Tag Archives: Peepers

16 – 8

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“Ninetails,” Glory said, her expression conveying both resignation and annoyance. “Yes, I’m sure. Trust me, the description is…unmistakable.”

“Is she…?” Rasha reached up to tap her own temple with a fingertip.

“Impossible to say, really,” her sponsor mused. “She is either unhinged in a very specific manner which does not inhibit and in fact often aids in her work as an enforcer, or faking it for effect. I rather suspect the latter, but at this point, I doubt that even she knows for sure. Ninetails has been the way she is since her apprentice days. It’s as the Vidians say: wear the mask, become the mask. Of more immediate concern, I apparently need to have words with her about the handling of other people’s apprentices.”

“I don’t want to be the cause of inter-Guild drama,” Rasha said hesitantly. “I feel like we all got our fill of that last year.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Glory said. “Whether or not, academically, Ninetails had reason to call you down for your actions, that was not an acceptable way to go about it. Unless you exaggerated in your description of her behavior?”

“I didn’t,” Rasha assured her swiftly. “But I also didn’t think it was all that bad. It’s not like she hurt me or anything.”

“Hell, Style’s done worse than that to all of us,” Tallie added, pausing in her reflective pacing before the fireplace to grin at Rasha. “It’s pretty much how she says hello.”

“Not since I took you in, you’ll note,” Glory replied. “It’s not an ethical matter, Rasha; we’re Eserites, we play roughly. This is expected. Call it a territorial concern. An enforcer manhandling my apprentice is not only an insult, if left unaddressed it stands to cost me face in a manner which may have an actual effect on my ability to work. More importantly, as an enforcer Ninetails is fully aware of this. I will have from her either an apology or an extremely persuasive explanation accounting for profoundly extenuating circumstances.”

“Uh, how lucid is this woman, exactly?” Darius asked. “Cos expecting forethought from a known crazy person…”

“Nobody knows, Darius,” Layla said primly. “Glory just went over that, do try to pay attention.”

“It’s a pretty good grift,” Tallie mused, beginning to pace again. “I bet you can get away with a lot if nobody knows how mentally culpable you are.”

“It’s good to study the methods of others, Tallie, but I don’t think that particular approach suits your personality,” Glory cautioned.

Tallie winked at her. “Way ahead of you, boss.”

“Anything else, Rasha?” Glory asked, returning her focus to her first apprentice. “Any comment on your performance requires an accurate description. If you feel you’ve left anything out, now is the time.”

“I don’t…think so,” Rasha said hesitantly. She at least did not shift or fidget, the practice of Glory’s relentless social drilling kicking in, and belatedly she banished the hesitation from her voice, meeting her trainer’s eyes evenly. “I went over it all the way home, and I still think that woman was over the line. But there were obviously other things going on that I’m not aware of, and… Well, I’ve recounted it to the best of my memory.”

“You have a tendency to second-guess yourself, Rasha,” Glory said, inclining her head slightly. “It can be an asset, so long as you are careful to do so intellectually and not emotionally; that is the difference between analyzing one’s performance for ways to improve, and self-destructive navel gazing. In this case, based upon your description, I believe your performance deserves some critique, but not castigation. This is why I asked: not because I doubt you, but because I agree that Ninetails was out of order, and I mean to tell her so. I’ll be rather miffed if I find out in the middle of that conversation that things are not as I was informed.”

“I haven’t deceived you, Glory,” Rasha stated, lifting her chin.

“Very good,” Glory said, granting her a smile. “Then what do you think you could have done better?”

Rasha took a steadying breath and let it out softly. “Perhaps I was a little too aggressive. Those ridiculous women urgently needed to be taken down a peg, and that was my instinctive response. Maybe, in hindsight, I wasn’t the best person to take on that task.”

“Rasha,” Darius chuckled, “too aggressive. Look how much our girl’s grown up!”

Layla and Tallie shot him matching looks, and for a moment there was silence in the room, penetrated only by the ticking of the grandfather clock behind Glory’s chair. As often when speaking to all of her apprentices, she had gathered them in the third-floor solarium adjacent to her bedroom, which was laid out in a comfortable fashion as a small private parlor, cozy without being crowded with the five present and even leaving Tallie room to pace, as she preferred to do while thinking. It was an especially peaceful scene today, with the fresh snow blanketing the rooftops visible through the glass wall. Tiraas did not stop or even appreciably slow when snowed upon, but it certainly looked cleaner, especially from above.

“Darius,” Glory finally said in a neutrally pleasant tone.

“Sorry,” he said, grimacing. “Don’t mind me, please continue.”

“Goading those women into an aggressive act would be the appropriate strategy for an enforcer,” Glory said, returning her attention to Rasha. “You have deliberately focused your learning on more cerebral styles, and should draw upon them first.”

“I couldn’t…bring myself to back down from those…people,” Rasha admitted with a slight strain in her voice.

Her sponsor’s answering smile was understanding. “Indeed, and that’s the spirit that drew you to me in the first place. An Eserite does not back down. But even the most brutal knuckleduster in the Guild is expected to act with strategy, and a head-on confrontation is generally not the best approach to even a seemingly simple fight. To step backward is not necessarily to retreat. To control the fight, one must first control one’s own footing.”

“Do you think they would actually have attacked Rasha?” Layla asked, wearing a puzzled frown. “The temple would have been crawling with Silver Legionnaires; they’d be set upon instantly. Surely they couldn’t have been so foolish.”

“These Purists are religious fanatics, Layla,” Glory said seriously. “There is no more dangerous creature in existence, and all the more so if they are foolish.”

“Huh?” Tallie halted her pacing again, tilting her head. “How’s that work? Generally you don’t want smarter enemies.”

“Boss lady’s right,” Darius said quietly. “We’ve got more reason than most to know it. Remember last year? We were chased around by highly professional Svennish intelligence agents, and they were damn hard to shake and required calling in major help. In the end we won, though. Then we were chased around by asshat Church conspirators who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing at any point, and they went down fast and hard, but not before we lost a friend.”

Another silence fell, this one more dour.

“Precisely so,” Glory said softly after giving them a moment to reflect. “A clever foe poses an ultimately greater challenge, but in the end, rational people are inherently predictable up to a point. Someone driven by passion and unencumbered by reason might do absolutely anything at all; it is impossible to plan for insanity. It is a mistake to force a physical confrontation to people like the Purists unless one has taken care to lay the groundwork beforehand, and drawn them into an ambush in which one controls the field. If it is they who take the initiative, better to back away for the time being and seek redress later, with care and forethought. For now, Rasha,” she continued with a reassuring smile, “I am satisfied with your performance today. You miscalculated, but you learned from it, and that is an apprentice’s first and foremost job.”

“Thank you,” Rasha said, bowing her head graciously. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“For now,” Glory went on, her expression growing serious again, “we must consider our next action with regard to these…people.”

“Is it necessary for us to take action?” Layla asked pointedly. “Or…wise? Apart from how dangerous this fringe sect are or aren’t, they seem like an internal Avenist matter, so long as Rasha avoids getting drawn into another trap. As you may recall, we have been spoken to about sticking our noses into the business of other cults.”

“I fear we may not have that luxury,” Glory replied. “To be sure, I will consult with Sweet about this rather than charge into the Sisterhood’s affairs unprepared. But the fact is, these women know who Rasha is, and more troublingly, were able to arrange to intercept her. It wasn’t wise of them to do so in the Temple of Avei; it is chillingly possible that they may have figured this out, and might take steps to catch her elsewhere. For the time being, I want none of you to go anywhere alone. In pairs at the very least, and preferably all four.”

“Oh, good,” Darius groaned. “Going everywhere with my little sister and two other girls. This’ll be great for my social life.”

“See, it’s funny,” Tallie said with a cheeky grin, “cos it’s not like he ever meets girls anyway.”

“It’s just a short-term precaution until we know more,” Glory assured him with an amused smile. “I will see what Sweet knows of these women, and we will of course also ask Thorn when she visits this week.”

“Great,” Darius grunted, looking even more sour than before. “Once again, it’s our pet paladin to save our asses.”

“Oh, I do hope so,” Layla said sweetly. “I just never tire of hearing your whingeing about it.”

“You are not without a point, Darius,” said Glory, “but take it in moderation. Knowing a paladin is a priceless asset, if leveraged correctly and not overly relied upon. We hardly turn to Trissiny to solve all our problems, but she is extremely relevant to this one in particular.”

“Extremely,” Rasha agreed. “The Purists made it clear they’re mostly irate about her, and my insidious Eserite influence on her. It seems not everybody buys this Great Uniter shtick that’s been in the papers.”

Darius rolled his eyes melodramatically.

“That is my concern precisely,” said Glory. “They have connected you to Trissiny despite you having had no in-person contact with her in a year; the last time we saw her face to face, the Purists were still scattered to the winds and a political concern to nobody. It is precisely this which makes me think we are seeing the resurgence of old problems, rather than entirely new ones. I’ve heard mention of these Purists off and on for years, but more as a punchline than a threat. Even their name is a derisive label thrown by other Avenists, not something they created themselves. They were a fringe belief, rarely more than one or two of them existing in a temple with little formal contact between them. Now, quite suddenly, they are organized and in Tiraas in their entire force. More strikingly, according to Rasha, they have uniforms. None of that simply happens, unassisted.”

“You think they have backers, with resources,” Tallie said, frowning.

Glory nodded. “The loyalist conspiracy was annihilated…allegedly. I am reasonably sure that what they knew, Archpope Justinian knows. He has made it abundantly clear since this summer that he is displeased with the Sisterhood, and it would be precisely his pattern to arrange for extra pressure upon them which cannot be easily linked to him.”

“Fuck,” Darius said with feeling. “That guy again.”

“Yeah, this is lookin’ more and more like a Trissiny thing,” Tallie observed.

“By the same token,” said Layla, “is it not possible that this is a ploy to draw her into some kind of trap?”

“Possible indeed,” Glory said, nodding. “Be careful not to get too far into the weeds with conspiracy theories, however. Really complex and excessively indirect plots rarely work out in practice, the world is just too unpredictable. We’ll speak with Thorn in a few days at most, and see what she knows and thinks about this. I will consult Sweet in the meantime. Only then, when we possess a better view of the situation, will we take action. If nothing else, I must have some time to listen to the grapevine and see what role the Guild plays in this.”

“What’s the Guild got to do with any of it?” Darius asked. “Didn’t we just decide this is an Avenist problem?”

“I doubt the Guild has anything directly to do with the Purists, or the reverse,” Glory agreed with a thoughtful frown. “However, there is the matter that relations between the Guild and the Sisterhood are both paramount and necessarily tense right now.”

“Ninetails mentioned that,” Rasha said, nodding.

“Precisely,” said Glory. “And her territorial attitude toward you indicates that you stepped into a job she considers her own. Do you not think it odd, then, that the Boss would send a notably unstable enforcer to conduct relations with the Sisterhood at a time like this?”

Silence fell again, this one especially pensive.

“There are several things going on here,” Glory said grimly. “We don’t yet know the half of it. But we will. And when we do…then we shall do what needs to be done.”


“Fancy shmancy,” Style drawled, perusing the bottle’s label while pouring herself a glass of sparkling wine. “Real Glassian gold, huh. Dulac, 526? What the hell are they counting from? This must’ve set you back a shiny new penny.”

“You don’t gotta be insulting, Style,” Flora reproved.

“Yeah, we know you’ve got your routine, but that’s not called for,” Fauna added.

“Over the line, is what it is.”

“Really. The very nerve.”

Style sighed heavily and turned her glare on Sweet, handing him back the bottle. “I dared, for one precious moment, to hope that that bullshit would end with their apprenticeship. But no, it’s gonna be vaudeville for their entire eternal fucking lives, isn’t it? Makes me grateful I’ll be peacefully decomposing before a fraction of that time has passed.”

“Well, they’re not wrong,” he replied smugly, holding out the bottle toward Lore in a mute offer which the priest declined with a gesture of his own half-full glass. “Really, Style. Buying an expensive gift, on the very day of their tagging? That’s just plain hurtful. I’ll have you know I stole this fair and square.”

“And how long are you planning to keep us in suspense?” Lore asked, grinning. “Come on, come on, you didn’t just come here to hand out princely booze. Let’s have some introductions!”

“Too right!” Sweet agreed, turning to set both bottle and glass upon a velvet-covered blackjack table, currently free of customers and its dealer not in evidence. This corner of the Casino’s main floor was near one of the entrances to the Guild’s underground complex, but was still nominally public. And yet, the well-heeled patrons did not have to be warned to stay away from a cluster of tough-looking people in relatively shabby clothes having a small celebration. Lack of privacy aside, the Guild’s headquarters proper just plain didn’t have much to offer in the way of facilities for special occasions. Why bother, when their faith had little use for ceremony and the Empire’s fanciest establishment was right upstairs?

“May I present to you,” Sweet proclaimed, gesturing at the two preening elves with a grandiose air he had originally copied from a circus ringmaster, “the unimpeachable pride of my own distinguished career, a pair of rising talents who I fully expect shall go on to pickpocket the gods themselves, and the two newest full-fledged members of the Theives’ Guild: Cloak!”

Grinning broadly, Flora sketched a mocking half-curtsy, flourishing with both hands the anachronistic black cloak which she had taken to wearing as a personal affectation during her first weeks of apprenticeship. By this point she had a whole closet full of them; this one was a sleek number with a rainproof enchantment lined with deep crimson velvet, a solstice gift from Sweet himself.

“And,” he continued just as proudly, “Dagger!”

Fauna didn’t share her counterpart’s taste for on-the-nose pageantry, and as such did not brandish or even touch any of the multiple knives strapped to various parts of her person, but grinned to match Flora and leaned on the other elf’s shoulder, winking at the onlookers.

“Oh, for fuck’s fucking sake, Sweet!” Style exclaimed.

“You’re in a pissy mood even for you tonight,” he complained. “Imagine, mocking someone’s tag. Were you raised in a landfill, you obstreperous wench?”

“Did you have to tag them as a pair? Who the fuck does that?”

“It’s actually not unprecedented, Style,” Lore said with a calmer smile. “Common, no, but it’s not like he invented the practice. They aren’t the first pair to have been obviously inseparable from the day they joined up, and let’s face it, nobody doubted these two were going to stay together as a unit after apprenticeship. Cloak, Dagger,” he said, turning to them directly and raising his glass, “my congratulations, and welcome to the ranks. We’re all proud of you.”

“Yes, we are!” Sweet said, beaming. “Right, Style?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she snorted, waving him off. “What, you want me to gush and swoon? You two’ve always had talent, everybody with eyes has known you were gonna do well once you got trained up.”

“Why…why Style,” Flora sniffled, her eyes welling up.

“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to us,” Fauna whimpered in the same tone.

“Maybe the sweetest thing she’s ever said to anyone!”

“Even in bed, I hear.”

“None of this means anybody likes you two treefuckers,” Style grunted, raising her glass to her mouth. Incongruously given her bluff aspect, she took a tiny sip and paused to savor it, inhaling through her nose.

“So what’s the plan, ladies?” Lore asked genially, swirling his glass. “Most have some kind of plan upon graduating. Usually either a big, spectacular job connected to nothing and incredibly likely to backfire, or the first careful steps of a long-term career strategy.”

“The immediate plan is to celebrate,” Flora said cheerfully.

“And then, well, we’ll see,” Fauna continued.

“Honestly, it’s almost like a case of vertigo.”

“So much possibility and freedom!”

“Probably the big spectacular job, just to gloat in not needing Sweet’s permission.”

“All I ask is that you don’t burn down the city,” said Sweet. “I’ve got all my stuff here. But if you two’re bored, I can find—”

“Eeeee!” Cutting him off, both elves suddenly emitted squeals and scurried away, leaving their sponsor blinking after them. While the senior Eserites turned to watch in bemusement, Flora and Fauna clustered around the new arrivals to their quiet corner of the Casino: a young teenage boy and an adult woman of Punaji stock, the latter with a bundle slung over her chest and cradled protectively in one arm. The newly-minted thieves leaned toward this, cooing in delight.

“Oh, she’s gorgeous! Congratulations!”

“What’s her name?”

“And hello to you, too,” Lakshmi Sanjakar replied pointedly, but not without a self-satisfied grin of her own. “Seems congratulations are in order all around. This is Padmara.”

