Tag Archives: Bishop Raskin

Bonus #44: The Masks We Wear, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Fernando Freitas!

“There,” Val said finally, lowering his arms. The golden light in that dingy alley receded as the other clerics followed his example and let it ebb away. “That’s about all we can do here, but it should be enough.”

“More than,” the Avenist agreed, nodding and rolling back her left sleeve, which had come loose during their casting. “A brute force approach works fine for that kind of simple cleansing. We were seeing no reaction for at least the last minute. This is just mundane scorched carbon now. Charcoal.”

They all paused, frowning down at the smudge and piles of black detritus stretched across the alley floor which had been a crocodile-sized demon minutes ago.

“Still,” the Avenist added thoughtfully, “I don’t think we should just leave this here. In theory it’s safe, but I wouldn’t want somebody to put it in their stove or something.”

“Oh come on,” the Izarite said with a weary little laugh. “Surely nobody would do anything that stupid.”

The other three just turned to look at her.

“Yeah, I know,” she said sadly after a momentary pause.

“Well, then, this calls for more mundane tools,” the Omnist said briskly, turning back to face the mouth of the dead-end alley. “I’ll see if one of the adjacent shops will loan a broom and dustpan…”

He trailed off and they all turned at the sound of booted feet. A woman in bronze armor marched toward them, at least three more following. The narrow walls made it hard to judge the size of the squad.

“Everything all right here?” she asked. “Someone claimed there was a demon back here still.”

“Good timing, Sergeant,” said the priestess of Avei. “There was, but it’s taken care of.”

“It was just a canker-dog, and already injured,” Val added, stepping aside so the Silver Legionnaires could see the smudge and pointing down at it. “Cleansing finished it off. We were just discussing cleanup.”

“It’s pronounced khankredahg,” the Avenist cleric corrected softly.

“Ah, thank you,” Val said, turning to her with a polite nod and donning his stereotypically priestly mask, all beatific serenity. The monk of Omnu gave him a sidelong look that said he caught the irony, but there was no point in explaining the joke to an Avenist, and even less in getting openly sarcastic about it.

“Very good, we can take over that,” the sergeant said briskly. “I’m sure the four of you have much better things to do. Private Sola, bring up some cleaning supplies.”

The nearest soldier saluted her and trotted back to the mouth of the alley.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” the Sister said, nodding to her.

“Of course, ma’am.”

The other three followed her back to the main street, the Legionnaires pressing themselves to one wall of they alley to make a path for them. The damage here was heavier than in most places; this had been one of the sites of an actual skirmish, evidence of which lingered in smashed windows, broken shingles, and fallen shop signs. The charcoal corpses of slain demons had by now been cleared off the sidewalks, but there were still black scorch marks where stray wandshots had raked the storefronts.

It was also more active than such a sleepy street would ordinarily have been at this hour of the morning, and not merely with commerce. Shop owners were cleaning up and repairing their stores as best they could—actual repair crews were in high demand today. Like most of the city, too, it was under much heavier patrol. The rest of the squad from the Third Legion was distributed around the vicinity, talking with the locals and checking the alleys for more stray demons. A few Imperial soldiers were just disappearing up the street as the four priests emerged from the alleyway.

“What is with all these Huntsmen?” the Avenist cleric asked as a group of five bearded men in leather and fur walked past, carrying longbows. Some unfriendly looks were exchanged between them and the nearby Legionnaires, though nothing worse than that; clearly everyone had the sense to stay on task today of all days. “I’ve seen more today across three streets than I thought there were in the entire province.”

She and the other two all turned questioning looks on Val, and he changed masks to a more pensively focused one, just to keep the sardonic look off his face. Naturally, when something fishy was up, everybody looked to the Vidian. Explaining that he wasn’t one of those Vidians would either be wasted effort or just ignite a particularly unproductive theological discussion.

“I’ve been running on the assumption there’s a lot more going on here than any of us have been told,” Val said aloud. “In fact, I’m hoping that my cult has patched together some more intelligence on it—some of the higher ups are very good at that—but I set out with the dawn this morning and I’ve been doing spot healing and cleanup all day. If more is known, it’s not by me, yet.”

The monk leaned his head back to study the cloudy sky. “Hm. Now you mention it, it’s nearing noon. Have any of you eaten?”

“You look exhausted, sister,” the Avenist added, turning to the Izarite. She was right; the girl’s robe was smeared with ash, her cheeks were sunken and her eyes were practically pits. “You’ve been at work longer than the rest of us, haven’t you?”

“Oh…since the announcement last night,” the girl replied with a strained little laugh which served to emphasize her youth relative to them. She couldn’t have been much more than a novice. “It’s fine, there’s too much need—”

“Self-sacrifice is only noble up to a point,” the monk said, doing that distinctly Omnist thing where he could cut someone off mid-sentence without ever seeming less than politely gentle. Val had tried repeatedly to form a mask of that over the years and never pulled it off; he suspected it relied on that aura of peace they were rumored to have. “You can help no one if you drive yourself to collapse.”

“He’s right, you know,” the Avenist agreed. “I didn’t realize it was this late in the day. There is still much to do, but I think we should all find temples to rejuvenate ourselves before continuing. The cults probably know more by now, too,” she added, nodding to Val. “It’s a good time to check in and get new marching orders.”

“I agree,” he said, then turned to the young Izarite, adopting a mask he’d made from studying Omnist monks, a kindly but firm one which ineffably projected wisdom that made people reluctant to challenge him. “And the brother is right, you really need to get some rest. There’s plenty of suffering for us to address without adding your own.”

She sighed heavily. “It’s not that I don’t know you’re right, it’s just…”

“Come with me,” the Avenist ordered, slipping an arm through the younger woman’s and turning her to head up the street. “There’s a Legion post two blocks from here with an emergency medical station and kitchen active. We’ll get the news and get some food, and if the medic on site clears you for more service…”

She led the unprotesting priestess away. The monk gave Val a smile, and a shallow bow. “Be careful out there.”

“I’m never anything but,” Val promised, mimicking the gesture. “Be sure to take your own advice, friend.”

They parted in the same way they had met: without ado, without even exchanging names, just seeing the need and getting to work.

Tiraas was reeling from the Black Wreath’s attack, but was far from broken. As Val made his way back toward Imperial Square, he saw plentiful evidence of the damage, and the personnel both Imperial and religious out in force to help, but also signs that at least some of the capital’s citizens were stubbornly going about their business as normally as they could. Shops were open, factory antennae alight, and enterprising vendors were hawking in places they ordinarily did not, to take advantage of the additional crowds.

Including one he was particularly glad to see.

“Rip!” Val called, raising a hand and allowing a natural mask to slide over his features; the relief he felt at finding the boy unharmed and hard at work didn’t need any careful presentation. Sometimes it really was best to let the face do what it wanted. “Am I glad to see you!”

