Tag Archives: Farzida Rouvad

Epilogue – Vol. 4

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The High Commander’s office was deep enough in the temple that the sound of thunder penetrated it, but even the fiercest rain was muted by intervening walls. It was not thundering now, and the dreary patter of Tiraas’s usual weather made no sound within—at least, not to the humans. Commander Rouvad and Squad One were left in silence.

She had not directed them to stand at ease, or in fact said anything since their arrival. For over a full minute, Rouvad just studied them with a quizzical little frown, as if struggling to figure out what she was looking at. For such a famously self-possessed woman, it was an unusual expression. Almost alarmingly so.

“Well,” the High Commander said at last. “Another mission completed, and with a nearly optimal outcome. I had a secondary reason for sending you there and placing you in charge, Lieutenant Locke. My intention was to give you the chance to become familiar with the other special forces squadrons, and get them accustomed to you. And, more specifically, to taking orders from you. Yet, all other squads have nothing to report of your interactions except that they arrived in Puna Dara to find you there, looking insufferably pleased with yourself, and reporting that the entire matter was settled.”

She paused again, her mouth twisting to one side in a sardonic half-grimace that was far more characteristic of her.

“Anything to add to that, Lieutenant?”

Principia cleared her throat. “I am extremely pleased with the performance of my squad, Commander, but the situation placed us entirely in a supplementary role. I believe our assistance was useful, but ultimately it was adventurers who settled the crisis in Puna Dara. I cannot take credit, individually or on behalf of my unit. And I am always insufferably pleased with myself, ma’am, it wasn’t situationally specific. If I’ve done something to offend any of the other squad leaders, I’ll owe them an apology.”

“You may be the most irritating presence in all my Legions, Locke, but you’re far from the only large personality, particularly among the special forces. Had you given offense, I’m sure I would be hearing about it. No, they are simply left in the same position they were to begin with: wondering just who and what you are and why I would put you in command. And as usual, you’ve managed to make a wreck of my careful planning without seeming to realize you were, and while fulfilling the letter of your orders to perfection. It’s an incredible talent you have, Locke.”

She inhaled deeply, shoulders rising, and let out the breath in a heavy sigh.

“You once had the gall to take me to task about the state of the Silver Legions’ combat readiness. You were not entirely incorrect, either. I certainly have not failed to notice that we are trained and equipped to fight the wars of two centuries ago. Nobody has, Locke; you weren’t clever for pointing it out. If anything, you underestimated the issue. The Silver Legions have not stagnated since the Enchanter Wars, we have regressed. The Legions which beat the Imperial Army at the borders of Viridill fought with battlestaves and magical artillery—primitive compared to those of today, but still. They also made heavy use of what, in any other organization, would be called adventurers. The last, lingering remnants of the Silver Huntresses and the old League of Avei. Those are truly gone, now, their only heirs the Legion special forces you didn’t get the chance to work with in Puna Dara recently.

“Today’s Silver Legions serve a different purpose than did those of a hundred years ago. When we are sent to fight, it is against the same universal evils we always have. Demon infestations, renegade warlocks, necromancers, the odd outbreak of aggressive fae… The methods of wars past still work against them, as do our corps of priestesses wielding Avei’s light. In some ways, these events are relics of a world that is slipping further into the past every day. Apart from that, the Legions remain a calming influence, a reminder of Avei’s presence. It assuages the fears of many, and dissuades others, like the Huntsmen of Shaath, from becoming too aggressive in areas where we maintain a presence. In the century since the Enchanter Wars, we have specialized in very specific kinds of war—and they do not include grand interstate conflicts. The Silver Legions have not, since that time, acted against any mortal government by force of arms. And because of that, we are welcomed nearly everywhere…despite the memory of the war in which we were instrumental in bringing down the world’s mightiest empire. The nations of the earth permit our presence because we bring stability, and do not threaten their power. And so we are a universal force without having to fight for an inch of the ground we hold. Politics: the continuation of war by other means.”

She paused, frowning slightly, then inhaled a slow breath as if steeling herself for something. “This was not a strategy instigated by any High Commander. It was a command directly from Avei.”

Rouvad stood, suddenly, and paced out from behind her desk to stand in front of it, studying each of them in turn as she continued.

“Avei’s orders were that this measure must be unequivocally genuine. No surreptitious preparations or great secrets: the draw-down of the Silver Legions was to occur in exactly the manner it appeared on the surface. Naturally rumors arose at first that this was a ploy, but they have faded with time. No hint has ever emerged that the Silver Legions are engaged in any hidden program to suddenly bring forth unexpected power, because no such program has existed. The only way to guarantee that a thing will not be found is to guarantee that it is not to be found.

“You have all heard rumors of the First Silver Legion?”

She paused, watching them. One by one, they nodded, as it became clear the Commander was actually waiting for a response.

“That rumor persists throughout the Legions,” Nandi said finally. “It always has.”

“It is a real thing,” said Rouvad, turning her back on them to stare at the wall behind her desk, on which was hung a map of the continent. “But not in the manner people suppose. Avei commanded the designation of First Legion be reserved, as we do for first cohorts within each Legion and first squadrons within each cohort, for special forces. The First is to serve as a military force that can actually take on any known opponent and win. And it does not exist. The First Legion is not training in secret; it is waiting to be called, at the goddess’s command.”

Rouvad’s tight braid shifted slightly back and forth as she shook her head infinitesimally, still looking away from them.

“Gods don’t commonly speak to their followers, and ours is no exception. I have rarely had orders directly from Avei during my tenure. One concerned you, Locke, as you know but I presume your squadron does not. Do they?”

“If so,” Principia said carefully, “they didn’t hear it from me. You ordered me not to reveal that, ma’am.”

“So I did. You do generally stop short of open disobedience, don’t you? Well, ladies, for your edification, when this one showed up here with her rap sheet longer than the history of some nations, transparently angling to get close to her estranged paladin daughter, my inclination was naturally to toss her out on her dainty ear. It was at Avei’s direct order that she was allowed to enlist.”

The entire rest of the squad turned their heads to stare at Principia in disbelief.

“Attention,” she snapped. Five pairs of eyes immediately faced front again.

Rouvad turned, looking across their line with faint amusement on her features. It faded immediately.

“The goddess has given orders again. What I am about to tell you is, until further notice, a secret of the highest order. You will reveal it to no one. So far as the Third Legion’s chain of command is to know, your squad will be answering to me directly in pursuit of a classified project, which is true, and your status is not otherwise changed. That project is the creation of a secret military unit within the Silver Legions capable of contending with and defeating any rival force which exists upon this planet. Avei’s orders come with a warning: a great doom is coming. She anticipates it will be less than two years before this force must be put to the test. That is how long you have, Locke.

“For the time being you will remain ostensibly assigned as you presently are. Known only to yourselves and to me, however is your new designation: Squad 111. The First Legion is raised, ladies. Whatever is coming…it is nearly upon us.” She shook her head again. “May the goddess watch over us all. Any questions? Locke?”

“You…that…” For once, it appeared Principia had nothing to say. She swallowed heavily and tried again. “To clarify… You expect me to bring the Silver Legions forward a hundred years? In less than two? In secret?”

“I frankly don’t know what to expect,” Rouvad replied, with open bitterness. “Do you imagine this fills me with confidence, Locke? Do you really think I would choose to place this burden on your scrawny shoulders? But I am overruled. Here’s a great secret for you, perhaps more secret to some than to others: the gods are not always right. But they unquestionably know a great deal that we do not. And I trust Avei. Not merely as a divine being, but as an individual. From my survey of history and my personal experience with our goddess, I believe she knows what she is doing, even when no one else does. Let me tell you, this tests that belief. Tests, but does not break or even bend it.

“You will answer directly to me in this, Locke. I am not advancing you to the rank of General, that would be ridiculous. I expect you to continue showing the proper decorum and respect toward your superior officers—the fact that you technically command a Legion now does nothing to change that expectation. Whatever and whoever you need, if it’s within my power, is yours. Everything goes through me, you are not to go off on your own or cut me out of the loop. But you will have my unconditional support, and are entitled to every resource I can muster for your project. Beyond that… The means by which this shall be done is left entirely to you. Understand?”

“This is impossible,” Principia breathed.

“No, Locke, you are impossible,” Rouvad said sourly. “This is merely the ludicrous, pestilential millstone round the neck you have been to countless souls over the last two and a half centuries. I bet it surprises you as much as me to learn that your career has been actually leading up to something. Regardless, you will doubtless have questions and require clarification, but I believe you had better take time to compose yourself before bringing them, otherwise they are unlikely to be pertinent. For now, dismissed.”

They stood there, Principia with her mouth half-open in a totally uncharacteristic expression of baffled shock. The rest of her squad were varying degrees of stunned and alarmed; all had shifted their heads slightly to look at her sidelong.

“You are dismissed, ladies!” Rouvad barked.

Principia jumped physically, then sketched a salute. Ephanie, at the other end of the line, turned to open the door. They filed out in silence, the weight of the High Commander’s stare seeming to push them physically from the office. It didn’t let up until Ephanie shut the door behind them.

The hall, fortunately, was deserted for the moment.

“Sooo.” It was Merry who finally broke the silence. “Szaravid, you’re the historian here. On a scale of the Enchanter Wars to the Second Hellwar, how boned would you say we are, exactly?”

“The Second Hellwar didn’t leave a single functioning kingdom anywhere on the continent,” Farah said faintly. “It won’t be anywhere near that bad. I mean, it can’t. Surely?”

“Cut the chatter,” Ephanie ordered. “The LT is scheming.”

They turned their attention on Principia, who was indeed staring into space, but not with the lost look she’d worn moments before. Her eyes were slightly narrowed, darting this way and that as if studying a large, complex diagram none of them could see. Noting positions, charting connections, extrapolating…

“Okay,” she said, and nodded slowly. “All right. I have an idea.”


By now, the Archpope’s seclusions were a known habit, and his personnel knew better than to try to dig him out when he was sequestered in prayer. He actually did sequester himself in prayer, at least enough to be seen doing it and preserve the legitimacy of the claim. But the habit served most importantly to earn him time to vanish into the catacombs beneath the Grand Cathedral and pursue the various projects which demanded his personal attention. Those no one else could be allowed to see.

On this occasion, he passed through the labyrinthine passages and numerous barriers by rote, knowing every turn, every combination, every step to avoid setting off a trap, and came before a simple metal doorway with a small glass panel set into one of its upright columns. The maze Justinian had created beneath the Cathedral would have been a very irresponsible thing to leave for his successor, did he not specifically plan that there would not be another Archpope after him.

The panel blazed alight at his touch, emitting a soft white glow. He submitted his palmprint, traced a pattern with his fingertip, tapped one corner in a specific rhythm, entered a fourteen-digit alphanumeric code, and played three bars of a melody on the one-octave piano keypad which appeared at the final stage. Only after all that did the door truly come alive, filling with a luminous panel of inscrutable blue light.

Time was precious. Justinian stepped through it without pausing even a moment, despite the enormity of the step he was taking. He had grown accustomed to this particular miracle.

That was related to the matter which so troubled him now.

He emerged on a walkway of spotless, gleaming metal, extending hundreds of feet ahead and broad as a city avenue, lined with a waist-high balustrade along which softly glowing panels were spaced, providing gentle illumination. In fact, the path was curved, but on such a scale that it appeared perfectly straight from the perspective of any person standing upon it. Ahead, it terminated against a coliseum-sized structure which extended downward, like a massive, inverted tower. He did not step to the side to look over the edge; aside from being a disturbing view, he knew what he would see.

Nothing, straight down, for countless miles until far below, at the center of the moon, was the mass shadow engine—now more a phenomenon than a structure. The awesome power source which provided not only the energy that had once ignited magic itself on the world, but the gravity which governed the very tides.

He did pause to look upward, as he always did, at the transparent panel which formed the ceiling over this walkway. Above it stretched infinite space. It was good timing; at the moment, he could also see the world of his birth and all his careful plans, half-hidden by the moon’s shadow.

There seemed no specific sound, save for the soft yet omnipresent ambient hum of powerful machines functioning at low power—unusual, in this century, but distinctive to those who knew it—yet mere seconds after Justinian’s arrival a whirring began. From the huge complex at the other end of the path, a small form rounded the corner of its open doorway and came whizzing toward him on nimble little wheels. It veered from side to side in excitement as it approached, emitting a pleasant series of chimes and brandishing its multiple insectoid arms in the air.

Justinian smiled as he paced forward to meet it with a measured step, pausing when the Caretaker unit intercepted him. It wheeled around him in a full orbit in its glee before stopping, and he placed a hand atop its upper protrusion.

“Hello, CT-16. It’s good to see you again. I am afraid the pace of events keeps me from visiting often, but it is always pleasant to meet you.”

The little golem chimed happily back, ducking out from under his hand to whirl around him once more, then fell in beside him as he continued forward toward the huge structure.

Justinian allowed the smile to melt from his features as he walked beside the Caretaker.

“It has been bad, recently,” he said, staring ahead at the complex they approached. “This last week… My plans continue to develop apace, with no further major upheavals. It seems I have even gained some ground. The price, though, is bitter. Many who have seen the value of my ideas and shown loyalty to me because of them…sacrificed. Apprehended by the government and their lives and careers greatly disrupted. And those are the more fortunate. Others have perished…in unfortunate events when the Empire came for them, in violence at the hands of that creature Tellwyrn…”

He sighed softly, and closed his eyes for a moment without slowing his pace. The Caretaker made a whirring little series of chimes and produced a brush on one of its arm tips, and gently stroked his sleeve in a comforting gesture.

“And poor Ildrin,” Justinian whispered. “Loyal, trusted Ildrin, who has served me with such diligence. I killed her, CT. Oh, I was nowhere nearby. But I maneuvered her into a desperate position, orchestrated the systematic loss of all her support, left her isolated and vulnerable, knowing just how this would act upon her psyche… And then stranded her in a situation with a group of angry Eserites and a vengeful paladin. The outcome was mathematical. It doesn’t matter who held the blade, the blood of a faithful friend is on my hands.” For just a moment, his normally controlled features twisted in disgust. “Because she was no longer useful. Because knowing as much as she did made her a liability. Because it was…strategic.”

He slowed, swerving to the side, and finally come to a stop, planting his hands on the rail and leaning over it, head hanging. The Caretaker sidled up beside him, chiming questioningly in concern.

“I feel it coming on,” Justinain said, opening his eyes and gazing down into empty space. Before him was a perspective the human mind had not evolved to see; it was dizzying, disorienting. The infinite abyss extended down to a swirling mass of light and shadow, the size of a continent and which his mind wanted to believe couldn’t be anything like that in scope. All around, more complexes extended downward from the outer crust of Luna Station, which curved away in all directions.

“I was so passionate when I began this,” he said into the void. “So full of indignation at what the gods have done to us. I have learned…sympathy. For them, for their choices, even for the costs they have inflicted on the world in the name of protecting their power. They were hopeless rebels who rose up to oppose omnipotent beings—just as I am now. And it begins so easily. One compromise, then another, and so on, and each makes the next easier. The cost not so painful. The guilt…more distant. Already I have reached the point where it does not hurt…enough. Not enough, CT. All this, Ildrin alone, this should make me weep. Yet I see only the place it served in the larger plan. This is the sign that I should stop. I am no longer the pure-hearted idealist who began this. I no longer trust myself with the work.

“And yet…and yet, I have no choice. There is no one else who can take up the task. If I leave it now, it will all have been for nothing. The work still needs doing; all these sacrifices cannot have been wasted. The best I can do, anymore, is loathe what it is making me.”

Surreptitiously, the Caretaker grasped his robe firmly with two of its arms.