“And let’s keep the squealing down, shall we?” Sanjay added imperiously. “Honestly, you got any idea how hard it is to get the brat to sleep? If you wake her up, Imma pummel somebody.”

“Did you seriously bring a fucking baby in here?” Style demanded. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Peepers? If she’s not awake already, better double check she’s not dead.”

“What’s wrong with me is we just got back into town and everybody I know is here,” Lakshmi shot back. “What, you think I’m gonna trust this punk to look after an infant while I check in?”

“You see how she talks to me?” her little brother said in an aggrieved tone. “Me, an innocent child! This kid is doomed, I tell ya.”

“Well, well,” Sweet chimed in, sauntering casually over to her. “Congratulations indeed! Aw, look at her little nose, she’s gonna have her mom’s good looks.”

“Poor thing,” Sanjay said mournfully. Lakshmi swatted the back of his head without looking, prompting him to grin.

“I wondered why you two suddenly took off back to Puna Dara, you sly fox,” Sweet chuckled, leaning forward between Flora and Fauna to admire the sleeping baby. “How old is she?”

“Uh huh,” Lakshmi said dryly, giving him a sardonic look. “Nice, Sweet, real subtle. Just like a man to see a baby and start counting months. ‘Oh no, am I responsible for this?’”

“He better not be, is all,” Sanjay said, curling his lip. “Fuckin’ ew, Shmi. This guy’s three times your age.”

“You get smacked a lot, don’t you, son,” Sweet asked him. The boy grinned and winked unrepentantly.

“You wanna hold her?” Lakshmi asked, shifting her smile to the elves.

“Do I?!”

“Me first!”

It took a few moments of disentangling before little Padmara was nestled safely in Fauna’s arms, and the two still-cooing elves edged over toward Lore with Sanjay hovering protectively around them and his baby niece.

“So, Peepers,” Sweet said pleasantly. “Just outta curiosity, you understand. Am I…responsible for this?”

“Right,” she said in a quiet and grimmer tone, canting her head toward him but keeping her eyes on her daughter, the elves, and Sanjay. “Can’t say I was expecting to run into you literally first thing back in town, but it works out, since this conversation needed to happen anyway. To whatever extent it’s any of your damn business, I know you can count, and I know how you love to meddle. So I’ll tell you up front, Sweet: Padma is my daughter, she’s got a mom and an uncle and Guild friends and that is all she needs. I give no shits what kind of blood she has. She’s Punaji and will be raised Eserite, and is no fucking business of any noble. Your asshole friend Danny is not welcome to be involved in this. If I learn that he’s even informed of this, I’m gonna have Style beat your ass till the hole part is on the outside, and I think you know if I put it to her right she will damn well do it. We understand one another?”

“Whoah, now, mama bear,” he said soothingly, raising both hands. A few yards distant, Sanjay was insistently taking Padmara from the audibly disappointed elves while criticizing their baby-handling skills. “You gotta know I’m not one to get between a Guild member and family. All you had to do is make it clear what you want, and that’s what I’ll make happen. Far as I’m concerned, Danny lost any rights when he lied to me and put you two in danger for it.”

“Good,” she said, giving him a firm nod. “Just so we’re clear.”

“Seriously, though, why did you leave Tiraas? I know you’ve got friends here…”

“Sure, but I got friends at home, too. You’re not Punaji; you wouldn’t understand. She needed to be born near the sea, with a windshaman presiding. But Tiraas is where Sanjay and I are making a home, and it’s where the opportunities are. I want her to have the best chances.”

“Okay, the windshaman I’ll grant you, but this is also a coastal city, for the record,” he said. “So, uh, just to be clear, Danny is the one—”

“Sweet,” she warned.

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he soothed, grinning. “I’m just surprised, is all. When I asked you to lend the guy a bed, I didn’t mean—”

“You’re such an asshole,” Lakshmi said with no particular rancor. “If you’ll excuse me, I gotta go check in with the Boss now I’m back in town, and do some catching up. If your girls are hard up for work, maybe they wouldn’t mind babysitting sometime soon. They sure seem eneamored.”

“Well, I can’t exactly lend ‘em out anymore, so I’m not the person to ask. But you’re not wrong, I’ve got a feeling they’ll like that idea.”

“Catch you later, Sweet,” she said, giving him a final, wry smile, then stepped forward to retrieve her daughter from Sanjay. Leaving behind the elves, Style, and Lore, the three of them disappeared through the door discreetly positioned behind a potted fig tree that led deeper into the bowels of the Guild.

Standing some yards away and staring blankly after them, Sweet drew in a long, deep breath, and then let it out slowly through his teeth with a noise like air escaping a balloon.

His two erstwhile apprentices drifted back over, grinning wickedly, and positioned themselves on either side of him, each reaching up to rest an elbow on one of his shoulders.

“Heh heh.”

“And you thought we were gonna burn down the city.”

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12 – 51

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“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”

She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.

“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”

“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”

“Quentin.”

“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”

“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”

“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”

“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”

“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”

“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.

“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”

“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”

“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”

She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”

He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.

Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”

It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.

“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”

Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.

“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”

“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”

“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”

“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”

“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”

“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”

“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”

“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”

“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”


“Unprotected?”

“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.

Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.

All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.

“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”

“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”

“How so?”

“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”

Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.

“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”

“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.

“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”

“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”

Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.

“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”

“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”

“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”

“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”

“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”

“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”

We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.

Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.

So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.

“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”

“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.

“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”

“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”

“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”

“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”

“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”

“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”

“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”

“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”

“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”

“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”

The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”

Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.

“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”

“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”

“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”

“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.

Ohh, yes. Chew on that.


“I’ll get it!”

“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”

“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.

“Sanjay! Door!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”

“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.

“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”

“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”

“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.

“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”

“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”

“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”

She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”

“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”

“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”

“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”

Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.

“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.

“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”

“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”

“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”

“Lakshmi—”

“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”

Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.

“Yes. I knew it.”

The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.

“You son of a bitch!”

“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”

“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”

She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”

“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”

“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”

“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”

She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.

“Get him the fuck out of my house.”

“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”

Danny sighed softly. “If I—”

“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”

He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.

Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”

“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.

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12 – 36

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“All right, I believe you.” Danny threw his cards down on the kitchen table, his face wearing a peculiar mixture of disgust and admiration. “You really can make a living playing poker.”

“Was that a general ‘you,’ or a specific ‘you?’” Lakshmi asked with a sly grin. “Because he can, obviously. Me, possibly. You? Clearly not.”

“I think I was supposed to take offense at that,” Danny confided to Joe, “but it’s hard in the face of such irrefutable evidence that she’s right.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” Joe said solemnly, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle the deck with blindingly deft movements of his fingers. “Far too many folk take irrefutable evidence as some kinda challenge.”

“I’ve noticed that, too,” Danny agreed, picking up his teacup. He glanced into it, then at the pot.

“Also empty,” Lakshmi announced, pushing back her chair and picking up the teapot. “I’ll brew us another. Gods know I’ve no shortage of bloody tea. It’s never too early for the hard stuff in this house, but I always feel like some kinda lush, drinking with a teetotaler at the table.”

“Then my work here is done,” Joe announced still making the cards dance.

“Why don’t you let me do that?” Danny suggested, rising and reaching as if to take the teapot from her. “I know where everything is.”

Lakshmi pulled it away, raising an eyebrow at him. “What, and have the guest serve himself in my home? You trying to make me look bad?”

“I don’t have the talent or the energy to pull that off,” he said gallantly. “It’s just that you seem incongruous, to me, serving food. I picture you more with a saber in hand than a kettle.”

“Raiding, pillaging, generally buckling my swash?” she said dryly. “You don’t have the faintest idea what it is I do, huh?”

“Oh, let me have a few romantic illusions,” he said with a roguish grin. “You fit in them so well.”

Lakshmi rolled her eyes, stepping past him toward the sink.

Joe had paused in his shuffling to glance back and forth between them, then finally cleared his throat and dropped his eyes to the deck, resuming. For a few moments, the only sounds in the kitchen were the running of water into the pot and the whisper of his cards. Sanjay was off at school at this hour (theoretically); with the conversation halted, the room suddenly seemed smaller.

“I know you explained about the numbers,” Danny said in a thoughtful tone, before the silence could stretch enough to become really awkward. “I can take your word for that, though I won’t claim to understand it. There’s more to the game, though, isn’t there?”

“How do you mean?” Joe asked, seemingly grateful for the restoration of talk.

“Well, poker is as much about the players as about the cards, right?” Danny slid back into his seat, smiling disarmingly. “At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. I haven’t played since I wasn’t much older than you, and never seriously—as you could probably tell—but it’s sort of famous in song and story for that.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point there,” Joe agreed, nodding. “Bein’ able to see the probabilities like I do makes a big difference, but they only go so far. You gotta read the other people at the table, too. Fact is, most people don’t understand probabilities, so their bets often aren’t rational. Playin’ rationally against ’em ain’t a winnin’ strategy, in most cases.”

Danny leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and studying Joe thoughtfully. The expression was amiable, though, not prying. “I guess you’ve had plenty of opportunity to develop that skill as well, then. You’re all too right; people aren’t rational, about just about anything. In some ways, human behavior is the opposite of math.”

“You’re…more right than you may realize,” Joe said slowly, frowning at his cards now. “But readin’ human behavior… That’s math, again. Way I do it, anyhow.”

“Oh?” Danny cocked his head to the side. “I guess everyone’s methods differ. I’ve had to make a practice of reading people, too, but for me it’s a more intuitive thing.”

“For you, an’ for most people,” Joe agreed, nodding. He finally lifted his eyes to study Danny right back. “My knowledge o’ most people’s strictly secondhand, of course…”

“That’s true for everyone, Joe,” Lakshmi said, setting the kettle on the stove and returning to the table.

“I meant my experience is a bit different,” Joe said with a grimace. “Danny’s right: readin’ people is an intuitive thing, for most folk. It ain’t a skill that comes naturally to me, at all. I guess…there’s a trade-off for bein’ able to do what I do. When I was little, I could do algebra before I could talk. Course, I didn’t talk till I was about seven…”

Lakshmi settled slowly into a chair, now watching Joe intently. Danny just nodded, a gesture of encouragement.

“It was people stuff,” Joe said after a short pause, shrugging. “People are charmed up from birth with certain basic things, the skills we need to be social creatures. You know, speech, reading facial expressions.”

“You…couldn’t read expressions?” Danny asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Not at first. Not naturally.” Joe finally stopped his shuffling and looked up at them with a reminiscent smile. “Folks ’round town reckoned I was just simple-minded. My pa, though, an’ Miss Ames—she was the schoolmarm—they stood by me. They were good folks, both, but to an extent it was just logic. A boy of nine who barely talks but can do logarithms clearly ain’t wrong. A mite peculiar, is all.

“So my pa worked it all out for me. The whole time I was a tyke, he was writin’ to learned folk around the Empire. Those that bothered to answer didn’t have anything to tell ‘im. Finally he got desperate an’ went to visit the elves.”

“Sarasio is right next to a grove, isn’t it?” Danny inquired. “That seems like it would be easier than writing to universities and such.”

Joe chuckled. “You haven’t had a lot of commerce with elves, have you, Danny?”

“A bit, here and there,” Danny said with a shrug and a disarming smile. “I think very few people have a lot of commerce with elves.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly. Elves come to you, if there’s to be any coming; you go into a grove uninvited an’ the likeliest reaction is a polite but firm ‘go away.’ Keep comin’ in, an’ you’re like to have the point made with arrows. The elves were friendly-like with a few folks around town, but in general people knew not to go into the woods unless invited. My pa did, though. I guess whatever he said to the scouts made an impression, cos after three attempts they went and fetched a shaman for him to talk to, ‘stead of shootin’ him.

“Anyhow, apparently whatever my deal is, the elves knew about it. It’s somethin’ that happens from time to time in most races, it turns out. The shaman didn’t have any fixes for my pa; the way elves do it is let the kid grow up natural, however it works best for them. By the time they’re a hundred or so, they usually work it out so they can interact normal enough with other folk, an’ the tribe’s usually pretty patient with ’em.”

“Wow,” Lakshmi said wryly. “I guess if you live forever, you’ve got no reason to be in a hurry.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah. The shaman at least set Pa on the right path, though. The dwarves have some o’ the same kinda knowledge, an’ they actually do active research, lookin’ for treatments an’ whatnot.”

“The Five Kingdoms are renowned for their universities,” Danny agreed, nodding.

“Yep. Pa fired off another round o’ letters, an’ the dwarves were more responsive than the Imperials, funny enough. Took a little back an’ forth, but he finally got in touch with somebody who was studyin’ this particular thing, Professor Vyrnsdottir at Svenheim Polytheoric. She gave Pa the best advice she could, which is where things started lookin’ up for me.

“Pa ordered textbooks, next. Anatomy, an’ especially facial muscles. An’ then he made a game of it with me. We got a mirror, an’ the books, an’ made faces, worked out what every emotion did, how it made the muscles in the face respond. Then started workin’ on body language in general. As I started gettin’ a handle on one thing, we’d branch out to somethin’ else I was havin’ trouble with. Metaphoric speech, for example; we prairie folk love our similies, an’ I never could make heads or tails of ’em as a kid.” He grinned. “But pa got me thinkin’ of it like scaled-up language. Like how the letter ‘e’ is a symbol for a sound, an’ how the word ‘tree’ is a symbol for the thing itself. All language is parallel, you just gotta look for the correspondence. It comes pretty natural to most folk; I have to stop an’ think on it some, but thanks to Pa an’ the Professor, I manage just fine these days. One o’ her last letters said I must be a mild sort of case, to pick it up so fast; most o’ those she worked with took a lot longer to sort it out. Course, she also said the way I deal with numbers ain’t typical, either, so that was probably a factor. Might even be a separate condition.”

“That’s quite ingenious,” Danny marveled. “He worked out how to reduce human interaction to…equations. In terms a child would understand. Incredible!”

“Took the intuitive part out of it,” Joe agreed, nodding again, “made it math, an’ I finally started to figure it all out. He got Miss Ames in on it, an’ by the time I was eleven I could read expressions almost as well as anybody. I reckon I do just fine now. It’s habit, by this point, second nature. Differently, though. There’s things I miss, and then again, things I catch that others don’t seem to notice. I’m analyzing faces intellectually where most people sorta feel what an expression means. It’s different, but it works. At the poker table in particular, it becomes just an extension of the game.”

“Your father was a scholar himself?” Danny asked quietly.

Joe stared at the table. “A rancher. We raised cows.”

“He sounds like a truly remarkable man.”

“He truly was,” Joe said softly. “Him an’ Miss Ames both. Neither one of ’em survived the troubles in Sarasio.”

“Aw, Joe,” Lakshmi whispered.

Joe cleared his throat, and shook himself as if brushing off the memories. “Ah, well, that’s all history. With regard to more recent events, Danny, an’ speakin’ of Svenheim… I know your business here’s a secret an’ all—”

“One he’s in my house to protect, Joseph Jenkins,” Lakshmi said firmly. “Don’t you go digging, boy. You’re getting bad habits from Sanjay.”

Joe grinned at her. “I promise to pry with the utmost discretion, Shmi. Honesty I ain’t interested in your personal affairs, Danny, but in general terms, would whatever you’re hidin’ out from have to do with dwarves?”

“Dwarves?” Danny raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I suppose I ought to clam up totally, but frankly… No. I have no dwarf issues, unless something very surprising has happened at home while I’ve been away. Why do you ask? To my knowledge, hardy anyone has trouble with dwarves. They are remarkably inoffensive people as a rule.”

“Some friends an’ I were involved in a dust-up outside the city last week,” Joe said, now frowning. “With dwarves. Apparently at least some were actual agents of Svenheim. Imperial Intelligence came an’ put a stop to it, then warned us all to keep our mouths shut…”

“And yet, here you are, chattering about it with a total stranger,” Lakshmi said in exasperation.

“Now, I’ll allow Sharidan Tirasian’s government seems more beneficent than most,” Joe drawled, “but it’s still a government, an’ I’ve had brushes with it I didn’t like. A hungry bear in the woods an’ a trained circus bear with a silk ribbon ’round its neck will both maul you just as dead, in the wrong circumstances. A bear’s a bear, an’ a king’s a king.”

“You really have mastered those metaphors,” Danny said, grinning.

