Tag Archives: Ox

2 – 11

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He stepped calmly from the Rail caravan and looked around, resting the butt of his staff on the stone platform. Around him rose Last Rock, a collection of plain stone buildings that weren’t old but would not have looked out of place in a bygone era. Aside from the modern dress of the people passing by, and the scrolltower perched at one edge of the square, it could have been a painting of a medieval village.

To his right, another man weakly extracted himself from another caravan, clutching the edge of its door for support briefly before wobbling out onto the platform. Listing from a combination of dizziness and a limp—probably freshly acquired—he stumbled toward the tavern at one side of the square, its sign proclaiming it the Ale & Wenches.

He snorted. Pretentious. The kind of name designed to sucker in fools who went treasure hunting in the Golden Sea and called themselves “adventurers,” as though they were dungeon delvers of old.

“Made the trip all right?”

He looked to the left, finding himself approached by a towering, burly man with an impressive mustache in a faded old Imperial Army coat. His expression was solicitous, but stern.

“Well enough,” he said easily. Tucking his staff into the crook of one arm, he reached into his coat and pulled out a small cigar case, carefully selected a cigarillo, and lit it by tapping the end against the head of his staff, this whole display giving the big man time to look him over carefully. He knew the way of these small towns.

His appearance, as he was well aware, invited scrutiny. The tan leather duster he wore was old, scarred, and even burnt in places, as was his matching flat-brimmed hat. Around his neck was a sweat-stained bandana, and his boots, though of fine quality, had been with him long enough to bear their own scars, too deep to be healed with polish. Below all that, though, his suit, while also dusty and rumpled from travel, was presentable. Much as it galled him to admit it, his age was an asset. Nobody seemed to expect trouble from a well-lined face framed by steely gray whiskers.

“I think that other fellow came off it a bit worse than I,” he said mildly, jerking his head toward the man who was even now limping through the A&W’s doors.

The big man had fixed his eyes on the lighting of the cigarillo with a faint frown, but apparently decided he passed muster. “That’s Jethro, he comes through here every couple weeks. Works with some bank in Tiraas, has some business with the University. After a whiskey he’ll be good as new. I’m Ox. Welcome to Last Rock, stranger.”

“McGraw.” Clenching the cigarillo between his teeth, he took the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “Good to know you.”

The crack of the Rail re-igniting its transit matrix sounded; a static buzz washed over them and his arcane senses were momentarily blinded by the activation of complex, powerful enchantments so close. It passed quickly, though, as the caravan accelerated away and was soon lost to view.

“Damn fool contraption,” Ox grunted. “I dunno why the Empire lets people ride those things. They kill a couple dozen a year, as I understand it.”

“Control,” he said simply, puffing at his cigarillo. Ox raised an eyebrow. “I was around when the Rails were new, got to ride in some of the very first caravans. They had safety harnesses. The cargo cars still do—all kinds of straps and buckles to hold things steady. Despite what the Empire likes to say, those things were not meant to move troops. They were for moving adventurers, specifically to the frontier.”

“Never heard that,” said Ox, frowning.

“Suppose, friend, you’re in charge of running some rats through a maze. You want ’em to go a specific way, get ’em to the end where you want ’em. Now what’s a better use of your energies: trying to herd and heckle each one along, or move the walls such that they naturally lead where you want?” He glanced over at his new acquaintance; Ox was studying him more closely now, his eyes narrowed. He grinned, teeth clutching his cigarillo. “The world is run by a certain kind of men, my friend. Be it the crowned kings of old or the bureaucrats of today, they’re well-fed men in expensive suits, who have no idea what it means to risk your neck and bust your ass workin’ for a living. To governments, rats in a maze is all we are. The Empire was modernizing, moving from a chaotic loot-based economy to one of systems, structures and laws. Shunting off the well-armed loners to the last place guaranteed to grind ’em up en masse served two purposes: getting them out of society, and helping to push back the frontiers as far as they can be pushed, so society has room to expand. Thus, crazy rattletrap Rails, fit for those willing to risk their necks, but sure to discourage the saner, calmer breed who they want to stay in the cities and pay their taxes. It was…elegant, really.”

“That’s…an interesting theory,” Ox said noncommittally when he finished.

He shrugged. “And I may be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. A funny thing, though… There are hardly any adventurers or adventures left, these days. Lo and behold, the Rails are getting upgraded. The ones serving the interior provinces are downright comfy, now, safe as your mother’s arms. Last I heard, the schedule they’re on, even these frontier lines will have full safety features within two years.”

“Well, whatever the Empire’s motives, that I can get behind. All I know is, these Rail cars are insane. Sooner they get straightened out, the better.”

“On that we can agree.”

“What brings you to Last Rock?”

“Oh, I’m just stopping in on my way elsewhere,” he said easily. “I heard a friend of mine might be loitering in this town and thought I’d see if I could catch him. Name of Shook? Greasy-lookin’ fellow, cheap suit… Ostensibly a salesman but I’ll lay odds he’s not been seen trying to sell jack shit to anybody.”

“I know him,” Ox replied slowly. His increasingly serious expression told McGraw this was, indeed, the place. “He don’t cause any trouble, just hangs around the A&W, playing cards and drinkin’. Seems to be an acquaintance of Prin’s.”

“Prin? That wouldn’t be Principia Locke? Brunette wood elf?”

“You know Prin, too?” Now, Ox looked downright leery.

“Only by reputation. We have acquaintances in common, you might say.”

“You’re not reassurin’ me, McGraw. Shook’s not good for much that I can see, but like I said, he’s no trouble. Prin’s another matter. I’m not sure Last Rock needs any more of their ‘friends’ moving in.”

“Oh, don’t worry none about me,” McGraw said, grinning around his cigarillo. “Like I said, I don’t aim to be here long. Just to pay my respects, and then I’ll be on my way. You attached to the law in this town, by any chance?”

“There’s no budget for a paid deputy,” Ox rumbled, “but I help out Sheriff Sanders when help’s needed. I live on a pension; I’ve got the free time.”

“That’s good to hear, friend, good to hear. Do give the Sheriff my regards, won’t you?” He puffed smoke contentedly for a moment, jabbing his cigarillo in the direction of the A&W. “How’re the accommodations over yonder?”

“Clean. Food’s good, whiskey’s…plentiful. Ain’t a quiet place, though; that’s the common watering hole for the University kids and every wannabe hero who passes through on the way in or out of the Sea.”

“Perfect. I believe I’ll arrange a bed for the night. These old bones don’t look forward to another Rail ride any sooner than they have to.”

“I’ll let the Sheriff know you’re in town, then,” Ox said firmly. There was no mistaking the warning in his tone. McGraw just smiled at him.

“Do that, friend. Perhaps I’ll see you around.”


 

No one had ever accused the Ale & Wenches of false advertising.

There was ale, technically, though frontier tastes being as they were, the A&W did more business in whiskey, with beer coming in second. As for the other part, the serving girls did indeed dress in medieval-style attire, prominently featuring low-bodiced peasant dresses and blouses. That was as far as it went, however. There was invariably at least one burly man with a cudgel and a wand on duty, but they rarely had time to step in, even when the need arose. In a town the size of Last Rock, every one of those girls was the daughter of someone’s friend or neighbor. The University kids knew to treat them politely; out-of-towners seldom had to be told twice. Even had any of the young ladies in question been willing, there was absolutely no chance of a traveler slipping her a coin and taking her upstairs.

Despite the way expectations thus yielded to the reality of modern life, the A&W remained a perennial favorite of the students and the would-be heroes who passed through town, because it played perfectly to their fantasies. The fairy lamps illuminating the common room were of the flickery old style rather than steadier modern versions, and housed behind yellow-tinted glass that made their light resemble that of torches. Maps, hunting trophies and well-used old bladed weapons decorated the walls, and the room itself was of rough timber and plaster with fieldstone accents, just like the illustrations of taverns in modern books full of old stories.

It was an unspoken joke among the citizens of Last Rock that the illusion pitched by the A&W succeeded so well because those who bought into it were no more adventuring heroes than the tavern itself was a real adventurer’s bar, such as had formed a basic economic role throughout the frontiers five hundred years ago. The closest thing to real adventurers present were the University students, who were an odd, eclectic and often dangerous bunch, though they were ironically the better-behaved of the patrons. Those who were actually there for adventuring purposes rarely deserved to be taken seriously. People did, occasionally, still find treasure and glory in the Golden Sea. Most of those who went looking came staggering out weeks later, half-starved, traumatized, and hell and gone from wherever they’d entered…those who came out at all. It wasn’t something rational, well-adjusted people attempted.

Principia loved it here.

She didn’t push the swinging doors open and stand in them—aside form being mindful of the cliché, it wasn’t her habit to be the center of attention unless a specific con required it. Usually there was better hunting to be had in blending in. But she did, as usual, slip to one side of the doors and treat herself to a moment of soaking in the ambiance. This was just like old times. The Age of Adventures was already stumbling toward its slow end by the time she’d started her career, but she was still old enough to have been in a few adventurer bars—the real ones. Those were some of her happiest memories.

But that was then, this was now, and she was on a particularly unforgiving deadline. The reminder of her straits soured some of her nostalgic pleasure, and she narrowed her focus to the night’s business.

It was after sundown on a Friday and the A&W was predictably busy, but she had no trouble zeroing in on her targets; they were ensconced at the largest table in the place. The three privates stood out in their navy blue Army uniforms, and were keeping company with a couple of the more exotic University kids. Chase and Tanq blended in as they would in any group of miscellaneous humans, but Hildred, a honey-blonde dwarf girl, and especially Natchua made for a more distinctive sight. There was a card game in progress, as well as tankards and pitchers and platters of the A&W’s simple but good finger food.

Prin took a moment to consider her approach. She needed those boys’ interest, and first impressions were vitally important.

“Hey! PRIN!” Chase waved at her, grinning delightedly. “Perfect timing, get that perky butt over here!”

Her sly smile wasn’t entirely faked. Once in a while, fortune did favor her.

She threaded her way nimbly through the crowd, pulled out a chair between two of the soldiers and plopped down. “What’s this, then, you started without me? Now my feelings are hurt. Somebody better buy me something to compensate.”