Justinian smiled, reaching around to pat the golem’s top again, and straightened up, away from the drop before him. “Thank you, my friend, but you needn’t worry. I don’t desire to rest. I do not deserve peace. No…there is only the work, now. But I’m afraid, CT. I am so very terrified that by the time I come to the end of this, even if I succeed… That I will have become a monster who absolutely cannot be allowed to have the power it will grant me. And this hideous cycle will only begin again.”

He stepped back, and raised his head further, again looking up at the arch of space ahead. The world had risen, its edge now clipped by the rim of the skylight. In minutes more it would pass out of view.

“I wonder,” he whispered, “if they ever reached this point? If they faced the knowledge that they needed to stop…but could not afford to?”

Man and golem stood that way, silent, for long moments of contemplation.

At last, Justinian began walking again, resuming his course, and the Caretaker came with him, finally releasing his robe.

“I appreciate you, my little friend,” he said. “Confession is very healing; it is no accident it plays a role in Izara’s faith, and several others. There is simply no one else to whom I can unburden myself, anymore.” He patted the Caretaker again. “Few and fleeting as these meetings of ours are, they are precious to me. If I could not admit to someone how much all this troubles me… I believe I would be lost already if not for you. Thank you.”

The golem chimed pleasantly in reply, again reaching up to gently grasp his sleeve in one of its metal appendages.

“I shall do my utmost,” Justinian said gravely, “to make the outcome of my labors worthy of your trust. I know you waited alone for a very long time. Your first masters began in pursuit of science and the ultimate truth of the universe, and fell to vicious insanity. The Pantheon sought justice, freedom, and a new hope for all the people of this world…and look what they immediately did. The cycle must break, CT. I hope against hope I shall be the one to do it. That you will not have to be disappointed yet again.”

The Caretaker just chimed soothingly, and stroked his arm again with the brush.

They were silent until they reached the broad opening into the complex, the massive round tower of metal descending into a spire that aimed at the moon’s terrible core.

“More immediately,” Justinian said in a thoughtful tone as they descended a long ramp, “I find that I have made fundamental errors which I must now correct. I underestimated how difficult it will be to keep all these various factions and foes stirring for the time it will take, without allowing them to destroy me. They are more capable than I anticipated, this is true. But more significantly, I failed to account for so many sharing information. Far too many are starting to realize who sits behind all their troubles. I blame Vesk,” he added wryly. “In the bardic epics, fairy tales, even the modern chapbooks and comics, enemies never talk to each other—at least, not openly. And now I find myself greatly threatened because so many of my opponents have simply had conversations, like adults. Foolish of me, unforgivably foolish.”

They rounded a curve, the ramp switching back down; this part of the complex had been built to be navigable by wheeled servants like CT-16. Ahead, an opening appeared at the end of the arched passageway.

“That can be dealt with,” Justinian said, frowning deeply now. “At the cost of causing more stains on my soul, and more pain and havoc for who knows how many other souls who have done nothing to deserve it. But…I cannot see any other way. They must all turn on me in the end, but not yet. It isn’t time yet, and I can be easily overthrown, still. If I am to postpone this reckoning until the right moment, I must give the heroes and villains and meddlers in general something else upon which to focus for a time.”

They emerged from the tunnel onto a balcony which ringed a circular space with no floor; below was only the infinite drop. From the dome arching overhead extended machines which projected suspensor fields holding up the object in the center of the open space. The thing itself was fully encased in a rectangular brick of transparent material, almost as clear as the air and visible only by its corners, but incredibly hard and a disruptor of transcension field energy besides. Not despite but because of its open plan, this spot was the most secure space in the solar system to keep a highly dangerous object. If the suspensors shut off for just a second, the thing they held would plummet straight down to the annihilating force of the mass shadow event, which nothing could survive.

“And so,” Justinian said grimly, stepping forward to grasp the rail before him and stare at the thing he had secreted away here, “I will regret that there is no one left in a position to forgive me for this. I must…unleash something upon them all.”

Within the clear block, the long skull, larger than he was, seemed carved of ebony. Justinian stared at the huge, empty eye sockets, meeting without flinching the knowing grin of Belosiphon the Black.

“Something great. Something terrible.”

 

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13 – 1

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“Mission accomplished,” Merry announced, planting the butt of her lance on the floor. “We have successfully reported to this empty conference room. What’s next, Sarge?”

“What I know, you know,” Principia said, uncharacteristically terse. “And keep a lid on the attitude, private. We were ordered here for a reason, and you sassing out of turn in front of the bronze will result in them landing on my neck. Guess how many times that headache will be magnified before I pass it on down to you?”

Merry cleared her throat and shifted to attention. “Apologies, Sergeant.”

“You’re both turning into actual soldiers,” Ephanie said with a small smile. “It’s quite touching. And a little bizarre.”

“Thank you, my loyal and dedicated XO,” Principia replied, sighing.

Nandi cleared her throat. “Someone approaching. Those are Rouvad’s footsteps.”

Principia’s eyes cut to her momentarily, but she didn’t bother to ask if she was certain. “Attention!”

The entire squad, already lined up along one side of the small conference room, snapped to attention as ordered. And there they stood. It was another half a minute before the door opened—suddenly, to those who lacked elven hearing—and High Commander Rouvad stepped in, alone. She paused, glancing across them with an unreadable expression, then shut the door.

“Sergeant Locke,” the Commander said curtly, “remove your insignia.”

Principia hesitated barely an instant before reaching up to detach the striped pin from her pauldron. It gave her a moment to think, as they were designed not to come off accidentally during battle. She’d done nothing court-martial worthy, and anyway, it wouldn’t be standard policy to have her whole squad report to an out-of-the-way spot like this and watch if she were about to be demoted or something…

“I apologize for the lack of ceremony, but everything will be made clear soon,” Commander Rouvad said, reaching up to begin attaching a new pin to the now-bare spot on Principia’s shoulder. “Principia Locke, you are advanced to the rank of Lieutenant, effective immediately. My congratulations.” She took a step back.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting and concealing her bemusement. This she had not been expecting; that promotion should have followed either an act of conspicuous valor or another year of service…

“Conceal your old pin, Lieutenant,” Rouvad ordered. “And the rest of you are not to reveal the circumstances of this promotion, in general but particularly to any of the women you are about to meet. As far as anyone needs to know, Locke has held this rank for a suitably long period. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the squad chorused, saluting.

Rouvad nodded once. “Good. You will now report to the west sub-basement assembly room B to be briefed on your next mission. Afterward, Locke, I want you to return here and meet me while Corporal Avelea prepares your squad for departure.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said crisply.

The High Commander nodded again. “Dismissed, ladies. I’ll see you below in not more than five minutes.”

She turned and strode out through the door opposite the one they had come in.

“Well…you heard the woman,” Principia said, stepping toward the other exit. “West sub-basement assembly room B. Which is…?”

“Follow me,” Nandi said with a smile as they exited into the hall. “And congratulations, Locke.”

“Yeah, congrats, Sar—I mean, LT,” Farah added brightly, followed by a chorus of agreement from the others.

“This may present an operational obstacle for the squad, though,” Ephanie added gravely. “We’ve been relying rather heavily on your personal expertise, Locke, but you are now required by all protocol and military tradition to know nothing.”

“I don’t know when you decided to become a comedian, Avelea, but you’re lucky you already have a job.”

They were on the ground floor in the western wing already; it was a journey involving two flights of stairs and one right turn, taking no more than three minutes, before they approached a door currently guarded by two Legionnaires. Nandi fell back, letting Principia take the lead. As they neared, the soldiers shifted to cross their lances across the door.

“Name and squad,” barked one, staring expressionlessly at Principia.

“Locke, Principia, Squad 391.”

Both immediately returned their lances to the upright position and the soldier on the right, who had spoken, saluted; the other, having her lance in her right hand, simply remained at attention. Principia saluted back, then pulled open the door and stepped through.

Casey was the last in and shut it behind them, and then the squad clustered together, falling automatically into parade rest. The assembly room was large, and no less than six other squads were already present—fully-sized units of at least twelve women each. Squad 391 were not only the last to arrive, but the smallest group by far, and gathered several curious stares.

Before anyone could speak or approach them, however, the door on the auditorium’s low dais opened and Commander Rouvad herself emerged. Everyone immediately stood at attention and saluted.

“At ease,” Rouvad said in a clipped tone, striding to the center of the platform after sweeping one quick look around the room. “This mission and everything about to be discussed in this briefing are classified. You are being mobilized in response to a crisis, ladies. The Fourth Silver Legion has been completely neutralized.” The stir which went around the room was subdued considering that news, discipline relaxed only to the extent of a few indrawn breaths and shifted boots. “Along with a supporting group of Salyrites from all four Colleges who were assisting with their last mission. They have suffered only a dozen fatalities, but all surviving personnel are afflicted with a malady clearly magical in nature and are unable to act.”

She paused, shoulders shifting slightly with a deep breath.

“The situation is this. A small cult has been active in Puna Dara over the last year, known locally as the Rust. Our intelligence from Punaji territory is sporadic at best, but what we do know is that these Rust are set apart from the average run of fringe religions by the practice of grafting machine parts onto their bodies—and in some cases, replacing their limbs entirely. Reports vary and some are difficult to believe, but there is strong indication that these mechanical additions grant them physical and magical power beyond the human norm. And they are, by necessity, magical in nature, because there is no purely mechanical technology which can achieve the effects described.

“Four weeks ago, I was alerted by the Archpope and the Imperial government that both had suffered incursions of some kind.” Her expression became distinctly annoyed. “These reports were frustratingly vague, as they concerned matters which are highly classified by both organizations, but in both cases, they involved artifacts of the Elder Gods in storage by the Church and the government being abruptly activated to potentially deadly effect. The Archpope believes, on the strength of intelligence he declined to share with me, that the Rust were responsible. The Empire did not repeat this assertion, but offered tacit support to an investigation of the matter.

“At issue is the nature of Punaji politics and culture. Their windshamans see to most of the spiritual needs of their people; only a few cults have a presence in Puna Dara, all very small, and the Church has none. Naphthene is the only Pantheon goddess revered there, and she has no actual worshipers. More specifically, the Empire is not able to act unilaterally in Punaji territory per the terms of their treaty, and the Punaji government is unwilling to accept overt help from Tiraas on any internal matter, which would apparently make King Rajakhan look weak and invite dissent—or so he clearly thinks. It is therefore a testament to how seriously he takes this matter that the King agreed to host the Fourth and an attached party of Salyrites to assist in investigating this cult and taking whatever action he deemed necessary.”

Again, she paused to breathe before continuing.

“Immediately upon entering the mountain tunnel leading to Puna Dara, the entire Legion and their companions were struck by a plague. Immediately, and simultaneously, in a fashion totally unlike the normal progression of any disease. The symptoms are severe physical weakness, exhaustion, and lethargy; several perished due to the aggravation of preexisting conditions, but overall the effect seems designed to neutralize victims without killing them. Those afflicted were evacuated to Rodvenheim for treatment, where they have remained stable. The condition appears not to be contagious, and shows no sign of either worsening or abating. I simply have an entire Legion apparently cursed, by an effect which has resisted all efforts at diagnosis, much less treatment. We have not even identified the vector for the affliction. The Fourth reports they were not attacked or even approached prior to being struck down.

“It is obvious,” Rouvad said grimly, “that this was in response to the threat of a major Avenist presence in Puna Dara, and at this point we are considering the Archpope’s theory the correct one: the Rust have hitherto unseen capabilities, are extremely dangerous, and have grave ambitions, or at the very least a willingness to exercise significant power when threatened. Rajakhan’s stipulations remain in place, and with this force active in the streets of his city I firmly agree that the stability of the Punaji nation needs to be preserved. The Empire is still barred from intervening—for now. Tiraas will not suffer a hostile force to overthrow an ally with whom it shares a border, which means that eliminating this threat will be necessary to prevent an outright war of conquest.

“The Church is not acting directly, either, but organizing the cults who have volunteered personnel to go to Puna Dara and assist. After the disaster which struck the Fourth, all insertions into the city are being undertaken with careful discretion. We do not know how the Rust identifies threats, nor how they achieved this retaliation, so we cannot expect every attempt to succeed. However, the Thieves’ Guild and the Huntsmen of Shaath are sending agents to assist; the Guild already has a small presence in Puna Dara. The Collegium of Salyrene is dispatching more agents, far more carefully this time. I have been notified less formally that Omnist monks and several miscellaneous Vidian personnel are making their way to Puna Dara. It was not made clear to me exactly how they intend to help. And then, of course, I am sending you.”

She nodded to each squad in turn as she addressed them. “Each of you is a Squad One of your respective cohorts. Squads 221, 241, and 611 are dedicated rangers. You will attempt to enter Puna Dara unseen via the difficult mountain passes leading to it from the surrounding Stalrange and Dwarnskolds. Squad 351 are clerics and healers, and will proceed to the city via ship; I will be making it clear, with the cooperation of the Punaji government, that your mission is pure humanitarian relief, which will hopefully not invite retaliation by the Rust. Squad 371 are more diverse spellcasters and will attempt insertion via teleportation. Squad 211 are dark ops. You know what to do. And finally, Squad 391 are part of a diplomatic and interfaith cooperation initiative. Your method of insertion I will leave to the discretion of your commanding officer.

“Once you enter the city, those of you who succeed in doing so will find one another and coordinate without assembling at the sole Avenist temple in Puna Dara. The temple has not been attacked or otherwise disrupted by the Rust, and you will not draw their attention to it. The exception will be Squad 351; you would create suspicion by not assigning yourselves there, and so that is where you will go. All of you will link up, establish communication and cooperation with one another, the participating cults—specifically the Eserites, Shaathists, and Salyrites—and the Punaji government. Your chain of command is as follows: Lieutenant Locke of Squad 391 will command this operation in the field and be responsible for determining, organizing and executing a course of action. In Locke’s absence, Lieutenant Ansari of Squad 611 will take command, followed by Lieutenant Intu of 211, Lieutenant Raazh of 241, Lieutenant Carstairs of 371, and Sergeant Steinbrenner of 221. Captain Ombanwa, your squad will remain based primarily at the temple, and provide support to the mission as Locke or her successors require, but your goal is humanitarian and in the event of mission failure I want you to be able to distance yourselves and continue working without having to evacuate. That means, Locke, that the healers will be under your orders, but you are to leave them be until and unless you have a specific need for their services. There are Omnist, Salyrite, Izarite, and Vidian temples in Puna Dara—small ones, and only one of each faith, but they will provide starting points from which to locate one another. There is no permanent Shaathist presence and the Guild’s safehouse is of course not publicly known; you will have to find them as well, Locke.”

She paused once more to frown and inhale deeply.

“Your mission, ladies, is first and foremost reconnaissance. I want you to find out the goals, capabilities, and character of the Rust in as much detail as possible. What you learn will determine your next course of action. You are under no circumstances to politically destabilize the Punaji nation, nor endanger the established or visiting personnel of the other cults which are offering assistance. You will also, within the tolerances of those goals, protect your own welfare. We are frighteningly in the dark, ladies; this mission is perforce an open-ended one. If, having done the above, you deem it necessary to withdraw and report back, do so; if you choose to take more aggressive action, take steps to ensure that whatever you have learned is transmitted back here so that the Sisterhood’s next actions will not be taken in this same state of blindness. However, if you find the chance to end the Rust, do whatever you have to. They have struck down our own in large numbers; I have no desire to normalize relations or continue to tolerate their existence. Lieutenant Locke, I expect you to listen to the recommendations of the other squad leaders, but ultimately, the determination is yours.