“Hey, Val!” the paperboy replied cheerily, flashing him a broad grin that showed two missing teeth. “Figured you’d come along sooner or later! Buy a Lancer? Extra edition, all that’s known about the Wreath’s dastardly assault and the freshest news from the frontier besides!”

“Yeah, you can spare me the spiel.” Val was already handing over the coins. “Not like I’m going to pass up the news on a day like this. You look okay. Is your family well?”

“Everybody’s fine, thanks to Ma bein’ such an old worrywart,” Rip reassured him while handing back a newspaper. “We spent the whole night huddled inside, not even goin’ near the windows. Pa’s already back at work an’ Lorinda went down to the Omnist temple to help out.”

“Glad to hear that. You keep your head down till things settle a bit, will you?”

“The hell you say,” the boy replied cheekily. “EXTRA! SPECIAL EDITION! BLACK WREATH ASSUALTS TIRAAS AND LAST ROCK! GET YOUR NEWS HERE, FOLKS, IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”


The central temple of Vidius was, naturally, a far more somber place today. Strictly speaking, Val didn’t have to pass through the public areas of the underground complex to reach his destination, but he did anyway. It was a point of principle for him not to distance himself from the experiences of the people. Vidians ministered to a lot of the most fun and gaiety civilization offered, their god being the patron of actors, but also to those touched by death. A good life was a balanced life. A person who sought only pleasure and avoided even glimpses of pain would become unhinged. Val Tarvadegh, though he was not a death priest by vocation, never avoided them or their work. To be a calming presence among the grieving was part of what it meant to be Vidian.

There were many grieving today.

Not as many as there could have been, in a city which had been invaded by demons during the night. Even as he passed funerary processions, occupied viewing rooms, heard the weeping and saw survivors clutching each other for support, he could not help tallying up the impact and offering silent gratitude to the gods that the harm had not been greater. These mourning vaults had been filled to greater capacity by the last typhoon. Clearly, the damage had been far lighter than it had any right to be.

Which was just one of the things of which he’d started keeping a mental tally that did not add up.

He was joined by another welcome face as he retreated further into the temple complex. Sayid was an older man and one of those within the Brethren whom Val trusted most, a priest whose vocation was ministering to the grieving, and who had been responsible for Val’s own training in that aspect of their faith in his youth. Though the Brethren had no formal uniform, Sayid was dressed as he usually did, in the manner most death priests in Tiraas adopted, with a tightly-cut long black coat such as Vidius was often depicted wearing. Allegedly, that was how their god most often manifested himself, when he did, but of course few among his faithful had ever seen that, or ever would.

Sayid was wearing the very mask he had taught Val years ago, the one Val had automatically assumed upon passing through the halls of mourning while they were in use. It held sympathy, openness, the offer of a calm presence and support if it was needed. Truly held those things; this was not a superficial mask. Sayid had hammered that point home back then. Unless they truly cared for those who needed them, and were willing to offer ministry when it was called for, they had no right to name themselves clerics. It was far more than divine magic that made a priest.

“You look tired,” the older man said quietly once they were deep enough in the corridors to be out of earshot of anyone grieving loved ones. “Been rushing around the city putting out fires, if I know you, Tarvadegh. How is Tiraas coping?”

“Well,” Val said, shifting his mask to one which revealed a hint of his uncertainty. “Much better than I feared. There are indeed fires to put out—you’ve been doing the same here, old friend. Overall I’m surprised by how superficial a lot of the damage appears. The cults are all active, as is the government, and a lot of the people seem determined to get right back to work.”

“Good for them.”

Val held up the newspaper he was still carrying. “Information is still sketchy, but the Silver Throne is already claiming to have dealt a mortal blow to the Black Wreath during this. Imperial Intelligence claims much of the Wreath’s leadership were captured or killed in the fighting. Of course, you know what that means.”

Sayid grunted, his own mask changing to project his skepticism. “Means the capital wasn’t razed to the ground and the Wreath is not in a position to put out its own press release. The Throne all but has to declare victory here, if they can at all get away with it.”

“I’m hoping there’s more word here, by now,” Val said, not changing his mask. The look of calm, slightly suspicious uncertainty still suited his purpose, at least here, before a trusted friend. “I know you’ve been doing important work, Sayid, but have you gleaned any important news?”

“Have I ever,” Sayid said, and his mask changed to a countenance that made Val immediately wary. Whatever Sayid had learned, he didn’t know what it signified and expected trouble at the very least. The older priest gave him a significant look, and Val nodded, falling silent.

They proceeded without speaking till they reached the circular doors into the inner sanctuary, the parts of the temple where only initiates of the Brethren were permitted. Rather than the mask and scythe sigil of Vidius, the doors were made in the shape of an even more ancient symbol, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two curving teardrop shapes, one black and one white, eternally chasing each other. The gray-robed novice standing watch over the doors bowed to them, her face hidden behind a mask—a literal one of ceramic, as Vidian clergy wore in some ceremonial duties, or when they were new enough that their tutors had not vouched for their mastery of the Doctrine of Masks. A face which could not control itself should not be seen.

As soon as the round door had slid shut behind them again, Sayid halted right inside the sanctuary, taking Val’s sleeve and leaning close. His mask was still one of excitement, worry, intensity. “Tarvadegh, everything is changed. Vidius has called a paladin.”

For the first time since his own initiation, Val Tarvadegh slipped. For just a split second, his mask tumbled away to reveal naked shock, before he composed himself. Sayid simply put on a mask of understanding. Under the circumstances, it was a forgivable lapse.

He shuffled mentally through the obvious questions, of which there were far too many.

“I know little,” Sayid said while Val scrambled to get his thoughts in order. “As you said, there’s been much more important work than hobnobbing with the rumor-mongers down here. All I know is he’s one of the kids at that cockamamie school out in Last Rock, apparently a close friend of the Hand of Omnu.” He hesitated—mostly for dramatic effect, as the mask he put on expressed. “The boy is a half-demon.”

Val allowed his own mask to revert to a natural one, now that he’d mastered his shock. An expression of awe and trepidation was entirely appropriate. “Omnu’s breath. I bet the vultures down here are going absolutely insane.”

Sayid nodded, assuming a mask of wry amusement. Even beyond the natural Vidian predilection for duality, it was a truism that there were two kinds of people among the cult. The way they were described varied widely, but everyone understood what the kinds were. There were the clerics who went out and did the work of ministering to people going about their lives, and then there were the clerics whose primary vocation consisted of maneuvering for power.

