“Well, this ain’t the least bit awkward,” Joe muttered, folding his arms and lounging against the wall of the courtyard. Despite the relaxed pose, he betrayed tension in the set of his shoulders and the way his eyes darted about.
Fort Naveen, like all the fortifications along the southern border, was an Imperial installation, but was administered and staffed partly by the Silver Legions. With the high state of alert due to the recent crisis and the large numbers of troops moved into the region, there were a lot of Legionnaires present, many obviously on duty guarding the walls and various doorways.
A good number of those were staring flatly at Ingvar, whose expression had grown increasingly sardonic the longer it had gone on.
“What is everybody’s problem?” Aspen asked. She sounded genuinely curious, not upset, though with her moods it could be difficult to tell. “Why don’t they like Ingvar? I like Ingvar. He’s nice, even when he’s being a jerk.”
“Thank you,” Ingvar said dryly, though a smile did steal onto his features.
“Politics,” Ami said with a long-suffering sigh. “Religious politics, which is even worse. Everyone is so convinced they alone are holy, and anyone who dares disagree with them must be an absolute monster.”
“Good to see you rallying to the defense of our Huntsman friend,” Jenell said with a catlike little smirk. “I seem to recall you being upset at Bishop Syrinx for nearly getting you scalped by Shaathists.”
“No Shaathist would do such a thing,” Ingvar exclaimed.
“Jenell,” Ami said, arching an eyebrow, “it is hardly polite to point out my hypocrisy in front of everyone.”
“Terribly sorry. I’ll assume I have the same coming later.”
“I’m mentally amending my calendar as we speak.”
Ingvar fixed his gaze on the bard, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Do I know you?”
“I’m afraid not,” Ami said sweetly.
“I never understand what’s going on when people get off on these tangents,” Aspen muttered. “It’s so much easier when it was just the four of us.”
“Mm hm,” Joe mused. “That was a pretty serene few hours.”
“Why do these soldiers all dislike you?” the dryad asked Ingvar. “They don’t even know you!”
“Well, the bard is correct,” he explained. “Religion, and politics. The Huntsmen of Shaath and the Sisters of Avei have very fundamental disagreements, which has led to a lot of arguing, ill-feeling and even occasional violence. We naturally react to one another with suspicion. For me to be in one of their fortresses is…pushing their tolerance.”
“This isn’t actually one of their fortresses, as I understand it,” Schwartz said, frowning. Meesie was sitting in his palm, leaning against his thumb, which was absently scratching behind her ear.
Ingvar shrugged. “I don’t begrudge them the suspicion; this is more or less how a Sister would be treated in a lodge.”
“A Sister would be very unlikely to be in a lodge,” Jenell said pointedly.
“And I would be very unlikely to be here,” Ingvar agreed with the ghost of a smile. “Life is strange.”
“I say, I didn’t realize things were that amicable,” Schwartz said, glancing between Ingvar and Aspen. His fascination with the dryad appeared to be innocent and intellectual; at any rate, he was mostly interested in talking to her and hardly seemed to register that she was an attractive woman wearing nothing but an ill-fitting duster. He’d backed off, however, once she informed him the attention was annoying. “I mean, not that I’d be in a position to know, exactly, but you know how it is. The Avenists and the Shaathists, that’s one of the great rivalries among the cults! It’s sort of infamous.”
“Almost like Avenists and Elilinists,” Ami said, grinning.
“Or Avenists and Eserites,” added Joe.
“Or Avenists and Izarites,” Jenell said thoughtfully.
“The person of a guest is sacrosanct,” Ingvar said firmly. “That point is enshrined in Shaathist tradition, but it predates the religion. The principle exists in some form in virtually every culture. A Sister or Legionnaire or anyone who sought shelter in a lodge would be given food, warmth, quarters, whatever they needed that it was able to provide. It would likely be tense; Huntsmen are not trained for diplomacy as a rule, and I doubt she would be made to feel particularly welcome. But none would disgrace the lodge by mistreating a guest. This is fair, and about typical,” he added, glancing around at several of the nearby Legionnaires, a few of whom were within earshot. “I was treated much the same when I visited the Temple of Avei in Tiraas. I cannot fault the courtesy, nor condemn the suspicion.”
“You visited the Temple of Avei?” Ami exclaimed. “Whatever brought that on?”
He sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“I’m a bard. I love long stories.”