“Something shiny or something alcoholic?” Tanq asked with a grin.

“That’ll do for a start!”

She received a smiling greeting from Hildred and a glare from Natchua, which she knew by now not to take personally. It wasn’t personal, and wasn’t even the usual hostility that drow often held toward surface elves and vice versa; Natchua was simply, as usual, trying for the “brooding badass” look, and as usual managing only to come off as surly. The three soldier boys all eyed her with interest.

“Well, hello,” she purred at them. “I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure.”

“Not so far,” said the swarthy one to her right, grinning. “Am I going to?”

“I haven’t,” Chase complained. “Rumor has it that makes me the only one in town.”

“Funny thing is,” she said airily, setting a stack of copper coins on the table, “he keeps saying things like that to me, and yet appears to think he’s going to get somewhere. Deal me in.”

“I am very stupid,” Chase agreed, nodding solemnly. “This is known.”

It was a good group to work. Chase and Rook, the soldier with the olive complexion, were jokers and talkers, keeping conversation going. Finchley, Hildred and Tanq were quieter, but affable; Natchua and Moriarty were too sullen and stiff, respectively, to contribute much, but that was fine. A group that size would have been chaos with everybody talking over each other. Prin could apply her charm in chaos—she could apply it anywhere, but chaos was less than ideal.

A few hands and a pitcher of beer were enough for her to get the measure of her targets. Moriarty she dismissed as a prospect to leverage. Not that she couldn’t do it, but guys like him required a lot of effort and very particular tactics, which she had neither time nor inclination to pursue. Finchley and Rook were likelier prospects, though the personalities demanded such different approaches that she wouldn’t really be able to work both at one time. Luckily, she’d placed herself right between them at the table, and both kept giving her eyes of interest. Prin didn’t devote great time or attention to her looks; sometimes, in company like this, being an elf was all it took.

Half an hour after sitting down (it didn’t do to rush these things), she’d settled on Rook as her best prospect, as he was clearly the more careless of them. Getting useful intel on Tellwyrn out of him here, now, during a loud poker game, wasn’t really an option, but she had plenty of room to strike up a rapport to be leveraged later. This couldn’t all be done in one night.

Hopefully that would be enough to keep Thumper off her for a while longer.

She had just gotten down to a seriously, slowly escalating campaigns of subtle touches and flirtatious glances when a man stepped up to their table.

“Evenin’, folks,” he said, tipping his hat politely. “This a closed game or can an old wanderer join in? Ain’t had a good round of cards in far too long.”

Principia gave him a carefully calculated look—not overtly hostile, but not one he’d have mistaken for welcome. Such an addition would shift the dynamic of the group, and she’d have to take time to adjust her tactics. She needed to come out of this with, at minimum, plans to meet up with Rook later. Something concrete, as Thumper wasn’t the sort to understand subtler degrees of progress.

“Glad to have you, stranger!” Chase said cheerily without waiting to get anybody else’s opinion. “I don’t mind taking your money if you don’t mind donating.”

“Much obliged.” The old man pulled over an unoccupied chair from a nearby table and seated himself beside Hildred.

“Another hand like that last one, Chase, and you’ll be out of it for the night,” Tanq warned.

“Nonsense, I’ll just tap into my reserves.”

“You asked us not to let you do that. Remember?”

“Oh, I say lots of things. You should always listen to what I’m saying now. Past me was naïve and innocent, and future me will probably be drunk.”

Prin appraised the new arrival silently. He was clearly well along in years, and had the dark complexion of a westerner, though his skin was several shades lighter than Tanq’s. The ragged old coat and hat gave off a certain impression, but the staff gave another one entirely. That was no mass-produced soldier’s weapon, but an old and hand-crafted object polished to a dull glow, surmounted by a short obelisk of smoky quartz in an asymmetrical iron setting. There was no clicker, or any mechanism to activate it, meaning its owner did so mentally, which she could have guessed anyway; even from across the table she could feel the haze of arcane energy around the thing and its owner.

He caught her looking and nodded politely, giving her a small smile. She returned an equally stiff one.

Their game resumed mostly unchanged. The stranger, who gave his name simply as McGraw, was on the quieter side, or at least seemed so in comparison with some of the others at the table, though he wasn’t shy about joking along, and quickly endeared himself to the party by paying for his own drinks rather than partaking of what was already on hand. Principia let him be, pursuing her own game, which was also going well. Finchley seemed a bit put out at the lack of her attention, but Rook was clearly quite interested.

She felt a little wistful, in truth. It was a good night: food, drink, noise, and the company of friends and cheerful strangers. It would have been nice to simply enjoy it.

McGraw caught the elbow of a serving girl the next time his tankard was empty, beckoning her closer, and murmured a message into her ear along with his order. She smiled, nodded, and gave him a pat on the shoulder as she straightened, then trotted off. Prin seemed to be the only one paying attention to this exchange; again, he caught her looking, acknowledging her with that private little smile.

“What is it you do, McGraw?” Chase asked without looking up from his cards.

“For starters, I take coin from smug kids who try to distract me from considering my bets.”

Chase laughed in response to that. “Well, that must keep you busy. I was just curious—you’ve got sort of the look of an adventurer, but most of those around here are, ah…”

“Younger?” McGraw said dryly. “By a good thirty years’ minimum, I’d say, yeah. Heh, been a while since anybody accused me of having ‘the look.’ Guess it clings to a man.”

“So you were an adventurer, then?” Natchua asked giving him what she probably thought was a piercing look. It made her look nauseous. Not for the first time, Principia felt an urge to pull the girl aside and give her a few pointers on acting.

“One of the last,” McGraw mused, staring down at his cards without really focusing on them. “When I was your age, a body could still make an actual living roaming about, slaying monsters and looting ruins. Not as good of one as previous generations, of course…even then, the end had already begun, so to speak. The times sure are changin’… I had a couple of good scores, though, enough to set me up. Good thing, too, since there ain’t much room for my kind in the world of today.”

“I wish you’d explain that to Professor Tellwyrn,” Hildred commented, taking a sip of her beer. “I think she’s trying to train us up for a new Age of Adventures, sometimes.”

“With regrets, little lady, I’ll leave you to deal with that on your own,” McGraw said with a wry smile, tipping his hat to her. “I managed to have a full career without bein’ in a room with Arachne Tellwyrn or any of her ilk, and I’m long past being foolish enough to be disappointed by it. Anyhow, I fold, and I’ll have to wish you kids good night.” Grunting softly, he rose from his chair, leaning for a moment on his staff. “Get to be my age, you find yourself heading to bed at decent hours whether you want to or not. Enjoy my coin, kids, and thanks for the game.”

“Cheers!” Chase said, suiting the words with a lifted mug, which he then drained.

McGraw looked directly across the table at Principia. “Actually, if I could borrow you for a moment, Miss Keys? Won’t take long.”

She did not freeze like a startled rabbit, nor allow any emotion to show on her face except mild confusion. She was too old, too practiced and too good for that. “Wh—is that me?” she asked blankly. “I think you have me confused with somebody else.”

“I might, at that,” he said agreeably. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’d be mighty grateful if you’d spare a moment to correct me, lest I waste an evening barkin’ up the wrong tree.”

“Eh…sure, I’ll sit this hand out.” She leaned over to Rook with a smile, placing a friendly hand on his arm. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let Chase steal my coins.”

“Shock! Outrage! I would never!”

“’Cos you can’t reach ’em from over there.”

“Precisely!”

She stepped smoothly around the table and wrapped herself around McGraw’s free arm, simpering up at him. Keep your enemies closer; that applied double to casters. Besides, she might ignite a spark of jealousy in Rook that she could make use of later. “So,” she said at a good volume as she led him away, mostly for the benefit of the group, “tell me about this clearly attractive and talented acquaintance of yours. You know, I believe I’ve been approached by friends of every dark-haired elf on the continent; we really do all look alike to some people! I wonder what she would say.”

“I’m curious to find that out myself,” he said more quietly, gently steering them toward the only remotely private spot in the common room, a relatively shady nook under the stairs to the second-floor balcony. He had clearly identified it in advance, and timed his approach for a moment when there was nobody in there having a quick grope. That, plus the fact that the arm coiled up in hers was corded with lean muscle belying his apparent age made her consider him a bit more carefully. This one was more than he appeared.

“If you will indulge me in wasting a bit of your time, ma’am, in the interest of not repeating myself I’d like to wait for—ah, nevermind! Speak of the devil.”

Rounding the bottom of the steps into their shadowy alcove stepped the last person she wanted to meet at that moment.

“Why, Jeremiah,” Prin said coolly, “I was specifically not expecting to see you this evening.”

“Always a pleasure, Miss Locke,” Shook replied dryly. “I was just informed by one of the girls that a patron was asking after me down here? You look to have found him.”

“Indeed, at least we’re all gathered,” McGraw said agreeably, gently disengaging himself from Principia. “My apologies for interrupting your respective evenings. It was a bit of bother to follow you all the way from Tiraas, Mr. Shook, and regretfully I didn’t manage in time to grab a word with you on the way. Regardless, and you may well call me a relic of an older age for this, which would be fair enough, but I feel if you’re going to kill somebody, you owe it to ’em to look ’em in the eyes first. Seems to me what little nobility there was in battle went out of it when we moved from blades and armor to magic bursts from a hundred yards away.”

They both stared at him blankly for a moment. Prin eased a step away from him. “…I’m sorry, I think I must’ve misheard you.”

“That’s one of the great peculiarities common to all sentient beings, I find,” McGraw said, reaching into his coat to pull out a thin cigar case. As he continued speaking, he withdrew a cigarillo, lit it by pressing the tip against the quartz head of his staff, and tucked the case away. “I had an acquaintance some years ago…well, a friend, really, as best as men like myself can reckon such things…with the given name of Bell. No matter how clearly he enunciated, upon introducing himself to just about anyone, he’d get back a ‘Nice to meet you, Bill!’” He puffed calmly at the cigarillo for a moment. “Now, nobody thought this over and decided to change his name for him… I reckon none even decided on a conscious level that they’d misheard and corrected it. It’s a thing that happens quicker than thought. Our fickle brains look for patterns, for the familiar. They see somethin’ outside their register of what makes sense, well, they just erase it and substitute something more comfortable. Thus, a man named Bell gets called Bill. Likewise, a man who states his intention to kill the other party in a civilized conversation must have been misheard. Why not? The way we’re accustomed to treating each other, well, it just doesn’t make a damn lick of sense. My apologies for the language, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to her.