Though Val (and Sayid, and most who shared their outlook) privately sorted them into groups of “ambitious” and “useful,” it had to be acknowledged that the other kind—the vultures, as he had just called them—were far from useless. They may have had self-serving motives, but not exclusively so; after all, any Vidian worth his salt would be working on at least two objectives with any given action. The cult itself thrived in large part due to the funding and influence they secured by maneuvering among nobles, royals, and the other rich and mighty in society.

Complex their aims and natures might be, but manipulators and schemers needed the constancy of intricate systems in which to operate. Now? A Vidian paladin? A half-demon Vidian paladin? There was absolutely no guessing how many careful ploys had just been permanently upended.

Val couldn’t deny feeling a spark of satisfaction at that prospect, though of course he kept it concealed behind his mask.

“Speaking of,” Sayid murmured, and Val, following his gaze, had to switch to an almost dishonestly serene mask to suppress the fatalism he suddenly felt. Another gray-robed novice was making a beeline toward them from the opposite side of the long sanctuary, where she had clearly been watching the door. “I warned you not to cozy up to that woman, boy. Told you she was destined for great things. Now look. Every time anything happens…”

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Val said innocently. “It may not be a message for me. Perhaps you’re being excommunicated.”

Sayid gave him a scathing look that barely counted as a mask.

“Val Tarvadegh?” the novice inquired with proper diffidence, stopping before them and bowing slightly.

“Yes,” he said simply, turning to her wearing his clerical mask of serene benediction.

“There is a meeting in progress in the Outer Sanctity; Lady Gwenfaer wishes your attendance as soon as you return to the temple.”

“I guess I’m safe for another day,” Sayid said, wearing Val’s own mask of serenity rather than his customary one.

Val just turned the look on the older man without bothering to change it. Would’ve served the old coot right if he’d stuck out his tongue, but he wasn’t about to set such a bad example in front of a novice. “Thank you, acolyte. I will attend the Lady directly.”

The girl bowed again, retreating, and Sayid patted him encouragingly on the back. Val nodded to him and set off for the innermost depths of the temple, putting on a mask he used almost exclusively for events such as this: calm, no nonsense, not aggressive but unwilling to suffer fools. He had crafted it after the example of an Avenist cleric he knew. When he couldn’t avoid being drawn in by Gwenfaer and her ever-rotating circle of hangers-on, it was the closest he could manage to keeping himself unscathed.


“Do we even know what kind of demon he is?” a priestess he didn’t know was exclaiming with open exasperation when he joined the meeting underway.

“Half-demon,” said Tarkan Raskin from behind a mask which projected calm so aggressively it was clearly a deliberate rebuke at those who failed to. Val didn’t know Raskin intimately, but he was one of the upper-circle maneuverers whom he respected the most, a man who enjoyed his games of connivance but was more interested in the cult’s goals than furthering his own temporal benefit. “And no, so far we know very little beyond what the god has revealed to Lady Gwenfaer. Gabriel Arquin is known to have been a friend of Tobias Caine in his youth, so there are records available to follow up and we’ll be doing so as quickly as we can. For now, though? We know he’s a boy, so he’s not half khelminash. That’s the extent of our intelligence.”

“They could put that on your tombstone,” the woman replied acidly. Raskin looked directly at her without replying verbally, though he shifted his mask to a condescending parent’s disdain toward a misbehaving toddler.

Arquin, hm. Val didn’t recognize the surname; it might have been Tiraan, Western, possibly even Stalweiss. Gabriel was an old but not very popular given name. This still told him very little.

“Val!” Gwenfaer gushed, rising to her feet and gliding across the room toward him. He put on a deliberately long-suffering mask, which she ignored, swooping right up and kissing him lightly on both cheeks, a greeting used by absolutely no one outside Glassiere except Gwenfaer Maalvedh.

The Lady Gwenfaer was tall, blonde, and one of those women whom it was impossible to tell how voluptuous she was because every movement of her body and article of clothing in her wardrobe was part of a contrivance to make her seem more so. Her face was improbably free of even the tiniest lines for someone in the descending half of her forties. That mane of luxuriant golden hair was impeccably styled, as always, in tousled waves which suggested she had just climbed out of bed; her robes were also very deliberately cut to evoke a hastily-donned dressing gown, hint of cleavage and all.

She insisted she was Old Tira, not Stalweiss in descent. While it was a matter of record that there had been a race of pale, fair-haired humans in the Tira Valley before the modern Tiraan had begun moving in from Calderaas (in fact, Tanglish was thought to descend from their language), they had been gone for centuries. It was a purely laughable claim, and that was Gwenfaer all over. Her goofy affectations and overt vampishness were both masquerades not held in favor among the Brethren of Vidius, where they were considered Vesker stereotypes. Val had never met anyone else in the faith who tried to leverage either; Gwenfaer was surely the only one who made a practice of both.

She was also the most intelligent person he knew, and it frankly scared him that he had no idea how deep her capacity for ruthlessness went. Nobody ascended to the leadership of the Brethren unless they were a person to take with the utmost seriousness.

“Welcome, Val,” said the other blonde woman present when Gwenfaer had drawn back enough that he could see the room again. “Are we awaiting anyone else, my Lady?”

“This should be it for now,” Gwenfaer said, wearing a dreamy little smile. Alone among the Vidians Val had known, she had a knack for making her expressions look like the uncontrolled emotional flickering of the uninitiated. Others had remarked on it; Vidians could generally recognize each other simply by their facial control, but not the Lady Gwenfaer. He suspected there was some secret branch of their cult’s attention-deflecting magic involved in it. “Lorelin, would you be a dear and catch him up for me?”

“There hasn’t been much established so far,” the other priestess said, nodding respectfully to Val with a mask of pleasantly aloof friendliness in place. “I believe you heard Tarkan’s clarification just now. Vidius has called a Hand, he is a half-demon attending Tellwyrn’s University, and a friend of the Hand of Omnu. The only thing you’ve missed is that Bishop Querril has placed himself in formal seclusion in the Grand Cathedral at this news.”

“Oh, dear,” Val murmured, adopting a mask of perplexed concern to avoid having to respond directly to Lorelin Reich. If Raskin was his idea of a good ambitious Vidian, she was the opposite. In his opinion the Brethren would be better off if someone stuffed Reich full of pine cones, bent her in a circle, and strung her up as a solstice wreath.

“Of all the bloody times for one of his snits,” huffed the priestess who had been sniping at Raskin a moment ago. She was the oldest of them, white-haired and clearly fond of aggressive masks. “Querril has always been more of a theological purist than is good for him; I’m frankly impressed he received this news without having a literal stroke.”

“Are we absolutely certain he hasn’t?” Lorelin asked from behind a mask of concern so obviously insincere it was clearly meant as a joke. “That is a downside to seclusion, of course. Poor Bishop Tannehall was dead in her office for almost two days before anyone discovered she wasn’t praying.”

