries a risk of being visited by you three in a waterboarding mood!”

“You really know how to ask for a favor,” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua pressed one hand to the side of her face and closed her eyes for a moment. “I… Sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry, that’s just the worry talking. Omnu’s balls, I am out of my depth with this entire thing… Oh, uh, sorry, Toby.”

“If he’s not going to take exception to that, I’m certainly not,” Toby replied, amused. “I decided long ago that picking my battles meant that one was never going to be on the agenda. Why don’t we have a seat over here, by the fireplace? I can tell you’re stressed by all this, Natchua. These things are often easier to discuss in more comfortable surroundings. Care for something to nosh? Apparently the kitchen here is always open, and the staff seems to take real pride in fulfilling requests.”

“Still the team dad, I see,” Natchua said, even as she allowed him to lead her to the sofa nearest the main hearth. “Uh, no thanks, I’m honestly too nervous to eat. You all got your invitations, right?”

“We did,” Trissiny answered, perching on the arm of a plush armchair while Gabriel flopped fully into another one. Toby and Natchua both elected to stand, she already beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Thanks for thinking of us, Natchua, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. No slight intended, we’re just…kind of up to our necks in something, here.”

“That’s fine, I know it’s ridiculously short notice,” Natchua agreed, nodding. “It’s… Okay, that’s as good a segue as any. All this is pretty much what I wanted to ask you about, Trissiny.”

Segue or not, she then stopped talking, pacing a few laps up and down in front of the fire with a perturbed expression while the three paladins watched. After a few seconds, Gabriel opened his mouth, but Toby caught his eye and gave a single shake of his head. It was only a moment longer before Natchua finally found the thread of her thoughts again.

“So, there’s a lot of preparatory work involved in this noble thing, you know? And because Vette and Ravana are so dead set on moving fast to take everybody by surprise, it’s all being crammed in at the last second, so I’ve spent my morning dealing with… Just, all kinds of bullshit. But anyway, the thing that stuck out to me was my interview with the old steward of House Leduc. Scrappy old Vernisite guy, seems to be completely still there in the head despite his age. Under Sherwin he’s had basically nothing to do except make sure the Manor gets its weekly food delivery, and he was so excited that it’s going to be an actual House again.”

“What does that entail, exactly?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, being an actual House again. Not that I’m criticizing, you understand. Even you cannot possibly be a worse leader than Sherwin.”

“I don’t entirely know is the problem,” Natchua said in mounting frustration. “That’s exactly the issue! Apparently there’s a lot and I comprehend very little of it, but there are all these well-trained people who are oh so happy to step in and take all the details off my hands. It all came to a head for me when I was listening to Mr. Vonstraum—uh, that’s the steward I was talking about—tell me what kind of business and financial enterprises a fully active noble House is expected to do, and then there was this…this one moment.”

She abruptly stopped pacing, turning to meet Trissiny’s eyes.

“He mentioned how the Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is basically an afterthought since House Leduc withdrew from all its activities. Just a few people with nothing to do, really.”

“We discovered that when we were there,” Toby said, nodding. “What Eserites there still are have other priorities, too. Apparently the Underboss is in the Army, and one of the others ended up as one of Malivette’s…uh, attendants.”

“Jade, yeah,” Natchua said with a mirthless grin. “’Attendant’ is a word for it, I guess. But anyway, it was the way Vonstraum said this. He was practically drooling at the prospect of doing business in a Guild-free city.”

“I was never real clear on why that’s the case,” Gabriel added. “What about Veilgrad discourages Eserite activity?”

“Veilgrad’s a scary place,” Trissiny explained. “The Guild is active where there are powerful interests being predatory. And…that’s not really how things work, there; the usual predators are the prey. With the local ruler being a fair-minded vampire with an interventionist streak, it’s very hard for large-scale corruption that to take root. The way I understand it, the Guild was only needed to keep House Leduc itself in check, because they were the only ones with the oomph to push back against House Dufresne. With them effectively gone…” She spread her hands in a half-shrug.

“Exactly!” Natchua nodded. “That’s it exactly. To be frank, I’m not sure it was ever a great idea for the Guild to draw down with Malivette in charge, just because she doesn’t tend to pick on the little guys; that’s a lady who urgently needs some checks on her power if I ever met one. But now House Leduc is coming back, and… Trissiny, you’re the only Guild contact I know. I need to get more people out there to my city. Veilgrad needs a full Thieves’ Guild presence, as quickly as possible.”

All three stared at her in surprise while she gazed earnestly at Trissiny.

“Wait, so…” Toby blinked. “Your first act upon joining the nobility is to try to increase the Eserite presence in your domain? You do know how they tend to feel about nobles?”

“Of course I know,” Natchua said testily, shooting him a scowl. “That is literally the entire point, Caine, I thought I just explained that.”

“Well, this is pretty on-brand for you, Natch,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “First you make me grudgingly respect you, and then you immediately ruin it.”

“…sorry.” The drow lowered her eyes, her shoulder shifting in a small exhalation. “I know, you’re right, I’m not very… Well, you know. It’d be easy enough to say I’m only going to do business in a certain way, but the overarching lesson of my day so far has been that I do not in the slightest understand how a noble House operates. It’s a hugely complex enterprise, and apparently it’s able to function pretty well without much direct oversight, but here’s the thing: my options are to reactivate what remains of the old Leduc structure, with all the corruption and predation that implies, or allow Malivette to basically hand-pick one for me, which’ll effectively make me her pawn. I’d be wary of that even if she and Ravana weren’t conspiring to reshape the political landscape of the Empire for their personal benefit. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m a pretty fast learner; I know I’ll ultimately have it in hand, and be able to control my people properly. But that’s eventually. Nobles get trained for this from birth, and for good reason. It’ll likely take me years to be in full control, and in that time the gods only know what kind of havoc will be unleashed in my name, to say nothing of what Vette will do with her own reaffirmed authority over the province. I just… I will feel a lot safer with a firm presence in Veilgrad to keep the nobles in check. At least until I can wrap my head around the running of House Leduc’s interests enough to handpick better people for its agents and put some rules in place, but even after that point. Just, on general principles, you know? Nobles should not be free to do whatever goddamn thing they want, and with Vette in as good as she is with the Throne, Tiraas won’t help. I need the Guild. Can you help me, Trissiny?”

Her expression was very nearly pleading.

Trissiny inhaled deeply, blinking her eyes as if she was having difficulty processing all this. “Okay… Well, first of all, Natchua, there’s really not a thing I can do about this. I’ve got no operational control at all within the Guild.”

“What?” Natchua looked incredulous. “You don’t— But wasn’t it a huge deal when you joined up with them? I mean, you’re the Hand of Avei!”

“And in the Sisterhood of Avei, yes, that’s a big deal,” Trissiny said wryly, “but one thing Eserites really do not like is people trying to claim unearned authority over them. My Avenist rank means nothing there except for a quick way to piss everybody off if I tried throwing it around. In the Thieves’ Guild I’m just a bottom-ranking neophyte enforcer with no major jobs to her name and only a few connections.”

“I see.” Natchua’s shoulders slumped.

“Now, hang on,” said Trissiny. “Guys, were you leaning toward attending that coming-out party at Malivette’s place tonight? I know we’re busy, but…”

“I’m not sure what else is going to happen on this front between now and tomorrow,” said Toby. “That’s when our big announcements are all being made, right?”

“I was definitely planning to go,” Gabriel added. “Accepting Ravana’s invitation out here meant not going home for the winter; I’m not gonna pass up a chance to see my dad again if one pops up like this.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Natchua said, nodding eagerly at him. “Hesthri would also love a chance to spend some time with you.”

“Mnh,” he grunted, almost aggressively noncommittal.

“Right, so, here’s the bad news,” said Trissiny. “There’s some kind of issue in the Guild’s upper leadership right now that may impede any major operations or reassignments. The good news is that what you’re talking about here should appeal to any Eserite in principle. And I do happen to know exactly the right person to pull the strings I can’t and get some more people sent out to Veilgrad, if it can be done. So yeah, Natchua, I’ll be there tonight, and if I can make my RSVP plus one, I may be able to answer your request.”


“I’ve gotta say, Sweet, I’m surprised to see you comin’ to me with this.”

Ever the gracious host, Vandro waited till his guest was comfortably seated in his parlor with a scone in hand and the other members of the household likewise served before firing off the piercing question.

“Well, who else would I come to?” Sweet asked with his usual disarming grin, one Webs would naturally recognize as a facade. He wasn’t interested in wasting time playing mind games with this one; so long as Webs was likewise willing to keep the conversational chicanery to the necessary minimum, there was no reason this couldn’t be a civil discussion. “You know I like to cultivate my own networks, but let’s be honest, the both of us inherently limit ourselves purely because of who we choose to pal around with. And I’ll freely admit that the political hamster wheel I’ve been running since Ninkabi has cut down on my ability to keep up with even my usual rounds in the city. If I’m looking for dirt on Tricks… Well, who’s the most well-connected critic of Tricks to be found?”

“Hm,” Vandro murmured, actually taking a sip of his omnipresent blue cocktail. Sweet took that as a sign he was surprised by all this; the man was famously never without an alcoholic drink, but usually brandished it undrunk as a conversational prop, and was known to put people off guard by pretending to be impaired while stone sober.

He was the only one drinking. Sweet and Thumper had both declined cocktails, and Wilberforce hadn’t even bothered to ask Gimmick. The Butler was now off in the kitchen preparing tea while the four of them sat around the low parlor table with scones which none of them were eating.

Vandro was silent for the moment, holding the cocktail just under his nose and studying Sweet through pensively narrowed eyes. That was a good sign; he’d take pains to obscure his acute analysis if he thought they were at cross-purposes. Always ready to deflect awkwardness anyway, Sweet decided to give Webs whatever time he needed to ponder by switching the focus of the conversation.

“Thumper, you’re limping. What’ve you done to yourself this time? I honestly thought you’d lay low for a while after you got out Style’s tender care.”

“You bet your ass I have,” Thumper assured him. “I’m fine, Sweet, this is just a li’l momento of my last chat with Style. It’ll straighten out in time.”

“What?” Sweet scowled in sudden displeasure. “Style wasn’t supposed to fucking maim you, the Boss was crystal clear on that.”

“Oh, she didn’t,” Webs interjected, now watching Thumper with an annoyed grimace. “Style’s nothing if not a pro. And Jerry here would be back to a hundred percent long since if he’d gotten a proper healing and then stayed off his feet for a week like the docs goddamn well instructed. I keep tellin’ you, boy, what’s the damn point of me hirin’ the best healers in the capital if you won’t fucking do what they say?”

“I hear you, Alan,” Shook replied with the patience of a man who’d had this conversation repeatedly and expected to do so again. “An’ like I told you, I’m fine. It’s fine. Main project of my life right now is gettin’ my own head together, what with all the magic bullshit and that succubus, not to mention cleaning up after my own goddamn stupidity. A little pain here an’ there helps me focus. It’s not like I don’t have it coming, anyway.”

“Omnu’s balls, Thumper!” Sweet exclaimed. “You have got an absolute genius for taking the wrong lesson from any given situation. Walking around wounded is useful for exactly nothing! You wanna engage in self-flagellating bullshit, just join the Huntsmen and have done with it.”

“The hell you say,” Thumper retorted with a smirk, straightening one of his lapels. “Have you seen how those assholes dress?”

“He has been attending Avenist temple services,” Saduko commented, and then met Thumper’s annoyed scowl with a polite little smile.

“Yeah, and ain’t that the fuckin’ icing on the cake,” Vandro huffed.

“Hey, it’s instructive!” Shook protested. “I’ve already spotted half a dozen specific ways in which they are full a’ shit, but also a good handful of useful thinkin’ points I never considered before. Man’s gotta keep an open mind, y’know? Just not too open.”

Vandro cleared his throat pointedly before bringing the conversation back on track. “Well, Sweet, I gotta ask: what is it about this that’s got you scheming to knock Tricks off his pedestal? So he’s bein’ high-handed and too much in control; I’ve been sayin’ that for years.”

“First of all,” Sweet said flatly, setting his scone and plate down on the table, “nobody’s knocking anybody anywhere. My whole point here is to find out if it’s gonna be necessary to do anything about Tricks, which is why I’m here asking what else you might know about him overreaching.”

“All right, well, fact remains, it seems like an arbitrary thing to me. So he tried to rip off the Falconers. Why’re you so fond of them? Or that weirdo fuckin’ demon dog of theirs?”

“I struggle to have any opinion about the Falconers or their pets,” Sweet replied. “They seem okay, for industrialists, but who’s got tears to spare for the problems of rich people? My issue is who they’re connected to. That dog also belongs to the drow wife of the Falconer heiress, who is a noble of the Narisian diplomatic House—and this right at a moment when shit between the elves and the Empire is at maximum tension to begin with. And then there is fucking Vadrieny. That little snatch-and-grab could’ve kicked off a massive diplomatic crisis, which would make it a colossally goddamn stupid thing to do, and it sent two Guild members in good standing right into the claws of an archdemon without warning ‘em they were about to piss her off. Whatever you think about Tricks’s leadership style, he’s never been stupid, and he has never mishandled honest thieves like that before. Something is up, Webs.”

“Huh,” Vandro grunted, swirling his cocktail and staring at it. “When y’put it like that, I do kinda see your point. But that highlights the problem here, Sweet: it takes a little explainin’ to the likes of me to suss out why Tricks may be acting out of character. By the same token, most of my, shall we call ‘em, social circle likely haven’t noticed anything outta the ordinary either. Those who think the way I do are not likely to be happy about the Boss anyway, and I can’t say how many will share your observation that this is something new an’ different.”

Saduko cleared her throat. “Also, as Webs has been very clear that he is not interested in plotting to unseat the Boss, most of those who have his ear will not have been watching Tricks more closely than anyone else.”

Sweet raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah, while we’re talkin’ about this, I gotta say I never got it,” Thumper admitted. “You’re always goin’ on about how much you don’t like Tricks’s leadership, Alan. That Om’ponole job in Onkawa that went so completely tits up sounded like you were beginning to work on a longer-term plan to undercut his authority. What changed?”

“You think anything’s changed?” Vandro chuckled. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry m’boy, I’ve spent the last couple years largely worryin’ about you. But no, I have still been running jobs, and even moved myself back here to Tricks’s backyard to keep doin’ it. Being that I am not angling to take over his position, the best play to undercut him is to earn more cred than he is while loudly complaining about his leadership. Truth be told, it’s not gonna draw much attention except from the people who specifically keep an eye on Guild politics. But then, that’s exactly the point.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of it, then,” said Thumper. “You’d be as good a Boss as he is. If you’re not gonna try to take over, what—”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah!” Vandro leaned back in his seat, holding up his cocktail and his free hand in a defensive gesture. “I’m an operations guy, Jerry. That’s what I do: I plan big jobs and direct my minions with a firm guiding hand. The only thing that makes me any better than Tricks is I damn well know my place! The Guild’s not supposed to be run like a tight ship. Boss Webs would be the same shit from a new asshole. That’s why I’m not trying to unseat the Boss. I got no business doing that, when there’s no adequate replacement for him lined up. Best use of me right now is to use my influence to counter his.”

“It might not be as hard as you think,” Sweet murmured. “Tricks has hinted to me for years that he wouldn’t mind passing the job back…”

“Perhaps I do not understand,” Saduko said delicately. “I know the central operation of the Guild in Sifan is different, as with all the Pantheon cults. Leadership there is a position of honor, for which there is much competition. Is it truly not so in Tiraas?”

“Aren’t you half-Sheng?” Thumper asked. “I thought their branch of the Guild ran more or less like the Imperial one.”

“I am an Imperial citizen,” she said in such an icy tone that he leaned away from her, “and I have never been to Shengdu.”

“Way I hear it, nothing there that’s worth seeing is still standing after the civil war,” Vandro said lightly. “But no, Gimmick, around these parts we take it as given that anybody who wants to be in power is automatically disqualified. So,” he added with a grimace, “I’m well aware that my carrying on may result in exactly that. If I just didn’t care for the position, I might suck it up and try to move in on Tricks anyway, but my specific point is that I wouldn’t be a better Boss than he is—or even a much different one. So me tryin’ to take his job would be nothing but a completely pointless upset of the Guild’s operations. But!”

He leaned forward, brandishing his cocktail almost accusingly at Sweet.

“Now you’ve brought this up, Sweet, I’ll tell you what I can do for you. I got no answers for you right now, but you’re right that I’m in good with the people who can get ‘em. It’s a matter of askin’ some friends of mine to think carefully about things they may’ve seen lately, and start looking closer at other stuff. It’s doable. But the price I demand for this assistance is your backing if we decide what’s needed is a new Boss. I got somebody in mind who I think would be the best candidate to take over.”

“Once again, Webs,” Sweet said firmly, “I am not committing to that course of action yet. I’m still in the very early stages of deciding if that’s what needs to be done.”

“Of course, everybody’s clear on that,” Webs replied, waving his sloshing drink impatiently, “that’s why I said if with all the emphasis. If, Sweet.”

“All right, if,” he replied. “Obviously I’m not gonna sign off on something like that without knowing exactly who you’re planning to put forward.”

“Is it really not obvious?” Vandro grinned broadly at him. “Nobody here actually thinks we need a new Boss as such; we’re all just concerned about the current one. If the worst case scenario has to go down, it’ll mean massive disruption in the Guild, and the next poor bastard to fill the role needs to be both very familiar with its workings and very skilled at soothing people’s ruffled feathers and coaxing folks back to business as usual. I’m talking about you, Sweet.”

“Huh,” Thumper said into the startled silence which ensued. He and Gimmick were both studying Sweet pensively. That was the moment when Wilberforce bustled back into the room with a laden tray and began pouring tea.

“I, uh… I feel like I’ve skipped a chapter, here,” Sweet admitted after taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “It was my impression you weren’t much more pleased with my performance as Boss than Tricks’s, Alan.”

“Only problem I had with you was that your obsession with not rocking the boat came right after Catseye set it on a dangerous course, Antonio. That woulda been a problem just because she was so ham-fisted, but there’s also the fact that trying to transition from a Boss who was boinking the Empress to a Boss and an Emperor who weren’t even on speaking terms without functionally changing our methods made our legal position shakier than it needed to be.”

Thumper had just choked on a bite of his scone, and Saduko hesitated in lifting her teacup, staring at Vandro with wide eyes. Wilberforce simply carried on distributing cups as if he could hear none of this.

