Tag Archives: Shaeine

16 – 42

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

“All right, so. How did we mess that up?”

Breakfast in Madouri Manor was a somewhat subdued affair, due to the late hours everyone present had kept the night before. In fact it was a late hour now, closer to brunch than proper breakfast, but the Lady of the house had only just returned from her overnight stay in Veilgrad and many of her guests, for all that they were at least out of bed now, couldn’t be said to be fully awake. No one answered Gabriel’s question, at least not immediately; most of them just blinked blearily at him.

Yancey emerged from the servant’s entrance to the dining room in which they convened with his usual fortuitous timing, pushing a trolley laden with cups, saucers, and serving pots, one of which produced fragrant steam.

“Ah, splendid,” said Ravana, perking up visibly. “A spot of coffee is just the thing to begin a challenging day following another of the same.”

“Hard drugs for breakfast,” Raolo said with a raised eyebrow. “Damn, I should pal around with more nobles.”

Hard drugs,” Scorn chuckled. “You are a very cute elf, Raolo. I will have a cup, please, Yancey.”

“Right away, miss,” the Butler said with a deferential nod, already stirring sugar into the cup he had placed at Ravana’s hand.

“In point of fact,” said the Duchess primly, “coffee is explicitly not a drug within the Tiraan Empire, as of a Treasury ruling issued two months ago. On the grounds that its active ingredient is also present in tea and chocolate, and is no more addictive than alcohol and overall less deleterious to one’s health, coffee is classified as a foodstuff. Immediately following this ruling, I purchased one of the few domestic plantations in the Onkawa highlands. This is one of my own products, and quite splendid in quality if I do say so myself.”

“One of your products,” Toby drawled. “Somehow, I can’t picture you working on a plantation.”

“I can,” said Trissiny, “and I will call up the image whenever I need a laugh from now on. But seriously, Gabe asked an important question. How did we mess that up?”

“Well, it seems pretty clear that you underestimated the Archpope’s capabilities,” Fross chimed, swooping in a circle over Trissiny’s head. Despite not needing to eat, the pixie enjoyed socializing with friends and rarely missed a meal. “So I guess the pertinent question is whether you blundered or he’d hidden his powers well enough you really couldn’t have anticipated that.”

“In fairness,” said Toby, “we didn’t actually go in there planning to try to assassinate him. That just sort of…happened.”

“Three guesses which of you made that happen,” said Ruda, grinning and leaning over to prod Trissiny with her elbow.

“I saw the man turn off the entire Trinity like they were a fairy lamp,” Trissiny retorted, leaning away from her roommate. “I maintain it was a reasonable reaction.”

“I for one will not sleep well,” Szith murmured, “knowing that a man willing to flood entire cities with demons and undead has such power at his fingertips.”

A hush fell over the table, in which only the soft clink of porcelain was audible as Yancey distributed coffee to those who indicated they wanted it.

“Anyway, I’m not sure how we could have seen that coming,” Trissiny finally said, frowning at the center of the table. “That’s just not the kind of thing anyone should be able to do. That, and the power behind that divine shield he used…”

“I talked with Vestrel about that,” said Gabriel. “Apparently to resist the scythe like it did, it had to constantly rejuvenate itself. Which… I mean, if he’s drawing from the entire Pantheon, stands to reason, but the thing is that amount of power should theoretically be running through him, which should theoretically fry him like a fillet at a fraction of that intensity.”

“Those feats are a logical extension of what we know he can do,” said Fross, now drifting slowly in figure eights above the table. “He is the Archpope and thus a divine caster of significant strength, and you had firsthand knowledge that he’s been monkeying with the Elder God machinery that created the Pantheon in the first place…”

“I’ll tell you what you did wrong,” Ruda declared, resting an elbow on the table to point at him. She had declined coffee, tea, or anything else, having brought her own jug of local Last Rock moonshine to breakfast. “You shoulda gone in there and Ravana’d him right from the beginning.”

Ravana set down her coffee cup in its saucer with a soft but decisive clink. “I know that I will regret learning exactly what that means, and yet I must ask.”

“Oh, c’mon, it’s not like we blame you for all the evils of the world,” Ruda said, grinning at her. “It’s one specific and consistent thing. You dig up the most unconventional and horrifically overpowered insanity you can find and point it at the first person who pisses you off. That is the approach you guys should’ve taken with Justinian. The reason you didn’t know his physical capabilities is because he’s managed to never have to show them to anybody before; he’s that good a string-puller. You don’t try to get clever with a man like that, it’s just playing his game, on his terms. You drown him and everything in his vicinity with a tsunami of overkill.”

“Hey! You pronounced that correctly!” Fross chimed in excitement, swooping around Ruda’s head. “Most Tanglophones just substitute a silent t instead of properly articulating the tsu syllable! That’s actually a very ironic phenomenon, since ‘tsunami’ is Tanglish’s only loanword from Sifanese and contains one of the very few sounds that don’t—”

“Fross,” Teal interjected, gentle but firm.

The pixie immediately halted in midair, dimmed her glow and floated lower. “Aaaaand I’m being pedantic and de-Railing the conversation. Sorry, I was just happy. I like it when things are correct.”

“I’m not sure exactly what…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at Fross. “…tidal wave of overkill we could have leveled at him. I mean, that is more or less what we tried to do.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t Ravana him,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Ravana, care to explain the difference?”

“Your own capabilities are well established, frequently and in public,” Ravana explained, giving Ruda a somewhat dour look. “It sounds as if you attacked him with everything in your standard arsenal—all of which he would be aware of in advance and thus, being Justinian, prepared for. To destroy a target such as he, one must employ not only overwhelming firepower, but unconventional assets which he could not reasonably anticipate.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, again frowning at nothing.

“There was something I noticed,” Gabriel said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought. “Remember when he did all that with the Light to stop us beating on him? At the time I thought he just broke our concentration with sheer physical pushback, but looking back I noticed… Didn’t it seem like all our shields, Triss’s wings and Toby’s invocation shut down at precisely the same instant?”

“Well, it was an area of effect attack,” said Trissiny. “And it hit pretty hard. Naturally that would break our focus, and at the same time.”

“Not the same, though,” Gabriel said, shaking his head. “Toby was a couple yards further away. And look, if you’re hit with a big wall of energy and something you were trying to concentrate on goes belly up, you’d naturally assume that was why. It just seems really in character for that guy to do something sly under the cover of something overt, just to stop us from noticing. Divine magic is where most mental magic lies, right? Are there methods of disrupting enemy spellcasting?”

“There very much are,” Shaeine answered immediately. “Themynrite and Scyllithene clerics both employ them. That craft is exceedingly difficult to learn. Less difficult to ward against, but even that is not a skill one acquires in an afternoon.”

“That’s a really good observation, Gabe,” said Trissiny. “Something we need to be on guard for, next time. As for…unconventional overkill…” She leaned back in her chair, staring up at the chandelier. “I think I’ll pay another visit to the Conclave, as soon as I have the time. After our business in Tiraas today, maybe. Zanzayed seems to like having me around, but if I want to learn some divine craft, Ampophrenon is probably a better bet. I think I can get him to teach me. It’s hard to read a being like that, but he seemed to regard me positively.”

“Yeah, he mentioned you last night,” Teal agreed. “Quite favorably. Overall he comes across as surprisingly progressive for someone older than Tellwyrn.”

“I can begin coaching you in the basics of defense against a divine interrupt,” said Shaeine, “but yours is a good idea, Trissiny. As Ruda and Ravana point out, our enemy will be aware of what you can learn from me. The dragons are a likely source of magical skill he will not know.”

“Seems to me that learning divine skills is a good starting point,” said Gabriel, “but, and nobody hit me, it might be a good idea to pick up some specifically anti-divine techniques. At least, whatever we can safely use alongside our own magic.”

“I’m instinctively leery at the notion, but it seems strategically sound,” Toby murmured.

Gabriel nodded. “Yeah, if Trissiny’s got an in with the Conclave anyway, it might be worthwhile to ask… Oh, what’s the red guy’s name? Vaz something.”

“Razzavinax the Red,” Ravana corrected. “A capital idea, Gabriel. He is quite personable, and in fact an established teacher of magical technique to mortals. I doubt you wish to or even can study any infernomancy in detail, but he undoubtedly knows several basic tricks to use against divine casters.”

Everyone stared at her.

“I know,” Iris said, “I know I’m going to regret the answer, but… Why, Ravana, have you been hanging out with the red dragon?”

“Oh, I’ve not had the pleasure of Lord Razzavinax’s company myself,” Ravana said lightly. “I have struck up an amicable correspondence with his consort, Lady Maiyenn, after I sent her a baby gift.”

Everyone continued to stare at her.

“This is the bulk of what a lady in society does,” the Duchess explained, now with a sardonic undertone. “Form connections to be exploited at need. I am a very useful person to know, as is Maiyenn, and each of us recognized this trait in the other. Intelligent self-interest begets courtesy. You likely have sufficient contacts within the Conclave as it is, Trissiny, but should Lord Razzavinax prove resistant to aiding the Hand of Avei I would be pleased to arrange an introduction.”

“Thank you,” said Trissiny, a bit dryly. “So, the dragons are a good starting point for some extra tricks against Justinian. I also need to arrange another quick trip to the First Legion’s base.”

“Uh, hang on, there,” Ruda protested. “I know I told you to use overkill, Shiny Boots, but I dunno if bringing in more of your pet adventurers is exactly gonna help against the Archpope.”

“No, I tend to agree,” Trissiny said with a smile. “The team I brought to Tiraas has already performed beyond my expectations, but still, you’re right. Justinian isn’t the Battle of Ninkabi; in most situations, adventurers work better in small groups. It’s not about that. Talking of unconventional assets… I need to notify Billie Fallowstone that one of her pet projects has just become urgent. And, Captain Locke knows how to build divine disruptors.”

Another short silence fell, in which most of the junior class grimaced.

“Those things,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I never imagined a day would come when I’d want to have them around.”

“And yet, here we are,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “Good thought, Triss. If my scythe didn’t break his shield, I don’t expect any handheld weapon will, but even so. Most of his tricks are going to be divine in origin, or at least his minions’ will. Those damn things will come in very useful. That is, if Locke can produce some.”

“Um, if I recall correctly,” Fross interjected, “which, not to chime my own glockenspiel, I always do, those weapons are made largely from gold.”