“I don’t,” Aspen muttered. “This is real interesting, but I’m gonna go talk to one of these.” She turned and stepped toward the nearest Legionnaire, who stiffened visibly.
“Aspen,” Ingvar said firmly, “be nice to them. We are guests here.”
“I’m not gonna eat anybody,” the dryad said irritably, at which several Legionnaires turned to stare at her and a passing squad of Imperial soldiers faltered, a few reaching toward their weapons.
“Everything’s under control, boys,” Joe said, tipping his hat to them. “Best keep movin’.”
“Well, I’m glad to see everybody getting along!” Bishop Darling called cheerfully, striding toward them across the courtyard from the fortress’s central keep.
“How’d it go?” Joe asked quickly, straightening up.
“Classified, mostly,” Darling replied, coming to a stop amid the group, and glanced over at Aspen, who was now speaking quietly to the nervous-looking Legionnaire she’d picked, while several others hovered tensely nearby. “Do we…have a problem?”
“I don’t believe so,” Ingvar replied. “She understands respect for other sentients, at least intellectually, and talking to people is going to be essential in deepening that understanding. Regardless, I’m watching her.”
“Absolutely incredible,” Schwartz breathed. Meesie scampered up his arm onto his shoulder, cheeping in agreement.
“The meeting?” Ingvar prompted Darling, who tore his gaze from the dryad.
“Yes, right. Like I said, most of it isn’t for discussion outside that room, but generally speaking I think the crisis has passed. There are far too many lingering unknowns and points of interest for it to be dropped; the Sisterhood and the Empire are going to continue picking at this for a good while, at minimum. Very likely the Church and a few other cults will get involved; I understand the College has already been contributing,” he added, smiling at Schwartz.
“We do what we can!” the witch said cheerfully. “Um, what happened to the other two Bishops, if I may ask?”
“Ah, yes, that was the first thing I meant to tell you,” said Darling. “The Azure Corps is lending portal mages to get people where they need to go, while they’re all here. Branwen’s already back in Tiraas by now; Basra will be departing for the Abbey to brief Abbess Darnassy as soon as her group is assembled. I understand that means you guys.”
“Crap,” Jenell muttered. “She does not like waiting. Which way?”
“Central mess hall, though the doors and down the corridor,” he replied. “The Corps has an impromptu departure station set up.”
“Well, I guess we’re off, then!” Schwartz said, already moving after Jenell, who had saluted once before striding off. “Thanks, your Grace! Lovely to meet all of you! Tell Miss Aspen I said good-bye!”
“I will,” Ingvar assured him, though Schwartz had already turned and was nearly out of earshot, then muttered with a glance at the dryad, “not that I expect her to care.”
“Isn’t that you, too, ma’am?” Joe asked Ami.
“Yes, yes, I suppose it is,” she said languidly, finally setting off after the other two at a leisurely pace. “I can’t have people thinking they can order me about, though, that would never do. You know how it is.”
“Uh…sure,” he said uncertainly to her retreating back. “Nice meetin’ you.”
The three remaining glanced over at Aspen again. The Legionnaire she had captured was listening, still wary but seeming somewhat less tense now. It appeared to be a rather one-sided conversation, though, just distant enough that the dryad’s low voice was indistinct.
“Which brings up the next question,” said Darling. “What do we do about her?”
“She goes with me, obviously,” Ingvar said, watching Aspen with a faint smile. After a moment, he blinked and straightened, turning back to them. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean that to be as brusque as it came out. But after thinking it over, it does seem obvious. She’s already stated she wants to stay with me, and… Well, she needs to grow accustomed to other people, learn how to treat them. Somebody she trusts had better stick around for that.”
“While I’m sure bringin’ her back to the lodge would make you a celebrity,” Joe said carefully, “I really can’t see takin’ her into Tiraas as a good idea.”
“Never mind good idea,” Darling agreed, “that’s extremely illegal. Don’t mistake the tolerance she’s getting here on a frontier during a crisis for a change in policy. Dryads aren’t allowed into Imperial-held cities.”
“Now I think on it,” Joe mused, “I’m not sure how the Empire could stop ‘er without rilin’ up big mama.”
“The Empire hasn’t lasted a thousand years by shooting every problem it faces,” Darling said dryly. “The Azure Corps is responsible for dryad incursions, or in their absence, any Imperial personnel with teleportation ability. If a dryad wanders too close to a city and won’t be dissuaded, they’re simply picked up and moved somewhere else. Usually as close to the Deep Wild as it’s safe to teleport.”
