Tag Archives: Rasha

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“Don’t touch the equipment, obviously. The visual effects are harmless and not interactable unless you’re doing magic, so don’t do magic.” Rector paused, looking up from his instrument panel, a construction of modern enchanting parts and engineered dials and levers around a millennia-old Infinite Order data screen, and leveled an accusing finger at one particular member of his audience. “And for anybody who is a living incarnation of magic, that means don’t even think too hard about magic! No focused intent! Do not subjectivize any physical principles!”

Azradeh raised both of her clawed hands innocently. “C’mon, Rector, you know me better than that.”

A wrench bounced off the bridge of her nose. His aim had been steadily improving.

“I shall be the very soul of discretion and restraint,” she promised. “Demon’s honor.”

She didn’t push too hard; it was enough of a privilege to be allowed to observe this event, which was being held in one of the underground experimental chambers beneath the Church Azradeh had not seen before. She didn’t even know how many of these Justinian had authorized, but like the others, this one was a melange of enchanting and engineering equipment completely inscrutable to her built into and around various priceless relics of the Elder Gods. Azradeh had to wonder whether the Universal Church had always had what was probably the world’s largest collection of that old technology or it was all collected by Justinian for his purposes.

Currently, the equipment wasn’t even the most interesting thing present. In the air all around them swirled shapes and sigils of floating light, representing everything from mathematical equations to arcane sigils, rotating around the room in orderly patterns. Orderly, but fiendishly complex.

“Does anything look familiar to you?” the Archpope himself asked her quietly.

Azradeh turned to him, raising her eyebrows. “Is there a reason it should?”

“All right, fixed it,” Rector stated before he could reply. “Yeah… Good, good, piggybacked a translocation signal off the native displacement waves. Using the Golden Sea as a manifestation portal is never gonna be completely stable, but if you want distance, I got that at the cost of precision of placement. Should spit out the target a good distance out past the Great Plains instead of right on the frontier.”

“How much precision did it cost, Rector?” Justinian asked.

The enchanter shook his head irritably, still scowling at his instruments. “Dunno. This is frustratingly vague. Gotta stay at the controls, steer it in real time. Way too many variables to account for—this is just not proper engineering, gonna be at least somewhat intuitive. How much precision you need?”

The Archpope nodded gravely. “If the manifestation will be at a radius outside the Golden Sea, it must be along the southern half. The entire process will be wasted if the subject materializes inside the Dwarnskolds, or flies off over the Stormsea.”

“Doable, no problem,” Rector said brusquely.

“And it must not appear in the vicinity of Last Rock.”

Rector hesitated. “…shouldn’t be a problem. That’s prob’ly too close to the frontier anyway. Straight line from there down to Calderaas, more or less… Yeah, think I can keep it clear of that range.”

“And,” Justinian continued, noting the way Rector’s shoulders immediately tensed, “if possible, I would rather it did not emerge near Veilgrad.”

In the short pause which ensued, the enchanter actually took his hands off the controls to drum all his fingers on the panel. When he finally spoke, his voice was even tighter than usual. “How important is that?”

Justinian had found that dealing with Rector was quite unlike, say, Ravoud, who obeyed him with implicit trust even against his own better judgment. With Rector, he needed to explain his reasons as clearly and in as much detail as possible, as the enchanter would tend to disregard instructions for which he didn’t see the point.

“The entire point of this manifestation will be psychological. We must create shock, and horror. Apart from the benefits of spreading this widely, the people of Veilgrad have always been somewhat inured to that, and have grown especially so after the events of the last few years. In addition, Veilgrad has recently acquired new protectors of significant potency and as yet undetermined capabilities. I would not wish the creature to be dispatched before the paladins can be brought to face it.”

“Not much chance of anything but a paladin doing it,” Rector said, un-tensing slightly. “I will…see what I can do. Not promising anything. Aiming this at the southern half of the radius while avoiding the point in the center of that might be all the precision I can squeeze out of it. Upside is, Veilgrad’s one spot. Worst comes to worst it’s just straight unlikely it’ll pop out there as opposed to any other point.”

“Please do what you can, Rector,” the Archpope urged, nodding at his back. “I have faith in your abilities.”

The enchanter grunted, going back to work.

“So, uh,” Azradeh said quietly, edging up next to him, “aren’t those paladins doing politics at you right now? I’d’ve thought you’d put this on hold while dealing with that.”

“This is me dealing with that,” Justinian said, giving her a sidelong smile. “It’s called asymmetrical warfare; attack your enemy with whatever they can least anticipate and counter. The children did this by moving into an arena in which I have up till now decisively overmatched them. They’ll not expect an abrupt shift back into territory in which they are more comfortable.”

“Huh. Doesn’t that…just give them back the advantage?”

“Momentarily,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Rector’s form, still hunched over the controls and jabbing irritably at the screen. “In the moment after that, it will render all their efforts irrelevant.”

Azradeh idly reached up, letting one stream of symbols pass intangibly through her hand. The visible data swirling around the chamber was all focused upon a point in its center, a save ten yards away from Rector’s control station. There, an elaborate construction of magic and technology surrounded the object at the center of the entire effect, keeping it contained, but visible. Theoretically visible; it was difficult to look at directly. When stared at for a few seconds, the black sliver of bone began to waver, as if shifting color to something in a spectrum she could not ordinarily see.

“I appreciate how you’re always willing to explain things to me.”

Justinian smiled at her again. “Gladly. You were known to be quite the strategist in your previous life; I retain hope that thoughts in that vein may yet jar some memory to the surface. I only regret that I do not have more time to visit with you.”

“Nah, you’re busy, I get it.”

“Do you have to chatter back there?!” Rector exclaimed.

“Oops.” Grinning, Azradeh took a series of loud, stomping steps backward. “I’m withdrawing, Rector! Going back to the wall, out of your radius!”

“Do it quietly! I am trying to focus!”

Pressing her back against the wall, the archdemon raised her claws to frame her mouth and bellowed, “IS THIS FAR ENOUGH?”

He made a sound like a prematurely awakened bear and did not otherwise respond.

Behind him, Delilah slipped discreetly over to the Archpope’s side from where she had been hovering by the door.

“Has this personality clash become a problem?” Justinian asked her, softly enough that Rector could not overhear.

The priestess shook her head, answering in the same near-whisper. “I thought it would, at first, but… She’s very careful not to cross any of his hard lines. It took me a while to realize it, but he actually enjoys having excuses to shout and be grumpy at her. Throwing things at someone who can’t be harmed by it is something of a release. She actually may be good for him.”

“How intriguing,” Justinian said, smiling.

Several yards behind them all and out of anyone’s field of view, Azradeh stepped silently forward, reached out with one hand, and tapped a point in midair. Beneath the tip of her claw, a single fragment of incorporeal data, a paragraph-sized equation, froze in its orbit and adhered to her hand. She swiftly shifted it to a different orbit and then withdrew, leaving it to float off on its way.

Smiling aimlessly, Azradeh once more retreated and leaned against the wall again, humming.

“What is that noise!?” Rector exclaimed.

“Oh, not a fan of lullabies? I take requests!”


He had not hesitated in following Rizlith through the Conclave’s embassy, simply because it was so out of character for her to seek him out. The succubus was a presence Ampophrenon tolerated solely to maintain the peace with Razzavinax, a fact of which she was well aware, and wisely kept her distance from the gold dragon. Now, as she had begged his attention on an urgent matter, he let her lead him deep into one of the embassy’s sub-basements. Wordlessly, Rizlith opened a door Ampophrenon recognized and gestured him through with a deferential bow.

He gave her a nod of acknowledgment as he stepped in, and for a single instant when she started to close the door behind him he considered the possibility of some kind of trap—you could never lower your guard around a child of Vanislaas—but then again, with her errand complete it was just as likely she simply didn’t want to be shut in a room with a gold dragon.

Surveying the scene before him, Ampophrenon amended that supposition to conclude the succubus had probably not wanted to be shut in a room with any of what was going on here.

This was one of the “hoard rooms,” subterranean chambers below the embassy which they had enchanted to be far larger than their physical dimensions, so as to let the dragons have private spaces in which they could rest in their larger forms. None of them, of course, kept an actual hoard here, right under the noses of other dragons; that was a recipe for several kinds of disaster. But they were welcome sanctuaries, nonetheless. This particular cavernous chamber was the private residence Varsinostro the Green shared with his roommate.

Varsinostro himself lay stretched along the ground, half-curled in a protective posture with one arm, his tail, and the edge of his wing enfolding the diminutive figure he clutched against his side. Ampophrenon met the green’s eyes and bowed his head once upon entering his personal space, but thereafter focused his attention on the gibbering elf.

“Where is it, where is the light? It was calm it was so—no, no more. Stop! Stop!” Raash sobbed aloud, actually pounding his fists against the dragon’s armored hide, which of course had not the least effect. At least he wasn’t lashing out with magic. “It’s not dark or light, they’re so angry. It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Please, I can’t make them…” Burying his face against Varsinostro’s side, he heaved silently as he struggled to breathe.

“What has happened to him?” Ampophrenon asked quietly. “Our protections have failed, after all this time?” It had taken some trial and error to refine the magic through which they kept the mad spirits of Athan’Khar from driving the headhunter insane, but not even in his worst moments since coming to the Conclave had Raash been this bad. In fact, this was the worst Ampophrenon had seen him since the four dragons had originally rescued him from Athan’Khar after Khadizroth’s escapade in Viridill. Worse, possibly; then, the elf had been only babbling and incoherent. Now he appeared to be in pain.

“The protection stands,” Varsinostro answered, his voice soft even in the booming resonance granted it by his greater form. “It seems we crafted them to be…inadequate. It is the spirits which have changed; they are riled beyond anything we have seen since Raash came home with us.” With one huge claw, he very tenderly stroked the elf’s hair as he wept silently against the dragon’s hide. “I have been forced to intercede with brute power and prevent him from casting magic. Until this subsides, I can do nothing but stay with him and provide safety, and whatever comfort I may.” His expression was nearly as pained as Raash’s as he looked down at the maddened elf Varsinostro had taken the primary role in managing the headhunter’s condition, and the two had become quite close.

“Zanzayed has already departed for Viridill to check for activity in Athan’Khar itself,” said Razzavinax, who stood to the side in his smaller form. His own face was grave; despite the well-earned reputation red dragons carried, Razzavinax was a self-described people person and disliked seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially the companion of a fellow dragon. “I’m afraid that may be a mockingjay hunt, though, Ampophrenon. This agitation is severe; it has taken all of Varsinostro’s focus to keep Raash from hurting himself, and my own familiarity with the Athan’Khar spirits is much lesser. Still…I strongly suspect they are reacting to an outside stimulus. This is…reminiscent of the agitations observed along the Viridill border during recorded major chaos events.”

Ampophrenon inhaled slowly, mastering his own alarm. “Then Zanzayed’s errand is worthwhile, even if it is only due diligence. If your suspicion is correct…”

“Even our strength means little against chaos,” Razzavinax agreed grimly. “Raash wasn’t with us during the disaster at Veilgrad, but we all remember how that set off the oracles at the time, and…”

“And this is different,” Varsinostro rumbled. “Sudden, and acute. I can only hope it passes as quickly as it has come on. If not…” Raash groaned and began cursing softly in agonized elvish; the dragon gently rested his chin atop the elf’s head.

“While we’re talking of due diligence,” said Razzavinax, “I think it would be a good idea for you to visit your paladin friend, Ampophrenon; Zanza says she might actually like you more than him, anyway. And then the other two. If there is a major chaos incident brewing, they’ll be needed front and center, and we can provide them quick transport to wherever it occurs.”

“Yes,” Ampophrenon said, narrowing his own eyes. “That raises an ominous prospect, however. The paladins are right now—”

“We know what they’re doing,” the red dragon said, his expression growing steely. “And who will be most inconvenienced if they succeed. In light of what is strongly suspected about his previous involvement in chaos events, isn’t that suggestive?”

“Let us be aware of possibilities without borrowing trouble,” Ampophrenon cautioned. “You are right, though, it is perilously suggestive. And should this suspicion be borne out, his decisive removal will become an urgent priority.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Razzavinax replied, his mouth twisting with black humor. “I’m the wrong color to be safely making pronouncements like that toward the Universal Church or its figurehead. For my part, I’m going to go pull at my connections in the city. We need fresh information, and to be positioned as well as possible for whatever comes next. Varsinostro, I hate to leave you alone with this, but I think it would be a bad idea to have Rizlith in here. I’ll ask Maiyenn to come keep you two company, if you don’t object.”

“She would be welcome, if she is willing,” Varsinostro agreed softly. “Your lady has always had a gentle way with Raash.”

Red and gold nodded at him, and then Ampophrenon stepped forward, reaching out to lay a very soft touch against Raash’s shoulder where it emerged above the tip of Varsinostro’s wing.

“Courage, friend,” he murmured. “We will not desert you.”

Raash shifted his head so Ampophrenon could see one of his eyes, but his stare was unfocused and wild. It was unclear whether he could even see him.

Then the two dragons turned in unison and marched toward the door together. The sight of their grim expressions and purposeful stride would have been enough to make the world tremble, if it could see them.


Even after they had spread the population to well-constructed tents around the lodge’s grounds (well-made structures complete with modern heating charms that were almost like temporary houses, provided by Ravana’s generosity), it was still dense enough with lizardfolk refugees that relatively small incidents could create a stir felt by everyone present. The stir currently underway was not small. As such, Ingvar had been unsurprised when Ilriss, a young lizardwoman apprenticing as a shaman, had run to him frantically demanding his presence.

The Elder had made his semi-permanent home in the great hall of the lodge, with his belongings arranged around a simple pile of sleeping furs near the fire, no barriers or concessions to privacy added. Ingvar respected his dedication to making himself available to his people, and while the lizardfolk remained reluctant to discuss their religious rites, he had inferred that this accessibility was related to the fae ritual by which the Elder had divested himself of his very name.

Admirable as that was, it carried the downside that when something was wrong with the Elder, it spread panic. Now, Ingvar and Ilriss had to push their way through agitated lizardpeople as more received word and streamed into the great hall to spectate. The Shadow Hunters had also begun gathering, and were barely managing to keep order.

“He’s been like this ever since it started,” Ilriss fretted as she finally brought Ingvar to the Elder’s bedside. The old shaman lay on his back, eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of apparent pain; his entire body was tense, nearly arching off the furs, as if he were physically struggling with some weight despite his prone position. “It struck us all, but he…he…”

“The Elder has taken it upon himself,” interjected Fninn, the other junior shaman who most often accompanied the Elder, as Ilriss seemed about to succumb to her own worry. “Something has agitated our familiar spirits. Badly. They screamed in anger and fear, and… The Elder has gathered to himself all their voices, so the rest of us are not affected.”

“All fae spirits?” Ingvar demanded, now recognizing the reason for their alarm. Warnings like that usually heralded some world-altering disaster. He knew a bit about fairy warnings, himself. “Has anyone else felt…?”

He looked around at the onlookers, meeting Aspen’s eyes; she held up both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. Maybe if Juniper was here…”

“I didn’t feel anything either!” chimed Zap, who as usual was flitting about Ingvar’s head in little bursts of nervous energy.

“I think…not all spirits,” said Ilriss, having regathered some of her poise. “Because of our mission, we are more closely attuned to…certain events.”

“The Elder asked for you, Brother Ingvar,” Fninn added.

“A spiritual disturbance, related to you…” Ingvar trailed off, eyes narrowing as his mind raced ahead.

“Sounds like we better warn that Duchess,” said Aspen.

Ingvar shook his head. “Lady Madouri left very specific instructions; she’s not to be informed of any developments like this unless they affect her personally and are critically important.”

“Huh?” The dryad blinked. “But that’s… I figured she’d be way more of a control freak than that.”

“This is about magic, not conventional operational security. The very reason the Elder gave up his name, and the People have moved in secret.” He met her eyes, keeping his head partially turned so he could still peripherally see the beleaguered shaman. “Recognition by and through spirits. Every conscious mind that’s aware of this is another risk factor. We need to be…careful.” Ingvar returned his full focus to the Elder, who despite having apparently asked for him now showed no sign of being aware of anything beyond his inner struggle. “All right. I want people who can blend in to get down to Madouris and Tiraas and see what they can dig up. November, Dimbi… Is Tholi here?”

“Young hunter,” the Elder suddenly rasped. Ingvar broke off and knelt beside him. The old lizardman lifted one hand into the air, his eyes still closed; Ingvar grasped it and his clawed fingers clutched him as if he were a lifeline. The shaman’s grip trembled with the tension wracking his entire body.

“I’m here,” Ingvar said quietly. “How can I help?”

“The guilty are there,” said the Elder, his voice taut with strain. “Something dark comes. Great and terrible… But not the great doom. A weapon to distract and befuddle. It is not time to address the guilty. The innocent…must be protected. They will come here, the dark and light alike. A soul at the heart of the doom, in need of protection. To these wilds of yours…”

His grip went slack and he grimaced, baring pointed teeth. Ingvar waited for a few moments, but apparently there was no more. Releasing the old shaman’s hand, he slowly stood back up.

“Thank you for the warning, Elder.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna be rude,” said Aspen, “but are you sure…?”

“I’ve learned the hard way to respect the messages of spirits and the shaman who convey them,” said Ingvar. “Very well, you all heard the Elder. Ilriss, Fninn, I trust you to look after him until…whatever this is calms down. Shadow Hunters, we have our own duty. Gear up and prepare to move out.”

“What are we moving out for?” November asked.

“For souls in need,” said Ingvar. “This is why we’re here. To keep watch over these lands.”


“This is a prayer room,” Rasha hissed. “In the Temple! Of! Avei! Do you have any idea the hell there’ll be to pay if you’re caught? And that’s just from the Sisters, never mind when Glory gets her claws into you!”

“Rasha,” Darius said solemnly through the crack in the door leading to the small chamber, “I understand fully. All the risks, and all the consequences. There are just some things that are worth it.”

“Are there?” she growled. “Are they?”

He released the door, still staring at her with his eyes wide and pleading, and held up both hands with his fingers spread in a vulgar squeezing motion. “But Rasha, did you see…?”

She heaved a sigh. “Yes, I saw them. They’re magnificent. The stuff about which legends are sung and odes composed. But, again, this is the Temple of goddamn Avei and that is a prayer room and you two—”

“I know what an imposition this is,” he intoned, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Rasha, I didn’t want to play this card, but… If our situations were reversed, you know I’d do it for you.”