“Oh, good,” Prin said sourly. “He’s a talker.”

McGraw laughed at that. “Apologies for that, too. Afraid at my age, I’ve already kicked the bad habits I’m going to and made peace with the rest.”

“Just to be clear,” Shook said softly, “you are talking about killing us?”

“Well, her, specifically. Things bein’ as they are, it’s likely to end up being you, too, ‘less you decide to keep well enough out of it.”

“Now why would you want to go and do a thing like that?” the enforcer asked, still in that mild tone. His hands, though, had curled in on themselves, obviously (to the trained eye) preparing to access the knives hidden up his sleeves.

“I don’t concern myself with the likes of ‘why,’” McGraw said, puffing away. “Ain’t a wise thing to ask about, nor a safe thing to know. Once the money’s paid, I proceed with the job. I will say, as I’ve been authorized to do so, that the Thieves’ Guild has stepped on toes that ought not to’ve been stepped on. A rival cult would very much like to see the end of whatever specific business you two are sniffing around after, in the most absolute manner possible. Hence, here I am.” He spread his hands in a gesture that was half-shrug, as though amused by the vagaries of life.

“What cult?” Shook asked tersely. McGraw just gave him a long look. “…right.”

“This is insane,” Principia protested, backing up again. “If you intend to murder someone, you don’t announce it to them ahead of time.”

“Indeed, assassination must come from the shadows, right?” He shook his head. “That’s just the way it’s done. I wonder how many people a year die from seein’ what they expect to, ‘stead of what’s right in front of ’em.”

“You’re in the middle of a crowded bar full of witnesses, most of whom would love nothing better than to jump into a fight and play hero. And threatening murder is itself a crime under Imperial law! All we have to do is go to the Sheriff and you’ll be in a cell faster than you can finish that foul-smelling cigar.”

“You make an awful lot of presumptions concerning what I do or don’t care about,” he replied calmly. “Yes, you could, indeed, go to the Sheriff, at which point the matter would be your word against mine. That can be a dicey thing, when one’s an outsider in these little towns. Folks are more inclined to believe what’s familiar and comfortable to them, as I think I’ve mentioned recently. Course, matters become different when the familiar faces are the town’s two shiftiest residents. My blank slate looks a lot more attractive in that situation, I think. And I happen to find the smell soothing.”

“You can’t just—”

“My apologies for cuttin’ you off, ma’am, but it’s been a long day and I really would prefer to move this along. There are a couple ways this can proceed. Best of all for me is that you try to get the jump on me. Thank the gods for self-defense laws; they’ve allowed me to put down more than a few targets in public without appearin’ so much as suspicious.”

“You’re assuming we can’t take you,” Shook snarled.

“Why, yes,” McGraw said mildly. “It appears I am assuming that. Slightly less advantageous to me is that you try to flee the town, get yourselves lost in the Golden Sea, or the more mundane prairie in the opposite direction. Killing you out of sight of civilization is similarly clean. Just as a word of warning, though, if either of you puts a foot near the scrolltower office or a Rail car, you’ll be dead before the second foot comes down.”

“You can’t watch us all the time, you know!”

“You think not, miss?” he asked in that same tone of calm. “Down the list to the less preferable alternatives, you could just sit on your hands and wait till I’ve got no choice but to act. I have a generous timetable, but I don’t aim to fool around in this town more than a few days. Or, you could attempt to enlist help. It’d have to be help of the illicit sort, since the law won’t be too kindly disposed toward a couple members of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You can’t possibly prove—”

“That is actually a lot less challenging than you Eserites like to believe. Most people simply don’t bother.”

“That’s because being a member of the Guild is not against the law!”

“Just so, ma’am,” he said agreeably. “But it sure doesn’t make the law more favorably inclined toward you. And if you optimistically assume you’ll be around to continue your operations after I leave town, well, it’d complicate your life considerably to be outed. So, what’s it to be, then? Care to do me a favor and start this right now?”

He puffed placidly on his cigarillo, watching them. Principia glanced sidelong at Shook; she wasn’t armed, and wasn’t much use in a fight anyway. The enforcer was glaring pure fury at McGraw, every line of his frame rigid. He remained silent, though, and made no movement toward the other man. Whatever his prowess in hand-to-hand combat, it didn’t take much wit to see that they were dealing with a magic user of some kind. The way to attack one of those was not from the front, when they were expecting it.

“Pity,” McGraw mused after the silence had stretched out for a few moments. “But circumstances being as they are, I can hardly fault you for being less than accommodating. No offense is taken, I assure you. Well, in that case, I’ll bid you good night.”

He stepped forward twice, till his way was blocked by Shook, who still stood tensely, glaring at him.

“’Scuze me,” McGraw said politely. He received only a murderous stare in reply. After a moment, he grinned around his cigarillo and shifted sideways to slip around the enforcer. “Be seein’ you two real soon,” he said amiably as he turned to mount the stairs.

They stood in silence, listening to the sound of his footsteps above, until they grew too distant to be audible over the babble of cheerful noise in the tavern.

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2 – 7

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Professor Tellwyrn’s office door opened without warning.

“Knock knock!” Principia sang, leaning inside with a cheery smile.

Tellwyrn stared at her over the rims of her spectacles for a moment, one hand still holding a quill poised above the papers on her desk. “Oh, this had better be good,” she said finally. “It won’t be, but it had better.”

“Don’t be such a grouch,” Principia replied, sliding in and shutting the door behind her. “We used to get along so well! Remember?”

“I remember paying you to do things you were going to do anyway to people I wanted you to do them to instead of the general public.”

“Uh…” She blinked. “You lost me about half—”

“I do know the basics of running a con, Prin. Trying to establish an emotional connection with your mark is amateur stuff. I’m very nearly offended; don’t I deserve the top of your game? Anyway,” she went on more loudly as the other elf opened her mouth to object, “you would be wise to say your piece before my tolerance wears out. You are specifically not supposed to be on my campus.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,” Principia said, edging closer to the desk. “We both know why you don’t want me around, and she’s not even on campus right now.”

“The fact that you know this isn’t helping your case. Spit it out, Prin.”

She sidled closer, letting the smile fade from her face. “I need your help.”

“Interesting. I’m leaning heavily toward ‘no.’”

“You haven’t even—”

“And it is not in my interests to even. I know how you operate; it’s not as if you’re terribly complicated. Whatever you may or may not be up to right now, I know your ultimate goal at this University, and you’re not getting that. Engaging with you is just a way for you to work a fingernail into some crack.”

“Arachne,” she said somberly, “I’ll give you my word that I’m not working any angle. I won’t swear that I might not change my mind and try to take advantage in the future…we both know me too well for that to be believable…but if you really think I’m nothing but self-interest, then I promise you that’s all this is. I might be in real trouble here. I’m asking for your help.”

“I have every confidence that you’ll manage to weasel your way out of whatever you’re into. Probably the same way you got into it in the first place.”

They locked eyes, Principia glaring, Tellwryn impassive. Finally, Prin heaved a sigh and shrugged.

“Well, if that’s how it’s going to be… I guess I’ll go throw myself out, then.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Tellwyrn said sweetly.


 

“All right, you’re down for two doubloons on the drow, despite my earnest advice.”

“Hey, I like me an underdog! Comes down to it, they’re the ones who fight hardest.”

“Whatever you say, Wilson. Ox, are you sure you want the dryad?”

“Positive,” the big man rumbled. “Put three doubloons on her.”

Hiram Taft, the owner of the town bank, shook his head and chortled even as he jotted down Ox’s name on the grid inscribed on the parchment rolled out between them. The men were clustered around an upturned barrel on the shaded front of the Sheriff’s office. Sheriff Sanders himself stood at the edge of the sidewalk with his back to them, working a toothpick and watching the comings and goings in the street.

“Well, I hate to take your money, Ox—”

“The gods frown on lies, Hiram.”

“—but if that’s the way you want it. Mind you, I’d have much stronger opinions about the green girl if I was twenty years younger, but there ain’t no way she’s a match for my demon.”

“’Your’ demon,” Sanders grunted, not turning around.

“That’s ‘cos I’ve read my Imperial Army encounter manual,” Ox rumbled. “Dryads are classified as a sapient monster race, neutral alignment, divine origin. Threat level of eight. I like my odds.”

“If you’re sure, then!”

“I have half a mind to go to Mayor Cleese,” Sanders said. “Or the council, or Father Laws. Hell, or Miz Cratchley. Somebody who’ll slap a ban on this foolishness so I can toss you galoots in a cell.”

“Aw, don’t be a spoilsport, Sam, it’s harmless fun,” Taft said jovially. “And who knows, the pool might actually pay out this year! You know there was a scrap between the Avenist and that half-demon boy already.”

“The pool has never paid out, and will never pay out,” Sanders grunted. “It’ll all go to the church fund like always, and you can all be damn glad of that. If the pool ever pays out, it’ll mean the freshmen have actually started takin’ blades to each other. And that will only happen if the whole place up there dissolves into complete anarchy, in which case this town is likely to be razed to its foundations.”

“What’s the harm, then?”

The Sheriff shook his head. “I live in fear of the day Tellwyrn finds out about this annual pool of yours. Dunno whether she’d knock all your heads together or join in. Frankly, I’m not sure which idea spooks me more.”

An enormous POP sounded a few yards away, sending a blast of expelled air in all directions, which lifted off the Sheriff’s hat and forced Taft to lunge after his suddenly airborne parchment grid. In the middle of the street, at the epicenter of the disturbance, Principia Locke appeared from midair, about two feet off the ground. She landed with catlike grace, peering about in startlement for a moment, then a scowl fell across her features.

“Oh, you smarmy bitch.”

“Prin!” Sanders shouted, straightening up with his errant hat in hand. It took him all of one second to do the math on this situation. “You wanna tell me why you were up there pestering Professor Tellwyrn?”

“Ah ah ah,” she scolded, wagging a finger at him as she approached out of the street. “Just as soon as somebody passes a law against me visiting old friends, that’ll be your business. Till then, you can just butt out.”