“Bet they don’t like that,” Joe murmured.
“No, they do not,” Darling agreed. “But they mostly don’t seem to have the attention span to make an issue of it. I’ve never heard of a dryad having to be removed repeatedly. Generally, I guess they just prefer to go off and do something less annoying.”
“I’m certain all of that’s true,” Ingvar said quietly, still gazing in the direction of Aspen, though his mind was clearly far away. “It still works, however, since I am not going back to Tiraas.” He blinked again, then turned to Darling. “In fact, thank you for reminding me. I was going to ask if you would carry a letter to Brother Andros for me.”
“Gladly,” Darling said immediately. “So, you’ve had time to think on your next move, then?”
“It’s not as if we’ve had a lot to do but think while you and Bishop Syrinx were conversing with various sinister powers,” he said wryly. “That, and talk with the others.”
“I’ve gotta say,” Joe added with a grin, “you’re fallin’ behind, your Grace. The other Bishop managed to put together a bigger an’ stranger posse even than you.”
“Now, I contest that,” Darling said solemnly, holding up a hand. “Aspen is plenty strange enough to beat any competition.”
“I can hear you, by the way,” the dryad called over her shoulder.
“Considering the source, my dear,” Darling called back, bowing to her, “it was purely a compliment.”
She gave him an amused little smile before turning back to her new friend, who was beginning to look actually interested in the conversation.
“But I have my own path to seek,” Ingvar said, still gazing at Aspen. “I am not yet sure what to do with what I have learned from this journey…not all of it, anyway. I do know that I cannot step back into my life as it was. My faith… Everything I thought I understood is wrong. Or if not wrong, incomplete…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to do about it.”
“You seem pretty calm, for a fella who just had the rug yanked out from under him like that,” Joe observed.
“Because I have a plan,” Ingvar agreed, nodding. “If I were as lost as I had been after that night on the mountain… But no, not anymore. I don’t know how to help Shaath, or how to fix the Huntsmen, or if I even can do either of those things. The steps right in front of me, though, are clear. I need to learn more. My quest now is for understanding of the areas my education has failed to cover. And in that, I already have places to start.”
“Where’ll you go next?” Darling asked quietly.
“I haven’t completely decided,” Ingvar said, finally turning back to face him. “Since Aspen will be accompanying me, it makes sense I should speak with her about the options before picking a destination. But I do know where to seek the wisdom I need: the elves, and the Rangers.”
“I think it might be wise to let Veilgrad settle down a mite before bringin’ Aspen into the vicinity,” Joe suggested. “Not that she won’t be a hit with the Rangers, I reckon, but the Imperials around the city’re already on high alert, an’ after this rhubarb out here, droppin’ a dryad on their doorstep might get a response you won’t like.”
“Hm.” Ingvar frowned in thought. “You make a solid point, Joe. Perhaps that’s for the best, anyway. There are few better places to avoid the Empire’s notice than an elven grove… And in all likelihood, the Elders there are the best possible choices to help Aspen, as well as me.”
“There’s also the fact that Aspen will automatically get a warm welcome at the grove,” Darling added, “which might help you get one. Elves as a general rule aren’t hugely fond of visitors in their forests.”
“Yes,” Ingvar agreed, “there is that.” He paused, glancing back and forth between them, then smiled. “Strange how quickly I’ve come to appreciate your perspectives. It has only been a few days, but I shall miss you both.”
“Likewise,” Joe replied, smiling. “I hope this ain’t a permanent goodbye.”
“Considering where I’ll be and doing that,” Darling added, “I’m not sure how I’ll be in a position to help you with your quest going forward, Ingvar. But if that should ever become a possibility, all you’ve gotta do is ask.”
“I appreciate it, Antonio,” the Huntsman replied, smiling and inclining his head. “And the same goes. To both of you.”
“And hey, if nothing else, you’re heading off with more pleasing company than either of us,” Darling said, grinning broadly. “Dangerous as hell company, but still.”
“Mm.” Ingvar glanced at Aspen again. “I don’t really think of her that way.”
“You’re joking,” said Joe. “I think of her that way a little, an’ I’m mostly terrified of ‘er.”
The Huntsman smiled. “Well, not that I don’t see your point… But I’ve talked with her more than either of you, and something about her is…childlike.”
