Tag Archives: Quentin Vex

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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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Bonus #21: Heavy is the Head, part 4

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“Are you sure this is an Izarite temple?”

It didn’t look like any kind of temple; the structure only stood out from its neighbors by the lack of a sign advertising what went on inside. This area was all business, mostly of the sort that catered directly to the public. The three-story stone edifice in front of them was slightly narrower than those flanking it; if anything, it looked like a medium-sized townhouse, though it was unlikely anyone who could afford such a residence would prefer to have it around here.

“As sure as I am that you’re asking out of sheer tension, and not as a dig at my intelligence,” Sharidan said without turning around. He lifted his fist and rapped sharply on the door again.

Eleanora snuck a glance over her shoulder. The crowd was approaching—slowly, reminding her more of a predator on the prowl than one which was closing on prey it had sighted. Still a predator, though. She knew very well how dangerous a mob was; whether or not they were looking for the Crown Prince or had any idea he was around, the fact that the two of them were clearly trying to get away could be enough to set them off, to judge by the blur of angry voices.

“Hurry up,” she muttered.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Sharidan said scathingly, turning to give her a look. “Forgive me, I’ll knock faster.”

He raised his hand to do so, but before it struck wood, the heavy door suddenly opened inward.

The man who stood in the doorway practically filled it. He made Eleanora think of a Stalweiss chieftain with modern attire and grooming; he was tall, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, square-jawed and handsome, his goatee neatly trimmed and dark brown hair only beginning to show flecks of silver at the temples and chin.

“Your Grace,” Sharidan said in a tone of clear relief.

The Bishop’s gray eyes flicked past him at the crowd approaching up the street, then widened slightly, and immediately he stepped backward out of the door. “Come in, please.”

They hardly needed to be asked.

“There’s a bit of a story behind this,” Sharidan began as Bishop Darnay carefully shut the door behind them.

“I will listen to anything you wish to share,” the Bishop said, pausing to shift a curtain aside from one of the narrow windows flanking the door and peer out, then turned to give them a smile. “But I see an apparent mob forming, and two people seeking shelter. That tells me all the story I need. We in Izara’s service are well accustomed to protecting the privacy of all who come to us.”

The prince cleared his throat softly, then grasped the silver ring on his finger and pulled it off, reverting to his normal appearance.

Apolitical as the Izarites tended to be, a Bishop was accustomed to exercising self-control, and Justinian Darnay betrayed startlement only in the sharp rise of his eyebrows, then almost immediately marshaled his expression. “I…see. That story must be more interesting than I’d first thought, though the same terms apply; you are safe here and I’ll ask nothing more personal than you feel the need to reveal.” He glanced at Eleanora, only the look itself betraying any curiosity, but true to his word did not pry. “If I am not mistaken, there was a demonstration by the Voters a few blocks over…”

“This appears to be them, yes,” Sharidan said, nodding and slipping the ring back on. “I have no reason to think they know who I am or even that I am out…but then, I don’t understand how this even happened. The military police would be watching a Voter rally like hawks. This should not be so out of hand.”

“It is my experience that unlikely things rarely happen unless made to,” Darnay replied, eyes narrowing in thought. “This is troubling. I hope you have some sort of protection coming? This structure is not designed to be defensible.”

“Intelligence will be closing in,” Sharidan replied. “As soon as they locate me, the Azure Corps will extract us.”

“Ah. Good.” The Bishop nodded, allowing himself a soft sigh of relief. “Then we need only wait, and hopefully not for long.”

“We are very sorry to involve you in this, your Grace,” Eleanora said.

He held up a hand, smiling at her. “You have nothing to apologize for, young lady. This is not a temple proper, but it is sacred to my goddess, and I am her priest. Any who need sanctuary here may claim it, and I will protect them to the utmost of my ability. I involved myself when I took my oaths, and no one else is responsible.”

They all paused as the roar outside swelled. Through the curtains, the light wavered as sources of illumination were brandished.

“Where did they even get torches?” Eleanora muttered.

Darnay had stepped back to the window and glanced out again. “Hm. They have stopped directly outside.”

She clasped Sharidan’s hand again. “Of course they have.”

“Anger, fear…unfocused.” Darnay’s voice had dropped to a murmur. “They were clearly provoked, but are not…controlled. I am fairly confident that this crowd is not hunting for you or anyone in particular, your Highness.” He released the curtain and turned back to them with a grave expression. “That grants us insight into the nature of the danger, I warn you, but does not necessarily lessen its degree. Rare is the mob that does not result in someone being hurt.”

“Bless Izara and her gifts,” Sharidan said.

The Bishop smiled, but even as he opened his mouth to reply, sharp crackles sounded in the room, accompanied by blue flashes. No less than four battlemages appeared, and immediately flowed into a formation around the prince.

“Stand down,” Sharidan barked at the one who had leveled a wand at Darnay. “That is a Bishop of the Universal Church, who just sheltered us!”

“I’m very relieved to hear that,” stated Quentin Vex, who had materialized while he was speaking. The agent bowed politely to the Bishop, who nodded in reply. “The thanks of the Throne, your Grace. At a less urgent moment, a more substantive show of gratitude—”

“Please.” Justinian held up a hand again. “One does not enter the priesthood with the expectation of reward. I share your relief, sir. Now that the prince and his companion are presumably safe, I will try to address that crowd.”

“I strongly advise against that, sir,” Quentin warned. “The situation is inherently unstable.”

“Precisely,” Darnay replied, “and when the troops get here, it will become more so before they can restore order. A mob is not a colony of lichen; it is people. Their fear and anger is individual, and often reminding them of that is enough to defuse incipient violence.” He had moved back to the door, but paused with his hand on the latch. “Please forgive me for making this terse, but the sooner his Highness is removed from the area, the better.”

“I have to concur,” Quentin replied. “Once again, our deepest thanks. And now, you two have an audience with her Majesty.”

“Excuse me, what?” Eleanora said in alarm. “Surely you don’t mean me as well.”

