Tag Archives: Lady Gwenfaer

Bonus #45: The Masks We Wear, part 2

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Being saddled with Reich began immediately.

“I’m curious, Tarvadegh,” she said as soon as they were in a private corridor outside the innermost sanctuaries of the temple in which Gwenfaer lived and from which she governed the cult. That wasn’t hard to arrange; the underground complex was sprawling and easy to get lost in unless you knew your way around. Finding a hallway with no one else in it was usually much easier than finding another person. There were countless possible routes to the exit, and Val had followed Reich simply because she had chosen to set their path and he didn’t feel like engaging in a pissing contest with her. “Vistirian is an old teacher of the Lady’s. Raskin is one of her favorite hands with which to reach into people’s pockets. I, of course, know why I am useful to her. But you—and I mean no offense by this—I’ve never heard of before today. How did you come to be a confidant of Lady Gwenfaer?”

He gave her a sidelong look of appraisal. Reich was wearing a mask of calm, open curiosity, which he took for an honest one as it was the sensible attitude in her situation. Had she tried to play coy, he might have been annoyed. He was wearing a similar mask himself, but now switched it—to a coy, slightly smug one he’d modeled off a burlesque dancer on whom he’d had an unhealthy crush as a teenager.

“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m her secret bedtime boy toy.” Pause for comedic timing, as his actor friends had taught him. “She likes it in the pooper.”

Reich switched back to her disapproving schoolmarm mask.

He showed it right back to her.

“Are you being difficult for a specific reason, Tarvadegh, or do you have a defective personality?”

“Eh.” He made a waffling motion with one hand.

“If you consider it in poor taste for me to ask your credentials without offering mine, that’s fair. For my part—”

“I know who you are, Reich,” he said, switching to a mask of weary acceptance, one inspired by his various ministrations to the grieving over the years.

“Ah.” Her own mask changed again, back to the serenely inquisitive one, and this time he knew it had to be much less sincere. “And you don’t approve of me. You aren’t the first. Which part troubles you, if I might inquire?”

“I’ll warn you up front: my sense of humor is wasted on most people…”

“Yes, you did warn me of that up front, didn’t you? Rather vividly.”

“…and that is the last personal detail I am interested in sharing, Reich. If you will kindly leave me alone, I will do my utmost to make this partnership as efficient and painless as I can, the better to end it sooner. Deal?”

“Hmm…I’m not sure I can meet those terms,” she mused. The farther this conversation progressed the more clear it was she was using that mask of calm to conceal her actual feelings, and Val resolved not to take it for a sincere one again even if it seemed situationally appropriate. “We are dealing with enough uncertainties without me having to work hand-in-glove with one more—not to mention that I cannot help being vaguely nervous about partnering with a man who seems familiar with my record, when the same is not true in reverse. One does hate to be at a disadvantage. Meet me halfway, Val. We all respect privacy; throw me a bone and I promise not to gnaw on your ankles.”

She wasn’t wrong, he had to acknowledge. He was letting his own aversion affect his conduct, and far too easily. That was not going to work if they were to actually get anything done.

“My acquaintance with the Lady is personal,” he said, putting on a mask of blank indifference to match hers of blank curiosity. “Regardless of my actual skill or utility, she trusts me.”

“Yes, it would have to be so,” she murmured, “if you’re comfortable making wisecracks like that scarcely out of her earshot. So, that’s the way it is. I’m the competent one and you’re the reliable one.”

He gave her another look out the corner of his eye, mask still in place. She matched it.

“See, Val, I can make jokes, too.”

“Think of me as your reflection, Lorelin. I have basically your skillset, with an opposing philosophy.”

“How intriguing,” she mused. “I wonder why the Lady wants two specialists in Vidian mind magic to tease the Bishop out of his hole and pick a teacher for young Master Arquin.”

