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Rasha sat down on the end of the cot. There was plenty of room, its occupant being a dwarf; Rogrin’s shoulders both bulged over the sides but his feet didn’t come near the end. Then again, it was a conjured prop placed there by a literal god, so its properties were probably whatever they needed to be. That’d explain why it not only held up to a solid dwarf worth of weight plus hers, but remained completely stable on the uneven snow when she plunked down.
Thinking about nonsense like that was a welcome reprieve.
The Archpope, his surviving non-sacrificed lackeys, and his horrifying new creation did not linger. She paid enough attention to note that Rector was their teleportation specialist, and he wasn’t even a mage; apparently the equipment back at the Cathedral connected to his handheld device included a rapid transit function. Which itself was worth knowing, as to the best of Rasha’s awareness enchanted machines that could perform a teleportation were far beyond the current state of the art. At any rate, that seemed important enough that she managed to dully make a note of it despite the numb sensation that had settled over her after what she had just witnessed.
At any rate, in just a few more minutes, they were gone back whence they had come, which was a relief. She needed to think.
“Keystone souls,” Rasha whispered, then continued, her voice growing stronger as she worked through thoughts out loud, the process helping to regain her equilibrium. “So…he needs one of those per…Angelus. Imbued with the Pantheon’s power and then cut off from their attention? By the sound of it, any Pantheon priest who’s been personally excommunicated by their god. Okay. Okay, that’s…that’s good. That can’t be a common occurrence, so that puts a limit on how many of those things he can make, even beyond…” She trailed off and swallowed heavily. “Gods in pants. Uh, no offense.”
“How many brainwashed soldiers could he possibly have?”
“The Holy Legion aren’t brainwashed,” Eserion said idly, now leaning one shoulder against the rock outcropping Schwartz had made last year, apparently perfectly at ease. “Just recruited and groomed with exacting care. That’s also significant, y’know. Justinian’s dabbled in real brainwashing, too—that’s what happened to those poor Tide bastards he threw at his problems with all the care of a man upending a bucket of crabs. No, I reckon his Angelus thingumajig requires willing and cognizant souls to power it.”
“But…not the keystone soul,” Rasha mumbled, frowning at nothing. “Lanora was dead, and even if she hadn’t been… I fancy I have a decent grasp of that woman’s flaws, and I can’t see her as the type to sacrifice herself for…something like that.”
“A good point,” the god agreed.
Rasha straightened up suddenly. “Wait a second… A divinely excommunicated priest, who doesn’t even need to be loyal? He’s already got Basra Syrinx squirreled away in that Cathedral! If this was their prototype attempt, why was it so important to come all the way out here in the snow and risk exposure, not to mention reversing time, just to get Lanora? That Rector guy made it sound like they were taking a lot of risks by doing it this way!”
“Mm, good point,” Eserion mused. “Good ol’ Basra sure doesn’t seem to be useful for much except raw materials for an appalling science experiment…at least, not to the likes of you or me. And yet, here we are. It’s almost as if Justinian’s the kinda guy who keeps multiple irons in multiple fires. He sure isn’t shy about making use of her particular brand of crazy.”
“Crap in a hat, after this I don’t even wanna imagine what kind of special plan he has for that woman,” Rasha muttered. She’d not had to deal with Syrinx directly, but between Trissiny’s personal stories and Glory’s collection of rumors the picture that emerged was frightening. “That’s probably gonna be a paladin-sized problem, whatever it is, anyway. Yeah, okay, I get why you wanted me to see this, it’s crucial intel. I can get Glory, Thorn…and Sweet. Between them, they know everybody. We’ve got a good chance of finding these keystone people before Justinian does, if we get the Guild and the Sisters and Imperial Intelligence on it.” She glanced down at Rogrind. “And Svennish intelligence, I guess. Thorn’s in good with them and I just heard the Archpope isn’t, so…” Rasha trailed off, frowning at a sudden thought. “Why’d you go to the trouble of knocking him out, then? Not like I’m this guy’s greatest fan but it seems like seeing this stuff for himself would’ve helped a lot.”
“Ah, well, you know how it is,” Eserion said with a cavalier grin. “He’ll have to be content with you catching him up after the fact, Intelligence types are used to patching together secondhand information. More to the point, such a perspicacious fella would immediately set about connecting the dots if I sleeped him now, instead of for the duration of my visit. So rather than ‘Eserion and Rasha are hiding something specific from me,’ he’ll be more inclined to think ‘Eserion is an asshole,’ which, y’know. Not incorrect.”