“We should be so lucky,” the old woman grunted.

“Really, Tassie,” Gwenfaer chittered, a picture of vapid reproof. “This is hardly the time.”

“Not to mention that Bishop Querril’s long service to the Brethren merits some respect,” Raskin added, “no matter how annoying many of us find him.”

“Tassie, was it?” Val inquired politely.

“Not to you, boy,” the woman retorted. “Tasselin Vistirian. And you are…?”

“Val Tarvadegh,” he replied, putting on a mask of such ostentatious politeness that the reproof was implicit. Raskin smiled thinly at him.

“So!” Gwenfaer clapped her hands, affecting a delighted and somewhat vacant smile. “It seems to me we have two immediate objectives. Or rather, the countless problems before us can be sorted into two neat categories: the internal and external.”

“Imagine,” Val said, adopting a mask of pure sincerity. “Vidians dividing an issue neatly in two.” Reich and Vistirian gave him looks wearing masks so similar they might have been modeled on the same disapproving schoolmarm.

“Oh, Val,” Gwenfaer tittered. “But yes! We are very much in the dark. Tarkan, you’ve made a start at tracking down information on this Gabriel Arquin?”

“I have set some inquiries in motion, my Lady,” Raskin said respectfully. “I dare hope there may be some answers waiting for me by the time this meeting is ended. I’ll get more as soon as I am able to devote my own energies to the task.”

“Splendid, splendid, we’ll need to know everything we can. No detail is too extraneous! Bring me any scrap you can dig up.”

“As you will, my Lady.”

“But that isn’t the only thing on which we must gather intelligence. I don’t have to tell all of you that the official line spouted by the Empire and the Universal Church about this Wreath attack does not entirely hold up. Under any circumstances I wouldn’t want to be kept in the dark, but last night’s events culminated directly in our god naming a paladin for the first time in history, and choosing a specific individual guaranteed to precipitate a theological crisis.”

“That’s a truly remarkable coincidence,” Reich observed.

“Isn’t it, though?” Gwenfaer said pleasantly. “The people in this room I know I can rely on—even if you have to do things others might not approve of.” The four of them so pointedly avoided looking at each other that the entire room practically throbbed with unvoiced speculation. “I am dividing these responsibilities among you. Tarkan, Tassie, I need you to sniff out secrets among the city. Find everything that can be known about Gabriel Arquin, and what he has to do with what happened last night—what really happened, and why and how the truth is being hidden from us.”

“A tall order,” Vistirian murmured, adopting a mask of disgruntled contemplation. Val had the stray thought that she might have modeled it off a librarian; he had seen Nemitites make that exact face whenever someone raised a voice in one of their libraries. “For one thing, some of the other cults are riled up even more than the situation calls for. This city is absolutely crawling with Huntsmen of Shaath, which is truly inexplicable. And the Thieves’ Guild is far more active than I would have expected.”

“There, see?” Gwenfaer beamed. “You have a start! Work together on this—and do try to get along.”

“I will see what I can do,” Raskin replied with a mask that was as close to expressionless as Val had ever seen. Vistirian gave him an openly sardonic look.

“That leaves the other half: the internal.” Gwenfaer turned her wide smile upon Val and Reich.

“I can only imagine how stirred up the entire cult is right now,” he said.

“I doubt you can,” Reich murmured, and he put on a particularly bland mask of politeness. Was he really going to have to work with this woman?

“Oh, my, yes, but that isn’t what I need you two to deal with,” Gwenfaer said earnestly. “I really cannot have the Bishop losing himself to a crisis of faith at a time like this. Do something about him, won’t you?”

“Like what?” Val demanded.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she simpered. “I have complete faith in you both! And there is also the matter of young Gabriel himself. After all, he’s now one of us! And we’re definitely going to have to do something about him.”

“You want us to go to Last Rock, my Lady?” Reich asked, shifting her mask to reflect uncertainty.

“Dear me, no, I need you both at hand! But someone has to train the boy, after all. He’s not even Vidian by upbringing; believe me, if there were any of those at Last Rock, I would know it. Therefore, I want you two to sniff out and nominate a teacher for our new paladin. We must find someone to serve as Gabriel’s tutor and guide, someone to teach him our doctrines and our ways, and nurture his development. Someone we can trust to administer the needs of the Brethren without interfering in whatever exciting thing Vidius is planning! Because oh, my, yes, our god is clearly having a little fun at our expense.”

“Fun.” Reich turned a blank mask upon Val. “Yes…this will be fun, won’t it?”

He heaved a sigh. “Oh, yes, Lorelin, I’m very much afraid it will.”

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14 – 32

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On a typically overcast, slightly muggy summer day in Tiraas, Basra Syrinx returned to her office to find it gone.

She came to a stop in what appeared to be an empty stretch of hallway in the Temple of Avei, revealing confusion only by looking deliberately up and down. No one was visible nearby; the only noises were from the other end of the hall, where it terminated at a balcony overlooking a sizable atrium not far from the main sanctuary. Most significantly, the door to her office was not where it always was. Nothing but plain wall.

Her expression finally shifted from its usual placid mask to vague annoyance.

Syrinx reached up to run her hand along the wall, then grunted deep in her throat and nodded, finding the frame of the door with her fingers. Slowly she ran her hand along the invisible shape to the latch, which she turned. It was not locked or tampered with and shifted as smoothly in her hand as always, but she did not push it open or step in yet. Instead the Bishop resumed her tactile exploration, dragging her fingertips up the doorframe and along the top.

She disturbed some kind of crunchy dust sprinkled along the top of the door frame. No—not dust. Crushed dried leaves.

“Mm hm,” Syrinx muttered aloud, gripping the golden hilt of her sword with her other hand and continuing to sweep the dust away. Then suddenly, with a soft gasp, she jerked her fingers back, shaking her hand. There was no mark of any kind on her forefinger, but that had sure felt like—

She retreated one step and ignited her aura, flooding the hallway with radiant divine magic.

Immediately the illusion collapsed, the crumbled leaves atop the door frame evaporating into oily smoke, and the tiny elemental perched on the center chattered angrily at her in protest.

“I thought this was an extraordinary effort for a novice prank,” Syrinx said wryly. “Mousie, isn’t it? You’re not the only one who’s bitten off more than they can chew today. Your little buddy Herschel is going to be up way past his bedtime if he means to start trouble with me.”

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

Not for nothing was Basra Syrinx an admired blademaster; her sword cleared its sheath faster than most human beings could have visually followed, much less countered, and she swept the blade in a precise arc that would have struck down even that tiny target—had Meesie not been other than human.