“Dossiers have been compiled with all known details on this situation, which will be issued for you to read en route to Puna Dara. You will fully absorb this information and destroy them before arriving.” Rouvad gave them a beat of silence before asking, “Questions?”

There was a momentary pause, before the officer she had indicated as Lieutenant Intu spoke in a quiet tone. “Based on the reports from the Archpope and the Empire, are we assuming these Rust to have some connection to the Elder Gods?”

“We are assuming nothing,” Rouvad replied. “I consider that prospect remote, despite the suggestive connection. You will reconnoiter and answer these questions yourself before taking direct action.”

Lieutenant Ansari cleared her throat. “I mean no disrespect, Commander, to you or Lieutenant Locke, but who is she, and why is she to command this mission?”

“Your lack of disrespect is noted, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said flatly. “It is a fair concern. Squad 391 is, as I said, a unit with a diplomatic mandate; its members have connections to multiple cults and have been training specifically to cooperate and coordinate with them. As you will be relying on compatriots from other cults, including some with which the Sisterhood has historically poor relations, that experience will be immediately relevant to your success. Principia Locke, specifically, is relatively new to the Legions, but she has earned my trust. She is also two and a half centuries old, a highly seasoned adventurer, and a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. I would place a more experienced officer in command of a straightforward military exercise. This mission, however, requires lateral thinking and adaptability more than military strategy, and I judge her the woman for the job. Am I clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ansari said, nodding.

The Commander gave them another moment, sweeping her eyes again across the group, and then nodded her head once. “You have your orders, then. Each squad will move out on its own, as soon as you are able, and regroup in Puna Dara with as many of your sisters as are able to make it. Goddess watch over you, soldiers. Dismissed.”

All seven squads saluted her in unison, then turned and began filing toward the doors. Squad 391, having been the last to arrive, were closest to one of the entrances and thus the first into the hall.

“I’ll meet you back at the cabin,” Principia said to them. “I trust you’ll have everybody ready, Corporal.”

“Count on it, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply. “How are we to proceed?”

“I’ll have an insertion strategy by the time I rejoin you. Just get yourselves squared away and be ready to improvise.”

Ephanie saluted, then turned on her heel. “Forward march, ladies.”

Principia watched them go for a moment, then glanced at the other soldiers now emerging from the assembly room. Several of them studied her with open speculation, before she turned and followed her squad. At the top of the stairs, she diverged from their course, heading back toward the small conference room where Rouvad had ordered them to meet her.

She waited only a few minutes before Rouvad rejoined her.

“At ease,” the High Commander said upon being saluted. “Well, Locke, since it’s likely to be some time before we speak again and it’s been two weeks since I had a progress report, how are your permanent projects coming along?”

“Training and practice is proceeding to my satisfaction,” Principia said. “Being an experimental squad, we don’t really have a yardstick against which to measure our progress, but the members of my squad have done well at sharing the benefits of their respective histories, and I’ve moved beyond that to actively seeking out opportunities to help other cults, and build connections.”

“Yes, Captain Dijanerad complained about having to put her foot down. It seems a handful of temples have made a point of requesting you specifically for guard duty.”

“Being out of the city for a while should hopefully wean them off the habit,” Principia said with the faintest smile. “With regard to my ongoing projects, I am similarly plugging away at the firing surface problem. I’ve no way of telling how close I am to a solution; all I can do is try things, and then try other things when they fail. It may not ultimately be practical to create a lance head which functions equally well as a bladed weapon and an energy weapon, at least not with the current state of modern enchanting. I have some more theories to test before I give up on that, but it may prove necessary to either make that two separate weapons or accept a loss of efficacy in one or the other function.”

Rouvad nodded. “And your other weapons project?”

“There, Eivery and I have had a recent breakthrough. We still haven’t figured out exactly how, but it’s become clear that dwarven device is augmented somehow through magic or alchemy. The projectile we recovered appears, to all our scrying, to be a simple lead ball, but we discovered by testing our own prototype that when you subject a metal as soft as lead to the kinds of forces involved, it turns into a sort of smudge. There are mundane tests we can run, but they tend to be more destructive, and I’m hesitant to dismantle our only sample, especially now that we know there’s an unidentified magical element at work.”

“Mm,” Rouvad said noncommittally. “Any headway in improving the device?”

“Well, it’s not very accurate,” Principia said thoughtfully. “Even less so than a comparably-sized lightning wand, and has nothing on the accuracy of an enchanter wand. I do have a theory about that. Arrows are fletched in a spiraling pattern to make them spin while in flight, which stabilizes then and increases the accuracy of the projectile.”

“Odd that the dwarves didn’t think of that.”

“Dwarves have never used projectile weapons, ma’am; between their innate hardiness and the heavy armor their forces have always favored, arrows have never made much impact on them, and they never bothered to use them on others. Projectile weapons are of limited use in tunnels and the dwarves have very seldom come out to fight anybody except to defend their own realms. They may simply not realize that lateral rotation stabilizes objects in flight. The scientific method doesn’t help you with things on which you haven’t experimented. Then again, they may just not have gotten around to it yet; this is clearly a very new technology. Regardless, I think shaping the projectile in a spiral of some kind will help with that, but it presents its own challenges. Metal balls are simple to cast; a more complex shape is trickier. It will also unavoidably make the ammunition more fragile.”

“Mm.” The Commander pursed her lips. “What if you shaped the firing mechanism rather than the projectile? Say, with spiraling grooves on the inside of the firing tube. That would be sturdier and needs to be done fewer times, and would make even a spherical projectile spin, which should help.”

Principia stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded. “That…actually would probably work. Well…blast. Now I regret I’m off to fight cultists instead of trying that out.”

“With regard to that,” Rouvad said, heaving a soft sigh. “I assume you understand the reason for your abrupt promotion, now. I trust you to have the wits to put that together, even without the help of Ansari’s rather pointed question.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied, nodding. “You can’t have a sergeant giving orders to lieutenants.”

“In point of fact I can, as Corporal Avelea could explain to you in detail, but I would rather not. Every one of those squads is seasoned and highly distinguished; every one of the women leading it has the chops to command more than seven squads on one mission. If a viable alternative exists I prefer not to insult them. Anyway, it’s sooner than I would ordinarily have had you promoted, but I would not have done this if I doubted you could handle the responsibility. I’ve placed you in charge of three captains, Locke, though with the exception of Ombanwa they are accustomed to taking temporary grade reductions for situations precisely like this one. The only reason each of those officers is not commanding a much larger unit by now is because they are all highly specialized and serve extremely well in their current positions. And then, there is your squad. All six of you, with individual records far too short to be so spotty.”

“Shahai notwithstanding,” Principia agreed. “Commander… I’m not going to question your judgment, but honestly I’m more surprised by this than Ansari was.”

“Well, we’ve made some progress if you’re not questioning my judgment.” Rouvad’s wry expression quickly faded into sobriety, however. “I’m not going to claim a great deal of affection for you, but in your relatively short time here, you’ve proved you can get things done, under great pressure and in uncertain conditions. In fact, that is where you thrive, you and your squad. You’re the right one to organize this mission. And…more to the point, I am fully confident that you will make it into Puna Dara.” The Commander hesitated, then turned her head to stare at the wall. “We have no idea how the Rust identifies or strikes its enemies. No way to know what methods will get through this defense. This strategy, trying multiple tactics to see what works, carries the presupposition that some of them won’t. I am sending good women straight to their likely deaths. Even if they use the same non-lethal methods, the situations in which they risk being incapacitated…”

“That’s the job, Commander,” Principia said quietly. “Ours to die in Avei’s name, yours to order it. We all signed up. We all serve.”

Rouvad’s gaze flicked back to her, and sharpened. “A year ago, I think I would have punched you in the mouth for saying that.”

“A year ago, you wouldn’t have believed I was serious.” Principia did not go so far as to smile, but her expression softened. “And no, Commander, you’re far too disciplined to do such a thing. You would have ordered someone to punch me in the mouth.”

She shook her head. “Goddess preserve me, Locke… Well, it is what it is. The other reason I called you here was to issue you a piece of equipment.”

Rouvad reached inside the neck of her tunic and pulled out a golden eagle talisman on a simple chain, which she lifted over her head and held it out to Principia.

“That,” the Commander explained while the elf studied the piece, “is a divine power augmentor, operating on fae energy. For a priestess, it would boost the amount of energy she could handle before risking burnout considerably. For someone with no divine ability at all…well, it may theoretically grant that power, without needing a connection to the goddess.”

“Theoretically?” Principia murmured.

“Experiment with it on your way to Puna Dara. You’re an enchanter; if anyone can make it work, you can. Trissiny recovered that thing from the Crawl last year; who knows how long it was lost down there. Mary the Crow showed up not long after to claim that she was the one who created it, and said that it will work with the most strength for someone of her bloodline. I’d been thinking of giving it back to Trissiny with that information, but frankly, no magical doodad is going to augment a paladin’s connection to the goddess all that much. You are the person who can gain the most from that device, so I am issuing it to you. Because,” she added almost reluctantly, “to my great surprise, you have earned enough of my trust and respect to warrant it. And because I am sending you and your troops into unknowable peril; I want you to carry every advantage I’m able to give you, which isn’t much. But there it is.”

Principia very carefully tucked the icon into one of her belt pouches, then saluted. “Thank you, Commander. I’ll do my best not to disappoint.”

“I believe you.” Rouvad stepped forward, then reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Goddess watch over you, Locke…and good luck out there. Dismissed.”

 

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The cloud cover had broken not long after midnight, and the following day dawned unusually clear and cloudless for Tiraas. It was still cold, winter having apparently decided to stay now that it had come. The city itself was in fairly good shape, its army of civil servants having been hard at work through the night with salt and shovels. Only along the northern districts, where water mains had broken and frozen, was the clean-up still impeding business. Elsewhere in the city, particularly in its bustling central districts, life went on at its usual pace.

Of course, the High Commander of the Sisters of Avei would probably not have delayed her activities even for an active hailstorm, and so Principia was summoned to her office shortly after breakfast.

“He said that?” Rouvad demanded skeptically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “Obviously, I cannot attest to how serious he was or what he will do next, but Lord Vex’s exact words were ‘none of this happened.’ Considering the factions and individuals represented, I can understand how the Imperial government would prefer to avoid untangling the diplomatic mess that would result.”

“You implied there was more,” Rouvad prompted.

“Yes, Commander. The demolition of the fortress, he said, is to be recorded as a deliberate action by the Empire to remove an unsafe structure, preparatory to replacing it with a modern facility. And…he made it quite plain that, Imperial cover-up or not, the actions of everyone present would be taken into account the next time any of us have to interact with the Imperial government.”

“Splendid,” the Commander said sourly, then heaved a sigh. “Suddenly I feel a little nervous that I haven’t heard from Intelligence yet. It’s early, but I don’t believe that man actually sleeps. And he definitely saw the disruptors?”

“Saw, and demanded that they be handed over,” Principia said. “I refused. I apologize for any trouble that results, ma’am, but that seemed to me both the best thing to do given the tactical needs of the situation, and the course of action most compliant with Legion regulations.”

“That rather depends on the manner of your refusal, Sergeant.”

“I was forthright and completely honest, ma’am. I told Lord Vex those particular devices were made by me personally, on a mandate from you and using Avenist resources, and thus the property of the Sisterhood. I…mentioned that if he wanted them, he would have to take it up with you.”

“That will be an enjoyable conversation, I’m sure,” the Commaner said wryly.

“Yes, ma’am. I did not mention anything regarding how we obtained the specs for those disruptors. He will surely demand that information.”

“Then I’ll take great pleasure in passing the buck. Vex can try to drag his answers out of the Thieves’ Guild, and much good may it do him. You said there was another matter on which you wished to report.” Her eyes dropped to Principia’s hands; Rouvad had not asked about the objects she was carrying.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, approaching the desk. She reached out and carefully laid a tiny ball of lead on its surface. “I wish to put Private Lang forward for a commendation. I realize that she cannot be awarded the Red Star due to it being on a mission not disclosed even to our captain, but she was wounded in the line of duty.”

“Reasonable,” Rouvad said with a touch of impatience. “I’ll instruct Dijanerad to approve it. Is that immediately pertinent, Locke?”

“Yes, ma’am. This object was removed from her arm. It punched through her shield, through the defensive enchantments on that shield—both of which were completely destroyed by the impact—and then through her armor and bicep. By that point it had lost enough momentum that it merely broke the bone on impact rather than taking her arm off entirely. That piece of metal had to have been moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound to have that much energy behind it.”

“I see,” Rouvad said noncommittally, glancing at the object in the sergeant’s other hand. “You have some insight, I take it, into the kind of spell which could do this?”

“That’s just it, ma’am. I don’t believe there was any spell. Shahai managed to retrieve this from the snow while Zanzayed was teleporting dwarves back to the Svennish embassy.” She laid the device on the desk. It was a simple thing, seemingly little more than a short length of pipe with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism. “We have both examined it and found no evidence of enchantment present at all, though there are burn marks and traces of chemical explosive inside the tube.”

“I see,” Rouvad repeated, picking up the object and turning it over in her hands. “What do you make of it?”

“The lead ball fits neatly in that tube,” Principia said. “From there, we can deduce how it works. An explosive powder is packed into the base of it, the ball is placed in on top of that, and the powder is ignited by a sparking mechanism triggered by squeezing that switch. The explosion, contained as it is, propels the ball with tremendous force, and the length of the tube guides its trajectory.”

“Ingenious,” Rouvad marveled.

“This is extremely concerning,” Principia said, frowning. “You are of course aware that all magical shields are weakened by contact with physical objects. That thing hits with enough sheer kinetic force to collapse any shielding charm I’ve ever heard of, and probably a lot of personal caster shields. A paladin or archmage’s shield could stand up to it, most likely, but… Ma’am, I know just enough physics and math to do my various jobs, but I am pretty sure this technology could be scaled up without any real limits. A cannon-sized version of that could destroy any magical shield in existence, and any fortification behind it.”

“Dwarven engineering at its finest,” Rouvad noted. “What intrigues me most is that I’ve never heard of such a device before. I don’t suppose you’ve analyzed the explosive used?”

“Not in detail, ma’am, but I did a very basic charm test on the traces inside the tube, and I think the results were the most interesting part of this yet. No alchemical agents were present; this was a completely non-magical explosive compound, which has to be a deliberate design choice, as the effect could be achieved far more easily with enchantments. This is a non-magical and anti-magical weapon. We can’t know the range without testing it, but it’s surely comparable to conventional wands. If a force armed with these faced off against a unit of the Imperial Army, they’d have similar firepower, and the Army’s defensive measures would be useless. It would be a rout.”

“Hm.”

“Of course, as soon as they use these where the Empire can see, countermeasures will be in the works. I think they must have been desperate and planning to wipe out everyone there, to have used it in sight of us last night. But if they pick the right battle, it only has to work once. If a dwarven force were able to secure or destroy the right high-value target, they could truly change the fates of the Five Kingdoms by forcing the Empire to terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said patiently, “I find your various skills and aptitudes useful in their place, but there is something backward about you lecturing me on matters of military strategy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Needless to say,” the Commander went on, “you may consider this as classified as everything else which occurred last night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you anything else to report, sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia stepped back from the desk, leaving the lead ball and its launcher with the Commander, and stood at attention. “The fortress was destroyed by the adventurers summoned by General Avelea, at the command of Bishop Syrinx, who was sent to fetch them. According to Avelea’s plan, which Syrinx knew, my squad should have been in it when that happened.”

“And so you both improvised,” Rouvad said flatly. “Basra with her pyrotechnics and you by involving the dragon who involved the Empire whom I’ll be dealing with for the forseeable future about this.”

