Tag Archives: Quentin Vex

16 – 2

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“Those conniving knife-eared shits!”

The Empress of Tiraas threw her copy of the Constitution of the Elven Confederacy down on the table in a gesture as uncharacteristically violent as her crude language. Eleanora’s temper was famous, but so was her control of it. Now, she was pacing up and down the room like a caged wolf, while the assembled ministers watched her with varying degrees of alarm.

“This is…bleak,” said Minister Asvedhri, head of the Ministry of the Interior, lifting his pen from the map of the Empire he had just finished defacing. He had surrounded regions on it with black lines and marked off the Golden Sea with cross-hatching, and now leaned back to frown deeply at his handiwork. Several of the others around the table craned their necks to inspect it. “At least they’re not claiming the Golden Sea for themselves, but they most definitely assert the right to access and act freely within it. But just their territorial claims alone… Omnu’s breath. This so-called ‘constitution’ asserts their ownership of all extant elven groves, but doesn’t specify anything about the small spaces between them, and legal precedent could go either way. Both options are nightmares. Either that stretch of our territory has just turned into a jigsaw puzzle or Mathena, northern Calderaan Province and half of both Stalwar Provinces are cut off from the rest of the Empire.”

“That’s assuming the Empire chooses to recognize these territorial claims,” General Panissar said quietly. He was the only person besides the Empress not seated, though he stood calmly near the conference room’s door while she paced along the wall.

“It’ll be war if we don’t, General,” said Minister Rehvaad.

“And it’s my job to think of such things,” Panissar replied.

“Omnu’s breath,” Asvedhri repeated, rubbing his forehead and accidentally smearing it with ink. “We’re not even getting the worst of it. They claim Tar’naris! There’s no way to get to it from the rest of their territory without going through an Imperial military base! What were they thinking?”

“I believe that question was directed at you,” Eleanora said bitingly, slamming to a halt and turning the full force of her glare on Underminister Saradhi, who visibly quailed under it.

Though Rehvaad headed up the Foreign Ministry, the Empire’s chief diplomat had chosen to let his subordinate handle most of the discussion here, Saradhi being the lowest-ranked person present and only included as she was the senior diplomat in charge of elven relations. Given the pressures involved, Rehvaad’s reticence could be interpreted as throwing her under the carriage.

“I can’t— Your Majesty, there’s no way to know,” Saradhi protested, her voice shrill with stress. “This action blindsided us all completely!”

“And whose job was it to prevent that?”

The Underminister was saved from having to answer that by the opening of the door.

“Ah, Quentin,” the Emperor said in a mild tone. “Good of you to join us.”

“I sincerely apologize for my tardiness, your Majesties,” Lord Vex said, stepping forward with more energy than he usually showed in public and sliding into an open seat at the table. “I was tending to the matter of which I previously informed you in Tar’naris, with the assistance of the young Lady Nahil, and I’m sure I needn’t tell you that the timing was undoubtedly not a coincidence. Did the Narisians manage to distract and misdirect anyone from the Foreign Ministry, or should I feel personally flattered?”

“In point of fact, Underminister Trispin is still in Tar’naris,” Rehvaad answered. “It is, of course, not unusual for her to be there, but she is also engaged in active business with House Awarrion. Who, of course, would have been very aware of precisely when this announcement would go out. It seems clear enough to me that the drow have done their due diligence to ensure this would take us with the maximum surprise.”

“That’s an unequivocally hostile act,” Panissar noted.

“No, it is not,” Rehvaad retorted. “Not unequivocally. A nation is never more vulnerable than at the moment of its birth, and Tiraas is the preeminent military power in the world. As Minister Asvedhri pointed out, this new Confederacy is in an unavoidably tense position in relation to us, and we have rather famously involved ourselves in the affairs of our border states. I think it would be a mistake to assume hostile intent from this. It seems to me more defensive.”

“They almost needn’t have bothered,” Underminister Saradhi added, seeming to have recovered a little of her poise when her superior finally interceded. “Your Majesties, I am not trying to duck responsibility, but I will stake my career on the assertion that we could not have anticipated this!”

“Indeed,” Eleanora grated.

“She’s correct,” said Vex. “Intelligence has been watching these events as well. Discussions between Tar’naris and the surface tribes have been going on for barely a year. We were expecting to have at least a decade in which to figure out what they were up to and what should be done about it.”

“If anything, that assessment shows Intelligence’s characteristic paranoia,” Saradhi agreed, nodding fervently. “They’re elves. They don’t do anything this quickly. Anything! Tar’naris is the only elven society which has undergone any noteworthy social change during the entire scope of recorded history! And that was at the Empire’s instigation. Your Majesties…” She clutched at the sides of her head, planting her elbows on the table; at least she didn’t have ink on her fingers. “This can’t be happening!”

“Compose yourself, Underminister,” Rehvaad said quietly. Saradhi flushed, but quickly lowered her hands and straightened her posture.

“Well, obviously it is happening,” said Sharidan. “I think we can take it as given that this is an astonishingly hasty action for elves. That we failed to anticipate it is, perhaps, forgivable.”

“It’s hasty even by human standards,” Asvedhri murmured, still scowling down at his map. “Not just the time frame. A year, give or take, is on the quicker end of the necessary time for a reorganization of this magnitude to be prepared, but they’ve neglected what I would consider basic concerns. This Constitution seems to just assume their territorial claims will be respected.”

“The question is why,” said the Emperor. “Why this assumption? Why this haste?”

“I can only interpret the speed as a crisis response,” said Vex. “It’s unusual even so, for elves, who have numerous times nearly let themselves be overtaken by disasters simply because they could not react quickly. But my department has observed that all of this has been at the ultimate instigation of the Narisians, who have always been ruthlessly pragmatic even before the Empire lit a fire under them.”

“They are definitely following the example of the Conclave of the Winds,” added Rehvaad, “who also acted with uncharacteristic speed and chose to leverage the element of surprise in their initial announcement. Quite successfully, it should be noted, which doubtless is what inspired this imitation. I can only surmise that their motivations are similar: they perceive an existential threat in the prospect of continued isolation.”

“They’re not exactly wrong, if so,” Underminister Saradhi said with more composure. “Tar’naris was practically a client state of ours until this announcement, and Imperial expansion had pushed the tribes into virtual irrelevancy. The Cobalt Dawn and Sarasio incidents both illustrated the urgency of the rise of Imperial power, and provided a stark example of the benefits of cooperative versus combative methods of meeting it.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s hard to see this as anything but combative,” said Asvedhri, picking up his map just for the satisfaction of slapping it back down on the table. “They’ve declared a sprawling superstate whose claimed territory is a patchwork intercut with our own. There are only so many ways that can possibly play out, and most of them end with outright war!”

“General Panissar,” said the Emperor, still apparently calm, “based on your current understanding, how would you call the outcome of such a conflict?”

“Catastrophic,” Panissar answered immediately. “All other things being equal, I think we could win, nominally. Our military is bigger and better than anyone’s. We have more soldiers than there are people in Tar’naris, and the wood and plains tribes bring nothing but guerrillas and light cavalry, and not much of that. The problem is what they do have: fae casters. Remember what Mary the Crow did to Onkawa? It’s been twenty-five years and the sugar industry still hasn’t recovered. Imagine that, everywhere. What they can field is not what our troops are prepared to handle, and they’re positioned to inflict colossal damage to our infrastructure and especially agriculture. That ‘victory’ would leave us occupying reams of hostile territory while probably experiencing famines and plagues, with the Rail and telescroll networks uprooted at every point and the zeppelin fleet grounded—those are all vulnerable to fae and elvish methods. A win like that would destroy the Empire.”

He paused, working his jaw in distaste for a second, before continuing.

“And that’s just talking about the knowns. According to this…Constitution…this Confederacy places Qestraceel as its capital and counts the high elves among its signatories. I have zero data on their capabilities. Or location, or numbers, or anything. We only barely know that high elves exist. Plenty of people throughout the Empire don’t believe they do.”

“My department doesn’t know much more about the high elves than the Army,” said Vex, “and not for want of trying. They have all the usual elven love of privacy, plus vast skill in the arcane. Intelligence currently places Qestraceel somewhere in the Stormsea, with a population of around twenty thousand. But that is based entirely on the area where and frequency with which their navy is encountered, so the question is not whether those estimates are wrong, but by how much.”

“Any insight into how they hide an entire city?” Sharidan asked.

Vex shook his head, permitting himself a brief grimace of open irritation. “We know of grandiose spellcraft by which an entire island can be hidden, but not specifically how, or how it relates to the high elves. There is a vanished island north of Onkawa on which my predecessors compiled a file. It is absent from common knowledge or the memory of any living individuals, but was listed on charts and geographical writings that still exist.”

Eleanora planted her palms on the table, leaning across it toward him. “That sounds like a place to begin investigating.”

“Doubtful, your Majesty,” he demurred. “References to Qestraceel date back centuries at least; this happened less than forty years ago, and there are indications Tellwyrn was involved.”

“She vanished an entire island?” Panissar demanded, then shook his head. “What am I saying? Of course she bloody did.”

“So we know it can be done,” Vex finished. “More than that…remains to be discovered. Your Majesties, I would like permission to begin investigating the high elves. My department has never regarded the matter with any urgency, as they have shown zero inclination to intervene in the world’s affairs. That has just abruptly changed.”

“Can you do this without antagonizing them?” the Emperor asked pointedly.

“There are ways, yes. The most immediate is to investigate various arcane-using elves who are known to be at large in the Empire.”

“Those are just wood and plains elves cast out of their tribes for using the arcane,” Underminister Saradhi objected.

“Some, yes,” Vex agreed, nodding at her. “Perhaps most. Those whose points of origin I can trace to a specific grove are automatically disqualified. But I have long believed that others might be high elves, exiled either voluntarily or as punishment. Exiles can often be persuaded to provide information, at the very least, on their former society.” He paused as if considering his next statement before giving it. “At least three of my predecessors firmly believed that Tellwyrn is a high elf.”

A momentary lull fell over the table. The Empress straightened back up, her face inscrutable.

“Well,” Sharidan said at last, “we have an established relationship with her, at least. That sounds like a starting point.”

Vex grimaced again. “Actually, your Majesty, Duchess Ravana Madouri recently employed one of these elves; I intended to start there. She is both accessible and also allied with the Throne. Winter break began yesterday; Last Rock’s faculty and students are on a two-week hiatus. My agents have placed Tellwyrn in Tidecall as of this morning, at a seaside villa. I am sure I needn’t describe the poise and grace with which the good Professor will likely react to having her vacation interrupted by prying personal questions.”

Grimaces and a single muted chuckle went around the table, followed by a loud snort from Panissar. “This business is simply too urgent to dilly-dally while we wait on that woman’s convenience.”

“It can only be made more dire by winding her up,” Eleanora said thoughtfully, frowning into the distance. She abruptly nodded, as if to herself. “Very well, Quentin, make arrangements for me. I’ll go to Tidecall myself and approach her.”

“Your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad protested.

“Are you sure, Nora?” Sharidan asked with more calm.

“I achieved…a grudging rapport with her,” the Empress answered him. “And I think she will respond well to the respect shown by having someone of my rank approach her directly. The idea is to ask one of history’s most irascible figures to dish on subjects she’s stubbornly refused to discuss for thrice the age of our Empire; every last speck of respect that can be curried will be relevant. And I can shmooze her a bit, I think. Anyone else trying the same will only set her off.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, before nodding slowly. “Very well. You heard her, Quentin.”

“So I did,” Vex said with the scowl of a man who knew better than to argue with a bad idea. “I assume you mean your presence to be discreet, your Majesty?”

“Please,” Minister Rehvaad practically begged. “A state visit to the Tidestriders would require either weeks of formalities, or a mortal insult that could provoke several of the clans into open rebellion!”

“My presence will be as discreet as you can possibly make it, Quentin,” Eleanora promised with a smile. “Meanwhile, start your own investigations. What is Madouri doing with this possible high elf, anyway?”

“The Duchess has employed Veilwin in the role of Court Wizard to House Madouri,” Vex reported. “I met her today, in fact, where she was serving as her Grace’s transport by way of personal teleportation. The woman is a surly drunk; it’s not hard for me to imagine how she ended up unwelcome in wherever she came from.”

“I never heard of an alcoholic elf,” Underminister Saradhi said with a frown.

“Court Wizard?” Panissar demanded incredulously. “I didn’t think that office still existed, anywhere. Not after the Enchanter Wars.”

“It has fallen out of vogue,” Vex agreed, “between Magnan’s bad example and the availability of spellcasters for hire that came with the founding of the Wizards’ Guild. But the position itself is still enshrined in law for any House holding an Imperial governorship. I think it a grandiose affectation on the Duchess’s part. This woman, as I said, isn’t an impressive specimen of either her race or profession.”

“Then Intelligence has a place to begin addressing this mess,” Sharidan said briskly. “Learning more about the high elves will definitely help us regain our footing, but it doesn’t even begin to resolve this. How many nations has this Confederacy reached out to already?”

“We can’t speak for formal diplomatic relations, your Majesty,” Saradhi said when Rehvaad looked pointedly at her, “but copies of this Constitution and the proclamation of the Confederacy’s founding have been delivered to every embassy in Tiraas. All but those of the smallest and poorest countries have at least one magic mirror linked to a counterpart in their home capitals. The world will know of this within the hour.”

“I expect they will give everyone a short period to respond before opening formal diplomatic contact,” Rehvaad added. He pulled over the copy of the Constitution Eleanora had thrown down, quickly scanning it and then planting his index finger on a specific line. “Here, this caught my eye: the Confederacy itself claims sole prerogative to conduct foreign policy and bars member states from carrying out their own. That means the Narisian embassy isn’t one anymore, as the Narisians have just signed away their right to conduct their own diplomacy. I would expect it will house the Confederate embassy, once they have normalized relations with us.”

“Mmm.” Frowning pensively, the Emperor stared at the far wall for a moment, then half-turned to meet Eleanora’s eye. “As Minister Asvedhri has pointed out, this situation is rife with the possibility for conflict. Is there any chance that the elves want a war?”

“They have nothing to gain,” Panissar grunted. “High elves or no, the only conceivable outcomes would see both our civilizations in ruins. They can’t possibly be unaware of that.”

“Your Majesty,” Saradhi said hesitantly, “most nations only seek war when they are certain they can win, or at least profit from it. It’s not characteristic of elves to do so even then. At their worst, the Narisians only sent raiding parties to the surface, never an organized invasion. The Cobalt Dawn are the only recorded case of elves trying to seize human territory, and we are frustratingly in the dark regarding what happened within that tribe in the years leading up to their attack.”

“Then, if no one disagrees, I believe we should proceed upon the assumption that the elves will meet us halfway,” Sharidan stated, nodding once. “They are generally conservative and risk-averse, and are doubtless aware of the potential for all of this to go badly. It seems to me they would not have taken this risk at all unless they were confident that an accord could be reached with the Empire.”

“That analysis is reasonable to my mind, your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad agreed.

“Very good.” The Emperor smiled once at the Empress before returning his attention to Rehvaad. “Minister, I require a precedent.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Rehvaad said with an answering smile. “What does the Empire need history to suggest?”

“We need a precedent for the application of an agreement between two legal parties to the relationship between one signatory and an organization which the second signatory unilaterally joins,” Sharidan said, his smile taking on just a hint of a smirk. Eleanora grimaced at him.

A moment of silence fell in which everyone digested that.

“It may be…challenging,” Rehvaad said delicately.

“It doesn’t need to stand up under arbitration,” the Emperor assured him, “just to have the veneer of established protocol, so it doesn’t appear we are throwing our weight around.”

“Ah.” Rehvaad nodded. “That is much more doable. I will have my assistants scour the law library; I believe I can have a draft before you in hours, your Majesty.”

“If I understand your Majesty’s intent,” Panissar said slowly, “you mean to approach the Confederacy under the assumption that our treaty with Tar’naris establishes the terms of our relationship?”

“As a starting point, yes,” Sharidan agreed.

“They will never go for that,” Eleanora stated.

Panissar shook his head. “Among other things, that treaty establishes open borders. Applied to the Confederacy, it would give every Imperial peasant the prerogative to track mud through Qestraceel itself. Whatever else we don’t know about high elves, I’m reasonably certain they would rather see every last human dead.”

“Not to mention that there are numerous other provisions of the treaty which are less applicable in this situation,” the Emperor acknowledged, nodding. “It is, as I said, a starting point. We should not forget that the elves launched this endeavor with an active effort to prevent us from responding until it was done; I interpret that more as a gambit to retain control of the situation than an aggressive act. The fact remains, they stand to lose as much as we from any hostilities that may ignite. No matter what happens, this is going to be delicate. My intention is to signal that we will make every effort to meet them halfway, and negotiate fairly and in good faith.” He leaned forward, his expression intent. “But, that the Empire will not be put upon. We are in a position of strength, and it will be important to leverage that. The difficulty is in doing so without signaling an intent to exercise that strength…or acknowledge our reluctance to do so.”

“Your Majesty has hit the nail on the head,” Lord Vex murmured. “Delicate.”

“If any of you can identify an aspect of this I have not considered,” said Sharidan, “now is the time to speak up.”

“Your Majesty,” Rehvaad said after a tiny pause, “in fact, I believe this discussion has overlooked an extremely important element which we must keep in mind as we make any plans for the future: the dwarves.”

Eleanora turned her frown on him directly.

“What in Avei’s name do they have to do with this?” Panissar demanded.

“Only that the Five Kingdoms have received the same notice of this as every other state,” Minister Rehvaad said seriously, “and there is only one course of action available to them: they must follow the example of the Conclave and now the Confederacy. The Alliance of the Five Kingdoms is, at present, basically nothing; it’s a treaty organization which serves no purpose but to express their solidarity in their nonsense war on Tar’naris. The nature of the Alliance will immediately have to change anyway, since as of this morning it is now at war with the combined wood and plains tribes, as well as Qestraceel, which unlike Tar’naris represents a serious threat to them.”

“So they’ll have to make peace,” Eleanora said, studying him narrowly. “That would seem to suggest the Alliance’s dissolution entirely.”

“That is one prospect, if the dwarves are stupid,” Rehvaad replied. “They are not. The situation on this continent since the Enchanter Wars has been our united Empire surrounded by smaller states which posed no major challenge to us. Now, with the Confederacy? There are suddenly two sizable power blocs on the continent, necessarily in competition. It must be said that the dwarves are as conservative as the elves, and nearly as incapable of reacting quickly; three of the Five Kingdoms are republics in all but name, and even the other two can do little unilaterally without navigating the intricacies of clan politics. Democratic organizations can’t do anything swiftly. But unlike elves, the dwarves believe in science and rationality, and part of the reason they move ponderously is because they look to the future and try to plan ahead. They are positioned to re-shape their Alliance into another, closer bond. And, I believe, they have to. Unless they take the opportunity to form a new counter to the Empire and the Confederacy, they will be pushed aside by one or the other, or both.”

“What, do you think, this would entail?” the Emperor asked quietly.

Rehvaad’s expression was downright grim now. “In the short term, it alleviates some of the pressure of conflict between us and the elves, your Majesty. A third party at the table makes everything more complicated, but does have the effect of lightening the tension. Anything which prevents us from being two opposites staring each other down in that regard will help. But in the longer term? The thing about trinary political structures is that there needn’t be parity of strength or position to keep them in flux. They are inherently unstable, but they serve to prevent any one party from gaining the upper hand. Whenever one begins to, the other two can apply concerted pressure to upset them, and start the cycle anew.”

He hesitated, grimaced, and finally continued, reaching forward once more to tap the copy of the elven Constitution resting on the conference table. “When the dust settles, your Majesty… I believe this presages the end of human dominance of this continent.”

Silence fell over the room again. This time, it lingered.

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16 – 1

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The residence of House Dalmiss was built into a great natural wall between the main cavern of Tar’naris and the secondary cave in which the city’s agricultural works had been built, with an enviable view overlooking both. The Duchess of House Madouri and her Butler were escorted by diffident guards to their appointment with the Matriarch in a colonnade open to the air on the agricultural side, lit by the golden gleam of its huge sun crystals.

The chamber was set up as a miniature throne room, with its entrance at one narrow end leaving a long approach to the opposite wall, where a dais held a single ornately-carved chair upon which Ezrakhai awaited them. Two House soldiers stood impassively at attention at the foot of the dais, bracketing the guests’ view of her, and a single chair was set up in the center of the floor, facing the throne.

“Duchess Ravana,” she said by way of greeting, with a single dip of her head.

“Matriarch Ezrakhai,” Ravana replied with a matching nod, seating herself without waiting for an invitation. Yancey stepped up to place himself behind her left shoulder, folded his hands behind his back, and assumed a stillness that would have suited even a Narisian.