“Gwenfaer knows what she is doing.” He permitted himself a sigh, a small one that did not break his current mask. “In my experience, everyone else will find out what she’s doing when it’s too late to stop her, and not a minute sooner.”

Reich had the audacity to laugh. “Well, then. While we make our way to the Cathedral, we may as well brainstorm. Who do you think ought to be the boy’s teacher?”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Hmm…” She chewed her bottom lip pensively, which had to be purely performative; Val was already certain the woman constantly kept up enough layers of masks to conceal any hint of her actual thoughts. “That’s an interesting idea… I’m not sure I would be the best candidate, though. Young people wear on my patience.”

“I wonder what that feels like,” he said innocently.

She laughed, and he did not ignite a divine shield and bash her into the wall. So far, so good.


The Grand Cathedral, needless to say, was a kicked beehive. The Universal Church was hard at work both assisting in the city’s recovery and coordinating the efforts of the various cults doing the same, not to mention dealing with a sudden influx of Huntsmen of Shaath, who had an unfortunate tendency to cause problems when suddenly introduced to urban environments. The halls of the Cathedral complex were intermittently tricky to navigate simply due to all the people rushing back and forth, some of whom were carrying heavy loads of supplies. On the upside, chaos was a boon to discretion. Two priests could pass through all that furor without attracting the slightest notice, which under those circumstances was for the best.

The traditional offices of the Vidian Bishop were a suite of two rooms, rather than the single large one most Bishops were assigned. Val caught Lorelin shooting him a speculative look when he led the way there, doubtless wondering why a street-level priest such as himself would be so familiar with the section of the Cathedral where such august personages worked.

It was a given that she’d deliberately let him see her wondering, too. This was going to wear him out; having to think this way was a big part of why he hated dealing with the political movers and shakers. Not that he couldn’t do it, he just resented the necessity.

They entered without knocking, as was customary. The first room was square and, while not overly large, not cramped even with the rows of bookshelves lining two of its walls and the desk taking up much of another, next to the door into the inner office. Behind the desk sat a young woman in formal gray robes marking her an acolyte. She did not have the hood or ceramic mask on; they rarely did outside the temple of Vidius itself. Non-initiated tended to find that formal getup aggressively creepy, and Vidians were nothing if not willing to adjust their outer appearances to achieve a desired effect.

“Good day,” she said politely, and with some trepidation—clearly too new to the cult to have a proper command of the Masks yet. “I’m afraid Bishop Querril is secluded in prayer at the moment.”

“Yes, so we have heard,” Reich said from behind a pleasantly formal mask. “I am Lorelin Reich; this is Val Tarvadegh. We were sent by Lady Gwenfaer to speak with the Bishop. This is urgent.”

The girl’s eyes widened and she swallowed. “Oh. Um, I’m afraid…his Grace…”

“How many times have you been yelled at already this morning?” Val asked, letting a mask of patronly amusement slide onto his features. It was one he had cultivated for dealing with street children. Getting it just right had taken some work; it was tricky to convey openness and good humor with no hint of condescension.

“I’ve stopped keeping count,” the acolyte said, clearly warming to him somewhat, though not enough to look substantially less guarded.

“Why on earth would anyone yell at you?” Lorelin asked.

“Not everyone looks at a situation and tries to reason out all the factors at play to decide where best to spend their efforts, Lorelin,” Val said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s just our cult. An awful lot of people will throw the most appalling tantrums at even the slightest setback.”

“Even the kind of people who would have business with a Bishop?” she demanded, adopting a skeptical mask. Val had suspected she was putting on a show for the acolyte, here, and that confirmed it. Lorelin Reich unequivocally did not need the nuances of human social interaction explained to her.

“Especially those,” he replied, playing along. “Important people aren’t used to having their way blocked by underlings.”

“Well, I’m very sorry we have to add to your burdens, then,” Lorelin said, turning a kindly mask upon the acolyte. “Unfortunately, the Lady commands, and she outranks even his Grace.”