“Hey, now, let’s not distribute scurrilous rumors about the dead,” Sweet protested.

“Pardon me,” Vandro said wryly, “but isn’t your whole point in bein’ here an acknowledgment that I know stuff you don’t? Trust me, Sweet. It wasn’t every Thursday night or nothin’, but Catseye and Theasia hit the sheets at least a handful of times during their overlapping reigns. They were in bed politically speaking on a much consistent basis, to the point of the Guild being used more’n a few times to shut down Theasia’s opponents. You’re pretty cozy with the Empire, true, but not in the same way, and your throwdown with Justinian this fall proved to my satisfaction you’ve got a line past which you’ll take a stand for Eserite principle. What is important here is that you are here, concerned about this and taking action. If it turns out that Tricks has gone bad and needs to go, I’m satisfied you will recognize the need for change and do what needs to be done to fix whatever else he broke. I’ll have your back, if that’s the case, but I won’t try to tell you what to do. Me bein’ the power behind the throne ain’t any better than me taking over in person. So that’s the deal, Sweet. I’ll help you figure out what’s up, on the condition that if we decide Tricks is compromised like you fear, you will take your old job back.”

Sweet stared at him in consternation; Webs just gazed back, a knowing little smile hovering around his mouth.

“It’d…probably be easier,” Thumper offered after a few seconds of silence. “Everybody likes you, Sweet. And we know from history that you’re a competent Boss.” Saduko nodded mutely.

“All right…look.” Sweet shook his head. “I am going to proceed on the assumption that this is all theoretical and hope that stays the case, all right?”

“Sure,” Webs agreed. “I would too. But…”

Sweet heaved a sigh. “But… I’m not gonna make you any promises about how long I would stay in the big chair, Webs. You no doubt remember I didn’t go for a fraction of Catseye’s longevity last time.”

“Even better,” Vandro said with a broad grin. “Cos I know you also won’t step down until you’ve got somebody lined up who you’re sure can handle the job right.”

“Isn’t that exactly what got us into this situation?”

Vandro shrugged. “If we’re proceeding on the assumption that whatever’s up with Tricks is a new development, I don’t see how you could’ve anticipated it years ago. And maybe this’ll teach you something about picking a successor with a less hands-on approach next time.”

“How sure are you that your network can turn up the info we need, anyway?”

“How sure are you that Tricks is actually compromised?” Vandro retorted with a smug little grin.

Sweet indulged in glaring at him. He had not come here prepared to make a decision like this… Which, of course, was exactly why Webs was springing it on him now. And the truth was, it was a well-sprung trap. If he tried to deflect or put this off, Webs would take it as a refusal, and then… Could he dig up the information he needed without him? That was frustratingly unclear. He’d already spoken with Glory, who was also well-connected in the city and throughout the Empire, and they had the same problem: both were known to be generally well-disposed toward Tricks, which meant Guild members who shared Vandro’s viewpoint would be skeptical of them if approached. Some could be brought around, sure, but how fast? How much time did they even have left to work on this?

Damn it, he was cornered. The decision had to be made now. He’d just have to hope it was the right call… And that he could fix it, somehow, if he was making a mistake.

“All right, Webs. Deal.”

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16 – 29

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“It’s not as urgent a crisis as that,” Ingvar assured her. “My people are pretty accustomed to rough sleeping arrangements and close quarters; we hardly know what to do with ourselves in a place as lavish as this. That goes for the Harpies, too. And it seems the lizardfolk like to cluster together even tighter. I keep getting the impression they would pile themselves in twelve to a room even if the lack of space didn’t mandate it.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” said Ravana, gazing down at the dense throng of scaly bodies milling about the great hall of her ancestral hunting lodge.

“That just means this is stable in the very immediate term,” he cautioned. “This many people, in this little space, representing two distinct groups with little reason for mutual trust… It’s going to become an issue sooner than later. And more immediately, we are out of food. Our guests aren’t going to starve, they seem to have carried their own winter provisions, but we opened our stores to help facilitate trust and settle them in, and well…”

“I will see that you are resupplied immediately,” Ravana promised. “Foodstuffs, and anything else you need. And obviously, this is not a permanent solution. Before doing anything with them, however, I must decide what to do with them, and that is a decision I judge myself not yet sufficiently informed to make. What have you learned about their intentions and reason for being out here in such numbers in the winter?”

The lodge had been designed for aristocrats and thus possessed a number of highly specific architectural features such as the one she and Ingvar were currently using: a small balcony shaded by heavy curtains—really more like an opera box—overlooking the great hall. From this vantage, the nobles of House Madouri could stand at the edge of the rail, as they were now, and be seen gazing down upon their domain from on high, with the added benefit that the carefully designed acoustics of the spot would keep their conversation private from those below.

“All I’ve gotten definitively is that this is some kind of religious pilgrimage,” Ingvar reported, staring down at the two hundred or so lizardfolk below—less than half those currently housed in the lodge. His Shadow Hunters were moving carefully through the crowd, both to see if any help was needed and to generally keep order. The spirit wolves, unsurprisingly, had refused to have anything to do with such a dense crowd indoors and were all outside in the snow. “And that… Well, that kind of inherently puts a stop to learning more. The lizardfolk’s religious practices are private. No doubt there are Nemitite records that could help me gain some insight, but this situation is too tense to be left simmering while I engage in a lengthy research project. I’m sorry I don’t have a better report for you, my Lady. In my opinion, more suitable housing needs to be found for these people before we seek a permanent solution. That is, unless you wish to just let them go about their business. They made it this far without disturbing anyone…”

“Any insight as to how they’ve managed to come this far, undetected?”

“’The safe way is the slow way,’” he quoted with a wry grimace. “Or so they’ve repeated when asked. What they are doing and why are apparently spiritual concerns, and therefore not for discussion with outsiders, but in talking with various individuals I’ve been able to pick up some details about what they’ve already done. Bits of stories about shamans contacting all the tribes across the western part of the Empire, and some interesting notes about who didn’t come. Apparently every tribe sent about half its members, leaving enough back home that the human authorities wouldn’t notice their sudden absence.” He hesitated, his frown deepening. “My lady, this is just a hunch, but I’m increasingly getting the impression that the lizardfolk were the first of the insular races to organize this way. But while the dragons and elves made a big production of it as soon as they were in a position to do so, these seem to have been careful not to reveal what they were doing. I think they’ve been working up to this for a few years, at least.”

“They are just standoffish enough for that to work,” Ravana mused. “It bodes ill for their intentions, that they devoted such effort to secrecy. On the other hand, the fact that they allowed you and your followers to herd them in here suggests the opposite. You could not have compelled them, had they chosen to resist. I mean no disrespect…”

“You gave none,” he said quickly. “You’re quite right, my lady, we had no chance of forcibly rounding them up like this. In fact, they’ve been most cooperative…at least, until I start asking what they are doing.”

“They’re looking to join the Empire.”

Both of them turned to face the speaker who approached from behind, in some surprise but no alarm; with Yancey standing guard at the entrance to the box, there was no chance of being ambushed from that direction. Juniper strolled up, accompanied by her pet bird-lizard, which Ravana studiously ignored. In truth she found Sniff more alarming than the huge spirit wolves, though it had to be said that he was better-behaved than Juniper’s previous pet.

“How do you mean?” Ingvar asked, stepping aside to make room for the dryad at the rail with them.

Juniper leaned against it, gazing downward in a posture that caused her Omnist medallion to slide out of the neck of her dress and dangle. As usual, she was wearing an elven-style beaded robe that was better suited for the summer, but the cold and snow outside didn’t seem to bother her.

“Just what I’ve put together from what the shamans have said,” she explained. “More than one has mentioned rallying under the black banner. One guy said their only hope for salvation was beneath the gryphon’s wings.”

Ravana and Ingvar hesitated at that, glancing at each other. True, the Imperial flag was a silver gryphon on a black field, but…

“Sounds awfully vague,” Ingvar ruminated, “but it’s more than I was able to get out of them. What’s your secret?”

“My secret is their religious practices are shamanistic,” Juniper said, shooting him a playful smile. “People who are into fae magic are usually delighted to chat with a dryad.”

“Oh? I wonder why Aspen hasn’t been able to get anything out of them, then.”

“Do you?” she asked dryly. “You’ve been hanging around with Aspen for a while now, Ingvar. I’m sure you’ve noticed she is not exactly a people person.”

“I can hear you!” Aspen’s voice floated up from the floor below.

Juniper leaned farther over the rail, shouting back, “Yeah? And when you can refute me, you know where I’ll be!” There was no audible response to that, and she straightened back up, smirking.

“And here I thought this spot afforded privacy,” Ravana sighed.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Juniper reassured her, “dryads aren’t elves. Our sensory acuity is variable, and consciously controlled. Aspen being able to hear us up here just means she was deliberately eavesdropping. Nobody else except your wizard should be able to overhear.”

“We had a lizardfolk classmate,” Ravana said pensively, still staring down at the crowd. “She graduated last year. Lriss was always so cosmopolitan, downright urbane; well-dressed, well-spoken, and as witty as any socialite I have ever met, particularly when she was deflecting questions about her people without giving offense. Last Rock does famously draw exceptional individuals, but I cannot find it in me to believe the lizardfolk are less intelligent than anyone else. Their withdrawal from the society of others is their choice, and they still visit and trade in cities. Two hundred years ago, they were a common sight in adventuring parties. As such, I am forced to consider this…facade of primitive tribalism no more than that. These people know what the Empire is, and how it works. To set out for its heart while camouflaging their intentions behind mystical doublespeak signals unequivocal hostility.”

“That is one interpretation,” Ingvar said, “but I don’t think the likelier one, my lady, with all due respect.”

Ravana turned her head toward him, raising an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I may not understand the lizardfolk religion, but I’m very familiar with religion itself, as a broad concept. Among other things, it encourages people to express themselves in grandiose, poetic terms, even when it would serve them better to speak plainly. These people are far away from everything they know, with apparently nothing but their faith to cling to. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t couch everything in ritualism and pageantry.”

“Hm… You do have a point, Sheriff. Who is in charge among them?”

Ingvar and Juniper both pointed without hesitating.

“The fellow sitting by that fireplace, with the shawl and the kinda cracked-looking scales,” Juniper answered. “I think that’s what they get instead of going gray.”

“He gives all the orders among them,” Ingvar added. “What’s interesting is he doesn’t have a name.”

“You mean…he refused to give it to you?”

“No, he was very clear about this,” the hunter disagreed, shaking his head. “He has no name. That’s also something of significance in their religion which, of course, he refused to explain. He did hint that he gave up his name for the sake of this…whatever it is they’re doing. The others just call him Elder.”

“Well, then!” she said briskly, stepping back from the rail, “named or not, I know where to start. Come, let us go have a word with the gentleman.”

Yancey fell into step beside and just behind her as she emerged into the hallway. Veilwin, lounging against the wall and sipping from her horrific-smelling flask, gave Ravana a challenging look and refused to budge, all of which Ravana of course ignored. No possible good could have resulted from involving the surly elf in the conversation she planned, anyway. With Ingvar and Juniper following, she led the way briskly through the halls and staircases that brought them back to the main floor, and then the great hall itself.

Only the upper hall itself had been free of crowds; immediately after that, they began to encounter clusters of lizardfolk refugees. Ravana simply strode forward at the same measured pace, her head held high even though it came barely to the shoulder of most of the guests in her lodge. Without exception, they got out of her way, several bowing and murmuring apologies at which she nodded graciously.

The effect continued to work even in the dense crowd in the great hall, resulting in a constant ripple as she strode forward through a cleared space that opened itself around her with every step. As a result of that, by the time she reached her target, he was already upright and watching her approach. The last thin curtain of bodies parted to reveal the sight of him, standing slightly hunched with age and leaning upon at all staff from the top of which hung several bird skulls and one softly glowing crystal on leather cords.

“Greetings, Elder,” Ravana said politely, and though she did not raise her voice, it caused silence to ripple outward, snuffing out the muttering which had been caused by her own arrival. “Welcome to Tiraan Province and to this household. I am the Duchess Madouri, mistress of these lands. You have my apologies for the paltry accommodations, and my tardiness in greeting you. I came as soon as I was informed I had guests.”

“Duchess.” The shaman thumped his staff once upon the floor, and then bowed deeply to her. The gesture was ponderous, whether because that was just how they did it or because of his age, she didn’t know, though the way the two nearest lizardfolk watched him and edged forward protectively suggested the latter. “The People are grateful for your hospitality, and sorry to impose upon you. We are, in all our dealings, fair. We shall seek to repay your kindness in whatever way we are able, when the times allow it. For now, rest assured that we will relieve you of the burden of our presence very shortly.”

“It is no burden,” she replied in a tone which brooked no argument. “To extend kindness toward guests is among the most basic expectations placed upon all decent people, and I assure you, I can afford to host you. I am sorry for these cramped accommodations; I will find you something better as quickly as I can. As for your leaving, that remains to be seen.”

The softest of collective sounds fluttered through the onlookers, a concerted indrawing of breath.

The elder shaman made a clicking noise with his tongue, and a pair of filmy inner eyelids flickered over his yellow eyes for an instant. “We have tarried too long, Duchess, and it was never our intention to disturb you.”

“Or make yourselves known to me?” she replied with a thin smile. “That is the issue precisely, Elder. To surreptitiously cross my lands with such a large host is not neighborly behavior, with all due respect. I’m afraid your presence here, and your manner of conducting yourself, requires an explanation. What do you intend to do in the capital?”

At that, a swell of indistinct murmuring rose from the crowd, which was quelled in an instant by another thump of his staff.

“For the People, I apologize,” the Elder intoned, again bowing to her. “We have done and would have done no harm to you or yours, Duchess. If our crossing has done you insult, amends shall be made. For that, and for the slight we inflict by leaving now. But leave we must. A great doom is coming; the People have prepared as best we are able. Now is the time to act. There must be no more hesitation.”

“I fear you misunderstand,” Ravana said evenly. “I am a servant of the Silver Throne. As such, I am tentatively inclined to aid you further, if I may. Whatever benefits the Empire benefits me, and if you seek to pledge yourselves to my Emperor, I am duty bound to protect and assist you. Thus, at the very least, I shall inform his Majesty of your coming.”

Another, louder stir of voices resulted from that, again silenced by a thunk of the staff. Ravana kept speaking as though she had not been interrupted.

“However, you travel surrounded by a fog of uncertainty. I cannot send hundreds of people of unknown intention toward the seat of the Empire. As much as I would be pleased to aid your cause if it proves right that I do so, should it be true that you mean harm to my Emperor, your journey ends here and now.”

This time, there was no muttering. In fact, the silence was as chilling as it was sudden.

“Uh, Ravana?” Juniper muttered.

“So,” Ravana stated, folding her arms regally, “with apologies for pressing you, Elder, I am forced to demand that you explain yourselves.”

His thin chest swelled with a slowly drawn breath, and then his shoulders slumped as he let it out. “Already too much has been revealed, young Duchess. I swear to you, upon my forsaken name, upon the hopes of my People, on pain of severance from my every familiar spirit if I deceive, that we intend no harm to you or to Tiraas. More than that, I may not reveal to you. You have my apologies if I give insult, but this is absolute. Too much is at stake, and too much of our secrecy already compromised.”

“I thank you for that assurance,” she said solemnly, nodding her head once. “But I suspect you know well, Elder, that to a person in my situation, it cannot be enough.”

“Can it truly not?” he asked wearily.

She shook her head. “I know nothing of you or your spirits. You have your duty, and I respect that, but by the same token I have mine. The House of Madouri safeguards the lands around the Imperial capital, and has for a thousand years. To send a horde of strangers straight to the Emperor’s doorstep in ignorance of their intentions would be an utter betrayal of that responsibility. I cannot abrogate my duty in such a manner.”

He lowered his head for a moment. “Ah. To have come to such an impasse. The spirits did not forewarn that we would find allies or enemies here, only that we risked crossing the path of more able hunters than have watched these lands before. You do not know you can trust the People, Duchess; I understand. It is reasonable. If only the People knew we could trust you, this could be resolved.”

“Neither you nor I have time to dawdle here indefinitely,” she replied, “but I can spare the time for you to be certain, Elder. Surely you have the means.”

The old shaman regarded her pensively for a moment, blinking his inner eyelids once more. Then he thumped his staff yet again.

“So be it. By your leave, Duchess, I shall seek wisdom. For the patience you extend, I am grateful. Ilriss, Fninn. Prepare the way.”

A muted flurry of movement ensued as the lizardfolk rearranged themselves and Ravana stood immobile in her place. Ingvar and Juniper both drew closer to her; Sniff, on the contrary, separated himself from his mistress’s leg by a few feet, flattening his head crest and fanning his wings in a display from which the nearby lizardfolk wisely backed away. By that point, half a dozen of Ingvar’s people had joined them, including Aspen and three of the Harpies Ravana recognized, and they now arranged themselves in a protective cluster around her.

The Elder, meanwhile, had slowly stepped over to the fire and seated himself before it, his back to the flames and his tail curved around himself. Two of his nearest companions, probably the two he had named, positioned themselves on either side of him, each tossing a handful of some herbal powder into the hearth which made it splutter and produce a fragrant smoke. He appeared to be surrounded chiefly by other shaman, to judge by the way several of those nearest began to hum deep in their throats and thump their tails against the marble floor, quickly creating a rhythm that filled the air as did the scented smoke. In the midst of it, the Elder closed his eyes, breathing in deeply.

“What are you doing?” Juniper hissed at Ravana from inches away. “Who knows what’s going to happen if he does random magic at you? This could all blow up in our faces!”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said serenely, not troubling to lower her voice. “He is a shaman. When needing to ascertain whether he can trust me, he will naturally call upon his familiar spirits. And since fae divination is famously impossible to deceive or thwart, I know what they will tell him. One who lives a life of integrity need never fear the revelation of her true character.”

Ingvar’s own expression was guarded, but he shot her a long look at that.

The Elder was now rocking slowly back and forth, holding his staff horizontally in his lap. The herbal-scented smoke from the hearth had drifted forward and actually begun to form a halo around his head. That was the only clear sign of magic being done, at least until he suddenly opened his eyes. Only the outer eyelids; the translucent inner ones remained closed, revealing a muted green glow from beneath them.

Falling still and sitting bolt upright, the Elder spoke in a voice that suddenly echoed as if others were speaking in unison.

“Little hunting spider, spinner of grand and sprawling webs. Far too eager to strike, and with venom far too cruel.”