“I’m afraid I do, my lady.” It was an oddly touching moment; the look of commiseration he gave her showed the first open sentiment Quentin had directed at her personally. “Her Majesty’s explicit, personal orders.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Sharidan muttered. Not even the squeeze he gave her hand made that comforting.

“Gentlemen, take us out,” Quentin ordered. Before Eleanora could say anything else, the world dissolved in an arcane flash.


Empress Theasia’s personal chamber was large, but not excessively opulent. It was dim at four in the morning; the Empress had not seen fit to ignite any of the fairy lamps, but a servant had stoked the fire to provide them enough illumination to converse. Altogether, had Eleanora not known they were in the harem wing of the Imperial Palace, she could have taken this for the bedroom of someone about her own rank, if not less.

Theasia herself was a handsome woman with graying hair drawn back in a severe bun, and rectangular spectacles perched on her nose which were not often in evidence in her public appearances. In fact, this woman looked almost startlingly unlike Eleanora’s recent recollections of her. She had never been this close before, but she remembered a woman as regal in her attire as in bearing and surroundings. Now, Theasia wore a plush robe, and was seated in a simple wooden chair with a quilt covering her lap, and over that, a tray upon which rested a small tea service. Altogether the whole arrangement made her seem almost…frail. Certainly older than her forty-seven years.

Of course, Eleanora herself was in an open-collared shirt and trousers, with her hair awkwardly tousled and feet not only bare, but filthy from running on the city streets. The comparison, she was painfully aware, did not favor her.

She made them wait in silence while fixing her tea the way she liked it. Even being aware of that transparent tactic, Eleanora could not help being affected by it, and tried to blunt the induced nerves by focusing on details, imagining she was gathering data for some potential political purpose. One never knew what might prove useful. The Empress, she noted, used cane sugar rather than honey in her tea. Unsurprising given her position, but after Mary the Crow’s infamous decimation of the plantations in Onkawa, sugar was a rather grandiose affectation—

“So,” Theasia said suddenly, and Eleanora loathed herself and the Empress both for being made to jump, “how did you enjoy meeting the next Archpope?”

They stared at her blankly.

“Ah, yes,” the Empress said, fractionally lifting one eyebrow. “You two have been everywhere except church, I suppose. Archpope Allaine has announced her upcoming retirement. Just tonight—well, last night, technically. Late in the evening, as the day came to a close, so much of the city is not even aware, yet, and won’t be till the morning papers are printed.”

“If the Bishops are to elect a new Archpope,” Sharidan said slowly, “the last I heard, Sebastian Throale was considered the favorite…”

“There is an interesting pattern of events unfolding in my city,” Empress Theasia said, and paused to take a sip of her tea. “Most interesting. A populist movement rising in the streets—well-funded and organized, and in contrast to the usual pattern of such things, emerging in the absence of a general public unrest. House Turombi has moved to the capital and been busy making a public spectacle of itself. Declarations by the orcish clans that their vendetta against Tiraas shall never be forgiven are being granted a purely odd amount of attention in the papers, and the rumor mill in general. It’s not new, and it’s not as if they can even leave Sifan, but suddenly everyone finds this fascinating. There is tension between the Colleges of the Collegium of Salyrene, tensions between the cults, tensions between the traditional bards and the new forms of media. Seemingly unprompted public debate about the impotence of Imperial power in Viridill, how the province is a province in name only. Recent actions by Houses Aldarasi and Madouri, individually petty flexings of muscle serving to remind the Throne that they are still a power to be respected. Unrest in the Stalwar provinces, this time coupled with public support for reforms in the treatment of the Stalweiss. You see?”

Eleanora frowned. Pattern? That was a random sampling of current events, none of it connected…

Sharidan, though, was quicker on the uptake than she, this time. “The Enchanter Wars,” he breathed. Theasia smiled very faintly, inclining her head in the tiniest nod. He caught Eleanora’s eye and explained. “Houses Turombi and Tirasian butting heads, Houses Aldarasi and Madouri asserting power, public revolts, bards stirring the pot, orcish aggression, a Salyrite schism…”

“The Sisterhood asserting independence,” she said, catching on. “The Stalweiss rising up… Yes, those were the factional ingredients of the Enchanter Wars! But…I still don’t see what the connection is…”

“The rhetoric is already starting,” Theasia said, taking another sip. Eleanora would have killed for some tea… “The need for restoration of order, this being no time for rash action. Don’t forget that the major cause of the Enchanter Wars, the catalyst of all those lines of conflict, was the last Hand of Salyrene. Magnan built the Enchanter’s Bane, his pressure upon the Silver Throne caused both the crackdown on witches and the deployment of the Bane on Athan’Khar. His private war on fae magic tore his cult apart and the Universal Church with it. No, with all this going on, the prospect of an Archpope Sebastian is all but gone. The Bishops will not elect a Salyrite in this climate.”

“It seems rather…tenuous,” Eleanora said doubtfully.

“Did you learn nothing from your brush with the Voters?” Theasia asked scathingly. “This is what elections are. People are irrational creatures, and nothing squelches their reason like encouraging them to make decisions in large groups. Democracy is nothing but rule by whoever has the best propaganda, even in a venue as small as the Bishopric.”

“But Mother,” Sharidan asked, frowning, “what does all of this have to do with the Izarite Bishop?”

The Empress sipped her tea. “We cannot yet link him to anything criminal, but Justinian Darnay was the direct impetus for far too many of those factors. He is your father’s special correspondent, Eleanora. The one who planted the idea of coming to Tiraas to angle for prestige. He has a similarly cozy relationship with the Sultana of Calderaas and the Duke of Madouris; Darnay is altogether uncommonly interested in having noble friends for an Izarite. He also is fond of reaching across the aisle to support the initiatives of other cults—such as the Avenists and Veskers suddenly asserting themselves. He’s even spoken in public of the need for mourning and ongoing repentance for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. He also tried to involve other players who would be reminders of the Enchanter Wars, though King Rajakhan proved too intelligent to let himself be drawn into Imperial politics, and Arachne Tellwyrn ignored his overtures, if she noticed them at all. Bless that woman’s staggering arrogance, if it serves to keep her out of my city.”

