Tag Archives: Sabrina Price

Bonus #28: Life’s Work

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Ben Morgan!

Crossing through the grand ballroom was not the most direct or efficient way to reach the solarium which served as the Duchess’s study and private audience chamber, but at this moment, for this purpose, it was the correct way. A household was a living organism, an unfathomably complex machine whose health depended upon countless details from the towering to the infinitesimal. A doctor would study for years to know every medical detail that could be known, and still barely scratch the surface; a hedge witch could immerse herself in lore and familiarity until intuition told her things that medical science could not, yet lack the power to achieve a surgeon’s sometimes miraculous results.

Though they worked upon lives rather than bodies, Butlers had to do both, and more.

There was, sadly, nothing yet which could do for the living body what a Butler could do for a household. But though she was not yet fully accredited, and though this was not truly her household, Price was Butler enough to know where she needed to be. Right now, that was in the grand ballroom just in time to ward off a disaster.

The arrangement would be stunning once completed, but was inherently precarious. The columns had been exquisitely detailed by master artists to resemble carved marble with gilded trim, but were in fact made of cast plaster, and thus too light to be reliably stable, given their height. Placing expensive ceramic urns atop them was just asking for trouble, and while the finished arrangement would be more sturdy, at this stage it was all exceedingly delicate.

Price entered the ballroom just as a young man—a worker from Leineth, not one of the household staff—lost his grip atop a ladder, and in his fumbling to avoid dropping the large and heavy vase in his arms, managed to not only finish dropping it but topple the pillar he’d been about to place it atop.

She surged smoothly into motion, flashing across the ballroom in one second, and vaulted into position. Everything about the situation was spelled out before her, senses taking in details that few would have gathered and mind parsing them into usable data in calculations no one who had not undergone the Treatment could have performed.

Even for a Butler, that was an impossible vertical leap, forcing Price to approach at an angle. One step brought her to the top of the long table which would be laid out with finger foods at the ball. The next, kicking off with all her considerable strength, hurled her into the wall of the ballroom. She hit that like a spring and uncoiled, shooting across the open space in nearly horizontal flight.

Price intercepted the urn as it tumbled; the thing was custom-made for this event, designed to look like a beautiful vase from the perspective of those below the pillars, meaning it had to be more than half as tall as a person and correspondingly broad. Awkward to lift, had she tried to wrap arms around it. Instead, she smoothly caught it with one hand flat under its base, as her other arm and both legs coiled around the pillar.

Using her momentum, Price spun in a full circle around the falling column, arresting her flight and accelerating the column’s own descent. That would have naturally sent the urn flying out of her grip as soon as the rotation ceased, had she not spun her arm to invert its orientation mid-fall, so that once again her flat hand was between the fragile vase and the direction of its momentum. Completing the rotation brought it back to rest upright upon her palm, while she uncoiled her body from the pillar.

Price extended her full height as she descended, positioning herself beneath the plaster column with her feet reaching the floor the second she completed this maneuver, one hand held up above her head to support the tumbling pillar, the other held out to the side with the tall vase balanced upon her palm. She folded her body up again like a spring, this time a collapsing one, absorbing the energy of the fall, and thus ended up with her feet fully on the ground, having prevented either pillar of base from breaking. Quite fortunately, too, as replacing them at this juncture would have been challenging.

Total silence had descended upon the ballroom, all the servants and workmen present staring at her. The entire thing had unfolded before everyone had even noticed the tumble about to occur.

“Ahem,” Price said pointedly, being pinned beneath a mostly-fallen plaster column with her free hand holding up a heavy (and expensive) piece of ceramic.

Her prompting brought servants rushing forward; one man very carefully took the vase from her, while two others got themselves under the pillar, lifted it from her hand, and finished lowering it gently to the floor. Price straightened her coat, turning to address the youth standing atop the nearby latter, staring down at her in frozen horror.

“I will remind you, Master Borson, that your employer regards every aspect of these preparations as an expense without emotional investment. Workmen are more easily replaced than custom-made masterwork ceramic, and distinct in her Grace’s eyes primarily by their ability to feel pain. More caution from you would be advisable.”

“Yes, Miss Price,” he choked. She did not have to waste time staring him down to ascertain that the point was made. The room, the servants present, the state of ongoing preparations, it all factored into the rhythm of the household. It all washed over and through Price—intuitively, cognitively, both and neither, informing her of the state of things. The nascent disaster was thwarted; Borson and the rest of those present would go about their tasks with greater care.

Price turned and continued on to the ballroom’s side entrance without another instant’s delay. A Butler always knew where she was needed, and that was no longer here. Once again, everything was Proper.

By lengthening her stride, she reached the door of the Duchess’s solarium in what was still acceptable time to answer her Grace’s summons. Price tapped twice, at precisely the correctly diffident volume.

“Enter.”

The solarium, like everything Duchess Tiradegh owned or used, was a weapon. At this hour of the morning, sunlight streamed aggressively through it, framing the Duchess herself in her wheeled chair and glaring in the eyes of anyone who stood before her. Price, of course, entered to the exact distance that placed the shadow of the wall across her eyes, protecting them from direct glare. Thanks to the Treatment, she was also not impeded in her assessment of the room and its occupant.

She bowed to the Proper degree. “Your Grace.”

“Ah, Miss Price.” Inara Tiradegh’s voice was only lightly cracked with age; she had been a singer of some fame in her youth, and carried on the hobby her entire life. The old woman, now frail in body though her mind was not a whit less sharp, regarded Price expressionlessly. “How go the preparations?”

“Everything within my purview is on schedule and completed to your Grace’s standards. Yancey, of course, has a more complete knowledge of the state of the household. I can consult him for greater detail, if your Grace wishes?”

“That will not be necessary.” Perfectly neutral, that tone, just like the expression. Inara’s social instincts had been crafted through a noblewoman’s upbringing and honed by decades of ruthless practice; she was a living masterpiece of control. Were Price not a Butler, she would probably be unaware of the old woman’s vivid personal dislike of her. She did not yet know the reason for it, much less while the Duchess had consented to have Price conduct her Trial in this household under Yancey’s supervision, but on both points she had suspicions. “I summoned you here, Miss Price, because I wish to have a conversation.”

“How may I be of service, your Grace?”

“When service is required, I’ll inform you. At this moment, I would simply satisfy my own curiosity.”

Price did not alter her aspect by a hair; even another Butler would not have been able to detect her feelings about this. “Needless to say, your Grace, I am no more authorized than Yancey to discuss the Service Society’s internal business.”

“Oh, spare me,” Inara replied with, finally, the lightest hint of asperity. “Invaluable as Yancey is, I have never found your Society intriguing enough to be personally interested. Avenist alchemists have been turning men into women and elves into humans for centuries; your parlor tricks are more useful, but an order of magnitude less impressive.”

Highly imProper. The Treatment was a far more substantial achievement than the Sisterhood’s work—and both those descriptions broadly mischaracterized their alchemists’ achievements in treating transgender women and bringing elves up to Legion standards of physical strength. More importantly, Inara Tiradegh was well aware of these facts and a known stickler for precision in all things. Price didn’t need to be a Butler to tell she was being deliberately needled here.

“My inquiry is of a more personal nature,” the Duchess continued, regarding Price with a vaguely disinterested expression they both knew to be a lie. “I understand that you are, somewhat unconventionally, an Eserite.”

Ah, yes. As she had suspected.

“If your Grace wishes to have my room and belongings searched, I have no objection,” Price said blandly.

“I would consider such an obvious deflection damning, were Yancey not so fond of doing exactly the same,” Inara said with a wry twist of her lips. “Nor is he the only Butler I’ve met by far. Do they teach you that servile snark at your Society?”

“A good servant must be proficient at all skills relevant to the running of a household, your Grace,” Price replied.

Duchess Tiradegh actually smiled at her. Faintly, but with evident amusement. That fact by itself meant nothing, but Price sensed the emotion was sincere, if grudging.

“What is it, then,” Inara asked, settling subtly backward in her wheelchair, “which prompts a member of the Thieves’ Guild to enter human society in a productive capacity?”

Price did not rise to that obvious bait, either. She did permit herself the indulgence of hesitating, a thing which was done only for effect. A Butler was poised at all times, prepared with the proper response for any contingency. A conversation, like a household, was a thing with rhythms which could be sensed and anticipated, and while talking to the Duchess of House Tiradegh was an entirely different level of challenge from the house servants, even the sly-tongued nobility did not outmaneuver a Butler with words. Delaying for a moment was simply a way of asserting a measure of power—in this case, mirroring the same petty effect achieved by Inara insulting her religion.

“Your Grace is naturally aware of the personal benefit of dedicating oneself to a cause. Being the head of a noble House, your Grace has had such a calling provided from birth.”

“Are you comparing House Tiradegh to the Thieves’ Guild?” Inara inquired in a dangerously polite tone.

“I would never so insult either, your Grace, much less both in the same breath.” The Duchess quirked another faint smile at that, but did not speak again, and so Price continued. “Those not granted such a cause by birth must seek one out. For some, religion is enough. At the core of the Service Society is the belief that it is a fine choice to select, as one’s life’s work, a deserving person. Not everyone can be a force who moves the world. It can be enough to seek out someone who is, and devote oneself fully to their success.”

“Yancey has never spelled it out in those terms,” Inara said in a much more introspective tone. “So. Is that how he sees me, then?” Price did not answer; the question had not truly been directed at her. After a thoughtful pause, the Duchess’s gaze sharpened once more, returning from its brief wander to her own eyes. “You describe your own vocation in terms which would apply to a housewife helping support a factory laborer.”

“A serviceable analogy, your Grace. And were your Grace a factory laborer, a housewife would suffice. A sufficiently interesting person, however, requires a Butler.”

Again, that minute smile. “That’s good flattery, Miss Price. Subtle. At your age I might not have noticed it, and definitely would have missed the underlying mockery.”

“I dared to hope your Grace would appreciate the technique.”

“Yes, quite, and you can desist.” She straightened up in her chair as much as her slightly hunched spine allowed, a subtle signal that the conversation would now turn to business. “I have found no complaint with your work here, Miss Price, and not for lack of trying. At this time, I am prepared to render a favorable report to the Service Society on your performance. I understand that it is Yancey’s endorsement which matters…but that his satisfaction hinges largely upon mine.”

“Your Grace’s understanding is correct,” Price replied neutrally. “I am gratified that I have served adequately.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are,” Inara said dryly. “With all that in mind, Miss Price, I have a specific task for you.”

“I am here to be of service, your Grace.”

“I know. Tonight, at the ball, I will need you to embarrass me.”

Once more, Price hesitated. This time, because the momentary pause would appeal to the Duchess’s sense of dramatic timing. Her own mind was racing over the multitude of possibilities which had exploded from that command, the closest thing a fully trained and Treated Butler experienced to confusion.

“Your Grace?” she asked after the appropriate number of seconds, in the correct tone of polite bafflement.

The Duchess’s satisfied smile said she had done it Properly. “Allow me to explain.”


A woman like Inara Tiradegh never explained herself one bit more than was absolutely necessary, and so Price came away with instructions no more specific than what she was to spill on Lord Reine Daraspian, and when. On the face of it, the reasons a Head of House might want to inflict a minor, slightly embarrassing inconvenience upon a volatile member of a rival House were beyond counting. The majority of them consisted of little more than petty spite. Duchess Inara, however, did nothing without a purpose in mind and a plan in place.

A well-laid scheme was like a conversation, or an organism, or a household. It had rhythms, patterns. Details which yielded themselves both to intuition and to analysis—and therefore, despite any secrecy involved, to a Butler. With the right parts of her mind accelerated by the Treatment and advanced further by the Bargains the Service Society required its full members to make, Price could see somewhat beyond her own relatively tiny role. Possibilities unrolled in every direction, narrowed into a few chains of events of varying likelihood constrained by the other factors already in place. This insight was one of the services Butlers provided their contract-holders, though most of those approved by the Society as business partners were well capable of examining the threads of mortal plots on their own.

She could not read, exactly, the whole of the plan, but it took several potential shapes, most deeply troubling.

Price had gone so far as to push the very limits of what was Proper by taking her concerns to Yancey, only to be rebuffed in his Properly polite but firm manner. She could sense nothing from him, none of the unease he would definitely be feeling if her fears were well-founded—and if they were, Yancey would know in detail. He, however, was a Butler of greater experience than she, and would be well able to conceal his mental state even from another Butler.

Her concern, in truth, was not only for Yancey and his contract. This was her Trial; if it ended in as great a disaster as the Duchess might be actively trying to arrange, that could reflect very badly upon her indeed.

Nonetheless, she went about her duties with all the poise a Butler must exhibit at all times. The preparations were completed, the ball unfolding to the clear delight of the Duchess’s guests. Assisting with the arrangement of social events had all been part of Price’s training, and almost nothing about the early part of the evening proved memorable to her, at least not in the shadow of her nervous anticipation. With two Butlers present to oversee the affair, even with one only on Trial, it could hardly have gone wrong.

At least, not until the point where Duchess Inara Tiradegh intended it to.

Once fully set up, those vases atop the pillars housed plants—vines enhanced by witchcraft from common philodendron and begonias, to form an arboreal network of greenery connecting the vases and the columns. The Duchess had brought in an engineer, rather than a florist, to finalize the arrangement. That was, to say the least, revelatory. More so was what Price could discern about how physical impacts would affect the entire interlaced structure.

And more, still, the way Yancey, at the Duchess’s urging, had casually positioned certain relevant players in the night’s forthcoming drama.

As a minor milestone, Price had already been complicit in a crime this evening, albeit a very, very small one. The Society made clear to its members that service to their contract-holders was considered to supersede adherence to the law; between that and her own religious affiliation, Price had no personal qualms. In this case, even drugging someone’s cup wouldn’t qualify as a crime, given that the dosage in question was non-lethal, generally recreational, and a known indulgence of the person to whom it was administered, and legal precedent established that a host (and their servants) were not to be held responsible for adverse reactions to “mixed drinks” served at a private venue such as this, the responsibility resting upon the drinker to understand what they were imbibing.

These were the sort of obscene technicalities a person had to know, when working for the likes of Inara Tiradegh.

No, the only offense (so far) was in the trafficking; cocaine being a banned substance for which the Imperial Treasury sold exemption licenses, it was legal to own and use it, but not to distribute it to others without acquiring such an exemption, which neither Price nor the Duchess had. Drug trafficking, however, was a white-collar crime of interest to no one but the Treasury even in volumes that involved significant money. This quantity would have been ignored by any Imperial prosecutor, especially with the actual cocaine in an alchemical formulation designed to be dissolved in wine; less than half of the powder was the actual drug.

Price was more concerned that she was being made party to a murder. The Eserite in her wouldn’t mourn the death of anybody in this room save possibly Yancey, and least of all the notoriously corrupt young sot Reine Daraspian, but this was the sort of thing that could damage a person’s career prospects.

Attentive as duty required she be to the festivities, she saw it coming clearly. Yancey’s deft positioning of the already-drunk Lord Reine was accomplished all but invisibly, by leading the man with precisely-positioned trays of snacks and drink; once Price had slipped him the altered wine, the blend of alcohol and cocaine in his system made him as malleable as a sheep—and raised serious ethical questions about whatever alchemist had decided to cook up a way for those two drugs to function simultaneously to the point of enhancing each other.

Few of the other guests marked this, save with the occasional contemptuous glance. The younger Lord Daraspian was known to imbibe worse than wine; it was known, also, that he was here chiefly to be a target, given the relationship between Houses Daraspian and Tiradegh. It was early in the evening; people were still arriving, milling about, chatting, sampling the delicacies laid out, and admiring the decorations. It would be almost another hour before the ballroom would be put to use for dancing. Now, for the most part, people were passing through on their way to the more comfortable chambers next door.

“The ballroom is more active than anticipated at this hour,” the Duchess said offhandedly. “Yancey, instruct the musicians to set up now.”

“At once, your Grace,” her Butler replied, stepping away from the columns, the target, and whatever they had arranged for him.

“…thank you, Yancey,” Inara said after the merest hesitation. Her voice was soft, barely audible through the murmur of chat, the look she gave him superficially even yet loaded with meaning that even Price could barely scratch the surface of.

He actually paused in the act of turning to leave the room, and bowed to her. Deeply. Then finally departed.

It was the realization that she had just witnessed a farewell which collapsed all the possible outcomes of this ploy in Price’s mind. She could see where the young Daraspian stood beneath the arboreal display—and where the aged Duchess had positioned her wheelchair. She was well aware that Inara Tiradegh’s health had been failing for years now, the process accelerating in recent months. She understood the basics of House Tiradegh’s political situation, how its ambitions were impeded by House Daraspian and the fact that the young Lord currently present was the de facto representative of his House at this event specifically because anything done to him would be politically pointless.

And suddenly she knew that she was not involved in a plot to murder Lord Reine Daraspian.

Duchess Inara caught Price’s eye and infinitesimally tilted her head in young Daraspian’s direction. It was not an agreed-upon signal—they hadn’t prearranged one—but to someone with a Butler’s situational awareness the message was explicit.

Very much to Price’s surprise, she found herself considering open defiance. She did not, however, consider it long enough for her hesitation to be outwardly observable.

This was not her contract. Her position here was not such that she had the privilege of questioning the Duchess’s commands. It was not a servant’s place to make such decisions on behalf of their master. Yancey knew what was coming, had accepted it.

So she administered her role in the homicide with poise, as was Proper.

“More wine, my Lord?” Price said diffidently, deliberately sneaking up on Lord Reine with the carafe and startling him into stumbling into her. Twitchy with the stimulant and clumsy with the depressant—truly a diabolical concoction—he was easy to ambush, and in his flailing likely would have knocked her down had she not been a Butler. As it was, avoiding the sweep of his elbow and even protecting the carafe upon the tray would have been simpler than breathing, had that been her duty.

