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The spectacle they’d made in the sanctuary sufficiently distracted everyone that Trissiny and her entourage were able to make a relatively discreet withdrawal, leaving behind an agitated temple filled with exited visitors, distraught Purists, and Legionnaires rapidly moving to ensure the crowd remained under control. The paladin glanced back once just before stepping through a rear door of the sanctuary, and locked eyes just for a moment with Sister Magden, who had knelt to wrap her arms around the weeping Lanora’s shoulders.
Then they were moving through the relatively quieter halls beyond, the whole group sorting into rough columns of two abreast and making for the deeper temple where there would be fewer people.
By mutual contrivance, Rasha and Zafi ended up near the back of the troop, between Sister Azalea’s two priestess friends in the front and the other three Eserites trailing along behind them.
“Well, that…was altogether a hell of a thing,” Zafi finally said softly after they had walked for a minute to only the sound of their combined feet and the muted conversation between Trissiny and Azalea up in the front. “Mission successful and all. I’m glad those turkeys got dealt with. Dang, though. I did not get up this morning expecting to be in a room with Avei.”
Rasha opened her mouth and hesitated, fumbling for a suitable response to that. She had to pause and clear her throat for time, only belatedly murmuring, “That particular experience was a first for all of us, I think. But you get used to it, hanging around with a paladin. Expect the unexpectable, or be trampled by it.”
“I dunno whether to write this off as over my pay grade, or try to see if I can’t finagle a more permanent position around the General,” Zafi admitted. “I dunno, I think I’d make a pretty good lackey. I guess I’ll just have to hang around you a while longer and see if I don’t get the hang of it,” she added, giving Rasha a playful little sidelong smile. “After all, if I can’t pick up some secondhand poise from my lady of mystery, I guess that’d make me completely hopeless.”
There came a gagging sound from behind them, followed by the muffled thump of someone’s fist impacting someone’s midsection. Neither of them turned around.
“I think I can spare you some poise,” Rasha mused. She trailed off, frowning, then drew in a breath. “Look, Zafi, this coy back-and-forth is fun, but would it spoil the illusion if we talk frankly for a little bit? Between you and me, I’m a little wrung out after the day I’ve had.”
“Oh, thank the gods,” Zafi said, exhaling in relief. “Yeah, I honestly don’t know how much longer I could’ve kept it up. Not that I was trying to misrepresent myself, I just… Well, I gotta flirt at maximum strength before you realize how out of my league you are, is all.”
Rasha glanced at her, unable to repress a smile, and found the soldier staring forward with her cheeks flushed. The unexpected boost to her own ego brought back some of her well-trained smoothness, despite the fatigue of the day.
“Straight talk, then. When are you off duty tomorrow?”
Zafi didn’t quite stumble, but her stride hitched as if she’d had to remind herself how to take a step in the middle of one. “Uh, I, ah… Early shift. I’m free at three.”
“Perfect. There’s a Glassian cafe called La Chez just a few blocks from here. I will see you there at four.”
“I, um.” Zafi swallowed heavily. “Rasha, that place is a little out of…”
“My treat,” Rasha assured her. “And I’m not throwing money around; the owner is a friend of my sponsor. She got him his business license when he immigrated here. After that, we’ll see if we want to start traumatizing each other with the sorts of places soldiers and thieves actually like to hang out.” She glanced over at the Legionnaire again, and subconsciously bit her lower lip. “I’ve got a feeling you’re worth the effort.”
Zafi’s answering grin was clearly out of her control. “I…will not disappoint.”
“You haven’t yet.” Rasha winked at her, then subtly shortened her stride, fading backward such that Darius meandered up to take her place as smoothly as if they’d practiced the maneuver. Which, of course, they had.
Zafi was still grinning like a fool, but coughed and made an effort to marshal herself before glancing over at him. “Right. So, this is the part where you explain how much you’ll break my legs if I mistreat your friend?”
“Whoah.” He held up both hands as the two priestesses in front of them shifted their heads to look backward while walking. “As the resident dude-type person, I’m gonna delegate this conversation. Ladies, if you would?”
Another deft Eserite maneuver ensued in which he fell back and Layla and Tallie smoothly sidled up to flank Zafi on both sides, despite the fact they’d turned into a narrower hallway which made this a little cramped.
“First of all,” said Tallie in a pleasant tone, “we never issue a threat in front of witnesses. That’s proof of premeditation, which greatly raises your chance of being convicted if prosecuted and automatically increases your sentence.”