Rasha stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Juniper’s face appeared over his shoulder, the same earnest plea in her big brown eyes, and Rasha finally sighed again, even more heavily. “You would, wouldn’t you? Damn it, Darius. You’re such a…bro.”

“Always and forever,” he promised.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He was already edging back, the crack in the door slowly diminishing. “I owe you big for this, Rasha.”

“Too right you fucking do.”

“Thanks so much, Rasha,” Juniper added with a winsome smile. “You’re a good friend!”

“No reason you should be bored,” Darius chimed in the last second before he shut the door in her face. “You can go hang out with Zafi!”

Then it closed with a decisive click.

“Zafi is on duty,” Rasha informed the sigil of Avei carved into the wooden surface. “But then again, so are you, in theory.” She turned to look down at Sniff, who stood silently against the wall, peering up at her. “I dunno how you stand it.”

The bird-lizard-whatever made a soft croaking chirp deep in his throat.

“Well, the hell I’m gonna stand here for… Fuck, I give him five minutes, tops. Still not waiting outside. Hold down the fort, Sniff.”

Sniff raised his head crest in acknowledgment. Shaking her own head, Rasha turned and ambled down the hall.

Darius and Juniper were really pushing their luck; this was perilously close to the main sanctuary of the Temple, which was still roiling like a kicked beehive even with Trissiny’s big address concluded. Rasha was just another woman strolling through the furor, idly half-listening to conversations as she passed, many of which were about the Bishop announcement.

It was odd to find herself at loose ends like this. Thumbing the heating charm hidden under the fur-trimmed collar of her dress, Rasha made her unhurried way to the front doors of the temple and slipped out. The fresh winter air was just what she needed, at least with the charm active.

Imperial Square wasn’t a lot more quiet, between its normal traffic and ongoing agitation caused by the back-to-back paladins’ announcements. Rasha herself had been occupied being debriefed about the captured (and then rescued) Purists, but she likely wouldn’t have been inclined to watch politicians giving speeches anyway. No matter how important, and even with one of the politicians in question being a good friend. Somehow, knowing that Trissiny hated being a politician only further soured an arena of action in which Rasha had no inherent interest. With the Purists finally good and done for, she was looking forward to not having to think about any of this crap for a good long while. Just seeing the effect Trissiny, Toby, and Gabriel had had on the capital with three little press conferences was plenty satisfying to her.

Glory would be disappointed, of course, but Glory lived and breathed politics. Rasha appreciated the education in it she was getting, and didn’t deny the importance of understanding the forces that moved people, but she had already decided long since that she wasn’t going to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, at least not directly. Her own path wasn’t quite laid out, but she had time to consider it.

On the Temple’s front colonnade, she finally found a relatively clear space in which to breathe, all the way down at one end beneath the shadow of one massive column. Rasha wasn’t about to leave the Temple grounds; this was as far as she was willing to get from Darius, despite her frustration with both him and Glory’s insistence that she not go off alone. It was still a crowded public space; she could take two steps in several directions and reach out an arm to touch someone, and the babble of excited chatter washed over her from all sides. But it was a spot, clear and open, where she was in no immediate danger of being bumped into and knocked down. For a moment, she just paused there, people-watching.

A single point of pressure poked into the center of her back.

“Good afternoon, Miss Rasha. It has been some time.”

Rasha did not freeze, or panic. Among Glory’s more esoteric training programs had been teaching her to identify various implements being poked into her back; she knew the tip of a wand when it nestled between her vertebrae. She also knew how to act in such a situation. Rasha breathed in and out once, seizing calm like a shield, and then very slowly, giving no cause for a sudden reaction, turned her head just enough to see who was behind her.

As the proper technique for this maneuver dictated, he was standing close enough to her that his body concealed the wand from the numerous onlookers. She found herself looking at a square, bluff face, framed by red hair and a very neatly trimmed beard. Rasha had to pause and reinforce her carefully maintained calm facade. That was a face she had only recently stopped seeing in recurring nightmares.

“Rogrind. And here I thought I was done having to deal with your nonsense. I have moved on to fresh new nonsense, thank you very much.”

The dwarf smiled thinly. “After the catalog of insults and injuries for which you were directly or indirectly responsible? Only an Eserite could be so arrogant. I see your training is progressing well. Please walk forward, miss, at a steady pace, with your hands at your sides and not in or near your pockets.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said incredulously, glancing to one side. There were two Silver Legionnaires not eight feet away. “I don’t remember you being this sloppy. All I have to do is shout.”

The pressure against her back shifted as he adjusted the wand. “At this angle and at this range, a beam weapon of this caliber will sever your spinal cord and destroy most of your heart. Temple or no, there is not a healer alive who could help you then. Yes, I would receive a swift comeuppance; perhaps it would give you some comfort for your last thoughts to be of that.”

“That’s a bluff.”

“Call it, then. Do you know what happens to field agents whose identity is compromised in the course of creating a humiliating public debacle in a foreign capital? You have a great deal to lose, Rasha, including your life. I? Nothing. Walk forward, if you please.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just goad me into tackling you? C’mon, it’ll be like old times. We can go to jail, reminisce about—”

“That’s very droll, young lady, but my time is short, and thus, so is yours.” He physically pushed with the wand until she had to take a step.

So she did. Keeping her hands still, eyes darting about and mind racing, but moving. Complying, for now. Something would come up; there would be something she could use. There was always something. No situation was hopeless, for a properly prepared mind, and she wasn’t the fresh-off-the-boat kid she’d been when last she’d tangled with the dwarf.

Was he serious? It wasn’t impossible that he was that desperate, but it was also quite likely he was lying. That was the thing about professional spies. They were often both of those things.

“Well, anyway,” she said as they moved in lockstep through the crowd swirling in Imperial Square, keeping her voice even and at a volume he could hear without being loud enough to make him twitchy, “thank you.”

“For?”

“You didn’t misgender me. Or even start to. My own friends took a while to consistently remember.”

“Please. I am from a civilized country; Svenheim solved its Purist problem years ago.”

“Must be nice.”

“It is. I can see it has been an eventful year for you, but if I may say so, you appear to be flourishing.”

“Good of you to notice.”

She could barely hear his soft sigh over the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. “I fear it makes what comes next rather embarrassing, but surely you of all people will understand the exigencies which can force one to accept…unfavorable allies.”

That was nearly as alarming as the weapon pressed to her spine. He had guided her over to one edge of the Square, and in fact up the sidewalk of one of the main avenues opening onto it. Now, Rasha observed that their destination was a carriage, active and idling in wait.

And in the driver’s seat, another familiar but unwelcome face. Rasha looked up at the grin of savage triumph Sister Lanora wore, and let out a hissing sigh through her teeth.

“Fuck.”


It came from the Golden Sea, a living streak of smoke and shadow marring the sky. Shooting outward toward civilization like a missile, it seemed to take shape as it progressed, growing in size, developing visible features, and steadily leaving behind a trail of thick black mist that lingered on the air like an ink stain.

The thing soared over an elven grove, sending several shamans into an uncharacteristic panic as fae spirits screamed in horror at its passing, and for the first time spread its wings. They were skeletal, with none of the membrane between their long fingers that should serve to hold it aloft, had its flight been a matter of aerodynamics.

In fact, it was entirely skeletal, a fact which became more clear as it traveled and continued to form. Black bones were rough, jagged as if every one had been repeatedly broken and improperly healed, and fully exposed. In fact, though its shape suggested a skeleton, it looked more as if it were formed of shards of volcanic glass, haphazardly glued together. Color emerged from the swirling darkness of the thing’s being as its wings began to beat against the air, spraying swirls of inky smoke. Ligaments and tendons materialized, growing more like fungus than tissue to connect its shattered bones. They were purple, glossy as jewels and faintly luminous, what little could be seen of them through the haze of its body. Rather than flesh, the creature formed a steady outward bulk of vapor, a black mist which continued to billow out behind it with the speed of its passing, roiling and only partially obscuring its craggy inner workings.

Mountains rose up ahead, and at their base, a city of spires and terraces perched along a peninsular plateau which extended out over the surrounding plains. As the thing shot toward this landmark, it finally opened its eyes.

They were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light. When they opened for the first time, a pulse burst out from the foul beast, flattening a stretch of tallgrass.

It shifted its trajectory, shooting upward with a powerful flap of its skeletal wings, and slowed as it soared higher… Only to descend upon Veilgrad from above, giving the unprepared city just enough time to see it coming.

Wings spread, it landed upon the cathedral, the impact collapsing part of the roof and sending its ancient stone spire tumbling to the streets below in pieces. The wings remained fully extended in an animalistic threat display as screams and alarm bells began to sound in all directions. Drawing its sinuous neck up and back, it opened its angular jaws and emitted a noise that was at once a roar, a hiss, and a scream, an unearthly sound which clawed at the mind as much as at the ears.

The chaos dragon howled its challenge to an unprepared world.

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16 – 45

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“Miss Juniper! A moment, if you would?”

Juniper sighed and came to a stop. She’d barely made it into the alley. Ahead of her, the three Purists stopped also, clustering together like frightened sheep, a habit which in her opinion revealed a lot about their character when they didn’t have swords and a lot of backup; in any case, Sniff immediately circled around in front of them to bar their escape while the dryad turned to deal with whatever this fresh nuisance was.

She recognized the woman who approached from the broken gates, wearing a kind smile and a clearly expensive fur-trimmed winter gown. Also, she recognized the four younger people who had taken up a formation around their leader and were all staring at Juniper with much more visible unease. Or at least, one of them.

“Rasha,” she said, pointing at the young woman in question. “Which would make you… Glory, right? And Trissiny’s other friends.”

“Yep, that’s us,” said the only male in the group. “Trissiny’s other friends, that’s our identity.” The two other girls aside from Rasha both smacked him in the chest.

Juniper ignored that byplay, focusing on Glory, who had one of the most interesting scents she’d encountered on a human. Her sexuality was something avid, even fierce, and remarkably unconstrained; she didn’t seem to have an orientation so much as a hunger for new experiences. And yet, it was a controlled ferocity, smoothly integrated into the rest of her personality and harmonious in expression. It was strange. Most humans who smelled of that kind of sexual fervor were deviants of some sort, but this woman had firm self-control and a seemingly perfect serenity in her carnality. Actually, she smelled rather like an Izarite, except more… For once, Juniper found herself at a loss to define the extra element she was sensing. It was rather inspiring, really; she had long been of the opinion that humans in general needed to be more in touch with their sexual natures and less hung up about it.

The dryad couldn’t help feeling a bit sad at the awareness that what she was sensing meant this woman was probably more intellectually dangerous than any human she’d ever met. It was disappointing that the world had to be that way. People deserved better.

As always, she perceived these details without betraying any awareness, out of respect for everyone’s privacy. There wasn’t much of interest about the other four, anyway, save that Rasha smelled of fairly recent self-acceptance and the younger girl was going to be firmly bisexual when she finished grappling with a hangup about her attraction to women, something Juniper had noticed wasn’t uncommon in Tiraan teenagers. Glory replied before she had the opportunity to consider any of it in more detail.

“I am Glory, yes. Thank you for interceding in that…mess. Surprisingly, I think you created the least disastrous possible outcome.”

“Right, well…you’re welcome. Now, I gotta deliver three idiots to the Temple of Avei, so if you’ll ‘scuze me…”

Glory stepped forward, her four apprentices surging less smoothly to keep up their protective ring around her. “Wait, please. Before you go, there is some outstanding business regarding those three we need to settle.”

“I’m gonna give you the credit of assuming you know you’re not about to finish what your Boss tried to start,” Juniper warned. Rasha narrowed her eyes, but it was a pensive expression rather than a hostile one, as if Juniper were a puzzle she was trying to solve. The other three looked various degrees of nervous and angry at the implied threat, however.

“Please.” Glory shook her head. “Your action was the right one. To say nothing of the catastrophe that could have unfolded from those baggages being harmed by the Guild, Eserites of all people respect a show of force toward a noble cause. When we are the abusive parties forced to back down, we more than anyone should accept it as earned. No, I’m fully behind Trissiny on this matter—and thus, I infer, behind you. My intent is to help address the political situation here, not make it worse.”

Juniper glanced behind her at the open gateway. Somewhat to her surprise, no other thieves were emerging to involve themselves, though she’d be amazed if several weren’t lurking just on the other side of the wall to listen. Well, Glory was undoubtedly savvy enough to expect that, too, which meant she didn’t intend this to be a completely private conversation.

“What’s on your mind, then?”

Glory shifted her own eyes to the prisoners. “Just a simple question. How did you three get from the custody of the Church-aligned Huntsmen to that of the Church-opposed Thieves’ Guild in the space of one night?”

“W-we don’t answer to you,” the Purist with the most remaining spine (for whatever that was worth) stammered, trying to lift her chin. “We’re going back to the Sisterhood to be judged by our own—”

All Juniper had to do to silence her was turn and meet her eyes. She added some verbal encouragement anyway.

“Do you really think you’re in a position to get shirty, here? Give me any more backtalk and either Sniff’s gonna bite you, or I am.” Sniff obligingly hissed, spreading his wings and flattening down his head crest in a universal avian warning; two of the Purists squeaked in a manner any Avenist would have found shameful. “Answer the woman.”

After three seconds she began to be concerned she would have to back up that threat as the three just clustered together again; really, they were like traumatized pigeons. What had the thieves done to these women?

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as one of them burst out in a rush as if she needed to answer just to vent the building pressure.

“They just handed us over! We were separated from our sisters and, and herded here like sheep, we didn’t even know where we were going until—” She broke off and made a gulping noise.

“The Huntsmen did this?” Glory asked quietly. One of them, not the one who’d spoken, nodded jerkily. Juniper pondered whether she should find out their names. On reflection, she didn’t really want to; these women had been bullying assholes when they had power and were sniveling cowards now that they didn’t, and she preferred the comfortable distance of not thinking of them as individuals.

“Just Huntsmen?” the older girl who wasn’t Rasha piped up. “Not Church priests?” Juniper wondered whether the apprentice was speaking out of turn, but Glory just shifted to give her a nod of clear approval.

“The—yes,” the previous speaker said, nodding. “Huntsmen. We didn’t—we never actually saw any parsons. They never took us to the Cathedral.”

“Sisters,” Rasha murmured. “That’s right, Glory, there were more of them than this.”

“I see,” Glory said almost as softly, then raised her voice, turning back to Juniper. “Well! Thank you, that was what I needed to know. Now then, Juniper, please don’t take this amiss, but before you try to carry them off to the Temple of Avei I must critique your strategy.”

“Oh?” the dryad replied irritably.

Glory inclined her head with an apologetic smile that actually did ease the sting of criticism; Juniper had met grove Elders who didn’t have that degree of facial control. Yeah, this woman was not to be underestimated. “Do forgive the presumption, but this is, after all, an acknowledged area of Eserite expertise. You are planning to chivy three reluctant prisoners across a crowded city, using only your own two hands and an exotic animal helper, and relying on the power of fear to keep them under control. That, I’m afraid, simply will not work. Trust me, we employ fear as a matter of course, and are required to know both its uses and limitations. Fear makes people stupid, jumpy, and impulsive. At the first opportunity they will bolt in three directions and get lost in the crowds; in the best case scenario you will be able to secure two. That’s if the sight of you trying to bodily restrain a priestess of Avei doesn’t set the military police on your own head. I trust I needn’t explain the can of worms that would open?”

“You have a point,” Juniper said grudgingly, turning a sour stare on the quailing Avenists. “Well, that’s a big old nuisance.”

“We won’t be any trouble,” one said tremulously, “we only want—”

“Oh, shut up,” the dryad interrupted in disgust. “Do you really think anybody’s going to listen to you? I assume,” she added to Glory, “that you’re about to offer your own help in handling this.”

“But of course,” the Eserite replied with a warm smile. “Perhaps not in the way you’re thinking; more force isn’t the best solution here. Rasha! Would you be so good as to do the honors?”

“Gladly,” the younger woman replied, stepping forward with a grim stare fixed on the prisoners. “All right, you three, I am going to recite several obvious facts. If this seems at all belittling, you’ll just have to forgive me on the grounds that you have not presented yourselves as intellectually noteworthy thus far. Right now, nearly everyone wants you dead. To the Huntsmen and the Church, you are inconvenient witnesses who need to be silenced. Most of the Thieves’ Guild wants your asses in retaliation both for what you tried to do to me, and the humiliation they just suffered. No, that second part wasn’t your fault, but do you really think that’s going to matter?” She actually paused, planting her hands on her hips to give them a long, skeptical stare. “Most of those people back there have a very similar approach to life as yourselves. Do you imagine they’re going to try to start shit with a dryad when they could just take it out on you? You wouldn’t.”

All three of her fellow apprentices grinned, the older girl braying a derisive laugh.

“Furthermore,” Rasha continued her lecture, “no one else into whose hands you’re likely to fall will be able or willing to protect you. The Church and the Guild can both get at you in Imperial custody, one way or another. None of the other cults are going to want anything to do with you; they’ll likely send you right back to the Church, where you will be silenced as the inconvenient political leftovers that, to Justinian, you are. You could try to flee the city, I suppose, but do you really think you can escape either of those networks of influence? To say nothing of the Huntsmen, who—well, it’s right there in their name. No, ladies, the Sisterhood of Avei is your only hope. After the way you’ve been behaving, High Commander Rouvad is not going to be gentle with you, let’s not pretend otherwise. But she will be fair, and she will not under any circumstances hand you over to any rival power.

“So!” Rasha folded her arms and lifted her chin superciliously, managing to look down her nose at the three cowed priestesses despite being a head shorter than any of them. “You will go with Juniper to the Temple. Not because she is scary and powerful enough to tear you limb from limb if you don’t cooperate. No, you will go with her because she is scary and powerful enough to protect you from anybody who might try to snatch you off the street, as you just saw. She is your best chance of still being alive in an hour, and you should thank Avei at the earliest opportunity that she happened along. I have to say, I didn’t see that coming, either,” she added, giving Juniper a speculative look.

“Wow,” the dryad said, looking back with much the same expression. “Triss was not kidding, you’re one to watch.”

Rasha’s face broke into a pleased smile. It made her latent attractiveness, which seemed to be at least half cosmetics, suddenly blossom into real beauty. Juniper might have been sexually interested, not having had the opportunity to have sex with a trans person yet, but the girl smelled of burgeoning infatuation with someone not present and she didn’t want to risk damaging that. Just because she wasn’t inclined toward long-term romantic attachments herself didn’t mean she valued them less in those who cherished such bonds. Love was too important to treat lightly.