Meesie vanished in a puff of sparks as the sword’s tip slashed expertly through her space. Those sparks, instead of dissipating in the air, streamed away down the hall, where they coalesced again into the ratlike shape of the elemental, now perched on the shoulder of Herschel Schwartz, who had been standing there the whole time—not invisible, but simply not catching anyone’s notice until his familiar drew attention to his presence.

“I had honestly given up, boy,” Syrinx said mildly, sheathing her sword. “It’s been, what? A year? And you’re only now getting shirty with me. Please tell me you’ve spent all this time making actual preparations and not simply screwing up your courage. Unless your whole plan is to disappoint me one last time.”

“You know, Basra, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You always go right for the throat. Maybe you should relax, learn to play around a bit. Have some fun with life.” Schwartz’s tone was light, deliberately so. It contrasted with the rest of him—stiff as a flagstaff, shoulders gathered in tension, fists clenched and eyes glaring. Meesie hissed again, tiny flickers of fire racing along her fur.

“This isn’t a chapbook and you’re not a hero,” she said flatly. “You don’t stand there and banter at me. If the next thing out of your mouth is a suitably groveling apology, I will give real thought to not taking a complaint directly to Bishop Throale and having you reassigned to a two-man research temple in Upper Stalwar.”

In answer, he grabbed Meesie and tossed her forward. The elemental landed on the floor halfway between them and suddenly took up much of the hall space, in a leonine form almost the size of a pony. She had, at least, enough restraint not to roar and bring every Legionnaire in the temple running, but bared her teeth at Syrinx and growled. Loudly.

Unfazed by this display, Basra narrowed her eyes, then flicked a glance at the recently-disguised door of her office before returning her focus to Schwartz, ignoring the hulking fire elemental entirely.

“No,” she murmured. “You wouldn’t dare attack me openly—and especially not here. You have far too much intelligence and not nearly enough balls. What are you trying to distract me from, clever boy?”

He’d been prepped for this, but Schwartz was no schemer or politician. He hesitated for a moment, betraying uncertainty, before jutting out his chin and forcing a facsimile of a cocky grin. “Oh, is that what I’m doing? Interesting theory. How willing are you to test it?”

The dramatic effect, such as it was, suffered greatly from Meesie’s sudden reversal to her normal form. It had been much less than a minute; the divine magic saturating the temple put her at a serious disadvantage. Which, of course, underscored the Bishop’s point.

Syrinx quirked one eyebrow infinitesimally, then turned and strode away toward the stairs down to the atrium.

“Hey!” Schwartz shouted at her. “Are you that willing to bet I won’t just shoot you in the back?”

She didn’t bother to inform him that people who actually did things like that rarely gave warning, but she did activate a divine shield. It was a low-energy glow hugging her skin, well below the power of a typical combat shield, but it would conserve her magic and almost certainly suffice for any fae spells done at her, especially in the temple.

Syrinx arrived on the balcony just in time to spot her own aide being escorted through a door on the ground floor below. This wing of the temple, just behind the sanctuary, was mostly offices; that one was behind thick walls with just the one door positioned to provide space for guards to defend it, and used primarily for debriefings and interrogations of a relatively polite nature. Flight or fight risks would be detained in the cells in one of the basement levels. Those loyal to the Sisterhood who had something sensitive to reveal were handled here, where there was ready access to the temple’s main entrance and the medical wing.

“Covrin!” the Bishop snapped, her voice echoing through the columned atrium. All those present, which consisted of the Legionnaires escorting Jenell Covrin and a couple of passing priestesses, turned and craned their necks up at her.

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

Then, she smiled. A cold, cruel smile, befitting Basra Syrinx herself—and the girl Jenell Covrin used to be before her “mentor” had (as she thought) beaten her into submission. Not acknowledging the Bishop further, she turned and strode through the door, which the nearest Legionnaire shut firmly behind her.

It was at that moment Syrinx registered that she was looking at Squad 391. Principia Locke turned from closing the door to give her the blandest, most placid smile she had ever seen.

The Bishop turned and stalked for the stairs, immediately finding her way blocked.

“Good afternoon, your Grace,” the dark-skinned young man before her said politely. “I wonder if I could have a moment of your time.”

She held onto her professional poise by a thread. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time at the moment. Excuse me.”

Syrinx moved to step around him, and he smoothly flowed aside to block her. Grunting in annoyance, she reached to shove him aside, and her hand impacted a hard surface which rippled with golden light, the shield dissipating immediately in a display of very fine control for a caster so young.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, still in a courteous tone.

“Boy,” she grated, “do you have any idea—”

“I have many ideas,” he interrupted. “I’m Tobias Caine, and I require your attention for a moment, Bishop Syrinx.”

Basra went stock still, staring into his eyes. He gazed placidly back, awaiting her response, but she wasn’t really looking at him. Variables in this equation began to slot into place in her mind.

“I don’t have time for this,” Syrinx said curtly, and barreled right into him, flashing her own shield into place.

Toby was a martial artist and too deft on his feet to be so easily bowled down the stairs, retreating with far more grace than most would have managed in that situation, but the bubble of hard light surrounding her prevented him from making the best use of his skills, most of which relied on having something to grip in order to redirect her movements. He wasn’t without his own brute force methods, however, and before she’d made it two steps he conjured a staff of pure light.

Just like that, her divine shield wasn’t doing her much good, as Toby used his staff skillfully to poke, bat, and shove her backward, as if he were blocking a rolling boulder. This stalemate did not favor Basra; he was physically stronger than she and had vastly greater mana reserves; both staff and shield flickered whenever they impacted, but hers would break long before his.

“I realize you are impatient with this,” he said with infuriating calm while thwarting her efforts to descend as if this were all some sort of game. “But you need to think of your own spiritual health, Bishop Syrinx. Whatever happens next, the manner in which you face it will do a great deal to determine the outcome. Redemption is always—”

Basra abruptly dropped her shield and whipped her sword out, lunging at him.

As anticipated, instinct made him abandon his improvised jabbing and fall into a Sun Style defensive stance, which should have put her at a considerable disadvantage; his staff had much greater range than her short sword and her position on the stairs made it all but impossible to duck under it. That, however, was not her intent. Basra had trained against Sun Style grandmasters, which Toby Caine, for all his skill, was not yet. It took her three moves to position him, feint him into committing to a block for an attack from the right which never came, and then turn the other way and vault over the rail.

She had only been a few feet down the stairs; it was a drop of nearly a full story. Basra had done worse, and rolled deftly on landing with her sword arm held out to the side, coming to her feet barely two yards from Squad 391.

All six women were standing at attention, unimpressed by this. Locke, Shahai, and Avelea had composed features as usual, but the other three looked far too gleeful. Elwick, in particular, Syrinx knew to be more than capable of hiding her emotions. The fierce expression on her face boded ill.

“Step aside, soldiers. That is an order.”