The muttering that rose from the surrounding lizardfolk was distinctly unhappy at that. The Shadow Hunters drew closer together around the Duchess, watching them warily. Ravana herself simply stood, impassively gazing at the old shaman.

“And yet,” he whispered, his soft voice cutting off the speech of the others like a blade. “And yet.”

He closed his eyes, bowing his head, and for almost a full minute, there was expectant silence.

“And yet,” the Elder said suddenly, lifting his snout again, “there is a cold honor in her. Yes. Faithful to her word, loyal to her master, generous to the weak. Destroyer and protector both, changing to suit those deserving of either spirit.”

He opened his eyes once more to reveal the green film, then blinked them rapidly, causing the glow to fade. The Elder shook his head, beginning to slump sideways until one of his attendants lunged to catch him. All around, the humming and drumming of tails trailed to a halt.

Finally, the old shaman opened his eyes fully, revealing their normal yellow, slightly clouded by age. Leaning on his companion, he gazed up at Ravana with an expression of sheer bemusement, and spoke with a voice that was just his own again, not shared by any familiar spirits.

“There is…there is no moderation in you, child. Omnu’s grace or Scyllith’s fury, with nothing in between.”

“Thank you for that assessment,” Ravana said with a noblewoman’s meaningless smile. “Back to the matter at hand, did you learn what you needed to?”

He sighed again, but nodded ponderously, and then actually smiled. “Yes… Yes, in truth. You are not the weaver against which we were cautioned.”

Another muted hubbub rose, this one excited and speculative, and thankfully not angry in tone.

Ingvar leaned closer to Ravana, speaking in a low near-growl. “And what if their intent had been hostile? My lady, we are in the middle of them.”

“If they meant harm,” she replied, “you would be dead, and I would never have learned of this. Sometimes one must take a risk, Ingvar. Every risk I take is calculated with care, I assure you.”

“Yes!” said the Elder, planting his staff against the ground and using it to heave himself upright, ignoring but not rejecting the assistance of his attendants. “Risk, yes. Your pardon, Duchess, for my skepticism. Everything has been with the utmost caution, the greatest care. Too much is at stake: the fates of the People, of the Empire, of all life upon this earth. But you have indulged me, and thus I am sure you are not our enemy. I must assure you of the same. In all our dealings, the People are fair.”

“I am relieved to hear it,” she said, smiling. “Shall we retire to a more comfortable setting to talk, Elder?”

“My old bones will bear me up a while longer,” he demurred, shaking his head. “Too much time is lost already. The omens have warned us of a great doom for some time now, little Duchess. We have consulted the spirits with great care, and learned of the shadow of a great spider, spinning webs across every possible future. Hence, my worry. But you are not that spider. In fact, you may be one who will aid us against it. The beast has laid strands of its web over every fate, and that is why the People have acted with such great care, in such meticulous silence and stealth, as we go to place ourselves before the Emperor. The spirits warned us that only thus will we avert disaster. The spider sees much…but not all. Even a spider may be plucked from its web by a wasp which does not disturb the strands. The People are no great force, in either magic or might, but we may yet save the future simply by arriving at the center of the web without touching it. What the spider does not see, it does not guard against.”

A year ago, Ravana might have disdained that idea; her whole philosophy of action was centered upon finding and deploying the greatest concentration of force possible at the enemy’s weakest point. And yet, what he described was the exact strategy Natchua had recently used to humble Elilial. The weakness of schemers—such as herself—was that even the best plan was vulnerable to any variable for which it had failed to account. Even a weak blow could be lethal, if it arrived unseen, and struck the right spot.

And so she nodded, slowly, considering his words. “A sound plan, Elder. Yes, I see why you were so concerned with the element of surprise.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding back. “We shall have only the one chance to avert catastrophe. Let us speak, then, of the great doom that is coming.”

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16 – 28

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McGraw had spent by far the majority of his career in the wilderness and small towns of the Great Plains frontier, but not all; he had ranged widely enough over the years to have been in more than a few urban safehouses. Enough, at least, to recognize one on sight. When you’d seen one, you’d seen them all, these empty but well-maintained residences kept by various powerful organizations against times when they needed to discreetly stash someone for a while.

They were so empty, despite being fully furnished. There was no personality or character, just bland arrangements of styleless furniture and only the most neutral and inoffensive of decoration, when there was any at all. Interestingly, he had always recognized the home of Bishop Darling as another such place. That had been only the first hint that “Bishop Darling” was a role being acted rather than a real person, McGraw was just as glad to have parted ways from the man on amicable terms before he had to find out what was underneath that mask. The Darling residence had even less personality than this place, which at least identified its owners by having golden eagle sigils or casually displayed copies of the Aveniad or Avenist librams in every room. The front parlor even had a full shrine to Avei; a small and plain one, but still. Avenists might occasionally mutter “war is deception” or some such aphorism but as a rule they didn’t care for sneaking around or hiding their intentions.

Following his careful exploration of the mid-sized middle-class townhouse (only three bedrooms, but none of the team were overly particular about their living conditions), he returned now to that front room, his first view down the hallway revealing Joe leaning against the wall and watching something.

“Serviceable place,” McGraw observed, approaching. “Cozy, but not—”

He broke off when Joe raised one finger to his lips, crossing the last few feet in silence to peek into the room.

Everyone else was here, Shay lounging in the room’s most comfortable chair and Casey also leaning against the wall, next to the door in a position which made her invisible to someone approaching it. McGraw had noted her tendency to do that and similar things; someone had taught this girl stealthy habits. They were all watching the fifth member of the group, who appeared to be doing particularly unconventional witchcraft in front of the little shrine to Avei.

Like most who’d gravitated or been assigned to the First Legion, their two actual priestesses of Avei did not exactly fit in with the rest of the Sisterhood. Shay Iraa liked beer and loud, off-key singing, and thus spent a lot of her free time in taverns frequently getting into brawls, which had only been tolerated because she had extricated an astonishing number of battered women from their situations. Even so, the Sisterhood was just as happy to have her off training in Viridill rather than having to be retrieved from jail every other week. All in all she resembled the popular stereotype of an Eserite, and was always ready to demonstrate that upside the head of anyone unwise enough to point it out.

Bandi Avelea, on the other hand, was easy to mistake for an Omnist, given her stereotypically serene bearing and devotion to the martial arts, as well as her emphasis on meditative and spiritual disciplines which were held in less esteem in the pragmatic Sisterhood. Indeed, upon first seeing her demonstrate her fighting style during a First Legion training session, McGraw (and others present) had mistaken it for a Sun Style sequence until she began serenely explaining and demonstrating on a luckless target dummy all the ways in which she could kill a person with one unarmed hand.

Now, Sister Bandi stood in a defined spell circle consisting only of seven crystals arranged around her, which McGraw only knew was fae in nature because of the unpleasant prickling it caused against all the arcane magic he had stored in his own aura. There was a limit to how much fae magic a priestess could do, if only because most fairy spirits objected to being in the presence of so much divine energy. But by settling for strictly low-tier spells and getting a little creative, one could always pick up some extra versatility from outside one’s own preferred skill; he’d done so himself.

What she was doing more resembled a very slow dance, or perhaps a martial arts sequence performed at half speed. The priestess, eyes closed, moved evenly through a fluid series of motions with her arms and legs, flowing in a manner that almost resembled water held within the tube delineated by her spell circle.

Casey leaned over to him and murmured, “She’s checking if we can pick up any traces magically. I figured it’s worth a try. Hate to just sit on our hands while we wait for General Avelea and Nandi to come back with more orders.”

McGraw nodded once, understanding. Trissiny was engaged in some high-level political maneuvering with the aid of her fellow paladins and had to return to their current base in Madouris to check up on the progress of that, while Shahai was at the Temple of Avei meeting with the High Commander. She, at least, would be back with orders by that evening, but Trissiny had been clear that there were numerous unexpected events in the air and she might not be able to return that day.

He leaned over toward Casey in turn, lowering his head and his voice to mumble in a low tone even Joe shouldn’t have been able to pick up. “I’ll get ya a rolled-up newspaper t’whack me with if y’want, boss lady, but meantime, a word of advice.”

Her eyes flicked up to his face, expression neutral, as he continued.

“Best way to impress folks like General Avelea is by not tryin’ to impress them. People of action only get irritated if the spot you maneuvering for favor.”

The sergeant’s cheeks darkened slightly and he saw her eyes narrow in displeasure, just as expected.

But then Casey turned her head to resume watching Bandi’s odd ritual, her expression of annoyance turning to one of contemplation. She didn’t even try to deny it; by that point, no one in the First Legion didn’t know Casey Elwick was an ardent fan of Trissiny Avelea and undoubtedly over the moon at having the chance to work directly under her.

“Okay, thanks for the tip,” she said softly, “but I don’t know what else to do, here. Irrespective of impressing anybody, we accomplish nothing by loafing around waiting for orders. It’s not like this is a regular Legion. If we can’t take some initiative toward the mission, what’s the point of us? If you’ve got a better idea for how to spend our time, Elias, I’m open to it.”

He quite liked Casey; for someone so young (he’d eat his hat if she was eighteen) she had a good head on her shoulders, and not only the habit of thinking carefully before acting but the solemn aspect of someone who had learned her restraint and strategy through suffering. She reminded him a lot of Joe, in that respect.

“When you put it that way, it does seem like the most solid move in our position,” McGraw agreed, tipping his hat. “My apologies, Sarge. Y’get to be my age and it’s easy to forget y’ain’t the only person in the room who knows what he’s doin’.”

She gave him a sidelong smile at that, but further conversation was cut off by the end of Sister Bandi’s ritual.

She straightened up, first raising her arms out to both sides and then bringing them up, overhead, and down to fold her hands at her waist, and finally opened her eyes. At that signal, all seven of the crystals around her tipped over in unison.

“It is well you insisted on this measure, Sergeant,” she said seriously.

“You got a lead?” Casey asked, straightening up.

“I did warn you that my very basic oracular craft is unlikely to pick up on trails of subtle maneuvering, and indeed I did not. But focusing upon the Purists, I was touched by spirits their intentions have moved. Vengeance, and violence. They are about to strike.”

At that, Joe also straightened up.

“At who?” Casey demanded.

Sister Bandi shook her head, the beads in her multitude of thin black braids clattering softly. “While the spirit is still upon me, I can lead us toward the place. But it is like a hound tracking a scent. I cannot see where it will end, or what will meet us there.”

“If those fools go after Trissiny, they’re toast,” Joe said. “They can’t be dumb enough not to know that…”

“Oh, I dunno,” Shay disagreed, “they are pretty damn dumb.”

“Trissiny’s Eserite friends,” Casey said. “Rasha, the Sakhavenids, and…what’s her name, the acrobat.”

Shay finally joined the others in bolting upright. “Shit. Disgraced or not, if priestesses of Avei stick swords into Guild apprentices it’ll be war in the streets by sunset.”

“Okay, we’ve gotta move,” Casey said, glancing rapidly back and forth across the group, all of whom were staring expectantly at her for orders. “But… We can’t just…”

She faltered, and McGraw gave her an encouraging nod. He could tell what needed to be done, and he would tell her if she didn’t work it out herself. But he waited, at least for a moment. Casey was smart enough and she’d grow faster as a leader and tactician by doing these things for herself. He knew his role in this party; it was the wise old wizard’s job to support the scrappy young heroes, not take over. Showing some faith in the young sergeant was worth a delay of a few minutes.

In fact, it only took a few seconds before her eyes fixed on him and widened slightly in inspiration. “Elias! Can I borrow one of those portal runes of yours?”

“What’s mine is yours, boss lady,” he agreed, already fishing one out of his pocket to hand over. “Though you do realize it won’t let you teleport without a push from yours truly.”

“No, but you can find it, right? And teleport to it?”

“Ah,” he said, nodding and deliberately clearing his expression as if catching onto her plan. It was the best strategy, which was why he’d immediately thought of it, but it cost nothing to encourage her. “You’re right, that I can.”

“Defending this position isn’t important in and of itself,” Casey said to the others, “but this is where the General and the Bishop expect to find us, so we can’t just disappear from here. Elias, I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave you behind for now. Wait here in case one or both of them returns; the rest of us will go try to intercept…whatever’s about to happen. You’ll be able to bring either of them right to us, if that’s what she orders. If we’re in deep trouble and need backup, I’ll destroy the rune. Will you be able to sense that?”

“With a little bit o’ concentration, I can manage that,” he agreed, nodding again. “Shouldn’t be too hard to ‘port right to its last position, then.”

“Good. If that happens, be ready for maximum trouble. Our goal here is to prevent a big messy fight from breaking out; if I have to call in our wizard for firepower, situation’s FUBAR.”

“Understood, Sarge.”

“Sorry for ditching you,” she said again. “It’s the best I can think of. All right, everybody, move out. Bandi, lead the way.”


The formal announcement would come the next day; Rouvad, like Trissiny, wanted to move fast and begin working before Justinian or anyone else had time to prepare political countermeasures. But before embarking on her new set of duties, the High Commander had wanted Nandi’s impressions of the project her previous squad had been working on and had to abandon upon the First Legion’s formation. Locke had, with Billie Fallowstone’s help, quietly continued her weapons research in Viridill, but now it seemed her erstwhile research partner had finalized her original project.

And so, Nandi found herself in Sister Eivery’s basement workshop with the gnomish priestess and the High Commander, holding and studying what had apparently been a regulation Silver Legion lance before it had been heavily modified.

“Well?” Eivery prompted, grinning up at them. “How’s it look?”

“Expensive,” Rouvad said flatly, taking the spear from Nandi. “Are the glowing runes and this… Is this shaft coated in lacquer? Eivery, is this absolutely necessary?”

“Arguably not,” the gnome admitted. “It put ‘em on the demonstration model, there, so you can see it’s doable. There’s a reason most battlestaves don’t ‘ave that, it adds to both the cost of manufacture an’ the weight. But the point is that it protects the runic engravings, see? Yer average battlestaff ain’t gonna see use as an actual staff, whereas the whole point o’ these, so I was given ta understand, is for ‘em to double as firearms and spears. Thus, they’re gonna be seein’ a lot o’ physical contact.”

“It can probably be dispensed with,” Nandi said. “If properly used, a lance’s head will see physical impact a lot more than the rest of it. Eivery’s right, though, the proof of concept is valuable.”

“Darn tootin’,” Sister Eivery agreed.

“Agreed,” Rouvad rumbled. “All right, I understand the clicker mechanism and I think I can intuit the reason for this clunky device at the base of the spearhead. What I note is that these runic engravings are a lot more extensive than on any battlestaff I’ve ever seen. Can you explain why?”

“Aye, give it ‘ere,” the priestess said imperiously, ignoring the sardonic expression with which the High Commander handed the modified lance back to her. “It’s the enhanced engravings that make it all work, see? I actually didn’t ‘ave the inspiration meself, but stumbled across th’basic method from the works of an old Hand of Salyrene, Andronimus the Spellblade.”

“Curious,” said Nandi. “If this solution was found as far back as Andronimus’s time, I wonder why no one has adapted it already? Magnan, at the very least, would have pounced on such an innovation, and he certainly had access to Salyrite records.”

“Aye, but it wasn’t in those records,” Eivery replied, grinning madly. “Andronimus ‘ad quite the stick up ‘is arse about people stealin’ ‘is works an’ never wrote down ‘is methods. This one was noted in the last place anybody’d think ta look, cos nobody studyin’ magic reads Tellwyrn’s published journals. They’re mostly a list o’ complaints about legendary figures, good fer comic relief an’ a touch o’ historical detail. But! In between gripin’ about how Andronimus snored an’ ate ‘orrible stinky cheeses and ‘ad terrible taste in music, she mentioned a sword he made that cast lightnin’ from the tip an’ how clever the method was. See, metal’s no good fer electrical enchantments on account of ‘ow conductive it is, so Andronimus placed the enchantment on the handle, which caused the lightnin’ bolt to form a few inches beyond the tip o’ the blade!”

“Hm,” Nandi murmured. “Modern firearms do that anyway, albeit just beyond the tip. Even a wooden shaft would be destroyed if you tried to channel that much electricity physically through it.”

“An’ there’s been no reason to modify that,” Eivery agreed, raising the lance to firing position and grasping the clicker, “cos nobody’s considered puttin’ blades on a firearm till that crazy elf came along. Modern armies fight at a distance. And so, behold!”

The crack of the weapon was functionally indistinguishable from that of a conventional battlestaff. Its lightning bolt charred and half-destroyed Eivery’s unshielded target dummy, with no backward arcing along the shaft or spearhead.

“And that heavy bit at the base of the spearhead,” Nandi said, “that has a grounding charm to prevent accidents?”

“Just so! Also, talkin’ of accidents, I discovered quite coincidentally that if ye do this, make the bolt form more’n a foot forward o’ the end o’ the staff, ye gain a lot of accuracy! These aren’t as precise as beam weapons, obviously, but they won’t arc nearly as much as an ordinary staff.”

“So,” Rouvad said, muted excitement in her voice, “you could increase that even further?”

“Sorry, Commander.” Eivery shook her head, raising the staff to plant its butt on the floor; in that position, it towered over her. “This is as far as I’ve been able to extend it. That’s why its engravings are so long. There’s just no room fer more.”

“But you said the original inspiration was a sword. On the handle! That was a much shorter surface and a much longer distance, if it sparked beyond the tip of the blade.”

“Aye, an’ I also said it was Hand of Salyrene that made it! Whaddaye want from me?”

Rouvad turned back to Nandi. “So you see where we are. Eivery has already refined Locke’s armor enchantments for efficiency; the updated versions will stand up to staff fire and augment soldiers’ abilities in several important respects. That makes an inherently more expensive kit than any Imperial trooper’s, but that’s the price to be paid for better-equipped soldiers. With the finished firing lance, we only have to begin training our soldiers with them.”

“First we ‘ave to make this stuff,” Eivery objected. “I don’t mind workin’ me fingers down, Commander, but I’m one gnome. If ye want me to equip a Legion, gimme ten years.”

“Yes, production is an issue,” Nandi agreed. “The Sisterhood does have a contract with Reviani Firearms, does it not? I know we don’t order many energy weapons, but for just that reason, they would likely appreciate the business.”

“I am…reluctant to give these specifications to an established firearms company,” Rouvad said, frowning. “We will have the element of surprise upon the first battlefield deployment of this equipment. The more people who know of it…”

“Well, buildin’ an in-house enchanter corps’ll take almost as long,” said Eivery.

