“Above all, in such times, we must have faith.”
The sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral was as packed as it had ever been, despite the Empire-wide state of emergency and warnings for all citizens to take shelter. In a way, they had, for all that a dense crowd might be even more vulnerable to attack; shelter was more than physical, and just as the Archpope now said to the assembled throng, it was in precisely such times that people sought the comfort of faith.
“The word is often invoked in this temple, and countless like it,” Justinian continued, his mellifluous voice filling the sanctuary to its farthest corners with its perfect, sonorous gravity. “Faith, most often spoken of as a religious sacrament. Faith in a god, in a dogma, in a church. I will remind you all in this most desperate hour, my friends, that faith goes far beyond religion. It is upon faith that everything hinges. We have faith that our friends and loved ones will not abandon us. Faith that those who sell our food, our clothing, our tools, have not shortchanged us. Faith that our governments will protect and provide as we need them to. Every interaction each of us has with another person is a thread of faith, and it is of the countless thousands of these threads that the web of our lives is made.”
He paused, gripping the sides of his lectern for a moment. No arcane magnification charm was applied to the ancient wood; Justinian needed nothing but the Cathedral’s acoustics and his own trained diaphragm to make himself heard in the back row, even now, when he lowered his voice for emphasis.
“And never is the importance of faith clearer than when it disappoints us. I understand, sisters and brothers, how your faith has been betrayed. We may speak of the gods and their mortal agents which we thought to protect us from crises such as this. We might speak of our government with its armies, which in city after city has been powerless to stand against threat after threat. But even in the midst of renewed crisis, I caution you: do not abandon faith. Faith, you see, is not certainty.”
He smiled, with both sorrow and warmth.
“In life there are no certainties; even the gods do not promise us that. The universe is chaotic, and it is not given to us to live in perfect bliss. For what would be the point of that? What is life without opportunities to strive, to grow wiser and stronger? And how could we do so if we were never challenged—and not only challenged, but specifically beyond what our faith can bear?
“No, friends, we must not despair because our faith has not protected us. The role of faith is that we may continue to believe, even in the face of evidence that what we believe in has failed. And this, friends, is the true power of faith: its capacity to triumph over reality itself. For by acting upon faith, by proceeding upon assumptions that have been broken, we remake the world around us until it falls back into line with what we have faith that is should be. Faith, friends, is the power to band together and triumph.
“I will not minimize the threat we face, nor excuse those who have failed when they should have protected us. Instead, I will caution you all not to abandon faith. Have faith in the gods, in paladins, in thrones, in all those things you count upon—for even if they have responded imperfectly, it is through the support of our faith that they may be empowered to rise to the threat.
“Above all, have faith in one another. It is the darkest times which show us the brightest light within our hearts. It is when we are tested that we raise ourselves up to persevere. It is when the bonds between us are attacked that they strengthen.”
He raised his hands in an uplifting gesture, both benediction and incitement.
“Have faith, brothers, sisters, friends, fellow members of this human family. Have faith that all will be well—and in so doing, go forth together and make it so.”
“That brilliant, evil son of a bitch,” Ruda said, hurling the transcript of the Archpope’s sermon down on Ravana’s dining table.
“Eh, it sounded a right nice speech t’me,” Maureen admitted. “So, I assume that means I missed somethin’, aye? I never claimed t’be the savvy type, politically speakin’.”
“He’s changed the terms of engagement.” Teal’s voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes fixed on a distant point beyond the fireplace. “It’s…a brilliant move. The cults are beginning to turn on him, and after Veilgrad Triss and the boys have what they need to prove he’s behind the chaos monsters.”
“Okay, I don’t get it either,” Iris said in some annoyance. “Why isn’t that good? I mean, now he’s gone and let loose dozens of the fuckers. Obviously that’s a big problem but if there’s proof Justinian is behind it, hasn’t he just nailed himself to the wall?”