Instead, she neatly arranged for the blow to knock it over, pouring crimson wine straight down the front of his suit, falling to shatter upon the marble floor and splashing his shoes.

“Clumsy goat!” Daraspian snarled as Price retreated two judicious steps.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir—”

“You did that deliberately!”

Obviously, yes; he wasn’t too impaired to have noticed that. Merely enough not to handle it with anything like the grace befitting his station.

“Whatever is all this noise about?” Duchess Inara demanded, deliberately pitching her well-honed voice to cut across what little talk remained in the room after Daraspian’s outburst.

“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Price, “there has been a slight—”

“Your servant attacked me!” he snarled, rounding on the Duchess and nearly toppling over. Price steadied him with one hand and he violently shrugged her off, once more barely avoiding a fall—and snagging his arm in the vines dangling from one of the pillars.

Price could see the shape of the structure, the tension in the vines—far sturdier than those plant species ought normally to be—the shape of the base of the column which would determine the direction it fell. The way Inara had planted her chair so that in turning on her the drunk Lord Reine would entangle himself, and then…

“Oh, don’t be absurd,” she said disdainfully. “She is new, training under Yancey. Price, you fool, get away from there if you’re only going to make a mess.”

Price bowed, stepping back through the columns. Philodendron leaves brushed her coat; she, obviously, did not snare herself in the vines, despite the way they hung in cunning loops rather than the usual dangling strings. Obvious why this was being done so early in the evening; it was only a matter of time before somebody got themselves caught in these.

“You vicious, petty old cow,” Lord Reine spat, taking a lurching step toward the Duchess and absently trying to jerk his arm free. Seemingly fragile vines held him as securely as braided cord; the pillar rocked, the vase atop it teetering very precariously. “You invited me here just to make a spectacle of me!”

“Young man,” the Duchess said in her driest tone, not giving herself away by glancing up at the wobbling column, “I wouldn’t presume to take credit for that which you have achieved on your own. If you cannot behave in civilized society, perhaps you ought to return to your own House.”

“Oh, you’d like that!” he raged, trying to take another step, and reaching the end of the slack he had with those vines. Not paying attention, he gave a final jerk.

Price saw it coming. There were innumerable ways she could have stopped it. Duchess Inara caught her eye once as the column finally began to topple, and a sly little smile flitted across her face.

It was so skillfully done. The column bases were triangular, creating only three lines along which they would inevitably fall if pulled upon. They had been arranged in a very particular orientation, each of them. Inara had planted herself right in the proper line, right at the perfect distance. Lord Reine’s lunge in her direction and furious yank at the vines—so cleverly looped around the column—looked, from the perspective of the onlookers, like a convincingly deliberate act.

Or could be made to, assuming the proper rumors had been planted ahead of time. Price did not doubt for a second that they had.

Just as she did not doubt what the effect would be of Reine Daraspian’s implication in the death of the Duchess of House Tiradegh.

And so she watched, unmoving, as the tower of weighted plaster descended straight onto the smirking old woman’s head.


It was a strange thing, death. She had never liked the old lady in the least, and the feeling had been fully mutual. Price frankly had a low opinion of hereditary nobility in general; her aspiration was to attach her career to someone like the Falconers, people who had earned their wealth and power by making actual contributions to the world. The Eserite in her counted the damage done to two noble Houses as a hilarious success for the human race.

And yet, she couldn’t make herself feel satisfied about any part of this.

The Eserite in her also grudgingly admired Inara Tiradegh’s final gambit. House Tiradegh was no better than any of them, built on the backs of thousands of people who actually did work and lived meaningful lives, unlike the nobles who grew fat from their sweat. But House Daraspian was the next best thing to a crime syndicate themselves; the Guild had rapped its knuckles repeatedly and was widely believed to be the reason for a few untimely deaths within its ranks. But the Daraspians thrived by corruption and bribery, and the Guild could only terrorize so many people at a time—particularly when most of those people were Imperial functionaries. Matters became very different when a young noble of their House was accused of publicly murdering the head of a rival House in a drunken rage.

It was far from certain, yet, whether Reine Daraspian would be convicted. Price didn’t really care what happened to him; the damage was already done. Imperial Intelligence had taken a hand in the investigation, considering the stature of the victim, and was uprooting Daraspian interests right and left, not to mention cleaning out much of the damage they had done to Leineth’s political infrastructure. By the time that finished, Vrandis Province was likely to end up with a whole new government. Sensing weakness, the other Houses had turned on the beleaguered Daraspians, and the Thieves’ Guild had grown increasingly bold throughout Vrandis. In Leineth itself, the Guild was currently being circumspect, since the city was presently crawling with Imperial spooks, but if House Daraspian managed to survive the investigations relatively intact, the Boss was almost certainly going to declare open season on them once Intelligence withdrew.

And that new provincial government was likely to have a Tiradegh named Imperial Governor.

Price could admire it. She couldn’t convince herself that she would miss Inara. Yet this was all so…melancholy.

Sympathy for Yancey was most of it. He had been rigid even by Butler standards ever since that fateful night, and Price had respected his aloofness. She was not naive enough to think that just because she had never liked Inara, no one could; the bond a Butler shared with their contract-holder was, by design, something intimate and even intense. When you made another person your life’s work, the loss of that person must be a complete unmooring of everything in the world that mattered.

It was a sobering thing to think about. Price kept herself nearby, but kept herself contained—her presence an offer of support if it was needed, but not an imposition upon his already raw emotional state. Yancey had not taken it up, and she had not resented it. They had dealt with the investigations and fallout side by side, in professional silence. In grief, there was solace in remaining unshakably Proper.

Yancey was barely middle-aged, far younger than the Duchess. He had to have known, upon taking her contract, that this would be how it ended. Well, not this precisely, but that he would outlive her. Price silently resolved that she would not sign on with someone far different from herself in age. Some Butlers had two or occasionally even three masters over the course of a life’s work, but the Service Society’s ideal was one Butler for one master, for one lifetime.

Now, two weeks after Inara Tiradegh’s final ball, the two of them had at last returned to the Society’s headquarters in Tiraas. It was quiet, as always—the flawless quiet of a household in the most perfect order imaginable. Here, there was nothing not Proper, nothing out of place, no one who did not know their tasks. At least, not now that they had passed through the student training areas into the Society’s far more secretive lower reaches. Students were not permitted down here; even full Butlers did not enter except on specific and official business.

And yet, this was where Master Butler kept his personal office. It was only Proper for his Butlers to be reminded of the full details of their commitments whenever their presence was required before him.

So it was that Price found herself passing the alchemy labs where the Treatment was administered, in many sessions over a span of two years. And then the heavy vault doors to the summoning chambers where the Bargains took place.

Alchemy alone did not a Butler make, for all that it enhanced the body and to a lesser extent the mind. Their true facility came from deals with established agents, beings of each school of magic. Bargaining with fairies had its known risks; deals with demons were even trickier, not to mention extraordinarily illegal. Master Butler’s true genius was in rounding out the circle. It was not clear whether the arcane entities with which she had formed contracts were summoned from elsewhere or actually created for the purpose, but she had been most impressed by the last. Nowhere else had she even heard suggestion that there were consciousnesses out there in the world that stemmed from the divine, save the gods themselves. And yet…

It was the combination that created that which was Proper. Each being demanded its price; their bargains were laid out in a loop such that all costs were paid, but not by the Butler making the Bargains. Each price was parlayed into the next, in a devouring ring like the Circle of Interaction itself. The Society gained its gifts, and paid nothing.

These were the deepest secrets of the Service Society, the sources of power that the world entire would kill to possess. It was not the feared strength or prowess in combat of Butlers which kept the jackals at bay; each Butler was attached to someone of influence, each contract stipulating certain types of support which could be demanded at need. No government or cult dared move against the one organization which had positioned itself to topple any of them, anywhere, under any circumstances.

Master Butler’s brilliance was in forming balance. In creating these networks that sustained and supported themselves. In a very real sense, he was the Service Society.

“Enter,” he called from within his office as soon as Yancey and Price arrived outside the door. They had not even had time to knock.

They did as bade, stepping inside, closing the door, and bowing to exactly the Proper degree.

“Please, sit,” Simeon Butler said with a smile. “Both of you.”

His seat, of course, was much taller than theirs, and even so his head was below their level. For all that, to be in his presence precluded any thought of overpowering him. Price had not known many gnomes, but Master Butler was the single most impressive personality she had ever encountered, not least because even with her training, her Treatment and her Bargains, her senses and accelerated mind could not pin down exactly what it was about him which commanded such instinctive respect. He was simply that far above her level, and always would be. She had never met a dragon, but had read descriptions of the aura of majesty they cultivated; privately, Price suspected Master Butler had found some way to imitate that effect.

“You have my deepest condolences, Yancey,” Master Butler said with pure sincerity. “No matter how many times I have had this conversation, it never grows easier.”

Yancey nodded deeply, almost bowing from his chair. “Thank you, Master Butler.”

“She was a deeply impressive woman,” the gnome said, nodding back. “Well worthy of the Society’s favor. Your service was a credit to her and to us. Even as we share in your loss, Yancey, we welcome you home with honor. Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Yancey only nodded again, this time almost perfunctorily.

“Naturally, the home office is yours until you are ready to resume work,” Master Butler continued more briskly, sensing the mood and ushering the conversation past that painful area. “Simply make your needs known to me and I shall see to it that they are met.”

“If it pleases you, sir,” Yancey replied, “I would like to take part in the education of the students. Whatever vacation time I have accumulated, I would prefer not to redeem at this juncture.”

“I well understand the value of keeping busy,” Master Butler agreed. “Very well, it shall be done. Consult with Crispin at your convenience as to what classes and individuals need instruction. I shall make it known to him that you are to have your pick of available assignments.”

“Thank you very much, Master Butler.”

The gnome nodded to him again, smiling, and then turned to Price. “Well, then! Unusual as it is for me to have two such exit interviews simultaneously, it is also something of a relief in this case. Yancey has reported that your Trial’s results were more than satisfactory—and it seems that one of the late Duchess Inara’s last acts was to send me a glowing recommendation via telescroll. She spoke of you in the highest terms.”

Price raised her eyebrows a tiny fraction that none but a Butler or elf would even have noticed. In this company, under these circumstances, it sufficed to express her pure astonishment.

“Yes,” Master Butler said, his smile widening, “her Grace the Duchess did not make a secret of her lack of personal fondness for you, Miss Price, nor her specific dislike of your religious affiliation. She seemed, if anything, ruefully resentful of her failure to find fault with your performance. It was her belief that your ability to conduct yourself so professionally under such hostility was the mark of a true servant. I concur with that assessment wholeheartedly. And as you have passed your Trial with flying colors, it is my honor and pleasure to welcome you, Sabrina Price, as a full-fledged member of the Service Society.”

Price inclined her head deeply. “Thank you very much, Master Butler. And thank you, Yancey.”

“Congratulations, Price.” Yancey found a smile for her. Strangely, that was the most touching thing of all.

“Now, then,” Master Butler continued, once more growing brisk, “I’ll need a further word with you, Price. Yancey, your reserved chambers are in readiness. Once again, welcome home.”

“My thanks, sir.” Yancey rose smoothly and bowed to the Master, nodded to Price, and then excused himself.

“I want to caution you, Price,” Master Butler said seriously as soon as they were alone, “not to be in a hurry to choose a contract. This is a matter of the greatest seriousness and should not be approached lightly. It is common for newly accredited members of the Service Society to peruse applications for months if not years before making a selection. Most interview with multiple applicants before choosing one.”

“Of course, sir. I understand fully.”

He nodded, reaching over to open the top drawer of his desk, and withdrew a folder. “I am aware that you do, Price, and did not mean to imply any lack of attention on your part. The reminder is simply to assert that I am not applying any pressure to you now. With that said, this is fortuitous timing indeed, as an application has just arrived which made me immediately think of you.”

“Oh?” She glanced at the folder before returning her gaze politely to his own. The Master folded his hands atop it on the desk, regarding her solemnly rather than opening it.

“I realize you have been distracted with the final affairs of the late Duchess Tiradegh. I’m sorry to have to report to you that Bishop Vaade recently passed away.”

Price bowed her head respectfully, murmuring, “We are still here.” It was, in truth, a formality; rank-and-file like herself had little interaction with Bishops or any of the Guild’s higher-ups. Most Eserites wanted nothing to do with authority, even their own. Vaade was a person she was aware of, and that was about it.

“From this unfortunate loss,” Master Butler continued, “have issued a sequence of surprises. It seems that Boss Sweet has selected as her replacement none other than himself. He has stepped down as Boss of the Guild, and just two days ago been confirmed by the Archpope and the new Boss, Tricks, as the new Bishop of Eserion.”

“How…intriguing,” Price said thoughtfully. No exaggeration; that was intriguing. Even distant as she was from Guild politics, she could not help beginning to tease out some of the implications of this.

“Now, it appears that Sweet—or Antonio Darling, as I’m sure you are aware—has never lived lavishly. That is quite typical of Eserites, of course. But now he has purchased a house in Tiraas which befits his new social standing, and hired decorators to furnish in in such a manner as is appropriate for a man of such rank. More interestingly still, Bishop Darling’s first formal act as a ranking officer of the Universal Church has been to commission what appears to be the most in-depth historical study of all recorded encounters with and descriptions of Elilial ever undertaken.” The Master let that hang for a moment before finally unfolding his hands and pushing the folder toward her. “And, as of yesterday, he has submitted an application for a Butler to the Service Society. I thought, Price, you ought to be the first to peruse it.”

Price pulled the folder toward herself and opened it, but though she stared at the page, she did not yet read. Already her mind rushed ahead, finding the shape of it, determining what was Proper in this situation. Sweet was a famously people-oriented person, a man who lived to get his own hands dirty and hated both delegation and ostentation. He liked to be in the streets and trenches, making himself known and doing his best to make everyone else’s jobs easier. He was a lot more popular in the Guild than Boss Catseye had been. This was a striking departure. What could prompt someone to so completely and suddenly reverse all his habits?

He had gone to the Church. He was deliberately re-positioning himself as a man of power and influence. And it seemed he was launching a personal crusade at the Dark Lady.

Intriguing barely began to describe it. This, this was someone to whom, unless he personally proved otherwise, a person could devote their life’s work, and find it a life well spent in deed.

“Thank you very much, Master Butler,” said Price thoughtfully. “I believe I would like to interview Mr. Darling at his earliest convenience.”

The Master smiled. “I thought you would say that.”

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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10 – 4

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The clack of wooden swords echoed across the lawn as the paladin and the drow clashed, circled, danced together and retreated. Other students stood around, each holding practice weapons of their own, but now just standing and watching the duel in the pale light of dawn.

Szith was the more mobile, making full use of her elvish speed and reflexes to get around her opponent. Nimble as she was, however, Trissiny very nearly kept pace with her, and the paladin’s more aggressive style, coupled with her greater physical strength, meant that their actual engagements usually ended with the drow in retreat. As the bout wore on, Szith became increasingly aggressive, being wise enough to realize that letting it become a contest of attrition would benefit her opponent. Trissiny, meanwhile, had clearly developed the skill of thinking multiple steps ahead, and made constant use of feints, false charges and sudden retreats to force Szith to adapt, helping to nullify the advantage of her speed.

The end, when it came, was abrupt and clearly a surprise, even to the contestants. Trissiny suddenly staggered, struck on the arm, and in the next moment reeled again, having been jabbed in the chest by one of her foe’s wooden swords. She took a step back, lowering her own weapon and wincing as she shook her left hand.

“I have bad habits,” she said ruefully, her aura faintly glowing for a moment to wipe away bruises and restore feeling in the arm numbed by Szith’s lightning-fast strike. “Muscle memory still wants me to block with that hand.”

“Indeed,” Szith replied, very slightly out of breath. “Had you been using a shield, I think that would have ended differently.”

She bowed formally in the Narisian style, both swords extended behind her. Trissiny replied with a traditional Avenist salute, fist over heart, blade upright alongside her face.

“Ugh, get a room, you two,” Ruda jeered.

Trissiny shot her an irritated look. “You could be practicing instead of spectating, you know.”

“Nah,” said Gabriel, grinning. “That was well worth seeing! Beats getting my ass kicked any day. And it’s really interesting to see Narisian sword work. The style is…different.”

“Are you not accustomed to watching Lady Shaeine fight?” Szith inquired.

“She doesn’t usually join us,” said November, absently twirling her practice sword. She instantly stilled it when Trissiny glanced at her.

“She also prefers to use magic in the field,” added Toby. “And in Ezzaniel’s classes I feel like she’s made a lot more progress with sword work since enrolling here than she ever did before. I guess combat isn’t a big part of a diplomat’s education.”

“Well, that’s all very interesting,” November said dismissively, turning to Ruda. “C’mon, how about another round? You said you’d help me work on my technique.”

“Mm…nah.” Ruda glanced at the sky. “I think we better pack up and move out. We’ve got classes before too much longer, and I want time to clean up a bit. Last time I went straight from practice to Tellwyrn’s class, she spent the whole goddamn hour making passive-aggressive comments about the way everyone smelled. Are elvish noses really that sensitive?”

“I help!” Scorn shouted, bounding up from where she had been sitting at the edge of the group, then turned expectantly to Teal. “Yes?”

“Sure,” said the bard, smiling at her. “You know where everything goes.”

“Everything!” the demon said enthusiastically, rushing forward to collect practice swords.

The sun was fully up, now, and morning classes would indeed be starting soon. The campus was starting to come alive, the odd student passing by the lawn en route to the cafeteria. Most hardly glanced at them; by this point, their little group had become something of an institution. They could be found on the lawn most mornings, either drilling under Trissiny or Toby’s direction, or practicing various forms of armed and unarmed combat. Since Trissiny and Teal had begun the tradition over a year ago, the roster had grown slowly, but those who made regular appearances had benefited greatly. Professor Ezzaniel himself had praised the progress Ruda and Gabriel had made in class, and November’s single-minded dedication and slavish attention to anything Trissiny directed her to do had advanced her own skill considerably.

