“Altogether, a successful evening,” Ravana declared.
If the night wasn’t technically over, it was getting there. In truth, it wasn’t much past midnight, and an event like this wouldn’t truly stagger to a halt until after dawn, but by this point in the party it wasn’t so much a single party as several dozen smaller ones. Many of the guests were thoroughly drunk, on both the alcohol Malivette had provided and various other substances they’d brought themselves. Natchua wasn’t very well-versed in drugs, though she could of course recognize the several people sprawled out in blissful glittershroom highs, both in relatively private corners and…not so much. Several individuals had been courteously but firmly escorted from the grounds by guards due to manic behavior that Ravana explained resulted from cocaine. This, it seemed, was a substance popular among the nobility and virtually unavailable to anyone else. Natchua had already resolved to find out if there was any hidden away in House Leduc’s vaults and if so, dump it in a fire. She was still Narisian enough to hold nothing but contempt for those who hid from their problems in a fog of intoxication.
Aside from pickling themselves in whatever their brine of choice was, guests were taking advantage of Malivette’s private rooms—and shrubbery, and under the chestnut tree in her rear garden, and in a nearby toolshed—in groups of between two and five, many leaving trails of hastily abandoned clothing to their various hiding spots. Natchua, and presumably Malivette, had to politely ignore a lot of intimate noise they couldn’t escape hearing.
She was doubly glad that Leduc Manor was still in such an incomplete state that she could not reasonably have offered to host the party there.
“Is it always going to be like this?” she demanded once the three Duchesses had convened upon the widow’s walk atop Dufresne Manor for a private chat.
“Oh, don’t expect it to be nearly this easy most of the time,” Malivette replied.
“These are the lower nobility,” Ravana explained, one of her little almost-smirks hovering about her mouth as usual. “The more ambitious among them are rather clever; it is to them I referred when calling this event a success. We have established influence, which can be parlayed into practical benefit as they come to us for further opportunity. They, however, are the minority; most of these are the sons and daughters of actually clever ancestors who made something of themselves so that their descendants could spend money managed by servants who deserve it better. Things will indeed be very different when you begin to interact with the higher nobility—our actual peers. The movers and shakers of Imperial politics are as ruthless as any Narisian.”
“I suspect you don’t know what you’re saying,” Natchua murmured, staring down at the party grounds on which a handful of well-dressed bodies were sprawled, “but I take your point.”
“If anything, they’re worse,” said Malivette. “Narisians are ruthless because they’re from a low-resource environment which requires them to be. Imperial nobles are monsters by choice, for the sheer love of power. But don’t worry, we’re still the bigger monsters; there’s nothing to be gained and a lot of risk in coming after us. Complacency remains a killer, ladies, but as of now, the game is ours to lose.”
“By the way, I’ve been busy talking to my…new fan club,” Natchua grimaced. A number of fashionable young nobles had been quite taken with her handling of the Wreath’s leader early in the evening. They were witty and closer to her own age than most of the party guests, but she suspected, not very useful political contacts. Still, she hadn’t wanted to be rude, and so had indulged their interest. Not any of the several invitations to bed she’d received, but the conversation at least. “I’ve sort of lost track of who’s still here. Are we private up on the roof? There were at least a few individuals who have means…”
“The elves left early on,” said Ravana, “and the rest of the Last Rock contingent departed about an hour ago. I loaned my wizard to the three Hands for rapid transportation to Tiraas, and Bishop Darling gave Fross and Juniper a ride back to Madouris. A perk of rank is the ability to charter a Rail caravan even at this ungodly hour. Speaking of which, Vette, I give it about fifty fifty odds Veilwin will ‘misinterpret’ my instructions and not return to collect me. I can, of course, get my own caravan, eventually…”
“Pish tosh, nobody wants to deal with Imperial functionaries at the end of a long day, much less rattle about in that infernal contraption,” Malivette said airily. “I’ll be only too glad to host you overnight. Rest assured, the best rooms are thoroughly sealed off from the rabble.”
“I deeply appreciate your hospitality.”
