Tag Archives: Rasha

16 – 20

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Sister Lanora approached to within three yards of them, near enough to close the distance at least somewhat and define a smaller space for their conversation than the entire grand sanctuary. The four priestesses of her escort trailed along deferentially but without any display of military precision, staggering to a stop when she did and milling into an uneven formation that didn’t even presume to match the two wings of mixed Avenists and Eserites flanking Trissiny.

The leader of the Purists hesitated, then nodded deeply in a gesture which slightly shifted her whole upper body, approaching but not quite becoming a bow. Trissiny inclined her head fractionally in acknowledgment.

An expectant silence hung, in which a constant soft murmur of speculation filled the temple, coming from both the mixed crowd of visitors and the Purist priestesses themselves flanking the opposite side. Lanora herself paused again, watching Trissiny closely as if uncertain how to proceed. The paladin just studied her, eyes roving across the unique attire of the Purists.

Finally, Lanora straightened her shoulders and opened her mouth, drawing breath to speak, but before she could form a syllable Trissiny cut in, her voice projected loudly enough to echo through the sanctuary despite the close quarters.

“Where did you get those swords?”

Sister Lanora was visibly surprised and hesitated once more, having to change track mid-thought. “They are one of the unique markers of our order, General Avelea.”

“I wasn’t expecting you to be evasive,” Trissiny replied in perfect calm, prompting a general increase in the surrounding murmur that caused Lanora to glance irritably at the crowd. “I assure, you, Sister, I know what a longsword is, and I can plainly see the role they are assigned in your uniform. I asked where you got them. Swords are not mass produced outside of the Five Kingdoms or the Silver Legions, and those are standard equipment for neither. The Sisterhood has not funded your activities. So much good steel, made to matching specifications, requires significant financial backing.”

“We…do have financial support, yes,” Lanora replied after another awkward pause.

“From whom?”

“Excuse me, General, but I know your time here is limited, and I wished to discuss matters of a more spiritual nature.”

“Certainly, once you demonstrate willingness to discuss in good faith. This attempt to conceal the source of your funding does not reflect well upon your intentions, Sister.”

More muttering at that, accompanied by a few audible chuckles. Lanora’s face tightened, and all four of her accompanying priestesses looked either troubled or annoyed.

“I’m sure you have noticed that our commitment to pure interpretation of Avei’s law is not popular,” Lanora answered in a strained tone. “Like most who have the resources to engage in philanthropy, our backer is vulnerable to political currents and prefers to remain anonymous.”

“Ah,” Trissiny nodded, “clearly you cannot disclose a name in public, then. So I assume, naturally, that you have disclosed this backer’s identity to the High Commander, in accordance with Sisterhood doctrine and custom.”

“That isn’t required by doctrine,” Lanora said testily.

Trissiny raised one eyebrow. “That’s a ‘no,’ I take it.”

“We receive communication via lawyers and bankers,” the Purist said, now in open annoyance. “They are quite determined to ensure their privacy. There’s nothing I could disclose.”

“And you did not find that at all suspicious?” Trissiny asked sardonically.

“On the contrary,” Lanora shot back, “I was gratified at the evidence that our devotion has supporters even outside the Sisterhood itself. If, indeed, our support is from someone other than an Avenist. Frankly, I suspect she may simply be using anonymity to move free of the Sisterhood’s politics. After all, Avei’s faithful have always been well-represented among the legal profession.”

“Gratified,” Trissiny said, still projecting from the diaphragm but lowering her voice as if speaking to herself, a useful trick she’d picked up from Style. “Yes, I’m sure you were.”

Lanora scowled at the titters which ensued from half the sanctuary at that. “With that out of the way, General, I have concerns of my own that I—that we—wish to discuss with you.”

“That’s mostly a dueling weapon, isn’t it?” Trissiny said, lowering her eyes to the sword at Lanora’s waist and nodding her head once. “There are formation fighting tactics which incorporate use of the longsword, but they aren’t Legion standard these days. I am impressed, Sister, that you’ve accumulated this many specialists in exotic weaponry to your cause. Especially since your unifying philosophy doesn’t appear to have anything to do with a specific fighting style.”

“You seem strangely fixated on my sword, General Avelea,” Lanora exclaimed.

“Is it so strange?” Trissiny rested a hand on the hilt of her own short sword, her armor rasping softly as she shrugged. “It seems you have gathered to pursue a fundamentalist interpretation of Avenist doctrine. So, naturally, of course, you would never do something so disrespectful to the goddess of war as affect weapons you cannot effectively use as…some kind of fashion statement.” Her lips curled up in a wintry little smile which did not approach her eyes. “Therefore, you must all be highly skilled in the use of those unusual blades. Which, again, seems unconnected to your dogma. That is a powerful coincidence, Sister. Is it truly odd that I would take note of it?”

The muttering had grown ever more fervently anticipatory, and there was more muffled laughter now. This time, more of the Purists than otherwise looked openly uncomfortable, quite a few clutching the long hilts of their swords as if for comfort. Sister Lanora’s expression had gone rigid, and she had to pause and swallow before answering in a tight voice.

“Yes, well, we view them as…as a symbol of an older, more pure era of Avenist worship. We Purists gather like-minded women and teach the sword—”

“So you do train in longsword fighting?” Trissiny interrupted.

Lanora’s eye twitched, but she managed to answer in an even tone. “Of course, General.”

Trissiny’s sword rasped as she drew it from its scabbard. “Show me.”

Her escort backed up, the Eserites and Zafi grinning in anticipation. Lanora and her fellow priestesses also stepped backward, suddenly looking alarmed.

“I… General, this is a sanctuary. I really don’t think this is appropriate.”

“Devoted as you are to purity of doctrine,” Trissiny replied with a pleasant smile, “I’m certain I needn’t do anything so condescending as remind you what Avei is goddess of. I have doubts about your intentions, Sister. Showing me that you treat the martial aspect of our faith with due respect would help a great deal in putting them at ease.”

Lanora swallowed visibly. “I… Obviously, I am not a match in martial skill for the Hand of Avei.”

“Don’t worry, Sister, I won’t hurt you.”

This time, a few of the laughs came from Silver Legionnaires, to judge by the snap of a sergeant calling them back to order.

Seemingly left with no response to that, Lanora finally swallowed again and drew her sword. Trissiny saluted her in the Avenist style, right fist over her heart with her blade held vertically alongside her face. Lanora started to do the same, then changed tacks and simply bowed. She then adopted a ready stance, longsword held before her in both hands at an angle.

Trissiny stood in a relaxed posture, sword at her side in one hand and with her shield still on her back. Quiet had fallen in the temple as the two squared off, their respective escorts backing further away from the incipient duel. Several heartbeats of silence passed.

“Well?” Trissiny asked finally.

Lanora pressed her lips together and took a step forward, raising the sword over her left shoulder. She strode into the diagonal swing she directed at the paladin, putting her whole weight behind the blade’s arc.

Trissiny’s entire body tensed and uncoiled like a striking snake; starting from an apparently loose stance, she shifted and met the descending longsword in a sweeping horizontal slash at head level. The colliding blades rang loudly through the temple and the force of it sent Lanora staggering past and to one side. Trissiny stood calm and relaxed again, sword already lowered before the priestess managed to regain her footing and turn.

The loudest chorus of open laughter yet followed, at least until Trissiny suddenly turned to face the non-Purist side of the room with a frown.

“That is not appropriate conduct for a temple sanctuary. Sergeants at arms, you may clear the room if due respect for Avei’s holy ground is not observed.”

Embarrassed silence ensued.

Trissiny turned back to the increasingly frustrated Sister Lanora, inclining her head. “Excuse me, Sister. Please, continue.”

Lanora’s mood did not seem improved by the apology. This time she came forward with less hesitation, switching to a one-handed grip and launching into a series of jabs and parries. Trissiny sidestepped and deflected, allowing the longer reach of Lanora’s weapon to push her in circles of constant retreat. Despite being strictly on the defensive, there was no question to the onlookers that she was not in control; she remained relaxed and upright in posture, using only desultory motions of one hand to respond.

“Enough,” she said finally, lowering her blade and not appearing to be bothered when Lanora’s descended to within inches of her face before the priestess could rein in her strike. “You disappoint me, Sister. That is just the Eagle Style short sword form. You seem competent enough, but that style is not at all suited to the weight and reach of that weapon. Have you truly not trained at all in its appropriate use?”

Lanora was red-faced and out of breath, though by the look of her at least as much from frustration as exertion. “We…are a spiritual order, General.”

“Mm.” Trissiny stepped back, turning to sweep her gaze across the line of unhappy-looking Purists on the other side of the temple, then abruptly pointed her weapon at one of them at random. “You. Step forward.”

The woman, a Westerner apparently not much older than Trissiny, widened her eyes and looked rapidly at each of the Purists standing to either side of her. The one on the left deliberately stepped away.

“Yes, you,” Trissiny said patiently. “Show me what you can do.”

“I…” she squeaked. “But, General, it’s…”

“It’s all right.”

“Does it really seem wise to duel bystanders with live steel, General Avelea?” Sister Magden interjected.

Trissiny gave her a sidelong look. “We are surrounded by divine healers, Sister, and a formal practice between skilled martial artists is far less dangerous than having over a hundred untrained incompetents walking around with deadly weapons they don’t know how to use. Indulge me as I reassure myself that the latter is not the case here. Come, Sister, time is passing.”

The hapless young priestess swallowed heavily, but finally obeyed, stepping forward and drawing the sword at her side. She adopted a ready stance like Lanora had, then in a deliberate motion that was practically telescrolled in advance, shifted grip to hold it sidelong at her waist and stepped forward in an attempted stab.

This time, Trissiny flowed smoothly into the attack, hooking her shorter blade behind the longsword’s large crosshilt and spinning in a maneuver which both yanked the weapon entirely out of the Purist’s grasp and evaded a bodily collision between them.

The sword flew two yards and clattered loudly to the temple floor, leaving it’s owner to stagger in a different direction.

“That was pitiful,” Trissiny said with open disdain. “Anyone with rudimentary Legion training could have avoided that.” The young woman hunched her shoulders and seemed like she wanted to collapse in on herself as she scurried to retrieve her fallen blade. Trissiny turned in a half-circle to again sweep her regard across the faltering ranks of the Purists. “Let’s try something less random, then. Who among you is the best duelist? Please, someone show me something slightly impressive.”

The Purists shuffled about uncertainly and Lanora opened her mouth to make a retort, but before she could, Sister Magden stepped forward, drawing her blade in a smooth motion and settling into a ready stance that looked more practiced than either performance thus far.

Trissiny shifted to face her, and nodded once.

Magden flowed forward smoothly, launching a series of rapid jabs and shallow cuts that made deft use of the blade’s greater length, immediately forcing Trissiny to retreat and defend. Her performance was better than Lanora’s by far; the paladin was actually compelled to take a balanced stance and put her whole body into her movements. For half a minute it looked as if Magden was beginning to prevail, but then Trissiny suddenly swatted a thrust aside with a powerful parry and darted forward.

Grabbing Magden’s blade near the hilt with one gauntleted hand, she held it aside and stepped right up to the priestess, pressing her short sword against her neck. Magden froze in place, her eyes going wide.

Trissiny relented a second later, stepping back and nodding to her. “Now, that is much more impressive. Sister Magden is to be commended for her competence with your chosen weapon. For the rest of you, I cannot say the same,” she added sharply, again dragging a glare across the shame-faced Purists. “It is unacceptable that this is the best your entire order can do. It’s clear to me that far more of you than otherwise have absolutely no business carrying those blades. A sword is an implement of death, Sisters. Its sole purpose is to end lives, or thwart others who have swords in doing the same. To treat a sword as an accessory or trinket is a shameful display of disrespect to Avei’s principles.”

“We are a spiritual order,” Lanora repeated loudly, still flushed. She stepped forward as Magden retreated, now going so far as to point accusingly at Trissiny. “Ours is a goddess of multiple aspects, and we have made no secret that we are dedicated far more to womanhood than to justice or war. The Purists have formed and come here to address the seeping corruption encroaching upon the Sisterhood of Avei! And it is clear to me that our arrival is not a moment too soon, when even our own paladin stands in the Temple itself accompanied by Eserites!”

“I’ve noticed that some misconceptions about paladins have set in during their thirty year absence,” Trissiny replied, sheathing her sword. “Hands of all the gods, but most particularly Avei, have always been accompanied by comrades of other faiths, or even sometimes of no faith. It is reckless naivete to attack large scale problems with only a single, specific set of skills.”

“And you find the Thieves’ Guild to be better company than your own sisters?” Lanora exclaimed.

Trissiny half turned and looked very pointedly at Sister Azalea, Zafi, and the two other white-robed priestesses who had accompanied her in. Rasha covered her mouth with her fingers, not quite concealing a smirk.

“I’ve become quite familiar with the Thieves’ Guild in particular,” Trissiny said, turning back to address the room at large. “As well as making friends among Salyrites, Vidians… Even, to my own surprise, a Shaathist. About the Guild I can tell you that Eserion’s faithful include a few of the best people it has ever been my honor to work alongside, as well as several of the most irredeemably despicable. In the end, none of us are cloistered orders. We are called to act in the world, to protect people, strike down evil, and do what we can to make the world a better place. I will proudly stand alongside anyone who serves the Pantheon’s mandate to aid the people of this world. I will, if I must, tolerate the opinions of people with whom I disagree spiritually, so long as their actions do not flout Avei’s sacred principles or bring harm to the vulnerable. And this is what I expect every one of you to do, if you would call yourselves followers of Avei.”

“It is ever more clear,” Lanora grated, “that our arrival here is timely, General Avelea, if you are so obviously swayed by Eserite beliefs.”

“Perhaps you can point out to me exactly which part of what I just said is an Eserite belief, Sister?” Trissiny suggested with a wry smile. She paused a second for pure effect while Lanora stammered and the muttering and tittering began again from the onlookers, then pressed on before the Purist could regather her composure. “Or is the issue here that you think the Hand of Avei requires your personal oversight? The goddess watches my steps and has corrected me in the past. Do you believe you know better than Avei what she requires of her paladin?”

Lanora flushed even more deeply at that, going so far as to clench her fists, but this time she had a good enough head to steam to retort without having to gather herself. “Then perhaps you can tell us what Avei intends to do about the Sisterhood’s corrupt practice of aiding mentally sick men in the delusion that they belong among us?”

“Avei has never turned men away from her service,” Trissiny replied, her composure a stark counterpoint to the Purist’s rising agitation. “Did you know that before the Silver Legions as we know them today existed, their predecessor, the League of Avei, incorporated soldiers of both sexes? It would seem that what you seek is not a return to historical form, but the imposition of a newer one.”

“That doesn’t justify abetting delusional males in trying to transform themselves into women!”

“And who do you think you are, to decide who gets to be a woman? Your sheer presumption is astonishing.”

“Nature itself dictates that! We only seek to protect our Sisterhood from those who would twist its very foundations awry!”

“I didn’t really make the connection until you started ranting about nature,” Trissiny said, shaking her head regretfully. “If you truly believe the sole definition of womanhood is between your legs, I could almost think I was talking to a very confused Shaathist.”

Gasps rose from all around the temple, notably among the rows of Purists. Sister Lanora, previously flushed with anger, went absolutely white, stiffening her spine and widening her eyes in an expression of pure rage.

“But clearly, you are not going to heed any statement from me,” Trissiny continued, drawing her sword again. “Perhaps it is just as well. Even if I cannot settle this myself, I know who definitively can.”

The paladin knelt in place, reversing her grip to rest the sword point-down upon the temple floor and placing both her hands upon its pommel. As she bowed her head, a golden glow rose around her, quickly coalescing into the spreading wings of an eagle.

And then, the rising tide of voices was snuffed out as an overwhelming psychic presence descended upon the sanctuary. The light blazed to fill the room entirely, and within its deepest intensity, centered upon the kneeling paladin, the towering shape of a woman was barely discernible. To the eyes, at least. To the mind, Avei’s manifest presence was like the pressure of the ocean at its deepest part.

Every Silver Legionnaire in the room snapped to attention; almost everyone else sank to their knees in awe. Even the Eserites backed away, wide-eyed and entirely without their customary aggressive nonchalance.

“Purity is a nonsense concept.”

Avei’s voice was Trissiny’s, layered with harmonies as if a dozen iterations of the same woman were speaking, and filling the chamber with a physical weight.

“The very idea of purity has never been anything but a pretext for egotism. It is an excuse for the weak-willed to single out targets for their condescension, because to scorn a perceived lesser individual is an easier path to self-gratification than the hard work of becoming a greater person. Through cries of purity, the corrupt in positions of power distract their followers from their own offenses by directing justified anger against harmless and helpless targets.

“Worse, the slander of impurity has ever been a weapon against womankind. In every land, across the whole scope of history, weak and frightened men have called women impure for one specious reason after another. For their bodies, for their minds, for any expression of sexuality, simply for bleeding, for any excuse, men in undeserving power have declaimed that women are impure. They create preposterous rules, demanding that women remain pure by adhering to absurd strictures which deny them vital aspects of what it means to be alive. It has never been anything but a pretext for unearned domination. Purity is a lie.

“And you take purity as the very name of your beliefs? It is a fitting description of your utter failure of character. You who declare yourselves Purists are engaged in nothing but gatekeeping. You presume to castigate others for the imaginary offense of being unlike yourselves. You try to place yourselves above those who should be your sisters, simply because you are too insecure and frightened to see any more valid way to respect yourselves than by disrespecting others. This pale shadow of a spiritual doctrine is pathetic. But that you possess the hideous gall to pronounce the calumny of purity in my name is disgusting.”

The goddess paused, and through the bell-like tone of concentrated magic that sang in the background of her address, the sound of several women quietly weeping could be heard in the temple.

“I will not suffer this,” Avei stated. “Lanora Taveraad, in addition to your moral failing, you have made of yourself and your followers useful idiots to the enemies of your Sisterhood. Your presence here is nothing but a disruption and an invitation to division, at a dangerous time when above all your sisters require unity. Worse, you prove through this failure that you have no comprehension of the reality of war. Your entire career is a demonstration that you have no place among my people.

“The so-called Purists will disband and disperse. You will abandon your foolish doctrine, return to your disparate homes, and devote yourself to repentance. You will educate yourselves about the realities you have tried to deny. Perhaps, eventually, those of you who possess the spark of true character beneath your arrogant self-delusion will rise to become Sisters of Avei in more than name.

“But you, Lanora, I cast out of my Sisterhood. Let your fate be a warning to all who dare to perpetrate either evil or foolishness in the name of Avei. I will tolerate neither.

“All of you: cultivate courage, intelligence, honor, and compassion toward each other. Let there be no more talk of purity. She who preaches purity seeks only to control, and to deceive. Scorn and shun her.”

She fell silent, and over the ensuing few seconds, the overwhelming pressure of the goddess’s presence retreated, followed by the distant tone of bells, and the golden light. In its final departure, there was relative quiet in the temple as Trissiny rose slowly to her feet. Quiet, but not silence, as Lanora hunched where she had knelt in the center of the floor, clutching herself and sobbing.

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16 – 19

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“So the smoke clears, and the first thing I see is her being held to the wall by three Legionnaires,” Tallie said, gesticulating energetically as she often did when telling a story. “Me, I was on the ground before I even knew what was happening, but it took three of ‘em to pin her, and it looked like she’d roughed up half a dozen in the process. She did that blind!”

“Damn,” said the less stiff of the Legionnaires guarding High Commander Rouvad’s office, the one willing to talk while on duty. Her counterpart on the other side of the door was staring at the hallway’s opposite wall with a sour expression, but hadn’t seen fit to intervene. “I mean, it stands to reason. You don’t get to be the Hand of Avei without being able to kick maximum ass. And you really didn’t know who she was?”

“Not for months!” Tallie replied, grinning broadly. “That’s why I laugh at people who say Avenists are no good at subterfuge.”

“Nobody ever accused us of bein’ quick on the uptake,” Darius added, winking at the second soldier when her gaze fixed on him. That didn’t seem to improve her mood. He was slouching against the wall doing coin tricks, as if deliberately seeking to provoke attention from the soldiers.

“I think we can be forgiven for not catching on to that one,” Layla protested. “Sure, it made sense of a lot of things in hindsight, but really. Who expects to find out they’ve been hanging around with a secret paladin?”

“Yeah, you don’t tend to think of paladins being able to brew iron-dissolving acid on the spot out of random household cleaners,” Darius mused, watching the doubloon flash as he rolled it across the backs of his fingers. “If you go by the old stories, that’s wizard stuff. More impressive than brawling with soldiers, anyway.”

“You and I have different recollections of that brawl,” said Rasha. “Remember, I was the one on watch up there.”

“Yeah, good job on that.”

“Up yours,” she rejoined, grinning. “I’m serious, though, I was being wrestled to the floor before I knew anybody was even there. The Silver Legions aren’t hapless thugs, let me tell you. It was like being ambushed by freaking elves.”

“That would’ve been a scout squad,” the more talkative of their new acquaintances said, nodding. “Probably a Squad One of their cohort. Yeah, elves might be putting it a little strongly, but those ladies know their work. No shame in losing to that kind of skill if you haven’t had the same training.”

“Part of me wants a rematch,” Rasha admitted. “I’ve been improving my own skills.”

“Keep committing crimes and you’ll get your wish,” the other Legionnaire said woodenly, staring into space next to Darius’s head.

“Don’t be rude to the paladin’s guests, Alivedh,” her counterpart retorted.

“So only you can talk while on duty?”

“It’s not against regs and you know it. Quit being a—”

“Rasha?”

Everyone turned their heads to look up the hall, where another Legionnaire had appeared, staring at them with wide eyes.

“Zafi,” Rasha said quietly, falling into a serene demeanor in which Glory had schooled her. “Hello again.”

Upon speaking the name, her fellow apprentices also adjusted formation, Tallie ceasing her pacing to come stand behind her left shoulder and Layla gliding across the hall from Darius’s side to take up position at her right, chin up and eyes frosty in an expression of cool disdain only a noblewoman could have pulled off. Darius made the coin disappear up his sleeve and subtly adjusted his posture, bracing his feet in readiness to shove off from the wall at an instant’s notice without adopting an openly hostile stance.

Both Legionnaires flanking the office door stiffened and went silent, sensing the change in mood.

Zafi ignored all of this, coming forward in long strides. “Thank the goddess you’re here! Are you okay, Rasha?”

“Am I okay?” Rasha raised her eyebrows. “Quite, thank you. Were you concerned?”

“Of course I was concerned!” Zafi came to a stop a couple of yards distant, finally glancing at the other Eserites and seeming to intuit that she shouldn’t approach further. “Practically the minute you were out of the temple, rumors started going around and the next thing I heard was that you not only got ambushed by Purists but I walked you right into it!”

“Ah,” Layla said icily. “That occurred to you, as well, did it?”

“I’m so sorry,” Zafi babbled, clasping her hands, “I would’ve escorted you all the way to the door if I had any idea that would happen. Everyone said you got out of the temple just fine, but I’ve heard like five versions of the story and I didn’t know You’re sure you’re okay? They didn’t actually do anything to you, did they? So help me…”

“I’m quite well, thank you for your concern,” Rasha said, bemused. “I am far from helpless, even in actually dangerous situations. And this is the Temple of Avei, possibly the safest place in Tiraas. They were never going to do anything more than strut and crow at me.”

The friendlier of the Legionnaires guarding the door cleared her throat. “In theory, sure, but it pays to be careful around that lot. I haven’t heard of them actually attacking anybody, but they want to. You can see it in their eyes.”