“Ma’am, destroying that fortress was an action with no strategic application in that situation. I believe its only purpose was to destroy us.”

“You are, in fact, my third meeting today, early as it is,” Rouvad replied. “I have already been over this with General Avelea and Bishop Syrinx, who has explanations for every one of her actions last night. Something tells me you don’t particularly care to hear them.”

“That’s correct, ma’am. With regard to—”

“Locke, my patience for repeating myself to you is thin. I’ve already made it plain I’m not having this infighting. I will deal with Syrinx, and you will drop it.”

“No,” Principia said flatly.

Very slowly, Rouvad leaned forward in her chair, her face suddenly devoid of all expression. “What did you say, soldier?”

“I said no, Commander,” Principia repeated. “Attempts on my life don’t much bother me; it doesn’t pay to take these things personally. But if that woman tries to murder my soldiers one more time, I am going to murder her right back. And the difference between me and Basra Syrinx is that I accomplish what I set out to. If you want to keep your Bishop, get her under control before someone else has to.” She saluted. “I will now report for court martial if that is your command, so long as you understand that it won’t change anything.”

Rouvad stared at her in silence; Principia stared right back. It was almost a minute before the Commander spoke.

“Do you want to be removed from the Legions, Locke?”

“No, ma’am.”

“You have what you signed up for, now. Trissiny is on speaking terms with you; let’s not pretend that wasn’t your whole purpose for doing this. So why are you still here?”

“I—”

“Tell me the truth,” she ordered. “And don’t assume I won’t know if you don’t.”

The sergeant hesitated before replying. “I find serving here…much more satisfying than I expected. And I want very much to continue looking after my girls. Their potential is enormous, but with so much arrayed against them I don’t want to leave them.”

The High Commander suddenly sighed and eased back in her chair. “Trissiny reported on your performance, by the way. She said you are insubordinate and failed to follow her orders. She also said that your strategies on the ground were better than her own, and your refusal to respect the chain of command saved your soldiers’ lives and contributed significantly to her victory. I would suspect she was sugar-coating it were that not exactly what I have observed from you from the beginning.”

Principia kept silent while Rouvad studied her thoughtfully for another long moment.

“It’s useful, having someone on one’s side who isn’t a slave to regulations and the chain of command,” Rouvad finally continued. “It’s one of the things that has made Nandi so valuable to me, and to my predecessor, and why I was so reluctant to cede her to you. As I recall, you’ve seen firsthand that I tolerate backtalk from her that would send any other soldier immediately to the stockade. But she has devoted more time and energy to the Legion’s service than all of us combined; the leeway she has is more than earned. And then there’s you.” She paused again, peering up at Principia with an expression that was almost quizzical. “That’s the damnable thing about you, Locke. You’re just so…useful. For all the headaches you cause me, I can’t help getting the impression you actually are loyal to the Legions, and you do get results. But you’re just not ever going to be a good soldier, and I think I’d get no use out of you at all if I forced you to be.”

Rouvad folded her arms on the desk and raised an eyebrow.

“Dealing with you is a lot like dealing with Basra Syrinx.”

Principia let the silence stretch another moment before replying.

“That wasn’t called for, Commander.”

“No, I’m not going to have you court-martialed,” Rouvad said, suddenly more brisk. “Instead, I shall take it as a sign of the urgency of the matter that you’re willing to risk speaking to me that way—and only because we are alone here, Locke. Open your mouth like that where anyone else can hear it and by the time I’m done with you, I promise you will be grateful for the mercy of standing before a military tribunal. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is it believed?” Rouvad said more pointedly. “You think you’re smarter than I—don’t deny it. But I did not become the mortal leader of the cult of war without being as crafty and as ruthless as the situation demands. I certainly wouldn’t be keeping a creature like Syrinx on a leash otherwise. And let’s not forget the weight my words have with the only person alive whose opinion matters to you enough that you’d subject yourself to all this.” She smiled, as cold as the snow outside. “I can hurt you, Locke, if you make it necessary. So don’t.”

“…yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

“And just keep away from Syrinx, for now,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation and what she did, and she as usual has conjured sufficient justification to evade official censure for her actions. The thing she and you have in common is that you both seem to think I can’t punish or contain her under such circumstances.” She straightened up in her seat, that frosty little smile returning to her face. “You’re both wrong. Basra is being dealt with as we speak, by one of my more…unconventional assets.”


Basra whirled, scowling, when the door of her office was opened without the courtesy of a knock, but quickly marshaled her expression when she saw who had walked in.

Trissiny was still wearing her street clothes and slightly battered coat rather than the silver armor, and hadn’t removed the dye from her hair—yet there was a distinctive change in her demeanor. She had put enough effort into cultivating a casual, non-military bearing that her stiff spine and purposeful stride were now all the more distinctive for their return.

As was the black bird perched on her left shoulder.

“Good morning, General Avelea,” Basra said smoothly, shutting the cabinet in which she had been digging and stepping away to meet her guests. “And…Mary, always a pleasure. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you again so soon.”

The crow ruffled her feathers, but remained mute.

“Good morning, your Grace,” Trissiny said, staring pensively at her. “Sorry to interrupt so early in the day, but I have a full list of errands myself and I hoped to catch you before you headed to the Church.”

“Not at all, my time is yours,” Basra replied. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”

Trissiny tilted her head, making no move toward the proffered chair; on her shoulder, the crow mimicked the expression, which would have been comical if not for the suddenly fraught atmosphere.

“I wonder if you could clarify your tactics for me,” said the paladin, “as an experienced commander to one still learning. What purpose did the destruction of the fortress serve?”

“Considering our list of allies and enemies,” Basra replied immediately, “and the likelihood of those extremely professional dwarves discerning your procession’s goal and moving to intercept you, I realized, upon reaching and surveying the field, that that fortress was just waiting to be used as an ambush against you. Had they reached it first, your attempt to secure it would have led to your group’s downfall. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of any of this in the first place, but I was unfamiliar with that old ruin before seeing it for the first time last night.”

“I should mention,” Trissiny said quietly, “I have already spoken with Joe, Mr. Weaver, and their other friends this morning. None of them reported any sign of dwarves reaching the fortress. They simply said that you directed it to be destroyed.”

“And that bloodthirsty little gnome was more thrilled than I have ever seen anyone to oblige,” Basra said dryly. “Honestly, I was expecting her to start a fire or something. How or why she had munitions of that quality on hand I’m afraid even to ask. But the result was satisfactory. The purpose was to deny the enemy a fortification, not catch them in it; acting before they arrived was thus the entire point. You know this very well, Trissiny, it’s basic military strategy. The general who prepares the ground ahead of the battle controls the field.”

“And,” Trissiny said more quietly still, “according to my orders, Squad One would have been in that fortress at the time.”

“According to your orders,” Basra said with an indulgent smile, “there would have been no dragons and no Imperial presence. Your ambush would have succeeded, thanks to the adventurers you sent me to rally and my initiative in removing that fortification. Zanzayed was…overkill. And involving Vex will carry a hefty political price for all of us. I did not anticipate that, exactly, but I expected things to go south if we assumed Locke’s part in the plan would be carried out correctly. Believe me, Trissiny, I know how Locke thinks.”

“Did you scout,” Trissiny asked, “to make sure the squad was not inside?”

“We observed no tracks,” Basra replied. “In that snow—”

“In that snow, tracks would have faded quickly; it was still coming down.”

“Not that heavily, and only two of the squad are elves. Six women in full armor would leave easily discernible tracks—”

“And so you checked every approach to the fortress?”

“Why on earth would they have circled around to the back?” Basra tilted her head in a mimicry of their earlier gesture. “I must say I’m sensing a little hostility, here. Everything went exactly as I expected, and according to my plan—with the exception, of course, of Locke’s needless complications. Had it been any other squad, I would have considered it a risk. That woman is congenitally unable to do as she is told.”

“I came here,” Trissiny said, “hoping you would help me understand why such a risk was warranted. I confess that I’m still not there.”

“Perhaps,” Basra said more firmly, “you should be mindful of your own preconceptions. I understand you may have an emotional attachment to Sergeant Locke, that’s only natural. Just…don’t forget what kind of creature she is, Trissiny. Her interest in your existence began when you became someone it was politically useful to know. She is only here because of that, because she sees in you the chance to advance herself. Don’t let her deceive you.”

“I won’t,” Trissiny replied, smiling thinly. “Her, or anyone else.”

Basra sighed. “I see you’re not convinced. I have been over this in more detail with the High Commander already this morning; she accepted my reasoning. If you doubt me, I encourage you to take it up with her. And it might profit you to ask her opinion of Principia Locke’s performance as a soldier while you’re there.”

“Right,” Trissiny said, nodding agreeably. “You have all the angles covered just enough that nobody can authoritatively call you down. Well done.”

“I don’t think that tone is necessary,” Basra said mildly.

The crow suddenly emitted a soft croak, and very gently pecked at Trissiny’s ear, then turned her head to jab her beak toward the door.

“Well, then,” Trissiny said, smiling again. “I suppose that covers what I came to ask. I also wanted to offer a word of advice, Bishop Syrinx: you should not assume you’re the only one who can make things mysteriously explode.”

Basra raised one eyebrow. Before she could speak, however, the rapidly approaching sound of pounding boots echoed from the hall, through the door which Trissiny had left open a crack. The Bishop turned, frowning, and stepped toward it to investigate.

The boots skidded to a stop outside and the door was yanked open to admit Private Covrin, breathless and disheveled. “Your Grace!” she panted. “The—they sent—I mean, I only just learned, I’m sorry for the delay but I think my message was intercepted—”

“Spit it out, Covrin!” Basra said in exasperation. “Sometime today!”

“Ma’am,” her aide said desperately, “there’s a fire. At—at your house.”

She gazed nervously at the Bishop, still regaining her breath, but Basra had gone completely still and expressionless. Slowly, she turned to stare at Trissiny.

The paladin had stepped to one side, and was now trying to roll a doubloon across the backs of her knuckles. She went at it with excruciating slowness, clearly unpracticed in the maneuver, tentatively shifting the coin one finger’s increment at a time.

At Basra’s stare, she looked up and smiled. “Well, that sounds rather urgent; don’t let me keep you any longer. Excuse me, private.”

Covrin stepped aside to let her leave, and both of them stared after the departing paladin in silence.

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11 – 15

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The layout of the Thieves’ Guild underground headquarters was, unsurprisingly, confusing. Aside from the central complex around the Pit, where things were mostly laid out in a sensible fashion, the whole network was a confusion of oddly-angled tunnels, stairwells, meandering halls, hidden nooks, side rooms, and obfuscatory features in general. No room except the smallest and some not open to the public had only one entry, and there were abundant quiet spots for assignations of all kinds. It was all very useful for many of the purposes of its inhabitants. On the downside, for those not yet used to the place, it was very easy to get lost.

At least it provided means of avoiding the more crowded areas, if one were so inclined. Thus, it was an even nastier shock than it would otherwise have been when Jasmine emerged from the less-used back entrance to the dormitory toilets to find Grip lounging against the wall right outside.

“Morning!” the enforcer said with a bright smile.

Jasmine forced herself to relax, aware that her instinctively combative pose had given away her tension. With that out of the bag, she didn’t attempt to feign disinterest, folding her arms and scowling.

“Well. You’re up early.”

“Yes, I was,” Grip agreed, idly tossing a dagger in the air and catching it, “but that was hours ago. It’s past breakfast.”

“Somehow I assumed you’d be the type to be out all night and asleep—oh, excuse me, mysteriously absent till afternoon.”

“Then we’ve learned something about making assumptions, haven’t we?” Grip replied, grinning.

Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “What are you doing out here?”

“It’s the Guild,” she said with a shrug. “I’m a thief. I’m allowed.”

“You know what I mean,” Jasmine snapped. “And now you’re just trying to irritate me.”

“Yes, I am, and it’s working.” She pointed the dagger at her, expression now serious. “Don’t just experience the encounter, examine it. What exactly am I doing that gets under your skin? Why is it working? How can you counter this next time? What’s my motivation, here?”

“Let’s start simpler. What are you doing lurking outside the apprentices’ toilets?”

“Enforcement is about control, and control is about manipulation. You can’t maintain control through brute force, you’d be drowning in enemies before you could build a power base. It’s little things, theatrical touches and ways of getting under people’s skin that does the trick. Keeping people off-balance is more effective than keeping them afraid. For instance.” She smirked, lifting one eyebrow. “One of the most powerful things you can do to emphasize to someone that you are the one in control is to just show up in places where they think you won’t. Places where they feel safe, that should be out of bounds.”

“And so, toilets,” Jasmine said sourly.

“Toilets, hospital rooms, workplaces… For all the stories about leg-breaking—and we enforcers spread most of those ourselves—we get much better mileage out of embarrassment. Somebody owes money? Threaten them, and they may panic, or just do something dumb. But having shady characters like me turn up at their office, or finding me sitting in their kitchen making polite conversation with the little missus when they get home, or sitting next to them at temple services….? That is how you lean on someone.”

“Hm,” Jasmine said noncommittally. “Well, since you’re here, I have questions.”

Grip straightened up, twirling the dagger to rest with its blade against her forearm, and made it vanish inside her jacket with alarming deftness. “Shoot.”

“What happened with you and Randy?”

“What have you heard?”

“That you tossed him out for shaking down shopkeepers.”

“That’s the long and the short of it, yes,” Grip said, her expression openly annoyed for the first time. “He also got caught doing it by Sweet’s apprentices, which was humiliating—as much for me as for him. Insult upon injury. Was that all you wanted to know?”

“Of course not. I have a personal interest in understanding what you look for in an apprentice. I don’t really see the connection between myself and him. And if there is one, well, that’s a little distressing.”

The enforcer smiled, briefly, but in real amusement, before her expression sobered again. “Randy had—has, rather—hunger. The drive to make more of himself, to succeed, to fight the world. It’s a very Eserite thing. He’s one of those who’s always felt wronged, shortchanged; the world owes him something and he means to collect.” She shook her head, grimacing bitterly. “That we can’t have, it makes people do the most appalling bullshit. Prompted in the right way, though, it can be refined into a less narcissistic, more reasonable drive, the thing good Eserites need. A lust to equalize, turn the tables, bring the mighty down to our level and look them in the eye when they realize what’s happened. And I thought I was making progress with him, I really did. He was… Well. What his personal hobbies revealed was that he was playing me. Playing along, acting like he was absorbing the philosophies along with my tactics and know-how.” Her eyes narrowed to furious slits. “I’m not some thug, nor do I associate with riffraff, and I sure as hell don’t train that kind of scum. Eserion gives us a purpose, and it’s not to line our pockets. I failed Randy, apparently. Worse, he proved he wasn’t going to change. After that, aside from the insult to me, I could never trust that I was training an Eserite, and not just a thief. That was it for him.”

“I see,” Jasmine said slowly.

“Anyway, don’t worry too much about the resemblance,” Grip said, suddenly much more nonchalant. “I don’t have a type. I rarely pick a protege, and only when I spot somebody who I think needs my personal coaching. You have very little in common with Randy.”

“Glad to hear that, anyway.”

“Don’t be,” Grip said flatly. “It was a neutral statement, not a compliment or insult. He’s him, and you’re you. He failed. You still might. Do not get cocky.”

Jasmine tilted her head back, meeting the enforcer’s stare without hesitation. “I have advantages he definitely lacks.”

Grip smiled humorlessly. “And this is why you need me, in part.”

“That’s the other thing I was going to ask. What in the world do you want with me?”