“Hmp,” he grunted, folding his arms and leaning against one of the vertical wooden beams holding up the awning. “On your head be it, then. I have it on very good authority that Tellwyrn does not like you at all.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed. Ooh, hey, are you guys doing the annual pool? Put me down for three on the Hand of Avei.”

“Hah!” Taft chortled, grinning. “Any other year, sure, but you do know there’s a bona fide demon up there now? You’ve got no chance.” He did, however, mark her name and wager down on the appropriate spot.

“I like my odds. You whippersnappers may not remember what the world was like when paladins were running around willy-nilly, but I’ve seen the Silver Legions in action.” She leaned forward, peering over the map; three sets of eyes shifted momentarily to her low-cut bodice. “I see Ox is shafting you out of an honest ten doubloons, Hiram.”

“Bah! I have faith in my demon, even if she is attached to a bard.”

“Uh huh. I take it nobody’s informed you that demons are critically weak against high-level fae?”

“…wait, what?”

“Yup!” she said cheerfully. “Their magic just peters out, like a fire underwater. That’s why witches are almost as good as priests against warlocks. Your demon isn’t gonna do squat against that dryad.”

“That…you… Ox! You cheating son of a bitch!”

“No takebacks,” Ox said smugly.

Sanders shook his head, still not looking at them. Instead, he glanced up the street at the mountain, wondering at the source of the bad feeling he suddenly had.


 

They didn’t call it the Grand Cathedral because it lacked grandiosity.

Bishop Darling was fully in character: serene, aloof, smiling vaguely at all he passed in humble benediction. No matter how many times he walked these halls, though, he could never quite suppress the inner voice of Sweet as he passed gilded columns, rich tapestries, extravagantly wrought furniture, masterwork paintings and statues of gods, all decorating halls and rooms of the finest white marble. That voice kept repeating to itself, these guys are just begging to get ripped off.

They weren’t, of course. Anybody daft enough to try stealing from the gods—and there had been quite a few, throughout history—would soon find that stealing from the Church was an altogether different proposition. The gods, at least, were often inclined to be merciful.

Ascending a broad marble staircase with a red-and-gold rug cascading down its center, Darling nodded to the two Papal Guards keeping watch over the door at the top, smiling with a mild, smug satisfaction that he did not feel. It was highly unlikely that these two mooks would bother to interpret his expressions, much less report on them to anyone who mattered, but appearances had to be kept up.

They certainly were resplendent in their burnished silver breastplates over golden coats, carrying upright spears that were ornamented so richly he frankly doubted they would hold up in actual combat. These men were definitely showpieces, but well-trained, as they proved in the flawlessly precise simultaneous bow they gave him. Under any other Archpope, Darling might have suspected they were only to be kept for show. Justinian, though, had not gone to the trouble of assembling his own force of guards because he liked to look at shiny things.

He pulled open the great gilded oak doors himself, stepping into the Archpope’s private meeting room. Behind him, one of the guards pushed the doors shut, but Darling ignored this, striding forward with his attention on those before him. More stairs… The architecture of this place was not subtle, forcing any who would approach the Archpope to climb, emphasizing that they were beneath him except at his sufferance. At the top of another broad flight of deep marble steps, a room lined entirely by windows was adorned with high-backed gilt chairs and a massive table. Four people were present; Darling initially ignored all but one.

“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kneeling and pressing his lips to the proffered ring, a thick gold band with an absurdly-sized round-cut diamond within which an ankh symbol glowed with the golden light of the gods.

Archpope Justinian was well over six feet in height, with broad shoulders that suggested a more athletic lifestyle than his ecclesiastical duties required. In his later middle years but still handsome, he wore his brown hair a touch longer than was fashionable, with a neat goatee surrounding his square chin. Two wings of gray swept back from his temples, with a matching pair of thin stripes in his beard, all as precise as if painted on; the only lines of experience on his face suggested a lifetime spent smiling. Though his office traditionally involved rich, fur-lined robes, glittering jewels and a truly massive crown, Justinian wore the simple black surcoat of a Church priest, with a white tabard emblazoned with the Church’s ankh symbol in gold. Only that and his ring announced his office. His humility had done wonders to endear him to the people.

“Rise, my friend,” Justinian said with a characteristic smile, and Darling did so. The Archpope radiated power and calm in a way that had nothing to do with any divine energies. As a student of body language and theatrics himself, Darling always felt he was in the presence of a master when he met with Justinian.

“I apologize for my tardiness, your Holiness,” he said humbly, finally glancing over at the others in the room. Three fellow Bishops, people he knew—they weren’t a large community—but not well.

“Nonsense, you arrived well before the stated time,” the Archpope replied, turning to stride back to his thronelike seat at the head of the table. Darling followed.

“It’s all relative, your Holiness. If everybody else is already here, clearly I’m late.”

“What makes you think everybody who’s coming has arrived?” asked the slim, dark-haired woman nearest him, smiling faintly.

“Everyone important, then,” he said with a wink. She gave him a raised eyebrow, but the other woman at the table laughed obligingly. Darling was known for being somewhat irreverent. Obviously he kept it subdued in the Archpope’s presence, but acting too out of his established character would have created suspicion.

He glanced over them swiftly as he sat, noting that they were all regarding each other—and him—with the same wary curiosity. This, then, was not a group accustomed to meeting with each other, unlike the Imperial security council in which the Archpope had placed him.

Lean and sharp-featured, with a coppery complexion and a dominant nose that didn’t spoil her looks, Basra Syrinx wore the traditional white robes of a Bishop, as did they all, with a brooch in the shape of Avei’s golden eagle pinned at the shoulder to identify her cult. Darling knew relatively little of her, personally, but nothing he’d heard suggested that the Empress’s assessment—sneaky, mean and less than devout—was inaccurate. Directly opposite him sat Branwen Snowe, a woman who was strikingly beautiful in a way that she clearly was well aware of and spent effort on. That was actually unusual for disciples of Izara, but her fiery auburn hair had been wound into an elaborate knot that had certainly taken time and probably needed help, and she actually wore cosmetics. Skillfully enough that they might not be apparent to everyone, but Darling knew a thing or two about disguises. The fourth Bishop present, Andros Varanus, was a follower of Shaath and truly looked the part. With his thick beard, untamed black hair and deep, glaring eyes, he looked out of place in the sumptuous surroundings and uncomfortable in his white robe. Doubtless he’d have preferred to be in furs as his cult considered proper for a Huntsman.

“Since you mention it,” said the Archpope, smiling serenely at them from the head of the table, “everyone invited is now here, and as such, we may begin discussing our business. My friends, I have selected the four of you according to very particular criteria. Despite what you may believe, it has little to do with your various efforts to acquire my political favor.”

As one, they stiffened slightly, like youths caught out in some mischief: urgently wanting to protest, but not sure how to do so without challenging an authority figure and making the situation worse.

“There is neither shame nor condemnation in it,” Justinian said gently, his kind smile unwavering. “You were all sent here by your various cults in recognition of your skill at the great game of politics. Indeed, there are few within the Church who do not pay that game, and none at or near your rank who fail to play it skillfully. I have no shortage of clever operators at my disposal. What I need from you…what I believe you are uniquely suited to provide, is something different entirely.” He folded his hands before him, leaning forward and somehow holding all four of their gazes without moving his eyes. “Faith.”

“I do not lack faith in my god,” Varanus said in a tone that was perilously close to a growl. “Nor do any of my people. The faithless are not suffered in Shaath’s cult.”

“Faith is a decision,” replied the Archpope smoothly. “It is a choice of alignment, a determination to believe a given thing regardless of what evidence presents itself.” He paused, his smile widening as he watched them glance uncertainly at one another. To hear the leader of the Church give voice to what was beginning to sound like agnosticism put them all off balance. “Faith is perhaps the most crucial aspect of human existence. We have faith that our loved ones will not betray us, that our government will shelter us, that our partners in trade will deal fairly with us… That our gods will succor us. And no matter how many times each of these disappoints that faith, we hold to it. Because without it, we are nothing. We would be eternally at each other’s throats, trusting no one, never able to rest. Faith, friends, makes all human endeavor possible. It is the one thing that binds us together while all our other impulses seek to rend us apart.

“My concern is not the depth or sincerity of the faith you have in your individual gods, or in me. No, I have gathered the four of you, specifically, because of the nature of the faith you hold. After all, one does not have faith in a spouse or parent the same way that one has in a deity. I have watched all my Bishops closely, and selected the four of you on one basis.” He lowered his hands to his lap and leaned back in his great chair, eyes roving across their faces. “You understand that the gods…are people. And as such, they are far from perfect.”

Absolute stillness reigned in the room. For excruciatingly drawn-out seconds, the Bishops stared at their Archpope in shock, afraid even to glance at each other.

It was Darling who finally broke the spell. “I feel like the only safe thing I can do here is take a pratfall to cut the tension.”

Branwen tittered nervously; Andros gave him a scathing look. Basra was still staring fixedly at the Archpope.

Justinian, for his part, nodded, still smiling. “In point of fact, Antonio has the right of it. Before the gods, what are mere creatures such as we? We dance for their amusement. I do not mean to suggest that we attempt to elevate ourselves above our station. On the contrary,” he went on, leaning forward and gazing at the intensely, “it is my belief that we serve the Pantheon better by acknowledging their limitations. By not expecting them to tend to every little thing that takes place on the mortal plane. There are matters which it is ours, their servants, to address, so that they can be about the business of holding up the firmament and maintaining the order of the world.” Slowly, he panned his gaze around the table, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of these matters, which I have called you together to attend to, concerns the Black Wreath.”

Darling felt a shiver begin at the base of his skull and travel slowly down the whole length of his spine. Too much coincidence…too many people pointing him in this one direction, the same direction he’d set out to search on his own, first. Or had he? Was he being moved by the gods—his, or others? How much did Justinian know? Or Eleanora?

The possibilities grew more disturbing the more he wondered. He felt…elated. The game was on.

“That, of all things, would seem to be the gods’ concern,” Basra said slowly.

“It is an easy mistake to make, Basra,” Justinian replied. “Elilial most certainly is a threat for the Pantheon to address. The Wreath, however, are mortal men and women…like ourselves. What power they have is the gift of a deity.”