“Yes, what she said,” Zafi agreed, nodding fervently. “We don’t get many fanatics in the Sisterhood, but damn, when we do they’re as barmy as Huntsmen. If they’d drawn steel on you, I can’t help feeling like it would’ve been my fault.”

“Do you have some pressing reason to be outside the High Commander’s door, Private Gossip?” the other soldier asked sharply.

“I am obviously not on duty, Private Alivedh,” Zafi retorted. “Can you try not to be a tremendous prig for once in your life? I was worried about my friend.”

“A friend, Alivedh,” said the other Legionnaire helpfully, “is a person who enjoys your company and voluntarily seeks it out. Next time we’re assigned to the Temple of Izara, one of the priests there can explain—”

“You keep forgetting I know where you sleep,” Alivedh snapped.

All three soldiers, on duty or no, snapped to attention when the High Commander’s door opened. Trissiny stepped out, her eyes landing on Zafi as she pulled the door gently shut behind her, and then turned a questioning look on the apprentices.

“Trissiny,” Rasha said, gesturing gracefully, “this is Zafi.”

“Ah,” Trissiny nodded, turning back to the soldier. “The one who walked you into the Purist ambush?”

Zafi kept her eyes forward, but didn’t quite succeed in suppressing the miserable expression on her face and swallowed hard.

“I suppose,” Tallie said in an ostentatiously grudging tone as she inspected her fingernails, “there’s no reason to conclude she did it on purpose. I mean, it’s suggestive as hell…”

“But the other interpretation holds up, too,” Darius added. “Shit happens. Maybe she legit did walk Rasha to the door, except not all the way for some reason.”

Zafi opened her mouth, then clamped it shut again.

“Mm,” Trissiny murmured, studying her face. “It’s Private…?”

“Private Zafiyah Medvidaar, General!” she barked on cue, her voice an octave higher in pitch than normal.

“Apparently,” said Layla, “known about the temple as Private Gossip.”

“Is that so?” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “At ease, Medvidaar.”

Zafi gulped again, and settled awkwardly into parade rest, though nothing about her posture could have been described as “at ease.” She chanced a glance at Trissiny’s face and then averted her eyes, her cheeks darkening.

Trissiny glanced rapidly at each of the Eserites, meeting their eyes in turn and settling finally on Rasha, who hesitated and then inclined her head fractionally.

“Private Gossip, is it,” the paladin mused, prompting Zafi’s right eye to twitch. “You’re fairly up to date on comings and goings in the temple, then?”

“I, ah…” Zafi snuck a quick look at Rasha, then gulped again. “I’m pretty good at making friends, General Avelea. I don’t…pry into other people’s business.”

A tiny, nearly inaudible sound emerged from Alivedh’s throat. Trissiny shot a fleeting look at her before focusing back on Zafi.

“What do you think about these Purists, Medvidaar?”

Zafi hesitated. “Um. Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”

“I request it specifically,” Trissiny said, nodding.

“I don’t associate with those women,” Zafi stated, a frown of disapproval emerging through the unease in her expression. “More people than otherwise in this temple don’t care for them. Their doctrine is nothing but straight-up bullying, and even apart from that, they’re not… They are just not likable. Even Huntsmen can put on the charm when they’re recruiting, the Sisters warn us about that. These Purists can’t even manage that much. They think anybody who’s not one of their group is just not smart enough to agree with them, and you can’t be in a room with one and not have her make it known.”

“So they’re not having much success recruiting here, then?”

“I don’t know of anybody who’s signed on with them, General. I guess some people probably have, there’s always one or two idiots who… Uh, that is, I don’t think they’re here to recruit. They keep trying to bother the High Commander and senior members of the Sisterhood and the Third Legion, not low-level grunts like me.”

“Hummm.” Trissiny shifted again, looking speculatively at the other Eserites.

“So!” Tallie said, jerking her head toward the office door. “How’d it go in there?”

“Commander Rouvad and I are of one mind about what needs to be done,” said Trissiny. “Depending on how many factors we can line up quickly, I hope this matter can be put to bed tonight. Private Medvidaar, are you on duty?”

“No, ma’am!” Zafi answered, a little too loudly.

“I won’t order you about, then. I would, however, welcome your participation, if you’re willing to help me with something.”

“I—yes! Uh, yes ma’am, I mean. It’d be an honor,” Zafi stammered.

Trissiny smiled faintly. “I appreciate it, Private. Do you happen to know where the leadership of the Purists can be found?”

“Um… Not at this time of day, General. I could point her out if I saw her, but… That is, they move. The lot of them have taken over a stretch of Temple housing and I could take you there, but I wouldn’t know whether Sister Lanora might be present. Or what she does all day, aside from try to lean on other priestesses. There’ll probably be a good few of ‘em there, though, at any hour.”

“I think I’d rather not walk into a whole nest of them just yet,” Trissiny murmured, her eyes narrowing and going unfocused as she pondered. “Do you know what would be the best place to find, say… One or two, preferably highly placed in their sect?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Zafi said eagerly. “I don’t really know what kind of hierarchy they’ve got, but the Temple’s main library is in this wing, three floors straight down. For the last couple weeks I’ve usually seen three or four of ‘em in those gray tabards there, either studying or having discussions. Can’t speak for this myself but a few of my friends have said it seems like some of ‘em go there, check in, and leave. Almost like the regular discussion group gives out orders.”

“Yes, that’ll do nicely,” Trissiny said with a thin smile. “Thank you, Private.”

“Ma’am!” Zafi said, saluting. “Um, can I ask— I mean, permission to speak— That is, to inquire, uh…”

“Just ask, Medvidaar.”

Zafi hesitated again, then blurted out in a rush, “Are you planning to get rid of the Purists, General?”

“I intend to deal with them decisively,” Trissiny replied. “Without, ideally, exercising force. The last thing I want is violence between Sisters within the Temple itself. I think we all got more of that than any of us wanted to see during Syrinx’s…departure.”

“I ask because I do know people who can help with that,” Zafi said eagerly. “Like I said, nobody around here enjoys having the Purists in the Temple, but most only grumble about it. There are some Sisters and Legionnaires more interested in doing something. I know somebody you should really talk to, ma’am.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, giving her a long, contemplative look. “Good to hear, Private. Right now there’s a plan in place, but… Yes, I think I’d like to speak to your contact. First, though, there’s a ball I need to get rolling before any more time elapses. C’mon,” she said to the expectant Guild apprentices, “let’s hit the library.”


It was no Nemitite affair, but the main library in the Temple of Avei was of respectable size; no religious organization could function without a healthy appreciation for its own lore and history, let alone one like the Sisterhood to which topics ranging from civil jurisprudence to siege engineering were spiritually relevant. Rectangular and one story tall, the library was stark and as orderly as a barracks, lined precisely with plain wooden shelves laden by books kept in scrupulous order, each arranged with its spine exactly one inch from the edge of the shelf.

The Purists were immediately in evidence, though at present there were only two of them. The main doors to the library opened onto a cleared space with a reference desk to the left of the entrance and reading tables set up directly in front, surrounded by neat rows of shelves. One table had clearly been taken over by the Purists, who had a large collection of volumes there; both women were hunched over open books, scribbling notes onto parchment sheets of which they already had a respectable stack nearby. At the moment, the only other person in evidence was the priestess behind the desk, who despite her white robe and golden eagle pin looked passably Nemitite, between her rectangular spectacles and the disapproving stare she had fixed at the two Purists.

Entering with a Legionnaire and four un-uniformed youths, Trissiny immediately commanded the attention of all those present. Both Purists stared in shock for a second, then one practically leaped to her feet, shoving her chair back with a loud scrape.

“General Avelea!”

“Is that an appropriate volume for a library, Sister?” Trissiny asked, quiet enough that she was barely audible over the librarian’s accompanying hiss.

Both of them boggled at her for a moment, the one who had spoken seeming unsure where to look; her eyes fixed on Trissiny, then Rasha, then the scowling librarian, her expression rapidly changing throughout.

Rasha slipped over next to Trissiny and leaned in to murmur right in her ear, “The blonde one was one of those who tried to jump me.”

Trissiny nodded once, then stepped forward, deliberately moderating her pace to minimize the noise her boots made on the carpet.

“I, ah, my apologies, General. Sister.” She bowed to the librarian, who just pursed her lips in silence. “You took me quite by surprise. I didn’t expect to meet you so…suddenly. I am Sister Magden Roloff, very much honored to make your acquaintance.” Her eyes cut to Rasha again, though this time she did a better job of suppressing the hostility from her expression. Better, but not perfect.

Trissiny nodded, keeping her voice appropriately soft. “Well met, Sister. I understand your order has been looking for me. Do you speak for the Purists?”

Once again, Sister Magden glanced at Rasha before focusing on the paladin. “I…imagine you have heard a biased and probably deeply inaccurate account of—”

“I make it a point not to form any judgment based upon only one account,” Trissiny interjected, forcing Magden to stop talking in order to hear her quiet words. “Some people are liars; few people are in any way objective, about anything. Anyone who views the world from only a single point of reference dooms herself to delusion.”

Tallie repressed, barely, a snicker, earning disapproving looks from both Purists.

“That sounds like a wise policy, General Avelea,” Magden replied. “You’re quite right, the order would like very much to address you. I ought not presume to speak for us, however. If I could beg you to wait here, I can bring Sister Lanora to you in a matter of minutes.”

“Not here,” Trissiny demurred, half-turning to nod apologetically to the librarian. “I believe we have already disrupted the library more than enough.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’ll gladly escort you—”

“I will only be in Tiraas for a short time. With apologies, I haven’t the luxury of a relaxed schedule in which to keep numerous appointments. Kindly have your order assemble in the Temple’s main sanctuary in one hour. I wish to address all of you.”

Magden paled. “All of… Excuse me, General, but I believe a more private discussion would be appropriate for a first—”

“I have already gone out of my way to seek you out,” Trissiny said, quiet but implacable. “It is only by happenstance I knew you had gathered in Tiraas at all, much less that you desired my attention. This is all of it that I can spare; Avei’s business is done on an unforgiving timetable.”

“But…”

“One hour,” she repeated, “in the sanctuary. With everyone. I’m afraid if we miss this opportunity, there will not soon be another. I will see you then, Sister Magden.”

“But—if—please—”

Trissiny turned her back and strode toward the doors, nodding once more to the librarian, who smiled thinly in response. Her various escorts followed, after giving the Purists a series of smug and mocking grins, and the six of them departed the library, leaving both frustrated priestesses still stammering behind.


“That was very neatly done, as you describe it,” Zafi’s contact said, nodding. “It shows a good strategic mind.”

“I’m never gonna complain about heckling stuck-up jerks,” Tallie said with a grin, “but what was strategic about it? We just told them when and where to be.”

“We, of course, meaning the paladin,” Darius corrected. Tallie swatted his shoulder without looking at him.

“Ambushing your target in a location in which they did not dare put up a fight,” said Sister Azalea, deftly extracting folders from the file cabinet behind her desk as she spoke, “compelling them to meet upon ground of your choosing, leveraging the one thing you know they want: access to our paladin. And on a timetable which caught them flat-footed and leaves them with barely the time to assemble as ordered and almost no wiggle room in which to make arrangements of their own. Yes, it was quite neat indeed. Forgive me, General Avelea,” she added, setting a neat stack of folders upon the desk and then bowing to the paladin. “Based on what I’ve heard of your exploits thus far, I pictured you as someone with little patience for politics.”

“That’s pretty accurate,” Trissiny said ruefully, “but politics doesn’t go away just because I dislike it. I’m trying to learn from my mistakes rather than repeat them.”

“Most admirable,” the priestess said with an approving smile.

“Actually…” Trissiny narrowed her eyes in thought. “Wait, I think I recognize your name, Sister. Yes, the Commander put forward an Azalea Hsing for the Bishop’s office a few months ago.”

“Yes, that was I,” Sister Azalea replied with a wry little smile. “I’m afraid his Holiness found me an unsatisfactory candidate.”

She was a woman in early middle years with the first streaks of gray through her black hair and the beginnings of smile lines around her angular eyes. Though her Tanglish was impeccable, Sister Azalea still spoke with the distinctive accent of her homeland. It was likely that the given name by which she called herself was a translation of the original; that was a common practice among the sizable population of Sheng immigrants of her generation who had settled in Tiraas and other Imperial port cities after fleeing the civil war. The Empire tended to gather up unfortunates from the world over, due to its ascending economy and the Tirasian Dynasty’s philosophy that anyone who could work and pay taxes was worth taking in.

“You probably don’t need me to tell you this,” said Trissiny, “but I’m positive it was nothing personal. Justinian seems to have taken umbrage at my treatment of Basra Syrinx and is determined to punish the entire Sisterhood for it.”

“I suspected that subtext,” Sister Azalea admitted, seating herself behind the desk and moving the top folder off the pile to open it, “but to say it outright seemed…presumptuous. All I know of the Archpope’s mind is that it is quite skillfully opaque to everyone but himself.”

“I know a great many things that are not in public circulation,” Trissiny said grimly. “In my opinion, with the Truce of Ninkabi in effect, he is now the primary enemy of the Pantheon cults.”

Azalea stared up at her, hands having gone still upon her papers. “A dire statement indeed, General. I’m deeply interested in hearing what you know about this matter.”

“Wait, the Archpope?” Zafi asked, blinking. “Really?”

“It’s…a long story,” Trissiny said with only a trace of hesitation. “The timetable I put the Purists on doesn’t give us much leeway, either.”

“Yes, quite,” Azalea said briskly. “To the matter at hand. I am very glad Private Medvidaar brought you to me, General. This is not the first time I have found her ability to network extremely useful. It is largely thanks to Zafiyah that I have been able to gather as much intelligence on the Purists as I have.”

Zafi tried to look modest, which lasted only until Rasha gave her a warm smile, at which point she flushed and opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it with an audible snap of teeth.

“Good to know,” Trissiny said, also shooting Zafi a smile which only seemed to undo her further. “What kind of intelligence do you have?”

“At this time, nothing actionable, or I would have acted,” Azalea answered. “All of it is of course at your disposal, General. Understand that I have not done this simply because I find the Purists’ ideology detestable; the Sisterhood is large enough that its many doctrinal factions inevitably produce some terrible ideas. My concern is the abruptness with which this scattered fringe group is suddenly highly organized and equipped. I suspect an outside hand at work. Given the effect their presence is having on the running of the Temple, one which means the Sisterhood ill.”

“That was exactly my thought,” Trissiny agreed.

“What I would like, obviously,” Sister Azalea continued, “is to find the source of this funding. If I can prove it comes from outside the Sisterhood, I can provide the High Commander with everything she needs to punish their leadership and disband the rest of them. Thanks to Private Medvidaar and other like-minded priestesses and Legionnaires whom she has directed to me, I have collected a respectable file of reports of misbehavior. Minor infractions trending more toward rudeness than sin, but still… It’s possible I will have gathered enough of that to demonstrate that their presence is malevolent before I can prove who is behind this. The structure of this faction is…frustratingly difficult to infiltrate. Despite those sharp uniforms, they are wholly disorganized, with only a single leader, a few informal yes-women she keeps around, and no real chain of command. They also seem not to be recruiting, which is strange for a religious sect like this. I have a few trusted women playing at being receptive, trying to work on several contacts within the sect, but it is almost as if they don’t want to spread their doctrine.”

“It’s like I said,” Zafi chimed, “they try to work from the top down. Purists only seem to have time for officers and senior priestesses.”

“None of whom, I am glad to say, are anything but annoyed by the attention,” Azalea added with a wry smile. “Unfortunately, this leaves me stymied in my efforts to gather information.”

“Hmm.” Trissiny stared at the wall of Azalea’s office for a moment before returning her gaze to the priestess’s face. “Let me change subjects for just a moment, Sister. You seem observant and connected—as do you, Private Medvidaar. Have you noticed anything strange about the Guild presence in the Temple recently?”

Azalea and Zafi exchanged a glance.

“Indeed,” the Sister answered slowly. “The amount of friendly Eserite attention since the Syrinx incident has been unprecedented. And not entirely welcome by the majority of Avenists, but the consensus seems to be that as long as they have shared interests and behave while on our grounds, they needn’t be cast out. In just the last few weeks, however, there has been an escalating pattern of annoyances perpetrated by the Guild’s intermediaries. Actually, the Purists are the main reason nothing to speak of has come of that. The Sisters and soldiers here are more focused on the greater nuisance, and you and I are far from the only ones to note that the Purists’ sudden degree of organization is suspicious. Eserites are expected to misbehave; people are less likely to take note of that than Avenists doing the same.”

“Heh. Well, she’s got us there,” Tallie chuckled, elbowing Darius.

“I ask because I’m curious what you think of me bringing my friends here along for what’s next,” said Trissiny, turning to smile at the group. “They’re reliable and smart, and I feel better with every additional pair of competent eyes on this. But I’m also concerned about…perceptions.”

“Would it help if I wore my tiara?” Layla asked sweetly. “I do own one, you know.”

“It’s in your room in Mathena, you knucklehead,” said Darius.

“Doesn’t matter. I still own it.”

“The true tiara is within you,” Rasha said solemnly.

“Is your intention,” Sister Azalea asked pensively, “to encourage or discourage cooperation between the Guild and the Sisterhood?”

“Encourage,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Very much so. With the Church untrustworthy, we need to be building our own connections with the other cults, especially those who will back us up if a schism forms. The Guild seems to be having similar issues, I suspect arranged by the same backer of the Purists. Putting that in order will be my next priority after resolving our problem.”

“Then, if you trust them to conduct themselves properly, I encourage you to make a public show of bringing them along,” said the priestess, nodding in return. “The sight of our paladin defending the Sisterhood’s interests with the aid of Eserites will make for powerful political theater. With luck, enough to offset the recent…incidents.”

“Hear that, gang?” Darius said brightly. “Make sure you look extra Eserite when it all goes down.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Zafi asked, visibly intrigued.

“Oh, you know,” Tallie said with a grin. “Thuggish and smug.”

“I can do vampish and smug,” Rasha offered. “I’m afraid I’m not dressed for thuggish.”

“Perhaps,” Azalea suggested gently, “you could refrain from the byplay in public, however.”

“Yes, better that they get it out of their systems now,” Trissiny agreed. “All right, Sister Azalea, I have good news and bad news. The bad is that if all goes as planned, you will have wasted a great deal of time and effort.”

“Let me see if I follow,” said Azalea. “That means the good is that you intend to put an end to the Purist nuisance within the hour.”

“That is my intention, yes.”

The priestess carefully closed the folder, set it back atop the stack, and leaned forward with an eager little smile. “Consider me enthusiastically in, General Avelea. What is your plan?”


Despite the waning afternoon light, it was still within daylight hours and thus the sanctuary of the central Temple of Avei was decently busy with a mix of its own personnel and petitioners from the world over. Thus, the addition of over a hundred Purists in their distinctive chain mail and gray tabards made for an uncomfortable crowd, especially since the Sisters overseeing the public space had evidently interpreted their presence as a sign of brewing trouble and summoned two entire cohorts of Silver Legionnaires. Intentionally or not, the crowd had segregated itself, with the Purists thronging one side of the room and everyone else instinctively gravitating to the other. That was likely the only thing which had prevented scuffles or worse from breaking out, and even so, the muttering and glares being shot back and forth across the room suggested it was only a matter of time.

Trissiny and her companions entered at a swift pace, counting on the power of surprise to carry their entry, and once through the doors swiftly organized themselves as they had planned in advance. The paladin herself was front and center, with the rest fanning behind her in a neat V formation. Rasha paced at her left shoulder, Azalea Hsing at her right, with Zafi, the other three apprentices and two more sympathetic Sisters of Avei Azalea had gathered up completing the phalanx. Even with Darius, Layla, and Tallie not having any insignia or uniform aside from scruffy casual clothes, they did indeed manage to present themselves as Eserites. What Azalea called “political theater” was very much practiced by the Guild, and taught to apprentices, particularly those studying under politically minded tutors such as Glory. Their predatory grins and rolling gait might not have been especially meaningful to many of the Temple’s guests, but most urban Avenists knew exactly how to spot a Guild thief who was making a point of their presence.

The murmuring changed tone at Trissiny’s entry, first rising in pitch and then beginning to taper off when she planted herself in the center of the sanctuary’s broad aisle, directly before the towering statue of Avei.

One of the Purists, a stately middle-aged woman, detached herself from the throng and glided forward, one hand on the hilt of her longsword. Sister Magden walked alongside her, along with three others.

“That’s her,” Azalea murmured under cover of the last fading mutters of the crowd. “Sister Lanora.”

“She was leading the trio who pounced on me,” Rasha added in the same tone.

Trissiny nodded once, her eyes fixed on the leader of the Purists. “Right. Time to put an end to this nonsense.”

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16 – 17

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“Well…this changes matters.”

Darling nodded, staring ahead across the street with a slight frown. Though they were clearly the subject of attention, standing in front of a police barracks with Trissiny in her silver armor, they enjoyed the slight privacy of distance; passersby in Tiraas were generally adept at minding their own business, and few people anywhere would be eager to approach a paladin with that look on her face.

“I gotta check with Tricks, obviously,” Darling said abruptly after a loaded pause.

“Okay,” she agreed, but slowly. “And…if he…?”

“Everything we do next depends on what he has to say,” said the Bishop, finally turning to face her. “If Rake was on the up and up, I doubt Tricks will deny it. If he does… Well, that’ll have implications that we then have to deal with. In the likelier outcome, I’ve got enough pull to demand to know what he’s thinking with this. Tricks doesn’t do things without good reasons, Thorn, and we better know what the hell they are before charging ahead.”

Trissiny nodded. “Sounds like sense to me. I guess…this means we split up, for now.”

He emitted the tiniest huff of almost-laughter. “Yeah, ‘fraid so. You don’t have much say with Tricks and he’s not likely to appreciate being questioned with you in attendance. And your business at the Temple had better not wait any longer.”

“Gotta wonder if this isn’t exactly the play,” Darius commented from where he was leaning indolently against the station’s wall in a manner that would have him immediately picked up by the first passing soldier had he not been with Trissiny.

“Surely you don’t suggest Tricks works for…you know who,” Layla objected.

“I bet lots of people who don’t work for you know who end up doing his dirty work, regardless,” said Tallie. “Without knowing it, or even against their will.”

“Let’s not get too deep into speculation,” Darling warned. “Big mistake, to form theories when you don’t have the facts yet. Then, when the facts come, your brain’ll tend to try to fit them into your theories rather than the other way round. You may not be wrong, though,” he added, nodding at Darius. “Eyes and ears open, kids. We can’t be paralyzed by indecision, but don’t forget there’s some real shit afoot.”

“Shit afoot, nice turn of phrase,” said Tallie, grinning. “Sure does look like we’ve stepped right in it.”

“I know Sweet’s off on Guild business, and I’m not the boss of you,” said Trissiny, turning around to address the apprentices, “but I would appreciate it if you all stuck with me for now.”

“You want us at the Temple of Avei?” Darius demanded, raising his eyebrows. “Wow. I thought you were just humoring us.”

“No, Darius,” she snapped impatiently, “you were just pretending to think that because it gives you another excuse to act huffy. If what you want is to be left behind, keep that up, because I haven’t got time to hold the hand of a big boy who shouldn’t damn well need it.”

“Tooooold yoooooouuu,” Layla sang sweetly.

“The issue,” Trissiny continued more evenly, “is that Rasha’s presence is going to be necessary for the plan, and I may have to spend some time squirreled away with the High Commander or elsewhere that I can’t bring her along. After what happened last time, I’ll feel better with someone else on hand to watch her back.”

