Tag Archives: Rainwood

14 – 6

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“As promised.”

Yasmeen handed her the object, a shaft of metal no longer than Trissiny’s index finger. She accepted it almost gingerly, immediately holding it up to the intermittent light passing through the windows of the carriage. If the vehicle had interior fairy lamps, they were dormant, leaving only the shifting glow of the city to illuminate them. In a way, that helped prove the composition of the key fragment. Under full sunlight, the blade of Ruda’s sword might pass for steel, but in dimmer and especially moving light, it caught and refracted illumination in a way that both emphasized its paler color and made it almost resemble a jewel. This piece had the same quality. She lightly probed at its indentations with a fingertip; they matched the illustration in the book. Had she stumbled upon this thing without context, Trissiny doubted she would have interpreted its shape as part of a key, but knowing the fact made the arrangement obvious.

“I had the royal jeweler extract it from its setting,” Yasmeen continued while she studied Gretchen’s Dowry—or what was left of it. “I honestly thought the poor man was going to burst into tears.”

“I hope this won’t get you into trouble with your mother,” Trissiny murmured.

“Oh, nonsense, you don’t think I’m keeping this from her, do you?” Yasmeen snorted in a distinctly un-royal manner, and Trissiny had the sudden thought that between her and Ruda she had no evidence that the snooty stereotype of princesses actually existed outside of books. “Believe me, the Sultana of Calderaas is always pleased to assist the Hand of Avei in a quest, and while tonight’s main event was my idea, I wouldn’t dare set something like that into motion without Mother’s approval. She regrets not being able to present her compliments in person, but House Aldarasi’s involvement in all of this must remain a secret, or there’ll be real trouble from the Houses represented in that party you just crashed. Speaking of which…”

“I’m sorry, what?” Trissiny glanced up at her. “Who are you? How’d you get in this carriage?”

“The Sultanate appreciates your discretion,” Yasmeen said primly.

“In seriousness, though, does your mother know that you came to supervise this personally?”

“Ah, well.” The princess turned to face forward, folding her hands demurely in her lap, but ruined the effect by giving Trissiny a sidelong look accompanied by a sly little smile. “Mother can’t be expected to know everything. Ruling a country is complicated business, after all.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling.”

The princess had arranged two carriages with drivers; Trissiny did not quite follow her assertion that this would be more discreet than piling everyone into a larger, more luxurious model, but had been too distracted by her thoughts to make an issue of it.

“You seem unhappy.”

She glanced up to find Yasmeen looking at her now, her expression open and even. Trissiny closed her fist around the fragment of mithril; she hadn’t handled it long, but it didn’t seem to have picked up any heat from her hand.

“I understand the necessity of what happened back there, or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate. But I think something would have to be very wrong with me if I came away feeling good about it. I just beat and tormented a woman who was no physical threat to me, at all. Do you really think Lady Araadia deserved that treatment?”

“Wrong question,” Yasmeen murmured in a pensive tone which took any rebuke out of the statement. “Whether she did or not, summarily assaulting someone isn’t justice. If I know my Avenists, that’s the thing that sits most poorly with you.”

“Good insight.”

The princess nodded. “No, frankly, I don’t think she did. Irina Araadia is a splendidly useless creature as only a noble can be, but she wasn’t by a wide margin the most corrupt person even in that room. While her little museum scheme is surely one of the more asinine manifestations of the problems in Calderaas, it certainly was not among the most abusive. The point was to remind an entire stratum of society that there are limits, and beyond them, consequences. Yours was merely the ugly part; Toby’s role was equally important, and there will come more maneuvering by my mother and the cults in the days ahead to encourage the Houses to act rightly, using more…positive methods. A jolt of fear to shake their arrogance is but one tactic in a larger strategy.” She shifted her head to gaze aimlessly out the window at the passing city scenery. “In that, Irina was a sacrificial lamb. The greater good always leaves victims, by definition. Otherwise it would just be the good.”

“You sound almost Eserite,” Trissiny said with a sigh of her own. “I went to the Guild to learn how to plot my way around confrontation, the way the Wreath has done to me a few times. What they mostly taught me was how to be creatively cruel and terrorize people into compliance.”

“Good,” Yasmeen said firmly. “The more you can frighten someone into obeying, the less you’ll have to hurt them.”

“You don’t find that attitude just a little horrifying?”

“Yes, but it’s the basis of all criminal justice. Almost every aspect of rulership is a little horrifying, that’s just how societies work. Someone has to do some brutal jobs so that the majority of people can go about their lives in peace. You are, unfortunately, one of those specialists. As long as you do your job only when it’s needed and don’t try to run a whole society that way, all will be well. Let me ask you this, Trissiny.” Yasmeen shifted toward her almost fully on the seat, folding one of her legs across it between them. “How familiar are you with the history of paladins?”

Trissiny opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated. “Well. That was a major emphasis of my early education, but not so long ago an Eserite courtesan of all people pointed out a few massive blind spots in it. What did you have in mind, specifically?”

“I had a feeling,” Yasmeen said, nodding. “We have a bit of the same issue here. With all the Avenist influence, the history most people learn is just a tad romanticized—and the Church pushing a narrative of a united Pantheon exacerbates it. At this point you have to go to the Veskers or Nemitites to learn how paladins historically related to each other. Which is to say, like strange cats, most of the time.”

“Really?” Trissiny’s eyebrows involuntarily shot upward. “All right, you got me. That I wasn’t taught. I mean, there have been scuffles between paladins in all the great adventure stories, but…”

“But they were presented as passing misunderstandings?” Yasmeen shook her head, smiling ruefully. “There’s a reason an episode like that happens in almost all the great epics. Hands of Avei and Sorash considered each other worse than demons. Hands of Omnu firmly disapproved of just about everything every other paladin did, and most of Toby’s predecessors did not share his reluctance to assert himself. Hands of Salyrene were only intermittently useful to the cause of protecting humanity; their goddess was just as interested in advancing knowledge through experimentation, and quite a few of her Hands got up to things that resulted in other paladins putting them down. Magnan the Enchanter took it to a new extreme, but he was treading a well-worn path. There is an entire theological school of thought, which has fallen out of the public eye only in the last century, that the whole purpose of gods calling paladins was to fight with each other without using their full power and thus devastating the world the way the Elder Gods did.”

“Why does everyone know more about the history of my lineage than I do?” Trissiny complained.