“I ask your pardon for the sparse accommodations,” the Matriarch said tonelessly. “Your visit was unexpected. We are unaccustomed to entertaining guests of your esteemed rank with so little warning.”

A robed servant, the only other drow in the room now that Ravana’s guides had departed and closed the door behind her, stepped forward with a deep bow, and poured wine from a stone bottle into a goblet which she then handed to the Duchess.

“On the contrary, the fault is mine for so abruptly imposing upon you,” Ravana said smoothly, taking the cup without otherwise acknowledging the servant, who then backed away against the wall. “I can find no fault with your hospitality. My thanks for receiving me in person on such short notice.”

Ezrakhai inclined her head again, then hesitated, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly; Ravana had taken a tiny sip, grimaced, and set the goblet down upon the arm of the chair.

“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” the drow asked, her tone still even.

“There is but one concern we heads of House must always put first, is there not?” Ravana replied pleasantly. “The welfare of our people.”

“Indeed,” Ezrakhai said impassively, “though I am uncertain how I might aid you in the care of your own, your Grace.”

“Ah, but as it turns out, you can.” Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, still smiling. “I was recently made aware that several citizens of Madouris and Tiraan Province are currently held in Tar’naris against their will. According to my investigations, five have been placed in indentured servitude of unlimited duration to members of House Dalmiss.”

“I see,” Ezrakhai said with the faintest downturn of the corners of her mouth. “I assure you, your Grace, that enslavement in Tar’naris is assigned only as a just punishment for serious crimes of which the subject has been duly convicted.”

“Yes, I am aware of the politics involved,” Ravana said, languidly waving one hand. “I could, of course, argue with the procedural details of each trial; I have taken time to gather information on the various improprieties of all five convictions—”

“That would be something to take up with the courts, which answer directly to the Queen. I cannot intercede in their judgments.”

“—but we both know that would be missing the forest for the trees, as it were. At issue is that the very institution of slavery in Tar’naris is applied selectively to humans and enforced through corrupt trials, in order to secure a rare luxury for those able to purchase a miscarriage of justice. I’m sure it must shock and horrify you that any such exist among your House.”

“Again,” Ezrakhai said, now with a faint edge to her tone, “that is a matter you would have to bring before the courts. If you can prove that those trials produced an improper verdict, Duchess, you could have them overturned. The guilty would then, of course, be freed.”

“That all sounds rather tedious, does it not?” Ravana mused. “They could also be freed if those in custody of them relinquished their claim.”

“I think you would find that a rather hard sell,” the Matriarch said dryly. “A slave is a rare and prestigious acquisition.”

“To be sure, to be sure. Thus why I have requested an audience with yourself, Matriarch. I assume you have sufficient authority over your House to order the release of my people. I formally request that you exercise it.”

In the heavy silence which followed, Ezrakhai very slowly drummed the fingers of both hands upon the armrests of her throne.

“I am not thoroughly versed in the details of House politics within the Empire,” she said at last, “but I cannot imagine it is news to you that no aristocrat reigns by complete and incontestible fiat. Power is made of the agreement of one’s subordinates that one is to be obeyed, and can be damaged by excessive use. I’m afraid it is simply out of the question for me to make such demands of multiple members of my House simultaneously, your Grace. It would be at minimum deeply disruptive, and in all likelihood severely damaging to my rule.”

“I sympathize,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, inclining her head. “Nonetheless, that is, not to put too fine a point on it, your problem. I require the release of my citizens.”

Another beat of silence passed. This time, Ezrakhai stared down at her, silent and still as a gargoyle.

“That remains beyond my ability.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Ravana said, still smiling pleasantly. “Merely beyond your willingness.”

“As you say,” the Matriarch retorted, finally wearing open annoyance. “As such, I wish you good fortune in pursuing your dispute with Queen Arkasia’s court. Now I must excuse myself, as it is a particularly difficult time for my House and certain matters require my ongoing attention.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Ravana said, nodding. “The disappearance of your second daughter. I imagine that is most preoccupying.”

Ezrakhai had begun to rise from her throne, but now hesitated, narrowing her eyes again. “You are indeed well-informed, your Grace.”

“Oh, naturally,” Ravana said airily. “After all, I have her.”

Both House Dalmiss guards finally reacted, shifting position subtly to stare at her directly, one moving a hand to the hilt of her saber. Ezrakhai herself abruptly sat back down, leaning forward to stare at the Duchess.

“What did you say?” she whispered.

“It was quite easy,” Ravana explained, smiling broadly. “I simply had her snatched right off the street. That is a thing I can do, Ezrakhai, while your people must resort to elaborate trickery to do the same. I say that not to boast, but to emphasize an important point which I believe has gone over your head.”

The Matriarch shot upright, baring her teeth. “You will return my daughter immediately, you smirking child!”

“I have every intention of it,” Ravana agreed, folding her hands again. “The condition in which she is returned, of course, depends entirely upon you. Now, as I said, I require the immediate release of all citizens of Tiraan Province behind held in slavery by your House. You have forty-eight hours to remand them, unharmed and without exception, to Imperial custody. If this is not done by that point, you will receive…an ear.”

Ezrakhai’s eyes widened. “You dare—”

“At intervals thereafter,” Ravana continued, “unless these demands are met, further…bits and bobs. The other ear, fingers, feet… Eyes, tongue. You know, whatever protrudes and is accessible. This should afford you quite some time to carry out this difficult task, as I have no intention of killing Ezranat and there are so many things a person can lose and still live. One way or another, you’ll receive her back, alive. In the worst case scenario, a blind, mute, limbless torso. In any case, one who knows exactly whose intransigence resulted in her state. And if that somehow has still not moved you to comply, I will simply seize another member of your family and begin again.” Ravana’s smile widened, showing the tips of her teeth. “Which I can also do, Ezrakhai, regardless of any defenses you raise. For the simple reason that I am, by every measurable standard, your superior.”

The Matriarch pointed at her, barking a few harsh syllables in elvish, and both guards lunged at the human, bringing up their swords. With typical elven speed, they crossed the space faster than a human could have noticed them moving.

Most humans.

Yancey intercepted them just as rapidly, seizing the wrist of the closer soldier and snapping her arm with a jerk even as he tripped the other. The guard screamed as she was sent hurling over the side of the open colonnade to plummet into the fields below. By that point the second guard was already in the process of spinning back to her feet and slashing at him with her saber in the same motion.

The Butler hopped nimbly over the blade, once more kicking her, but this time hooking a foot under her body in the process and hiking her physically upward before she could regain her footing. It closed the distance enough for him to seize her by one ankle.

He spun in a full circle and hurled her in the opposite direction. The guard struck the servant, slamming both into the stone wall hard enough to crack it. They tumbled to the floor and lay unmoving, a puddle of blood already beginning to spread.

Yancey stepped back behind Ravana and resumed his formal posture. Exactly three seconds had passed.

“This is what I mean,” Ravana admonished. “A sensible, civilized person would have paused to consider that Ezranat’s life rests in my hands, and acted accordingly. You, Ezrakhai, are a savage, and that is why you are now in this situation. Your people thrive because the Empire wills it. You survive because the Silver Throne deems your existence advantageous. In the prosperity brought by the patronage of Tiraas, you have grown ungrateful and arrogant. As you have chosen to squander my goodwill, you shall now be relegated to dealing with me in a more proper manner: as befits a lesser civilization, existing at the sufferance of a greater. Yancey.”

She spoke with a subtle emphasis as Ezrakhai took two long steps across the floor toward her.

“If this overweening termite presumes to lay a finger on my person, break both of her legs.”

“Yes, my Lady,” the Butler intoned in perfect serenity.

The Matriarch froze, glaring with pure hatred. Ravana leaned slowly forward, her smile finally slipping.

“Forty-eight hours,” she repeated, “until the dissection begins. You needn’t worry for Ezranat’s life; I am actually able to guarantee the safety of people under my protection, as I am the ruler of a true noble House and not a cave-dwelling arthropod with pretensions of significance. I expect you to remember this lesson, should the opportunity arise for you to falsely enslave a citizen of my province in the future. If I am forced to put you back in your place again, I shall not do so as gently.

“And when you attempt to attack me in retaliation,” she added with a condescending smile, “which you will, because you are a brute savage with the capacity for only a few predictable thoughts, you will not be getting the personnel you send back. At least, not immediately. I mean to commission a very stylish drowhide trench coat in the Imperial style, when I have accumulated enough leather. I will send it to you, as a personal gift from House Madouri. Just the first one, though. After that, I believe I’ll begin work on a lovely sofa.”

“You are a sadistic little monster,” the Matriarch hissed.

“No, Ezrakhai,” Ravana retorted, the smile vanishing from her features. “You are a little monster. I am a far greater one. If, as I suspect, you are capable of absorbing no other lesson from this, get that into your head. The reminders will only grow more costly with repetition. Now, then!”

She stood smoothly, pausing to incline her head once more in a courteous gesture.

“My Butler and I are going to walk out of this House unimpeded. Either because you belatedly summon the basic sense not to interfere with me while your daughter’s fate hangs in the balance, or because you have nothing capable of impeding us. In truth, it makes no difference to me.”

Ravana turned and glided away, back toward the audience room’s door.

“You cannot be arrogant enough to think this ends it,” Ezrakhai snarled behind her. “No matter how this plays out, Madouri, for an insult of this magnitude there will be vengeance. On the last drop of my blood, I swear it!”

The Duchess paused, and looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “The mole bares its teeth. It would be endearing, were it not so sad. Come, Yancey.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

They departed the room in silence.


The namesake fortifications of Fort Vaspian physically barred the tunnel entrance to Tar’naris, funneling all commerce between the drow city and the surface through Imperial-controlled gates, but in the decade of peacetime a civilian presence had expanded around the battlements, until the label of Fort Vaspian was used to refer to what amounted to a mid-sized town as much as the citadel at its heart.

Thought it offered numerous accommodations, including several comfortable enough to suit the standards of an aristocrat, Ravana’s next meeting was deep within the old fortress itself, where absolute security could be ensured by the Empire, and more specifically, one of the individuals already waiting when she arrived.

“Ah, I see I am the last here,” Ravana said, gliding forward to join Lord Quentin Vex and Nahil of House Awarrion at the fireplace, while Yancey shut the door behind them. “I do hope I have not kept you waiting. Departing the city was surprisingly difficult; a large, apparently informal procession of some kind has slowed traffic along the main thoroughfare to the gates.”

“Not to worry, your Grace,” Nahil said serenely, “I’m just relieved to hear that was your only delay. I might have worried for your safety, if Matriarch Ezrakhai took offense at your demands.”

“I found the Matriarch eminently reasonable, after some judicious prompting,” Ravana replied with a smile, settling herself in a chair across from Nahil while Vex lounged against the hearth.

“Then everything proceeded as planned?” the spymaster inquired.

“Precisely according to our agenda,” she reported, “though I cannot say with certainty what the Matriarch’s response will be. Narisians are, I fear, rather inscrutable to me, and she is an aristocrat besides, with all the implied poise. I am confident I did what could be done, but I won’t predict with certainty that she will accede to my demands.”

“She will,” Nahil said with a humorless little smile. “Ezrakhai is a cautious and conservative person by temperament. In any case, I am already making arrangements for House Awarrion to ‘accidentally’ learn about this confrontation; if Ezrakhai proves resistant, my mother will apply pressure. We will have our precedent within the week. A confrontation between one Narisian and one Imperial House may not, in and of itself, make the necessary waves,” she added, directing her gaze at Lord Vex.

“It is only a starting point,” he assured her, “and I am already at work preparing the next steps. When it is believable for word to spread, the narrative we will seed through our press contacts is of the Duchess personally intervening to restore the affronted honor of House Madouri and Tiraan Province. The very fact of House Madouri’s diminished prestige will all but force other Houses who have lost citizens to the slave trade to follow suit, just to save face.”

“And once confrontation with the larger and wealthier Houses of the Empire becomes a serious prospect,” Nahil finished, allowing herself a smug smile, “the danger to Tar’naris’s very infrastructure will give Queen Arkasia plentiful leverage to pressure the Houses to turn against the slave trade. Even in the best case scenario, this likely will not obliterate it completely, but depriving the market of its primary buyers will be a crippling blow. It may be too early to celebrate yet, but I believe her Grace has now done the difficult part; so long as we manage the next few days carefully, all should turn out as we have planned. On behalf of myself, my mother, and the Queen, I thank you both for your assistance.”

“We all profit by this,” Vex replied, nodding deeply to her. “The Silver Throne thanks you and Matriarch Ashaele for making this possible, Nahil.”

“May our friendship continue to prosper,” she said, rising smoothly. “I hope you will both forgive me for rushing off, but it is a momentous day, and my mother will require a swift report on our progress.”

“Of course,” Ravana said graciously. “Please give Matriarch Ashaele my compliments, Nahil.”

“I shall. Goddess’s guidance to you both; please do not hesitate to call on me if House Awarrion can assist you in the future.”

With a final bow, she turned and strode to the door. Yancey opened and held it for her, bowing.

The second the Butler had shut it behind her, Vex turned to Ravana. “And the additional steps we discussed, your Grace?”

She didn’t bother to ask whether the room was secured against elvish hearing, though there was no visible sign of a warding charm, nor the distinctive prickle of arcane magic in the air. Such things could be hidden, and Quentin Vex did not make stupid blunders.

“A smashing success,” Ravana reported primly. “I can say with all confidence that Matriarch Ezrakhai was left so bitterly affronted that she will never cease to seek revenge as long as I remain alive. I believe I can milk further insults from her inevitable attempts at retaliation, but ensuring that the resulting destabilization of House Dalmiss imperils Tar’naris’s food supply will fall to you, Lord Vex. I would gladly offer further aid toward increasing the Narisians’ dependency on the Empire, but Tiraan Province must still import crops to sustain itself. I gather we have been somehow outmaneuvered?”

He actually blinked in surprise. “What makes you say so, your Grace?”

“You look unhappy, Lord Vex,” she replied gently. “Given your famous self-control, that can only be deliberate. Either unexpected developments have derailed the plan, or you intend to double-cross me. I choose to err on the side of optimism.”

“Hm,” he grunted, reaching into his coat and withdrawing a folded sheaf of paper, several pages thick. “I appreciate your faith, Duchess Ravana. It is the first, I fear. While you were meeting with the Matriarch, the situation changed right out from under us.”

She accepted the sheets from him, opened it, and began rapidly perusing their contents. Half a minute passed in silence while Ravana’s eyes darted rapidly across the pages, and her brows slowly lifted.

“Well,” she said finally, turning to the third page. “I see. Indeed, we appear to have outsmarted ourselves. This will ensure the security of Tar’naris’s food supply without Imperial help, not to mention possibly granting Ezrakhai access to strategic resources I may live to regret.”

“That is the least of what this will change,” he said dourly. “Of course, your Grace, you shall have the full backing and protection of the Imperial government. You have been a staunch ally of House Tirasian and your involvement in this project was at my instigation. The Silver Throne does not abandon its allies.”

“I appreciate that,” she said with a nod, casually holding up the papers. Yancey ghosted across the room to pluck them from her hands, the Butler then stepping discreetly back to begin reading the documents.

“It’s too early to say what form that aid will need to take,” Vex continued, pressing his lips together in displeasure. “Rest assured, your Grace, I will be in contact. In the immediate term, however, this has left me with a thousand new fires to put out. I must touch base with my people on the ground here at Vaspian, and then return to the capital with all haste.”

“Yes, of course,” she said seriously. “You will know where to find me; I’ll not keep you any longer.”

The spymaster bowed to her, then turned and followed Nahil’s path to the door.

“Lord Vex,” Ravana said suddenly, “do you believe there is any possibility that Nahil suspected our secondary objective?”

“I don’t see how she could have,” he replied, turning to regard her with one eyebrow quirked. “Based on what she knows, needlessly antagonizing the Matriarch would have been both pointless and out of character for you. But it goes without saying that even the part of your mission she knew would make you an enemy of House Dalmiss.”

“Yes, of course,” Ravana mused. “And it is inconceivable that she did not know of this development…indeed, this entire affair very neatly kept you occupied while it unfolded. Well. Thank you, my lord.”

“My Lady.” He nodded again, and turned to step out, Yancey having already opened the door courteously.

The Butler closed it behind the spymaster, and only then returned to his mistress’s side, the folded documents already tucked into his own coat.

“His Lordship’s lack of admonition against pursuing a grievance against Nahil could be interpreted as tacit blessing, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently. “Shall we begin formulating an expression of displeasure at her maneuvering?”

“Now, Yancey, it does not do take these things personally,” Ravana mused, staring pensively into the fireplace. “This is how the game is played. Nahil acted with the resources and knowledge at her disposal toward the best interests of her House and monarch, precisely as a noblewoman ought. I feel no personal ire toward her. Even, I daresay, a touch of admiration. It was quite neatly done.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“For now!” Ravana stood, her gaze snapping back into focus. “Our guests will be arriving at the Manor by this evening, and indeed, these events are certain to send shockwaves across the continent. Even not being formally involved in international relations, there will be repercussions we shall feel directly. The politics of both our nations are about to be thrown into a tumult that no one can ignore. Come, we must dig Veilwin out of the tavern and return to Madouris immediately.”

“Very good, my Lady,” he said, preceding her to the door to hold it open.

“And later, when circumstances provide a suitable opportunity,” Ravana murmured to herself, “I will gently notify Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion that House Madouri does not forgive.”

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14 – 4

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“Vesk,” said Lord Quentin Vex, the head of Imperial Intelligence himself, a round of explanations later when they were all seated at the table. He seemed a fairly unflappable man—at any rate, he had not reacted strongly when a paladin burst in upon his secret meeting—but now a grimace of naked irritation crossed his face. “After decades of silence, that makes the second time within a year he has personally intervened in one of my operations—and turned a discreet, efficient procedure into a misunderstanding that could have gotten people killed. Last time, it did. I haven’t the luxury of direct access to the gods, lady and gentlemen; I wonder if you would be so good as to ask Vesk, next time you see him, just what the hell his problem is?”

“I will be glad to convey the message, Lord Vex,” Trissiny said grimly, “in exactly those words.”

“It seems fairly obvious to me,” Toby said much more quietly. “Knowing Vesk’s general personality and tendencies, that is. Quiet operations going perfectly according to plan are boring. Potentially lethal mix-ups? Now that’s a story.”

“I really am sorry, Marshal,” Trissiny repeated, turning to the man she had recently bowled over. He hadn’t been more than bruised, and even that was quickly washed away by Toby’s healing.

“No harm done, General Avelea,” Marshal Shaspirian said with a smile. “Getting knocked down by a paladin makes a great anecdote! One I can only share with people of my security clearance, but they’re the ones who’ll be jealous, anyway.”

“So, just to be clear,” Trissiny said, casting a careful look around the table, “Vesk was lying? You two aren’t in trouble with the government?”

“It sounds, based on what you said, like he played his usual semantic game with you,” Toby replied, shooting a look at Gabriel. “We’re in the company of Imperial representatives, but not in…custody. And as for trouble… Well, I’m just along to look out for Gabriel.”

She turned an incredulous stare on Gabe. “What did you do this time?!”

“Hey, let’s not blow things out of proportion,” he protested, raising his hands. “It was just a very small amount of obviously accidental…treason.”

“Gabriel!”

“He jests,” Vex said dryly. “Imperial law is clear: the charge of treason requires proof of intent. Accidentally stumbling upon secrets which are Sealed to the Throne and then casually blurting them to foreign nationals is not, technically, a crime. But it’s a swift way to find yourself having a conversation with Intelligence.”

“A polite one,” Gabriel said hastily. “If you’re a paladin, I think the difference is.”

“I won’t sugar-coat it,” Vex agreed, looking at him sidelong. “Your status is the reason this discreet little chat is occurring in a tasteful residence loaned to us by the Sultanate and not a dim room somewhere deep in a fortress. But no, Mr. Arquin is not guilty of any crime against the Empire, nor even suspected of disloyalty. His Majesty simply wishes to express his hopes that the Hand of Vidius will comport himself with a little more discretion in the future.”

Trissiny planted an elbow on the table, so as to lean her face into her hand. “Gabriel.”

“Okay, you can dial it down a bit,” he said irritably. “It was a simple misunderstanding.”

“If I may?” Vex interjected in a mild tone. “Clearly, General Avelea should be brought up to speed, but in the interests of my department’s discretion, perhaps we should avoid you being the one to explain, Mr. Arquin.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Toby said with a benign smile which only intensified in response to Gabriel’s dirty look.