“Our paladin has contacts with Falconer Industries,” Nandi commented. “They don’t make any weapons at the moment, but have the manufacturing capacity to produce almost anything. And if FI can’t do it, Geoffrey Falconer undoubtedly knows who can, and could arrange an introduction.”

“That’s a good idea,” Rouvad replied. “We’ll both be in close contact with Trissiny over the next few days anyway. I will raise it with her at the next opportunity. In the meantime, Eivery, please put together as many kits of the new gear as you can without exhausting yourself. I’ll assign you whatever enchanters we have who can be trusted. Ideally, I’d like to send a few to Locke’s outpost and be able to outfit one squad from the Third’s Cohort One to begin training.” She paused, then smiled. “I’m glad to have you back here, Nandi. I’ve missed your insight.”

“Aye, well, if we’re done with all the huggin’ an’ kissin’,” Eivery huffed, “I didn’t get ta tell ye the really neat thing I discovered.”

“There’s more?” Nandi asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Aye, another ‘appy little accident, ye might say,” the gnome chuckled, already at work unscrewing the spearhead from its shaft. “A neat trick that works as a result o’ this specific model’s design. If ye just take off the bayonet, like so… ‘Ere we are.”

She bounded over to a low stack of bricks she’d erected in the middle of the workshop in the form of a wall that was shoulder-high on her. Grinning, the gnome pressed the head of the lance, minus its blade, against the wall aiming at the half-wrecked target dummy which was across the room on its other side.

“Wait,” Nandi objected, “don’t tell me… There’s no way that thing can fire through walls?”

With another perfectly ordinary thunderclap, a bolt of lightning flashed from a point a few inches beyond the wall and finished demolishing the target.

“Eh? Eh?” Eivery cooed, waggling her eyebrows at their expressions. “Ehhhhhh?”


It had already been a full day not long after noon, and so by the time Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor she found herself eagerly looking forward to some lunch and a cup of hot, strong tea, and not just to help wash away the winter chill. A steward informed her upon arrival at the Manor that Ravana was not present at the moment, which she had to admit was something of a relief. Trissiny had yet to decide exactly how she felt about the diminutive Duchess, but one thing was certain: Ravana Madouri demanded her full attention when she was present, for much the same reason she would have carefully watched a large spider if she found herself in a room with one.

Returning to the suite her classmates were inhabiting during their vacation, she was pleased to find Toby and Gabriel there waiting for her, in fact having a conversation just inside the door, rather than in the sitting area of the main hall itself.

“Trissiny!” Gabe said, grinning in welcome. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. How’d it go?”

“All according to plan,” she replied, smiling back, “though my business today was mostly just squaring away details. I had a couple of interesting conversations with dragons I’d like your opinions on, but that can wait. How’d your meetings go? Are we ready to move?”

The boys exchanged a look, and then a nod.

“I’m as certain of Gwenfaer’s support as I reasonably can be,” Gabriel replied, turning back to her. “She gave every indication of wholeheartedly supporting the plan. And… Before that, we had a little chat about trust. I’m convinced of her reasons for opposing Justinian, and I made a point that she’s going to have to start being generally less squirrelly about it, but if she can behave I am willing to extend a little trust. At least, enough to let her earn more.”

“Well, good. It’s kind of funny, though, you being the one to make demands like that of your cult leader. Usually that relationship goes the other way.”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “I did not mention how I have valkyrie friends who can invisibly watch everything she does and a valkyrie scythe that Vidius explicitly wants used to cut the rot out of the cult. Seemed kind of redundant, y’know? She’s a sharp enough lady to have figured all that out already.”

“Good plan,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “That’s Eserite practice, too, you know. If you’ve got an unspoken threat to hold over somebody, you only cheapen it by pointing it out.”

“Good to know,” he said wryly.

“Sounds about as straightforward as it went with the Dawn Council,” Toby reported. “I gained…some support, and I’m afraid I burned a few bridges in the process. But most importantly, the Bishop is on my side. I’m as certain as I reasonably can be that the cult will fall in line with the plan.”

“Good,” she said seriously. “I’m sorry if it got you in trouble with them, though, Toby.”

“Thanks,” he said with a soft smile, “but to be honest, the fault here is theirs, not yours or even mine. The Dawn Council’s entire method of dealing with everything is to bow to inevitability, after they’ve waited to be certain what it is. It was just a matter of making myself inevitable. They’ll bow. Some of them are not going to be happy about it, though. Future engagements with them may be… Well, not as good.”

“Man, it’d be nice if we could just convince everybody to do the sensible thing,” Gabriel complained. “Sometimes, though, you just gotta apply the stick instead of the carrot. If we can help with anything, Toby, we’ve got your back.”

“I appreciate it,” he said, smiling again. “But anyway! Before we move on to that, Trissiny, there’s something unexpected to deal with.”

“Well, of course there bloody is,” she said with a sigh. “I’m really starting to sympathize with Ravana. What this time?”

“It turns out,” Gabriel said, grinning, “that you have a visitor.”

“Me?”

“You,” Toby confirmed, already turning to head back toward the doors into the remainder of the suite.

She followed, alongside Gabriel, already frowning in thought. Who would be seeking her out here? Practically everybody she knew, she’d already talked with today. Herschel knew she was staying in this Manor over the winter break, but now that she thought about it, she hadn’t notified Ravana or her guards to let him in. One of her elvish relatives? Trissiny wouldn’t put it past Lanaera to be able to bully her way into a noble’s house, but she didn’t care for leaving her grove any more than any other Elder shaman did.

They only made it a few more paces before the mystery resolved itself, their guest emerging from a side parlor. She had no doubt heard the whole conversation; Trissiny’s visitor was, indeed, an elf. Just not any of the elves she would have expected.

Trissiny came to a stop, blinking in surprise. “Natchua?”

“Trissiny, good, you’re back,” the drow greeted her tersely. “I’m sorry to barge in on your vacation like this, especially when you’re obviously having a busy day, but I need your help.”

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16 – 27

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“I dare to hope this will not take long, but it doesn’t pay to make excessively optimistic assumptions about wholly unprecedented events,” Ravana said, coming to a stop in the middle of the marble-floored parlor adjacent to her chambers which she had designated an official teleportation arrival and departure point. “Regardless of how much time this demands, Veilwin, I’ll expect you to remain sober for the duration, and I will have Yancey enforce this if need be. Take us to the lodge, please.”

The elf wasn’t even looking at her, staring at one of the doors to the chamber with her eyes narrowed. Yancey quirked an eyebrow at this, which was as voluble an expression of disapproval as he ever produced in the presence of the Duchess.

“Veilwin?” Ravana prompted. “While we’re young, please.”

“Hang on,” the sorceress replied. “There’s news coming that I think you’ll wanna hear.”

Ravana bit back her instinctive reply, reminding herself that there was no point in having an elf as her Court Wizard if she wasn’t going to take advantage of all the fringe benefits.

Indeed, it was only seconds later that the pounding of booted feet came into the range of human hearing, and moments after that, the door burst open to admit the commander of her House Guard—likely the only person who could have dashed through the halls of Madouri Manor without being detained by soldiers.

“My lady!” he exclaimed upon finding her waiting, barely out of breath. “Thank the gods I caught you. There’s a situation unfolding in front of Falconer Industries you’ll want to see.”

“Lord-Captain Arivani,” she replied evenly, “there are hundreds of inexplicable refugees attempting to cross my lands, and currently detained by Sheriff Ingvar in a facility which does not have the resources to keep them. Is this more important than that?”

“I…couldn’t say, my Lady,” he admitted. “But it was your explicit instruction that any incidents of public rebellion against your authority be brought directly to your attention.”

“Gods send me patience,” Ravana hissed. “Rebellion, is it? Very well, Lord-Captain, you are correct. This I want to see. How great is the danger?”

“My men have secured the roof of the tariff office just across from FI, my Lady. It has a good view of the action.”

“Excellent work. Veilwin, it seems we shall be taking a detour before visiting the lodge, after all.”

“Yeah,” the elf said smugly, already making one of her needlessly dramatic hand gestures as sparkles of arcane light gathered in the air around the four of them. “I had a feeling.”


The rest of the excursion was uneventful and smooth, even to the extent of the entire party being teleported back to the Conclave embassy in Tiraas with a minimum of backtalk, which likely was exactly why Ampophrenon chose that moment to spring his surprise.

“Principia Locke may deny involvement in classical adventuring, but it is clear she understands the practicalities better than one who has learned of them only from books,” the gold dragon said as he and Trissiny talked quietly a bit apart from the rest of the group, who were being courteously given a city map and directions from the Conclave’s public steward. “The division of deployed assets into five-person bands is traditional for good reason, and her training style is exactly that which got the best results from the greatest adventurer guilds, when they still operated.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Trissiny admitted. “It all seemed a little chaotic to me.”

“In comparison to a proper military boot camp, I shouldn’t wonder,” Ampophrenon replied with some amusement. “But the looser approach will help enforce standards while respecting the freedom agents like that require, and she has applied the necessary strictures to keep everyone on task and aimed at the same goals—methods developed over centuries. Locke was either in one of those guilds at some point, or has studied them extensively. Altogether, General, I deem it a most promising endeavor, and an enjoyable visit on my part. I only regret I was unable to speak with Khadizroth, but doubtless he has his own tasks to pursue.”

Snuck in at the end as it was, that stinger had the desired effect of rocking Trissiny’s composure—not by much, but she failed to suppress a slight jerk of her head.

The dragon’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell exactly where he was looking, but his expression and the position of his head gave her the impression of someone watching her sidelong for exactly such a reaction.

“If I might ask a favor, General Avelea,” Ampophrenon continued in the same courteous tone before she could recover, “when next you see Khadizroth, I wonder if you would be so kind as to pass along to him that he is always welcome to join us here.”

The extra few seconds were enough for her to regain her footing, though this had altogether been a valuable reminder that she wasn’t equipped to play mind games with a being such as he.

“Attempting to poach my personnel, Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny replied, raising her eyebrows and affecting a bland tone. “I could call bad form.”

The dragon’s lips quirked in a faint smile, but his voice remained as even and mannerly as ever. “I suspect you must be aware that the Conclave’s formation was inspired in part by Khadizroth’s own adventures of the past few years. We do not compel any of our brethren to join, but all have a place with us should they choose it. In any case, we have long since opted not to pursue any action against Khadizroth for his various errors in judgment, in particular as he has been helpfully in contact with us concerning the deeds of Archpope Justinian.”

“Has he.”

“This was before he enlisted in the First Legion,” Ampophrenon clarified. “We have not heard from him since. It seems needlessly vindictive to castigate one of our own for errors which he has fully committed himself to correcting, in his own way. Perhaps a stint in Avei’s service will provide him the penance he seeks, as well as the opportunity to effect some progress in undoing Justinian’s schemes.”

“So,” she said, watching him intently, “you are aware of the Archpope’s…ambitions.”

“Their specifics are frustratingly obscure, but we make it a point to be as aware of the world as possible, and I in particular am quite concerned with such a betrayal of the Pantheon’s most sacred charge,” the dragon said gravely. “I lack your insight into the recent events at the Temple of Avei, but even from the reports that reached me I can discern a pattern. It seems to me, General Avelea, that this is no time for those of us who are driven by principle to let ourselves be divided by misunderstandings. Khadizroth’s place among your Legion will not be a sticking point between the Sisterhood and the Conclave. On that you have my word.”

He smiled, the expression calm and open. After a moment, Trissiny had to smile back.

That silence hung for a few seconds, in which her own expression faded back to thoughtfulness, and Trissiny decided to accept his implied invitation by taking a slight risk.

“Where do they all come from?” she asked quietly, making a subtle gesture toward the two Conclave soldiers currently talking with her own party. Joe was well-mannered as always and McGraw seemed likewise, but the two Avenist priestesses—despite the fact that neither of them would be taken for such at a glance, which was no doubt part of what they were doing here—seemed openly skeptical. “If the Conclave had been scouring the streets of Tiraas for every pretty woman who might want a job…that’s the kind of thing the Sisterhood would notice.”

“Indeed,” he acknowledged, nodding once. “It was, in fact, the opposite; the Conclave did not elect to employ many of those who first sought us out, as they were a melange of opportunists and spies. Instead, my brethren have recruited from among the most unfortunate. Employment here comes with a very progressive package of benefits, including medical care by green dragons, which in addition to being better than most nobles receive, includes cosmetic glamour of the recipient’s choice. A proper application of the fae craft can even suppress the effects of chemical addiction.”

For a moment, Trissiny was again rendered silent by the weight of it. If they could gather drunks and shroomheads out of the gutters and turn them into this… Well, it explained a great deal. And raised further questions.

“I gather,” she said aloud, “such benefits would be suspended if the individual in question left the Conclave’s service. That is quite an incentive for loyalty, Lord Ampophrenon.”

He nodded again, his expression more grim. “It becomes inherently somewhat coercive, does it not? To say nothing of the implications of deliberately recruiting among the most unfortunate in the first place. There is also the fact that such exotic benefits are a ruthless cost-saving measure, as people willingly work for less than the average wage to have access to them. I raised these concerns with my fellow members of the Conclave, who it must be said indulged me in a full meeting to discuss the matter. Ultimately, their decision was that since no one is being forced to do anything against their will and our compensation is the finest they could ever hope to receive, we are not committing any ethical violation.”

“I see,” she said, not meaning her voice to be cold but hearing it anyway.

“The Conclave of the Winds is a necessity of this political moment,” the dragon said softly, now gazing across the great hall of the embassy. “More importantly, it presents the hope of betterment, for both your kind and ours. Our institutions are never perfect, Trissiny. Governments, faiths, the Church itself, my own Order of the Light… All are unavoidably flawed. I believe the Eserites have a saying about this.”

“I’ve heard it a time or two,” she agreed wryly. The dragon gave her a sidelong smile.

“Yet we cannot abandon them,” he continued, his expression quickly sobering again. “The world is always somewhat…broken. I have come to think it is meant to be. Can you imagine a world with no hardship—or more farfetched, with no difficult decisions to be made?” Ampophrenon shook his head. “Such eternal complacency could only bring out the worst in us all. We are tested, yes, constantly. It is our duty, and our only option, to rise to these trials, and make what difference we can.”

“People have often said to me that the gods never test us beyond what we can bear.”

His lips thinned for a moment. “I have seen far too many people destroyed by trials they had no reasonable hope of overcoming. Good people, who were sorely missed. Life is not so conveniently purposeful. And yet, we stand.”

“What else can we do?” she whispered.

The dragon inclined his head to her, the gesture both a nod and a bow. “I enjoy your conversation, General Avelea. You, too, are always welcome here. Feel free to call up on me if I can aid your battles, however overt or subtle they may be. Or simply if you wish to visit.”

“Thank you for everything today, Lord Ampophrenon,” she replied, nodding back. He gave her a final smile before retreating to the stairs.

Trissiny turned around, finding her own party approaching at the signal that her conversation had ended. Zanzayed, somewhat to her surprise, was still with them, and it was he who spoke up before any of them could.

“You do realize he was hitting on you, right? You’re exactly his type, Trissiny.”

“Really, Zanzayed,” she sighed.

“Hey, you’re family! I wouldn’t lead you wrong. I’m serious, Puff absolutely does have a type, and it’s ‘Hand of Avei.’ He’s had seven of ‘em over the years.”

“The hell you say!” Shay Iraa exclaimed.

A silence fell over the chamber as the various dragonsworn present turned to stare at the rough-looking woman who had just sassed a dragon right to his face. Sister Shay was still glaring at Zanzayed, clearly not bothered by any of this. Trissiny was already beginning to like her.

“Yeah, they don’t teach you that, do they?” the blue rejoined, smirking. “You’ve got the rank to bully your way into the Sisterhood’s hidden archives; do it if you’re curious, Triss. But seriously, though. If you decide to pursue that, wait till you’re ready to settle down. Puff is a nice, old-fashioned, marriage-minded dragon. Don’t toy with his little heart.”

“Well, he did invite me to drop by,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come around sometime and see what other hilarious gossip you’ve accumulated over the millennia, cousin.”

Zanzayed grinned. “Always a pleasure. Do give Arachne my love.”

“If you keep trying to get a rise out of me, I’m gonna tell her you challenged her to a duel.”

“You are a horrible little wench,” the dragon chuckled, ruffling her hair. “You’d better come visit. We need to hang out more.”


“’Rebellion’ may have been overstating it, Lord-Captain, but you were still correct to bring this to me,” Ravana said, lowering the spyglass from her eye and handing it to Yancey. “Has this demonstration shown any signs of becoming violent?”

“No, my Lady,” he admitted. “There’s at least one Omnist monk in there, which is probably helping keep things calm. So far they’re just marching in a circle with those signs. But they’re blocking the factory’s main entrance, which is not doing FI any favors.” Yancey handed him the spyglass after having a look, and he raised it to his own face, which fell into a scowl as he studied the demonstrators. “Unwashed ingrates. If the young Mrs. Falconer and her wife want to slaughter idiots who tried to steal their dog, what business is it of theirs? It wasn’t even in Madouris.”

“You’re asking for whatever you get, fucking with somebody’s pets,” Veilwin opined, looking bored. “I’d’a just killed the bastards.”

“I pity any poor animal which has to depend on you for care,” Ravana said absently, herself frowning in the direction of the protest. It was sizable, already more than thirty people. She wouldn’t have thought there were that many people in the city who’d be willing to protest Falconer Industries, which was deservedly popular. If anything, they were risking retaliation from FI’s own employees, who had famously once squared off with Thieves’ Guild enforcers. The House Madouri guardsmen currently standing in a line in front of the closed gates were probably protecting the demonstrators as much as the factory, whether they knew it or not.

Yancey, as usual, echoed the direction of her own thoughts. “Several of those signs mention Vadrieny by name, my Lady. While not a secret, the archdemons have been absent from the mortal plane since the Hellwars; their names were reduced to obscure theological trivia before the founding of the Empire. It does not prove anything…”

“And yet,” she murmured in agreement.

“Madouris is prosperous under you,” Veilwin added, which may have been the closest thing to a compliment she had ever paid her employer. “And most of those yahoos look pretty well dressed. Takes a lot to get comfortably well-fed people out in the goddamn snow at mid-morning on a workday to march around chanting slogans. Especially over something that clearly doesn’t affect them at all.”