“Our sisters,” one of the three said in a very small voice. “The…others. They’re still…”

Glory’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh, and her expression, for a wonder, was sympathetic. “The prospects are not good. Right now, you need to accept the reality that there’s nothing you can do for them from your position. Your paladin, as well as the other two, are working as we speak to break through the Archpope’s corruption. It may already be too late to help your comrades, but if you want to have any hope of helping General Avelea penetrate the Church’s secrecy, go to Rouvad and tell her everything you know.”

She stared intently at them until all three had nodded in acknowledgment. One began to silently weep again, scrubbing tears from her eyes before they could freeze.

“And Juniper.” Glory stepped forward, looking up at the dryad, who found herself surprised to notice up close that she was notably taller. The woman had a presence that made her seem bigger, somehow. “This is not a criticism of your own abilities, but I’d like to send two of my apprentices with you.”

“To do what, exactly?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not fight off attackers,” the Eserite replied with a grin. “In fact, if it comes to that, I must respectfully ask that you try not to involve my students. No, the Avenists, to their credit, are very particular about the procedures of justice. Rasha is a firsthand witness to the crimes of these three, and her testimony will be immediately useful to the High Commander.”

“They already have Zafi,” Rasha pointed out. “She was there, too.”

“But you were the intended victim,” Glory replied. “And the more witness corroboration, the better.”

“Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not dying to go see Zafi anyway,” the young man added, grinning broadly.

“And Darius,” Glory said, shooting him a look, “please accompany them. I would ordinarily come myself, for something as important as this,” she added to Juniper, “but politics are my area of expertise, and on that field there is a large battle about to unfold which demands all the attention it can be spared. I’m sure you will have your own business to return to afterward, and I’ll feel better if Rasha has someone to walk her home, given how frequently she has been the target of various ne’er-do-wells recently.”

“I am an excellent meatshield,” Dariues vowed, placing one hand over his heart and holding up the other. “Top marks in my class.”

“All the pastry he eats certainly helps,” his little sister added primly, poking him in the side.

“Sure,” Juniper said, a little bemused. “That all makes sense, and I guess some company I don’t automatically hate would be welcome.”

“Juniper…thank you.” Glory’s expression was solemn, almost grave. “For this, your intervention, the way you are supporting Trissiny. All of it. We owe you a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “But nah, I don’t consider myself owed for anything. A person has to do what’s right. Don’t you think?”

“I very much do,” the older woman agreed with a pleased little smile. “It pains me more than you know that we must meet under such…annoying circumstances. You have my standing invitation to visit me at my home, at any time of your convenience. I would dearly love to show you proper hospitality. Not as thanks, if you’d rather not think of it that way! Simply because I want to. Entertaining guests is my great joy in life.”

She gazed up at Juniper, proud and serene, smiling warmly. The dryad tilted her head, studying Glory’s expression, taking in her scent, considering implications. Then, after several long seconds, she nodded and smiled in return.

“I don’t know when that will be convenient, but… Yeah, I’ll take you up on it. That’s very kind of you.”

They both nodded in unison, eyes fixed on one another, and Juniper was quite struck by the experience of being so in sync with someone she knew so little. The two women had just mutually decided and communicated, without any outward sign that any of the onlookers could have called flirtatious, that they would be making love at the earliest opportunity, and that both, despite being each more experienced than the average person, expected it to be a very memorable occasion indeed. Juniper found herself looking forward to that meeting almost as much to satisfy her curiosity as anything else. It was so strange to find such an instinctive harmony with a non-fae, non-Izarite, non-witch human, of all people. Glory didn’t seem one whit less dangerous to her, but… Trissiny trusted her. And respected her. That counted for a great deal. Plus, she was so intriguing.

“Until then,” Glory said, stepping back. “Tallie, Layla, I will need you back at the house; come, let’s not waste any more time. Rasha, don’t pout. I know you don’t need a minder, but with all that’s happening this is no time to take risks. You are a lightning rod for exactly the trouble that’s wracking this city. All of you, please be safe.”

“Don’t you worry, boss lady,” Darius promised. “I plan to live forever or die trying.”

Rasha rolled her eyes and started moving up the alley, which proved to be the impetus for both groups to separate. Glory retreated back into the Casino grounds with her two remaining apprentices, and the others herded their prisoners off toward the opening onto the street in the near distance ahead. The three Avenists were still subdued, but they seemed less panicky than previously, which Juniper had to think would help make this trip easier.

“So! I’m Darius, as you heard,” he said, falling into step alongside Juniper with an easy grin. “Lemme just apologize in advance for anything stupid I say; you’re my first dryad. Actually, I heard you were at Puna Dara that one time, but I didn’t see you. Pretty sure I’d have remembered that.”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, “I had…a lot on my mind that day. It wasn’t a good day.”

“Really wasn’t, was it,” he agreed, his own voice dropping. “That was… Well, it wasn’t boring, was it?”

She turned her head to study him thoughtfully as they walked. The young man put on a very convincing nonchalant expression and idly ambling gait, but she could tell from his scent alone that it was entirely an act. A really good act, something the Guild probably trained its apprentices to do. Outward attitude notwithstanding, he was terrified of her. And, of course, he desired her. Badly. The inner conflict was probably confusing enough that he preferred to bury himself in the pretense of feeling nothing. It was a complex tangle of scents and might have been tricky to puzzle out, but Juniper had encountered this exact reaction from numerous humans since coming to Last Rock. Fortunately, she knew a reliable way to put them at ease.

“Okay, then,” she decided with a smile, shifting closer to bump him very gently with her shoulder. “You, too, I guess. When the opportunity permits.”

“Uh…” Darius shot her a sidelong look, fear spiking in his scent. “Me, too…what, exactly?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you when we get there.”

Rasha snorted.

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16 – 43

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“So he’s at least making an effort to keep all this on the level,” Grip explained as they strode rapidly up the sidewalk toward the Imperial Casino looming ahead. “Not gonna commence any proper beatdowns until there’s public confirmation, and that buys us some time while they get Rasha down there to ID her attackers. Hopefully more than some, if Glory’s got the sense to stall this.”

“Glory’s got no shortage of sense,” Sweet agreed. “Rasha’s no fool, either, and they’re both aware of the broader stakes, here. I don’t think Glory will go so far as to try to stymie Tricks outright, though.”

“Yeah, me either, but she really doesn’t need to. Better for us all if Tricks is persuaded to ease up on this, rather than making it a power struggle between him and…hell, anyone. Glory won’t make it any easier for him even if she doesn’t put her foot down.”

Sweet nodded. “So, you’re in the loop on this, Grip. Who else?”

“Pretty much goddamn everyone,” she said grimly. “He’s doing this in public, Sweet. Making a big fucking spectacle. Anybody working at the Guild itself knows, and everybody not actually on shift at the Casino’s come to gawk. At least, the ones who haven’t run to spread the word, and bring more rubberneckers home to see.”

“Shit,” he said with feeling. Grip nodded mutely. Neither felt a need to voice the obvious: the more people were there to watch Tricks put on the show he was arranging, the more pressure he was under not to back down. With effectively the entire local Guild looking on, it might not be possible to talk him down without posing an outright challenge to his leadership.

And the day had started so well, he reflected in resignation. Unless Sweet or someone else managed to come up with something extremely clever on the fly—or, as a dim part of him still dared to hope, Tricks was employing one of his classic fakeout schemes and not doing the damn fool thing he appeared to be doing—this could very well result in him having to topple the Guild’s leadership before lunch.

He didn’t know if it was better or worse that he stood a good chance of pulling it off. Webs and his faction were explicitly behind him, and he was reasonably sure Glory would lend her own influence if it came to a confrontation. Sweet, Webs, and Glory were the biggest players in Tiraas who dealt in networking and influence specifically, so that was as good as cinched. Grip famously disdained politics but her first instinct had been to come get him, which boded will for his support among the rank and file. Even Style, loyal as she was to Tricks, was recently questioning the Boss’s actions, and she had no reason to be negatively disposed toward Sweet. Yeah, he could almost certainly win that contest.

Damn it, he didn’t want to be Boss again. Quite apart from being personally done with the job, he was right now urgently needed in his role as Bishop. Even as they were dealing with this, the paladins were moving into position to launch their political attack on Justinian and upset the entire order of the Universal Church.

Sweet almost missed a step. How had he failed to put that together before now? Could Justinian have arranged this? He didn’t see how, but clearly something was up with Tricks and possibly the Big Guy himself. It was too perfectly timed to be a pure coincidence at the best of times, and where Justinian was concerned, coincidences never seemed to be just that.

“And speaking of rubberneckers,” Grip added after a dour pause, “does she really need to come?”

Sweet glanced back at Juniper, who managed to give him a smile despite being visibly somewhat out of breath due to their rapid pace.

He knew little about dryads, but it stood to reason that a tree spirit wouldn’t fare well moving at speed over a prolonged period. Some kind of metaphysical effect like that was the most probable explanation for her discomfort, as he had spent much of the previous night discovering that Juniper did not lack stamina or the capacity for physical exertion. She certainly wasn’t doing their discretion any favors, as even the jaded urbanites of Tiraas all had to stop and stare at her passing. The dryad was wearing a disguise ring that changed her coloring to a human normal, otherwise they’d be in deep trouble already, but even so, she was walking through the icy midwinter air in a short, elven-style dress with no sign she felt the cold. Moreover, striding along at her side was a hound-sized bird with a tail half again his length, which drew even more stares than her odd attire. Sniff, blessedly, was a well-trained specimen of whatever he was, sticking silently at his mistress’s side and not spooking or lashing out at the startled cries they passed, or the occasional child who unwisely tried to pet him.

“Don’t feel the need to push yourself if you’re having trouble keeping up, June,” he suggested with a kind smile.

“Oh, don’t worry about me!” Her voice was a bit breathless, but she smiled cheerily back and didn’t falter. “This is nothing. I should tell you about racing across half the Golden Sea sometime. That was a trial.”

“Right. Well, we are going to a fairly sensitive Thieves’ Guild…function. Most of the people there aren’t going to be really comfortable involving outsiders.”

“That’s okay,” she said brightly. “I’m with you!”

Sweet turned his eyes back forward, mulling. He didn’t know Juniper well, except in the purely physical sense. Obviously she wasn’t stupid; whatever else it might be, ULR was academically competitive. On the other hand, it wasn’t known for producing politically cunning graduates. There were institutions of higher learning which had that reputation, but Last Rock alumni were more known for being idiosyncratic. He simply didn’t have enough context to guess whether she was just a blithe fairy unfamiliar with human social nuances and failing to pick up the subtext here, or deliberately pretending to be.

Grip, as usual, favored an approach which sidestepped such dilemmas entirely.

“He means this is Thieves’ Guild business, and none of yours,” the enforcer snapped. “You should go back to wherever you came from. It doesn’t concern you.”

“This is about Church politics, though,” the dryad puffed, not slowing. “This whole thing Trissiny and the guys have been trying to straighten out all week, right? I’d better come keep an eye on it.”

Grip’s face settled into a calculatedly mulish stare she used on fools who needed a relatively gentle push out of the way rather than those who posed a significant threat, which warned Sweet that she didn’t appreciate what she was dealing with here. “Listen, you—”

“Grip,” he interrupted, “there’s an old joke about situations just such as this. Where does a dryad sleep?”

The enforcer hesitated, then scowled furiously and turned her own attention forward again, mutely leaving Juniper to trot along behind them. That was another thing neither of them needed to answer aloud:

Anywhere she wants.

This couldn’t be the first time Grip had come up against someone she could neither coerce nor intimidate, but it surely wasn’t a common experience for her. Nonetheless, the situation remained what it was. Sweet himself could possibly (probably, he figured) persuade Juniper to butt out and go about her business, but they simply didn’t have time to deal with the distraction.

So the two thieves and the dryad rushed into the Guild and the very heart of this fresh disaster.


It wasn’t happening deep in the shadowy bowels of the Guild proper, which was both good and bad. Tricks had assembled the thieves and his prisoners in an enclosed courtyard behind the Casino, a space occasionally used for events such as this but more commonly dedicated to receiving cargo for the kitchens. Doors opened on two sides into warehouses and larders, and a huge, sturdy wooden gate on the exterior wall faced a broad alley behind, wide enough to admit trucks and only not a street in its own right because all the buildings lining it faced the other way, with only their own rear delivery portals opening onto it.

This was good because it was a quasi-public space, open to the air in the only part of the district likely to be trafficked by people the Eserites respected—servants and teamsters, not the fancy rich who entered the Casino’s front doors. That suggested Tricks wasn’t planning to do anything which would result in a lot of screaming. It was bad because Tricks’s actions were neither logical nor in keeping with his own customary patterns, and if he was about to make a truly ugly spectacle, the ramifications could hurt the Guild’s perception in more eyes than those of the Sisters of Avei.

Sweet arrived in the nick of time, striding out of the storeroom entrance to find the loading area thronged on all sides with thieves, surrounding the spectacle of their Boss as he stared down three miserable-looking women in the vestments of the disbanded Purist sect. Their swords had been confiscated, obviously, but they’d been allowed to keep their uniforms on, chain mail and all.

Without hesitating, he pushed right through the onlookers to the unfolding drama in the center, where Boss Tricks was already in the process of grilling Rasha.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the apprentice was saying, her eyes on the three Avenists, expression clearly unhappy. “But Boss, I don’t want—”

“Then that’s all we need from you, Rasha,” Tricks said, gently and briefly patting her on the shoulder. It was one of those little touches that reminded Sweet his longtime friend and ally was still the man he’d always known, skilled at offering a bit of comfort where it was called for but mindful of Rasha’s history and how women in her position were often leery of being touched by men. “I’m sorry to have dragged you out here and especially for making you relive that bullshit, but absolute certainty was necessary. You’re welcome to stay if you want the satisfaction, but don’t feel any need.”

“Boss,” Rasha said more forcefully, causing Tricks’s attention to snap back to her face. “Am I or am I not the aggrieved party, here?”

Tricks blinked once, raising his eyebrows. “Well, of course. I didn’t think that was in question.”

“In that case, I believe I’m owed a say in what happens to them?”

The three priestesses clustered closer together; Sweet didn’t know what kind of night they must have had, but he saw none of the backbone he was accustomed to in Avenists. They were hollow-eyed, bedraggled, and at least one had clearly been weeping recently. Gods above, how bad had Tricks made this already? Was it too late to prevent the situation from getting even worse?

A stir went through the crowd at Rasha’s words, Eserites shifting closer in malicious anticipation of watching vengeance unfold even as the prisoners pressed into each other. Sweet came to a stop within two yards of the Boss; Tricks acknowledged him with a glance before again focusing on Rasha, and Sweet took the opportunity to take a quick visual census. Style, of course, loomed behind the Boss with her arms folded, wearing a leather-and-fur ensemble that looked almost Shaathist and a thunderous scowl. Glory herself had actually stirred from her nest for this and also stood at hand, right alongside her apprentice in a clear show of support. He noted her other three apprentices hovering in a knot in the crowd, alongside Jenell, to whose side Grip had just silently returned. Juniper had, fortunately, stopped just inside the courtyard to watch, behind the back row of thieves. Good; Sweet wasn’t worried about her being recognized, but that bird-thing of hers was going to start drawing attention the second somebody noticed it.

Webs was not in evidence, of course, it being his habit to deal with people only from his own secure ground. Thumper and Gimmick, however, were both across the courtyard in the front ranks; both looked right at Sweet and nodded once with significant expressions. He did not nod back, for the same reason he didn’t let out a sigh of sheer annoyance. Honestly, he understood that those two were specialists and not in political maneuvering, but they’d both been on multiple infiltration missions. Had absolutely everybody forgotten the value of basic discretion today?

Tricks was regarding Rasha solemnly, his jaw working as he mulled an answer with care before finally speaking.

“You’re not wrong, Rasha. I will definitely hear you out, and you’ll be accommodated if possible. But this, I’m afraid, goes beyond just you and them. This is a matter for the Guild as a whole. The one thing for which we can absolutely not show the slightest tolerance is the deliberate and knowing assault of one of our apprentices. For this, we require blood.”

An ugly growl stirred through the crowd, accompanied by several louder jeers and catcalls.

“Is blood more important than justice?” Rasha asked, her quiet tone a deliberate counterpoint to the growing intensity of the onlookers. Sweet noted, with approval, Glory’s secondhand techniques at work.

“We don’t deal in justice,” Tricks said with a sardonic little smile. “That’s Avenist business. I know you’ve been taught our doctrines on retribution, Rasha. When dealing with beasts like these, we employ pain, and fear. That’s all they can understand.”

“Yeah, no argument there,” Rasha said, turning to dispassionately regard the three beleaguered Purists. “They look plenty scared already, to me.”

“Not enough,” Tricks stated, his voice cold. “What’s your request, Rasha?”

“Avenist business, like you said,” the apprentice replied. “I want this to be done with, Boss. Roughing these up is going to cause no end of trouble, and just…look at them. Look at these dregs.” she shot the priestesses another look, filled with pure contempt. “They’re not worth it. The Guild shouldn’t be so much as inconvenienced over the likes of them. Send them back to the Temple of Avei. Let these assholes be Rouvad’s problem.”

Glory, now, laid a hand on Rasha’s shoulder, her face lighting up with approval and pride. Sweet was equally impressed; he hadn’t followed Rasha’s progress closely, but Glory had clearly taught the girl how to work a room. In the space of a few sentences, much of the tension had leeched from the crowd, and now a number of the watching thieves were nodding in agreement.

Not the Boss, however.

“I see your point,” he said, already shaking his head, “but on this, we can’t bend. It is an inviolable rule. They went after a Thieves’ Guild apprentice. There has to be punishment. There has to be fear. That fear is the only reason any apprentice of the Guild is left in peace long enough to be fully trained. If the bastards aren’t afraid to come after you…you’ll be cut down before you have a chance to fight back.”

“I also know the Guild’s codes on retribution, Boss,” Glory said, her smooth voice projecting over the stir in the watching crowd. “We retaliate only when it both brings satisfaction and serves a purpose. What purpose does this serve?”

“Seriously?” Tricks replied, shooting her an annoyed look. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the thing I just explained.”