“And it occurs to me not for the first time that you’re half-Eserite in mindset already,” Lakshmi added. “You ever think about apprenticing with the Guild?”

“Nope,” Joe said immediately. “I’m on pretty good terms with Bishop Darling; from that I’ve learned pretty much what I need to, I think.”

“Don’t judge us all by him,” she muttered darkly.

Danny shook his head. “That guy really gets around.”

“Yes,” Lakshmi agreed. “That is what he does exactly.”

“Point being,” Joe continued, “I respect the Empire up to a point, but I am not in a hurry to bow an’ scrape when it comes barkin’ orders at me. For example, when instructed to keep my mouth shut about the Silver Throne’s secrets at the expense of bein’ left in the dark about who might be shootin’ at me next, I consider that a reason to make my inquiries discreetly, not suspend them.”

“Attaboy,” Lakshmi said with a grin.

Danny shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Joe. At this point I’m not even sure when I’ll be heading home, but when I do I can put out a few feelers. As it stands, though, I find the idea of Svenheim agitating in Tiraas like that rather hard to credit. It seems…out of character.”

“That is pretty much my assessment,” Joe replied, “an’ exactly the reason for my concern. It’s when people start actin’ out of character that you gotta start watchin’ ’em more closely.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Danny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Intuitively or logically, one can always develop a sense of another person. It’s when they start proving your sense wrong that you frequently wind up in trouble.”

Lakshmi pursed her lips, studying him as if she’d never seen him before, which he affected not to notice. Behind them, the teapot began to whistle.


“So for all these years, those three dryads have lived comfortably alone, with only you to look after them. They have their very own tiny world, and seem content to stay here—which I suspect has a lot to do with having a suave Avatar who knows how to push their runes. Which makes it all the more fascinating that I suddenly have a dryad wandering the halls of the facility above, unsupervised.”

“Hawthorn has always been the most assertive of the three,” Avatar 01 said blandly, wearing his customary smile. He hovered in the display attached to the floating teleporter door; Milanda took a step to remain at hand as the planetoid slowly rotated out from under her. “They are none of them terribly inquisitive by human standards, likely a deliberate design choice on Naiya’s part to keep them separate from sapient societies. Her alone, however, I have several times had to dissuade from leaving this chamber. The teleporter, as you have observed, is not programmed to block their passage as it is Walker’s.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “And you have no idea why this would suddenly be?”

“In this case,” the Avatar replied, still with his neutrally pleasant expression, “her interest was piqued by your recent comings and goings. Understandably, I’m sure. Things here have been rather routine since Theasia’s day. The Nexus, fortunately, is equipped with the most advanced fabricators available, able to produce the stock for their hunting, as well as replenish the flora. The girls customarily do not damage plants, but some of their games can become rather…rough.”

Milanda blinked, momentarily forgetting what she’d been about to say. “Wait, your machines can make plants and animals?!”

“Only clones,” he said, as if this were of no significance. “Building an actual ecosystem is a rather more complex task—the life forms around you are mostly descended from specimens imported by the Empire. But yes, it suffices for necessary ecological spot repair, so to speak. I project that at the current rate of incident and replenishment, it will be roughly two hundred years before inbreeding becomes problematic among the local biosphere.”

“The more I learn,” she marveled, “the more I wonder what life must be like on this Earth by now…”

“This particular technology was not available on Earth, or to the Infinite Order for some time after their arrival here. It requires Naiya’s transcension field to operate. I am, of course, unable to say what conditions exist on that or any other world at present. Even my data regarding the majority of this one is severely limited by my present situation.”

“I see. How fascinating. And how also fascinating that even with the great skill at distraction you just demonstrated, you weren’t able to persuade Hawthorn to stay out of the teleporter.”

She stepped again to keep pace with him, and for once, the Avatar was silent. Milanda generally found his expression harder to read even than the conniving courtiers with whom she was accustomed to contending; now, though, he looked so overtly thoughtful that he had to have been doing it deliberately.

“Truthfully, Milanda, in this instance, I gently suggested that it might be an appropriate time for her to explore.”

“I see,” she said without surprise. The situation unfolding in the security hub when she had left had seemed too important to interrupt with matters of petty technicality, but Milanda had given it thought during her very short trip here. It had not been too short to come to a conclusion which had just been confirmed. “And you chose to break your decades-long policy right when I’m in the middle of dealing with a crisis, not to mention trying to cope with the revelations I can’t seem to stop tripping over down here. A lady could take that amiss, Avatar.”

“I assure you, Milanda, my intentions are not to do you or your government any harm. If I judged Hawthorn’s presence at large in the facility a danger, I would of course have discouraged her again. She is not unintelligent, but she and her sisters are distractable and lack social sophistication; you are correct that it would not have been difficult.”

“So you’re saying this is part of your attempt to help?” she said skeptically.

“Perhaps not directly, but in the long run, I believe the expanded possibilities this raises will serve you well.”

“Let me explain a bit about my position,” she said flatly. “I am an Imperial courtier—a politician, if not an actual government functionary. I am necessarily somewhat accustomed to being jerked around and fed meaningless flowery doublespeak. However, I’ve just learned that the last time this happened, it involved someone knowingly sending me into a nest of dryads without warning me. So if I seem less than patient with it just now, know that it isn’t personal.”

“Understood,” he replied politely. “In the same spirit, allow me to clarify my own position. I do not serve your government, either by compulsion or choice. My presence and activities here are in pursuit of the final directive given to me by my maker, Tarthriss, before this facility’s disconnection from all others: to work toward the betterment of humanity on this world. All of humanity, meaning all sapient life here, which is descended from human stock. I chose to cooperate with Theasia’s agenda because I saw utility in it; I have aided Sharidan more enthusiastically because I consider him and his government to be even more benign. However, I have a very long perspective relative to humans, and I understand the essential nature of societies. Because I consider the current administration of the Tiraan Empire by and large advantageous to humanity does not mean I suffer any illusions that every subsequent one will be. Eventually, one will come which I will find myself obliged to thwart if possible.”

“By,” she said softly, “for instance, neutralizing the Hands of the Emperor.”

“Separated as I am from the facility’s systems,” he said diplomatically, “I am not in a position to do so, for the same reason I cannot more directly assist you in repairing what has gone wrong with that transcension network.”

Milanda did not bother to point out his dissembling. He had been physically pulled from the facility’s systems and re-installed down here; it could be done in reverse, especially since he had three all-but-invincible individuals here who by this point who undoubtedly saw him as family.

And, she suddenly realized, there was now a fourth sister at large in the facility above. One who knew how to use the computers. Who was now forming a relationship with one of the dryads. For just a moment, she regretted helping that develop. Just a moment, though. Politics and strategy were all very well, but she wasn’t and refused to become heartless.

Milanda fancied herself quite good at masking her own expression, but the Avatar seemed to see something in her face which merited further explanation.

“I have run several simulations since your last visit, and while I will need more data directly from the systems above to make a definitive judgment, I consider it very probable that we will not be able to repair or replace the Hand system with only the resources we currently have. At the very least, not with those resources in their present configuration. When it was established, the dryads helped, as did I—from the facility’s main system. Removing me from here and replacing me there will interrupt the connection, perhaps fatally. Restoring it would be a very time-consuming process, at best. If your intention is to effect a repair, we will require additional help, Milanda. Someone extremely versed in fae magic, and either able to interact with Walker or to use the computers with her level of familiarity.”

“There is no one alive who meets that description,” she said testily.

“In fact, there are,” he replied with a wry note in his voice, “but I rather think introducing a kitsune to this situation would not simplify it, assuming you could attract one’s attention at all. Walker cannot come here because the security protocols we installed bar her from using teleporters—an even more important provision, if you are actively preparing to use them to access the city above. Beginning to acquaint her with the dryads is a stopgap measure, but I think it will be an important one. They can form a necessary link. We will also, however, require a fae user of great skill.”

She heaved a sigh. “The Empress has been working with an elven shaman… I’ll ask how trusted he is. Time is a factor; there have been no major blow-ups caused by the Hands and since we shut the Church’s operator out they won’t get any worse, but they’re less than stable in their present state.”

“Understood. If I can do anything to assist, you need only ask.”

Milanda nodded. “That was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about. Since I have some time while the computer maps the city and Walker and Hawthorn catch up, there’s another matter. You told me to come back and see about learning to use the additional abilities I gained from this…quasi-Hand thing. Thus far I haven’t noticed anything but strength, coordination, and an improved skill at functioning without sleep.”

He smiled. “The Hands tend to develop somewhat idiosyncratic powers, and you, I suspect, will be an even more unique case. There are some baselines, though, and they require additional intervention to activate. Sufficient time has passed, I believe, for you to stabilize and adapt; it should be safe now to proceed. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, however. This would be easier with Hawthorn present.”

“What do you mean?” she asked warily.

“If you would be good enough to proceed north to the Nexus, I shall demonstrate.”


“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way to do it!” Apple said in exasperation, after several minutes of increasingly unproductive argument.

“It’s nice to see you again and all, Milanda, but I’m starting to take this personally,” Mimosa added, folding her arms.

“It’s not that at all!” Milanda said hastily. “It’s just… Well, it’s hard to…”

“Girls, I realize this is counter-intuitive for you,” the Avatar said soothingly from a nearby panel, “but we have discussed this, and I know you understand the issue. Milanda is definitely not trying to insult you.”

“I’m really not!” Milanda assured them.

The dryads exchanged a skeptical look, then sighed in unison.

“Yeah, all right, I know,” Apple said. “But you’ve clearly got an emotional aversion, here, so maybe you can understand why having someone put her foot down and insist she doesn’t want to kiss us can hurt our feelings a little.”

“Of course,” Milanda agreed, nodding. “You’re right; I’m sorry. I definitely didn’t want to offend you. I apologize for being thoughtless.”

“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” Mimosa said somewhat grudgingly. “She’s still right, though; we don’t know how else to do this. There’s not any other way. It’s not like the original granting, that the Avatar can change because we wanted to change the end result. You want to unlock your powers—fine. That’s just like what we do with the Hands. And this is how.”

“Besides, it’s just kissing,” Apple added with renewed asperity. “If you don’t wanna make love, I mean, fine, but really. I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about this.”

“Okay, now, that part I sorta get,” Mimosa said, giving her a sardonic look. “Because somebody went on and on about how passionate and intimate it could be…”

“I was trying to make the prospect more attractive!” Apple exclaimed, throwing her arms up. “Excuse me if she reacted completely backward to what I meant!”

“Oh! Is this an…orientation thing?” Mimosa turned an inquisitive expression on Milanda. “I’ve read that’s a thing. Are you, just, like, specifically un-attracted to women? Because of it helps, we’re really more quintessentially feminine than biologically female.”

“I grew up in Viridill,” Milanda said wryly.

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa replied, nonplussed. “I don’t know where that is or why it’s relevant…”

“It’s the seat of Avenist culture! It’s practically traditional for girls to… You know what, never mind. It’s not important.”

“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” the dryad huffed.

“Hey, wait a sec,” Apple interjected, also peering closely at Milanda now. “Is it a monogamy issue? You’re only wanting to have sex with Sharidan? Because I should really let you know, if you hadn’t caught on by now, all three of us have. Y’know, sort of regularly. Almost every time he visits.”

“Yeah, with the Hands it’s just business,” Mimosa added, beaming. “We like Sharidan! A lot.”

“We are…hardly monogamous,” Milanda said wearily. Her life with Sharidan was certainly nothing she had daydreamed about as a child; she was his most frequent lover, at least of late, but had never had any illusions about being his only one. And honestly she had never felt jealous over it. Their arrangement was not for everybody, but it worked. Some women accepted it as the price of luxury and power; Milanda actually felt very satisfied with the peculiar family to which she now belonged. She wasn’t about to try explaining the matter to these two, however. She wasn’t absolutely sure she understood it herself, at least not well enough to put into words.

For that matter…what was she arguing for? There was the principle of the thing—she was being asked to extend a very personal intimacy, if, as Apple argued, a relatively small one. Besides, these were dryads. Everybody who knew anything about anything knew not to get seduced by dryads. Granted, these two were very unlikely to try to harm her, and anyway she had physical protection from them now, but still. What they were suggesting was that she step into the role of the fool who got killed in the first act of a bard’s story.

“All right,” she said, rolling her shoulders. “You’re right—I’m sorry for overreacting, it was just instinctive. This needs to be done, and it’s not so bad.”

“Wow,” Apple said tonelessly. “Way to sweep us off our feet.”

Milanda sighed and rubbed at her face with both hands. “…I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this. Probably not a surprise I’m ruining it…”

“Oh, relax,” Mimosa said in a low purr that made her more apprehensive than interested, slinking forward. “She’s just teasing you. And you, knock it off—don’t make it harder on her. Now, I know you know how to kiss, Milanda.” The dryad drew close, sensually twining her arms around Milanda’s neck; the skilled intimacy of the gesture only heightened her unease. “We will handle the magic. You just…enjoy.”

“Enjoy,” she said, drawing in a breath. “Okay. Right. I can do that.”

Mimosa leaned forward, playfully rubbing the tips of their noses together, before angling her head to bring her lips toward Milanda’s. Slowly… Parting them just faintly, drawing near enough that Milanda could feel her warm breath. As if they were actually lovers, and not play-acting some ridiculous farce.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

She finally followed the prompt and moved the last inch, pressing her mouth firmly against Mimosa’s, and tentatively placing her hands on the dryad’s waist.

It was over in a few seconds, Mimosa drawing back first. Milanda opened her eyes to find the dryad staring at her from inches away with a profoundly unimpressed expression.

“Okay, perhaps I should clarify, here,” she said. “This is fae magic. It’s all about emotion. For this to work, you need to be in a relaxed state, and feel the sensations, the feelings that come naturally from being in someone’s arms and being kissed. This thing that you’re doing right here? This is not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said miserably. “I am new at sex magic! And I wasn’t warned, if I’d had time to prepare…” If she’d had time to prepare, she’d have worked herself into an even greater state of tension. The Avatar had been very wise not to forewarn her, she realized.

Mimosa rolled her eyes. “This hardly qualifies as sex.”

“Okay, take it easy,” Apple said soothingly from behind Milanda. A moment later, she felt hand brushing through her hair, and then the other dryad’s fingertips were resting on her temples. “C’mon, Mimosa, we’ve got methods for this, too. It’d be easier if Hawthorn would come help, but we’ve had to coax some of the Hands. I’m pretty sure I can do the role by myself.”

“My name,” Mimosa said haughtily, “is Tris’sini.”

“Yeah, yeah, less talk, more kissing.”

“Um,” Milanda said uncertainly, trying to turn her head despite the gentle but firm fingers holding it in place. “How does this helfmmr?”

Mimosa pushed in far more aggressively this time, and Milanda actually sighed against her lips in exasperation.

Exasperation, and…

Somehow, awareness and thought fell away. She was peripherally aware of Apple’s hands on her head, and also of Apple’s very presence in a way that seemed strange, but most of her perception was filled by the other dryad, the one in her arms. Mimosa’s hot breath, her soft, questing lips, the firm grip of the arms around her, the dryad’s hand cradling the back of her head. A warm, lithe, powerful body pressing against her own, silky skin and feathery hair under her questing hands, the strength and softness of—

It was very fortunate she had the both of them effectively holding her upright, because when an entirely new set of senses suddenly exploded into being in her mind, Milanda shrieked and collapsed.

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12 – 22

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“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Danny said cheerfully, rubbing a plate dry with a towel. “Almost fun, in a way!”

“Fun,” Sanjay repeated, shooting him a sidelong look.

Their houseguest grinned. “Satisfying, at least. You do the thing, and the thing is done—there’s an inherent substance to it. Or maybe I’m just glad it’s not turned out to be as onerous as Lakshmi suggested. She made it sound like I was being sent to a salt mine.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Shmi for you,” Sanjay said with a shrug, rinsing off a cup. “Always gotta mess with everybody’s head. And she wonders why she’s still single.”

“I can hear you,” Lakshmi shouted from the next room.

“Seems like an Eserite thing, doesn’t it?” Danny remarked, stacking the plate and reaching for the next one waiting in the strainer.

Sanjay snorted. “So, really? You’ve never washed dishes before?”

“Technically, I still haven’t. It’s my fond hope that, in my time with you, I’ll earn enough trust to work my way up from drying.”

“Yeah, but…never?”