“So, Shaeine’s title is actually Lady?” Gabriel asked as he and Ruda rolled up the woven reed mat they used for tumbling, to avoid grass stains on clothing. “I don’t think she’s ever actually mentioned that.”

“Not…exactly,” said Teal, glancing at Szith. “Narisians don’t really use titles; their full names reveal everything about their social standing. Those honorifics are practically a language unto themselves.”

“In this context, though,” said Szith, “and in Tanglish, I prefer to err on the side of courtesy. She is noble born, after all.”

“I’m certain Shaeine wouldn’t insist on the formality here,” Teal said with a smile.

“Perhaps,” Szith replied evenly. “But I am of her culture, and owe respect to her station. Different expectations apply to me than to the rest of you.”

Teal frowned slightly and opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment Scorn returned from dumping practice swords in the duffel bag used for the task and grabbed the one Gabriel had been using from his hand. “Here, give!”

He relinquished the weapon, frowning reproachfully at her. “I see we’re still working on those manners.”

“I am not manners. I am lady.” Scorn tossed her head haughtily, looking down her nose at him. “You are manners!” She turned on her heel and stalked back to the bag, where she tossed the last blade in with far more force than the task required, rattling all the way. Since her arrival on campus, she had begun accumulating cheap costume jewelry, mostly given to her by Teal; the lack of available metal in her home dimension had made her inordinately fond of it. Now the demon glittered and clattered wherever she went.

“Easy,” Trissiny said firmly. “Handle weapons with respect.”

“Well,” Gabriel muttered, lifting the rolled mat with a grunt and slinging it over his shoulder. “I guess that tells us a bit about the nature of nobility in her society.”

“In every society,” Szith murmured.

Trissiny suddenly stilled, turning in a slow half-circle with a frown on her face.

“Problem?” Ruda asked, watching her.

“I… There’s something on the edge of my…” Trissiny trailed off, then looked at Gabriel and then Toby. “Do either of you sense something all of a sudden?”

“Like what?” Toby asked.

“Feels demonic,” Trissiny muttered, looking around again. “Very subtle, though. I can’t quite pinpoint it.”

“I, uh…not really,” said Gabriel with a shrug.

“Maybe it’s just Scorn?” Toby suggested. “It started about when she started moving around just now, right? At least, that’s when you reacted.”

“Sort of. Maybe.” Trissiny’s expression did not ease, and she didn’t stop scanning the area. November looked tense and alarmed, creeping over to stand next to her.

“No,” Scorn said, folding her powerful arms and scowling at Toby. “There is a thing. I feel.”

“Really?” said Teal. “What kind of thing?”

The demon chewed her lower lip for a moment. “Hum…feels…like I know. Trissiny is right, very faint. A slave type.”

Ruda rolled her eyes; Gabriel snorted, earning a glare from Scorn.

“Can you be more specific?” Teal asked gently. It had been established previously that from Scorn’s point of view, all demons except Rhaazke were slaves, or ought to be.

“A hvathrzixk, I think. Yes, think so.”

“Bless you,” Gabriel muttered.

“I don’t know that word,” Teal said, frowning, then glanced at the others. “Demonic pronunciation is largely contextual. I’m not sure what that would be in this situation.”

“That language is way more complicated than it needs to be,” Ruda snorted.

“Yes, it is,” Trissiny agreed. “That’s the point of it.”

“Know word, know word,” Scorn was muttering, rubbing her forehead between her horns. “Know this, I read it up… Ah! Yes, slave of Vanislaas, yes?” She turned to Trissiny. “You feel, yes?”

The entire group stilled, then reflexively moved closer together. Trissiny drew her actual sword, which she had only just buckled back on.

“There is not a Vanislaad here,” Gabriel said firmly. “Their invisibility doesn’t work against valkyries, remember? Vestrel is offended at the suggestion.”

“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded of Scorn. The demon shrugged.

“Not sure to plant my honor on. Feels like.”

“I’m telling you,” Gabriel began.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ruda interrupted him. “I think somebody better go straight to Tellwyrn with this.”

“Are you sure she ought to be bothered with an uncertainty?” Szith inquired. “She is rather prone to…”

“Mock,” November said tersely. “Oh, the mockery.”

“We got four people here who should be able to sense demons,” said Ruda. “Two say there’s nothing here, two sense something, and one says it’s an incubus or succubus. The discrepancy alone is pretty fuckin’ fishy. I’m telling Tellwyrn.”

“I agree,” Toby said seriously. “Keep in mind that of all the paladins here, Trissiny is most attuned to demonic threats.”

“But Vestrel can see through Vanislaad trickery,” Gabriel protested. “And, let’s face it, Scorn puts off a lot of energy. It messes with my senses a bit. That could be the whole thing by itself.”

“That doesn’t explain her sensing another demon,” Teal objected.

“Like feeling the heat of a candle when one is standing near a bonfire?” Szith added. “Does that not imply a greater likelihood a stealthy demon could hide in her presence?”

A brief silence fell; all of them peered around uncertainly.

“Yeah,” said Trissiny after a moment. “Let’s go get Tellwyrn.”


 

Darling pushed open the door of his study and stepped in, his attention on the letter in his hand. This was his third reading, and it still made him chuckle, even as it made him a tad nervous. Quentin Vex’s complaints were always very subtly couched, and rather ironically phrased. This matter had been slowly simmering ever since the fallout of that mess at the south gate; the spymaster was playing it cool and hadn’t even mentioned it at council meetings. The fact that he was now feeling Darling out for assurances that the Thieves’ Guild was not pursuing some kind of vendetta against Imperial Intelligence meant something else had happened.

Tricks’s orders had been to make it plain that their argument with Marshal Avelea had been only, specifically with her. Grip and Toybox had insisted that they’d done so. Why was Vex getting tetchy now? Some Guild agent must have ruffled another Imp, somehow.

The prospects weren’t good. Either the Boss was up to something else and hadn’t bothered to mention it to Sweet—which was unlikely, but all the more unsettling for that—or some random Eserite had crossed paths with an Imp, not realizing what they were messing with.

These things happened, of course. It would mean no end of headaches, going to the Boss and to Style to figure out what had happened and who had done it; Guild members were not generally expected to keep the management informed of all their activities. Tricks was not going to enjoy the extra work. Style would also complain, though in truth she loved having the excuse to storm and rage and crack people’s heads together. Darling would probably end up having to very, very carefully feel Vex out for details without revealing he had no idea what was up. Then again, maybe it’d be better to just up and ask him; Vex was canny enough that he’d likely read the truth between the lines no matter how Darling tried to obfuscate it, and in that circumstance it might be better to foster a sense of openness.

Of course, headaches or no, this still beat the hell out of the alternative. He knew very well that something was going on in the uppermost levels of the Guild that Tricks wasn’t keeping him in the loop about. And that was fine, generally speaking; he knew better than anyone that there were things the Boss and the Big Guy just didn’t discuss with anyone else. But if those things had begun to impact the Imperial government, Sweet’s life was about to become more interesting than he liked it.

Not to mention how that could weigh on his own plans. Occasionally, lately, he’d begun to experience and unfamiliar longing to take a vacation from all this.

“What, exactly,” he asked aloud, “do you think this is going to prove? I know very well how silent you can be. That’s not in question.”

“Oh, come on!” Fauna complained. She and Flora dropped from the ceiling, landing with simultaneous soft thumps on the carpet. Really, cats would have hit the ground harder.

“How the hell did you know we were there?” Flora demanded.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, flawless performance,” he said, folding the letter and stepping around behind his desk to tuck it in the top drawer. “I know you, though. Most actual marks won’t have that kind of insight into your strategies, though you still need to be prepared for those who do. An actual enemy is never someone you want to take lightly, and they’re the ones most likely to be aware of you. I’ll tell you what, girls; figure out what the tell was and surprise me next time, and I’ll have Price let you off household chores for a week.”

“All right,” Fauna said, grinning broadly.

“We love being bribed!” Flora added with matching enthusiasm.

“They grow up so fast,” he said with a mock sniffle.

Below, the front doorbell chimed. All three of them glanced at the study door.

“Style says you two are doing well, working with the newer apprentices,” he said. “How do you like the work? Some find it boring.”

“It’s actually rather satisfying,” Fauna said. “Learning is good, but teaching’s also fun.”

“And no, we’re not bullying the newbies, which is what you really wanted to ask,” Flora added, smirking.

“Yes, yes,” he said with a smile. “Have you been at the work long enough to’ve noticed how much faster the general pool of apprentices graduates?”

“Not firsthand,” Fauna replied, “but Style’s explained it to us.”

“Personal apprentices serve for much longer periods because they get much more in-depth training from a sponsor.”

“The advantages of that don’t really need to be explained.”

“So no, we’re not resentful of the fact that people from the general apprentice pool have become full Guild members in the time we’ve been studying under you.”

“We’re still getting a better deal.”

“Plus,” Flora added with a wicked grin, “it was rather satisfying when Grip kicked Randy back into the general pool.” She held out a fist, and Fauna bumped it with her own.

“Good,” he said, not troubling to hide his amusement. “I’ll be honest, girls: your skills are already well beyond what the Guild demands of its members, in terms of minimum competence. At this point it’s all specialized stuff. I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to move forward faster.”

They shared one of those loaded looks.

“We trust your judgment, Sweet,” Fauna said.

“You’ve more than earned that.”

“Besides…we like it here.”

“It’s nice to have, y’know, a home.”

“Omnu’s breath, I’m not gonna boot your butts into the street the moment you graduate,” he said with gentle exasperation. “Soon enough, once you start racking up your own fortunes—and you will—you’ll want space of your own. Till that time, you have a home here. You’re still family.”

Both smiled broadly. Much as he enjoyed word games and dancing around the truth, those little moments of pure, honest feeling were what made all the rest of it seem worthwhile.

A soft rap sounded at the door, and Price pushed it open. Taking in the elves with a glance, she turned to Darling and opened her mouth.

“Your Grace, you have a visitor,” both apprentices intoned in unison, the imitation uncanny.

“I see you have already been informed,” Price said in perfect calm. “As your study is currently infested with rodents who clearly have time to thoroughly clean the kitchen, I have taken the liberty of having him wait in the downstairs parlor.”

“Aww!”

“C’mon!”

“It’s your own fault,” he said severely. “I dunno why you still think it’s a good idea to taunt her. Price, who’ve we got on deck?”

“A Huntsman of Shaath,” she said. “Brother Ingvar, whom I believe you may recall. He insists his business with you is personal.”

Both elves turned to face him in surprise.

“That,” he said slowly, “is fascinating. All right, take ’em away. And make sure they have to keep the eavesdropping subtle.”

“Of course, sir.”

The girls adopted hangdog expressions, which of course had not the slightest effect on Price as she herded them down the stairs and toward the kitchen. He followed more slowly, mentally taking stock. At the moment, having been about to head out on Guild affairs, he was in one of Sweet’s loud, shabby suits. Well, Ingvar had been introduced to him that way, anyhow. Probably best not to surprise him any more than necessary.

He entered the study, finding the Huntsman standing stiffly with his hands folded behind him, examining the nicknacks on the mantle. Ingvar turned swiftly at his arrival, his face calm but, to a veteran observer of people like Sweet, his posture betraying tension. He did not want to be here. Well, considering how some of their previous conversations had gone, that was pretty understandable.

“Brother Ingvar,” Sweet said warmly, striding across the room to offer his hand. The Huntsman took it almost gingerly, though his grip was firm, and he immediately altered his tactics. This one wouldn’t be softened up by charm. “So sorry to keep you waiting,” he said more briskly, though it had only been a few minutes. “I was dealing with my apprentices; you know how young ones can be. How can I help you?”

“I am sorry to intrude, your Grace,” the Huntsman said with stiff formality. Voice and face remained calm, but his posture was still rigid, and one hand kept creeping toward his hatchet. Not a threat; it looked to Darling more like a gesture seeking comfort. Ingvar had either been slightly trained in diplomatic conduct, or had a knack for it that compensated for a lack of training. The two looked very similar. “I shall try not to take too much of your time; I merely have a favor to ask of you.”

“Well, of course,” Darling said smoothly, fading more into a Bishoply demeanor; Sweet was bound to grate on this guy’s nerves, by nature. “Please, have a seat, be comfortable. I’ll be glad to help if I can.”

Ingvar folded himself gingerly onto the loveseat while Darling slipped into his customary chair. He’d considered not offering; the Huntsman would naturally be more comfortable on his feet, but offering a guest a seat was such a universal mark of courtesy that failing to do so would be an insult under virtually any circumstances.

He studied his guest’s face in the moment of silence while Ingvar gathered words; this was clearly a request he was loathe to make, which made it all the more intriguing. Darling had taken the time to do a little research on his particular condition. It wasn’t an issue in Eserion’s service, where people had a very simple, rather limited code of behavior to adhere to and were expected to carry on however the hell they pleased in their personal lives. The cults of Avei, Izara and Vidius all had specific provisions for individuals whose gender didn’t match their sex, however, and conveniently had those doctrines written down, so he didn’t have to have awkward conversations with any of their priests to learn them. Needless to say, their doctrines contradicted one another quite flatly. Still, the reading had given him a little insight, he felt.

Ingvar, at least, clearly had not made use of any kind of body-altering alchemy, which could very well be a Shaathist thing. The Huntsmen did not record their beliefs, at least not where outsiders could read them, but their love of all things natural made it likely they would eschew cosmetic alchemy. There was only so much it could do, anyway. Ingvar’s beardless face could certainly belong on a man, especially given his attire and hairstyle, though it did make him seem younger than he was; Darling guessed him to be around thirty, maybe a tad less. With a simple trick of concentration, however, he could also see the face of a woman with a rather strong jaw and heavy eyebrows. It really did come down to how one chose to perceive what one saw.

“I have been given to understand,” Ingvar said finally, “that you have some contact with Mary the Crow.”

Oh, bloody hell. Honestly. What now?

“My goodness,” he said mildly. “You do know that Mary the Crow is a declared enemy of the state, I assume? That’s not an accusation to throw around lightly.”

“I have no desire to cause you any trouble, your Grace,” the Huntsman said quickly. “I am sorry to bother you even this much. Nothing you say to me will find its way to Imperial ears.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Darling said with a smile. “You’re correct, I do know her. And I also keep Lord Vex appraised of my acquaintance with her and other dangerous individuals. That’s just sensible. He likes to amuse himself by surveilling my house, anyway. What’s your interest in the Crow?”

“I have been troubled, lately, by visions,” Ingvar replied, finally untensing the slightest bit as his gaze focused on a point not within the room. “Repeated and disturbing dreams which… Well, I will not bore you with details. In short, the most recent finally offered me a hint of the way forward, rather than vague warnings. It suggested I seek the guidance of the Crow.”

“I see,” Darling murmured. He did not see, but he could most certainly conjecture. Visions, Mary, and shamanic quests all fit together quite neatly. As a priest and a human, however, shamanic stuff in general was rather over his head. “If I may ask, who directed you to my door?”

Ingvar’s left eyebrow twitched in what looked like it had wanted to be a wry expression before he marshaled it. “Principia Locke.”

Darling had to chuckle at that; for some reason, Ingvar looked mildly offended.

“Sorry, old business. Principia’s name does tend to turn up whenever anything untoward happens; I guess it shouldn’t surprise me by now. That was good thinking, though; you probably knew about the family link there before I did.”

“Is it possible you can put me in contact with Mary?” Ingvar asked, betraying no overt impatience. It was there, though; in his situation, it would have to be.

“Oh, most certainly,” said Darling. “However, you should be aware that the Crow comes and goes like a cat, only far less reliably. I’ll be only too glad to let her know you are looking for her; at that point, she’ll seek you out if she’s interested. What I cannot do is pin her down for you, nor make any kind of appointment. Or guarantee that she’ll be interested in speaking. Or, frankly, give you a timetable. She popped in on my every few days for months, but then in the last half a year I’ve seen her all of three times.”

“I see,” Ingvar said, his shoulders moving subtly in a nearly repressed sigh. “Well. That is not nothing; it’s the first concrete progress I have made in this. I thank you greatly for your assistance, Bishop Darling.”

“Not at all, think nothing of it,” Darling said, waving him away. “Giving aid between faiths is the central duty of my position; we are all allies under the Pantheon’s aegis.”

Ingvar pointedly did not comment on that hollow platitude. “Nonetheless, I feel I owe you a debt for helping me in this.”

“Let’s not forget that you were among those who came to my rescue against the Black Wreath,” Darling said more softly, and more sincerely. “If you must think in terms of debts, consider any favors I do you here a repayment.”

“Very well,” the Huntsman replied with very slight but still evident relief.

Darling rose, suspecting his guest would be glad to terminate this audience without further small talk; the swiftness with which Ingvar followed suit bore out his hypothesis. “I’ve only one method which has worked in the past to get Mary’s attention; I retired it after she tacitly expressed displeasure, but for you, I believe we can trot it out again. Price!”

The parlor door instantly opened, revealing the Butler.

“Ah, there you are! Price, I need you to assemble another scarecrow.”

“Really, sir?” she said with that magical expressionlessness of hers that somehow conveyed withering disapproval in a way that couldn’t be called out.

“A…scarecrow?” Ingvar repeated, looking somewhere between amused and aghast.

“Yes indeed!” Darling said cheerfully. “And you know what, put a silly hat on this one. We can’t have our good friend Mary getting the idea that she should take herself too seriously. That’s terrible for a person’s blood pressure.”

“Your Grace,” Price intoned, “may I respectfully suggest that escalating a prank war with Mary the Crow is among the most ill-advised notions in the history of civilization?”

“Not in front of a guest, you may not,” he said glibly. “Honestly, Price, you’re making the poor man uncomfortable. Who taught you to behave?”

“Oh, uh,” Ingvar stammered.