“Not really,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “How does beating up these spread fear? They are already terrified witless. The Purists are simple bullies; there’s nothing to them but inner weakness and a pitiful desire to project it onto others. The work here is done, Boss. Going further would be nothing but a provocation against the Sisterhood of Avei, at exactly a moment when we need their support.”

“Ah, yes,” Tricks said, his voice soft but carrying. “Politics. The old bugaboo we can never quite get away from. But there’s a line, Glory. A point comes where principle has to win out. As long as I’m Boss, I’ll decide where the line is drawn, and I draw it at assholes attacking our apprentices.”

The muttering swelled again, once more accompanied by a few shouts. Rasha kept admirable composure, but the wide-eyed look she gave Glory revealed her growing nerves. Glory herself drew breath to continue, but Sweet could already tell that was futile; clever as she was with her tongue, Tricks was equally so, and a contest of verbal acuity was pointless when only one contestant had the authority to order an end to it.

“Where’d you get them, Tricks?” he asked, lightly but loudly.

Everyone turned to look at him, the Boss himself with a faint lowering of his eyebrows. At any other time, Sweet would have assumed it was strictly performative; Tricks was too good to reveal what he was feeling. But then, he could usually tell when Tricks was playing a game, unless he snuck up on him in one of those disguises he loved so much. Now, he had the unsettling feeling his old friend was exactly as close to the frayed end of his rope as he seemed.

“That’s in the category of business you don’t need to worry about, Sweet,” the Boss said brusquely.

“Cos the way I heard it, these were last seen being hustled away by the Huntsmen of Shaath. Right?” Sweet turned to Rasha, who nodded emphatically. “Specifically, the Orthodox faction that’s loyal to the Archpope. The Archpope who we’re within a hair’s breadth of proving set up the Purists in the first place to fuck with the Avenists. The Avenists who got this trouble dumped on them specifically for sharing our position with regard to Justinian’s fucked up shenanigans in the Church.”

“Sweet,” Tricks warned.

“And now I gotta wonder,” he pressed on, “how the hell you got them from Shaathist custody to yours in the space of one night. Did you actually kidnap three hostages out of a lodge, or the Cathedral itself? Because that’d be a feat so incredible I’m pretty goddamn sure nobody in this Guild has the capacity to pull it off.”

Nods from around the courtyard. Eserites did not deal in kidnappings, for both doctrinal and pragmatic reasons. Professional ethics aside, it was messy to steal anything that could think and fight back.

“And the other option,” Sweet pressed on, staring at Tricks unblinkingly, “is that they were given to you. By Justinian’s Huntsmen.”

Silence. The crowd seemed to hold their breath.

“Hey, you’ve gotta protect your sources, I know how it works,” Sweet said with deceptive lightness when Tricks just glared at him. “No worries, I know who else I can ask. Hey ladies! A moment of your time?”

He had actually turned and taken a step toward the captive priestesses when the Boss answered in a much sharper tone.

“Do you wanna be Boss, Sweet?”

At that, he had to stop and turn back to him.

“I’m not challenging you—”

“That is not what I asked you,” Tricks snapped. “Do you want to be Boss again? Because quite frankly, Sweet, I’m pretty sure I enjoy sitting in the big boy chair even less than you did. If you want the job, you just say the word any damn time. We’ll go invoke the Big Guy’s presence and get it done, and that’s a promise. But until you say the word, I am still Boss. I’m the one who has to keep the big secrets and handle the ugly shit nobody else wants to do. As long as that’s the case, you can either fall in line, or shut your mouth. Those are the options, Sweet.”

“This doesn’t need to be a whole thing, Tricks,” Sweet said, facing him fully and not breaking eye contact. “I wouldn’t’ve backed you for Boss in the first place if you hadn’t more than earned my trust. All I’m asking is some reassurance. Tell me there’s more going on here than I know. Tell me you’re not swiping at obvious, low-hanging bait dangled by an enemy of the Guild. Because it looks like you’re letting yourself fall for a brazen con, and I know you’re way too smart for that. Just let me know what else is up, that you’re not about to undo every bit of my work for the last half a year and plunge the Guild into an unwinnable fight for fucking nothing. Come on, Tricks, that’s not much to ask. Is it?”

Tricks stared back at him.

The silence stretched out, until someone else pushed forward into the center.


“Whoof, what a mess.”

Juniper was watching Antonio push forward into the unfolding confrontation, where the Boss of the Guild was grilling Trissiny’s friend Rasha about three miserable-looking priestesses huddled together in the center of the courtyard. She could barely see between the heads of the crowd anyway, even though she was taller than most human women. It was no great loss to turn and regard the person who’d suddenly spoken immediately to her left, and then she had to stare.

He was a scruffy-looking Tiraan man of indeterminate age, wearing (oddly enough) a tuxedo with the neck open and untied cravat hanging down his chest. Sniff flattened his crest, staring up at the man in clear unease. Juniper, for her part, didn’t recognize him, but she could perceive at a glance what he was. Given his presence here of all places, that pretty much told her which one.

“But don’t worry,” Eserion continued in the same low tone, giving her a wink, “I have a plan. Now, thing is, it’s a pretty bad plan. Countless steps, lots of moving parts, no end of people to manage. A whole big thing, know what I mean?”

“Trissiny says the best plans are simple plans,” she replied carefully. “She said any plan with more than three steps is a daydream.”

They were speaking quietly, but not whispering, and yet none of the thieves immediately around seemed to be aware of them. It was odd that no one had reacted to Sniff yet. In the middle of the courtyard, the well-dressed woman with Rasha had just interjected, but her voice wasn’t so loud as to drown out their soft conversation in the back.

“Thorn’s a smart cookie,” the god agreed with a pleased grin. “Not one of our best people by far, at least not yet, but she learned from some of the best. Knows her theory. Yeah, this whole business has me really stretching my legs; gotta run around putting out fires, make a million little corrections when shit starts to go belly up. You see how it is. That, now, is another example.”

He nodded toward the drama unfolding up ahead, where Antonio had just interrupted the conversation. Juniper was only following with half an ear, but it didn’t even take that to see the quickly ratcheting tension between the Bishop and the Boss.

“Case in point,” Eserion said more quietly, his expression sobering as he watched the unfolding argument. “That’s a confrontation that needs to happen. But not now, not yet. It gets impossible to keep the timing straight, y’know? Right now, what I need is to put a complete halt to this whole affair, slap a hard wall between Tricks and Sweet and get those damn Purists out of here.”

He turned back to her with an amiable grin.

“So! Can I ask a favor, June, honey?”

“I’m…still very much learning how to use fae magic,” she said carefully. “I’m just a novice. Last night was the first time I felt spirits actually tell me I should do something, but they did, so I stuck with Antonio like they said. Did you have something to do with that?”

“It’s my policy not to mess with Naiya’s little helpers,” he said, winking again. “Honestly, I never really find a reason to, anyway. So long as I’m not up to any bullshit I shouldn’t be, it usually turns out their nudgings line up with mine. That being the case! If you’re willing to do me a solid, how about you go put a stop to all this?”

A chilly silence had fallen; she glanced aside to see Antonio and the Boss locking eyes. Juniper nodded once to Eserion, then turned and pushed her way none too gently through the crowd. So heavy was the atmosphere in the courtyard that few of the discommoded thieves even protested beyond irritated mutters, though a couple cursed as they caught sight of Sniff pacing alongside her.

She stepped out into the center, her sudden appearance causing everyone to turn their gaze on her, and took off her disguise ring.

That prompted a general outcry; enough people knew the basics about dryads to recognize when her green hair and golden skin meant. Juniper had found that even among humans not inclined to get it, her recent preference for elven attire often helped them connect the dots for some reason. Thieves pressed back away from her and Sniff, many cursing or shouting. She could smell shock and fear suddenly rising. And, oddly enough, more than a handful of cases of arousal, interlaced with nuances of scent that her sexual senses parsed as belonging to people particularly attracted to the monstrous and dangerous. Actually, there were a lot more of those scattered around than she’d have expected from a crowd of the general public this size.

Eserites. Who knew?

She strode forward to plant herself in the middle of the space, equidistant between the three prisoners and the knot of Guild leadership who were now staring at her in dismay, and put on her sunniest smile.

“Hi! I’m Juniper!”

One of the Purists fainted.

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16 – 34

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“Thank you,” Rasha said quietly enough not to interrupt the ongoing discussion as she accepted the mug of hot cocoa.

“Ma’am,” McGraw answered at the same volume, smiling and tugging the brim of his hat to her before turning to pick up another cup from the tray he’d set on the end table and offer it to Shahai.

Watching him, Rasha did not miss the inherent cleverness of the old man positioning himself as the de facto housemaid; it was a discreet but undeniably effective strategy for keeping himself in the good graces of the large group of dangerous women occupying the living room, nearly all of them Avenist and several of uncertain motivations.

Joe hadn’t employed any such strategy, but then…he was Joe. It was less likely to occur to him than to the more experienced old wizard, and anyway, Joe was probably the most inoffensive person in the room. He stood against the wall out of everyone’s way, listening with his arms folded and—unlike far too many teenage boys—reflecting his lack of anything to contribute by keeping his mouth shut and bothering no one. The only person in the safe house who even might be misandrist enough to take issue with Joe’s existence was, herself, subdued and seemed so depressed that even Rasha felt a grudging pity for her. Grudging, and very slight.

The woman in question found herself the center of attention at that moment as both McGraw and Shahai turned on her, with a mug of cocoa and a question, respectively.

The seats in the safe house’s small living room were mostly taken and Sister Magden, being the least favored person present, hadn’t managed to snag one. She was sitting on the other end table in a slouched posture with her head down, arms wrapped around her scabbarded sword as if clinging to it for comfort.

It was a couple of seconds before she responded to either of them, finally looking up at McGraw patiently holding out the steaming cup to her. Mutely, she shook her head, and he withdrew with a smooth bowing motion that made Rasha wonder if he’d ever been a waiter.

“Magden?” Shahai prompted.

“Sorry, I was…” Magden turned to the elf. “What did you say?”

“You told Rasha you were looking to get in contact with General Avelea,” Shahai repeated, showing no sign of impatience. She was one of those people who gave the impression that impatience was an entirely foreign concept to her. “What did you need her for?”

“Oh.” If anything, Magden’s shoulders slumped further. “I was… I sought to ask her personal intercession with Avei on behalf of Sister Lanora. I understand the point of a public punishment of that magnitude for political purposes, but I believe it was unfair. Lanora was—we were misguided, the goddess made that clear. But she was always a good priestess, who did what she believed right. I thought…she deserves another chance. At least, I did,” she added bitterly, her voice dropping to a bare whisper. “Apparently I didn’t know any of my sisters as well as I thought. I cannot believe women I trained and prayed alongside would try to do something so contemptible as what I saw tonight.”

Shay let out a loud, expressive snort, and Casey lightly swatted the back of her head.

“It might comfort you to know, Magden, that by far the majority of your erstwhile comrades have done exactly as the goddess commanded,” Shahai said gently. “About two thirds have already left the city alone or in small groups, departing for unrelated destinations. The Sisterhood lacks a comprehensive intelligence network, but Tiraas has only two publicly accessible gates and two Rail stations; it is not hard to watch the comings and goings. Plus, most of them abandoned their Purist gear in the section of the Temple barracks they’d taken over. Tabards, chainmail, bracers, and swords; the High Commander has set our quartermasters to examining them for hints as to their origins. We can dare to hope that those you saw tonight were the only ones engaged in such depravity, but I’m sure I needn’t caution you all not to hang too much trust on optimism.”

She swept her gaze around the room, receiving nods of acknowledgment.

“I believe I have the full picture now,” Shahai continued. “I must inform you all that I received a message from General Avelea herself just before Sergeant Elwick’s reached me. She has to travel to Veilgrad tonight on political business, and in fact will be taking Bishop Darling, who I understand has been an ally in this matter. That means that until tomorrow, we are effectively on our own. Right now our priority has to be locating the remaining Purists, and most especially Sister Lanora. Their whole order was clearly propped up by the Universal Church as a ploy to divide and damage the Sisterhood, and now that that has failed, those women and the knowledge they hold present a danger to the Archpope’s operational security. They are prime targets either for recruitment into his inner circle, or elimination. We must find and secure them.”

“Why?” Shay demanded. “We’re talkin’ about a bunch of morons whose entire shtick was dragging Avei’s name through the mud so they could have an excuse to bully people. Screw ‘em, I don’t see how this is worth stickin’ our necks out.”

Magden’s expression darkened further, but she didn’t look up from her steady examination of the carpet at her feet.

“First of all,” Shahai replied, turning a flat stare on Shay, “because Justinian has a long pattern of recruiting hopeless individuals and honing them into effective servants; every warm body we keep out of his coterie now is a better trained and better armed problem we won’t have to deal with later. And second, Shay, the Purists were dealt with by Avei. As of that declaration, those who have not gone on to commit further crimes are not wanted for any offense, and those who have should be duly tried and punished under the law. Leaving them to be brutally silenced in some back alley the way they tried to do with Rasha is not acceptable in either case.”

Shay looked less than convinced, but offered no further objection, just sprawling back into her armchair.

“There is also the reason Justinian will be motivated to secure or silence them: Lanora and possibly others possess materially useful intelligence which we need. Knowing that the Archpope is behind so much recent trouble is not the same as being able to prove it. If we can definitively link something to him, we will gather a great deal more support and the Empire can bring its resources to bear on him.”

“Why did you let Lanora out of your sight in the first place, then?” Rasha asked pointedly. “I mean, not you specifically, Sister Nandi, but…”

“I take your point, and it’s valid,” Shahai said, nodding to her. “Were the Sisterhood a governmental or solely military organization, she probably would have been held and interrogated. But it is first and foremost a faith, and lacks the legal authority to involuntarily detain an excommunicated individual within the Empire. I personally would have had her followed, at the very least, but evidently that did not occur to anyone at the time.” She pursed her lips in disapproval.

“How’re we gonna find ‘er, then?” Joe asked quietly.

Shahai nodded. “As Sister Magden has lost contact with her, we are forced to fall back on the measures you used to locate the Purists this evening. With apologies, Casey, I need to divide and direct your team.”

“Nandi, it’s me,” Casey said, grinning. “I’m not Locke, you don’t have to explain what a chain of command is every single time. What’re your orders?”

Shahai gave her an amused smile in response as she answered. “Bandi, Elias, I need you to attempt to locate Sister Lanora via magic. Do you believe you can do it?”

“I will try,” Sister Bandi said, bowing. “My magic is paltry, I warn you. I cannot predict the outcome of the attempt.”

“Worth a shot,” McGraw agreed. “I can do a bit with sympathetic principles… It’d help if we’ve got anything connected to her. Somethin’ of hers, ideally somethin’ she valued.”

Magden raised her head as everyone turned to look at her. Straightening, she fished in the neck of her robe and pulled out a small talisman, an Avenist golden eagle carved in a disc of ebony, hanging on a chain. “Lanora gave me this. She made it herself, years ago, and wore it for over a decade.”

“That’ll do,” McGraw said, both he and Bandi nodding. “That’ll do quite nicely. I do warn you, ma’am, any divine charm on it’s likely to be degraded by me doin’ arcane craft at it…”

“It is not blessed,” Magden said softly, rubbing her thumb across the sigil. “Just…special.”

“Excellent,” Shahai said crisply. “Sister Magden, I would like you to assist them as best you are able. I remind you that Lanora may be in danger if we cannot find her.”

“I’ll help in any way I can.”

“Good. Casey, please remain here to coordinate and supervise; make sure they have everything they need. Meanwhile, Shay, Joseph and I will escort Rasha and Private Medvidaar. First to an Imperial police station to file a report on the Purists’ attack this evening; it will be politically important for a record of their actions to be in government hands, and this will provide the Empire with a pretext to bring pressure to bear upon both the Church and the Huntsmen. After that we can conduct Rasha back to Tamisin Sharvineh’s house, and the Private to the Temple. I believe the five of us represent a group which would deter anyone willing to attempt an ambush in the city.”

“Why don’t we just keep Rasha here?” Shay suggested. “Y’know, where we can keep an eye on ‘er ourselves.”

“Why don’t we ask what Rasha thinks of all this?” Rasha countered, raising one eyebrow.

“There is that,” Shahai agreed. “We are certainly not going to coerce Rasha into anything. I do hope you agree with me on the importance of making a police report?”

“It’s never my first instinct,” Rasha conceded, “but it’d be interesting to be in a police station on the right side of the bars for once.”

“I’m sure,” Shahai replied, smiling. “As for the rest, I am not attempting to get rid of you; I simply think you will be safer at home. This safehouse’s only defense is its anonymity, and when we are working specifically against Church and Sisterhood personnel it may not even have that. By contrast, the Sharvineh mansion is a target I understand even the Svennish intelligence service did not dare assault.”

“No, it’s fine, I agree,” Rasha assured her, taking Zafi’s hand. “I’d really like to get home, anyhow. You sure Zafi will be all right back at the Temple?”

“Wherever the Purists are, they’re not there,” Zafi replied. “That’s the one place we know they’re not. Nobody’s gonna try to snatch a Legionnaire out of her own cohort. And when I’m not drilling with the squad I can stick near Sister Azelea.”

“I will also make an effort to keep an eye on you, Private,” Shahai promised, “at least until we are sure the immediate situation has been resolved. Does anyone have further questions? Good, then let us get to work. Time is short and growing shorter.”


“So…I understand the problem.” She stood in the center of the chamber, clawed hands on her hips and her wings neatly folded against her back so that they flowed behind her like a rigid cape of feathers, with their small claws rising above her shoulders. “The machine must be, in essence, rebuilt from scratch after the damage it suffered. The work takes time because it is a secret of the highest order, so no one is trusted to help you work on it. And also, no one knows how. Plus, it is made mostly of pieces which are rare and expensive, including many irreplaceable Elder God artifacts for which there can be no substitution. Even with the search ongoing, it might be years before enough have been gathered, and…possibly never. I understand.”

The underground space had at least been cleaned up over the last four months, and was no longer a charred wreckage of mechanical and enchanting parts. Now, the equipment arrayed around it and climbing all the walls encircling the broad summoning circle in which she stood was clearly in a half-built state, with incomplete metal structures bristling from the floor, unfastened wires trailing, copper and glass rods extending from various machines into empty air, and miscellaneous parts strewn about either loose or in crates.