“I didn’t say it would be convenient or budget-friendly, but this is urgent,” Trissiny replied, grimacing. “The Sisterhood can afford it. I may have to arrange some more resources for the First Legion, but it’s doable. Meanwhile, all of this is tomorrow’s battle. More immediately we’ve got our announcements with our respective cults, and that will begin putting major pressure on Justinian in the political and religious arena.”

“As such,” Ravana stated, “were I he, I would choose this moment while you are all thus engaged to launch a preemptive retaliation.”

“…fuck,” Gabe muttered.

“I think,” Iris suggested, “this would be an excellent day for all of us to have a little outing into Tiraas. We can do some sightseeing and shopping while the paladins do politics. And, you know…be around.”

“Some of us are…very unconventional assets,” Scorn agreed with a toothy grin.

“I am shamed to say this,” Szith replied softly, “but I cannot assist.”

“Right, Narisian politics,” Ruda said quickly. “Last thing we want is to land you in trouble with House An’sadarr, Szith, don’t worry about that. Teal, Shaeine, I assume the same goes?”

“On the contrary, we have more freedom to assert ourselves,” said Shaeine, taking her wife’s hand. “Both by virtue of our respective rank and position in our own societies, and our effective alignment as of Justinian’s recent attack on Falconer Industries and his general opposition to the Silver Throne, toward which the Confederacy desires a conciliatory stance. Szith risks censure by stepping into human politics, but I am positioned to do so with more impunity.”

“That raises a pertinent question,” said Ravana, adopting a sharp expression which was ominously familiar to most of them. “Have you, any of you, issued a formal and public accusation against Justinian regarding the various disasters we are relatively certain he has engineered during the last several years?”

“You know the problem with that,” Toby replied. “Just because we’re pretty sure it was him pulling the strings doesn’t mean we can prove it. And accusing someone that powerful of something we can’t compellingly back up…”

“Yes, I understand,” she said, nodding. “Very well, then. While you are launching your salvo on behalf of your cults, I shall make a formal announcement that yesterday’s altercation in Madouris was instigated by the Universal Church, and also accuse Justinian of arranging the disasters which befell Ninkabi, Veilgrad, and Puna Dara.”

“Whoah,” Gabriel protested. “Ravana, I know you’re already kind of neck deep in this, but that’ll make you a major target. And he’s covered his tracks too well—”

“So did my father,” she said coldly. “I was forced to lie to have him removed; that the lie in question happened to be the very truth he so skillfully concealed was beside the point. I realize you all enjoy making facetious remarks about my predilection for frontal attacks, but this, specifically, is the time for them. Justinian can attempt to discredit me, sue me for slander, and launch propaganda against me, but I am more than equipped to handle all of the above. With the three Trinity cults, the Eserites and half the Shaathists poised to turn on him, it is the optimal time to add House Madouri’s weight to the cause. The point is to put constant, widespread pressure on him from every side, more than he can wiggle out from under. Our enemy is a master manipulator who thrives when he can keep his foes dancing about; I submit that he has been indulged more than long enough. It is time, my friends, to declare war.”

This time the pause which fell was grim and intent. No one suggested disagreement, even by facial expression.

“Then I guess we better eat up good, and head to Tiraas for some ass-kicking right after breakfast,” Ruda said, grinning. “Uh, I guess that means we need to wake up our missing teammate first. Juniper was pretty tuckered out after getting home last night, huh?”

The usual number of seats at the breakfast table were filled, but that was because Raolo had joined them overnight. One familiar face was, indeed, absent.

“Oh, uh,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “Yeah, about that…”


“Thank you,” Juniper said, smiling up at Price as the Butler refilled her teacup. Price inclined her head graciously in acknowledgment as she retreated from the table.

“Don’t be shy, if you’re still hungry I’m glad to empty the larder,” Sweet assured her with a grin, lounging in his chair at the head of the table. He was attired in his Eserite style this morning, calculatedly shabby and wearing louder colors than befitted a Bishop of the Universal Church. In fact, he hadn’t had cause to put on the ecclesiastical persona of Bishop Darling for months, though ironically the pressure of the political situation behind it had been wearing on him. Today, he looked and felt more relaxed than he could remember being in ages. “I don’t often get to entertain guests; it’s a pleasure to roll out the red carpet!”

“Oh, this is already plenty generous,” Juniper assured him with a smile, forking up another bite of sausage. Behind her, Sniff chomped more of the same from a bowl set on the floor against the dining room wall. “You’re a good host, Antonio.”

“Oh, I just bet he was,” Flora said acidly.

“Not that we need to bet,” Fauna added, tapping the pointed tip of her ear. “That was quite a production last night, you two.”

“My apologies for the rest of the household,” Sweet said to Juniper. “I swear to you I have taught them manners, but they usually decide not to use ‘em. Elves are kinda like cats.”

“Well, sorry if not everybody at the table has as much reason to be as loose and relaxed as the pair of you,” Flora snorted.

“Yeah, some of us had to make due with not even sleeping properly in our cold, lonely beds thanks to the racket from yours!”

“Maybe we’d like to boink the dryad, did you ever think about that?”

“No! You only think about yourself!”

“Did I think about you two while cavorting after midnight with a bosomy bundle of carnal ingenuity?” Sweet mused, idly swirling his teacup. “No, I honestly did not. Not for a second. And it seems to me it’d be creepy as hell if I had any other answer to that question.”

Juniper finished swallowing her bite of sausage and smiled gently at them while scooping up a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Now, now, no need to be competitive. I’d be glad to make love to either of you. Or both, whatever you prefer.”

“Ugh.”

“Ew.”

The dryad paused with her fork halfway to her mouth, raising her eyebrows at their matching grimaces. “Well. That’s a reaction I don’t often get. It’s not great for my feelings, I have to say.”

“Oh, sorry, it’s not about you,” Flora hastened to assure her.

“Yeah, you’re a sweetheart and astoundingly gorgeous,” Fauna agreed.

“But he’s pretty much our dad.”

“Yeah, going after him would be…”

They both shuddered dramatically.

“Well, okay,” Juniper said with a shrug, tucking back into her meal. “I’m still a little bemused by the nuances of family relationships, so I’ll have to take your word on that. If you ever change your minds, I’m up for it.”

“And what an odd little family we are,” Sweet said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well, all joking aside, we should probably thank you,” Flora said with a grudging little smile.

“It seems like forever since we’ve seen him this relaxed,” Fauna agreed.

“I am pretty good at what I do,” Juniper replied pleasantly.

“Damn skippy you are,” Sweet said emphatically. “It makes me think the whole world could benefit from a night of the ol’ slurp and snuggle. Or at least, several people who specifically need to be unwound a little bit. Hm, I bet I could even find somebody to ever so tenderly extract the stick from up Thorn’s butt…”

“Hey.” Suddenly frowning, Juniper pointed her fork at him. “You leave Trissiny alone.”

“Whoah, whoah!” He raised both hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean me. I wouldn’t lay a hand on her, even if I thought she was interested. Maybe it’s arrogant of me but I think of myself as kind of a mentor to Thorn. That’s not something you exploit. Some things are sacred, y’know?”

“Yeah, Tellwyrn has a rule like that. And that’s not what I’m concerned about,” the dryad shook her head. “It’s… Okay, I can’t help sensing sexual details about people, and I make a point not to share anybody’s private business with anyone else…”

“Appreciated,” Sweet, Flora, and Fauna all chorused.

“But, this is relevant, so I expect you to keep it to yourselves. Trissiny has a very monogamous nature, okay? She’s not like you and me; we do just fine with various casual lovers, but not everyone does. And she does look up to you, Antonio, so if you told her to go out and get laid I think there’s a chance she might go and do it. But she’d feel really bad about herself afterwards, and then I would be mad at you!”

“Well, every step in that chain is more to be avoided than the last,” he said solemnly. “I’m glad you spelled it out, Juniper, thanks for that. I’d hate to accidentally cause more problems for somebody who doesn’t need any.”

She nodded primly and went back to her sausage.

A second later, Price turned her head toward the door, then suddenly strode out into the hall.

“Oh,” Juniper said softly, glancing guiltily after the Butler. “Did I go to far? Sorry, no matter how many times it happens I sometimes forget not everybody’s okay with frank discussions of sexuality…”

“Nah, it’s not you,” Flora assured her.

“She just heard somebody coming to the door.”

“We still haven’t figured out how Price always picks up on that before we do.”

“Yet! Give it time!”

On cue, the doorbell rang, as Sweet brandished his teacup at the two elves.

“If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times to leave Price alone. On the list of shit I don’t need, you two stirring up trouble with the Service Society occupies several slots!”

The sounds of a visitor being welcomed into the front hall grew steadily louder while he spoke, until after only a few seconds, Price returned, face impassive as always.

“Sir, you have an urgent visitor from the Guild.”

“There you are,” Grip stated, striding in past the Butler. “I was afraid you’d already be halfway across town at this hour of the—what the fuck is that?!”

She came to a stop, pointing incredulously at Sniff, who had just finished his sausage and now raised his head to peer back at her.

Juniper scooted her chair back from the table, bringing her more into Grip’s line of sight. “I’m a dryad. It’s nice to meet you, too.”

The enforcer stared at her, then at Sniff, blinking rapidly. “I—that—what’re—no, fuck it, I don’t have time for this. Sweet, you need to get your ass down to the Guild, pronto.”

He had already stood up, abandoning his half-eaten breakfast. “How bad is it?”

“Pretty goddamn bad, and the core of the problem is how little pull anybody but you and Style has with the Boss—and Style’s apparently isn’t enough, on her own. You heard about how those Purist rejects tried to corner Glory’s apprentice yesterday?”

“Ohh, I don’t like where this is going,” he muttered.

Grip nodded. “Yeah, somehow Tricks has got his hands on a few of them, and he’s about to send us to war with the Sisterhood of Avei.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

16 – 39

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter >

The rented theater was only less than half full, with just minutes to go before the announced time of the event. That was by design; it was a last-minute affair, deliberately advertised in such a way that only the extremely interested were likely to see notice of it and arrive on time. There would be reporters, of course, and while Teal hadn’t gone out of her way to make sure they would be those in Ravana’s pocket, there were few enough in Madouris who weren’t. Though the Duchess had, grudgingly, blessed this event, it had been too belated to lend her resources even had she been so inclined. The Falconers didn’t lack for money, but they didn’t have things like Ravana’s spies. Teal had made do by asking where the protest outside the factory had originally been planned, getting the names of a few pubs and tearooms, and having fliers put up there. It seemed to have worked all right; there weren’t as many people here as there had been marching at the gates, but some of those had no doubt been scared off by what had happened at the end of that event. Also, none of Ravana’s agitators were present. Or at least, there had better not be.