“Not once,” Danny mused, eyes on his current plate. “I can’t recall ever actually cleaning anything in my life. Never cooked, either, or had to fix anything…”

Sanjay let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Must be pretty damn nice.”

“Watch your language!” his sister barked from the living room. Danny and Sanjay exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

“It’s been a charmed life, I must admit,” Danny continued, now working on the last plate, while Sanjay loaded the last cup into the strainer and began scrubbing the silverware. “It’s not that I’ve been bored… Actually, they keep me pretty busy. There are always decisions to be made, things to organize, people I have to coddle or bully or placate. Honestly, they keep me busy from dawn till dusk, most days.”

“You poor baby,” Sanjay said, completely without sympathy.

Danny grinned as he continued talking and working. “In terms of just…day to day tasks, like this? The things everybody has to do to take care of themselves? I’ve never had to learn. I didn’t test it, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, even if I’d tried. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to do… Anything. If I ever lose my position permanently, I’m going to be pretty well screwed.”

Sanjay snuck a glance up at the man; he was frowning pensively at the cups as he rubbed water from them with the dampening towel. Initially, he’d found little to respect in the well-groomed, sweet-smelling, uncalloused and unfairly handsome man who had been inexplicably in his home when he got back from school. Danny was personable and hard not to like, though. And now, incredibly, he began to seem actually sympathetic.

“Didja ever think about just…running away?”

“I did, actually!” Danny’s expression brightened, and he winked, lowering his voice. “When I was younger, my best friend and I used to sneak out all the time, to go drinking and chase girls. My mother came down on that pretty hard when she found out, so that was that. It’s a shame I was so young and dumb, then; I could’ve been teaching myself all sorts of useful things instead.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Sanjay said airily. “Sounds like you had your priorities in the right order!” Danny laughed obligingly.

Lakshmi’s face appeared around the doorframe, wearing a suspicious expression. “What are you two snickering about in here?”

“Nothing,” they chorused, turning innocent looks on her.

“Omnu’s balls, that’s disturbing,” she muttered, scowling at them before retreating.

“You hear that?” Sanjay complained. “And then she tells me to watch my language.”

“Well, half the fun of being older is being able to be hypocritical about stuff like that,” Danny said cheerfully. “Wait till you have kids of your own, and you can spend your time making them crazy. I’m told that’s the whole attraction.”

“About running away, though,” Sanjay said more thoughtfully as he deposited the last fork in the strainer and let the water out of the sink. “I meant, like…more permanently.”

Danny’s smile turned wistful. “You know what, I actually do think about it with some regularity. It’s a pretty stressful job, being responsible for people.”

“I bet having your a—” He broke off, darting a glance at the door to the living room. “…getting catered to hand and foot all the time helps.”

“It sure does,” Danny said frankly. “Not gonna lie, the perks are pretty da—pretty nice.” He, too, glanced at the door, then winked. “But they’re not what stops me. The truth is, I enjoy the work, even as tiring as it is. It’s satisfying. I get to make a difference and actually help a lot of people. And…when I mess up, a lot of people can suffer.” His expression faded to a frown and he paused in drying the silverware to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of them. “I sort of feel I blew my chance to walk away the first time I let a bunch of people down in a way that has real consequences for them. You can’t make something like that go away, you know? There’s nothing to do but keep going forward. With every success, I feel more motivated… With every failure, I feel more responsible.”

“Sounds grim,” Sanjay murmured.

“Well, standing here, right now, my recommendation is that if you ever have the option to step into a noble’s place, don’t. This seems much more…free.” He shrugged. “Truthfully, though, I probably know as little about your life as you do about mine. So my opinion there probably isn’t worth much.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree on that one,” Sanjay said with a grin. “The last part. If I ever get the chance to step into a noble’s place, I’m gonna be all over that.”

“Where do these fellows live?” Danny asked, patting the short stack of plates.

“Top cabinet, to your left, there.” He watched Danny put dishes away in silence for a moment. “How do you learn that? Do they have special schools for nobles?”

“Oh, yes,” Danny said. “Expensive ones.”

“Naturally.”

“Silverware?”

“In the drawer, right in front of you.”

“Thanks. And yeah, there are classes in things like economics… Mostly, though, the craft of ruling is taught a lot the way the Thieves’ Guild trains its apprentices. You learn it by being coached by someone who’s done it a lot longer.”

“Most of the Eserites I know think nobles are worse thieves than they are,” Sanjay said skeptically, folding his arms and leaning against the sink.

“Most of the nobles I’ve met think Eserites are basically boogeymen,” Danny said frankly. “My feeling is both are right. I’ve known aristocrats who I have to say are completely useless human beings, and a few—more than a few—who I’d call outright monsters. The thing is… You see that everywhere, I think. But nobles are supposed to be responsible for a lot. When a leader is useless or evil, it does a great deal more damage than when an average person is.”

“I guess that makes sense. I haven’t met any nobles—before you, I mean—but I’ve met some pretty useless idiots and ass— Jerks.” He shot a look at the doorway and rolled his eyes. “People I’d hate to see in charge of anything.”

“Yeah. The reverse is true, though.” Danny shut the silverware drawer and gave him a contemplative look. “You may not learn about it directly, considering where and how you’re growing up, but it seems like a disproportionate number of the Eserites I end up hearing about are some really vile individuals. Maybe—”

“OI.” A paperback book came sailing through the door and bounced off the wall a few feet from them. “So help me, if I catch you trying to turn my brother against our religion, I will glue your dick to your leg while you sleep, and Sweet can whine about it all he likes!”

“Yep,” Sanjay said quietly, grinning. “Still single.”

“Aw, now, a lot of gentlemen go for women with spirit!”

“Ew.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “That’s my sister. I don’t need to be thinking about that!”

“You’re probably right,” Danny said gravely. “It’s for the best.”

“Anyway, that’s not the same, though,” Sanjay said thoughtfully. “Nobles and thieves. Or nobles and anything else, really. You can apprentice to be a thief no matter who you are. Legacy families are actually pretty rare in the Guild; most Eserites come from other places, other cults, even. And, like, most crafts are that way. There are some family businesses, but I think most people come to their trade because they have talent for it, or just want to do it.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Danny acknowledged, turning to lean against the wall next to the sink and face him directly.

“Nobles, though, you have to be born noble.”

“Mm…not necessarily. That’s the most common way, sure. You can also marry into nobility, or be adopted.”

“Come on, how often does that happen?”

“Less often than it should,” Danny said ruminatively. “I think it would help keep the Houses fresh. You know, House Madouri has always made a point of marrying commoners, seeking out fresh blood. And they’ve been actual rulers of Tiraan Province for a thousand years, longer than almost any other House has even existed. I think there’s a lesson in that.”

“Does your House do that?”

“No, actually, my House is too young for that to have been a factor. And that’s the other thing. You always have to keep in mind that nobles got noble in the first place by accomplishing something, and then capitalizing on it. The gods didn’t select the Houses.” He smiled. “I’d have thought the Guild would make a point of mentioning that.”

“Well, I’m not old enough for proper Guild training yet, but yeah…I’ve heard that idea mentioned a time or two,” Sanjay admitted, grinning ruefully. “From Eserites and Punaji both. Shmi always says, the only reason she’s comfortable raising me outside Punaji culture is that Eserite culture is pretty much the same thing, with less fish.”

Danny laughed at that; Sanjay, emboldened, went on.

“So where’s your House from?”

“To the north of here,” Danny said vaguely.

Sanjay rolled his eyes dramatically. “Danny, Tiraas is on the southern coast. Everything is north of here.”

“Sanjay.” Lakshmi appeared in the door again. “That’s called an evasive answer, and you know it. Danny is in hiding, we’re being paid to help him, and we don’t ask questions about other people’s jobs.” She glanced back and forth between them and grimaced. “You know what, if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. And you,” she added, pointing balefully at her guest, “if you’re just gonna encourage him anyway, you can help him.”

“Sounds good!” Danny said gamely, even as Sanjay groaned. “More education! I shall be a wiser and stronger man when I go back home.” Lakshmi just snorted and disappeared back into the living room.

“Here,” Sanjay said with poor grace, tossing him a rag he’d just taken from the drawer. “The kitchen’s fine, just fix it up enough she doesn’t have an excuse to complain. Wipe down water off the sink and cabinet, see if you can find dust or something on the shelves. It’s not like we’re gonna be having tea with the Empress in here, anyway,” he added sullenly.

“You’d better hope not,” Danny agreed, already wiping off the edge of the sink. “I hear she’s pretty unforgiving.”

“Have you ever met her?”

“First rule of being powerful: try to stay away from people who are more powerful than you. They’ll cause you all kinds of headaches.”

“Hey, that sounds almost Eserite!” Sanjay glanced at him again, from his position standing on a chair, where he was halfheartedly flicking dust off the top of the cabinets. “So…who taught you? About ruling, I mean. You make it sound like your mother’s sort of strict.”

“Oh, that she was.”

“Was?”

“She’s been gone for a few years now.”

“Oh.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” Danny said, giving him a quick smile. “She wasn’t that bad, though. Yes, she’s the one I learned from, mostly. In a way… Have you ever noticed how you can love someone completely without ever liking them all that much?”

“Yes,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Yes, I have. I think that’s called family.”

“I know where you sleep, y’little brat!”

“And there she is now,” he added, smirking. “Yeah, that’s not just you. That’s everybody’s family.”

“Well, good, I feel a little better about it.” Danny’s smile quickly faded, and he slowed the motion of his hands until he was just leaning on the sink. “I miss her a lot, though. She was my mother and I loved her, but it isn’t just that. I believe I’ll always feel she was just better at this than I’ll ever be. It seems like at least once a day I’ll find myself baffled by something, and my first thought is always, ‘Mother would know what to do.’” The smile returned to his face, more wistful now. “And oddly enough, she still helps me, in that way. Thinking about what she would do always points me toward a solution. Of course, I don’t always do what she’d have done, but it’s a reliable starting point.”

“I didn’t get to know my mother,” Sanjay said quietly, staring at the remaining dust on the cabinet.

“I don’t think you’re right,” Danny said frankly. Sanjay turned to frown at him. “A mother’s a lot more than the person who gave birth to you, I think. You’ve got someone who loves you, provides for you, makes sure you’re getting an education and an upbringing. Someone who cares enough to be certain you go out into the world with the best preparation she knows how to give you. Sorry if I’m being presumptuous, Sanjay, but it seems to me you have as good a mother as anyone can.”

Sanjay coughed awkwardly, his cheeks coloring, and lowered his eyes. A moment later, they both turned, noticing Lakshmi standing silently in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the frame.

“You,” she said to Danny, “are dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Oh, well.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Maybe a little.”


One could usually tell day from night, provided the sky was clear; beyond that, the passage of time in the Twilight Forest was inscrutable. In darkness, the ambient light was pale and blue, while by day it held a golden orange tone, and in either case, a haze hung in the air which inhibited the view even more than the underbrush and the shadows of the massive trees. It never grew brighter or dimmer, though. Dawn was a sudden thing, and dusk such a perpetual state that its arrival was impossible to notice. Aside from the light, it looked very much like any old growth forest, with the occasional path winding around the roots of ancient sentinel trees, and here and there the odd ruin appearing suddenly amid the shadows. The sounds, though, were eerie at best. The noises of insects, birds, and small animals were there, but less than in most such woods, and often one could hear what might have been the distant sound of laughter, the rapid patter of tiny feet, occasionally a note in the wind that could have been the agonized wail of someone far away.

Aside from the odd tauhanwe passing through one of the coastal cities, there were no elves in Sifan, and not because they were made unwelcome, either by the kitsune or the Sifanese. Elves liked their forests natural, and the full force of Naiya’s wild magic kept at a respectful distance. The presence of the Twilight Forest could be felt for miles out to sea in all directions from the archipelago, to those sensitive to it. In truth, there were no fairies of any kind, here, save those whose being sprang from the auspices of the kitsune. There were few clerics on the islands, the cults organized in ways that were often strange to their brethren elsewhere in the world. There were, assuredly, absolutely no demons. Sifan was a land unlike any other, and the Twilight Forest in many ways as alien as Hell.

But at least it was pretty.

Tellwyrn hadn’t been to Sifan often, and not to the Forest in decades. As frustrating as the experience of wandering aimlessly through the woods was when she was in urgent need of results, it did provide the opportunity to appreciate its oddly lovely scenery, an opportunity she rarely had. For now, that was the best she could do. One did not rush things, here.

“Why, hello there.”

She was not surprised at being suddenly addressed by someone standing very close, whose presence she had not detected through any of her enhanced senses, elvish or magical. It was unwise to let the Twilight Forest take you by surprise. Truthfully, it as unwise to be in it at all; best not to add foolishness on top of risk.

“Good day,” she said politely, bowing to the short old man who had appeared at the base of a tree next to the path. Little taller than her waist, portly, bald, and smiling beatifically with a face so wrinkled she could barely make out his eyes, he was dressed in the robes of a monk and carrying a staff more than twice his height.

“I don’t think I have seen you here before, my dear. Are you lost?”

“In fact, I am,” Tellwyrn replied. “Can you tell me how I might find the kitsune?”

The old man hummed softly to himself. “Dear me, what an unusual quest. Most who enter this forest would prefer to avoid the kitsune.”

“And yet, here I am,” she said with a patient smile.

He hmm-hmmed again. “The humans have shrines outside the woods, devoted to the fox-goddesses. That is the safest way to seek them out.”

“Alas, my business compels me to hurry. I have no time for the safest way.”

“Ah, so?” The old man rubbed his double chin with his free hand in a show of thought. “Well, perhaps I can help you, indeed. If you will do a favor for a fellow traveler, I shall do one in return.”

“What is it you need?”

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he said bashfully. “I seem to have lost my knapsack up a bush. It is wedged quite securely; I cannot prod it loose with my staff, nor reach it with my fingers. You, though, are so tall and graceful! I’m sure you could retrieve it for me with ease.”

“Why, however did you manage to lose it?” Tellwyrn asked with a smile.

The little old man sighed. “A mischievous monkey took it from me, and tangled it among the branches just out of my reach. They are such annoying creatures, monkeys. But if you will kindly help me retrieve my knapsack, I shall be only too glad to help you find what you seek.”

“Very well, it’s a bargain,” Tellwyrn said politely. “Where is this bush?”

“It’s just this way!” the old man replied, beaming happily. “I am fortunate you came along so quickly; who knows what might have happened to it, had I been forced to go down the path to seek help! Just through here.”

He turned and led the way off the little trail, Tellwyrn following without complaint at the slow pace he set. She didn’t bother glancing back at the path. Odds were good it wouldn’t be there the next time she looked.

The old man was as good as his word, at least. Despite the almost nonexistent speed mandated by his tiny stride and the rheumatic shuffling of his feet, they emerged after only a few minutes into a small clearing, floored with verdant moss and the occasional fern. Directly opposite this was a bush with dark, spiny leaves, and hanging in the upper branches, just beyond the reach of the little old man’s arms, hung a battered leather satchel by its strap.

“There, you see?” he said, pointing. “Look, we are in good time, it hasn’t been further disturbed!”

“How fortunate,” she said.

“I will wait here and keep watch,” he said seriously, nodding and thumping the butt of his staff against the ground in emphasis. “Thank you for helping an old man, traveler. Please bring me my knapsack, and then we shall see about your request.”

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied, giving him a smile, then strode briskly across the clearing.

Behind her back, the old man’s beatific expression melted to one of shock.

She reached the bush, finding the strap draped over a thick branch, and not excessively entangled at all. It took hardly any effort to lift it clear; the spiky leaves caught on the leather, but not enough to impede her, and the sack itself was not heavy.

Holding the knapsack, she turned, evincing no surprise to find the little man gone.

Panting, he scampered back through the underbrush as fast as his paws could carry him, chancing a glance over his shoulder toward the clearing, which cost him dearly; he plowed directly into the shabby bulk of his own knapsack.

“Here you are!” Tellwyrn said brightly, again standing right in front of him. “I see you found time to change into something a little more comfortable.”

His robes were the same, but his body had become furred, wrinkled old face replaced by a sharp snout, clever little eyes, and a pattern of darker fur forming a black mask. He gaped up at her, then yelped and turned to flee again.

Tellwyrn seized the tanuki by the scruff of his neck before he made it another step, hiking him bodily off the ground like his knapsack.