She heaved a deep sigh, then grudgingly nodded. “I owe you an apology, then, Rector. I am sorry for implying you were deliberately stalling. The work you do must be very difficult.”

Azradeh turned when there was no response save the continuing soft clatter of a wrench on the inscrutable cabinet on which he was working, something that resembled a twelve-foot-tall grandfather clock with glowing parts and a face which depicted a swirling portal into some mysterious darkness.

“Rector?” she prompted. “Did you hear me? Please respond.”

“I’m not deaf!” the man abruptly shouted in exasperation, not looking up from what he was doing. In fact, it sounded like he was tightening bolts harder all of a sudden. “Omnu’s breath, woman, will you go away?! I am trying to work!”

Azradeh tilted her head, studying him curiously. Rector was an odd one, and truthfully rather annoying to deal with, but she felt no animosity toward him. Of the very few people with whom she had contact, only two treated her…in a word, normally. Colonel Ravoud and Delilah were both polite, but their tense bearing never let her forget that she was a creature capable of tearing them apart bare-handed, that her name was a byword for terror and destruction in their language. Branwen set off alarms in her head just by being in the room. Justinian himself, of course, was always kind and composed, but he was his own kettle of fish. Only Rector didn’t seem to care at all what she was. It made her like him, despite his congenital lack of even the most basic social skills.

“A cogent analysis, Azradeh, but there is another important factor which limits us further.”

She turned again, regarding the Archpope himself as he descended from the half-rebuilt control platform to join her on the summoning circle below.

“When we rescued you,” Justinian explained, leaning his head back to look up at the central point on the ceiling where a secondary energy nexus would be housed when the great machine was activated, “another being…intervened. Something extra-dimensional and extremely powerful. We must do considerable research to determine what effect this had, and plan for it before trying again. That alone is prohibitive.”

“I see,” she murmured. “Then there’s no telling when I can see my sisters again. Or if.”

Justinian laid one hand gently on her upper arm; he alone was unafraid to touch her. Well, Rector wasn’t afraid either, but he loudly disliked being touched at all, as she had discovered.

“What can be done can be repeated; it is simply a question of the difficulty and the cost. Sometimes, they are too great to attempt in practical terms. In this case, I refuse to accept that possibility unless it is forced upon us. We will rescue your sisters, if it can at all be done. I simply cannot predict when. I’m sorry, Azradeh.”

She shook her head. “Everyone is doing what they can. I feel like I could be doing more. Maybe I could help Rector?”

Head buried in his clock-like apparatus, Rector emitted a feral growl that echoed oddly.

“I certainly don’t understand how this thing works, but I can follow simple directions. You can’t tell me someone who can lift giant metal beams and cling to the ceiling wouldn’t be useful—”

“KEEP THE DAMN DEMON OUT OF HERE!” the enchanter bellowed. “NOTHING BUT INTERRUPTIONS! LET ME FOCUS!”

Delilah was already descending from the platform, giving them one of her pointed looks, the one which presaged a lecture about how much more difficult it would be for her to calm and re-focus Rector after this.

“Perhaps we have interrupted his work enough for the time being,” Justinian said discreetly.

Azradeh sighed. “Fair enough. I’ll see you later, Rector. Don’t forget to eat something, okay?”

With surprising accuracy, he hurled a brass-framed power crystal at her. Azradeh made no response, not even blinking as it bounced off her temple.

“I’m wearing him down,” she assured the Archpope while the two of them climbed the steps toward the control platform. As the passed, Delilah pressed a hand over her eyes.

“I am not sure that approach will work,” Justinian said delicately once they had passed out into the hall beyond. “There is a method to befriending people like Rector. Pressuring them is not part of it.”

“People like Rector, huh,” she mused. “So is there a name to what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing is wrong with him,” he said without hesitation. “He is different, that’s all. But yes, we have at least a partial understanding of it. The dwarves have made a scientific study of this in recent decades, and elven tribes have traditional methods of raising such individuals. They appear to occur naturally in every race in small numbers. Most people, Azradeh, have minds that are made up in large part of people-related instincts, innate skills which enable us to recognize and interact with one another. Rector, and those like him, are born missing some or all of those aptitudes; they are replaced with other capacities. As you have doubtless observed, his talents lie elsewhere. We simply must extend more than the usual tolerance and understanding to help him make those skills useful to us all.”

“Hmmm. So they’re always gifted enchanters?”

“No, and no,” he replied, smiling. “They do tend to produce savants, but in various fields; enchanting happens to be Rector’s particular specialty. But even so, not the majority. Most are simply people, with a condition, and their own talents and abilities like anyone else.”

“I wonder if it’s really worth the effort of extra care, then, if they’re not mostly as useful as Rector…”

“Always, if only to avoid the judgment of how useful someone is. The effort is worth it, regardless of any singular result yielded. Making that effort to care for others is what determines that we are a society which does so, as opposed to one in which people are merely exploited for whatever utility can be wrought from them. The former always creates a stronger and more resilient social order than the latter.”

“Collective over individual utility,” she mused, nodding slowly. “I can see the logic. I wonder if they have similar ideas in Hell.”

“Our knowledge of that is secondhand at best,” the Archpope said gravely, “but indications are very much the opposite. Back to the present, I’m sorry about the sparring golem you were using. I was only just informed.”

“Oh. I guess I’m the one who should apologize,” she said, grimacing.

“Not in the least.” With one of his caring smiles, Justinian patted her again on the shoulder. They had arrived at her room; Azradeh hadn’t been going anywhere in particular, just following him, and now allowed him to gently usher her in while he continued speaking. “I’ll make arrangements to bring you another one as soon as I am back above, but…I fear the thing will happen again, eventually. Unfortunately, those things simply aren’t made to withstand strength like yours. I truly am sorry, Azradeh. It’s hard to provide means for you to exercise down here.”

“I’d really like the chance to fly,” she said, wandering over to her music player—a rare and expensive enchanted device, so she understood, and which she treasured—and lightly rested her claws atop it without reaching for one of the sound disks. “I feel that would help me…remember. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of me visiting the surface soon?”

It had been a desultory question with no real expectation behind it, but he gave her a pleased smile in response. “In fact, I finally have good news about that! You know the reasons we must maintain discretion, but I have been monitoring an ongoing situation which I think will provide exactly the pretext we need to let you stretch your wings above a bit. I am carefully nudging it in the proper direction; with a little bit of luck, I expect to be able to bring you up within the next few days.”

“Really?” She looked up at him, smiling in genuine anticipation.

“It is not set in stone yet,” he cautioned, “but I have committed to the plan. If it does not pan out, I will re-prioritize to put aside some other concerns and arrange an outing for you in the near future. I owe you that much, at the very least.” The Archpope’s eyes fell on her well-stocked bookcase, next to her reading desk, and he reached out to draw his fingertip through the light coating of dust on the spines of the theological histories on the top shelf. “Are you…not interested in reading about your family?”

“I’m interested,” she said, letting her own expression grow more pensive, “but…concerned about prejudicing myself. Nothing has brought up memory, not as an explicit recollection of something I could describe, but I do get flashes of feeling. A sense of familiarity about some things. I’m concerned about corrupting my perception, so to speak. If it’s going to come back to me, I’d like it to come before I start filling my head with other people’s ideas about what my sisters and I were like.”

“I do see the sense in that,” he said, his eyes falling on one of the volumes laid on the desk. “Ah, that’s right, you did ask for a copy of Branwen’s book. Have you finished already?”

Azradeh snorted. “In the sense that I read four chapters and now I’m finished with it, yes. What a bunch of absolute piffle. It’s all self-aggrandizing nonsense—anybody who already believes that stuff doesn’t need the encouragement, and anyone who does need it isn’t going to have their life changed by a book. The whole thing is nothing but selling people validation.”

“I suspect no one involved in the creation of this book would dispute that,” he said, his smile a touch wry. “It was a mechanism to improve Branwen’s public perception, and did its job quite well. Of course, I will continue to supply you with more reading material. Have you any specific requests?”

“Oh!” She looked up from her shelf of music disks, smiling. “That reminds me, could I get a newspaper subscription?”

The Archpope did not betray any emotional reaction, not by so much as a blink. “Newspaper?”

“Or several of them, ideally,” she went on, frowning at the disks. “Why are these out of order… Oh, that’s right, I re-shelved in a hurry after…anyway.” Azradeh set about sorting her music collection, speaking in a distracted tone. “Newspapers are mentioned in more recent books; it sounds like a great way for me to get up to speed on the modern world. Oh! Even better, what about some magazines? The books are great, but I like the idea of something more, how to put it… Ephemeral? Connected to the current moment in time. It sounds from what I read like magazines aren’t very well respected in literary circles. That sounds ideal.”

“That should be quite easy,” Justinian replied, smiling again. “Yes, I will have a selection brought for you immediately. Magazines are usually quite focused in their subject matter; you can pick those which most interest you and I will have them delivered regularly.”

“That’s fantastic, thanks!” Azradeh said brightly, giving him a smile as she slipped the last disk back into its place.

The conversation continued as usual and she showed no further reaction to betray the victory she had just won; revealing that she was even aware of a victory would have likely undone her efforts.

Azradeh might not have memories, but she still had instincts, and every one of them had screamed at her from the beginning that Archpope Justinian could not be trusted—and that further, revealing that she sensed this would place her in danger. This, finally, was hard confirmation. That his response to the idea of her receiving newspapers was anything other than the prompt “yes, of course” with which he had answered all her requests for entertainment and education showed he was invested in controlling her understanding of the world outside. And that meant both that she had zero chance of getting newspaper subscriptions, and that she must swiftly dispel any suspicion on his part that she sought to wriggle out from under his control.

Hence the magazines. They would reveal less about the current world, particularly a selection curated by Justinian himself, but they would reveal something, in little bits and pieces. And even better, he all but had to accede to the request in order to keep her distracted from the more dangerous subject of newspapers.

For now, Azradeh would continue slowly gather information and play along with whatever he was doing, certain only that his final goals were not what he was telling everyone. It might be that his true agenda was in her best interests after all, and if not, better that she be trusted and in a position to do something about it. Even if she hadn’t the recollection of her history, millennia of habit still cautioned her to keep her friends close and enemies closer, at least until she could tell the difference.

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16 – 33

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What did you do, Ravana?”

Not even a minute after materializing in her own mansion; they must have been waiting in ambush by the teleportation chamber. The young Duchess indulged in a half-second to scowl dourly at the far wall before putting on a polite smile and turning to face her accuser, deliberately ignoring Veilwin’s smirk.

“And hello to you, too, Teal. I trust you are having a pleasant day?”

Teal and Shaeine had both approached, accompanied by F’thaan pacing between them. At a single hand gesture from Shaeine, he laid down on the floor, lowering his head to rest on his front paws, and Ravana experienced a moment of weary envy. If only all her human subjects were so well-trained… But the pair before her demanded her full attention; the drow was serene as ever, the human decidedly less so.

“That’s great, Ravana, be glib with me,” Teal said, uncharacteristically acerbic for her. “What is it about my face right now that makes you think that’s going to smooth this over? Just answer the question.”

“I’m afraid I’ll need you to be considerably more specific, Teal.”

Teal stared, incredulous. “Is this a joke to you?”

“I believe I informed you that this would be a working vacation for me. Do you have any idea how many thing I have done since breakfast? Even narrowing the field to those which would upset you is surprisingly unhelpful.”

“Is that so surprising, really?” Shaeine murmured. Ravana and Teal both gave her long looks of pure annoyance, under which she just smiled beatifically.

Teal drew in a breath, turning the force of her glare back on Ravana. “I’m told there was a protest outside the gates of Falconer Industries this morning.”

“Ah, yes, I heard about that,” Ravana said in her blandest tone. “Well, people are legally allowed to protest on public property, so long as they remain peaceful. I trust that was the case?”

“Are we really going to do this?” Teal exclaimed. “You know what, fine, I’ll play. Yes, it was peaceful, at first. People marched in a circle shouting and carrying signs, and while we could have called in police because they were blocking the main entrance, Dad decided to just route deliveries through side gates since there was nothing to be gained by agitating people more. But then some more folks joined in, hours after it had started, and wouldn’t you know it? Within minutes they started throwing rocks, and the police had to step in.”

“What contemptible behavior,” Ravana said seriously. “I do hope no one was harmed.”

Teal stared at her, then shifted her focus. “Yancey, I am an avowed pacifist. If I grab your boss and start shaking her, you can be assured that’s all I’m going to do.”

The Butler gave her a shallow bow. “It is not my place to intercede in horseplay between friends, madam. I do respectfully ask that you remain mindful of the Duchess’s dignity while in mixed company.”

“Yes, well,” Ravana said, permitting some annoyance to enter her tone, “if we are quite finished, I have innumerable things still to do today, many of which you would not enjoy seeing. If you will excuse me?”

“I have always admired your optimism, Ravana,” Shaeine said placidly.

“Oh, I wasn’t finished with my little story,” Teal snapped. “You see, Ravana, just because my dad is a little absent-minded does not mean Falconer Industries is managed by fools. Mom was having the whole situation watched very carefully, and you know some interesting stuff she spotted? People with lightcappers on the rooftops all around, House Madouri guards forming up in actual phalanxes in the alleys nearby long before any rock-throwing started. That was my favorite part, as I’m sure you can imagine. You know what your problem is, Ravana?”

“I am incredulous that you think you know what my problem is, Teal,” she said coolly. “But please, do go on. This promises to be most amusing.”

“You seem to think,” Teal said in just as frosty a tone, “that everybody who doesn’t share your reptilian approach to life—which is to say, everybody—is dumber than you. And in truth? You’re pretty transparent. I am not a politically acute specimen, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. If I spotted your little game, you had better assume anyone with an interest in local politics did.”

That comment nettled, though Ravana did not betray it by so much as a twitch. “Well, then. Since you believe you have all the answers, I must wonder why you came here demanding to know what I did?”

“The lightcaps were to discredit the protesters, correct?” Shaeine asked, her tone a mild as ever. “I gather we can expect to see them in tomorrow’s papers, accompanying articles decrying this disruptive violence. A clever move, Ravana, if rather nearsighted.”

Ravana frowned, opening her mouth to answer, but Teal had already pushed ahead.

“Omnu’s breath, Ravana, those are your people! You’ve built your entire image on how well you take care of your citizens. Is that all a lie, or have you actually twisted it around in your head to the point where corrupting a peaceful demonstration so you can unleash shock troopers on them is somehow in their own best interests? Because frankly, I’d believe either.”

“I do say you are awfully exercised about this,” Ravana retorted. “Everyone at that asinine protest was given full medical care and then allowed to go home unrestrained. If they acquired some bruises as a prelude to that remarkably gentle handling, what of it? May I remind you, Teal, that these people were specifically protesting your existence? This was not about any policy or action of FI; they were agitated to demand your removal from the city.”

“They were agitated,” Shaeine repeated with emphasis. “For once, Ravana, think beyond the enemy right in front of you. Falconer Industries and its founding family are perhaps the only people in this province more well thought of than yourself; was that not the core of your father’s venom toward them? Surely it would demand more than the revelation of an awkward family secret to incite even that much meager outrage.”

“Archdemon’s a hell of a family secret,” Veilwin commented. Ravana turned a baleful look upon her Court Wizard, who was guzzling from her acrid-smelling silver flask and looking unconvincingly innocent.

“Indeed, and that is another point,” Shaeine continued. “Vadrieny made herself an extremely visible presence at the crises in Sarasio, Veilgrad, and Ninkabi. In point of fact, the recent event is not even the first time she forcibly apprehended a criminal in Tiraas itself. The last one, furthermore, was a soldier in the Imperial Army. She also damaged the pavement then, as I recall,” the drow added, shooting her wife a sidelong look. Teal grimaced. “And yet, somehow, it is this which incites people to worry about her? Or more specifically, incites the papers to begin reporting on the story of Vadrieny rather than repressing it.”

“That’s not so hard to understand,” said Ravana. “The story hasn’t been in papers yet because both the Empire and the Universal Church have used their influence to silence it. Clearly, one has lapsed.”

“Not lapsed,” Teal said grimly. “A lapse would still not have blown up like this, and a more belated suppression effort would have ensued as soon as those papers hit the newsstands, long before anyone could organize a protest. This is a reversal; one of the factions suppressing the story suddenly started pushing it, instead. I suspect you know which.”

“I am not completely thoughtless, Teal,” Ravana retorted. “Shut up, Veilwin. I did not make a public statement of support for Ingvar’s faction and against the orthodox Shaathists without expecting retaliation from their primary backer. Not to mention that I’m currently harboring all three paladins while they maneuver to undercut his influence within their cults—influence which we must assume means he has been forewarned of their efforts. Justinian sniping at me was inevitable; I am only surprised he chose you as the method. Though with you also in your classmates’ camp, perhaps that only makes sense.”

“But consider this,” said Shaeine. “The events you describe are developments specifically of the last week. I doubt you were anywhere on the Archpope’s agenda prior to that, as to the best of my knowledge you, like most aristocrats, have kept out of religious politics.” She waited for Ravana’s terse nod of agreement before going on. “Justinian is a careful operator who clearly makes plans over the span of years. Given your political power, throwing your hat into the ring means he has no choice but to begin dealing with you, but even under urgency, a man like that will examine you and act carefully. You are being studied, Ravana. He will continued to probe at you to watch how you respond.”

“Yes,” Ravana said impatiently, crossing her arms, “and today he learned that meddling in my affairs will be swiftly thwarted. I am satisfied with the day’s work.”

“That is one thing he has learned, yes,” Shaeine said relentlessly. “You have also shown that you can be very easily goaded into reacting with force, and that you are willing to attack your own people to snuff out a perceived threat. That is the first major weakness you have revealed, as your people are your entire power base, given House Madouri’s unpopularity among the other nobility. Were I in the Archpope’s position, the lesson I would have taken from this day’s work is that you can be prodded into undermining yourself.”

Ravana hesitated, narrowing her eyes, then turned her gaze on the source of the soft grunt of amusement that came from her right.

“What’re you glarin’ at me for?” Veilwin asked sardonically, taking another swig from her flask. “Everything they’ve said is right.”

“This is not the kind of issue you’re going to resolve with exercises of force,” Teal stated, recapturing her attention. “Even you don’t have the wherewithal to trade body blows with the Universal Church and come out on top. And more importantly, you’d lose that contest because Justinian is too smart to engage in a conflict of attrition, even one he can win. Look, Ravana, you’re not wrong to come out of the gate swinging; I think Triss, Gabe, and Toby would really appreciate having another source of pressure applied to him.”