“Least I can do. So yeah, we can consider this a private moment, finally, in which to talk.” The vampire turned her red eyes upon Natchua and grinned a little too broadly. “What’s a good topic… Oh, I know! How about all the surprises you are so full of suddenly, Natch?”
“I am sorry about that mess,” she said, grimacing. “That was a real cute trick Mogul pulled. In hindsight, I think I was pretty overconfident not to see something like this coming, the way he’s been hanging around…”
“Oh, pff.” Malivette waved a hand. “That wasn’t a bother, I thought you handled him well, and it’s not like you hadn’t kept me updated about his stalking. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t let yourself believe that is in any way put to bed; I suspect you finally found a way to piss him off even more than you did by killing his friends. But no, Natchua, I was in fact referring to your brilliant idea to restock my city with Eserites.”
“Didn’t we already settle this?” Natchua said mildly. “I thought we all came to a satisfactory arrangement with his Grace.”
“Oh, yes, because obviously I’m going to tell an Eserite right to his face I don’t want him around after I went to all the trouble of cleaning up my city enough that they bloody well left. Listen here—”
“Malivette, really,” Ravana interjected in a soothing tone. “They’re not so very troublesome unless you intend to do the sort of thing which antagonizes them, and I thought we were in agreement that such practices are unhealthy for the economy anyway. Truly, so long as you don’t plan to abuse your subjects, having Eserites about is quite beneficial. I find they save me a bundle on law enforcement and they are fabulous for clearing out entrenched corruption. The Vernisites like seeing them around, too, which is a further economic boon.”
“I am less bothered by the Eserites than by the fact that I suddenly have to deal with them,” Malivette complained. “Surprise thieves are about as much fun as surprise rats. Nobody who deposits either on my front steps is getting a grateful smile from me!”
“Come now, I know you didn’t agree to include Natchua in this in the expectation we would be able to control her. A certain amount of indulgence should be extended, to say nothing of a measure of resignation toward the…unexpected. But you,” she added, turning a stern look on Natchua, “ought to keep in mind that springing surprises upon your allies will cost you in the long run if you make it a habit. It’s not as if you have any to burn.”
“I don’t take you lightly,” Natchua assured them both. “And it’s not as if we’re at cross-purposes. Any time I feel the need to trip you up, you can be assured it’s over a matter of principle. Nothing else would be worth it.”
“Your principles are…vague,” Malivette said skeptically.
“Well, then, you get the satisfaction of figuring me out,” Natchua replied with a saccharine smile. The vampire just wrinkled her nose. “Anyway, with that settled, isn’t there anything more important we should be doing right now? We haven’t said so explicitly, but at this point it’s unambiguous that the three of us and our Houses are set against whatever it is Justinian is cooking up.”
“After Ninkabi, any but the most cravenly opportunistic are set against him,” Ravana replied, her voice gone cold. “He has slithered as usual into the gap between what we can reasonably assume he has done and what can be proven in a court of law, and skillfully leveraged his own propaganda apparatus to keep broad public opinion on his side. But even in that, the cracks are forming. The Veskers are refusing to aid his public relations, and my own papers have significantly eroded Church support in Tiraan Province in the last few months.”
“I think our next business lunch should focus on that,” said Malivette. “I confess, it’s not a tactic I would have thought to employ. I’m quite interested in learning from your techniques, Ravana.”
“I shall be glad to instruct you,” Ravana replied, inclining her head. “For now, though. You are correct, Natchua, but we should take care to recognize a contest in which our interjection would gain nothing. The paladins will have to deal with whatever Justinian is about to spring on him. And petty as it may seem by comparison, we still have our own event to oversee.”
She gestured broadly at the grounds stretching out around their feet, filled now with long-suffering servants and entertainers, and party guests casually debauching themselves in every corner.
“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. “I’d almost rather deal with the Wreath.”