“Second,” Layla continued from her other side, “we don’t issue redundant threats. You are clearly aware of the perils of offending Eserites; making a production of it would just make us look petty and foolish.”
“And most important,” Tallie finished, “Eserites handle their own problems. If you ever hurt Rasha, you will answer to Rasha.”
“We’ll just be sitting on the sidelines, laughing and throwing coins,” Layla added smugly.
Incongruously, Zafi grinned again. “Y’know what? You girls are all right. Actually you remind me a little bit of my sergeant.”
“I do believe I approve of this one,” Layla declared.
At the head of the double column, Sister Azalea broke a lull in the softer conversation between herself and Trissiny to say, quietly, “Thank you for everything you did today.”
“Just my duty,” the paladin replied. “And there are already parts I wish I’d handled better…”
“Obviously, I’m grateful for the help you rendered to the Sisterhood, Trissiny, I don’t mean to minimize that. But I meant personally. It may be routine for you to commune with our goddess, but a simple priestess like myself can expect to spend her life without ever being in her actual presence. It was… Thank you.”
“Ah.” Trissiny smiled faintly at that. “Well, then, you’re welcome.”
The priestess gave her a pensive look. “You are dissatisfied with the outcome?”
“We still need to find the source of the Purists’ funding and equipment, as well as who organized them,” Trissiny said with a dour expression. “Based on your intelligence it seems Sister Lanora is the only one who has that information, and now… I rather doubt she will be inclined to be helpful, and since she is no longer part of the Sisterhood, we no longer have the legal prerogative to detain her. I might be willing to risk it anyway, but something tells me there would be immediate and voluble legal challenges if we tried, accompanied by press coverage of the Sisterhood’s ham-fisted abuses of power. All conveniently untraceable, of course.”
“Hmm.” Azalea narrowed her own eyes in thought. “Undoubtedly the goddess acted as she did for good reason. I must trust this will lead us to the course of action she desires.”
Trissiny indulged in a soft sight. “The consciousness of gods is…not entirely like our own, Sister. As Professor Tellwyrn once put it, Avei the deity can be influenced to do things which Avei the mortal strategist of the Elder War would have known not to. Calling upon her so dramatically, in public, may have been what led to this outcome. Well, anyway, recrimination is useless even when not focused on inscrutable deities; we have the next moves to consider. Sister Azalea…” She hesitated, studying the priestess sidelong for a moment. “Are you still interested in the office of Bishop?”
“I will of course serve Avei in whatever capacity I might,” she said diplomatically. “Surely that is less likely now, rather than more? We have probably just further affronted the Archpope, even if we cannot prove it.”
“I’ve spoken with High Commander Rouvad about this. We plan for the Sisterhood to appoint a Bishop unilaterally, who will be responsible for directing our interfaith relations, without going through the Universal Church.”
“I…see,” Azalea said. “That is a bold move. And now that I think on it, exactly what is needed.”
Trissiny nodded. “My next destination was going to be Viridill, to retrieve Nandi Shahai for that role. But you are here, Sister, and clearly more than capable… The position isn’t mine to appoint, of course, but I think my recommendation carries some weight with Rouvad.”
“I’d be honored to take on the task if the Commander wishes,” Azalea said seriously, “but if Shahai is another prospect, I’d encourage you to ask her first. She has served Avei for five centuries in a surprising variety of roles, and has exactly the web of long-standing connections this task requires. Thank you for thinking of me, however,” she added with a smile. “As these events have demonstrated, I think I am still valuable to the Sisterhood where I am.”
“Very much so,” Trissiny agreed, smiling.
“Then there remains finding and proving a link between the Purists and the Archpope, if possible. I dare to hold out hope that Lanora will still cooperate, but it is true that she now has ample motivation to obstruct us…”
“Well, we’re not entirely out of tricks just yet,” the paladin murmured, eyes straight ahead and narrowed in thought. “Actually… First thing tomorrow, I’m going to call in a favor.”
The door stood slightly ajar, emitting a slice of the clean glow of a fairy lamp, so he pushed it wider and poked his head in.
This wing was in the Manor’s most refurbished section, a hallway lined with bedrooms directly above the kitchen and dining room where the house’s residents spent most of their time. Thus, the room was clean and repaired, with new glass in the windows and modern fairy lighting, but starkly empty, lacking drapes, carpets, or even wallpaper. That had given Natchua plenty of room to lay out her various props.