“I can take look after myself, you know,” Rasha pointed out. “I managed last time.”

“Yes, and you can do it better with friends behind you,” Tallie replied, patting her shoulder. “Thorn’s right; this isn’t a dig at you, it’s basic sense.”

“Not that I encourage you kids to pick a fight in the Temple,” said Darling, “but it is true that bullies like these Purists are much less likely to try to ambush someone moving in a group. Any predator will try to isolate prey before striking. All right, let’s burn mileage before we burn any more daylight. I’ll swing back by Glory’s this evening and hope to catch you so we can compare notes.”

“Right, same goes,” Trissiny replied. “If either of us can’t make it, Glory can make sure everyone’s up to date.”

“Now, remember, Sweet,” Layla said sternly, “as with most nights, Glory is having company this evening. Scruffy characters like you had better come in the servants’ entrance.”

“Just for that,” he said, winking, “I’m gonna take the sewer access, wipe my boots on the carpet, and tell her you told me to do it. Don’t try to sass the master, princess. All right, kids, work fast and stay safe. Catch up with you as soon as I can.”

They separated, heading in opposite directions up the sidewalk toward their respective next confrontations.


Kheshiri was still laughing after half an hour, though at least her initial hysterics had subsided to intermittent giggle fits that allowed the rest of them to converse. A look into her aura had informed Natchua that, while the initial outburst of hilarity was purely genuine, by this point she was just being deliberately annoying. That, Natchua was inclined to indulge. Enabling the Vanislaads to make pests of themselves helped take the edge off, reducing the risk of them doing something truly disruptive.

“It’s the weirdest damn thing,” Jonathan commented, gazing abstractly into his cup of tea. “After all the weird shit we’ve stumbled into and through since this summer, seems odd that this would be the thing that gives me pause. But…here we are.”

“This really bothers you more than all the…well, everything?” Natchua looked pointedly at Kheshiri, currently rolling about on the floor in front of the fire like a cackling dog, and the much more laid-back Melaxyna, who stood behind Sherwin’s chair, massaging his shoulders and cradling his head against her chest.

“The thing about demons,” Jonathan mused, “is that they just are what they are. They don’t get a choice, and can’t reasonably be any better. And even despite that, some of them choose to be better, and succeed.” Staring into space now instead of his tea, he reached to one side without looking, and Hesthri took his proffered hand. “As incredibly hard as it is for ‘em, they do. Nobles, now… Nobles are pretty much the opposite, in every respect.”

“Your point is well-taken, but that’s a little more grim than the reality,” said Melaxyna. “Nobles, like most mortals, are as good or bad as their upbringing and the choices they make. At their worst, they are no more monstrous than any mentally defective violent criminal, just more destructive due to their power. But the good ones are potentially enormous forces for good in the world, by the same token.”

“Honestly, Jonathan, I am inclined to see it the way you do,” Natchua said softly, stepping over to crouch by his chair. He finally focused on her at that, smiling, and she leaned her head against his knee with a sigh. Jonathan had more than a little Avenist in him and had initially been uneasy about the symbolism of having a woman he cared for sit by his feet, but Natchua found comfort in the position and had eventually brought him around. Even if she was still obviously the one with the power here, it was a relief to feel protected for a little while. “From everything I’ve read, Narisian nobility may not be any worse than the Imperial kind, relative to the two societies… But that just means they’re twice as vicious and underhanded on average, Tar’naris being the festering pit it is. Every instinct I have bridles at the idea.”

“I don’t want you to make a decision like this on my account,” he said quickly, setting his tea down on the table to stroke her hair, and then letting his hand rest lightly on the back of her neck, the way she liked.

“You are going to be a big part of any decision I make,” she replied. “Not the only part, but you matter a lot to me. I want to know how you feel before I do anything important.”

“I feel…wary,” he admitted. “Having had a few minutes now to think about how I feel, I’m starting to realize that much of my unease is due to the fact that I think you’d actually be a better noble than most. And as selfish as it sounds, it’s a little alarming because I have no idea how I would fit into that.”

“Well, look at it this way!” Sherwin said brightly. “You two could get married, and then you’d both be nobles. And hey, then Gabriel technically would be, too. I bet a paladin could get a lot of political use out of that.”

Everyone turned to stare at him except Kheshiri, who set off on another round of cackling, actually slapping one hand against the floor. Sherwin’s smile faded under their scrutiny and he shrank slightly in his chair, pushing his head back into Melaxyna’s chest as if to hide in her cleavage.

“Sherwin, honey,” the succubus murmured, squeezing his shoulders, “it’s a bit inconsiderate to put that kind of pressure on someone else’s relationship. Especially in public.”

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, “I didn’t… That is, I’m sorry if…”

“This is one of those things that you’ll only make worse by trying to fix, Sherwin,” Natchua said, not unkindly. “Hesthri, you’ve been quiet.”

The hethelax stepped closer, folding herself down to sit cross-legged practically on top of Jonathan’s feet, close enough to Natchua to reach out and place a hand on her knee. “That’s because I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say.”

“And when has that ever stopped you?” Natchua retorted.

“When the matter is serious,” Hesthri said, gazing at her without reciprocating her levity, “and your feelings are on the line. I think it’s good for you to be regularly knocked off your high horse, Natch, but I never want to be the cause of real upset, not over something important.”

“I care what you think, too,” Natchua said, reaching out to clasp the clawed hand Jonathan wasn’t currently holding. “If it’s something important enough to worry you, I definitely need to hear it. I can take a rebuke, Hes.”

“Then I think you should do it,” she said frankly.

Natchua blinked once, then closed her eyes and turned her face slightly so that it was half-buried in Jonathan’s thigh. “Why do any of you think I would be good at this? I mean, specifically, why? I am not fishing for compliments or validation, here, I just don’t get it. I am just so very Natchua. It’s inconceivable to me that I would be good in this position. Am I really the only one?”

“I suspect,” said Hesthri, squeezing her fingers, “because all of us here are as suspicious of aristocracy as you are, for one reason or another, and that makes the very fact that you’d be such an unconventional choice comforting. But it’s not like I’d suggest any old fool off the street should be thrust into that position, even if I loved that fool as I do you. I think that Malivette hit the nail on the head, lovely. You would be good for Veilgrad, and Veilgrad would be good for you. Both those things have already been the case; this is really just formalizing it.”

“It’s because you’re such an apex asshole, mistress,” Kheshiri interjected suddenly. She had rolled herself around and was now stretched out on her belly facing them, chin propped up on her hands and grinning in continued glee. “You make your decisions based on pure principle, and your principles amount to protecting people from abuse if you can, and avenging them if you can’t. Your preferred strategy for doing this is always something so irrationally conceived and convolutedly executed that nobody ever manages to stop you. That, mistress, is precisely the profile of a reformer who comes along to burn all the bullshit out of a crooked system. ‘Natchua the Noble’ is one of those ideas no sensible person would think of on their own, but once it’s presented, damn if it doesn’t make an eerie kind of sense! It’s a classic Natchua idea, in other words.”

“That…is…actually quite well said,” Jonathan said slowly, studying Kheshiri, who winked up at him. “Puts my thoughts into words much better than I would have.” Hesthri nodded.

“That’s what succubi do,” Sherwin chuckled. “Well. Among other things.” Melaxyna bent forward to kiss the top of his head.

Natchua regarded Kheshiri sidelong, taking in her delighted expression and the magical signature which revealed the actual mental state it hid. She was in this habit for the obvious reason of trying to head off resistance and defiance from the succubus, but more and more lately, Kheshiri had regarded her with ever-increasing warmth and attachment. Something about that was even brighter and fiercer, now. Natchua couldn’t quite put a label to the demon’s feelings toward her, but they were intensely positive. Somehow, that was more unsettling than if the Vanislaad had meant her harm.

“Well,” she said aloud, “I have more thinking on it to do. Vette and Ravana want to move fast, for the sake of political shock value, but I am at the very least going to sleep on it. I’m interested in hearing more from all of you, too, if you have thoughts. For now, that’s not the only crisis brewing. Shiri, I have work for you.”

“Ooh!” Kheshiri executed a deft gymnastic maneuver by which she flowed from a lounging position to sitting upright without ever fully straightening up, the furor of delight behind her eyes only increasing at the attention. “I’m all yours, my mistress!”

Natchua winced at the phrasing, on purpose. Letting the succubus needle her and get reactions helped scratch that itch. “I’ve got the Black Wreath sniffing around me, and so far I can’t tell what the hell they actually want. They said revenge, but their actions don’t make sense in that context. You’re the Wreath expert, here. The way I heard it, you actually took them over a century ago.”

“Ah, good times,” Kheshiri said reminiscently. “I miss Onkawa. But yes, mistress, I recognize the pattern you’ve described. It’s a standard ploy: they are keeping you both in the dark and under pressure. The goals are variable—could be just trying to see what you do when stressed and confused, or they might be trying to weaken you in preparation for the real play.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “It does make more sense in that light. So as long as they retain the ability to move about mysteriously…they retain the upper hand. Even trying to figure out their movements slips me deeper into the trap. Hm. How would you suggest defeating a plan like that?”

“Now, just a moment,” Jonathan interrupted. “Not to doubt your expertise, Kheshiri—or reproach you for asking advice, Natch, that’s a very good habit to be in. But remember what we were just discussing about you and your plans? The Wreath are legendary schemers; facing them on their own terms seems like a bad idea. Better to retaliate with something they wouldn’t and can’t expect. If there was ever a time for a Natchua plan, this is it.”

“Yes, it is,” Hesthri agreed softly, but with a mischievous fervor in her expression.

“I do have insights, if you wish them, mistress,” Kheshiri added, “but I like the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts here. I would be delighted to see how you’d screw with Mogul and his crew.”

“How I would…” Natchua trailed off, frowning into space and barely feeling Hesthri’s gentle squeezing of her hand, or Jonathan subtly massaging the back of her neck in his grip. “So the game is to create confusion and pressure, then? You know what, I kind of love it. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

She snapped her eyes back into focus, finding Kheshiri grinning at her with a level of glee that verged on the psychotic. For once, Natchua found the expression, rather than alarming as usual, exactly what she wanted to see.

“First thing tomorrow, Shiri, you and I are going to have a prowl around Veilgrad with our respective knowledge of Wreath tactics and Elilinist magic. I don’t need to know what they’re planning, just where they’ve been and might be again. And then… If Embras Mogul thinks he’s pissed at me now, he’s about to learn how much worse things can always get.”


“All these…are not skilled enchanters?” Magister Danoris asked, visibly aghast. He did not go so far as it lean over the catwalk’s railing, but clutched it as if it were holding him up as he gazed down at the factory floor below.

“Well, yes and no,” Geoffrey Falconer answered in the same energetic tone with which he’d been playing tour guide since their arrival. Though in many ways he lived up to the stereotype of the absent-minded intellectual, Falconer was as intrigued as any expert in arcane magic would be at meeting high elves, and always pleased to show guests the workings of his factory. “Naturally we do employ quite a few enchanters by specialty, but the whole point of the assembly line is to make production as efficient as possible. We’ve set it up as best as possible to minimize the need for magical expertise; fully seventy percent of the positions along the line are manual. Some of those do require an application of magic, but using the standard inks and dusts—which we of course manufacture in house, from our own mana turbines. That increases the available hiring pool. We pride ourselves on paying well here at FI, but unskilled labor is still much cheaper than employing enchanters.”

“And these…laborers…will produce self-motivated vehicles?”

“Twenty an hour,” Falconer said proudly.

“How sophisticated are your horseless carriages?” Danoris demanded.

“It depends; we have a range of products. The higher-end models have more features, obviously, but they also require more specialized attention from enchanters and other artisans. This assembly line happens to be producing our most basic model, the FI-320. Full seating for four passengers, weatherproof wheel charms, maximum speed of forty miles per hour, and fully rechargeable power crystals—”

“I wish to inspect one of these vehicles.”

“Of course,” Falconer said, his good cheer seemingly undiminished by Danoris’s abrupt tone, though his fellow Magister shot him a reproachful look which he did not see. This was not even the first such grimace Ravana had observed, simply by hanging back and studying her guests as intently as they did the factory facilities.

Magisters Danoris and Talvrin had accompanied her on the tour while Veilwin systematically drained a bottle of wine in the lobby, along with two of their Highguard escort, leaving the other two soldiers and Magister Eveldion to oversee proceedings back at the Manor. So far, Ravana hadn’t teased out any differences in rank; Danoris and Talvrin had the same title, and while Danoris generally took the lead, that might just reflect the differences in their personalities as there had been no giving or taking of orders between them. Talvrin let him talk, but did not show much in the way of deference, preferring to walk somewhat apart and study their surroundings on her own time.

“What is a mana turbine?” she now asked.

“Ah, those are actually the very foundation of Falconer Industries,” Geoffrey said animatedly. “Also called mana wells, they are essentially just electrical generators situated on a ley line nexus, which produce steady quantities of the raw dust which can then be refined into various grades of enchanting powders, and further mixed with alchemicals to make enchanting inks that can be used to inscribe enchantments on spell parchment. We both use these in house on our own products, and sell the raw materials directly through outlet shops. FI started when the Enchanter’s Bane shifted ley lines enough that a major nexus formed on real estate my family owned; our activities here tugged them further so that there are now two smaller nexi nearby, which we also control. There are turbines on each. In fact, the nearest is just at the other end of this factory! Would you like to see it firsthand?”

“Yes, we would!” Magister Danoris snapped. Again, Magister Talvrin cast an irritated glance his way. This time, she caught Ravana’s eye. The Duchess gave her a bland smile.

“Right this way!” Geoffrey said, leading the way along the catwalk.

Their course took them to the end of it, down a metal staircase to the factory floor, and through a door at its end. The hallway beyond extended past the building itself, well-lit by both fairy lamps and broad windows which revealed the domed structure to which it led, some fifty yards distant.

Ravana let herself fall to the rear, studying her guests as they strode along, and only deduced halfway down the hall that the Magisters were engaged in conversation the whole time. They spoke in the minutest exhalations that only an elf could hear, but the argument irritated Danoris enough that he turned his head to scowl at Talvrin, enabling her to see his lips move.

She made a mental note to learn to read lips. Somehow it had never come up, but in the moment, Ravana could only castigate herself for overlooking such a clearly useful skill.

The door into the mana turbine was both locked and guarded, though of course the factory’s owner was not impeded by these things in the slightest. He led them through, and into the huge round chamber beyond.

They emerged onto another catwalk surrounding the circular pit dug fully ten yards into the ground, where the machinery of the mana well itself whirred ceaselessly, its mechanical arm spinning and filling the very air with static.

“This chamber is bristling with both conventional lightning rods and the best grounding charms available!” Geoffrey practically shouted over the noise as he led the way around the perimeter of the room toward the glass-walled control booth. “There is basically no chance of electric shock, though with the turbine running at this capacity there’s obviously a lot of static! This way, please, the booth is charmed against both the noise and the electricity.”

The elves were visibly grateful to be shut inside the calm and quiet of the control booth, even the two soldiers. Two enchanters in hard hats and coveralls embroidered with the FI logo gawked at their guests; their employer and even Ravana they knew by sight, but the high elves were well worth staring at even among dignitaries. They seemed both reluctant and relieved when Mr. Falconer himself asked for privacy in the booth, taking his seat before the runic control panel as they slipped back out.

“Is it always so…extreme?” Danoris demanded once the six of them were again alone, fingering one of his long ears.

“Actually, no!” Geoffrey said brightly. “This turbine is the smallest and oldest still in service, and borderline obsolete. We’ve perfected a method of producing much higher-grade mana powder which will enable the creation of far more sophisticated and powerful enchantments. Well, actually, we already have the capacity to make those enchantments, but dedicating a new turbine to mass-producing that quality of dust will finally make them economical and thus more widely available. But it’ll require completely dismantling the turbine and building a new one, which will of course seriously cut down our production while it’s being done. So! We’ve installed heavy-duty safeguards in here to ensure there won’t be any kind of magical event when the machinery breaks, and are running it round the clock at four hundred percent capacity to build up a backlog of dusts. Once it gives out, we’ll replace it with the upgrade.”

Both Magisters looked distinctly alarmed at that.

“Ah, but I don’t mean to sound boastful,” Geoffrey added with a wry grin. “Obviously, none of the magic we’re doing here is anywhere near on a par with what you’re used to back home.”

“Obviously not,” Danoris said dismissively, even as he frowned in clear worry through the noiseproof enchanted windows at the overworked turbine. This time, Talvrin didn’t bother to express disapproval at his rudeness. She was also frowning at the same sight, though more pensively.

Ravana looked rapidly between them and chanced a glance at the Highguard who had each positioned themselves to cover one of the booth’s doors; both were likewise studying the mana well. This, she decided, was the moment to strike.

“Naturally,” the Duchess stated in a light and airy tone, “our magical capability itself is not the source of the Magister’s worry.” Danoris whirled to glare at her, but she just carried on speaking with a blithe smile. “Rather, it is the fact that he came here expecting to see fur-wearing primitives in stone castles, with scarcely one individual in ten thousand an arcane user. And before the Enchanter Wars, that might have been the case. Tell me, how much has Qestraceel changed in the last hundred years? The last thousand?”

All the elves were staring at her now, Danoris in open anger, Talvrin with eyes narrowed intently. Geoffrey Falconer also watched her with a knowing little smile. Ravana quite liked Geoffrey, in large part because he liked her. Not that she craved his approval in and of itself; he had been present when she’d finally gotten rid of her father. While Teal had been deeply unnerved by that event, Geoffrey took grim satisfaction in the unmaking of the Duke who had caused him so many headaches over the years. Ravana respected pragmatism, and his appreciation of revenge.

“Young woman,” Danoris began.

“It must be quite a thing,” she said sweetly, “to be winning a race by default, and only realize you have competition when you feel its breath upon your neck.”

Danoris did not like that at all, and it showed all over his face. Talvrin remained thoughtfully focused upon Ravana, though for the moment, neither spoke.

“It seems to me,” she mused aloud, stepping forward to look out over the mana well herself, “that we have a great deal more to offer one another beyond today’s specific business. Clearly, your unparalleled mastery of the arcane makes your people a font of wisdom from which mine would be both honored and delighted to learn. And even if we can reciprocate little along the same lines, it is obviously advantageous for you to have a weather eye upon the state of human advancement.”

“That,” said Danoris, recovering some of his hauteur, “is hardly worth the—”

“You are by far the most inept politicians I have ever seen,” Ravana informed him, causing the Magister to stammer in incoherent offense. “You control your emotions no better than children. Every thought you have is displayed far in advance of expressing it. Were we truly at cross purposes, your transparent predictability would render the briefest conversation a strategic victory for me. How fortunate that I am not ill-disposed toward you!”

“Most fortunate indeed,” Magister Talvrin said quietly.

“If this is the way even the ranking dignitaries of the Qestrali comport themselves,” Ravana continued, staring aimlessly out the window, “it goes without saying that the Narisians have taken you for a ride in every negotiation between your peoples thus far. I am, as you have cause to be aware, on unfriendly terms with certain factions in Tar’naris; I’ve had cause to grow adept at handling them. I should be delighted to assist my new friends from Qestraceel in getting the better of any further dealings with the drow. And while I am a loyal and devoted subject of the Silver Throne, I would not consider it to be against the Empire’s interests to assist such valued comrades in mitigating the utter spanking your delegates are undoubtedly receiving in Tiraas even as we speak.”

Danoris physically swelled up, which was downright comical given his thin build and the way his ostentatious hovering shoulder armor shifted with the motion. Less amusing was the way his fingers twitched hungrily; for a moment, Ravana thought he might cast some spell at her out of sheer outrage. The much more composed Talvrin turned her head to stare at him.

After a few seconds, however, the Magister composed himself with a visible effort. It took him another heartbeat to put on a small and insincere smile, but he managed, for the first time, to direct a shallow bow toward Ravana.

“Perhaps,” the elf said with obviously strained courtesy, “there is potential for…useful intercourse between us after all…my lady Duchess. Once this day’s work is settled to everyone’s mutual satisfaction, I should be…willing…to discuss further…business. With you.”

Ravana regarded him sidelong, thankful she’d taken the risk of annoying Natchua earlier in the day to press her for details of her encounter with the Highguard squad she had disabled. There were political differences between them, and in fact, they apparently had formal means of addressing these in the field. It was time to take the second risk.

She turned to face Magister Talvrin directly and inclined her head. “It would be my pleasure, not to mention and unmatched honor, to develop a direct relationship between House Madouri and the Magistry of Qestraceel. For such a privilege, I should naturally do my utmost to be as accommodating and useful a friend as I am able. On one condition, of course.”

“Oh?” Danoris grated, further aggravated at being given the cold shoulder.

Ravana pointed at him with one hand, keeping her gaze fully on Talvrin. “This individual is never to be in my presence again. I am certain that so ancient and graceful a civilization as yours must have countless members who are able to conduct themselves appropriately in the presence of a Duchess. I therefore see no reason I should be subjected to the company of those who do not.”

“Now, see here!” Danoris barked.

“Such a trifling request is more than reasonable, Lady Madouri,” Magister Talvrin assured her with a broad smile. “I can only apologize for any offense my colleague has caused you thus far. I shall be glad to ensure that you see only the better face of our society henceforth.”

“Talvrin!” he exploded.

Geoffrey had turned his back to all of them by that point and was pretending to be absorbed in the dials and levers of the booth’s runic control panel.

“I mean no offense,” Ravana said pleasantly, “but I am honestly curious how such an obviously sophisticated civilization ends up with such boorish individuals in positions of power.”

Danoris had gone scarlet in the face; it was the first time she had seen an elf do that.

“Qestraceel all but runs itself,” Talvrin explained. “Manual labor is done by autonomous constructs—what you call golems. More physical functions than otherwise are performed by fully automated enchantments. The city’s functions need maintenance more than they need actual oversight. Even much of the necessary decision-making is handled by intricate and permanent data processing spells running sophisticated algorithms. In addition, our culture prizes above most other concerns its ancient and direct lineage; our society began immediately following the Elder War and more than a few Qestrali elves remember that time. Thus, political power tends to accrue those who have seniority and magical aptitude, rather than…people skills.”

“Magister Talvrin!” Danoris shouted shrilly. “The Magistry will hear of your divulging of our secrets to outsiders!”

“And then,” she shot back, whirling on him with a fierce scowl, “they will hear about how you made a spectacle of every weakness we possess before Imperial nobility, and the measures I was forced to take to keep said nobility positively disposed toward us and disinclined to hostility! You have rendered your presence diplomatically offensive, Magister Danoris. It would be appropriate for you to absent yourself from further engagements, or at the very least, remain silent.”

“Witnessed,” both Highguard stated, in unison and with audible satisfaction. Falconer’s shoulders quivered and he hunched further forward over the console.

Danoris looked as if he might vibrate through the floor.

“After all,” Talvrin continued, turning back to Ravana with a gracious nod, “the Duchess impresses me as a pragmatic woman who would rather benefit from our friendship than initiate needless friction.”

“Oh, very much so,” Ravana agreed brightly. “Revenge, as the Eserites say, is a sucker’s game. I look forward eagerly to a bright future. As friends.”

Eventually, she actually would have to teach them some of the sly circumspection a politician absolutely needed to survive on the surface; it wouldn’t be long after that before they adapted their own. But for a while, at least, there was much more candy to be taken from these babies.