“In seriousness, though,” said Darling, “if you’re not looking to pursue that kind of relationship, watch your step. Right now you’re her only anchor to the wide world of humanity. You’re the guy who rescued her from imprisonment, and you’ve positioned yourself as the father figure setting the boundaries she needs to understand how to cope with society. The attachment taking shape there could end up working in a lot of ways, but you’d better not take any of them lightly.”
“What will be, will be,” Ingvar said, barely above a whisper. “And if nothing else… I want to help her simply for the sake of helping her, of course. But there is also the fact that, based on what we learned in the Data Vault, the best way to help Shaath and the other gods may be to help Naiya regain her own agency.”
“And,” Joe said slowly, “based on what else we learned down there, the best way to do that might start with the dryads.”
“Exactly,” Ingvar said quietly.
Aspen looked over at him again, and smiled.
The afternoon was already declining, shadows of the surrounding Viridill mountains casting the Abbey into dimness, when Basra and Jenell finally emerged from the central structure into the secluded side courtyard in which their borrowed carriage was parked. It had already been packed by a pair of novices who had since retreated, and stood idle, piled with the luggage and effects of both women.
“Ah, hello!” Schwartz said, bounding upright from where he’d been sitting beneath the mimosa tree nearby. The walled space was only paved in the area in front of the Abbey’s side door, the rest of the area left as a small garden with a fountain, a few flowering shrubs, and the lone pink-blossomed tree. “Good evening! All settled, then, ready to go?”
“Why, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said in a mild tone, stopping at the foot of the steps down from the Abbey to regard him with her head tilted to one side. “Were you waiting for us?”
“Oh, well,” he said awkwardly, dry-washing his hands. “It’s just, you know. I realize this sort of thing must be all in a day’s work for you, your Grace, but it’s been a pretty big deal for me! All the excitement, being part of history… Not as if I can just brush it all off without at least saying goodbye, can I?”
“Mm hm,” Basra said quietly, one corner of her mouth twisting upward in a faint, partial smile. A few steps behind her, Jenell watched her with a suddenly wary expression. “And, of course, it’s not just me you wanted to see off.”
“Ah.” Schwartz swallowed heavily, a faint blush rising on his cheeks. “Well. You know… I mean, not that… Certainly, your Grace, it’s been great working with you, don’t think—”
“Well, it’s a fair point,” Basra said briskly, striding toward him with a suddenly warm smile. “You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me on this trip, Schwartz. Not that you’re the sort of man I would generally pick to participate in a field exercise, but even so, I haven’t a single criticism about your performance. I have already sent a letter of commendation to Sister Leraine, along with my thanks to her for suggesting you for this. The whole thing would have fallen apart without your help, and that is the simple fact. I don’t intend to let it pass unnoticed.”
He seemed momentarily lost for words; Meesie cheeped once in excitement and ran in a full circle on the top of his head, further disheveling his sandy hair. “Why… Why, Bishop Syrinx, I’m positively… I mean, I only did the best I could. What else can you do, after all, right?”
The Bishop smiled at him, holding out a hand; when he reached to accept it, she shifted swiftly, grasping his wrist in a warrior’s handshake and leaving him fumbling for a moment to understand and then reciprocate the gesture. With her other hand, Basra pointed behind her at Jenell, then snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground nearby. The Legionnaire dutifully stepped forward, her expression still nervous.
“What’s next for you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Basra inquired.
“Back to my research, I suppose,” Schwartz said with a faint grin. He glanced nervously over at Jenell, then down at his arm, which Basra still held clasped. “I mean…it’s the oddest thing, you know? It was all I ever wanted or enjoyed, studying and developing new spells, but after all this… Going to be a little hard to get back into the swing of it, eh?”
“Oh, I know the feeling.”
“And, ah, yourself?” he added tactfully, with a faint tug of his arm. She didn’t let go. “Off back to Tiraas, I hear?”
“Yes, it would appear I’ve been recalled by the High Commander,” Basra said, a catlike smile stretching across her features. “General Panissar wants to have some kind of ceremony thanking me for dealing with the headhunter; it’s going to take some real skulduggery on my part to nip that in the bud. Such accolades usually just end up being a hindrance in my work. Still, the Empire doesn’t officially acknowledge headhunters exist, so I should be able to shut it down.”
“Ah, well,” he said sincerely, “if that’s how you feel, I suppose. But you surely do deserve the attention! That was incredible, the way you handled that situation.”