“Like ourselves,” Andros said, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“Just so,” the Archpope nodded. “And they are becoming more active in recent days. The Church’s capacity to contend directly with such threats is growing, of course.”

“We saw the new guards,” Branwen commented.

“Indeed. However, some wars are not meant to be fought by armies. Some cannot be fought thus. That is why I’ve assembled you.”

“I assume I am missing something,” Basra commented, “if you intend the four of us to fight the Black Wreath.”

“Not directly, or in its entirety, nor all at once,” Justinian replied. “As I said, I chose you based on mindset, on your willingness to act in necessity and not be excessively bound by the traditions of your own faiths. Your willingness to see members of other cults as colleagues rather than rivals. Unfortunately, the lack of that same willingness still chokes some divisions of the Universal Church, despite my best efforts. However, despite my selection of you on that criterion alone, I see the providential hand of the gods in the array of skills before me. Warrior, hunter, thief, persuader. I believe you were guided to this task by the Pantheon themselves.”

There came another brief silence, while they all studied each other speculatively.

“Intrigue,” Branwen said at last. “You are talking about espionage, not combat.”

“Just so. We will begin with specific, individual missions, pursuing certain leads that have come to my attention, and work up from there. Elilial, in the end, is distinct from our gods by circumstance, not nature. Whatever leadership she provides the Wreath, she is not running every aspect of its actions, any more than your own gods direct every step you take.” A note of wry humor entered his voice. “If my own Bishops can manage to trip each other up in the halls of this very Cathedral, how much more effective will four of you prove against a single target?”

“What target?” asked Basra.

“Small ones, at first. By necessity. But eventually… You will do what Imperial Intelligence, what centuries of counter-action by the various individual cults of the Pantheon, have failed to do.” The Archpope smiled. “For in the end, what is a faith without a high priest?”


 

The sparse crowd in the square was drifting toward and around the Ale & Wenches, in preparation for the traditional lunch rush, and Principia let herself be carried along with the throng after she stepped out of the scrolltower office. Her eyes darted across the people present, seeking out navy blue uniforms and paying little attention to those who didn’t have them. In this, she was quickly disappointed.

And then chagrined by her lack of attentiveness when a hand closed around her upper arm.

“Heard you ran into a mite of trouble up there on the mountain,” Jeremiah Shook said mildly, smiling down at her.

“Oh, how people love their gossip in this town,” she replied dryly.

“Every town, as I understand it. The smaller, the gossipier.” He glanced about quickly at the idlers and strollers in the square, and she quashed an urge to smack him upside the head. Nobody was paying them any attention; the surest way to attract attention was to act like there was something more going on than two people pausing for a chat. “Now, you wouldn’t have gone and blown our business here, would you? Maybe counting on Tellwyrn to protect you from…the consequences?”

Principia gave him her most scathing look. “No, Thumper, Tellwyrn is not aware that you are sniffing around her business. Know how you can tell? Because your ass isn’t dead. I was just…ruling out a possibility. I didn’t really think it would pan out, but it had to be tried, and now I can focus on more likely prospects.”

“And now she knows to watch you,” he said, his voice gaining an unmistakeable threat, though he kept it too low to be overheard.

“She always knows to watch me. Now, duckling, she’s watching for the wrong thing. She thinks I’m running some kind of con on her. So she’ll keep me at arm’s length and feel smug about it, while I can maneuver around more reliable sources of information without having to worry about her overhearing something awkward. This isn’t my first rodeo, y’know,” she added, smirking.

“What reliable sources?” he asked curtly.

“Gonna start with those three soldiers the Empire sent over. They come to town for meals and booze. Getting intel out of sloshed soldiers is like taking candy from three big, tipsy babies.”

“Those three tipsy babies are at the heart of all this,” Thumper warned. “Be careful not too get too clever, Keys. This is not a mission you want to blow.” As he spoke, he kept his hand on her arm, but began moving his thumb up and down in a soft, caressing motion.

“Aw, are you worried about little ol’ me?” she asked sweetly, reaching up to pat him on the cheek. “That’s so thoughtful of you. Tell me, since you’re clearly the expert: exactly how clever is it safe for me to be?”

“That,” he said quietly, “is too clever. Don’t push me, Keys.”

Principia let her smile drop. “Look, wiseass, you can be in charge and as threatening as you want. But if you want this job to succeed, don’t forget who the expert is. You want me to work?” She gripped his wrist and extricated her arm from his grasp. “Then let me work. Tricks will get his info, if there’s anything to get. If there’s not, I’ll get verification of that. And you, meanwhile, need to not get under my feet.”

He allowed her to remove his hand. “Fine, then. When are you going to corner the boys?”

“I was hoping to see them in town for lunch, but no dice today, it seems. I’ll keep trying that, but according to the local scuttlebutt they’re only reliably here in the evenings. My next night off is in three days; I’ll spend it at the A&W chatting them up if nothing better comes along in the meantime.”

“Your next night off?” He raised his eyebrows incredulously. “Are you seriously confusing your bullshit job slinging drinks at that run-down little rathole with what’s actually important here?”

“That bullshit job is my cover,” she said, forcing herself to moderate her tone. They were already pushing the boundaries of polite conversation; it wouldn’t do to attract any further interest. “Without that, I’ve got no reason to loiter around this town, and then I can’t do the real job. And the Saloon is not a rathole.”

“Keys, you’re going native.” He shook his head. “It’s almost tragic, a fine little piece like you, wasted on this dust bunny of a town. Fine, three days, then. I expect to have some good news waiting for me on the morning of the fourth.”

“Oh, I will be sure not to disappoint,” she simpered.

“Good girl,” he said condescendingly, reaching up to pat her on the head.

Principia smiled broadly, showing more teeth than was necessary, and turned on her heel, flouncing off down the street. He stood for a long moment and watched her go.

Behind him and high above, the orb atop the scrolltower began to flash, sending out a message.

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“Off to dinner, girls?” Janis said cheerily as she puttered about Clarke Tower’s sitting room, applying a feather duster to the furniture. “Remember, just let me know if you ever want to eat in. Not that the cafeteria food isn’t just wonderful, but we’ve a fully-stocked kitchen here, and sometimes a lady doesn’t feel up to facing the crowds. You know how it is.”

Shaeine and Juniper had just entered the room from the stairs; Teal sat on the couch, strumming a soft melody on her guitar. She looked up and grinned without pausing.

“Pertaining to that,” said Shaeine, “I have a favor to ask. Has anyone seen Trissiny or Zaruda?”

“Not since we got back,” replied Teal, still playing. “If they’re both up in their room…well, we maybe should go break up whatever’s going on, but I’m not so sure it’d be safe to.”

“Tut, tut, those girls just need a bit of time to get used to each other,” Janis scolded gently. “Mind your head, duckie, let me just get the back of the couch.”

“I see.” Shaeine folded her hands together, causing them to vanish in the wide cuffs of her sleeves. “I need to visit the scrolltower office in Last Rock and dispatch a message to Tar’naris. I would greatly appreciate a human escort, if such is available. The more open-minded of Imperial citizens, I find, react to my race with mere suspicion. I will be glad to pay for a dinner in town, as thanks.”

“Oh!” Juniper bit her lower lip. “Oh, that actually sounds like a lot of fun, but I’ve already made plans this evening. I promised Mrs. Oak I’d be back at the dining hall for dinner, and then I have a date.”

“Already?” Janis tittered. “But I shouldn’t be surprised, you’re such a lovely little thing. Just be careful, dear, a lady must mind her reputation.”

“I’ll come along,” said Teal, her melody easing to a stop. “Mind if I bring my guitar? I’ve been wanting to have a go at playing the local taverns anyway; my parents never let me do it back home.”

“I should be very grateful of the company,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “And I never object to music.”

“That’s what I like to hear!” Grinning, Teal gently laid the guitar in the case at her feet and snapped it shut, then slung it over her shoulder as she stood. “I’m good to go whenever you are.”

“I would not dream of making you wait. Shall we?”

Juniper watched, her head tilted inquisitively, till the girls had shut the door behind them, then turned back to Janis. “What about my reputation?”


 

“Hold up. Can we stop a minute?”

“Of course.”

Teal sank to the ground, sitting on the lower step of the great marble staircase with the main street of Last Rock opening before her, and placed the guitar case across her knees. She leaned on it with both elbows, panting. Shaeine stood silently nearby, only the faint shine of her eyes visible from within her hood.

“In Tiraas I once got to visit Thomas Esdel’s factory. He’s got this thing, called an escalating staircase. Basically the steps just sort of flow upward like a backwards river; no walking required. I think it’s powered by an elemental turning a wheel.” She lifted her head and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. “I’m gonna suggest Tellwyrn put one of those in here.”

“It was my supposition that Professor Tellwyrn arranged this approach to her University specifically to discourage easy access,” Shaeine replied. “Such would befit someone of her reputation.”

“Ugh…I swear I’m not out of shape. There just aren’t any mountains to climb where I’m from.”

“In my home, level surfaces are scarce and not found on a single, convenient plane. We build where building is possible. Stairs are a fact of life to which I am, I think, more accustomed than most of our classmates.”

“I bet Clarke Tower is downright homey to you, then.”

“Its interior, yes, in some ways. I am only able to sleep by cultivating deep denial of what lies outside its walls.”

Teal chuckled, then heaved herself back to her feet with a grunt. “Well, that’s not just you. I mean, who builds a floating tower? Honestly.”

“Wizards?”

“Wizards who are jerks.”

“Or merely ostentatious.”

“Ostentatious jerks!”

They attracted some long looks from the townsfolk as they passed into the town proper, but no overt hostility. The citizens of Last Rock were doubtless used to unusual types, living in the literal shadow of the University; several offered polite greetings in passing, which Teal returned cheerily and Shaeine with a formal bow.

“Teal, I wish to ask what may be a personal question, but I desire not to offend. I do not yet understand the limits of acceptable conversation in Imperial society.”

“Ask away,” she replied lightly. “I reserve the right not to answer, but I won’t be offended by curiosity.”

Shaeine’s nod was a barely perceptible shuffle of her cowl. “In the dining hall, I heard two upperclassmen express fascination that a Falconer is in attendance this year. Are you of the nobility?”