The thief tilted her head, permitting herself a small smile which even looked deliberate. “If you understood my reasons, you wouldn’t need my help. If you were yet in a position to understand, I’d explain it. Some things you have to learn through experience.”

“Uh huh,” Jasmine said skeptically. “Well, this has been interesting—”

“You are on a schedule, you know,” Grip said pointedly.

“Yes, I am,” she retorted. “Right now I have to go deal with Glory again, followed by other things which are no business of yours. And in the slightly longer term, between all that and you I am reconsidering this whole project. You can threaten me with exposure if you like; while I’m debating whether I actually need to be here, that’s nothing more than helping me make up my mind. If I do decide to stay, we’ll talk. But not right now.”

“I’ll tell you what, kid,” the enforcer said, smiling again. “I’m going to grant you a few days’ leeway, because this right here is a valuable lesson. Learning how to weasel out of pursuit and delay the inevitable is a crucial skill for a thief, but not as much as learning the limits of how long you can get away with that. So here you go: learn the limits.” She winked. “And thus, you’re studying under me, whether you want to or not. Think about what I did, and try it yourself. Talk to you real soon, Jasmine.”

She turned and strolled away, leaving Jasmine standing alone in the corridor, staring after her.

After another moment’s contemplation, Jasmine turned and cut back through the toilets and the barracks into the Pit. The route she had started to take was roundabout and three times as long, and…well, there was no point, now.

“Heeeey, there she is!” called the first person she particularly wanted to see, after she’d exchanged nods with a few other apprentices. Tallie waved with her customary exuberance. “Missed you at breakfast, Jas!”

“Oddly enough I don’t have much of an appetite,” she replied, strolling over to join Tallie and Rasha by the pickpocketing dummies. “What’s the plan for today, guys?”

“Ross left early, too,” Rasha said quietly. “Apparently he’s got a lesson and some personal time with an actual Guild member.”

“Stands to reason, he’s been here twice as long as us,” Tallie said airily. “Good on him! We’re just waiting for oh look here he comes now.”

“Discussing who you’d all like to shag?” Darius asked, swaggering up to the group. “Don’t worry, I get that a lot. Morning, ladies.” He grinned broadly at Rasha, who narrowed his eyes.

“You need a new routine, Darius,” Tallie retorted. “That smug cocky guy schtick of yours is way overplayed. Try something original, something your own! Like the friggin’ pox.”

“Hey, don’t joke,” Darius said solemnly. “My uncle died of the frigginpox.”

“Are you sure?” Rasha snapped. “Maybe it was just embarrassment at being related to you.”

“Ooh, and the littlest Punaji tries his best!” Darius grinned down at him. “Not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you?”

“Before this devolves any further,” Jasmine said pointedly, “you made it sound like you’ve got a plan for today?”

“Hell yeah!” Tallie crowed. “We’re meeting the elf twins preeeeetty much any time now, I dunno where they are. But they’re taking us out actually pickpocketing!”

“In…a group?” Jasmine raised her eyebrows. “That sounds like a good way to court far too much attention.”

“Hey, Fauna and Flora know what they’re doing, generally speaking,” Darius said with a shrug.

“And it’s Flora and Fauna,” Tallie corrected. “How many times I gotta tell you?”

“As many as it takes before that starts making a difference, you daffy bimbo.”

“Anyhow,” Rasha added, “we’re getting a chance to practice what we learned yesterday.”

“Oh…that sounds pretty good, actually,” said Jasmine with a sigh. “Wish I could come, but I’ve got to go dance to Glory’s tune again. It’s less of an honor this time, since I’ve been forewarned that this is the let-down speech.”

“Oh, ouch,” Tallie said, wincing sympathetically. “Not her type after all, huh?”

“And that’s just the start of the day,” Jasmine said dourly.

“Well, hey, don’t feel bad,” Darius replied cheerfully, slapping her on the shoulder. “You weren’t around to get the teaching, so it’s not like you could’ve come, anyway!”

“My, aren’t you a charmer,” Tallie said, scowling at him. “We could teach her what we know on the spot, y’know, and I bet the elves know a lot more than any of us, anyhow. No need to be a dick.”

“It’s a having a dick thing,” Darius said seriously. “Rasha, tell her.”

“Whoah!” Rasha protested. “I have and want nothing to do with you and dicks!”

“Hmm.” Darius made a show of stroking his chin in thought. “I feel I should be able to run with that. There’s a good burn in there, I can sense it, but there are hazards. A lot of the directions I could take it would make me sound pretty gay.”

“How about—” Tallie broke off as Rasha’s finger was thrust into her face.

“Don’t help him! And if you don’t want to sound gay, Darius, try talking a little bit less about dicks.”

“And he recovers from his earlier fumble!” Darius crowed, beaming. “Anyhow, where the hell are those girls? Just like a pair of elves to be shiftless and unreliable. Boom!” He whirled, pointing both fingers behind him. Another passing apprentice, finding herself in his sights, paused to give him a contemptuous once-over before continuing on her way. Darius sighed and turned back to them. “Well, shit, I thought for sure they’d be right behind me if I started bad-mouthing ’em.”

“Nice, boy,” said Flora from directly above them. “Real attractive.”

“And it might’ve worked, if only you were apprenticing with the Veskers,” Fauna added archly.

Both elves were perched nimbly on the edge of the Pit. Half of it was railed, a fairly new addition which had apparently been abandoned partway through, leaving the rest of its surface borders as a constant falling hazard. Flora and Fauna, doubtless to emphasize their agility, had chosen to balance on the iron bannister, sitting as casually as if in easy chairs.

“Ladies!” Darius cried, waving exuberantly up at them. “May I just say you’re looking extra svelte today? And not just because I have a perfect view of your legs from here.”

“Do we really wanna help him?” Flora asked her counterpart.

“Eh, he might as well come along,” Fauna replied with a shrug. “I kinda like the others.”

As if on some inaudible cue, both hopped forward plummeting down to land nimbly beside the other apprentices. Flora’s characteristic cloak billowed very dramatically at her descent.

“So, you coming along today, Jasmine?” Flora asked with a broad grin.

“I’m afraid I have to go oh what am I doing, I know you heard our whole conversation.”

“Dammit!” Fauna huffed irritably, flipping a doubloon to Flora, who caught it with a gleeful cackle. “You had to pick today to start learning?”

“Yeah, I’m increasingly okay with how this has panned out,” Jasmine said dryly.

“Well, cats and kittens, we are burning daylight,” Tallie added. “C’mon, ladies and Rasha, let’s get a move on. See you this afternoon, Jas?”

“Or tonight. It depends on how long I get tied up today.”

“Try not to do that,” Flora advised.

“And if you do, make sure you establish a safe word,” Fauna added.

Jasmine blinked. “…what?”

“Isn’t she precious?” Flora cackled, turning to go with a wide sweep of her cloak.

“I swear, one of these days you’re gonna hit somebody important with that damn thing…”

“Didja see what I did there?” Tallie asked Darius, grinning and prodding him on the shoulder. “Ladies and Rasha, I said. See, the implication—”

“Yes, yes, thank you for defending my honor, Tallie,” Rasha said, rolling his eyes. “C’mon, they’re leaving us behind. Bye, Jasmine.”


The records room at the Silver Legion’s complex in the Temple of Avei was a fairly public space; one needed reason and at least a minimal level of clearance to be there, but such reasons did occur consistently in the normal course of the day. Ordinarily, women would be coming and going through the well-lit archives to retrieve, deposit, or copy files on a regular basis.

It was quiet, now, and empty, and she had to force herself not to rush in her efforts, as rushing led to sloppiness. She was keenly aware, however, that her presence was the reason no one else was in here. She hadn’t left orders not to be disturbed, but had had to identify herself in order to gain access, and…apparently, one thing had led to another.

An hour into her search, though, she was at least making progress. Hopefully the disruption her presence must be causing the Legion’s ordinary functions was minor and easily remedied. Surely if anything important came up that necessitated access to the files, whoever needed it wouldn’t hesitate?

She looked up in mild surprise when the door to the long filing room finally opened, then straightened fully, setting down her folder and blinking. “Oh! Commander! I’m sorry, I hope I’m not disturbing you…”

High Commander Rouvad smiled faintly, pulling the door shut behind her. “Not in the least, I’m glad of the excuse to take a break. Disconcerting, isn’t it?”

“Pardon?”

“Not having to salute,” Rouvad said, her smile widening as she approached. “You’ve got a look I recognize, not knowing quite what to do with your hands. It was awkward enough for me, and I got to this position after long years of making smaller steps. Don’t repeat this, but I still feel uncomfortable, not saluting a General. Somehow I never quite imagined myself as the woman in charge; it still feels like I’m watching somebody else play a role, some days.”

“I…um, I see.” Awkwardly, she relaxed her tense posture. “For the record, I didn’t tell them not to disturb me in here.”

“Yes, I know,” Rouvad said, shaking her head ruefully. “That would be Sergeant Pinitar’s work. A stickler for respect toward the faith’s persons of importance, and quite a fan of yours, incidentally. Don’t worry, you’re not disrupting the Sisterhood’s affairs unduly. I did leave orders that we not be disturbed, though. If it’s not something extremely personal, I can probably help you find what you’re looking for a lot quicker, Trissiny.”

For a moment, she considered insisting on the name. Principia hadn’t been the first to emphasize that while she was Jasmine, she was Jasmine; a convincing deception began with deceiving oneself, on some level. It had been a favorite theme of Tricks’s, when he was initially coaching her in this role. Just for a moment, though. That conversation would be, at best, a distraction, and probably achieve nothing productive.

“I spoke with Principia Locke recently,” she said instead.

Rouvad nodded. “I just learned of that this morning, in fact. Sergeant Locke credits your help with much of her progress on her current mission.”

She drummed her fingers once on the file atop the cabinet directly in front of her. “I’m not trying to get her or her squad in trouble, here.”

“Allow me to lay that worry to rest,” Rouvad said seriously. “A certain amount of politicking is inevitable in any organization the size of the Sisterhood. I have no choice but to engage in it, myself. But among my personal priorities as a commander is to protect my troops from that as much as possible. If Locke has done something that deserves reprimand, she’ll get it. If not, I will not see her put upon in service to anyone’s agenda. I’m afraid,” she added with a sigh, “I have not always managed to shield Squad 391 from that as well as I should have; Locke and her soldiers are already more suspicious of the chain of command than I like to see in a unit, but I can’t blame them for it. Restoring that trust is something of a priority right now.”

“I see,” Jasmine murmured. “Well, perhaps that’s a good lead-in for what I was looking for. When we talked, Locke mentioned someone highly placed in the Sisterhood trying to murder her, and apparently her whole squad.”

“Oh, did she,” Rouvad said flatly. “Might I ask how that came up in conversation?”

“I asked her to see me to gain her insights on my own project; she certainly knows a great deal about being Eserite, and apparently has managed to learn something about integrating the two faiths without dissonance. We were discussing that, and I expressed an opinion that the Guild was inherently somewhat more corruptible than the Sisterhood. That was part of her rejoinder.”

“Hm.” Rouvad turned to lean backward against the file cabinet, folding her arms. “For what it’s worth, her point is well-taken. The Sisterhood is more corruptible by nature, just because it is more structured. Predatory people can exist in almost any environment, and they tend to thrive in the military. Where there are rules, those rules can be exploited. The comparative chaos of the Guild’s structure counters that to a point. Coupled, of course, with its inherent opposition to the abuse of structures.”

“All systems are corrupt,” Jasmine muttered.

“Yes, so they tell me,” Rouvad said dryly. “You know, Locke is a Legionnaire, now. Anything Legion-relevant that you want her to tell you, you can order her to.”

“Yes, I know. As does she. She asked me not to, said she doesn’t want to stir up more politics.” Jasmine shook her head. “And yes, I am aware that she fed me just enough information to help me find what I need, especially since it’s an accusation I can’t just let go. All while covering her own butt. I’m not blind.”

“Avei wouldn’t have picked you if you were obtuse,” Rouvad stated, “despite what I suspect some of those thieves have been telling you. And don’t underestimate Locke. It wasn’t just a matter of protecting herself; by making you dig up your own information, she arranged for you to be more invested in it. That’s a vitally important piece of mortal nature you need to be aware of, Trissiny. It’s why organizations have intense initiation rites, part of why basic training in any military is so brutal. People value something much more if they’ve had to work for it.”

Jasmine sighed. “Forgive me, Commander, but I’ve just come from a singularly unpleasant encounter with a person who breaks elbows for a living and seems to want to teach me to follow the same path. I’m a little sour on the subject of manipulating people at the moment.”

Rouvad cracked a faint, wry grin. “I know that feeling, too. I’m sorry to have to say this, General Avelea, but you’d better get over it. These are the methods by which you keep your troops in order.”

“I know, I know. I’m coping. I was always taught that Avei disapproves of lies, though.”

“That’s Narnasia’s voice talking, not Avei’s. War is deception.”

“Yes, I’m getting quite the education in that as we speak. But since you’re here and offered…?”

The Commander clenched her jaw for a moment, looking away. “Well. Loath as I am to drag you into politics, that’s probably just wishful thinking on my part. Locke may have exaggerated slightly; it wasn’t a murder attempt, so much as a plot to discredit her squad which could have resulted in their injury or death. I have to acknowledge that from their perspective, the difference is just quibbling.”

“She also claimed the person responsible is still in a position of authority,” Jasmine said, hearing her own voice climb in incredulous disapproval. “This really happened? And that’s true?”

Rouvad nodded slowly, turning her head again to meet her eyes. “Yes, Bishop Syrinx is now reinstated to her position.”

For a moment, she could only stare. “…the Bishop?”

“Have you met Basra Syrinx, Trissiny?”

“Once. It was… Well, surprising. She struck me as quite clever.”

“Oh, isn’t that the truth,” Rouvad said in a surprisingly sour tone.

“I don’t mean to be pushy, Commander, but I think I need to insist on a full explanation of this.”

“It’s not pushy,” Rouvad replied immediately. “You’re entitled to know, by virtue of rank alone. I wasn’t keeping it from you, Trissiny, but by default I don’t inform you of the Legions’ doings unless you are specifically involved. But, yes, since you are, now… Well, to begin with, have you ever heard the phrase ‘social pathology?’”

She narrowed her eyes. “I… Actually, I think I have, but only in passing. During one of Professor Tellwyrn’s lectures, I think. I can’t recall specifically what the context was.”

“Well, by that description it could refer to almost anything, but that’s the term used by dwarven mind-scholars. Actually, the elves have a word for it as well, but personally I find the dwarven perspective more useful. Admirably scientific people, the dwarves; their research is all conducted very rationally and well-documented. Social pathology is a condition from which Basra Syrinx suffers.”

“It certainly doesn’t sound pleasant,” Jasmine said pointedly. “I doubt it would even if I didn’t know it was relevant to her attacking her own soldiers.”

“It’s a congenital disorder of the brain,” Rouvad continued. “It causes the victim to have a very limited range of emotions and predisposes them toward certain characteristic traits: egotism, obsessiveness, aggression. The most important fact of it, though, is that it leaves the sufferer unable to form emotional connections to other people—to anything, really.” She paused, frowning at the wall and clearly not seeing it. “How to put this… Well, to you and I, a person, a puppy, and a chair are three qualitatively different kinds of things. They demand different responses and types of treatment. Syrinx lives in a world inhabited entirely by chairs…some of which cut in front of her in line and chew up her shoes.”

Jasmine stared at her in dawning horror, her mind racing ahead to being grasping the full implications. “And…this…person… Is the Bishop of our faith?!”