“Why, thank you,” she replied, her smile stretching half an inch wider. It was beginning to look almost unnatural; Schwartz’s own expression was becoming more uncertain under her unblinking stare. “You know, I usually take great care not to burn bridges, but what the hell. It’s been quite a run, as you said, and I’m in a good mood. And it’s not as if we’re likely to see one another again.”
“I, uh…” He glanced down at his hand again and tugged it more firmly, to no avail. Jenell was beginning to look downright panicked; Meesie had fallen silent and was standing on her toes atop his head, back arched and fur puffed like a scared cat. “I don’t think I quite understand…”
“I am pretty incredible, Schwartz. I’m cunning, well-connected, and more than a match for most opponents in a fight.” Her smile was unwavering, eyes wide, but pupils narrowed almost to pinpricks.
Basra lashed out with her other hand, seizing Jenell by her regulation bun and hauling her forward. The Bishop twisted her head around, still keeping a grip on Schwartz’s arm, and kissed Jenell full on the mouth, hard.
Jenell’s eyes were wide and panicked; after only a second, she squeezed them shut, unresisting. A second later and she forced herself to relax against the taller woman’s grip.
Schwartz gaped at them, ashen-faced, from barely two feet away, Meesie absolutely rigid in his hair.
Basra abruptly released Jenell and, with a contemptuous jerk of her hair, shoved her away.
“Which you should keep firmly in mind,” she said pleasantly to Schwartz as though nothing had interrupted their discussion, “the next time you get the urge to put your grubby little fingers on someone else’s things.” Basra held his aghast gaze for two seconds of silence, smiling, before continuing. “If you forget, just keep in mind that you won’t be the one paying for it.”
“You—” He broke off, choking, and swallowed; Meesie actually burst into flames, which didn’t so much as singe his hair. “You can’t—”
“Covrin,” Basra said calmly, keeping her eyes locked on Schwartz’s, her fingers digging into his wrist. “How’d you like a change of assignment? If you are at all tired of working with me…under me…just say the word. You may pick any unit in the Silver Legions and I’ll pull every string I can reach to make it happen. Well? What do you say?”
Jenell’s face was white and her posture rigid, eyes fixed on the ground. “No, ma’am.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that? Do speak up.”
“Say it, Jenell,” Basra snarled with such abrupt ferocity that both of them flinched back from her.
Jenell drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders. “I am happy with my current assignment, your Grace. I’d prefer to remain in your service.” She stared straight ahead, refusing to look at either of them.
“Well, there you go,” Basra said lightly, again smiling. “Get in the carriage.”
Jenell stepped past them without another word, swiftly climbing into the driver’s seat.
“Thank you for all your excellent work, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said with a kind smile. “Best of luck in your future endeavors.”
She strolled off at a leisurely pace, lifting herself into the passenger seat and sprawling idly with one arm draped over the side of the carriage, a picture of relaxation.
Squealing with rage, Meesie bounded down to Schwartz’s shoulder and then launched herself after Basra in a flaming, flying tackle. Schwartz deftly caught her in midair, where the little fire-mouse struggled against his fist, squeaking furiously and putting off sparks which clearly did him no harm. Aside from that one motion of his arm, Schwartz stood as if petrified, staring emptily at the two women in the carriage.
It hummed to life, and a moment later pulled forward through the gate, heading off down the road to the town and the Rail station below. Neither of them looked back.
Long moments stretched past, the last crimson sunlight fading and the garden courtyard falling into true dusk. Fairy lamps set in sconces around the walls came to life, changing the color of the light. All the while, Schwartz stood poleaxed in place, gazing out the open gate. Meesie finally stopped thrashing and sparking, her fire dissipating until she glowed with only her usual soft, red glimmer. Eventually, she did manage to wriggle free of his frozen grip, whereupon she climbed back up his arm to his shoulder and pressed her front paws to his cheek, cheeping worriedly.
At last, Schwartz shook himself off. Quite suddenly, his blank expression fell into a resolute frown. He reached up, patted Meesie reassuringly, straightened his robe, and took a step toward the gate.
“Going somewhere, Mr. Schwartz?”
He paused, turning back to the Abbey’s door. Abbess Darnassy had just emerged, limping along on her cane, and began the process of navigating the short stairs one careful step at a time, her piercing gaze never leaving him.
“I…” He swallowed and squared his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I have to be going. Thank you for your hospitality, Abbess.”