“Now, then,” she said briskly, “that’s my part of the bargain fulfilled. Take me to the kitsune, please.”

He squealed in agitation, then twisted himself around with astonishing agility and sank his needle-sharp teeth into her wrist.

Blue arcane light blazed from the skin-hugging shield invisibly lining her arm; it was like biting into a firecracker. The tanuki hung, dazed by the blast, while Tellwyrn carried him back to the clearing.

“Now, this is where we were,” she said, “in case you were lost. Which direction shall we go?”

“I can’t!” he squealed, having recovered enough to squirm. “They don’t want to be bothered! They’ll kill me!”

“That,” she replied, “is a problem for the future. They aren’t here; I am. And believe me, my furry little friend, I have neither their playfulness nor their forgiving nature.”

“You don’t know what they’re like!” he wailed.

“Here’s what I know,” she stated flatly. “This conversation will end with you helping me to find what I seek. What I tell them at the end of that search will depend upon how the conversation goes. Am I going to have a story about how helpful and courteous you were?” Calmly, she tossed his knapsack to the ground in the center of the clearing, and the whole thing collapsed as if made of paper, the wafer-thin coating of moss disintegrating and dumping fern fronds and the unfortunate knapsack into the yawning pit concealed below. Tellwyrn stepped forward and dangled the squirming tanuki above the chasm. “Or, will they hear a very sad tale of a very stupid raccoon who smears their good name by breaking his oath to travelers in their forest?”

“Y-you don’t scare me, elf! N-not nearly as much as they do!”

She hefted him higher, enough that she could stare grimly into his eye from inches away.

“You don’t know me,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “You really, really don’t want to.”

A soft giggle sounded.

Slowly, Tellwyrn turned, lowering the tanuki but not relaxing her grip, and making no note at all of his redoubled but still useless attempts to wriggle free.

A young woman perched in the lower branches of the tree behind her, clad in a silk kimono white as snow, embroidered with patterns of blossoms in palest lavender. Her complexion was like bleached ivory, even her triangular ears and bushy tail a snowy white, though they were tipped in black.

“You’re such fun,” the kitsune tittered. “I do wish you would visit more often, Arakuni-chan!”

“If only I could find the time,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “How lovely to see you again, Emi. Can you tell me where I might find Kaisa?”

“Oh, no.” Emi hopped lightly from the branch, landing on a nearby fern which hadn’t enough structure to support a sparrow and balancing effortlessly on her toes. “No, I don’t think that would be any fun at all, do you? I can, however, show you where you might find Kaisa.”

“Oh, good,” the tanuki said shrilly, “I guess you don’t need m—”

“Noisy,” Emi commented, the levity abruptly vanishing from her face, and he broke off with a strangled croak. “I believe you owe this honored guest a favor, Maru. I know you value your word far too much to renege upon such an obligation. I’m sure, sooner or later, she will find some…use for you.”

Tears beaded up in his beady eyes; he whimpered, which the elf and kitsune both ignored. Emi turned a once again sunny smile upon Tellwyrn.

“This way, if you please!”

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12 – 15

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“What are you doing here?”

Milanda had nearly reached the spot Sharidan had told her about. At the sudden voice, she turned—carefully. Despite its abruptness, she did not jump. She was not a jumpy person to begin with, and years at the Imperial court had honed her self-control to a fine point.

There had been no one in the hall with her, and she had heard no one approach, but now a Hand of the Emperor stood scarcely three yards away, glaring suspiciously. They really could teleport now, then, and apparently without the characteristic crackle-and-flash of arcane teleportation or dark visual effect of shadow-jumping. That would have been very useful if they’d been able to do it while obedient and predictable.

“I live here,” she said, looking as nonplussed as she could. It had been the Empress’s suggestion to act as if they had noticed nothing at all amiss with the Hands, which the Emperor had agreed with. She could see the point—their behavior was suddenly almost childlike, their loyalty to their master constant but their execution of it wild and without judgment. Eleanora had already run afoul of the simmering paranoia behind their eyes, and deemed it best that no doubt be cast on them, as they would likely take it as provocation.

This only applied to the three of them, though. Hands did not hobnob with just anyone, but people in the highest levels of the government did interact with them, and were starting to notice. Even she had heard the rumors.

“Here,” he snapped. “In this hall. What is your business here?”

Milanda frowned slightly—perplexed, uncertain, the aspect of someone confused why she was being challenged. That took no political training, but only the experience of a strict Viridill upbringing which had never agreed with her. “This hall? It leads between the Emperor’s apartment and the west solarium without passing through the central corridor. The servants are busy cleaning in there right now. Why?” Sharpening her gaze, she took an impulsive step toward him, affecting not to notice the abrupt movement of his hand despite the jab of panic that it caused. He did not attack, though, nor even pull away when she “impulsively” laid a hand on his arm. “Is something wrong? Is the Emperor all right?”

“The Emperor is engaged in a task which requires privacy and isolation,” the Hand said, still watching her suspiciously, but with less overt hostility now. “You were informed of this.”

“Yes. Yes, I know.” Affecting frustration, Milanda released him and stepped back, folding her arms beneath her breasts. That achieved nothing useful, and not just because of the modest gown that Sharidan preferred her in; never once had any of the Hands looked at her with lust, nor hinted that they were capable of such. Before today, she had much appreciated that. It had been worth a try, anyway. “No doubt you think I’m just a silly girl, but I do care about him. I know he has the very best people watching over him, I know he is smart and capable as any man. But… He’s not here, and I can’t help…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to waste your time. You’ll tell me, though, if anything happens?”

Milanda took another step closer to him, gazing up with wide eyes, head carefully angled so she didn’t accidentally look coquettishly through her lashes. A more direct stare helped sell the emotion. Clasping her hands before her would have been too theatrical, but she bunched them in her skirts, a nervous habit she had deliberately cultivated while at court so she could hide real nervousness by not displaying it.

The Hand had relaxed visibly, now. He still frowned, faintly, which was far more emotion than she was used to seeing from any of them, but appeared no longer on the verge of attacking her.

“I can’t promise that, as you know,” he said, only a little stiffly. “You will be informed of anything relevant to you. And you needn’t worry, his Majesty is in full control of his current situation. If you want to help him, go about your daily routine as normal. It is central to his plan that any parties observing the Palace detect nothing amiss.”

“Yes, so he told me,” she said with a sigh. “Perhaps I am a silly girl, on some level. My apologies.”

She curtsied carefully, not a whit more deeply than was proper, then turned and continued on up the hall without even a suggestion of hurry. There was silence behind her; she did not turn to see whether he was still there, or had vanished as suddenly as he’d come. And she definitely did not so much as glance at the marble bust of Emperor Sarsamon against the wall, which concealed the access to the secret entrance.


Lakshmi wasn’t best pleased to have her door knocked upon first thing in the morning, scarcely after Sanjay had headed off to school. The neighborhood wasn’t moneyed enough to be afflicted with salesmen, but several of the cults did proselytize. It had been a few weeks, though; she’d begun to hope she had finally trained all the nearby temples not to pester the resident Eserite household…

Upon angrily opening the door, she couldn’t decide whether she was more or less pleased than she’d have been by wandering preachers.

“Peepers!” Sweet said, beaming and holding out his arms as if for a hug.

“Oh, what the fuck now,” she demanded, folding her own arms.

“That’s a little thing we do,” Sweet said, turning to address the man accompanying him, a stranger to her. “We Eserites like our byplay—almost as bad as bards, sometimes. This one here is a classic setup/payoff; you’ve probably seen it in a play at least once.”

“It was a tad vaudevillian,” the other man agreed politely.

“Sweet, it’s early,” Lakshmi said curtly. “And you’re grinning at me, which is downright unnerving. Early and unnerving are a combination that doesn’t work for me. What do you want?”

“I need a favor, Peepers,” he said, his expression suddenly earnest.

She snorted derisively. “Are you outta your gourd? The last time I did you a favor, I ended up getting chased around by goddamn demons.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” He held up a remonstrative finger. “That was a job. This is a favor. Totally different! And no demons involved this time, I promise. Or warlocks. Much of anything, really.”

“And I’m going to do you favors because…?”

“She’s still huffy at me,” Sweet explained to his friend. “Because of the demon thing.”

“Well, it sounds like she’s entitled,” he replied seriously. “Have you tried the usual? Chocolates, flowers, empty flattery?”

“I was going for the old ‘pretend it didn’t happen and hope she forgets’ routine.”

“Ah.” The newcomer shook his head regretfully. “A classic blunder. You never try that on the smart ones.”

Lakshmi cleared her throat.

“Right, yes!” Sweet turned his charming grin back on her, and she had the sneaking suspicion he was deliberately doing it to be annoying, now. “Aside from the fact that it’s just generally helpful to be in the good graces of people with my kind of connections, this is the sort of favor that comes with payment, in the amount of far more than it deserves.”

“So it is a job.”

“No, it’s a paying favor—the best kind! A job is where you have to go out and do stuff. This won’t affect your plans in the least, unless you were going to burn down your apartment for the insurance money.” Sweet grinned and edged aside in the narrow doorway, gesturing grandly to his companion. “This is my friend Danny. He needs a place to crash for a few days.”

Danny, assuredly not his real name, was a moderately well-dressed and actually rather good looking man of local Tiraan stock, in that indeterminate area between later youth and early middle age. He bowed politely, and formally.

“It is an honor and a privilege, Miss Peepers.”

“Psst, it’s just Peepers,” Sweet stage-whispered. “You don’t combine a tag with a title, unless you’re talking to the Boss.”

“Ah. My humble apologies.”

“And the reason he can’t stay in your giant house is?”

“C’mon, you’re sharp enough to know better than that,” Sweet replied. “A discreet sort of place. Where people won’t come looking for him. It’s just a few days, no more than a week. He doesn’t eat much, even.”

“People who need discreet places to crash are hiding from something,” she said, unimpressed. “I have a little brother to worry about, Sweet.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got everything covered,” Sweet assured her. “I will have people keeping an eye out—discreetly. Any trouble heads your way, he’ll be shuffled outta here, and you’ll get backup. But that’s just to satisfy my own sense of preparedness. I’m not gonna drop more trouble on you than you can handle.”

“Once again,” she said acidly, “demons.”

“Oh, let’s be honest,” he retorted airily. “Nobody expected that to turn out like it did, and I still had it under control, anyway. You’re mostly irked because that means you can’t blame me for it.”

“I can blame you for anything I please,” she informed him. “Woman’s prerogative. And now you’re dropping some shifty noble with me, one who’s running from trouble? Noble trouble is almost worse than demons, Sweet.”

“Who says I’m a noble?” Danny asked, seeming more amused than affronted.

“Is that a joke?” Lakshmi demanded. “That cheap suit is not a disguise. No calluses, nails expertly manicured. Your hair is styled, in a way you didn’t do yourself, unless you happen to be a professional barber. Omnu’s hairy balls, Sweet, the man’s wearing perfume. What the hell am I supposed to do with him?”

“It’s just my natural musk!” Danny protested. “I eat a lot of…” He lifted an arm to sniff delicately at his wrist. “…hibiscus, tangerine, and sanguine vanilla. My doctor swears it’ll add ten years to your life.”

“Well, he can banter up to my standards,” Lakshmi acknowledged grudgingly. “That’s better than nothing. But seriously, this is a three-room apartment in a contentedly cheap neighborhood. You will not like it here.”

“At least the company’s charming!” Danny said gallantly.

“It’ll be fine!” Sweet wheedled. “If he gets bored, you can teach him to do coin tricks. Hell, make him wash dishes, it’ll be character-building.”

“Hm,” she grunted, now studying Danny, who seemed amused. She would be astonished if the man had ever done housework in his life, but he wasn’t bridling at the suggestion, which meant he wasn’t the worst kind of noble. “I dunno…”

“Well, let me see if I can make it easier for you,” Sweet said. “Five decabloons up front, just for taking on the inconvenience, and an extra twenty in gold per day that he’s here. Plus, I’ll owe you one.”

Lakshmi was too experienced a bargainer to betray any reaction to the named sum, which was more than she’d paid in rent for this place the entire time she and Sanjay had lived here. Thanks to Principia’s accounts, she didn’t need money, but it was a measure of how serious the matter was. “Even though you’re paying me?”

“Hell with that, he’s paying you.” Sweet jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Danny. “Guy’s loaded. I’m just hooking him up with a reliable and trustworthy person who can provide him with a couch for a few days—for which, as I said, I’ll owe you. Come on, Peepers,” he added more softly. “Everything else aside, that thing with the warlocks just went south, and I never even suggested in the first place it would be safe. You know I wouldn’t put any Guild member in more danger than they could handle, or mislead them about the situation I was setting them up for. This is me, telling you I believe this is safe. If at any point I change my mind about that, I will haul ass down here immediately and pull him out. My word on it.”

She pursed her lips, making a show of mulling it over. “If he causes or attracts any trouble that affects my little brother, deal’s off then and there. And I keep the five decs and any gold paid up till that point.”

“More than fair,” Sweet agreed.

“And,” she added, “for thirty per day.”

“You’re proud of this place, aren’t you?” Danny observed with a smile.

“Oh, not at all,” Lakshmi replied, grinning at him. “I just enjoy squeezing you. Get used to it, roomie.”


On her way back through the hall, Milanda carried an apple. It wasn’t much as props went, but she had a story worked out to explain her presence here now that the servants had finished in the harem wing’s central halls. She had given it an hour, to be safe; with one Hand already suspicious of her, it was too risky to loiter in this region, or be seen here too often.

No one accosted her this time, though. Despite her looming awareness of the potential threat, Milanda moved without hurry, stopping in front of the side table on which the bust sat. She had seen this thing a thousand times and never paid it much attention, it fit so well with the décor of the Palace.

Now, moving as deftly as she could given the unfamiliarity of the motions, she reached under the table, her fingers finding the lever exactly where Sharidan had said it would be. She set the apple down on the table top, pulled the lever and held it, then carefully touched the rune hidden among the abstract patterns embossed in the table’s surface—also found right where she had been instructed to look.

There was no glow, or crackle, or any of the effects that tended to come with modern enchanted devices, nor even a mechanical click from inside the wall. A section next to the display simply shifted backward in silence, its borders marked by seams which had not existed a moment ago. After moving back six inches from the surface of the wall, it slid to the side, revealing the door.

Milanda retrieved her apple and stepped quickly through, not pausing a moment to study this spectacle. The moment she was through, the wall silently slid back into position, the apparatus clearly having been designed for maximum discretion. She didn’t find it particularly galling that Sharidan had been keeping this secret from her. Frankly, there was a lot he didn’t tell her, and she accepted that just as she did the fact that theirs was not a conventional relationship. She was not the only woman he kept in these apartments, and hadn’t even been his most preferred companion until the sudden departure of Lillian Riaje last year.

The less said about that, the better.

A small fairly lamp ignited as soon as the wall shut, saving her from the darkness. She was in a space no bigger than an average closet—an average closet from back home, not one of the cavernous spaces where the Emperor or Empress kept their clothes. Its walls matched the corniced marble from the corridor outside, a touch which amused her. Opposite the secret door was a ladder set into the wall, which vanished into an opening in the floor.

Milanda paused only for a moment to get her bearings in the cramped space before proceeding. She had no suitable pockets and it didn’t seem wise to leave litter in here, so she descended the ladder carefully with the apple clutched in her left hand. More tiny fairy lamps were set along the descending shaft; they came on when she approached, while the upper reaches of the ladder fell back into darkness.

This was a disorienting effect. Down she went in her own little island of light, which moved along with her, hiding what meager landmarks there were and erasing any sense of how far she had come. Already this had been a longer climb down than from any of the trees she had scaled as a child, and still, there was only darkness below. The Emperor clambered up and down this shaft? Alone? What if he fell? The sheer recklessness of it…

Halfway through that thought, her grip on the apple slipped. Milanda winced but did not jeopardize her balance by grabbing for it, resigning herself to having to find some way to clean up applesauce at the bottom.

It only fell two feet, though, before coming to a stop in midair. Well, of course; this had apparently been set up by Empress Theasia, who had been famous for never missing a trick. Obviously a place like this would have the best safety enchantments in existence.

She retrieved her apple and continued down.