“Brother Ingvar,” Darling said more warmly, turning to the Huntsman. “Once again, I cannot predict how swiftly I’ll have word for you, or what that word will be, but I’ll be in touch just as soon as anything develops.”

“I…appreciate your help very much, your Grace,” Ingvar said, and Darling couldn’t help feeling amused at his clear discomfort. He felt a little bad about that, though.

Well, it was good that he could feel guilty about such small things. When you didn’t, anymore, you were wandering into territory that he sometimes feared he would find himself in before he knew what had happened.


 

The light autumn wind tasted of rain; it tugged playfully at her hair and the fringes of her sleeves and leggings. She ignored it, perched on the edge of Darling’s roof right where the whole neighborhood could have seen her, if anyone bothered to look up. Humans rarely did.

Mary watched impassively as Ingvar the Huntsman made his way back up the street, moving with an alacrity that suggested eagerness to get well out of this ritzy neighborhood.

“Hmm.”

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“But why dragons?” Merry demanded as they marched. “This is not what we’ve been training for! Damn it, if we’ve been busting all our butts for nothing…”

“You know, I think I had almost exactly this conversation with the Captain, only reversed,” Principia replied, glancing back at her. “Want to know what she said?”

Merry hesitated, then scowled. “That’s a trap, isn’t it.”

“There, see?” Prin said, grinning. “You’re learning. We’ll make a sly operator of you yet, Lang.”

“In all seriousness, though,” Farah piped up, “these orders…”

“Are orders,” Principia said firmly. “We can handle this assignment, and we will. Come on, ladies, we’ve dealt with orders specifically designed to break us. This is going to be more interesting than we’d like, yes, but it’s a real job, and it has a purpose. We’ll do it and do it well.”

“Sarge is right,” Ephanie added. “This is what Avei needs of us. Succeed or fail, there’s honor in the doing.”

“We will not consider ‘fail’ as a pertinent option,” Principia said. “All right, squad, pipe down. We’re approaching range of the Bishop, and I want her to see training and professionalism from us, and nothing else. Forward march, double time.”

They fell silent as ordered, falling smoothly into step. It was a little unusual to be quick-marching through the halls of the temple, but they were Legionnaires in uniform and it was the central bastion of Avei’s influence in Tiraas; no one attempted to interfere with them. The walk was relatively quick, anyway, and within another five minutes they had reached Bishop Shahai’s office.

It was one of the temple complex’s more idiosyncratic rooms, a small chamber four times as long as it was wide and lined with bookcases. Before a remodeling that resulted in the addition of a new wing to the temple, it had actually been a section of outdoor colonnade. Now, one wall—that which had previously been open—had panes of frosted glass between the remaining columns, giving a full view of the carpeted chamber and its numerous books. Those, too, were leftovers, entirely volumes of which multiple copies already existed in the temple’s library. Until Shahai came along, it had been a public space, its glass doors usually standing open and often serving as a spot for quiet reading, prayer or conversation. She had done nothing to make it her own, even to the point of making no objection to others being in the space. Shahai’s easygoing and humble attitude had already made her far more popular than her predecessor.

Not that the bar was set very high.

She was standing with her back to the entrance when Squad One marched in. Even from behind, she was a distinctive figure, slender and with long ears extending to either side of her pale blonde hair. There were few enough elves in the Sisterhood, and fewer still among the Universal Church’s personnel. The white robe of the Bishop’s office was similar to that worn by priestesses of Avei, though ankle-length rather than ending just below the knee, and with wide, billowing sleeves. Over that was the black tabard of her office with the Church’s silver ankh symbol, and over that she had belted on a sword in addition to the golden eagle pin at her shoulder. In contrast to Bishop Syrinx’s extravagant weapon, it was a plain leaf-bladed short sword doubtless straight from a Silver Legion armory.

“Squad One,” the Bishop said, turning to face them with a thoughtful expression. Nandi Shahai had eyes of a unique pale gray. The color itself was unusual among plains elves; its very light shade was a silver that verged on white under the right light. Those eyes flicked rapidly across them as they saluted. “Hm…five of you. That will make most ceremonial formations awkward… All right, Sergeant Locke, you are to position yourself as my personal aide. The rest of you will arrange yourselves as an honor guard. You know the requisite formations.”

It was not a question, but it required an answer anyway.

“Of course, your Grace,” Principia said crisply.

“You have a question, Private Elwick?” the Bishop asked mildly.

Casey blinked her eyes and glanced at Principia.

“Permission granted to speak freely,” Shahai said with a small smile.

Casey cleared her throat. “Ah, well… I don’t mean to question your decisions, your Grace. I was just wondering how important ceremonial formations are, considering what we’re to guard you against.”

“Your attitude is proper,” Shahai said approvingly. “However, it is also a highly pertinent question. If one dragon were to attack me, soldiers, there is precisely nothing you could do about it except die alongside me. We will be meeting, hopefully, four. This is not a military exercise and you will not think of it as such. It’s a different kind of battle entirely, and in diplomacy, a little pageantry goes a long way. For purposes of this assignment, squad, your bearing and conduct is more immediately germane to mission objectives than your skill in combat. You will keep this in mind and behave accordingly.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.

“And now Private Lang has a question,” the Bishop said, turning to her.

Merry quickly swallowed down a grimace. “Ah, well, case in point, ma’am. I was just surprised that you knew Elwick by name. And now me.”

“I assure you, ladies, I never enter a situation without knowing as many details and variables as can possibly be arranged,” Shahai said, folding her hands behind her back. “Almost everything about this situation is unknowable. It has no precedent, and while three of these dragons are known figures, they are not exactly familiar to any of us. Be assured, I have researched each of you as fully as the short span of time available to me allowed. Pertaining to that, and to your apparent inability to have a thought without expressing it on your face, you four will keep your helmets on when on duty. Locke, to further visually differentiate yourself from the rest of the squad, leave yours off. In fact, leave it here; I want you to keep a hand free.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I trust, further, that you do not lack facial control. Do you know what is expected of a personal aide?”

“I am familiar with the role, your Grace.”

“Good. I will have little in the way of papers to hold or errands to run; your primary role will be to be visually supportive. And as you are assuredly a practiced actor, I want you to convey the impression that we are old and familiar partners, if possible.”

“Yes, your Grace, I believe I can do that.”

“To that end, while I expect you to cultivate proper decorum, you may speak up and contribute to conversations when you deem it in the best interests of the Sisterhood and the mission. I am trusting both your sense and your loyalty, Locke. It is my opinion based on your records that this is warranted; if I prove mistaken, it will reflect on you in the High Commander’s eyes.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“The rest of you, however,” Shahai continued, turning her head to address the remainder of the squad, “will keep fully in character as ceremonial guards at all times when we are at the Conclave embassy, among any dragons or their staff, or on duty pertinent to this mission. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open, and I will seek your opinions in private. In front of the dragons, though, you are scenery. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am!” all four replied.

“If addressed by them,” the Bishop said, her stare growing more intent, “or approached at all, you will politely but firmly redirect their attention to me. Trust me, ladies, you do not want a dragon growing more interested in you. They have a tendency to get what they want, and that has a tendency to disrupt one’s life to an astonishing degree. Whatever else these dragons are up do, I cannot conceive that they have come to Tiraas without expecting to acquire some manner of female companionship.”

“I’m not excessively worried about anyone falling head over heels for me, your Grace,” Farah said with a grin.

“Well, there’s Avelea to consider,” Merry said reasonably. “I mean… Dang. Just look at her.”

Ephanie’s cheeks colored slightly behind her helmet, but she did not otherwise react.

“These are immortals,” Shahai said, unamused. “They have lived to see fashions and standards of beauty shift as often as you have seen the seasons change. You are young, healthy, self-confident and strong-willed; there is a universal attractiveness in that. You will do nothing to attract draconic attention to yourself; you will not encourage it if it exists, and will coldly deflect it should it persist. Is that fully understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they barked more stiffly.

“A question, your Grace, if I may?” Principia asked politely.

“Of course, Sergeant,” Shahai said, nodding at her.

“I don’t mean to presume; I’m simply trying to get on the same page so I can help with your plans rather than impeding them. By singling out the two elves as obviously dominant members of this delegation, what impression are you trying to send to the dragons?”

“None,” Shahai said, a very faint smile hovering around her mouth. “No impression. In fact, I intend to leave the matter as utterly vague as possible and set them to wondering which of the obvious possibilities is the correct one. Dragons are wise and clever in addition to being powerful; every moment they spend trying to find nonexistent meaning in minutia is a moment they are not spending maneuvering us as they wish.”

Principia permitted herself a smile. “I see. I think, Bishop Shahai, I am going to enjoy working with you.”

“That would, of course, be ideal,” the Bishop said calmly, “but never forget that we are here for duty, not enjoyment. All right, ladies, fall in; it’s time to go pay a visit.”


 

“That was fast,” Darling noted, leading the returning adventurers into the dining room with Price on their heels.

“Yeah, that’s the convenient thing about failure,” Weaver said sourly. “It has a tendency to happen so much faster than success.”

“No sign of Mary at all?”

“Sign, no,” said Billie, “but you were right. She’d been there; Tellwyrn had apparently spent enough time with her lately to grow tired of it. But she’s up an’ fluttered off, and we’ve no idea where to or why.”

“The Professor knows we’re looking, though,” Joe added, “and I think she’ll be helpful if she can. I mean, she’ll point Mary at us if she goes back to Last Rock before coming back here.”

“And,” Weaver added pointedly, “we reached an agreement with regard to the other matter. We now have a prearranged secure place to get rid of the skull. Assuming we can get our hands on the damn thing.”

“That’s one worry down, then,” Darling murmured.

“Where’s McGraw?” Joe asked.

“Got a little antsy, waiting around,” the Bishop replied with a grin. “He went off ahead to Desolation to have a look around.”

“You sent him where?” Joe exclaimed.

“C’mere, have a look,” Darling said, ushering them into the dining room. Flora and Fauna were present, both studying a large map unrolled on the long table. Darling led the group over to this and placed a finger on one labeled dot, the two elves shifting back to make room while the rest crowded around to see, Joe pausing only to tip his hat to the girls. “Desolation is the last stop on the Rail line in the Badlands.”

“I thought it went all the way to the Dwarnskolds,” Billie said. “Isn’t the kingdom of Rodvenheim less hostile t’the Empire than most o’ the rest?”

“Less hostile, yes,” said Darling, nodding while keeping his eyes on the map. “That doesn’t mean they don’t share the traditional dwarven interest in their privacy. The dwarves have a cultural imperative to discourage the kind of melting-pot phenomenon that’s been developing all over the Empire; all sorts of random people having access to their gates doesn’t serve their interests. All right, I actually have further point to make pertaining to that, but first I need to bring you guys up to speed—there’ve been developments in Tiraas while you were out today.”

“Anything good?” Billie asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Darling said, frowning and finally lifting his head to look at them. “Lord Vex briefed me; this is what I was called away for this morning. Today, four dragons landed outside the city.”

“Dragons?” Joe said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Four?”

“One of each extant color,” the Bishop said, nodding. “They came to announce that the dragons of the Tiraan continent have banded together and formed a government. They are requesting formal recognition and the opening of diplomatic relations.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Weaver said, staring at him.

“The Empire is handling this as slowly as they can, of course,” Darling continued, “but one doesn’t generally say ‘no’ to a dragon. Saying ‘no’ to all the dragons isn’t even on the table. They’ve been granted the use of a small palace that used to belong to some noble, which is already being considered an embassy in all but name. Anyhow, concerning our business, this obviously changes the character of the prophecies.”

“I should damn well think so,” Billie said in awe. “I mean…dragons. The politics o’ this alone… Could that be the chaos the books were goin’ on about?”

Darling shook his head. “The word ‘chaos’ wasn’t used; from the context, it was pretty clearly referring to chaos as a magical phenomenon. And the dragons aren’t necessarily the direct cause of it, but perhaps simply a significant enough event to draw prophecies of their own. This is entirely without precedent in the history of the world. But no, they wouldn’t be dabbling with chaos themselves. As a race, they have better sense.”

“Belosiphon sure didn’t,” Weaver noted.

“As you of all people likely know,” Darling retorted, “it was other dragons who brought him down. That kind of cooperation was rare even then. This… The whole world is changing, right out from under us. I can’t honestly say I still know what I’m sending you into, my friends. I want to raise the prospect of calling this whole thing off, or at least calling a halt until we can find more information, or at least find Mary.”

“Well, now, hang on a tick,” Billie said reasonably. “Even if it’s just chaos… The skull o’ Belosiphon is still out there, aye? An’ if that’s in circulation, it needs to be taken out of it.”

“We also know the Archpope’s other team is active,” Joe added.

“We assumed both of those things,” Darling said, raising a finger. “Our assumptions may not still be valid. The situation is more unpredictable and likely more dangerous than we know.”

“That being the case,” said Weaver, “it sounds to me like McGraw had the right idea. An Eserite once told me if your only available options are probably mistakes, it’s always better to err actively than passively. This seems to me like a good idea to head to the Badlands, get a look around, see if we can find something out and report back. If there’s a chaos artifact loose anywhere in the region, there will damn well be signs of it.”

“I suppose it can’t hurt to look,” Darling said thoughtfully. “…and having said that, I really hope I haven’t just jinxed you. All right, I’m going to trust your judgment on this. Be careful. Kindly don’t attempt anything too assertive until we’ve got more data to work with.”

“If nothin’ else,” Joe noted, “we’ll wanna link up with McGraw, see what he has to say. If I remember my frontier stories, the Badlands are his old stomping ground. The place where he made his legend, in fact. He’s likely still got friends up there.”

“Sounds like a plan t’me!” Billie said cheerfully. “An’ if nothin’ comes of it, we can still come back.”

“More Rail rides,” Weaver grumbled. “Ah, hell with it, too much comfort just makes me soft.”

Darling sighed. “All right, well… Just keep in mind what you’re seeing here, yeah? Desolation is right on the edge of the Badlands; assuming the skull is in that area, it’s not gonna be sitting on a convenient pedestal in town. This is a large stretch of country, and its pretty much the geographic center of nowhere. Your nearest major outposts of civilization are Rodvenheim, Puna Dara and Veilgrad, and none of those are exactly cosmopolitan epicenters. They’re also more than three hundred miles away, each.”

“Are we lookin’ at the same map?” Joe asked, pointing. “Shaathvar is right there.”

“It’s right there across the most impassible mountains on the continent,” Weaver said scornfully. “To get to Shaathvar from the Badlands, you’d have to go back down to Veilgrad and follow the roads up through the Stalrange. There’s a limited number of usable passes.”

“Shaathvar is also the’world’s most ass-backward place with a population o’ more than twenty,” Billie added. “Talkin’ o cosmopolitan epicenters.”

“Before this veers any further off topic,” Darling said firmly, “my point was, if you go adventuring into the Badlands, that’s that. You won’t be getting any more resources or help until you either succeed or quit. So yes, head to Desolation, find McGraw, look around. Please don’t be in a hurry to go haring off. I want everyone to be damn sure of what they’re doing before committing to something like that.”

“Don’t you worry yer pretty li’l head about us, poppet,” Billie said, winking. “We’re professionals.”

“Please don’t call him pretty,” Flora said, grinning.

“He’s vain enough as it is,” Fauna agreed.

Darling gave them an irritated look. “Don’t you two have something to clean?”

“Nope.”

“Not really.”

“Something can be found, if your Grace wishes,” Price offered.

“No, no, let them stay and learn,” he said somewhat gruffly. “That’s what we keep ’em around for, after all. All right, let me clear this out of the way and then we’ll get you guys some dinner.”

“Best we set out as quick as possible,” Billie said, frowning. “Every moment we delay, Khadizroth an’ the Jackal are getting’ ahead of us. Those two arseholes cannot be allowed ta get their ‘ands on the skull.”

“Assuming,” Weaver said, “they’re actually after it…”

“Aye, which we’ll find out by goin’ up there, right?”

“It’s almost dark,” Darling noted. “The Rails aren’t going to running by the time you can get to a station. C’mon, guys, I’m sending you face-first into chaos, conflict and possible death. You can’t reasonably embark until tomorrow morning anyway. Let me offer a little hospitality first, all right?”

“I admit it wouldn’t be amiss,” Joe said, grinning ruefully. “Not that I don’t take your point, Billie, but he’s right. We ain’t walkin’ to Desolation, an’ the Rails only run after dark for Imperial personnel. Might as well spend the night resting up.”

“I’m down for whatever lets me get some sleep before I have to stuff myself into one of those tin-can slingshot piece of crap Rail monstrosities,” Weaver snorted. “Sure, fine, dinner. Thanks for the hospitality, and all. It’ll give us a little more time to plan, anyway.”

“Hooray!” Flora said, beaming. “We never get to have guests!”


 

Later, with no lights outside the window of the parlor except the dim glow of street lamps, the fairy lamps within had been turned down to better allow the fire in the hearth to illuminate the room. It made a pleasing effect, both dimly relaxing and cheery. Darling said in his usual chair, an untouched brandy in his hand, staring into the fire with a dour expression that seemed to defy its best efforts to be uplifting.

With no one left in the house but its occupants, Joe having moved into lodgings of his own following the hellgate crisis, it was still in the evenings, especially when everyone was involved in their own thoughts, as tonight.

“That was really neatly done,” Fauna commented, coming over to sit on the arm of the loveseat near Darling.

“The way you got them to insist on heading out to the Badlands themselves, and think it was their own idea.”

“Very impressive.”

“Don’t just admire,” he said softly, still watching the low flames. “Learn, and be able to reproduce the results.”

A brief quiet fell. The girls sat on either side, watching him without staring, letting the companionable silence stretch out. Finally, Darling sighed softly and leaned forward to set his brandy down on the low table.

“Everything I said to them was true,” he said. “The situation is changed to the point of unknowability, and the only certainty of what I’m sending them into is danger. It’d be one thing if I were still certain we’d find Justinian’s lackeys at work up there… I really don’t have a good feeling about this.”