“I…see,” Sharidan said slowly. “That is certainly suggestive, Mother. But how does it result in him being elected Archpope?”

“I don’t know, Sharidan,” Theasia replied. “What I know is that he arranged all this without me even noticing that he was doing it until Allaine dropped her little surprise, and the pattern suddenly became clear. Justinian Darnay used to be an adventurer, did you know that? A healing cleric of the classic style, traveling with groups of heavily-armed nomadic malcontents. There was a period of fourteen years in which there is no record of where he was, or doing what. Talking to whom. And ever since, he has perfectly played the innocuous, apolitical, universally compliant Izarite—which quite incidentally has gained him more favors and friends than practically any of the other Bishops.”

“Who are the other likely prospects?” Eleanora heard herself ask.

The Empress gave her an unreadable look over the lenses of her spectacles. “At present? Only the Bishops of Avei, Eserion and Vidius are positioned with the will and the political clout to oppose such an upset.”

“There has never been an Eserite Archpope,” Sharidan protested.

“And there never will be,” Theasia agreed. “Grasping for power is against their religion. By the same token, however, Eserites can often be counted upon to thwart those who do reach for power—sometimes just on general principles. But in this case, internal politics of the Guild make it unlikely. The new Boss seems motivated chiefly to prove how much more amiable he is than Boss Catseye was; Sweet won’t stir the waters unless he sees a specific and pressing need. Ironically, Bishop Vaade is one of his predecessor’s appointees, the kind of uncharacteristically well-behaved lapdog Catseye favored. Vaade won’t so much as scratch her nose without the Boss’s order, which will not be forthcoming.”

“Bishop Tannehall would make a fine Archpope,” Eleanora said thoughtfully.

“The Archpope is elected,” Theasia said in a biting tone. “How good they would be at the job is not a consideration; it comes down to an impossible calculus of the whims of everyone involved. And there, again…internal politics. High Commander Rouvad is new to her position, and was elevated from the Silver Legions rather than the clergy. She lacks both experience and connections in politics, and relies heavily on Tannehall—who, herself, is not an ambitious woman. Neither of them would want Tannehall to be elected.”

“Which leaves Bishop Maalvedh,” Sharidan said, folding his hands behind his back. “I should think she would be a contender, if anyone. Am I about to have my ignorance explained to me yet again, Mother?”

Theasia actually smiled at him, and sipped her tea again before answering. “Gwenfaer Maalvedh is ambitious, devious, and as two-faced as only a Vidian can be in good conscience. She would love nothing more than to become Archpope, and more than anyone I would think has the will and the means to make that happen. Now that Throale’s justly-earned reputation for wisdom and neutrality has been rendered moot.” She paused to sip again. “And I have begun investigating Justinian Darnay because Maalvedh nominated him immediately upon Allaine’s announcement.”

“You might have begun with that,” Eleanora said, forgetting herself. “Leaving it for the end makes for fine dramatic effect, but not much in the way of accuracy.”

The Empress’s steely gaze fixed on her. “Have you given much thought to how very easily I could have you charged with treason after tonight’s events, girl?”

“That is not going to happen, Mother,” Sharidan said evenly before Eleanora could even open her mouth.

“Oh?” If anything, Theasia seemed amused. “Testing your will against mine has never gone well for you in the past, Sharidan.”

“I have only fought you over things I wanted, Mother,” he said quietly. “Not something that mattered. Eleanora is the closest friend I have, and saved my life tonight. She is one of very, very few people in this city whom I trust without reservation. Try to make a scapegoat of her, and we will both learn how much I’ve grown since I was fifteen and wanted to spend a holiday in Puna Dara.”

They locked eyes, both in apparent calm. Eleanora hardly dared take a breath.

Finally, the Empress set her teacup down on the lap tray. “You certainly think well of yourself, young man. I give you due credit for the various noblewomen you’ve seduced. Particular felicitations on bagging Duchess Arauvny; I honestly thought she was as gay as your little playmate, there.”

“I am no one’s little anything,” Eleanora snapped, lifting her chin, “and I have had enough of this. If you intend to punish me for something, be about it. I will not stand here and be insulted by a crotchety old woman who has all the power in the world and still feels the need to bully her lessers!”

Sharidan had met the Empress’s will without flinching, but now stared at Eleanora in open horror. Theasia, though, simply gave her a calm glance before continuing as though there had been no interruption.

“Every other woman you’ve had since you were fourteen, however, was in the employ of the Imperial government, and serving to help keep an eye on you. The twins, tonight? Agents of Imperial Intelligence. I vetted them myself.” Smiling faintly, she picked up her teacup again, but did not drink. “Only the best for my little prince.”

Sharidan, after a long pause, finally shut his mouth. Then he turned to Eleanora and said with nonchalance that was only slightly forced, “And no, this is not the most awkward conversation I have ever had with my mother. Not even the top ten, frankly.”

“You have never been out from under my eye,” Theasia continued, her tone growing firmer. “Quentin Vex has dogged your steps for years, Sharidan, and you’ve never given him the slip for more than ten minutes at a time—such as tonight, when you nearly flung yourself into a mob. He has let you have your fun, because those were his orders. And for the gods’ sake, when you are Emperor, give him more responsibility. The man is a treasure, and being shamefully wasted as a nursemaid.”

The prince swallowed heavily. “I…see. Are you going to make me ask the obvious question?”

“Play is the duty of children,” Theasia said, and quite suddenly she looked tired, the cup drooping in her fingers. “We learn more about living from youthful games than from books or teachers. My father made sure I had time to grow…to live. A person who grows up confined to a palace cannot know what the lives of his subjects are like, and that is a recipe for a dangerously terrible leader. A person who grows up knowing nothing but duty may possess self-discipline, but little self-awareness. You must be you before you can be an Emperor. And yes, letting you challenge the boundaries of my authority under discreet supervision was the best possible training at some of the skills you will need to rule. It was…a calculated risk.”