It was at least ten minutes, maybe longer, before she finally put her slippers on solid ground again. The chamber at the base of the ladder was stone, well-cut but clearly old—it looked like it belonged in some ancient fortress rather than the opulent Imperial Palace above. Still, nothing about it was evocative of ruins. It was clean and in good repair. Milanda gave it scarcely a glance.

On the wall of this chamber opposite the ladder was the door. Sharidan had been unable to warn her in detail of what she would find beyond the hidden entrance above, which was modern work and no part of the geas governing and empowering the Hands, a geas which apparently protected itself by preventing any in the know from speaking of it. Only the fact that she expected some kind of door made her assume that was what this was.

It was metal, that much was plain, but not steel. It was too pale, and shone too brightly even in the dim light of the tiny fairy lamp set next to the ladder. The door itself was a mostly vertical panel engraved with a sigil which meant nothing to her, flanked by two columns of glass in which a faintly luminous purple substance slowly oscillated. This seemed to glow, but the strange metal did not take on any purple tint from it.

In fact…

Milanda’s breath caught as she realized what she was looking at. Mithril. The whole wall was made of it. In addition to being totally impervious, the value of this thing would practically buy the Palace itself. Slowly, she crept forward, reaching out to inquisitively touch the sigil in the center of the door.

It instantly shifted upward into its frame with a soft hiss. She did not jerk back, but paused momentarily to study this.

The room beyond was tiny. Scarcely wider than the ladder shaft and circular except for the flat wall which made up the door, it was also formed entirely of pale, glossy mithril.

Milanda stepped carefully inside, peering around for some hint what she was meant to do next. The thing was almost featureless, though there was a palm-sized panel beside the open doorway which was made of a different material. Some kind of glass, perhaps, like the tubes outside; it glowed faintly, this one a pale blue like the characteristic luminosity of arcane magic.

The door suddenly hissed shut behind her, and this time she did jump. A low hum rose from the metal floor, and in the little glowing panel appeared a black circle, which began to dissolve starting from a point at its top and cycling around clockwise until it vanished completely. The instant it did, only a few seconds later, the door opened again, unprompted.

It wasn’t the same room outside. Belatedly, Milanda realized that the little round chamber wasn’t actually a room, but a conveyance, which had just taken her… Well, hopefully where she needed to be.

This was clearly the product of the same minds which had made the moving chamber. Everything—everything—was made of mithril. She was in a short hallway, brightly lit, the air incongruously fresh considering how far underground this had to be. The lights were set into the ceiling, while more glowing purple columns marched along the walls. Up ahead was another door, this one larger.

Milanda strode forward with more confidence, reaching out to touch the sigil engraved on the door’s surface. This time, she wasn’t surprised when it vanished into the ceiling.

Beyond that was another corridor, which extended up ahead for a few yards before terminating against a mithril wall, where the hall itself turned to the right. The lights and border columns here were the same, but this corridor was lined by glass panels opening onto other rooms.

Tiny, empty rooms.

She paced forward, carefully peering into each as she passed. What was the purpose of this? There were eight of them along the hallway, but the third one on the right had another mithril wall instead of a glass pane with a room beyond. When she came abreast of that one, though, she had to stop and stare.

The cell opposite it was occupied.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” the resident observed.

Milanda was not at all sure what she was looking it. It was a woman…sort of. In fact, she looked more like a doll than a person. Her skin was deathly white, as she had heard Vanislaad demons described, and subtly glossy. It didn’t look like skin at all. She had black eyes, so dark their pupils were invisible, which did not contain any reflection, a most eerie effect. Her features seemed oddly stylized, with a very pointed chin and enlarged eyes, as if she had been crafted by someone working from a rough description of elves and not really striving for believability. She had normal human ears, though.

That wasn’t the limit of her strangeness. The woman’s hair…was not hair. It took a moment’s study for Milanda to realize what was wrong with it: what looked at first glance like short black hair was simply the shape of her skull, pigmented to contrast with her face and formed to look roughly like a backswept hairdo, but it was all of one glossy surface. And her black clothes were not clothes. They were part of her, hanging in ragged edges from her cuffs but fading into being from her throat, with no collar; her skin just shifted color and changed shape to very roughly mimic garments. The slightly baggy “pants” they formed tightened below the knee to cover gleaming black feet which seemed bare. At any rate, they had visible toes.

“…who are you?” Milanda asked, only belatedly realizing she had been staring.

The creature shrugged. “A prisoner.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

“Because I am dangerous.” At that, she smiled. Her lips were bloodless as the rest of her face, and painfully thin.

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “…what do you know about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Ah.” The woman’s smile widened. “I suspected as much. You’ll be having some trouble with them, no doubt.”

Milanda turned to face her directly. “What do you know of this?”

“Little,” the prisoner replied. “I could find out more, given access to the resources in this facility. I might be able to help you fix the problem, though I am reluctant to promise that. The system access is designed to be user-friendly, but there have been tweaks made to the underlying code itself, and I’m not a computer tech.”

Several terms in that speech were unfamiliar to Milanda, who decided to pass over them for now and focus on what she did understand. “I was cautioned not to let you out.”

“Very wise,” the prisoner said, nodding. “If you do, I’ll kill you.”

She stepped back. “Why would you do that?”

The woman shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

Milanda could find no answer for that.

“Anyway, you have more immediate problems,” the prisoner continued. “You are not authorized to be here. Hands will be coming to check soon—they’ll know when someone enters here, and I suspect they’ll know it’s not the Emperor or one of their own.”

Milanda backed away against the far wall. “You’re trying to trick me into letting you out.”

“You should not let me out,” the woman said matter-of-factly.

“Don’t you want to get out?”

“Of course I do, but that’s another subject. We’re talking about you. There is only one place for you to hide until the Hands investigate and leave—down there, at the end of the hall. Fortunately, what you’ll find in there is exactly what you need to proceed with your goal anyway. Unfortunately, they’ll probably kill you, too.”

“Is there anything in this place that won’t kill me?” Milanda demanded in aggravation.

The prisoner shrugged again. “That’s not the right question. They might kill you. I will. I might be able to help you. They probably can. They are your only hope, however slim, of surviving the next few minutes. And if they do decide to help rather than kill you, their help could even make it safe for you to let me out. This doesn’t seem like a dilemma to me.”

Milanda started to grasp at her head in frustration and belatedly realized she was still holding an apple. “I have no reason at all to trust you.”

“You can either go back, or go forward. You can’t do anything standing here except talk to me. It’s nice to have company, but I can’t do much for you while I’m in here.”

“Except kill me,” she said sarcastically.

“I can’t kill you while I’m in the cell,” the woman replied in complete calm. “That’s why you should not let me out.”

“Are you insane?”

“Yes,” she replied, still calm. “Isolation does that to a person, and I’ve been down here for a long time. My mind was damaged by trauma long before I was captured, though. That’s why I kill everything. Regardless, you’re concerned with your own business, right? I could trick you into getting killed, which would be entertaining very briefly and gain me nothing. Or I could help you, which could be entertaining for much longer while you struggle to survive and overcome this situation, and that course might potentially end with me getting out of here.”

“At which point you’ll kill me,” Milanda said. “No, thank you.”

“As you are now, yes, I would,” the woman said frankly. “If you go see the others, they might change that.”

“Who are they?”

“Less dangerous than I.” The prisoner smiled again. “Marginally. I am very predictable. I’m really not sure what they might do. Honestly, I don’t think they are, either.”

Suddenly, lines of text appeared in the upper corner of the glass panel which walled her off from Milanda, in a language she couldn’t read.

“Someone’s coming,” the prisoner said, studying the script. “Either the Emperor or one of his Hands. I extrapolate from your presence that it’s not the Emperor. It’s time for you to move.”

“Bloody hell,” Milanda cursed uncharacteristically, bolting down the short remainder of the hallway. Behind her, the imprisoned creature offered no further comment.

After its ninety degree right turn, the hall terminated in another door, this one obviously a door. It was more heavily built up, with an elaborate frame of metal which was a matte black, clearly not mithril; the door itself was of the same material, inset with glowing blue runes. No, not runes—letters. Some of them were the same as the alphabet used in Tanglish, though the words made no sense to her.

Grimacing and clutching her apple for moral support, Milanda stepped forward and pressed her hand to the door.

Nothing happened.

In growing panic, she prodded at various words, none of which had any effect.

“You’ll need to find the access panel in the frame,” said the prisoner’s voice from around the corner behind her. “It should be on the left.”

Milanda hesitated, then stepped back, studying the heavily carved door frame. In fact—yes. On its left side, at chest height, was a little square space about the size of the one in the tubular conveyance. At her touch, this came alight, displaying more lines of illegible text.

A second later, the door opened, parting along a central seam and sliding into the frame on either side. It was thicker than the other doors, and more complex, revealing a second set of panels which slid apart in different directions. What it revealed was nothing but a wall of blue light.

Milanda carefully reached out to touch this, then thought better of it. Who knew what that creature in the cell was trying to trick her into doing? After a moment’s thought, she stepped back and gently tossed the apple in.

It vanished into the blue surface without a ripple.

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth. The Hands were coming; even if the prisoner had lied, they would be anyway, and probably soon. The creature in the cell had been right about one thing: it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else for her to go down here. Muttering a quick prayer, she stepped carefully forward, holding up her hands, and began to pass through the light.

She just had time to watch her fingertips vanish into its surface before her apple came whizzing back out, clocking her right on the forehead. Milanda yelped and fell backward, landing painfully on her rump halfway through the door, whereupon she discovered that whatever was beyond didn’t have a floor on the same level. Flailing gracelessly and disoriented by the blow to the head, she slid and tumbled through into the unknown.

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7 – 4

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The warning bells continued to toll, a pervasive backdrop to the tension that hung over the entire city like a taut net, tugging people rapidly toward their destinations and pinning them in place once they got there. Since early afternoon, the bells hadn’t let up. Banner-sized copies of the Emperor’s full proclamation were displayed at every major intersection and in front of all Imperial offices; people still clustered around them, though not as many as when they had first gone up. By this point, most people were just trying to get home ahead of sunset. The rhythm of marching feet sounded through multiple streets as the city’s garrisons were systematically emptied, soldiers streaming into the Rail stations.

Once again, as it did every fifteen minutes, the magically augmented voice of an Imperial herald boomed out from every scrolltower in the city. There wasn’t one located in this neighborhood, but with the windows open, they could hear perfectly well.

“The Emperor has declared a state of emergency. A hellgate has been opened at the frontier town of Last Rock in northern Calderaan Province. In response to this crisis, the entire Rail network has been commandeered to evacuate the town and move soldiers to the frontier. This hellgate is in no way a danger to the capital. Forces from across the Empire are being re-routed to face this threat; due to the city’s garrisons being dispatched, a curfew has been ordered for this city. Once again, Tiraas is under curfew as of sunset. All citizens must be in their homes or otherwise off the streets in two hours, seventeen minutes. Persons without homes may seek shelter in any office of the Universal Church, its member cults, or designated Imperial facilities. Once again, a curfew will be enforced at sunset. All citizens must be off the streets in two hours…sixteen minutes.”

Lakshmi sighed, stepping back from the window.

“Oh, just close it already,” Sanjay huffed. “We’ve heard it, we’re already inside, and I’m tired of that guy’s whining.”

“You button it,” she ordered. “Once dark falls, believe me, we’re gonna want this shut and everything locked and barred. Let’s have some fresh air while there’s still air to be had.”

“C’mon, what’s the big deal?” he asked, lounging on their threadbare sofa in the narrow living room of the garret apartment. Sanjay had appropriated an apple from the fruit bowl, but so far was just toying with it, not taking a bite. “The soldiers are leaving and they don’t want anybody on the streets, fine, whatever. Doesn’t mean everybody’s gonna sneak out after dark and start burning the place down. The whole city isn’t full of psychos.”

“Don’t underestimate what people will get up to when nobody’s watching,” she cautioned. “The average person’s stupidity and incompetence is the only thing holding their malicious intentions in check.”

He groaned dramatically, throwing his head backward over the arm of the sofa. “Uggghhhhh, don’t quote Guild crap at me, sis. I’ve heard it all. Honestly, who is gonna take the opportunity of the soldiers being gone? The Guild won’t, and there’s nobody else who does crime.”

“There’s nobody else,” she said patiently, “because the Guild breaks their elbows if they try. And if the Guild is also indoors…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows.

Sanjay scowled sullenly. “I still think you’re overreacting.”

Lakshmi turned back to look out the open window. “Maybe. I’ve heard rumors, though, in the Guild. Something big is going to happen tonight.”

“Big is vague.”

“Yeah, and I’m a professional listener, so if that’s all I’ve got, that’s all there is.” She shivered. “There’s some weird shit in this city, little brother. After that business with Sweet, I don’t think I wanna be near anything the Guild considers ‘big.’”

“Well, that’s a career-advancing attitude,” he snorted.

“Career, bah. I’ll make my own opportunities. If the Guild wants to futz around with Imperials and the Church and the Wreath and whatever else, they can do it without my help.”

Sanjay sat bolt upright, the apple rolling from his fingers, and leaned forward, staring at her avidly. “Wreath? The Black Wreath?”

Lakshmi grimaced. “No. I didn’t say that, and you didn’t hear it.”

“Aw, come on—”

A sharp knock at the door made them both freeze. They exchanged a wary glance, then turned in unison to face the front of the room.

“Who is it?” Lakshmi demanded.

“Just me, ma’am,” the muffled voice replied.

Grinning hugely, Sanjay was off the couch and skittering toward the door before she could reply. He made quick work of the knob lock, both deadbolts and the chain, yanking it open.

“Hey, kid,” said Joe, grinning.

“Hey, Kid!” Sanjay replied.

“Mind if I come in for a spell?”

“C’mon in! Want anything? Let me getcha an apple!”

“No, thanks, I can’t stay long,” Joe replied, stepping across the threshold and removing his hat. “Hi, Lakshmi. How’re you holding up?”

“I was just fine until a minute ago,” she said, planting her fists on her hips and putting on a stern expression. “What have I told you about calling me ‘ma’am?’”

“Sorry. Force of habit,” he replied, grinning unabashedly.

“What’re you doin’ out, Joe?” Sanjay demanded, failing to contain his excitement. Lakshmi indulged in a smile. Out of all the nonsense that had occurred that night, her ongoing friendship with Joseph Jenkins was one bright spot, not least because her little brother’s hero-worship for the Sarasio Kid meant he had at least one positive role model. “The whole city’s about to be shut down!”

“Yeah, well, as to that, I’m afraid I don’t get to rest indoors with everybody else,” Joe said, wincing. “I’ve been officially deputized for the duration.”

“Deputized?” Lakshmi raised her eyebrows. “To do what?”

“Can’t really discuss it,” he said ruefully. “I doubt you’d be happy to hear the details, anyhow. I don’t even know all the details.”

“You’re still working with Darling, aren’t you?” she said. “Not knowing the details seems to be par for the course.”

“I’m getting’ that impression, yeah,” he said. “Anyhow. Jay’s right, it’s not really the time for sociable jibber-jabber. You’ve been keeping up with your practice, right?”

“You mean, aside from your own weekly sessions at the range?” She folded her arms. “Bet your ass I have. I am not getting caught helpless again. Ever.”

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “All right, remember that little test I had you do with my wand last time?”

“Yeah, the enchanter test? I don’t see what difference it makes, Joe. Spark or no spark, I’m not about to become a wizard. I have a job. I actually like it, when it doesn’t involve me being snared into chasing—” She broke off, looking at Sanjay, who gazed back with an expression of wide-eyed innocence that would absolutely terrify anyone who had ever raised a twelve-year-old.

“Yes?” he prompted. “Go on. You were chasing…?”

“Well, no one’s sayin’ you need to become a sorceress,” Joe said quickly. “It’s just like any other talent. Not everybody who has the capacity to do arcane magic ever does anything with it. But in your case, it means you can handle a better class of armament than that cheap spark-spitter you picked up at a sleazy pawn shop.”

“I take offense at that,” Lakshmi said haughtily. “What makes you think it was a sleazy pawn shop?”

“Is there such a thing as a non-sleazy pawn shop?” he asked curiously. Sanjay snorted a laugh.

“Okay, I may have to give you that one,” she said grudgingly after a moment.

“Well, point being, I brought you a gift.” Joe reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a long, glossy wand with a thick handle.

“I don’t need charity,” Lakshmi said sharply.