“Mmmm,” Lieutenant Locke drawled. “Nnno, I don’t believe I will. Why? You think you’re gonna do something about it, Basra?”

“Lieutenant!” one of the two priestesses who had paused to watch the drama burst out, clearly aghast. “You are addressing the Bishop!”

“Am I?” Locke said pleasantly. “Well, if she still is in an hour, I guess I’ll owe her an apology. You just hold your horses, Bas. Private Covrin has a lot to go over.” She deliberately allowed a predatory, distinctly Eserite grin to begin blossoming on her features. “With the High Commander.”

Toby had reached the base of the stairs. Above, Schwartz arrived at the balcony rail and hopped up onto it, his robes beginning to rustle as he summoned some air-based magic. A subtle glow rose around Corporal Shahai.

Then another such glow, weaker but unmistakable, ignited around Locke. The elf’s grin broadened unpleasantly.

“Your Grace?” asked the second priestess uncertainly, glancing about at all this.

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

Toby moved to intercept her, but Syrinx grabbed the shorter priestess by the collar of her robes in passing and hurled the squawking woman straight into him. Schwartz didn’t make it to the ground that quickly and Locke’s squad made no move to pursue, simply holding position in front of the office door. She made it to the atrium’s main entrance with no further opposition, bursting past two surprised Legionnaires standing guard on the other side.

Behind her, the office door opened, and it wasn’t Covrin or Rouvad who emerged to pursue her.

The main sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was crowded at that time of early afternoon, which meant there was an unfortunately large audience of petitioners from all over the Empire and beyond present to see their Bishop come streaking out of a rear door at a near run. This escalated into an actual run when she heard the pounding of booted feet behind her.

“You!” Basra barked at another pair of startled soldiers as she passed, flinging a hand out behind her. “Detain them!”

“Your Grace?” one said uncertainly, and had Basra been in less of a hurry she would have stopped to take the woman’s head off. Figuratively. Probably.

“BASRA SYRINX.”

At that voice, in spite of herself, Basra turned, skidding to a graceful halt.

Trissiny Avelea wasn’t running, but stalked toward her past Legionnaires who made no move to intercept her as ordered—unsurprisingly. The paladin and Bishop weren’t in the same chain of command, but the rank-and-file of the Legions would have an obvious preference if their orders contradicted each other. Trissiny was in full armor, fully aglow, and golden wings spread from behind her to practically fill the temple space. Gasps and exclamations of awe rose from all around, but the paladin gave them no acknowledgment, eyes fixed on Basra.

The Bishop inwardly cursed the learned political instincts which had overwhelmed innate survival instincts; she should not have stopped. As tended to happen when she was confronted with an overwhelming problem, her entire focus narrowed till the world seemed to fall away, and she perceived nothing but the oncoming paladin.

“Trissiny,” she said aloud. “You’ve clearly been listening—”

Those wings of light pumped once, and Trissiny lunged at her with astonishing speed, sword first.

Basra reflexively brought up her own weapon to parry, a divine shield snapping into place around her, and then two very surprising things happened.

First, Trissiny beat her wings again—how were those things functional? They weren’t supposed to be solid!—and came to a halt.

Second, Basra’s shield was snuffed out, untouched. Frantically, she reached inward for the magic, and it simply wasn’t there anymore.

Tiraas was no stranger to storms, but the clap of thunder which resounded right overhead was far greater in power than the light drizzle outside made believable.

“I actually thought you were too clever to fall for that,” Trissiny said, and despite the continuing presence of her wings, it was as if the avenging paladin had melted away to leave a smirking Guild enforcer in silver armor. “You just tried to call on the goddess’s magic right in front of a Hand of Avei who knows what you did. Congratulations, Basra, you’ve excommunicated yourself.”

Amid the crowd, more figures were emerging from that door at the back of the sanctuary. The Hand of Omnu, Schwartz… And all of Squad 391. With Covrin.

Of course. Obviously, Commander Rouvad wouldn’t go to a debriefing room for such an interview, not when she had a highly secure office to which she summoned people regularly. This entire thing… Syrinx realized, belatedly, how she had been baited and conned.

She filed away the surge of livid rage to be expressed later, when she had the opportunity to actually hurt someone. For now, once again she turned and bolted toward the front doors of the temple, past the countless witnesses to her disgrace.

The lack of any sounds of pursuit behind her began to make sense when she burst out onto the portico of the temple and had to stop again.

Another crowd was gathered in Imperial Square; while the figure waiting for her at the base of the steps necessarily commanded widespread attention, he also discouraged people from approaching too closely. At least the onlookers were keeping a respectful few yards back. Including a handful of Imperial military police who had probably arrived to try to disperse the crowd but also got caught up gawking at the Hand of Death.

Gabriel Arquin sat astride his fiery-eyed horse, who pawed at the paving stones with one invisible hoof and snorted a cloud of steam. His scythe dangled almost carelessly from his hand, its wicked blade’s tip resting against the ground. Hairline cracks spread through the stone from the point where it touched.

“There is a progression,” Arquin said aloud, his voice ringing above the murmurs of the crowd, “which people need to learn to respect. When you are asked by the Hand of Omnu to repent, you had better do it. Refuse, and you will be ordered by the Hand of Avei to stand down. That was your last chance, Basra Syrinx. Beyond the sword of Avei, there is only death.”

The crowd muttered more loudly, beginning to roil backward away from the temple. Nervous Silver Legionnaires covering its entrance clutched their weapons, bracing for whatever was about to unfold.

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

Syrinx lunged forward, making it to the base of the stairs in a single leap. Immediately, Arquin wheeled his horse around to block her way, lifting his murderous-looking scythe to a ready position. Even disregarding the reach of that thing, it was painfully obvious she was not about to outrun or outmaneuver that horse. Any horse, but this one in particular looked unnaturally nimble.

She pivoted in a helpless circle, looking for a way out. The crowd was practically a wall; behind was the Temple, once a sanctuary and now a place she didn’t dare turn. Trissiny and Toby had spread to descend the steps with a few yards between them. One pace at a time, the noose closed in on Syrinx, the space between the paladins narrowing as the Hands of Avei and Omnu herded her toward the Hand of Vidius, and inexorable death.

Basra had spent too long as a cleric and politician to miss the deliberate symbolism. She could choose which to face: justice, death, or life. Tobias Caine was even gazing at her with a face so full of compassion she wanted to punch it.

She didn’t, though. Instead, Basra turned toward him, schooling her own features into what she hoped was a defeated expression—based on the way people’s faces looked in her presence from time to time, as it was one she’d never had occasion to wear herself. She let the dangling sword drop from her fingers, feeling but suppressing a spike of fury at the loss when the expensive golden eagle-wrought hilt impacted the pavement. Just one more expense to add to the tally of what the world owed her. Ah, well. After today, carrying around a piece of Avenist symbolism probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Syrinx let Toby get within a few feet before bursting into motion.