“I did wonder at the attempted kidnapping,” Ravana mused. “Apart from my expectation of better treatment from the Thieves’ Guild, such a fool’s gambit is unlike them. As a deliberate provocation, it makes more sense.”

“Give the word, my Lady,” Arivani urged grimly, “and I can have my men clear that rabble into cells where they belong.”

“No!” she barked, causing him to jerk back in surprise. His startled expression quickly morphed into near-hurt reproach before he mastered it.

Ravana took a breath of the chill air, reminding herself what she was dealing with. She employed Ludo Arivani because he believed the sun shone out of her skirts, because an administration such as hers which favored the velvet glove over the iron fist absolutely needed a high-ranking thug for situations in which its preferred approach would not do, and because it was generally advisable to keep a military commander who hadn’t the aptitude to organize a coup, even had he been inclined to try. Also, men like him came in useful in the event of regrettable situations in which a scapegoat needed to be discarded. All of this factored into her handling of him; it was for these reasons precisely that she had made it clear he was not to try to deal with civil unrest except under her direct oversight.

“I have made carefully-cultivated popularity a cornerstone of my rule,” she explained in a more moderate tone. “The damage caused to my reputation by engaging in the type of brutality for which my father was notorious would be catastrophic. That, I suspect, is at least part of the reason for this…episode.”

The Lord-Captain nodded, seeming mollified by the explanation. “I’ve got men under my command who’re good at knife work and listening in the dark, Lady Madouri. We can avoid more episodes like this if you’ll let me spread them through the city.”

“Madouris is not a sovereign state,” she said patiently. “I can have my own propaganda machine or my own secret police, and the one I chose is already pushing the Throne’s tolerance. If I tried to have that slice of cake and eat it too I would be set upon by the Veskers and Imperial Intelligence. I need neither headache, let alone both.”

And so she lacked convenient knives in the dark, as indeed Lord Vex would never tolerate that, but there was also the fact that her network of listeners spread through the province did not report to Arivani; he didn’t need that kind of influence. More immediately, those listeners had not forewarned her of this. A demonstration of this size could not be assembled in total silence. Thus, it had not sprung up organically. This had been orchestrated; the question was by whom?

“Veilwin,” she said, staring at the protesters through narrowed eyes, “can you work any kind of divination which would isolate members of that crowd who were set there as deliberate agitators, rather than the gullible sheep I must presume most of them to be?”

“Come on, you know better than that,” the sorceress said brusquely, ignoring Arivani’s displeased glare at her tone, “you study at Tellwyrn’s school. You’re talking about fae divination, not arcane scrying.”

“That is what I feared,” Ravana said with a sigh. “Then do you believe Barnes is competent to perform such a ritual?”

Veilwin snorted loudly. “That puffed-up—”

“Veilwin,” she interrupted in an unusually steely tone, “I put up with a great deal from you, and mean to continue so doing. In return, I expect the skills for which I generously compensate you to be available when I need them. It’s time to work. In your professional opinion, with no needless inter-disciplinary sniping, can Barnes do this?”

“Well…sure,” the elf said, her voice more subdued. “Any witch could, and…yeah, he’s better than most. But that’s contingent on the targets not having been warded against it, which when it comes to fae magic, well… That ends up being a pissing contest between Barnes and whoever’s at the other end, which there’s just no way to call in advance.”

Ravana nodded once.

Arivani opened his mouth to speak, but she held up one hand for silence, and he obediently subsided. She stared sightlessly out over the square ahead and the chanting individuals currently complaining about the violent archdemon in their midst, eyes shifting rapidly back and forth as she contemplated.

“Lord-Captain,” the Duchess said at last, “these…specially skilled soldiers you mentioned. Are there any among your command who could discreetly join that crowd, out of uniform and without revealing their affiliation, and agitate them to attack the factory?”

Veilwin turned an incredulous stare on her, which she ignored.

“I’ve just the man, my Lady,” Arivani said avidly. “Montrois used to do union-breaking work in Chevantre. That’s why he’s here, the local Vernisites set the Glassian Theives’ Guild after him and he had to leave the country. I’ve not had him train any of the other troops, my Lady, but he’s pointed out a few he thinks have the knack.”

“Splendid.” Finally, a stroke of luck. “This is what you will do, Lord-Captain Arivani. Send this Montrois into that crowd, along with whatever other personnel you and he deem competent for the task, forewarned to watch for a signal from you. Summon Barnes from the Manor and instruct him to be ready with whatever materials he needs to divine hostile intent; bring him here and have him stand by. Also, bring out as many medics from the House Guard as you can assemble, and place Barnes among them. Gather my lightcap artists and place them here and on other nearby rooftops, wherever they can get the best view of the action down there. Understood so far?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“When all this is prepared, then you will give the signal to your men below, and get that crowd to try storming the gates. At the very least, have them attempt to attack the police forces in place and cause some property damage nearby. I want an abundant selection of lightcaps of these violent criminals in action ready for tomorrow’s papers, to discredit any further attempt at this utter nonsense. My people among the writing staffs will handle the rest. Give the cappers time to get enough shots before you intervene, and then put down the mob. No energy weapons or blades, make a show of restraint, but the more minor injuries inflicted, the better.”

He grinned wolfishly. “As you command, Lady Madouri.”

“And then,” she continued, turning to meet and hold his gaze, “take them to the medics. Understand? No jails, except in the case of any individuals who make it truly unavoidable. Use the chaos to separate your plants out from the crowd and treat everyone for injuries, then let them go—but not til Barnes has had the opportunity to scan everyone. He is to do so discreetly, passing it off as medical diagnosis. If he manages to identify any of the agitators, they are also to be released, as soon as he’s confident he can track them. When this is all done, I want a spectacle to be made of my restraint and mercy in the face of reprehensible violence by despicable ne’er-do-wells. Are my orders clear?”

“Explicitly, my Lady!” he promised, saluting.

“There is likely to be significant collateral damage, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently, “and substantial risk to the factory and its personnel. Should we warn the Falconers?”

Ravana shook her head. “I know Geoffrey’s uses; they are many and I respect him for them, but they do not include subtlety. They can’t be brought into the loop.”

“The Falconers have been the victims in all this from the very beginning,” Veilwin pointed out with an edge to her voice.

“It is often said,” Ravana observed, “that to make an omelet one must break a few eggs. To rule is to make an endless succession of omelets while standing in the very henhouse. Explaining the process to the chickens would be not only pointless, but cruel. We will continue on our way, Veilwin. This day’s work is likely to bring the Throne’s attention, and I want numerous witnesses able to attest that I was on the other side of the province while it all happened. That means all of this will rest upon you, Lord-Captain Arivani. Hew closely to my instructions, improvising only what you must, and remember my ultimate goal.”

He saluted again, his eyes fervent. “I will not fail you, Lady Madouri.”

Ravana smiled and reached out to touch his arm, which undoubtedly made his entire week. “That is why entrust you with your position, Lord-Captain.”

That, and on the day when he did fail her, it shouldn’t be too hard to replace him.

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16 – 26

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“I was going to say, I can point out the location on a map,” Trissiny commented, her breath misting on the air as she peered around at the snow-covered mountainside and the old temple complex just up ahead, “but I see you already know exactly where the First Legion is headquartered, for some reason.”

“I’m not just a pretty face, Trissiny,” Zanzayed said primly, adjusting the collar of his heavily embroidered robe.

“The Conclave has been careful to keep abreast of world events,” Ampophrenon added, inclining his head respectfully toward her. “It was formed in large part to overcome the broad tendency of our kind to fail at so doing, General. I apologize if this seems intrusive; we saw no indication that the First Legion’s headquarters were meant to be a secret.”

“It isn’t, don’t worry. I was just surprised,” she assured him. “I see you even picked us a prime landing spot! Far enough out to give them forewarning without making for an inconvenient winter hike. Very deft, Zanzayed, almost as precise as Professor Tellwyrn’s.”

Almost,” he huffed. “You see how she talks to me! Me, her own some-number-removed cousin, whom she has met exactly twice! No respect, this new generation.”

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon agreed mildly while they strode forward toward the complex, “I am impressed by how quickly she has picked up the art of handling you, Zanzayed. I have had the honor of working with many Hands of Avei, and hold them in the highest esteem, but it must be said that most have not been so…socially adroit.”

“Now, that’s something I don’t often get called,” Trissiny remarked.

The headquarters Rouvad had assigned to Locke and her upstart Legion was an old temple complex high in the weathered mountains of Viridill, which had been mostly abandoned due to sheer inconvenience, even among the various Avenist facilities perched in the highlands, like the Abbey itself. The sole access to this remote spot was a single steep, winding flight of weathered stone steps carved right into the mountains which made large-scale supply deliveries all but impossible, and would have been absolutely suicidal to climb currently, while covered with ice.

It was an impressive complex, built across four small peaks with deep ravines between them and connected by stone bridges, two of which had fallen at some point. Currently, the First Legion HQ looked somewhat eclectic, having clearly been quickly renovated; ancient granite temples had been hastily (but apparently carefully) repaired with patched walls of wood, brick, and metal, and the two broken bridges were spanned by similar constructions. All of the paths were cleared of snow, and there were even greenhouses and a number of smaller outbuildings of uncertain purpose appended to the existing structures, one of which was topped by an exhaust antenna along which occasional crackles of electricity arced.

Zanzayed had set them down on a cleared-off, round stone patio at the head of the treacherous stairs, and separated from the temple campus proper by an arched stone bridge which, to judge by its weathered state, was part of the original construction but still evidently sound. Beyond it was a half-ruined structure which had been a gatehouse once before the archway collapsed and was later cleared out of the path; of the original gate, there remained no trace. The half of the building which still possessed a roof now also had an improvised metal stovepipe emerging from an upper arrow loop and puffing out wood smoke. As the three of them crested the arch of the bridge, the gatehouse door opened and a very small figure emerged.

“Zounds,” the gnome exclaimed, waving eagerly. “General Avelea, what an honor! Please, come on in, make yourselves at home. And you brought dragons! It’s Lord Ampophrenon and Lord…Zanzayed, aye?”

“Our reputation precedes us,” Zanzayed preened.

“Gnomes are always well-educated,” Ampophrenon replied.

“Thank you,” Trissiny answered the gate guard, “Mr…?”

“I’m Bonkers, ma’am,” he said, grinning. “It’s me moniker, not me condition, never fear.”

“Nice to meet you,” Trissiny said with the merest hesitation, while Zanzayed snickered outright and Ampophrenon gave him a disapproving look. “I need to speak with Captain Locke immediately, if you would conduct us to her.”

“Ah…” He winced, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m not to leave me post, ma’am, no disrespect intended. Thing is, I’m alone on watch just now, as me partner already went to fetch the captain soon as you popped in. Reckoned you’d wanna talk with ‘er, an’ the other way ‘round, as well.”

“Good thinking, then,” she said, nodding. “Ah, and speak of the Dark Lady. That was quick.”

The door of the nearest temple structure, one occupying the same peak as the gatehouse, had opened while Bonkers was speaking, and three figures approached them rapidly, the first two gliding rapidly over the frosty stone paths (being elves) while the third picked her way more carefully along behind.

“I’m willing to bet ‘Dark Lady’ isn’t even the worst thing you’ve called me, though not usually to my face,” Principia called as she trotted up. “Trissiny, welcome! And Lord Ampophrenon, what an unexpected honor. What’d you bring him for?” she added, pointing accusingly at Zanzayed.

“Seriously?” he exclaimed. “I’ll have you know I am literally the only member of this party who has contributed materially to it so far!”

“He’s right, Locke,” Trissiny agreed, “and just because he’s family does not mean you get to insult visiting Conclave delegates while in uniform. Keep a civil tongue in that head.”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it,” Zanzayed huffed at her.

She winked, unrepentant. “That is how rank works, yes.”

“You really belong in this family,” he informed her.

“Hey, now,” Trissiny exclaimed, “I don’t think that kind of language is called for.”

“Below the belt, Zanza,” Principia added reproachfully. “People do have feelings, you know.”

Zanzayed threw his arms up in the air and turned away in a dramatic sulk.

At Principia’s side, Nandi Shahai cleared her throat pointedly. “Perhaps we could conduct our visitors indoors and provide some refreshments?”

“Actually,” Trissiny said more seriously, “it’s good that you two came out in particular. I need to speak with both of you alone. But Lord Ampophrenon has expressed an interest in what you’re doing out here, and I for one would be very glad to hear his thoughts about the Legion. If our guests could have a tour of the facilities…?”

“Perfect!” Principia said brightly. “Iraa, you know the sights. Please show our guests around, and make sure you swing by the mess hall and fix Zanza up with some bacon.”

“Uhhh… I mean, sure, Captain,” the third woman with them replied, clearly nonplussed. Though she had the broad shoulders (and twice-broken nose) that tended to come from Legion service, her manner of addressing her commanding officer contradicted that impression.

“I don’t suppose that bacon comes wrapped around shrimp?” Zanzayed asked with almost childlike hope.

“Zanzayed, this is a military facility hundreds of miles inland,” Principia said patiently. “Why would we have shrimp?”

“Well, why have you got bacon, then? How ‘bout that, huh?”

“We are grateful to be accommodated, Captain Locke,” Ampophrenon interjected courteously. “We would not dream of asking any special treatment.”

“You’ll be in good hands,” Principia promised him. “Sister Shay Iraa here knows the place inside and out, and is delightfully plain-spoken, I think you’ll find.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Iraa replied, deadpan. “Well, then! If you’ll come this way, uh…my lords? Let’s get you started at the bunker, grab something to nosh.”

“Now you’re talking my language!” Zanzayed said, following the priestess up the path toward the next bridge.”

“I am surprised you have room in a place like this to train in adventurer activities,” Ampophrenon added as the three headed off.

“Oh, this is just the topside, there’s old tunnel networks to all kinds of interesting places. We got caves, a nice clearing behind that peak over there, a patch of pine forest, the ravine floor under us… Most of ‘em show signs of being used for military training before we moved in.”

Trissiny turned back to the two elves as Iraa and the dragons vanished over the bridge’s arch. “So! I guess congratulations are in order, Captain Locke. You must be the most rapidly-promoted officer in centuries.”

“Not even in the top fifty, according to Nandi here,” Principia replied cheerfully. “Though apparently I am something of a record for an officer in peacetime.”

“War tends to create career opportunities in the most unfortunate way,” Shahai agreed solemnly. “The command post is over here, General.”

“So, I have to ask,” Trissiny added in a lower tone as they moved off, glancing over her shoulder. The gatehouse guard had already discreetly retreated to his post, shutting the door behind him against the winter chill. “Bonkers?”

“We have everyone vetted by our top fae and divine casters for hostile intentions,” Principia assured her. “Aside from that… These are adventurers, not soldiers, and a good few of ‘em are here at least partly because of the amnesty. I’ve made it policy not to pry into anything we don’t explicitly need to know.” She grinned at Trissiny. “This ain’t your grandma’s army, General.”


“Well, no, I’m clearly not happy about it,” Principia said, one short but thorough explanation later when the three of them were ensconced in her office with its late-model arcane heater. “I went to a lot of trouble to get Nandi into my squad in the first place, and she’s been invaluable in keeping this place shipshape, what with all the large personalities we’ve got here. But I’m also not an idiot, and… It’s the right call, Trissiny. I saw firsthand how she performed as Bishop, and it’s exactly the approach this situation needs. You are definitely gonna be missed around here,” she added directly to Shahai, “but I can clearly see the sense in it. The Sisterhood right now has more need of you there.”

“I wouldn’t presume to proclaim myself the best woman for any task,” Shahai said almost diffidently, “but given your general pattern of interactions with the High Commander, General, I consider the fact that you are both in agreement on this to be an adequate endorsement.”

“Also, you know,” Trissiny said dryly, “orders.”

“Of course,” Shahai replied with a wry smile. “I will go wherever Avei requires me, no questions asked. Your pardon; after five centuries of service I’m afraid I’ve become prone to speaking my mind.”

“Well, Rouvad and Locke both think you’re worth it, and I’m inclined to agree.”

“So, about the other thing,” Principia said more seriously, getting up from her seat and crossing to open the door, “I believe I know just the right backup for you. Hey, ELWICK!” she bellowed down the hall outside. “Get in here!”

“I had an uncomfortable realization yesterday when dealing with the Purists,” Trissiny admitted while Principia returned to her chair. “With you and the squad no longer in the Temple, I have no personal connections there, aside from Rouvad herself. Being able to pull rank is nice, but it’s also useful to have access to a view from lower on the chain of command. Fortunately, I managed to strike up an acquaintance with Azalea Hsing that I think will prove positive.”

“Oh, that’s an excellent choice,” Shahai agreed, nodding. “Sister Azalea is clever and far-sighted, and good at gathering Legionaries and novice Sisters under her wing.”

Casey Elwick appeared in the doorway, saluting. “You squawked, Capt— General Avelea!”

“Come in, Sergeant Elwick, and shut the door,” Principia ordered. “Congratulations are in order. I’m giving you field command of the First Legion’s first-ever active deployment. You’ll be operating directly under General Avelea, but mostly on your own, like we’ve trained.”

“Thank you,” Casey all but squeaked, then swallowed and controlled her voice. “I will not let you down, ma’am! What’s the mission?”

“The General will brief you fully when you’ve assembled your team,” Principia said, nodding at Trissiny before the latter could answer. “The short version: urban counterintelligence. Go gather up, let’s see… McGraw, Jenkins, Iraa, and Bandi Avelea.”

“Sister Shay is still escorting our other guests around the campus,” Nandi reminded her.

“Right, so find her last. You’ll be moving out with the General and Shahai in one hour, Sergeant, and you’ll need time to get everyone briefed before departure. Let’s make it sharp, the General’s time is valuable.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Casey barked, saluting again. “I’m on it!”

“Dismissed,” Principia said, and the young sergeant rushed out so rapidly she almost forgot to shut the door behind herself.

“I have to admit,” said Trissiny, “I’m a little surprised at how well this place is shaping up. It’s a strangely appropriate outgrowth of your little oddball squad. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had all turned to disaster. No offense.”

“None of us would’ve been surprised,” Principia said ruefully. “But the real test is coming; apparently you’ll get to see it firsthand. Oh, but speaking of!” She suddenly straightened up in her chair, grinning. “My squad had a secondary mission in Tiraas that I’ve quietly continued out here. While everybody’s getting rounded up and packed, General, you wanna see something cool?”


“A rifle?” Trissiny asked, turning the blocky device over in her hands. “What does that mean?”