“You left him terrifyingly vulnerable,” Eleanora breathed.

“Oh, look who has suddenly discovered responsibility.” To her astonishment, the Empress smiled at her. “The same goes, Eleanora. And you, young lady, continue to impress. You can bend your pride and accept chastisement when necessary, but know enough of your worth not to tolerate senseless abuse—even from power far above your own. That was where I would have drawn the line, as well—though you should not have snapped. Maintain composure while asserting yourself, girl, or you look like a petulant child, which you cannot afford. I am exceptionally glad you two found each other, for a great many reasons.” Her gaze shifted back to Sharidan, and softened further. “Tonight marks a change. In you, and in the political climate due to the upcoming transition of Archpopes. I have given you all the time I can, my son. Now, you have to grow up, and learn that even with the wealth of an Empire at your fingertips, the two things of which you will never have enough are time, and yourself.”

There was a heavy silence, in which the Empress finished off her tea, and set down the cup again.

“To begin with,” she said, suddenly more brisk, “you two will be married as soon as it can be arranged without scandal.”

They both twitched.

“Ah, Mother…”

“It’s not that I am not honored…”

“Oh, shut up,” Theasia ordered disdainfully. “No law says you have to share a bed; you can exchange one kiss at the ceremony without vomiting on each other, surely. Uniting Houses Tirasian and Turombi will heal one of the last lingering breaches of the Enchanter Wars; placing his scion upon the Swan Throne will shut Alduron’s mutterings up good and proper. Much, much more importantly, Sharidan, the girl is your best friend. She’s clever and determined enough to be a very valuable ally, and the value of having someone at your back whom you can both trust and rely on cannot be overstated. You will need to produce heirs, but they don’t particularly have to come from your wife. She’s the only one entitled to raise an objection if you place a bastard upon the Silver Throne, and I trust that won’t be an issue.” The Empress shot Eleanora a distinctly sardonic look. “Honestly, the fact that one of you turned out gay is what makes this perfect, as opposed to merely fortuitous. Asking you two tomcats to be sexually faithful to each other would be an open invitation to future scandals the Throne does not need.”

They both refused to meet each other’s eyes, or hers.

The Empress heaved a sigh. “I’ll give you a space to grow accustomed to that arrangement, if I can. But as soon as possible, I plan to abdicate the Throne.”

Sharidan snapped his gaze back to her, and took an impulsive half-step forward. “Mother—are you all right?”

Theasia smiled sadly at him. “As much as I have always been. I’ve kept this from you, Sharidan, but…I am ill. Quite, quite severely, in fact.”

“I don’t understand,” he said in consternation. Eleanora stepped forward, too, and took his hand.

“Sarsamon Tirasian, like Justinian Darnay, was an adventurer in his youth,” the Empress said. “He had quite the fine old time, truth be told. Among other things, he was in southern Viridill when the Enchanter Wars broke out. Specifically, when the Enchanter’s Bane went off, he was standing close enough to see it.”

“Gods,” Eleanora whispered.

“It is known as the Banefall,” Theasia said, irritation creeping into her tone, “I can only assume because of a general lack of imagination among the dwarven scholars who first categorized it. Persons exposed to the Bane at such a range—close enough to be affected, but far enough away to survive—have had great difficulty having children, often not doing so until late in life. And those children…” She paused, her jaw tightening, before continuing. “Essentially, their organs simply stop functioning, one by one, at a very young age.”

“How young?” Sharidan swallowed heavily. “…how long?”

Theasia smiled wistfully. “I don’t know, son. I am the only known Banefall victim to live out of my teens; you can do a lot of things with the full resources of an Empire. With enough alchemists and clerics and witches working on it, organs that wish to give up and die can be prevented from doing so for a long time. But how long…? I live in the realm of experiment. I might last as long as a half-elf, so long as I keep up my treatments. Then again, I could drop dead mid-sentence right before your eyes. I meant what I said, Sharidan. I have given you as long as I could. It is simply not safe to delay any longer. It’s amazing I have managed to keep this secret for so long; never mind my abrupt death, just the fact of this getting out could induce a crisis.”

He licked his lips. “So…it’s…hereditary?”

“It stops with me,” she said firmly. “Trust me, if you had it, you would know by now. I had you carefully examined and tested, regardless. But the progression is known and understood. The children of other Banefall victims have all grown up unaffected. It ends after a single generation. Once I die, this peculiar little disease will pass from the world, and good riddance to it.”

“But…I can’t believe there’s that much data! If victims never live past their teens, how many children could they possibly have had?”

Eleanora cleared her throat softly, squeezing his hand. “That…is actually very common, in the southern regions of N’Jendo which border Athan’Khar. ‘Breed early, breed often,’ as the orcs used to say. The Jendi had to follow suit to maintain a match for their ever-growing numbers.”

“I’m not ready for this.” He was staring at the far wall, now, giving no hint which of them he was talking to, if either.

“Sharidan.” Theasia waited until he dragged his gaze back to hers. “You will never be ready. No one possibly can be. But now, at this juncture? You are more ready than you have ever been. I judge that you are ready enough. There are things I still need to teach you, but you now have what you need to find your own way.”

Slowly, she settled back into her chair, and once again, Eleanora couldn’t help noticing how exhausted the Empress suddenly looked. “The future is yours, children. I have done the best I can—had my successes, but failed often. I am sorry I could not give you better. You give me confidence, though. Sharidan, I find you frequently as frustrating as your father was…” She smiled, slowly. “And just like him, I have never loved you the less for it. I have never been less than proud of you.”

He swallowed heavily, again. “I…will try not to let you down, mother.”

“My time will soon be over; you will have to stop worrying about me. It is Tiraas you must not disappoint, and I am laying this upon you now because at this moment, I am confident that you will succeed. Eleanora.”

“Your Majesty?” she asked nervously.

Theasia smiled at her. “Please…watch over my son.”

She squeezed his hand. “We will watch each other, your Majesty. As we will our Empire.”