She had hung maps of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province on one wall and marked them heavily with both ink and pushpins. On the floor were no less than four now-inert spell circles, and another sprawling map of the city held down by a selection of chess pieces, silverware, and coins.
Natchua stood in the center of the room, slowly turning her head back and forth to study the various maps and tapping her lips with one fingertip, a characteristic tic of Professor Tellwyrn’s which she had begun unconsciously using in recent months.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Planning an invasion?”
“Everybody talks about how dangerous and mysterious Veilgrad is,” she said without looking up. “I never really paused to consider what that actually means for people. It’s one thing to note that a steady trickle of people just vanish around here, every year. Sometimes entirely… Sometimes turning up later, in pieces. That’s continued happening as usual while we’ve been living here. While I was gallivanting around the city, getting my face in the papers and doing nothing about any of it. Every one of those statistics was a person, who left grieving people behind.”
He stepped the rest of the way in and pushed the door almost closed behind him, not quite to the point of latching it. “None of that was your responsibility, Natch.”
“Not specifically, no,” she murmured. “Aren’t we all at least somewhat responsible for doing what we can, for who we can, where we are? That seems like one of the basic necessities of being a decent person. Considering who and what I am, I really need to think about stuff like that.”
Stepping carefully to avoid disrupting any of her workings, Jonathan approached her and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders from behind. She immediately leaned back against him. “What brought all this on?”
“Work,” she said sighing softly. “I’m not just up here flagellating myself, Jon. For tomorrow’s planned project I needed a list of targets around the city. And holy shit, there are a lot. Mostly fairies, which I can’t do a whole lot about. I did find a good handful of demonic activity, which is what I was looking for. Oh, also, I’ve accidentally solved Veilgrad’s central mystery.”
“Well, that’ll be a relief to a lot of people,” he observed.
“I think I’d actually better keep it to myself,” Natchua said, closing her eyes and resting her head against his collarbone. “There’s not really anything to be done about it and knowing will just scare everybody. Turns out there’s an abandoned drow city very close to here. Well, abandoned except for the divinely-created undead monstrosities it’s full of now. Themynrite magic was used in their creation, and the resonance between that and the native fairies is what keeps giving rise to necromantic events, despite the fact that none of them are related.”
“Well… Surely if you know where that is, the Empire can go in and clear it out?”
“Bad idea,” she insisted. “If a Themynrite city is abandoned, it’s because it was breached by Scyllithenes. That would be why it’s full of zombie monsters now. You should never open a path for them. And if the Scyllithenes haven’t managed to break through them in thousands of years of trying, those zombie monsters are not to be fucked with. Might be too big a mouthful even for the Imperial Army. Better to leave it alone, and start being more vigilant about undead events in the area.”
“Hence, all this.”
She nodded, opening her eyes to look up at him. “And this is just what I was able to find. It’s a start, anyway. Xyraadi is much better at divination than me; infernomancy doesn’t lend itself to the art.”
“I notice you’ve got your djinn bottle out,” he said in a neutral tone, nodding at the artifact still sitting in the center of one of the inert spell circles.
“Yeah… I don’t call on Qadira lightly, but at least I got what I needed.”
“You found the Wreath?”
“No, they’re not nearly so easy to track. They’re not what I was looking for, anyway. Kheshiri and I will still be chasing them down tomorrow. Given the established pattern, they’ll probably find us once we’re alone. And now I have what I need to be ready for them.” With another quiet sigh, Natchua reached up to grasp his hands and squeeze them momentarily, then pulled herself out of his embrace. “Fortuitously, both succubi are in another room down at the end of this hall. I’ll go brief her real quick.”
“Good idea,” he said with a smile. “And I’m sure it has nothing to do with wanting to break up whatever those two are doing in a room together.”
“Vanislaads are generally not social with each other,” Natchua agreed, leading the way back out into the hall. “Mel and Shiri are pretty focused and they both have plenty to do; I’m not hugely worried about a feud brewing, but still. Doesn’t pay to take risks with their kind.”
“I’m right with you on that.”
She reached one door, grasped the latch and pushed it open. Then both of them froze, staring into the room.
Melaxyna was on all fours on the floor—actually, upon a closer look, she had all four of her limbs bent double and then bound with leather straps, calf to thigh and forearm to bicep, forcing her to balance painfully on her knees and elbows. Her head was mostly obscured, between the gag, the blindfold, and the pair of felt bunny ears leftover from the last spring festival. Both her wings were splayed out to the sides and actually nailed to the floor.