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16 – 15

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The group which set out from the townhouse, in the end, was six strong. Only Darling and Trissiny were specifically needed for their planned business at the Temple of Avei; of the rest, only Rasha had a personal stake in the outcome. The other three apprentices, though, had clamored to come along, what with the alternative being essentially to twiddle their thumbs at home. Glory, having spent years laboriously building a web of connections centered on her own house, by far preferred to conduct business from the middle of it—especially, as she smugly reminded them, now that she had a flock of apprentices to do her bidding. As Trissiny was glad to spend time with her old friends again and Darling had opined that even apprentice thieves would be handy to have around, that settled the matter.

Their plans were thoroughly de-Railed almost the moment they all reached the sidewalk.

“Look alive,” Tallie said from a bit ahead of the group as they all clustered outside the gate. “We’ve got a… Wait, is that Flora?”

The figure approaching was just distant enough to be a confusing sight, before they recognized the slim, blonde elf surrounded by her black cloak, billowing amorphously in the winter breeze, one hand upraised to wave at them as she came forward at a near-run.

“It is,” Darling said tersely, pushing past Tallie to meet the oncoming elf. “Flora! What happened to Fauna? Is she okay? Are you okay?”

Flora slowed, lowering her hand and frowning quizzically with her head tilted as she entered conversational range. “What? Of course. Two people can cover more ground when they…y’know, cover more ground. I’m fine, she’s fine, I just came here looking for you.”

“You’re sure?”

At that, she scowled outright. “Is it seriously a cause for panic to see me alone? Surely you didn’t think we were biologically connected at the hip.”

Darling paused, then turned to Trissiny and the others, raising his eyebrows. “Well, gee, I dunno, why don’t we ask the jury? Kids, did you think they were connected at the hip?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Maybe not biologically…”

“Man, you look weird on your own. Kinda lopsided. Were you always that tall?”

“All right, yeah, fine, you’re all hilarious,” Flora huffed. “Believe it or not, I didn’t run across town to enjoy your awkward comedy stylings. I’m glad I caught you, and still together. Thorn, Sweet, there’s been an incident you two in particular are gonna want to come see to.”

“Oh, so I guess our original plan is just yow!”

Trying to trot around the group so he could address Flora more directly, Darius abruptly lost his footing and ended up flat on his back in the slush filling the gutter.

“Darius!” Layla exclaimed, kneeling beside him. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve just had an important realization,” he said, staring at the overcast sky. “People who are not elves should not run on ice.”

“Seriously, kid, leave it to the professionals,” Flora said, visibly unimpressed. “Your slapstick isn’t any better than your wordplay.”

“Can you elaborate, maybe?” Trissiny asked. “What kind of incident are we talking about?”

“Well, first things first,” Flora replied, grinning. “Nobody panic, everyone’s all right. Even the dog.”


Trissiny summoned her armor during the trip across the city, and it was immediately useful upon arriving. A Bishop and the Hand of Avei got a lot of leeway in most places, and the pair of them were able to get deep into a police barracks based on rank alone, though they discovered upon reaching the crowded conference room which was apparently the whole debacle’s center of operations that rank only got so far.

“What the hell is all this now?” demanded the tall woman who seemed to be in charge, a gray-haired soldier wearing a captain’s insignia. “Who do you—actually, no, I don’t care. All of you, clear out. None of this is any of your business.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” Trissiny said mildly, “but I think I outrank you.”

That did not help.

“And I think,” the captain retorted, glaring, “my youngest kid is older than you, Avelea, and has more experience in actual soldiering. Your Imperial rank is honorary, and a courtesy for when there’s a dragon that needs slaying, which is the opposite of what’s going on here. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have half my station tied up in what should’ve been a simple snatch-and-grab case report, I’m now up to my stripes in Guild laywers, Falconer lawyers, Madouri lawyers, and just before you came, an official communique from this goddamn Elven Confabulation!”

“Confederacy,” a younger soldier holding a clipboard corrected softly. The captain made a slashing motion at him with one hand, her attention still fixed on Trissiny.

“I don’t know what stake the Sisterhood thinks it has in this, but go tell them to think otherwise, General. The absolute last thing I need right now is you stomping around. And if you have an issue with my failure to yield to your rank, feel free to take it up with my superiors. Go get a head start on the paperwork while I deal with this.”

Trissiny blinked once, then swept her eyes quickly around the various people in the room. The captain and her apparent aide were the only two Imperial soldiers present. Shaeine and Teal sat in chairs at the table, the former looking regal and aloof as she tended to when displeased, the latter holding F’thaan in her lap; the hellhound’s ears perked up when he looked at Trissiny, but otherwise he appeared mostly nervous, leaning heavily into Teal. The rest of the individuals already there were in suits, and apparently where the aforementioned lawyers, only one of whom she recognized.

“Madouri lawyers?” Trissiny asked finally. The captain outright bared teeth at her choice to ask questions rather than leave, but Teal piped up before an argument could break out.

“Somebody informed Ravana, who has more of a stake in this than I expected,” she explained, soothingly stroking F’thaan’s head. “Apparently she’s got an established relationship with the Thieves’ Guild. So does my family. Neither of us should’ve been targeted by the Guild.”

“I see. And which…”

“Yo.” The most disheveled of the three attorneys raised one hand, grinning at her. “Your gal pals here have a dispensation from House Madouri to be keeping that hellhound, so obviously there are questions of jurisdiction when they bring it into Tiraas but the order is still valid, because I’m here to make it valid if anybody wants to pick a fight. And just look at you! Hand of Avei, that’s the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. You still hanging out with those chuckleheads? Where’s the fat guy?”

“Hello, Ms. Savaraad,” Trissiny said patiently. “I didn’t know you worked for House Madouri.”

“I’ve done work for the Duchess and the Guild, hence my being here.”

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” Tallie piped up.

“Would be if they were at cross-purposes, but her Ladyship’s position is that this unprovoked insult by the Thieves’ Guild is clearly some kind of misunderstanding and I’m here to make sure it’s all resolved amicably on all sides.” Bird managed to make the sentence both cloyingly sweet and bitterly sarcastic.

“That doesn’t seem like your specialty,” Tallie observed.

“Who the hell are you people?” the captain bellowed.

“Oh, don’t mind us!” Darius said, raising his hands. “We’re just the Paladin Pity Squad, here because the General felt bad about ditching us to handle business.”

Darling laid a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to murmur, “A police station’s not the worst place to get a chip on your shoulder, son, but it’s in the top five.”

“This is Bishop Darling, from the Guild,” Trissiny explained in a deliberately calm tone. “He has enough rank with them to give orders, and is very skilled at smoothing things over.”

“Consider me at your disposal, Captain,” Darling said, inclining his head courteously. “We are sorry to just descend on you in the middle of this, but I promise you we’re here to lessen your headaches, not add to them. And this lot are Guild apprentices, who don’t strictly need to be involved. They can fetch tea, and otherwise stash themselves somewhere out of the way.”

Surprisingly, the captain seemed somewhat mollified by that. “Well, finally. Someone with pull and sense. That doesn’t explain your interest in this,” she added, turning the force of her glare back on Trissiny.

“Also here to help,” she said. “I agree with Savaraad and the Bishop: this needs to be calmed down, not kicked further.”

“Uh huh. And you can just wave your magic sword and make that happen?”

“Maybe not that simply,” she acknowledged, smiling, “but I bet I can get them to talk.”

The captain narrowed her eyes again. “Of all the problems I’ve got right now, him talking is the least urgent.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, I was briefed on the move getting here. You’ve got two Guild thieves who used an infernal weapon, which means you very much need to find out where that came from and plug the source. This job was bungled, but they were obviously working with some inside information to know where and how to hit their targets, and considering those targets and the fact that the thing failed—really, couldn’t have succeeded—there’s at least a possibility this is all politically motivated. If Intelligence isn’t breathing down your neck to suss out who set this in motion, they will be within the hour. And since these guys are Guild, they’ve been cooperating up to a point but refusing to yield any information. Am I more or less right?”

Though her eyes were still narrowed, by the end of that the captain’s expression was more thoughtful than angry. “And you think you can get answers, is that right?”

“No guarantees, but I believe so.”

“Paladin,” she warned, “if you think you’re going to come into my station and beat up a prisoner—”

“I said get answers, not a confession,” Trissiny interrupted. “I’m assuming we want accurate intel and not desperate fabrications, right? Nobody professional uses torture to get information.” She glanced over at Darling, who nodded once in encouragement. “I know the right questions to ask a Guild thief, Captain, and I think hearing them from me in this armor will make your boys reconsider the position they’re in.”

“Boy, singular,” the captain grunted. “I’ve got the bag man in lockup. Your friends here did a real number on the driver. Healers tell me he should pull through just fine, but not before spending some time in the hospital.”

Trissiny looked over at them, frowning in concern. “You okay, Teal?”

“Mrs. Falconer is the victim, here,” one of the lawyers interjected, “and is under no obligation to answer questions to law enforcement.”

“She’s a friend, not law enforcement,” Teal said with a sigh.

“Ma’am, given the role she is taking here and your own—”

“That will do,” Shaeine stated, quiet but utterly implacable. The attorney clamped his mouth shut, giving the drow an openly annoyed look from behind.

“I’m not having a great day, Triss,” Teal said wryly, “but it could be a lot worse. F’thaan’s okay, and we’re both unharmed. If you think you can help settle all this mess, I’d be grateful.”

“House Madouri’s in favor of this,” Bird said cheerfully. “The Duchess has the utmost confidence in General Avelea. She filed a brief about it and everything.”

“My clients are not,” snapped the remaining lawyer, who by process of elimination had to represent the Thieves’ Guild. “I object to—”

“No, you don’t!” Darling exclaimed, raising both hands in a pacifying gesture. “It’s fine. General Avelea is known and trusted by the Guild. She is not going to mistreat our people or break any laws. Getting all this straightened out quickly is in everyone’s best interest. We’re not throwing anybody under the wheels here.”

The Guild lawyer studied him suspiciously for a moment, then grudgingly nodded, apparently already familiar with Darling’s position. “Objection withdrawn.”

“Well,” the captain said resignedly, “I guess it’s not like you can make this any worse. All right, Avelea, you get a shot. I will be watching, though, and I don’t want to see any funny business. This is an Imperial Army station, not an Avenist temple.”

“I don’t really do funny business,” Trissiny said solemnly, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb at Tallie, Darius, Rasha and Layla. “Ask them, they’ll tell you.”


Like most government structures in the city, the station itself was centuries old, but the interrogation room was obviously a modern renovation, complete with one of the newest features in police work which Murgatroyd Fedora had boasted was one of his inventions: a wall of glass enchanted to be a simple mirror from this side, but transparent from the other and blocking sound in only one direction. Behind it would be the captain and whoever else she judged needed to be privy to the ensuing conversation.

The thief sat on one side of the table to which his wrist manacles were chained, looking slumped and annoyed but not particularly cowed. He looked up when the door opened, and his eyebrows shot upward in surprise at the sight of Trissiny in her silver armor, but just as quickly his expression closed down again. He just stared at her as she pulled out the other chair and sat down across from him.

“So, it’s Rake, right?” she inquired. “Where are you from?”

His eyebrows drew together slightly, but he said nothing.

“I ask because I was told there was a guy tagged Rake here in Tiraas a couple of years ago, but apparently he got into some bad business with the Imperial government and ended up dead. Bishop Darling tells me there’s more recently a Rake operating out of Madouris. That you?”

“You talked to the Bishop?” he asked finally.

“Yep. The thing about that is, if you work in Madouris, you’re under Pizzazz. Right?”

Rake squinted at her in silence.

“And everybody in Madouris should know that the Falconers are strictly hands off,” she continued, holding his gaze. “Have been since Underboss Rogue’s time, and Pizzazz has upheld that. You could maybe argue that doesn’t hold here in Tiraas, but I’ve never met an Underboss who had a lot of patience for rules lawyering.”

“You meet a lot of Guild Underbosses?” he asked.

“A few,” she said noncommittally. “So, Rake. Whose big idea was this job?”

His face went blank again.

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny continued, folding her gauntleted hands atop the table. “I’m sure you remember the big flaming demon who demolished you when you tried to kidnap her pet.”

He twitched.

“Her name is Vadrieny. Ever heard of—ah, I see you’re fairly well read. Yes, that Vadrieny, the Ravager of the Third Hellwar, last living daughter of Elilial. It’s a very long story, but she is currently incorporeal and sharing the body of the Falconer heiress. This isn’t a secret, you understand, just something those in power have not encouraged to get around. Anybody connected enough to set up this job and prep you for it would have been aware of that. So quite apart from the fact that they sent you to piss off arguably the most murderous creature in existence, who you never had the slightest chance of escaping from, you—a representative of Eserion—just broke the historic truce between Elilial and the Pantheon. So, good job on that.”

Rake swallowed heavily.

“In more local news,” Trissiny went on, “the other owner of that dog is the daughter of the Matriarch of the Narisian noble family who handles Tar’naris’s diplomacy. Yeah, you attacked a diplomat, which by itself would be grounds for the Throne to offer your head to Tar’naris on a plate in appeasement. But somehow, you arranged for that to not even be the worst part, since you pulled this job right as this Confederacy thing is kicking off, relations between the Empire and the elves are tense and very uncertain, and nobody has any patience for shenanigans. This is when you chose to commit a major diplomatic provocation.”

He had gone almost white, but still said nothing.

“Shaeine and Teal are personal friends of mine,” she stated evenly. “I have petted that dog. So yes, Rake, I won’t lie: I kind of want to punch you until your whole face is concave, let me just admit that up front. But I want to reassure you that I’m not going to do that. Even in the worst case scenario, if you continue to be obstreperous, you’re not going to get any further grief from me. You know the Guild’s codes on revenge. Beating you up wouldn’t solve any problems or make me feel better, and definitely won’t serve to discourage another incident like this, since we both know you’re not the one who had the bright idea in the first place.”

“You’re…pretty well-informed about Guild stuff,” Rake said warily. “Wait, is it true you infiltrated the apprentices last year?”

“Please don’t make me remind you who’s asking the questions here, Rake,” Trissiny said pleasantly. “That is just such a drizzt.”

He blinked in confusion.

“I think it’s better, in cases like this, to deal in positive reinforcement. So in fact, Rake, I’m going to offer to do what I can to protect you from the multiple world powers you’ve just pissed off. Right now you’ve got House Madouri, Falconer Industries, Imperial Intelligence and the Elven Confederacy wanting a piece of your hide. That would be pushing well beyond the bounds of what the Guild can protect you from just by itself, but taking into account the fact you just undercut Pizzazz’s authority by flouting the rule against ripping off the Falconers—and come on, that was a company carriage you robbed—odds are very good you’re not going to get even that much protection.”

“I don’t need—” He caught himself mid-sentence, clamping his mouth shut again.

“Don’t need Pizzazz to back you up?” she finished, watching him carefully. “Well, you must be pretty confident in your backer, then. Confident they can shield you from…well, do you really need me to recite the list again?”

Rake’s eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, settling for a moment on the mirrored wall and then back on her face.

“You should really think about this, though,” Trissiny added in a mild tone. “Your backer sent you right into Vadrieny’s claws. Considering how much intel you obviously had to plan this job? I’d say it’s even odds whether they just didn’t know what the stakes here were…or deliberately sent you to die like a stray dog in the street. Functionally, Rake, it doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s someone who either can’t protect you, or just isn’t going to bother. I think you really need my protection right now.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while he slumped lower in his chair.

“But for that, I’m going to need a name.”

He swallowed again.

“Jasper, too.”

“Excuse me?”

“My partner. They had to take him to the healers. If I tell you who sent us, you have to promise you’ll look after him, too.”

“You have my word,” she said, nodding her head once. “What I can do, I will.”

Rake fidgeted for a moment, grimaced, and then burst out, “It was Tricks!”

Trissiny blinked once, slowly, and then shook her head. “Rake. I believe I made it fairly clear that I don’t actually like you that much, correct? I am still willing to help you, but not out of the goodness of my heart; you need to help me first. Telling me fairy tales isn’t helping me.”

“I swear to you,” he babbled, “it was Boss Tricks himself who sent us. That’s the only reason we were willing to go after a Falconer target—yeah, we know about Pizzazz’s deal with the Duchess and FI, only the Boss himself can overrule that! Tricks didn’t just give us permission, this was his whole idea. He planned it, every step, had us rehearse it till he was satisfied we could pull it off.”

“Boss Tricks,” Trissiny said flatly, “does not pull half-assed schemes or make wildly stupid mistakes. He definitely doesn’t throw away the lives of Guild members to make some kind of point. That rules out every explanation for Tricks being behind this, which leaves me to conclude that you’re wasting my time.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Rake exploded, desperation audible in his voice. “I don’t have explanations! Gods help me, I trusted the bastard—we both did, or we wouldn’t have done this. I will swear on anything you want—I’ll go under with a mind-priest or take truth potion. I’m not lying, paladin! This wasn’t our idea. This job was a sanctioned Guild operation!”

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16 – 14

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“Uniforms?” Trissiny had gone perfectly still in her chair, listening to whoever currently spoke (mostly Rasha, though Glory and Sweet had chimed in with clarifications) with narrowed eyes and her full attention, her cooling tea forgotten in her hands. “What can you tell me about the quality of them?”

“Ah…” Rasha glanced guiltily at Glory. “This is embarrassing. Fabric, cut, and fashion details in general are part of my education, here, but I have to confess that in the moment I didn’t even think to examine them.”

“Observing minutia while under stress is an important skill, Rasha,” Glory said with a gentle smile, “but not one in which you have yet been trained. Don’t reproach yourself.”

“In any case, if I might interject?” Sweet added. “I suspect their fashionability isn’t what Thorn was curious about. I’ve seen these Purists here and there around the temple all week, and I can at least attest that they are actual uniforms, not somebody’s slapped-together costume collection. They fit, they match, and they’re solidly constructed. About on a par with the Sisterhood’s own uniforms, I’d say.”

“Then someone with serious resources is bankrolling this,” Trissiny murmured. “Equipment doesn’t just tumble out of the ether.”

“They are clothes, though,” the Bishop offered. “Not in the same league as Silver Legion armor.”

“But they include chain mail under the tabards,” Rasha added, “and metal-backed bracers. And their swords all match, and aren’t like Legion swords.”

Trissiny had let her gaze drift toward the wall, frowning, but now zeroed back in on her. “Can you describe them?”

“Longer,” Rasha said. “Bigger, overall. Longer blades, handles, and crossguards. Oh, and I remember they had heavy… What’s that part called, at the other end of the handle?”

“The pommel. Yeah, a bigger blade needs a heavier one to balance the sword, and if it’s heavy enough it can be almost as dangerous as the blade, at least in skilled hands.”

“Straight blades, too,” Rasha added, now narrowing her own eyes in thought. “Long and straight, not with the curved sides Legion short swords have.”

Trissiny nodded once. “I suppose it’s too much to hope anyone’s seen these used in combat.”

“I have a feeling if the Purists had been actually fighting with people, you’d have been one of the first to hear about it,” Sweet said, grinning.

“Damn, girl, curb that bloodlust,” Darius added reprovingly.

“It’s not that I want people to take swords to each other,” she said, shooting him an annoyed look. “That’s dueling equipment. Longswords, chain mail tunics, wrist bracers. There is an Eagle Style combat form that utilizes such tools, but it’s the kind of thing blademasters learn, and that’s through the civilian Sisterhood; Legionnaires don’t usually train in it. If these women are walking around carrying weapons they don’t actually know how to use, that’s grounds to call them down doctrinally.”

“I can only imagine what a grave sin that is in Avei’s service,” said Layla.

“It’s not so much grave, in and of itself,” Trissiny replied, “as an indication that you don’t respect weapons or warfare and are engaged in behavior that gets soldiers killed if you do it in an actual military situation. Someone who gets that reputation can forget about advancing through either the Sisters or the Legions. Anyway, I was thinking more about the alternative. If these women have just been gathered together and issued equipment by someone with deep pockets, that’s one thing. If they have received training, this could be a real problem.”

“Well, I can tell you they haven’t been trained in anything they’d need to actually accomplish what they’re allegedly here to do,” said Sweet. “Both from what I’ve personally seen and what I’ve heard from other Guild members who’ve had business in the Temple lately, these Purists are rapidly making themselves even less popular than they were to begin with. Smart religious radicals try to build a widespread power base before making a move, and are adept at recruitment. These are hostile and full of themselves and leaving a trail of pissed-off fellow Avenists wherever they go.”

“It sounds like someone’s using them as a meat shield, then,” Trissiny murmured, again staring at the far wall. “Or a distraction. Whatever the scheme is, they aren’t the main play.”

“This probably goes without saying,” Sweet added, “but we all know who has access to the necessary resources to gather together a bunch of fringe weirdos and issue them full kits of equipment, and a specific interest right now in creating trouble for the Sisterhood of Avei. Yes?”

Everyone nodded, expressions grim.

“You know the worst part?” Tallie said softly, staring at the window. “Everything we went through so those Justinian loyalists could be brought to justice, and all of that, all of it, was just him…cleaning house. Now, here we are again, with more Church loyalists. And apparently, they’re also expendables he’s just throwing at us.”

“Someone should really look into cutting his throat,” Layla said primly.

“I know the feeling,” Sweet said with a sigh. “I danced on his string for a good long while, told myself I was doing the smart thing by staying close to him… Hell, maybe I was right and it’s this show of defiance that’s the mistake. No sense crying over spilt milk now. I bring this up because we also know of someone who would be well-versed in Avenist philosophy, and uniquely qualified to train them in an esoteric dueling form.”

“It takes years to actually train in any martial art,” said Trissiny. “Besides, of all the things I heard about Syrinx during her tenure, there was never so much as a hint that she had Purist sympathies.”

“I don’t think Basra actually has any theological opinions, or opinions about anything but herself and what was best for her. I just mean she’s got the inside knowledge to set this specific thing up, and we know she’s on the leash of our primary suspect.”

“Yeah, point taken,” she said, nodding at him. “So the question is, what to do about this?”

“Didn’t we answer that up front?” Darius asked. “Clobber ‘em. Apparently, nobody’ll even mind.”

Trissiny just frowned again. “I smell a trap.”

“I agree,” Glory said before any of her apprentices could chime in again. “Unpopular as the Purists may be, there will still be consequences if they are undone by any abrupt or violent means. At minimum, it will be a further disruption within the Sisterhood at a time when they can ill afford such. And that is the course of action most likely to be taken by either a Hand of Avei or the Thieves’ Guild—the two parties most directly goaded into this by singling out Rasha for attack.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we should just leave them alone?” Rasha exclaimed.

“That’s also a trap,” said Sweet, idly swirling his teacup and staring down into it. “Good instincts, Glory; I’m inclined to agree. This whole business puts all of us between the ol’ rock and hard place: either let asshole fanatics run loose, or come down on them hard. Either one means, at minimum, further weakening of the Sisterhood, and possibly also whoever is involved in dealing with them. You can bet there will be other agents in place and poised to react to either move.”

“So, we have to widen the net,” said Tallie. “Find the string-pullers behind all this and lean on them.”

“That will take time,” Rasha objected. “Time while all of this is unfolding. It’s almost as bad as deciding to let the Purists run rampant.”

“At minimum,” said Trissiny, “I need to talk to the High Commander and others within the Sisterhood; it’s certain they’ll have more intel that we don’t yet. But as a general rule, if your enemy maneuvers you into picking between two options that both serve them…”

“You do something else,” Rasha said, a grin lighting up her face. “Any ideas, Thorn?”

“In point of fact,” Trissiny said, her answering smile more than a little malicious, “I have a really good one.”