“A certain facility,” Vex continued, “contains, among other very sensitive matters, a fallen valkyrie who is working for the Empire. We provide her with safe housing and ensure she does not accidentally harm anyone—which requires total isolation, as she is involuntarily very dangerous. Yrsa is, strictly speaking, a prisoner, but on fairly amicable terms. We provide as best we can for her comfort and she assists with other matters in the facility. As it turns out, her sisters know she is there and check in on her regularly. I did not realize this until very recently.” He glanced at Gabriel, who tried to look nonchalant. “Mr. Arquin has taken an interest in Elder God facilities, after the recent events in Puna Dara in which most of your classmates encountered one.”

“Let me guess,” Trissiny sighed. “You’ve got those in with the valkyrie.”

“She is very helpful in that regard, having been alive when they were built,” Vex replied in his placid tone. “Similar structures were recently discovered under Puna Dara and, it turns out, beneath an elven grove on the Viridill/Calderaas border. Mr. Arquin’s valkyrie friends directed him to the sites held by the Empire and the elves, and he chose to visit the latter.”

“I was kinda hoping to avoid an incident like this,” Gabriel said with a grimace. “The elves were very helpful, though.”

“Yes, I’m sure they were fascinated to learn their Elder artifacts are not unique,” Vex said, tightening his mouth.

“I did not tell them anything else about what’s under Tiraas except that it’s there!” Gabe said hastily. “That was none of their business, or even mine. And hey, now you know the elves have one, too! That seems fair.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed. “This thing is under Tiraas?”

Gabriel’s eyes went wide. In the ensuing silence, Lord Vex began very slowly drumming his fingers on the table.

“Aw, dang,” Gabriel finally muttered. Toby burst out laughing.

The door slipped open and the woman in the maid’s dress, who had not been introduced, peeked in. She looked immediately at Vex, and waited for his nod to speak.

“Excuse me, but are these two…gentlemen…attached to the Sisterhood of Avei?”

“They certainly are not,” Trissiny said with open exasperation. Then, feeling a little remorse, added, “They are bystanders accidentally caught up in something out of their league, and they’ve been quite helpful to me. I do insist that they not be mistreated.”

“I have no intention of treating them in any way at all,” Vex said, allowing the tiniest frown to pass through his vague facade. “I thought I expressed that clearly.”

“Yes, sir,” the maid replied, tension creeping into her voice. “I passed that along. They don’t appear to have believed me.”

“We was followin’ orders!” a male voice said loudly from behind her, followed by a muted thump and a slightly muffled rejoinder.

“Hush up, Jeb, let the lady talk.”

In the ensuing jostling, the maid jerked forward against the door as if something had run into her from behind, and tightened her lips into a compressed line of clear irritation.

“Oh, for the—” Trissiny furiously shoved her chair back from the table.

“Marshal,” Vex said quickly. Shaspirian was already moving toward the door. At his approach, the maid gratefully began retreating, which appeared to be made difficult by the ongoing scuffle behind her. “I brought Marshal Shaspirian as security on this trip for a reason, General Avelea,” Vex reassured Trissiny while the Marshal gently shooed everyone back out into the living room and shut the door behind him. “He is adept at handling agitated non-hostiles. Believe me, Intelligence is not in the habit of persecuting bystanders.”

“Where did you find those guys?” Toby asked incredulously. “They don’t seem like the kind of people you ordinarily hang out with, Triss.”

“They found me,” she huffed, scooting back up to the table. “It’s a long story. I’m reasonably convinced they mean well and just aren’t accustomed to goings-on of this kind.”

“Most people are not, and so much the better,” Vex replied. “Back on topic, then. This has been an amicable discussion, Avelea, despite what Vesk apparently told you. We have helped each other out: Mr. Arquin consented to be debriefed on the Imperial secrets he actually learned and what he did with them, and I have arranged a private meeting with Princess Yasmeen, which evidently they needed in order to fulfill this…quest.”

“Given who we are, we could probably have just walked into the Royal Palace and asked for a moment of her time,” Toby added, “but…I think, as a rule, the more discreet, the better.”

“And I heartily encourage the observance of that rule,” Vex agreed. “To date I had not even inquired about the details of your endeavor, but if Vesk is going to make a habit of mangling my operations for his own amusement, I find myself suddenly a great deal more curious. What exactly does he want from you?”

“Nothing,” Trissiny said acidly. “Vesk doesn’t want things, he just likes to kick the anthill and watch us all scurry around.”

“It is pretty iconic,” Gabriel added. “We’re supposed to collect four pieces of some special key for him. A key to what, I don’t know. But that’s pretty much right out of the old bardic epics, isn’t it? Paladins sent to assemble the fragments of the long-lost magical doodad. His first hint was that Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had one piece, so…here we are.”

“Hm,” Lord Vex mused, even more noncommittally than usual. “I could see that going either way. Such an artifact may be important, or he might just have tasked you with collecting plot coupons so as to weave a good story. I imagine he’s suffered a dearth of those since the Age of Adventures petered out. You said he failed to mention what this key was for?”

“No such luck,” Toby said apologetically. “He’s been overall pretty vague.”

“I didn’t even know Yasmeen had the first piece,” said Trissiny. “Which makes sense, as I have no intention of wasting my time on one of Vesk’s lethally dangerous mockingjay hunts. I just came to extract these two from trouble, which it turns out they’re not even in. I’m going right back to what I was doing.”

“Aw, come on,” Gabriel wheedled, grinning at her. “How can you resist the call of adventure?”

“Is he serious?” she demanded, turning to Toby, who just shook his head.

“Wherever this business takes you,” said Vex, now pushing himself back from the table and standing up, “know that the Empire supports the goals of the gods and their Hands. If this is an adventure of the classic sort it’s unlikely to be possible for my agents to follow your movements, so I will not have them try. If, however, you need help, feel free to approach any Imperial Marshal. For now, I will bid you good day and good fortune on your task. Your other appointment should be arriving soon, and I don’t wish to intrude on that conversation.”

“Thank you very much, Lord Vex,” Toby said, rising as well. “For everything.”

“Of course.” Vex hesitated in turning toward the door, then shifted back and fixed Gabriel with a neutral look. “And, Mr. Arquin… If you find you have difficulty keeping secrets, perhaps you might adopt a policy of not learning them until you’ve had more practice?”

“That’s a good idea,” Gabe said, downright meekly. “I’ll just…request that the girls not go sniffing around in any more Imperial bases. Though I don’t see why they would, unless you have any more fallen valkyries squirreled away.”

“Just the one, thankfully,” Vex said dryly. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

With a final nod, he turned and slipped out through the door, leaving silence in his wake.

“I didn’t realize all the Imperial Marshals worked for Intelligence,” Gabriel said after a pause.

“They don’t,” Trissiny replied. “Imperial Marshal is the title given any law officer answerable directly to the Empire, authorized to carry and use lethal weaponry, and not a member of the military. It includes Intelligence agents, tax collectors, census takers, some members of the Surveyor Corps… A variety of duties. The whole idea is that if you’re dealing with a Marshal you don’t know who they are or what they can do. Might be an accountant, or a fully trained spy. Empress Theasia organized the system to stop the Houses from robbing her tax assessors.”

“Huh,” he mumbled. “So…what’s the difference between them and Sheriffs?”

“Marshals are Imperial and travel wherever their duties take them, Sheriffs are part of a structure organized by the Empire, but they work for the provincial governors and have a specific region they’re responsible for.”

“So…Sam Sanders back in Last Rock actually works for the Sultana?”

“For the Sultanate, anyway,” she said with growing impatience, “but all that aside, what were you two thinking? I mean, I can understand him!” She pointed at Gabriel, turning to Toby. “But you’ve had as much training as I have, surely. Didn’t anybody warn you about Vesk?”

“Oh, they sure did,” Toby said, making a wry face. “And I tried to warn Gabriel, but he’s been gung-ho about this from the very beginning.”

“Honestly, you’re such a pair of sticks in the mud,” Gabriel said, leaning back in his chair and grinning at them. “It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure, right out of the Aveniad! Learn to relax and enjoy things.”

“You see the problem,” Toby said to Trissiny, his grimace deepening. “I came along because the alternative would be leaving him to Vesk’s mercy, alone and unsupervised.”

“It’s been a good few years since I’ve needed a babysitter,” Gabriel complained.

“Well,” Trissiny retorted, “I’m only here because I was led to believe both of you were in some kind of peril.”

“So, let me get this straight.” Gabriel straightened up and leaned his elbows on the table, again grinning at them. “Vesk wanted all three paladins for his quest, but two thirds of them didn’t want to come. And yet, here we all are. Wow. He played you two like a couple of fiddles, huh?”

“That’s it.” Trissiny shoved her chair away from the table and stood.

“Okay, take it easy,” he said soothingly. “It’s not like I blew you off, Toby. You said a quest from Vesk was probably dangerous nonsense, so I arranged precautions.”

Trissiny was already heading for the door, but now hesitated, squinting suspiciously at him.

“Precautions?” Toby asked warily. “I almost fear to ask…”

“While you were packing,” Gabriel said with insufferable smugness, lacing his fingers behind his head, “I sent a telescroll to Tellwyrn explaining what we were doing and why. So if we’re late when classes start up in the fall, she’ll know what’s up.”

“You don’t think Vesk is actually afraid of Tellwyrn, do you?” Trissiny asked slowly.

“As in, for his life? Doubtful.” Gabriel shook his head, still looking placid and self-satisfied. “Now that I have privileged access to Church archives I’ve looked into the god she killed, and it sounds like Sorash created some really extenuating circumstances, and also had it coming. But there’s a lot of mess Tellwyrn can make short of deicide which Vesk probably doesn’t want to see happen. And he definitely won’t want the rest of the Pantheon on his case for setting her off. You know how she gets when people mess with her students.”

Trissiny and Toby exchanged a long look.

“It’s like this.” Gabriel lowered his hands, straightened up, and generally looked more serious. “Yes, I do wanna go on the quest, because it sounds exciting to me. But also, keep in mind we’re doing this at the instigation of a trickster god who’s already pretty deftly maneuvered both of you into complying. Before we decide to butt heads with someone like that, we’d better make sure it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t think it is. Seems to me the best course of action here is to play along, up to a point, but take precautions.”

“Now that you bring that up,” Toby mused, “if Vesk got any of us into real trouble for anything less than very excellent reason, all three of our cults and patron gods would land on him. Tellwyrn is pretty much icing on the cake.”

Trissiny sighed. “I still don’t like this.”

“And I don’t like cabbage sprouts,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But I eat ’em. Growing boy needs his nutrition.”

“You can’t actually believe doing this fool thing will be good for us?” she said incredulously.

He opened his mouth to reply, but there came a knock on the door. Before they could answer, it swung open and Jeb peeked nervously into the room, hat in hands.

“Uh…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Presenting her Royal Majesty—”

Zeke appeared in the doorway behind him. “It’s Highness, you goober, Majesty means a crowned head of state.”

“Gawd dammit, Zeke, I won the coin toss, I’m doin’ it!” Jeb hissed furiously at him. “A-hem. Her…Majestic Highness, Princess Yasmeen! Uh, of Calderaas.”

Both shuffled awkwardly aside and bowed almost parallel with the ground, Zeke at least having to flex his knees, being clearly not quite that agile. She appeared in the gap behind them, wearing a modest gown that showed wealth but not royal status, and a bemused expression. The Princess stepped forth, then paused, finding her way partially blocked by two bowing heads. After a moment, she turned sideways and carefully shuffled forward between them.

Gabriel visibly cringed; Trissiny covered her eyes with a hand.

Princess Yasmeen turned and said politely, “Thank you, gentlemen.”

The Jenkins brothers straightened up and grinned nervously at her.

“Yer welcome, ma’am,” said Jeb, turning his hat over and over in his hands. “And, uh, may I just say—”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think her Highness meant—”

“OUT!” Trissiny barked in her drill sergeant voice. They fell over themselves, almost literally, in obeying, but within seconds had vacated the room and shut the door behind them a good bit harder than it needed.

“I’m sorry to have missed Lord Vex,” said the princess, turning to smile at them, “but at least I haven’t missed all the fun. Apparently.”

“Thank you very much for coming to meet with us, your Highness,” said Gabriel, rising and bowing to her. “We greatly appreciate it. And there’s an explanation for all of this, which I will gladly share with you as soon as I figure out what it is.”

She laughed in evidently genuine amusement, easing much of the tension from the room. Yasmeen Aldarasi was a woman in her late twenties, pretty in a way that owed much to tasteful coiffure and cosmetics, and clad in a dress of dark gray silk with subtle patterns embroidered in black which were almost invisible at a glance. Altogether she was clearly a person of some wealth, though nothing about her presentation here suggested royalty.

“So! Toby and Gabriel,” Yasmeen said with a broad smile. “I believe I can tell who is who by description. And…?” She turned to Trissiny, adding an inquisitive tilt of her head.

“My presence here wasn’t planned,” she said apologetically. “Well, not by me, anyway. Trissiny Avelea, pleased to make your Highness’s acquaintance.”

“Trissiny!” Yasmeen’s expression positively lit up. “Wonderful! This makes it perfect. Sekandar has told me a lot about you!”

“Oh, I will just bet he has,” Gabriel said in an excessively solemn tone, then ignored Toby’s warning look.

“All three paladins, and fellow Last Rock veterans,” Yasmeen continued, pulling out the chair in which Vex had recently sat and dropping into it with a bit less grace than she had shown moments before. “You can’t imagine what a relief all this is. My whole day is nothing but parties, meetings, smiling politely at people and then plotting to stab them in the back before they do it to me. Oh, not literally, at least not in this century, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. Gods, I miss school. And the best part is you’re all so important Mother can’t complain at me for wasting time. Please, sit!”

“You enjoyed the University that much?” Trissiny inquired, slowly resuming her seat.

“Best four years of my life,” Yasmeen replied, answering with a borderline rakish grin. “Ah, I still miss my first Golden Sea excursion. After an unreasonably sheltered childhood, the whole experience was more joyous than I even know how to express. On the way back I got to punch a rock elemental!”

Gabriel let out a whistle. “How did that go?”

“Broke my wrist!” Yasmeen said proudly, holding up her right hand and flexing her fingers. “Believe me, that was very educational.”

“Oh, I believe it,” Toby assured her. “Honestly, your Highness—”

“Please! In private, it’s Yasmeen.”

“I’m just surprised,” he said, answering her infectious grin with one of his own. “We have a handful of nobility among the student body, and I’ve notice that…ah, how to put it…”

“More of them than otherwise tend to wilt outdoors,” Trissiny said dryly.

“Even Sekandar is more a quiet, keep-to-himself type,” Gabriel added.

“Ah, poor Sekandar,” Yasmeen said with a sigh. “He’s such a dutiful boy. It made it so easy to pick on him growing up, and makes me feel so guilty about it now. The sad irony of the hereditary matriarchy is that he would make a much better Sultana than I will. I once suggested that to Mother and she threatened to have me drawn and quartered. I am about…sixty percent sure it was hyperbole. But one learns, in Calderaas, not to assume that about Her Royal Majesty’s pronouncements. So, then!” She interlaced her fingers on the table, pushing aside Vex’s empty plate, and leaned forward to regard them with an eager grin. “Lord Vex was deliberately vague as only a spymaster can be, but I’m given to understand there is something about a divine quest! And you need my help, in particular?”

“I hope this isn’t too disappointing,” Trissiny said, “but I don’t think it’s anything all that important. We’re talking about an out-of-the-blue fetch quest from Vesk.”

“The god of bards?” Yasmeen raised her eyebrows. “Oh, dear. You are in trouble.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny exclaimed, looking pointedly at Gabriel.

“Why don’t I take it from the top?” Toby suggested gently. “As Trissiny…broadly implied, Vesk has a certain history of deliberately sending people on adventures that have no apparent purpose beyond the adventure itself. Which…honestly only appeals to about a third of us.”

“Yo.” Gabriel raised a hand. The princess winked at him.

“In this case,” Toby continued, “he wants us to gather the pieces of a key. We don’t know what it’s a key to, or anything else about it; all we have are broad clues, and in the case of the first piece, a specific one. Vesk claims the first piece is in your possession, Your—Yasmeen.”

“Mine?” She tilted her head, blinking twice and letting her gaze wander to a point beyond the room. “Humm. A piece of a key… How many pieces are there?”

“Four,” Gabriel answered.

“So a quarter of a key, then…assuming it’s divided evenly.”

“I’m sorry,” said Trissiny. “This must be as much a waste of your time as it is of ours.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Yasmeen replied, her grin returning. “It is rather exciting, isn’t it?”

“If you say so.”

“Ah, but you must be accustomed to direct communications from gods. For me, it’s not exactly part of the daily commute to work. And, in point of fact… I have a thought. Yes!” Abruptly, she pushed the chair back and stood. “Serendipitously—or perhaps not, under the circumstances—I believe there is something in this very house which may shed some light on this. Come, I’ll show you!”

They glanced at one another in surprise as she led the way back to the door out of the dining room, but rose and followed without further comment.

Out in the living room, Trissiny’s self-appointed escorts were clearly becoming restless. Zeke was standing at the front window, lifting the curtain to peek outside, while Jeb had picked up a fairy lamp in a ceramic housing made to resemble a rearing horse, and was examining it up close. At Yasmeen’s sudden entry, both jumped and straightened. Unfortunately, they also both lost some grip strength in the process, which did the curtains no harm, but Jeb went through a dramatic five-second fumble in which he almost managed to catch the lamp twice before it finally impacted the parquet floor with an expensive crunch. He immediately hid both his hands behind his back, staring at them wide-eyed, and swallowed heavily. Zeke sighed and tugged the brim of his hat down over his eyes.

Trissiny made a noise deep in her throat which echoed clearly across the room. Both brothers took two judicious steps back.

“Tell you what, gents,” Yasmeen said kindly, smiling at them. “Head through the dining room to the kitchen, and help yourself to anything in there. You must be getting hungry by this point, if you weren’t invited to lunch.”

“Uh…yes, ma’am!” Jeb said in surprise. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. I mean, your Maj…ness.”

“Much obliged, Princess,” Zeke said with more aplomb, removing his hat and bowing deeply.

Yasmeen glanced back at the three paladins, then tilted her head pointedly toward the other door out of the living room before heading that way. They followed, Trissiny after giving a long, warning look at the brothers Jenkins.

“Your cleaning staff may not thank you for that, Yasmeen,” she said upon stepping into the stairwell through the doorway. Behind her, the scuffling of booted feet hurrying through the house was cut off by another excessive slam of the dining room door.

“Oh, anyone responsible for cleaning this place is accustomed to inexplicable stains,” Yasmeen said lightly, already halfway up the stairs.

“Now that I think of it,” Gabriel said, following her, “Vesk specifically said the first fragment was in the possession of ‘the princess in her palace.’ That stuck in my mind; it has that over-the-top mysteriously poetic sound you get from prophecies in stories and whatnot. He didn’t specify you or Calderaas by name until after.”

“He said the same to me,” Trissiny added.

“I figured, based on that,” Gabriel continued, “the thing must be in the Royal Palace. But you think it’s here?”

“If my hunch is correct,” Yasmeen replied, “no, it is not. But there is something here I want to show you, which may shed some light on the matter. It’s just through here.”

She led them down a carpeted upper hall, opened a heavy oaken door, and ushered them into a spacious study. It was lined entirely by shelves laden with leather-bound books, most clearly old. Yasmeen went unerringly to one of these, tugging out a thick volume nearly as tall as her entire torso. The weight made her grunt, and Trissiny immediately stepped forward to lend a hand.

“Thanks,” Yasmeen said a tad breathlessly. “Just on the desk, there, if you please.”

Once it was set down as directed, she opened the heavy cover and began leafing through its pages with a deft, delicate touch, moving each with great care not to rumple it. The paladins clustered about, only Toby having the restraint not to crowd her, though Yasmeen didn’t seem to mind, being fully absorbed in the book. It appeared to be an art book of some kind, its pages filled with illustrations ranging from simple ink sketches to full-color paintings. The subject matter varied widely, the only theme being that the statues, jewels, weapons, armor and paintings depicted all looked expensive, and most old. Yasmeen was turning the pages too rapidly for them to read any of the accompanying descriptions, unfortunately.

“This is a book of some of the hereditary treasures held by the Sultanate of Calderaas,” the princess said absently. “Most of them, I daresay. It was printed in my grandmother’s time, and Mother isn’t one for accumulating knickknacks.”

“There is some neat stuff in there,” Gabriel said with a whistle. “Where can I get a book like this?”

“You can commission a bunch of the best artists and historians of your day to hand-craft a unique work of art,” Yasmeen replied with an abortive little huff that might have been a fragment of a chuckle. “Honestly, the things royalty finds on which to spend money. Sometimes I’m half-tempted to donate my entire monthly allowance to the Thieves’ Guild, just to see what happens.”