Behind her stood Kheshiri dressed in a formal ballgown with the addition of a broad leather collar from which dangled a cowbell, busy feeding the other succubus’s tail into an old-fashioned laundry mangle they’d somehow dragged up to this room.
Both their heads turned to the door.
“Do you knock?” Kheshiri demanded acerbically.
Natchua and Jonathan jerked back out, yanking the door shut, and simultaneously pressed their backs against the wall to either side of it.
“On the other hand,” Natchua decided, “I could just brief her in the morning.”
He cleared his throat. “Um, I note that it was the significantly more evil succubus in the advantageous position over the more trustworthy one. Should you actually…?”
“In fact, no, it wasn’t; that was Shiri in the…restraints. They’d swapped appearances.”
Jonathan covered his eyes with a hand. “Okay. Somehow, that’s the kinkiest part, and I can’t even articulate why.”
“Well, hell, this is good,” Natchua said, pushing herself off the wall and taking him by the arm. “If you keep two Vanislaads together, they’ll either go at each other like strange cats, or… Go at each other like bunnies. And two Vanislaads getting busy usually means the kind of play that would kill most people. So, it beats the hell out of the alternative. Now let’s go turn in. Suddenly I find I would like to make love slowly in the missionary position with the lights off.”
It was past dark when Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor, though not by much. She found the rest of her class still up and gathered in the front sitting room of their suite, with one exception.
“Trissiny!” Teal exclaimed upon her entry. “There you are, we were starting to worry. Is everything okay?”
“It’s been…a day,” Trissiny said wryly, striding forward and flopping into an unoccupied armchair. Teal and Shaeine were perched together on the loveseat, Gabriel and Toby lounging in smaller chairs, and Fross as usual floating overhead. F’thaan lay curled in front of the fire, though he looked up at her arrival and his tail thumped against the floor. “Are you two okay? You got everything squared away all right?”
“Once F’thaan was rescued, our afternoon was much more tedious than harrowing,” Shaeine assured her. “The authorities were not pleased by Vadrieny making a display of herself in broad daylight in the middle of the city, but we had ample legal representation.”
“Also, it helps that we were in the right,” Teal added. “Vadrieny’s actions were fully covered by the statutes governing defense of self and property. Except for some, ah, incidental damage to the pavement. The magistrate was persuaded to levy a fine and the bill for repairs, rather than anything more serious.”
“As it ever was,” Ruda drawled, gesticulating with her bottle of rum. “What’d get a factory worker jailed gets a factory heiress fined, in an amount that won’t even dent her allowance.”
“It does seem like people with money live under an effectively different set of laws,” Fross chimed.
“C’mon, doll, you know I love you,” Ruda added in response to Teal’s scowl. “But you exist in a context. There’s nothing gained by denying your advantages in life.”
“I’d like to see a factory worker make a Vadrieny-style crater in the street,” Gabriel remarked.
“I apologize that we were not able to drive you back here as planned,” Shaeine said to Trissiny.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Trissiny said quickly, “it ended up being Avenist business that kept me occupied most of the day. I wouldn’t have been able to take you up on it anyhow. I’m just glad to see you and F’thaan are back safe. Did June turn in already?”
“Actually, she’s spending the night up at Ravana’s hunting lodge,” said Toby. “With her sister, and the rest of Brother Ingvar’s group.”
“Yeah, you missed the big news of the day,” Gabriel added. “Ravana has effectively hired the whole sect to serve as the new foresters and game wardens for the province.”
“Really,” Trissiny said, leaning forward. “That’s…a peculiar move. Wouldn’t that get her in trouble with the Huntsmen?”
“Oh, but that wasn’t the big news,” he replied with relish. “There was a whole public announcement today while you were off in the capital. House Madouri has formally recognized Ingvar’s splinter group as the official and legitimate faith of Shaath.”
“Which means,” Toby added, “that legally they are, in Tiraan Province.”
“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “She can’t just… Wait, why would she do that? It makes her an outright enemy of the orthodox Huntsmen! Not to mention probably the Universal Church. There’s a reason the Houses stay out of religious politics. The risk/reward calculation is never in the favor of people trying to meddle.”
“Well, like I was just saying before you came in,” Gabriel replied, “there’s a good chance of this getting her in good with the other cults. Pretty much nobody actually likes the Huntsmen.”