“But you need boots on the ground,” Flora said. “Weaver was right.”

“For once,” Fauna added with a grin. “Typically, only when he’s quoting Eserites.”

“We’re not going to learn anything by sitting in the city,” Flora continued reasonably. “Justinian’s oracles are still freaking out, and it’s not like there’s intelligence here to be gathered about what’s happening there.”

“All true,” he said, nodding. “But even so, if they were a less capable group of people, I wouldn’t have sent them off like that. There are ethical considerations, girls, always. A little manipulation when it’s useful is one thing; sending good people to risk their lives while I sit in my comfortable warm house is walking a narrow line. On one side of that line is a short road to being exactly the kind of asshole the Thieves’ Guild exists to knock down a peg.” He drew in a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. “As it is… I can’t leave this where it stands. I have got to get them some backup, and some more data to work with. Joe still hasn’t forgiven me for this spring, and honestly I can’t find it in me to blame him. You take care of your people, girls, as much as you do yourself. More, even.”

“You take care of us,” Fauna said softly.

He gave her a small smile. “You’re family—that goes without saying. Other people, though. Anyone useful, or relevant, or just present. Manipulators—which we have to be—run the risk of starting to see everyone as pieces on a chessboard. Always keep your guard up against that. Once you start living that way, you become the enemy. For right now…” He drummed the fingers of both hands against the armrests of his chair. “Goddammit, I am stalled. I’ve got nothing else to give them. Is there any chance you two could find Mary?”

They exchanged a look, then grimaced in unison.

“We’ve…tried, actually,” said Flora.

“None of our own divinations so much as reveal that she even exists.”

“If she were dead or something, we’d be able to tell that.”

“She’s blocking us somehow.”

“Not really surprising. It’s an obvious precaution…”

“And the Crow doesn’t like people sniffing around her business.”

“Which is funny,” Flora added sourly, “since she sure does love to sniff everyone else’s.”

Darling rubbed his chin, again staring into the fire. “And that’s the worst possible area for Eserite backup… Dwarves hate thieves like you wouldn’t believe, the Guild presence in Puna Dara isn’t worth considering. Even if a trustworthy cell were nearby, thieves aren’t necessarily the best people for wilderness work.”

“Plus, they’re all three hundred miles away, or more.”

“But what about that other city, Veilgrad? That’s Imperial, isn’t it?”

“No good,” he said with a wry grin. “Veilgrad is having a werewolf problem at the moment.”

“Werewolves?” Fauna exclaimed, straightening up.

“In the hills around the city,” he said. “It’s come up in security council meetings. They’ve moved a battalion, a strike team and some Intelligence personnel into the city to help keep a lid on things, but as quietly as possible. The Empire doesn’t want word of that getting out. Lycanthropy is contagious enough and scary enough to really spark a panic whenever enough of them gather to form a proper pack.”

“Hm…” Flora stroked her own chin, an unconscious imitation of Darling’s habitual gesture. “Okay… If we can’t get help to them, what if we get them to help?”

“What, now?” he said, blinking at her.

“Well, I mean… Suppose they find Khadizorth and the Jackal and whoever else. It’s likely Justinian has more adventurers working for him, right? What if they could lead them into a trap? Like, in Veilgrad? If it’s full of werewolves and Imps…”

“That’s a trap for everyone,” Fauna pointed out.

“Natural hazards are a trap for whoever doesn’t know they’re there.”

“I like the brainstorming, Flora, but remember, that’s three hundred miles to the south,” Darling said. “Goading someone into a misstep is one thing. You can’t incite a person to chase you that far into that kind of trouble; that’s just giving them time to form a counter-plan.”

“What if…it is just a step, though,” Fauna said thoughtfully. “Remember how they described their fight with Khadizroth? This group knows their way around portal magic. If they could get an enemy through a door they didn’t realize led somewhere else…”

“Like, to Imperials and werewolves,” Flora said, grinning.

“Hm…I could sort of see that working, under the right circumstances,” Darling said, a faint smile growing on his own face. “Still pretty farfetched, but increasingly plausible. I’ll float the notion when they check in. For now, though, I’m still more concerned with finding them some kind of backup. And these dragons raise issues, too.”

“What kind of issues?” Fauna asked.

He sighed heavily. “As you know, we’ve been operating under the assumption that Khadizroth hasn’t spilled your secret to Justinian. He’s clearly working under duress and won’t want to hand the Archpope any useful ammunition. But… A mortal institution gets a dragon on a leash for basically the first time ever, and suddenly the dragons are banding together and demanding to be a presence? No. That is not a coincidence. They know something about Khadizroth’s situation. It’s immediately necessary for us to learn what, because that’ll tell us what they know about you, and what they may want to do about it. Dragons aren’t necessarily interested in headhunters…unless they are.”

“What do you mean, suddenly?” Flora muttered. “That was months ago.”

“Excuse me, I thought I was talking to a couple of elves. To creatures with eternity to plan, putting something this unprecedented together in only a few months is astonishing. Something’s lit a fire under them.”

“How do you know they haven’t been working up to this for years?” Fauna asked.

“Vex had word on that when he brought me up to speed,” Darling said seriously. “Apparently he’s had dragons on his mind a lot for the last few months; they all went off to Sifan and have been talking something over. He hasn’t been able to spy on them, not only because Queen Takamatsu would justifiably take offense at having her guests snooped on, but you just don’t spy on eighteen dragons. But it gives us a time frame for how long they’ve been working on this. Considering who it is, the fact that they put this together so fast…yeah, they know.” He sighed again. “But what do they know? What do they think about it?”

“And…what do we do about it?” Flora asked, frowning worriedly now.

“The coming days are going to be very revelatory, one way or another,” Darling said. “If things go well… Or at least, if they don’t go too badly… There’s a chance I can work this to our advantage. Khadizroth unquestionably brought his fate on himself with his behavior. The Conclave will want him out of the Church’s clutches, but they probably won’t be happy with him, either. Considering that…” He rubbed his chin again, this time with a faint smile playing on his lips. “We just might find allies of the most powerful kind.”

“Or enemies,” Fauna said softly.

Darling nodded, the firelight glinting in his eyes. “This is not going to be boring.”

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9 – 1

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The Imperial Guard were well familiar with Underminister Darouzheh, which undoubtedly saved his life when he burst in on the Emperor and Empress having a state lunch with the Sifanese ambassador. Indeed, the fact that he was well known around the Imperial Palace was the only reason he could have possibly been permitted to dash pell-mell through its halls the way he apparently had, to judge by his breathless state of near-collapse upon entering.

Instantly, five staves were pointing at him, humming audibly with conjured destruction waiting to be unleashed. More guards moved to cover the windows and doors in case of further intruders, while the currently present Hand of the Emperor placed himself between his liege and the intruder so rapidly he almost appeared to have teleported.

Darouzheh completely ignored all of this.

“Your Majesties,” he gasped, doubling over. His paunchy frame was clearly not designed for the kind of exertion he had just experienced. “Emergency! Dragons!”

With that, he slumped forward, panting so hard he could barely stand. The guards powered down and lowered their weapons, the nearest actually stepping over to gently brace the Underminister lest he collapse entirely. At a flick of the Empress’s fingers, a maid darted forward to pour a carafe of water, which she carried to the gasping bureaucrat.

Sharidan had risen to his feet, gently moving the Hand aside with a touch to his shoulder. Ambassador Fujimatsu finally set down his teacup, studying the scene with admirable calm.

“That,” Eleanora said flatly, “is an unacceptable combination of words.”


 

“Dragons,” Darling said, “and chaos.”

“That’s a bad combination of words,” McGraw noted.

“Don’t I know it,” the Bishop replied, his expression serious. “Unfortunately, that’s not the scary part.”

“How is that not the scary part?” Billie demanded. “Why is there always a scarier part?”

They sat in the comfortable downstairs parlor in the Bishop’s home, Darling in his customary seat at the head of the coffee table, the others around it. No one had yet commented on Mary’s absence from the group, but it was even more palpable than her presence. When she was there, she had a way of quietly deflecting attention from herself.

“This is all I’ve been getting out of the Archpope’s oracular resources for the last week,” Darling continued. “You probably know how it is with oracles—or you may not, Justinian does seem to have a good percentage of them squirreled away. It’s all ‘that from beyond which is not,’ and ‘the titans of two forms,’ and an innumerable throng of vague metaphors to that effect. These things are difficult to read at the best of times; it took me a solid day’s work to suss out the consistent themes. Dragons, and chaos.”

“I think I see what the scary part is,” Joe murmured. “Now, granted, all I know about oracles is from readin’, and most of what I’ve read I suspect is more fictional than it liked to pretend, but any event in which all the oracles shut down and refuse to talk about anything but a coming disaster…”

“Yes,” Darling said, nodding at him. “In fact, that’s more than just common sense. This is a recognized apocalyptic portent.”

“Never staved off an apocalypse,” Billie said thoughtfully. “Bet that’s a feather in the ol’ cap, an’ no mistake.”

“Sounds like a titanic pain in the ass even for those who survive it,” Weaver grunted. “Who else knows about this?”

“And now we come to the complicating factor,” Darling said with a sigh. “Obviously, Justinian knows. There are the other Bishops who have access to his oracles, too; I don’t know how frequently any of them make use of the resource, but if they’ve tried in the last week, they know. None of them have mentioned it to me. What the Empire does or does not know I can’t be sure. I passed the warning on to the Hand of the Emperor with whom I work, and was told that the matter had been foreseen a good long time ago and the Empire has resources in place.” He shrugged.

“Just who are these other Bishops?” Joe asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” Darling said, waving a hand. “Justinian’s the one who demands our attention.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Darling,” Joe replied very evenly, “but we are well past the point of that bein’ an acceptable answer.”

A momentary silence fell, Darling lifting his eyebrows in an expression of mild surprise. Standing by the door, Price shifted her head infinitesimally, focusing her attention on Joe.

“After that stunt you pulled this spring,” the Kid continued, staring at the Bishop, “I am just about done gettin’ the runaround from you. Pardon my pushiness, but when I ask for details, you provide details or I walk out.”

Weaver snorted softly. Billie raised an eyebrow, turning to regard the Bishop expectantly.

“Well,” Darling said with a slight smile. “Upon reflection, I really don’t have any counter to that, do I? Fair enough. Not that I think it’s any concern of yours and I am possibly risking clerical censure by sharing the details, but the Bishops of Avei, Shaath and Izara also have access to the Church’s hidden oracles.”

“That,” McGraw mused, “is a right peculiar assortment.”

“Bishop Syrinx has been off in Viridill on some Avenist business for the last few weeks,” Darling continued, “and I dismiss Varanus and Snowe from consideration because I’ve had indication several times before that both are fully behind his Holiness in whatever he chooses to do. Anyhow, this leads us back to the problem at hand, and what we intend to do about it.”

“Dragons and chaos,” Billie mused, kicking her legs idly. Sitting on the edge of the loveseat as she was, her feet didn’t nearly reach the floor. “Well, it does bring to mind an obvious answer, dunnit? Shame that’s almost certainly an ol’ wives’ tale.”

“Y’mean Belosiphon?” McGraw replied. “Or however you pronounce it.”

“You said it correctly,” Weaver said, rolling his eyes. “Which is kind of impressive when it comes to any dragon’s name. Tell me, Elias, does this ‘confused old man’ act usually succeed in deflecting suspicion?”

“Sorry, sonny,” McGraw said innocently, tugging his earlobe. “You’ll have to speak up, I’m a mite deaf on this side.”

“Yeah, well, point being,” Billie said with a grin, “we’re talkin’ about a legend from the time of the Elder Gods. You’re a bard, Damian, you know as well as I that any tale from that long ago’s not gonna have more’n a smidge of fact in its lineage.”

“Don’t use my first name,” Weaver growled.

“Yes, quite so,” Darling said, nodding seriously. “It’s inconceivable that there could really have been a chaos dragon, and the story is so old and from a time of such confusion that it’s just not sensible to give it any credence. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that the Church has specific records of Belosiphon, and knows roughly where his skull is buried.”

“Typical,” Joe muttered.

“Are you rubbin’ me ankles?” Billie demanded.

“I…have no idea,” Darling said, blinking.

Weaver shrugged. “Doesn’t particularly surprise me. One of the gods is chaos-tainted; why not a dragon? If anything, the odd thing is how no dragons since have ended up that way.”

“Nothin’ odd about that,” McGraw said. “Dragons tend to be wiser sorts than the average run of mortals, even before they’ve lived a few thousand years. Takes somebody exceptionally stupid to meddle with the powers of chaos.”

“Which is precisely the issue,” Darling said firmly. “Everytime a significant chaos artifact has surfaced, some imbecile made a good effort at seizing and using it. You being adventurers, I’m sure you know most of those stories, and how they ended. With the oracles giving warning, we can make two solid assumptions: at the intersection of ‘dragons’ and ‘chaos’ is Belosiphon the Black, and action has to be taken to prevent someone from meddling with his skull. It’s in the northernmost region of Upper Stalwar Province. That’s right about where the plains meet the desert in a particularly unappetizing little corner of flat scrubland, just below the foothills where the Dwarnskolds and the Stalrange intersect.”

“I’ve been there,” McGraw said, nodding. “The Badlands. Beautiful country, if you don’t have to live in it.”

“There’s actually a place called the Badlands?” Weaver said scornfully.

“Aye,” Billie replied with a grin. “After tryin’ to keep their butts alive in it, the residents were too worn out to think of anythin’ more poetic.”

“Here’s where it gets even more interesting,” Darling continued, his expression grim. “I’ve been rooting around in every official record I could find, both Church and Imperial. The actual location of Belosiphon’s skull is not known, merely the general region, but there are hints that more precise records do exist. It is worth mentioning, here, that I do not have access to all of Justinian’s hidden archives. Second, the Empire has almost no presence in the area. Third, this is mining country. Silver, copper, turquoise and coal. It was hit almost as hard as the dwarven kingdoms by the Narisian treaty and all those shipments of free Underworld ore, but people do still dig there. And prospect.”

“What better way to stumble across buried horrors,” Joe murmured, staring at the table.

“Justinian has not mentioned anything about it to me,” Darling continued, “nor I to him. He surely would have…unless this is to be another act in our ongoing cold war of misinformation.”

“And if he had the same idea you did,” McGraw said, frowning, “who better to send after something like this than adventurers?”

“Which means,” Weaver growled, “Khadizroth and the Jackal. And whoever else he’s rounded up.”

“Peachy!” Billie said, grinning psychotically and cracking her knuckles. “I have been just itchin’ fer another crack at those two assholes.”

“Not to be a wet blanket,” said Joe, “but we fought them to a bare stalemate last time, and that was with the aid of our most powerful member, who is not even here.”

A glum silence descended upon the room.

“Justinian’s silence on the matter does strongly indicate to me that he is going to use his adventurers,” Darling said gravely. “There are things he keeps from me, but he had to know I would discover what the oracles were doing. This is the only topic on which we remain mutually silent, both knowing that we both know what’s going on. So yes, what we are talking about here is sending you off to contend with the dragon and the assassin, not to mention whoever else—because I haven’t a clue who else he might have found—with the quest for an artifact of unspeakable danger as the backdrop and battlefield. I’ve gotta level with you, folks: this is above and beyond the call. If you don’t want to go, I’ll not hold you in violation of our agreement. I will still be at work getting your answers, though I’m afraid that has to wait until the oracles start speaking again.”

“Hell with that,” Billie snorted. “We’re in. Let’s skip the part where we all go ’round the table and agree—you all know damn well you all want your payback, fer a variety o’ reasons. But Joe’s got the right of it. We need to find Mary. Anybody got a clue where she is?”

“All I know,” Darling said, “is that another elf came here looking for her a few weeks back.”

“Who?” Joe asked.

“Nobody I knew,” Darling said with a shrug. “She was sent by Professor Tellwyrn, though. Elder Sheyann, I think her name was.”

“Tellwyrn?” Weaver said, narrowing his eyes.

“Did you say Sheyann?” Joe exclaimed.

“Ah, yes, I did,” Darling said, looking at him oddly. “Don’t tell me you know her.”

“Well, I don’t so much know her, but you don’t grow up in Sarasio without hearing the name. She’s the most senior of the Elders in the nearby grove.”

“Huh,” Darling mused. “Well. That gives us two places to start looking for Mary: Sarasio and Last Rock. Because, to be frank, we have a good bit of preparatory work to do before setting off on this particular adventure. Quite apart from the need to catch the Crow, there’s the question of what to do with the skull of Belosiphon itself. Pretty much the only certainty is that Justinian cannot be allowed to get his grabbers on it.”

“We could hand it over to the Empire?” Joe suggested.

“Assuming we can even handle something like that,” Weaver said. “Chaos is not healthy to be around.”

“Also,” Darling said firmly, “with all respect to his Majesty’s government, it is a government. I will sleep better it it does not get its hands on this slice of unimaginable destructive power. And I sure as hell don’t want the thing. I have to admit I’m against a wall here, my friends. This is outside the purview of either a thief or a priest. How do you dispose of a chaos artifact?”

“Destroy it,” said Joe.

“Very bad idea,” McGraw said emphatically. “You destroy a thing like that, and what you’re left with is pieces of said thing. Do your job well, reduce it to dust and smoke, and it disseminates into the air, the ground, the water, tainting the whole region for… Who knows? Centuries, millennia, maybe forever. Or you may get bigger pieces, which sure as the tides will get strewn to the four corners of the earth to work a thousand smaller mischiefs until some giftedly sinister idjit goes on an epic quest to gather ’em all up and ruin everyone’s day.”

“Okay,” Joe said slowly. “So, no destroying. That was my last idea. Sorry.”

“It’s simple enough,” said Weaver. “We’ll take it to Arachne.”

They all stared at him.

“Are you quintessentially outta your gourd?” Billie demanded. “Of all the people who does not need to get her hands on a chaos artifact—”

“I’m talking about the only person who probably should,” Weaver shot back. “Let’s face it, by any standard you could choose to apply, Arachne is a giant bitch.”