He squeezed back. “For Tiraas.”

Empress Theasia allowed herself a soft sigh, and closed her eyes. “Good. First, though, have some tea. You will need it; it’s going to be quite a day.”

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12 – 60

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“I am not in the habit of divulging anybody’s personal business to anybody else,” Professor Tellwyrn began as soon as she settled herself behind her desk, “a fact for which several of you have abundant cause to be personally grateful. I am, in this one case, going to make an exception because the cat is pretty well out of the bag, and it’s better that those who saw it understand exactly what type of cat it was before the rumor starts flying that there’s a lion on campus.”

“Nice turn of phrase!”

“Shut up, Arquin. Since a classmate’s personal privacy is being abrogated here, I will have to insist that what I am about to tell you travels no further. If it does, the repercussions will be severe and indiscriminately applied to everyone present. And,” she added with rising asperity, “I would have thought all of this went without saying, but I can’t help noticing that this group is already larger than I expected.”

She paused to glare around her office, which in addition to the students who had been present in Last Rock for the Sleeper’s attack, now contained the entire population of the Wells and the sophomore class who remained un-cursed, as well as Scorn.

“Iris is our friend,” the Rhaazke said stidently, laying a heavy hand on Szith’s shoulder. “We care about her!”

Tellwyrn fixed a gimlet stare on her. “And in your mind, this entitles you to be involved in her personal business?”

“That, yes,” Scorn said with an emphatic nod.

Ruda cleared her throat. “So, Iris is a half-demon, right? I mean, that’d explain her being Sleeper-proof, not to mention her fixation on Gabe…”

“What?” Gabriel frowned at her. “Iris is hardly fixated on me. Where are you getting that from?”

“Arquin, you elevate cluelessness to a fucking art form.”

“Iris Domingue is not a half-demon!” Tellwyrn said loudly. “She comes from a respectable old Vernisite family from Thakar, with no traceable demon lineage on either side, and no evidence of demonic corruption that could explain her situation. She is simply, for reasons nobody understands, an infernal savant.”

There was a momentary pause while they all stared at her in varying degrees of confusion.

“So…wait,” Fross said at last. “I know what both those words mean and I can infer what they mean in connection with each other, but that can’t be right because it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know you are all aware, by this point in your academic careers, of the basic nature of infernal magic,” Tellwyrn said, folding her hands atop her desk and regarding them over the rims of her spectacles. “Anyone can use it; the challenge for warlocks is in using it safely. Without the inherent protection granted by full-scale demonic mutation from having one’s entire lineage forged in Hell itself, the infernal is unfathomably dangerous and nearly impossible to control. A significant error can cause catastrophic, usually explosive destruction; even a minor error will cause the first stage of lifelong degenerative disease, with cancers being the most common, though they are not the totality or even the worst of it. Half-demons tend to have both a greater aptitude and a measure of protection, but neither is absolute even for them. And yes, I’m aware you have all heard this lecture before, but you’re hearing it again now, and will every time I find a reason to discuss infernal magic with my students. It is that dangerous.” She paused, and heaved a little sigh before continuing. “Iris Domingue, for whatever reason, can wield the infernal with perfect, intuitive control. Without understanding or even thinking about it, she uses it in such a way that she avoids corruption, either in the form of combustion or illness. And she can do things with it, despite knowing zero technique, that no warlock has even thought to try.”

Another silence descended, marked this time by expressions mostly of consternation.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Toby said at last.

“Nobody has, Mr. Caine,” Tellwyrn replied. “That is why I brought her here. It’s not widely known, because very few organizations are both positioned and invested in identifying and recruiting unusual young people—I haven’t been arrogant enough to assume this, but it’s possible I’m the only one who’s noticed. But within the last decade, roughly since the time the gods retreated and stopped calling paladins, individuals have begun popping up who can use magic in ways that aren’t exactly…normal. November Stark’s case is unusual, but not without precedent; there have occasionally been humans who can touch the divine unaided, just as there are occasionally drow who can wield the arcane. The prevailing theory is that it’s the natural state for all sapients to have access to all magic, and occasionally whatever force bars certain races from certain schools…misses a spot. More seriously, though… No, if there’s ever been a case like Iris before, I’ve never heard of it. And nobody who has studied her has the faintest clue what the cause is. Similarly, I have never heard of any fairy, much less a pixie, who can use arcane magic without simply exploding. Fross is, after all, the effective grandchild of an Elder God, but still. It’s never happened before. Something is up in the world.”

Teal let out a soft breath. “A great doom—”

“Don’t fucking say it!” Ruda groaned.

“So, um…” Gabriel frowned pensively. “Now you mention it, Professor, I know this is supposed to be a school for exceptional and dangerous people, but on reflection it occurs to me quite a few of our classmates seem pretty…normal. How many of these secret walking magical anomalies have we got on this campus?”

“Arquin, what did I just say about other people’s personal business?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Anyway,” the Professor went on more briskly, “that’s the context. This meeting was convened because your classmate and friend has just had a traumatic experience, and needs support, not suspicion. It may be impossible to keep a lid on this; too many people from the town know she got cornered by the Sleeper, and others will wonder how she got away. It’s up to Iris to decide what she wants to tell anybody. It’s up to you lot to be there for her and back her up.”

“This we will do,” Szith said firmly.

“Aye,” Maureen agreed in a quieter tone. “Thank th’Light it wasn’t more traumatic, though. Way I understood it, she right whipped ‘is arse, an’ more power to ‘er.”