The poor girl swallowed again. “I, um, wasn’t notified you were coming. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be difficult, but going against the Bishop’s express orders without confirmation from the cult…”

Reich smiled and opened her mouth, and while Val didn’t doubt she could shmooze this girl into doing whatever she might possibly ask, he decided he did not want to spend the whole afternoon playing this game. His fellow cleric closed her mouth again, turning to him in surprise when he simply stepped past the desk and reached for the latch to the inner office door.

“Oh! Sir!” the acolyte fretted.

“Don’t worry, I will personally assume full responsibility,” he said, adjusting his kid-friendly mask with a roguish wink. “You can feel free to tell his Grace I threatened you or something, it wouldn’t be the worst rumor about me swirling around.”

“I’ll just bet,” Lorelin muttered, which he ignored, pushing the door open and stepping through.

Like many ranking Vidians, Alonsius Querril had a taste for the dramatic. His private space was laid out more like a temple than an office, with its walls lined by heavy velvet drapes reminiscent (no doubt deliberately) of stage curtains, and a dais against the wall opposite the door surmounted by a large idol of the cult’s mask-and-scythe sigil sculpted in wood and polished to a glow. The Bishop’s actual desk was tucked away in the corner least visible from the door, half-hidden behind a folding screen.

Querril himself was on his knees, head bowed, before the idol with his back to them. He did not move upon their entry, though he immediately spoke.

“I hope you manipulated your way past my aide instead of bullying her. She’s a studious child with a good heart.”

“I agreed to let her decide how it went down,” Val replied.

“Tarvadegh,” Querril said in an openly fatalistic tone. He finally rose ponderously to his feet, his once-impressive height somewhat blunted by a slight hunch that had come with age, and turned to lay a gimlet stare upon them that hardly seemed to bother with a mask. “And Reich. These truly are the end times.”

“That being the case, I am somewhat surprised to find you still sequestered in here, your Grace,” Reich replied smoothly. Tarvadegh noted with amusement that her mask was now as close to true blankness as could be. Bishop Querril had a reputation as a fussy old man, but he had not attained his role without being infamously incisive. She at the least feared that his perception would be more than a match for her deflection. Which was probably the case.

“Oh?” Querril was no Gwenfaer, but his masks were both smooth and deep; it took some real focus to discern the artifice behind the full force of personality he turned upon Reich now, his disapproval a very nearly physical force that filled the office. “I suppose you feel I ought to be out there inciting rebellions just to turn them in to the Empire for reward money? Or embezzling Sultanate treasury funds? Keeping the grand old tradition of frontier witch hunts alive?”

“You are familiar with my resume,” she said, still blank-masked. “How very flattering. I am comfortable with disapproval of my methods, your Grace, but the fact remains that this cult’s activities, including the exorbitant salary of its Bishop, are funded in part by my efforts. At the end of the day I do my job, even when it is unpalatable.”

“Shut up, Reich,” Querril ordered. “Today of all days, I am not going to listen to moralizing from an Eserite who picked the wrong cult to rise through. Yes, I’m sure Lady Gwenfaer must want me back at the temple in the worst way, to have sent you two out here to shake the branches. What I am not sure of is how concerned I am with that.”

“This is a historic moment for our faith,” Val insisted quietly. “Omnu’s breath, man, a paladin! After eight thousand years, we get a Hand of Vidius. To be alive at a time like this!”

“A half-demon paladin,” Querril said, suddenly projecting exhaustion so persuasively Val found himself actually wondering whether it was a mask. The Bishop turned his back on them again, slowly sinking down to his knees before the idol. “You two, and likely Gwenfaer as well, only see the situation and how to exploit it. Not one of you, I guarantee, has paused to think on what this means.”

“It means that the cult is facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Val, “and nobody has time for this, Querril. You are needed.”

“And you need a new partner, Val,” the Bishop grunted, adjusting his legs to kneel more comfortably. “Playing the bad guard doesn’t suit you.”