Yasmeen laughed, reaching over to squeeze her upper arm below the silver pauldron. “Oh, I assure you, everyone does not. Like I said, the Church has gone to great lengths to encourage the view you were taught; not everybody has access to royal archives and a fondness for old adventure sagas. But I wasn’t changing the subject, Trissiny. Remember that I didn’t just ask you to barge into that party and slap Irina around; I asked all three of you to intervene, and in specifically different ways. Toby to appeal to their better nature, you to impose order, Gabriel to project chilling eldritch menace. You see the hierarchy, there?”

“Velvet mentioned the same thing,” Trissiny acknowledged. “Toby’s part, anyway. Maybe some of those people will be more receptive next time an Omnist politely asks them to consider others.”

“Oh, I guarantee they will,” Yasmeen assured her. “And not just because they don’t want to meet your fist, or even because they don’t want to find out what else that scythe can do. House Araadia is going to take a long time to recover from this setback, but every other House represented at tonight’s gala is, I promise you, already planning how to take advantage of this. Most will reach out to the Sisterhood directly; I expect your Silver Missions will find themselves most generously funded in the days to come. If you stay in one place and make yourself accessible, aristocrats will begin trying to court you—in some cases, quite literally.”

“What kind of person flirts with their own natural predators?” Trissiny demanded in exasperation.

“Nobles,” Yasmeen answered immediately. “That’s what we do, Trissiny. It’s what we are. Nobles are predatory toward each other to a truly insane degree; we expect nothing less, from anyone. Nobody takes it personally. Well, Irina will after the way you lit into her, but the rest? You didn’t damage them directly, so the question is not how they will stop you, but how they can use you. That is why it was so important to present yourself as a force of nature beyond their control, not a rival for power. Otherwise, anything you did to any of them would have been business as usual.”

Trissiny could find no immediate answer for that, and Yasmeen heaved a deep sigh, her gaze growing unfocused.

“That’s the thing, you see. The best thing that ever happened to me was getting out of my palace, going to Last Rock and spending time with peasants, oddballs, and people from all walks of life. The most important thing I learned from interacting with them is that they all want the same things I do. Growing up rich and in control, it’s so easy to assume that poor people are…lesser. Lazy, selfish, somehow to blame for their situation. But people are just people. And even at their most venal, the basic drives that motivate them ensure that most people, most of the time, do the right thing. People want to contribute, to belong, to feel and to be valuable, to be part of something greater than themselves. No end of trouble results from people misunderstanding or disagreeing on what is the right thing to do, but in the end? We all want what’s best, as best we understand it.”

Slowly, she shifted back to face forward, still perched in that awkward way half-on the seat. Her gaze had become distant; Trissiny wasn’t sure whether Yasmeen was still talking to her, or arguing with herself.

“The two exceptions are despair, and power. People who are so ground down that they have no hope stop bothering with anything that could give meaning to their lives. And people who have power…” Her whole expression tightened unhappily. “Power distorts the mind like nothing else. It becomes the end and the means, the only thing you think about or care about. Most people will do right because with a modicum of intelligence, self-interest is at least somewhat altruistic. The powerful only do right when they are afraid to do otherwise. And powerful people are the leading cause of populations falling into despair. So, yes.” She turned back to face Trissiny, her eyes coming back into focus and glinting in the dimness. “You’d better believe I am comfortable unleashing whatever monster I can catch against the powerful. That’s what constitutes working with them.”

“And then,” Trissiny said quietly, “there’s us, who can do a thing like we just did and then flitter off into the night without consequence. What does that say about us?”

Yasmeen expelled a soft breath that might have been a sigh, though she smiled thinly at the same time. “It says we are walking a very narrow path, and had best watch where we step.”

“You are a puzzle,” Trissiny said frankly. “You seem downright happy-go-lucky most of the time. But the way you talk about the responsibilities of your position, you make it sound so grim. Which one is the act?”

“Oh, Trissiny.” Yasmeen eased closer and placed an elbow on the back of the seat, to lean her cheek into her hand and give Trissiny a fondly chiding look. “Any Vidian can tell you that the secret to acting is not to act, but to believe.”

“That’s a deflection if I ever heard one.”

“Not at all, it’s an explanation.” Casually, she reached out to brush back a blonde lock which had come loose from Trissiny’s braid, and only her practice with the Guild on not giving away every little thought prevented her from stiffening up. Surely the princess didn’t… “Life is grim, if it’s nothing but responsibility. Taking time for oneself can feel like selfishness, to the conscientious person, but in truth a little maintenance for the mind and spirit is necessary.”

“Now it sounds like you’re describing prayer. Or exercise.”

“Both good approaches,” Yasmeen agreed readily. “It depends on the individual. It’s an absolute necessity to find moments of joy, whatever form they may take for you.” Idly, she shifted her hand again, lightly brushing the back of her fingers along Trissiny’s cheekbone, while very slowly but inexorably leaning closer. “We serve no one by falling into grim despair, my dear. We must take whatever pleasure we can from life. With whoever will share it, for however long the opportunity lasts. After all…who can say what might happen tomorrow?”

Well, this explained the separate carraiges, anyway.

Carefully, Trissiny eased backward, away from those caressing fingers. “I don’t get a lot of opportunities to…share pleasure. It’s probably the armor. Only women ever seem to approach me, and I have never been even slightly attracted to my own sex.”

Yasmeen stopped, her eyes widening in open surprise. “…really? But you’re the actual Hand of Avei! Didn’t you grow up in Viridill?”

“Ooh, darling, yes,” Trissiny said, utterly deadpan. “Stereotype me. Harder, please.”

The princess stared for a shocked moment, and then burst into laughter so hard she almost doubled over. Somehow, though, she turned the movement into gracefully retreating back to her side of the seat.

“All right, point vividly made,” Yasmeen gasped once she could, brushing a tear out of her lashes. “Well! My loss, then. Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“Nothing will happen if you don’t try,” Trissiny agreed, smiling back. With the awkwardness defused, Yasmeen’s mirth was quite infectious.

“Stay reckless, Trissiny.” Just like that, though, the laughter faded from the princess’s countenance. “As long as you can be hurt, as long as you’re not too comfortable, not insulated from the consequences of your actions, you’re not turning into one of them.” She shifted to stare out at her city as they passed through it in the night. “I hope.”


“Man, what is it with you and that entire family?” Gabriel asked, shaking his head. “You’re like Aldarasi catnip.”

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Trissiny grumbled.

“You probably shouldn’t have,” he agreed. “I’m constitutionally incapable of letting it go, now.”

“Such a funny little thing, to be the focus of so much trouble,” Toby mused, studying the key fragment on his open palm. Strolling through the park under the morning sunlight as they were now, it looked like any miscellaneous piece of metal, albeit highly polished. “I’m really curious what it is this thing is supposed to unlock, when it’s restored.”