Even after midnight in the dead of winter, Tiraas never truly slept. The city gates remained open and under full guard, the streets were well-lit, and though traffic was light, it still flowed. Thus a procession such as theirs could not avoid being the center of attention. Especially as their transport to the capital had been via the auspices of a particularly grouchy mage who had refused to teleport any closer to the city center than the gate town on the western side of the chasm, forcing them to ride the rest of the way to Imperial Square. Across the long bridge and up one of the city’s most important avenues, accruing crowds all the way. Long before they arrived, people had lined the streets, all watching and some cheering as all three living paladins rode their divine mounts abreast through the capital.
At least everyone cleared out of the way enough for them to do so. Trissiny rode in the center, if only because Arjen towered over the other two horses. In proximity to other steeds, his enormous bulk was even more striking, huge enough that a slender half-elf perched astride him might have looked comical, had she not borne herself with straight-backed military dignity. Flanking Trissiny and Arjen were a study in contrasts, Whisper’s fiery eyes and shadowy aspect a stark counterpoint to Roiyary, whose sorrel coat glistened in the lamplight as if she were a living sculpture of sunbeams. As luck would have it, the three paladins were even dressed for the occasion, having come straight from a formal party. Trissiny had summoned her silver armor atop her Silver Legion dress uniform, Toby was in his seldom-worn Cultivator robes, and Gabriel had on a dark suit under his midnight green Punaji greatcoat.
The only odd touch was Raolo, sitting behind Toby in Roiyary’s saddle. He was the object of no small amount of speculation, but Toby just rode calmly on, a small smile hovering about his features. Blessedly, all four were insulated from the chill in the air by top-quality warming charms, a parting gift from their recent hostess. There were perks to palling about with Duchesses.
They passed in a kind of island of solemnity, the crowds around the intermittent and often fairly quiet, though isolated cheers and hails did greet them regularly. This performance would likely have caused bedlam at any other hour of the day, but in the deepest part of the night, even Tiraas was sleepy enough that there just weren’t all that many people willing to stand in the frigid air and gawk. It afforded them the opportunity to speak as they rode, at least.
“This may work even better than you thought, Triss,” Toby said, nudging Roiyary closer to Arjen. “I didn’t think there’d be even this much attention.”
“You’re too humble,” Raolo chided playfully. “You’re paladins. The only paladins! And these are some damn impressive horses.” Roiyary blew out a snort and Whisper tossed her head, whickering.
“Yeah, we’re lucky that Veilwin is such a sourpuss,” Trissiny agreed. “Where did Ravana dig that woman up? But I should’ve thought to ask her to put us down outside the gates myself. This is drawing much more attention. Even he won’t be able to hush this up.”
“Tauhanwe sometimes get like that, especially arcanists like us,” said Raolo. “I don’t like to judge somebody whose story I don’t know, particularly when I have cause to feel sympathetic. You’re not kidding, though, that elf is amazingly unpleasant. What I wanna know is how Ravana of all people puts up with that. I once saw her make a waitress at the A&W cry for bringing her the wrong wine.”
“Once in a while I have to pause and ask myself why we’re friends with Ravana,” Toby muttered.
“Because she campaigned hard for it,” said Trissiny. “Gotta respect the sheer determination.” She paused, glancing to the other side. “You’re quiet, Gabe. You okay?”
“Mm.” Gabriel stared absently ahead, guiding Whisper with his knees. “Yeah, just… Had a hell of a conversation. I’ll be fine.”
“Well, good.” Trissiny hesitated again, wincing. “Uh, I really don’t want to be insensitive, especially since I prodded you into that…”
“Don’t worry.” Gabriel shot her a smile. “I’ll have it together when we need to face down you know who. It’s not a traumatic revelation or anything, just some stuff that bears thinking about.”
“Wanna talk about it?” Toby offered. “No pressure, but it often helps.”
“I’ve been unfair to Hesthri,” Gabriel admitted, frowning ahead again. “And I feel guilty about that. I was… Well, it really wasn’t a situation like Locke at all.”
Trissiny gave him a look of wide-eyed surprise. “Wait, don’t tell me that was your main comparison!”