“I…ehhh. Not as such.” She made a wry face. “That is, a pedigreed aristocrat would be offended at the suggestion, but…partly because my family are richer than most of them.”

“I see. Please forgive my impertinence.”

“Shaeine, it’s fine. If you tread on my privacy I’ll tell you, but questions aren’t a bother. That’s how people get to know each other, after all.”

“I will keep it in mind.”

They walked in silence, occasionally nodding to locals. Last Rock was surprisingly busy, considering the hour; the sky was streaked with crimson shadows, the sun having long since vanished behind the mountain.

“Not very convenient of ’em to build the scrolltower office at the outer edge of town.”

“Inconvenient for University residents, perhaps, but not for the sake of commerce. It is, after all, adjacent to the Rail platform.”

“I can hardly imagine anyone coming here just to send a telescroll,” Teal grumbled. “Students and faculty probably give them more business than anybody stumbling off a caravan.”

“Perhaps they take satisfaction in making us walk.”

“I just bet they do. First Tellwyrn with her bloody staircase and then all these…fine people.” She glanced around warily; nobody appeared to be close enough to listen in. “You know, we should visit town more often. It’s rare I can walk among the proletariat and not be the center of suspicious attention.”

“Honored to be of service,” Shaeine said dryly. “Though, with respect, I would assume that your manner of dress did not signal an aversion to attention.”

Teal kicked a pebble out of her way. “It’s…maybe not so prudent. I suppose I’ll have to up and grow out of it one of these days. I just…gah. It got to where I felt like I’d explode if I couldn’t just be me and not what’s expected of me. You know?”

“I confess that I don’t. In Tar’naris, expectations are a fact of life, and the consequences for flouting them are not merely social.”

“…you must think I’m pretty shallow.”

“Not in the least. I think your concerns reflect the world in which you live, and are shaped by pressures wholly alien to me.” She turned her cowled head to look at Teal directly. “I am accustomed to the demands of a society with rigid gender roles; sometimes I think that integrating into a culture that lacked them would be easier than adapting to one whose roles are so utterly different.”

“How so?”

“There is no word for ‘patriarchy’ in my language. Explaining the concept would incite either derision or violence, depending on circumstance. I am…given to understand that Imperial society is not accepting of persons attracted to their own gender.”

“Not especially, no.” Teal sighed heavily.

“If the subject bothers you, of course I will not press.”

“No, no…really, if anything it’s nice to talk with someone who’s not just…tolerating me. I guess elves are okay with…with that?”

Shaeine cocked her head to one side. “Orientation is a human concept. Among elves, both surface and subterranean, refusing sexual contact with an entire gender is considered a sign of mental illness.”

“…wow. I guess I might not fit in so well in Tar’naris after all.”

“On the contrary. You might not be welcomed among a plains or forest tribe, but my people have a more lenient view of the mind. Any condition which does not inhibit an individual’s ability to contribute is considered a personality trait, not a problem. Drow do not waste resources.”

“So…really? By that standard, elves would consider almost all humans crazy.”

“Oh, we do.”

Teal’s laughter was loud and bright; Shaeine smiled at her in return.

The scrolltower was impossible not to find; it was the tallest thing short of the mountain in the region, and in any case the road led almost directly to it. Last Rock’s tower was an unpretentious pillar of metal scaffolding topped by the great crystal orb, which flickered dimly in the twilight as information passed through it. There was apparently little for Last Rock to transmit, and at present it served simply as a waypoint for messages flying across the Empire.

Teal pulled the door open and held it for Shaeine, bowing grandly; she received a nod and a smile in return.

Inside, the office more resembled stereotypical frontier sensibilities than did most of Last Rock. The interior walls were paneled with wood and decorated with maps and a few hunting trophies. Mounted heads of bear, elk, unicorn and some kind of enormous cat glared down at them, and a single preserved dragon wing was stretched across one entire wall. Benches were upholstered in patched red leather in a style that had been popular in Imperial offices twenty years ago, and the wall sconces pulsed and flickered, clearly the original prototype fairy lights rather than the steadier modern variety.

“Well, hey there! Y’all are just in time, I was about to close up. C’mon in, let’s see what we can do for you.” Behind the counter opposite the door grinned an old man with bristly white sideburns, and the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial officer pinned to his flannel shirt. Over his shoulder they could just see the pale blue glow of arcane magic at work.

“Good evening,” Shaeine replied, gliding toward him with Teal strolling along behind. “I apologize for the late hour. I must dispatch a message to the Narisian consulate at Fort Vaspian.” She produced a neatly folded sheaf of parchment from within her robe and placed it on the counter.

“Vaspian, that’s right over by the path to the Underworld…message to Tar’naris, then? Well, of course, just listen to me babble.” He laughed as he opened the paper. “’Course to Tar’naris, not likely you’d be writin’ to Svenheim. Sure thing, little lady, comin’ right up! Oh, this is a diplomatic code. That’s a priority, then. Not that there’s any waitin’. Lessee…”

He turned his back and stepped two feet to the machinery that formed the base of the scrolltower; Teal and Shaeine both stepped up against the counter, craning their necks to watch. Off to one side was an enormous scroll of paper, with a pen hovering over it attached to a metal arm. Atop this assembly sat the tiny globe of a fairy light, no doubt an indicator, currently dark. The operator went to a station next to it, where his body blocked their view, but shifting patterns of blue light limned him as he fed Shaeine’s message into the device.

“Folks came up from Tiraas ’bout four years ago to put this here girl in,” he said amiably as he worked. “Used to be, us scrollmasters were a trained an’ disciplined corps! Had to know our geography and the numeric code the towers use to transmit. Nowadays, it’s a scrying apparatus does it, reads the message an’ parses it out into code an’ all. She’s even smart enough to interpret your transmission code. Ain’t that a hell of a thing? They got enchantments smarter’n people now. Soon enough a monkey’ll be able to do this job.”

He turned back to face them with a smile; behind, the tray in which he’d placed the letter continued to gleam, casting a shifting pattern of light on the walls like the reflection of moonlight on water. “Now, it’ll take ‘er just a minute or two to percolate. I still got the old-style interface for when things get busy; these ol’ fingers are still nimble enough to get the job done faster’n any machine! Oh, ‘scuze my manners, I get used to knowin’ everybody in this town. Silas Crete, Imperial scrollmaster, fer whatever that’s still worth.”

They introduced themselves, Shaeine with a formal bow, to the grinning scrollmaster. “Pleasure to meet new faces. Y’all just started up at the school? Pretty sure I ain’t seen ya in town before.”

“We did,” Shaeine replied.

“Well, missy, it’s good to see you. Some folks are all het up about how fast things’re changin’, but I don’t hold with that kinda backward thinkin’. Ol’ Silas remembers when we used to have troops at the entrance to Tar’naris all the time. Big ol’ waste, y’ask me. Damn good thing to see people getting’ along. That’s progress I kin get behind!” He turned to glance at the reader, which was still working. “Hmf, damn thing takes forever, but they want me to use ‘er unless it’s too busy. Pencil jockeys in Tiraas, no idea how things work in a real office… Say, missy, if it ain’t an imposition, I wonder if you could settle an argument.”

Shaeine tilted her head curiously. “I will be glad to help if I can.”

“Me an’ my nephew—he was in the army, used to be stationed at Vaspian, ‘course this was after the treaty—me an’ my nephew Jonas have a disagreement ’bout drow customs. He keeps tryin’ to feed me this line about how drow women kill their men after they, y’know…get with the business of makin’ the next generation. That ain’t so, is it?”

For the first time since Teal had met her, Shaeine seemed taken aback. “That…would be a recipe for population collapse. No, that is not our custom. A matriarchial culture does not presuppose institutional hostility toward males.”

Haw! Exactly what I told ‘im, miss, exactly what I told ‘im. That’s just beautiful, finally I get to shut the little punk up. You just made my week!”

“Happy to be of service,” Shaeine said carefully. Teal bit down on both her lips, concentrating on restraining her laughter.

“Oop, there she goes! Message sent, no problems, and you’re all set.” He retrieved the letter, refolded it and handed it back to Shaeine. “Anything else, little lady?”

“That is all I require at present, thank you. What do I owe you?”

He waved her off. “Don’t you worry about that, darlin’, it’s on ol’ Silas this time. Jes’ my way of sayin’, welcome to the Empire! I surely do hope you enjoy your stay.”

“You are extremely kind, sir,” she said, bowing again.

“Say,” Teal chimed in, “can you recommend a place in town where we can get some dinner?”

“Well, the Ale an’ Wenches does a lotta good business, it’s pretty popular with the students. You can see it right outside the door, other side of the Rail platform.”

“Mm, right, I heard about that one up at campus,” she said, nodding slowly. “How about…anyplace a little quieter, maybe?”

Silas grinned broadly at her. “Not much for carousin’? Well, that’s a good thing to hear, ma’am. Not sayin’ all the University kids are loud an’ destructive, a’course. It really don’t need to be said.” His laugh was a tenor bark like a seal’s. “Well, remember my nephew Jonas? He’s a little numbnut sometimes, but a good kid. Runs the town saloon, keeps it quieter than the A&W an’ they got pretty good food.”

“Sounds perfect!”

“You can get there easy enough, ain’t nothin’ hard to find in this town. Up the main street toward the mountain, hang a left just past the barber shop, head down a few doors an’ it’ll be on your right. Can’t miss it, the sign says Saloon and hangs over the dang street, too low for a horse to walk under.”

“Thank you again,” Shaeine said with another bow.

The sun had set while they were in the scrolltower office. Back on the street, Shaeine left her hood down, and though most of the townsolk had cleared out indoors, those who remained frequently stopped and stared, now. With the Narisian treaty barely ten years old, drow weren’t a common sight anywhere in the Empire, and their reputation as enemies of anyone who dwelt in the sunlight was millennia old. Shaeine greeted anyone who gave her a look with a bow and one of her polite half-smiles, and nobody challenged them, but even so, Teal stayed close. Last Rock might be an open-minded place for a frontier town, but one never knew.