“It’ll turn out at the last minute that the real treasure was friendship or something,” Trissiny said, rolling her eyes. “Mark my words.”

“So…you’re still coming along, right?” Gabriel asked, nudging her with an elbow. “You’ve come this far with us!”

“I’m still considering that,” she hedged.

She was saved from having to go into any more detail by their arrival. The park seemed more crowded today than on her previous visit, but then, they weren’t creeping off into its most secluded corner this time. The three paladins had followed the footpath as directed to a small fountain in a little paved roundabout surrounded by benches and lamp posts, where their contacts were waiting. All were making a go at discretion, now that they’d thoroughly offended a swath of the city’s nobility. Trissiny was back in civilian clothes, her armor left in the Sultana’s palace for safekeeping—under the care of a particularly devout steward who Yasmeen said would doubtless consider the task the highlight of her life. Toby could’ve been any young Western man to someone who didn’t know his face, now that he was back in street clothes rather than formal robes, and Gabriel had taken the precaution of hiding his distinctive coat in a dimensional pocket. Ironically, he was sweating more without it; the weatherproof enchantments on traditional Punaji greatcoats were the reason sailors wore them from the equator to the arctic.

“Hey, guys!” Jeb called, waving exuberantly. “Ya made it!”

“Course they made it, ya galoot, what’d ya think was gonna happen,” Zeke said, but tipped his hat in greeting, grinning at them.

“Boys,” Trissiny said, nodding distractedly. Most of her attention was caught by the other person present.

“You wanna make a quick sketch?” Rainwood suggested dryly. “It’ll last longer.”

“Sorry,” she said automatically. “I’m just surprised by how well you clean up.”

In fact, he looked a lot like he had in her shamanic vision, though his hair was still much shorter. It was clean, now, brushed and even styled, giving him a rakish look. He also wore a green robe of supple dyed leather, ornately decorated with silver accents and beads, and carried a hardwood staff which was oiled and polished till it fairly glowed, topped with a chunk of rose quartz the size of her fist. Rather than a homeless layabout, he fully looked the part of an elvish shaman.

“A word in your ear, cousin, if I may?” Rainwood said more quietly, tilting his head pointedly to the side. Trissiny glanced at the others; Toby gave her a smile and a nod, Gabriel already in conversation with the Jenkinses.

She and Rainwood stepped a few feet away, not truly out of earshot but gaining a little privacy.

“So, have you decided on your next move?” the elf asked her.

“Not…entirely,” Trissiny admitted. “I’m leaning toward going back to the grove. This whole episode has left me feeling the need for more quiet contemplation.”

“Well…with apologies…I’m going to offer you some unsolicited advice,” he said seriously. “I know little enough of your life, Trissiny, but I’ve been around. A lot. So take it for whatever it may be worth. Go on the quest.”

She sighed. “Why?”

“If I’m not mistaken, you have an Avenist’s impatience with pursuits in which you see no practical benefit. Right?” He smiled lopsidedly.

“That’s not just an Avenist thing,” she pointed out, folding her arms. “I don’t know of anybody who enjoys wasting time with other people’s pointless nonsense.”

“Actually, lots of folks do. Anyone who would rather enjoy life than stress about meeting arbitrary goals, in fact. But that isn’t an argument I would pitch to you, of all people. Let me put it this way…” He shifted, half-turning to look out over the park, where people were walking, playing, and reading in the sunlight. “Vesk’s missions are never pointless, any more than a story is. To him, they’re one and the same. They are very literally character-building exercises. To put it in Avenist terms, training. He will break you down and build you back up, just like you would a new recruit into an army.”

“I’m not sure I trust what Vesk would want to build me into,” she retorted.

“Well, what are you?” Rainwood looked at her again, smiling faintly. “Because that’s what he’ll aim for. Think in storytelling terms, in archetypes. Are you the knight in shining armor? The thief? The orphan? The point of a hero’s journey is to bring you through the darkness and into the wisdom and greater power you earn on the other side. He’ll try to make you more of whatever it is you are.”

“That sounds…unpleasant,” she admitted.

He nodded slowly, turning his eyes back to the park. “Mm. Education is usually no fun, even when you seek it out and pay your tuition. Having it thrust upon you unsolicited is almost as enjoyable as surprise dental surgery. But the fact remains, it’s one of the best and most important things you can experience. I will say this, though, Trissiny: if you do decide to continue on, have a care. You’ve begun this journey by besting weaker foes with scornful ease. If this were a story, that would mean you have a real test coming down the line. And if you’re working for Vesk, it’s always a story.”

“No.” She shook her head slowly, also gazing out across the park now, even as Rainwood turned to look at her in mild surprise. “That wasn’t the test, or the lesson. Those simpering nobles were never the enemy. I was. I…don’t think I won that battle.”

He reached up to squeeze her shoulder. “Yeah. You’ll do just fine, kiddo. All right, now I’ve gotta be moving along myself.” The shaman hiked up his staff, leaning it over his shoulder, and turned to amble back toward the group, Trissiny following along. “As I mentioned before, I have my own quest. The spirits are guiding me westward, where my help is needed.”

“By whom?” Toby asked, turning to him.

Rainwood grinned and shrugged. “No idea! That’s the fun of both shamanism and adventure: you figure it out as you go.”

“Well…uh, nice meeting you, then,” said Gabriel.

“I’ve got a funny feeling our paths haven’t crossed for the last time,” Rainwood replied, winking. He patted Trissiny on the upper back. “But who knows? We’ll all find out what’s in the future when we get there. Till then.”

It was the strangest thing to observe; he didn’t seem to transform, exactly, but one moment he was an elf and then he wasn’t, and it was as if he never had been and they’d only just noticed. Trissiny recalled Kuriwa doing very much the same thing. Jeb let out a muffled exclamation of surprise, which the little black cat ignored, trotting away across the park. They all stared after him until he ducked under a bush and was gone from sight.

“That was one weird dude,” Zeke observed. “Paid well, though.”

“You’ve got interesting relatives, Triss,” said Gabe.

She sighed. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“So!” Jeb grinned broadly at them. “Where y’all off to next, then?”

“I think you boys mentioned you were between steady jobs at the moment,” Trissiny said. “And that you came from a ranch originally. Right?”

“Hey, you remembered!” Jeb said cheerfully. “See, Zeke, I told you she was nice! Pays attention to us little folk an’ everything.”

“I never said she wasn’t nice, Jeb,” Zeke said quickly, glancing at Trissiny. “I said she has more important stuff to do than worry about the likes a’ you an’ me. Which was true.”