“Hey, it’s not like I have many points of reference for absentee mothers! You gotta understand, I never thought about this. I know that sounds weird, but at a very young age I worked out that my dad was a really good man, doing a really good job by me, even though it was incredibly hard on him. I definitely understood what a demon was. I just figured… He made a mistake, it was behind us, and I never wanted to drag that up again. I didn’t want anything to do with that half of my heritage. I avoided thinking about it. So, when she pops up again, yeah, my brain went right to Locke. She’s the closest analogue in my experience. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t… What happened wasn’t Hesthri’s fault. Locke is just an asshole. Uh, no offense, Triss.”
“No offense taken, and the point is not contested,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, I’m willing to admit I’ve always wondered. It must’ve been an incredible story.”
“Not that it’s any of our business, if you don’t care to talk about it,” Toby said pointedly.
“It’s fine,” Gabriel hastened to assure them as Trissiny started to grimace apologetically. “She’s right, it is a hell of a story. I’d kinda like to share it with you, in fact. For instance, I never knew my dad was a spy.”
“He what?” Toby exclaimed, only belatedly composing his features for the benefit of the crowds they were passing. “I mean… Are you serious? Are we talking about the same man?”
“I know, right?” Gabriel grinned. “Well… Maybe spy is too strong a word. Dad was…uh, he called it the Shadow Corps.”
“That sounds like spy stuff to me,” said Raolo. “I mean, just the name.”
“Sort of,” said Trissiny. “That’s discreet ops—not quite the same stuff Imperial Intelligence does, but those are the soldiers the Army deploys in places where it can’t afford to be seen deploying soldiers. Lots of Shadow Corps veterans go on to become Imperial Marshals, mostly with Intelligence. Those who survive, that is. It does mean your father’s probably one of the few Tiraan soldiers to see actual combat while enlisted during peacetime.”
“Yeah, so,” Gabriel said, “it is a humdinger of a story, but it’s also classified to hell and back, so maybe this isn’t the place to bring it up.”
“I can see how that might be slightly indiscreet,” Toby said solemnly, even as he waved to a knot of young citizens on a passing street corner who raised a cheer as the three divine steeds drew abreast of them.
“Tell you one interesting tidbit, though,” Gabriel added thoughtfully. “Apparently I owe General Panissar my life. Strictly by the letter of the law, both Dad and Hesthri could’ve ended up executed when they were caught, and my ass tossed in some shithole orphanage. It seems the General put his foot down on that. Said dishonorable discharge was bad enough for a good soldier who made a mistake.”
“Panissar does have a reputation for backing up his troops, even when it’s not politically convenient,” Trissiny mused, herself frowning at the street in front of them now. “I hope to meet him again. In hindsight, I think I was unfair to him during our one previous conversation.”
“Lots of regretful unfairness going around tonight,” Gabriel agreed.
“You sure you don’t wanna tell the story now?” Raolo asked, grinning. “It sounds like it’d be good enough for a novel on its own. And hey, I’ve got a great new muffling spell I’ve been meaning to debut. It blocks lip reading as well as sound.”
“Hey, really?” Gabriel looked over at him in interest. “That sounds like fae craft, how’d you integrate that?”
“Actually that was what made me think of it! You can still do a lot of things with arcane spells that’s more the province of fae magic, it’s just that the fae automatically does a lot of the legwork that you have to do manually with the arcane.”
“Sure, sure, but it seems like a lot of that effort is prohibitive, hence the specialization.”
“Exactly! So you gotta look for shortcuts. See, I found a way to make a barrier that doesn’t alter sound so much as language processing. Have you heard of Hathanimax’s Curse of Dysphasia?”
“Holy shit, you worked that into a barrier spell? Or would it be more a field of influence? No, if you did that it’d also—”
“Sorry to interrupt, magic nerds, but we’re here,” Trissiny stated. The others fell quiet as they emerged from the mouth of the street into Imperial Square itself. The great temples, the Imperial Palace, and the Grand Cathedral loomed all around, stark against the cloudy night sky, their upper spires rising beyond the illumination of the streetlamps. “I hope you’re ready, gentlemen. It’s time to go to work.”