“I bet the Sultana would find that a splendid joke,” Trissiny said innocently.

“Brr,” Yasmeen shuddered. “Ah! Here we are!”

She spread the page open carefully, then stepped aside, going around behind the desk so the three of them could cluster in front and see what she had found. Depicted in a full-color painting on one page was a peculiar pendant on a twisted gold chain. Its setting was hammered gold, clustered with small gems, but the object they surrounded was a strange stone, long and narrow and cut in an uneven pattern.”

“Huh,” Trissiny said, reading the text on the opposite page. “It’s called Gretchen’s Dowry… Wait, not the Gretchen? From the story of Gretchen and Sayina?”

“Who’s the Gretchen?” Gabriel asked.

“The very same,” Yasmeen replied, then turned to Gabe. “It’s one of the great Avenist romances.”

He straightened up to stare at her, blinking in astonishment. “…there are Avenist romances?”

Trissiny rolled her eyes, then went back to reading.

“There are,” Yasmeen said gravely. “Even some which involve men. Not this one, though. It’s about the courtship of Princess Sayina of Calderaas and Princess Gretchen of Stalwar. The story goes, Gretchen’s father had no sons, and so as was traditional for the Stalweiss, held a great tournament. Whichever man won would claim the Princess’s hand in marriage, and be the next King. Actually, the wording of the tradition was changed to ‘whichever man’ because of these events. Before that…well, this was the third time a runaway Calderaan princess entered the games.”

“Oh, let me guess,” he said, grinning.

“The first two didn’t win,” Trissiny said, also smiling, though still with her eyes fixed on the page. “Apparently that was the point at which the Stalweiss stopped finding it funny. This thing really belonged to Gretchen? I always thought that story was a myth.”

“Oh, pooh!” Yasmeen scowled at her in mock outrage. “And you, the Hand of Avei. That story was always one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too,” Trissiny replied, “but the whole second act is a bunch of battles around Calderaas which obviously didn’t happen. Wars between Calderaas and Stalwar were pretty universally decided by which side of Veilgrad they were fought on. Calderaan heavy cavalry was all but useless in the mountains, but it obliterated anything the Stalweiss could field on the open plains. That’s part of what made Horsebutt such a menace. Nobody had ever seen Stalweiss archers riding Calderaan destriers before.”

“Since that fateful day in the Golden Sea,” Gabriel intoned, “I have made a point to read up the history of Horsebutt the Enemy, to verify that there was indeed a man by that name. It is well documented, and I want it entered into the record that I still refuse to believe it. It’s just too stupid.”

Toby cleared his throat. “The history is interesting, but maybe a little off-topic?”

“Yes, quite,” Yasmeen said, grinning now. “Anyway. Whatever its provenance, that necklace is part of the royal treasury. I got to wear it at my fifteenth birthday celebration. The setting is modern—obviously created only a few centuries ago, to judge by the technique, so it may not have been Gretchen’s—but the piece in the center is a fragment of mithril.”

Gabriel frowned. “A…piece of mithril? In a necklace, like a jewel?”

“A lot of the world’s most expensive pieces of jewelry are miscellaneous bits and bobs of mithril in masterwork settings,” Yasmeen said seriously, “most likely fragments of machines from the time of the Elder Gods. Look at the painting—see the detail on it? Dwarven-made mithril isn’t nearly so finely sculpted. The stuff cannot be conventionally forged; it simply doesn’t melt. Whatever method the dwarves use to shape it can’t produce anything more refined than a long cutting edge. Mithril blades are about as precise as they can make, and none shorter than an Avenic gladius; there are no mithril daggers. Anything more intricate is leftover from the Elder Gods. And in fact, pieces of pure mithril are the only Elder artifacts considered safe enough to collect. Being a natural magic neutralizer, it can’t carry curses.”

“Huh.” Gabriel blinked, then turned to Trissiny. “Did you know any of that?”

“I can’t decide which interests me less,” she said, “the Elder Gods, or jewelry. Look at this thing, though. See these details, at the top, there, and down on the sides of the other end?”

“Yes,” Toby said, peering closely at the painting. “It could be the shaft of a key. Those indentations are right where teeth would be attached, and a flat part at the other end to hold it while turning.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Yasmeen said in a tone of great satisfaction. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me until you showed up with your talk of keys and missions from the gods, but if what Vesk wants is a piece of a special key that I supposedly have, I rather think Gretchen’s Dowry is our best candidate.”

“Well, that raises some new issues, doesn’t it?” Gabriel said slowly, backing away from the book. “I mean, paladins or no paladins… Something tells me we can’t just walk off with a treasure of the Calderaan royal family.”

“In fact, I rather expect you could,” Yasmeen mused, wearing a mischievous little smirk. “In terms of sheer capability, getting into the royal treasury and looting it bare is probably within the scope of your power. Of course, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be consequences for that…”

“We are obviously not going to rob the Sultana,” Toby said firmly, “or you. In fact, I’m hesitant even to ask for an artifact like this to be handed over us, considering. We don’t know what this alleged key will open, or why Vesk wants to open it… And for that matter, we have only hunches and circumstantial evidence that this is the piece we were sent to find.”

“It almost certainly is,” Trissiny said, “though I heartily agree with the other half of your assessment. If the options are offending House Aldarasi or Vesk, I’ll go with the second one. I have some respect for the Aldarasis.”

“Oh, you’re all so serious,” Yasmeen chided them playfully. “Believe me, it will not be a problem to arrange for the Dowry to be delivered to you. I’d like to think the Sultanate would accommodate any paladin, at least to the extent of forking over some old trinket that has no actual use to us, but Calderaas is practically a second Viridill in terms of Avenist belief. My mother would probably give Trissiny the crown right off her own royal head. If!” She held up a finger. “If there were a good reason. Yes, I can get you your key fragment. But not, I fear, for free.”

A slight frown descended upon Toby’s features. “…I’m not sure it’s wise for us to get involved in Calderaan politics…”

“Please! Politics was mother’s milk to me,” Yasmeen assured them. “As such, I promise you I am not reckless enough to antagonize all three Trinity cults by blackmailing their paladins who are on a divinely mandated quest. No, I’ll have to ask for your help with something before I can hand over Gretchen’s Dowry…but I rather think you will like this, anyway.”

 

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14 – 3

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Both men immediately began babbling over each other, talking so rapidly and loudly their words were all but indistinguishable. They also started struggling against the bindings, prompting Rooter to roughly yank them both back into place.

Velvet had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise. “Flash?”

The other man grinned at her and raised a hand. In the air beside him, a second hand formed from arcane blue light. He made a slashing motion, and the construct followed, sweeping across the two prisoners and swatting them both upside the head, finally dislodging Ezekiel’s hat.

“Since it’s coming back to you now,” Velvet said to Trissiny in the ensuing quiet, “just who are these clowns?”

“Just a couple of randos, as far as I knew,” she replied. “I bumped into them on my first stop in the Rail station here, two years ago. The dumb one tried to pick me up. Pretty aggressively.”

“Which one’s the dumb one?” Rooter grunted.

“That would be him!” Ezekiel growled, giving his brother a hard look.

“Damn, girl,” Ringer commented, folding her arms. “I’m amazed you remember that at all.”

“I actually don’t get pestered by men all that much,” Trissiny said vaguely, deliberately not mentioning the Legion armor which was the likely cause of that. “And it was my first time away from home. The incident sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Uh huh,” Velvet said dryly. “Well, I’m sure they do things a certain way in Viridill, but while you’re in my city I’d better not hear of you taking cudgels to people over piddly crap like that. You said someone sent you,” she added, directing herself to Ezekiel. “Who?”

“Ain’t tellin’ you jack—”

“Goddamn it, Jeb, shut up!” Ezekiel barked. “That said, lady, he ain’t all wrong. What makes you think we’re gonna—”

“Flash,” Velvet said in a bored tone.

The glowing hand reappeared and slapped them again, then cut backward and hit them another time the other way. After its third pass, Jebediah tried to throw himself to the ground, which didn’t work as Rooter was still holding one end of the rope that tied his wrists.

“Would you cut that out!” Ezekiel shouted. “Land’s sakes, slapping? C’mon, what is this, finishing school?”

“As the only person here who has attended one of those,” Velvet said pleasantly, “I can assure you they aren’t this gentle. Lucky for you two, I find you rather amusing. Still, I obviously cannot have people thinking they can just burst in here with impunity—nor send lackeys to do so. Anyone I considered a real threat would have better sense, so you can be assured your boss won’t get worse than a talking-to and perhaps a good, solid slap of his own. Regardless, I do require a name. None of us are going anywhere till I get one.”

Ezekiel looked mutinous. “Yeah, well, I bet I can take this as long as—”

“Rainwood!” Jebediah squalled.

Velvet heaved a sigh. “Flash, I think it’s time to get more inventive.”

“Wait wait come on I’m serious!” Jebediah yelled frantically. “His name’s Rainwood, he asked us to come find the girl! He’s a—”

“I know who he is, honey,” Velvet said condescendingly. “That’s why I don’t believe you.”

“Fuck it, he didn’t say nothin’ about the Guild,” Ezekiel growled. “He’s right, ma’am, we was sent by Rainwood. He gave us ten doubloons each, I dunno where he got ’em from, man looks like he ain’t slept indoors in a year. But we’re between proper jobs an’ Jeb wanted to see the paladin again, so… Shit, though, we wasn’t paid to fight gawd dang Thieves’ Guild street soldiers!”

“This is your idea of a fight?” Ringer asked with a broad grin.

“Who’s this guy?” Trissiny inquired, turning to Velvet.

“Some elf,” the underboss said dismissively. “He used to a some kind of big-time adventurer, back when that was a real thing people did. Now he sleeps on a bench in a park. I have a hard time crediting that he would want to talk to a paladin, or be willing to cross the Guild for it. Or has twenty doubloons,” she added, giving the Jenkins brothers a sardonic look.

“Hm.” Trissiny frowned down at them; for the moment, both were keeping judiciously quiet. “He did say they weren’t told about the Guild. Apparently this elf just wants me for some reason, and I happened to be here.”

“That’s horseshit,” Rooter grunted. “Everybody knows the Guild’s here.”

“Are you kiddin’?” Ezekiel demanded. “I didn’t. Why the fuck would I? Maybe everybody important knows where the Guild is, but ain’t no honest workin’ folks got any business with you assholes.”

“I sorta have to give him that one,” Ringer said lightly.

“What can you tell me about this Rainwood?” Trissiny asked, turning to Velvet. She got a long stare in reply. “Boss,” she added belatedly, in a deliberately respectful tone.

“I just did,” Velvet replied after letting the silence hang another moment to make her point. “I do not keep tabs on every park-dwelling hobo and washed-up has-been in Calderaas, Thorn, I have plenty of my own business to worry about. I only know of this one at all because he’s sort of distinctive. You don’t see a lot of elves in that situation, and hardly ever an elf with black hair. Okay, what is it now?” she demanded when Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes.

“…I think I had better go talk to Mr. Rainwood,” she said resignedly, slowly dragging the hand down her face. “Boss, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to be the one to address the matter of him sending people to harass the Guild. I’m pretty sure I can make your point about that. And if not, I’ll come right back here and notify you he needs further correction.”

“Well, I certainly don’t doubt your ability to make points,” Velvet said, raising an eyebrow. “What’s your stake in this, suddenly?”

“It’s family business, as it turns out.”

Velvet subtly narrowed her eyes. “…are you by any chance close to a conwoman called Keys?”

“I have refrained so far from shoving my boot up her butt,” Trissiny said flatly. “So, yes, I figure that makes me as close to her as anyone alive.”

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Jebediah said almost diffidently. “Sorry to interrupt, but… Seriously, could we stand up? Or, hell, lie down. It’s just, I ain’t never kneeled this long at a stretch, not even in church. It’s a bitch an’ a half on the knees, ma’am.”

“Well,” Velvet drawled, “as it turns out, Thorn, we have here a pair of boobs who can take you right to Rainwood. Since you’re amenable, you have my blessing to go give him what he wants, and see how much he likes it.”


“So uh!” Jebediah burst out at the top of his lungs, making Ezekiel jump and mutter a curse. His efforts to try for a nonchalant expression were downright funny; the man had clearly been working up to this all the way across the city, chewing the inside of his cheek and shooting Trissiny increasingly nervous glances. It had taken him this long, and now they had almost reached the park; the crowns of huge trees were visible above the next row of townhouses. Jebediah cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m, uh, glad we had the opportunity to…um.”

“Meet you again,” Ezekiel finished from up ahead. He was facing forward, away from them, but his voice held barely-suppressed laughter.

“Uh, yeah, that.” Jebediah removed his hat and began turning it restlessly in his hands, watching Trissiny as though half-expecting her to take a swing at him. “When that elf guy said he wanted… Well, that’s sorta why I took on the job, ma’am. I, um, I’m glad of the chance to…apologize.”

Trissiny came to a stop, turning to face him. Behind her, the sound of Ezekiel’s boots on the sidewalk also halted. Jebediah actually shied back a half-step, but she made no move toward him.

“For?” she asked evenly.

He swallowed. “Um. For speakin’ to you in such a disrespectful manner, ma’am. I swear by Omnu’s name I didn’t mean no harm. Truth be told, I wouldn’t’a talked to a lady like that but… I, uh, sorta figured you could take a…um, direct approach.”

“Direct.” Slowly, she raised an eyebrow. “If by direct you mean pushy, rude and borderline predatory…”

“Now, I didn’t mean nothin’ like that,” he protested, his voice rising in pitch. “It’s just… Dang it, Zeke, help me out, here!”

Ezekiel huffed a derisive laugh, but stepped back over to join them. “All right, in truth, ma’am, the spirit meant well but the social skills were lackin’. Jeb’s learnt a bit since then about how to approach women. An’ more important, how not to,” he added directly to his brother, making a face.

“It’s just, it was the armor,” Jeb said almost desperately. “I thought… I mean, Legionnaires got a certain reputation, y’know?”

Trissiny stared at him, at a loss. The only sexual stereotype she had ever heard about Silver Legionnaires claimed that they didn’t like men at all.

“What I mean is,” Jeb babbled, clearly sensing he was getting nowhere, “they’re…tough. That’s the word. Brave, an’ kinda…no nonsense. See, part a’ the reason me an’ Zeke came here to the city is there ain’t a lotta girls out on the ranch. We was both lookin’ to settle down, not, y’know, chase skirts or nothin’. An’ Maw always told us, find a woman with a heart, a spine, an’ guts, cos a man can’t make do with only one a’ each.”

“So,” she said slowly, “you like strong women, and your solution to expressing this was to irritate the first one you met who had a sword?”

Zeke burst out laughing, earning a dirty look from his brother.

“All this is almost too ludicrous to discuss further,” Trissiny said, “but out of sheer morbid curiosity, I have to ask. Why the change of heart?”

“Oh, that’s simple enough!” Ezekiel chortled. “He tried that on another Legionnaire, when I wasn’t there to drag his ass away.”

Jeb grumbled and kicked the pavement.

“And got some manners drubbed into you with the flat of her blade?” Trissiny finished in her driest tone.

“Trust me, ma’am, an ass-kickin’ don’t get through Jeb’s skull,” Zeke said merrily. “I been tryin’ that since he could walk. Ain’t made any progress yet!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jeb muttered. “She took me down to the Temple of Avei an’ got me a sit-down with a priestess. I got stuff…explained to me.”

“I’ll bet,” Trissiny replied.

“Not that way,” he said hastily. “I mean, I been yelled at an’ got my ears boxed more times’n I can count, an’ it don’t make much of an impression, y’know? All a body gets outta that is pissed off. Naw, Sister Shiri actually talked t’me. ‘Splained a lot about what bein’ a woman is like in this world, an’ how it comes across when some galoot comes up all in her space, makin’ faces an’ suggestions, an’… An’, ma’am, I just felt so ashamed. I truly only meant the best an’ I had no idea I was bein’ such an asshole about it. That’s why I jumped when a weirdo elf asked me an’ Zeke to find the Hand of Avei. I needed ta get that off my chest, an’ if you put a sword in me over it, well, so be it. But you’re here now, so, I’m sorry.”

He finished with a limpid stare, clutching his hat before him in both hands. Zeke had crossed his arms and was watching with a faintly amused smile.

“Well,” Trissiny said after a moment, “apology accepted. I’m glad you learned something. And I was hardly going to stab you over that. But I didn’t come to Calderaas to rehash that of all things, so if there’s nothing else…?”

“Right!” Jeb stuffed his hat back onto his head and hastened past her, beckoning with a broad gesture. “Right you are, ma’am, this way! We’re almost to the man hisself!”

While falling into step behind him, she gave Zeke a mystified look. He grinned and tipped his hat to her.

Around the next corner, the park opened up behind a gateway consisting of stone pillars supporting a wrought iron arch; it actually reminded her of the University’s entrance. It could apparently be closed, likely at night, but for now the broad iron gates stood open. As they passed the columns, she perused a sign warning that the park was heavily patrolled, and that horses and enchanted vehicles were not permitted. Beyond that, the cobblestone street became a much less carriage-friendly path of old rounded stones with thick moss growing in the gaps between them.

The park was clearly old, if not historic; the trees, to judge by their size, were centennial at least. Directly ahead of them was a fountain surmounted by a statue of an armored woman, likely a long-ago Sultana to judge by her headdress. Aside from a pair of trees flanking the path just before this, it was a clear area, with open lawns spreading out from the fountain. It seemed a popular place, with people strolling, chatting on benches, and a group of young men playing football.

Jeb led down a winding path which grew narrower as it entered a more tree-heavy region. Even as the canopy grew close enough together to interfere with the sunlight, it never came to resemble a grove. The ground was too flat and the underbrush nonexistent, the grass neatly trimmed—to say nothing of the benches, fairy lamps, and rubbish bins. After a few minutes of walking, as they were nearing what looked like the edge of the park itself, Jeb turned off the path and led them through a stand of towering bushes. In fact, they looked from a distance like a solid thicket, but up close there were paths easily broad enough for a person to get through. In a Guild-trained corner of her mind, Trissiny noted that such a spot was so perfectly designed for discreet assignations that some city planner had to have had that specifically in mind.

She put that aside, however, focusing on the person they were there to meet.

Rainwood really did give the impression that he lived in the park. Even for an elf, he looked wild; his clothing was shabby and appeared worn almost to the point of falling apart, and his black hair had evidently been hacked short with a dull knife and then repeatedly slept on. Nearby, to judge by the leaves in it. Though he was in his shirtsleeves at the moment, a ratty old coat was laid out across the park bench nearby, with a bulging knapsack tucked at one end to make an obvious if improvised bed.

Despite his ragged appearance, the man’s eyes were keen and alert; he was sitting up and watching as they approached, doubtless having picked out the sound of their footsteps long before they drew close.

“There she is!” Rainwood cried with an exuberant grin. “Well done, boys! So this is Principia’s kid. C’mon, cousin, come closer! Let’s have a look at you.”

“You can listen while you look, cousin,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. She had to school startlement from her features, having suddenly remembered where she had seen this man before. “I’m going to leave aside the matter of you peremptorily summoning the Hand of Avei whenever you like. Personally, I don’t much mind, but I won’t speak for what the Sisterhood might do if you interrupt its business. But a man with your history should certainly have better sense than to send hirelings to intrude on the Thieves’ Guild. Right now, Underboss Velvet seems more amused by this than angry, but that might change, depending on what I tell her next.”

Rainwood’s grin had faded, and now he transferred his incredulous stare from her to Jeb and Zeke, who stood nervously off to the side.

“I sent you,” the elf said slowly, “on a simple errand. Find the Hand of Avei and ask her to come see me. Simple. I even gave you the aid of a spirit guide to bring you right to her. And somehow, you turned that into me now owing the Thieves’ Guild an apology. Boys, there is screwing up, and then there’s you two.”

“Now, just a goddamn minute!” Jeb exploded. “We followed your dang floaty light thingy right to where it led us! An’ she was there, all right. So was a whole buildin’ full of Eserites. They jumped us as soon as we got in the door! Coulda taken ’em, too,” he added sullenly, “but they came from behind, an’ there was three of ’em, an’ one was a mage—”

“Don’t do that,” Trissiny said wryly. “You two aren’t a match for one good Guild enforcer. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about losing a fight to more dangerous opponents.”

“You didn’t happen to notice you were in the Black Market?” Rainwood said incredulously.

“Now, why in Omnu’s name does everybody keep expectin’ us to know what the fuck that even is?” Zeke demanded. “Who the hell is it y’all talk to who’s just expected to know where the Thieves’ Guild hangs out? We’re a couple a’ country boys who’ve been doin’ warehouse an’ factory work the last couple years, why the fuck would we know jack all about thieves?”