In that moment Rasha was abruptly reminded that while he might be the focus of her own religion, gods were dangerous creatures to be around.
“So there is more,” she said carefully. In different company this shift in mood might have her reaching surreptitiously for her throwing knives, but she’d already lost them, and realistically…what would be the point?
Eserion tipped her a singularly knowing wink. “Oh, very much so. I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a little while now, Rasha. Not that I arranged for you to be out here, exactly, but it was shaping up so conveniently I opted to just manage this situation rather than cutting it off. Sorry to put you out, and all that.”
“Yeah, well…I guess I can’t exactly complain. Thanks for helping me and Zafi out yesterday. That coulda been bad if you hadn’t stepped in.”
“Just don’t get used to it,” he advised. “Not that you aren’t a swell gal and all, and I have every confidence you’ll shape up to be one of the best of your generation, but you just can’t get in the habit of counting on the gods to step in and rescue you from danger. Nobody can, generally speaking, but that goes triple for Eserites.”
“Yeah, I’m well aware you expect us to fix our own shit. It’s one of the things I respect the most about Guild doctrine. So…what’s all this about, then? Why me?”
“Ah, ah!” Grinning, he held up a finger. “Now that, Rasha, is an important question, and it’s just not time for it yet. We’ve gotta address that one with all due seriousness, and that means we have to go through storytime first. These things have to be done in a certain order, as the bards tell us.”
“Fucking bards,” she muttered.
“They have some good points, though. For example, that everybody is the hero of their own story.”
Rasha shrugged. “Sure, everyone thinks they’re justified in whatever damn thing it is they’re doing, that’s not a groundbreaking insight. And it doesn’t mean they are justified, or that good intentions excuse anything.”
Eserion nodded, then took one step away from the rock slab and squatted on his heels in the snow. He continued to look perfectly comfortable in his partially-undone tuxedo, which of course was no surprise. His presence was probably the reason she also wasn’t cold, despite her lack of a warming charm and the fact that her half-dose of weather resistance potion had to be wearing off by now.
“Correct. But again, like I said, sometimes people have a point, even when it’s super uncomfortable for you to acknowledge that they might. That’s not the same thing as being right, or justified, but you will often find that a lot of folks who are antagonistic toward you aren’t as wrong, in an objective sense, as they probably seem to you. For example, let’s take his Holiness, Justinian.”
“Oh, I’m not gonna like the rest of this, am I?” she whispered.
Eserion grinned but did not pause. “Well, I did promise you storytime. Once upon a time, there was a wandering priest who came upon a great secret. A secret as ancient as divine magic itself, and so terrible that as a consequence of the nature of divine magic, anyone who learns it will be instantly struck dead, so that they can’t spread it around. But here’s the twist: he didn’t find this by accident. Because you see, those of us with a degree of control over the divine are able to shield people from that effect, at need. A certain deity with uncertain motivations led this man to this truth, opened his eyes to a terrible injustice that has been allowed to linger and determine the course of the world ever since.”
“You…what?” Rasha breathed. “What could…I don’t…”
“Easy,” the good said soothingly, giving her a smile far more gentle than his more customary rakish grin. “Don’t worry, Rasha, I’m not gonna dump that on you. I’m already laying enough of a burden on your head without painting a target on it as well. What you just saw was a hint, but it’s not close enough to the secret that you could figure it out unaided. You’re safe.”
“Well, now I kinda want to know.”
He regarded her solemnly. “Of course, you’re human. And I could tell you, and protect you. But you might not want to know after you did. Not all knowledge is useful, Rasha. Some of it’s only a burden.”
She nodded slowly. “And this story is about Justinian, right?”
“Ah!” He grinned again. “But that’s the second twist, Rasha. For you see, this isn’t actually a story, but two. This has happened a handful of times since the Elder Wars, and mostly nothing came of it, though occasionally it caused a mess. Elilial loves this trick; the upper echelons of the Black Wreath all know the secret, and it’s a big part of why they’re so dang cranky all the time. But this time, in this generation, this exact story has played out twice. A god with an agenda counter to the Pantheon’s led someone to the secret and protected them from the inevitable doom that followed. The stories diverge from there, however. The first, yes, was a young adventuring priest named Justinian Darnay—an educated man with, nonetheless, a head full of romantic notions about justice and valor that might better suit an Avenist than the Izarite he was. The second,” he grinned more broadly, and paused slightly for dramatic effect, to her vast irritation, “was a scrappy but charming street kid, name of Antonio Darling.”