The main streets of Tiraas were always at least somewhat congested, even in the middle of the night or under pounding rain. Currently neither condition prevailed, but traffic was moving even slower than usual, thanks to the winter; snow had of course been cleared off the streets, but it was still cold enough that any standing moisture turned to ice, especially where the salt-spreaders had missed a spot, and there were deep banks of slush in the gutters. Allegedly, some of that stuff glowed in the dark in the industrial districts, thanks to the precipitation gathering up loose mana on its way to the ground. Teal had seen this phenomenon around her family’s factories, though it wasn’t evident in the daylight and anyway, they were not driving through any factory neighborhoods.

She much preferred to drive her sleek little roadster, but it had no rear seating and would have been cramped with both of them and F’thaan, and impossible to give Trissiny a ride in. Anyway, it wasn’t as if she could really unleash its motive charms in city traffic, not to mention that the overpowered racing carriage wasn’t the best vehicle for teaching a new driver. It all worked out for the best, as the company showpiece she was borrowing was a luxury model with built-in radiator charms that kept the interior pleasantly warm and the windows free of frost and fog despite the winter chill.

“Whoof,” Teal grunted, grimacing, as F’thaan poked his head forward between their seats, panting excitedly. At that proximity, his sulfurous breath was overpowering. She reached up to cradle his chin with one hand, scratching at his cheek for a moment while he leaned ecstatically into her touch, his tail thumping against the back seat, then gently pushed him backward. “Sit, F’thaan.”

The hellhound whined softly in protest, but obeyed. Despite being a little over-exuberant with youth, he was well-trained and obedient. Shaeine brooked no lack of discipline in her household.

Glancing to the side, Teal caught her spouse’s garnet eyes studying her, Shaeine’s face wreathed in a warm little smile that all but forced a similar look onto her own face.

“What?”

“I love to watch you drive,” Shaeine murmured, reaching over to rest a hand on Teal’s knee. “So much power, such a sophisticated machine, and you control it so deftly it seems you’re not even thinking about it.”

Teal’s grin widened of its own volition. As the carriage had just pulled to a stop at an intersection while the well-bundled soldier in the middle directed the traffic from the cross-street forward, she gently took Shaeine’s hand in her own and raised it to kiss the backs of her fingers. That was more intimacy than Narisian manners allowed in public, but as another perk of driving a vehicle designed for the comfort of the rich rather than speed and power, the windows were charmed to be opaque from the outside.

“Comes with practice,” she murmured, lowering their clasped hands but not releasing Shaeine’s yet. She wouldn’t need to handle the throttle until they were directed to start moving again. “Don’t worry, you’ll get there; I bet you’ll find you have a knack for it.”

“I wasn’t worried about that,” Shaeine murmured, squeezing her fingers lightly and rubbing her thumb across the back of Teal’s hand. “I do indeed have a knack for combining a delicate touch with just the right amount of force. As I believe you are aware.”

“You just like to see me blush,” Teal complained, inadvertently obliging.

The elf’s laugh was low, throaty, and entirely unsuitable for public, but she relented. “Actually, after seeing these streets, I am somewhat concerned about the status of the place you chose for me to practice. Is it going to be as slick as this? Learning to drive on ice seems less than ideal.”

“Yeah, the weather sure didn’t do us any favors,” Teal agreed, leaning forward to look up at the overcast sky. “I was hoping the dry winter would hold for a while, but that was probably too much to ask of Tiraas. We may have to make alternate plans if we get there and it’s too terrible, but actually it might be okay. The fairground is a huge gravel lot, and last night it snowed without sleeting, so it should still have decent traction.”

“Well, in the worst case scenario, I’m sure we can find a way to pass the—”

She was interrupted by a loud thunk against her side of the carriage, which set F’thaan to barking furiously. Both of them turned to behold an object stuck to Shaeine’s window: an innocuous-looking black stone dangling from a short chain whose other end was attached to a small adhesive charm that now kept it in place. Alongside them, the carriage in the next lane had its side window swung open to reveal the driver, whose face was mostly concealed by a cap and a thick scarf.

Teal leaned forward again to stare at him around Shaeine. “Did he just—”

Then the other driver raised a wand to point at them.

She couldn’t summon a full shield while constrained by the carriage, but Shaeine instantly lit up in silver with a protective corona that might or might not have stopped a wandshot at that range, prompting a yelp of protest from F’thaan. The surge of divine magic triggered a reaction from the device stuck to their carriage: the black stone immediately lit up with orange runes, but only for a fraction of a second before the entire thing exploded, shattering the window and causing Shaeine to jerk away toward teal with a muted outcry as her aura flickered out.

The carriage itself went silent and still as the surge of infernal power shorted out its enchantments.

“Shaeine!” Teal shouted, hurling herself across the front seat to shield the drow with her own body.

The driver of the other carriage leaned out his window slightly to fire the wand—fortunately not at them, but at an angle across the side of their vehicle, such that the lightning bolt smashed a burning scar along its lacquered paneling and destroyed the latch holding the rear door closed.

Immediately the other carriage’s rear door swung open and a second man leaned out. He moved with amazing speed, as if this motion had been drilled to perfection. Yanking the Falconer carriage’s broken door out of the way, he leaned in, seized F’thaan by one leg, and jerked backward.

The carriage spun forward into traffic in defiance of both the oncoming vehicles and the policeman directing them, ignoring both the officer’s piercing whistle and alarm bells being yanked by multiple other drivers. It accelerated around the corner, nearly skidding into a mailbox on the icy streets, and vanished out of view just as the rear door swung shut behind a still-yelping F’thaan.


“Can’t you shut that beast up?” Jasper shouted over the noise of the ongoing fight in the back seat.

“You just drive!” Rake shouted back as he struggled to fend off the infuriated demonic hound. The job had been meticulously planned and both of them, not just Rake, wore armored gloves and thick cloth padding under the sleeves of their winter coats, the better for handling a hostile dog. Jasper didn’t risk taking his eyes off the road, but to judge by the noises coming from behind him, Rake was having more difficulty than expected wrestling the hellhound into place. He’d brought a stun prod, but before it could be used he had to get the creature at least arm’s length away. Apparently the hound was fully determined to get its jaws around him.

Navigating around slower-moving vehicles in the slushy streets was hard enough without that going on. It seemed like every minute course correction sent the carriage into a slight skid; were he not such an experienced getaway driver he’d undoubtedly have wrapped them around a lamp post already. Still, that very nearly happened as the whole carriage lurched to one side, accompanied by a bellow from Rake as both bodies hit one door.

“Get it the fuck under control!” Jasper shouted.

“Concentrate on your job, asshole! Son of a bitch, mutt, you don’t settle down I’m gonna blow your—”

“Don’t you fuckin’ dare!” he snapped, eyes still on the road. “Dead things don’t breathe! No hellhound breath, no payday. Just break a couple of its legs if you can’t—”

It wasn’t that he failed to see the streak of fire plummeting from the sky, there simply was not enough time to react. The thing impacted the street with a force that smashed a crater in the very pavement. Yelling incoherently, Jasper did his best, avoiding the instinct to slam on brakes which on icy streets would have been fatal. He just didn’t have the space or time to go into a controlled skid around it, though, only managing to turn the carriage into a sideways slide so that struck the burning figure at an angle rather than head-on.

Good thing, too, as the person he ran over proved as immovable as a petrified oak. The entire carriage crumpled around her, one whole fender and front wheel obliterated by the impact and the windscreen reduced to a spider web of cracks. He was hurled forward and felt his ribs crack as they impacted the shipwheel. Had he struck her directly at that speed the thing probably would have been smashed right through him.

All Jasper could do was sit there, struggling to breathe against the agony. Not that he had much time even for that.

The creature reached forward, clawed hands punching through the windscreen as if it wasn’t there. One wrapped fully around his neck, and in the next moment he was yanked bodily out, through the remains of the windscreen and possibly the dashboard itself, to judge by how much it hurt. His vision swam and darkened as he very nearly blacked out from the pain, perceiving nothing but swirling colors and a roaring in his ears for an unknown span of seconds.

There was no telling how long it was or even if he ever fell fully unconscious, but the world swam back into focus, accompanied by pounding anguish from what felt like more of his body than otherwise. He heard screams, the frantic barking of the damn dog, running feet, alarm bells, and the distant but rapidly approaching shrill tone of a police whistle.

And right in front of him, a demon. She was a woman with hair of fire, eyes like burning portals into Hell itself, and blazing orange wings that arched menacingly overhead. In addition to Jasper, she now held Rake in a similar position, one set of murderous talons wrapped around each of their necks.

Dangling Jasper off to one side, she pulled the gasping Rake forward to stare at him from inches away, in a voice that sounded like the song of an entire choir despite its even, deadly calm.

“Excuse me. Did you just kick my dog?”

Rake had been clutching the hand holding him up, uselessly trying to pry it away. At that, he lost his grip and went limp, eyes rolling up into his head.

Jasper had lost his grip on his wand at some point, but he never went anywhere without at least two. The second was holstered at his side, fortuitously reachable by the arm that still worked. Despite the pain screaming from every part of him, he managed to claw it loose, trying to bring it up in a wavering grip.

The demon shifted her attention to him at the motion, just in time to find the tip of the wand pointed at her face.

Jasper tried to issue some kind of threat or warning, but found his voice muffled by the grip on his throat.

To his astonishment, the demon leaned forward, opening her mouth, and bit down on the end of the wand.

Instead of biting it off, though, she dropped the unconscious Rake, grabbed his wand hand with her now-freed talon, and mashed the clicker down.

Lighting blazed straight into her mouth, setting off a nimbus of static at that range which made his clothes and every hair on his body try to stand upright, not to mention sending painful arcs of electricity in every direction. It was the backlash of sheer heat burning his hand right through his heavy glove that made him choke out a strangled scream against the grip on his neck. It felt like his fingers were being burned right off.

Jasper didn’t get the courtesy of being dropped, unlike his partner. She simply tossed him away like an old rag; he flew most of the way across the street and hit the icy pavement with an audible crunch of something that felt important. This time, he definitely blacked out.


By the time the military police made it to the scene, Vadrieny had gathered F’thaan into her arms, stroking his fur and murmuring soothingly. He finally stopped barking when she picked him up, though he was whining and trembling violently. Checking him over as best she could, she found he didn’t appear to have broken limbs or any other serious injury, though of course at the first opportunity he’d get a much more careful inspection with Teal’s softer, clawless hands.

The cop who arrived was on foot, and in fact appeared to be the crossing guard from the last intersection. He had run the entire way, blowing non-stop on his whistle, and yet appeared barely out of breath, a testament to the fitness of the Imperial military police. He also had his wand out by the time he got here and skidded to a stop in a patch of loose salt, barely avoiding a fall, wide eyes taking in the scene.

Wrecked carriage, shattered pavement, two nearby bodies, and a flaming demon cuddling a horned dog in the middle of the street. She had a feeling this wasn’t covered in basic training.

“Don’t—you just… Put your hands where I can see them!” the officer barked, taking aim at her with the wand and quickly regaining his poise.

Vadrieny tucked the shivering hellhound against her body, wrapping one wing protectively around him and turning slightly to further put her pet out of the line of fire. She kept her head turned around to fix the officer with a stare, and slowly raised one eyebrow.

“…or?”

The man swallowed visibly.

Behind him, a carriage emerged from the mess of halted vehicles, actually driving up on the sidewalk to get around them. It was a late-model Falconer, with one side smashed and burned by wandfire, which explained only part of the difficulty it seemed to be having. The thing moved in awkward little surges at the direction of someone not familiar with how its throttle worked, veering drunkenly on the slick street, and actually went into a full skid when it tried to stop. Fortunately, it wasn’t going fast enough to do more than spin sideways before it ran out of momentum, still several yards from the soldier, who nonetheless sidestepped further away.

Shaeine emerged from the driver’s side, stepping forward toward the policeman with her hands raised disarmingly.

“Ma’am, get back!” he snapped.

“It’s all right, officer,” she said soothingly. “There is no danger, and everything is under control. I am extremely sorry for this disturbance, but I assure you, no one is being threatened here. All of this can be explained.”

His eyes shifted from her to Vadrieny and then back, incredulity plain on his face.

“The explanation,” she added ruefully, “might not be…short.”

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16 – 12

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The carriage eased smoothly up to the curb, a sleek and expensive model that would have looked entirely suitable for this wealthy neighborhood except for the Falconer Industries logo on its doors marking it a company vehicle. One of those doors swung open and Trissiny slid out, pausing the second her boots had met the pavement to point accusingly back into the rear seat.

“No! Sit.”

Behind her, F’thaan retreated, sitting down on the seat as instructed—with a whine of protest, but he did it.

“Good boy,” the paladin said with a smile, reaching in to scratch the demonic hound between his horns. He wasn’t quite full-grown, still possessing the lankiness and boundless energy of the puppy he’d been not long ago, but he had most of the height he would grow into, making it a very good thing that one of his owners was a strict disciplinarian.

“We’ll be back to pick you up at four,” Teal said from the driver’s seat as Trissiny finally stepped back, pushing the carriage door shut.

“Thanks again,” she replied cheerfully. “You two enjoy your day!”

“You, as well,” Shaeine said, favoring Trissiny with a rare smile of real warmth. Since their ritual at the Desolate Gardens, the drow had been generally more open with members of their group, but even still she was normally restrained in public.

Enchantments hummed back to full power as Teal guided the carriage forward and on up the street, and Trissiny turned to cross the short garden path with long strides, still smiling in anticipation.

The townhouse’s door opened exactly two seconds after her knock, revealing the familiar countenance of Glory’s Butler, who greeted her with a shallow bow and a small smile of genuine welcome. “Good morning, Ms. Avelea. It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Hello again, Smythe,” she replied. “How’s everyone?”

“Quite well, as they will tell you at more length.” He stepped back, bowing and gesturing her gracefully forward. “Please, come in. And brace yourself.”

Trissiny had just stepped through the door and barely registered his warning before a whoop echoed off the marble and hardwood of the foyer and she was tackled from above.

But pure reflex she spun, gripping the person who’d just landed on her and tossing her in a flawless shoulder throw, which the acrobat negated by jackknifing her entire body around Trissiny’s and landing squarely on her back.

“Oof! Tallie, come on!”

“What is this?” Tallie demanded, clinging to Trissiny by wrapping her legs around her waist and grabbing two handfuls of her hair. “No, no, this won’t do it all! It looks wrong. Change it back immediately!”

“That’s its natural color, you goon. And don’t pull on it, what’s wrong with you?”

“It just isn’t right on you! You’re just so brunette, right to your core.”

“What does that even mean?”

“C’mon, let’s get you to a salon, my treat.”

“Oh, honestly, Tallie,” Layla sniffed, sauntering into the foyer from the nearby sitting room, “is there nothing you won’t nitpick? I quite like it, blondes are just so exotic. Hello, Trissiny!”

She stepped forward to wrap her arms around Trissiny in a hug, deftly slipping them in between Tallie’s grip.

“Hi, Layla,” Trissiny said resignedly, patting her back. “Good to see you, too. Is there some trick to getting her off?”

“Glory has had some luck with dog biscuits. Honestly, unless she starts gnawing your ears it’s simplest to just wait for her to get bored.”

“Wow, you just put on a show wherever you go, don’cha,” Darius drawled, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed. That lasted for one second until Rasha, who had plenty of room to slip through the door, nonetheless bumped him out of position in passing.

“Which part of this do you think was my idea?” Trissiny demanded, spreading her arms wide I a helpless gesture accentuated by the two young women clinging to her. “What, nobody else wants to pile on, too?”

“Excuse me,” Darius said haughtily, “but some of us remember how to be ladylike.”

“It’s true, he’s an inspiration to us all,” Rasha added, grinning broadly. “Gods, it’s good to see you again! Or it will be, I guess, when I can see all of you. Don’t listen to the wench, I love your hair. The blonde goes a lot better with your complexion.”

“I’m surrounded by traitors,” Tallie exclaimed, currently trying to braid Trissiny’s hair while still clinging to her like a monkey. “Tasteless traitors!”

“You know, until this moment, I’ve honestly never in my life spared a thought for how my hair looks,” Trissiny huffed.

“That’ll be the Avenist upbringing,” Layla replied solemnly, having finally released her and stepped back. “Don’t you worry, we’ll fix that. Just wait till I teach you how to contour!”

“Hey, wait a second,” Tallie protested. “Why am I the wench?”

“We all ask ourselves that, Tallie,” said Darius.

Smythe cleared his throat discreetly. “Glory and the other guest await in the green parlor. If you would follow me?”

“Well, I’d sure like to,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Wait, other guest?”

“Sorry to steal your thunder, Triss,” said Rasha. “This one was unexpected. Well, to us, anyway. I’m never sure how much Glory knows in advance.”

“And Glory likes it that way,” Layla added.

“Miss Tallie,” Smythe said diffidently, “I’m sure you don’t want another lecture about using the floor like everyone else.”

“This comes up a lot, does it,” said Trissiny.

“It’s usually about her clambering around on the ceiling,” Darius explained.

“I am unappreciated in my time,” groused Tallie, finally hopping down. “One day you’ll all be sorry!”

“Every day, hon,” Rasha assured her.

Trissiny found herself chuckling as they filed through the door into the parlor, herself in the middle of the line with Smythe bringing up the rear. “I’ve really missed you guys.”

In the green parlor, Glory was ensconced gracefully in the thronelike armchair with the high back, positioned before the windows and between two small potted fig trees, a bit of carefully arranged theater which was all part of her skill at controlling the room. True to form, she did not rise—no one who occupied an actual throne did so to greet a visitor—but leaned forward slightly with a smile of such warmth that her welcome was unmistakable.

“Thorn! It’s a delight to see you again; we’ve all been so looking forward to your visit. And your hair! That color is so fetching on you. Or I gather it was, before that unfortunate attempt at a braid. Tallie’s work?”

“Am I gonna have to take offense here?” Tallie demanded.

“Take two,” said Rasha, “and check back with us if the swelling doesn’t subside.”

“Thank you for inviting me, Glory,” Trissiny said, reaching up and grimacing as she tried to pull the braid loose with her fingers. “It’s good to see you, too! And also…” She turned toward the other person in the room, raising her eyebrows.

“There she is!” Sweet said brightly, waving in welcome with the hand not occupied with a small plate of butter cookies. “It has been a hound’s age, Thorn! Always a relief to see you haven’t been murdered yet.”

“Give it a week, it’s the holidays. All my enemies are on vacation. I didn’t realize you missed me this much, Sweet.”

“Alas,” he declaimed, “my normal roguish charm and Glory’s excellent cookies may give the wrong impression! But no, I’m afraid this is not a social call. For I am Sweet, crasher of parties and rainer upon parades!”

“Tooter of his own horn, yes, we’re all familiar with your resume. What can I do for you?”

“Why don’t we all make ourselves comfortable if we’re going to talk business?” Glory suggested in that skillful manner of hers which had the force of a command despite being light and gentle in tone. “I’ll not have a guest in my home pestered when she’s not even had something warm to take the chill off.”

Smythe was smooth to the point of being ephemeral, breezing through their formation like a hospitable ghost with such efficiency that by the time all five of them found their way into seats, each was carrying a plate of cookies and a cup of spiced tea.

“For serious, though, I am sorry to butt in on this,” Sweet said in a less playful tone, nodding to Trissiny and then Glory. “I know this is the big reunion and all, and I hate to make you talk business the second you’re in the door. Unfortunately, my job is about six times as difficult without the structure of the Church bureaucracy to help me along, and I’ve gotta grab what I can get.”

“What’s going on with that, by the way?” Trissiny asked. “I know why there’s still not an Avenist Bishop; Justinian’s dragging his heels on confirming any candidates. How long is the Guild planning to boycott the Church?”

“Oh, man, that’s a big question,” he said, grimacing. “Unfortunately, it’s basically a siege at this point. Tricks was hoping the embarrassment of having a member cult deliberately cut ties—which is unprecedented since the Enchanter Wars—would push Justinian into making some concessions, but he stood his ground, and now that the shock’s good and worn off, he is in exactly the same position he was before, but we can’t change course without so completely losing face that he’d have the permanent upper hand in every subsequent negotiation.”

“The other outcome we hoped for has also not materialized, despite Sweet’s efforts,” Glory added, nodding to the Bishop. “None of the other cults have seen fit to join us and the Avenists in solidarity.”

“Not that we don’t have sympathy,” said Sweet, “or even allies, but… Well, of the other cults that are skeptical of Justinian and inclined to agree with us, it’s not enough for them to want to disadvantage themselves, especially after they’ve seen how the Guild has been frozen out. In the last few months, Gwenfaer has taken to deliberately interfering with Justinian’s plans to the point he has personally called Bishop Raskin down on the carpet, but even so, Raskin remains at his post. I can relate; there’s a lot of advantage in maintaining access. That’s exactly why I stuck by his side for as long as I did. This was a risky maneuver, which…didn’t exactly work out for us.”

“There is also the case of the Izarites,” said Glory, pursing her lips in disapproval. “The Brethren have grown downright cold toward the Church, but Bishop Snowe herself is deep in Justinian’s pocket. At this point, it’s more likely that High Priestess Delaine will dismiss her from her position entirely than direct her to withdraw from the Cathedral. And she is reluctant to do even that, both to avoid the disadvantages the Guild and Sisterhood currently suffer, and because Izarites are traditionally very hands-off with their Bishop.”

“So what I’m hearing is the Pantheon cults are mostly a bunch of spineless chickenshits, that about right?” Tallie inquired.

“Some of ‘em,” Sweet said with clear amusement. “Some just have no care for politics, and many of those that do espouse the practice of keeping one’s enemies close.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “What a mess. I can’t help feeling some of this is my fault.”

“The Sisterhood’s situation, maybe,” Sweet said frankly. “But you did the right thing. After what we learned, there was just no ethical way to leave Basra where she was. In hindsight I am not proud of the years I spent making use of her, even given all the hints of what a warped piece of work she could be.”

“Well,” Trissiny said with a small grin, “use is one thing. In Ninkabi I did convince her to give me a hand.”

Darius choked on his tea.

“Yes, that must’ve been embarrassing for her,” Sweet said solemnly. “To have victory within her grasp, and then…”

“I guess her grip on the situation wasn’t as firm as she thought.”

“Y’might say you beat her to the punch!”

“Really, you two,” Glory said disapprovingly.

“Uh, what am I missing, here?” Tallie asked, glancing back and forth between them in confusion. Rasha leaned over and whispered in her ear; in the next moment she burst out laughing so hard Layla preemptively confiscated her teacup before it could spill.

“Well, anyway,” Trissiny said, suppressing her smile, “I gather all this wasn’t what you wanted to talk about.”

“No indeed,” said Sweet, leaning forward to set his cup down on the low table before his chair. “So, Underboss Pizazz informs me that you’re staying with Duchess Madouri over the break.”

“Yes, that’s so,” she said warily. “Is that…a problem?”

“Oh, not at all,” Sweet reassured her. “You’re not in any trouble, don’t worry. But Tricks and Pizazz are both curious about some points, and you being here is a handy opportunity for me to get a few questions answered, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I don’t see why I would,” Trissiny said, shrugging. “I’m under no obligation to keep Ravana’s secrets. Actually, I don’t think I know any of her secrets.”

“Wait, hang on,” Darius interjected, “I need to clear something up, here. Am I to understand that the Underboss of Madouris is called Pizazz?”

“A thief’s tag is a sacrament, apprentice,” Glory said coolly. “One attached to someone who knows multiple ways to kick your ass. Aside from proper decorum, you should consider whether someone who got to be a city Underboss with a moniker that makes people laugh is worth offending.”