“Now, see here,” Joe began, scowling.

“For that reason,” Weaver continued loudly, “she doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Most of the world has no idea how many times she’s rescued it from the brink. With regard to chaos artifacts in particular, she’s already got two. Arachne Tellwyrn owns the Book of Chaos and the Mask of Calomnar. She’s got them both tucked away in a sealed pocket dimension where nobody can get at them and they can’t affect the mortal plane. In fact, she found the Book of Chaos twice, and made this particular setup after someone dug it up from its first hiding place. She has the sense not to meddle with chaos and the power to secure it. It’s simple. We take the skull to Arachne, and neither the Church nor the Empire nor anybody else will ever see the damn thing again.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “that sounds like a workable solution, indeed, if you don’t pause to consider how irate the lady will be to have a thing like that dropped on her doorstep.”

“Omnu’s balls, we’re not gonna just drop it at the University,” Weaver said scathingly. “Arachne’s one of our leads in tracking down Mary anyway, right? So we go to Last Rock, ask if she’s seen the Crow and tell her what’s up so she knows to prepare a place for Belosiphon’s skull. She might even help retrieve it.”

“Tellwyrn is not going to cross the Church’s agents directly,” Darling said, frowning. “Her carefully protected neutrality wouldn’t survive that; she won’t risk her students’ safety by dragging the University into world politics. For that reason, we will tell her the whole situation, so she doesn’t accidentally stumble into that, blame us for tricking her and blast us all to ashes.”

“I like this plan,” Billie said brightly. “Anything that ends with me not gettin’ blasted to ash is aces in my book!”

“I’ll have to sit that stretch of it out,” McGraw said with a rueful grin. “I’m already on record as getting’ the ash treatment if I show my face in Last Rock.”

“What’d you do?” Joe said, frowning.

“Well, it’s a long—”

The old wizard broke off suddenly, grabbing his staff and half-rising. Joe bounded to his feet in the same moment. Price, by the door, suddenly zipped across the room to hover protectively over Darling’s shoulder.

“What?” the Bishop demanded, looking around at them. “What’s going on?”

“Someone has just teleported into the house, your Grace,” Price said in a low voice.

Weaver also got to his feet, scowling and placing a hand on his holstered wand. Billie stood up on the loveseat, tucking both hands into pouches at her belt.

There came a sharp knock at the closed door of the parlor.

Darling raised his eyebrows. “Come in?”

The door opened, and a young woman in Army uniform stepped in and saluted. Her insignia had a blue eye behind the standard Imperial gryphon, the mark of a Tiraan battlemage.

“Pardon the interruption, your Grace,” she said in a clipped tone. “Your presence is urgently requested at the Palace by Lord Vex.”

“What’s going on?” Darling demanded, rising.

The mage glanced briefly but pointedly around the group. “My orders are to teleport you to the Palace, your Grace,” she said in a level tone. “I’m sure you will be fully briefed once there.”

“Ominous,” Weaver said.

“Well, my friends, I guess we’ll have to continue this conversation later,” said Darling, stepping carefully around McGraw and toward the Army mage. “In fact, though… Given the time frame involved, please go ahead and pursue the avenue we were just discussing. We’ll regroup tomorrow, or whenever you get back, hopefully all with more information. All right, Lieutenant, I’m all yours. Let’s go see what’s so urgent, shall we?”


 

“We’re receiving up-to-the-minute reports via telescroll,” General Panissar said. “Based on their flight path, this gate seems the most probable point of arrival. They are unmistakably making for Tiraas.”

“What can you tell me about the path they have taken, General?” the Lady asked.

“Oddly meandering,” Panissar said with a frown. “We are tentatively not considering this an attack. Dragons can be upon you from miles away before you know they’re even in the province, if that’s what they want. These four have been gliding all the way from north of Calderaas, tracking back and forth as if to deliberately waste time. Lord Vex is of the opinion that they want to be seen, to give us time to prepare.”

“Lord Vex is correct,” she replied, nodding. Lady Asfaneh Shavayad was a stately woman in her middle years, and apparently the leading expert on dragons in the Imperial Diplomatic Corps. That was the only explanation Panissar had been given as to why she was in command of this operation. Standing calmly in the main gate to the fortified border town, which she had insisted would remain open, she glanced around at the assembled soldiers, clearly considering them even as she continued to speak. “This is their custom when approaching one another, as well. It is a sign that they come in peace, seeking to talk.”

“Odd that they’ve never wanted to talk before,” Panissar growled.

“Indeed,” said Lady Asfaneh. “This is unprecedented for several reasons. Dragons are famously solitary creatures, and when they do associate, they markedly prefer the company of those of their own color. Are you certain of your intelligence regarding this group’s composition?”

“As certain as I was the last time you asked,” he grunted, choosing not to react to the amused look she gave him. “Red, gold, green and blue, one of each.”

“Very well,” she said, folding her hands in front of her, still a picture of serenity. “We shall see soon enough what they want. Are the tower artillery emplacements positioned as I said?”

Panissar nodded, his own expression not lightening. “With all due respect, Lady Asfaneh, I do not see the wisdom in disarming ourselves with a threat of this magnitude approaching.”

“It is symbolic,” she said calmly. “In any case, your mag cannons would not be useful against dragons.”

“We’ve brought down a dragon before with a mag cannon.”

“I am very familiar with the accounts of that incident, General, and I’m sure you are aware that it was quite possibly the luckiest shot in all of recorded history. If this does come to violence, the strike teams will be our best hope by far.” She nodded at the six teams which had assembled in the avenue behind them. “The presence of these armed soldiers is a show of our strength; they will not begrudge us that, and in fact will likely respect it. Aiming our largest and most visibly powerful weapons at them, however, is a provocation. Keep them pointed at the sky and their operators visibly absent from the controls. We must hope that violence does not occur. No one has ever fought off four dragons.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” he said quietly.

There came a faint buzzing noise, followed by a sharp pop, and an Army battlemage materialized beside them, saluting. “General Panissar! Newest report from Madouris on the dragons’ approach. ETA less than five minutes.”

“Thank you, soldier,” Panissar said, nodding to him. “Colonel Ontambe! Is the area cleared of civilians?”

“Evacuation just completed, sir,” the Colonel replied, saluting as he strode up to them. “The last of the town’s residents have been moved into the city. Only military and diplomatic personnel are left here.”

“Then we wait,” Lady Asfaneh whispered, eyes on the horizon to the north.

For all that it was possibly the tensest seconds of their lives, it was considerably less than five minutes. The assembled soldiers stiffened further, even Panissar drawing in a sharp breath, as the four massive forms suddenly appeared in the sky above the northern foothills, gliding around in a wide arc as if to survey the city from a distance as they passed.

“Well,” he murmured, eyes glued to the four titans, “I suppose they could be just passing by…”

This time, Lady Asfaneh didn’t even spare him a glance.

They were not just passing by. The dragons wheeled all the way around, pumping their wings as they descended to the flat ground on the outskirts of the border town. This was the widest stretch of highway in the region, close as it was to the gates of the city itself, but there was not room for even two of them to land side-by-side. They settled to the earth in a formation that nearly rivaled the fortress itself in size.

“Gods be good,” Colonel Ontambe whispered. “Four of them. One of each.”

“Report to rear command, soldier,” Panissar said quietly. “You’ll lead his Majesty’s army if I fall.”

Ontambe, he reflected as the man saluted and strode off, was too old and too seasoned a soldier to publicly lose composure like that, but considering the circumstances, he was inclined to be somewhat lenient.

It was all Panissar could do not to take a step backward as the four dragons approached them on foot. Beside him, Lady Asfaneh’s composure remained totally uncracked.

Fortunately, they shifted as they neared. They were still an impressive sight in their human-sized forms, and not merely because of the palpable aura of majesty that emanated from them. Panissar had never met a dragon before, but he’d been briefed on this effect and steeled himself against it; these creatures were powerful beings, nothing more, and did not deserve the awe he felt welling up in him. At least they were marginally less terrifying this way.

In the lead by half a step came the gold dragon, dressed in golden armor and with a two-handed sword as long as Panissar was tall slung on his back. The blue wore robes more elaborately decorated than what the ladies of the court wore to formal balls. His cobalt hair was as exquisitely coiffed, too, and his fingers glittered with jewelry. The other two were less over-the-top; the green dressed simply in wood elf fashion, with a blousy-sleeved green shirt and soft leather vest, trousers and moccasins. The red dragon looked like he belonged on the cover of one of the tawdry novels Marie pretended not to enjoy, with his improbably tight pants and ruffled shirt unlaced down to his navel, both black.

They came to a stop a few yards distant, and then to the General’s astonishment, all four bowed deeply.

“Good day,” said the gold dragon, straightening up. “We apologize for so abruptly intruding upon you, but there is a lack of standing traditions for making such an approach as this. I am Ampophrenon the Gold. With me are Zanzayed the Blue, Razzavinax the Red, and Varsinostro the Green. We most humbly request an audience with his Imperial Majesty Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian.”

“Greetings, exalted ones, and welcome to Tiraas,” Lady Asfaneh replied, executing a deep and flawless curtsy. A half-second belatedly, Panissar bowed from the waist. “I am the Lady Asfaneh of House Shavayad, and it is my honor to be the Emperor’s servant in the diplomatic arts. With me is General Toman Panissar, who commands the Empire’s armies. What brings you to seek our Emperor’s ear?”

“We will discuss that with his Majesty,” Ampophrenon said, as calmly as ever.

The blue dragon cleared his throat. “Do you remember, Puff, when you asked me to warn you if you were being overbearing?”

The gold tightened his lips, half-turning to stare at his companion. “It was my assumption you would do so in private, Zanzayed.”

“Yes, and your proclivity for these assumptions is half the problem,” the blue said with a irrepressible smile. “Considering our aims here, it does these people good to see us as individuals with flaws. Such as, for example, a lack of social skills. Be nice to the Lady Shavayad, please. She can’t just bring four giant avatars of destruction into the Emperor’s presence without something to go on.”

“My companions speak truth,” Razzavinax added, smiling. Considering that he was a red dragon, he oddly seemed the most personable and at ease of the four. “Simply put, dear lady and honored general, we have come to announce the formation of our government.”

“Your…government?” Finally, Lady Asfaneh’s composure flickered for a moment.

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon said solemnly, returning the full weight of his attention to her. “No longer will we be as individuals, alone before the world. We stand together, as do your own races. We have come here, today, to be counted among the nations of the earth. The Conclave seeks now to open formal diplomatic relations with the Tiraan Empire.”

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8 – 15

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The hatch opened with a hiss, sliding upward, and Sheyann stepped lightly out, moving to the side to allow the other passengers to disembark. None seemed in a hurry to do so; lacking her relfexes and agility, most of the human passengers had been badly slung about by the Rail ride. The new caravans, she had been told, were a great deal safer and more comfortable than the old, thanks to the addition of safety harnesses, an apparent luxury of which she had not availed herself. Her fellow travelers had thus been furiously jolted against their own bindings, probably hard enough to bruise, while she had nimbly shifted in place, bracing herself against the walls and opposite bench at need.

The design of the Rail caravans was a puzzle. The ingenuity that led to their creation could surely have made them safer in a variety of ways, so why had it not been done? Despite the maunderings of Shiraki and some of his ilk, Sheyann had never found humanity to be institutionally stupid, incompetent or obstreperous—at least, not more than any other race, and never on a huge scale for any length of time, without suffering the inevitable consequences. The Empire had made the Rails this way for a reason. She couldn’t guess what, but the possibilities were rather ominous.

Only two people had been in her compartment, and they only because the other seats had filled. Sheyann was not offended by their reluctance to sit with an elf in obviously tribal attire; her own people’s reclusiveness had plenty to do with the problem. With any luck, the ongoing meetings between tribes and with the Narisian representatives would move toward remedying the issue, if they did not exacerbate it first.

She studied the station carefully. Despite Tiraas’s greater importance to the Empire, it was much smaller than its counterpart in Calderaas, though no less busy. Of course, that was due in part to its more efficient design. Tiraas had four Rail depots, two corresponding to each of its landward-facing gates, while Calderaas had only the one central terminal. Also, the city itself was physically smaller, constrained as it was by the available space on the island.

“Need any help, miss?” a slightly graying, slightly portly man in an Imperial Army uniform asked politely, tugging the brim of his cap in her direction. Beside him, a younger woman in the same uniform regarded her with a neutral expression. She never had bothered to learn what the different Tiraan insignia meant, but presumably the elder human was the superior officer.

“In fact,” she said, deciding this was as good a starting point as any, “I am looking for someone in the city. A Bishop of the Universal Church.”

The older officer raised his eyebrows. “Oh? What business would an elf have with the Church?”

Sheyann gazed at him in silence, wearing a small, fixed smile.

“No business of anybody’s but hers,” the female soldier said, nudging her companion with an elbow, and Sheyann mentally revised their relationship. The insignia wasn’t the same, but they were either very comfortable together or quite close in rank.

“Yes, right, of course,” the man said hastily. “Well, miss, the Bishops are a disparate lot; they all have their own business to attend to. I’d say your best bet is to look either at the Grand Cathedral or the central temple of whichever faith your Bishop represents. You may not find him—uh, or her—there, but there’ll likely be someone who can point you to them.”

“I see,” she said gravely, nodding. “Thank you. Would you know where the central temple of the cult of Eserion is located?”

At this, the two soldiers exchanged a look, their expressions growing almost imperceptibly grimmer.

“I could point you to the location,” the man said slowly, “but the Eserites aren’t going to let anyone into their actual temple. You could try your luck at the casino they run above it, but… They also don’t like people asking questions on their property. And…with all due respect, miss, you’d rather stand out.”

“I see what you mean,” she said thoughtfully. “Well. The warning is certainly appreciated.”

“I’d really suggest trying your luck at the Cathedral,” he went on in a more welcoming tone, turning to point at the great glass wall along the front of the station, beyond which was a busy street. “Just go outside onto the avenue, hang a left and keep walking uphill till you reach the city center. You can’t miss the Cathedral; it’s the building that isn’t the Palace and isn’t plastered with the insignias of Avei or Omnu.”

“By which he means,” the woman said dryly, “it’ll be the one on the left. North side of Imperial Square.”

“Yes, of course, right,” the man said, giving her a slightly exasperated look.

“Thank you very much,” Sheyann said courteously, bowing to them. “You have been tremendously helpful.”

“All part of the job, ma’am,” the man replied with a smile, tipping his cap again. “Welcome to Tiraas. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

She smiled, nodded, and glided off toward the exit. Even with the noise of the crowd and the Rail caravans washing over her, she could plainly pick out their voices as the throng closed behind her.

“Are you sure that was all right?” the woman asked. “Some random elf just tumbled out of the fairy tree, doesn’t know the first thing about the city, has business with the bloody Thieves’ Guild, and you point her right at the Church?”

“Omnu’s breath, Welles, you need to read fewer novels and more of your encounter manual. She’s not going to scalp somebody; elves are exactly as savage as anyone else, no more, no less. And she wanted the Eserite Bishop, not the Guild. If she wanted the Guild she’d no need to beat around the bush. Talking with Eserites isn’t illegal. Plus, she was polite. Always refreshing to see a young person with some respect, unlike some I could name.”

“She’s an elf, Lieutenant. She could be older than you.”

“Nah, the old ones are more standoffish. They hardly even breathe. Trust me, I’ve been around elves. I can tell.”

Sheyann permitted herself a smile of amusement as she slid through the crowd and out the doors into the Imperial capital.

There she had to stop, staring.

She had grown steadily accustomed to the faint, unpleasant buzz of arcane magic everywhere since passing through Calderaas. Tiraas, though, was…taller. Buildings seemed piled atop each other, climbing skyward in a way it would never have occurred to her to construct a dwelling. Many of them were taller than trees. Not to mention that a good few in the distance were surmounted by towers bearing the flickering orbs of telescroll transmitters, or branching antennae which crackled with artificial lightning. Artificial lights were everywhere, lit even in the day due to the gloomy sky overhead, some hovering in midair rather than supported by poles. Vehicles passed in the street, only a few drawn by animals. The horseless carriages emitted a thin hum of magic at work, their voices blending together into a constant, oscillating whine that bored unpleasantly into her ears.

So much they had done, in such a short time. So much glory and progress…such potential for carnage.

Her work with the other tribes and the drow was even more urgent than she had realized. The ancestors send that they were not already too late.

Sheyann turned left and set off down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.


 

Even in the relative quiet of the Grand Cathedral, Sheyann drew suspicious looks. She ignored them as she had all the others, pacing slowly down the central aisle of the enormous sanctuary, her moccasins silent on the threadbare carpet. It looked like it had been expensive, but this room must see vast amounts of traffic. It was a suitably vast space for it, the ornately carved stonework and beautiful stained glass almost lost beyond the cavernous emptiness.

Nearly her entire grove could have been squeezed into this room. And if she was any judge, it was far less than half the total volume of the cathedral complex.

There were two smaller aisles on the other sides of the long rows of pews; only a few people slipped between the benches to walk there rather than having to pass her, but they were not subtle about it. One woman made the action quite ostentatious, her nose firmly in the air. Most of the people present, however, either paid her no mind or just nodded quietly to her. This place, it seemed, encouraged a quieter way of being, which came as a relief after the city, the Rails, and the other city. What a day this was turning out to be; she was already thinking fondly of the relative serenity of Arachne’s University.

A few people strolled, admiring the stained glass, while several dozen more were scattered throughout the pews in individual prayer. At the front of the chamber, though, was an open area below the wide steps to the main dais towering over it all. Looming behind it was a huge golden statue of the Universal Church’s ankh symbol, with behind that towering stained glass windows depicting Avei, Omnu and Vidius, with the other gods of the Pantheon represented around their borders. Sheyann gave this ostentation only a glance, however, before turning toward a smaller lectern tucked off to the side, at which stood an officious-looking Tiraan human in the long black coat of a Church parson.