This crowd was anticipatory, but distinctly nervous; it was all over a lot of their faces. Already there had been three separate incidents in which someone had tried to sit down and knocked over half a row of chairs with a sudden surge of a personal force field. And those were only the ones who’d just bought their first shielding charms for this event and didn’t know how they worked; they could be set to “always active,” if you were paranoid and failed to understand that keeping them in the default reactive mode both conserved power and enabled you to sit down, not to mention stepping within a yard of other people and objects. Undoubtedly, a lot more of those in attendance were shielded—properly. Given how their protested had ended, they weren’t wrong to be concerned. Teal just hoped they stayed nervous rather than angry. Most of those present were surreptitiously eyeing her, and some not so surreptitiously. She kept a watch on expressions and attitudes as best she could without breaking character.

“It’s the extras I’m curious about,” Ruda commented, again glancing out over the seats. “Not hard to pick out the reporters, and the Imperial spooks’ll be blending seamlessly with the average folks. We got cops, we got the ushers you hired—”

“Actually they came with the theater,” Teal said, plucking a deft arpeggio on her guitar. “Back up, Imperial spooks?”

“Oh, there’s absolutely no way they’re not keeping an eye on this,” Ruda said, grinning. “I give it even odds whether they were surprised about the protest, but with forewarning? Yeah, you got at least one plainclothes Marshal in the crowd. Long as nobody’s inciting riot or rebellion, they won’t do more than watch, but watch they sure as fuck will. Nah, what I’m more curious about are the elves. Your people?”

The last was directed to Nahil, who shrugged.

“In the sense that they are citizens of my nation, yes. But Shaeine and I are the only endorsed representatives of House Awarrion in attendance, and I know nothing of the Confederacy itself taking an interest in this. To me, at least, it is a positive development that some of its member tribes have begun to watch the world more carefully. I am surprised to find that they already had representatives in Madouris.”

“Probably locals,” said Teal. “There’s been an elven community here for a long time; the city elves are practically a mini-grove in their own right. They’re respected; before the Enchanter Wars they actually used to marry into House Madouri now and then.”

“Huh,” Ruda grunted. “Wonder what I gotta do to get that goin’ in Puna Dara. Friendly elves seem like they’d be handy to have around.”

At that, several of the half dozen elves scattered around the theater turned to look at her directly, one woman with a knowing smile, but that was the only reaction. They were all wood elves, by their ears, and wore a mix of tribal costume and modern Imperial style attire. No elves had been present at the protest earlier, which Teal took as a positive sign.

Without needing to be told, Shaeine, Ruda, and Nahil had all arranged themselves around Teal in such a manner that the Falconer heiress could see and be seen by the crowd from her perch on the stairs leading up to the stage. She sat there in a carefully casual half-sprawled pose, idly playing with her guitar. These three, all born and raised in the nobility, had understood the value of pageantry long before Teal herself did, and while only Shaeine explicitly knew the exact role Teal was playing, it seemed likely Ruda and Nahil wouldn’t need it explained.

Teal was here in costume, in character, playing the role she needed to. This, to her, was an important performance not just because of what its outcome could mean for her and Vadrieny’s place in human society; it was her first serious test of the mindset and methodology she had spent the last semester working to establish.

Her “costume” was, nearly in its entirety, just what she wore anyway: a well-tailored men’s suit. Except with subtle differences: it wasn’t quite as well-tailored, the coat being cut to hang a bit more loosely on her, shirt and pants conforming better to the lines of her body. She kept the top two buttons of her shirt open, not quite to the point of showing off cleavage but hinting that she might (a trick Ruda had taught her), and over that wore a loose bolo tie, inspired by Joe Jenkins’s characteristic tigerseye piece but this one unique and handmade by her father. It featured a small crystal, glowing so faintly arcane blue that it was hardly visible under full light, set in an inch-wide gear from one of the factory’s dismantled machines. The shirt also had slightly longer sleeves, so she could roll the cuffs back over the ends of her coat sleeves to show off the way they, too, hung open. Ironically the effect was truly completed by her customary rubber sandals, the one touch she’d always disliked about her personal style.

When it came to a young woman in men’s clothing, the difference between an awkward girl struggling to find and express herself and a Dashing Rogue straight out of every adventure story ever was pure attitude.

And that was how she thought of it, capitals and all. It was a Vesker archetype, though Teal had crafted her chosen persona from multiple influences, most provided by her friends. In her opinion the main difference between the Vesker and Vidian approaches was that the Doctrine of Masks was unnecessarily creepy, but Gabriel’s explanations had actually helped her to piece together something she liked from various bits and pieces that worked for her better than trying to embody a pure archetype. The Rogue she wore like a mask had a bit of Ruda, some historical influence from Laressa of Anteraas, and quite a lot of Principia Locke, with just a hint of Juniper’s casual and nearly oblivious sexuality. Trissiny’s coaching in the customary bearing of Thieves’ Guild enforcers had helped a great deal—Teal had never considered that the Guild actually trained that predatory slouching manner of theirs, but in hindsight, it made way too much sense. Her schooling in the Narisian art of wearing a public face helped tie it all together, and left her with the comfortable feeling that she’d created something really hers, something unique from the way the Veskers, Vidians, and everyone else did it.

She strummed three quick chords while casting another quick look around the room. Nearly everyone present was in a seat now; the mood was growing more tense by the second. And if the clock hadn’t just reached the appointed hour, it was close. That, after all, was the detail that mattered least to a Rogue.

“All right, ladies,” Teal said softly, climbing to her feet. “Showtime.”

“Break a leg,” Ruda said, tipping her a wink and then turning to swagger off to claim a seat. Nahil just smiled and inclined her head before gliding three rows back, where she sat down next to Marguerite Falconer. Matriarch Ashaele had apparently gone to Ravana’s thing in Veilgrad for some reason, and Geoffrey had been asked by his daughter to stay home, as his presence tended to be more distracting around Madouris than his wife’s. That left Marguerite and Nahil as the designated family support, Shaeine having her own assigned role to play in the evening’s performance. And a performance it would be.

And like so many good stories, it started with a kiss.

Just a peck on the cheek, which was pushing Narisian etiquette far enough—and which made it a good thing, in retrospect, that Matriarch Ashaele was in a different province at that moment. Shaeine, however, respected diplomacy and its theatrical element, and so received her kiss on the cheek with a smile before stepping aside to stand demurely at the very edge of the stage, just above the uniformed officer positioned at that corner of the room to keep an eye on the crowd. And so Teal crossed the stage to the podium amid the murmurs of the audience in response to that display.

Mixed; undoubtedly some of those present found it charming, but there was disapproval as well. Tiraan Province had always had more of a Shaathist element than a well-settled region usually did, owing to House Madouri’s traditional employment of the Huntsmen to look after its forests. Enough, at least, to push back against the Avenist influence from neighboring Viridill. Teal had borne the brunt of the resulting prejudices growing up, even as privileged as she was. She had hope that with Ravana’s pivot to backing the Reformists under Ingvar, things would be better for the next generation. But still, there were undoubtedly some in attendance who weren’t comfortable with her reminder that she was married to a woman. That her wife was a drow probably did not help.

All part of the plan, though, as was everything right down to her gait.

She strolled—ambled, really, in a rolling saunter that showed her to be fully at ease, her face set in a knowing little smile. Both had been laboriously rehearsed. Teal actually walked past the podium to set her guitar down in a stand she had very deliberately put on the other side of the stage for exactly this purpose, giving the watchers the opportunity to soak in her insouciance as she returned to the podium. And then, rather than standing behind it, positioned herself by its side and casually leaned one elbow atop it. The projection charm set into its surface would work just fine from this angle; she had made certain in advance that it would.

“Thanks for coming, everybody,” Teal said, her voice ringing through the theater with the force of both magic and her own well-trained ability to project. Her nerves were kept fully masked by her performative lightheartedness, though in truth it was only the stakes of this meeting that had her feeling nervous at all. Teal was a born performer, and if this wasn’t exactly music, some of the same rules applied. At her voice, the last few people who were still chatting fell silent and turned their focus on her, a final couple of stragglers finding their way into seats. “My name’s Teal, and I refuse to take any blame for that. My mom’s Rynean.”

That earned her a laugh—a low and somewhat uncertain one (Ruda’s cackle notwithstanding), but it was enough to get her foot in the door. She deliberately did not look at Marguerite in the crowd.

“For the past five years, I’ve been possessed by a demon.” That, as expected, brought dead silence. “Clearly, you’re curious about the details, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t care to dig too deeply into ‘em. That…” Teal hesitated, making her laid back expression falter for a moment, displaying an inner pain she didn’t actually feel, then cleared her throat before continuing. “That event was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever… Well, suffice it to say I know what it feels like to be burned to death from the inside out, and survive it.”

The silence hung, absolute. For four seconds, she let it.

“Sorry, I guess I don’t think about that very much anymore,” she went on with a slightly bashful grin. “It was five years ago. Since then I’ve spent what feels like weeks at a stretch being poked and prodded by the Church and every Pantheon cult that felt like having a go to make sure I’m safe.” She tapped the Talisman of Absolution, pinned in its customary place at her lapel. “Then almost as much time at school, where I had the likes of Tellwyrn and the paladins looming over me. No joke, the first time I met Trissiny Avelea I thought she was gonna have a go at me with her sword, but actually she’s one of the most reasonable people I know. Well, sometimes.” Another nervous chuckle from the crowd. “I don’t feel bad talking about Triss that way because I know she’d agree. Anyway, I understand this is a big deal for the community and I don’t mean to downplay that. It’s just…weird, to me.” She grinned again. “Five years. And it’s just now y’all start complaining?”

“Well, we only just learned about this!” a woman said from the seats, earning widespread mutters of agreement. Teal looked right at her and nodded; she had ordered that the theater lights not be dimmed, both so she could see everyone without being blinded by the stage lights, and so they could all see each other. People behaved differently in the dark.

“Fair enough. And surprising in its own right, isn’t it? But, it is what it is, I guess. Nonetheless…” Teal spread her arms in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “Here we are. This has been going on for years now, and that’s probably the most reassuring thing I can say. If you were going to be in danger from my demon, believe me, you’d have known about it long since.”