“I confess to a measure of excitement at this prospect,” said Shaeine, sounding no more excited than usual. “The ‘saloon’ is a fixture of our popular fiction about the Imperial frontier. I had hoped to visit one at least once during my stay on the surface.”

“Really, you guys have popular fiction about the Empire?”

“Have you never encountered popular fiction about drow?”

Teal winced. “I, uh…actually own a couple of novels. I figured they weren’t very accurate…”

“Those I have seen tended to be quite erotic.”

By this point, Teal’s face was burning. “I’ve…heard that.”

“Well, that is both an amusing irony and a basic fairness. Humans are often sexualized in my culture as well.”

“They…we…really?”

“Our standards of beauty emphasize that which differentiates us from our paler surface cousins,” Shaeine went on serenely, “including muscularity and curvaceousness. Humans are more prone to both than even we. There are other cultural factors at play, especially the universal allure of the exotic. It’s a fascinating topic; I will perhaps write a paper on it during my tenure at the University.”

“I think I’d like to read that,” Teal sad wonderingly.

Everything was exactly where old Silas had said it would be. The Ale & Wenches cast a glow of golden light and a babble of happy voices across the square fronting the Rail platform, but they went nowhere near it. Finding the saloon was simple enough, following his directions. Just approaching it they could tell it suited Teal’s request for a quieter venue, though the cheerful sound of a slightly off-tune piano trickled out from the swinging wooden doors. This time, Shaeine went in first, pushing the doors wide, and stepped to one side once within to admit Teal.

It was a clean and well-lit space, its furnishings slightly shabby but clearly cared for. The décor reflected the same sensibilities as the scrolltower office had, with mounted animal heads on the wall and a full-sized stuffed bear rearing in one corner opposite the piano. The patrons filled the room with a cheerful but muted babble, which faded upon Shaeine’s entrance as they turned to stare at her.

The two students found a table near the wall, by the bear, and slid into seats; already the murmur of conversation began to pick back up. A slender figure dodged nimbly around tables and patrons, sliding to a stop beside them.

“Hi there, ladies. What’ll it be?”

Teal had to force herself not to stare; the waitress was an elf. Aside from the fact that elves seldom chose to live in human towns, they were nearly always too prideful to take on any kind of servant work. This woman, furthermore, had black hair, which was a striking rarity.

“Ah…” She glanced at Shaeine, who tilted her head slightly, indicating that Teal should proceed. “Just here for dinner. What’s good?”

“Good,” mused the elf, as though this were a foreign concept to her. “Now, do you mean good by the standards of the fancy-feasting Imperial rich kids up at the University? Because I’m afraid we don’t serve that here. Or what’s good for someone treating themselves to a night out on a cobbler’s wages? There’s a whole spectrum of good to explore.”

Teal found herself relaxing; the woman had a somewhat cheeky attitude, but she, herself, was right in her element when it came to banter. “Let me put this another way. What would you order?”

“Ahh, this one’s got a mind. Well done.” The elf smiled broadly at her, with a semblance of actual warmth. “That sounds to me like a steak dinner with the works. However, you being strangers, there’s an obligatory gold check before anything that pricey comes to the table.”

Shaeine reached into the folds of her robe, but Teal was faster, placing a small stack of Imperial doubloons on the table. “This being cattle country, I can’t imagine steak is too outlandish.”

“Not nearly as outlandish as that,” she replied, nodding to the coins. “Put those away, the losers around here can smell money. And to drink? I can’t say I’d recommend the wine, but the beer is better than decent.”

Teal glanced at Shaeine questioningly.

“Tea, please,” said the drow.

“Coming up.” The elf deftly pocketed a couple of coins before Teal retrieved the remainder of the stack. “I’m Principia; sing out if you need anything. Just don’t call me Sippy unless you want a surprise in the bottom of your glass.” With that and a wink, she darted toward the door at the back of the common room.

“That,” Shaeine mused, “was an altogether unfamiliar experience. Doubtless local standards differ, but I am very unaccustomed to hearing insults and threats from servants.”

“She was a little mouthy,” said Teal, “but yeah, things are a little more relaxed around here. I suspect there was an element of elvish pride there; I’m honestly astonished to find one waiting tables. Though on the other hand, a waitress isn’t exactly a servant as such.”

“Hm. Her duty is to serve, is it not?”

“Maybe I’m imposing my own perspective,” Teal admitted. “My family has servants; they’re actually professionals with training and take a lot of pride in being attached long-term to one employer. Our Butler would be pretty offended if I compared him to a saloon waitress.”

“I see. I am not alone in being out of my element, then.”

“You’re a little farther out, maybe.” Teal returned her companion’s smile. “But we can all stand to learn.”

“That is always true.”

Principia returned, carrying a tray with a full tea service; the china was coarse and unadorned, but not chipped. “Here we are,” she said lightly, sliding it onto their table. “The good part will be along presently. Say, are you two new this year?”

“Yup,” said Teal. “Second day.”

“Thought so. There’s only one other drow up there, to my knowledge, and she lacks…social graces. Nice to meet you both.” She grinned and slid away again, this time to check on another table.

“Would you excuse me for a minute?”

Shaeine nodded. “Of course.”

“Thanks. Be right back.” Teal slid from her seat and crossed over to the pianist, who was just finishing up a piece. He played with the exuberant imprecision of long practice and no particular talent; there was no applause when he finished, but saloon music wasn’t really intended to hold an audience’s attention. As the man turned sideways on his stool to grab a tankard of beer that had been resting (on a coaster) atop the piano, she noted a striking resemblance to Silas Crete, right down to the sideburns; this might be the same man twenty years younger, his bushy brown hair just beginning to go gray. This must be the nephew, Jonas.

“Evening,” she said pleasantly. “That’s nice work. You have live music in here all the time?”

“Well, not all the time, miss,” he replied with an easy smile. “These fingers can’t go every minute a’ the day, and I’ve got the bar to run, too. But I like to play now’n again, when I can.”

“A personal touch, I like it,” she said, matching his laid-back good humor. “I have a guitar with me tonight. Would you mind if I played a song or two after dinner?”

“Sure, long as you keep it clean an’ don’t expect me to pay for the entertainment.”

“Nah, it’s just for the fun of it.”

“Then consider yourself on the program, miss…?”

“Falconer. Teal Falconer. Thanks, I’ll wander over after we eat. I’ve heard good things about the steak here.”

He just smiled and nodded at her again, took a long pull of his drink and turned back to the keys.

She barely made it back to rejoin Shaeine before Principia reappeared, this time balancing another tray laden with steaming plates. Teal goggled at her as she slipped back into her chair.

“Wow. Doesn’t steak take time to cook?”

“Everything takes time, my young learner,” the elf intoned, sliding plates in front of each of them, then grinned. “Things take less time when the owner of the establishment is obsessed with having all the latest magical doodads from Calderaas in his kitchen.”

“It was my impression,” said Shaeine, “that cooking times cannot be artificially accelerated without adversely affecting the product.”

Principia glanced to the left, then the right, lifting her head and checking that Jonas was absorbed with the piano. Then she leaned in close to them, one side of her mouth curling up in a mischievous smirk. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Sure,” said Teal warily.

Principia’s smile widened to a grin. “Me too.” She straightened up and dusted off her hands. “Enjoy your dinner, girls.”

“I begin to see,” said Shaeine, watching the waitress leave, “why surface elves customarily avoid serving work. They seem ill-suited to it.” She examined her silverware, then peered at Teal’s, which she had already picked up.

“Oh, um… Not what you’re used to?”

“I am accustomed to a single knife as an eating impliment.”

“Wow, that sounds…messy.”

“Potentially. I am struck by the irony that your society and not mine invented those portable items we had for lunch. On the other hand, we seldom have bread.”

“Sandwiches? Yeah, those are handy. Here, just hold it like this. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, it’s just me here and nobody else is watching.”

“But there is clearly a customary way to do it. There are no meaningless rituals, no matter how small; from such things is culture built.”

Dinner was pleasant. Teal scooted her chair closer to Shaeine’s to show the drow how to handle the silverware, and managed not to laugh at the intensity with which she approached this task. It was like watching a child learning a new subject for the first time. Their conversation was more casual, when they spoke, and chiefly about growing up in Tar’naris and Tiraan province, respectively. They really were from totally different worlds, so much so that it hardly seemed to either that sentient people could truly live as the other described. Long pauses were devoted simply to chewing, however. Shaeine had never had a steak before. She strongly approved.

“How’re we doing?” Principia asked, coming by their table as they were finishing up. Both girls were chewing at that moment, but Teal gave her a thumbs up, getting a grin in reply. “Tolja the steak was good here. Hey, I wonder if you could do me a favor?”

Teal swallowed. “Uh, maybe. What would that be?”

The elf dipped a hand into her apron pocket and pulled it out, closed; a gold chain dangled from her fist at both ends. “You’re freshman girls, so you’ll be living with that new paladin, right? Trinity?”

“Trissiny,” Teal corrected automatically. “Yeah, she’s in our building.”

“Trissiny, right. Totally knew that, I was just testing you.” She winked and unfolded her fingers; in her hand rested a gold necklace, Avei’s eagle symbol on a braided chain. “I do a little side business in trinkets and charms, and…well, I guess you could say I’m a big fan. Could you give this to her, please?”

“What kind of charms?” asked Shaeine.

“Oh, all kinds,” Principia replied glibly. “Minor enchantments, I’m not wizard. You can’t put much on a holy symbol, of course, beyond a simple brightening charm. Not that I would, anyway.”

“You’re an Avenist?” Teal said in surprise.

The elf frowned at her. “What, you aren’t? Avei is the protector of all womankind. No exceptions for pointy ears.”

“I know, I just…I’d never heard of elves being…” Teal swallowed and reached for the necklace. “Yeah, sure, I can give this to Trissiny. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gesture.”

“Prin,” called Jonas from across the room, “I’m not payin’ you to stand around jawin’ with the customers!”

“Whoops, the master calls,” the waitress said with a roll of her eyes, then flashed Teal a brilliant smile. “Thanks, doll. You’re a peach!” She whisked away to another table whose occupants were calling for beer.

“I mistrust that girl,” Shaeine said softly.