“That’s the least of the reasons I need a new partner,” he muttered.

“I would be offended, but neither of you are wrong,” Reich added. “Fine, I will take over the role. This is not acceptable, your Grace. You are the Bishop of our faith, at a time when we desperately need both leadership and a practiced hand to interface with other cults which, unlike ours, know how to handle a paladin. You can play the stubborn old man on your own time. Right now, Lady Gwenfaer has given her orders, and we are here to see them carried out.”

“Just think how much it’ll embarrass the cult if I have the Holy Legion carry you two out,” Querril replied with his back still to them. “Lady Gwenfaer and Archpope Justinian each have the privilege of removing me from my position if either finds my service unsatisfactory. Until that time, this is my office, and I wish to be secluded within it. I have praying to do. As do we all, not that I expect the likes of you to bother. Good day.”

Val and Reich met each other’s eyes, silently weighing the pros and cons of trying to push this further. After a pause, he shook his head, and she nodded minutely in agreement.

“I guess we’ll leave you to it, then, your Grace,” Val said, reaching for the door latch.

“Take some time to contemplate,” Reich added, pausing before following him out. “This is not concluded, but there is a…grace period. We also have to deal with others who don’t face the future on their knees.”

She shut the door firmly.

The acolyte behind the outer desk sighed. “He’s not coming out, is he.”

“Oh, one way or another, I guarantee he is,” Val replied. “But apparently not right at this particular moment, no.”

“Thank you for your help,” Reich said politely the girl, her assertiveness of a moment before completely obscured behind a smiling mask. “Please make sure his Grace is well. This is a very stressful time for him, it seems.”

“I do what I can,” the Bishop’s aide said sadly. “Gods watch over you both.”

They stopped, out in the hall, finding it much quieter than before. There was activity at the intersection in the near distance, but the space around them was presently free of people.

“Well, that leaves us our other project while he gets his head in order,” Reich said. “What do you think, Val? Since we’re here, is there anything we can do toward that while at the Cathedral or—what are you staring at?” She turned to follow his eyes, then frowned back at him, finding nothing at the end of the hall toward which he was fixedly peering.

“Still and invoke,” Val said quietly, the first words of a mantra that Vidian clerics of their specialization would have heard countless times during their training.

Reich moved to follow his eyes again, this time imposing a meditative state upon her mind and channeling the slightest amount of divine magic in just the right way, a preparatory measure that did virtually nothing on its own save to make the practitioner, for all intents and purposes, a tiny patch of Vidian holy ground, a necessary first step toward a number of more complicated workings.

Then she actually gasped. Val didn’t bother trying to guess whether the betrayal of surprise was genuine or an act; he could drive himself crazy trying to unravel her constant performance, and there were much more interesting things to focus on right now.

Both of them moved to the other side of the hall and pressed their backs to the wall, giving the valkyrie room to pass. Nothing could be seen of her expression, or indeed of most of her; there was just a blurred, watery shape swathed in black, with huge ebon wings. The scythe was crystal clear by comparison, and even knowing it couldn’t physically touch them, both gave her even more room than respect demanded. They both knew exactly what that weapon could do.

Val thought the valkyrie might have turned to look at them in passing, though it was impossible to say for certain as she didn’t slow down. At the very least she had to have discerned that they could see her. She walked by, though, and only stopped in front of the door to the Bishop’s office.

There, she gripped her scythe just below the blade, and deliberately sliced at the door latch once. The scythe, of course, passed right through the solid matter with no effect.

Then she turned and continued on, folding her wings to a more compact shape as she stepped out into the landing where there were other people. They both stared until she had descended the stairs out of view.

“What do you make of that?” Val asked quietly.

“It’s a portent, obviously,” Reich replied in the same tone. “Of what, I can’t even guess. It’s not as if we didn’t already know great matters are afoot, and if she was trying to communicate something to us you’d think it would have been less deliberately cryptic.”