“There’s a lot more to trauma than being physically wounded,” Tellwyrn said gravely. “Consider Iris’s life up until now. She has refused to learn any infernomancy, which shows wisdom, but also has downsides. It’s that technique which makes the infernal useful for anything besides destruction; she cannot shadow-jump, become invisible, summon anything… With training, Iris would be the greatest warlock who ever lived. Without that training, she is a walking weapon comparable in scope to the Enchanter’s Bane. Her decision to eschew all infernal magic and immerse herself in the fae to suppress it is obviously in her best interests, and the world’s best interests. But there are people who care nothing for the interests of the world, and worse, people who care deeply and automatically conflate the world’s interests with their own agendas. The Black Wreath has been after her since before she could walk, and even those who protected her did so with the presumption of repayment. Iris has only grown to adulthood without being conscripted by one power or another because her parents are both bankers, which is the next best thing to aristocrats in terms of ruthless cunning. They’ve managed to play the Universal Church and Imperial Intelligence against each other for eighteen years, but that can’t last forever. I brought Iris here to give her four years to just…be a person. And more importantly, to develop the skills and the connections that will enable her to live her life without becoming anybody’s pawn.”

“We’ll help her,” Teal said quietly.

“Fuck yes!” Ruda agreed with much less restraint. “I don’t like to bust out my tiara, but the hell with it; anybody who tries to slap a collar on her is gonna have words with the Punaji nation about it.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think we had better let Iris make decisions about her own life and back her up, rather than declaring our intentions unilaterally. Bad enough we’re having this discussion behind her back.”

“Gods, thank you, Toby,” Tellwyrn groaned. “The rest of you chucklefucks listen to him, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yeah, she’s right,” said Juniper. “Our job’s just to be friends. Wherever Iris decides that takes us.”

“So…what happens now?” Gabriel asked. “About the Sleeper? That warlock you brought in seemed to think he might have gotten killed…”

“He wasn’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “I’ve already verified the presence of every student on campus. None of them appear to have had their asses kicked in the Golden Sea, either, and to find that out in detail I would pretty much have to throw out any pretense of anyone having any privacy or personal security on this campus. For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to do that.”

“When’d you manage this?” Ruda demanded. “Cos you just got back and I know that weird new fuzzy assistant of yours didn’t check up on everybody and report in. He doesn’t even speak the language!”

“Crystal checked in on me earlier,” Toby reported.

Scorn grunted and curled her lip, baring fangs. “That tame incubus of hers was snooping around, too.”

“He’s neither tame nor mine, and don’t you forget either of those things,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “To answer your question, Arquin… What happens now is that you lot go back to your dorms and sleep. Those of you going to the Wells anyway take the time to hug your roommate, and the rest of you leave it be until you see her again normally. Tomorrow… Well, there are going to be some changes around here. Tomorrow will be a big day. You’ll want to be rested up and ready.”


Dawn, as always, was more a shift change than an awakening in the sleepless capital of the Empire. Most people who kept typical business hours were barely awake, much less contemplating breakfast yet, and the city as a whole was still early in the process of rising toward its usual frenetic pace. This was certainly not an hour when those who had been up till nearly midnight would be expected to be already at work, and yet, here they were.

The hour was all part of the pantomime. The Imperial family received their guest in one of the harem wing’s smaller formal parlors, no bigger than the average drawing room in a modestly well-to-do home, but deliberately laid out like a throne room, with a narrow strip along the wall opposite the door raised a single step and two chairs set upon it, with their backs to the windows. Sharidan and Eleanora sat in these, Milanda and Vex respectively standing at their sides. There was no other furniture, nothing for the person called before them to do but stand amid the heavy reminder of their respective stations.

Bishop Darling seemed perfectly calm and at ease, as he usually did, and was doing as well as they at presenting himself as though fully rested and alert. Doubtless he, like the Imperials, had been at the coffee. The stuff was starting to show up on the menus of tea rooms in the city, and rumblings had begun that it should be classified as a drug and regulated as such. Sharidan was considering it, if only to keep the drink out of general circulation and maximize the advantage of those who had access to it. Not that that would have helped today; Antonio Darling would have no trouble getting his hands on whatever he felt himself entitled to.

So far, no one had remarked upon the presence of the two black-coated Hands of the Emperor standing just inside the doors to the room, as impassively watchful as always, nor the fact that Milanda Darnassy was dressed in one of their uniforms, tailored to her figure.

“You are too modest, your Grace,” the Emperor said smoothly in a continuation of a back-and-forth of pleasantries which had now gone on long enough that it was verging on tediousness. “The fact remains that you are owed a great debt by the Silver Throne—you personally, and the Thieves’ Guild as a whole. I flatter myself that I am known to honor my debts.”

“It’s nothing more than the duty of a citizen to aid the Throne, should the opportunity present itself,” Darling said blandly. There came a momentary pause, the briefest hesitation in this practiced social ritual in which the next step was silently contemplated, and finally the Bishop chose to give ground by acknowledging ignorance—a slight concession, and one he was in a position to afford, but a concession nonetheless. “Your Majesty, I have to confess that I don’t understand more than a fraction of what transpired last night.”

Eleanora drummed her fingers once on the arm of her chair, giving Sharidan an expressionless sidelong look—a reminder that Darling wasn’t the only one in the dark on some points. The Emperor allowed himself a slight smile.

“I’m afraid this isn’t like a story in which everything is neatly explained in the end, your Grace. There are details we ourselves have not entirely sorted out—and of course, there are details we are not able to share with you. The entire matter, obviously, is enormously sensitive. That said, I didn’t call you here at this ungodly hour just to express my thanks. After the help you and your enforcers rendered, I want to explain as much as I am able. Even aside from my appreciation of your rescue…we both know some explanations are owed.”

“I wouldn’t presume to make any such demands,” the Bishop said with a bland smile. “But I would of course be glad to understand as much as possible of what I stumbled into.”

“The last part was the biggest mystery,” said the Emperor. “I was not expecting those…cultists. In truth, we still don’t know who they were. Apprehending their leader did us little good, I’m afraid; he killed himself via lethal injection, using a hypodermic syringe.”

A frown creased Darling’s serene expression. “Well, that certainly is…suggestive.”

“Lord Vex?” Sharidan prompted, turning to look past Eleanora at the spymaster.

Vex was the only person present who actually looked sleepy, but then, it was unusual for him to appear alert. He blinked languidly before speaking.