“He has a point there,” Trissiny observed. “Where’d you find these two, anyway?”

“Same way I find most things,” Rainwood said with a shrug and a sigh. “I consulted my spirit guides, and they directed me to these as the proper messengers for this task. I’m wondering why, now.”

“Oy, we did your fuckin’ job, ya smug knife-ear,” Jeb snapped, pointing accusingly at him. “You wanted the paladin, there she is. Anybody oughta be pissed off, here, it ain’t you! We was the ones who got sent inta the damn Guild with no warnin’!”

“Forgive me,” Rainwood replied, smiling sardonically, “but when I sent you off to follow a spirit guide through the city, I expected that if it led you to something dangerous, you would come back here and tell me so rather than charge headfirst into it.”

“Enough,” Trissiny interjected. “I don’t have time for this bickering. You were all negligent. Now what am I going to tell Velvet about this?”

“Oh, Velvet’s too much a professional to fuss over spilled milk,” Rainwood sighed. “I’ll go down there and say my sorries, and give her something sparkly from my collection. That’ll put that mess neatly to bed. But that brings us back to the question which most intrigues me: what were you doing in the Thieves’ Guild headquarters? And how does it come about that you’ll be the one reporting on my behavior to the Underboss? Hands of Avei and Eserites usually only talk with sword and clubs.”

“She, uh, wasn’t bein’ held prisoner,” Ezekiel offered. “Fact, the boss lady seemed to speak to ‘er pretty respectful-like.”

“Damn dirty thieves don’t want that kinda trouble,” Jeb scoffed. “They’re cowards, is what they are. They’ll rough up the likes o’ us, but a paladin? Pfft.”

Trissiny gave him a brief glance, while deftly producing a doubloon from inside her sleeve, where she kept it for that purpose in a little pocket. She turned her eyes back to Rainwood and rolled the coin back and forth across her fingers, saying nothing.

“Well,” the elf breathed, his gaze fixed on the doubloon, “what do you know. The times really are changing, aren’t they.”

“Lots of things change,” Trissiny said, making the coin disappear back into its hiding place. “Now, if your curiosity is satisfied, let’s move on to mine. What do you want?”

“Why, to help you in your quest!” he proclaimed with a smile which made him look uncannily like Principia, and threw his arms wide.

Trissiny rolled her eyes.

“I know, I know, I don’t look like much,” Rainwood said cheerfully. “It suits me, for the time being! But, believe it or not, I have more than one connection to you. Aside from family business, I’ve been—”

“You were an adventuring companion of a Hand of Avei,” she said. “Yes, I know. Dailah, wasn’t it?”

He blinked, lowering his arms. “Huh. The Sisterhood really does educate you well, don’t they?” She kept silent, deciding it was probably best not to mention Kuriwa’s vision quest to him; Trissiny had had relatively little contact with the elvish side of her family, but so far every Crowblood she’d met had reacted negatively to every other one. Including the dragon. “Anyway, actually, I’ve palled around with three of your predecessors, including Dailah. I was going to say Arjen would vouch for me, but I guess you’re already in the know. How’s my boy, by the way? Please tell me you give him apples? Apples are his favorite snack.”

“He likes apples,” Trissiny corrected. “His favorite snack is peppermints.”

Rainwood looked affronted. “What? Who told you to do that? What kind of degenerate would give a horse candy?”

“All right, that does it,” she snorted, turning to go. “Deal with Velvet in your own time, then, but don’t dally; I’m not leaving Calderaas without reporting to her. And tell Vesk to take his nonsense and shove it—”

“Ooh, you’re on a Vesk quest!” The elf sat bolt upright, his whole face positively lighting up. “Fantastic! Those are the best ones!”

Trissiny paused. “If you’re not working with Vesk, then what’s this noise about helping me with my quest? I’m not even doing his fool errand, I’m just going to extract Toby and Gabriel from whatever mess he’s gotten them into.”

“If Vesk is involved, it’s not going to be that simple,” Rainwood warned, smirking, “and your efforts to make it so will only lead you into grief. But to answer your question,” he continued hastily when she drew a deep breath, “you’re not the only person bopping around with a destiny, Trissiny. I make a point of regularly consulting the spirits. You know, seeing which way the wind blows. I, myself, am soon leaving Calderaas; it seems I’ve an important quest to fulfill out west. But as I was reaching out through the vast web of magic, I discovered that you had just arrived! My long-lost half-blood cousin and the heir to the legacy of some of my closest departed friends. How could I not interrupt my business to help you out?”

She hesitated, peering suspiciously at him. “That’s it? You just want to help?”

“I can see you’ve had a hard time of it, if you’re already so mistrustful of free help,” he replied, shaking his head. “Even Dailah took a few more years to get that hard-nosed. Who is it who’s let you down, Trissiny? Elves? Shaman? Adventurers? Family? People in general?”

“Yes, for starters.”

He laughed. “Ah, the all-knowing despair of youth.”

“Have I mentioned I attend Arachne Tellwyrn’s school?” she said pointedly. “If I want to be condescended to by smug elves, I have a long-term source of that. Not in the market, thanks.”

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he said, raising his hands peaceably. “Back to your quest, then. How can I help you?”

Trissiny let the silence hang for a moment, staring at him. Rainwood just gazed back with a placid smile. Well, Lanaera had made the point that while their lineage found one another generally exasperating, they wouldn’t harm a family member unless that person made it absolutely necessary, which they all tried very hard not to do. And he had been a friend of Dailah; even if she chose to be suspicious of his claim to have worked with two other Hands, she had seen that much herself.

“I’m looking for the Hands of Omnu and Vidius,” she said at last. “According to Vesk, they set out on this idiot quest of his, and somehow ended up being held by the Empire, somewhere here in Calderaas. I’m trying to find them to straighten this out, but I have no leads. The local Guild doesn’t know where they might be; Velvet could only say that it was unlikely the Empire would actually detain them, which I already knew.”

“That is some funny business,” Rainwood mused. “Coming from any source but a god, I would dismiss it out of hand. Even Vesk doesn’t tend to straight-up lie to people’s faces, though. I warn you, however, he does tend to tell people things in a way that makes them hear something other than what’s the truth, and leaves him wiggle room to claim he didn’t deceive them when they complain later.”

“Yes,” she said sourly, “I’m not good at that trick but I’m familiar with it. I’ve been assuming this was one of those.”

“And you probably ought to find those two Hands anyway, just to make sure,” he said, nodding. “I see where you’re coming from, now. Well!” The shaman clapped his hands together and then rubbed them briskly, grinning. “This is good news! I was half-afraid involving myself in your business would get me in real trouble, but this couldn’t be simpler. Paladins tend to create ripples just by existing. Should be the easiest thing in the world to dip my fingers in the pond and get a sense of where they might be. Stand back!”

Zeke and Jeb obediently shuffled backward several steps; Trissiny, who was already a few yards away, just folded her arms and watched. Rainwood didn’t seem to object to her presence, focusing on what he was doing.

The hand motions he made reminded her more of a street magician performing than any actual casting she’d ever seen. He was clearly a potent shaman, though, calling up raw magic itself without the use of any of the rituals or components that usually marked fae craft. Rainwood appeared to summon swirling dust out of thin air, shaping and stirring the cloud as it coalesced with broad, sweeping gestures. It whirled, faster and faster, condensing in one spot until he suddenly jerked his hands apart and, with a tiny spray of excess powder, the dust formed into a solid shape on the ground in front of them.

It was a house. By its tall and narrow construction, one of the rows of townhouses which were built right up against each other, though this image showed only the one and not its neighbors. It was apparently a rich one; its facade and the garden wall in front of it included an arrangement of pillars topped by gargoyles. The effect was almost a faux temple, though Trissiny had never seen any Pantheon sanctuary incorporate gargoyles into its décor. Rich people had strange tastes.

“Huh,” Rainwood grunted, slowly lowering his hands. “That’s disappointing.”

“Was it supposed to do more than that?” she asked dryly.

“No, no, it worked perfectly,” he assured her. “That is where your friends are, right in that house. I was just hoping they were someplace more…distinctive. That could be any one of a hundred noble’s city homes in Calderaas. I suppose it narrows things a bit. There’s only a few ritzy neighborhoods where a place like that could be tucked away. Well! Don’t worry, I’m not thwarted yet. It’ll be a little trickier than sending one after you, since I’ve no personal connection to those guys, but I’m confident I can persuade a spirit guide to lead—”

“Hey, I know that place,” Jeb said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him. He was nodding as if to reassure himself, and pointed at the illusion of the townhouse on the ground between them. “Yeah, yeah, I recognize that! Ain’t never seen another place looked quite the same. That’s where Dolly used ta work. You remember Dolly, don’cha, Zeke?”

“Course I do. That girl was too good fer you, Jeb.”

“She surely was,” Jeb said with a dreamy sigh, lifting his eyes to gaze reminiscently at nothing.

Trissiny and Rainwood cleared their throats in unison.

“Right, yeah!” Jebediah snapped his attention back to the present. “Anyway. Dolly used t’be a maid, worked for the Sultanate, an’ that’s one o’ their properties. Ain’t no guards or nothin’, it’s a discreet sorta place where they, y’know…keep folks.”

Trissiny frowned. “Political prisoners?”

“Uh, no. Not that kinda keep.” Jeb cleared his throat awkwardly. “You know, people the royal family, uh…likes to come…visit. Personally.”

“Oh.”

“So, anyway, yeah,” he barreled on hastily. “Princess Yasmeen had a boyfriend she let stay there. But the Sultana found out an’ threw a fit. He got sent outta Calderaas, an’ the whole staff was dismissed. Dolly ended up goin’ home to Veilgrad, an’…well, we stayed here.” He trailed off, looking forlorn. Zeke placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s amazing,” Trissiny observed, “the degree to which my business in this city is being defined by your bad luck with women.”

“Good on you fer noticin’ early,” Zeke said dryly. “It sneaks up on ya, otherwise, like a big silent tornado o’ Jeb drama. Next thing ya know, everything an’ everybody around is sucked up in it. Omnu’s balls, if this cowpoke ever manages to get hisself hitched there’s gonna be a gawd damn recession.”

“One o’ these days I am really gonna kick your ass, boy,” Jeb growled.

“Well, there you go,” Rainwood said grandly. “And to think I was actually wondering why the spirits would send me these two when I sought the right help. Once again, they knew even more than I anticipated! And now you have the perfect guides.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh.


It took over an hour to find the place. Jebediah’s memory turned out to be accurate…eventually. Luckily, neither of the two occasions on which he got them lost occurred in this neighborhood. The three of them looked badly enough out of place that Trissiny feared they would be stopped by police if they wandered around. Scruffy vagabonds were high on the roster of things the very wealthy did not want to see out their front windows. At least Rainwood hadn’t come. The addition of a half-savage-looking elf would probably have gotten them picked up the moment they set foot on this street.

“See, I told you I knew the place!” Jeb said loudly, coming to a stop in front of the house. “There it is, jus’ like in—”

Trissiny already had her back to them, studying the gate, but to judge by the thump and ensuing scuffling which cut off Jeb’s loud pronouncement, Zeke had swatted him upside the head. She’d barely spent a couple of hours with these two and it was already a familiar sequence of sounds.

“Fighting on the street isn’t a whole lot more discreet than shouting our business for the neighbors to hear,” she commented in a low voice, opening the gate and striding up the path. “Thanks, boys, I can take it from here.”

She sighed and gritted her teeth at the sound of boots shuffling along after her, all the way up to the front door, but did not turn around. Arguing with the brothers Jenkins might or might not have been a pointless activity, but at the moment it was certain to draw unwelcome attention.

“Don’t you worry none, Ms. Trissiny,” Jeb said fervently in a stage whisper, coming to huddle behind her. “We got your back! Zeke, keep watch fer assassins!”

Ezekiel half-turned, crouching on the other side of the entranceway from his brother and peering surreptitiously around. The two of them could not have more ostentatiously looked like they were up to no good. At this point, it wasn’t a matter of whether police were going to come, but when.

“You need help bustin’ in the door?” Jeb asked out of the side of his mouth.

“Don’t be any stupider’n you can help, Jeb, we’re doin’ this discreet-like,” Zeke retorted. “Mebbe we can pick the lock? Or, I dunno, if them paladins ain’t actually in trouble, we might just knock—”

Trissiny turned the latch. The unlocked door swung open on well-oiled hinges.

“Huh,” Jeb remarked behind her as she slipped inside. “Well, that don’t seem right. Maw always said, you gotta lock your doors if you live in the city.”

She seriously considered shutting it in his face, and refrained only because it would have created an even greater outcry than their continued presence.

Beyond a short entry hall was an expensively furnished sitting room, with an open doorway leading off into a hallway on one side and a polished wooden door directly ahead. Trissiny stepped warily forward, peering around, the Jenkinses huddling right behind her. The house was quiet, but not silent; from the closed door came the muffled sounds of conversation. She moved carefully, as taught by the Guild, her supple boots (quite distinct from the armored ones she had been in the habit of wearing) making barely a sound on the marble floor tiles.

Given the shuffling and stomping which occurred right behind her, she probably needn’t have bothered.

Before she could hush them, the door opened, and a man slipped out. He wore a dark suit with a long coat which, though it resembled the uniform of the Imperial Guard and Hands of the Emperor, didn’t quite constitute a uniform. Regardless, his eyes widened at the sight of the three of them, and he raised a wand.

Trissiny surged forward, a golden shield flaring alight around her. With a brilliant flash, her sword materialized in her hand, though she did not summon her armor just yet. Two clean beams of white light impacted on her energy shield before she closed with her opponent—that was a proper enchanter’s wand, not a cheaper lightning-thrower. That weapon could burn down even her divine shield if she let him get in too many shots.

She kept the sword behind her, turning sideways at the last moment to impact the guard with her shoulder. That was pure muscle memory; wreathed as she was in a sphere of hard light, it didn’t much matter how she hit him. Fortunately for them both, the door opened inward. He was slammed back through, hurling it wide, and she actually bounced off, the edges of her shield impacting the door frame on both sides.

“Trissiny?”

Catching her balance, she blinked at the scene beyond the guard she had just knocked down. It was a dining room, well-lit and every bit as pricey as the living room behind her. A long table had been laid for a meal; three men were seated around it, while a shocked-looking woman in a maid’s uniform stood against the far wall, all of them staring at her in the doorway. The middle-aged man in the center, who wore a nondescript dark suit, had half-risen, one hand dropping to his side where he doubtless had a weapon concealed.

The other two she knew.

Toby had been sitting with his back to the door and now turned around in his chair, blinking at her. It had been he who’d said her name.

“Uh, hi, Triss,” Gabriel added from the other side of the table, carefully wiping his mouth with a fine linen napkin. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but… What the hell are you doing?”

Trissiny let her shield wink out, straightened up, and lowered her sword.

“That damn bard.”

 

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13 – 29

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After its previous chaos, the darkness and quiet of the fabrication plant was oppressive. It also served to alarmingly magnify the sound of rushing water.

“Looks like something’s still switched on,” Gabriel said, pausing at the bottom of the stairs while the rest of the group crept back in behind him. Indeed, directly ahead, lights still glowed in the central command station. It was the only source of illumination aside from the transparent ceiling, which barely emitted enough sea-filtered light to stand out from the darkness.

“I will go check it out!” Fross chimed, and zipped forward before anyone could stop her. The pixie vanished into the station and the rest of the party watched her silver glow dart around within while they lined up at the base of the metal stairs.

“Wouldn’t your valkyrie friend make a better scout?” Milady murmured. “Undetectable and invulnerable…”

“She’s already looked, says its safe,” Gabriel replied quietly, then grinned. “Fross saves all our butts twice in an average week; I don’t like to discourage her from jumping in.”

“Time is a factor,” Principia said pointedly, glancing at the nearest spout of water, which glistened faintly in the dim glow of the command center, and stepped forward off the stairs and onto the walkway proper.

Before she got any further, Fross returned. “It appears safe!” the pixie reported. “There are still some lights turned on in the machines built into the walls and floor and I couldn’t tell what they do but nothing that was nailed down reacted to my presence. There is something else there, though, some kind of golem, I think. It looks like a trash bin with metal spider arms and one of those little flat display panels for a face, and it makes bell noises almost like me!”

“See!” Juniper exclaimed. “Giant mechanical spider! I told you!”

“Oh, a Caretaker unit,” Milady said eagerly. “That’s good news! They’re meant to look after Infinite Order facilities like the Avatar, but they’re kept separate from the machines and their programming can’t be altered. Poor guy’s probably the only thing holding this place together; we couldn’t ask for better help in fixing it. Come on!”

She set off down the walkway, Principia close behind her. Fross shot ahead again, a silver streak zooming back into the alcove. The rest followed more slowly, peering warily around at the darkness as they went.

Their approach was halted just before the entrance to the command alcove, when a chunk of the machinery within detached itself and moved to sit in the doorway. It was very much like Fross had described: a squat tube on wheels, bristling with multi-jointed mechanical arms and with a single flat panel on the front of its upper segment which glowed with lines depicting a stylized face.

“See!” Fross chimed, zipping back to hover above the golem. It emitted a chiming noise in response, the lines of its “face” altering to form a broad grin. It made unmistakable beckoning gestures with two of its arms and retreated back into the alcove.

“And…you’ve seen those before?” Toby asked warily.

“One,” Milady admitted. “And…it wasn’t turned on. But I’ve had their functions described to me in detail.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” Principia said. “Caretakers are perfectly harmless at worst. They’re designed to be annoyingly friendly and helpful. The Mysterious Stranger here is right, this is a stroke of luck. C’mon.”

She brushed past Milady and stepped into the alcove after the Caretaker golem, leaving the rest to follow.

The platform was octagonal, with entrances on two sides for walkways and walls of glass that sloped outward; it had no ceiling, being open to the roof of the plant itself with its view of the murky seawater above. The original construction seemed to have included transparent panels at waist height, horizontal and slightly angled, which housed the controls. Several of these were knocked out, though, and more machinery had been installed, in a rather haphazard fashion. The additions looked altogether tacked-on and seemed to be the product of a different mind than the clean, glossy aesthetic of the Infinite Order. With moving parts, blinking lights, protruding hoses and wires, they looked rather like things modern dwarves might build, or even the workings of an enchanted factory. These ran along the edges, a couple were installed onto the floor itself, and several extended from the upper edges of the slanting walls to hang overhead. Altogether the whole looked too heavy for this platform to support, but the metal felt as solid beneath their feet as the very ground, not vibrating at all when stepped on.

One entire wall had been knocked out to make room for a flat display which protruded half out into space, and this was the source of most of the light still active. It was a broad, flat table with a three-dimensional map of the middle part of the continent, its geography obvious to those familiar with it, centered on the Golden Sea and with the Wyrnrange, Stalrange and Dwarnskolds forming borders, apparently crafted of solid light. Hovering above this, also formed from light, was a slowly rotating globe. It was difficult to gather around the map because a large gate of some kind had been installed attached to it, little more than an empty metal door frame on a thick base with built-in machinery and control panels. This jutted out into the center of the alcove, taking up much of the available space.

The Caretaker wheeled over to this apparatus and began gesticulating at it and at them with its multiple arms, whistling and chiming urgently.

“Okaaay,” Ruda drawled. “So…it’s a map, and a globe of the world.”

“That’s not the world,” Juniper said. “Look, the continents are all wrong.”

“It’s a world.” Principia slipped past the Caretaker and leaned partly over the map display, peering closely at the planet hovering above the continent. “That’s Earth.”

“I thought this was earth,” Toby said.

“What?” Milady frowned at him. “I’ve never heard it called that.”

“Every word for the world I’ve encountered in any language means some variation of ‘dirt,’ ‘land,’ or ‘home,’” said Fross, now orbiting Earth and casting very odd shadows across its luminous surface. “I guess planets only need names if there’s more than one, otherwise it’s just a constant, like the air or sky. And there aren’t any other planets within sight of our telescopes or astro-scryers, so…”

“Adventurers and their bantering,” Principia muttered. “That is Earth, the planet the Elder Gods came here from, thousands of years ago. Where the human species originated.”

“Okay,” Ruda repeated irritably. “What the fuck is it doing hovering over the Golden Sea?”

“Hey, there’s Last Rock!” Juniper said, pointing to the protrusion of the familiar mountain near the edge of the map.