His own instincts were well-trained, and though he still wasn’t a grandmaster, Basra’s martial skill heavily emphasized the sword. In a prolonged hand-to-hand fight, she might not have proved a match for Toby’s skill—and definitely not now that only one of them had magic to call on.

That dilemma was resolved, as so many were, by not fighting fair.

It took her a span of two seconds to exchange a flurry of blows, carefully not committing to a close enough attack to let him grab her as Sun Style warriors always did, all to position herself just outside the circle the three paladins had formed and push Toby into a reflexive pattern she could anticipate and exploit. Arquin was momentarily confused, unable to swing his great clumsy weapon into the fray with his friends that close or exploit the speed of his mount, but Trissiny—also a highly trained fighter—was already moving around Toby to flank Basra from the other side.

So she finally made the “mistake” that brought her within range of Toby’s grab, and allowed him to seize her by the shoulder and upper arm. And with his hands thus occupied, Basra flicked the stiletto from her sleeve into her palm and raked it across his belly.

Almost disappointing, she thought, how fragile a paladin was. Hurling him bodily into Trissiny was pathetically easy at that point, and in the ensuing confusion of shouts which followed, she dove into the crowd, instantly putting herself beyond the reach of Arquin, unless he wanted to trample a whole lot of bystanders, to say nothing of what that scythe would do to them. He probably didn’t. Even as the helpless sheep failed to do anything to stop her in their witless panic, paladins always had to take the high road.

Basra shoved through the throng in seconds, pelting right toward the only possible sanctuary that still awaited her: the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church.


“Toby!” Trissiny lowered him gently to the pavement; he was bent over, clutching his midsection, from which blood had already spread through his shirt and was dripping to the ground at an alarming rate.

“No light!” Toby managed to gasp as Gabriel hurled himself to the ground beside him. “Not even an aura!”

“He’s right, stomach wounds are amazingly delicate,” Trissiny said helplessly, finishing easing Toby down so he could sit upright. “It may need a surgeon, if you accidentally heal something in the wrong place… We need healers here!” she bellowed.

“Keep to the plan,” Toby grunted around the pain, managing to nod to her.

“I can’t—”

“You do your job, soldier,” he rasped, managing a weak grin. “After her! Triss, we’re surrounded by temples and gut wounds take a long time to do anything. I’ll be fine. Get moving.”

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

“He’s right,” Gabriel agreed, taking up her position to hold Toby upright. “Go, Trissiny!”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and released him, rising and plunging into the crowd after Syrinx.

Help really did come quickly. Barely had Trissiny gone before the Imperial police were enforcing a perimeter around the paladins, and a priestess of Avei had dashed up to them. She knelt and gently but insistently lowered Toby to lie on his back, whipping out a belt knife to cut away his shirt so she could see the wound.

“Seems so excessive,” Toby grunted to Gabriel, who knelt there clutching his hand. “Coulda spared a lot of trouble if we’d just told her the plan was to let her get into the Cathedral…”

“Well, yeah,” Gabe said reasonably, his light tone at odds with his white-knuckled grip on Toby’s hand, “but then she wouldn’ta done it.”

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

“You need to hush,” the priestess said in exasperation, her hands beginning to glow as she lowered them to the wound. “And try to hold still, this will hurt.”


Trissiny managed to moderate her pace to an aggressive stride as she crossed the threshold into holy ground. The two Holy Legionaries flanking the door turned to her, but she surged past them without even so much as a sneer for their preposterously ornate armor.

The timing of all this had been very deliberate. A prayer service was in session—not a major one, so the great sanctuary was not crowded, but people were present. Most significantly, the Archpope himself stood at the pulpit, presiding. Justinian liked to stay in touch with the common people, more so than did many of his predecessors, and thus could often be found holding public appearances such as these rather than delegating them to priests. A mid-week afternoon service just didn’t command much draw, however, and the room was filled to barely a tenth of its capacity.

At the moment, nobody was getting any praying done, by the looks of things. Basra Syrinx was no longer in evidence, but her recent passage was obvious, thanks to all the confused muttering and peering around. At the head of the sanctuary, the Archpope himself was half-turned, regarding one of the rear doors into the Cathedral complex with a puzzled frown.

The ambient noise increased considerably when the Hand of Avei strode down the central aisle, sword in hand, the side of her silver armor splashed with blood.

“General Avelea,” Justinian said, turning to face her with a deep, respectful nod. “I gather you can shed some light on these events?”

“Where is Basra Syrinx?” she demanded, coming to a stop even with the front row of pews. It was downright crowded up here, most of the parishoners present desiring to be as near the Archpope as possible. The first two rows were entirely filled, with people who came from the world over, to judge by their varied styles of attire. Just to Trissiny’s left were three Omnist nuns wearing the heavy cowled habits of the Order of the Hedge, a tiny sect which had no presence in the Empire.

“You just missed her,” Justinian replied. For whatever reason, he continued projecting in exactly the tone he used for conducting worship. As did she, making their conversation clearly audible to the room. “She passed through here in apparent panic, demanded sanctuary, and retreated within. Toward her office, I presume. What has happened?”

“Syrinx will be removed from her office as Bishop the moment the formalities can be observed,” Trissiny replied, her voice ringing over the astonished murmurs all around. “She has been cast out of the faith by Avei herself as a betrayer, abuser of the trust of her position, and rapist. Moments ago she compounded her crimes by mortally assaulting the Hand of Omnu. I demand that she be handed over to face justice!”

The muttering rose almost to the level of outcry before Justinian raised both his hands in a placating gesture. Slowly, the crowd began to subside.

“I dearly hope Mr. Caine is being tended to?” the Archpope said with a worried frown.

Trissiny nodded once. “He isn’t so fragile, and healers were at hand.”

“That is a great relief.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently, “and so will be his attacker’s prosecution. Will you have your Legionaries produce her, your Holiness, or shall I retrieve her myself?”

“Justice,” he intoned, “as you know better than most, is not a thing which yields to demands. These are serious allegations, Trissiny. Gravely serious. This situation must be addressed calmly, rationally, and with full observance of all necessary formalities. Frustrating as these things are, they exist for excellent reasons. We cannot claim to dispense true justice unless it is done properly.”

“Please do not lecture me about the core of Avei’s faith, your Holiness,” Trissiny retorted in an openly biting tone, prompting another rash of muttering. “Justice is Avei’s province. Not yours.”

“And yet,” he said calmly, “Basra Syrinx has claimed the sanctuary of this church. I cannot in conscience fail to respect that, on the strength of mere allegation. Even from a person of your own prestige, General Avelea.”