“But this isn’t just some demon!” exclaimed a man in the third row, on the other side of the central aisle from her family. “We’re talking about an archdemon! Vadrieny the Ravager herself!”

Teal nodded at him, opening her mouth to deliver the prepared response she’d planned for exactly that, then paused, frowning in recognition. “Oh, hey. Isn’t it Mr. Telvid?”

The man in question, a gray-haired fellow in his late middle years, looked uncomfortable, as well he might; people who were planning on heckling from the anonymity of a crowd usually didn’t care to take the spotlight themselves, which of course was why she’d done it. Teal had not taken Rafe’s oratory class, but he’d been glad to give her some pointers. That was the thing about Rafe: as much as his classes could be a circus, he was a good teacher who wanted his students to learn, and surprisingly focused when approached alone. Thus, Teal knew important facts about the difference between crowds and individuals, and the means of turning the one into the other.

“Ah, yes, that’s me,” he said awkwardly. “Haman Telvid. I’m surprised you recognize me, Miss— uh, Mrs. Falconer.”

No doubt, otherwise he wouldn’t have opened his mouth. Teal just smiled at him in apparent happiness. “Nonsense, Mr. Telvid, you’ve been a fixture around the factory since before I was born! And now your daughter works there, too. I’m sorry I haven’t seen either of you in forever; I’ve been off at school, mostly.”

Look, everyone, at how personable she was. And get a load of this guy, biting the hand that fed him. It was a cheap way to make the onlookers reconsider their position, but cheap tricks were often the best tricks. To work a crowd that didn’t want to be worked, single out a target.

“Oh, well, I’m retired, ma’am,” he admitted. “As of last year. I, uh, thank you, by the way, for helping my Damania get a job there. I understand she spoke to you before applying.”

The nervousness of being put on the spot often caused people to offer extraneous explanations of things nobody wanted to hear about. And in this case, the suggestion of nepotism might have been damaging to Teal’s position, but she saw an opportunity and pounced.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Damania made it through a degree program at a Svennish engineering school in three years, and she’s your daughter. We’d have been bonkers not to hire her, I didn’t have to… Wait, is that what she told you we were talking about?” Teal laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Oh, no, nothing like that, Mr. Telvid, we were just clearing the air. See, Damania used to bully me when we were kids.”

Once again silence fell, this time under the weight of sheer awkwardness. Telvid went pale, his lips working as he stammered soundlessly and his neighbors turned disapproving stares on him. Not long ago, Teal herself would have found the humiliation crushing. Now, it was a weapon she wielded.

“Man, that’s another thing I haven’t thought about in years,” she said with a reminiscent little grin. “Heh, I remember one time Damania and her friends shoved a wet, muddy dog into a bathroom with me and blocked the door. It takes some real moxie to pick on somebody who can have your entire family fired and run out of the province; in hindsight I almost have to respect that. She even kept at it after I had Vadrieny. I’m afraid the last time she got a bad scare out of it—this would’ve been just before she went off to school—but don’t worry, nothing happened. I don’t believe in violence, Mr. Telvid. It’s not in my nature to retaliate, and Vadrieny respects my convictions. Besides, who isn’t an asshole as a kid?” Teal grinned disarmingly, shrugging again. “I always say, there’s two kinds of people: those who regret stuff they did as teenagers, and liars.”

She got a much bigger laugh from that, which was perfect to let the underlying lesson sink in without making people dwell on it consciously. Telvid’s attempted heckling might have just saved her half her planned presentation; she’d had a whole scheme laid out for subtly delivering her point, but it wasn’t going to be necessary now.

Teal Falconer abhorred violence in all its forms, and she firmly considered threats a form of violence. That put her in a bind, here, because it was necessary to remind these people that she was one of the most powerful women in the province even without the strength of an archdemon backing her up, and if they had a problem with her, at the end of the day there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. But she couldn’t come out and say that. It was necessary to gently prod them into contemplating the fact without dwelling on it.

In a way, she almost regretted this unexpected expediency; she and Shaeine had planned out a whole routine. They had props and everything. But in the end, what mattered was that the message was received, and she could see on the uncertain expressions behind the laughter that it was sinking in, along with the reminder that Teal Falconer didn’t exert force to punish people who wronged her, even when she so clearly could.

“Well, that’s great and all,” said another woman—this one younger, nobody Teal recognized. She looked like a secondary schooler, in fact, probably here on a lark to judge by the way she slouched back in her seat. “That’s you, though. How can we trust the freaking archdemon Vadrieny to have the same attitude?”

Teal nodded in a gesture of solicitous understanding. This provided a neat segue into the other main point she wanted to make, but it was less of a surprise than Telvid’s interruption. Somebody was bound to have raised this obvious objection, and thus it had been planned for.

“Lemme pose you a question,” she said over the murmurs of agreement that rose in the wake of the laughter, keeping her gaze fixed on the teenager. “What is it that makes you, you?”

She was answered mostly with quiet, though a few people murmured uncertainly. The unfortunate girl at whom Teal stared with a friendly smile shifted uncomfortably in her chair, glancing around her as if uncertain whether the question had been addressed to her personally. In the habit of adolescent loners everywhere, she had chosen a spot with no close neighbors.

Teal waited for the girl to mumble out an uncertain “Um,” before rescuing her, smiling kindly.

“Sorry, that must sound pretty out of the blue, I guess. Well, let me put it another way: if you lost you memories—and I mean, all of them, everything that formed your whole life and history and had to start over with a completely blank slate… Would you still be the same person?”

At that point she finally relented, raising her eyes to look about at the expressions of the crowd. Confused, pensive, annoyed… There didn’t seem to be a single consensus with regard to how they felt about this line of questioning.

“I ask,” said Teal the instant she calculated this confusion had gone on long enough, “because that is what happened to Vadrieny. The event that caused her to be bound to me was… Well, nobody’s been able to figure out exactly what happened, but it destroyed all the other archdemons. She only barely survived. And in the process, the trauma wiped out her mind. There was only barely enough of her left for the Church’s scholars to identify her. Everything… Everyone Vadrieny used to be, is gone. She’s had only the last five years, and my company, to rebuild an identity for herself. So, as to exactly who and what she is…” Teal shrugged lopsidedly. “That’s a huge question, one I don’t know how to even begin answering. But what I can tell you is that the person sharing my body isn’t anybody who deserves to be called the Ravager.”

There was, of course, more muttering at that—the sound of the people in the audience talking to themselves and each other, not to her. It seemed no one was inclined to speak up in response to that. Perhaps it was partly because she had by now demonstrated she’d single out anyone who tried to become the new center of attention, but even so, the lack of anyone shouting “Bullshit!” was a positive sign. This was going better than Teal had expected it to be by this point in the evening.

She glanced aside to meet her spouse’s garnet eyes; Shaeine inclined her head in an infinitesimal nod, the nigh-imperceptible expression on her face encouraging. Likely only Teal and Nahil, out of all those present, could perceive that she had communicated anything at all. From within, Vadrieny sent her a wordless and complex push of emotion that was signaled readiness and trust that this was going according to plan. The archdemon had been silently watching thus far; she was out of her element in this theater, but knew the part she must play.

Teal made a show of looking from one side of the room to the other, not actually looking at anyone or for anything but suggesting a conspiratorial attitude that was heightened when she leaned forward toward the crowd as if whispering to them.

“Would you like to meet her?”

That brought up more muttering, louder and more alarmed this time, but that was still about the best Teal had dared expect at the idea. She gave them a second to chunner to themselves before fixing her gaze back on the teenager near the front, grinning and raising her eyebrows in a carefully crafted expression that was challenging without being overt enough to be called out for it.

Perhaps a more socially adept youth wouldn’t have bought the bait, but this girl frowned and straightened up in her seat.

“Hell yeah, let’s meet her,” she said, her voice ringing through the theater. “I wanna see what all the fuss is about.”

“You got it,” Teal promised. “Now, nobody worry. I think you might be surprised.”

Leave them on an open-ended statement to keep interest; she could have promised that Vadrieny was perfectly safe, if she wanted to open up the floor to doubts and challenges. As it was, she had everyone’s undivided attention when she took three steps to the side, away from the lectern, and began to transform.

This, too, they had practiced. Vadrieny’s physical emergence was, of course, a familiar process, and one they could complete instantaneously, but that wouldn’t do here. Thus, the two of them had worked out a way to make a whole performance of it.

Teal closed her eyes, lifting her chin and smoothing her expression as if she were slipping into a meditative state. She inhaled deeply, her chest swelling and shoulders drawing back, and made that ascending motion a part of the first stage of the transformation, continuing to rise smoothly in a shift that kept attention on her upper body until the snap of one of her rubber sandals breaking brought eyes to the great talons on which she now stood, prompting a few gasps and one muffled cry from the audience.

She lifted her hands then, holding them at chest height and flexing the fingers, expression shifting into a frown as if this required concentration. The onlookers murmured nervously as, with aching slowness, Teal’s graceful fingers elongated and blackened, transforming before their eyes into Vadrieny’s wicked claws. Once they were fully extended, she flexed them each and then lowered them to her sides, her expression clearing into a small, satisfied smile.

The next part had been the hard one to work out, testing their control over their shared form, but once they got the hang of it, repeating the process had proved pretty easy. The first sparks of fire danced across Teal’s hair, sliding backward over the crown of her head as if someone had set a match to her, which of course caused even more exclamations from the audience. Flames caught and spread quickly, growing to a sheet of orange light which encompassed her head, and then she tossed it back and forth as if shaking out her hair. On cue, Vadrieny’s longer wreath of fire soared out behind, waving avidly about her head entirely unlike Teal’s own short trim.

At that there were actually appreciative oohs from the audience, and Teal was certain she had them.

The wings were last, and in contrast to the meticulously slow emergence of every other demonic feature, they snapped outward in a single powerful motion which swept a gust of air through the theater, ruffling the stage’s curtains and drawing gasps from the onlookers.

Two people applauded. They trailed off almost immediately as no one joined them, but it was all Teal could do to repress her satisfaction. Fortunately, by that point Vadrieny was in control, so she didn’t have to try.

The archdemon finally opened her eyes, gazing out across the theater, and blinked once, languidly.

Then, as they had practiced, she shrank in on herself slightly, hunching her shoulders and raising one clawed hand to cover the lower part of her face, her wings lowering almost to the point of trailing on the floor of the stage. Her eyes, devoid as they were of pupils, didn’t easily convey the act of glancing nervously about, forcing her to shift her head slightly this way and that to do it, but this part had been practiced with great care using mirrors and feedback from Shaeine (Ruda had laughed too hard to be useful) until they had refined the performance into a suitably endearing display of bashfulness.