“Hm.” Teal looked down at the necklace in her hand for a moment before tucking it into her pocket. “She’s probably harmless; someone like Triss is bound to have admirers. Though I’m going to ask her how she feels about getting gifts for future reference. No point in making her uncomfortable.”

“Indeed.”

Teal caught Jonas’s eye; he grinned at her and nodded. Nodding back, she picked up her guitar case and rose. “Well, wish me luck!”

“You don’t need it,” replied her companion, “but good luck.”

The proprietor cleared the way for Teal to seat herself on the piano stool; he patted her shoulder once, smiling, then strode off toward the kitchen. Apparently the younger Mr. Crete was a man of fewer words than his uncle. She pulled out her guitar, gently plucking at the strings and adjusting the pegs. It had been in tune earlier, but been carried down a mountain since then.

“Hey, Ox, check this out,” called a reedy man at the table nearest her. “A college student with a guitar! Will wonders never cease.” He leaned one arm over the back of his chair, grinning at Teal. “How ’bout we make a bet, darlin’. If we ain’t already heard all three o’ the chords you know, your drinks’re on me tonight.”

“No bet,” she replied. Her fingers lightly fell on the strings, and the guitar sang. A soft waterfall of notes poured forth, growing in volume and speed and climbing back up the scale, swirling about each other in a playful dance that distracted from their utter precision. Teal brought the sequence to a close with a relatively simple arpeggio, then winked at the man, who was now gaping at her. “I’d hate to take your money.” Then she began to truly play, and sang.

It was a love song, but barely. She sang of a life that was peaceful and in order, suddenly upended by the arrival of a beautiful, beloved enemy; of the confusion of passion and frustration, of coming together and breaking apart until nobody knew where they stood. The song wove a bittersweet story of beauty and pain, the guitar added its coppery voice, and all throughout the saloon silence fell as every patron stopped drinking and stared fixedly at the bard, many with mouths open. Principia leaned against the far wall, watching with a wistful smile; Jonas and the portly cook both leaned out from the kitchen. Shaeine straightened till she was barely still seated, her gaze fixed on Teal with an intensity she had never shown in class.

No one could have said how long it went on; time stopped having any meaning. Three more people arrived while Teal sang, but they didn’t make it any farther inside than the door, immediately transfixed by the music. As long as the song lived, they were her prisoners. Teal never noticed, never looked up to see; her eyes were closed, her entire being wrapped around the guitar, coaxing the river of music from its strings.

And then it ended. The song came to a predictable close as good songs do, the notes of the accompaniment winding to a conclusion for a few seconds after the words stopped and ending on a tonic chord, but still the audience leaned back as one at the severance of the invisible chains binding them in place. A tiny exhalation echoed around the room, as dozens of people in unison let out the smallest breath, each too soft to have been heard in isolation.

For a moment, silence reigned. Then someone cleared his throat roughly and began, “That was—”

“HEATHENS!”

The swinging doors burst open to admit a stooped figure in a severe black gown, leaning on two canes, her wizened old face contorted with rage.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” somebody said in a resigned tone.

“You should every last one of you be ashamed!” the old woman screeched. “Carousing and drinking and listening to devil music! This used to be a good town, a town that feared the gods, and then SHE came. Now there’s poison in the streets, and honest human folks who can’t say they don’t know better have heads full of evil elvish ideas and would rather spend their nights in a saloon than a chapel!”

“Oh, brother,” said Principia, just loud enough to be clearly audible. Teal, taking advantage of the distraction, quickly bent to put away her guitar.

“And YOU!” Miz Cratchley shrieked, pointing a cane at Prin, who stuck out her tongue in reply. “Shameless slattern! Walking filth, corrupting the young of this town! You, and all the deviants and lunatics up there on the hill, pouring down their poison like sewage! What is that?!” Her voice rose to a thin scream of rage as she caught sight of Shaeine.

“Now, Mabel,” said Jonas, striding toward her with his arms open. “You seem tired. Maybe it’s time to head home and—”

“Don’t you dare to touch me, Jonas Crete, not when you’ve opened your doors to the demons of hell itself!” Several of the locals stood up in alarm; Mabel Cratchley had actually begun to foam at the mouth, her eyes rolling wildly as she ranted. “Monsters and wizards and the forces of evil walk among us! You’ll see what happens to a town that turns its back on the gods! YOU’LL SEE!” She flailed ferociously with both canes, swaying in place. “A great doom is coming, and woe to those who fail to repent! A GREAT DOOM!”

Then Shaeine was there, having slipped nimbly through the crowd. At her sudden approach, Miz Cratchley drew in a deep breath to unleash a bellow, her face twisting in incoherent rage. Before she could finish, Shaeine reached out and touched her lightly between the eyes with a fingertip.

Mabel Cratchley crumpled like a paper doll. Shaeine dived forward and caught her before she could hit the floor and eased her the rest of the way down, showing surprising strength for someone so diminutive. Gingerly letting the old woman’s head come to rest on the floorboards, she placed a slate-gray hand over Mabel’s forehead and closed her own eyes in concentration. Men rose to their feet on all sides and crowded around.

“I find no physical ailment,” the drow said, “beyond the stresses of age. However, I am not as familiar with human anatomy, and problems in the mind are difficult to diagnose at best. Is this normal behavior?”

“No,” rumbled a huge man in a faded old Imperial Army coat. “Miz Cratchley is a lady of strong opinions, but I never seen her get like that. Never.”

“Here now,” someone said near the back, “what’s the dark elf done to ‘er? We oughtta—”

“You shut the hell up, Wilson,” Mr. Crete snapped. “The elf just saved her from prob’ly busting her own heart, and we all know it. Ain’t nobody got time for your trouble-makin’. Tommy, run quick and fetch Dr. Akers. And Prin, you go get Father Laws and the Sheriff.”

“I’m an errand girl now?” Principia muttered, but did so while moving. In seconds she was out the door, right on the heels of the boy who had exited at Jonas’s first command.

“Is there…I mean, can we help at all?” Teal asked worriedly. She had worked her way around to the door and managed to squeeze in next to Shaeine.

“Best leave this to the professionals now,” Jonas replied, scratching his head. He nodded respectfully to Shaeine. “You stopped her from doin’ herself real harm there, miss, an’ I appreciate that. But I think now we need to give her some space till the doc gets here. That means y’all! Everybody move back, let the woman breathe.”

Grumbling, the crowd shuffled backward from the fallen old woman, only Mr. Crete staying close to watch over her.

“Maybe we should just…” Teal trailed off, but Shaeine nodded to her, and they slipped through the swinging doors.

The huge man in the army coat came out right behind them. In the dimness of the moonlit street, his enormous mustache and bushy eyebrows made his size even more intimidating. “Ladies,” he said, nodding respectfully to them, “If you don’t mind I’d feel better if you allowed me to walk you back to the stairs.”

“I believe we are capable of looking after ourselves,” Shaeine replied.

“Ain’t what concerns me, ma’am,” he said. “On average, one of you University kids is worth at least four drunk galoots in a scrap. But if it should happen that you need to ‘look after yerselves,’ there’ll be real trouble after that. The kind that don’t go away as long as anybody’s left alive to remember it. Nobody in this town’ll have a go at you if I come with.”

The girls exchanged a look. “Um, yeah,” Teal said at last. “We’d appreciate the company.”

He nodded and fell in alongside them, and they headed up the street.

“How likely is it that there will be ‘real’ trouble, do you think?” asked Shaeine.

“Not very likely at all,” he replied. “This here’s a good town, full of good people. Folks who’re more familiar with the outlandish than the average run o’ frontiersmen, besides. You did a good turn for Miz Cratchley when nobody’d have blamed you for just lettin’ her bust ‘er own heart, and that’s what most in that room will remember.” He snorted, rather like a bull, causing his huge mustache to flutter. “But, only takes one idjit to wreck the peace for everybody. I learnt that in the army: if a given outcome is bad enough, you plan for it, no matter how unlikely it is to happen.”

“That is a wise policy,” Shaeine said approvingly.

He nodded. “I’m Ox Whipporwill, by the way, an’ pleased to make your acquaintance. I hope this don’t put you off visitin’ the town.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Teal, having regained most of her equilibrium. “Like you said…it only takes one. And there’s a few like that in every town. Doesn’t pay to let them upset you.”

“Well said, miss, well said.” They had kept a brisk pace; Ox didn’t rush, but the easy reach of his enormous legs had them both making quick steps. In just a few minutes, they had reached the edge of town and the abrupt beginning of the steps up the mountain. He turned to face them and tugged the brim of his hat to Teal. “Ma’am, I surely did enjoy your singin’. I never heard nothin’ like it before, an’ I got to see the opera in Tiraas once. I do hope you’ll come an’ play for us again sometime.”

“I’d love to,” she said, unable to repress a grin of pleasure.

He tugged his hat again to Shaeine, receiving a bow in return. “Night, ladies. You have a safe trip home.”

They had ascended almost to the height of the scrolltower before Shaeine spoke. “Your song… It is the strangest thing, but I cannot recall any of the lyrics.”

Teal stumbled over a step, clutching her guitar case protectively against her body before regaining her balance. Then she sighed and continued trudging upward, not meeting her companion’s questioning gaze. “There weren’t any lyrics, Shaeine. I was humming.”

The dark elf’s eternally calm face grew considerably more intent, the closest Teal had seen to a frown on her. “I was certain the song told a story. Now that I recall, I am not sure why…”

“I…it’s…I didn’t mean to…ugh.” She threw back her head, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and said, “Her name’s Vadrieny. My…partner. She has a kind of voice magic, really the only magic she can use…sometimes, when I play, it sort of seeps out. I don’t do that on purpose; I think it’s cheating. A bard should be able to move an audience with the sheer power of the music itself, or nothing at all. But, we’re…we’re still working out how to exist together, and things like that sometimes happen. I can’t control it. The only way to control the effect would be for me to let her take over, completely, which…is probably not a good spectacle to show a saloon full of cowboys.”

Shaeine nodded. “I understand, then. Thank you.”

After a dozen more steps, Teal spoke again, very softly. “Thank you, too. For not digging.”

Shaeine turned her head and smiled, and this time there was no doubt at all of the genuine feeling behind it. “You will speak of it when you choose to. There is no hurry.”

They climbed the rest of the way in comfortable silence.

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