The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.
“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”
“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”
“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”
“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”
“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.
“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”
“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”
The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”
The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.
Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.
Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.
A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.
Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.
The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.
Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.
Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.
King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.
“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”
“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.
“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”
“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”
“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”
“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”
“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.
“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”
“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.
“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.
“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”
Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.
Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”
“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”
“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”
“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”
“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.
“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.
“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.
“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.
“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”
Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”
“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”
“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”
“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”
“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”
Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.
“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”
“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”
“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.
Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.
“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.
“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”
Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.
“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.
Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.
The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”
“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”
“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”
There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”
“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”
“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”
“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”
Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”
“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.
“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”
“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”
“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”
“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”
“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.
“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”
“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.
“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”
“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”
“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”
“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.
“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”
“The thing about that,” Tallie began.
“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”
“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”
“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”
Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.
“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”
Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”
“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”
“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”
“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”
“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.
“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”
“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”
“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”
“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”
“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”
“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”
“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”
“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”