“But?” she prompted sardonically.

“But, it’s not enough to just thwart his first feeler, for exactly that reason. You need to turn it around on him.”

“For your edification, that was my first thought, as well. The reason for that drama at the gates of FI was so I could have my witch scan every person at that rally for hostile intent and cast a tracing spell that would lead me from the planted agents back to the bigger fish. I don’t yet know how successful the plan was, because I have only just this moment returned from attending to yet another crisis on the far end of my province, and as someone intercepted me with loud complaints right in my very teleportation chamber…”

“All right, fair enough,” Teal said with a dour ghost of a smile. “And that’s a good start, but still. You can see how tenuous it is, right? Espionage and magical supremacy; that’s another game very few people are equipped to play against Justinian, not even you. There’s a better means of creating a real win from this.”

“I am terribly apprehensive,” Ravana said, “but…intrigued. Let us hear your idea, then, Teal.”

“Well, Ravana,” Teal said, her little smile widening without growing significantly warmer, “you might say I’ve taken a page from your book.”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, staring at her. “I begin to see what you mean. That is viscerally horrifying and I haven’t even learned why yet.” Even Shaeine smiled at that; Veilwin snorted so hard she nearly choked on her…seriously, what was in that flask? Varnish remover?

“All I mean is that I’ve taken steps to do what I think is necessary without waiting to consult with you. Consider this from the standpoint of the people demonstrating, Ravana. They’re not sheep, which I know is what you were thinking; manipulation aside, it is not the least bit unreasonable to be concerned about the presence of an archdemon among them. So I’m going to allay the public’s concerns. I have rented out a theater near the factory for tonight, and had fliers printed. They’ll be put up within the hour. We are going to have us an old-fashioned town hall meeting. The people of Madouris can come and voice their concerns, and I will address them, in person. And, if things stay calm enough, so will Vadrieny.”

Ravana stared at her, aghast.

“The extremely short notice works to our advantage,” Shaeine added. “We’ve notified papers to have reporters on site, the better to further control the story that you’ve planted in tomorrow’s editions. Relatively few others, however, will learn of this in time to attend, which should inhibit the formation of a mob. There is a limit to what can be arranged in a few hours. Certain interested parties will plant agents, of course, giving us another chance to check for any who slipped your net—or cross-reference names of individuals who appear at both events.”

“Teal,” Ravana said weakly, “what’s a way to put this gently… No, it turns out there’s not one. This is a terrible idea. You cannot reason with a mob! You can possibly reason with an individual, if you are very lucky in whom you meet, but a group? The bigger they are, the more irrational—”

“And the more predictable,” Teal interrupted. “You’re right, crowds are purely emotional, and that means that no, you can’t reason with them. But you can manipulate them. Ravana, what is it you think a bard does?”

“At this moment the greater question is to what extent you qualify as a bard!”

Teal’s eyes cut past Ravana’s shoulder to her Butler. “Yancey, I’m gonna bonk her.”

“Do please exercise due restraint, Mrs. Falconer.”

“Don’t you da—” Ravana was interrupted again, this time by Teal lightly bringing down a fist atop her skull, nowhere near hard enough to hurt.

“Consider yourself bonked,” Teal said severely, “and refrain from further personal attacks, if you please.”

“I do believe that transgressed both the letter and the spirit of principled pacifism.”

“You’re fine.”

“You have mussed my hair, you lamentable hooligan!” she complained, reaching up to smooth down her coif.

“And somehow, the House of Madouri will soldier on. Ravana, this has been the focus of my entire last semester. Spiteful commentary aside, you’re not without a point; I haven’t done much of a job of being a bard worthy of the name, hence why I have been studying this using every resource Last Rock has. How familiar are you with the career of Laressa of Anteraas?”

“Laressa?” Ravana wrinkled her nose. “A unique historical figure, to be sure. Without doubt the most interesting Hand of Avei, though not one of the more effective.”

Teal and Shaeine shared a very meaningful, very married look, and Ravana had to suppress the sudden urge to slap it off both their faces.

“Principle is less relevant here than strategy,” Shaeine said, turning back to her. “I presume you can agree on that point?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that is a very familiar perspective for me.”

Teal nodded, making a wry expression for which Ravana chose not to call her out. “Strategic pacifism is another matter. Honestly, I think you’d quite like it if you gave it a chance.”

She arched one supercilious eyebrow. “I will entertain any philosophy which brings results. I cannot help thinking it is signification that this one has not come notably to my attention before now.”

“Of course it’s significant,” Teal snorted. “You like to hurt people, Ravana. You do it even to the point of sabotaging your own interests.”

“You are saying I’m some sort of sadist?” Ravana exclaimed, offended and openly letting it show through her aristocratic facade of poise.

“Sadistic, no,” said Shaeine. “Not necessarily. Vindictive? Very much so, often to excess.”

“Whenever you feel you’ve been thwarted or defied,” said Teal, “you strike back. As hard as you can, with whatever you can grab. It’s a known pattern, Ravana—and more to the point, it’s an exploitable weakness. You’d better believe the Archpope has taken note of it. If you mean to tangle with him, you need to break with old patterns, and not just because some of your patterns are particularly disturbing.”

“And this brings us, somehow, to pacifism,” Ravana said skeptically.

“Strategic pacifism,” Teal emphasized. “Which, in practice, is a matter of weaving traps around your enemies until any violent action on their part will cost them support, make them enemies, and hamper their ability to move. The proper application of strategic pacifism means building a cage of matchsticks around your foes so that they’ll break the bars without realizing that cage was the only thing keeping them out of the pit you’ve dug at their feet.”

“Evocative,” Ravana admitted. “But…”

“When I say the word ‘pacifist’ you probably imagine the Omnist or Izarite desire for everyone to just get along. That’s the mistake a lot of people make; it’s the mistake I made and committed to for an embarrassingly long time. Proper, effective pacifism is more in the Vesker and Vidian mold, arranging the very world around you so that people slide into the grooves you’ve laid out for them without realizing what you did. Laressa of Anteraas was probably the most effective Hand of Avei who ever lived, and the very fact that you don’t realize that is the lion’s share of why; neither did the long list of people she thwarted without ever having to draw their blood. Don’t take my word for it, Ravana, read up on her. What I’m talking about is an arsenal of weapons you would find very effective, if you weren’t so enamored of the idea of sticking it to those who’ve offended you.”

“More immediately,” Shaeine added before Ravana could give voice to the skepticism still on her face, “this is very much the strategy which has just been used against you. A very careful trap was arranged, and you reacted to it with force. Are you truly arrogant enough to assume that a planner capable of executing such a thing would have failed to research your established habits and anticipate what you would probably do? In the days to come, the backlash you have just created will threaten your own rule, Ravana. Unless you allow us to neutralize it, and turn this into a victory.”

“That’s all…very well,” she said slowly. “Your philosophy hangs together nicely, Teal, but philosophy is a tool with starkly limited utility. It is results I respect, and… Teal, I must be brutally honest with you. I doubt your ability to control a crowd.”

“Don’t,” Teal said immediately, wearing a calm and self-confident smile. Shaeine took her hand, her eyes warm and proud as she regarded her wife. “This is what I’ve been training for, Ravana. All this semester I’ve done research projects for Tellwyrn’s class on Vesker heroes, taken Rafe’s elective on public speaking, put off every core class to fill my schedule with bardic studies. I can understand your wariness; I know I spent a lot of time daydreaming out loud like a moony-eyed farmgirl. But that was then. I am ready for this.”

“She is,” Shaeine agreed, her voice soft but firm. “I acknowledge that I am in no way unbiased regarding Teal, but my people are ruthlessly practical, as you have cause to know, Ravana. We do not encourage our loved ones to take unwise risks, even at the expense of their egos. A Narisian would rather have a living and hale spouse with hurt feelings than the reverse, and I still marvel that so many humans seem to feel otherwise. She is capable of controlling that crowd.”

“It’s a performance,” Teal added, still smiling. “That’s all. Regardless of our differing opinions about people, I am not naive enough to put my trust in something so irrational as a mob. You don’t reason with crowds, and you don’t take them for granted, you’re right about that. You pull their strings, push their buttons, and make them do as you command. It’s a matter of technique. With all due respect, Ravana, I am probably better at it than you.”

Ravana held her gaze for a long moment, then shifted to regard Shaeine. The drow just nodded to her once. Sighing softly, she glanced to the side at Veilwin, who had retreated to slouch against one wall, and now shrugged at her. She did not look back at Yancey; he only occasionally rendered advice, but only when explicitly asked, and never in front of others.

“Well,” the Duchess said at last, “the reality is that you have rented this space and commissioned the fliers. It is within your legal right to host a public event, per the Writ of Duties and, somewhat more pragmatically speaking, your material resources and status in the province. I could not stop you without resorting to unfriendly measures which would create consequences I think you know I am not willing to embrace. The deal is, in a word, done.” She twisted her lips bitterly in an expression that only obliquely hinted at a smile. “A page from my book indeed.”

“And that is the point of this exactly,” Teal said, leveling a finger at her. “Yes, I could very easily have just up and done this, like you did with your stunt outside my family’s factory this very morning. Instead, I am here, informing you of my actions, so you can plan around them, and I that I can ask you to cooperate with me. Surely you can see it’s insanity for us to constantly trip each other up when we have exactly the same enemy. Quite part from being stupid, that’s handing him a perfect weapon to turn against us.”

“Again, yes, philosophically you make a compelling case, but I am not sure I see the relevance. What is it you are asking of me, exactly? Just to stay out of your way? You’ve already seen to it I have little choice; this seems to be rubbing salt in the wound.”

Teal clapped a hand over her eyes, leaning her head back with a dramatic groan. Shaeine just sighed and shook her head. On the floor between their feet, F’thaan raised his head, looking up at his people in concern.

“I am going to slap you both!” Ravana exclaimed.

“I would welcome that,” Shaeine told her with a shallow bow and a benign smile that managed to suggest mockery without being overt enough to be called out; she was almost as good at that as a Butler. “It would be perhaps the first show of genuine emotion you have ever granted either of us. Which is not to say I would permit you to do it, of course.”

“Ravana…” Teal dragged her hand down her face. “Could you please, for just one moment, try to see the world through the eyes of someone who had been hugged once or twice as a child?”

“That does it! Veilwin, hex her!”

“Fuck off,” her employee snorted. “You are not rich enough to hire me to cast shit at an archdemon.”

“That was needlessly spiteful, my love,” Shaeine agreed with gentle reproach.

“You’re right, I apologize, Ravana, that was over the line. But you are just so frustrating!” Teal mimed a grabbing motion with both hands, as if throttling an imaginary Duchess. “Not everyone who contradicts your wishes is an enemy! Quite often, the opposite; I am trying to help you.”

“What we ask,” Shaeine said more smoothly, “is restraint. We want you to trust that we know what we are doing, and stay your hand while we make the attempt. This maneuver has been planned carefully; if it fails, the situation will not have markedly changed, and you can proceed as you were. But if it succeeds, it will change the landscape, to your benefit. Please have faith in Teal, Ravana. Watch, wait, and let her work.”

“And if this does work,” Teal added, “I want you to remember it. And don’t ever again stick your fingers unilaterally into Falconer business. Work with us, not around us. I promise everything will go much better with us working together than trying to one-up each other in some asinine game of checkers with Madouris as the board. The truth is, Ravana, I haven’t been a very good friend to you, or a particularly good ally. You deserve the credit for being the one to reach out. I’m trying to meet you halfway, but for that to work, you can’t just reach from atop your throne. Work with me.”

The Duchess hesitated, again glancing back and forth between them. “Faith…is not something which comes…naturally to me.”

“I know,” Teal said simply. “And more to the point, you have excellent reason for your general feeling that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. But having excellent reasons doesn’t make it true, Ravana. Trust me, and let me handle this. Let it be the start of a better working relationship.”

“The consequences if you fail…”

“Are as I said,” Shaeine reminded her gently. “No worse than the situation as it stands now. She must prove herself at some point, and there may never be a better opportunity.”

Ravana’s thin shoulders shifted once in a soft sigh. “All right, Teal. Shaeine. All that being said, I suppose I cannot reasonably deny you. I’ll stay my hand, for now, and watch what you accomplish tonight. Tomorrow, when the results begin to take shape… We shall see. You deserve that much trust, at least.”

They both smiled at her.

“You will not regret this,” Teal promised.

“I very much fear I shan’t have time to. This has all been very profound and cathartic, but at this moment I have to receive reports on a dozen urgent matters, prepare myself to attend a politically crucial social event in Veilgrad this evening, and it seems there is also an unconfirmed but not inconsiderable possibility that the world is ending. I feel someone really ought to address that. Now then, if you will excuse me?”

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“Just who I was looking for, in fact.” Sister Magden stepped forward, grim-faced and blade first. “To begin with—”

“Back off!” Zafi barked, lunging in front of Rasha and bringing up her sword in a guard position. “You get one chance to back down, lady.”

Magden stopped, looking incredulous. Then she glanced at her own longsword and blinked as if surprised to find herself brandishing it. To Rasha’s surprise, the priestess lowered the weapon.

“Ah…excuse me, that wasn’t… Well, regardless, I need to speak with—”

“Back. Away.” Zafi pressed forward, raising her short sword again.

Despite having her own guard lowered, Magden spared the other woman’s blade a scant glance, looking only miffed and not the least bit worried. It was not lost on any of them present that she was an Eagle Style duelist facing a young graduate of Legion basic training who didn’t even have her shield.

“Regardless of anything you witnessed in the sanctuary yesterday, Private, you are speaking to a priestess of Avei. I suggest you lower your…”

Pounding feet from behind them made her eyes shift past Zafi’s shoulder. Rasha steeled herself, tucking her chilly fingers into her sleeves to touch the metal secured there, while Zafi looked rapidly back and forth in apparent panic, visibly coming to grips with the fact that she couldn’t cover Rasha from both directions.

The two white-robed Purists slowed to a stop rather than attacking, though; one was carrying one of those longswords, but the other appeared unarmed.

“Sister Magden!”

“Farzi, Janelle,” Magden replied, narrowing her eyes. “What’s all this, now?”

“I knew you’d come,” the woman with the sword said eagerly. “Don’t let them past! The others will catch up, and we can finish this.”

“Finish?” Magden’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “I hope that does not mean what it sounds like, sister.”

The two Purists both frowned. Rasha and Zafi shifted position subtly, catching the mood, directing more of their attention away from Magden, the apparent lesser threat.

“It’s just…it’s just a last detail,” the other Purist said, her voice firming up as she spoke. “One thing to be cleaned up.”

Magden’s eyes cut to Rasha and then back to her fellow priestesses. Incredible as it seemed, her expression was growing more furious by the second.

“Oh, yes? A little detail, to be cleaned up. With your sword, in some dark alley, while the detail is running away from you. Forgive me, sisters, I think there’s some confusion here. Whose priestess do you claim to be now? Because when we last spoke, you served the goddess of justice.”

“Well, blow me down,” Zafi mumbled, catching Rasha’s eye sidelong. “Is one of ‘em actually gonna be reasonable?”

Her voice had been low, and it was probably fortunate that none of the Avenists responded to the comment, or appeared to notice.

“I thought you were with us, Sister Magden,” the Purist with the sword said, having the effrontery to sound hurt. “If you’re not— What are you even doing here?”

“I was just asking myself that,” Magden snapped. “Now it seems the goddess directed me here. I am doing as a priestess of Avei should. What are you doing here?”

“Ambushing a civilian with intent to abduct or assault,” Rasha said with a pleasant smile. “They also deliberately deceived Imperial police with criminal intent. Would you like to know the established penalty for all of that? We are taught such details in my faith. Of course, it would likely be lesser for you. Magistrates are usually lenient with Avenists, especially clerics.”

All three priestesses turned baleful looks on her, and Zafi added an incredulous one. Rasha kept her hands hanging at her sides, clinging to her serene bearing as Glory had trained her. Folding her hands demurely at her waist would have better heightened the effect, but this way she could keep her concealed knives ready to deploy.

“Maybe,” Magden said in a dangerous tone, “you should shut up before you somehow make this even worse. In fact, that’s enough of all of this. You two, Private and…thief. We’re leaving.”

“They’re not leaving!” snarled the sword-carrying Purist, taking a compulsive step forward and raising her weapon.

“Are you forgetting who taught you to use that sword, Farzi?” Magden said contemptuously. “Lower it before you embarrass us both any further. If you can belatedly summon the sense to drop this nonsense, I will report it as a lapse in judgment rather than the premeditated abrogation of your vows it looks like.”

More shapes loomed up out of the darkness behind them, these approaching at a less breakneck pace, but the three additional ex-Purists who now stepped forward arrived in time to hear Magden’s last statement. All five were now glaring—at her, rather than Rasha for a change. Two of the new arrivals had swords; the third carried a wand.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” the woman who by default had to be Sister Janelle hissed. “You’re— You of all people, Magden! You cannot possibly side with this…this creature over your own Sisters!”

“The creature in question hasn’t committed any crime, or harmed anyone,” Magden shot back, “and even if he—sh—even if that were true, nothing justifies Sisters of Avei murdering people in alleys! What are you all even thinking?! Just being here… Avei commanded our order to disperse! Avei! The Goddess herself!”

That seemed to bring them pause, but only for a moment.

“Gods are…difficult creatures,” said one of the new arrivals, pushing to the front of their group with her sword still held at her side. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, sister, given your special fields of study, but you know I am a student of theology. It’s a known fact that the commands of deities can be influenced by the way they are invoked. We can’t consider it definitive when Trissiny Avelea called down judgment while we know her sympathies were already tainted by…this one.”

She sneered overtly at Rasha, who didn’t spare her a glance, being focused on the one with the wand.

“Is that a fact,” Magden said in deadly quiet.

Golden light blossomed in the alley.

Everyone present shied back and shaded their eyes for the seconds it took them to adjust, Zafi and a few of the Purists with hisses of displeasure. Sister Magden had lit up with a golden halo of pure divine light as she channeled energy actively without yet directing it. Pushing forward between Rasha and Zafi, utterly ignoring any threat they might have presented her, the priestess planted herself between them and her own former comrades.

The second she was clear, the light around her hardened into a golden sphere.