“It’s their escape hatch.” Everyone turned to stare at Gabriel, who himself was staring off to the side, frowning in concentration in the way he did when relaying words from Vestrel. “It’s… Okay, the thing itself isn’t here, but this gadget is clearly some kind of link to it. Apparently… The Elder Gods were prepared for their experiments here to go badly, so they set up a permanent portal back to where they came from. Except, not exactly there.” He paused, his frown deepening. “It’s…not exactly Earth, but an alternate dimension. That’s what a lot of their technology was based on, traveling between dimensions. It’s how they came to this planet without having to spend years in—Vestrel, do we really need to know that part? Okay, so they opened a portal to this alternate Earth that was almost identical to theirs, at a fixed point in the past where a lot of their favorite myths and stories came from and where the technology was advanced enough they wouldn’t be dealing with ignorant savages, but not so much that the people there could have stood against them. If they had to abandon this planet, they were gonna go there and conquer it.”

“That,” Ruda stated, “is vicious, cowardly, and generally fucking despicable.”

“Sounds about right,” Milady remarked.

“And apparently the gate still works and is still open.” Gabriel transferred his pensive stare to the map display. “And…it is in the center of the Golden Sea, which is what causes the whole region to be spatially unstable. Huh. The things we learn.”

“I am just kicking myself for not spending more time asking Vestrel about the past,” Fross chimed in agitation, now zipping back and forth in midair. “Of course I can’t exactly talk to her but there have to be workarounds there and I didn’t realize how old she is but oh the things she must know!”

“Vestrel would like everyone to know that she’s not an encyclopedia,” Gabriel said wryly. “And also I’m to add to our enigmatic friend here that if she wants to hear long-winded valkyrie explanations, she knows who to ask.”

“Oh, good, that fun conversation isn’t done, then,” Milady muttered. “Something to look forward to.”

“None of which explains what the fuck all this is doing here,” Ruda said loudly. “This place is flooding as we fucking speak, guys. Archaeology later, fixing this shit now!”

“That is a point.” Principia, now frowning deeply, slid out of the group and began prowling around the edges of the alcove, studying the panels. They were active, emitting a faint glow, but displayed nothing but the Infinite Order’s sigil. “We told this thing to reboot, right? I can’t help noticing that nothing is booting up. I realize this place is wrecked, but the central computer was functional enough to talk to us. Should it take this long?”

“You’re asking us?” Juniper exclaimed. “I thought you were the expert! Isn’t that why we brought you?”

“Vestrel recommends percussive maintenance,” Gabriel reported. “If that means what it sounds like, I have…doubts.”

The Caretaker began chiming loudly. As they all turned to stare, it backed up to the far edge of the alcove, and then retracted all its metal arms until just the clawed grabbing mechanisms from each protruded from its central body.

“Um,” Juniper said hesitantly, “what’s it doing—”

She broke off as the golem suddenly burst into motion, charging across the alcove to slam its body against the side of the metal gate. It rebounded, chiming in agitation, and toppled over; Toby reflexively dived to catch it, and then yelped and was borne to the floor under the golem, whose weight he had clearly underestimated.

“Oh, that’s grand,” Ruda exclaimed. “I thought you said that thing would be helpful!”

Suddenly, all the lights in the room flashed, and the panels turned red. A hum rose in the air as technology came to life around them. Everyone froze, though moments later Juniper un-froze at Toby’s grunt and resumed heaving the Caretaker off him.

“I am not going to say that,” Gabriel muttered into the tense silence which followed. “If you want to tell people you told them so, get somebody else to summon your spooky ass.”

The oddly resonant, feminine voice from the panels outside suddenly spoke, though not comprehensibly. Several of them jumped in surprise, while the rest just frowned at the unintelligible jabbering.

“I recognize some of those syllables,” Fross said thoughtfully.

“You’re doing better than I am,” Toby grunted, brushing himself off. The Caretaker chimed apologetically at him, extending an arm tipped with an actual brush to help.

“Is this…progress?” Principia asked.

Milady cleared her throat. “Computer, set language to—”

“Dialect identified,” the computer’s voice declared from all around them. “English, North American, twentieth century. Warning: there are multiple leaks emitting seawater. The facility’s structural integrity is below seventy percent and in danger of collapsing from water pressure. Warning: the Avatar governing intelligence has suffered catastrophic corruption and cannot be safely booted in its current state. Warning: there has been a category one security breach resulting in nanite contamination of the planet’s surface. Warning: this facility is flooded. Warning: widespread damage to the facility has reduced the production capacity of this fabrication plant below twenty-five percent. This facility’s condition is beyond critical. Multiple immediate actions are urgently necessary.”

“No shit!” Ruda exclaimed. “How the fuck do we fix this?!”

“Uh, computer!” Fross said loudly. “What course of action do you recommend to begin repairs?”

“That’s what I just said,” Ruda growled.

“The major repairs necessary will require the guidance of this facility’s Avatar.”

“But the Avatar’s broken!” Principia exclaimed. “That’s the whole damn problem, you hunk of—”

“A fresh iteration of the Avatar can be loaded,” the computer informed them. “Corruption resulted from the installation of unapproved equipment, which can be removed with the Avatar’s guidance. Recommendation: the extant iteration of the Avatar program should be isolated behind firewalls and left inert, and a new iteration loaded from the last stable restore point to oversee repairs. It should be possible to complete repairs before the Avatar becomes too corrupt to function, and then either debug its program or load another fresh iteration.”

The computer stopped talking, and they all peered around at each other in varying degrees of confusion.

“Did you guys follow any of that?” Toby asked.

“I think so,” said Fross. “If I understand correctly, it sounds like sense.”

“Yes, actually,” Milady said slowly. “I think that would work.”

“Vestrel agrees,” Gabriel added. “Okay, then, if there are no objections? Then I think you’re still nominally the voice of Naiya here, Juno. Care to do the honors?”

“I, uh…” The dryad shrugged fatalistically. “Oh, why not. Computer thingy! Do the…stuff you just said. The plan. The iterations and loading and all of it.”

A musical chime sounded from the air around them, and a circular image appeared on all the surviving screens, slowly cycling down.

“What was that, now?” Ruda demanded.

“Two ascending chimes is an affirmative acknowledgment,” said Milady. “It’s doing it. So now, I guess, we wait…”

And then the screens cleared, and patterns of light appeared all around them in the air. From one rose a three-dimensional, translucent projection of the bald man in tight purple clothing. Unlike his previous appearance, he was calm and composed in aspect, smiling slightly at them with his hands folded.

The Caretaker began chiming in delight, brandishing its arms victoriously overhead.

“Greetings,” his resonant voice said soothingly from the machines all around. “Welcome to Fabrication Plant One. I am Avatar Zero Two, the governing intelligence of this facility. And… I am extremely embarrassed.”


“Are you seriously going to stand there doing drugs?”

“You should try some of this, Eleanora,” the Emperor said with a smile and a hint of mischief.

“I will not,” she said scathingly.

“There’s barely enough coffee in here to be detectable,” he said, taking another sip and ignoring her growl. “It’s mostly milk, sugar, whipped cream and…some kind of syrup. This is basically a warm mug of dessert.”

“It’s called a Tiraano, your Majesty,” Underminister Shanaar said tremulously. A mousy woman with large spectacles and a habit of holding her thick folder of paperwork before herself as if she could hide behind it, she was clearly overwhelmed at presenting her report to the Imperial couple in person. “It’s… Ah, that particular one is from La Chez, a Glassian cafe which has pioneered artisanal coffee in the city. I have procured samples from six other establishments if you wish to try—”

“That will not be necessary,” Eleanora said frostily, and Ms. Shanaar cringed, shuffling surreptitiously behind her cart of warming mugs. The rich scents of coffee, cream, and flavored sugar filled the room headily, drifting from the steam her “samples” emitted.

Sharidan gave Eleanora a reproachful look, and she repressed a sigh, but deliberately moderated her expression. He was right; there was nothing to be gained by bullying hard-working public servants just doing their jobs as ordered.

Shanaar cleared her throat and began shuffling papers pointlessly, lowering her eyes to them. “Yes, well, um, your Majesties… As you can see for yourselves… Or, uh, not, if you prefer… Most of the uses of coffee in the city’s upscale cafes are relatively harmless. The flavor of the raw stuff is quite unpalatable and the upper class don’t seem to take to it without heavily mixing it with more, ah, wholesome ingredients. The temperance movement is targeting them mostly because the rich are usually the source of major social impetus. My report clearly indicates the only potential public health risk is from the less-common uses of the drink in its purer form, which is beginning to catch on among the working class. The Thieves’ Guild has begun to make institutionalized use of it, and it’s increasingly popular among factory workers… Actual risks are uncertain, we haven’t linked coffee to specific diseases. It simply grants a rush of energy when consumed. The, uh, long-term effects… There’s just no data, yet. We need time to study. It will take years to know the full implications.”

“The short-term effects are already known,” Eleanora said brusquely. “And this is beginning to grow popular in the city?”

“The first coffee crops planted on the continent have been harvested, processed, and distributed,” Shanaar said timidly. “Not much yet, but it’s a start. They’re out in the Onkawa highlands, the only region with the right climate in the Empire. With that, the price has suddenly dropped, and… That is, yes, your Majesty. My department has recorded a nearly four hundred percent increase in use over the last five years. That began from negligible numbers, of course, but still. Coffee is still much less popular than alcohol or glittershrooms, but it is catching on.”

“It seems simple enough to me, then,” Eleanora said, turning her disapproving stare back on her husband, who continued to sip appreciatively at his mug of the drug under discussion. “We add it to the list of proscribed narcotics and begin issuing exemptions for establishments that want to sell it, just like alcohol or opium. We silence those temperance harpies and gain a new source of revenue…”

“We can’t do that, your Majesty.”

Shanaar quailed at Eleanora’s cold stare.

“Can’t?”

“Th-the active ingredient is called caffeine,” the Underminister sputtered. “I-it is also the source of th-the stimulant properties of tea and ch-chocolate. If the government declares it a health hazard, entire industries will be massively disrupted, channels of trade—”

Quentin Vex suddenly strode into the room; the Hand of the Emperor standing discreetly in the corner looked at him but did not otherwise move, indicating he detected no threat. Vex stepped to one side of the door and coughed softly into his fist.

“Underminister,” the Emperor said smoothly, “you will please excuse us. Thank you for your report; we will finish this meeting at a later time.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Shanaar squeaked, pressing her folder to her chest and scurrying gratefully out. Vex shut the door behind her.

“Well?” Eleanora demanded.

“Tellwyrn, Vadrieny, and the Sleeper were all in the city a few minutes ago,” the spymaster said immediately. “Fortunately, that ended as well as it possibly could have. Tellwyrn bound the warlock—the Masterson boy—from using magic, then allowed Vadrieny to abduct him. She headed off in the direction of Tar’naris with him in tow.”

“Well, that’s one way to resolve that,” Sharidan murmured. “Narisian justice might be exactly what that little beast deserves.”

“Further,” Vex continued, “I have addressed the issue of the traitors by informing Tellwyrn of their probable destination.”

“I suppose that means we won’t be getting that airship back,” Eleanora said sourly. “Really, Quentin, you usually prefer a lighter touch.”

“Desperate times, your Majesty.”

She shook her head. “And the situation in Last Rock?”

“Is under control. She did not mention it.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, she didn’t mention it?”

“Just that, your Majesty. She made no reference to the renegade Hand on site. Thanks to Fedora’s appeal to his surviving connections in the city, we know she must be aware. That she did not request further help with the matter tells me she is addressing it. As I said before, your Majesties, Tellwyrn putting him down is an optimal outcome. She has nothing to gain by exposing Imperial secrets or using them as leverage against us.”

The Hand present glanced at him again, then resumed his ceaseless survey of the room.

“Unless Fedora is working against her, as well?” Sharidan suggested.

Vex shook his head. “If there is one child of Vanislaas I trust not to bite the hand that feeds him, it’s Fedora. He only turned on us because he had neared the end of his usefulness to the Throne, I would soon have needed to get rid of him, and he is too intelligent not to discern those facts. Tellwyrn can keep him busy potentially forever. No, I rather expect she’ll find Murgatroyd a surprisingly loyal agent. More than any of his kind I’ve encountered, he desires stability. Further, we have independent confirmation from Colonel Azhai that she warned Tellwyrn to the best of her ability. She and Reich both smelled a rat, but Azhai toed the line. Reich was willing to defy the renegade Hand’s direct orders to get back in touch with Intelligence. I suspect the Archpope’s influence there.”

“And she didn’t mention this.” Eleanora turned to stare at the window, frowning deeply in thought.

“Nora,” Sharidan said quietly, finally setting down his absurd coffee-laced beverage, “I have never pried into this, but you haven’t exactly made it a secret that you’ve got some personal grudge with Tellwyrn. Be mindful of your bias, here.”

“You’re right,” she said, then returned her stare to Vex, noting for the first time that he looked physically haggard. The man had apparently not slept in two days. “Quentin, in your professional opinion, what is the error in judgment Arachne Tellwyrn is most likely to make?”

He hesitated only momentarily before replying. “She is rather prone to overestimating herself, your Majesty. So…your point is taken. That Tellwyrn believes the situation in Last Rock to be under her control does not necessarily mean it is so.”

“What, specifically, do we know of the situation? Beyond the presence of the renegade Hand and his intentions?”

“…little, your Majesty. He has recruited Reich and several local civilians. With the departure of the zeppelin in that direction we can assume someone in the Archpope’s conspiracy has knowledge of these matters and an interest in intervening. We do not know his exact plans or timetable. I have dispatched agents to investigate, but it will take time for them to get in position. And there is also the inherent danger of irritating Tellwyrn.”

“Damn Tellwyrn and her precious little feelings,” Eleanora barked. “She lost control of one of her students, who has cause a major crisis with that hellgate, assaulted Narisian diplomats and apparently was just in the capital. Quentin, can your people penetrate her wards on scrying and teleportation?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” he said warily. “In theory. But…so doing will, of course, provoke a response. She’ll strengthen the wards and it will be that much more difficult the next time. With Tellwyrn, that could very quickly make them impenetrable, even to us. Again, I prefer not to poke at—”

“Sharidan.” She turned to the Emperor. “Am I overreacting?”

“You’re reacting more personally than usual,” he said, meeting her gaze. “But…no, Nora. I think you’re right; the combination of the Sleeper, the conspiracy, and an apparent connection to Justinian’s plots, plus our own renegade, and you’re right. I believe the time for the hands-off approach has ended. Quentin.” He turned back to the spymaster. “I want you to shift every scryer you can spare to punch through those wards. Find out what is happening in Last Rock, in detail.”

“And,” Eleanora added, “have mages standing by to teleport troops on site.”

“Now that may be too much,” Sharidan warned.

“Invading the University in force would be a disaster,” she agreed, “as I bet the renegade is about to learn. But if what we learn from scrying indicates that the situation there is as out of control as I fear, we should be ready to move in support of the Professor. A small force, comprised of specialists.”

“Very good,” the Emperor agreed, nodding. “Put a strike team and a squad of the Imperial Guard on standby, but do not deploy anyone without our express order. I’ll want your report on the situation on the ground ASAP, Quentin.”

Vex, in defiance of both his customary demeanor and all formal protocol, heaved a heavy sigh. “Yes, your Majesties. Your will be done. I will see to it immediately.”

Then, while they watched in bemusement, he stepped forward, picked up one of the steaming cups of coffee from Shanaar’s tray, and took it with him as he strode out to make the arrangements they had ordered.

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13 – 28

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The door was hard to close; once Mogul had shown her the trick, she had managed to deflect her attention from it but not shut it off entirely. It was something that had always been there, creeping out in Vadrieny’s relationship to sound, in the way her magic sometimes sang through when Teal created music and they were both caught up in it. It was more than physical sound, more than the delicate mechanisms of the ear detecting vibration in the air. Something in her being that superceded mundane physics, like the means she used to fly, sought out and connected to it, and Mogul with his bell and his explanations had opened a door she had no idea how to close again.

Despite the speed of the air rushing past her, the sounds of the city rose up in an infinite clamor as she soared above Tiraas. Teal had been in cities plenty of times and was familiar with their cacophony, but now each sound, each voice and crash and clatter, registered individually. Mogul had said it could be overwhelming, but she viewed it with some detachment. Whether it was her musical training or just the long experience of disregarding unimportant noise, she let the hubbub slide past.

She could definitely detect the shrieks and responses to her arrival in particular, and winced. Well, there was nothing to be done about that, unfortunately.

Vadrieny arced toward the center of the city, but not too far, carefully avoiding Imperial Square. Both the government and the Church knew who she was, but she was under no illusions what would probably happen if an archdemon came diving out of the sky right at the Palace with no warning. Even coming over the walls had been pushing her luck. She only needed to glide in a wide sweep to orient herself; during previous trips to the capital she had not been encouraged to take to the air. It was quick work, though, to get her bearing and locate the Narisian embassy, in the aptly-named Embassy District two blocks distant from the Square.

Very carefully, she slowed her descent, banking as she approached and pumping her wings to settle as gently as possible into the courtyard. The people crossing the space between the front gates and the doors, a mix of drow and humans, wisely scurried off the main path to make room, while soldiers in House An’sadarr uniforms stepped forward with weapons upraised.

Immediately upon landing, Vadrieny submerged herself, leaving Teal standing in the chilly air in her House Awarrion robes. She turned to face the startled onlookers with the calmest expression she could muster, painfully aware that her hair must be a disaster.

“I am very sorry for startling you,” she said with well-practiced public calm, bowing to the public. “Everything is all right; there is no danger here. My apologies for the intrusion.”

She turned to approach the embassy’s door, and found her way blocked by two soldiers. Already stepping forward, Teal trailed to a halt; these had swords out and upraised. They were An’sadarr, not Awarrion, but surely they had been told about her?

“It’s all right. Let her pass.”

The armored women obeyed immediately, sheathing their weapons and stepping aside to flank the open door again, in the process revealing the slim figure of the Ambassador.

Shariss yr Shareth a’nar Awarrion wore her hair shorter than most Awarrion personnel save the House guards, in a style not dissimilar to Teal’s which was more associated with a martial path than a diplomatic one in Narisian culture. She generally had a famously unique sense of style, as evidenced by her robes: black, rather than deep red and green as was common among her House, and custom-designed in a shape evocative of a Tiraan business suit, complete with lapels and high collar and subtle embroidery hinting at pinstripes.

“Teal,” Shariss said, a masterpiece of a syllable which conveyed a greeting, a question, and a dire warning all at once.

“Ambassador,” Teal replied, bowing again. “I apologize for interrupting your business, but mine is urgent. May I speak with you in privacy?”

“Of course,” Shariss said neutrally. “This way, if you please.”

The Ambassador set a brisk pace, which suited Teal perfectly. They strode—or in Shariss’s case, glided—through the embassy’s main entry hall, both acknowledging the stares of visitors with polite nods, then passed through a side door into a hallway. Shariss led her up a narrow flight of stairs, along a short hall, and through a heavy wooden door into a small conference room with a window overlooking the street outside, which marked it as a place for meeting human visitors as Narisians generally preferred fully enclosed spaces. It also bore some kind of enchantment for privacy, to judge by the way the sounds from without were fully cut off once Shariss shut the door behind Teal.

“It’s just lucky I was alerted to your approach in time to meet you personally,” Shariss said, an open edge in her tone now that they were in private, turning to fix Teal with a stare. “I trust you realize the trouble that entrance may have created, and that this is worth it?”

“I do, and I think so,” Teal said, swallowing nervousness with the help of a rush of wordless support and affection from Vadrieny. “I was just intercepted in Puna Dara and informed that the Sleeper has been identified.”

Shariss’s eyes narrowed, but she just nodded for Teal to continue.

“His name is Chase Masterson, and I can well believe he would do such…things. My source indicated he fled Last Rock upon being outed and was directed to come to Tiraas to be recruited by the Imperial government. And further, that Professor Tellwyrn had been sufficiently agitated that she would be pursuing with the intent to kill him on sight.”

“Source?”

“An agent of the Archpope. Embras Mogul of the Black Wreath was also there, and he is under orders from Elilial herself to support Vadrieny as needed. He was able to confirm some part of the story and clarify others. And debunk a few obvious lies.”

“So,” Shariss said with another nod, “you consider this account credible, overall.”

“Mostly, but it also contains misdirection. Tellwyrn is not a fool, nor is she mindlessly violent; she’ll be trying to capture Chase as well, to get the cure for the sleeping curse.” Teal drew in a steadying breath. “According to Mogul, the Archpope’s intent is to prolong conflicts in Puna Dara and Last Rock by removing Vadrieny and Tellwyrn, respectively, from those locations. It was probably he who outed Chase. And as infuriating as it is to have to take the bait…this is a question of loyalty.” She permitted a hard edge to creep into her own voice. “While he’s here, and not caught by Tellwyrn or the Empire yet, Chase is in play. Vadrieny possesses a tracking ability that may lead to him, which makes this our one chance to put him in the hands of House Awarrion. I…abandoned an assignment from the University and left my friends facing a very uncertain situation to come here after him. I can’t let it be for nothing.”