“Noted,” he mumbled.

“The Guild’s leadership in general is quite curious about the Duchess,” Sweet continued, “being that she is a newer face in the political scene and already notably unpredictable, and especially due to her being far more willing to work with us than practically any sitting noble.”

“Really?” Layla asked, visibly intrigued. “The Duchess Madouri cooperates with the Guild? Who initiated that?”

“She did, in fact,” said Sweet. “After she took over the province, her first act was to start dismantling her father’s old network of corrupt cronies who were running it into the ground. A good thing to do, of course; equally of course, the network of corrupt cronies didn’t care to get dismantled. The Duchess found that deploying law enforcement was a lot slower, pricier, and less certain than informing the Guild in detail of what these bastards had been doing and how to reach them, and then making sure that neither the courts nor the papers took an interest in anything that followed.”

“Damn,” Darius muttered. “Sounds…actually like a pretty good ally.”

Trissiny made a face. “Ehhh…”

“And that is Tricks’s position exactly,” Darling stated, pointing at her and nodding. “That girl is…well, she’s a case, all right. We’re very interested in gaining some insight into her. She sensibly keeps everyone at arm’s length, but every hint that emerges points to a pretty spooky individual who is very good at maintaining a positive public reputation. You can see why we’re anxious to get a perspective from someone who knows her personally, good ally or no.”

“I think Ravana is…useful,” Trissiny said slowly. “Cooperating with her up to a point could be very beneficial indeed, but I wouldn’t recommend trusting her outright. You should be wary of what she might do. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the Boss and Pizazz have been doing. Guess that doesn’t add much, does it?”

“Well, you’re the one on a first name basis with her,” Sweet said, giving her an encouraging nod. “Any deeper insight to offer?”

Trissiny frowned at the window for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “This may not make much sense, but… Well, I actually had a fairly deep conversation with Ravana just last night, and the impression I was left with was that I’d probably consider her an absolute monster if I hadn’t seen glimpses of the little girl who grew up alone and unloved.”

“No contradiction there at all,” he said immediately. “That is exactly how monsters get made.” Glory nodded in silent agreement.

“She’s got this peculiar philosophy she’s developed,” Trissiny continued, “about how being a just and generous ruler is purely the act of a far-thinking pragmatist, with no room for sentiment. Honestly, I think Ravana truly wants to be a good person and do the right thing, but has to try to rationalize decent actions to herself to fit with her self-image as a ruthless tyrant, because she’s got it into her head that kindness is for fools and suckers.”

“Oh, come on,” Tallie scoffed, “nobody could be that twisted in the brain and function.”

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Trissiny said dryly, “let’s check with the actual nobles in the room.”

Darius and Layla were both already nodding.

“Oh, I could absolutely see an aristocrat ending up that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have never seen that specific mindset in person, but it really isn’t hard to imagine someone working themselves around to that perspective.”

“You have to understand what it is like, growing up with all that privilege, all those expectations and luxury and power,” Layla said more pensively. “You have to find a way to justify it, and as you get old enough to see what the world and other people are like, that grows progressively harder. Stupid individuals, of course, go through life never questioning anything, but those with an ounce of wit? Well, one of two things happens: they either double down on their self-obsession, or have to reach some kind of…accommodation. Some run away from it, like Darius and I; others build up a mental framework for their world that makes it seem fair and right that they enjoy their position, and then naturally get violent when that cage is shaken. People assume nobles are just arrogant and greedy—and make no mistake, they are—but the truth is that unless they reject their positions, they have to find a way to feel right, and justified. Otherwise their entire world doesn’t make sense anymore. And anyone will fight like a cornered animal if you try to take away their comfortable understanding of reality.”

“All that sounds like a lot of reasons why I should feel pity for the poor little rich kids,” Tallie said, her voice dripping skepticism.

“Layla makes a very good point, in fact,” Glory said softly. “I have observed that very pattern during my long association with the various rich and powerful of Tiraas. Empathy, Tallie, is a potent weapon you should never hastily discard. Only when you understand someone’s mind and can feel their heart can you truly destroy them.”

Rasha nodded thoughtfully.

“This is actually pretty helpful,” Sweet mused. “Maybe not in the most immediately strategic sense, but knowing the shape of the girl’s mindset helps me get a feel for where we stand. I did notice she backed off on pushing that narrative about you three paladins being the new heroes of the people not long into the new academic semester, Thorn. Your doing?”

“Oh, you’d better believe we all leaned on her about that,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Reading those papers, I thought you were in cahoots with her about it.”

“Everyone did,” Rasha said softly. “That, obviously, is why she did it.”

“Overall, I’m getting the impression you’re not overly fond of her,” said Sweet, watching Trissiny closely.

“In a personal sense? Honestly, no.”

“Hm. If you don’t mind my asking, why agree to spend the holidays with her, then?”

“She’s been pushing for it pretty much all semester,” she said, frowning ruminatively. “Most of us have other things we usually do during breaks, but Ravana was really set on having the whole group together off-campus. Ultimately, everybody had their own reasons for agreeing. I was…well, curious. All the nobles I know are either Last Rock fringe cases, deliberate self-exiles like Layla and Darius, or absolute vicious deviants who live permanently up their own butts, like that arrogant naga Irina Araadia. It’s like Glory said: you can’t really fight someone unless you understand them. Looking at the world now, I’m getting the impression I am going to end up butting heads with as many entrenched politicians as warlocks and necromancers and whatnot. Ravana is a convenient opportunity to observe the species up close.”

“The species,” Layla sniffed. “Very nice.”

“Accurate, though,” Darius said, grinning.

“Ah, so this is a learning opportunity for you, as well,” Sweet chuckled.

“A very wise approach,” Glory said approvingly.

“Overall,” Trissiny went on, “nothing I’ve seen makes me think Ravana is going to be a threat to the Guild’s interests. She has nothing like an Eserite mindset, but I think that in general she’ll be inclined to do what’s best for the people of her province, even if her reasons are a bit squirrelly. But I’d caution the Boss and Pizazz never to take that for granted. I don’t think the woman actually has any moral scruples; she actively disdains the idea of them. If she decides something is in the best interests of her duty, well, no moral consideration is going to make her even hesitate. But she does take that duty seriously.”

“All very good to know,” Sweet said, nodding. “Thanks for dishing with me, Thorn, that kind of insight is well worth me coming down here. Pizazz will be glad to hear your thoughts, too. But anyway!” he said, slapping his knee and leaning back, “with that out of the way, I understand there’s another interfaith matter closer to home everybody wanted to bring up with you. Rasha?”

“Rasha?” Trissiny turned to her, raising her eyebrows.

Rasha sighed softly. “Yes, well. I assume you’re familiar with the Purists?”

“Purists?” The paladin’s eyebrows rose further. “Wait, with a capital P? Did you have a brush with one of those ninnies? I am so sorry, Rasha. Quite honestly, nobody has much patience for them. If you just passed their name and location to Grip and let nature take its course, I don’t think anyone in the Sisterhood would even complain.”

A tense silence fell over the room. Trissiny looked at each of them in turn, then sighed grimaced and leaned forward to set down her cup and saucer on the table.

“All right, sounds like I’d better hear the long version. Who do I need to clobber this time?”

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16 – 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another silence fell, this one more dour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darius rolled his eyes melodramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ninetails mentioned that,” Rasha said, nodding.

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

Silence fell again, this one especially pensive.

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


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

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

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

“Over the line, is what it is.”

“Really. The very nerve.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even in bed, I hear.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So much possibility and freedom!”

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

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

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

“Oh, she’s gorgeous! Congratulations!”

“What’s her name?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I?!”

“Me first!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sweet,” she warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heh heh.”

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

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16 – 4

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“The one and only!” Rasha said with a broad smile. “Something I can help you ladies with? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

It was instinct, by that point: never let them see you’re afraid. Glory had not only schooled her apprentices in Eserite philosophy, but drilled them in roleplayed scenarios with herself and one another until she was satisfied that they would reflexively default to a Guild thief’s poise and confidence under any pressure. And so, in a situation wherein the old Rasha would have quailed and tried to run, or perhaps lashed out and suffered the consequences, she just smiled, giving them nothing.

Also, the well-practiced calm enabled her to keep in mind that she was a welcome guest in this temple and there were Silver Legionnaires within earshot. These three were working to project an intimidating presence, but if they actually did anything, it would be they and not Rasha who landed in hot water. Had Zafi already left? She didn’t dare concede her nervousness by turning to look.

“This isn’t a social call, boy,” the woman in the lead sneered, and Rasha was proud of herself for keeping her composure. They couldn’t tell, she knew it with an empirical certainty beyond even her own insecurities. Glory, a ruthless taskmaster as much as she was a nurturing mother hen, had deliberately put Rasha into social situations arranged entirely to prove to her that no one saw her as anything but a young woman after a year of transitioning, counseling, and coaching. Which meant…

“I don’t know exactly how you got your hooks into our paladin, but the last thing she needs is more of a corrupting influence,” the ringleader stated, tilting her head back to stare down the considerable length of her nose at Rasha. “It stops, now. Am I understood?”

Yep, there it was. Thorn was going to stomp these imbeciles into paste when she learned about this.

And as if by magic, that realization sucked all the menace out of their ambush.

Rasha kept her amiable smile in place, affecting an idly interested posture of her head while they prattled on.

“It’s bad enough the High Commander sees fit to indulge perverse men in…this,” the woman on the left said, putting on an identical sneer. “But don’t get too comfortable with it. Things are changing around here.”

“That’s a problem for another time, though,” added the third, folding her arms across her tabard. “Have your fun while you can. But you will keep away from General Avelea.”

“I don’t want to hear any more about you infecting her with Eserite nonsense, to say nothing of pushing the idea that your mental illness deserves to be recognized as Sisterhood doctrine,” the leader chimed in. “You thieves can be as sick as you want on your own time.”

“It’s Rasha, yes? Is that your made-up name? Well, whatever you’re really called, we know where you stay and—”

She broke off incredulously as Rasha yawned. Widely, but discreetly covering her mouth with her fingers. A lady, as Glory insisted, did not show off her molars.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Rasha said politely, managing not to betray her amusement at their expressions. “It’s been a long day already. Would you mind awfully getting to the point? It’s just that I don’t really have time for halfhearted schoolyard bullying today. Not that you’re not very good at it, I’m sure, but some of us are grown-ups, with jobs.”

They stared at her, the two on the sides with their mouths satisfyingly open. The leader managed to look even more belligerent, however.

“Oh, I see,” she snorted. “You think you’re clever. How very like an Eserite.”

“So, that’s a no, then?” Rasha said pleasantly. “Very well, you three have a lovely afternoon. I’m going to leave now.” She almost took a step backward to extricate herself from their formation, but then had a better idea. “And you,” she continued, polite as ever, “are going to get out of my way.”

The leader’s fingers shifted to grasp the handle of her longsword; the woman on the left actually gasped in outrage, while the other flushed nearly crimson, her Stalweiss coloring making it especially vivid.

“Oh,” the ringleader said quietly from behind clenched teeth. “Are we?”

“Yes, you are,” Rasha replied, batting her eyelashes. “I am an apprentice of the Theives’ Guild, and a welcome guest in this temple. Lay a finger on me or draw that sword, and you’ll be tossed out of here on your ear by Silver Legionnaires, just for starters. Then you will be dragged into an alley for an etiquette lesson by six enforcers before you can flee the city. And none of us wants that, girls. I don’t want it because stirring up drama like that would be a terrible repayment to all the people in the Sisterhood who have been very kind to me.” She smiled more broadly, again batting her eyes. Just because it was classically, stereotypically feminine, and they would hate it. “And you don’t want it because you’re cowards.”

“You little Punaji brat,” hissed the second woman, actually sliding her blade a few inches out of the sheath, but the leader reached across to grab her wrist. Rasha kept eye contact with the woman in the center, not looking around to check for intervention. The sanctuary was almost crowded; someone had to be overhearing this. Legionnaires might not have been able to see the almost-drawn sword, with the four of them clustered together, but it was only a matter of time before somebody stepped in.

“Cowards, are we,” the leader said very flatly.

“Well, you seem to think it takes three of you to corner a girl half your size,” Rasha simpered. “And there’s the fact that your entire spiritual philosophy is that the sex you were accidentally born into doesn’t feeeeeeel as special if just anybody’s allowed in. Yes, I think the word applies. Don’t you?”

“Now you listen to—”

“Nope.” Rasha took one step forward; the woman didn’t back up. “You’ve wasted enough of my time. Draw the sword, or get out of the way.”

She flexed her fingers once, adjusting her grip on the hilt, eyes narrowing to slits.

“Do it,” Rasha said softly, dropping the smile. “I dare you. Do. It. Coward.”

The woman tensed, and for an instant Rasha thought she actually might.

Before anything could come of it, though, a fifth person inserted herself into their cluster. Sliding in as deftly as an alley cat, she draped an arm around Rasha’s shoulders and pushed herself subtly to the fore mostly by surreptitiously forcing Rasha backward.

It was a woman with tousled black hair and angular Sifanese (or maybe Sheng, Rasha still couldn’t reliably spot the difference) features, wearing a ragged Punaji-style greatcoat over a clearly armored leather vest.

“Hiiii,” she said in a breathy voice, eyes vacantly wide, and let her head list deeply to one side as if drunk, staring up at the central woman. “You have really pretty eyes.”

The Purist’s leader frowned, and actually took a step back, her two compatriots squinting in confusion at the new arrival. “What? I don’t… Listen, young woman, this is a private conversation.”

“Pretty eyes. Pretty, pretty eyes,” the woman crooned. Her accent was local, despite the foreign features. Well, the Empire had birthright citizenship and Tiraas itself was a melting pot, so one couldn’t assume. Rasha’s inward attempt to size up the interloper who was still clutching her faltered at her next comment. “Can I have them?”

The Purists all three stepped back, incidentally opening up their tight formation and exposing the center of lines of sight from several directions. Rasha, glancing rapidly about, immediately noticed two Legionnaires and a priestess watching them intently.

“They sing to me,” the Sifanese(?) woman cooed, beginning to sway back and forth subtly, tugging Rasha along with her. “I hear them in my dreams. They want to be mine. Pretty please, pretty eyes? I’ll give them a good home.”

Grimacing in pure disgust, the Purist leader finally turned and strode away. Her lieutenants fell in alongside her, the Stalweiss one with a lingering glare. In seconds they had departed through the temple’s front doors, all of the nearby Legionnaires openly turning to watch them go.

The second they were gone, the woman released Rasha and turned to face her. The daffy expression had vanished from her face, replaced by a sharp glare.

“You, apprentice, will run straight home and inform your sponsor of the dumbass stunt you just pulled. If you explain exactly why that was a stupid thing to do and what could have gone horribly wrong, she probably won’t box your ears the way you’d be in for if you were my apprentice. Glory’s a soft touch.”

“Me?” Rasha protested, at once relieved and offended. It was good news that the woman was Guild, but this… “I was just—”

“Oh, I was so worried!” the woman squalled suddenly, hurling herself forward and throwing her arms around Rasha in a big hug. It probably looked like a friendly gesture from the outside; only Rasha could feel the rigid fingertips digging into the pressure points at the base of her skull.

“The Guild and the Sisterhood are both unrepresented in the Church right now,” the Eserite hissed right into Rasha’s ear while soothingly rocking them both back and forth for the benefit of the onlookers. “We don’t get along great at the best of times. Intercult relations are incredibly delicate, and strained enough with that fanatical splinter sect suddenly infesting the city. What I do not fucking need is untethered apprentices picking fights with them in the temple.”

“They started—”

Rasha cut herself off, a second too late. The enforcer slowly released her, pulling back and gaze down at her face with a condescending little smirk.

“No, please, go on,” she said sweetly. “Finish your thought.”

Punaji were raised not to complain about fairness; under other circumstances, Rasha might have gracefully accepted the rebuke. But she had been standing up to bullies, doing exactly what Eserites were supposed to do. Straightening her spine, she stepped backward, pulling herself out of the woman’s grasp.

“Well. I won’t keep you any longer, if you’re here on business.”

“Too right, you won’t,” she said brusquely, already striding past her toward the rear of the sanctuary. Her voice rang out as she went: “Straight to Glory, now! She won’t like it if she has to hear about this from me.”

Still practically quivering with repressed fury, Rasha herself set off for the front doors at a stately glide, spine rigid and nose upright. One of the Legionnaires actually opened the door for her, with a sympathetic look. She barely had the self-possession to nod politely in acknowledgment.

That had stirred her up even worse than the ambush. Purists and other assholes she expected to behave that way; where the hell did a Guild enforcer get off rebuking her for doing exactly what she was being trained by the Guild to do?

Fortunately, the frigid air of Imperial Square did a lot to clear her head. Rasha turned up the fur collar of her dress, surreptitiously thumbing the rune on the warming charm hidden underneath it.

The Square was as stirred up as the temple had been; apparently she wasn’t the only one having an eventful morning. Rasha slipped to one side, out of the path of traffic, and paused in the shadow of one of the great columns to study the comings and goings. A column of soldiers was just marching past, and there were knots of people clustered together in excitable conversation all across the temple steps. What had gotten under everybody’s skin this morning?

Picking out a piercing voice from the hubbub, Rasha set off sideways toward one end of the temple steps, just in time to intercept a young boy coming round the corner, pulling a wagon full of newspapers, waving one over his head, and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“EXTRA, SPECIAL EDITION! READ THE BREAKING NEWS ON THE ELVEN CRISIS! IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”

She mutely tossed him a silver coin, receiving a grin and a deftly thrown paper in response. Rasha ripped off the twine and unfolded it enough to read the front page while he carried on into the Square.

Though she wasn’t personally much interested in politics, one didn’t live under Glory’s tutelage without developing a careful respect for the web of interconnected forces that made the Empire work, and sometimes prevented it from working. Rasha’s frown rapidly deepened as her eyes darted across the lines of text.

“The elves did what?”


“Formed a united government, including the legendary high elves! As Veilgrad’s most celebrated elven resident, my readers would be very interested in your insight into these developing events.”

Macy poised her pencil over her open notepad, gazing expectantly at her target with a big smile of anticipation in place.

“I straight up don’t believe you,” Natchua said bluntly. “If you told me the Matriarchs and Elders all linked arms and went square dancing in Imperial Square, that would be more plausible.”

The reporter had the temerity to grin at her, not looking down at where she was scribbling on the pad. Omnu’s breath, was she really writing that down? “Well, assuming for the sake of argument that I’m right, can I get a quote on this from you, Natchua?”

“Here’s a headline for you: annoying reporter continues to abuse the fact that I don’t indiscriminately immolate people.”

She wrote that down, too, looking not the least bit discomfited. “You grew up in Tar’naris, I’m sure you have more insight than practically anyone into what the ramifications of this might be. Veilgrad really respects your perspective, Natchua, and it’s especially applicable here. A word from you would mean a lot to people.”

Flattery and manipulation, and both so ham-fisted they would have provoked only annoyance in Tar’naris. Natchua indulged in an irritated sigh. Macy Vaucherot, which was pronounced in zee authentic Glassian manner, the pretentious tit (even though Veilgrad was full of old families with Glassian names who had been fully Imperial for at least five generations), was actually one of the less irritating reporters who tended to buzz around. One of the more persistent and least intimidated by casual displays of infernomancy, true, but at least she only published what she actually heard in that paper of hers, without the embellishments or outright fabrications which had almost sent Natchua to kicking down some of her rivals’ doors before her entire household had frantically talked her down from that idea.

And for that matter, she certainly did have opinions about Tar’naris and what such a development would mean for the Empire, and came perilously close to starting in on them before the recollection of Melaxyna and Kheshiri’s hurried advice about the power of the press came back to mind.

Elilial’s remarks about Natchua’s so-called “cunning” had, over the last several months, frequently made her stop and second-guess her first impulses. There was actually a pattern, she’d found; while most of her actions were described with words like “reckless” and “harebrained” by those close to her, in hindsight she noticed that they tended to lead to success when she spotted a benefit others had missed and aimed right at it with no regard for common sense, whereas just acting out of temper or apathy rarely ended well. It didn’t take much reflection to see which of those it would be to rant at a reporter about what abhorrent monsters most Narisians were. It was true, but the knowledge wouldn’t do anything to help anybody who got their news from Macy’s rag. Riling up the local populace and pissing off the Imperial Foreign Service might be worthwhile in a hypothetical situation where there was a benefit to her in it, but this was not one of those.

“I wasn’t a noble or anything, in Tar’naris,” Natchua said carefully. “I came from the farming House, and most of what I was taught about the affairs of the powerful was to stay as far from them as possible. I don’t think I actually have much in the way of insight into this, Macy.”

“But you were selected to attend the legendary University at Last Rock!”

“Yeah,” Natchua said dryly, “I’m the one who got kicked out, if you’ll recall. Look, international relations are over my head. What I do know is that the Tiraan Empire has not endured for a thousand years by being stupid, and the Tirasian Dynasty deserves credit for stitching the whole thing back together within a few years of the Enchanter Wars and keeping it that way during a century of unprecedented changes of all kinds. I have no idea how international relations should be handled, but it seems to me the people whose job that is are pretty good at it. Unexpected surprises like this are a good time for all of us out here in Veilgrad to stay the course and let the diplomats work. I can’t think of any recent examples of them letting us down.”

“But what about—”

“Good chat, Macy, but you caught me on the way to an appointment. Bye,” Natchua said firmly, turning away.

“I just wonder if you have any thoughts on—”

At least this time she didn’t shout or try to chase after her when Natchua shadow-jumped fifty feet up the street; experience had taught her that would only drive her quarry away faster.

The short range jump had put her in front of a public house with an outdoor terrace, on which a cluster of students from the nearby college were gathered around a brazier holding pints. Upon her appearance, one of them pressed himself against the waist-high wall, brandishing his tankard at her.

“Veilgrad stands!” he yelled unsteadily.

“Veilgrad stands!” she shouted back, pointing at him. A roar of approval rose from the whole group, and Natchua carried on down the sidewalk, grinning as they clamored behind her, though she did mutter to herself. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, ya louts.”

Her destination was another pub, this one abandoned since the chaos crisis, after which its owner had packed up and moved his operations to Mathenon, where the climate was mild, the coin flowed like water and nothing even slightly interesting ever happened. The Mad Marquis had stood empty till the catacomb reconstruction efforts had brought Agatha Svanwen’s company to Veilgrad. Then, its empty condition, central location, and basement access to the catacomb system had made it an appealing headquarters for her stonemasons.

The Svanwen Company guards out front waved her in with a smile. Inside, the common room was filled with masons and miners sitting around at tables and notably not doing any work; they raised such a cheer at Natchua’s arrival that it took her a few minutes to get it quieted down enough to receive directions to the basement access.

At least it was quieter down there, though notably tense, as she observed immediately on arrival.

Svanwen herself was present, along with two of her employees, a dwarven man who’d come with her from Stavulheim and a Veilgrad local, both wearing suits and holding clipboards rather than stoneworking tools. Standing at the other side of the room and looking notably unhappy were five humans in Imperial Army uniforms, complete with the eye symbol on a blue background of the Azure Corps.

“Finally, here she is,” said the man apparently in the lead, who wore a captain’s stripes and a disgruntled expression. “Can we get this over with?”

“And hello to you too,” Natchua said, raising her eyebrows. “I’m quite well today, thank you for asking.”

“Thanks for coming, Natchua,” Svanwen said with that firmly calm voice she so often used to keep order among her laborers. “I appreciate you going out of your way. This is Captain Fedhaar, from the Azure Corps.”