Slowly, Rasha straightened up on the cot, only at that point becoming aware she’d allowed her posture to slouch. Glory would have been disappointed.
“Well…you had my attention already. Go on.”
“What matters to our twinned stories, what makes the fundamental difference between them, is the two disparate directions these two men went with this knowledge. Justinian began a methodical climb to power and is now engaged in trying to rearrange the world itself to fix that injustice. Darling… Didja know his great project as Bishop was to fund and direct the work of theological scholarship of this century? He set every young priest and clerk he could recruit to comb through every archived source of information known to exist, leveraging his own influence to get access even to the most hidden ones, about Elilial. Weeding out contradictions and unverified accounts, to assemble the definitive historical and psychological profile of the Dark Lady. The Nemitites were downright huffy it was an Eserite who did this. Interesting difference, though, right? Presented with the same revelation, one man sets out to fix it, while the other sets out to figure out what the fuck happened, and why.”
She frowned again. “Well… Different people are different, after all.”
“Ahh. But tell me, Rasha, does Sweet seem like the kinda guy who can look at a terrible injustice and not immediately want to pop open a tin of kickass on whoever did it? Remember, we’re talking about the man who was Boss of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”
“Sweet is…uncomfortably comfortable with moral conflicts. According to Glory, he’s sorta notorious for playing all ends against the middle.”
“But he has a line he won’t cross, which you know specifically because Justinian crossed it. Sweet had been sticking close to the Archpope for the same reason he’s been stalking Elilial for years: trying to understand what was really happening, so he could figure out what to do about it. But Justinian went too far, and he broke away, hence the current state of religious politics in Tiraas.”
“Hm. I get the impression you’re leading somewhere with this.”
“Always. It’s about how and why both came upon the revelation, you see. Because they weren’t guided to it by the same god, or by the same agenda. Justinian was led by the nose along a prepared course meticulously calculated to guide him to certain conclusions—and then, crucially, offered aid and support in his campaign to right the great wrong. Antonio just had a piece of nonsense shoved in his face that was guaranteed to break his understanding of how the world works, and then cut loose to deal with that, without even the knowledge that he possessed forbidden information, much less that he’d been granted divine protection from it. All things considered, it’s only natural, the different ways these two reacted to the revelation.”
Rasha narrowed her eyes. “So you’re suggesting… Sweet doesn’t know everything Justinian knows. Or thinks he knows.”
“And there, we come to it.” With a sigh, Eserion leaned back, actually sitting down in the snow, from which position he gazed up at her with a purely weary expression. “You see, Rasha, I have been running…a con. You may have noticed some off-kilter behavior from the Guild and the Boss recently.”
“You bet your ass I have. You have any idea how much trouble it’s been, trying to keep this whole thing from blowing up?”
“Course I do,” he said, smirking unrepentantly. “I’m gonna tell you a secret, Rasha: I’m not the god who set Sweet on the course he’s on now, nor the one who protected him from the knowledge. He thinks I am, but I’m not. By the same token, I am not the renegade god currently doing the most to ensure Justinian’s schemes are thwarted before they’re completed. But he also thinks I am.” He grinned, the expression downright gleeful despite his posture of exhaustion. “It’s a fake out, see? After all, I’m Eserion the defiant, humbler of the mighty and bane of corrupt systems everywhere. Obviously I’d be the one to squirm out from under the influence Justinian’s using to keep the gods off his back, and set myself to cutting him down to size. He’ll be coming after me, not realizing what the real threat is. And Sweet won’t be able to clue him in, because he doesn’t know, either!”
“Wait! You don’t think Sweet would betray you to the Archpope, surely.”
There fell a pause of several seconds, over which Eserion’s grin faded.
“Well, there…we come to it. The heart of the issue. Because you see, Rasha, you don’t know everything Justinian knows. Sweet doesn’t know everything Justinian knows. And Justinian tolerates Sweet’s ongoing meddling and defiance because he firmly believes that once he’s able to bring Darling fully into the loop, to learn everything he knows and be able to protect him from divine retaliation for knowing it, Darling will side with him against the Pantheon. Against me.”