Shariss simply nodded once more. To a Narisian drow, choosing House above all other considerations was nothing more or less than expected, particularly of a daughter of the Matriarch. Teal was not so sanguine; her friends were physically powerful enough to resist most material dangers and neither she nor Vadrieny likely could have contributed much to fixing ancient Elder God machinery, but this had still been a painful decision. It was her decision, though, and she had made it. Now there were only the consequences to deal with.

“Very good, then,” the Ambassador said. “What do you need from me?”

“I’ll need to be on the roof,” Teal said, “to listen. And…in Vadrieny’s form.”

“That will cause nearly as much of a stir as your entrance,” Shariss noted.

“I’m sorry for…”

The drow held up one hand. “Be sorry for nothing. I will run whatever interference is necessary with the Imperial government to buy you time. That’s nothing more or less than the task your mother and the Queen charged me with; it is my duty and an honor to aid you.” She turned and unlatched the window, but then paused just before pushing it open. The Ambassador shifted her head and gave Teal a look that was very undiplomatic. “Get him.”

Teal nodded deeply in thanks, stepping forward and pushing the window open. Shariss stepped back from the rush of city noise and cold air, but Teal climbed up onto the sill and leaped out.

There were shouts from the street below, followed by screams when Vadrieny burst forth again and propelled herself upward with a powerful beat of her wings. She paid them no mind, rising and circling till she was above the embassy and then setting herself down carefully on its highest point, a small spire surmounting its central done.

It was a position not designed for perching upon, but with her claws wrapped around it, she held still even against the buffeting of the wind. Vadrieny closed her eyes, fully extended her fiery wings, and listened.

Deliberately, consciously opened to it like that, it was overwhelming for a moment. She could tell how that ability had always been there, but unnoticed and ignored till now—the way sound interacted with her, the way Teal’s music poured out and Vadrieny’s perception of it had aided her in creating it. Having been crammed into a mortal body and nearly destroyed in the process, she had rebuilt her consciousness by clinging to Teal’s; who knew what other senses she might still possess, dormant and waiting to be awakened? Thanks to Mogul’s intervention, now, she didn’t know how to stop it.

But it was Teal, not Vadrieny, who provided the key to making this useful. According to the warlock Vadrieny had, in times past, used precisely this ability to separate sounds out in order to hunt her mother’s enemies, but right now she had no idea how that was done. Teal, though, could single out one note from an orchestra… Or one voice from a city.

They clung there, feathers spread like hundreds of antennae, with every tiny vibration of sound thrumming through fiery plumes, ears, aura. Slipping through their shared consciousness like threads of silk through fingers, searching for one familiar voice.


She arrived first upon a flat rooftop not far from the city’s center. Tellwyrn took a moment to glance about, noting the nearby spires of the Grand Cathedral and the Temple of Avei; the structure atop which she stood had a view straight down the avenue which passed between them into Imperial Square. Well enough; a central position wasn’t really necessary for this, but it couldn’t hurt.

Finding him was the work of moments. She had to close her eyes and release a gentle pulse with her will, the softest exertion of arcane energy that rippled out across the entire city, passing through and around its chaotic morass of active enchantments without disturbing them. Rare was the wizard who could detect that, but if any were near enough to feel it, they would also feel whose locator spell that was and know better than to meddle in her business. Indeed, she felt a tiny ripple in response, the distinctive faint pressure of Zanzayed off in the Conclave’s embassy, acknowledging her presence. She ignored him; her business lay with the other ping that resulted.

Chase Masterson was in no position to detect that spell, but he was a student of her University and therefore Tellwyrn had long since made certain of her ability to find him at need. In theory, she could have done so from anywhere in the world, but it was easier and much faster to start from close by. Her information was correct: he was in the city. That would make this a very short pursuit indeed.

She opened her eyes, this time channeling power through the inherent charms on her spectacles. In the sixty years since acquiring them in that unfortunate little town on the N’Jendo border, she had made certain not only to research their history but to experiment with their abilities, and it was now the simplest thing in the world to turn her head and focus her eyes and mind to see him. Though he was far enough away that even elven eyes could barely have picked him out from the crowd, and there were hundreds of buildings and other objects separating them, Chase was a speck in her vision that she would not lose now that she had it.

Not even when he abruptly shadow-jumped to a different part of the city. She turned again, unerringly. She had the scent now, and he wasn’t getting away that easily.

First, preparations. The spell she wove using only the exertion of her mind; no reagents, no gestures even, simply a matrix of arcane and infernal energy crafted into an invisible cage on the rooftop, half-completed so as to allow its target to move within, ready to be finished and snare him once he was in position. That took only moments longer. The more time it spent here, the more likely someone would find it—or blunder into it—but she did not expect this to take long enough for that to become an issue.

Tellwyrn opened her eyes, studying the flows of magic through her spectacles. Everything was in order; no reason to delay further.

Teleportation was a specialty of hers; many mages hesitated to use it in cities at all, particularly in crowded areas, but Tellwyrn had no trouble planting herself abruptly in an opening in the crowd barely big enough to accommodate her. She ignored the cursing and single shriek that resulted from her sudden arrival, focusing only on Chase.

She had appeared right in front of him, which wasn’t deliberate; any arrival point within a few feet would have ensured the reaction she wanted. He had apparently just slipped out of an alleyway and was heading down a busy sidewalk, but now skidded to a halt to avoid running right into her.

For one second, they locked eyes in silence.

“Okay, y’got me,” Chase said with a bashful grin, raising his hands. “I’m away from campus without permission. I was gonna get a note from Miss Sunrunner, but—”

Doubtless he thought he was being clever by shadow-jumping away mid-sentence, but no amount of infernal mastery made his reaction time a match for an elf’s. Tellwyrn’s eyes shifted minutely, following the trail he made through spacetime, which was at the same time a tunnel connecting two points and those points being brought to the same location for a moment. Like most such effects, this made no sense to minds accustomed to classical physics; it had taken her several decades of practice to be able to do that without suffering crippling nausea and a migraine, but a wizard’s mind was flexible.

Intercepting and redirecting a shadow-jump was doubtless part of the knowledge Chase had been granted; at least, Elilial definitely knew the technique. Just because he understood the theory, though, did not mean he could do it. That required a great deal of practice; it was as much a matter of intuition as skill. Countering that technique was a whole order of magnitude harder. Even she would have been hard-pressed to manage it, which was one of the reasons she disdained shadow-jumping. Chase had no chance.

Tellwyrn teleported back to her rooftop, arriving at the same moment Chase’s interrupted dimensional jump spat him out right into the middle of the snare array. It instantly closed like the jaws of a bear trap, meeting his own reflexive defenses.

With more time and attention she could have carefully crafted a spell to ensnare a specific foe, but it hadn’t even been necessary in this case. Chase was no wizard; he wasn’t even a proper warlock, just a silly boy with powers he didn’t respect or deserve. His instinctive reactions were exactly as she had assumed, a retaliatory use of infernal magic to disrupt the arcane element of the snare and try to convert it per the Circles of Interaction to a form he could subvert. Then, he encountered the spell’s infernal component and wasted precious seconds being stymied.

“Oh ho!” Chase exclaimed, grinning in delight. “Someone’s been dabbling in the dark arts herself! Shame on you, Arachne, and after you present yourself as such an upstanding—”

A proper caster of any kind would also know better than to try engaging in repartee while already in a battle of magic. She could have arranged an even more complex spell to finish trapping him while he stopped to jabber. Knowing Chase as she did, this outcome was predictable enough that it would have been a safe bet. Again, though, there was no need to have bothered. She simply applied the last element of the spell.

The divine magic that flared around them was pure white and of an intensity that met and incinerated the infernal he was trying to use. Not that in her own spell, though; that had been arranged beforehand in precisely the proper configuration. Magic of the third school fit neatly into the existing array.

The whole thing collapsed inward, plunging to a single point in the middle of Chase’s aura like a balloon popping in reverse. Arcane, infernal and divine energy clamped down on and through him, settling over his mind and his very being like a solid shield and cutting him off from accessing magic.

Any magic.

“…okay, I’ll hand it to you,” he said aloud after a moment. “That I was not expecting. But…you know, in hindsight, I dunno why.” Again, he grinned insouciantly, not in the lease perturbed by his predicament. “All those thousands of years doing nothing but chasing down gods and getting their attention, it’s downright idiotic of me and everyone else not to have guessed. So, whose priestess are you? Wait, don’t tell me! It’s Vidius, isn’t it? In the stories you always got along real well with him.”

She continued to ignore his prattling, already weaving another spell. This one was visible, since she felt no need to conceal it, and Chase stopped talking to warily eyeball the circles of arcane blue that appeared around him, rotating and marked with glyphs.

“Hnh,” Tellwyrn grunted, eyes tracking rapidly back and forth as she extracted data on the spells he had recently cast, pulling the information directly from his own aura. “And there it is, the infamous curse. It really was you.”

For once, he seemed to have nothing to say. The binding did not restrict him physically, but he just stood there. Even Chase Masterson wasn’t daffy enough to think trying to escape or attack her would lead anywhere useful.

“And…oh, Chase.” She shook her head. “Of all the idiotic… You know, embarrassingly, it was Ezzaniel and not one of the magic professors who came up with the theory that you were reacting like a Vanislaad. He’ll be insufferably smug about this. But honestly, you summoned one and destroyed its soul to absorb that aspect? There is a reason warlocks don’t do that, Chase! Because any warlock knows where his soul will go in the end, and refrains from doing things which will ensure Prince Vanislaas spends an eternity ripping him a series of new ones!”

“Eh,” he said lightly, shrugging and regaining his characteristic grin. “I bet I can take him. It’ll all work out for me in the end. It always does.”

“You sad little idiot,” she grunted, already studying the cluster of data that was his sleeping curse in four dimensions. It really was hellishly complex, pun entirely relevant. She could crack this, though. It might take time, but certainly less than Alaric, Bradshaw and the others would have to spend.

“Hey, you’re supposed to be my teacher. If I’m an idiot, whose fault is that?”

She consigned the data to a carefully partitioned-off segment of her memory and focused on him again.

“Who else?” she asked curtly.

“Ah.” Chase stuck his hands in his pockets and smirked at her. He was dressed for a Last Rock winter—which wasn’t even properly a winter—but despite the snow scattered around the roof and the sharp wind, he didn’t even shiver. “That’s right, you’ll be wanting to know who else got a brainjob from the Dark Lady. How many, what they know, the whole works. Well, that seems like important information, doesn’t it? Not to mention, and I don’t mind admitting it, the only thing I’ve got to bargain with, here. So, say I’m in a mood to be accommodating. What’s in it for me?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “You have to know you’ll tell me anything I want to hear, in the end.”

Chase gazed back at her with that insufferable little smirk for a long moment. She waited; his patience was no match for hers and they both knew it. Slowly, the smirk receded, but rather than intimidated, his expression grew thoughtful.

“Why’d you ever bring me here, Arachne? Oh, not this.” Grinning, he gestured around at the empty rooftop. “No, I totally get this part right here. I meant…the school. Your big infamous University for future heroes and villains and other things that haven’t been things since the Age of Adventures. Me, just some fucking guy who got chucked out of a lodge. I never understood it, but I wasn’t gonna look that gift horse in the mouth. But seriously, since we’re here… Why? Tell me that. What the fuck was I ever doing at that school?”

Tellwyrn pursed her lips, debating internally. Well, if all he wanted was conversation, that cost her nothing. It was one of the less troublesome paths to an accord.

“Are you aware, Chase, of just how you are…different?”

“I think the word you mean to use there is ‘defective,’” he replied with a wink. “Oh, not that I think I am. Mostly I notice that almost everyone but me are hypocritical idiots obsessed with mushy shit that objectively does not matter. They don’t even really believe it, either; we just all have to pretend, because that what you’ve gotta do to live in a society. I’ve always had a feeling that you, of all people, knew better.”

“That mushy shit is what makes everything possible,” she said, heaving a sigh. “Empathy begets cooperation; cooperation begets everything else. You think you’re so special? Without people connecting to each other, working together, you’d be special running naked through the woods searching for tubers and grubs to eat. Civilization is a product of people being able to look into one another and see reflections of themselves. And Chase…you should know better than that by now.”

“Ah, yes, here it comes,” he said sagely. “The long speech about how I suck. Lay it on me, teach.”

“I had a friend,” she said, shifting her eyes to gaze at the city’s distant walls. “Morgan Corrassan. A charming asshole who loved fun a lot more than self-preservation, like you. Just like you, Chase. Anth’auwa, as the elves say: missing that little piece in the brain that contains your connections to other thinking, feeling beings. But the thing is…my friend Morgan figured out how to get along in the world. He made himself useful, was always friendly and kind to others, spoke respectfully to authority figures. Hell, the man carried candy around to give to children every time we passed through a village. Do you think he gave a shit about them? Children were just particularly annoying meat-marionettes as far as he was concerned. Morgan got it, Chase. He grasped that the way to succeed in life was to be a source of pleasure and utility to others. That society is a thing you can neither ignore nor spit on without consequences. He and I had some crazy times together—this was back when dungeon-delving was a legitimate career. Every time I needed someone really reliable, there was always good ol’ Morgan. Because, in a way, he was more stable than a so-called normal person. His issues were comprehensible; I always knew exactly what he was, what he was about, and what might cause him to turn on me. So I never let that happen. A normal person might do any goddamn thing at all—people are as skittish and irrational as horses at the best of times. If you know how to handle them, if they know how to handle themselves, anth’auwa can be some of the best friends out there.” She shook her head slowly, turning back to him. “Morgan died a rich man, at the age of seventy, in bed from a stroke. On silk sheets, under a literal pile of prostitutes. He willed his entire fortune to the Universal Church, and I will be eternally bitter about that because it’s a practical joke I will never top. That’s all it was, Chase. He wasn’t a better man than you. I don’t think terms like ‘better’ are even applicable to people like you. He just did the one thing you apparently couldn’t be bothered to: used his fucking brain.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” Chase said solemnly. “Truly, I am touched.”

“Most human societies have never worked out a way to cope with your kind,” she said, folding her arms and staring at him over the rims of her glasses. “Or even to recognize them. Plains and forest elves just expel anth’auwa from the tribe to be someone else’s problem. In Tar’naris, you would be identified and studied, and if found useful, put to work. Narisians are great ones for not wasting resources, and your nature does lend itself to particular fields. Someone with obsessive focus and no regard for the pain of others can make a fantastic surgeon, for example. Of course, they would also assign you a dedicated handler, and if you weren’t found to be useful enough to justify the expenses of keeping both yourself and your minder, you’d end up food for the spiders that make the silk. Then, of course, there are the Eserites; the Guild attracts anth’auwa. They probably think they’re doing the public a service by slitting their throats and dumping them in ravines. And I don’t have to tell you of all people how Shaathists react to the kinds of trouble you cause.”

“Oh, that wasn’t personal,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “They’ll take any excuse to boot boys out of the ol’ fraternity. More wives for whoever’s left.”

“It’s just a damn shame, is all,” she said quietly, still gazing at him. “So much potential, constantly going to waste. And worse, turning out to be a danger to society in most cases, because society fails to identify people with your condition and give them the support they’d need to turn out productive. It can be done; I’ve seen it done. There’s no reason it can’t be done on a large scale. You were my first real try, Chase.”

She twisted her mouth bitterly to one side.

“I am…disappointed.”

“Yeah? Sounds like quite the noble goal you’ve got going there.” Chase grinned broadly, stuck his hands back in his pockets and slouched nonchalantly. “It lines up really well with your oft-stated educational philosophy, too. Yeah, I actually have listened to all your talk about how every problem in the world is due to people not thinking. And you know what, maybe you’re not wrong about that. I don’t think that’s what went wrong here.” He grin broadened. “Maybe, Arachne, you’ve just bitten off more than you can chew with this one. Maybe it’s a worthwhile goal, and ought to be left up to a competent teacher.”

The wind whistled across the space between them, carrying with it the chill of late winter and the hubbub of the city. Tellwyrn shifted her gaze to stare past his shoulder, and pushed her spectacles back up her nose.

“So, anyhow!” Chase said in a cheerful tone. “Here we are. I still have information you need, so the question is: what’s it worth to you for me to cooperate, hmm?”

“I confess I had hoped you’d start acting in your own best interests, belatedly,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Of course, I came prepared to get it out of you by whatever other means proved necessary. Circumstance does tend to intervene, though. Now that we’re all here, I think I’ll just let her take care of it.”

He blinked, his grin faltering, but it returned in full force the next moment. “Oh, come on, that’s downright insulting. You don’t think I’m gonna fall for—”

Probably expecting Tellwyrn to intervene, Vadrieny came swooping in at a low angle and high speed. She slowed just enough to snatch Chase without maiming him, but in the next instant had pumped her wings and shot upward in an arc carrying her straight for the walls, captive clutched firmly in her claws. It was only seconds more before they were out of sight, an orange streak of fire vanishing above the horizon.

Tellwyrn sighed softly. “You may as well come out. I assume you wanted to talk to me, since you showed up in person. Admirably quick response time, by the way.”

“Truth be told, I had scryers on standby watching for something else when you started flinging spells around.” At the other end of the roof, near the fire escape, Quentin Vex materialized out of the air in the act of removing an invisibility ring from his finger. “You’re not going to stop her?” he asked, pacing forward to join the Professor.

“Oh, I will be having words with that girl about what she’s doing here instead of where I directed her to be,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But later. With regard to this… No, that’s an acceptable resolution. She’s heading west by northwest, toward Tar’naris. The drow will get any answers needed out of him. They are better prepared to handle both warlocks and anth’auwa than you or I are, frankly. And whatever else they do to the little shit, he’s brought on himself. So!” She turned to face him directly. “Sorry my little bag of tricks distracted your attention, but since it’s you and not half the Azure Corps here to greet me, you must want something.”

“Well, this is rather embarrassing,” Vex replied, “but I’m afraid we’ve had a problem containing a local…issue. And it has come to affect us both.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that a cabal of treasonous individuals loyal to the Archpope above the Empire have been rounded up and arrested over the course of the last two days. Most were members of various cults, and the cults have taken point on this. A group of two dozen Imperial soldiers, however, slipped our net, stole a zeppelin, and according to its last sighting, are heading toward Last Rock.”

“…why?” Tellwyrn asked in a dangerously calm tone.

“Come, Professor, you have to know all the events going on here are interconnected. Justinian’s sticky fingerprints are all over the mess in Puna Dara, and while this is the first solid indication I’ve had that he’s also involved in your problems out there, it doesn’t surprise me. Does it you?”

She grunted. “Well, Lorelin Reich is in Last Rock again. Two dozen troops, hm. Where’s that zeppelin now?”

“I don’t know,” he said, scowling. “That’s the problem. Probably somewhere over the Green Belt by now, but they know very well that if they come withing range of any mag cannon emplacements they’ll be shot down. So they aren’t. The farther they get into the Great Plains, the more empty space there is in which to hide.”

“I’m not sure what you expect me to do,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Scrying the location of a moving vehicle isn’t as easy as that, or your people would just do it yourselves. By far the most effective action here would be to use another, faster flying unit, and go search.”

“I don’t expect you to do any specific thing, Professor,” Vex said, resuming his customary mild smile. “I just thought you deserved to know about the group of armed men and women apparently planning to intervene on your campus. And to know that the Empire has already written the airship off. Anyone reducing it to shrapnel would be doing the Silver Throne a service. But, with that message delivered, I had better get back to my increasingly exhausting duties. Always a pleasure, Professor.”

He bowed politely to her, then turned and ambled back toward the fire escape. Tellwyrn watched him go, and waited until he reached the street below before acting.

She devoted two solid minutes to cursing under her breath, cycling through twelve languages. At last, still grumbling to herself, she held out a hand.

A polished wooden flute popped out of midair into her grasp. She lifted the instrument to her lips and began to play. Only a few bars of music emerged before yet another person stepped out of thin air onto the rooftop; after her earlier seeking spell, he had probably been waiting specifically for this.

“Seven down,” Zanzayed the Blue crowed, a living portrait of smugness, “three to go! Have you given any thought to names yet, darling? Me, I’ve already picked out curtains for the nursery. Blue, obviously.”

“If it ever gets as high as nine, I’ll just drop the damn thing into the Azure Sea,” she snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself any more than you can absolutely help, Zanza. When have you ever gotten the better of me in the long run?”

“Now, now, poppet, if you were going to get rid of it you’d have done so when we first made our little bet. And at seven of ten allowed favors invoked, I am numerically winning. So!” He grinned a particularly insufferable grin. “How may I be of service?”