Trissiny opted not to weigh in on that. Instead, ignoring Gabriel’s snickering, she reached into her coat and carefully extracted the sealed letter she had stashed there, holding it out to Zeke. “Right. Well, you did help me, in the end, and I didn’t want to just cut you loose and vanish—”

“All right!” Jeb whooped, actually jumping into the air and pumping a fist skyward. “You just say the word, boss lady! We’re off ta kick ass and praise Avei!”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned back to his brother. “…so I wrote you a letter of recommendation. If you decide you’ve had enough of Calderaas, charter a Rail caravan to Last Rock and give this to Mr. Ryan Cartwright. He owns most of the horses along that stretch of frontier; anybody in town can direct you to him. Gabe and I worked for him last year, and he liked us both well enough I’m confident my recommendation will get you a job.”

Jeb had fallen still, frowning at her in consternation. Zeke slowly reached up to accept the envelope, also looking puzzled. “Uh, maybe it’s none o’ my business, ma’am, but why was a couple’a paladins workin’ as ranch hands?”

“Punishment duty,” Gabriel explained, grinning. “One of the options Tellwyrn gave us was jobs in town with wages transferred to the University. We both went for that one, since it involved the greatest distance from her squawking.”

“Last Rock is a tiny town,” Trissiny continued, “but it’s not a boring one. You’ll meet all kinds of people. Especially girls,” she added, giving Jeb a pointed look. “The sort you like, with backbones and no patience for your crap, Jeb. Townies, passing adventurers, University students. If you get tired of trying your luck in the city, it’s an option, anyway.”

“Girls?” Toby’s eyebrows had risen so high it almost looked painful. “Trissiny, you’re helping them get dates?”

“Uh…how certain are we that this is really Trissiny?” Gabriel muttered out the corner of his mouth, sidling closer to him.

“Her aura is unmistakable,” Ariel replied, making Jeb jump and look around for the source of her voice.

“That’s…real thoughtful of you, ma’am,” said Ezekiel slowly. “I appreciate the gesture. You don’t owe us nothin’, though. It was a plumb honor to help out a little.”

“I thought we might could come with you!” Jeb burst out, suddenly giving up searching for the voice and turning to her, hat in hand and being roughly squeezed the way he did when nervous. Zeke sighed, but his brother continued on, undaunted. “Cos, y’know, you’re sorta right, Calderaas ain’t been that great for us. But, come on, what’re the odds a’ two guys like us meetin’ a paladin? Twice? Maw always said, the gods move in mysterious ways. We can both ride an’ shoot and we ain’t afraid o’ hard work!”

“Good,” she said firmly. “Those are traits you’ll need on Cartwright’s ranch.”

“Yeah, but—”

“People like you get killed for following people like me!” she snapped. “Ignore anything Rainwood told you about adventure, Jenkins. That stuff’s for storybooks. My life is violence, destruction, and being manipulated into one disaster after another. Do you understand? You will die, and I don’t need to see that happen.”

“Well…shit, Ms. Trissiny, everybody dies a’ somethin’,” Jeb said earnestly. “Our great uncle Leroy, Vidius rest his soul, got swarmed by kobolds. But he made it mean somethin’! He protected his family an’ the house till help could come. I figured, ever since, if everybody’s gotta go out, I wanna make it…y’know, important.”

“Well, you can do that on your own time, if that’s what you want,” she said curtly. “I have real work to do, and no more time to babysit you.”

“C’mon, Jeb,” Zeke said quietly, taking him by the elbow. “It was a good day’s work, now let’s not waste the paladin’s time.”

Jebediah resisted his brother’s tugging, still staring at Trissiny with a frown of increasing consternation. “Hell, ma’am, we ain’t made a’ glass. If you just don’t like us, you can say so.”

“Why would I like you?” Trissiny roared, causing him to shy back in shock. “The whole time I’ve been saddled with you two nincompoops has been one mess after another, all cause because you two are more incompetent at everything you attempt than any human being can possibly be and still be alive! I swear, you’re either fairies in disguise or you’re doing it on purpose, and either way I have had just about enough of your nonsense. You act like that in my business and within one week, tops, you’ll be dead with your entrails spread around a two-acre area. And just because I don’t want to watch that doesn’t mean it would be any less of a relief!”

Jeb gaped at her with his mouth open. Zeke, Toby, and Gabriel were a little more contained, but not by a lot; the shock appeared to be universal.

After a few excruciating seconds of silence, Jebediah closed his mouth, swallowed heavily once, and took a step backward. He carefully tipped his hat to her, turned, and walked away.

Zeke, seeming unsure what to do, himself, finally cleared his throat and tipped his own hat in her direction. “…ma’am.” Then he followed after Jeb, leaving stillness behind.

Trissiny watched them go, slowly drawing in a deep breath. She let it out with the same deliberate slowness, as if maintaining that control could expel everything seething in her at that moment.

Toby stepped up next to her. His expression, now, was purely concerned.

“Please don’t,” she said. He opened his mouth, closed it, nodded, and patted her on the shoulder.

“So, uh,” Gabriel said from behind them, “far be it from me to interrupt all the awkwardness, but you guys might wanna look at this.”

They turned, and what was coming up the path drove the whole conversation out of their minds.

Easily the most incredible thing was that none of the other people in the park reacted to the approach of the carriage; it appeared no one could even see it. Apart from being an unusual open-topped model and painted solid black, the carriage itself was not very noteworthy. Its driver, though, was a lean man in a broad black hat, holding a vicious-looking scythe which towered over his seat. It was the horses pulling the vehicle which were most alarming, though. Skeletally emaciated, they had eyes which flickered with dim blue flames, and streaming wisps of black smoke for manes and tails; their hooves made a peculiar ringing sound on the path, shod with brightly glowing metal which tended to send up sparks when it touched the ground.

The carriage pulled up to a stop right alongside them, and the driver tugged the brim of his wide hat, which was too broad to comfortably lift, and gave them a thin smile.

“Morning, kids,” Vidius said pleasantly. “Interest you in a lift?”

 

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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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11 – 35

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Kuriwa had her breathing evenly and counting backward from one hundred with her eyes closed, while the droned a soft tune in elvish and did something magically that made the air feel warmer. Shamanic touches aside, the process was not unfamiliar. She had learned meditative techniques growing up, and more advanced ones since being called by Avei. It was the depth of this trance that was a new experience; the Sisterhood’s mental exercises were meant to still the mind, control the breath, heighten awareness of the body. Practical things. Deep inner journeys were not part of Avenist spirituality.

She never managed to count all the way to one, though. The world faded around her, senses dissipating into darkness. Then she faded, until there was nothing.