“And like I was just telling him, it doesn’t work that way,” Ruda retorted. “People who’ve got power and privilege want to protect those things above any other concern. The accepted thing is that nobles don’t meddle in cult business. If this becomes a precedent, the cults will be losing influence to the Houses. All the religious leaders are going to come down on her, or try to.”
“Ravana isn’t reckless enough to do something like that without considering the angles,” Trissiny mused. “What is she up to?”
“Uh, pardon me, but isn’t she kind of explicitly exactly that?” Fross objected. “I’m not denying that Ravana’s sly, but just from the stories I’ve heard it seems like her whole problem is a tendency to go on the attack without accounting for the broader context.”
“Oh, I think she’s considered the angles, all right,” Ruda drawled. “Question is how carefully she’s considered ‘em.”
“Well, that’s as good a segue as any,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Gabe, Toby, I think we need to take a page out of Ravana’s book.”
“Well, sure,” Gabriel said lightly. “But where are we going to get a mag cannon and a team of assassins at this hour?”
“I see that verbal diarrhea still hasn’t cleared up,” Toby said. “You need to eat more fiber, Gabe. Triss, which book did you mean, specifically?”
“The part where she’s making this a working vacation. I have spent my day preemptively shutting down an attempt by Justinian to induce a schism within the Sisterhood of Avei, and encountering growing evidence that he’s trying to do the same thing within the Thieves’ Guild. That,” she added, turning to Shaeine and Teal, “is probably why they sent a couple of hapless goons to try to abduct F’thaan.”
“I wondered,” Teal murmured. “They never had a realistic chance of getting him. It does seem like the Guild was deliberately setting itself up for failure.”
“In response,” Trissiny continued, “the Sisterhood is dropping its attempts to get Justinian to confirm a new Bishop. Tomorrow, if the arrangements can be made fast enough, Commander Rouvad is going to appoint one without his approval, and have her take over our interfaith operations, as Bishop Darling is currently doing for the Guild.”
“Risky,” Ruda said, her expression intent. “You’ll either end up freezing the Universal Church out of the only thing it actually does, or being frozen out by the Church. It all depends on how many other cults you can get to sign on with you.”
“Exactly,” Trissiny agreed, nodding and turning back to the boys. “The Guild hasn’t been having much luck, but they’re nearly as unpopular as the Huntsmen. Joined by the Sisterhood, things will change. And if all three Trinity cults take a stand…”
“You realize we don’t actually have the authority to do that,” Toby said seriously. “I’m not refusing you, Trissiny. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree and I’ll back you on this. I saw what a danger Justinian is as close up as you did. I just want to warn you, whatever relationship you have with Commander Rouvad, it’s likely more productive than any attempt I could make to get the Dawn Council to… To do anything.”
“Same goes, sort of,” Gabriel agreed. “I like the idea, Triss. But Lady Gwenfaer is the scariest person I’ve ever met, largely because I suspect she’s the smartest and I don’t actually have any idea what she thinks or wants. I walk in there asking her to go to war with the Archpope, and the only certainty is she’ll find some way to profit from it.”
“I think I see an inherent risk in this,” Fross added. “So, Justinian’s closest backers are the Huntsmen, right? And thanks to Ingvar, they’re split and effectively neutralized, right? So now, a few months after that happened, the two cults that have most openly defied him are having internal divisions he’s fostered.”
“Yeah, that’s about the time frame it’d take to set up something like that,” Ruda agreed.
“I see where you’re going, Fross, and the same had occurred to me,” said Trissiny.
Gabriel chuckled. “Well, hell, I almost hope he does try to instigate a schism inside the Vidians. Let Justinian get a taste for dealing with real schemers.”
“Once again, Arquin, not how it fucking works,” Ruda said with clear exasperation. “A group that’s already prone to politicking and infighting is more vulnerable, not less. There may be elements in it that are too good for Justinian to fuck with, but there are also a million other cracks he can wedge his fingers into. Only takes one little grip for him to start pulling the whole thing apart.”
Gabriel sighed, his smile fading. “I see your point. Man… Bishop Darling suggested I pick a faction and commit to them, but… Val’s been trying to coach me on the intricacies of Vidian politics, but it’s like the web a spider would make after you dunked it in coffee. I still don’t even know where to start finding a group of allies who can stand up to him and hold the rest of the cult together if he attacks it.”
“Actually,” Toby said pensively, studying him, “I think you know exactly where to start, Gabe. You just won’t like it.”