“Um.” The demon’s glorious, polyphonic voice resonated without need of the projection charm, even when expressed in an awkward syllable like that. “I, uh… Sorry. I’m not very…” Vadrieny paused and swallowed hard enough to make the shifting in her throat visible, not easy to do from up on stage, then emitted a shaky and obviously forced laugh. “Well, I’ve heard more people are afraid of public speaking than death, but until right now I thought that was idiotic. I owe somebody an apology.”

The crowd was staring and whispering avidly, and at that, some actually laughed. Nervously, but they did.

You’re doing fantastic, Teal’s consciousness whispered from within her. I’d never have guessed you’d be such a good actress!

I’m just barely faking! Vadrieny shot back silently, still peering nervously about the room. Why is this so scary? We’ve fought monsters and zombies and demons and—

Because you’re a person, and social pressure is powerful. It’s okay, love, you’ve got this. I’m right here with you. Remember your lines.

Vadrieny nodded; she hadn’t intended to do so physically and then cringed, but fortunately both gestures were in keeping with the impression they were trying to convey. As she’d pointed out, it was a mostly accurate impression, so perhaps some fumbling on her part wouldn’t sink the whole performance.

But as it turned out, she never got to deliver her next lines.

A single figure stood up from the audience, where he’d been seated six rows back from the stage right on the aisle. Dressed in a long brown robe with an all-concealing hood, he was taller by a head than anyone else here save Vadrieny herself, and should have been one of the more distinctly noticeable people in the room for those reasons alone. Yet this was the first time she had noticed him. To judge by the looks he was getting from the surrounding audience members, she wasn’t the only one.

Then he lowered his hood and produced gasps and outcries to rival Vadrieny’s emergence.

The hood revealed a lean, graceful face, with smooth blond hair drawn back in a tight tail and eyes that were glowing jewels of gold. His armor, too, was gold, revealed as he dropped the robe to let it puddle around his feet. In fact, that armor couldn’t have been concealed under that robe without distorting it awkwardly. Clearly the disguise had been more magic than cloth, and both his concealment and the panache with which he discarded it showed a solid appreciation for drama. And, more importantly, a skill at executing drama. Teal respected that.

Ampophrenon the Gold had to stare upward at the archdemon, but he still conveyed the impression of looming over her. Dragons were like that.

“Do you know me?” he asked, not loudly, but his resonant baritone ringing through the theater regardless.

Vadrieny proceeded on mincing steps, careful not to scratch the stage with her talons, to stand at its very edge and peer at him. “You are… You must be Ampophrenon, am I right? Please forgive me if I messed up the name, it’s even more of a mouthful than mine. But you’re somewhat well known, the only gold dragon attached to the Conclave embassy in the capital.”

He inclined his head once in acknowledgment, his expression still inscrutable. “Correct. But that is public information. Do you know me?”

She frowned. “I don’t understand. I just…” Catching on, Vadrieny leaned backward slightly. “Oh. Did we meet…before?”

“We…interacted.” The dragon succeeded in making his tone wry without detracting from its solemnity, to Teal’s great admiration. “Whether it could be said that we met is subject to debate. You and I were both there, at the final battle of the Third Hellwar. You gave me some respectable scratches, Vadrieny. In turn, I pummeled you to the point of insensibility and hurled you bodily back through the portal into Hell.”

Dead silence had fallen in the theater as everyone stared at this confrontation, barely daring to breathe.

Slowly, Vadrieny nodded. “I’m sorry, but I have nothing left from that time. Nothing before I was bonded to Teal. I guess I should thank you, then.”

Ampophrenon raised his eyebrows. “Thank me?”

“I doubt I would have done so at the time,” she said. “Still, I’ve been told something of…of what I was like. That was undoubtedly the best thing to do. For this world, and probably even for me. I…suspect I didn’t make it easy?”

“You were a most respectable challenge, yes,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “Teal Falconer’s question is quite pertinent. If someone’s memory is wholly scoured away, are they still the same person they were before? I have mulled this question at length, with regard to you. At other times, it is little but an exercise for philosophers. In your case? The stakes are significant. And so, truly, you remember nothing?”

“Not…nothing,” she said slowly. She didn’t need Teal’s urging to warn her that it would be best, here, to be fully forthright. “Just nothing of me. Once in a while, there will be a…a flicker of recognition. Some basic knowledge of Hell that I don’t know how I could have learned. Nothing that’s helped me piece together my life from before, or why Elilial sent me here. Did this to me, and destroyed my sisters. I can’t even remember them.” Vadrieny closed her burning eyes. “We’ve gone to the Desolate Gardens, seen the Great Tree and the site of that battle. I thought if anything would bring back a memory… But nothing. Everyone, all our friends from Last Rock, say it’s probably for the best. My history wasn’t a good one to have, as Trissiny pointed out. I agree. It’s just…”

She trailed off, not knowing what she truly meant. Opening her eyes, Vadrieny saw the dragon nod once in understanding, oddly enough. Then again, he did have all his thousands of years of memory. Perhaps it made sense he would have enough perspective to understand her.

“So it is said,” Ampophrenon acknowledged. “Yet I have still wondered. You were always a brute, Vadrieny, but your mother is the very embodiment of deception. It seems foolhardy in the extreme to assume you are exactly what you say.”

Vadrieny drew herself fully upright, raising her wings in a threatening display, and flexed her talons. “Now you hear this, dragon.” Teal clamored frantically for her to calm down, but she pressed on. “My mother’s name is Marguerite Falconer. She is who cared for me when I was terrified and lost in this world, despite the danger I presented, and even though she had reason to hate me for what happened to Teal. Whatever Elilial was to the Vadrieny you knew, to me, she’s only a historical figure who has committed more slaughter and destruction than it would be possible to tally up. To the extent I have a personal tie to her, Elilial’s just the reason my sisters are dead, and I am reduced to sharing someone’s body. That’s what all her scheming has brought me. I’m not even going to argue with you, because we all know you’re right. She could plan something that underhanded. If I knew what Elilial was plotting, I would tell you. I don’t trust this peace of hers, but I’ll abide by it until either she or the Pantheon breaks the terms. But I reject Elilial and all her plots. I am not hers, and she is nothing to me.”

Ampophrenon just nodded. “I have watched you as carefully as I could since you emerged, Vadrieny. The Church and the Empire both sought to keep your presence discreet, but to one with my means, there are ways of keeping informed. It has been easier, I must say, since you have been studying under Arachne’s tutelage. I took care to receive ample reports of your activities, and study them in detail. I have seen the records of your actions, at Sarasio, at Lor’naris, at Veilgrad, and most strikingly, at Ninkabi. You have protected whoever you could, and shown a strange reluctance to bloody your claws. I could scarcely credit it, but the reports were unanimous. And then, there was Ninkabi, where you attacked Elilial herself.”

“Not that anything came of that,” she said sourly.

“Even symbolic actions matter,” he disagreed, “and gods are not so easily brought low. Perhaps it is only paranoia on my part that has maintained my suspicions. Yet, for those of us who have held back Elilial’s works for these thousands of years, to see her deviousness lurking in every shadow becomes a habit necessary for life itself.”

Vadrieny drew in a breath and let it out in a sigh, allowing her wings to slump again. “Well… That’s not unreasonable, I suppose. You’ll believe what you need to believe. That being the case, there’s nothing I could say to convince you anyway, is there?”

He studied her in silence for two heartbeats, and then, very faintly, smiled again. “At some point, one must have faith, if only because to live without it is not living at all. Perhaps it is a small thing, but it seems to me that Trissiny Avelea trusts you. And I only had the opportunity to meet her quite recently. I have known many Hands of Avei over the centuries, you see. It must be said that more of them than otherwise are rather blunt instruments—not unlike I remember you to be, Vadrieny. But the truly exceptional among them have always been the wisest and most canny individuals I was blessed to know. This one, I judge, will go on to be remembered as one of the greatest. A small thing, yes, but in the end, sometimes it is one straw which breaks the donkey’s back.”

To her amazement, the dragon stepped back, and bowed to her. Shallowly, shifting his upper body just far enough that he had no trouble maintaining eye contact, but he did it.

“I am five years too late to welcome you to this world, it seems. Regardless, Vadrieny, I hope that you find a purpose and a good life here. Madouris will be blessed indeed to count you its protector.”

She blinked her fiery eyes once, suddenly feeling very awkward. “Well, I… Thank you, I guess.”

So intense was their contest of personalities that Vadrieny—and Teal—had actually forgotten there was a whole theater full of people as an audience to this. Thus, it took them both by surprise when everyone burst into applause.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter >

16 – 33

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter >

What did you do, Ravana?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?” she prompted sardonically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravana stared at her, aghast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Evocative,” Ravana admitted. “But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That does it! Veilwin, hex her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The consequences if you fail…”

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

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

They both smiled at her.

“You will not regret this,” Teal promised.

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter >

16 – 23

< Previous Chapter                                                                                             Next Chapter >

The winter wind carried a particularly bitter chill just after dawn, when the sun was only barely up, not that it slowed them down. Ingvar naturally kept an eye on the trainees, but what they lacked in acquired skill they made up for in sheer grit, which only made sense given where they’d come from.

It was a sizable group, for what amounted to a standard patrol party, but it wasn’t as if the woods of western Tiraan Province needed much patrolling; the greater part of the purpose in being out was to help the newest Shadow Hunters get accustomed to woodcraft. He had brought November, a spirit wolf, two pixie companions, and three of the Harpies who were just along for the experience. Of them, little Mittsin, who at thirteen was the youngest of the entire group to be treated as an apprentice rather than one of the children, was by far the most intent and seriousness. Ingvar could relate, remembering well what it was like being that age and having so much to prove. The others, a woman in her late twenties and one who had to be pushing fifty, both tended to break into snickers any time they glanced at one of the fairies or the wolf.

It was the names, of course. Ingvar couldn’t begrudge them having a chuckle at Zap and Flicker; the pixies preferred simple, evocative names like that, and rather than being offended seemed pleased when humans found amusement in it. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if giving their wolf companions Stalweiss honor names had been a good idea; only people raised in the traditions of the Stalrange would even be able to interpret them, but he would have expected any such to take them seriously. There was a reason such names were seldom translated for the benefit of outsiders—exactly the same reason the Empire had made sure Heshenaad was remembered by the Tanglish version Horsebutt, where he was remembered at all. So now here he was, in the woods with a cherished packmate and two women who both knew that Nirtaath literally meant “nice bitch” and couldn’t seem to stop giggling about it.