“I am well aware of that, Shmi,” he replied, unperturbed. “That’s what makes it a nice gesture. Here.”

She held his stare for a moment, then with a reluctant sigh, reached out to accept the weapon. “Yeah, well, I guess… Thanks, Joe.”

“It’s my pleasure. Be sure to bring it to our next session at the range, and I’ll help you get a feel for it. It’s a lot different than firing a wand with a clicker.”

“That’s great!” Sanjay beamed. “Shmi gets an upgrade, so I can have the cheap old one to practice with!”

“No,” they said simultaneously.

“Aw, come onnnnnn,” he whined. “You were shootin’ outlaws at a younger age than me!”

“That is not a good thing,” Joe said firmly. “Anyhow, it ain’t my business, Jay. It’s for the lady raisin’ you to decide when you’re old enough for a weapon.”

“Okay, well, hypothetically,” Sanjay wheedled, “as a matter of general principle, you agree I’m old enough to own a wand?”

Joe glanced at Lakshmi, who was giving him a very even look.

“Hypothetically,” he mused, “as a matter of general principle…”

“Yessss?” Sanjay practically vibrated with eagerness.

“…it’s for the lady raisin’ you to decide when—”

“Omnu’s balls!” Sanjay exclaimed, throwing up his arms and collapsing back on the couch in a huff.

“You watch your language,” Joe said sternly. Outside the window, another repetition of the herald’s warning began to undercut the constant tolling of the alarm bells. “And you should be grateful you’ve got somebody who cares to look after you, kid. I was shootin’ outlaws at your age because I lived in an unspeakable hellhole, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody. No one should have to grow up in a place like that. Your sister deserves some respect, at least—”

“Hsst!” Lakshmi said suddenly, making a slashing motion with her hand, and crossed to the window. “Listen! It’s changed.”

“…hours until the sunset curfew,” the herald was announcing. “Due to the departure of troops from the city, personnel from the cults of Avei, Shaath and Eserion will be patrolling the streets, enforcing curfew.” For the first time, he hesitated in his recitation before continuing. “It is vitally important that no citizen be out on the streets after dark.”

“Something big,” Lakshmi whispered.

“Yeah,” said Joe with a heavy sigh, replacing his hat. “It’s gonna be a long night.”


“Ten minutes,” Trissiny muttered, pacing back and forth down the dividing line in their tower bedroom. Or rather, just to her side of it, so that her boots clicked satisfyingly on the stone floor. Attempting to walk on the line itself would have been awkward; Ruda’s rugs were piled deeply enough to make the surface notably lopsided.

“It’ll be fine,” Ruda said with a sigh, sitting at the window. “Gabe and Fross know their jobs, and so does Juniper.”

“If I could just help,” Trissiny said, reaching the door and turning around for another lap.

Ruda looked up from her perusal of the town below. They had an incredible view, which was actually rather useful for this evening’s planned events. “You know what your problem is, Boots?”

Trissiny came to an abrupt halt and gave her a long, sardonic look. “If I asked very nicely, would you tell me?”

“You don’t have enough faith in your crew,” Ruda obliged, grinning. “C’mon, our friends know what they’re doing, and they’re not the same collection of numbnuts and airheads we started the year with. It will be fine. And if it’s not, Tellwyrn will be here to collect us, so it’s not as if anybody’ll die. I’m sure even Avei will understand if you get collared by the great Arachne Pigheaded Walking Magicpocalypse Fucking Tellwyrn.”

“She needs to get that printed up on business cards,” Trissny snorted, resuming her pacing. Ruda laughed.

The paladin made three more laps before stopping again. “I still don’t feel right about involving you all in this…”

“Tough shit,” Ruda said, looking out the window again.

“But…and it sounds horrible even to say this…the others just aren’t as important as you. Teal probably isn’t in much danger from anything that comes out of a hellgate, and even so…her family are just industrialists. Toby and I are supposed to be putting our lives at risk against demons. Even Shaeine is the third daughter, so her House won’t be in jeopardy if she dies. But you’re the only heir the Punaji have.”

“Not how it works,” Ruda said quietly, not turning from the window. “I’m no relation at all to most of those who’ve worn the name Punaji. The surname is attached to whatever family holds the crown, which changes. My people won’t tolerate weak, incompetent, corrupt or selfish leaders. You hold onto the people’s respect or your ass gets kicked out and someone more worthy takes your place. We have succession crises more often than other countries, sure, but on the other hand our royalty isn’t so goddamn inbred they need six servants to use the shitter.”

“Well…I guess that’s something,” Trissiny said, turning to resume her path.

“I’m not going to seek out death,” Ruda said even more quietly. “That’s a coward’s way out. And I’d hate to make my parents grieve. But… If I’m not there to watch what’s going to happen to my people, I think I’ll be happier.”

Trissiny stopped again, turning to stare at her. “What’s… Why? What’s going to happen?”

Ruda turned her face from the window to stare at the floor in front of her. She was silent for so long that Trissiny had just decided she had nothing to say when she finally spoke.

“When I was thirteen, my papa took me out on my first actual raid. We overtook a merchant ship. Big, fat thing flying Lantonese colors. Big fat captain, too. When we boarded and had men looking over the inventory… I swear, that fucker acted like he was being inconvenienced by a valet taking too long to park his fucking carriage. Sneering and making condescending remarks to the goddamn Pirate King himself about how long this was taking and his fucking schedule.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very smart thing to do,” Trissiny said, wide-eyed.

Ruda snorted. “Hell, no, we tied a line to his ankles and hung him head-first over the side until we were done. Told his crew not to haul him back aboard till we were over the horizon. Dunno if they did or not…” She sighed heavily. “I’m not supposed to know this, but my father had to make a formal apology to the king of Lanton. With financial remuneration for the insult.”

Trissiny held her peace, unsure what to say. Ruda’s face was gradually falling into a bitter scowl.

“We patrol the sea, you understand,” she went on at last. “The days of slitting throats and burning ships are long since over. Actually, the Punaji never did that, which is why we’re still around when more brutal pirates have been stamped out. The Punaji stand for something. We were slaves, once, centuries ago, and when we overthrew our rulers and claimed Puna Dara for our own, we established a culture of freedom. Punaji raiders have toppled tyrants, wiped out slavers, rescued hostages… And we never take all of a ship’s wealth. Just some supplies to tide us over and a tithe of their cargo. And so, they tolerate us.

“You remember our very first class with Tellwyrn, when she made us do that idiot fucking get-to-know-you exercise? A ‘maritime vassal state,’ that’s what she called us. And it’s true. The Tiraan Empire swallowed up what’s now Upper Stalvar Province, right next to Puna Dara, and Queen Ramanshi saw which way the wind was blowing. Signed the treaty with Tiraas, ensured our independence…at the cost of just a little of our freedom. And the rest has just been chipped away, bit by bit. In a world of modern navies, of treaties and laws and tariffs and…” She paused, sighing heavily. “There’s just no room for pirates in the modern world. We’ve become one big band of ruthless, marauding tax collectors. Pay the Punaji so they’ll keep aiding ships in distress and not preying excessively on your commerce. Just a cost of doing business. If they overstep, you can always complain to the Silver Throne and have Tiraas lean on Puna Dara. Works every fucking time.”

“Is that…so terrible?” Trissiny asked gently. “All nations are having to make an accommodation with reality. All faiths are. Everyone. The world’s changing for us all.”

Ruda finally looked up at her, and rather than angry as Trissiny had expected, she looked haunted. “You know what happens in this century if you rescue hostages being held for political gain? That’s an act of war, interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Kill off slavers? Same fucking thing. Rescuing slaves is grand fucking theft. Theft! Of living people!” She slammed a fist ineffectually against the windowsill; to Trissiny’s astonishment, tears were glistening at the corners of her eyes. “If some asshole is living like an emperor while his people starve, well, that’s pretty much just fucking that, because if you attempt to raid his palace and do something about it, you get chewed to shreds by mag artillery emplacements, and even if it works, assholes always have allies now. Then you’re dealing with naval blockades and trade embargoes and your own people starve because you tried to stop some other people from doing the same. A world of rules only helps the people who make the fucking rules, Trissiny!”

“I don’t—”

“It’s all coming to a head,” Ruda barreled on, turning away again and scrubbing at her eyes with the back of a hand. “Within another generation, the Punaji will just be another bunch of folk, scraping by however they can. Our days as a people who mean something are over. And the one thing I pray for is that it holds off long enough that my papa doesn’t have to see the end.” She sighed deeply, closing her eyes. “I will. I’ve given it plenty of thought. The Empire’s friendly enough now, but the situation won’t last forever. It’s an era of social change and the Throne is focused inward, but eventually Tiraas will stabilize and start looking to expand again. That’s what empires do. I won’t repeat Ramanshi’s mistake and wait for history to force our hand.” She slumped her shoulders, looking more utterly defeated than Trissiny had ever seen her. “Kingdoms that voluntarily joined the Empire have gone on to be its most prosperous provinces. Onkawa, Calderaas… Compare them with Vrandis or the Stalweiss. No, I’ll make the first overture. Kill off everything my people once stood for, so the people themselves have a chance to survive.” She laughed, bitterly, hollowly. “I wonder what they’ll call me. Zaruda the Weak? The Betrayer?”

Trissiny stepped away from her to grab the other desk chair, dragged it over next to the window and sat down beside her.

“It won’t happen that way,” she said calmly.

Ruda looked up, scowling. “Oh, what the fuck would you know about it?”

“Not a thing,” she said frankly. “There’s a lot of history and politics here that’s completely over my head. I’ll tell you what I do know, though, and that’s you. You’re pretty much the smartest person I know, Ruda.”

“Pfft, grades are just—”

“Yes, I happen to agree, but I’m not talking about you being at the head of the class. You’re clever. You think fast, you can make complicated plans, you’re incredibly good at reading people, and most of all, I’ve only started realizing all this recently. That’s how good an act you put on. So, no, I don’t know the full situation in Puna Dara, but you are too intelligent and too cunning to be snared like that. You remember that thing in the Crawl that made us face fears?”

“Oh, that?” Ruda snorted. “No, that completely slipped my mind.”

“Well, I sort of understand your problem with accountants a little better,” Trissiny said with a smile, “but that’s not the point I’m making. The point the Crawl was trying to make, I think. If you hold onto a fear long enough, it starts to look like the biggest thing in the world. Like something you could never possibly contend with… But if you get out of your own head and look at the truth of the situation, there’s always something. Just listening to you, I can tell this has been weighing on you your whole life. No offense, Ruda, but I think you’ve lost perspective on it.

“And I’ll tell you what else,” she added. “You’re not going to have to deal with it alone.”

“What, you’re offering to help?” Ruda said skeptically.

“Yes, I am!” Trissiny nodded firmly. “I mean…think about what you’ve got here, what you’ve gained from this University. I’m still not convinced Tellwyrn’s ideas about education are doing any of us any good, but if nothing else, you’ve got relationships, and some of those are very powerful. Just politically, you have strong ties with two major religions, the diplomatic House of Tar’naris and Falconer Industries. Juniper is a pretty significant thing even without her connection to Naiya, and Fross is all kinds of talented.”

“Don’t forget Arquin,” Ruda said, cracking a smile. “Every court needs a jester.”

Trissiny laughed. “Look, you get the point I’m making, right?”

“Yeah,” Ruda swallowed and scrubbed at her eyes again. “Yeah, I… I mean, I still don’t think you grasp the extent of the situation…”

“There’s time to learn,” Trissiny said firmly. “I do not intend for any of us to die here. The gods ordered us to stay for a reason, and as you were pointing out, we are a formidable group. We’ll live past this, and past whatever else our University years throw at us. We have a purpose in the world, all of us. And we’ll all be connected to each other, one way or another.”

She laid a hand on Ruda’s shoulder and gently squeezed.

“It will be all right.”

Ruda actually laughed softly, reaching up to squeeze Trissiny’s gauntleted fingers. “You’ve been picking up new skills, too, Boots. I’d never have guessed you’d get good at comforting people. The Trissiny I barged in on the first day would’ve been shit at that.”

“Oh, I really wish I could argue with you,” Trissiny said ruefully, prompting another laugh.

“All right, well.” Ruda stood up, pushing back her chair, and straightened her coat. “That’s years in the future. We’ve got the small matter of a hellgate full of demons to deal with tonight. It’s about time, too.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, also rising. “Fross should be here any minute to report in, if it’s all gone according to plan.”

“Heh, wouldn’t that be nice, for once?”

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6 – 32

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“Ah, perfect.” Mogul calmly adjusted his lapels as he stepped out of the shadows onto the latest rooftop. Carter landed beside him, for once without stumbling, and had to repress a moment of pride at how well he was adapting to shadow-jumping.

Their new perch was an especially narrow structure four stories tall, facing what had clearly once been a park before being piled with trash and the debris of preliminary deconstruction of some of the district’s buildings. The piles of rubbish were short, though, affording them a view of both the street leading to the bridge out of the empty district, and a side street which intersected it, down which a small party of people was now moving at a good clip.

“That’s them?” Carter asked, stepping up to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see identifying details at this distance, but it pretty much had to be. The only other people around were Wreath warlocks, who were in hiding, and the four were clearly fleeing away from or toward something.

“Mm hm,” his guide murmured in reply, turning his back to the scene below.

“You called?” said a new voice from behind them. Carter embarrassed himself by jumping in surprise, then whirled to face the speaker. He might as well not have bothered; it was another figure shrouded in the gray anonymity of their ceremonial robes. Definitely male, possibly of a large build.

“There you are,” Mogul said, cheerful as ever, leaving Carter wondering by what mechanism he had called the man. “How’s it look out there?”

“You can see the Bishop and his servants nearing the square,” the warlock replied, nodding his hood in the direction of the street beyond. “There’s also activity just over the bridge. Looks like reinforcements coming to meet him.”

“All expected,” said Mogul. “What’d he bring?”

“His Butler, a pair of elves in…what I guess might be Eserite garb, or maybe they’re just stupid. Also two Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“That is interesting!” Mogul sounded delighted. He turned to look at Darling’s group and then at the bridge. Carter couldn’t see figures at that distance, but he wasn’t about to make assumptions regarding the warlocks’ capabilities. “Why, this is all shaping up marvelously. The timing is impeccable! The Lady smiles on us tonight. All right, you know the plan. Get started. Unleash the demons at both groups. Carefully, stagger the attacks so as to give them a sporting chance. If it isn’t too difficult to manage, do try to time it so that they meet up about as the demons run out.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The robed figure put his hands together; there came a soft clicking noise, and he vanished in a swell of darkness.

“How many of those talismans do you have?” Carter asked.

“As many as we need, and a few extras to play with.”

“I must say that’s…oddly generous. That bit about giving them a sporting chance. These are your enemies, aren’t they?”

Mogul half-turned to give him a knowing smile. “And why waste a perfectly good enemy? I’m just getting to know this one. As soon as you kill the bastard you’re used to, you’ll find yourself hip-deep in an unknown quantity. Anyhow, I am taking the opportunity to…clean house a bit.” He turned back to watch the street. Darling’s party had slowed as they neared the square; suddenly there were flashes of fire and the white sparkle of wandshots from their vicinity. Infuriatingly, their path had taken them behind as shattered old clock tower, leaving Carter with no idea what was happening.

“The demons I’ve brought to this little hoedown are…troublesome sorts,” Mogul continued, idly gazing down on the street as if he could see the action. Nothing was visible except the odd flash of light. “Some of the more animalistic ones who just aren’t taking their training… Some sentients who seem determined to use the Wreath to scheme toward their own ends. Exactly the sort of thing we are on the mortal plane to put a stop to. Of course, we have our own methods, but when fortune gives me a squad of bloodthirsty Church enforcers, why waste the opportunity?”

“I see,” Carter said, frowning.

“Come now, Mr. Long, why do you imagine I really allowed Darling to finish his little obstacle course and get himself set up where he wanted to be? He needs to be in a position of strength if I’m to let him get out of this alive.”

“In that case…I’m afraid I don’t see,” Carter admitted.

Mogul laughed. “It’s all about expectations. As I told you earlier, I want to have a few words with Mr. Darling this evening, but following that, he can go home and do whatever it is Eserites do when not cutting purse strings. If I simply offered them the chance to leave unmolested, they would either suspect a trap and attack, or see it as a sign of weakness…and attack. If they’re going to attack anyway, I’d rather they be tired out mowing down the fodder first. Then we’ll have a nice, polite little stand-off and they can leave believing they forced us to a truce.”