“I can’t imagine what else that was about,” he said. “There’s nobody else here who can even see her. Querril probably can, but she didn’t even go in. And I’m certain she wasn’t surprised that she failed to actually cut the door out of the wall.”

“How did you notice her?” Reich asked, gazing at him with a speculative mask. “Do you just walk around open to channeling all the time?”

“That sounds exhausting,” he said with a shrug. “I just had a feeling. I try to pay attention to those. Well… I’d say keep your senses open in case any more come to visit, but for now I don’t think we can do anything else about it. You were voicing an idea that has merit: what can we learn while we’re here at the Cathedral?”

“Ah, yes,” she said, switching deftly back to her standard mask of open politeness as if this business were in any way settled. “I was thinking the Arquin boy isn’t even Vidian; we might have good luck picking someone accustomed to working outside the cult.”

“You sure you don’t want the job?”

“More so all the time. We are here, and you seem familiar with Bishop Querril. Do you know of any other priests of the Brethren attached to the Cathedral who might make good prospects?”

“Querril’s entire staff consists of that poor beleaguered teenager in there,” Val replied. “I can think of a couple of possibilities, but… Okay, how about this. What say we pump a few outsiders for perspective? You must be acquainted with several of the other Bishops.”

“Well, Syrinx, but I don’t want to involve her in our business.”

“No kidding,” he agreed fervently. Everybody who dealt with religious politics in Tiraas had at least some idea about Bishop Syrinx. “I’m on good terms with the Eserite Bishop, and he’s a fantastically useful person for just such times at this, but he’ll be out in the city on a day like today. I do have some friends among the Church’s parsonage, though…”

“And I helped arrange employment for a few officers in the Holy Legion,” she said, putting on a knowing mask. “Let’s have a few casual conversations, see if anyone feels particularly positive about a priest of the Brethren and cross-reference any such names with people we know.”

“Good,” he agreed. “In fact, let’s split up. We’ll cover ground faster that way, plus we can meet back here in an hour and rattle Querril’s cage again. Maybe if we make it clear we’re not going to leave him alone he’ll get tired of trying to hide in there.”

“You just can’t wait to get rid of me,” she said, adding coy amusement to her mask.

He mimicked it as precisely as he was able. “Yes, but it’s also a good plan. Unless you have a better?”

“No, that works out, I think. Both your contacts and mine are probably better not being brought into contact with one another. I’ll see you in an hour, then, partner.”

He nodded politely, then turned and walked in the opposite direction to the one in which she set off. Val went to the end of the hall, then turned around and came right back, sinking into a meditative state as he moved.

Reich was fully out of sight by the time he reached the office door, and he was fully immersed, holding onto both divine magic and his mental projections that pushed away the attention of other unguarded minds. True invisibility was well beyond the scope of Vidian mind magic, but they got excellent mileage out of not being noticed.

Actually getting into the office was the hard part, and a barrier only passable by someone of Val’s skill; lesser practitioners could not sustain the illusion of somebody else’s problem while manipulating physical objects. But he opened the door and shut it behind him without the acolyte looking up from whatever she was frantically scribbling. It was feasible since she was the only person in the room, and he could focus his attention upon her directly, pushing hard against her awareness and nudging her attention firmly into her task.

Crossing the office without her noticing was a breeze, and after another brief spurt of intense focus to deflect her while opening the inner door, he was safe.

There was really no point in keeping up the effort once in the inner office. Val Tarvadegh was better at this than Alonsius Querril had been at his age—he knew this, having asked people who would know—but he wasn’t at the level necessary to outmaneuver a highly experienced practitioner.

“Of course it is not news to me that you’re up to something, Tarvadegh,” Querril said without turning around. “But I find that considerably less off-putting than the other one being up to something. Is that why you ditched her?”

Val considered telling him about the valkyrie, then decided to leave that for leverage in case he needed it later in the conversation.