“Really?” November demanded sharply, turning to give them a flat look at the latest round of snickers. Both of them quieted, having the grace to look abashed. Ingvar tried to take a gentler tone with these women, given what they’d been through, but he couldn’t deny that November’s razor tongue had its uses. Mittsin gave them a matching look of disapproval, which fortunately for her they weren’t positioned to see.

“Sorry,” Hilden muttered. Illia nodded agreement, keeping her mouth shut.

“I don’t get it,” Flicker whispered loudly, drifting over by Ingvar. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing is funny,” November stated, turning back around, “and some people should keep that in mind.”

“This is one of those things,” Zap added.

“Ohhh.” Flicker bobbed once in midair, chiming in acknowledgment. “Got it.” The pixies in general were remarkably sanguine about social dynamics which they recognized their failure to understand, once they recognized one of those was going on.

Ingvar cleared his throat, pointing off to the group’s right. “Look there, in that clear area between the trees. What do you see upon the snow?”

“Animal tracks,” Mittsin answered quickly, her voice slightly muffled by the scarf wound over the lower part of her face. She and the other two Harpies trudged forward through the snow to get a closer look, stopping only when Ingvar held out an arm to forestall them. Both pixies floated closer; Nirtaath glanced in that direction, then turned to survey the nearby woods, her ears pricked.

“Specifically, a story,” said Ingvar. “That’s one of the best things about tracking, in my opinion. It’s far more than recognizing when something has passed this way. Once you know how to read them, the signs of the wild are as clear as text on a page. Can any of you tell what this one says?”

“They just…end, suddenly, up there,” Illia answered, pointing. “Look, it’s like a bit splash.”

“But there are no tracks leading away,” Hilden added. “Did the animal just start flying?”

“It did indeed,” Ingvar said gravely, “but not on purpose. Those are a hare’s tracks. Look, follow the progression of events. It starts out from within those bushes, see? Hopping this way and that, in no great hurry, likely foraging. But then, suddenly, the tracks are deeper and much farther apart; it suddenly started running.”

“Something scared it,” said Mittsin.

“Exactly,” he said with an approving nod. “Look how it zigzags; the hare was dodging back and forth, trying to evade something.”

“I don’t see any other tracks, though,” said Illia.

“But you see the splash, as you called it. That disturbance is where the last struggle happened. Look at those shallow, wedge-shaped marks to either side of the crater. What do you think of that?”

They were silent, all three squinting at the spot in puzzlement.

“Wings!” Mittsin said suddenly.

“Wings,” Ingvar agreed, grinning. “Looks like a hawk; none of the owls that live around here are big enough to eat a hare. That one’s journey ended right on that spot.”

“Aw. Now I feel bad for the bunny,” Flicker chimed.

“All life exists by consuming other life,” Ingvar explained, more for the benefit of the three apprentices than the pixie. “We hunt to sustain ourselves; so do hawks, and wolves, and every predator. Animals exist within the balance and are intrinsically part of it. It’s only humans who learn to hunt, consume and destroy without respecting what they take, and what they take it from. Our duty as guardians of the wild is to understand that balance, so that was can protect it. We kill, but with respect, and gratitude.”

Suddenly Nirtaath growled softly, and he turned to follow her gaze. She was staring through the trees in the other direction from the hare’s tracks, ears forward.

“What’s the matter?” November murmured, kneeling beside her.

Ingvar didn’t speak, just following the wolf’s gaze and scanning for signs of anything amiss. Those who had undergone the fey transformation, human and wolk alike, had gained an instinctive understanding of one another’s communication. Nirtaath obviously didn’t speak Tanglish and it was debatable how much actual language she grasped, but she picked up on intent very well. He and November could read her lupine signals just as clearly; something was amiss in that direction, something she did not expect to find in this forest, but not something that alarmed her.

“Is…is something wrong?” Hilden asked.

All three of the other women gasped when the light swelled around November and she changed, standing beside Nirtaath in the form of a golden-coated spirit wolf with white wingmarks gleaming at her shoulders. She lifted her head, scenting the air for a moment, then shifted back.

“I smell magic,” she reported. “Fairy; not hostile, but it doesn’t belong here. And something else, underneath it, almost wiped away. A scent I don’t recognize. Almost…reptilian?”

“Zap, Flicker,” Ingvar said. “What do you think?”

Both pixies fluttered forward, drifting back and forth among the trees in that direction. Zap’s blue-white glow could be difficult to spot against the snow, but Flicker was a fiery orange and easy to follow. She was the first to come back, bouncing in midair in excitement.

“Wind magic!” she reported. “Something made a strong breeze blow through here last night. Right through here. Definitely magical, it wasn’t part of the normal air.”

“Hey, yeah!” Zap chimed, shooting back to join them. “I think it was covering tracks!”

“He’s right,” said November, shuffling forward in a crouch. “Look, the snow here’s more windblown. In a straight path through the trees, there. Something used a fae wind spell to wipe tracks and blow away most of their scent.”

“What kind of fairy would do that?” Illia asked nervously.

“I don’t know of any,” Ingvar mused, staring through the trees with a frown. “The few fairies that bother to cover their tracks either obliterate them with no trace or just use mental magic to deflect attention. This is more likely to be a witch.”

“Elves?” Mittsin asked.

“If an elvish shaman didn’t want their tracks to be spotted, we wouldn’t have spotted them.”

“It was more than a shaman,” November added. “Look how wide the area covered is. Could be…ten people walking abreast, and no telling how many deep.”

“Hm.” Ingvar looked back at his three charges, rapidly thinking. All three met his gaze and matching looks of stubbornness fell across their features; he decided not to bother trying to send them away. This was no time or place for an argument, and anyway, they had to learn sometime. “Neither November nor Nirtaath smelled a threat. Still, per our arrangement with the Duchess, we are responsible for these forests and this is something we need to investigate. Illia, Mittsin, Hilden, you three stay behind us and keep a sharp eye out. Flicker, would you please head back to the lodge and let Aspen and the others know we found something?”

“You got it!” the fire pixie chimed, swooping around him once and then shooting off through the trees, back the way they had come.

Ingvar rested a hand on Nirtaath’s back. “Let’s go see who our visitors are.”

“So, can…can you smell hostility?” Hilden asked as they proceeded slowly after the obscured tracks, Nirtaath at the head of the group with her nose to the ground.

“It’s debatable whether ordinary canines can pick up on things like that,” Ingvar replied, eyes ahead. “Our wolf blessing is fae in nature, and fae magic is excellent for discerning emotional states. Let’s proceed quietly, now, we don’t know who we’re approaching.”

“It goes right for that big ridge,” November said, pointing. “Look how rocky it is; do you think they could have climbed it? Or turned aside?”

“Depends on who it is,” he murmured.

Nirtaath growled very softly, but kept going, and her ears remained up. Ingvar patted her fur once again, continuing to creep through the snow.

“Oh,” Hilden whispered, peeking over November’s shoulder. “It’s a cave.”

“So it is,” Ingvar agreed softly. “Big one, too. All right, you three, remember never to do what I’m about to when you’re first out on your own. A cave in the winter more often than not means a sleeping bear. Stop here, stay alert, and if I shout to run, you run, straight back to the lodge. Look after your own survival first; I can take care of mine.”

He left them, trusting November and Nirtaath to keep them calm despite how alarming that last instruction must have been, creeping forward until he passed gingerly below the rocky overhang into the deep depression beneath the ridge.

At first, Ingvar’s eyes could discern nothing, accustomed as they were to the white landscape outside under gray dawn light. Then Zap floated up by his shoulder, casting a dim but helpful bluish illumination into the underground space.

The cave was much bigger than he would have expected, broad and so deep there was not even a hint of the back visible, but that was not what commanded Ingvar’s attention. In the pixie’s glow, hundreds of tightly-packed red eyes glowed back, all staring right at him.


At least Kheshiri got to disguise herself. Natchua would have preferred the comfort of a disguise charm, given how much attention she drew even at this pre-breakfast hour of the morning. There was only one resident drow in Veilgrad and she had been a well-known figure even before everybody wanted to hear her opinion of the new Elven Confederacy. Unfortunately, making herself known was the point of this excursion. She just had to endure the cheerful attention of passersby who weren’t the people she wanted to encounter.

“Nothing?” she grumbled aloud as the two of them paced through a still-sleepy residential street, where for once nobody was around to approach her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think these jackasses didn’t want attention.”

“Well, aside from the relative likelihood of finding traces in any given disused warehouse or empty lot,” Kheshiri said reasonably, “the prospects of finding them in one of those at all is a coin toss. The odds are not in our favor, mistress, not taking this approach. To be really thorough we’d need to investigate influential people with whom they might have ingratiated themselves. That’s a Wreath standard, and usually preferable to skulking in squalor, for a whole host of reasons.”

“I don’t fucking have time for that,” Natchua grumbled, tapping the thick folder she carried against her thigh. “Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got a reasonable chance of finding them no matter what; the idea is make it easy for them to find me, the way Mogul seems obsessed with doing. You really think they’ve wormed their way into Veilgrad society?”

“You have to remember, mistress, the warlocks who know dangerous secrets are only a fraction of the Black Wreath, by the numbers. They’re the only fraction that’s important, but for every one of them there are a hundred cretins who’ve just learned a secret handshake so they can get off on how naughty they’re being, dabbling in Elilial’s business. Mostly that’s just the true Wreath’s recruitment pool, but it does provide them with connections to hide in places with indoor plumbing, when they need to. There are bound to be at least a handful in a city the size of Veilgrad.”

“Huh,” Natchua grunted. “After Ninkabi I bet they’ll be relaxing their recruitment standards.”

“They do need to replenish their numbers,” the disguised succubus agreed. “But they may actually find that harder after the truce. Elilial’s no longer as eeeeevil. That takes away a lot of the appeal.”

“I really want to insist that nobody’s that stupid,” she said with a sigh. “But we know the truth, don’t we.”

Kheshiri grinned maliciously. “Everybody’s that stupid, mistress.”

“I’d like to think I’m not. Hopefully, most of my personal friends and acquaintances aren’t.”

“Actually, you’ve got yourself a pretty good group, yeah. But statistically everybody.”

“Oh, Kheshiri, ever the pessimist.”