When the shaman, at last, gently prompted her toward what she had gone inward to seek, she was not there to hear it.


The door burst forcefully open, and a hooded shape stepped through.

“Excuse me!” The caravan master, a foppishly-dressed man with a heavily waxed mustache, strode toward the entrance of his rented stable, arms outstretched. “This area is only for circus personnel! Don’t worry, the animals will be caged in the main tent for two hours before the performance—you’ll have plenty of time to view them! Do you have your tickets already?”

He stopped, eyes falling to the sword in the shrouded figure’s hand. It was an old and unprepossessing blade, scarred from long use and never particularly decorative, but the leather gauntlet holding it was reinforced by a plate of gleaming silver. The figure’s other hand, similarly gloved, reached up to open the cloak’s throat clasp and tug the garment off, and the caravan master swallowed convulsively.

The slight widow’s peak of her thick black hair emphasized the angularity of her face, and suited the fierce expression in her dark eyes. Even that, though, was not what made him pause. He had never seen it in person, nor hoped to, but he knew what the tall woman’s silver armor signified. Everyone knew.

“Why, my lady,” he said smoothly, executing a grand bow. “We are greatly honored by your—”

“Silence.”

He scrambled out of the way as she strode straight toward him, but she simply brushed past, heading toward the stalls at the opposite end of the stable without so much as glancing at the exotic beasts watching her from the improvised cages on both sides.

“Ah, your pardon, miss, ah, your, um…excellency,” the caravan master said, some of his bravado beginning to leak away. “The animals are only to be handled by specialized—”

“Shh.” A slim hand patted him on the shoulder and he jumped, whirling to face the new arrivals. The hand belonged to an elf, a man in a richly embroidered green robe, with raven-black hair tied back in a simple tail. Behind the elf walked a truly enormous horse, a heavy-hooved draft animal built like a stack of barrels, pure white and bedecked with more silver armor. “Best you keep a lid on it, friend, else you dig yourself deeper.”

“Rainwood!” the Hand of Avei barked. “Get over here!”

The elf made a sardonic face at the caravan master, then strode past him. The horse followed, pausing momentarily to aggressively snort in his face.

“It’s her,” the woman said softly, standing at the door of the stall. Inside stood a horse, a buckskin wearing a bridle and a heavy yoke such as would be attached to a plow. Both gleamed faintly with blue runes. The horse itself was even more remarkable, her coat a color akin to true gold rather than the tawny shade that gave buckskins their name. The black of her mane and tail, muzzle and legs, was true black, the color of a crow’s plumage, with peculiar highlights as if it, too, had thread of gold woven beneath the surface.

“Ohh, poor girl,” the elf whispered, sidling up beside her and reaching a hand into the stall. “Hello, Roiyary. It’s all right, pretty lady, we’ve found you. You remember me, right? And Dailah? We’re your friends.”

The mare had pressed herself against the back wall, head lowered and ears swiveling fearfully. She was thin, clearly ill-fed, her lustrous coat ragged. The unmistakable marks of a whip marred her flanks.

“Shastra is on her way,” the paladin said soothingly. “You must have known she’d come. We only got here first thanks to Rainwood’s spirit guides. Can you get those infernal things off her?” she added more sharply to the elf.

Rainwood narrowed his eyes. “Those are arcane, not infernal. Tricky…my craft could cause them to…well, explode.”

“Now, just a moment!” the caravan master blustered, striding toward them. “That horse is my property! I’m not interested in selling—”

He froze and fell silent the moment Dailah turned, aiming her sword at his heart.

“That horse,” she said icily, “is the summoned mount of the Hand of Omnu. You are holding a steed of the very Pantheon prisoner—and you have clearly abused her. If you wish to extract yourself from this situation alive, you will keep your mouth shut.”

“Whoah, wait a moment,” he said, waving his hands and not heeding the warning. “This is all news to me. If the mare really is—ah, of course, but I’ll take your word. I purchased her from a mage—”

“You had to know what a horse like this must be,” Rainwood said with his back to the man, still trying to coax Roiyary over to him. She simply stood, head hanging, as if too weary even to look at him. “It’s not impossible that a mage would do something as brazenly vile as this, but…you knew him?”

“I, ah…” The caravan master’s eyes darted back and forth, and he licked his lips. Meanwhile, the white draft horse came forward and nickered softly at Roiyary. She finally twitched her ears in his direction, lifted her head, and whickered in response. “Well, you know, one meets all sorts… But, ah, yes, of course, I trusted the man, otherwise I would never have accepted his assurance—”

“And you had no hint that he wasn’t actually a mage?” Rainwood asked with deceptive mildness, glancing over his shoulder. “Are you in the habit of buying stolen property from the Black Wreath?”

The caravan master seemed to finally find his spine. “Now, see here! I am a victim of a bad deal; I’ll not be accused of such evil doings!”

“And what of the evil doings we can plainly see?” Dailah asked flatly. “All these animals have been visibly mistreated.”

“Look, lady,” the caravan master snapped, the mask of servility falling away, “if you’ve a claim to the horse, fine, I’m not one to argue with the gods. Consider her my gift, and we needn’t even discuss the cost of her upkeep, which was considerable. But I’ll not be told how to run my business, clear? I don’t tell you how to round up cultists, so don’t—”

With a bellow of fury, the white horse suddenly whirled, forcing Rainwood to leap nimbly aside, and charged him. The caravan master squealed and tried to flee, but for such a bulky animal, the draft horse was remarkably nimble. He reared and brought down his front legs, bearing the caravan master to the floor and landing on him with a sickening crunch.

“Thank you, Arjen,” Dailah said mildly, patting her steed’s neck. Arjen snorted in disgust and shook his head.

“That’s not helping me calm her,” Rainwood noted dryly, glancing down at the caravan master, who was screaming all but non-stop, trying to clutch at the pulverized remains of his right leg, which was a mangled pulp starting just above the knee. Arjen was a tremendously heavy creature and had hooves the size of dinner plates. “And she’s going to need to be calm if you want me to pry this thing off—it’s going to be very dicey, unmaking those runes without detonating it.”

“Easily remedied,” Dailah stated, taking two steps forward and planting a booted foot on the caravan master’s throat.


“You couldn’t just leave me alone?” he shrieked, hunching forward and bracing his hands as if holding a large ball. Purple lightning flickered between them, and a second later a bruise-colored stain on the face of reality formed in his grasp and flashed forward.