“Why are you really hiding in here, Querril?”

“I told you already, boy.”

“And you seemed to be of the opinion I misunderstood. Which was true. So explain it to me.”

The old man’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh. “Or?”

“I realize we aren’t close, your Grace, but you know my reputation well enough to be aware I have not begun to be annoying.”

That brought a tiny huff of amusement, and Querril finally turned. He didn’t stand, this time, but awkwardly shuffled around to sit down with his back against the idol, stretching his skinny legs out on the steps of his dais.

“What do you think it portends that Vidius has done this, now?”

“Change.”

“What kind of change?”

“Honestly?” Val shrugged, letting his face set a mask of what he was really feeling: annoyance, mild confusion, worry. Trying to hide his true mask from Querril was probably wasted effort. “I haven’t had time to maunder on it and I frankly am glad of that. I’m not a philosopher, your Grace, I talk to people and do things. Gwenfaer gave me a task, so I’m doing it, and so much the better.”

“That’s not a bad way to be,” Querril allowed, “but keep in mind what the Veskers always say: every fault is a virtue taken to an extreme.”

“The Veskers are talking about characters in epic poetry, Querril. That’s all they ever talk about.”

“And what do you think these masks we wear are, if not characters? You’re a priest, Tarvadegh. Some prayer and contemplation is inherent in your vocation. Don’t neglect it.”

“All right,” Val said, shrugging again. “For now, let’s agree that I’m somewhat neglectful. Correct me. I mean specifically.”

Querril closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the idol. “People are going to focus on the demonblood thing. I’ve no doubt some consider that the cause of my own unease. That was an inspired move by Vidius; something like that can’t help but seize everyone’s attention. It’s a mask, Tarvadegh. It conceals the important part. The bit he doesn’t want us to see coming.”

“I’m in suspense, here.”

“The boy is not Vidian.” The Bishop opened his eyes, and there were tears in his lashes. Val had the sudden irrational thought that the anguished expression on the old man’s face was not a mask at all. “He knows nothing of our traditions. He has no grounding in the Vidian mindset. A half-demon boy, growing up on the streets of Tiraas with no religion, yet with enough principle or just smarts to stay out of the Black Wreath’s clutches. A friend of an orphan monk who would become the Hand of Omnu. A student of Tellwyrn’s. Place yourself in the position of a god, Tarvadegh, and don’t worry about the presumptuousness of it. You, a deity, have chosen someone like this to be the first-ever paladin of your cult. Why would you do this?”

Val slammed a mask of serenity down on his features just to keep the sudden realization from knocking him over.

Querril was watching him knowingly. “There, see? You do get it, when you take a moment to try. What is it the Eserites are always saying about systems?”

“We aren’t Eserites,” Val said woodenly.

“The really terrible thing about Eserites is that they aren’t wrong. What we are, Tarvadegh, is corrupt. A corrupt system. You wouldn’t have come so easily to that conclusion unless you already understood this. Every cult suffers from a tendency to attract the absolute last people it needs; you’ve met them all. The Avenists who just want to stick swords in people, the Vernisites who just want to get rich, the Shaathists who just want to abuse women. Eserites who only care about stealing, Veskers… You know, I’m sure that if your religion centers on being an annoying little twit there must be a way to do it wrong, but I can’t imagine how. The point stands, anyway. There are also Vidians who are so obsessed with their maneuvers and games of power that those have become the end, and not the means.”

“Not all of us,” Val protested. “You make it sound worse than it is. We’re nothing if not balanced.”

“Balanced,” Querril grunted. “No, boy, I make it sound exactly as bad as it is. Of all those faiths, all the members thereof who do their religion wrong… Do any of the other ‘bad’ cultists consist of half the cult?”

The silence hung between them.