“Commander of the Fourth Infernal Containment Unit,” Fedhaar said with a bit more grace, finally nodding to her.

“Enchanté ,” Natchua replied. “So what’s this I hear about demons in the tunnel?”

“Probably not more than one,” Svanwen said before the captain could reply. “A few of my people have been seeing odd tracks since last week, but one finally got a look at it yesterday. Needless to say, I ceased operations and pulled everybody out, and we’ve had a guard posted on every entrance we couldn’t seal up outright. By the description, it’s pretty clearly a rozzk’shnid.”

Natchua glanced at Fedhaar, then back to her, frowning. “Well, those do like tunnels, but they’re not sapient and can’t use magic. What do you need me for, exactly?”

“She wants you to clear the creature out. Isn’t it obvious?” Captain Fedhaar said sarcastically, folding his arms. “Nothing but the legendary Natchua will do.”

Another time she might have taken exception to the attitude, but in this case Natchua had to agree with him.

“Seriously?” she demanded, pointing to the disgruntled battlemages while holding Svanwen’s gaze. “You’ve got the most highly-trained professionals at demon containment on the continent, on loan from the Imperial Army, to deal with what amounts to an animal control problem? That’s already overkill, not to mention a situation that can only get messier the more people are involved. What the hell is my gray ass doing down here?”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Fedhaar, apparently meaning it. At any rate, he looked a bit less irritated.

“You’re right, as demons go, a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels isn’t much of a crisis,” Svanwen agreed. “Hell, I could take care of the damn thing myself with a battlestaff and a hunting party. At this point, it’s more a matter of morale and personnel management, Natchua. Sometimes, the best person for the job isn’t the best person for the job.”

Natchua blinked at her, then turned to Fedhaar. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

He shrugged. “Lady, I’m in the Army. The brass rarely uses the best person for the job, but I don’t think it’s on purpose.”

“It’s like this,” said the dwarf, now with some amusement. “My crew are composed of my own people from Stavulheim, who have no particular faith in the Imperial government, and locals who are of…divided opinions. Some of ‘em will no doubt be reassured by knowing the Army is on the case, but not all, and maybe not most. Like I said, this is not a big deal. All of us together are well more than a match for the creature. But what I need to get my people back to work is assurance that there aren’t demons in the tunnels, so they don’t have to be looking over their shoulders every five seconds. I asked you to come, Natchua, to lend your credibility. We track the thing down and kill it, and then I can get the say-so of everyone’s favorite friendly local warlock and hero of the Battle of Ninkabi that it’s safe to get back to work.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, then grimaced apologetically at Captain Fedhaar. “Well… Crap. I guess I can’t turn up my nose at that, can I? As the least actually useful person here, it’d be an asshole move to not contribute what relatively little I can. All right, Agatha, fair enough. I’m in.”

“Glad to have you,” the dwarf said with a smile. “I’ll earmark you an honorarium from the discretionary—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I mean, thanks, but what the hell would I buy? Anything I need, Sherwin is happy to squander his ancestral wealth on. Save your funds for the folks doing the real work.”

“Huh,” Fedhaar grunted, staring at Natchua. “You weren’t kidding, Ms. Svanwen. Everything about her screams ‘cocky, irritating college kid,’ but damn if she doesn’t leave me with a positive impression.”

“Yeah, I’m a real fudge-dipped strawberry,” she drawled. “Everybody loves Natchua. All right, then! C’mon, nobody’s getting any younger. Let’s go fuck around in the dark demon-infested tunnels.”

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16 – 3

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“I spent some time thinking on it, like you asked. The thing is… Rasha isn’t exactly a name, at least not a traditional one. My sisters and all were all named like that, either after obscure literary references or just… Half-remembered bits of elvish or Sifanese our father heard once. It’s just not gendered, at all; it’s not rooted in enough tradition to be, either way.”

“It sounds like there’s an interesting story behind it,” Sister Iona said with her characteristic gentle smile, nodding. “Of course, what’s at issue is how you feel about it.”

“I feel attached,” Rasha said frankly. “It’s like you said a while ago: just because a lot of things need to change doesn’t mean everything does. You asked me to think about a name as an expression of my identity, and the only thing I can bring to mind is the one I already have. It’s mine. And… This sounds weird to say, but I find that now that I like myself, I like my name a lot more than I used to. Is that weird?”

“Nothing about it is weird,” she said with that gentle firmness she was so good at, helping to banish uncertainty without seeming pushy. “I’m glad you took the time to mull it over, Rasha. Remember, everyone’s journey is individual; if this is what’s right for you, then this is your truth. I hope I didn’t come across as pressuring you to take a new name.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” she replied hastily. “I mean, you didn’t. I may have nagged at myself about it a little; you know how I tend to get into my own head. When you described how common it is for people transitioning to rename themselves, I couldn’t help feeling like maybe I was doing it wrong.”

“And what do I always say about that?” Iona asked, smiling.

“There is no doing it wrong,” Rasha recited dutifully, unable to repress a smile in kind.

“Exactly! Everyone’s journey is individual, Rasha. I’ve helped guide a lot of women through these initial steps. It has given me a sense of how they tend to progress, usually, enough that I notice when someone is taking an uncommon path. At moments like that, I pay closer attention because there are often pitfalls on those paths. But in all these years, it has never become formulaic, or rote. All of these stories are unique. And in your case? I’ve watched you grow into yourself with amazing depth in the last year, Rasha. I am honestly not worried about your future, not with regard to this name thing, or in general. You are doing wonderfully. We’re simply at a stage where I find myself running through my checklist, making sure we’ve done everything as thoroughly as we can.”

Rasha’s smile faded slowly into seriousness. “Does that mean… Are we nearing the end?”

“There is no timetable,” Iona reassured her quickly. “The Sisterhood provides this support for as long as it’s needed. Many of the women I work with keep coming back for years, but then, some have ended their sessions as soon as their physical transitions are finished. How long we keep going is entirely for you to decide, Rasha. Consider me at your disposal.”

“I appreciate you, Sister,” Rasha said, her smile returning. “Has… Um, Sister Eivery said she wanted me to come for at least a couple more sessions, at weekly intervals, but she said as long as there are no surprising complications, I actually shouldn’t need any more alchemy.”

“Yes, she’s kept me appraised of your progress,” Iona said, nodding. “It’s quite a milestone. Are you feeling comfortable in your body?”

“So much so that it’s a constant euphoria,” Rasha said with quiet fervor. “I was so used to feeling wrong for years I just thought that was normal. Not feeling that way… It’s like being drunk. Is that weird?”

Iona tilted her head to give her a look over the rims of her glasses, a smile playing about her lips to soften the mock-severe expression.

“I know, I know,” Rasha said, grinning. “Nothing is weird.”

“Some things are a little weird,” the priestess demurred, still smiling. “It’s all right for them to be, and valid to feel that way. The question to which we’ve come, then, is how much longer you feel our sessions should continue.”

Rasha hesitated, her face falling still. The silence stretched out.

Sister Iona just watched her with patient, welcoming calm, and Rasha took a moment to turn her head to gaze out the window, knowing from experience that the priestess would give her as much time as she needed to marshal her thoughts.

The view wasn’t great; these rooms in the uppermost corridors of the Temple of Avei were designed to be comfortable and intimate, but they were in the medical wing, after all. Attached to the Silver Legion grounds as it was, that left it looking out over the descending arc of Tiraas rather than the famous Imperial Square, with a view that was half-blocked by an Imperial government building and a Rynean museum. Rasha had always found that it suited her, though. Having grown up on the docks, grandeur wasn’t really to her taste, though she had grown accustomed to Glory’s lavish standard of personal comfort.

She looked back at Iona’s eyes, prompting another gentle smile from the older woman, but the priestess just kept waiting for her to gather herself. Iona, she was pretty sure, was Thakari, to judge by her build and the shade of her skin. Identifying people by ethnic markers was one of the skills in which Glory was training her, and Westerners were by far the easiest: they ranged from the lean, almost-black Onkawi up in the tropics and grew thicker and paler the farther south one went to the sub-arctic N’Jendo/Athan’Khar border. Other divisions were subtler and still eluded her. Glory insisted that even among the Tiraan, an experienced eye could differentiate between the Calderaan, Tira, Vrandin and Mathena. Rasha still wasn’t entirely certain this was not one of Glory’s elaborate jokes.

“I am…sort of…torn,” she said finally.

Iona just nodded once, her silence encouraging.

“I don’t feel…ready,” Rasha admitted. “I still feel like I gain from every one of these sessions. I don’t want to quit them.”

“There is no hurry to,” the priestess assured her.

“And yet…I want to be done,” she said, lowering her gaze. “I just… I feel like I’m missing out, just sitting here and doing this. I keep remembering last year, how all my friends rushed off to Puna Dara to fight the Rust and save my own people, while I’ve done nothing but sit here in Tiraas learning…” She pursed her lips. “Learning how to be a girl. I feel like I should be doing so much more.”

“It is valid to feel that way,” Sister Iona said, nodding again. “But when you’re feeling something negative that drags you down and isn’t an accurate reflection of your situation, it’s very helpful to stop and remind yourself of what things are actually like. You can’t banish an emotion by denying it, but letting yourself feel a more positive one can be as simple as deliberately appreciating what you can about your life.”

“Isn’t it accurate, though? I’m nothing but an apprentice, after all. I study and practice with Glory and the others, I come here, and that’s pretty much…”

“Well, anything can sound tedious if you put it that way,” Iona countered, openly grinning now. “Not getting into the tensions between our cults, Rasha, I can absolutely assure you that no Eserite I’ve ever met has had a less than interesting life. Your dreary apprenticeship is with no less a luminary than Tamisin Sharvineh, who has the ear of dukes and generals and circulates with the Empire’s elite. And honestly, Rasha, you may have missed out on the escapade in Puna Dara, but… Do you still write to Trissiny?”

“Regularly, yes,” she said with a smile. “She’s actually going to visit soon. School is out for the winter and several of her friends are staying in Madouris over the break with Duchess Ravana.”

In fact, she was looking forward to that more than she admitted. Even after months of correspondence, she couldn’t help thinking of her friend as Jasmine, and couldn’t quite picture her blonde. Steady, reassuring Jasmine was sorely missed; she and Ross had been the calming presences in their group of friends.

“One thing I can tell you about Hands of Avei,” Iona said a little wryly, “is that if you’re going to stay in the orbit of one, you can expect to find yourself frequently outclassed to an extent that’s not great for the ego, while also being regularly dragged into adventures the likes of which you could never have anticipated. The truth is, Rasha, you are very young. Everyone your age is young, but you are also standing at the beginning of a lot of paths that lead in very interesting directions indeed. If there’s one thing you needn’t worry about, it’s that this is all you are. It’s only the beginning, I promise you. What we do here is by definition a transitional phase. None of use can know the future, Rasha, but yours isn’t going to be boring, that much I can confidently predict.”

Rasha found herself grinning at that. Before she could answer, the clock sitting on Iona’s desk chimed.

“Ah, I don’t have an appointment after yours today,” the priestess said quickly, “so this time there’s no need to rush off if you’d like to talk a while longer.”

“Actually…” Rasha stood, floating up from the settee in a smooth and poised motion in which Glory had drilled her; doing actual drills of that had felt ridiculous at the time, but she was very grateful in hindsight. Even Sister Iona had found cause to compliment the progress she’d made as a direct result of the courtesan’s tutelage. “Do you mind if we leave it at the usual time, today? I want to think some more on what you said.”

“Of course, Rasha,” Iona replied, also standing. “That’s half the benefit of having defined sessions, and you’re very good about progressing on your own. At the usual time next week, then?”

“Yes, please,” Rasha said with a grateful smile.

“And you know my office schedule, if you ever need to talk in a hurry.” Iona uncharacteristically hesitated, a small frown drifting over her features, which caused Rasha to frown worriedly in response. The priestess was one of the most consistently warm and composed people she’d ever met. “Actually, I do have to make a request of you today, Rasha, and I can only promise you that I don’t mean any offense.”

“What’s the matter?” Rasha asked, beginning to be actively worried now.

“I wonder,” Iona said, still with that concerned little frown, “if you wouldn’t mind leaving the temple through the side entrance today, the one just before the hallway transitioning to the barracks.”

Rasha drew her own eyebrows further together. “I don’t see why not… Is something going on, Sister?”

“I’m sure you recall my mention of the Purists,” Iona replied, momentarily clenching her lips in disapproval.

“You mean, that obscure Avenist faction that wants to murder me on principle?”

“They’ve never escalated to murder that I know of,” the priestess said reassuringly, “and between you and me, I hesitate to call their doctrine principle. But they’re somewhat less obscure right here and now, as over a hundred of them from across the continent have gathered in Tiraas to present grievances to the High Commander. And they first tried it in Viridill, at the Golden Legion headquarters and then the Abbey, and both Locke and Darnassy laughed them off. These women were already riled up beyond their norm by the time they got here. I’m just…concerned.”

Rasha put on a carefully sculpted expression straight from Glory’s training, a look that expressed disdain with just enough humor not to be offensive to the person she was talking to. “Really, Sister Iona, I can’t emphasize enough how little I’m afraid of a flock of bullying hens.”

“This is an Avenist matter, Rasha,” Iona said quietly. “You have your faith; I have mine, and it includes strict doctrines about conflict. No Avenist worth the iron in her blood would seek unnecessary confrontation, or allow noncombatants to be drawn into it. You are here as a guest and petitioner, entitled to the temple’s protection, and I don’t want you having to deal with this nonsense. Please, Rasha.”

It had been perilously close to a provocation, asking an Eserite to shy away from even the chance of confronting a confirmed asshole in need of a comeuppance, but at Iona’s soft explanation Rasha felt her rising pique melt away into chagrin. Of course, she wasn’t the only one here with a religious imperative, and while she naturally had issue with some of the Avenists’ ideas, it couldn’t be argued that the Sisterhood overall, and especially individuals like Trissiny, Iona, and Eivery, had been very kind to her.

“Of course, I understand,” she said, nodding in acquiescence. “No sense courting trouble, after all.”

“Indeed there is not.” Iona opened the door to usher her out into the hall, again smiling warmly. “You will always be welcome here, and I don’t want anyone trying to make you feel otherwise.”

“I’ll be sure not to listen to anyone who does,” Rasha promised. “See you next week as usual, Sister Iona.”

“Next week, then. Take care of yourself, Rasha.”

She was still smiling slightly as she glided down the hall after Iona closed her office door behind. By this point, the ladylike glide was practiced enough that she could do it without conscious concentration. A lot of things felt like they’d come together over the last year. Iona was right: building an identity was necessary work and took time. The more ready she felt, though, the more anxious Rasha was to get to actual work. Eserion’s faithful weren’t called to sit around in comfort while corrupt people had their way with society.

Fortunately, she didn’t have any more time to stew in her thoughts, as the path took her to a staffed checkpoint at the end of the upper hall, where the Sisterhood felt it prudent to keep track of who was passing in and out of these publicly available offices in their medical wing. This also afforded Rasha some extra practice at her poise and control, as the pretty Legionnaire was on duty.

“Hi there,” the woman said with an easy grin as she approached the doorway to the stairwell where two troops were always stationed. Half a head taller than Rasha (but so were most people), she was Tiraan, with her black hair twisted up in a regulation bun rather than cut short, and even in full armor and standing at attention she had a permanent twinkle in the eye, a way of looking roguish that would have better suited an Eserite. And she was friendly in a way that had several times left Rasha inwardly scrambling to figure out if she’d meant anything by it. “If it isn’t the cute Punaji lady! I thought this was the right day of the week.”

She slowed to a halt before the doorway, meeting the soldier’s eyes with some bemusement. That seemed a little more definitive… One of Glory’s lessons about not creating potential awkwardness in what should be safe places swam across her memory, but she let it float away, instead reaching for more pertinent recollections of her sponsor’s coaching. Posture, expression, just the slightest tilt of her head so making eye contact with the taller person made her look up through her lashes…

“And hello to you, too. My friends call me Rasha.”

The woman’s grin widened in response, and she made a little double-waggle with her eyebrows. “Does that mean we’re friends?”

This was new ground. Bless Glory’s tutelage, that question alone would have set a younger Rasha to blushing and stammering incoherently. Now, she knew how to harness emotion and control it, not allowing the very physical thrill prickling up and down her spine at being openly flirted with to determine what was expressed on her face. Conversations had rhythms, and her repartee had been not only coached by the courtesan with whom she was training, but deliberately practiced with Layla (and Tallie, earnestly pretending she was just helping Rasha while soaking up the same lessons).

“Better that than the alternative, isn’t it?” she rejoined, concentrating on her face. Left side of the lips turned upward in a half-smile, deliberately softening the muscles around her eyes so it didn’t look like a smirk…

The second Legionnaire on the other side of the door rolled her eyes, but Rasha’s new “friend” gave her a very similar not-quite-smirk in return.

“Glad to finally meet you, Rasha. I’m Zafi. Might I offer you an escort to the front doors? I’d hate to think of a guest in our temple getting lost.”

Yes! Not because she needed help finding her way, as Zafi had to know; she’d been on duty here off and on for half a year now, and they’d met at least once a month. Rasha kept the glee firmly contained, simply giving her a soft smile accompanied by a languid blink of her eyes. Glory had made her befriend a stray cat to get that one down.

“In fact, I would appreciate it. I hear there are dangerous extremists about today.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Zafi said solemnly. “Hey, Nimbi, do me a favor?”

“I will not do you any favors,” the other Legionnaire said irritably. “Not that you need one, as you well know escorting a guest is an acceptable reason to leave your post. Try to keep the dawdling to a minimum, would you?”

“You’re a peach, Nimbi,” Zafi said with an irrepressible grin, already stepping aside and gesturing to the door with a grand bow. “Right this way, if you please, m’lady.”

“Now, now, just Rasha is fine,” she replied, already sashaying past her. “I thought we were going to be friends, remember?”

Zafi laughed obligingly as she followed, and then they were descending the stairs in sudden silence. Still desperately keeping facial composure, Rasha groped about inside her head with increasing frenzy for something to keep the conversation going. Shit, what now? She’d practiced this stuff, why was it not…

“I’m sure you don’t need your personal business pried into, so by all means shut me down if I get too nosy,” Zafi said, and Rasha barely managed not to gasp with relief. “Is it true you’re Eserite?”

“Oh?” Rasha asked, channeling her sudden wariness into a coy sidelong glance. “Am I the subject of gossip in the ranks?”

“I hope you’re not offended,” Zafi said lightly. “You just can’t parade a mysterious and exotic lady in front of soldiers on a weekly basis and expect there not to be gossip. Simply isn’t done.”

“Now I find myself wondering where that rumor originated,” she murmured. It was a serious question; counseling was supposed to be absolutely confidential. And if there were Purists sniffing around the temple…

“Alas, I fear hunting that down is beyond my skill,” Zafi lamented. “You know how rumors work. It’s so hard to trace them back to their source it’s almost like they burst up out of the ground like cabbages. Why, is that one true?”

“I’m certain I have no idea where such a thing could possibly have come from,” Rasha said primly, while flicking a doubloon out of the wide sleeve of her winter dress into her palm. She made the coin roll smoothly across the backs of her fingers, flicked it in a flashing arc to her other hand where she rolled it the rest of the way and then made it vanish into the other sleeve. “Really, the very notion!”

Zafi whistled appreciatively at the performance. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for being intrigued! They do say Eserites are…dangerous.”

“Anyone with a mind to be is dangerous, darling,” Rasha said, shooting her a sly smile.

The soldier winked, and she felt a flutter in her chest in response. “You’re talking to someone with a sword, cutie, don’t have to tell me twice. It’s almost a let down, unraveling some of the mystery. Almost more fun to wonder what your deal is, the enigmatic lady of the upper hall! I’ve even heard a rumor you’re a personal friend of the Hand of Avei.”

And that, actually, might explain some things. Iona and Eivery had earned her trust, nor had she had cause to doubt the discretion of the specialists who administered the alchemy and magic involved in physically transitioning. It stood to reason, though, that within the Sisterhood there had to be countless parties watching Trissiny’s comings and goings, legitimately or not. All it would take would be one wrong pair of eyes having spotted her with the paladin during last year’s shenanigans…

She pushed that aside to be worried about later, shooting Zafi another coy look. “Would you like to meet her?”

The soldier almost tripped, but didn’t stop, giving Rasha a wide-eyed stare as they walked. “Shut up. Are you serious?”

“Now, I probably shouldn’t promise I can produce her,” Rasha said lightly. “Trissiny’s not a dancing pony, after all. But, she may be in town soon, and I’ve got a feeling if I pitch it to her as my in with the prettiest trooper in the Third Legion, she just might have a sense of humor about it. No harm in asking, at least.”

“Okay, I take it back,” Zafi said, and it was astonishingly gratifying how visibly impressed she was. “The odd little revelation only deepens the mystery. Now I want to unravel you like an onion.”

Oh, the subtext in that one was beyond clear, and Rasha’s first impulse was to seize it like a chunk of driftwood in a storm. But if there was one thing in which Glory meticulously coached her apprentices, it was the art of seduction. One must never be too hasty; one did not grasp or cling, but gently led along. She could tell by the eagerness in the woman’s eyes she’d successfully set a hook. Now was time to reel just a little bit at a time. The prey had to make an effort of their own, had to want to. That, Glory had emphasized, was the crucial difference between courting and harassment.

“Well, fortunately for you,”she said, coming to a stop and turning to smile directly at her, “you know just where and when to find me. Maybe by next week I’ll know a bit more definitively.”

“Oh, now that’s just unfair,” Zafi chided, but not without her irrepressible grin. “You can’t leave me hanging for a whole week!”

“Wow, you really must want to meet the paladin.”

“Yeah, sure. Paladin, whatever.” She waved one gauntleted hand absently, still holding Rasha’s gaze with a new warmth in her eyes. “But now I have to wait a week to see my lady of mystery? Have pity on a poor soldier, Rasha! Who knows if I’ll even be posted on that hall by then?”

“Now, I know for a fact soldiers are allowed to trade assignments,” Rasha said with a wink. “I bet if you really wanted to, it wouldn’t be too terribly hard to make sure you’re there. After all, you can’t expect a lady of mystery to make it too easy.”

“You’re a playful little minx, aren’t you?” Zafi complained, but in a cadence which suggested it was mostly a compliment. “All right, Rasha. You’re on.”

“Am I?” Rasha retorted, re-using that sly little almost-smirking smile. “I guess we’ll see in a week, won’t we?”

She turned slowly, another maneuver in which Glory had meticulously coached her. One step away, angling her body gradually, holding eye contact all the way through the pivot until just before it became physically awkward to do so, and then smoothly completing the shift to glide away with her head high. Perfectly executed, if she did say so herself.

Only after completely turning and starting to walk away did Rasha realize she’d gotten caught up in flirting with the soldier and, completely ignoring Sister Iona’s request, taken the usual route through the main temple; now she was in the great entrance hall that opened onto Imperial Square. Well, she reflected ruefully, at least now she knew some attention and a pretty face was all it took to smack the sense right out of her. Rasha honestly had zero memory of any of the scenery through which they’d passed, though she could have recited every word of her conversation with Zafi.

It could have been worse. It was a common enough weakness, and knowing it meant she could coach herself to pay more attention next time. Live and learn.

She kept heading toward the doors without slowing, subtly glancing to both sides just out of common sense and wariness. Indeed, the great hall looked a bit more stirred up this morning than she was accustomed to, with more priestesses than usual milling about near the statue of Avei and half the usual Legionnaire posts unattended, suggesting the soldiers kept being sent off on various errands. There were more petitioners about, though mostly hustling through the sanctuary rather than gathering in prayer or discussion. At a casual glance, it looked more like the response of a public to some outer development than any tension stirred up by a renegade faction imposing themselves on the temple.