“I can’t.” Ruda slumped down in her chair, tipping her hat forward to cover her eyes. “I just cannot with this horseshit. Not you, Iris, you’re fine, it’s just the sheer fuckery of it. I need a moment to wring some of the sleaze outta my soul. Shaeine, can you take over?”
“By unleashing both unstoppable monsters and immortal warriors which are among the only things which can combat them, the Archpope has effectively invalidated all the laborious preparatory work that has been done up till now to work him into a corner,” Shaeine said tonelessly. “It is now a matter of public opinion, and the facts are thus barely relevant. Now, any accusations against the Archpope will be seen as sowing division exactly when it can least be afforded—especially by Ravana and the paladins, who by taking a stand against him previously will have made it seem they are prioritizing old political vendettas above the public good.”
“But they ‘ave proof!” Maureen protested.
“That matters a lot less than it should,” Teal replied wearily.
“Politics and facts are, at best, tenebrous allies,” said Szith.
“It’s a crisis,” Ruda explained from under her hat, not shifting her position. “Can’t have division in a crisis. Didja note in the speech, how he emphasized that? And also how the gods an’ paladins and especially the Throne have let everybody down by allowin’ all this to happen.”
“Just the…the gall,” Iris hissed. “He did all this!”
“It’s politics,” Teal said, heaving a sigh. “Fuck. He played us all. He played everyone.”
“I seriously do admire the gambit,” Ruda admitted, finally lifting her hat enough to peer up at everyone. “It’s maybe the evilest bullshit I ever fuckin’ heard of but god damn was that clever. A master fuckin’ play.”
“That is public opinion, though,” said Scorn, who was not wearing her disguise ring, drumming her clawed fingertips upon the table. The group assembled was somewhat diminished in size; Juniper was still in Tiraas and the paladins, after checking in, had gone right back out to hunt necro-drakes with assistance from the Conclave. “There is still proof. The Empire can act upon this, yes?”
“That is what makes it a master stroke, as opposed to simply a clever one,” said Shaeine. “The great secret of power is its fragility. The cults, the Throne, the Church… Indeed, all religious, political, financial and other establishments, rely upon consensus for their very existence. They only come to seem immutable because we grow accustomed to them. Any can be toppled if enough of their followers decide they should no longer be obeyed—or if not destroyed outright, deprived of enough of their support to function. That was the overarching lesson of the Enchanter Wars, and that lesson is still very much on the minds of the cults and the Houses.”
“So, in order for the Empire or the Trinity cults or anyone to act on the proof,” Teal chimed in, “they would have to, in essence, invade the Cathedral in force to seize Justinian. It could still work, if it was possible to do it swiftly, but with all the power of the Pantheon backing him up and him apparently able to control it even against the Pantheon’s will… Well, the various forces assembled against him could maybe take him down eventually, maybe not. Either way, it would be a long, bloody, drawn-out struggle. And given all Justinian’s done to make himself and the Church popular over the years, a lot of the public will side with him. Especially now. It would mean a schism in basically every participating cult and very likely a rebellion against the Empire.”
“Most of the Houses’d side with ‘im,” Ruda grunted in a dispirited tone. “Specifically because they don’t give a fuck about religion. They care about their own power, which means they’re automatically against the Throne reaching beyond its traditional powers.”
“House Tirasian does have its allies,” Shaeine murmured. “Powerful ones, even. Houses Madouri, Leduc and Dufresne represent enough of a threat to give many of the lesser Houses pause, but there would also be opportunists… He also has the orthodox Shaathists, doubtless other loyalists within every cult. Justinian will not have done this until he is certain of enough allies to at the very least force a stalemate if the established powers dare attack him openly. He is, by all appearances, a meticulous planner.”