“We are not seriously entertaining the idea that the attackers were Black Wreath. The tactics were all wrong, the Wreath has no motive to have done such a thing, and this is hardly the first time someone has tried to pin the blame on them by donning silly robes before engaging in shenanigans. The syringe and shadow-jumpers were nice touches, more effort than we’re used to seeing at selling this old charade, but the facts stand. We know what the Wreath want, and we know how they fight. They don’t use necromancy, they do use infernomancy, they don’t meddle in politics unless there are demons involved, and there quite simply aren’t that many of them. Or if there are, they at least do not throw bodies at their problems.”

“All of us here,” Darling said quietly, “know of the Wreath’s attempt to meddle in politics. At the highest possible level.”

An absolute freeze descended momentarily. This was as touchy a subject as could possibly be raised in this particular company. Eleanora’s hands tightened on the arms of her chair.

“That wasn’t the Wreath,” Vex said mildly after a moment, “but their goddess. They are no more in control of her than any cult, and not alone in occasionally finding themselves stumbling over her trail. Most gods are more of a hassle to tidy up after than yours, Antonio. My man in Last Rock reports the Wreath is actually cleaning up one of her messes out there, or rather trying to help Tellwyrn do so.”

“The spider and the scorpion, meeting in the dark,” the Empress said frostily. “Someone’s getting stung, and I don’t much care which.” Sharidan grinned at her in open amusement, which she ignored.

His expression sobered as he turned back to the Bishop, however. “More to the point, your Grace, I owe an apology to you and yours. The truth is, you aided the Empire in good faith, you and the Guild, and we were less than honest with you from the beginning about our intentions. It all turned out as well as I could have hoped, and I certainly would not have agreed to such manipulation had it not been absolutely necessary. Still, I did not like having to deceive you, and I regret doing so—and not only because of the aid you subsequently rendered. You have the apology of the Throne, which I hope you will convey to Boss Tricks as well. We are doubly in your debt.”

“For my part, your Majesty, it’s all water under the bridge,” Darling said smoothly, putting on a magnanimous smile. “As Lord Vex himself pointed out to me yesterday, we’re all old hands at politics, here. These things have to be done, from time to time; there’s no use in taking anything personally.” He deliberately sobered his expression before continuing. “I feel I can say with relative certainty that the Boss will bear no grudge, either. However, with the greatest possible respect, I must remind your Majesty that the Thieves’ Guild is not a thing to be antagonized, particularly from atop a throne. At the core of Eserion’s faith is the command to watch the halls of power, and thwart their overreaches. You risk worsening your problems exponentially by playing the Guild for fools, and I may not always be able to intercede.”

“Well, that’s a little backward, isn’t it?” Sharidan spoke pleasantly, but he suddenly leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees; the change in his demeanor was abrupt and striking. “We’re glad, even eager, to make whatever amends we can for any offense taken by your cult, or anyone in it. But you, specifically, were the one tricked, Bishop Darling—that is, Sweet. And you are the one taking this tone with me now. Are you certain you wanna do that?”

Eleanora, Vex, and Milanda all shifted infinitesimally to stare at him, eyes widening by fractions despite their practiced reserve. This was not what they had discussed before the meeting.

Darling, too, was thrown off enough to cause the briefest hitch in his smooth presentation. “Your Majesty—”

“Okay, let’s cut the crap, shall we?” the Emperor suggested. “We’ll be here all morning at this rate. I don’t know about you, but I have an impossible number of things to do today and it looks like I’m already going to miss breakfast. You and I both know the score well enough to speak plainly.”

“Sharidan,” Eleanora said sharply.

“In addition to expressing my apology for this mess to your Boss,” the Emperor continued, “I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d carry it to Lakshmi and Sanjay. And not on behalf of the Throne. I hate having abused their hospitality; those two were never anything but kind to me. It rankles, having to leave things like this.”

“I’ll tell her,” Darling said slowly, watching the Emperor with open wariness, now. He wasn’t the only one in the room doing so. “I have to warn you, though, Peepers probably doesn’t want to hear anything from you. Do…you want to let her know who you actually were?”

Sharidan sighed softly, and leaned back in his chair. “…no. No, best not; I can’t see anything but more trouble coming of that. I’m just someone who did her wrong, and regrets it. That’s how things will have to stand.”

“All right, well—”

“But with that aside, we were talking about us.” He actually shifted to lounge against one side of his chair and crossed his legs in a deliberately casual posture totally unlike his normal carriage before guests. Eleanora had returned her gaze forward, but Milanda was watching him with wide eyes. “Here’s the simple truth, Sweet: you are a pain in the ass. You’re everywhere, involved in the government, in the Church, in whatever your Guild is up to on a given day, and yet, nobody knows what it is you actually want. All we know is that you’re one of the Empire’s foremost experts on playing both ends against the middle, and you should know that by this stage in your illustrious career, everybody is getting tired of it. Now, I will gladly—humbly, even—offer my apologies and make amends to the Guild, for the sake of the necessary politics. To Lakshmi as a friend, as well, if such overtures won’t be immediately spat on. But you, Antonio Darling? I won’t do anything as pointless as suggest you pick a role and stick to it, but if you’re seriously going to have the face to stand here and complain about someone playing you false in this game…” Sharidan grinned broadly, the expression showing a lot of teeth and not reaching his eyes. “Blow me.”

The silence was absolute.

Darling cleared his throat discreetly, once he had recovered. “With greatest appreciation for the kindness of your Majesty’s offer, I must respectfully decline.”

The Emperor’s grin softened, becoming marginally more sincere. “Vex thinks you’re a true Eserite at heart. I realize we didn’t exactly spend much time bonding over the last few days, but I’m inclined to lean toward that conclusion myself, after watching you in action. As such, I realize you’re not inclined to trust anyone who sits on a throne for a living—as you yourself pointed out. Just keep in mind that there are powers in this world, and then there are powers, and you’d be wise to consider which of them rule just to rule, and which are trying to help people. There’s a limit to how long you can keep playing this game of yours, Sweet.”