“You’re going to think this is dreadfully prosaic,” she said dryly, “but I need a ride.”

 

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13 – 25

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“Too quiet,” Vex murmured, ignoring or not seeing the annoyed glances both Bishops gave him.

Cliche aside, he was correct. This was just a cargo warehouse attached to the zeppelin docks; it wouldn’t have been bustling when not actively in use. Still, it was nominally a military facility, and the complete lack of guards wasn’t right.

Vex gestured, and the five men and women in plain clothes accompanying him immediately scattered into the surrounding outbuildings. Basra started to follow one, but Darling grabbed her by the shoulder. From the look she shot him, he thought for a moment she was going to go for her sword, but in the next instant she had gone still again, turning to stare intently at the warehouse where their trap was supposed to have been laid.

Supposed was the word of the day. All this would have been over before midnight, had anything gone according to plan, and yet here it was pushing mid-morning and the three of them were still chasing their tails all over the city—and now, beyond it. They were in the fortified town across the bridge from Tiraas on the eastern edge of the canyon, still legally part of the capital, but to Darling at least this didn’t feel like his city.

They were all running on static at this point. Even Vex’s unflappable demeanor was starting to fray. Despite Darling’s concern, Basra hadn’t caused any problems since being separated from High Commander Rouvad hours ago; as she grew more exhausted, she grew more focused, until by this point she seemed to see only whatever obstacle was right in front of her with no context. That had several times raised difficulties, but at least was easier to manage than Darling had feared. He had seen her cooped up for days with people she didn’t like; seeing her run ragged wasn’t nearly as bad.

“What were you expecting to find?” Darling asked quietly.

“Having the storage facility’s usual personnel cleared out was part of the plan,” Vex replied, staring fixedly at the warehouse. Oddly, when he actually was tired, he didn’t put on his usual sleepy expression. “We coaxed no less than twenty disaffected Imperial personnel here, most of them military, five magic-users; last thing we want is dockworkers and admins caught in some kind of crossfire. But, if my agents had secured the targets as planned, one would have met us. There are signals they should have placed if that was not possible, and none are displayed. I sent four of my best here, and something’s happened to them.”

“Four,” Basra said curtly, “against twenty.”

“Four of mine,” he retorted. “Ordinarily that should have been plenty.”

One of Vex’s spies suddenly re-emerged from a gap between the warehouse and the fortress wall, crossing to them with long strides.

“No sign of the targets,” he reported without preamble. “Four people are inside the warehouse, tied to chairs, bags over their heads. I observed one moving. Two in Army uniform, no way to confirm identities.”

“That screams trap,” Basra said.

Vex glanced at her but spoke to his agent. “Any sign that our trap went off, Marshal?”

“No telling, sir. The gas leaves no visible traces, and our people would have concealed the tanks.”

The spymaster drew in a breath and let it out through his nose. “If the traitors were deft enough to thwart our agents, Syrinx is right; their best move would have been to use them as bait and lure us into our own trap. All right, you know the protocol. Go in and get them out, but sweeping for triggers the whole way. I don’t want anybody else caught in this cock-up.”

The man nodded once, turned, and strode back in the direction whence he had come.

“So…we just wait?” Basra demanded irritably.

“Intelligence work is a lot like soldiering,” Vex replied, “at least insofar as it involves a lot of tedious standing around.”

Another of his agents reappeared, this time from behind them.

“Sir, there’s an additional situation,” she reported. “None of the zeppelin dock’s personnel are present; our plan didn’t involve removing them. The command tower is locked and seems to have been barricaded from the inside.”

Vex’s eyes narrowed, then darted back and forth rapidly as if he were studying equations no one else could see.

“Avelea,” he said suddenly. “How many zeps should be at this dock?”

“Just the stanbys, sir,” Nora Avelea replied. The only agent Vex had kept by his side, she had been the soul of professionalism apart from being notably frosty to Darling. Well aware of her issues with the Guild, he had opted not to make a thing of it. “Almost the whole fleet is deployed right now, between the mission to Shengdu and flood relief in Thakar. This dock should only have two staffships and two troop transports at the ready.”

Vex nodded to her, glanced once at the Bishops, then turned and strode away. Basra immediately followed, Darling coming along after only a momentary hesitation. Avelea fell into step behind him, slipping a hand into her pocket in a gesture he was certain she’d meant him to observe.

“What are we doing?” Basra demanded.

“Taking a quick headcount,” Vex said cryptically. He was leading them toward the nearest stairs that led to the fortress wall, which in this case meant a corner turret that housed a mag cannon emplacement. Darling noted the lack of soldiers on patrol, which was not right, before they passed into the tower stairwell. The four of them climbed quickly but in silence, apart from Basra’s barely-audible muttering.

Even she fell silent when they emerged onto the artillery platform overlooking the actual zeppelin docks.

Both staffships were tied up to the tower dock, high enough that they could see the weapons bristling from their undercarriages below the gas capsules. Proper mag cannons were far too powerful to mount on an airship; firing one would send the vessel into an uncontrollable spin. An Imperial staff ship had a bomb bay, four grenade launchers, and eighteen staff emplacements, the latter weapons augmented for range and power beyond that of the average battlestaff, which was about the most that could be used from a lighter-than-air vehicle. There was no sign of any personnel in the tower or aboard the ships, either.

And there was a single, much larger troop transport moored at the lower docks.

“They stole,” Basra said incredulously, “a zeppelin? Vex, you can track those, right?”

“They carry locator charms, obviously,” he replied, staring down at the docks. “To pull this off they’d have needed the aid of zeppelin personnel, who would know where to find those and how to disable them. What we cannot yet do, though, is render them invisible, so wherever they went, they’ll have been seen. Damn it, I’ll have to return to headquarters to get the reports I need to follow up on this… Antonio, suppose this were a job you were running. You’re fleeing in an airship. What’s your next move?”

“Well,” Darling said, leaning against the parapet and frowning at the lone remaining transport, “step one would be to throw the assclown whose idea that was off the damn airship. A zeppelin is the worst possible choice of getaway vehicle. They aren’t fast, agile, or stealthy. You can’t even have a fall guy head in one direction with it while the rest go in another, since you can’t board or disembark from it without landing the whole thing.”

“Parachutes,” Basra pointed out.

“Yes,” Vex said, stroking his chin. “They could jump, leave it adrift, and scatter into the countryside…if all they want is to get away. But if they’re going somewhere in particular…”

Abruptly, he turned and strode back to the stairs.

“Where would they go?” Basra demanded, again following.

“They have no safe havens,” Vex said as they descended. “Twenty troopers, even with a few casters among them, aren’t a match for any significant military emplacements. Even most House guards could repel them. It’s enough to intervene effectively in an already-upset situation, though, if they do it right. If these are going for one of Justinian’s projects… It’ll be Puna Dara or Last Rock.”

“Last Rock?” Darling exclaimed.

“Justinian is throwing these people under the carriage, remember,” Basra added.

As they emerged into the courtyard again, Vex cast a cool glance over them. This was a tense moment; ostensibly, the two of them worked for the Archpope in this regard. But both of them knew the broad strokes of what was really going on, and Vex had to know they knew. The question was what Vex knew about their actual loyalties.

Hell, even Darling didn’t know Basra’s actual loyalties, if she truly had any, and he knew that his own vagueness on the subject was a sore point with the Imperial government.

“Sending them into a battle would be a very convenient way of getting rid of them,” Vex said suddenly, breaking the tense silence, “and potentially a way to tip the balance of one in the process. Justinian rarely does anything with only one purpose. I can’t prove he’s behind the unfolding situations in either place, of course, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know damn well he is. And he knows I know, and so on, endlessly. We need to get back to the capital. Avelea, I’m leaving you in charge of this operation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I have to find out where that damn zeppelin went,” Vex said to the Bishops, already striding back toward the fortress entrance with them moving to flank him while Marshal Avelea peeled off to intercept two more Intelligence agents coming to report. “Antonio, can you wrangle the Church end of this?”

“What’s to wrangle? At last check-in, that was going well, Sisterhood aside.”

Basra made a sound like a cranky rattlesnake.

“That is my concern,” Vex replied, “and why I need Bishop Syrinx elsewhere. Will the Huntsmen listen to you, if you need to give orders?”

“Maybe,” Darling said. “If not, they’ll listen to Andros Varanus, and he’ll listen to me.”

“Good enough, I suppose,” the spymaster grunted.

“And what is it you want from me, now?” Basra demanded.

This touched painfully on the reason the night’s operation had gone so poorly. On the Church’s end, only the cults of Eserion and Shaath had been confirmed clean of conspirators, and as both cultivated physical prowess as a matter of course, they were being used to corral targets from the other cults. Most of the cult leaders had signed on for this, but upon learning of this development, High Commander Rouvad had abruptly reversed course and dug her heels in. She remained adamant that no Sister of Avei, traitorous or not, would be placed in the custody of Huntsmen or Guild enforcers. In the end, Darling had had to steer Basra out of the Commander’s office before she could complicate the situation further by getting herself excommunicated.

“The Sisterhood is close to the military,” Vex said. “We already suspect that’s how these have kept a step ahead of us all night; until Rouvad manages to clean house, the Silver Legions are compromised. We know of one existing conspiracy target which you sent trusted soldiers to protect last night, but that was when we thought all of this would be wrapped up by now. Your Grace, did you make arrangements to have those soldiers relieved by other, also specifically trusted troops, or to remain at their post past time for a shift change? Because otherwise, Legion protocol…”

“Shit!” Basra hissed. “If they’ve still got enough women in the Legions they’d have gone right for…”

“Exactly,” Vex said grimly.

“How could that still be a priority of theirs?” Darling asked skeptically.

“Tamisin Sharvineh’s personal security has foiled no less than nine assassination attempts since she moved into that house,” Vex replied. “These conspirators penetrated it—and then took out Carruthers Treadwell, who knew nothing damaging that my people hadn’t already uncovered, thus gaining nothing and adding murder to the charges against them. They’ve now stolen an Imperial zeppelin, which is an incredible feat of skullduggery and a damned stupid thing to do given how little they can do with that vehicle. These people have no overarching strategy, Antonio, or at best a laughably bad one, but they are devastatingly effective in their individual tactics. Attacking your apprentices again is foolish, pointless…”

“And entirely in character,” Basra finished, curling her lip. “Trissiny Avelea’s in that group. The greatest risk is an outcome that will let valuable witnesses or dangerous agents slip away. The girl’s improving under the Guild’s tutelage but she is not capable of containing this. Not yet.”

“Bloody hell,” Darling muttered. “Right then, I’ll head to the Church to coordinate. Quentin, you’ll have to check with your people… And Bas, I suppose all you can do is make for Sharvineh’s place and hope they’re still there.”

“If they’re not,” she said flatly, “it’ll mean those idiots have harmed one of my paladin’s little friends. In which case I’ll just have to follow the smoke and bloodstains.”


The sound cut through the noise of the increasingly agitated city, the rush of air over her wings, and even the gathering fury of the oncoming storm. It was both sweet and vile, a sound that was not quite a sound—something that Vadrieny knew, though she couldn’t recall how, was meant for her alone.

She was soaring above Puna Dara, and had been on her way back to the palace, when it appeared in the air all around. Now, she changed course, unconsciously zeroing in on the source of the high, thin noise. That, by itself, was bizarre; she had never been able to do that before. For a moment, she hesitated. In part to reassure herself that she could, and indeed, the sound had no hold over her; she swooped back toward the harbor, and immediately was blasted off course by a burst of wind that was very likely not a coincidence. The wind was the irate sea goddess’s doing, though; the sound was something else entirely. It was not coming from the sea.

It tugged at her, though, and she decided to investigate. If nothing else, this sudden intervention at this of all times demanded some kind of response.

Following it was as easy as falling; it was as if the noise left a trail through the air, like a scent to a bloodhound. Vadrieny swooped toward a flat roof in Puna Dara’s market district. Even through the rain starting to fill the air, she clearly saw a figure standing there alone, wearing a white suit.

And holding up a bell wrought from black metal.

She arced high overhead, then abruptly plummeted down, spreading her wings at the last moment to slow herself and land with a solid thump, but not enough force to crash through.

“You have some nerve,” the archdemon snarled.

“Me?” Embras Mogul lowered his peculiar bell, putting on a wounded expression. “I have some nerve? One of us just spat in a goddess’s eye, young lady, and it wasn’t me. That was an impressive move, incidentally, trapping Naphthene in her own nature. She doesn’t dare invite the Dark Lady’s personal fury by striking you directly, not standing apart from the Pantheon as she does, but she also cannot ignore a challenge that direct. Very clever. Which, of course, is how I know it was Teal’s idea.”

“What do you want?” she snapped. “I am busy and have nothing to say to you unless you want to discuss your betrayal in Veilgrad.”

“I’ve never betrayed you in Veilgrad or anywhere else, you little thug,” the warlock replied, his smile abruptly vanishing. “I saved your friends’ lives by keeping them away from those chaos freaks. Furthermore, you know this quite well, and these histrionics are unworthy of you. Let me explain some things to you, Vadrieny. Your mother’s orders are that you be kept out of the events unfolding in the world, now that you don’t have your sisters’ protection. It’s not in my power to keep you out, but I am certainly barred from drawing you in. More to the point, you are the absolute last creature I want mucking around in my carefully laid plans. You’ve never been anything but a flying ball of brute force. How much esteem do you think the cult of the goddess of cunning ever had for you?” He actually took an aggressive step toward her, tilting his head up to glare at he from beneath the brim of his omnipresent hat, which somehow remained firmly attached to his bald head despite the gathering gale. “Would you like to learn how many of your sisters tried to arrange for your demise, hmm? Lucky for you, Azradeh had a soft spot for you from the beginning, and she was by far the smartest of the lot, which is saying something. I bet you can guess who the least clever was.”

“Are you serious?” she said incredulously, too astonished to be hurt. “You called me down here, in the middle of all this, just to insult me?”

“I am making a point,” he retorted. “You think everything I do is calculated to manipulate you toward my own ends, because you’ve absorbed the Church’s paranoia about your mother’s own cult. Look at it from my point of view, Vadrieny. If you were me, would you want you to…” He curled his lip. “…help?”

“I wonder,” she said, stepping toward him, “if I took your head off, would that finally prompt my mother to speak to me? It’s beginning to sound increasingly worth trying. She has some things I want explained.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind and you know it,” he snorted. “Teal could never bear that. I called you here, Vadrieny, because somebody wants a word with you. Somebody who means you no good. I have decided to make it easier for him to find you explicitly so that I can supervise this conversation—not because I have nothing better to be doing right now, but because your mother wants you looked after to the best of our ability.”

“Who are you talking about?” she demanded.

His eyes cut past her shoulder, beneath the fiery arch of her wing, and he nodded once.

She whirled to find herself facing a wood elf wearing a pinstriped suit and an insolent grin, who had definitely not been there when she approached from above. His blonde hair was slicked back in a style that popular fiction associated with sleazy salesmen and Thieves’ Guild enforcers; whatever held it in place was apparently more than a match for the wind howling in off the sea.

“Top of the morning to ya!” the elf said with ebullient cheer. “I just caught the tail end of that, but damn am I impressed! And not a little bit envious, I don’t mind admitting. Flipping off an actual deity is still on my to-do list. If I may be forgiven for presuming, I bet your mom is damn proud of you, missy.”

Vadrieny narrowed her eyes, then half-turned her head to speak over her shoulder.

“What, exactly, is this?”

“Calls himself the Jackal,” Mogul said disdainfully. “Murder for hire. Good at what he does and good for absolutely nothing else.”

“Somebody’s in a spiteful mood today,” the assassin said with a wink. “But anyway, Miss Vadrieny, I won’t take up too much of your time—I am here on behalf of my current long-term employer to deliver a message.”

“I don’t think I want to hear—”

“Chase Masterson has been outed as the Sleeper,” he said, raising his voice slightly over both her protest and the howl of the wind, and Vadrieny immediately fell silent, flexing her claws. “But wait, it gets better! He has also been recruited by the Imperial government and directed to Tiraas. Furthermore, your dear Professor Tellwyrn is on her way to kill his ass. If she gets to him first…no justice, and no cure for the sleeping curse.”

“Nonsense,” Vadrieny snapped. “Professor Tellwyrn would never do something so—”

His howl of derisive laughter tore through the wind. “Are you serious? Tellwyrn would never do something so…what? Reckless? Destructive? Selfish? Thoughtless? That is her entire three-thousand-year resume! Sure, she’s made a good show of acting like a civilized person the last few decades—more’s the pity, she used to be fun—but this is bigger than you, Masterson, or even her. People are pulling strings who know exactly what strings to pull and exactly how hard, and trust me, it’s not all that hard to make a creature like Tellwyrn revert to form. But hey, maybe you’re right! Maybe it’s all under control. Maybe you aren’t the only one who can get to Masterson first, deliver him to Narisian justice and secure the remedy for your lover. Excuse me, wife. Felicitations, by the way, sorry I missed the reception.”

“I don’t mind people trying to manipulate me,” Vadrieny snarled, “but being this blunt about it is just insulting my intelligence.”

“Lemme just draw a distinction there,” the Jackal said, holding up one finger. “I am acting on the orders of my employer, whom I do not like and about whose agenda I do not give one single fuck. In fact, I think it’d be smashing if he doesn’t get what he wants, for a change, so I’m gonna go ahead and offer you a little insight. Yes, he is trying to manipulate you, and not just you. Like I said, Tellwyrn’s strings are being yanked as well. Shit’s going down in both Puna Dara and Last Rock right now, and the guy holding my leash would prefer that it stay good and messy in both spots for a while longer. That means sending a wild goose to Tiraas that you and Tellwyrn can’t help chasing after: the Sleeper. You two are the most physically dangerous players in each location and getting you both out of the way is a means of making life harder for your various allies and prolonging the conflict.”

“Generous of you to be so…helpful,” Mogul said in a tone almost dry as the sky had been an hour ago.

“Let’s just say,” the Jackal drawled, “there are changes in the wind. I may be bound to…what’s his name…for now, but eventually he will go down. They all do, in the end. I wouldn’t mind if it’s remembered, at that time, that I am not his obedient lapdog.”

Vadrieny shifted sideways and stepped back, to keep both of them in view, but cocked her head slightly in Mogul’s direction.

“He’s been on permanent retainer for Archpope Justinian for the last few years,” the warlock said flatly. “Quite secretly, of course. This is the kind of man the Archpope cannot admit to consorting with.”

“A less credible accusation I’ve never heard,” she sneered. “You would blame the Archpope for the rain if you could get away with it.”

The Jackal chuckled. “If Embras Mogul starts blaming Vernisites for everything going wrong, that’s how you know he’s letting personal vendettas cloud his judgment. Anything else he has to say, you’d be wise to heed. I speak purely in the abstract, of course,” he added with a wink. “About this specific matter I have no comment.”

“The more I learn about Justinian,” Mogul added in a more thoughtful tone, “the more I suspect he is not actually on the Pantheon’s side.”

“Welp, sounds like you crazy kids have your own stuff to work out,” the Jackal said brightly. “Family stuff, religious stuff, and that’s a doozy of a combo if I ever heard one. I’ll leave you to it. Cheers!”

Vadrieny jerked toward him, but the elf had already produced a shadow-jumping talisman from his pocket and begun twisting it. He was grinning madly at her even as darkness swelled and swept him from view.

She halted, glaring at the space he had occupied. At this angle, she was facing the sea; the horizon was growing darker with a line of stormclouds that was coming ashore fast.

“No, I can’t help your friends,” Mogul said behind her. “I cannot imagine a scenario in which they would let me. Several of them chose to be even more unreasonable about Veilgrad than you are, which is really saying something.”

“I didn’t ask,” she said, turning to scowl at him.

“We are going to assist in keep the mess in Last Rock under control,” he continued.

“I don’t want you going near—”

“That is not up to you,” Mogul interrupted. “Just because I have to protect you doesn’t mean you get to order me around, missy. The Wreath has a vested interest in Tellwyrn’s research program; with that threatened, we will move to back her up. What you do now, with this warning, is entirely your call. Personally, I would ignore it.”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned to look again at the harbor. The Rock rose up from the shoreline, dominating the city; just past it, she could see the serpent, already struggling visibly to maintain its course in the increasingly choppy waters. In that fortress, her friends would be awaiting her return, already prepared to head into the tunnels.

Mogul sighed so heavily it was audible over the weather. “If you are going hunting, Vadrieny, either the Sleeper or the Rust… There’s something you should know. That sonic magic you have, the reason we chose to pair you with a bard…” He held up the bell again and shook it, causing that chime to resonate through her. “If nothing else, let me show you a trick.”

 

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