“Refers to the rifled barrel,” Billie Fallowstone replied from the other end of her underground workshop, where she was affixing a strong shielding charm to a training dummy. “The long hollow bit there, it’s got spiraling grooves on the inside, to stabilize the projectile in flight. Can’t take credit for the notion, it was Locke’s idea!”

“I love taking credit,” Principia added, “but truth be told, that one was actually Rouvad’s.”

“Aye, ye get surprisin’ bursts of insight from folks with no actual engineerin’ skill,” Billie agreed with an irrepressible grin, trundling back over toward them. “Some distance from the problem helps, I guess. Let’s see it, then, General.”

Trissiny carefully handed the weapon back to her and watched as the gnome briskly opened a hinged panel in the top of its squared midsection and slotted in a tapered metal object she picked up from a nearby table, then shut and latched it again.

“Here now, what’s that?” Principia demanded, peering down at the procedure. “What happened to the metal balls? I thought we agreed shaped projectiles were too farfetched—”

“You agreed that,” Billie said scornfully, “an’ you were right, insofar as yer eyes were too big fer yer belly, as usual. All that fancy talk o’ spiral-shaped projectiles an’ aerodynamic fins was pie in th’sky, but a cylinder with a cone on one end fits neatly in the barrel and is stupid easy to cast. I can whip up a mold me damn self usin’ scrap I’ve got layin’ around, an’ any foundry can crank out thousands of ‘em by the hour if we go inta production. The shaped bullets’re a good seventy percent more accurate than those fool balls the dwarves were usin’. Here, General, care ta do the honors?”

“Sure,” Trissiny said warily, accepting the loaded weapon back. “The ammunition goes in that top compartment, there? Seems awfully inconvenient; you can’t have much rate of fire that way.”

“Aye, yer dead right. That li’l girl ain’t a production model, I’m still prototypin’ various features. I got me a much more efficient magazine design in progress over there.” She waved at a miscellaneous pile of tools and scraps on her workbench which might have been anything at all, as far as Trissiny could tell. “Now, use the rune there to prime it.”

Trissiny touched the rune, and the arcane device obligingly hummed to life. A thin slot revealing the power crystal lit up with a blue glow on one side, just behind the ammunition compartment.

“Now, be sure ta brace the big ‘eavy pommel against yer shoulder, good an’ solid,” Billie said seriously. “There’s a good reason I made it that way. First model I tried was built along the standard battlestaff model, with the butt tucked under yer arm. An’ that’s the story o’ how I discovered this thing’s got about ten times the recoil of a lightnin’ staff. Damn well shot outta my grip across the room backwards.”

“Duly noted,” Trissiny said, carefully holding it as directed. She had fired battlestaves, of course, but not often, and the different shape of the rifle made it a somewhat awkward grip, but it seemed to fit well enough. Moving carefully, she took aim at the target dummy, which now stood behind the blue glow of a military-grade shielding charm. “Ready?”

“Whenever you are,” Principia said with an anticipatory grin.

Squeezing the clicker produced a flash of blue light from the power crystal’s slot and also from the tip of the barrel, accompanied by a thunderclap almost exactly like the discharge of a battlestaff, which was nigh-deafening in an enclosed space. The rifle did indeed try to jerk right out of her grasp; Trissiny found herself nearly aiming at the ceiling a second later when it was back under control, the end of its long muzzle smoking faintly.

There was now a gaping hole in the center of the dummy’s body. The shielding charm, rated to stand up to sustained staff fire before failing, had been snuffed out like it was never there.

“Nice shot!” Billie crowed. “Yer a natural! Aye, the toys Locke was tinkerin’ with used an explosive charge like the dwarven original, which seemed t’me needlessly cumbersome an’ askin’ fer trouble. An arcane acceleration charm’s way too power-intensive, but you can cobble up a real efficient contained explosion that uses less power per crystal than the standard staff shot, an works beautifully ta fire th’projectile. Also won’t blow yer arm off if ye light up a cigarette.”

“Why didn’t the dwarves refine it this much?” Trissiny asked, still frowning at the slain target dummy with the smoking rifle in her clenched hands. “You’ve only been at this a year or so, and they’re rather famous for engineering.”

“There are a million possible answers to that, and we don’t know enough to guess which might be true,” said Principia. “Such things usually come down to social or economic factors rather than the technology itself. What do you think of it so far?”

“Shield-breaking utility aside,” Trissiny said softly, “this thing would do terrible damage to a living body. Different damage than a lightning bolt, but… I’m not sure if better, or worse?”

“I’ve tested that girl’s older sisters on pumpkins an’ melons,” Billie said seriously. “Yer right, it is not pretty. Makes a fair neat little hole goin’ in an’ a honkin’ big terrible one comin’ out the back. Ye hit somebody in the right spot with one o’ these an’ I reckon the best healers would be stymied.”

“There’s also the matter of escalation,” Principia added. “I talked about this with Rouvad. The first battle in which these weapons are used will be an absolute rout, but immediately after that tactics and devices to counter them will begin to be deployed. The projectile weapon itself is enough of a jump forward that there’s no telling how far that arms race will run before it settles back into any kind of equilibrium. I suspect the Svennish are aware of the same thing. The base concept is pretty clearly aimed at negating the Tiraan Empire’s military capabilities, but it can’t be a coincidence that we took the original from an intelligence agent while their soldiers have never been seen with such weapons.”

“It’s a big improvement over battlestaves in range, accuracy, an’ stoppin’ power,” said Billie, “but can’t match ‘em for rate o’ fire or economy. An’ the ammunition situation is actually a step back from arrows. Metal projectiles are smaller, but about as ‘eavy an’ more expensive to make.”

“Well,” Principia snipped, “maybe if you used the original spherical ones—”

“Blow it out yer arse, Captain. This ‘ere’s my workshop, an’ I’ll not be party to the deployment of inferior technology!”

“I need to think about this,” Trissiny stated abruptly, bending to hand the weapon back to Billie with great care. “Don’t get me wrong, ladies: you’ve done fine work here. This is extremely impressive. But I can’t help having the sinking feeling you’re about to unleash something horrific on the world.”

“Aye,” Billie said solemnly as she accepted the rifle into her arms, “we’re not blind ta that, General.”

“What it comes down to,” Principia added, “is that we didn’t invent this technology; we’re just refining it. The knowledge was out there, and bound to be used sooner than later. So the issue becomes one of whether it’s going to be our people who get ravaged by its first deployment, or someone else’s. That is a damn ugly choice to make, Trissiny, but I don’t see how we could make a different one.”

“You’re right about that,” Trissiny murmured. “What’ve you come up with in terms of countering this, Billie?”

“So far?” the gnome hedged, wincing. “Me best notion is armor. Made o’ materials which do not, at this time, exist. Got meself a couple ideas fer alchemical treatment o’ wood an’ ceramic, but that’s not me field of specialty. An’ I’ve not even tried scalin’ the tech up to a cannon-sized siege engine. I’ve frankly no idea what ye even could do against that.”

Trissiny inhaled deeply and then blew the air out in a huff. “All right. Thank you for bringing me up to speed on this; I very much fear it’s going to be relevant far too soon. For now, I think we’ve still got a little time before I need to brief Elwick’s team and have Zanzayed bring everybody back to Tiraas. Changing the subject, Locke, where is Khadizroth?”

“In his own chamber, pretty far underground,” Principia answered. “You need to talk with him, too?”

“I was actually hoping to,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “but that was before Ampophrenon invited himself along for this visit. I’m not sure we’re ready for that confrontation to unfold.”

“Yikes. No kidding,” Principia cringed. “But you needn’t worry; Khadizroth knew it the second two dragons arrived on our doorstep and warned me even before Iraa came to do likewise. Then he went to hide himself away.”

“Ah, good,” Trissiny said fervently. “Damage controlled, then. Still, it seems a waste; I was taking advantage of a rare opportunity to make sure it was Zanzayed he met with first, and under my supervision. We can’t keep him away from the Conclave forever, but I’d rather not start with its cannier members.”

“Do not underestimate Zanzayed,” Principia warned her. “I have twice seen him directly cooperating with Imperial Intelligence, and Quentin Vex does not associate with fools. Zanzayed is thousands of years old and has survived brawls with Arachne and Kuriwa. He wouldn’t be the first person to downplay his own intelligence for strategic advantage.”

“Aye,” Billie agreed, grinning. “You actually study under Admestus Rafe, right? Same principle applies.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Trissiny said with a pensive frown. “Well, then. I guess I have no other pressing business here. Let’s go get everybody caught up and then move out. Not that I’m not enjoying the visit, Locke, but the real trouble’s unspooling in Tiraas as we speak, and I don’t like leaving it out from under my eyes any longer than necessary.”

“There’s always trouble out from under your eyes, Trissiny,” Principia said. “You can’t plan for everything. The best you can do is stay flexible and learn to think fast and react smart.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that impression. I just hope I can learn fast enough.”

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16 – 25

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“I have not brought any of these concerns to you before because, as much as the circumstantial evidence has piled up, it remains only circumstantial,” Toby explained. “Veilgrad, Ninkabi, Puna Dara, all these events are linked to Justinian, but not through evidence that could be asserted in a court of law. Even as Trissiny has gained access to the testimony of Khadizroth the Green about the Archpope’s activities… I’m sure you can imagine, Grandmasters, why the dragon’s word could be dismissed. I have deemed it best not to act in haste, especially when a careless tongue could provoke a hostile reaction from the Universal Church, or at the very least create political waves that would affect Omnu’s faithful.”

“It is wise to respect the power of words, and to be reticent,” Grandmaster Niontu stated, nodding his head once in a ponderous motion. “We have observed how the Sisterhood of Avei has been affected by its rash actions toward the Church.”

“Actions to which you were party, Tobias, if I am not mistaken,” added Grandmaster Eshii. “Perhaps you learned something of the dangers of interfering in others’ affairs from those events?”

“Excuse me, Grandmaster Eshii, but the opposite occurred,” Toby said, turning to her with a respectful bow of his head. “The handling of Bishop Syrinx was an internal Avenist matter, in which the Hand of Avei requested my help. I of course rendered it, as I deemed the cause just, and I would hope she would do likewise were I forced to call upon her. It was the Archpope who chose to insert himself forcibly into Avei’s business.”

“Viewed in that light, the whole matter with the Church and the Sisterhood changes color,” Grandmaster Mueller commented. Alone among the Grandmasters of the Dawn Council, she lounged in a half-sprawled position on her assigned cushion, while the rest sat serenely in lotus posture. “If the Archpope presumes to punish a major cult of the Pantheon for failing to bow to his wishes, he’s clearly getting too big for his boots.”

Grandmaster He made a series of motions with his hands in the silent language in which he communicated; standing behind him and to his left, his attendant bowed and interpreted aloud. “Hand of Omnu,” she said, her tone respectfully soft as always, “your tale of adventure at Vesk’s behest is a different matter. You gained both firsthand observation and the testimony of a god of the Pantheon that the Archpope has dabbled in forbidden powers toward selfish ends. Why have you only now brought this to the Council?”

“We should be mindful of how the thirty-year silence may have affected our perceptions of paladins,” Grandmaster Srivastariphan interjected before Toby could reply. “Especially after the protective role we have played in young Tobias’s early training. If he is deemed mature enough to journey on divinely appointed quests, he does not require oversight. It is our duty to provide guidance, administration, and a moral example to the faithful. The Hand of Omnu’s duty is to intervene directly where Omnu deems intervention needful. Ours are separate spheres.”

Eshii tilted her head slightly, causing a soft rattle of the beads hanging from her long ears. “And yet, when the Hand of Omnu comes before the Dawn Council, the order and relevance of events of which he tells us is clearly material to the subject at hand.”

“It can be taken as given that the Hand of Omnu need not update us on everything he has done, or discovered,” said Niontu, who represented the Cultivator sect which had raised Toby and formed the vast preponderance of Omnist belief on the Tiraan continent. “We are grateful that you have informed us of these things, even as this very information begs the question: why have you come before us now?”

They were a disparate lot, the Dawn Council. Unlike most of the Pantheon religions headquartered in Tiraas or at least on the continent, they were a truly centralized administration for the faith, whose reach was worldwide. Depending on the cult, the local leadership might be a true global authority in name only; most were simply that, the local leaders, whoever had risen to prominence here in the Tiraan chapter of their faiths. The Dawn Council, by contrast, comprised the elected or appointed figureheads of all seven formally recognized denominations of Omnism, several of which had scant presence in Imperial territory aside from their Council representative. As such, they came here from the world over. In the Dawn Council’s current composition, it happened that there were no Tiraan at all, and only Grandmaster Niontu of Onkawa and Grandmaster Mueller of Stalwar were even from the Empire. There were other sects within the faith, but smaller ones, which did not seek a role in the running of the cult. Omnists in general liked to be unobtrusive.

Under the combined weight of their serene scrutiny, Toby indulged in a moment to center himself, inhaling and deliberately drawing in the peace of Omnu’s presence with the air. From here, the conversation would increasingly demand every shred of his own inner calm. Not unlike the unshakable serenity through which he had suborned Omnu’s own will in Ninkabi, he must remain inwardly harmonious while imposing his desires upon others. Here, at least, the act would have much less frightening implications.

Even with the force of their attention upon him, the Chamber of the Dawn was an environment which made it easy to calm and center oneself, by design. The center of its domed ceiling held a disc of crystal, one of the faith’s most sacred artifacts, which concentrated sunlight and streamed it into the room. Regardless of the weather outside, at any point between dawn and dusk, the Chamber of the Dawn was filled with warm beams of concentrated sunshine, a particularly precious commodity here in Tiraas. The seven members of the Council sat on cushions on the floor along the lip of stone encircling the chamber. Directly inside that was a circular trench in which water ran, softly gurgling and making the lilies and reeds planted in it bob gently. Toby stood upon the central stone island, where anyone seeking to address the Council was positioned. He still wasn’t sure what the source was of the soft breeze that made the climbing vines and small potted trees decorating the wall between Council members rustle. Doubtless something magical.

“I have come, honored Grandmasters,” he stated once he was certain of his equanimity, “to urge you to take action in response to this threat.”

“Do not be hasty, Tobias,” Grandmaster Eshii chided gently.

“Our way is peace,” Grandmaster Vadyevitch agreed. “We do not impose our beliefs upon others, least of all the Church.”

“He suggested neither haste nor imposition,” Grandmaster Mueller said with clear exasperation. “We’re talking about responding to a corrupt Archpope imposing himself upon us, not to mention everyone else in the world.”

“The honored Grandmasters should ever recall that peace is not passivity,” Grandmaster He’s attendant translated his rapid signing.

So far, about what Toby had expected. Mueller spoke for the Briars, the smallest sect represented on the Council, whom outsiders to the faith sometimes derided as “vegetarian Shaathists.” There were no more than a handful in the Empire, most concentrated in Stalwar, while their largest populations were in Glassiere and a few other cold climates. The Briars were survivalists, their lore more interested in foraging wild food than cultivating crops; they mostly traveled, helping people and small rural communities feed themselves in lean times, and providing aid to other wanderers on the roads. Grandmaster He wore the red and gold robes of his own order, the Open Hand, who were concentrated in Shengdu and were the originators and leading practitioners of the Sun Style martial arts.

Grandmaster Eshii was a bit unusual for being the only elf currently on the council. The peoples known in the Empire as “plains elves” actually were called “sun elves” in elvish. If a plains (or sun) elf felt the need to join a Pantheon cult, it was far and away most likely to be Omnism; they had a strong affinity for the sun and favored warm climes, though they practiced relatively little agriculture. Despite their smaller numbers, the simple fact of their lifespans meant elves were often among the oldest and most respected masters of their various traditions, and often found their way to a Council appointment. At some points in its history, the Council had been mostly or even entirely comprised of elves. Unlike humans, for whom membership on the Dawn Council was generally a lifetime position, elves usually served for a few decades and then stepped down.

Toby had expected the survivalist and martial artist to favor action; they generally did. Grandmaster Eshii represented the Radiants, the keepers of Omnist magical tradition, who also tended to cautiously embrace a proactive style, but it seemed elven conservatism won out in her case. Well, it was no great surprise and he hadn’t been counting on her support. It seemed five of the seven were likely to urge caution and complacency, much as he’d expected.

He immediately had to revise that assessment at her next words.

“Please do not misunderstand me,” Eshii insisted gently. “I urge caution, not inaction. In the face of events such as this, it seems to me that we cannot but act. However, haste leads always to ruin. It is essential that we observe and deliberate before committing to any course.”

“Yes, I agree,” added Grandmaster Srivastariphan. “At the minimum, we must gather more information, from as great a variety of sources as can be managed. Not that I doubt the veracity of the Hand of Omnu in the slightest,” he added with a nod toward Toby, who bowed his head courteously in response, “but it is basic practice which must be observed, when the stakes are so high. More information is always better than less.”

He spoke for the Golden Book, which mostly concerned itself with preserving knowledge and lore; this was no more or less than Toby had expected from the next best thing to a Nemitite. The lack of surprises continued with the next interjection.

“I do not agree,” Grandmaster Akili said tonelessly. Sitting in the most perfect lotus posture of any of them save possibly Grandmaster He, she actually had her eyes closed and might have been meditating, had she not spoken. “There are multiple cults within the Pantheon’s aegis which concern themselves with rooting out corruption, and responding rapidly to changing events in the world. The sun rises, the sun sets. The winds blow and clouds pass, but the truth of the sun is unchanging. We are the peace beneath the tumult. To intervene in politics is not our purpose, nor our place.”

“Akili is correct,” Grandmaster Vadyevitch agreed. “You mentioned your cooperation with Trissiny Avelea, Tobias. This, it would seem, is her mandate, not yours. Not ours.”

Mueller let out the tiniest huff of breath, which for a Grandmaster of the Dawn Council was as good as a derisive outburst from anyone else. Toby kept to his own inner harmony, though frankly he was more inclined to be irritated at Mueller than the other two. Her impatience was not going to win any sympathy, and anyway, they had acted precisely as he’d anticipated.

Akili and Vadyevitch, of the Keepers and Preservers, the guardians of Omnist meditative discipline and healers, respectively. Keepers and Preservers could be difficult to tell apart from Cultivators, as they wore the same formal brown robes and often dwelled in the same temples. The difference was they were usually found in the robes and in the temples, whereas Cultivators preferred to be working in gardens or running their homeless shelters and soup kitchens, in work-appropriate attire and saving formal robes for (rare) formal occasions. These two denominations dispersed themselves through the populations of others, concerning themselves mostly with training and ministering to fellow Omnists. They definitely did not shift themselves to take independent action. On anything.