“There are limits to everything, your Majesty,” the Bishop said pleasantly, his poise back in place. “Men like you and I are forced to push them as far as we humanly can. And let’s be honest: we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sharidan heaved a sigh and straightened his posture. “There are a lot of things I wish could be other than they are… In any case. We thank you for accommodating us at this early hour, your Grace, especially after such an eventful night. Your assistance to the Throne is, as always, duly appreciated, and it is our hope that you will convey our sincere gratitude to the Thieves’ Guild as well.”

Long before the end of his speech, he had fully resumed the serenely regal bearing expected of an Emperor, and finished by inclining his head in a kingly gesture of dismissal.

Darling bowed deeply. “It is my honor to aid the Empire however I may, your Majesty. I’m certain the Guild will appreciate your overture. By your leave, then?”

“Go in good health, your Grace.”

Vex was drawing in breath for a heavy sigh before Darling was fully out of the room, and began speaking in a tone of strained patience the instant the doors had shut behind him. “Your Majesty—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Eleanora exclaimed.

“If anything, I’ve recently found it,” Sharidan said lightly, again relaxing into his chair. “You know what your problem is, Quentin?”

“I very much fear I am about to,” Vex said flatly.

The Emperor grinned at him. “In fairness, it’s not really a problem. You are so fixated on facts, on knowing all the details and angles, you tend to undervalue the squishier variables. People’s personalities, their passions, their hearts.”

“I assuredly do not neglect to consider individual character in my calculations, your Majesty,” Vex said with open annoyance, “but I also understand their place in the greater equation.”

“People aren’t rational creatures,” Sharidan replied. “They can’t be rationally predicted in their actions. Sometimes, you have to follow your intuition. You have to extend a little faith, a little trust. It’s not a criticism; your way of looking at the world is what makes you so good at your job. It’s not the only way, however, nor even necessarily the best.”

“Exactly what faith and trust are you displaying by needlessly antagonizing that smirking Eserite weasel after all the effort we just put into mollifying him?” Eleanora demanded.

Sharidan winked at her, and for a moment she looked like she was about to hit him.

“After spending a few days among Eserites, I’ve gained some insight,” he said cheerfully. “I just did more to earn that guy’s respect than we’ve managed in the entire time we’ve been trying to court him. Trust me, Nora. I know what I’m doing.”

“Your Majesty,” said Vex, “with all due respect, I question that assertion. I have never agreed with any part of this plan of yours, and with it now completed I consider it lucky that you escaped serious harm. And we’ve gained nothing.”

“Not at all,” the Emperor said more seriously, reaching over to take one of Milanda’s hands. “We know who was behind the attack on our magical systems, even if we can’t prove it. We forced Justinian to react rapidly to protect his schemes, and in the process learned something we’ve previously only suspected by watching his general pattern: he is strongest when he’s allowed to set up the board before the game, and not so smooth when he’s forced to improvise.”

“You believe he sent those…whoever they were, last night?” Milanda asked quietly.

“Oh, please, who else? I realize your people are still analyzing the bodies we recovered, Lord Vex, but I think we all know there won’t be any useful evidence. Who but the Church has the resources to build an entire disposable cult to fling at us anonymously? What’s important is that we made him do it. We forced him to expend resources, cover his rear and make a show of sending those adventurers we know work for him to aid us in an effort to demonstrate that he’s not the enemy. There’s been a lot we know he’s done that we can’t prove, but he has finally overplayed that hand.”

“He did play it, though,” Vex said, frowning. “We have no solid indication of Justinian’s duplicity. He succeeded in covering his tracks, and turned the situation to his advantage.”

“No,” the Emperor disagreed, “all he managed to do was mitigate his losses, and I’ll bet he doesn’t fully appreciate the gains we’ve made. I established contact with his high-ranking killers; I want you to work on getting in touch with them, Vex. If they can be turned against him, it’ll be a decisive blow, and one we’re even more likely to be able to land now that they’ve seen him try to get them killed. They know who sent those cultists, I assure you. Just because nobody can prove it doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know.”

Vex opened his mouth to speak, but Sharidan pressed on.

“Which is my main point: I accomplished exactly what I set out to. We’ve got the Guild on our side now, when previously they were nominally aligned with the Church. Their inclination is to be hostile to any entrenched power, and overall have been as adept as Darling at dealing with both sides while avoiding a commitment. I assure you, Darling knows as well as we that Justinian is the only one who could have been summoning a necromantic mass-murder cult in the middle of a residential district last night, and Tricks sure as hell does. Putting the Throne in debt to the Guild is a bond between us, as strong as if we’d put them in our debt, and a lot more possible to achieve. As long as we don’t screw this up, when Justinian finally makes his move, he’ll have the Guild against him, not on his side or even neutral.” Smiling smugly, he lounged in his pseudo-throne. “It was dicey for a while, but this is a success, people. You all know we haven’t been winning this game recently. This time, we did.”

“Your Majesty,” Vex said firmly, “be all that as it may, and allowing for differences of opinion on your final analysis, I will have to insist that you never again take such a risk as you did this week, and especially last night.”

The two Hands by the door had been silent for the whole conversation thus far, but now shifted to stare at Vex. People did not use words like insist when addressing their Emperor. Sharidan made a quick placating gesture at them, even as he replied.

“In that, I have to agree. That gambit only worked because it was unthinkable; if me going out in disguise becomes a pattern, it’ll be all too easy for someone to use it against me. And for purposes of this discussion, twice constitutes a pattern. I don’t think that trick will be usable again for…oh, about thirty years or so. Regardless, for now!” He stood up, still holding Milanda’s hand, and bowed to her courteously. “I have a lot of appearances to make; after this week, people need to be reassured that their Emperor and his Hands are in place and functioning as usual. But first, I think you had something to show me down below?”

“Indeed,” she replied with a smile, “it’s been a little tense, but to my own surprise, I actually got everything settled. It’s going to take some…explaining, however.”

“Splendid! Eleanora, I’ll meet you after breakfast and we shall proceed with our first meeting of the day. For now, after being out of the action all week, I’m anxious to see how this has finally turned out.”

 

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