She waited calmly while he finished speaking with a well-dressed woman, politely declining to hear their conversation. This, a basic social skill in elven societies, seemed to be quite above the capability of most humans. They finished within a few minutes. The woman jumped and gasped softly when she turned and beheld Sheyann standing there.

The Elder gave her a smile and a deep nod, and got only a wary look in return before the woman scurried off.

The parson was regarding her with more calm, but not any kind of friendliness. Of course, a cleric would comport himself with serenity. That he was not seemingly interested in reaching out to her gave Sheyann a sense of how this conversation was going to go.

“May I help you?” he asked politely.

“I would like to speak with Bishop Antonio Darling,” Sheyann replied, folding her hands.

A beat of silence passed. The parson’s expression did not waver, but the pause communicated his surprise quite effectively.

“And whom may I tell Bishop Darling is seeking him?” he finally inquired.

“He does not know me,” Sheyann said. “I was directed to him by a mutual acquaintance.”

“And…with regard to what do you wish to see him?”

“That business is personal,” she said evenly.

“Ah,” the parson said, lowering his eyes to shuffle a few pages on his lectern. Sheyann didn’t need to see his hands to know he was creating meaningless background noise. “Your pardon…madam…but as I’m sure you can understand, the Church must safeguard the time and attention of its highest officials. So, you do not know Bishop Darling, yet you have unnamed personal business with him?” He raised his eyes, re-affixing his polite smile. “I don’t suppose you can offer anything more than that?”

“The rank of Bishop…” she mused. “It exceeds your own?”

He blinked, then his lips twitched in a quickly repressed smile. “Ah…considerably, yes.”

“And yet, you seem to be making judgments concerning the use of his time,” she said, matching his emptily courteous tone exactly. “Why not, instead, tell me where I might find him, and if he does not wish to speak with me, allow him to make that determination himself?”

The parson’s lips thinned, irritation finally beginning to show on his face. “And you are?”

“I am Elder Sheyann.”

“I see.” He fussed pointlessly with the papers again. “Well, Elder, Bishop Darling is not here. He is an extremely busy man, between his various responsibilities to the Church, to his own cult and the Imperial government. I can have a message conveyed to him if you like.” The faint smile returned, noticeably smug now. “I cannot, however, make any guarantees about how quickly he will receive it.”

Sheyann permitted herself a small sigh. “Perhaps my time would be better spent making inquiries at the Imperial government. I am given to understand the Empire boasts a generally competent bureaucracy. To which office, specifically, should I direct my attention?”

“I’m sure I do not know,” the parson said, all pretense of friendliness gone from his face now. “As you so kindly pointed out, Elder, it is not my place to monitor the comings and goings of the Church’s Bishops. Perhaps if you had specific business with him, of which he was made aware beforehand, you might find this encounter more productive.”

Behind her, a passing man suddenly stopped, turning toward them.

“Which Bishop are you looking for, shaman?”

She turned, studying the new arrival. He was huge—barrel-chested and towering head and shoulders over her, his hair slightly unruly and much of his face and chest hidden by a luxuriant beard. Sheyann did not need to see the wolf’s-head brooch pinned to his shoulder to know him for a priest of Shaath; she could feel the faint tug of fairy energies floating about him, mixing incongruously with the divine. Most interestingly, he wore a white robe under a tabard, a uniform she had already been prompted to watch for.

“Antonio Darling,” she replied, “of the cult of Eserion.”

The Shaathist Bishop raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Are you acquainted with him, sir?” she asked politely.

“Antonio and I have worked together.” He bowed respectfully. “I am Andros Varanus, Huntsman of Shaath and a fellow Bishop. Your quarry is not present now, and he ranges widely. There are places where you can wait for him without likely being kept too long.”

“So I have been told,” she said mildly. “Government offices and the Thieves’ Guild’s casino.”

“The Imperial offices are closing soon for the day,” he replied, his beard twitching with a hidden expression she could not identify. “And the thieves would entertain themselves by making you wait for no reason, or send you out to hunt mockingjays. However, I can direct you to Bishop Darling’s home. He will likely be returning there soon, and his Butler provides excellent hospitality, even in his absence.”

Ah, a Butler. What an interesting man this Darling was shaping up to be. Also, that answered one of her newfound questions about this fellow’s willingness to assist her; a Butler’s presence would mean even a mysterious visitor such as herself would be unlikely to pose a threat.

“You are extremely helpful, sir,” she said, bowing in return. “Forgive me, but I am unaccustomed to such courtesy from Huntsmen. Those I have met seemed rather put off at being forced to address a woman.”

At that, even his beard could not hide Varanus’s sneer. “Some men, even in Shaath’s service, are weak of mind. Not all follow Shaath’s ways; it is a weak-willed man indeed who feels threatened by the existence of other ideas. A Huntsman should be many things, but never weak. I will provide you with Antonio’s address, shaman. Paper and a pen,” he added curtly to the parson, who immediately scrambled to produce the requested objects.

“Thank you,” Sheyann said moments later, studying the names and numerals on the sheet of paper she had just been handed. “Hm…forgive me, but this street name. Where will I find this?”

Varanus blinked, then his beard rippled in a short exhalation that might have been the lesser part of a laugh. At the least, his eyes crinkled in amusement. “You are new here, then. Forgive me, I should have considered that. I am even now on my way out of the city, and expect to be gone for some time. More paper,” he added to the parson in a flat tone which made her suspect he had overheard more of their earlier conversation than he let on, then turned back to her with a more respectful expression. “I will draw you a map.”


 

Darling paused inside his front door, as was his custom, letting out a sigh and luxuriating for a moment in the quiet.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned. “You have a visitor.”

He scowled and opened his mouth to deliver a complaint, but she swiftly raised one finger to her lips, then pointedly tapped the upper edge of her ear. He was tired; it had been a long day even before he’d met with Principia’s squad, and the subsequent unpleasant conversations at the Guild had left him drained. It took him an embarrassing two seconds to catch her meaning.

An elf? What the hell now?

“Well, by all means, let’s not keep them waiting any longer,” he said lightly. “The downstairs parlor?”

“Of course, your Grace.”

He didn’t allow himself to sigh as he stepped past her. An elf would hear even that. He’d developed a rather nuanced understanding of the range of their senses over the last year.

The reasons for this were also present in the downstairs parlor, in their severe black frocks that went with the guise of housemaids. Flora and Fauna weren’t doing anything in particular, however, just standing against the far wall, staring flatly at their visitor in a manner that made his hackles rise. The new elf, in turn, was regarding them with a similarly direct look, which she did not lift immediately upon his entry. Only after a few heartbeats did she turn to face him.

She was a wood elf, her ears a different shape than his apprentices’, and dressed in stereotypical costume, a simple green skirt and blouse dyed with shifting patterns, and a plain leather vest over that. Her moccasins were elaborately beaded, but looked well-worn, and she carried a belt with a large horn-handled knife as well as several heavy pouches. Well, no tomahawk; that was something, anyway.

“Good evening,” he said cheerfully. “I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting; I had simply no idea anyone was here to see me!”

“Not at all, your Grace,” she replied in a calm tone, bowing without taking her eyes off his face. “I apologize for my abrupt appearance. I will try not to take any more of your time than I must.”

“Nonsense, you’re a guest; my time is yours, Miss…?”

“Sheyann,” she said, still staring at him with an even look that was beginning to be unsettling. “I was directed to you by Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” he asked mildly, increasingly intrigued. “And you are…a relative of hers?”

Sheyann raised one eyebrow. “We are all of us kin, Bishop Darling. The mightiest dragon and the meanest algae all rose from common ancestors, in the infinite mists of the deep past. With that said… No. No, I am not. However, Arachne and I have an acquaintance in common, whom I find myself needing to contact and not knowing how. Apparently you are the last to have had regular interaction with her.”

Darling sighed in spite of himself. “Oh, don’t tell me…”

The elf nodded. “You would know her as Mary the Crow.”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid I would know her as.” He chuckled wryly, shaking his head. “Well, it’s bad news that I’m the likeliest contact, as I’m not sure how much help I can be. I do speak with Mary on a semi-regular basis, but she decides when and where.”

“I see,” she said, permitting herself a small smile. “I somewhat anticipated that; it would be consistent with her general patterns. If I may ask, how recently have you seen her?”

“Quite recently, in fact, no more than two days ago. I don’t actually know why; she popped in on me at the Temple of Izara, hovered around for a few minutes and took off. I couldn’t even tell you what that was about. I’ve learned not to ask.”

“And…you have no way of contacting her directly?”

Darling grinned. “Well. I’ve twice got her attention by placing a scarecrow on the roof. The third time, though, it disappeared and then I didn’t see her for two weeks.”

“A…scarecrow.”

“An improvised one,” he admitted. “I’m afraid we sacrificed some of my old clothes and one of Price’s favorite brooms, not to mention that lovely pumpkin Flora and Fauna here had such fun carving.”

She smiled broadly at that, her eyes creasing with genuine amusement. “I am somewhat embarrassed that I never thought of that.”

“If I might ask a prying question,” he said, “does Mary know you, Sheyann?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, her smile fading. “We have been acquainted for a long time.”

“I see. Well, I find that Mary seems to keep herself appraised of my comings and goings. Not in any great detail—I hope—but she does always seem to know when someone especially interesting comes to my door. It’s possible she’s already aware you’re here, or will be soon.”

“Hm… That, too, would be characteristic of her. Well, then.” She bowed again. “I will take no more of your time this evening, Bishop Darling. It seems I had best make arrangements to stay the night in the city, and possibly for some nights to come. It would be better if I were able to find and speak with her quickly, but… One must, unfortunately, make allowances for the Crow.”

“That one must,” he agreed gravely, nodding. “If it helps, I will certainly tell her you’re looking, should she happen to visit me again.”

“I would appreciate that,” she said politely. “And I may call on you again if my quest is not immediately fruitful.”

“By all means, feel free! My door is always open.”

Ushering her out was a blessedly quick affair; elves, he had found, were not prone to linger over small talk and needless pleasantries. Darling ordinarily enjoyed small talk and needless pleasantries, but it was getting late and he was just as glad to get the mysterious elf out of his house.

After seeing her to the door, he made his way back to the parlor and watched through the window as Sheyann departed down the street. Only when she was out of view did he turn back to Flora and Fauna, who had remained unmoving the entire time.

“All right. Just what was that about?”

“She was looking for Mary the Crow,” Fauna said woodenly.

“Don’t get smart with me when I’m looking for simple,” he snapped. “And don’t look at me like that, I know damn well you can tell the difference. You and that woman were glaring at each other like a box of strange cats.”

“She knows,” Flora said darkly. “About us. What we are.”

That brought him up short. “You’re sure? She said as much?”

“Not in terms that would hold up in court,” Fauna said, scowling. “But she hinted strongly and made it pretty plain.”

“I don’t know how she can tell,” Flora added. “Even a shaman shouldn’t be able to just spot it like that!”

“No need to reach for magical explanations when mundane ones will do,” he said wearily, dropping himself into the armchair. “Price! Fetch me a—oh, bless you.” He took the brandy from her proffered tray and downed half of it. “Mhn, that hits the spot. Anyway, she came from Tellwyrn, who you said was able to sniff you out as well.”

“Don’t know how she did it either,” Fauna said sullenly.

“So did Mary, for that matter,” Darling mused. “Tellwyrn is to mages what Mary is to shamans; best not to assume anything about the limits of either of them. In fact, this is what concerns me. Now we’ve got an elf foofling about my city who not only knows a secret that could get us all sent to the gallows, but learned that secret because she is apparently a trusted link between Tellwyrn and Mary. Just there being a link between those two is going to cost me some sleep.”

“What do you want to do?” Flora asked quietly.

He sipped the brandy once more, frowning at the far wall. “…is it too late for you to tail her?”

Fauna shook her head. “We can track her down easily enough. In fact, it’s probably best to give her a bit of a head start. Less likely she’ll be looking for us that way.”

“We can also hide from her, no matter what kind of shaman she is,” Flora added. “But if she actually meets with the Crow… Well, it’s like you said. No telling what she can or can’t do.”

“We actually snuck up on her once…”

“…or so we thought. There’s no guarantee she didn’t let us.”

He nodded. “Well, be careful, but do your best. I’d like you to keep an eye on Miss Sheyann while she’s in town—find out who she talks to, what she says to them and what she does about it. If the Crow becomes a factor, be discreet. Don’t get confrontational with that one.”

“We’re not idiots,” Fauna muttered. “Though for the record I think we could take her.”

Flora nudged her with an elbow. “Not without outing ourselves and wrecking a whole lot of real estate.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said fervently. “This is a priority for now, though; there’s too much at stake to leave it unattended. I’ll speak with Style and have your training appointments for tomorrow put on hold.”

“We’ll head out, then,” Fauna said, grinning.

“Wait.” He held up a hand. “While we’re here and discussing risky business, there’s something else I want to bring up with you. It’s been a good few months since you told me your spirits would probably be satiated for close to a year. How’re we doing on that?”

The elves exchanged on of their fraught looks. “Some…faint twinges,” Flora said reluctantly. “It’s nowhere near a dangerous level yet. We’d tell you long before it got to that point.”

“Attagirl,” he said, nodding. “I mention it because something’s come up that may be relevant to that, at least potentially. The Guild’s ongoing search for Thumper has hit a wall in Onkawa. Webs is holding it up.”

“Who’s Webs?”

Darling sighed, idly swirling his drink. “An operations man, and Thumper’s Guild sponsor and first trainer. He’s being difficult, to the surprise of absolutely no one. His loyalties have always been more to his personal contacts than the organization. Webs is…a theological purist. He’s got a loudly poor opinion of the Guild’s current structure.”

“A renegade?” Flora asked, intrigued.

Darling shook his head. “An objector. Tricks mostly leaves him alone; I encouraged him. The Guild needs dissenting opinions to keep its management honest and on their toes. It becomes inconvenient at times like this, though, when we need specific cooperation and he’s of the opinion we don’t deserve it. Right now, he’s trying to pitch the idea that Thumper’s presence in Onkawa and the shitstorm left in the wake thereof were due to a succubus called Kheshiri.”

Both elves perked up visibly. “A succubus?” Fauna asked.

“Webs is covering for Thumper, that much is certain,” Darling said, leaning forward, “but the succubus’s presence there has been confirmed by other, more trusted sources. This bitch is bad news, even for a demon. She’s got thick files with both the Church and Imperial Intelligence. Even the Black Wreath has put an effort into getting her out of circulation in the past. It doesn’t seem to have stuck. What the hell she is doing with a goon like Shook is a complete unknown, but there are no possibilities that aren’t terrifying.”

“Vanislaad demons are good hunting,” Flora whispered. “The spirits were very happy with that incubus you got for us.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the issue from one angle,” Darling said grimly, pausing to take a much-needed sip of his brandy. “From another… If this Kheshiri is the piece of work it seems like she is, it might take a pair of headhunters to bring her down. Should it come to that, I want you two ready.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Fauna said with a predatory smile. “We always are.”

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“Behind you!”

“I saw it!”

Wandshots cracked through the falling snow; a katzil demon squawked in pain as it was cleaved out of the air. Weaver kept up his fire, taking fragments off the eaves of the building over which the creature had been trying to escape, and then it was lost to sight behind the structure.

Joe was the first around the corner; his boots skidded on the light dusting of snow dancing down the street. Between that and the sharp wind he might have lost his footing, but he was too in tune with his body and environs to overbalance. This was the first he’d seen of the snow actually reaching the ground and staying there; he factored it into his calculations without a conscious thought.

The demon raised its head and hissed at him, an orange glow rising within its mouth. His wandshot pierced its skull before it could spit fire at him, and the katzil flopped back to the ground, thrashed once, and fell still. Immediately, it began to disintegrate into foul-smelling charcoal.

Weaver arrived, wands up, and came a lot closer to slipping than Joe had. He caught himself on a lamppost, however, scowling at the remains of the demon. “Right, good. There’s that one dealt with. Have you seen…”

They both lifted their heads at the distinctive sound of Billie whooping. In the next second, a flare arced into the sky from the next street over. It was quickly caught and blown off-course by the winds, but fizzled out before it could land on anything and start a fire.

Joe and Weaver set off without a word.

They were slowed by an accumulation of trash in the middle of the alley down which they had to travel, but in less than a minute were stepping out the other side, to find two of their party standing back-to-back in the middle of the street. McGraw still held his staff in a wary position, peering around at the rooftops; Billie was sliding something long and metallic into one of her pouches. Five large clumps of charcoal lay in the street around them, crumbling and blowing away. The acrid stink of them was almost painful, even carried off by the wind as quickly as it was.

“There y’are,” the gnome said cheerfully. “Turns out we didn’t need the rescue, but glad to see ye nonetheless. Best not t’get separated.”

“Good thinking,” Joe agreed. “We had to chase after that bird-serpent thingy, though. No tellin’ what havoc it would cause, loose in the city.”

“Not that much,” McGraw said, resting the butt of his staff against the cobblestones and straightening up, apparently satisfied the danger was past. “Katzils rarely attack people unless ordered by a warlock. You can usually tell one’s in the area by scorched rooftops and a sudden absence of rats, cats and small dogs in the neighborhood. Those khankredahgs were a bigger priority,” he added, nodding toward one of his erstwhile targets, by now little more than a black smudge on the pavement. “They do attack people. You see any of those, take ’em out first.”

“Duly noted,” Joe said, nodding.

“You have missed one, nonetheless,” Mary announced, appearing beside them. They hadn’t even heard her approach in bird form this time, what with the shrieking wind, but none of them were startled by her comings and goings anymore. “Above that apartment complex to the west.”

“I just had a wild thought,” Weaver said. “Being that you’re by a wide margin the most powerful person here, it seems like you could be doing a lot more than recon.”