She was more than capable of summoning a divine shield which could withstand such a blow, but she simply twisted her body, letting the shadowbolt flash past without sacrificing her footing. Her tactics were not the only departure from the tradition of the Hands of Avei; instead of the customary armor, she wore soft leather breeches, vest and shirt in the wood elf style, dyed dark gray, with over that a white tabard bearing Avei’s golden eagle.

“I was leaving!” the man snarled, hurling another shadowbolt. This one she calmly batted aside, her hand flashing gold as it impacted the infernal blast, which then careened harmlessly into the sky. The paladin continued coming forward at a slow walk which could hardly have been considered aggressive. “It was over! I don’t want any more trouble—I never wanted any of this! Why can’t you let it go?”

“Why’d you do it, Aross?” she asked quietly.

“YOU KNOW WHY!” He lashed out with a whip of pure darkness; Laressa held up her forearm, and the weapon coiled around it, blazing against a shield of divine magic. Then, with a series of retorts like corn popping, it sparkled away into nothingness, causing him to stumble backward. “She was my daughter!”

“And you couldn’t let that go?”

The scream he unleashed didn’t even pretend to be human. Aross gestured, and streaks of black fire burst out of the air above him, peppering her in an infernal storm.

This time, she did call upon the shield, continuing implacably forward. The destructive magic sparked and smoked, making not the slightest impact on the sphere of golden light surrounding her.

She waited for it to subside before speaking again, quietly.

“And how many sons and daughters should now be let go, so you can leave quietly?”

The warlock froze, staring at her, wide-eyed. Laressa just gazed back, her expression open and faintly sad.

He let his hands, half-raised in another gesture of conjuration, fall limply to his sides.

“No one was supposed to get hurt,” he whispered. “I just… I just wanted her back, Laressa. Was that so wrong?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Any father would, Aross. You made a pact with a greater throzkshnid. You know what he did with the access you gave him to the mortal plane. And then there’s your part of the bargain. Did you really think you could reach across the planes to the realm of the gods without consequence? You destroyed a valkyrie. Be glad Vidius does not call Hands.”

The warlock’s face crumpled, and slowly, he sank to his knees, his thin shoulders beginning to shake. The paladin simply kept coming forward at her slow pace, pausing only when she stood right before him. Aross, by that time, had buried his face in his palms, his body heaving with quiet sobs.

Laressa sighed softly, stepped around, and settled herself down to sit at his side.

Aross managed to compose himself slightly after a few more minutes. “She—Ariel. My little girl. You won’t—you won’t punish her for this?”

“For what?” Laressa shook her head. “She’s done no wrong. The shock of transition will take her time to cope with. Compared to the divine plane, this world may as well be Hell. The Izarites are quite optimistic about her progress, though. But yes, Aross, you got what you wanted. There’s every reason to think she will go on to lead as long and full a life as anyone.”

He nodded, staring at the ground before his bony knees and sniffling softly. After another long moment he scrubbed a hand across his face.

“I’m sorry.” The warlock swallowed heavily. “I…know it’s not worth anything. But I am.”

“I know you are, Aross.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “And it is worth something. I wouldn’t have bothered talking to you if I did not see the man you still are, under all your poor judgment and corruption. But this isn’t about you, anymore.”

He closed his eyes. “How many died?”

“Do you really want to know?” she asked with a sigh.

“Of course I don’t. But I… But I deserve to.”

“At least sixty.” He flinched, but she continued inexorably. “Raskthnod has been slain, but the cost was steep. And the thing that fallen valkyrie turned into proved at least as dangerous.”

He drew in a long, slow breath, then let it out. “I… I just… I could end it here. Easy enough to do, with my magic. Would…would that be enough? Would it make it right?”

“The man who killed Ariel perished before he could be brought to justice,” she said quietly. “Was that enough closure for you?”

Aross sighed again. “No. No, of course not. Of course you’re right. I…”

He trailed off, and after another long moment, Laressa squeezed his shoulder again, then stood. Aross lifted his eyes to her, and when the paladin offered him a hand, he clasped it, letting her pull him upright.

“Of course,” he said, scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes once more, then straightened his shoulders. “I understand. They all deserve justice. Let’s go.”


Jayanta jerked back on her blade, sending a pulse of divine power through it, and the links of the ak-tra shattered, fragments of sharpened metal flying in all directions. She was protected by her shield of divine light, but the headhunter was not so lucky.

Khraast howled in pain as her flesh was pierced in a dozen places by the shards of her own weapon. The orc reeled, stumbling to the ground. Groping blindly, her fingers closed around the haft of the spear she had dropped earlier in their fight. It was broken, now, but she held the end still tipped with a chipped obsidian blade.

The paladin’s boot slammed down on her fingers before she could bring it up, however. The snap of multiple bones in her hand was drowned out by her scream of pain. Khraast rolled toward her foe, but Jayanta kicked her viciously in the side, and then she could only curl up on herself, struggling to breathe.

Jayanta finally stepped back, staring down at her. Khraast lifted her eyes, glaring. For a long moment, the Hand of Avei and the last headhunter of the Rostnokh Clan simply regarded each other. Both were bruised, bloodied, sweat-slicked and breathless. But in the end, the paladin was still upright and holding her weapons, her injuries minor and already fading due to the torrent of golden light blazing from her. Khraast’s left knee was too damaged to hold her, her right hand was now a crushed ruin, and she was bleeding heavily from multiple deep wounds, most with fragments of her own ak-tra still buried in them.

This was decided, and they both knew it.

“So it is, then,” the orc rasped. “My clan is denied justice. I hope you take pride in this, paladin.”

“Justice?” Jayanta spat directly in her face. “You animals aren’t capable of grasping the concept. Your justice has been nothing but a trail of murder and destruction across the lives of all you encountered. Justice…is proportional.”

“Oh, spare me your thin righteousness. End it, if you have the stomach.”

She drew in a deep, long breath, squaring her shoulders. “You can only die once, Khraast. That wouldn’t be justice.” Jayanta stepped forward, a spear of pure light forming in her hand. “Justice you shall have, headhunter. You will live. As helpless as all your victims.”

The blade of the spear took Khraast’s left hand off cleanly, then blazed with divine power, healing over the wound before she could even scream. As the fallen headhunter gazed up at her victorious foe in horror, Jayanta let the spear vanish. An instant later, it coalesced again—this time as an enormous warhammer.

“No!” she gasped, trying to crawl away. She was in no shape to escape. Her left leg could barely be moved, and all her frantic kicking wasn’t enough to prevent Jayanta from bringing the hammer down again and again. Not every blow struck flesh, but she did not quit until both Khraast’s legs were broken in multiple places.