Again, the Commander heaved a heavy sigh. “This is where it gets difficult, Trissiny—especially for me. It’s another thing you really should have been made aware of before now, as both militaries and the Thieves’ Guild attract people like this. It’s not a common condition, but the studies I’ve read from Svenheim estimate as many as one in a hundred humans and elves have it, and only slightly fewer dwarves. Personally, I would love to throw Basra bloody Syrinx out of the Legions and the cult entirely; dealing with her is a constant strain on my patience and belief in the basic good of the world.”

“And yet she’s still Bishop.”

Rouvad nodded, grim-faced. “Because… For what, exactly, would we be punishing her? You can’t condemn someone for being mad, you can only deal with their actions as necessary. It’s a disease, and it’s not her fault she has it. Understand how someone with a brain like that sees the world, Trissiny. It’s not remarkable that she turned on a squad who personally irritated her, so much that she doesn’t do such things every day. Yes, we have to hold Syrinx accountable for her actions, but punishment is simply not effective on her. She is by all evidence an upstanding citizen and a highly productive member of the Sisterhood, all without being capable of anything you or I would understand as morality.”

“How is that even possible?”

“Because she’s found her own way to live by the dictates of our faith, and society at large. Basra isn’t able to love, or truly to care, but she understands cause and effect and has a sense of her own self-interest. However she does it, she toes the line. When she steps out of line I have to deal with that—but I have to do so keeping in mind what causes her to act as she does, and what methods are necessary to rein her in. They are rarely the same ones that would work on a normal person. Honestly, I’m never sure how well I do at managing her. It’s uncharitable of me, but I can never shake the suspicion that she’s up to things out of my sight far worse than anything she’s ever been accused of.”

“Like trying to murder a squad of Legionnaires?” Jasmine snapped.

“The files on that are classified,” Rouvad replied, “and thus not here. However, I’m going to have them pulled and copied and made available to you. You deserve to know all the facts. I handled that as best I could, Trissiny, but it wasn’t so simple as Locke doubtless made it sound. Do me the favor of knowing everything you can before taking a side.”

“That’s…fair,” she said somewhat grudgingly.

“There is also the matter to consider that Basra Syrinx is a priestess of Avei,” Rouvad added pointedly. “It’s the single greatest reason I extend to her as much tolerance as I do, followed shortly by the fact that her very disability makes her a shrewd and extremely valuable political agent. But in order to call upon Avei’s power, she requires the goddess’s approval.”

“Clerics have acted poorly in the past,” Jasmine pointed out.

“Indeed, yes, but there is always a line which, when crossed, cuts you off from a deity’s auspices. They don’t watch everything all the time, Trissiny, but they see when their power is called upon. So long as Basra has continued access to the light of the gods…I extend to her a little trust. Because I am trusting in Avei.”

A momentary silence fell. Jasmine nodded slowly in comprehension, and reluctant acceptance.

Rouvad studied her face thoughtfully, then sighed again. “Well, that is as good a segue as any. On a very similar note, I want Principia Locke in my Legions about as much as I want Basra Syrinx, and I tolerate her for similar reason. When she applied to enlist, I was inclined to show her the door.” She shook her head. “I was overruled.”

“Overruled? But you’re the High Commander, who could—” She broke off, eyes widening.

Rouvad nodded. “Locke is here because, for whatever reason, Avei wants her. I think you should know that, if you’re going to try dealing with the woman.”

Jasmine bit her lip. “Commander… What do you think of Principia?”

“She’s trouble,” Rouvad said immediately. “But… And I’m surprised to find myself saying this… Not more trouble than she’s worth. She is a lousy soldier and probably always will be…but I have never been able to fault her effort, or her apparent care for the women she leads. And they have the highest opinion of her, including one whose opinion I, personally, value highly. For now… Just as with Syrinx, I’m trusting that Avei knows what she is doing.”

The Commander and the paladin sat in silence for another moment, and then Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Well. I guess I should be glad somebody does.”

Rouvad grinned. “It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”

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11 – 14

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“Ah, Basra. Close the door, please.”

Basra paused just inside the office to pull the door shut as ordered, then glanced with a carefully neutral expression at Principia, who was standing at attention near the High Commander’s desk, before proceeding the rest of the way forward.

“Good morning, Commander. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting?”

“Not at all, Locke only just got arrived herself,” Rouvad said briskly. “Apologies for depriving you of breakfast, Sergeant, but the Bishop has business at the Church which won’t wait on us. This won’t be a long meeting.”

“My schedule is currently elastic, ma’am,” Principia replied crisply. “Obviously her Grace’s time is more valuable.”

“Indeed. Then let’s be about this before anyone is made late for anything.” Rouvad folded her hands atop the desk, shifting her body slightly to face Basra directly. “I called you both here for a progress report on your shared project. Basra, what do you have?”

“Very little, at this juncture,” Basra replied with the faintest frown. “My task is political in nature and rather sensitive; unraveling these webs takes time.”

“Naturally,” Rouvad acknowledged with a nod. “Neither of you are here to be pressured, I simply wish to remain in the loop with all details. What have you managed so far?”

“I have, of course, approached Bishop Darling to ask about those devices.” Basra twisted her mouth in a slight grimace. “He was…well, in a word, himself.”

Both the other women present nodded in immediate understanding.

“Based on our conversation,” Basra continued, “I am reasonably sure he is the one who arranged for the presence of both those staves and the tip that brought the Legion’s intervention. At least, he hinted in that direction. I should stipulate, here, that I am making assumptions. Darling is capable of being extremely underhanded indeed. My conclusions are based on our relationship; we work well together and have built up a degree of trust, which I don’t believe he would squander without cause. Based upon broad hints he has dropped, I think that Darling, personally, considers it a matter of the greater good to have those devices known to the Sisterhood, and that there are factional issues within the Thieves’ Guild at work which restrain him from working more openly with us.”

“Hm.” Rouvad narrowed her eyes slightly in thought. “How do you plan to proceed?”

“As I have, in part. He seems inclined to dole out further tidbits, but I’m unwilling to be strung along with no other recourse. As yet I’ve no other ideas or avenues to pursue, and am considering carefully what else to try. It is, as I said, a very early stage in this investigation.”

“Of course,” Rouvad agreed. “That’s satisfactory progress for two days’ work, considering. Locke, can you shed any insight on a factional conflict within the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am. Factions within the Guild are transient things stirred up by the issues of the day, and I’ve been out of the loop far too long to know who’s who and what they’re after.”

“Mm. How quickly do you think you could find out?”

Principia blinked once, her own expression of surprise in an otherwise blank face. “…Commander, you’re talking about building a new reputation and a whole set of connections; thieves don’t just chitchat about sensitive business with people they’ve just met. To answer the question, years. But I wish it noted for the record that I consider the idea an abrogation of the understanding that I am not to be leveraged against the Guild, and would not comply if ordered.”

“Mm hm,” Basra murmured.

“Syrinx,” Rouvad said flatly, “she is not the only one whom I expect to remain civil, here. And she’s correct: that is, indeed, Legion policy and Sisterhood doctrine with regard to individuals who have affiliation with multiple cults. My apologies, Sergeant, it was a spur of the moment thought, not an order.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“In any case,” Rouvad continued, “if the Bishop has nothing else to add…? Very well. It is, as we’ve noted, quite early in this affair, Locke, but have you made any progress, either with the staves or tracing their origins?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “The weapons are called divine disruptors. They were created by a secret division of the Imperial Army at a secure spell lab in Veilgrad, which was damaged in the chaos event of a few months ago. Weapon prototypes were stolen by members of the chaos cult which caused the disaster, and then stolen from them by the Black Wreath, who were then ambushed and beaten by Duchess Malivette Dufresne, a vampire of one of the more dangerous lineages and the sitting Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province. Dufresne returned most of the staves to the Empire, after suggesting her intention to deliver one or more to the Theives’ Guild for the express purpose of disseminating the spellwork in question and depriving the Imperial government of exclusive control of it. What occurred after that I have not ascertained, though it suggests in general terms how Bishop Darling came to be involved.

“In function, the weapons produce a burst of energy which neutralizes all forms of divine magic. Sister Eivery and I have not yet had time to test them under a variety of conditions, but we have ascertained that they immediately collapse a divine shield of normal strength, and when used on a Light-wielder, inhibit the subject’s ability to call upon divine magic. That effect fades after an hour, roughly. I have disassembled one of the staves, and believe I could build another from scratch, but liargold aside, these specimens are made almost entirely from cheap knock-off materials, largely because the genuine materials they suggest are prohibitively expensive. To proceed, ma’am, I will need either a substantial quantity of gold and rare crystals, or the assistance of an alchemist able to work with liargold.”

She stopped talking, and there was dead silence in the room. Rouvad and Syrinx both stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Locke,” the Commander said after a long moment, “how did you dig all that up so quickly?”

“I ascribe it to either immense good luck or Avei’s intervention, ma’am,” Principia replied. “One of the Guild apprentices we have been following happened to have been present at Veilgrad when these weapons first appeared.”

“Oh, Locke,” Basra murmured. “I do hope that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. Since we are well aware that Trissiny Avelea was present and involved in that mess…”

“Yes, your Grace,” Principia said calmly. “General Avelea has been most helpful. Her involvement is the only reason I am inclined to credit divine intervention; a paladin’s presence where coincidences start to appear is suggestive.”

“And just what were you doing talking to Trissiny Avelea?” Basra snapped.

“She summoned me,” Principia replied, shifting her eyes to Rouvad. “Given our respective ranks, I judged I had better respond immediately. For future reference, however, would you prefer I report any contact with the General, Commander? I wish to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Rouvad shook her head. “The condition of your enlistment was that you stay away from Avelea unless she reached out to you first. If she did, whatever you discuss is between you. However, I should clarify that you are not to pursue her attentions if she’s not inclined to talk further. Understood?”

“I wouldn’t, anyway, Commander. That’s no way to build a relationship with someone.”

“Locke, I don’t need to hear your opinions on interpersonal relations when I give you an order. You know what I need to hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Exactly,” Rouvad said, staring pointedly at her. “Now, with regard to the matter at hand, did she summon you to talk specifically about these weapons?”

“No, ma’am, I asked about that. She wanted my advice on integrating Avenist and Eserite philosophies and succeeding in the Guild.”

“Hm,” the Commander mused. “Very well. I would castigate you for apparently firing one of those weapons at Eivery, but frankly, knowing her as I do, I’ll assume your presence was the only reason she didn’t test it on herself without supervision.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am.”

“Overall, impressive progress, Locke. How do you plan to proceed?”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ve indicated my intentions with regard to the continuing reverse-enchantment of the weapons. While I personally am keeping a circumspect distance from both Trissiny and the Guild, Shahai has made contact with the group of apprentices we arrested and established the beginnings of a relationship, which we intend to leverage for further information as possible and appropriate. With regard to that, she reported the group were also approached by a group of dwarves with the same intent. Not to be racist, but dwarves were also apparently the intended buyers of the staves at the swap meet the Legion interrupted.”

“How can it possibly be racist to notice that both groups were dwarves?” Basra said disdainfully.

Principia’s armor rasped softly as she shrugged. “I didn’t want to imply that they all look alike. Both wore obscuring robes, which isn’t dwarven or anybody’s custom who isn’t trying to hide their identity.”

“Interesting,” said Rouvad. “Keep me appraised of any developments.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else to report?”

“Yes, ma’am. Among those arrested, but not involved with the Guild, was another individual whose presence was extremely fortuitous. He is a Salyrite, a fae magic specialist who provides helpfully indirect access to that cult’s resources; I am cultivating a relationship in part with an eye to developing that connection, since the Sisterhood has few personnel like Eivery trained for the kind of work I am doing. He also happens to be the son of an old friend of mine, who I was not aware had offspring. Name is Herschel Schwartz.”

Basra shifted her head very faintly, raising on eyebrow by a hair.

“Very well, you don’t really need my blessing to proceed with that,” said Rouvad. “Needless to say, you will be very careful with any plan which involves the College of Salyrene in this, but I understand the potential need.”

“Yes, ma’am. I do not intend to involve the College at all, but only available elements within it, to the extent that it can be done discreetly. But I raised the matter for another reason. Mr. Schwartz was present for Bishop Syrinx’s recent successes in Viridill and apparently part of her staff. He is now pursuing some kind of vendetta against her.”

Rouvad sighed and leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. “Basra!”

“That’s a surprise to me,” Basra said in perfect calm. “Schwartz was imminently helpful to me for his magical expertise in dealing with elementals and other fae nonsense. I sent a glowing testimonial of his performance to his cult. I thought we parted on good terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said irritably, straightening back up. “why is this man now obsessed with the Bishop?”

“I would say ‘offended’ more than ‘obsessed,’ ma’am. And I didn’t ask.”

The Commander’s gaze sharpened. “You didn’t ask why this son of your acquaintance was chasing a vendetta against our Bishop?”

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”

“Denied. I have expressed myself clearly on the subject of infighting, Locke. You will keep a civil tongue in your head when employing it to, about, or near Bishop Syrinx. Answer the question.”

“Yes, ma’am. I consider his motivations secondary at best and probably not very interesting; what matters is that he cannot be allowed to do this. Quite apart from the need to shield our Bishop from outside interference, as someone with a personal interest in the boy’s continued health I would rather not see him pick a fight he is going to decisively lose.”

Rouvad’s stare shifted back to Basra. “And you have no idea why he would be irate with you?”

“I didn’t say I had no idea,” the Bishop replied with a shrug. “Schwartz was extremely useful, but he’s an academic and frankly a bit of a houseplant. Hand-holding him through various outdoor excursions was…trying. He also had developed an infatuation with my aide, Private Covrin. Since she was being exceedingly discreet with members of other cults at my request, due to the sensitivity of our work, she refrained from rebuking him as firmly as she otherwise might. Considering I was the reason for Covrin’s restraint, I took it upon myself to instruct him to leave her alone. And that not until I found him lurking outside her quarters at the Abbey; better he hear it from me than a Silver Legion patrol. They don’t do restraint when it comes to creepy guys harassing their own.” She shook her head. “I thought I was fair with the boy, and he didn’t seem excessively upset at the time. Though that may have just been embarrassment.”

“Is this Schwartz character a threat, do you think, Locke?”

“I hardly think so, ma’am,” Principia replied. “He has no stomach for violence, no inclination toward law-breaking, and no plan. He was hanging around an illegal swap meet in the hopes of striking up an acquaintance with Eserites who could teach him how to go about seeking revenge. That’s the kind of competence we’re talking about, here.”

“I concur with every part of the Sergeant’s assessment,” Basra said dryly. “Not a thing in this world frightens me less than the outrage of Herschel Schwartz.”

“I am cultivating Schwartz as a useful contact, as I said,” Principia continued. “I also mean to talk him down from this at the same time. This business with Covrin is news to me, though he mentioned her. This altogether strikes me as common enough behavior in a young man who lacked good female role models growing up. Some time spent around my squad will do him a world of good, I think.”

“All right, on the strength of both your recommendations,” Rouvad said darkly, “I’ll let that alone for now. But if for any reason your assessment changes in any way, Locke, you will immediately report it, both to me and to Bishop Syrinx.”

“Yes, ma’am. I have already told Herschel that if he goes near Bishop Syrinx with aggressive intent I’ll be taking the matter directly to his own cult.”

“Good; do that, too. What you do in your personal time, and with whom, is your own affair, but none of this is to come between you and your duties.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else, then?” She paused, glancing back and forth between them. “Very well. All things considered, ladies, good work; keep it up. Dismissed.”


Basra kept herself restrained all through the ride to the Cathedral and the walk through its halls to her office. The whole time, Jenell tried to be as invisible as possible; she could clearly see the storm coming. Being out of its path was probably not an option. She’d have to settle for not making herself its focus.