“Am I to understand,” she said, raising her voice further, “that you are refusing to turn over a criminal to Avei’s justice, your Holiness?”

“You are to understand the law of sanctuary,” he replied. “It is observed by all faiths within the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me, your Holiness.” From the front pew near the Omnist nuns, another figure stood, wearing white robes with a golden ankh tabard. Bishop Darling inclined his head diffidently to the Archpope, but also spoke at a volume which was clearly audible through the sanctuary. “I have, personally, defended and protected Basra Syrinx from the consequences of her actions in the past, in pursuit of what I believed to be the higher good. I know you are aware of at least some of this. To that extent, I may be inadvertently complicit in anything she has done now. But a line has been crossed, your Holiness. If she has so violently erred that her own paladin has come after her in this way, I strongly advise against involving the Church in this matter.”

“You know the value I place on your council, Antonio,” replied the Archpope. “But I question whether this setting is the appropriate venue in which to discuss matters of this severity and complexity. General Avelea, would you kindly agree to join me in private to continue this conversation?”

“Some matters do deserve to be discussed in public, your Holiness,” Darling said before she could respond. “I speak in my capacity as Bishop. The Thieves’ Guild stands fully behind Trissiny Avelea in this matter.”

The murmuring swelled again, and once more Justinian raised his hands for quiet. As soon as he had achieved it, however, and before he could take advantage, another voice intruded.

“I concur.” Bishop Varanus rose from the pew next to Darling, towering half a head over the Eserite and turning his fierce, bearded visage on Trissiny. “Basra Syrinx is a rabid animal, and always have been. We all know this, and as Antonio has said, we all share guilt for whatever she has done. We have all failed to do our duty in getting rid of her, and now we see the consequences. Honor demands that this be addressed—now, and not later. In this one matter,” he nodded to the paladin, “the Huntsmen of Shaath stand behind Trissiny Avelea.”

“The Brethren of Izara stand behind Trissiny Avelea,” said yet another voice before the noise could gather too much, and despite her own diminutive appearance, Branwen Snowe could project her voice easily through the hubbub. “Basra is a deeply troubled person. I would prefer that she be offered some manner of help, if any is indeed possible—but if she has offended so severely that her own cult demands justice, this is clearly a matter of the safety of all around her.”

Beside Snowe, an old man with white hair rose slowly from his own seat. Though he looked frail, Sebastian Throale spoke clearly and as powerfully as anyone. “I am only passingly acquainted with Bishop Syrinx and have no personal opinion on this matter. But Trissiny Avelea has personally earned the trust and respect of my own cult—not a small thing, nor easy to do, given the relations we have historically had. If she deems this the right course of action, the Salyrite Collegium stands behind her.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I am astonished that this is even a question,” piped yet another individual, practically hopping to her feet in the pew behind Throale. Bishop Sally Tavaar, all of twenty-six years old, was widely considered a joke by everyone except her fellow Bishops, all of whom were too theologically educated to be less than wary around a bard who acted the fool. “That woman is a detestable cunt and always has been, and you all know it. It’s about damn time somebody did something about it! Only reason nobody has is everyone’s afraid of her, and you all know that, too. It’s just plain embarrassing that an avenging paladin is what it takes to deal with this. The Bardic College stands the hell behind Trissiny Avelea!”

“If I may?” Bishop Raskin was actually new to his post and not a widely known face yet, but he made a point of fully bowing to Trissiny. “These events are not a total surprise. The Hand of Avei has worked closely with those of the other Trinity cults, and I had some forewarning that events such as these might transpire. I have the assurance of Lady Gwenfaer herself that we have nothing but the greatest respect for our fellow paladin, and the Order of Vidius stands firmly behind her.”

Beside him, a slim woman with graying hair rose and inclined her head solemnly. “My colleague speaks truthfully. Omnu’s faith stands behind Trissiny Avelea.”

By that time, stunned silence had descended upon the Cathedral. It was allowed to hang in the air for a moment longer before Justinian spoke.

“Anyone else?” he inquired, slowly panning his serene gaze around the room. Trissiny and the assembled Bishops just regarded him in turn, as did the astonished crowd. It was not every cult of the Pantheon, but it was most of the biggest and most influential. More importantly, it included several which agreed about nothing, ever. This show of unity without the active encouragement of a sitting Archpope—in fact, in defiance of one—was all but unheard of. It might actually have been the first time a Shaathist Bishop ever publicly endorsed a Hand of Avei. Justinian simply continued after a short pause, though. “Very well. I hear and thank you for your counsel, brothers and sisters. Rest assured, your opinions I hold in the utmost regard, and this will weigh heavily on my deliberations on this matter. Those deliberations must occur, however; it is no less than conscience and justice demand. For the moment, sanctuary will be observed.”

“Are you actually serious?” Trissiny burst out. “You would really—”

“Did you believe,” Justinian interrupted, staring evenly down at her from his pulpit, “that aggressive demands and political maneuvering would be enough to eviscerate due process? Is that Avei’s justice, Trissiny?”

It was probably for the best that she had no opportunity to answer.

“BASRA!”

The entire room full of worshipers turned to stare at Jenell Covrin, who came striding down the central aisle in full Legion armor, trailed by Squad 391.

“Come out and face consequences, Basra!” Covrin roared, stomping right up to stand next to Trissiny. “It’s me, Jenell—your little pet. The one you thought a victim!”

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

“I did this, Basra!” Covrin screamed. “I’ve been gathering every secret you tried to bury. I brought them to the High Commander! I BROUGHT YOU DOWN! You can hide from the paladin, but you can’t hide from the truth.”

“Private,” the Archpope said more loudly, “this is not—”

“I DID THIS TO YOU!” Covrin roared, her voice all but rattling the stained glass. “For everything you did to me, I WON! And if you want to try settling it one more time, you’re gonna have to come out and face me. You’ll know how to find me, you bitch! Until then, I. FUCKING. WIN.”

“That is enough,” Justinian said flatly. “Sergeant at arms, please escort this young woman from the Cathedral.”

“Squad, form up!” Trissiny snapped. Instantly, the six members of Locke’s squad pivoted and snapped into a wedge, blocking off the aisle from the Holy Legionaires who had started toward them from the doors. They very wisely slowed as the Silver Legionnaires formed a menacing phalanx bristling with lances.

Four more Legionaries were approaching from the front of the Cathedral, but also did not get far.

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

Instantly, the three Omnist nuns on the front row surged upright, hurling away their voluminous robes to reveal armed women in scuffed leather. All three Guild enforcers flowed into place in a triangle around Jenell and Trissiny, staring down the heavily armored Legionaries, who also came to a nervous halt.

“Come on, Covrin,” Trissiny said quietly. “Nothing else we can do here…for now. We will have to finish this later.”

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

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