The paladin was now baring her teeth in an utterly savage expression of exhilaration. “If you humble yourself to beg,” she snarled, “perhaps I will leave you here to be finished by the coyotes. Othewise, you go back to Vrin Shai with me, to enjoy the long rest of your life.”

With that final pronouncement, she released the hammer, causing it to vanish, and threw out her hand, unleashing a directionless torrent of golden light. Healing energy washed over Khraast, knitting the flesh of her mangled legs and hand together—in their current, twisted state, bones shattered and misaligned.

Then, suddenly and utterly, the light vanished.

Jayanta stood, mouth open, looking frantically around her. The light surrounding her was gone—and so was her silver armor, leaving her in only her leather underarmor. Her sword and shield had disappeared.

“Wh—no! What have you done?!”

YOU WERE WARNED, JAYANTA.

Golden light rose around them again, this time from the golden eagle of Avei which blazed in the sky above.

THRICE, YOU WERE WARNED, the goddess’s voice echoed all around them. YOUR CRUELTY IS NOT JUSTICE. YOU DISGRACE YOUR SISTERS, THE HANDS WHO FOUGHT BEFORE YOU, AND ME. THIS IS YOUR FINAL OFFENCE. WHATEVER SHAME YOU BRING YOURSELF IN THE FUTURE WILL BE UPON YOUR NAME ALONE, NOT UPON MINE.

The sigil vanished, and with it, the light.

“No,” Jayanta whispered, staring wide-eyed at the sky. “No! NO! I WAS FAITHFUL!”

Despite everything, Khraast managed a hoarse, coughing laugh. “H-you…were right. Justice…is…proportional.”

Jayanta fixed her glare on the fallen orc, a snarl twisting her features. “Oh, really. Well apparently, justice is no longer my concern.”

She fell bodily upon her, hands clasping around the orc’s throat, and squeezed…


“Enough, Trissiny.”

Her eyes snapped open, and she looked around in confusion. It had been like a dream…like three dreams, herself only an observer with no body or single perspective. Now, though, she was herself again—in her armor. Though she couldn’t see her hair, she knew it would be its normal blonde.

They stood on the porch of a humble log house, facing an expanse of flat plain bordered by towering, jagged mountains. In the middle distance, a herd of wild horses thundered past.

“The memories of your past sisters aren’t normally accessible to you,” Avei said with a small smile. The goddess wore an Imperial Army uniform, lacking any insignia and clearly well-worn. “You can only see such things by reaching through your connection to them—which is me.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny blurted. “I would never disturb you over—”

Avei placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling. “I am not disturbed, Trissiny. Far from it. This quest of yours is part of the purpose I have in mind for you—to be a new kind of Hand. For that very reason, the past doesn’t hold the answer you need. Press forward, Trissiny; find a new path. The answer you need is already in you, not in ancient history. Seek in another part of your soul.”


Then she was walking along the plain, toward the horses, alone. A single step shifted the world around her—suddenly she stood in the mountains. The next step brought her into a golden prairie with tallgrass waving at her eye level, and with the next, she stood in an ancient forest.

There, she could walk forward, peering about at the cool green depths, listening to birdsong and the nearby sound of running water. The trees…

…were not trees. Glanced at carelessly, they were towering sentinels holding up the canopy high above, but when she looked closer at one, it was suddenly a wooden statue of an elf, carved in exquisite detail. If not for being wood, it could have been alive, so precise was it.

Trissiny studied the calm, narrow face of the woman for a long moment, then turned to study another tree. Under her direct gaze, it was also an elf.

She walked slowly through the grove, peering at each elf-tree as she passed. Something told her, even though the carved figures had none of the colors of life, that each of these individuals would have black hair.

Finally, she found a face she recognized. Principia’s wooden countenance was set in a rakish grin which looked quite comfortable on her features. In fact, a few of the elves she had passed wore similar expressions, which were rather at odds with the staid reputation that elves in general had. She stood, studying Principia for long minutes, but the statue had nothing to tell her, it seemed.

The next one was also a woman, this one with a more serious expression, garbed more traditionally in a simple dress. Hesitantly, Trissiny placed a fingertip on the woman’s wooden forehead.

The statue did nothing.

With a sigh, she shook her head and continued on.

“Who are you?”

Without alarm, she turned back, finding herself face to face with the last statue—now alive, fully colored, and staring at her with naked suspicion. A tomahawk was in the woman’s hand. And she did, in fact, have black hair, tied back in a practical braid not unlike her own.

“I’m…on a journey,” Trissiny replied vaguely. The answer seemed appropriate. She didn’t feel entirely…herself.

The elf stepped toward her, eyes narrowed. “You are…truly here. Why are you here?”

“What’s your name?” Trissiny asked. “Is there something you’re supposed to teach me?”

One corner of the woman’s mouth quirked sideways in a smile that was reminiscent of Principia’s. “I see. Child, these are dangerous magics you are meddling with. I don’t know what books you have been studying, but you should not venture into the dreamscape except under a shaman’s guidance.”

“I am under a shaman’s guidance,” Trissiny said. “I’m looking for an answer I supposedly already have but don’t know it.”

“Then you should look within,” the woman said firmly. “You are traveling, girl. This isn’t your mind.” She paused, glancing around. “Well…partly. But I am not a figment you created. My name is Lanaera. I am a shaman among my people, and I do not much care to have my own dreams encroached upon by random humans. How did you even find me?”

“I don’t…know.” Trissiny glanced around. This situation seemed like it ought to be rather upsetting, or at least exciting, but she felt a calm that verged on lethargy. “Kuriwa said…”

“Kuriwa!” The elf strode forward, grasping her by the shoulders. “Kuriwa sent you here?!”

“Avei said I was reaching through connections,” she mused absently. “I see… I guess I did it again. I’m sorry to have bothered you, ma’am. Since you seem to know more about this than I, is it possible you could help me go back?”

The elf was gazing at her, wide-eyed. She blinked once, then a smile blossomed on her features. “Kuriwa, and now Avei. Trissiny?”

“Yes, that’s me.” Finally, as if the elf’s touch was helping to ground her, the wariness she ought normally to feel in such unfamiliar surroundings began to rise. “Do I know you?”

“I should have known you,” the elf said, and to her amazement, pulled her forward into a hug. Trissiny just stood there in her grasp, uncertain what to do. It only lasted a few moments, though, then Lanaera pulled back, smiling at her in apparent delight. Her expression quickly sobered, though. “I see. You don’t recognize my name? Well…I suppose that should not be a surprise.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said carefully. “Um…”

“I,” said Lanaera with a slightly sad smile, “am your mother’s mother. I am so glad to finally meet you, child.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, blinking. “I, um… Wasn’t expecting this.”