“The key to having power is to know how it is used,” Mary said, unperturbed as always. “I find the most potent way to influence the world is through information. For instance, rather than running around to a side street after the katzil, you can pass through the public house in the base of the building. It has entrances on both sides and is currently unlocked.”

They turned to look at the door toward which she nodded; only the sign labeling it “The Shifty Midget” revealed it was a pub. The door was shut tight, the windows darkened, its silence in keeping with the crisis in the city, but still somehow even more eerie. Pubs were meant to be places of laughter and vitality.

“You sure?” McGraw asked uncertainly. “Looks buttoned up pretty tight from here,”

“I assure you,” the Crow replied, “I have observed the entrances in use. Time is short.” She ascended toward the roof of the building with a raspy caw, her dark little wings seeming to have no trouble in the wind.

“And there she goes, not through the pub,” Weaver muttered. “I have a personal rule against taking directions from people who don’t follow their own.”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “Somethin’ in the pub she wants us to see. If you think the Crow’s out to get us, by all means sit here an’ freeze. Me, I think it’s worth havin’ a look at.”

They started toward the pub’s closed door, McGraw muttering as they went. “I didn’t see a katzil head off in that direction. Reckon there actually is one?”

Joe made no reply. Billie was first to reach the door, but she stepped aside, allowing him to grasp the handle and pull it open.

There was a short entrance hall beyond the door, lined with pegs for coats and stands for heavy overboots, all depressingly empty at the moment. An inert fairy lamp in an old-fashioned wrought iron housing hung overhead, swaying in the breeze admitted by the open door.

They trooped through in single file, weapons at the ready. The hall made a sharp left into the public area, where the group came to an immediate stop.

It looked like it might be a cozy place to have a drink in better times; not large, and with a disproportionately huge hearth along one wall. In addition to the usual tables and benches there were battered old armchairs upholstered in cracked leather arranged in small clusters in the corners. As Mary had said, there was indeed another hall leading from the opposite side of the room, presumably toward the other street. The fireplace was dead and dark, as were the wall sconces. It was not at all dim, however, lit as it was by the glow of the seven alarmed clerics in Universal Church robes who stood huddled in the middle of the room.

The two groups stared at each other in surprise for a silent moment. The priests weren’t armed, at least not visibly, but the glow around them at least partially came from a divine shield covering their party.

“What are you doing out?” a middle-aged woman near the head of the group demanded finally. “There’s a curfew in place!”

“We’re officially deputized for the duration of the crisis,” Joe informed her, holding up the lapel of his coat, to which was pinned the pewter gryphon badge Bishop Darling had given him. “Could ask the same of you.”

“We answer to the Universal Church,” she replied, still studying him warily. “Deputized? How old are you?”

“Collectively, oldern’ the Empire,” Billie said cheerfully. “Look, we can yammer on about who’s entitled to be out, or we could address the more pressin’ matters at hand. There’s demons still on the loose in the street. What’re you doin’ huddled in a dark pub? Could use the help out there.”

An unreadable look made its rounds through the clerics. “We have our orders,” a younger man said cryptically. “If you’re on demon cleanup duty, don’t let us keep you.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw drawled, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But ain’t that the insignia of that new summoner corps his Holiness is building? Seems like demons on the loose would be right up your alley.”

“I told you, our orders—” He cut off at a sharp gesture from the older woman.

“Never mind,” she said, speaking to her companions but keeping her eyes on the group standing by the doorway. “This position is clearly compromised anyway, we’ll fall back to the secondary rendezvous. You do what you like,” she added directly to McGraw, “but if you intend to help, keep out of our way.”

They filed rapidly out the other hall exit. In moments, they were gone, and the party stood, listening to the door bang shut behind them. The only sound in the room was the faint sound of wind from without; Weaver had neglected to properly close the door through which they’d come.

“That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” Joe muttered, frowning after the departed clerics. “Holy summoners, hiding in a bar when there’s demons loose in the city?”

“They were not all summoners, holy or otherwise,” Mary remarked. They whirled to find her perched nonchalantly on the edge of the bar. “Did you note the slight divide in their group? Three in one cluster, four in another. Of the four, only one was a priestess. They also included a mage, a witch and a diabolist.”

“…a strike team,” McGraw said, thunking the butt of his staff against the floor. “In the wrong uniform? Well, they’re used for discreet ops often enough.”

Joe’s eyes widened as the equation added up in his head. “…they don’t want the demons un-summoned. They summoned them!”

“Cor,” Billie muttered.

He whirled to look at the group. Billie was frowning in consternation, McGraw in thought. Mary was watching him with the faint smile he associated with a teacher waiting to see if a pupil would understand a lesson. Weaver’s face was uncharacteristically blank.

“We have to tell the Bishop about this,” Joe said urgently. “Which way did he go?”

Weaver heaved a deep sigh. “Kid, this is a pitying expression I’m wearing, in case you failed to interpret it.”

“I told you,” Billie said, scowling. “I said it. That fellow gaining new powers fair makes my hackles rise. Gods only know what he might do with ’em. Not what he told us he was gonna, that much you can bank on.”

Joe’s eyes darted back and forth. “…did you all know about this?”

“Suspected,” McGraw muttered. “Had an inkling. Ain’t exactly the kinda thing one asks one’s powerful employer, though. ‘Scuze me, your Grace, but would you happen to be up to anything especially villainous this evening?’”

Weaver just shrugged.

“We were sent out to, first, attempt to lure the Black Wreath into an ambush, and second, destroy any demons they had unleashed,” Mary said calmly, her eyes fixed on Joe’s. “Ask yourself, why would they unleash demons?”

“They…they’re…the Black Wreath,” he said lamely. “Demons are what they do.”

“You cannot afford to be so naïve, Joseph. The Wreath call up demons only to use them. When they find demons otherwise, they put them down. Aimless summons of uncontrolled demons are less likely to be the work of the Wreath…”

“Than an attempt to lure them out,” Billie finished. “Bloody fuckin’ hell, in the middle of the city!”

“Let me just point out,” Weaver said, “before anybody goes on the warpath, that that was a mixed group of Universal Church and Imperial personnel we just saw, who were probably responsible for the demons loose in this neighborhood, if your theory is correct. It may be satisfying to blame Darling, but even if he could organize something this big, he couldn’t enact it on his own. This must’ve been done at the highest level. Bet you anything he’s not the only Bishop playing a part here.”

“There are many forces at work tonight,” Mary said calmly. “Some at cross purposes, most with more than one agenda. Best not to act in haste.”

“Act?” Billie snorted. “As to that…what’re we s’posed ta do, then? Just go back to killin’ demons like nothin’ else is going on?”

“Few things in life are simple,” said McGraw, “but some things are. If there are demons on the loose in the city, no matter who did it or why, killing ’em is a good use of our time.”

“But is it the best use?” Mary asked with a smile. “Joseph, did you still want to know which way the Bishop went?”


 

Embras managed one step backward before the front door of the warehouse banged shut, then froze.

“Well,” he said with a sigh, “there we are, of course. The question becomes, then, which of you do I attempt to go through?”

Price raised an eyebrow.

The warlock held out one hand, palm-up. “Young lady, if you would be so kind as to step aside—”

A ball of shadow began to form in his palm, then abruptly exploded; Mogul staggered backward, clutching a burned hand and staring around himself at the piles of crates hemming them in. Several of those nearest were emitting a faint golden light through cracks where the boards did not fit together snugly.

“You’ll want to be careful of that, old fellow,” Sweet said cheerfully, strolling around the corner behind him. The two elves paced silently at his sides, their expressions curious. “Want to know what’s stored in this warehouse, a literal stone’s throw from the Dawnchapel? Why, whatever was lying around! Relics of just all kinds, sacred to a whole smorgasbord of gods, that had been cluttering up the temple where Justinian needed to make space for his own projects. Frankly I’ve not idea what most of ’em even do, but I’ve got a pretty good notion what’ll happen if somebody starts trying to throw around infernal magic in here.”

“Yep,” Embras said, taking two steps to the side and angling himself to keep all of them in view. He stuck his burned hand in one of his coat pockets, tilting his head forward so that the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. Only his grin was visible. “I’ve gotta hand it to you, Antonio, this was mighty fine work. Mighty fine work. How’d you manage to arrange all this? One professional to another.”

“Oh, but that’s the best part,” Sweet said, grinning in return and coming to a stop a few feet from him. “I didn’t arrange this! Nor the mess you encountered in the Dawnchapel. In fact, I did my damnedest to get you to come at me, but I guess that was a little too obvious to get a nibble. No, all this was just here; you just ran afoul of Justinian placing his new toys exactly where you were most likely to trip over ’em in the dark.”

“Well, that’s just irritating,” Embras remarked. “I believe I’m gonna write him a very sternly worded letter.”

“Tell you what I did arrange, though,” Sweet continued, his grin beginning to slowly fade. “You’ve already discovered the Shaathist blessing blocking shadow-jumping over the city, I’m sure. You probably deduced the presence of a lot of Huntsmen rounding up your fellows. Here’s what you don’t yet know: those Huntsmen will be herding the Wreath toward the Rail stations, which are right about now being inundated with the Imperial soldiers who were sent to Calderaas earlier in the day. The Third Silver Legion has been re-sorted into squads off site, one of which will accompany every unit of the Army, with shield-specialized priestesses at the front. No doubt a good few of your warlocks will still manage to use those syringes of theirs when they see what’s waiting for them, but enough of them will be pacified on sight that we stand to take plenty alive.”

“How did you manage that?” Embras asked mildly. “You’re talking about hundreds of people. Thousands, even. I don’t mind admitting I haven’t heard a peep about this, and I’ve got eyes and ears in places you wouldn’t believe.”

“Simple operational control, old man. All of those soldiers and Legionnaires were kept in the dark; they were ordered to respond to the crisis on the frontier, and when they got to Calderaas telescrolled orders sent them right back here. The Huntsmen have been sequestered on rooftops all afternoon, in parties constantly watching each other.”

“Hnh,” Mogul grunted. “At what cost? I do know that hellgate in Last Rock isn’t a feint. Are you really so obsessed with capturing me you let that thing stand open? My people weren’t behind it, nor was my Lady. There is no telling what’s gonna come boiling out.”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that,” Darling said condescendingly. “That’s being taken care of. Worry about the here and now.”

Mogul finally lifted his head, meeting Darling’s eyes. “Take a good look at yourself, Bishop. The bards lie about a lot, but they tell a few solid truths. The man standing over a well-executed trap giving a soliloquy is seldom the hero of the piece.”

“You’re just stalling, now,” Sweet said, stepping forward. Behind him, Flora and Fauna moved to flank. Price held her position, watching with perfect poise. “Obsessed I may be, but I’m not the one with a foot in the snare.”

“Fair enough,” Embras agreed, adjusting his tie. “Well, relics or no relics, I do hope you’re not expecting me to stand here politely while you—”

“Oh, keep it in your pants,” Darling said scornfully. “I didn’t go to all this trouble to kill you. No, I don’t intend to capture you, either.”

“Oh? I confess to some curiosity. That would seem to exhaust all the likely ambitions you might have toward my person.”

“Remember who you’re dealing with,” Darling said grimly, taking slow steps forward. “I am, first and foremost, an Eserite. I brought you here, Embras, to take something from you. Something you’ll be hard pressed to do without. Something you will never get back, until you finally submit yourself to my will.”

He came to a stop finally, with barely a foot separating the two men. Mogul withheld comment, simply staring challengingly into Darling’s eyes.

Suddenly Sweet grinned and swiped his hand across the space between them. Embras reflexively twitched backward, disarranging his hat as the brim thumped against the crates behind him. Grinning madly, Darling held up his fist, with the tip of his thumb poking out from between two fingers.

“Got yer nose!”

Embras gaped at him.

“All right, that’s a wrap,” Sweet said cheerfully, turning around and swaggering back toward the path between the crates. “Pack it up, ladies, we’re out. Embras, old man, you’ll wanna take the first left on the path out the other side, it’ll lead you straight toward the administrative offices. Past the secretary’s desk is the manager’s, and past that is a cleaning closet. Sewer access is in there. You have a good evenin’, now!”

Price caught up as he reached the crates and they stepped out into the shadows side-by-side, leaving the lamp behind. Flora and Fauna, however, hadn’t moved. They were staring after their tutor with expressions very similar to Mogul’s.

“What. The. Hell.”

“Are you ever gonna actually fight this guy?” Fauna demanded shrilly.

“Look, if you just want somebody to play practical jokes with, we can find you a friend.”

“Hell with that, let’s find him a girlfriend. He’s clearly pent up.”

“All the way up to the skull!”

“Girls, girls,” Darling soothed, turning to grin at them. “Not in front of the mark, please. I know exactly what I’m doing, as always. Embras knows, too. Or he will once he’s had time to think it all over. He’s having a stressful night, poor fellow. We’ve got exactly what we came for, now it’s time to go. Chop chop, our guest has a stealthy exit to make. Respect the exit.”

He strolled off again into the shadows. With a last, wary glance at the completely nonplussed Embras Mogul, the girls finally followed him. There really wasn’t anything else for them to do.

“I swear,” Fauna muttered as they wound their way through the dark maze of crates back to the entrance, “if I don’t hear a full explanation of all the aimless running around we’ve done tonight, I’m gonna kill somebody.”

“That would carry a lot more weight if it wasn’t your response to everything,” Darling said cheerfully. “Thank you, Price.”

“Sir,” she said, pulling the door open and stepping aside to hold it while Darling strolled out into the windy streets.

He came to an immediate stop, the glowing tip of a wand inches from his face.

“Evenin’, Joe,” he said mildly. “Something on your mind?”

“Lemme see if I’ve got this straight,” Joe said, glaring at him. “You send all the troops away and have summoners call up demons in the city, creating a crisis only more summoners can fix. And then, when the Black Wreath shows up to help the civilians you’ve put in danger, you land on ’em with Huntsmen and whatever else. That about the shape of it?”

Darling held up a hand at his side; Flora and Fauna halted, having been about to dive past him at the Kid. Behind Joe, the rest of his party stood in a semicircle a good few yards back, dissociating themselves from him with distance.

“You have the aspect of someone who’s just made several assumptions,” Darling said, “and plans to make a few more.”

“I asked you a question.”

“Joe,” Flora warned.

“That’s about the shape of it, yes,” Darling said, nodding. He kept his eyes on Joe’s. “Minus a number of highly significant details.”

“That,” Joe said flatly, “is easily one of the more evil things I’ve ever heard of.” He shifted his grip subtly, the wand’s tip glowing a touch brighter; Flora and Fauna stepped forward once. “And you made me a part of it.”

“Did you see those crocodile-lookin’ things with the gorilla arms?” Darling asked. “Yes? Those are called khankredahgs. One of them killed Bishop Snowe’s servant in her own home a few weeks back. The same night the Wreath attacked us in my house, remember?”

“That has noth—”

“There’s something called the Rite of Silencing,” Darling pressed over him, “it’s what the Wreath does to members who try to betray the group. See, what they do is, they get the traitors in a pit that’s been made into a summoning circle. They’ve bound them beforehand, you see, so they can’t use any magic they possess. And then they call up khankredahgs in the pit with ’em, and the whole cell stands around above and watches them get eaten alive.”

He took a step forward, then another; Joe actually stepped back to avoid jabbing him in the eye with the wand, but did not lower his arm. “And not just the would-be traitor, either,” Darling went on, staring him down. “Anyone deemed close enough to them. Spouses, siblings, children. The exceptions are any children considered too young to be responsible. Those join the onlookers, and get to watch their families being torn apart. These are the people we’re talking about, Joe.”

“What they do has nothing to do with what we do about it,” Joe growled. “If we can’t be better than them, then what’s the point of fighting ’em?”

“I only wish I could tell you how close the Black Wreath was before tonight to overthrowing the Empire,” Darling said. At that Joe’s eyes widened and his hand wavered a fraction. “I can’t, though; the pertinent parts are actually Sealed to the Throne, and most of the rest is merely classified. But yes, Joe, we’ve been walking the knife’s edge for months now. The prospect of an Elilinist government coming to power is a real and extant one even still. This night’s work has broken the Wreath’s spine in Tiraas, but they are not dead, and Elilial certainly isn’t. They’ll be back. They’ll never stop. Have you ever given any thought to what life would be like in a country ruled by the Black Wreath?” He paused for a moment, giving Joe a chance to answer. He didn’t. “I have. And I, and others in the government, the Church and the cults, have had to consider what is appropriate, and what is necessary, to stop that from happening.”

“Appropriate?” Joe all but whispered.

Darling slowly lifted his hand and pushed aside the wand. Joe offered no resistance. “I won’t know for a few days exactly how many people were hurt or killed due to our scheme tonight,” he said quietly. “We’ll probably never have a full accounting of the damage. But this is something that was carefully considered at the highest level. The Emperor, the Empress, the Archpope. Myself, the head of Imperial Intelligence, others. Not one of us are going to sleep well for a good while, if ever. And someday, Joe, when you have had to make a brutally hard choice like that, then you will be in a position to make judgments about those who have. They probably won’t be correct judgments, but you’ll have earned the right to make ’em.” He pursed his lips, and shook his head. “Till then… Grow up.”

Darling turned and walked off up the street. Flora and Fauna paced after him, staring at Joe in passing as he slowly lowered his wand to point at the ground. Price brought up the rear, seeming totally unperturbed.

A small hand touched his leg just above the knee. He looked down to meet Billie’s eyes. She jerked her head significantly at the two elves, then very clearly mouthed “Not now.”

They listened, for a long moment, to the wind, and the sound of distant hunting horns.

“Welp,” McGraw said finally, “I guess we won.”

“What is victory?” Mary mused aloud. “And who are ‘we?’”

“Just in case you were wondering,” Weaver told her, “that inscrutable act of yours isn’t impressive. It’s just annoying.”

“I can live with that,” she said with a smile. “Annoying I may be, but I have achieved exactly what I set out to, tonight. I wonder who else can say the same?”

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