“I understand your frustration, Grandmaster Mueller,” Akili said without opening her eyes. “I urge you to let it pass.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Mueller retorted, “and a good example of why your voice is but one on a council of seven.”

“As are we all,” Akili replied in utter serenity.

Toby caught a flicker of movement; Grandmaster He had struck the bronze bell sitting near his feet with a lightning-quick jab, causing it to ring as clearly as if hit by a hammer. That explained the purpose of the bell, which Toby had wandered about. Respect for one’s master was a big deal among the Open Hand; his attendant would be extremely reluctant to interrupt the Grandmasters of the Dawn council, leaving him one recourse for interjecting himself into the conversation at need.

“This argument is premature,” the young woman translated He’s signing. “The Hand of Omnu has come here to request action. The Council should hear what action he proposes before passing judgment.”

“This is good sense,” Eshii agreed. “Please, Tobias, share with us your plan. It will be, at the very least, a starting point.”

Toby let the condescension wash off him, bowing to He, to Eshii, and finally to Vadyevitch.

“Honored Grandmaster Vadyevitch is correct to mention the Hand of Avei, with whom I have conferred about this. The plan is hers, but the Hand of Vidius and myself have consulted with her in forming it, and both of us are in agreement. Gabriel Arquin is right now meeting with Lady Gwenfaer to urge the Vidians to take the same action the Sisterhood of Avei is about to commit, and which I ask the Dawn Council now to embrace.”

Mueller nodded and Eshii gestured for him to continue; the others simply waited with unruffled calm.

“I don’t know whether you have been informed of this, but the Thieves’ Guild withdrew its Bishop from the Universal Church immediately after the Battle of Ninkabi, in protest of the evidence of Justinian’s involvement in precipitating that event.”

“Evidence which, as you have pointed out, is inconclusive,” Eshii commented. “The Eserites have succeeded only in marginalizing themselves. A cautionary tale about the danger of acting in haste.”

“Please continue, Tobias,” Mueller said pointedly.

He bowed to her before doing so. “The Eserites are a smaller and widely disliked cult, it is true; it should be no surprise that they have garnered little support for their campaign. By the end of today, however, they will be joined in solidarity by the Sisterhood of Avei. Trissiny and High Commander Rouvad have decided that the Sisterhood shall bypass Justinian’s interference and appoint an Avenist Bishop, who will join Bishop Darling in seeing to their cult’s interfaith relations. Outside the auspices of the Universal Church.”

Grandmaster He signed rapidly, a thin smile cracking above his long white goatee.

“A bold and clever action,” his interpreter translated, “in the best tradition of the Avenists.”

“Best?” Niontu replied, frowning. “I am concerned that this further reflects Trissiny Avelea’s established penchant for extreme violence, taken into the political realm.”

“I am concerned that this reflects the influence of Trissiny Avelea’s violent temper upon our own paladin,” Grandmaster Vadyevitch said solemnly, “a subject about which this Council has deliberated in the past.”

Oh, had they? Interesting.

“You want us to do the same,” Mueller said to Toby, ignoring her colleagues’ commentary.

He bowed again. “The Sisterhood has immense credibility. Their action against the Church will make a powerful statement against Justinian’s ambition and corruption. If all three of the Trinity cults act in unison, that statement will become impossible for the Archpope to dismiss, and difficult for him to maneuver around. More importantly, it will inspire corresponding actions from some of the smaller cults; with careful encouragement, more still can be persuaded to join.”

“You propose a complete abrogation of all spiritual custom!” Grandmaster Srivastariphan exclaimed. “A thousand years of tradition—traditions which exist for good reason.”

“This is a textbook example of what I meant by acting in haste,” Eshii added with a desultory shake of her head that set her earrings to rattling again.

“It’s a good plan,” Mueller said laconically.

“The needs of the moment must never overwhelm consideration for the whole scope of history, past and future,” Akili intoned.

“This is far too bold, Tobias,” Niontu added in a tone of patrician concern. “An appropriate action for Omnists against political ambitions such as Justinian’s would be to gently urge cooperation from the other cults, and a measure of reason and restraint from the Church itself.”

“Such aggression is not Omnu’s way,” said Grandmaster Vadyevitch. “Even in the arena of politics and words, violence is violence.”

“And violence is to be avoided if there remains the slightest possibility of so doing,” Toby agreed earnestly. “Hope and calm will not achieve this, honored Grandmasters. To negate the outgrowth of violence, we must observe the situation carefully to foresee where it may arise, and act gently in advance of events to ensure that it does not.”

Grandmaster He struck his bell again, but rather than signing for his interpreter, when the others turned to look in his direction he bowed deeply toward Toby from his sitting posture. Toby bowed back.

“Rash action is the opposite of forfending violence, Tobias,” Grandmaster Eshii said gently.

“I concur entirely,” Toby replied, bowing to her now. “Thus, it is strategic action which is necessary. That is what I propose. It is the role of Omnu’s faithful, and our highest priority in matters such as this, to prevent and minimize violence. In this situation, Justinian’s increasing ambition and disregard for the autonomy of cults and individuals, to say nothing of the gods themselves, is going to lead inexorably to violence. It’s astonishing that the Eserites have not already begun attacking the Church, but I can’t say how long their restraint will hold out. The Avenists are explicitly martial in nature, the Salyrites have never shied from aggressive action when provoked, and some among the Vidians are well known to be as ruthless as they are subtle. If this situation is allowed to continue spiraling, there will be bloodshed—and that blood will be upon our hands as much as Justinian’s, if we discard our opportunity to prevent it. This explicitly political action to isolate and neutralize Justinian will pave the way for his removal through peaceful means. His removal is absolutely necessary, and any other means are to be avoided if at all possible.”

Grandmaster He spoke with his hands, echoed seconds later by his attendant. “When struck, one must move with the blow. To wait for it to land before deciding upon a response is the path of defeat.”

“Excellent advice for a fight,” Grandmaster Niontu chided, “but this is not one of those.”

“I respectfully suggest, honored Grandmaster, that you defer to Grandmaster He and the Hand of Omnu concerning what is and is not a fight,” Mueller said, deadpan. “They have courteously refrained from lecturing you on how to grow barley.”

“Really, Laura,” Vadyevitch murmured.

“Peace, please,” Eshii implored, raising both her hands. “I believe we have come to a difference of opinion concerning the details of a matter upon which we have broad agreement. The actions of the Archpope, as our paladin have warned us, require consideration, and probable response. We must confer, in detail, and decide exactly what we shall do.”

“Yes,” Srivastariphan agreed quickly. “Due consideration is essential; above all else we must avoid acting in haste, and thus in error. The care such deliberation demands will give us the opportunity to observe unfolding events as the Sisterhood and possibly the Brethren take action. We can learn more from this.”

“We thank you for bringing these things to our attention, Tobias,” said Niontu, nodding deeply to him. “Obviously, we’ll not ask you to stand before us while such an in depth discussion proceeds. Before you take your leave, was there anything else you wished to bring to the Council’s attention?”

“Yes.” He inhaled again; this was the moment. Only by retaining serenity in the face of what was about to happen would he remain in control of the situation. “Doubtless, honored Grandmasters, you are aware that the role of paladins has always involved the gathering of their own allies and resources from outside the faith. I am glad to say I have been blessed in this area, and have many connections upon which to call. In particular, influence with several noble Houses and newspapers under their control, as well as connections in other cults, will be of use in spreading this message. While you confer, honored Grandmasters, I shall ensure the world knows that I, speaking as Omnu’s mortal representative, reject Justinian and his Church, and will urge all who are faithful to Omnu or any god of the Pantheon to join me.”

“Tobias!” Niontu exclaimed.

“Haste, young man,” Eshii said, more sharply than she had spoken to him yet.

“You must not act in advance of the Council!” said Vadyevitch. “You risk issuing a statement which contradicts our decision.”

While they reacted volubly, Grandmaster Mueller’s eyebrows shot upward, but she remained silent. Grandmaster He watched Toby closely for a moment, and then deliberately smiled and nodded his head once.

“I appreciate your zeal,” Eshii said in a more soothing tone, “but Tobias, you must not pursue such an action.”

“Indeed,” Srivastariphan agreed, nodding emphatically, “you must wait for the Council’s decision before taking a public stance, young man.”

“The fact that you would suggest such a thing demonstrates exactly why,” Vadyevitch added. “You do not comprehend the ramifications such an action could have.”

“Forgive me, honored Grandmaster, but you are mistaken,” Toby said politely, bowing to him. “I understand precisely. I ask your pardon for the presumption, honored Grandmasters, but I do not ask permission.” Straightening his back, he let the beams of the sun crystal bathe him and met each of their eyes in turn. “I am the paladin of Omnu. It is my duty to act, to do what I judge is necessary. The Dawn Council does not have the authority to countermand me, nor does it have the power.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Grandmaster Eshii demanded, aghast. “Such defiance risks creating a schism within the cult!”

“You should be aware, honored Grandmasters, that plots are afoot to engender exactly that, within both the Sisterhood and the Thieves’ Guild. I expect similar attacks to occur within any cult which takes a stand against Justinian. There will be a schism among Omnu’s faithful. By acting in advance, with strategy and forethought, I will enable you to predict where and how it will form, and thus minimize the damage inflicted.” He turned to Grandmaster He and bowed deeply. “As we were just reminded, when one is struck, one must move with the blow.”

“That is nonsense,” Niontu insisted. “You could easily avoid the existence of such a rift by not taking this action!”

“Yes,” Toby agreed, serene in the face of their displeasure. “But since I am going to do it anyway, you now have advance notice that it will form. Now, while the Council deliberates, you can decide whether you wish to damage your credibility and authority by setting yourself at odds with Omnu’s mortal representative, or flow with the motions as you were all taught in the martial arts. I deeply apologize for this presumption,” he repeated, bowing again to all of them, “but the storm is coming, honored Grandmasters. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to be soaked while you debate whether to go inside. If this means giving you a push, so be it. In the end, we will all be judged for our actions. In my case, they will be actions, not passive intentions.”

All seven of them stared at him in silence. Most appeared stunned, but Mueller and He both regarded him with small smiles of approval.

“I thank you for your time, honored Grandmasters,” Toby said diffidently, bowing a final time before turning to go. “You have many important matters to discuss; I should not distract you any longer.”

So declaring, he turned and walked out of the chamber at a serene glide.

Hopefully they would decide to join him in repudiating Justinian. If not, their Bishop was going to land in hot water with the Council; he had met with her first, and attained her agreement with his plan. Whatever they decided, the Omnist Bishop would shortly be joining the Eserite, Avenist and hopefully Vidian in rejecting Justinian’s reign.

That, they did not need to know until it was too late for them to stop.

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16 – 24

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Finding herself already in the Embassy District, Trissiny opted to summon Arjen and ride the relatively short distance to the compound held by the Conclave of the Winds. This neighborhood, accustomed as it was to the presence of august personages from the world over, afforded her relative freedom from the gawking and pointing she usually got in public while wearing the silver armor that enabled her to walk into embassies and get unscheduled meetings with ranking personnel; even the police officer of whom she’d asked directions had been polite but not fawning, or even visibly impressed. There were also a good number of foreigners about, for obvious reasons, and so she was the subject of some whispering, but Trissiny could live with that. She was altogether more bothered by the cold. Having left the Svennish embassy around midmorning and found the day unexpectedly sunny for Tiraas, she had to dourly admit that this was probably as warm as it was going to get all day.

Embassies were at least easy to identify, even for one unfamiliar with the neighborhood, as they obligingly bedecked themselves in flags. The Conclave’s multicolored hexagon encircled by a wing-like glyph on a white field was displayed as prominently as any, enabling her to zero in on her target as soon as she was on the right street. The dragons had set up a towering flagpole to fly their colors notably higher than any of the others in the area, which was exactly the sort of petty posturing nobody was going to call them down for. Because they were dragons.

She rode Arjen past the guards at the open gate, neither of whom attempted to stop her, dismounting midway up the path to the palatial embassy proper and leaving him with a pat on his velvety nose to return to the divine plane as always. Again, she was not impeded—a paladin’s uniform opened many doors—and in fact, the two guards bracketing the embassy’s door came to attention, one opening the door for her.

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely.

“Ma’am,” the guard replied in a crisp tone.

She slowed, indulging her martial upbringing in casting a critical eye over the soldiers—which, to judge by their discipline, they were, rather than civil guards. The Conclave kept its troops in metal armor, lined with white fur, but in addition to sabers they carried battlestaves and had wands holstered. They were also, every one she’d seen so far, women, and notably more attractive than soldiers needed to be.

Dragons.

Trissiny repressed her instinctive antipathy. There was no suggestion any of these women were here against their will, which made it none of her business.

Inside, the sight of the embassy’s great hall caused her to stop and spend a heartbeat just taking in the view.

Apparently the Conclave had been hastily granted this compound by the Empire on the day of their very sudden appearance at the capital, and moved into the then-empty palace left behind when the Syrrinski delegation had relocated themselves to a smaller structure at a more trafficked intersection. However make-do the initial habitation had been, the Conclave had since had ample time to make the embassy their own.

They’d stripped the walls to reveal bare stone, covered the windows with heavy drapes, replaced what had probably been a marble floor with gray flagstones, knocked out the fluted columns which would’ve matched the embassy’s exterior to install heavy square pillars of fieldstone, and disabled all the fairy lamps. All the illumination now came from a selection of braziers and standing lamps, all holding fire rather than magical light, and at least some clearly augmented with smoky incense. The relative dimness served to accentuate the furnishings, which were a mismatched collection of carved luxury woods, pricey fabrics, gilt and silvered limbs, and intricate carpets. Everything was visibly expensive, most of it clearly antique, and absolutely nothing matched.

Evidently the draconic aesthetic was tasteless opulence against a starkly rustic backdrop.

No dragons were immediately in evidence, though there were more humans about than Trissiny had expected, including a servant tending to braziers and several individuals crossing the great hall at a businesslike gait with stacks of paperwork in hand. More soldiers were stationed about, rigidly at attention with a discipline she could not fault; all were female, and all remarkably pretty of face.

Where were they getting these women? How did they recruit them? The Sisterhood kept tabs on the Huntsmen’s eternal campaign to entice women into their ranks; surely someone would have noticed had dragons been doing the same. Trissiny had heard nothing to that effect, however.

“General Avelea! Welcome!”

From the large desk set up across from the entrance now approached a tall half-elven man, smiling broadly. Trissiny noted that the dragons also had classical sensibilities when it came to garbing their servants; in addition to the old-fashioned armor on the guards, most of the other personnel in the room wore sweeping robes, like wizards and clerics in old adventuring parties were often depicted. This fellow, though, was actually in a doublet and breeches, which was somehow even more anachronistic, but he had the lean frame to pull it off.

“Good morning,” she said. “I apologize for intruding on you without warning…”

“Not at all, not at all,” the steward hastily reassured her. “I can only imagine how unforgiving a paladin’s schedule must be. It is an honor to have you in our embassy, General! What can the Conclave of the Winds do for you?”

“Actually,” she said mentally preparing herself for an argument, “I need to speak with Zanzayed the Blue.”

“Of course, General,” he said, to her surprise. Snapping his fingers, he turned to point at another young man still waiting behind the desk. “Ivan, notify Lord Zanzayed he has a visitor. If you would, General Avelea,” he said, turning back to her with a bow while the youth dashed off toward one of the room’s curving staircases, “please make yourself comfortable here. I will have refreshments brought.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said hastily. “I don’t mean to take up any more of your time than I must.”

“Please, General, the hospitality of the Conclave couldn’t bear to have you mistreated under our roof. At least something to ward off the chill of the day?”

He snapped his fingers again, beckoning, and a new figure approached from behind the desk—in fact, from a door behind it obscured by a curtain, hence why she had not noticed them before. This was a woman—young, as pretty as any of the guards, and considerably more underdressed, to the point the tray of steaming mugs she carried seemed like an imminent threat to her expansive cleavage. She glided forward with surprising grace considering her burden and executed a deep curtsy, smiling up through her thick lashes in an openly flirtatious manner.

Apparently they didn’t entertain many Avenists here.

Trissiny was spared having to come up with a polite response to this by the sharp sound of a battlestaff being thunked twice against the stone floor, followed by the voice of one of the soldiers ringing through the great hall.

“Lord Ampophrenon the Gold!”

Instantly every human in the room knelt and lowered their heads, including the serving girl, still holding up her tray, leaving Trissiny standing alone.

“Please, rise,” pleaded a deep baritone from above, and she turned to spot the tall humanoid form of the dragon in his famous golden armor descending the stairs, just in time to catch his embarrassed-looking wave as he urged everyone back to their feet.

Interesting. Then did the other dragons insist on this obeisance that Ampophrenon did not care for, or perhaps did he just like to put on a show of modesty while also soaking up the reverence? The latter was a cynical thought, but consistent with the reputation of dragons. Trissiny was deliberately trying to get in the habit of teasing out social and political currents like this, though so far the effort had mostly just revealed how little frame of reference she had for it.

Ampophrenon’s featureless golden eyes had settled right on her, and he descended the stairs in a rapid glide, quickly crossing the floor in a few long strides. “General Avelea, welcome to our embassy. It is an honor to finally meet you!”

“Likewise, Lord Ampophrenon,” she answered, bowing. To her surprise, he bowed back as soon as he was close enough, one casual gesture sending both the steward and the waitress backing away from them.

“I feel I still owe you an apology for my absence at Ninkabi. It is shameful that none of our Conclave learned of the attack in time to assist in the defense—for me, in particular.”

“As suddenly as it happened, I hardly think anyone who wasn’t there can be blamed,” she demurred. “The paladins only made it in time because Xyraadi came to find us.”

“Ah, yes, the Sisterhood’s old khelminash ally,” the dragon said, his expression growing intent. “These times grow more interesting with each passing day. I am given to understand that you have struck up a friendship with none other than Vadrieny the Ravager?”

Ah, yes; this particular dragon had a history with her, didn’t he?

“I have,” Trissiny stated, holding his gaze firmly. “And she is as good a friend as any I’ve ever had. I’m not sure how much you’re aware of Vadrieny’s situation, Lord Ampophrenon, but having one’s entire history and identity erased changes a person. She has little resemblance to the Vadrieny of history. I suspect you would scarcely recognize her.”