Which was good, as far as it went, but also raised some questions. It might behoove her to check out a newspaper vendor on the way home.

Rasha’s mulling was abruptly de-Railed by a sudden and terrifying question: did Zafi know what went on in that upper hallway, what she was there for? If she didn’t… Would she care? Should Rasha tell her? But when, and for the gods’ sake, how?

She kept walking mostly by reflex while these fresh worries thrummed in her brain. Eyes forward, face still carefully composed, Rasha proceeded without really seeing where she was going, and thus walked right into the ambush.

An ambush it was, and a skillful one at that. A woman melted out of the shadow of a column and stepped straight in front of her, and two more slid in smoothly from behind to finish blocking the path forward. They arranged themselves in a tight arc in front of Rasha, deftly creating the impression of hemming her in even if they hadn’t managed so much as a complete semicircle around her. It was very neatly done, the kind of maneuver that could only have been executed if they’d planned it out carefully and been watching for her to appear.

That fact alone sharpened her focus with a surge of adrenaline, even before she took in the spectacle of what they were wearing.

All three were priestesses of Avei, but clearly not of the same mainstream sect as those Rasha was used to here in the temple. They wore the typical white robes, yes, but with chain mail tunics over them, and over that gray tabards on which Avei’s eagle sigil was embroidered in white. Steel-backed leather bracers peeked out from the wide sleeves of their robes—a lightweight and easily concealed substitute for a shield very useful in hand-to-hand combat. Eserites made use of such pieces. Altogether, it required no imagination to guess that this was the uniform of a particularly militant sect of the Sisterhood.

Most alarmingly, they all wore swords hanging from their heavy belts. Not traditional Avenic short swords for massed infantry combat, but one-handed longswords better suited to dueling. The woman in the center had her hand suggestively on the heavy pommel of hers.

“So,” she said in a grim tone, staring down her hooked nose at Rasha, “you’re the one.”

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13 – 13

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“I’m unaccustomed to scolding, but I have to say I am rather disappointed with the lot of you.”

Glory, indeed, did not look upset with them, but only pensive. Regardless, the assembled apprentices mostly lowered their eyes abashedly in response. Schwartz and Ami exchanged a glance, he uncertainly, she with an arched eyebrow.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…in our defense…”

“In your defense,” Glory said with a languid little smile, “you are neophyte Guild members, without personal sponsors or the likelihood of obtaining such, and your experiences have given you cause to be somewhat paranoid. Still, I should have thought the overarching lesson of your last round of troubles was that the Guild can be trusted to have your back when enemies are pursuing you. I seem to recall that was settled in part by several senior members who do not get along rallying together to defend you.”

“It’s a fair criticism,” Jasmine agreed with a sigh.

Schwartz cleared his throat. “Yes, well… I don’t know much about Guild philosophy, but as an outsider I have a hard time seeing where you’re coming from. I mean, every cult should have the assumption that members would support one another, right? And…the entire problem here is that some individuals are turning against their cults via some kind of…” He trailed off, looking flustered, as Glory turned an inquisitive gaze on him.

“If anything,” Ami observed, “the Guild’s practice of deliberately fostering competition, I should think, would make them more susceptible.”

“It’s about a statement of core philosophy,” Rasha said, in the quiet but controlled tone she had been cultivating. “Each religion is about something specific, something beyond a simple group identity. Whether members do or don’t back one another in a crisis is in service to that idea. In the case of the Thieves’ Guild, it’s about resisting corruption and overweening ambition. Glory’s right, but…so are you.”

“Listen to you,” Tallie said fondly, lightly touching Rasha’s hair. “Lecturing us on theology now! Apprenticeship’s done you a world of good.” She and Layla had perched on either side of Glory’s apprentice, who had taken a position in the center of the couch and sat with deliberately demure, almost regal posture. Rasha had changed a great deal in the month since moving out of the apprentice dormitory; every time they visited she seemed to be experimenting with a different style of clothing, which had ranged from androgynous to almost excessively feminine. Today’s was closer to the latter end of the spectrum, an embroidered robe cut and padded to suggest curved lines. Despite the obvious growth of her self-confidence, though, Rasha plainly felt more comfortable with the physical proximity of girls than the boys, a fact which Tallie and Layla in particular seemed to have immediately picked up on.

“Well, let’s not turn this into a theological discussion,” Glory advised, smiling wryly at them. “Those are tedious even when they don’t turn into arguments. What’s done is done and I’m not interested in recrimination; that’s Style’s job.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius groaned. “She’s gonna string us up by our feet…”

“She did tell us not to leave the Casino’s immediate environs, didn’t she?” Layla mused. “Oh, dear.”

“I suppose,” Glory continued thoughtfully, “I am partially to blame for your general predicament. Being too closely associated with well-established Guild members is, according to the scuttlebutt, largely why none of you have been approached by potential sponsorship despite several of you being very promising.”

“If by blame,” said Jasmine, “you refer to you helping save our lives, I assure you no one here objects.”

“Hear, hear,” Ross grunted.

“Still, that aspect of the situation is worth considering,” Glory said. She glanced at Rasha, and a knowing smile passed between them.

“Uh oh,” Darius accused. “You two are scheming something.”

“Not even subtly,” Rasha replied, smirking.

“For the time being,” Glory said, “let’s return to the matter at hand. I was not aware of a conspiracy such as you describe, but between Mr. Schwartz’s adventures within the Collegium and this Sister Ildrin trying to waylay you, it’s clear that some such thing must be afoot.”

“Well, that’s discouraging,” Tallie muttered. “You’re the most connected person we know…”

“People often misunderstand the nature of a conspiracy,” said Glory. “They are, by definition, things of short duration and limited membership; depending as they do upon secrecy, exposure becomes more inevitable the longer they go on and the more people become involved. Shadowy groups blamed for a wide range of problems are mostly a myth, but conspiracies happen all the time. By the same token, even someone such as myself, who takes great pains to be in on all the gossip, is unlikely to learn of such a group. More significantly, this means that while I can easily point you to a number of figures in various cults who are known to be Church sympathizers, it is very unlikely that most of them are involved.”

“Do you have…any ideas?” Jasmine asked hesitantly.

“Well, first of all,” Glory replied with that knowing little smile of hers, “you are off to a decent start by coming to me, because what we need to do is involve the Guild. Here we have a secretive group clearly trying to amass and abuse power; putting a stop to nonsense of this kind is exactly why the Guild exists.”

“Noted,” Ross said, nodding emphatically.

“Second,” their hostess continued, “we must pare down the prospects. I believe you had the idea to use your divinations, Mr. Schwartz?”

“Ah, yes,” he said, absently patting Meesie, who was being unusually quiet and docile while in Glory’s house. “My craft can help us narrow down prospects more than identify specific individuals, so if you have other thoughts…”

“In fact, I have,” she replied, settling back in her armchair in a manner subtly evocative of a queen upon her throne. “There are more mundane methods, of course. I gather that Mr. Schwartz and Miss Talaari have your trust in this matter, apprentices?”

“Ami has been very helpful to us,” Tallie said sweetly. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Meesie began squeaking violently, and actually tumbled off Schwartz’s shoulder to the arm of his chair, where she rolled around on her back, squealing with mirth. He sighed; Ami just gave Tallie a cool sidelong look.

“Then in the meantime,” Glory said, “we will pursue established leads. Mr. Schwartz, how was it you first learned rumors of this embezzlement activity within your cult?”

He straightened up, frowning slightly. “Well… Sort of related to how I met these guys, actually. Bishop Throale was interested in making, um, less than official contacts within the Guild, like my friends here. He was securing some reagents that might be profitable in black market dealings to try to… Actually maybe I wasn’t supposed to mention that.” He swallowed, glancing over at the windows. Ami rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Glory said pleasantly. “Go on?”

“Well, so, because of that, he and I were more involved in the Collegium’s reagent stocks than either of us would normally be and he mentioned some things seemed to be going missing. Records not adding up with inventory, boring stuff like that. The Bishop didn’t seem concerned but I went and double-checked and yes, there were some enchanting supplies gone…the specific ones used for bladed weapon and armor maintenance charms. Stuff you don’t see much anymore, only the Silver Legions use them in any quantity. I mentioned it to them,” he gestured at the apprentices, “and Jasmine had apparently…well, there we’re past my part in it, so, y’know.”

“Any specifics?” Glory asked, daintily crossing her legs. “Remember, we are looking for names.”

Schwartz frowned and chewed his lip while Meesie climbed back up his sleeve to her perch. “Um. Well, Suvi Mosvedhi is in charge of the magical storehouses overall. She has lots of people working under her and I hardly know any of them. Let’s see… Carruthers Treadwell was the specific fellow who coordinated with the Avenists on exchanges…”

“Carruthers Treadwell.” Glory leaned forward suddenly, grinning. “Who, just yesterday, was abruptly pulled from his duties by the Chancellor of the Collegium for reasons which are not known outside its walls. It seems we have our in.”

“Who’s this guy?” Ross asked. “And how’re we gonna…in him?”

“Simple,” Glory said with a satisfied smirk. “I am having a little soiree tonight, as I do most evenings. I shall simply ensure that he is present. As will be the lot of you.”

“Um.” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “Carruthers is a bit of a houseplant. I’ve never heard of him attending a social event voluntarily.”

“He has never had Tamisin Sharvineh desire his presence,” she said glibly. “It’s as good as done.”

“Meanwhile,” Rasha added, “that gives us only a few hours to get you lot into some suitable clothes.”

“Ooh!” Layla and Ami both straightened up with sudden smiles.

Jasmine, on the other hand, went a shade paler. “Oh, hell.”


It was a much truncated group which went to meet the Guild’s emissary. Only the queen and Principia had been requested, but Ruda inserted herself into the party; her mother expressed approval at this, while Principia wisely kept her thoughts to herself.

The seneschal conducted them to the Rock’s throne room, where their guest had been asked to wait. It was smaller and generally less grandiose than its counterpart in Tiraas, its stone walls decorated only with banners and old weapons. Even the throne was little more than a large wooden chair, made from the timbers of the ship once captained by a long-ago Punaji king. Narrow windows along one side of the room admitted afternoon sunlight, augmented by strategically placed modern fairy lamps.

There were few seats in the room, just benches along the walls, but their guest had been led to one of these. A small folding table had been brought and laid out with tea and a plate of small sandwiches and pastries, with a servant attending closely. This likely wasn’t usual policy for guests in the throne room, but one glance at Quinn Lagrande banished any question as to its necessity.

Her lined face and pale gray hair revealed her advanced age even without the heavy stoop she suffered despite being seated. Incongruously, she was dressed like a frontier adventurer, with an open-collared shirt and trousers tucked into heavy boots. A wide leather belt around her waist carried a holstered wand and a dagger. At their arrival, Lagrande braced herself with one hand on a hickory cane and stood with a small grunt of effort.

“There you are,” she said before any of them could speak, her voice scratchy with age but still strong. “I gather I interrupted something important?”

“Yes,” Anjal replied without explanation. “I am Anjal Punaji, and this is my daughter, Zaruda. I believe you know Principia Locke.”

“Mm hm,” Lagrande said, giving the elf a wry look. “Oh, we go way back. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t kneel, your Majesty. The spirit is willing, but the spine and knees lack respect for authority.”

“I’d feel obligated to stop you if you tried,” Anjal said, smiling with genuine amusement. “And if you must be formal, I prefer Captain to Majesty. I damn well earned that one. What can we do for you?”

“At issue here is what we can do for you,” the old woman replied, shifting her focus to Principia. “Keys, where the hell have you been? You’ve been in town almost two days and for some damned reason we had to seek you out. Taking in the sights?”

“I’ve seen all the sights long ago, and climb down outta my nose, Heckle,” Principia retorted, folding her arms. “You were on the agenda, trust me. My squad was just heading your way when this most admirable young lady press-ganged us.” She cocked a thumb at Ruda, who tipped her hat.

“Yep, I’ll take the blame for that one. When Principia Locke shows up in town, I figured it was best to put a boot on her neck before the situation got even worse. Sounds like you know what I mean.”

“Heh.” Lagrande grinned at her. To judge by their yellowed state, they were all her original teeth. “That’s not a ‘general principles’ action toward a veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild. What’d she do to you?”

“I think you had something to tell us?” Principia said irritably.

“Nothing major, she just tried to drug me that one time.”

“You tried to drug a member of the Punaji royal family?” Lagrande turned an incredulous stare on Principia. “How in the hell has nobody killed you yet, Keys?”

“Oh, that’s rich. Look who’s asking who how she’s still alive—”

“HEY.” Anjal was accustomed to belting orders on deck in a storm; at that range she could be positively deafening. “If you Eserites wanted to put on a minstrel show, there are plenty of street corners not being preached on right now. Did you come here for a reason other than that, Lagrande?”

“Of course, your…Captain. Humble apologies.” Far from looking contrite, the old woman grinned unabashedly. “Yes, you’re right. We do have important information, which was being held for Keys, here, but then the Princess and her friends picked her up and we decided this had better not wait. To begin with, for the benefit of the young and the foreign in this audience, are you aware of just why so many of the Rust’s upper echelons have artificial limbs?”

“Because they’ve got crazy advanced magic and that’s a convenient way of showing it off?” Ruda suggested.

“True.” Lagrande nodded. “That’s definitely part of their motivation. I guess I should have asked why they have such a need for them.”

“Most of them are the Broken,” Anjal said in a much quieter tone. Principia gave her a neutral look, but Ruda frowned in open confusion. “This was well before your time, Zari, and be thankful for that. It used to be common practice for beggars on the docks to use children to mooch from the merchants. Children are inherently more sympathetic, and they sometimes made them more so by deliberately maiming them. Cutting out eyes, hacking off limbs.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Anjal clenched her jaw. “Your grandfather addressed this problem by creatively punishing anyone he caught doing it, which of course did not help. It was thanks to your father’s early actions that no one in your generation has had to suffer this.”

“What actions?” she asked. “I mean, if…”

“That’s the thing about governing,” the queen said with a sigh. “What works is rarely spectacular or romantic. If you want to put a stop to begging, you have to make sure that people have better things to do, and that doing them is worth their time. He did increase patrols on the docks, but more importantly he instituted economic reforms, created jobs, aggressively courted the dwarves and Narisians to engage in maritime trade through Puna Dara… All the boring shit that actually improves people’s lives. Such reforms are often hard to push through because whenever there has been an impoverished underclass for a long time, there are wise old men who think the problem with the poor is that they’re lazy and just won’t be helped.” She curled her lip contemptuously. “Arrogant bullshit, unworthy of a Punaji. People inherently want to work. We all have a need to create, to act, to contribute; the single most important thing for human happiness is taking responsibility for one’s own life. If society lets people do this, they’ll do their part. There will always be a few layabouts and general assholes, but they are a bare minority.”

“Our underboss is one of the Broken,” Lagrande added. “Fang gets around on one leg and one arm. He was never approached, though. The Rust are strategic; like all fringe movements they started by targeting the vulnerable, which didn’t include Eserites. But I didn’t bring it up just to make conversation. How’d you like to know where their secret headquarters is?”

Anjal scowled. “Is that all you came here for? They operate out of a warehouse on the docks. It’s not a secret.”

“Wrong!” Lagrande said gleefully, thumping her cane on the floor for emphasis. “That’s where they openly operate from, and there’s nothing in there but religious wacko paraphernalia. Places to keep and feed people, some administrative apparatus. But their true home, that’s all tied in with the sad, stupid story of the Broken. They’ve got a place in the old mines, and that has to be where they keep the crazy shit that makes their crazy magic work. Does the kid need a refresher on this as well?”

“The kid has a name,” Ruda retorted.

“Yes, a shiny new one,” said Anjal, giving her a disgruntled look. “But she’s right, Zari. When Broken kids got too old to be cute anymore, a lot of them were sent to work the mines in the mountains outside the city.”

“Whoah, what mines?” Ruda demanded, frowning. “I was always told we didn’t do much mining.”

“We don’t, but not because we can’t. There are minerals in those mountains; copper, mostly, some iron and gems. But Puna Dara has always done more business in trade than production, and we’ve prospered especially in the last ten years by cornering the market on the Five Kingdoms’ maritime trade. Your father managed that, in part, by closing down our domestic mining operations and buying minerals from the dwarves. After what the treaty between Tiraas and Tar’naris did to them, that bought enormous goodwill. So.” She turned a thoughtful gaze on Lagrande. “There are mines and quarries around Puna Dara, and nearly all are abandoned. And, not being idiots, we regularly have them patrolled and searched.”

“In a pretty cursory fashion,” Lagrande agreed, thumping her cane again. “A mine’s a great place to hide stuff.”

“How is it you know this, when the Punaji don’t?” Principia asked.

“Same way we knew you’d spent your time in Puna Dara visiting the Avenists, creeping on the street preachers, and hounding after rumors in dockside bars instead of coming to us,” Lagrand replied acidly. “The Thieves’ Guild in this city is six old grayhairs and two very bored apprentices led by a cripple. The last damn thing we’re about to do is climb up into the mountains our damn selves and then climb down into some godforsaken mineshaft after insane cultists who wield impossible magics. But what we can do is know things.” She grinned fiendishly. “Even after you sent Peepers off to the Empire—and by the way, asshole, thank you so much—we are connected in this city and the bulk of what we do is listening and watching. Anybody hears a rumor that even might be valuable to anybody else, they bring it to the Guild.”

“That’s true,” Anjal agreed, somewhat sourly. “They usually know interesting things well before the Crown does.”

“So we weren’t about to go after them,” Lagrande continued. “And we specifically have not shared this information with the Avenists or the Punaji government after what happened to the Fourth Silver Legion. Because they’d have no choice but to take action, and that would’ve ended…pretty damn badly. But!” The old woman grinned savagely and thumped her cane for emphasis. “Speaking of things we know, now it seems you’ve got two paladins, a dryad, and the biggest, meanest demon to walk the earth in a thousand years. And that’s another matter, isn’t it?”


Justinian always made time in his schedule to think; quite apart from the necessity of his meditations in keeping his mind calm and alert under the pressure of his duties, he could not function without the ability to carefully lay plans. Reacting swiftly to events as they developed was fine and essential, but a man without his own strategies, attentively crafted, was at the mercy of fortune.

Even so, he cherished the few extra opportunities that came up to lose himself in thought. Time spent navigating the labyrinth deep under the Cathedral, for example… Or situations like this one, in which he could do nothing but wait.

He sat before the magic mirror, watching mist swirl meaninglessly within it, and considering the current situation.

Events in Puna Dara were developing faster than he had intended. Once again, Tellwyrn butting in had created this difficulty, though this time it was not an unforeseen development. Princess Zaruda’s intervention had always been a possibility, and while bringing her friends along was the worst case scenario, he had already mulled what to do in this event. Now, it seemed they might be on a course to demolish the Rust far too soon. He needed that to be a struggle; the allied forces of the Church, the Empire, the Punaji and the cults had to be bonded through shared adversity. That also meant the Rust had to be presented as a very credible threat. Their attack on the Silver Legions had done that, but he knew what it had cost them, and that those young titans would cleave through their ranks far too easily if allowed. They must endure long enough for all their enemies to unite against them. He had his current operation in Tiraas working to secure his good name with the Silver Throne, but after the incident with Rector’s machine there was far too much damage there for him to trust a single ploy to fix it.

Could he distract them? Unlikely, and risky. Anything else he did in Puna Dara could create complications that would threaten his own interests. If he could somehow peel the students, or at least a few of them—maybe even just one—away from the city for a while, that might suffice.

Even alone in his office, he maintained strict control, and so did not smile. But the Archpope permitted himself a slight softening of his expression as his agile mind seized upon a solution. An elegant one, which worked neatly alongside the matter to which he was now attending. It would cost him nothing but a little extra effort…

As if summoned by the shift in his thoughts, the mirror cleared, revealing the worried face of Lorelin Reich.

“Your Holiness,” she said in clear relief, bowing her head. “Thank you so much for this. I know it must be an imposition.”

“Lorelin,” he said with a gracious smile. “You have earned my trust many times over; if you send word that we must speak, I can only assume that it is so. What troubles you, child? I hope you are not endangering your good name with the Empire.”

“I fear…I may be,” she said, frowning, and Justinian took note of the open worry in her expression. A model Vidian, she was adept at concealing her true thoughts, usually. “Your Holiness… I am not working directly with Imperial Intelligence. The told me they’d call on me when I was needed, and when a Hand of the Emperor summoned me, I assumed that was it. But…” The priestess swallowed heavily. “I… This must sound crazy, I realize, but…I think this man is insane.”

Justinian put on an expression of deep concern and leaned forward, revealing none of his satisfaction. This business, at least, was proceeding according to plan and on schedule. “In what way?”

“At first I thought his machinations seemed inept because I didn’t know all the details,” she said, “but more and more… He seems to be trying to provoke a confrontation with Tellwyrn which there is no possible way he can win. I can’t imagine the Empire would do something so reckless, when they’ve handled her so carefully since the last Empress’s reign. And…it’s his personal conduct, your Holiness. I am accustomed to schemers, but I have been around mentally unstable people. This man is the latter. But I know that’s impossible. He is a Hand of the Emperor.”

Justinian drew in a deep breath, and let it out very slowly. “I…am extremely glad you have come to me with this, Lorelin. All right…what I am about to tell you must be strictly confidential. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely, your Holiness,” she replied, nodding eagerly.

“There was recently a problem with the Hands of the Emperor,” he stated. “The details don’t concern you and may be dangerous to know. What is important is that one of them may have gone rogue at the end of it.”

The color drained from her face.

“This is what you must do, Lorelin,” Justinian said earnestly. “Contact your handlers at Imperial Intelligence, and tell them what you just told me.”

“But…” The poor woman was clearly at her wit’s end; she forgot herself so far as to bite her lip. “Your Holiness, the Hand specifically instructed me to avoid contact with any other government entity.”

“Then,” Justinian said gently, “he is forcing you to violate the terms of parole. You were to remain in touch with Intelligence; by keeping you in communications silence in the last place they would look for you, he is hiding you from them. Tell them, Lorelin, exactly what you just did. You thought you were obeying the Silver Throne, but this man is dangerously unstable and may be creating instability in the Empire itself, which is what will result if a Hand of the Emperor overtly antagonizes Tellwyrn. She has, in fact, been working with Intelligence. I see little chance that they would want to move against her this way. Contact them in good faith and explain, and you will not only be upholding the terms of your plea bargain, you just might help save the Empire from one of its most immediate threats.”

Now it was she who inhaled and exhaled deeply, but nodded.

“What is he doing, exactly?”

“He’s stirring up the townspeople against Tellwyrn,” she said, frowning. “Which wouldn’t alarm me much as far as it goes, but with all the new construction and activity in Last Rock, plus the big cluster of foreign operatives up on the mountain itself… He doesn’t tell me everything, your Holiness, not by far. I know he has other assets. I don’t know what they might do, or can.”

Justinian nodded. “Then you will need to slow him down. Perhaps assist Tellwyrn in dealing with him.”

“I’m positive that he’ll know if I try to approach her.”

“I believe you,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Do not be so overt. I believe I can help you with this, Lorelin; you know as well as I that clever people can be shockingly easy to manipulate into error. It is often as simple as placing the right piece of information for the right person to find, and letting the rest of the dominoes fall. Once you tell this Hand who the Sleeper is, I suspect this whole matter may work itself out.”

 

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