“That’s what everybody will be considering,” Teal added. “The political cost of turning on him now would be crippling… And even if he is transparently behind it, the fact is there are chaos dragons rampaging across the continent and nobody can afford a civil war in the middle of that.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Iris said tremulously, “but…I mean, surely the Trinity cults? The Guild? Didn’t the paladins just go through all that rigamarole to make sure they’d side against the Church?”
“And that’d be why Justinian just yanked out the rug,” said Ruda with a bitter laugh. “Way Boots an’ the boys tell it… Boss Tricks ain’t exactly the portrait of reliability right now, the Dawn Council isn’t interested in doin’ fuck all under any circumstances, an’ Lady Gwenfaer’s paper cuts bleed politics. High Commander Rouvad seems like the kind o’ broad who’d take a stand on principle, but then again, she’s also the one who decided Basra fuckin’ Syrinx being good a politics made ‘er worth putting up with all the rest of her general Syrinxitude. We got coin tosses in the best case scenario.”
“Some might still be willing to act, if there were a plan in place and a certainty of, at least, a chance,” Shaeine said quietly. “But whoever acts first will embrace tremendous risk, and the full brunt of the opposition. The pressure will be heavily against anyone sticking their neck out.”
“I’ll go one further,” Teal said quickly. “Soon as we can talk to ‘em again we need to make sure our paladins don’t try to charge at Justinian with blades out.”
“There’s really only one of ‘em likely to do that,” Ruda said with a grin.
“Sure,” Teal replied a touch impatiently, “but it matters that they have credibility and the pull to motivate a lot of people into action behind them. Frustrating as it is, appearances matter, even to paladins. They can’t squander it by seeming to pick a political fight in the middle of a crisis.”
“So,” Scorn rumbled, “what is needed is a person in a position of power, interested in doing the right thing, and willing to be seen as a villain.”
She immediately turned to look straight at Ravana. One by one, so did everyone else in the room, until every eye was fixed upon her except that of her Butler, who stood silent as a gargoyle behind her left shoulder.
Ravana said with perfectly ladylike posture at the head of the table, casually swirling her wineglass in one hand and gazing thoughtfully at nothing. As the room fell silent, she ceased toying with the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip. It was a pink elven wine; she usually did not prefer their sweetness, but the lower alcohol content made it a beverage of choice when she had thinking to do.
Lowering the glass, and seeming to ignore the silent regard of her friends and classmates, the Duchess allowed her lips to slowly curl upward into a viper’s smile.
“Yancey,” she said, “make the arrangements for another press conference tomorrow. In addition to my accusations at this morning’s event, I will publicly charge that Archpope Justinian is behind the chaos drakes, and that he has deliberately caused all this destruction and loss of life for personal, political gain.”
She paused to take another dainty sip; Yancey, attuned to his mistress, watched her without acknowledging the command, as he detected another part forthcoming.
“I will also,” Ravana continued after swallowing, “detail the method by which an Angelus Knight is created, describe the final fate of Sister Lanora, and announce that any cleric who has been personally excommunicated by their former deific patron will be made welcome in Madouris and placed under my personal protection. Along with a warning that their lives are in urgent danger otherwise.”
“Very good, my Lady,” said Yancey. “Shall we arrange protection for the source of this intelligence?”
The Duchess shook her head. “She indicated confidence that her involvement was absolutely unknown to the enemy, and in this case I fear we must take her at her word. The irritating truth is that none of my field agents are of a quality that can match what Justinian has at his disposal. Posting a watch over her would likely do nothing but to draw his attention to her, and in the end my people would be unable to provide sufficient protection.”
“I might’ve known you’d Ravana it,” said Ruda, sounding impressed despite herself. “I know we practically asked for it this time, but c’mon, that’s gonna put you right at the top of Justinian’s shit list.”