“I stand with Avei,” Magden’s voice rang through the cold alleyway. “I serve Avei, and an oath of service is not suspended when I am ordered to do something I happen not to like! I’m confident I remain in the goddess’s good graces, sisters. It’s far simpler to obey her commands than to rationalize why I shouldn’t have to. But if your faith is wavering, don’t take my word for it! You can call judgment down on yourselves, you know.”

The five of them shuffled backward. Magden gave them no quarter, taking a step to maintain the distance.

“Well?” she barked. “I note none of you have called on the goddess’s light. Why? Is there some reason you fear to draw her attention? Are you perhaps doing something right this minute you know to be wrong?”

The woman in the lead drew a deep breath and let it out in a puff of mist, her expression hardening, and raised her sword.

“I don’t want it to come to this, Magden,” she said coldly, “but anyone not with us is against us.”

Magden’s sword flashed in a horizontal arc that impacted hers with a furious clash, and the other woman was sent stumbling against one of the alley’s walls by the force. Magden, in addition to her mastery of the sword, had clearly trained in the knack of modulating a divine shield to let her attack through it while blocking outside forces.

“Avei is against you,” she stated. “I didn’t want it to come to this either, sisters, but if this is where you must plant your flag, I like my chances.”

The woman in the lead quickly recovered her feet, and the two others with swords hesitated, visibly recalculating their odds against their order’s finest swordswoman in a cramped alley, but Rasha was still not watching them. Most of what she knew of divine shields came from correspondence with Trissiny, according to whom a paladin’s barrier could stand up to a lot, but an average cleric’s shield would rapidly decay if subjected to point blank wandfire. So, when the Purist with the wand took aim at Magden, Rasha flung out her own arm.

It wasn’t one of her better throws; her fingers were half-numb from being bare in the cold. The throwing knife struck the woman in the upper chest where it wouldn’t do much damage, but at least the blow succeeded in making her stagger back with a shriek. Lightning flashed deafeningly in the confined space, punching a crater in one wall a few feet above their heads and showering them all with fragments of brick.

For doubtless the first and likely the last time, Rasha, Zafi, and Magden all had the same thought. All three turned and dashed away up the alley, the two of them not needing Magden’s shouted order to flee. Rasha saved her breath for running, but privately had to wonder whether Magden was uncertain of their chances against five of them or was just reluctant to take a blade to women she likely still thought of as friends.

Unfortunately, she also seemed to presume herself to be in charge, and pushing her way up the alley behind them surrounded by a bubble of hard light gave her more authority than she perhaps deserved.

“Take this right!” she ordered as a gap in the wall loomed up.

“No,” Zafi shouted back, “keeping left will lead us to—”

“Do as you are told, Private!” In a frustratingly impressive display of Lightworking skill, she dropped the shield to dart forward and to their left, swelling it again to push both of them into her chosen alley.

Rasha hissed in wordless displeasure, but didn’t try to fight, as that would only let their pursuers catch up. She was inclined to chalk this up to Magden’s naive arrogance and presumption that she was automatically in command. A crafty enemy might have used this whole incident to earn trust in order to get them alone for an assassination, but by Rasha’s reading the woman didn’t have that kind of subtlety in her. So far, the extent of Purist cleverness seemed to be setting up ambushes that anyone could have warned them were sure to backfire. Hell, their best case scenario if they succeeded in what they were trying to do here was Trissiny hunting them all down like stray dogs.

Magden immediately revealed the reason for her insistence by kicking over the stack of crates lurking in the mouth of this side alley, forming an impromptu obstruction that would definitely not inhibit their foes enough to have been worth this detour, and Rasha privately decided that next time she was going to follow her own damn path if it meant she had to stab the woman. Incompetent help was basically the same as another enemy.

“This is insanity,” Magden snarled at no one in particular as they pounded down this new back alley in the wrong direction. “What are they thinking? Avei spoke to us! The Goddess herself! I didn’t like it either, but nobody needs to like it. She’s the Goddess! The subject is closed!”

“It’s pretty normal, actually,” Rasha puffed, annoyed that Magden was less out of breath with this exertion than she was. The priestess’s legs were a lot longer; Rasha had to take more steps faster to keep up. “If you conclusively debunk something somebody really wants to believe, they’re not likely to change their minds. Most will get mad and dig their heels in, start massaging reality until it looks more like they want it to. Honestly, the fact you actually did what Avei said shows unusual character.”

“I do not need validation from you,” Magden spat, giving her a bitter scowl.

“Okay, maybe not too much character,” Rasha allowed.

“If you’re not with them, why are you looking for Rasha?” Zafi demanded.

“I need to speak with General Avelea,” Magden grated. “And it turns out a Sister of Avei like myself has less direct access to her than some Eserite…person.”

“Then how’d you know to look for me here?” Rasha exclaimed.

“A few minutes ago I met a scruffy man wearing half a tuxedo who said you’d be down these alleys. I assumed he was sending me into some manner of ambush, but I was in a mood to vivisect a few muggers anyway, so here we are. The Goddess works mysteriously at times.”

“I’m not sure that’s the deity you’re working with right now,” Zafi muttered.

Then the three of them had to skid to a stop, Rasha nearly losing her balance on a patch of ice until Zafi caught her. The alley had abruptly opened up into a kind of courtyard surrounded on all sides by four-story structures, each with a rear loading door facing the cul de sac. There was, or at least had once been, another alley leading out of it in the opposite direction, but someone had built a ten-foot-tall wooden slat fence across it at some point. That looked dubiously climbable, at best, and definitely too tall to jump.

“Oh, good,” Zafi exclaimed. “I’m just so glad we went this way instead of staying left! Just think, we could be back on a main street with police now instead of trapped like rats, and wouldn’t that be awful.”

“Young woman,” Magden shot back, “if you cannot find something more—”

“Shut up!” Rasha barked at both of them, already heading to her left. “Try these doors, we only need one unlocked!”

None were unlocked, of course. Most didn’t even have handles on this side.

Zafi began pounding on one with her fist, loudly demanding it to be opened, while Rasha swiftly crossed to the only door with a visible keyhole and knelt, already extracting her lockpicks from their hidden pocket. All the other doors were clearly meant to be openable only from the inside. She set to work, both annoyed about what the filthy floor of this alley was now doing to the hem of her dress and grateful the lock was an old-fashioned one any idiot could have picked. All she needed was a minute…

And naturally, that was also a forlorn hope. The angry Purists pounded into the alley—now there were six of them—and immediately fanned out in the open space, raising weapons. Magden and Zafi pivoted and brought up their own blades in readiness, and Rasha wasted precious seconds pausing to reach for her remaining throwing knives before deciding that getting this door open was a better use of her abilities.

The woman who’d argued with Magden was still in the lead and now opened her mouth to deliver another no doubt riveting spiel, but then gasped, raising her eyes to the top of the wooden fence.

Their only warning was a clatter of bodies rapidly clambering up something stacked against it—of course, there’d be a convenient path up the other side—and then yet another white-robed priestess of Avei vaulted over the top, this one a Westerner with a multitude of narrow braids flying about her head.

She hit the floor in a roll and charged forward. Zafi pivoted to slash at her, but the priestess flowed under the relatively clumsy swing as if she were made of water and kept going. Magden turned, sword upraised, but the new priestess did not join the others in attacking her.

On the contrary. Before they could react, the woman ducked under the Purist leader’s stab and simultaneously ripped the sword out of her hands while dropping the woman with a knife-handed jab to the throat. She moved like no one Rasha had ever seen in a fight, flinging the confiscated sword almost contemptuously and yet nailing another Purist on the skull with its heavy pommel while turning to barehandedly disable a third.

With a roar, another woman in a white robe under a more mundane winter coat hit the ground from the fence and charged forward. She moved with much less grace, slamming fist-first into the only Purist who didn’t have a weapon and sending her reeling backward.

A beam of clean white light flashed silently through the air, piercing the hand of the woman who had been taking aim with her lightning wand, which she dropped with another shriek of pain; despite being the most dangerously armed member of her group, she was not having good luck today. Turning to look in the direction the shot had come from, Rasha could only gape in surprise.

“Joe!”

“Hey, Rasha!” Joseph Jenkins said cheerfully, hopping down from atop the fence while another young woman with a Legion short sword bounded over it right after him. “Sorry to leave it so close. Seems we’re cursed with dramatic timing.”

“This behavior is utterly contemptible,” stated the dark-skinned woman who had just taken down four fellow priestesses with her bare hands in a few seconds. Two were clearly unconscious and the rest had been disarmed; all who could still walk were frantically backing away now. “I urge you to submit to citizen’s arrest, sisters. Penance begins a path to redemption.”

“Fuck that, let’s beat ‘em up for a while longer,” suggested the other new priestess, grinning and raising both her fists. “Asskicking is good for—”

“Heel, Shay,” ordered the teenage girl who incongruously seemed to be in charge of this lot. “That’s more than enough carnage. Bandi, is that one going to die?”

“Possibly,” the martial artist allowed, dispassionately studying the fallen Purist who was struggling to breathe around a damaged windpipe. “That would be unfortunate; permission to render healing?”

“Please do. Let’s not have any corpses here.”

“Finally, a voice of reason!”

“Oh, what the hell now,” Zafi demanded as the retreating Purists flocked away from the alley mouth, leaving one of their number sprawled insensate on the ground and another clutching her neck while Bandi knelt beside her, applying golden light to the injury from her hands.

Of all things, two Huntsmen of Shaath entered the courtyard from behind them.

“Unbelievable,” Magden hissed, raising her sword again.

“Now, now, Sister, let’s have peace,” the Huntsman in the lead said in the same smooth tone with which he had already interrupted them. “I think all of this has gotten more than sufficiently out of hand, don’t you? I propose everyone take a moment to breathe and find some calm. Brother Arlund, would you kindly make sure the fallen Sister here is all right?”

“Don’t you touch her!” one of the other Purists squawked while the second Huntsman strode forward to bend over their unconscious comrade.

“I assure you Arlund would never handle a woman, or anyone, with anything less than the utmost respect,” the more loquacious Huntsman said in a soothing tone.

He actually stood out, to the eyes of anyone familiar with Huntsmen of Shaath. The man was neatly groomed, his winter tunic boasted subtle embroidery in the elven style, his long hair was tied back in a tight tail and his beard gathered into a chest-length braid, and even his traditional bearskin cloak appeared to have been brushed. He also spoke with a smooth, cultured intonation at odds with the (mostly accurate) popular conception of Shaathists as scruffy outdoorsmen.

Unlike Arlund, who looked up from the fallen woman with a much more characteristic grunt. “She breathes. Took a knot to the temple. Head injuries need quick treatment, but mostly likely she’ll be fine.”

“Now that is a relief,” his companion said with evident sincerity. “Sisters, perhaps it would be best if you withdrew your friend from the line of fire, as it were? That is, if these good people will kindly stand down,” he added with a courteous bow toward Magden.

“Whaddaya think, Casey?” Joe asked. He had not put away his wand, but was currently aiming it at the ground.

“I think they’re beyond the point of any funny business,” Casey said, watching the Shaathists warily as Arlund stepped back and the Purists began to edge forward. “There’s absolutely no justification for denying someone healing. Speaking of, Bandi, how is she?”

“Serviceable,” Bandi reported, also retreating from the oncoming Purists and Shaathists while the woman she’d been treating now backed away. “She is in no danger, though I imagine that is still uncomfortable.”

To judge by the way the priestess continued to clutch her neck while glaring daggers at Bandi, she was correct.

“Good,” Casey said curtly. “Please be more careful in the future, the last thing I need is you killing someone by accident. Now, then, I don’t know what business Huntsmen have in this, but with all due respect, you need to back off. We’re taking these women to the Imperial authorities.”

“I wonder if that is the best use of everyone’s time?” the more talkative Huntsman asked with a calm smile, while Arlund lurked behind his shoulder, glaring at them. “Here we stand amid the ruins of multiple grievous errors in judgment. Does it not seem to you that it’s best we all step back and allow one another to depart in peace?”

“Yeah, that’s not on the table,” Casey stated. “Thanks for your help, but we’ve got it from here.” Magden nodded in agreement.

“Ah, forgive me, I have failed to express myself clearly,” he said, his smile not diminishing. “We in Shaath’s service are men of action, not of words.”

Everyone’s eyes shifted, and he half-turned to follow their gaze. Then his smile widened and he turned back to Casey while three more longbow-wielding Huntsmen paced silently out of the alley behind them.

“No one is taking anyone into custody.”

This unusual Huntsman might be polite, even suave, but he was definitely not obsequious. He held Casey’s gaze, clearly having pinned her as the person in charge despite Magden’s puffing up, and the two stared one another down in a mute contest of wills. Her expression was icily blank, while he managed to keep smiling even as his eyes silently offered the very violence from which he was courteously urging that they all abstain.

“Are you certain,” Casey asked at last, in the same tone of deadly quiet, “you want to embrace the consequences of your actions here, Huntsman?”

“That is tomorrow’s hunt, miss,” he replied politely, inclining his head. “Here and now? Surely it is best that we all refrain from exacerbating this…misunderstanding. It seems to me we have been lucky there has been no more serious injury, yet. Just a little more aggression from anyone present would imperil that clean record.”

“This one sure does talk fancy,” Shay observed. “They aren’t breeding Shaathists like they used to, I guess.”

“The wolves of Shaath hunt with Ingvar, now,” Joe drawled, twirling his wand. “All that’s left under Veisroi are the tame dogs.”

“Joe,” Casey growled as four of the Huntsmen present turned to him with bared teeth, one raising his bow.

“I should hope,” the leader said, more loudly but still calmly, “that I can count on the men of Shaath to show more character than to rise to childish insults. Someone here must be the adult, after all. Now then, I believe it’s past time we separated these groups of people who so clearly do not enjoy sharing space. Ladies, after you.”

He turned to the Purists, bowing respectfully and gesturing toward the alley mouth, which his followers had just shifted aside from.

“Are we lettin’ ‘em go?” Shay demanded, turning to Casey.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey replied, still staring at the smooth-talking Huntsman. “If this becomes a real fight… No matter who wins, everyone loses.”

He smiled and favored her with a deep nod. She just narrowed her eyes, and kept staring until the Huntsmen and Purists had all filed off up the alley. He was the last to go, giving her a final smile over his shoulder.

At last, Casey heaved a sigh. “Fuck, that was closer than I like ‘em. Rasha, are you okay?”

“Well, my date was interrupted,” Rasha said, indulging in a bit of petulance now that the danger seemed past, “but otherwise, this has been no worse than some decent exercise.” Zafi chuckled, stepping over to take her hand. “Excuse me… Casey, was it? This is embarrassing; I’m certain I know you from somewhere, but I can’t recall exactly.”

“My squad threw you in jail once,” Casey said with a wry smile.

“Oh, that’s right!”

“Does that really narrow it down?” Magden asked acerbically.

“Maybe not, but then we made her muck out a stable. Tends to leave an impression. Who’s this, then?”

“This is Sister Magden,” Rasha introduced her. “A former big name among the Purists who now…I think…ison our side?”

“I am on Avei’s side,” Magden corrected with barely-repressed dislike. “Even if that puts me in…strange company.”

“Strange company ‘bout sums it up, no offense,” Joe commented.

“Okay, that’s a sufficient amount of banter,” Casey stated. “This looks like it’s gonna need to be a long-ish conversation. Let’s have it someplace less frigid, shall we?”

“Heh, that’s what she s—”

“Shut up and march, Shay!”

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16 – 31

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“I’m starting to think I should’ve worn my dress uniform.”

“I hope you don’t think you need to put on a show for me,” Rasha said with a teasing smile.

“No, no,” Zafi assured her hastily. “It’s not you, I just feel like I…stick out.”

She made one small movement with her hand, a low and slight wave barely inches off the top of their table and quite unlike her usual ebullient style of expression, indicating the rest of the cafe as if afraid to draw its attention.

True, Rasha observed in glancing to the side, La Chez did cater to a fairly ritzy crowd; she herself was as well-dressed as anyone here, but Zafi did stand out a bit in her bronze armor and short sword. But it was the uniform of the Silver Legions, definitely no mark of shame, and though the cafe was well-populated at this hour of the afternoon, none of the people here were giving them a second look. Rasha had grown attuned to the movements of crowds during her last year of training, and would definitely have noticed if they had been.

But that was it exactly, she realized: it wasn’t about the crowd, but about Zafi. For the last year she had spent much of her time among people exactly like this, the wealthy, the well-bred and well-mannered, but not as one of them. Of Glory’s four apprentices, two were noble born, but two just the opposite, a wharf rat and circus brat respectively. She had firmly taught them all the same attitude toward the wealthy class: they were Eserites, and they were to move among these people like wolves among sheep. Not all—probably not even most—were to be prey; despite how some Eserites lived, Glory insisted upon humbling only the corrupt and abusive. They needed the manners, the poise, the attitude to seamlessly blend with this crowd, but they were never to be truly part of them. Eserites were not equal to the powerful. They were greater, and always ready to administer a reminder of it.

That outlook was the result of months of training, and Zafi had none of it. In this place, she felt exactly the way Rasha would have if she’d been brought here during her first week in Tiraas. And now, she found herself suddenly ashamed for failing to realize that, and bringing the girl here anyway. Stupid, inconsiderate… Glory would never have done something so careless.

Well, it was done. Now to fix it.

“Over there,” she said in a lower voice, pointing with her eyes and a tiny gesture of her head. “Looks like a…ah, there’s his insignia. A lieutenant colonel, very impressive! See, you’re not the only one here in uniform.”

Zafi glanced in the direction Rasha had indicated, a small smile breaking through her reserved expression. Then she leaned forward over the table to murmur back, carefully not staring. “Yeah, but…that’s a lieutenant colonel. And he’s Imperial Army, not Silver Legion. He can do what he likes.”

“Ah, but this is a cafe, not the army,” Rasha rejoined, grinning. “It’s society types who decide the rules here. I’m just pointing out that a military uniform is clearly acceptable dress for this establishment. Look, nobody’s giving him the side-eye. And they aren’t to you, either,” she added in a warmer tone, reaching across the table to lay a hand over Zafi’s wrist.

The metal and leather of her gauntlet were cool under Rasha’s fingers. She had already been impressed by how deftly Zafi could eat and drink wearing those bulky armored gloves.

“Yeah, well… There are uniforms, and then uniforms, you know? I note nobody else in here is in armor.”