“Finally!” Natchua exclaimed, stopping mid-stride and turning to face the man who’d suddenly spoken from right behind them. “You took your damn time. Is this it, today? Oh, don’t tell me, everybody’s still at breakfast.”

“Now, now, the Black Wreath aren’t stray dogs,” Embras Mogul informed her, stuffing his hands into his pockets and slouching indolently against somebody’s front gate. “You’re generally not gonna get results with a ‘come hither’ as pitifully obvious as this one. If this is your idea of a trap, Natchua, I’m not impressed. And are you aware who this succubus is, exactly?”

“What succubus?” Kheshiri asked innocently. “I am a pure maiden from a good family of—”

“Don’t bother,” he said curtly. “As tempted as I am to just let you try to control this creature and suffer the consequences—”

“I’m not gonna take any sass on the subject of Kheshiri from the jackass who went and let her out of her bottle in the first place,” Natchua interrupted. “And for what, to try to cause trouble for some rando Eserite? Shit like this is why nobody takes you seriously when you start ranting about how the Wreath actually protects the world. Now listen up, I’ve already wasted enough time on your lollygagging today.”

“I feel I should remind you,” he said with a brittle grin, “that you should always worry less about the Wreath you see than the many you do not. Whatever you planned to spring today, Natchua my dear, I highly suggest—”

“Yes, all right, shut up.” Natchua calmly tossed the folder at him; by simple reflex alone, he caught it, his grin disappearing. “You’ll note I added colored tabs to the pages. The green ones are fairies and the black ones possible chaos events; I recommend you steer clear of those, or at least approach with care if you won’t take my word for it. The orange ones are infernal, that’s what I want you to focus on. If you get done with those, maybe have a look at the black tabs; undead problems aren’t exactly your purview, but if there’s one thing infernomancy is good for it’s breaking shit and you usually can’t go wrong just destroying zombies.”

“I beg your god damned pardon,” he said, clearly affronted.

“Every entry has a rough map and a serviceable description. Have a look at the kraagthshnorik entombed up in the hills,” Natchua advised. “It’s been there at least a couple hundred years and might hibernate forever, but being asleep it’s an easy target. It’s a place to start, anyway. The hedge warlock who’s camped out by the northern lumber camp probably just needs a scare put into him; I’d appreciate it if you approach that circle of imp summoners in the city with more care. They’re stupid teenagers and probably just gonna kill themselves, but they all have rich parents and I don’t need you stirring up the whole city. I was just going to collect evidence on them and turn it over to the Empire.”

“Are…are you… Are you giving me homework?” Mogul demanded incredulously.

“You Elilinists always make such noise about your mandate to protect the world from demons, right? Well, I went and found a bunch of demons for you. There they are, go nuts.”

“Listen here, you preposterous knife-eared wench,” he hissed, his usual facade of conviviality fading away, “the Black Wreath are not your fucking lackeys.”

“Here’s how it is, Mogul,” Natchua stated while Kheshiri grinned in insane delight. “I don’t know what you’re up to around here except that what you’ve told me you’re up to is a load of nonsense. And you know what? I officially don’t give a shit. I have things to do and no more time for your hogwash. The next time you want my attention, you can come to the Manor and knock like a civilized person. As long as you’re not bringing me hostility I will guarantee you safe passage. But if you want my attention, you’ll bring proof that you’ve done something to help protect Veilgrad or you will be directed to fuck right off. If you’re going to hang around my city, you will make yourself useful. That is all.”

“Now, you listen—”

Rather than listening, however, she snapped her fingers and shadow-jumped both of them away, cutting off Kheshiri’s howl of delighted laughter and leaving him glaring at empty space, holding the folder of local threat assessments.


Breakfast and the dining room of Madouri Manor was a cheerful affair reminiscent of the cafeteria at the University, despite its opulent surroundings, mostly due to the familiar company.

“I really wouldn’t want to put you out,” Toby assured Teal. “It’s fine, all three of us have mounts!”

“Toby, for heaven’s sake,” Teal replied in exasperation, “it is freezing out there and it’ll take you an hour to get to Tiraas on horseback. Let us give you a ride.”

“But weren’t you going to teach Shaeine to drive later? I mean, a big multi-seater coach can’t be the best vehicle for that…”

“I would like to think I thrive in extremely minor adversity,” Shaeine said primly.

“Is this that thing again?” Fross asked, floating over Toby’s plate. “The one where you’re so determined to take care of everybody you won’t let us do the same? I thought we talked about this.”

“Shame Raolo’s spending the winter break at his grove,” Iris added. “Raolo can always make him behave.”

“Hey, that’s a point!” cackled Ruda. “Maybe we should get him! Is there a scrolltower near his folks’ place?”

“Please don’t interrupt Raolo’s vacation,” Toby exclaimed.

“Yeah, there’s really no need,” Trissiny agreed. “This’ll blow over as soon as he realizes he just volunteered me and Gabe to freeze our toes off all morning.”

Toby halted mid-interruption, his mouth open, and then leaned back in his chair, groaning and covering his face with both hands.

“We love you too, bro,” Gabriel assured him, leaning over to drape an arm around his shoulders.

“It is seriously fine, Tobes,” Teal chuckled. “If it helps you, we’ve got a new truck model my dad would be delighted to have me show off in the capital. Heated rear compartment and everything. You’d be doing us a favor.”

The dining room door opened, admitting Yancey pushing a cart stacked with small envelopes.

“Ah, good morning, Yancey,” said Ravana, setting aside her teacup. “How is—good heavens.”

“There is no cause for alarm, my Lady,” the Butler assured her, bringing his cart around the table to park near her chair. “These are social invitations, sent by Duchess Dufresne to each of the individuals here.”

“Malivette?” Trissiny asked, blinking. “Us?”

“Oh, that’s right, she never really got to know me, did she?” Gabriel mused, accepting a card with his name in neat calligraphy from Yancey. “Only reason I can imagine why a noble would invite me to a social event.”

“Pursuant to that, my Lady,” Yancey continued while continuing to pass the invitations out around the table, “the Duchess reports that Natchua has acquiesced to her and your suggestion. The social event in question is meant to be the formal announcement of the Houses’ agreement. As protocol dictates, every ruling House and the minor Houses of Lower Stalwar and Tiraan Provinces shall be invited to attend.”

“Natchua?” Gabriel paused in the middle of opening his envelope, looking up with narrowed eyes. “At a social event? With Malivette? Ravana, what did you do?”

“Why does everyone always assume I did something?” she demanded.

The crackle of silverware and paper around the table fell silent as everyone paused in eating and opening cards to stare at her.

“Yes, all right, point taken,” the Duchess acknowledged with a wry little smile.

“One day is extremely short notice for a social event requesting the presence of such dignitaries,” Shaeine observed.

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, “I rather expect Malivette’s intent is to learn who is morbidly curious enough to show up despite the implied insult. One way or another, it promises to be an interesting evening! Was there anything else, Yancey?”

“Yes, my Lady,” he said, handing the last card to Iris and gliding back to her chair, where he folded his hands behind his back and stood at attention. “There appears to be a situation in the west of the province. This morning the Manor received an urgent signal from Sheriff Ingvar. I took the liberty of dispatching Veilwin to the lodge to collect a report.”

“Really? It’s not even eight in the morning,” Ravana said, raising an eyebrow. “I am most impressed that you managed to get her up.”

“I have found that Veilwin’s hangovers respond well to topical hydrotherapy,” Yancey said diffidently.

Gabriel frowned. “What kind of therapy?”

“He dumped water on her,” Ruda said merrily, still tucking into her pancakes. “Works on my Uncle Raffi, too!”

“It seems,” Yancey continued, “Ingvar has discovered a large group of lizardfolk attempting to surreptitiously cross the province, concealing their movements with fae magic.”

Once again, quiet fell over the room as everyone processed that.

“Lizardfolk?” Ravana demanded. “Why? How many?”

“The Shadow Hunters are still attempting to take stock of the situation, but Ingvar has ascertained so far that they are an assemblage of multiple tribes from the entire region of lizardfolk population, extending from Viridill to Mathena and the northern desert. They claim to be going to Tiraas in pursuit of some prophetic vision. The Sheriff has not obtained a thorough headcount, but Veilwin estimates there are at least five hundred of them.”

Ravana blinked twice. “…Trissiny, you grew up near tribal colonies in Viridill, yes? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“Uh…” Trissiny was still holding her knife and fork, apparently forgotten in both hands. “Based on what I knew, lizardfolk never live in groups of more than a hundred and usually less than half that, rarely approach human cities, have no organized religion, and hibernate in the winter.”

“Well, of course,” the Duchess said fatalistically, forgetting her manners to the point of placing one elbow on the table and leaning her face into her hand. “Because why should the high elves be the only race of people to suddenly abandon millennia of tradition in my backyard? I don’t suppose Ingvar happened to mention to these nomads that I am on vacation?!”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                              Next Chapter >

16 – 21

< Previous Chapter                                                                                              Next Chapter >

The spectacle they’d made in the sanctuary sufficiently distracted everyone that Trissiny and her entourage were able to make a relatively discreet withdrawal, leaving behind an agitated temple filled with exited visitors, distraught Purists, and Legionnaires rapidly moving to ensure the crowd remained under control. The paladin glanced back once just before stepping through a rear door of the sanctuary, and locked eyes just for a moment with Sister Magden, who had knelt to wrap her arms around the weeping Lanora’s shoulders.

Then they were moving through the relatively quieter halls beyond, the whole group sorting into rough columns of two abreast and making for the deeper temple where there would be fewer people.

By mutual contrivance, Rasha and Zafi ended up near the back of the troop, between Sister Azalea’s two priestess friends in the front and the other three Eserites trailing along behind them.

“Well, that…was altogether a hell of a thing,” Zafi finally said softly after they had walked for a minute to only the sound of their combined feet and the muted conversation between Trissiny and Azalea up in the front. “Mission successful and all. I’m glad those turkeys got dealt with. Dang, though. I did not get up this morning expecting to be in a room with Avei.”

Rasha opened her mouth and hesitated, fumbling for a suitable response to that. She had to pause and clear her throat for time, only belatedly murmuring, “That particular experience was a first for all of us, I think. But you get used to it, hanging around with a paladin. Expect the unexpectable, or be trampled by it.”

“I dunno whether to write this off as over my pay grade, or try to see if I can’t finagle a more permanent position around the General,” Zafi admitted. “I dunno, I think I’d make a pretty good lackey. I guess I’ll just have to hang around you a while longer and see if I don’t get the hang of it,” she added, giving Rasha a playful little sidelong smile. “After all, if I can’t pick up some secondhand poise from my lady of mystery, I guess that’d make me completely hopeless.”