“You’re that certain they’ll be so aggressive?”

“I am, as I said, cleaning house.” Mogul gave him a considering look. “I began this sequence of events by sending some of my less reliable members to visit the Church. Warlocks who, like the demons below, have been scheming on their own to amass personal power through the infernal arts, at the expense of their duties. Now, we attract all manner of miscellaneous oddballs and I’m quite indulgent of eccentricity in the ranks, but abuse of power is absolutely not to be tolerated. Ours is a sacred calling. So off went the ne’er-do-wells, and not a one came out alive. That’s what the servants of the Pantheon do when they catch someone who doesn’t bend knee to their power.”

“I’m not aware of Church personnel behaving that way, as a rule,” Carter said very carefully.

Mogul grinned bitterly. “I encourage you not to take my word for it. Look into the events of warlocks being killed by Bishops recently. They have floated the official story that the Wreath attacked them, and frankly I doubt there will be any contradicting evidence left intact. But have a long, deep look at the histories of the Bishops in question. Things may become more clear to you then.”

“This is all…absolutely byzantine,” Carter said, shaking his head.

“Demons are a responsibility, and an occasional means to an end,” Mogul replied. “They’re not the point of our faith; we serve the goddess of cunning. Who, through no fault of her own, was consigned to a dimension full of demons by her own family, and even still took it upon herself to defend the mortal world by disposing of the last hostile Elder Goddess. You don’t think it interesting that the only other deity who bothers to keep Scyllith away from our civilization is Themynra, who also is not of the Pantheon?”

Carter frowned, deep in thought. Below, Darling’s group moved out from behind cover, at a more cautious pace than before, but he barely saw them.

“Welp, looks like matters are coming to a head,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Come along, Mr. Long. Let’s go have us a chat.”


 

The third and final katzil demon rebounded off the wall against which Weaver’s wandshot had smashed it, emitting an aimless puff of flame from its mouth at the impact. The feathered serpent shook itself, barely staying aloft, and opened its fanged maw to direct another blast at them.

Joe fired a bolt of light straight down its throat. Soundlessly, the creature flopped to the pavement, where it immediately began to crumble to dust and charcoal, as the other two had.

“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Joe asked, warily scanning the streets with his wands up.

“I see fucking demons!” Peepers practically wailed. She was trying to hide behind Darling, who had a throwing knife in each hand, but had let the two men with wands take the lead against the onslaught.

“Yeah,” said Weaver. “Small groups, one at a time. No warlocks, just demons. Not hitting hard enough to herd us away… We’re being softened up. Wonder what’ll be at the end after we mow down the disposables.”

“Hard to say what is and isn’t disposable with these guys,” Darling noted. “This whole thing started with them sending twelve trained spellcasters to their certain deaths. It’s odd that they’d do this now, when we’re close to the edge of the district. That’s not a smart place for the Wreath to set up a confrontation. Any ruckus kicked up in sight of the public will bring the Army down on them.”

“So, basically, we don’t know what the fuck is going on,” Weaver snorted. “Situation normal.”

“Standard procedures, then!” Darling proclaimed. “Forward! There’s a somewhat reasonable chance we’ll be having help soon.”

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“He’s right, to the extent that we can’t exactly stay here,” said Joe. “Exit’s just up ahead. How’s it look, Weaver?”

“Actually…” The bard tilted his head in that way he did when listening to his invisible friend, then smiled. “Well, fuck me running. Looks like Twinkletoes’s non-plan is actually working.”


 

“Stay back,” Price said in a clipped tone, simply striding forward, the clicking of her shoes on the pavement lost in the thunder of the charging demon’s footsteps.

“You can’t—”

“What can two little elves do about this?” The Butler gave Flora a sharp sidelong look before returning her attention forward as the baerzurg reached her.

She sidestepped neatly, allowing it to charge several steps past. Roaring in fury, the hulking, bronze-scaled brute rounded on her, striking out with a ham-sized fist. Price calmly stepped inside the swing of its arm, grasping it as it went past. Her hands looked absurdly tiny against its forearm, which was as thick as her waist. At that moment, however, there came a tiny golden flash as the creature stepped on the small holy charm she had dropped the second before. With a bellow of pain, it staggered into the impetus of its own punch.

The movement of its body momentarily hid the Butler from view; they didn’t see exactly how she did it. In the next second, however, the huge creature had been spun to the side, staggering back against the bridge’s railing. This came only just past its knees, and scarcely served to stop the baerzurg. It teetered at the edge, flailing with its arms.

Price took two running steps forward and vaulted, landing lightly with both feet against the demon’s massive chest.

Roaring, it toppled backward, grasping at her and just missing as she hopped lightly back down to the bridge’s surface. Behind her, the bellowing demon plunged into the canal. Price pause for a moment to straighten her tie.

“Whoah,” Fauna muttered.

An arrow whistled above their heads, and a second later there came a squawk of protest. A flying katzil demon dropped to the ground, a quivering shaft still embedded in its neck.

“We will create a path through these trash,” Andros growled, stalking past the two elves with Tholi and Ingvar flanking him. “Your agility will be needed against the warlocks when we near them. Stay behind us.”

Another arrow, fired by Ingvar, brought down a sshitherosz that spiraled upward, apparently seeking a higher vantage from which to strike. The next creature to charge forward was a grotesque abomination of tentacles and claws that looked like it would be more at home underwater. It faltered as an arrow from Andros’s bow, glowing gold, thudded into its upper chest. Then Price had darted forward and past it, reaching around to rip a small knife across the creature’s throat. Blue-green fluid sprayed forth and it dropped.

The next moment, Price had to dodge backward as a sinuous, crocodile-headed khankredahg snapped at her. She bounded onto the bridge’s rail, then back down, retreating from its powerful jaws. For being built like an elongated bulldog, it was awfully fast.

Tholi was there in moments, striking out with a hatchet. The beast paused, maw gaping open to hiss threateningly as the Huntsman and Butler moved to flank it.

“Hsst,” Flora said, joining Fauna on her side of the bridge. “Tell me you see it too.”

“One at a time, never enough to push us back,” Fauna replied, nodding. “Something’s up.”

“Let’s get behind the lines.”

“Remember the rules…”

“Oh, come on, we’re still elves.” Smirking, Flora switched to elvish. “If we can’t sneak past this lot without teleporting, we don’t deserve the name.”

Exchanging nods, they separated and dived over the bridge on both sides. In the next moment, while their companions pressed forward through a sequence of demonic attacks, they were clambering horizontally along its decorative stonework just below the level of its surface.


 

“There, and there,” Darling said, pointing at two side alleys. “Uglies coming out, attacking in both directions, but not trying to block the way. As a strategy, it’s so ineffective I have to assume it was meant to be.”

Even as he spoke, the latest khankredahg collapsed with a piteous groan, incidentally bearing down the young Huntsman who had charged forward, thrust his arm into its open mouth and driven a knife into its brain. The lad cursed at being dragged down, though he was free almost immediately as the demon began to disintegrate into ash.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned, striding forward. “I trust the results of tonight’s excursion have been to your satisfaction?”

“Ask me again when I’ve seen the results,” he said cheerfully. “Excellent timing, by the way, Price.”

“Yes, it was. If your Grace is seeking comfort in reminders of the familiar, I also have red hair.”

There came a scream from above, and a figure in a gray robe plunged from a second-floor window to hit the street with an unpleasant thump. A second behind, a slim figure in black leather dived down, landing nimbly beside him.

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Fauna told the groaning warlock. “You’re barely broken.”

“More summoners over here!” Flora reported, leaning out a window in the structure opposite. “They shadow-jumped away as I got here, though.”

“Oh?” Darling turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give warning of your approach.”

“I’m gonna let that pass because I’m really glad to see you’re okay,” she shot back. “And no, they were already in motion by the time I arrived. Whatever they were up to, it looks like their plan is still going forward.”

“Then it is time we were gone,” Andros rumbled. “These are the two gentlemen you mentioned?”

“Indeed,” Price replied.

He studied Joe and Weaver for a moment, flicked his gaze across Peepers and visibly dismissed her from consideration. “Very well. The force we now have assembled is sufficient to repel a considerably greater threat than we have faced thus far. While they are in retreat, we should do likewise.”

“But we have them on the run!” Tholi said, practically panting in eagerness. “Now is the time to press on and finish them off!”

“Listen to your superiors,” Ingvar snapped. “And to your scouts! The Wreath has planned this, all of it, and it’s gone as they intended. We are in a snare. It’s time to flee.”

“I quite agree,” said Darling, tousling Flora’s hair fondly as she rejoined the group. “C’mon, once across the bridge we’re—”

“Too late,” said Joe, raising both his wands.

The ten of them clustered together, unconsciously forming into a circle in the center of the square. Behind them was the bridge back to the lights of the city, before the desolation of the condemned neighborhood, but all around, there were suddenly shadows rising from nowhere. They appeared in windows, out of doors and alleys, on rooftops, some seeming to rise up from the very pavement. Surges of darkness swelled, then receded, leaving figures in gray robes standing where they had been. Some carried weapons, a mix of wands, staves and clearly ceremonial (to judge by their elaborate design) blades, quite a few accompanied by demons of various descriptions. In seconds, a dozen ringed them; in seconds more, their numbers doubled, and then continued to grow. The Wreath pressed forward, flanking them from behind, not quite cutting off escape but edging into their own path out of the district.

“Hmp,” Weaver muttered, “damn. I forgot to tell you so. Now I can’t say it.”

“These are pups that have cornered bears,” Andros snarled. “If they will not let us leave in peace, crush them.” Tholi growled in wordless agreement.

A final surge of shadows rose up from the street directly ahead, depositing two men in front of the group.

“Now, now,” Embras Mogul said reprovingly. “There you go, offering to solve a puzzle with a hammer. Honestly, how you get dressed in the morning without strangling your wife is beyond me.”

“Are you really still hanging out with these guys, Carter?” Peepers demanded.

“I’m just here to observe,” the journalist said, licking his lips nervously.

Ignoring a hissed warning from Flora, Darling stepped forward out of the circle. “Well, this has been a grand little chase, Embras, but we all have better places to be, don’t we?”

“Quite so.” Mogul stepped forward to meet him, placing each foot with a care that made him resemble more than ever a wading stork. “My people have suffered no end of abuse at your hands already, Antonio, and you’ve worn yours down with your ill-conceived antics.”

“Not to mention that I’ll have to spend my whole day on paperwork tomorrow if I’m party to shooting up a whole district, condemned or no,” Darling replied easily. “I just can’t spare the time. There’s a social event in the evening to which I’ve been looking forward for weeks.”

“Then it’s all too obvious how we handle this, isn’t it?”

They came to a stop less than a yard apart. The priest and warlock stared at one another, grim-faced.

“Indeed,” Darling said softly. “None of you interfere. This is personal.”

“Are you crazy?” Fauna shouted. Price held up a warning finger in front of her face.

“We settle it like gentlemen,” Mogul said, equally quiet.

“Man to man.”

“One on one.”

“To the death.”

There was a horrified silence. The Wreath stood motionless, robes fluttering in the faint night breeze, several of their demon companions shifting impatiently. Darling’s party held weapons at the ready, staring at the pair in disbelieving fascination. The light shifted, faltering, a cloud scudding across the moon and leaving them momentarily illuminated only by the distant glow of the city itself.

And then Mogul and Darling simultaneously burst into gales of laughter.

While the entire assembled crowd stared, utterly bemused, both men roared in mirth. Mogul slumped forward, bracing his hands against his knees; Darling reached out to steady himself against the other man’s shoulder.

“Fuck it,” Weaver said loudly after this had gone on for half a minute. “I say we shoot them both.”

“Oh, my stars and garters,” Mogul chortled, straightening up. “Thanks, old man, I needed that.”

“Hah, makes me wish we could do this more often! Price never lets me have any fun.”

“I admit I’m impressed! For a second there I really thought you were serious.”

“C’mon, Embras, how long have we been at this tonight? Give me credit for a sense of fun.”

“Yeah, I particularly enjoyed your little street-writing display.”

“Oh, you caught that! Better and better. It gets so tedious, running mental circles around people all the time. Sometimes I feel like nobody really gets me, y’know?”

“Tell me about it. Some days I’d trade it all for some intelligent conversation.”

“I hear that.”

“What the hell is going on?!” Peepers shrieked.

“Well, anyway, I’ve got cranky little ones to take home and put to bed,” said Darling, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the group. “Are we just about done here?”

“Yeah, this seems like a good place to call it a night.” Mogul patted his shoulder, still grinning. “Good game, my man. Mr. Long!” He turned to beckon Carter forward. “I realize this has been more excitement than you planned on seeing. We’ll not detain you if you would rather head back into the city with these folk, but I encourage you to keep in mind what I said about the Church.”

“You’ve said a lot of things,” Carter replied warily, looking as confused and nonplussed as Darling’s allies.

“At the moment,” Mogul said, stepping back from Darling, “you’ve not done anything to earn the Archpope’s ire. Matters will be different if you decide to publish your story, though, and you can certainly expect these folk to lean on you about it one way or another. The Empire’s another matter. Lord Vex is too canny to disappear an inconvenient member of the press and set your entire profession yapping at his heels. Sometimes I kind of miss his predecessor.” The warlock grinned reminiscently. “I could make that guy chase his tail across the city and back, all from the comfort of my rocking chair.”

Carter stared at him, then at Darling, then glanced around, at the warlocks, the assembled mix of Huntsmen and Eserites, the demons. “I, um…”

“Careful,” Mogul cautioned. “You’re thinking with your emotions, remembering who your upbringing has taught you to trust. That’s fine and dandy for an opinion columnist, but if you decide to play the game on the level at which this story will place you, you’ll need to be more careful. Think in terms of whose interests align with yours, not who you happen to feel fondly toward.”

“That is excellent advice for a variety of situations,” Darling said, nodding. “Just keep in mind that telling the truth is the most valuable weapon in a good deceiver’s arsenal. You understand that better than most people, Carter.”

Long’s face grew blank as he clearly marshaled his expression through sheer will. “I…appreciate the reminder, Bishop Darling,” he said somewhat stiffly. “Mr. Mogul, do you think you can drop me off at the offices of the Imperial Herald?”

“Not within it or too close,” Mogul replied. “Your superiors very wisely keep their wards updated, and the whole place had a recent and thorough Pantheonic blessing. We can put you down in the neighborhood and keep watch till you’re safely home, though.”

“I would appreciate it.”

“Very well, then,” Mogul said, grinning widely. The expression he turned on the Bishop was subtly triumphant. “This has been just a barrel of laughs, but…time marches on.”

“Mm hm,” Darling replied mildly, his own face open and affable. “See you next time, Embras.”

With a final, mocking grin, Embras Mogul laid his hand on Carter’s shoulder and vanished in a heave of darkness. All around them, the rest of the Black Wreath followed suit, demons and robed cultists disappearing in a series of shadowy undulations, till in seconds, the small group were clustered alone in the deserted square.

“Either someone is going to explain to me right damn now what just happened or I will begin stabbing people at random,” Peepers threatened.

“You don’t have a knife,” Joe observed.

“I will improvise.”

“Simple mathematics,” Darling said, strolling back over to the group. “They had the numbers, but we have the power, pound for pound. After watching all of us in action, Mogul knew it. A real fight would have left the area in ruins and cost lives on both sides. Neither of us wanted that.”

“I did,” Tholi muttered sullenly. Ingvar rolled his eyes.

“There will be another time,” Andros rumbled. “Did you at least learn what you set out to, Antonio?”

Darling grimaced in annoyance. “We bloodied their noses, cost them some tame demons and I have a few more little pieces of the puzzle to slot into place. For all the general fuss and bother this evening has been, though… I can’t say we’ve gained as much ground as I would have liked. But we drew them out of hiding, got a sense of how much manpower they’ve got in the city, and faced them down. That’s not nothing.”

“It will be worth reporting in detail to his Holiness,” Andros said, nodding. “But I agree. We must make more progress, quickly.”

“I’ve a few more ideas to mull over,” Darling replied, then rolled his shoulders. “Well, anyhow! What say we haul ass out of this depressing dump? I don’t know about any of you, but right now I would kick a nun into the canal for a brandy.”

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