“Just a moment, if you please.”
“I really need to go. Goodbye.” He turned and made two more steps.
“Young man, get back here this instant.”
Schwartz was halfway back to her before he seemed to realize what he was doing; his face fell into a scowl partway, but after a brief hesitation in his step, he kept going, arriving before the Abbess just as she reached the ground.
“Well, good,” she said with a smile. “You respect your elders, anyway.”
“Reflex,” he admitted. “You sounded alarmingly like my mother just then.”
“As a matter of fact, I met Sergeant Schwartz once. A solid woman, and a good officer. Though it’s Sheriff Schwartz now, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yes,” he said absently, turning his head to stare again at the gate. “And if you can say it five times fast, she’ll buy you a drink…”
“It’s Herschel, isn’t it?” At the Abbess’s suddenly more gentle tone, he turned back to her, eyebrows rising. “Herschel… That young woman is a Legionnaire in Avei’s service. I’ve watched her carefully while the Bishop has been here, and while there is definitely some manner of duress at play, it is equally clear that she tolerates her situation for specific reasons of her own. Not good reasons, I strongly suspect, but she is no one’s damsel in distress. If you go trying to treat her as such, you will be disappointed, to say the least.”
He scowled at the old woman, Meesie squeaking an indignant counterpoint. “There’s a big difference between rescuing someone and helping them…ma’am.”
“Good.” Narnasia nodded in clear approval. “Good boy. In that case, before you begin whatever it is you are planning to attempt, you will do three things.”
“I will?” he replied, nonplussed.
“First,” she continued relentlessly, “you will visit elven groves until you find one where an Elder is willing to speak with you, and have them explain in detail what the word anth’auwa means. You have the word in mind?”
“Sure, I suppose,” he said, frowning. “What’s this—”
“Repeat it back to me.”
Schwartz’s mouth tightened momentarily in gathering aggravation, but he obeyed. “Anth’auwa, correct? That was it?”
“Good. Make sure you remember it. Second, you will be certain you have a good number of combat spells in your personal repertory and are well-practiced at using them. Specifically, you’ll study spells useful in combating divine magic users, which I understand is the inherent weak point in your chosen magical focus.”
“Third,” she said, staring severely up at him, “you will make a friend or other contact in the Thieves’ Guild, and have them coach you as much as they are willing to in politics. Which is, after all, the execution of war by subtler means. Be acquainted with the mindset and the methods of slimy people who live by manipulation. No one can better teach you that than an Eserite.”
“How in the bloody world would you suggest I make friends with a thief?” he exclaimed.
“Well, since you asked so sweetly,” the Abbess said, raising an eyebrow of disapproval, “the quickest way is to offer them something they want. I’ve no doubt your cult has access to various spells or reagents that are useful for nefarious purposes and which the Guild would love to traffic in. All you have to do is find a relatively personable member who’s interested in making some unscrupulous coin—which is most of them—and you’re in.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this,” he said, staring at her. “You’re suggesting I steal from my own cult, now?” Meesie squeaked in incredulous agreement.
“I hardly think that would be necessary,” Narnasia said wryly. “Far simpler to approach Bishop Throale and tell him you’re looking to cultivate contacts in the Thieves’ Guild. Throale will probably give you trinkets to trade out of the College’s own budget. Eserites are useful to know for a variety of reasons, and they’re standoffish with the other cults. You’ll get much further in life by providing people something they want than by fighting everybody. Consider that your first lesson in politics.”
“Huh,” he said, still frowning, but now in thought.
“Remember,” Narnasia said sharply. “What are the three things you are to do?”
Schwartz focused his gaze on her again, his scowl deepening, but he replied dutifully. “Learn what anth’auwa means from the elves, study anti-divine combat magic, approach the Thieves’ Guild to learn about…cloak and dagger stuff. Satisfied?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “When you have done all that… Then, and only then, will you attempt to take on Basra Syrinx.”
Schwart’s eyes widened. He took a half step backward from her. “I… I don’t…”
“Please, don’t waste my time with disingenuous demurrals,” she said irritably. “You’re even easier to read than most young people, which is a big part of the problem before you. Syrinx is a creature of politics. The moment you start making moves at her, she will know it. At that point you had better be prepared to contend with her, because you will have no more time to learn how. Understand?”
She held his gaze in silence for a long few moments. Finally, he swallowed heavily.