“Yeah, no offense,” Teal agreed, “but this business in Madouris up till now has been small potatoes, Ravana. You’re not high on his priorities. If you start spewing his secrets in public…”
“It is a strategic truism,” Ravana said, again idly swirling her wine, “that when one is losing a game of chess to a clearly superior opponent, the correct move is to punch them in the face and overturn the board. This advice, while a valid point, ignores the broader political ramifications which you were just discussing. To be seen as the one to forebear the pretense of civilized behavior that we like to think governs us is to cede a significant material advantage. The solution, thus, is to provoke one’s opponent to throw the punch, and accept the censure of the onlookers.” She smiled again, showing just the tips of her teeth. “And then, in the name of self-defense, stab them in the throat.”
“Why is it even your hypotheticals jump directly to six steps too fuckin’ far?” Ruda demanded.
“Ravana,” Szith said quietly, “the Archpope can punch harder than you can. Significantly.”
“One does not just punch, though,” Ravana replied primly. “As a martial artist, you know it very well. There are questions of position, leverage, angle, maneuver… Teal has the right of it: I must admit, to my chagrin, that I have been up till now little but an inconvenience to his Holiness. If I begin revealing in public fundamental secrets which he will have no idea how I learned, I become a problem. He will be forced to…solve…me. And for me to defend myself will look altogether different than if I, or anyone, were to assault the Universal Church during a universal crisis.”
“I fear you have missed my point,” Szith insisted. “You would have to survive his attack, Ravana. Giving you full credit for the ability to cause trouble upon which this plan seems to rest, even you must acknowledge that you are not at your best on the defensive!”
“Am I not?” Ravana narrowed her eyes; her smile, if anything, widened. “Justinian is a creature of meticulous plans. Unexpected and uncontrolled violence is antithetical to his mode of operation. Even when he has unleashed it—such as now—it has always been safely far from his own base of operations, and with himself in at least partial control of all sides of the performative conflict. True carnage, the rapid unfolding of unforeseeable events, heavily disadvantages web-weavers such as he. That is the domain of paladins, adventurers, and it must be said…” Smirking, she actually bowed slightly from her chair. “…villains. I do not delude myself that this is my fight to win, or that I even could. No; our predicament is that Justinian has changed the nature of the battle to advantage himself. I will simply change it again.”
She sipped her wine once more, eyes glinting with manic anticipation.
“If his Holiness truly wishes to play about with chaos, then we shall go on a journey together, and explore the truth of what chaos means.”
“Really. Two minutes?” Despite the disappointing news, Justinian sounded more impressed than anything.
“That’s a broad guess,” Rector grunted, hunched over an instrument panel as usual and not looking up at his guest and patron. “Approximating from initial attack range, but even at the most conservative value, it was fast. Way faster than the one lost at Veilgrad. Weird readings, too… The chaos shard itself blinked out. Usually there’d be a major divine event concentrated on it before nullification. I think it was moved back to the dimensional insulation layer.”
“I suppose it is no more than should be expected,” Justinian mused. “Very well. I see I shall have to arrange something to keep the good Professor occupied. Interference of that caliber could be disastrous at this stage.”
Rector finally hesitated in his manipulation of the ancient data screen. He did not look up from it, but froze with his fingers above the glowing panel, staring at nothing.
“Thought you decided to leave her alone. Tried that, right? Didn’t work.”
“I probed at her, yes,” Justinian said mildly. “The point was, in part, to gauge her reaction; among other things, the attempt verified that she does have an interventionist streak, which has just become immediately relevant. I will consider my options. Fear not, Rector; I have several contingencies in varying states of readiness. Some may require your aid, but as always, I shall provide you the greatest advance notice I am able.”
“It’s Tellwyrn,” said the enchanter, still not moving. “Not much gets her attention except for threatening her students. Right? Is that… There’s already a lot of collateral damage.”
Justinian studied the back of his head pensively for a second before answering. “These are the painful decisions of strategy and moral cost versus benefit of which I spoke to you before, Rector. I fear that the closer we come to the final steps, the more…difficult they will grow. And we are very close indeed. Have patience for just a while longer. Soon, all of this will be finished.”