Rasha inhaled just as slowly to steady herself against the vertigo. “But…he’s wrong. I mean, he wouldn’t.”
“The thing is?” Eserion shrugged fatalistically. “The thing is…he might. Rasha, I am not saying I agree with Justinian’s take. But I’m also not saying the man is definitively the villain of this twisted-up multi-threaded story. What I am saying is that there’s an argument to be made for both sides. That a person who knows the whole picture could reasonably decide to side with Justinian, or against him. And Antonio Darling is a veteran of playing the angles, and navigating complex moral dilemmas. He could absolutely tip either way. The real, scary truth? I don’t honestly think I would blame him if he turned on me. I was never comfortable with the Pantheon’s choice; I argued hard against it at the time, and for correcting it before Elilial had her little tantrum and effectively locked us all on this course. But in the end, I’ve gone along with it. For eight thousand years, I have lived with what we did, and not tried to overthrow the system. The inherently…corrupt system.”
He hesitated before continuing.
“So now, finally, it’s time for the answer to your question: why you?”
“I’m suddenly very afraid I don’t wanna know,” she whispered.
His answering smile was sympathetic. “It didn’t have to be you, Rasha, I’ll level with you about that. You’re just the most suitable candidate who happened to wander too close to the core of these events and get tangled up in it. Two years ago you were nowhere on anyone’s list of relevant players, and are still barely in the notice of most of them. And that’s the very thing that makes you perfect. Because as much as I can relate to their perspectives and respect their ability to ponder the deep truths of the universe, I am tired of these Great Men with their Great Thoughts, their angst and compromise and complex agendas. And believe me, I include myself in that description. When it comes right down to it, if the world has to tip on somebody making a moral decision? I would always rather trust it to a woman who’s had to live with her boots on the ground in the world men like that have made, who’s fought and clawed and connived for everything she’s got, including her very identity.”
“…I am wearing a dress that cost more than my dad’s first boat, and I didn’t even pay for it myself.”
“And that dress is burned, torn, and stained with your own blood because you preferred to ride an explosion than quietly submit to somebody pushing you around. Life’s not about what is or isn’t handed to you, Rasha, but what you do with it.”
She shook her head, heard. “No, this is too much. I’m not some chosen one, okay? You want Trissiny.”
“The con is ongoing,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken, his eyes holding hers. “I’m still guiding these events to their necessary conclusion. A moment’s going to come when Antonio Darling has to make a choice; that much is part of the agendas of everyone else involved. My little contribution is you. When that moment happens, it’ll be under your eyes, Rasha. And I will make sure, in that moment, you have a knife in hand, and a window of opportunity to do what needs to be done.”
Rasha stared at him in horror. “You can’t mean— No, you’re not asking me to kill Sweet?”
He just stared up at her with the same expression. “Nope. I’m asking you to decide, when the moment comes, if that is the right thing to do. And then act on your decision.”
She bounded up off the cot hard enough to tip it over if it hadn’t been weighed down by an unconscious dwarf. “Fuck you! I don’t want this, you understand? This is… This is too much! I’m just a kid from Puna Vashtar, I can’t decide the fucking fate of the world!”
Her god just looked at her with sad eyes in a tired face.
Rasha took a step closer, brandishing a fist at him. “You can’t do this to me!”
“That’s right at the heart of the issue, you see,” he replied. “Gods are powerful beings, yes, but constrained ones. We are limited by our natures, by our aspects, even by the influence of our faithful. And this summer, dear ol’ Lil went and spilled the beans at Ninkabi about exactly how that can be used against us. The way to kill a god, Rasha, is to separate them from their aspect. Get them to act in a way contrary to the binding force that holds them to the world, or catch them doing it, and you can pry the consciousness loose from the power.
“But here’s the trick of it.” He had the temerity to wink at her again. “I believe I alluded to Justinian’s knack for evading the wrath of the gods, yeah? That’s why his personal presence was needed for rewinding time, which would otherwise set Vemnesthis on him in a heartbeat. He’s been fucking around with some real dark secrets, ancient stuff—specifically, the machinery of the Elder Gods that both they and we used to attain godhood in the first place. His schemes have come this far because he’s able to deflect our attention, make it so we can’t take an oppositional stance toward him.