“It’s the 80s now, nobody but Legionnaires wears armor,” Rasha replied. “It seems like a badge of honor to me, Zafi. They don’t let just any simpleton into the Silver Legions, after all. Besides, who doesn’t love a woman in uniform?”

At that, her companion’s cheeks turned a shade pinker. Zafi lowered her eyes, seemingly lost for a response. Rasha managed not to wince; she was trying to be reassuring here, not make it worse. After pausing for a couple of seconds, she tried harder.

“I’m sorry, Zafi, I never meant to put you on the spot. I certainly wouldn’t have invited you to a place like this if I’d thought it would make you uncomfortable. But that’s the thing, see; I did invite you because I knew you would fit in. Trust me, I know these people.” She glanced aside, then grimaced. “Well, people like them in general, if not these particular specimens. You are definitely not unwelcome here, and nobody’s staring. There’s a trick to it,” she added in a conspiratorial tone, shifting her head to make her eyes sparkle in the golden light of the small fairy lamp next to their table. Bless Glory and her bottomless bag of tricks. “If you’d showed up dressed in rags and stinking of an honest day’s work, yeah, they’d turn up their noses. But where there’s a gray area and people don’t automatically know what to expect, they look for cues. Then, all you need is confidence. Act like you expect to be treated with respect, and most people just automatically…will.”

That got a small chuckle from Zafi. “Well, that is a neat trick. It’s pretty easy for you to say, though! If it’s not obvious, Rasha, I wasn’t exactly brought up to know what to do in joints like this.”

Rasha burst out laughing, to Zafi’s clear befuddlement. Nobody even glanced over at them; she knew how to laugh with open and genuine mirth without exceeding the acceptable noise level of any given room. Glory had, of course, made her practice.

She of course kept her voice low for her next comment, though. “Naphthene’s tits, do you think I was? A year and a half ago I was gutting fish on my father’s boat in the Azure Sea.”

Zafi boggled at her. “Shut up. You’re like… You’re like, if a noblewoman was somehow miraculously not stuck up!”

“Now that’s a good compliment,” Rasha chuckled. “More of those, please. But no, seriously, Zafi, I’m a wharf rat from Puna Vashtar. All of this nonsense is purely learned, during the last year, the same way anybody learns anything: practice and a good teacher. I’m apprenticed to Tamisin Sharvineh.”

She didn’t drop Glory’s name lightly, not least in this case because she wasn’t sure Zafi would recognize it, but the Legionnaire’s eyes widened immediately.

“Whoah, you’re serious? No wonder you move in General Avelea’s circles. I mean… Damn, it’s true, then? Sharvineh is actually Guild?”

This time it was Rasha’s turn to blink in startlement. “I thought that was common knowledge. It’s certainly not a secret.”

“Hey, for people who aren’t apprenticed to her, no knowledge about the likes of Tamisin bloody Sharvineh is common,” Zafi said wryly. “Rumor’s all the likes of me has to go on. Well, hell, I guess that would explain you picking up a lot of rich people craft in just a year. I still can’t wrap my head around it, though.” She leaned back in her chair, grinning at Rasha with something uncomfortably like awe. “You’re just so…poised. It’s hard to imagine you were ever anything but a lady of quality.”

Rasha’s smile slipped. “I… Well, thank you, I do appreciate that. I’ve certainly worked hard for it. But, I don’t know…” She looked down at her palms, flexing her fingers. “Maybe it’s an Eserite thing, I just… I don’t ever want to catch myself thinking like I’m better than where I came from. I mean, I left for good reasons, but there’s nothing wrong with being a hard-working person who contributes stuff that other people need. It’s not better to be rich. Well, it’s a lot more pleasant, but I mean morally. I kind of regret that I don’t even have my calluses anymore; I damn well earned them, and they stood for something worthwhile. It’s a side effect of a lot of body-altering alchemy, though.”

Her breath caught and she raised her eyes. Somehow, Rasha had fallen back into old patterns and let her tongue run away with her; she hadn’t meant to bring that up. It didn’t seem like a first date sort of topic.

Zafi, though, was just nodding understandingly. “Wow, I never even thought about that. Yeah, I guess it stands to reason they can only do so much hoodoo without having some, uh, extra consequences.”

Rasha forced herself not to duck her gaze again. “You… Well, you know what it is the Purists were all worked up about. What I visit Sister Iona for. You never asked me about it, though.”

“And I never will,” Zafi said instantly. She reached across to lay her gauntleted hand in both of Rasha’s, squeezing gently, and gave her a smile. “That’s obviously a category of thing that you decide when we talk about. Don’t be in any rush. I’ll be happy when I can say I’ve earned that trust.”

Rasha closed her fingers over the glove, smiling back. “You’re doing just fine.”

The moment stretched out. She gazed into Zafi’s brown eyes, seeing clearly the warm smile in them even though they so filled her vision that even the other woman’s lips had faded into the periphery. Soft sounds of polite diners enjoying a busy teatime washed around them, parting as if their table were a rock amid the tide. In that moment, nothing else existed but their eyes, and the completely incomprehensible yet utterly tangible connection that stretched between them.

In the next moment, their waiter returned, and Rasha might otherwise have been annoyed but Glory’s tutelage informed her that his timing was, in fact, absolutely impeccable; he broke that infinite moment at exactly the instant before it would have started to trail into awkwardness. Rasha had had her doubts about this fellow, but apparently La Chez did not employ people who didn’t know exactly what they were doing.

“And how are we finding everything, ladies?” he asked brightly as he slid a small gilt-edged tray onto their table.

“Splendid, thank you,” Rasha replied, already distracted by the tray. It held two oddly tiny cups, no bigger than shot glasses; those held something that glowed.

“I’m so pleased to hear it,” the waiter said with a roguish grin. Indeed, he stood out from the rest of the tuxedoed young men gliding briskly to and fro in the busy cafe, though he wore the same uniform…mostly. The top button of his shirt was open and he had his cravat untied, hanging lopsidedly down between his lapels. Also, in contrast to the clockwork-precise grooming of his coworkers, the man had notably shaggy hair and a five o’clock shadow, not to mention that his manner was cheerfully friendly rather than discreet and diffident like all the rest. “La Chez cherishes your patronage, ladies! It’s my absolute honor to inform you that your visit is on the house today. And I have personally requisitioned one of the establishment’s premier delicacies to finish off your teatime.”

While speaking, he had deftly removed their teacups and the plate which held the crumbs of their lemon cake, and set the tiny cups in front of each of them. Rasha and Zafi found themselves gazing bemusedly down at lightly steaming servings of…something. It was impossible to tell what lay deeper in the little cups, because they were topped by a layer of heavy cream in which a faintly glowing blue substance had been swirled to make a spiraling pattern. On top of that was a rose crafted delicately of spun sugar, the edges of its tiny petals gilded by the minutest tracery of powder which also glowed an arcane blue.

“Is…is it supposed to be glowing?” Zafi asked in apprehension.

“Enchanted foodstuffs are the most cutting-edge trend, madam,” the waiter said proudly. “La Chez has the honor of being the premier purveyor of such rare delicacies, as their popularity among private parties by the nobility took an immediate hit when the noblewoman who debuted them was immediately beaten senseless by a paladin over an unrelated matter. Our very own Arcano Blossom is a unique creation of La Chez’s chef and baristas, and just the perfect finisher for a perfect high tea.”

“Is it…safe?” Zafi demanded, her tone now turned to fascination.

“La Chez specializes in providing sublime dining experiences in the highest Glassian tradition,” he declaimed, bowing to her. “Our mission, it must be said, is to nourish the spirit rather than the body. I can assure you, madam, the magic is better for you than that quantity of sugar. Alas, the Arcano Blossom is an ephemeral treat, as the exquisite candy rose will rapidly begin melting. Thus, we serve them only at the perfect temperature to be drunk in one shot.”

Well, the hint was unmistakable.

“Please relay my gratitude to the chef,” Rasha said dutifully, picking up the tiny cup and holding it out toward Zafi with a grin.

“I shall assuredly do so, madam!”

They clinked the cups playfully together and then tossed them back in unison.

It was a coffee drink, which Rasha wasn’t expecting. She did not much care for coffee, mistrusting the effect it had on her brain and body nearly as much as she loathed the taste. However, this was a truly tiny amount, heavily mixed with milk infused with subtle flavors of vanilla and other spices, and then topped for good measure with quite a dose of pure sugar. It worked; coffee’s acrid bitterness, properly diluted, proved a delightful offset to a hot dessert which would otherwise have been nauseatingly sweet. The delicate little rose dissolved on her tongue, its traceries of arcane powder causing it to pop in delightful little tingles that lightened the entire sensation of drinking such a rich, thick treat.

Sublime dining experiences, indeed. She could tell why they served it in such tiny cups. Too much of that would knock a person right into a food coma.

“Wow,” Zafi said, grinning in delight at Rasha immediately after swallowing. “That was… I’m tempted to try adding some enchanting dust to Legion rations.”

“I urge madam not to attempt that,” the waiter said solemnly. “Such things are best left to professionals; Chef Marcel has the distinction of never having blown anyone up. By accident, that is. I dared to hope it would be an ideal addition to your date, ladies: a bit of caffeine, sugar, and a spark of magic, just the thing to provide the rush of energy you’ll need for what comes next.”

Zafi flushed scarlet and stammered at the implication, but Rasha’s eyes snapped to the man’s face. He didn’t have the tone or attitude of someone pitching double entendres. In fact, he was not looking at either of them, but at the window next to their table, the neatly picturesque little arched frame with the tiny candle-like fairy lamp set right into its sill.

“I took pains to seat you on the second floor balcony with a view across the street, ladies. If I could direct your attention to the base of yonder lamp post?”

All Rasha saw by the streetlamp was a woman in a thick white robe, probably a priestess of Avei or Izara bundled against the cold, but Zafi tensed.

“That’s Sister Alieh.”

Rasha’s eyes snapped to the Legionnaire’s face; Zafi was staring down at the priestess, not yet frightened or angry, but clearly on the alert.

“You know her?”

“She’s a Purist. Or…ex-Purist, I suppose. I guess nobody’s a Purist once Avei got done with them.”

“Indeed,” the waiter said, bowing diffidently. “If I could impose further, ladies, I wonder if you might accompany me? There is something you should see.”

He backed away from the table before straightening and turning to lead them away. Rasha and Zafi exchanged a long, questioning look, then Rasha nodded minutely and rose.

La Chez featured an upper dining area which wrapped around three sides of the cafe’s floor and extended over its foyer and kitchens, maximizing its relatively small square footage. The waiter led them straight to the best table in the house, the one positioned right in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows directly above the entrance, providing a lovely view of the small park across the street.

The cafe was quite busy, but that table—the most sought after in the place—was empty. A prickle ran up Rasha’s spine as the waiter came to a stop next to it and turned to them with a bland smile and a bow, waiting patiently.

She had…a feeling. On this, too, Glory had taught her apprentices both theory and practice. The human mind, as she put it, was mostly filled with mechanisms for relating to other people, and that accounted both for the ways it tended to go wrong and those in which it was often uncannily right. Glory warned her apprentices to be skeptical of their own tendency to see patterns and intentions in random events that had none, and not let themselves anthropomorphize inanimate objects or coincidences. But when it came to other people, if they had a feeling, they were to trust and act on it. Those feelings came from mental machinery far more sophisticated than the conscious mind, and were rarely wrong.

Rasha had a feeling, sweeping her eyes quickly around the cafe, and so acted on it.

While making her way toward the window table, she deliberately jostled her hip against a well-dressed woman’s shoulder, causing her to slosh her teacup slightly.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” she said earnestly. “How terribly clumsy of me. I do beg your pardon.”

The woman didn’t look up. Neither did anyone at her table. It was as if none of them were aware of Rasha’s existence, even when physically bumped.

No one in this place was looking at them, and the most desirable spot had been left open for this…unusual waiter to show them something. Zafi gave her another wary look, but they went the rest of the way to the windows, having no better ideas.

The view they afforded was of four figures standing in front of the little park just across the way: two more white-robed priestesses, and two uniformed soldiers.

“Purists?” Rasha asked tersely.

“Can’t tell about the one with her hood up, but yeah, I recognize that one,” Zafi reported, scowling down at the priestess whose breath was misting on the chill air as she spoke to the soldiers. “Don’t know her name, but she’s been around the temple all week.”

“I see they got rid of their little uniforms,” Rasha murmured. “Guess when you get repudiated by your own goddess, its best to go incognito.”

“Most interestingly,” said the waiter, “these are not the only ones. Behind the cafe is a veritable warren of alleys; fairly safe and free of riffraff, this neighborhood being what it is, but the businesses of the rich and fancy require shipments and servicing like any others, and so there are dark, narrow little spaces out back. Most oddly, there are now more priestesses of Avei closing in on this location through those alleys where priestesses of Avei have no obvious business going. It’s almost as if they’re trying to make sure somebody doesn’t succeed in slipping surreptitiously out of here.”

“Shit,” Zafi hissed.

“Okay, don’t panic,” Rasha said, taking her hand. “Look, those are actual police, and they’re clearly checking up on what those women are doing. We just have to give our side…”

Zafi was already shaking her head. “That’s not good, Rasha. Lots of Avenists in the military, and police here in the capital are Imperial soldiers. They will usually go well out of their way to help Sisters, and… Me being in armor is even worse. The local cops always look the other way and let Sisters handle internal Avenist affairs even when they have cause to intervene. I dunno how legal it is, but it’s the done thing. They’re just dressed as priestesses, not Purists, and that means those soldiers will probably remand both of us to their custody. Unless… Can you insist on being taken into Imperial custody?”

“That’s…not covered in the Writ of Duties, no.”

“Um… What if you confess to something unrelated that they’ll have to prosecute?”

“Well, that doesn’t help you, does it? Anyway… This is embarrassing, but I actually haven’t done anything that’d get me arrested. And ironically enough, a false confession is a crime. Well, that’d work, though, and a magistrate might respect the extenuating circumstances. Plus we’ve got Glory and Trissiny to pull strings.”

“That’s a way to go,” the waiter agreed, “if you’re willing to take the pretty steep gamble that they haven’t planned for that. Whoops, moment of truth.”

The soldiers had just stepped away from the priestesses, and were now striding across the street toward La Chez.

“This way!” their waiter said briskly, turning on his heel and heading toward a narrow service door with long strides.

Rasha and Zafi exchanged another, much shorter look, then both hurried after them.

Behind the narrow door was an equally narrow stairwell which descended into the kitchen; the scruffy waiter led them right through the bustle of pastry cooks and waiters moving with the precision of drilling soldiers, and not a one spared a single glance for the interlopers in their domain. It was just like the diners above, but more noticeable.

Don’t see, or won’t see? No, Rasha decided, can’t see. There was something going on here beyond the Purists and whatever vindictive stunt they were trying to pull.

“Just who are you?” she demanded as the waiter came to a stop beside the kitchen’s rear door.

He grinned at her and pushed it open, admitting a blast of frigid winter air which the kitchen staff also didn’t seem to notice.

Then he produced a doubloon from seemingly nowhere, rolled it across the backs of his fingers, and made it disappear again. It was very neatly done; Rasha hadn’t even spotted the characteristic finger movements through which the coin could be plucked from the sleeve and then hidden there again, and she had worked on that religiously.

“Now, I can’t be solving all your problems for you, Rasha,” he said cheerfully, “but let’s just say I’ve got a vested interest in you coming out on top in this one. ‘Sides, you’re an apprentice; we’re allowed to lend a helping hand to those still in training, right? I’m afraid there’s no time for chitchat; you’ve gotta make tracks if you’re gonna evade the net.”

“So…there’s a clear path through them, out there?” Zafi asked. She had at least recognized the Eserite coin trick and could infer what it meant, but Rasha wasn’t sure how much of the other weirdness going on here Zafi had noticed. There was no Guild craft she knew of that could just make people invisible, or even unnoticeable. That was more like Vidian ritual magic.

The waiter (if he actually was one) shook his head. “’Fraid the noose is already too tight; you’re not gonna get out without encountering some of ‘em. You’re gonna have to work out for yourselves how to get through. I recommend moving fast and trying to run the blockade rather than engaging them. But listen: stick to the left and the turns will take you on the fastest route back to a main street, and I’ve taken steps to arrange for some help to meet you coming from that direction.”

Rasha drew in a breath, turning to meet his eyes. Now off the cafe floor, he was wearing a characteristically cocky smirk she recognized from countless Eserites she’d met. That, of course, raised the question of why he couldn’t come with them and keep helping, but instinct and reason both warned her that pressing for answers would lead nowhere.

“Assuming you’re not sending us into another trap,” she said, “thank you.”

“Never assume that, but also never let it stop you,” he instructed, stepping back and gesturing toward the open door. “Get moving, girls, the clock’s ticking.”

They both strode out into the alley without another word.

Zafi had left her shield back at the temple, as it was awkward to carry around indoors, but she still had her regulation short sword buckled at her waist. Now she drew the blade, reaching out toward Rasha with her other hand. Rasha grasped it; the metal plates of the gauntlet were already growing icy in the chill air of the alley, and their edges pinched her fingers. She didn’t let go.

“Left,” she said tersely, leading the way. Hand in hand, they went in that direction at a dash.

They made it until the first point where the alley crossed another one before encountering Purists. Two of them stepped out of the side passage, also in white Avenist robes without any of the trappings of their sect…except for their heavy longswords. Both of them had those.

Rasha tried to keep going, but Zafi’s differently-trained instincts prompted her to stop and raise her blade. Rasha had to tug, causing them both to stagger, but despite the blunder costing them seconds they were immediately running again, now with pounding feet and the sound of shouts behind them. She didn’t chance a look back, it being hard enough to run through a cramped, trash-filled alleyway with patches of black ice on the ground without falling, but it sounded to Rasha like the two of them were pulling ahead.

And then there came different shouts and a clatter as the pursuing Purists slipped on something, followed by a joyfully derisive laugh from Zafi, and in the next moment they were leaving their tormentors in the dust.

Right until the next turn they took, whereupon they had to slam to an awkward stop. Another Purist stood right in front of them.

This one, Rasha recognized: Sister Magden, one of the higher-ups in the sect, and the only one of their number skilled enough with the longsword to have fought Trissiny on something approaching equal terms. One of those who had cornered Rasha herself in the temple sanctuary alongside Sister Lanora at the start of all this. She held her sword in hand now, rearing back as if surprised by their sudden appearance, but then she narrowed her eyes and raised the weapon to point at them.

“There you are.”

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