Her reprieve extended once they arrived; Basra immediately sent her to cancel her first appointment of the day. While Jenell ordinarily hated having to give bad news to the likes of Bishop Rastlin, especially when she couldn’t provide a satisfactory reason for it, today she relished the opportunity to be out from under Basra’s glowering eye for a little while. Even Rastlin’s displeasure was a relief. There wasn’t much he could actually do to her.

She desperately wanted to drag her feet and prolong the errand, but didn’t dare. Making Basra wait at the best of times was a quick way to the bad side of her temper; adding any kind of delay to her existing ire would be a disaster.

Basra’s office, very fortunately, was soundproof; the enchantment was standard on all the offices of Bishops and Church officials of any high rank. Covrin had standing permission to enter without knocking, which she did—then quickly slipped inside and shut the door before anybody happened to hear what sounded like a fight in progress.

The Bishop’s idea of décor was almost a caricature of Avenist standards. At her home, she liked her comforts lavish, but her space in the Cathedral was stark, spartan, and decorated exclusively with military hardware. The walls were hung with bladed and blunt weapons, shields bearing various devices, and locked display cases holding old-fashioned battlestaves. Jenell had worked with Basra long enough and accumulated enough trust to know which cases weren’t actually locked, and which staves still held a charge. In each of the room’s corners stood a suit of armor—a medieval cavalry knight’s, and three different Silver Legion sets from different eras—and by the fireplace was a training dummy on a slightly flexible pole.

This was the office’s second dummy since Basra had returned from Viridill. They did not enjoy long lives.

Despite her usual preference for sword combat, Basra was going at the thing bare-fisted, striking hard enough to draw small grunts, a bad sign. She was usually too tightly controlled for that. The little sounds she made were high-pitched and incongruously cute, a fact upon which Jenell had far too much sense to ever remark.

She placed herself by the door and stood at attention. Basra had not looked up to acknowledge her, but she knew the woman’s situational awareness was far too acute to have missed the opening and closing of the door.

Jenell didn’t have to wait long. Moments after her arrival, Basra brought the session to an end with a roundhouse kick that sent the dummy careening into the rack of practice weapons standing near it. The lot clattered to the floor, reinforcing the importance of the office’s soundproofing. Kicks like that weren’t part of the Eagle Style, and were in general not a smart thing to try against a competent opponent, or so Jenell had been told by her drill instructor in basic. She could believe it; Basra only did such things when she wanted to make a mess.

“That smug tree rat whore,” she snarled, beginning to pace up and down. Jenell managed not to wince; she’d really hoped the woman would have worked out most of her anger on the dummy. “Showboating little piece of grove trash! It’s not enough she has to show me up for results, when Rouvad is clearly testing us against each other. And she’s doing it by playing her own connections—to the Guild, and that damned paladin. No, then she has to taunt me with this business about Schwartz!”

Calm. Control. Jenell refused to react. She desperately wanted to know what Schwartz had to do with any of this, but instinct and experience warned that if she pulled that string she’d gain a black eye or two. Basra rarely struck her physically, and more rarely still in a way that left marks. When she felt such a lesson was necessary, though, her ability to heal minor wounds on the spot was extremely useful.

“Even Rouvad isn’t this blind,” Basra growled, stopping in her pacing and turning to stare across her office at the window behind her desk. “No… So that’s how it is, Farzida? Fine. Fine. I’m still twice the—three times the anything your pet elf is. Stack the deck all you want, I’ll still mop the floor with her scalp.” She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders swelling, and let it out slowly. Finally, some of the anger melted from her expression. It did not vanish completely, though, even as she smiled. “And yours, some day. Soon enough.”

Jenell kept silent, staring straight ahead, lest Basra happened to glance over and catch her watching. It had occurred to her before that some of the things Basra allowed her to overhear would get the Bishop severely rebuked at minimum… If she were fool enough to think that pitting her word against Basra’s would go in her favor. She didn’t know if this was a test of her loyalty, or merely of her restraint. For all that so much of her life focused around predicting and responding to Basra’s moods, so much of the woman’s thought process was opaque to her.

“Locke is only getting anywhere because she has connections,” Basra murmured, scowling intently into the distance, now. “I don’t know how she got in with those Eserite kids so quickly… That’s what I’ll need to undercut.”

At one time, Jenell had thought herself quite clever—cunning, even. Months under Basra’s authority had taught her what cunning was, and that hers didn’t compare; it was all she could do to proceed slowly with her research toward what she hoped would be her mentor’s unmaking without being caught. She’d never been sly enough to spot an opportunity like this, develop a plan, and take action, all on the spur of the moment.

Which was why it was fortunate she’d developed that plan already, and been watching intently for just such an opening.

“What if you just took over her connections?” she asked.

Basra shot her an irritated look. “Be quiet, you silly cow, I’m—” She broke off, staring blankly at Jenell.

Suddenly, Basra turned on her heel and strode across the room, straight for her. Jenell allowed her face to express alarm and backed up against the door. Most of the time she kept her self-control iron-clad, but she’d learned long since that Basra rather enjoyed seeing her afraid.

The Bishop didn’t stop until she was standing close enough that Jenell could feel her breath on her cheek.

“Jenell,” she murmured, “I do believe I owe you an apology.”

“Oh, um, I’m sure that’s not—”

“Hush.” Basra laid a finger over her lips. “That was an excellent suggestion you just had; exactly what I need. And a reminder of why I keep you around, which is certainly not for your filing skills or because you’re particularly good in bed.” Fingers lightly grazed that spot just above her hip where there was a small gap in the armor, and she shuddered. Basra’s lips quirked sideways in amusement. “That socialite’s animal cunning, though. You’re going to make a more than adequate politician someday, my dear.”

“Uh…thank you.”

“You’ll have to get rid of that stammer, of course,” Basra said dismissively, abruptly stepping away and beginning to pace again. “There is absolutely no reason for an intelligent person to make noises like ‘uh.’ You have got to be able to pass yourself off as an intelligent person, Jenell, or they’ll eat you alive out there. Honestly, how you managed without me to hold your hand is an ongoing mystery. It’s a damned shame about Elwick—but then, if you had the wit or the spine to stand up to me that way, you wouldn’t be benefiting from my patronage now.”

Jenell kept silent. Oddly, she wasn’t even particularly offended anymore. Of all the things she put up with, insults like this were commonplace and minor. It was a good sign, if anything; Basra didn’t talk this way when she was in a bad enough mood to do something that could actually hurt her.

“Locke’s connections,” the Bishop mused to herself as she paced. “She’s on the outs with the Guild, even Darling doesn’t like her. And I’d get nowhere with them. That’s neutral. Trissiny is untouchable, but the girl is both unformed and already deeply suspicious of Locke. If she’s reaching out to her… Have to put a stop to that. And those kids, now. What they need is friends and allies. The sort who haven’t thrown them in cells.”

She halted, turned to face her aide, and folded her hands behind her back, smiling pleasantly. Jenell experienced a small frisson of true fear.

“Jenell,” Basra said calmly, “I have a task for you.”

“What do you need, your Grace?”

“You’re going to find those kids Locke is cultivating, the Eserites, and befriend them. You have permission to act out of armor—in fact, it’s probably better if you do at least part of the time. They are to work for me, not for Principia Locke.”

“Ah, your Grace,” Jenell said nervously.

“What did I literally just finish saying to you about umms and uhhs? Shut up when I’m talking, it’s not as if you have anything useful to contribute, anyway. Make what use of those kids you can while getting them kindly disposed toward me. But your primary target is Trissiny Avelea. That’s the one I need most of all. She knows me as a helpful figure, she’s uncertain about Locke, and I need both those attitudes reinforced. Make it happen.”

“I’m… How should I approach them?”

“Must I do everything for you?” Basra said irritably. “Follow Locke’s squad, if you can’t think of anything better. They’re already working with the brats; they’ll lead you to wherever you can go to intercept them. And Avelea is your in, if you can’t manage to arrange one of your own. She’s a smart one—no Hand of Avei has ever shown the kind of initiative she’s taken, learning the Guild’s ways. It’s the next best thing to studying with the Black Wreath themselves. That girl may actually live to see her thirtieth birthday, and accomplish more than beating back the tide, which would be a departure from her predecessors’ track record. Help her, but above all, bring her to me. If she doesn’t need your help—which is almost certainly the case, considering her and considering you—she’ll be willing to help you if you create a need. She’s a protective one, is Avelea.”

“Ma’am,” Jenell said desperately, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this. I don’t know anything about associating with that kind of…riffraff.”

Basra smiled. “Then I suggest you get to work developing new skills, Jenell. One can never have too many, after all.” Abruptly her voice sharpened. “Well? Why are you still here?”

Jenell snapped off a salute, and fumbled with the door in the process of skittering out.

She kept herself to a fast pace all the way down the hall and around the corner; the door didn’t open behind her, but its frosted glass pane could have given Basra a wavery view of her retreating back, had the Bishop bothered to watch her. It was never worth making assumptions or taking risks with Basra Syrinx.

Once around the turn, though, she slowed to a more normal pace, and, finding herself alone in the hall, permitted herself a grin of fierce triumph.

That was the first part, done.


Busking was beneath her dignity, of course. Imagine, playing the guitar on a street corner, like…any of the people who plied a trade on street corners. Not a one of those potential trades were anything Ami Talaari wanted anything to do with. And worse, what if someone important saw her? This was a block toward the walls from the Temple of Avei—still a central district of the city, close enough to Imperial Square that, even at this tedious hour of midmorning, the right sort of people might be about. She consoled herself with the thought that most of those whose attention she courted would still be asleep, the better to be out conniving and carousing long into the night.

Fortunately, she wasn’t kept waiting long.

Principia drew looks, as always when walking the city with her helmet off. The respect commanded by a Silver Legionnaire contrasted with the suspicion accorded an elf. Ami rather doubted Locke ever had to deal with racist imprecations; she didn’t get as many tipped hats and murmured blessings as most of her sisters-in-arms, probably, but still. Rare was the fool who wanted to start a fight with the Legions.

All this was quite useful at this moment, as it meant the few other passersby kept a respectful distance from Locke as she strode past Ami’s corner, pausing to drop a coin into her guitar case. No one was close enough to hear the elf murmur.

“She bought it.”

Ami nodded to her, not pausing in her song, just as she would any other patron. Her face remained in a smile that held despite her singing. Of course, it was now a genuine smile, but the punters would never know the difference.

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11 – 4

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High Commander Rouvad was not in her office; her aide directed Principia to one of the temple’s basements. Hopefully the Commander was not expecting her on any particular schedule, because the trip to get there, after climbing to the top of the temple and then down below it, took a quarter of an hour at least.

It was perhaps fortunate that Principia had spent most of the walk practicing her control over her expression. When she entered the basement in question to find Commander Rouvad and Bishop Syrinx standing over a table of battlestaves, she revealed none of her considerable ire on her face.

“Ah, Sergeant,” Rouvad said as she marched up to them and saluted. “Finally. How did it go with the Eserites?”

“I left them in Sister Tianne’s custody, ma’am,” Principia reported. “On my recommendation she is having them thoroughly clean out the outpost’s stables prior to releasing them.”

“An interesting choice,” Basra commented. Principia did not even glance at her.

“I see,” Rouvad mused. “What was your reasoning, Locke?”

“Guild apprentices aren’t particularly dangerous and don’t know anything useful about the fully accredited thieves who are, ma’am. Having them prosecuted would serve no purpose and irritate Boss Tricks. The Sisterhood doesn’t have the prerogative to administer punishments for civil offenses like arms trafficking. The Guild itself, however, would discipline apprentices for a failure of that kind, unless the chief enforcer felt they’d already suffered for it. Putting them to work and then letting them go satisfied the needs of both cults to enforce discipline, averted a confrontation the Guild might take as provocative, and even nurtured some goodwill.”

“Good initiative,” Basra said mildly. “I believe handling relations with the Guild is my job, however.”

“I have heard no suggestion that your Grace’s work is anything less than exemplary at the political level,” Principia replied, still at attention. “My squad is tasked with cultivating interfaith connections, however. I think much of the Sisterhood’s hostility to the Guild is due to a misunderstanding of mindset, even more than doctrinal conflict. Avenists are all about rules; Eserites are all about connections. Showing them that we can be reasonable and forgiving opens the door to future cooperation.”

“Even when that forgiveness is clearly self-serving?” Basra asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Especially then, your Grace. Otherwise they would merely be suspicious.”

“At ease, Locke,” the High Commander interjected. “It sounds to me like you handled the situation well. How is your weapons development project proceeding?”

Principia didn’t blink at the abrupt change of topic. “I am still working on the sticking point I referenced in my last progress report, Commander. The metal of a lance head makes a poor firing surface. Metal is a magical retardant; it holds passive enchantments well but doesn’t want to transmit magic through it, and as an added complication conducts electricity very well. The avenue I am pursuing at the moment is to tinker with the alloy used, which is difficult as I’m not a metallurgist by any means. I’ve sent for research materials from Stavulheim and Yldiron.”

Rouvad raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been following your requisitions, and I don’t recall seeing anything like that.”

“No, ma’am, I made those purchases with my own funds. I’m reluctant to spend the Sisterhood’s money on what I’m not certain will bear fruit.”

Rouvad sighed and shook her head. “You’re picking up some of Nandi’s habits. Your concern for the Sisterhood’s coffers is noted, Locke, but henceforth I would prefer you requisitioned anything you needed through the official channels. Projects like this need thorough records, and reading requisitions enables me to keep abreast of your progress without wasting both our time asking questions.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

The Commander turned to frown at the table of weapons, which Prinicipa took the opportunity to study. They had been heavily modified with large crystals at both ends and gold frameworks spiraling around the upper half of each. With the exception of one laid aside, whose framework was a tarnished gray and showed serious rust damage.

“It has probably occurred to you to wonder what the Silver Legion was doing interrupting a Guild arms meet,” Rouvad said. “This actually came from Bishop Syrinx, who was tipped off by Bishop Darling that what was taking place in that warehouse would be very important and of interest to us, specifically.”

“Eserites in general love to play pranks, especially on us,” Basra added. “Darling is too political to waste goodwill that way, though. He’s never led me astray before, so I presume that this was important.”

“Anything to add to that, Locke?” Rouvad asked.

“I concur with the Bishop’s assessment, Commander. I have not worked directly with Darling, but I know him and his reputation. He’s a bridge-builder.”

“Mm.” Rouvad nodded. “And that leaves us with our catch. There were three vendors present, according to our scouts; they all escaped, leaving a few hapless apprentices holding the bag. One was dealing in some orcish antiquities, and got out with his stock. That is potentially of cultural value to the Sisterhood, but a less likely prospect. The second had a selection of conventional weapons with illegal and nasty modification—again, not really the Sisterhood’s concern. Those we seized, and I am debating whether to simply destroy them or turn them over to the military police.”

“Why the uncertainty, ma’am?” Principia asked.

“Because,” Rouvad replied, “if we hand them off to the Empire, they will have questions if it later become necessary to give them these as well. Lord Vex wouldn’t be the least bit surprised at a major cult withholding evidence from him, but if I have to admit to it the loss of face could have practical consequences. And these, Locke, are why I called you here. The last Guild vendor had several crates of them, and was discussing a sale with two dwarves. At the moment it’s my assumption this is what Darling sent us to find.” She picked up the lone weapon with the tarnished metal and handed it to Principia. “What do you make of this?”

She accepted the staff and turned it over in her hand, examining every part of it carefully. “…well, at a glance, little more than you can see for yourself, ma’am. It’s a modified battlestaff. Why is this one different?”