Again, Lanaera smiled, and her expression was still sly and sardonic beneath its happiness. With that smile, the resemblance to Principia really stood out. “You should not stay here long—you are not prepared for this kind of traveling. Honestly, did you not follow your instructions?”

“I wasn’t given any instructions!” Trissiny protested. “She just… Helped me get here!”

“That unbelievable ass…” Lanaera rolled her eyes. “But that’s Kuriwa all over. Making everyone but herself do the maximum amount of work for any scrap of insight they seek. All right, listen. When you are able, please come visit me in the real world. My grove is close to the human settlement called Port Nonsense, in northeastern Calderaan Province. The nearest Rail terminal is in Saddle Ridge; you will have to travel overland from there. The Imperial road comes directly to the town, and the signs are clear. There are regular stagecoaches if you don’t have your own transportation.”

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but did you say Port Nonsense?”

The shaman grinned. “It lies right on the edge of the Golden Sea; the first human settlers seemed to find the Sea’s name ironic. I have always enjoyed the joke. Trissiny…if you are going to mix yourself up with Kuriwa, there are things you should know. More things than I can tell you here. The fact that she sought you out—I assume you did not go looking for her—shows how important it is that you be forewarned.”

“I see,” Trissiny said slowly. “Well…thank you. Um, this may be awkward, but… I think I would appreciate even more some insight into Principia.”

Lanaera’s face fell into grim lines. “I see. You have…a relationship with her, after all this time?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “Well, I have refrained from punching or arresting her. Whether that’s a relationship…”

The elf chuckled bitterly, shaking her head and finally taking a step back. “It’s as much of one as she manages with most people. Yes, Trissiny, I would be glad to help you understand her…to the extent that I do. My daughter is not entirely her own fault. Some people simply should not have children. She is one… And unfortunately, so was I. Well, regardless. You will come see me?”

“I…” Trissiny hesitated only for a moment before nodding. “Yes, I will. I can’t say when, though. My time is not entirely my own.”

“Of course.” She smiled sadly. “I have known a number of paladins over the years. When you can, though. And I would advise you not involve yourself too closely with Kuriwa until you have learned more about her. She will not deliberately harm you, but she tends to lead people into…complication.”

“I don’t think I need any more of that,” Trissiny agreed fervently, earning another laugh.

“As glad as I am to finally meet you,” Lanaera said more seriously, “this place is not safe. I’m sure Kuriwa has laid protections over you, but brushing the dreams of other shaman like myself is the least of the risks in wandering here. This realm is used by the fae, and many of those will attack you on sight.”

“Wait!” Trissiny said. “I—I keep getting lost. First I reached out through Avei, and then this… I’m supposed to be looking inside for something.”

The shaman tilted her head. “What do you seek, Trissiny?”

“Reconciliation,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “Yes, that’s the word. I am trying to broaden my skills beyond what Hands of Avei have used in the past—the world is growing too close and too complicated to just lash out with a sword anymore. I’ve been training with the Eserites, but…”

“Yes, I’ve met Eserites,” Lanaera said quietly. “If you meet the wrong one, it is easy to come away with a low opinion of the whole breed.”

“I’ve met a few very good ones,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “but some…who disturb me more than my encounters with the Black Wreath. And yet…”

“Why, in particular, did you seek them out?” the shaman asked. “I think your goal is extremely laudable, but the Thieves’ Guild seems a counterintuitive choice for an Avenist seeking to expand her horizons.”

Trissiny hesitated again before answering. “Well… There was a training exercise Professor Tellwyrn sent us on.”

“You really have stumbled upon the worst elven role models,” Lanaera murmured, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. Please go on.”

“We went into the Crawl, which I suppose you’re heard of. There’s a place down there which shows… Um, possibilities. I was never entirely clear on how it works. But it gave me a glimpse of who I would have been if I’d been raised by Principia. A thief, not a soldier. And… I left with a memory of her, of the woman I could have been. Her mindset, her attitude, the way she reveled in cleverness and had exactly the traits I’d need to contend with the Wreath and…and politicians in general, I’m finding. I can’t recall her skills, though.” She shrugged helplessly. “It was an example I had, one that was me, at least in a sense. I…guess I’m not making any sense, am I?”

“No,” Lanaera said thoughtfully. “No, in fact, this makes things much more clear. It does not mean the Guild is the best source for the knowledge you seek by far…but I can see why it would draw you, and this was not a wrong course of action. One must choose a starting point, after all. The Eserites, if you can learn to stomach what passes for their ethics, know exactly the skills you wish to learn.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “And it’s my sticking point. I can’t get past…the things they do. Their attitude about it. And I can see what I came here to learn in some of them, but I keep being frustrated because they want me to be a warrior.”

“You are a warrior,” Lanaera said with a smile. “It’s not surprising they would perceive it. Thieves by nature are attuned to their surroundings.”

“But that’s not the point of this!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I believe, now, that I understand,” the shaman said, regarding her with a gentle smile. “Well. I believe I can help you—somewhat more directly than Kuriwa. I do not share her philosophy that no one should have what they don’t earn in the most arduous manner possible. What you need, Trissiny, is a guide.”

“You can guide me?” Trissiny said, suddenly eager in spite of herself.

Lanaera shook her head. “Not to what you seek, granddaughter. But I can send you back within yourself, with some additional safeguards to prevent you from wandering free of your own soulscape again. Given the things to which your spirit is tied, it should hardly be surprising that you keep doing so. And more to the point, you already know the guide you need. Close your eyes.”

“Are you going to make me count back from a hundred?” Trissiny asked wryly, but did as she was told.

The elf let out a soft laugh. “No, that sounds like a measure to induce a trance. You’re already in one, child. Now…let me just give you a nudge.”

Her hand on Trissiny’s forehead was gentle and cool. Except that suddenly, it radiated a sense of enormous pressure.

“Be safe, granddaughter. Come see me when you are able.”

And then Trissiny was falling through blackness.


She landed in a crouch, sword and shield in her hands, and straightened slowly, peering around. This place she recognized. The huge octagonal chamber, the mist-filled hallways… This was the place in the Crawl which dragged fears out and held them up to the light.

“Oh, great,” she muttered.

“Well, it’s nice to see you too.”

Trissiny whirled to face the voice, reflexively raising her shield, but the girl now in front of her just grinned and stuck her hands in the pockets of her fitted longcoat.

“Oh, that’s a nice how-de-do. You came looking for me, remember?” Triss Locke winked at her. “So let’s see if we can’t get you straightened out, eh?”

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