“That is a relief to hear,” he said, nodding. “Especially after this morning.” Trissiny blinked in surprise; Teal and therefore Vadrieny had been with her all morning, until they’d dropped her off outside the Svennish embassy less than an hour ago. What could they have possibly done? Fortunately Ampophrenon continued. “The papers are full of the account of her terrorizing a city street yesterday, here in Tiraas.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, frowning in annoyance. “Well, I haven’t seen the papers, but I personally helped clean up the aftermath of that. A pair of thieves attempted to abduct her pet dog. There was some incidental property damage, for which the Falconers are of course being financially responsible, but Vadrieny stopped the criminals. Without killing them, which to be quite frank was more restrained than I might have been.”

“I’m very pleased to learn that,” the dragon said with a smile, “and most especially to have a firsthand account. A drawback of the modern proliferation of information is that relatively little of it seems accurate. The picture painted by the newspapers has been…rather more dramatic.”

“Oh?”

“For heaven’s sake, Puff, can’t you get your own visitors?”

Belatedly, the sergeant at arms thunked her staff twice on the floor. “Lord Zanzayed the Blue!”

“Yes, yes, everybody calm down. As you were,” Zanzayed said impatiently, causing the various dragonsworn in the room to abort their descents, only a few of them having made it to a full kneel, and straighten back up. He crossed the room from the staircase at a rapid glide that caused his fancifully embroidered robes to fan behind him like the train of a peacock, grinning broadly and spreading his hands in welcome. “Trissiny! What a delight to see you again! You look much better as a blonde. What brings you to my humble abode?”

“Humble?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “Actually, never mind that. Hello again, Zanzayed, I’m sorry I haven’t found time to visit before. The truth is, I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Yep, this is what it’s like to have family,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You never see them unless they want something.”

“Right,” Trissiny retorted, “so should I assume that since you haven’t visited me either, it’s only because I have nothing you want?”

The blue dragon burst out laughing. “Now that’s the way to do it! That’s perfect, Triss, you’ve got your mother’s wit, plus the knack for not being such a bitch about it. I can see the benefit of Arachne’s training! All right, all right, I do like to josh but seriously, I don’t mind at all doing you a solid. Whatcha need?”

“It’s a pretty prosaic thing to ask of a dragon, sorry,” she apologized, “but I need to get to the First Legion headquarters in northern Viridill, gather up some people, and get back here to Tiraas, as quickly as it can be arranged. Only teleportation will be fast enough to suffice.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” he said, unimpressed. “I do respect the sheer gumption, asking a dragon to be your personal taxi service.”

“Well, if you’re busy, I certainly understand,” Trissiny said with a deliberately false smile. “I was in the neighborhood, is all. I can head down to the Wizards’ Guild and spend the Sisterhood’s credit—”

“Now, now, I didn’t say no, did I?” he interjected.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the least dignified thing you’ve done lately,” Ampophrenon agreed. “In fact, General Avelea, if you intend to visit your adventurer legion, I wonder if I might prevail upon you to come along? I’m certain Zanzayed doesn’t mind doing such a minor favor, after all,” he added pointedly to the blue. “It’s not as if he has anything more important to do.”

“You should stop helping before I’m forced to refuse on principle,” Zanzayed retorted. “Long as this one restrains his urge to henpeck, Trissiny, sure, I’d be glad to give you a lift. I did the same for Arachne not long ago, and at least you’re polite.”

Trissiny found herself hesitating, glancing rapidly between them. Ampophrenon’s presence had not been part of her plan. Zanzayed’s insistence on coming along, despite his expected complaining, had borne out her theory: the Conclave would very much like to have a look at the First Legion, or specifically, one individual in it. More than a few commentators had suggested it was formed at least partly due to the actions of Khadizroth the Green, in whom they remained deeply interested. Hence her intention to make Zanzayed the first point of contact between them, under her own supervision; he was noted to be the least versed in the art of political maneuvering, mostly because he wasn’t known to care about much of anything beyond his own immediate interests.

Ampophrenon the Gold was a different matter entirely.

But could she refuse his presence without overplaying her hand? And would that even create a problem if she did? Moments like this made Trissiny keenly conscious of just how much she still had to learn about this kind of maneuvering. And it had all been going so well before Ampophrenon involved himself…

“Actually,” she said slowly, “if you’re interested in seeing it, Lord Ampophrenon, I’d be glad of your presence. Captain Locke is trying to resuscitate a dead tradition; I’d love to hear the observations of one who was an expert in adventurer strategy when it was an active force.”

“The honor would be mine, General,” the gold dragon assured her with a courtly bow. “I shall be only too glad to be of service, in light of my failure to do so at the Battle of Ninkabi. I’m sure Zanzayed doesn’t mind one extra passenger.”

“Well, you could stand to lose a few pounds, but we’ll make do,” Zanzayed snipped, holding his arms wide and calling up a rising sparkle of visible arcane magic that Trissiny knew for a fact was entirely unnecessary for a wizard of his skill. He’d even modulated the characteristically unpleasant buzz of the arcane to a three-tone harmony. “Stand clear, everyone!”

Well, she reflected as the three of them disappeared in a gratuitous flash, you couldn’t win them all.


“It’s just such an absolute delight to see you again, Gabriel!” Lady Gwenfaer nattered on. “Let me get you something. Tea? I have some lovely chocolates from Glassiere, I’ve just been waiting for someone to come along worth sharing them with. Oh, please, do make yourself comfortable! Sit anywhere you like. And get out of that heavy coat! I do so want you to feel relaxed here.”

He felt anything but relaxed here, and the fact that she both knew it and knew exactly why only fed his tension. Gabriel deliberately kept his posture calmly and as un-tensed as he could make it, cultivating a mask of aloofness which did not even try to suppress the suspicion in his eyes. Obviously, he did not take off his coat.

As with the previous time she had entertained him, Gwenfaer met him in her private chambers, an inner sanctum deep inside the underground temple complex beneath Imperial Square. It was actually ironic and a fine example of the cult’s prized duality; the innermost chambers were obviously sacred spaces, arranged for prayer and religious ceremonies, and then past the final door was this cozy little apartment, in which the mortal leader of the Vidian faith was now puttering about a small kitchen, making tea.

Also as before, she herself was wearing a robe that was clearly designed to resemble a disheveled housecoat, despite the immaculate condition of its silken skirt and wide sleeves. It revealed an excessive amount of pale cleavage and in fact seemed perpetually on the verge of sliding off her shoulders, and yet remained firmly fixed in place, exactly where she wanted it. Gabriel himself was a bit more worldly now than on their previous encounter, enough at least to respect the artifice that went into such a garment. As well as the way her blonde hair evoked the tousled aspect of just having slid out of bed, and yet was glossy and flowed down her back like the carved mane of a marble sculpture. And while he still knew very little about cosmetics, he knew that his own failure to spot them didn’t mean they weren’t there—and that nobody just woke up with their lips or eyelids colored that way.

While the tea kettle was heating, she came bustling back carrying a plate on which fancy-looking chocolates were artfully arranged, and Gabriel did not miss the unnatural way she held it—close to waist level, the better to accentuate her bust, in a posture absolutely no one used for transporting food.

“Please, Gabriel, do sit down,” Gwenfaer chided gently. “Come, I think you’ll enjoy these.”

“I hear you’ve been making trouble for the Archpope,” he said, not moving to do any of what she suggested. “To the point he’s called poor Bishop Raskin down on the carpet a few times. From what people tell me, it’s starting to seem like you’ve set the Brethren to impeding Church activities just for the hell of it. Or maybe just to see how much you can get away with?”

She sighed with almost childlike peevishness, making a little pout which belonged on someone half her age at the absolute most. It was downright creepy how well the woman pulled it off. Shaking her head, Gwenfaer bent to set the plate of chocolates on the low table between her couches, deliberately positioning herself so that the motion gave Gabriel a view straight down to her waist.

He immediately averted his eyes, then clenched them slightly in annoyance. A better action would have been to look, without allowing his expression to be altered in the slightest. All this flirting was blatantly a power play, not anything sincerely romantic, and he’d just ceded her at least a measure of that power. It wasn’t as if he needed a reminder that he was way out of his depth, trying to play these games with this woman.

“Really, right to politics?” she asked in coquettish disappointment, straightening back up and giving no indication she was even aware her posture had had an effect on him—which, somehow, only emphasized how in control she was. “Honestly, Gabriel, it’s not that I mind, but there’s a reason civilized people try to soften up such talk with pleasant little amenities.”

“Yes, thank you for showing me the amenities, they’re magnificent as always,” he said sarcastically, and the smile of amusement she gave him at that was the first expression he’d ever seen on her face that looked genuine. “The curious thing about it is apparently you’re the reason there’s an Archpope Justinian at all. The way I heard it, when the last one retired, you were one of the leading contenders for the position until you nominated him. So, what gives? Do you back Justinian or not?”

Gwenfaer sighed and gave him an indulgent smile, looking up through her eyelashes. “Would you please relax? Whatever’s set you on the warpath, I’m sure between us we can settle on a strategy to deal with it. Come, have a seat.” She patted the spot next to herself invitingly, and with her other hand picked up a chocolate, holding it out as if she intended to feed him with her fingers.

Gabriel held her gaze for a moment, then deliberately drew the gnarled black wand from within his coat. It extended to full scythe form in his grasp and he planted the butt against the floor, the impact muffled by her thick layers of carpet.

Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the divine weapon and then back to him, looking not the least bit perturbed. Mildly inquisitive, at most.

“I would appreciate your help with something, Lady Gwenfaer,” he stated. “Well, several things, in fact.”

“Of course, I’m—”

“To begin with, yourself. I am in a completely intractable position with regard to you. We need to resolve that before moving on to more pressing matters.”

“Why, Gabriel,” she said in wide-eyed concern, “whatever have I done to impede you?”

“That,” he said, pointing at her. “You have to be aware that I’m not here to do run-of-the-mill Vidian stuff. Vidius has told me in so many words I’m here to straighten out the cult, and clean out some of the rot. The only reason I haven’t so far is I am still working to get a sense of who’s who and what’s what, and the fact that this place is a constantly-writhing nest of snakes at the best of times does not help. I’d like nothing more than to count on your help, Lady Gwenfaer. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to direct me.”

“It goes without saying, Gabriel,” she said sweetly, making sure to gaze up through her lashes to emphasize the double meaning. “Anything I can do for you, you need only ask.”

“And that’s why it’s such a problem,” he said with open irritation, “that you keep working so hard to make yourself completely impossible to trust.”

He’d more than half expected her to make another playfully flirtatious comment in response, but instead, she carefully set the chocolate back down on the plate and folded her hands in her lap.

“Are you under the impression, Gabriel, that I’ve been…unusually disingenuous toward you?”

“In point of fact, no,” he said, drawing his eyebrows together in a quizzical expression. “I actually asked Tarvadegh. He insisted you treat everyone the same way. Also, he seemed exhausted just by the memory of being in a room with you.”

“Val, you gossipy fishwife,” she huffed, and once again, the real amusement in her tone seemed like an unaccustomed flash of genuine emotion through her constant facade. Of course, Gabriel couldn’t afford to trust that, either. “That observation is quite apt, Gabriel. The Doctrine of Masks may be something you are learning to use, but to me? It is a way not merely of acting, but of being.”

And just like that, her entire aspect changed. She leaned back against the rear of the couch, stretching both arms across it, and while that pose could have been interpreted as sexy, her expression was even and sharp, eyes fixed on him as if analyzing him like a specimen under a magnifier.

“Does this make you feel more at ease?” Gwenfaer inquired, and while her voice was no less throaty, the subtleties of her inflection were knowing and detached, nothing at all like her little-girl coyness of before.

“Yes, thank you, that’s a start.”

Gabriel finally stepped forward around the other couch and seated himself directly opposite her. Still holding his eyes, she raised one eyebrow.

“I’m not sure why. Surely, you have to be aware that I am no different, and definitely no less in control of how you perceive me.”

“Sure, but nothing was ever gonna change that.” He kept one hand on the haft of the scythe, resting its butt on the floor between the couch and table. “It would be pretty stupid on my part to let my guard down with anyone in this place, don’t you think? But at least as long as you’re not acting like a showgirl, I can at least feel like you’re taking this seriously. Trust is earned, and that takes time. Meet me halfway, and it’s only fair I give you a chance. Right?”

“You make a peculiar kind of sense,” she said with a knowing little smile. “Well then, if I have earned a measure of your tolerance, you were asking about Justinian, yes? I wonder what’s set you after him suddenly.”

“I wonder where you stand with him,” Gabriel shot back. “You as good as put him where he is, but now you seem to be trying to hamper him?”

“That’s not so contradictory as you make it sound. Yes, I played my role in making him Archpope. At the time, Gabriel, I was angling to rise through the ranks, and at a crossroads where I could have pursued the office of Archpope for myself, or the leadership of the Brethren. In that situation? My decision was the strategic one. I avoided a pitched power struggle between the other Bishops, and by positioning myself such that it seemed to my fellow Vidians the papacy had been mine to give away, I leveraged myself into…” She made a languid gesture with one hand. “Well, where you see me now.”

“I see you now, but not so much what you’re doing. Why help Justinian become Archpope if you dislike him so much? Was the power that important to you?”

“I can’t honestly say whether it would have been,” she said, leaning forward and folding her hands in her lap again. Gwenfaer’s eyes narrowed, still fixed on his own in an expression of open displeasure. “Though I lean toward the belief that had I understood Justinian better, I would have fought him. The matter at hand is that I had no idea what kind of creature I was climbing into bed with. You don’t know what it was like, then, Gabriel; this was before you even discovered girls, I think. Justinian Darnay was the Izarite Bishop, which in and of itself was a courtesy post nobody took seriously, least of all the Izarites. He was so likable, such a friendly non-entity. Handsome and slightly interesting due to having done some actual adventuring, during what must surely have been the last time anyone did that and was willing to admit to it. Until this year, of course. Basically, he was a living portrait of the ultimate bland, no-name, nothing politician. I’m not by far the only one who thought Justinian’s papacy would be a serene, steady time in which we could all carry on with our various maneuvering under the nose of everyone’s favorite mild-mannered uncle.”

There was silence for a moment. Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the side, and she worked her jaw once as if chewing her tongue.

“Wow,” Gabriel said at last. “That did not go the way you expected, huh?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I respect his maneuvering tremendously,” she acknowledged, focusing back on his face. “It was an utterly brilliant ploy. Nobody knew exactly what we were putting in power when we voted him there. And then he was in place, and slowly began putting things in order the way he liked them. The Church was just…interfaith cooperation, before he came along. Now the thing is an actual religious institution in its own right. Its cathedrals were spaces for any Pantheon cult to use, but not only do they have unique Church services instead, now, he’s got chapels in every town on the frontier and working into older cities across the Empire and beyond. And with its own private guard force, research projects, countless methods of exerting political influence…” She shook her head, looking equal parts impressed and angry, and causing Gabriel to marvel at the control she had over her expression. “And all because the Bishops were so certain we’d just installed a hapless figurehead under whom we could go about business as usual. Can you imagine, playing harmless at that level for that long, and using it to attain ultimate power? I don’t think I could have pulled that off.”

Lady Gwenfaer paused, letting the silence hang heavily for a moment before continuing.

“And that, I hope, explains the apparent contradiction to you, Gabriel. I am, in large part, responsible for Justinian being where he is. And his ambitions have grown to the point where I deem it no less than my obligation to impede him. I held aloof for years because I couldn’t discern any end goal behind his maneuvering. I still can’t, but whatever else he is doing, he is centralizing power and authority under the papacy to a degree which for very good reason has not existed since Sipasian’s day. Anyway,” she added in a deliberately more glib tone, once again lounging back against the couch. “That’s why I have made it a point lately to interfere with him. I gather you would not have come here to sound me out unless something beyond the usual run of Church politics had moved you. So I’ll ask again, Gabriel: why are you suddenly so concerned with Justinian?”

He studied her thoughtfully for a moment before replying. She just gazed back, a vision of patience.

“Vesk sent us on a quest this summer,” he said at last. “All three paladins.”

“Vesk did? That sounds annoying.”

“You truly cannot imagine,” he agreed. “I think he had multiple goals, and I suspect I don’t know the half of them. But at least one was to ensure we learned that Justinian has somehow gotten access to ancient machinery of the Elder Gods that was involved in their final destruction, and the Pantheon’s creation. And that he has been using it to try to affect the gods themselves.”

Gwenfaer’s expression did not change by a hair, but very slowly, she straightened up until she was sitting as rigidly upright as a soldier.

“You are certain of this?” Her voice was quiet, and devoid of apparent emotion.

He nodded. “I’ve seen the evidence, incredible as it is. There are also indications, though they’re only circumstantial or you would have been hearing about it already, that he had a hand in what happened to Ninkabi. And the chaos event in Veilgrad before that. In addition to his political ambitions, Justinian is messing with magic nobody needs to touch, and seems to be very interested in how godhood works. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out for you what that equation adds up to.”

She nodded mutely.

“So, yes, we are in agreement,” Gabriel continued. “Justinian needs to go. And I am here, now, because while politics are definitely not my strong suit, Trissiny is heading up an attack on that front and needs our help.”

“Ah, Trissiny,” Gwenfaer said with a vulpine smile. “I like that one. Laressa’s knack for political theater, Sharai’s capacity to smite big old honking demon lords, and the ruthlessness to waterboard aristocrats in public. And still just finding her stride! She’ll go down as one of Avei’s finest, mark my words. What is she up to now?”

“I’m sure you already know the Thieves’ Guild cut ties with the Church in protest after Ninkabi. Bishop Darling has been serving as their interfaith conduit directly with the other cults, rather than going through the Church’s organization.”

“Ah, yes, poor Antonio,” she said solicitously. “He’s been running himself quite ragged.”

“As of today,” Gabriel said, watching her closely, “the Sisterhood of Avei is going to join the Guild in solidarity. Justinian has been refusing to confirm their Bishop candidates, so the High Commander will be appointing one to fill the role regardless, and will also withdraw from the Church. The Avenists have a lot more credibility and influence than the Eserites; this alone may be enough to get the ball rolling with the other cults. But to make it a definitive push, they need the other two Trinity cults to join them.”

For a moment, Gwenfaer just stared at him with her eyes slightly narrowed. Then, slowly, a smile blossomed across her face, a grin that by the second grew wider as it grew more overtly malicious.

“Oh,” she breathed, pausing to lick her lips once in a truly predatory gesture, “I like it.”

This time, he fully believed her.

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