The private prayer chamber of the Archpope was also quiet at midnight, even with him there. The lamps had been dimmed, casting its high arched ceiling into shadow. Upon the dais at the top of the stairs had been set a single candle, its wavering light reflecting off the three masterwork stained glass windows surrounding it in mesmerizing patterns. Aside from that, the room was not dark, but dim, as if in concession to the late hour despite the lack of any external light. Even those windows did not border the outside of the Cathedral; rather, the central one hid the doorway down to the Chamber of Truth.
Archpope Justinian knelt before the altar in prayer, exactly where he had been for hours now. It was a feat of endurance; there he had remained while the candle before him slowly burned down. There was no one present to see, no need for him to put on a show. He simply took matters of spiritual discipline that seriously.
When, finally, a triple knock on the door resonated through the room, he at long last raised his head. Justinian rose to his feet, his movements smooth and precise despite the stiffness of his long immobility, and turned to face the door far below. There he stood, framed by the candlelight and the stained glass depicting the Trinity, patron gods of those he had summoned here. Perhaps to stare down from on high at his guests was a petty maneuver; he certainly gave them enough credit to assume they would perceive and be resistant to the symbolism. But it was still worth doing. Power was power, in all its forms, and Justinian did not deny even to himself that what was about to unfold was a contest of power.
“Enter,” he called, his voice even and mellifluous as always, untouched by hours of meditative silence.
The door opened, and three figures stepped inside, pausing for the last to push the chapel’s door shut behind them, and knelt.
They were not the three figures he had summoned.
“Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said with a smile, inclining his head to his two trusted lieutenants. “And Bishop Raskin, welcome. I hope all is well?”
He did not descend the stairs or invite them to climb, so the three stood up, as there would clearly be no formal kiss of his signet ring offered.
“I humbly apologize for disturbing you at this late hour, your Holiness,” the Vidian Bishop said diffidently. He of course did not outwardly acknowledge the fact that he had been addressed formally by title, marking him apart from the other two. Raskin was as inscrutable as any member of his faith, constantly taking in more information than he gave out.
“I am not at all disturbed,” the Archpope assured him, still smiling kindly. “In fact, I was awake in any case, awaiting an appointed meeting.”
“Yes, your Holiness,” Raskin replied, inclining his head in an almost-bow. “So Colonel Ravoud informed me. Please do not reprove the Colonel; he admitted me to your presence despite this preexisting appointment because it is pursuant to this matter that I have come to you. As a service to my paladin and his colleagues, I come bearing a message.”
“I see,” Justinian murmured, shaking his head once. “The paladins decline to grace me with their presence, then? Most regrettable, but not a complete surprise.”
“I humbly beg your Holiness’s pardon,” Raskin demurred, “but that is not the case. Gabriel Arquin, Trissiny Avelea and Tobias Caine are as always ready to serve the Pantheon and available to coordinate efforts with the Universal Church. Given your Holiness’s late and hasty summons, the Hands of the gods assume the matter to be one of urgency and hastened back here from Veilgrad to place themselves at your disposal. They await in a prepared space within the Temple of Vidius. If it pleases your Holiness, I stand humbly at the ready to conduct you to them.”
The silence of midnight hung heavy in the chapel for a long moment. Raskin remained benignly impassive; Branwen was also blank-faced, which was far more unusual.
Finally, Nassir Ravoud’s shoulders swelled as he sucked in a hissing breath through his teeth. “Those three arrogant, disrespectful little—”
And then he was cut off by the Archpope’s laughter. Justinian’s warm voice boomed through the tall chapel with pure, joyful mirth, causing his visitors to stare up at him in bemusement.
“Ah, truly, what admirable young people,” the Archpope said at last, wiping a tear from one eye. “Please, Nassir, take no offense on my behalf. After all, how could I be so presumptuous as to demand that paladins attend my presence and then refuse to meet them halfway? I thank you, Bishop Raskin, for being so quick to accommodate them and myself. Come, my friends, we must not keep such important personages waiting.”