“Why… I mean, Bishop Syrinx clearly has some…favor, in Tiraas. With the Church, and the High Commander. Why would you…tell me this?”
Narnasia sighed heavily, beginning the process of turning around to clamber back up the stairs and into her Abbey. “Avei is a goddess of multiple aspects, Herschel. In war, it may sometimes seem advisable or even necessary to keep a particularly dangerous weapon on hand. The Sisterhood has its High Commander to oversee its pursuit of war, and I will not gainsay her decisions. But there are other values in Avei’s service. Greater ones, I think. Remember what I told you, young man. Be careful.”
“Do you…” He hesitated. “Um, can I help you back in?”
“Go on, be off with you,” she said without turning around, waving a hand irritably. “Leave an old woman to her own battles. Goddess knows I’ve few enough left.”
He stood, though, watching until she was back inside the Abbey, before turning to go. Meesie climbed back up onto his head, nestling herself quietly in his hair, her thoughtful silence echoing his own.
It was quite dark outside, the path downhill difficult to see. The winding road was well-lit, but there was a more direct staircase toward the town, currently vanishing down into darkness. Red still stained the sky, but the sunset was on the opposite side of the mountains, leaving the stretch between the Abbey and the lights of the village far below lost in shadow. Schwartz sighed at the sight, then held out a hand.
Wind swirled gently about his palm, spiraling faster until it burst into a melon-sized flame. The loose fireball continued to whirl, shrinking and compacting itself down until it coalesced fully into a single spark of brilliant golden light. The marble-sized sun was better than a torch, providing a wide area of illumination.
“I say, that is a neat trick!”
Schwartz jumped and yelped, whirling to find Ami Talaari perched on a low retaining wall just outside the gate. She had been in complete shadow, and now blinked at the brilliance of his palm-light. Meesie sat upright on his head, shrilly scolding the bard.
“I couldn’t help overhearing that,” Ami said lightly, hopping down and slinging her guitar case over one shoulder.
“Couldn’t you,” Schwartz said, scowling.
“Well, naturally not,” she replied with a smile, “being that I was shamelessly eavesdropping. That’s rather the point, don’t you think?”
He sighed. “Ami, I’m really not in a great mood, so forgive me if I’m blunt. What do you want?”
“Do you remember,” she said, ambling up beside him, “when I first arrived at the house in Vrin Shai? When I was so irate to find Basra Syrinx there, due to past dealings between us, and she explained in such perfect detail why that had all been a misunderstanding, and absolutely no fault of hers?”
“I suppose so,” he said, frowning suspiciously.
Ami smiled. “It was a pack of utter, shameless lies. In point of fact, I’m not one to just blithely accept what I’m told—no bard worthy of the name is. I’d done my own research on those events long before coming to Viridill, and I know exactly what happened. That woman left me hung out to dry, at the very real risk of my life—and I wasn’t the only person she’d done that to, that night. In fact, I was just incidental. Collateral damage in her ploy to destroy a squad of her own soldiers whom she found…inconvenient. Oh, I know what she did. I know what she is. And I knew, when Bishop Snowe invited me here, that she was present.”
Schwartz stared at her in confusion. “But…then why did you stay? Why did you come?”
“Because a bard’s response to dangerous circumstances is very much unlike an average, sensible person’s.” Her expression slowly sobered, until she looked more intent, more serious, than he had ever seen her. “Some people, Schwartz, can be reasoned with. Some can even be redeemed. But there are some who are so completely defective, on such a fundamental level, that they can only be destroyed. I encountered one just as I was being elevated to the station of a fully accredited bard of Vesk. I wouldn’t be much of a bard if I had just walked away and left that alone, now would I?” She shook her head. “But the way to destroy a monster like that is not to go charging at her with an ax. It starts slowly, carefully, with observing her as closely as possible, to see her habits, her strengths, her weaknesses. And then…then begins the hard part.”
Ami tilted her head, one corner of her mouth turning up in a thin smile. “Think you’re up for it?”
Schwartz stared at her in silence for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Well. I guess I’d better be. Because I’m in.”
“Smashing!” Grinning delightedly, Ami smoothly tucked her arm into his and turned them toward the stairs down the mountainside. “Now, I’m afraid we’re a tad late to catch a Rail caravan out of this backwater tonight, but perhaps it’s just as well. We can find an inn in town, get rooms and some dinner. I do believe we have quite a lot to talk about.”