“We’re about to be culled,” Querril said at last, hanging his head. “And we need to be. We deserve to be. I have given my life to this faith, and now at the end, I have to accept that we have failed our god so catastrophically that he feels the need to take a scythe to us. Let an old man pray, Val Tarvadegh. What else is left to me, now?”


“Poor Lorelin is going to be so hurt that you left without her,” Gwenfaer said with playful reproof when he reported back to her alone.

“She’ll live,” Val said bluntly. “Probably. I don’t care either way. In the end, we didn’t manage to drag Querril out of his hole because, as it turns out, he’s the only one here who is right.”

“Is he?” She tilted her head, blinking prettily like a slightly simple-minded schoolgirl, and he had never been so tempted to grab the head of his faith by the shoulders and shake her until her perfect hairdo came undone. “Well, that gives some perspective to the other task I set you, does it not? It seems all the more important that young Gabriel Arquin should have a teacher who also understands this problem, and the severity of it. Especially since, as we now agree, that is likely to be the major thrust of his duties to Vidius.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Gwenfaer, but that’s your problem now. If I had the skills or the right mindset to help the Hand of Vidius start cleaning house around here I’d have been doing it for years already. You know very well the opinion I have of some of the sleazers we keep on the payroll. But I don’t, so I’m going to go right back to doing what I can with the people who actually matter out there, and keep my head far enough down that it doesn’t roll when the scythe starts swinging!”

“Oh, that’s all right, Val,” she simpered, patting him on the cheek. “Don’t you worry, I’ve already selected teachers for Gabriel.”

He hesitated, allowing overt suspicion to taint his mask. “Teachers? Plural?”

“Of course, darling, we are still Vidians, after all! We must have a matched pair of everything. Gabriel needs an honest, principled teacher worthy of his trust, and an example of the problems infesting the Brethren. He must learn from both. I believe I picked out perfect specimens of each for him, but for thoroughness’s sake, I arranged a little test for them. And wouldn’t you know it, they both went and did exactly what I expected them to!”

“…oh, no. No, you don’t, you rotten bitch!”

“Don’t be such a fusspot, Val,” she said fondly, reaching up to ruffle his hair. “You’re great with kids. And Vestrel approves of you! That is not a small thing at all.”

“I do not want to go to Last Rock! Have you ever been there?”

“I know for a fact that you haven’t.”

“It’s exactly like every dreary little dustball of a town, except with dozens of wannabe adventurers and that screeching pyromaniac Tellwyrn! The worst of both worlds!”

“And what could be more Vidian than that?”

“I cannot believe you would willingly inflict Lorelin Reich on those poor yokels!”

“Where but in Tellwyrn’s shadow could I rely on dear Lorelin to behave herself for a few months, until Gabriel is ready to bloody his scythe on his first target?”

He could only stare at her, barely keeping his mask in place. She didn’t do it often, but now, Gwenfaer let him have a peek through the facade at the calculating mind beneath all her antics. It was there in the glint of her eye, the wry set of her lips.

“…is it that bad, Gwenfaer? Do we really need to be…culled?”

“Oh, Val.” She took his face in both her hands, and wonder of wonders, managed to make the gesture sweetly comforting without a hint of condescension. “However bad it is or is not, you’re one of the good ones. I can assure you of that. You won’t be the one called on to swing the scythe; your task is to uphold the good, not destroy the bad. There’s no one I would rather count on to do it.”

Slowly, he drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh that ruffled her bangs.

“Well… Damn it all. I guess I’d better go pack.”

“That’s the spirit! Bring me something exotic back from the frontier!”

“I hate you,” he stated.

Lady Gwenfaer rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek again, though she was tall enough that she didn’t actually need to. “And you obey me anyway. That’s why you’re my favorite.”

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Bonus #44: The Masks We Wear, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Fernando Freitas!

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

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

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

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

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

The other three just turned to look at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including one he was particularly glad to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

There were many grieving today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good for them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tassie, was it?” Val inquired politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you will, my Lady.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” Val demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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