Rector remained in his rigid position for a moment, then grunted and resumed scrolling the screen as if he’d never stopped moving. After watching him for a moment longer, the Archpope retreated, not bothering with a farewell. He was not one to forebear such courtesies, but had learned that Rector was more annoyed than reassured by extraneous social rituals.
Seconds after the door shut behind the Archpope, Azradeh appeared from invisibility in the corner.
She was still testing her limits. According to one of her books—theology was among the subjects Justinian had been quite willing to let her read—a sitting Archpope gained a great deal of divine power but lost the cult-specific gifts as they were elevated from the servant of one god to the servant of all. So, in theory, he shouldn’t have Izarite empathy. Thus, she’d been lurking about him invisibly to see if he ever reacted, which he had not.
Unless he was a natural empath; those did seem to be drawn to Izara’s service. That would mean he was only pretending not to know when she was invisible in his vicinity, a thought which verged on paranoia but also wasn’t entirely implausible when it came to Justinian. But even in that eventuality, he was still pretending he couldn’t sense her, which meant she had a little leeway of maneuver until he was willing to blow his advantage. Even that was useful.
Of course, it was more likely he just couldn’t tell, period, but she was unwilling to commit to assumptions about the man.
“Wow, busy day, huh?” she said cheerfully, sauntering over toward Rector.
He just grunted, as usual. The handy thing about Rector was how little interest he had in anyone else’s comings and goings. As long as she didn’t pop out of invisibility right in front of his eyes, he wouldn’t wonder where she’d come from. Actually, Azradeh wasn’t completely sure even that would get his attention.
“Now, you make sure you’re getting enough sleep,” she lectured, circling behind him. “I will not hesitate to tattle to Delilah on you, see if I don’t.”
“Go away, pest,” he growled.
“Yeah, yeah.” Azradeh sat down on one of his less-cluttered workbenches, just loudly enough to make it clear from behind that that was what she’d done. He twitched in the most amusing way, but didn’t turn to chastise her further. “So what was that about collateral damage and attacking students? That doesn’t sound like you.”
He froze again.
“Or his Holiness,” she continued in a light tone. “Or…well, I wouldn’t’ve thought so, but who knows with that guy? He’s been really good to me, y’know? And you too, I guess. Man, though, it’s hard to say what goes on in his head. I wouldn’t think he’d deliberately get anybody hurt, but—”
“Just get out!” the enchanter snapped, snatching up a handful of brass screws from the nearest table and hurling them backward in the vague direction of her voice. Azradeh watched them sail past a good yard to her right. “I don’t have time for you right now!”
“Hey, it’s okay,” she said soothingly. “You’re just the equipment guy, right? It’s Justinian who makes the decisions. If somebody gets hurt, well, is that really your fault?”
Rector finally spun, snatching up a wrench and flinging it with far more accuracy. As usual she didn’t blink when it bonked off the bridge of her nose, but when he hurled his data screen she plucked it deftly out of the air.
“Hey, be careful,” Azradeh urged, setting the panel gently down on the workbench. “I know those things are durable, but they’re thousands of years old and it’s not like you can make more.”
“LEAVE! GO AWAY, DEMON!”
“Okay, I can see you’re busy,” she said, hopping off the table and ignoring the constant barrage of tools, crystals, and metal parts which pelted her. “Promise you won’t forget to eat, all right? See ya later.”
Azradeh turned and strolled toward the door, not reacting when a glass tube shattered on the back of her head. The deluge of metal and glass only halted before she actually exited because he ran out of conveniently throwable objects within easy reach.
Once the door shut behind the archdemon, Rector abruptly sat back down in his chair and sagged, leaning forward and resting his face in his hands.
For once…for perhaps the first time in a long time…the architect of so much of the future was not thinking about his next project. He just sat alone in his secret underground laboratory, thinking about some of the things he had created.
And what they might mean.