“Unless our very godhood itself is in question. See?” Eserion grinned, looking both bitter and pleased with himself. “Like, for example, if the god of thieves and defiance starts directing his faith to do nonsensical and abusive things, coercing his high priest to mislead the Guild itself. Or forcing some poor apprentice who deserves better treatment into world-shaking shit that’s way above her pay grade. That is some very un-Eserite crap right there, Rasha. It all makes me just a little bit less me, or less the god I’ve become. And thus, a little less constrained. Most importantly, it’s enough to squirm out from under Justinian’s control.”
“But… Doesn’t that specifically make you vulnerable to being, y’know, killed?”
“Exactly!” He leaned forward, grinning more broadly still. “Exactly. And that is the con. Because he’s gonna have to deal with me, you see? Not only am I no longer under his thumb and a threat to him, I’ve made myself vulnerable in the process. It’s gonna be Justinian against me, in a struggle that could legitimately go either way, but which he has to win because if he doesn’t, I will personally wipe the floor with his ass at the moment when he’s the most vulnerable. But! The real beauty of it, Rasha, is that it’s all a distraction. It’s like I said: I’m not the god who backed Sweet. That one has made his own arrangements to shrug off Justinian’s control and set up the board to thwart him at that final moment. And as long as the Archpope is focused on me as the biggest threat, he’ll never see the real one coming.”
Rasha could only stare at him in silence for a few heartbeats before she finally shook her head. “I could blow the whistle on all this, you know. You’re so convinced Sweet might betray you—what makes you think I won’t just right right to him with this whole story? Hell, I could even go to Justinian. Bet that’d earn me a pretty cushy position in whatever world order he’s trying to set up.”
“Aside from the fact that you just saw how Justinian treats his most loyal followers?” The god smiled up at her, and it was no longer his wolfish grin, but a simple smile. Kind, and tired, and sad. “Nah. You could do all that, Rasha, but…I trust you. I picked you for a reason, you know. You’re a good kid.”
Rogrind sat bolt upright, unconsciousness fading right into perfect alertness as his training dictated.
They were in the same place. Except now, he was lying on a cot, at the foot of which sat Rasha, sipping from a steaming porcelain cup of tea and staring moodily into the distance. Despite the surrounding snow, it was pleasantly warm.
Without even looking over at him, Rasha wordlessly extended her arm, handing him a silver flask. In matching silence, Rogrind accepted it and unfastened the cap, raising it to sniff. His eyebrows lifted in surprise; that was good Svennish brandy. His personal favorite brand, in fact, the bouquet was quite distinctive. He did not, of course, take a drink.
“How embarrassing,” he said aloud, closely watching the young thief. She looked unharmed, but more dour than she’d been when he was last conscious. “I seem to have drifted off.”
“You missed some real shit,” Rasha said sourly. “No fault of yours. Eserion was here, knocked you right out. Apparently he wanted some one-on-one time with me.”
“Ah.” Well, a divine intervention could explain the cot, the drinks, the unnatural warmth around them…though it was not the only thing that might, and he was not one to take Eserites at their word.
“Some of that was personal, but you did miss important developments I better catch you up on,” she continued, finally turning to look at him. Her eyes looked downright hunted. “And you are not going to believe it, for the simple reason that you’re not a crazy person. He said that in order to demonstrate my veracity I should forewarn you that we’re about to be rescued by talking wolves. I don’t know what the hell that means, but by the sound of it I’m half hoping he was just fucking with me.”
“Ah, that sounds like Duchess Madouri’s new Wardens. Curious, though; last I was informed, they were all concentrated at the other end of the province. But then, I suppose their inherent fae magic would be quite an aid in both predicting events throughout Tiraan Province where their attention might be needed, and crossing overland faster than the mortal norm.”
Rasha stared at him. “Excuse me, the Duchess’s what.”
“You don’t keep up with the political news?” he said, keeping his tone deliberately mild. “That surprises me, Rasha, especially coming from a student of the esteemed Ms. Sharvineh.”
“I’m a girl of specific and limited interests,” she replied, shaking her head. “Well, okay then. While we wait for…that…you’ll probably want to hear about Justinian’s exciting new superweapon.”