“That one has been used,” Rouvad explained. “They all arrived in the same condition. We tested one, though, and after being fired four times it abruptly changed to that and stopped working.”

“How does it perform when fired?”

“It doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t appear to do anything. Here, watch.”

The Commander lifted the staff in a standard firing position, grasping the clicker and tucking the butt under her arm to aim; despite leading a military which used an older generation of weapons, she was clearly not new to handling modern firearms. She took aim at one of the target dummies standing against the wall of the basement chamber and squeezed the clicker.

The crystal at the end of the staff emitted a burst of golden light, which flashed across the room to splash against the dummy. It dissipated instantly, rocking the dummy slightly but having no significant effect.

Rouvad lowered the staff and set it aside, carefully putting it separate from the other, unfired models. “We’ve also tested it against shield charms, in case it’s some kind of shield-breaker. It did nothing to those, either. It seems likely that it is intended to do something specifically to a person, which is deeply disturbing and, of course, explains why Darling might find it necessary to tip us off about this. But there is no ethical way to test that, of course. Before we resort to such measures, I want to see what can be learned through analysis. Thoughts, Locke?”

“Well, first of all, I understand what happened to the broken one, now,” she said, still examining it. “This is liargold.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an alchemical formulation of iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold. Liargold, in addition to looking like real gold, also mimics its magical properties. Not for long, though, as actually putting magic on or through it damages its structure, until it reverts to plain, simple iron pyrite. In fact, if you see any object made from pyrite, it’s probably exhausted liargold; it’s not workable like more useful metals. These weapons are cheaply-made knockoffs, probably nothing more than proofs of concept. Also, ironically, more illegal than the modified wands. You need a license and Imperial oversight to work with liargold, since its primary use is, of course, counterfeiting coins. I surmise these devices require gold to work. Which… Yes, I can see why nobody wanted to shell out for a whole crate of them.”

“I had a feeling you were the person to ask about this,” Rouvad said in a mildly satisfied tone. “I am temporarily suspending your enchantment program, Locke. For the time being, you will instead direct your effort to these things. Figure out what they are, how they work, and what they are meant to do.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said calmly. “Commander… Reverse-enchanting weapons is a completely different matter from designing new ones. My divinatory skills are minor and wholly inadequate to this task. I’ll need a dedicated scryer to work with.”

“We’ll get you one,” Rouvad said, then glanced at Basra. “For the time being, I want this kept quiet, at least until we know what we’re dealing with, here. In addition to figuring out what the devices themselves are, I want to know where they came from. You will both pursue that, from above and below, so to speak. I suspect Darling would have told you more if he intended to, Basra, but see if you can get anything more out of him.”

“Gladly, Commander.”

“And Sergeant, do likewise. Discretion is key, but I want you to dedicate your squad’s efforts to finding and following leads. This is now your primary mission; Captain Dijanerad will be informed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting. Her gaze cut sideways for a second to Basra, who was now studying her through narrowed eyes.

“And furthermore,” Rouvad said sternly, “there will be an absolute maximum of zero infighting between you two. I am aware of your history; I was present for it. Given your respective mandates, this will not be the last time you will find yourselves working in proximity to one another, if not actively together. Your tasks call for you to be calculating, discreet, and above all, diplomatic. If either prove unable in that regard, I will find something for you to do which better suits your demonstrated level of maturity. Am I understood?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She looked back and forth between them with an expression which would brook no nonsense. “Then you both know what you need to be working on. Locke, I know you’ve been out all night on assignment; go rest up with your squad.”

“Yes, ma’am. Commander, there’s something else. May I speak with you in private?”

Rouvad heaved a soft sigh, regarding her speculatively. “Well, I know you and I have no personal business, and as this is the first time I’m hearing of it, may I assume this pertains to your mission last night?”

“It—yes, ma’am, it’s an issue I became aware of at that time.”

“Well, Locke, that doesn’t quite qualify as infighting, but you are straining my tolerance. The Bishop has a right to be kept in the loop with regard to anything concerning our dealings with the Guild or the law. Spit it out.”

Basra folded her arms, keeping her expression neutral.

Principia did not indulge in even the slightest flicker of emotion on her own face. “Yes, ma’am. Trissiny Avelea was among the Eserite apprentices we apprehended and put to work last night.”

Rouvad raised her eyebrows, and turned to regard Basra, who shrugged.

“She either works fast, or isn’t the most quick-legged of thieves,” the Bishop said. “Both are in character, from what I understand, and I’d consider neither a failing.”

“And what did you do with Trissiny Avelea, Sergeant?” Rouvad asked quietly.

“Exactly as I did with the rest of them, Commander,” Principia replied. “No personal acknowledgment aside from a condescending put-down when she sassed me. I realize you have a low opinion of my background, but it’s prepared me well to recognize when someone is under cover and not blow it.”

“You have spoken with her in person, if I’m not mistaken?” Rouvad continued, her stare boring into Principia. “She knows who and what you are?”

“She knows.”

“All right.” The Commander shook her head. “I won’t trouble to remind you of the condition of your enlistment, since you clearly remember. Thank you for reporting this, but unless she appears to be in some danger, it’s not your concern or ours. And likely not even then. Hands of Avei are meant to be more resilient and adaptive than soldiers in general.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia glanced rapidly back and forth between them. “Commander, do I take this to mean you were already aware she was among the Guild?”

“Of course we were, Locke,” Rouvad said sardonically. “I am the mortal leader of this faith, and the Bishop is our official point of connection to the Church and the other cults. General Avelea does not go charging off to do whatever she likes without notifying her chain of command. I can only assume that results from Abbess Narnasia’s upbringing. It clearly isn’t genetic. Is that all, Locke?”

“What is she doing?”

“As soon as that is any concern of yours, Locke,” Rouvad said in a tone of quiet warning, “she’ll inform you. If there is nothing else, you have your orders. Dismissed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia saluted her, then turned and did the same to Basra. “Welcome home, your Grace.”

“Why, thank you, Sergeant Locke,” Basra said with a pleasant little smile.

Commander Rouvad heaved a sigh.


There were multiple ways in and out of the Thieves’ Guild headquarters, unsurprisingly. The first thing all who applied for an apprenticeship learned was that grubby apprentices were not to be found trooping through the Imperial Casino. On this night, the five bedraggled youths coming home as dawn was breaking chose a servant’s access in a side alley, and thus earned themselves another loud lecture to the effect that grubby apprentices were not to troop through the casino’s kitchens, either.

They did their best to ignore the stares of fellow apprentices and knowing grins of full Guild members as they passed through the underground corridors to the Guild proper. Fortunately, it was the best time of day for that, with most of those keeping normal business hours not about yet and most of the night crowd having turned in. The Thieves’ Guild never truly slept, though, and even apprentices weren’t kept to any schedule but their own. No matter what time of day one chose to straggle in, reeking, sweaty, and exhausted, there was certain to be an audience of some kind.

In this case, perhaps the worst one possible.

“What the hell happened to you losers?” Style demanded as soon as they’d descended the stairs into the central pit, planting fists on her hips to stare incredulously at them. “You look like you’ve been mucking out a stable.”

“We fought a dragon,” Tallie said challengingly.

“And then we rescued a princess!” Darius added.

“And then we mucked out a stable,” Jasmine said wearily.

“Hn. Coulda been a lot worse, I guess,” she said, folding her brawny arms. Today’s outfit was some kind of elaborate faux-clerical robe, embroidered with stylized animals along the hem and cuffs in a manner that resembled plains elf decoration. It was one of the more effeminate things she’d worn in recent memory, but somehow the burly enforcer managed to make the outfit seem martial. “If you didn’t turn up by tonight I was gonna go rattle Sweet’s cage to get you back from the Avenists.”

“Oh,” Tallie said, her shoulders slumping. “So…you know about last night.”

“Heard the news straight from Pick himself,” she said grimly. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. You kids are just about the rankest fucking amateurs we have in this joint; nobody would expect you to know how to pull off an escape from a smoke-bombed room. Did any of you even think to check your exits before setting up in there?”

They glanced uncertainly at each other.

“Uh huh,” Style said sourly. “And naturally, Pick didn’t bother to show you that trick, or ask if you knew it. That on top of dragging a bunch of apprentices into that and then ditching them for the Legion. Just when I thought that little fuckhead couldn’t possibly climb higher up my shit list, he found a way. Oy, what the hell is this?” Her piercing gaze fixed on Rasha, who took a nervous step backward in response, and she scowled heavily. “No, you may not have a pet.”

“This is Rasha,” Tallie explained. “He’s new.”

“New, my exquisitely sculpted ass. I know every apprentice studying here.”

“New,” Jasmine explained, “as in, literally just arrived and had a meal when we found out about the job. He doesn’t have a bunk yet.”

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded, brows lowering still further. “You mean to say this scrawny little shrimp set foot in my Guild and literally the first thing he did, even before finding a place to kip, was get his ass to work?”

She took two long strides forward, into the middle of their group, causing Tallie and Darius to peel away in alarm; Rasha tried to backpedal away from the oncoming enforcer, but was stopped by Jasmine and Ross, who held their ground right behind him. Style bent forward to clap him on the shoulder so hard his knees buckled, and grinned broadly.

“You, shorty, have got a future. I’m gonna be watching you with great interest.”

“Stop,” Rasha growled, “calling. Me. Small.”

It only occurred to him belatedly that snarling like a stray dog at someone who was not only highly-ranked in the Guild but clearly physically capable of breaking him in half wasn’t the wisest thing he had ever done, even after the events of the last day.

Style’s grin faded, replaced by a more pensive expression which seemed oddly out of place on her bluff features.

“Kid,” she said seriously, “you’re small. That’s not an insult, it’s a simple fact, and a pretty fucking obvious one. You’re here to learn to be a thief; being small is all kinds of useful if you learn how to use it—which you had better get your ass to work doing. Anybody who rags on you for your stature has shit between their ears, and when it starts to spill out their mouths, the correct thing to do is walk the fuck away and talk to someone less disgusting.”

Style stepped back, dragging a speculative stare across them, then wrinkled her nose. “All right…Rasha, was it? I know you’re half-dead on your feet, but you’re new, so you get the speech. Everyone gets the speech; if I have to repeat the speech to you, it’ll be while going about my daily tasks wearing your ass as a boot. So long as you’re staying in my apprentice barracks, you will be a model fucking citizen. You will respect the persons, the privacy, and the possessions of your fellow apprentices. You don’t steal anybody’s shit or mess with it at all, you don’t force any kind of attention on anybody who doesn’t want it, and you do not test the limits to see how far you can push the rules. The line is drawn wherever I fucking feel like drawing it on a given day, and if I think you’re probing at me, I’ll smack the stupid out of you on the spot. Also, the barracks is to remain spotlessly clean—by which I mean, if I happen to pass through and am in any way dissatisfied with its condition, I will kick the shit out of each and every person residing therein, either sequentially or concurrently, depending on how much time I happen to have for apprentice bullshit that day. Simple solution is you keep your own area clean with regular attention, and if you spot something needs cleaning, you do it instead of waiting for others to. Eserion’s service attracts selfish people by nature; by the time you graduate to full Guild membership, you will demonstrate, among other things, that you can respect your fellow thieves, your Guild, and its facilities. Any questions?”

“I grew up on ships,” Rasha said, folding his arms. “Clean and tidy I can do.”

“Good.” Style nodded once. “Now, all of you. I can clearly see you’re exhausted, but on the roster of things about which I give a shit, that is substantially below the condition and the smell of you. You will all go wash yourselves and your clothes before soiling my lovely barracks with your reeking carcasses. Rasha, your fellow miscreants will conduct you to the facilities, show you where everything is and how to work it. Then, just pick whatever bunk isn’t occupied and help your goddamn self. Clear?”

“It’s a little excessive, isn’t it?” Jasmine noted. “I mean, my last roommate liked to curse like a sailor, too, but she worked it into conversation. Organically. You seem to be trying too hard.”

“Uh…” Darius stared at her, wide-eyed. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to get a rise outta me,” Style said dryly. “Because she was placed here by the gods specifically to be a thorn in my ass. Tell you what, Jasmine, I’m gonna refrain from clocking you because I find it a very positive development that you’re already picking up the habit of fighting with words instead of fists. Frankly, when you first showed up here, I didn’t think you had the necessary mental capacity. Now, either you learn quickly what fights are and are not worth picking, or you’ll end up picking your teeth out of the floorboards.”

“Uh, the floor’s stone,” Tallie said helpfully.

Style grinned broadly. “Yeah. That is what makes it an impressive party trick. Go get cleaned up, junior fuckups. You have a whole new day in which to make asses of yourselves ahead.”


The rest of the squad, including Casey, were in their bunks and apparently fully inert by the time Principia returned to the barracks. Nobody was even snoring, Merry having rolled onto her side already, which based on experience meant she’d been out for a while now. The arcane stove was active, but at its lowest setting, having very little work to do against the unseasonable warmth. She paused in the central aisle between beds to glance around at the others with a small smile, then set about unbuckling her armor.

Nandi’s blonde head appeared over the edge of the bunk above her own. “Anything interesting?” she asked in a bare whisper, soft enough the humans present would probably not have heard even had they been awake.

Principia shook her head, replying in the same tone. “In addition to a handful of Eserite guppies, the Legion seized some kind of experimental magical weapons, which are now our mission. I’m to figure out what makes ’em hum, while the squad tracks where they came from. And,” she added sourly, “we will be working parallel to our esteemed Bishop on this. She’s going to start from the top while we work from the bottom.”

“Hmm.” Nandi blinked languidly. She did not appear tired, which was no surprise. The Legions fed its soldiers well; both elves had enough energy stored in their auras to go for days without needing to rest, not that they tried to push it as a rule. “A matched set of risks and opportunities, that.”

“It occurred to me, yes.”

“Any notion where to start looking?”

“That is the problem,” Principia said with a sigh as she stowed away her armor and peeled off her underthings, reaching for her sleeping shift. The others had doubtless needed to wash up before getting into bunks; elves did not sweat much, and she found her own condition satisfactorily sanitary. “I’ve positioned myself rather poorly for this, Nandi. Keeping my distance from the Guild has left me with few useful contacts in the arms trade, especially here in Tiraas. I can’t go to Darling, because that’s what Syrinx is doing, and apart from not wanting to cross paths with her, I don’t want to tip him off that…well, any of it. Darling loves to be useful, but he files away every tidbit for future leverage, and I don’t need him planting any levers under my bum.”

“Well,” Nandi suggested, smiling as Principia climbed into her bunk, “we did just make some very junior acquaintances in the Guild, did we not? They probably don’t think the best of you right now, but surely a few of that handful were perceptive enough to see the trouble your decision kept them out of.”

“Guild apprentices won’t know anything useful that we could pursue,” she said dismissively, “aside from the very basics of who they were working for, and I’ll tie my ears in a bow if the Guild hadn’t covered those tracks before they even learned of this. Besides… There could be complications if the High Commander gets word of me trying to approach that particular group of apprentices.”

“One of them, anyway.”

Principia sighed. “Y’know, I never wondered, before, whether you were in the loop about that. Somehow, it surprises me not in the least.”

“I shall take that as a compliment.” Nandi was now staring up at the ceiling, still speaking in he tiniest of whispers, which Principia had no trouble hearing in the quiet cabin. “Well. As any hunter could tell you, the solution is obvious. If we cannot stalk our quarry, we must entice it to come to us.”

“Go to sleep, Shahai. I’ll brief the squad in full later today.”

Nandi smiled serenely up at the ceiling. “Yes, ma’am.”

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9 – 37

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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