There came a gagging sound from behind them, followed by the muffled thump of someone’s fist impacting someone’s midsection. Neither of them turned around.

“I think I can spare you some poise,” Rasha mused. She trailed off, frowning, then drew in a breath. “Look, Zafi, this coy back-and-forth is fun, but would it spoil the illusion if we talk frankly for a little bit? Between you and me, I’m a little wrung out after the day I’ve had.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” Zafi said, exhaling in relief. “Yeah, I honestly don’t know how much longer I could’ve kept it up. Not that I was trying to misrepresent myself, I just… Well, I gotta flirt at maximum strength before you realize how out of my league you are, is all.”

Rasha glanced at her, unable to repress a smile, and found the soldier staring forward with her cheeks flushed. The unexpected boost to her own ego brought back some of her well-trained smoothness, despite the fatigue of the day.

“Straight talk, then. When are you off duty tomorrow?”

Zafi didn’t quite stumble, but her stride hitched as if she’d had to remind herself how to take a step in the middle of one. “Uh, I, ah… Early shift. I’m free at three.”

“Perfect. There’s a Glassian cafe called La Chez just a few blocks from here. I will see you there at four.”

“I, um.” Zafi swallowed heavily. “Rasha, that place is a little out of…”

“My treat,” Rasha assured her. “And I’m not throwing money around; the owner is a friend of my sponsor. She got him his business license when he immigrated here. After that, we’ll see if we want to start traumatizing each other with the sorts of places soldiers and thieves actually like to hang out.” She glanced over at the Legionnaire again, and subconsciously bit her lower lip. “I’ve got a feeling you’re worth the effort.”

Zafi’s answering grin was clearly out of her control. “I…will not disappoint.”

“You haven’t yet.” Rasha winked at her, then subtly shortened her stride, fading backward such that Darius meandered up to take her place as smoothly as if they’d practiced the maneuver. Which, of course, they had.

Zafi was still grinning like a fool, but coughed and made an effort to marshal herself before glancing over at him. “Right. So, this is the part where you explain how much you’ll break my legs if I mistreat your friend?”

“Whoah.” He held up both hands as the two priestesses in front of them shifted their heads to look backward while walking. “As the resident dude-type person, I’m gonna delegate this conversation. Ladies, if you would?”

Another deft Eserite maneuver ensued in which he fell back and Layla and Tallie smoothly sidled up to flank Zafi on both sides, despite the fact they’d turned into a narrower hallway which made this a little cramped.

“First of all,” said Tallie in a pleasant tone, “we never issue a threat in front of witnesses. That’s proof of premeditation, which greatly raises your chance of being convicted if prosecuted and automatically increases your sentence.”

“Second,” Layla continued from her other side, “we don’t issue redundant threats. You are clearly aware of the perils of offending Eserites; making a production of it would just make us look petty and foolish.”

“And most important,” Tallie finished, “Eserites handle their own problems. If you ever hurt Rasha, you will answer to Rasha.”

“We’ll just be sitting on the sidelines, laughing and throwing coins,” Layla added smugly.

Incongruously, Zafi grinned again. “Y’know what? You girls are all right. Actually you remind me a little bit of my sergeant.”

“I do believe I approve of this one,” Layla declared.

At the head of the double column, Sister Azalea broke a lull in the softer conversation between herself and Trissiny to say, quietly, “Thank you for everything you did today.”

“Just my duty,” the paladin replied. “And there are already parts I wish I’d handled better…”

“Obviously, I’m grateful for the help you rendered to the Sisterhood, Trissiny, I don’t mean to minimize that. But I meant personally. It may be routine for you to commune with our goddess, but a simple priestess like myself can expect to spend her life without ever being in her actual presence. It was… Thank you.”

“Ah.” Trissiny smiled faintly at that. “Well, then, you’re welcome.”

The priestess gave her a pensive look. “You are dissatisfied with the outcome?”

“We still need to find the source of the Purists’ funding and equipment, as well as who organized them,” Trissiny said with a dour expression. “Based on your intelligence it seems Sister Lanora is the only one who has that information, and now… I rather doubt she will be inclined to be helpful, and since she is no longer part of the Sisterhood, we no longer have the legal prerogative to detain her. I might be willing to risk it anyway, but something tells me there would be immediate and voluble legal challenges if we tried, accompanied by press coverage of the Sisterhood’s ham-fisted abuses of power. All conveniently untraceable, of course.”

“Hmm.” Azalea narrowed her own eyes in thought. “Undoubtedly the goddess acted as she did for good reason. I must trust this will lead us to the course of action she desires.”

Trissiny indulged in a soft sight. “The consciousness of gods is…not entirely like our own, Sister. As Professor Tellwyrn once put it, Avei the deity can be influenced to do things which Avei the mortal strategist of the Elder War would have known not to. Calling upon her so dramatically, in public, may have been what led to this outcome. Well, anyway, recrimination is useless even when not focused on inscrutable deities; we have the next moves to consider. Sister Azalea…” She hesitated, studying the priestess sidelong for a moment. “Are you still interested in the office of Bishop?”

“I will of course serve Avei in whatever capacity I might,” she said diplomatically. “Surely that is less likely now, rather than more? We have probably just further affronted the Archpope, even if we cannot prove it.”

“I’ve spoken with High Commander Rouvad about this. We plan for the Sisterhood to appoint a Bishop unilaterally, who will be responsible for directing our interfaith relations, without going through the Universal Church.”

“I…see,” Azalea said. “That is a bold move. And now that I think on it, exactly what is needed.”

Trissiny nodded. “My next destination was going to be Viridill, to retrieve Nandi Shahai for that role. But you are here, Sister, and clearly more than capable… The position isn’t mine to appoint, of course, but I think my recommendation carries some weight with Rouvad.”

“I’d be honored to take on the task if the Commander wishes,” Azalea said seriously, “but if Shahai is another prospect, I’d encourage you to ask her first. She has served Avei for five centuries in a surprising variety of roles, and has exactly the web of long-standing connections this task requires. Thank you for thinking of me, however,” she added with a smile. “As these events have demonstrated, I think I am still valuable to the Sisterhood where I am.”

“Very much so,” Trissiny agreed, smiling.

“Then there remains finding and proving a link between the Purists and the Archpope, if possible. I dare to hold out hope that Lanora will still cooperate, but it is true that she now has ample motivation to obstruct us…”

“Well, we’re not entirely out of tricks just yet,” the paladin murmured, eyes straight ahead and narrowed in thought. “Actually… First thing tomorrow, I’m going to call in a favor.”


The door stood slightly ajar, emitting a slice of the clean glow of a fairy lamp, so he pushed it wider and poked his head in.

This wing was in the Manor’s most refurbished section, a hallway lined with bedrooms directly above the kitchen and dining room where the house’s residents spent most of their time. Thus, the room was clean and repaired, with new glass in the windows and modern fairy lighting, but starkly empty, lacking drapes, carpets, or even wallpaper. That had given Natchua plenty of room to lay out her various props.

She had hung maps of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province on one wall and marked them heavily with both ink and pushpins. On the floor were no less than four now-inert spell circles, and another sprawling map of the city held down by a selection of chess pieces, silverware, and coins.

Natchua stood in the center of the room, slowly turning her head back and forth to study the various maps and tapping her lips with one fingertip, a characteristic tic of Professor Tellwyrn’s which she had begun unconsciously using in recent months.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Planning an invasion?”

“Everybody talks about how dangerous and mysterious Veilgrad is,” she said without looking up. “I never really paused to consider what that actually means for people. It’s one thing to note that a steady trickle of people just vanish around here, every year. Sometimes entirely… Sometimes turning up later, in pieces. That’s continued happening as usual while we’ve been living here. While I was gallivanting around the city, getting my face in the papers and doing nothing about any of it. Every one of those statistics was a person, who left grieving people behind.”

He stepped the rest of the way in and pushed the door almost closed behind him, not quite to the point of latching it. “None of that was your responsibility, Natch.”

“Not specifically, no,” she murmured. “Aren’t we all at least somewhat responsible for doing what we can, for who we can, where we are? That seems like one of the basic necessities of being a decent person. Considering who and what I am, I really need to think about stuff like that.”

Stepping carefully to avoid disrupting any of her workings, Jonathan approached her and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders from behind. She immediately leaned back against him. “What brought all this on?”

“Work,” she said sighing softly. “I’m not just up here flagellating myself, Jon. For tomorrow’s planned project I needed a list of targets around the city. And holy shit, there are a lot. Mostly fairies, which I can’t do a whole lot about. I did find a good handful of demonic activity, which is what I was looking for. Oh, also, I’ve accidentally solved Veilgrad’s central mystery.”

“Well, that’ll be a relief to a lot of people,” he observed.

“I think I’d actually better keep it to myself,” Natchua said, closing her eyes and resting her head against his collarbone. “There’s not really anything to be done about it and knowing will just scare everybody. Turns out there’s an abandoned drow city very close to here. Well, abandoned except for the divinely-created undead monstrosities it’s full of now. Themynrite magic was used in their creation, and the resonance between that and the native fairies is what keeps giving rise to necromantic events, despite the fact that none of them are related.”

“Well… Surely if you know where that is, the Empire can go in and clear it out?”

“Bad idea,” she insisted. “If a Themynrite city is abandoned, it’s because it was breached by Scyllithenes. That would be why it’s full of zombie monsters now. You should never open a path for them. And if the Scyllithenes haven’t managed to break through them in thousands of years of trying, those zombie monsters are not to be fucked with. Might be too big a mouthful even for the Imperial Army. Better to leave it alone, and start being more vigilant about undead events in the area.”

“Hence, all this.”

She nodded, opening her eyes to look up at him. “And this is just what I was able to find. It’s a start, anyway. Xyraadi is much better at divination than me; infernomancy doesn’t lend itself to the art.”

“I notice you’ve got your djinn bottle out,” he said in a neutral tone, nodding at the artifact still sitting in the center of one of the inert spell circles.

“Yeah… I don’t call on Qadira lightly, but at least I got what I needed.”

“You found the Wreath?”

“No, they’re not nearly so easy to track. They’re not what I was looking for, anyway. Kheshiri and I will still be chasing them down tomorrow. Given the established pattern, they’ll probably find us once we’re alone. And now I have what I need to be ready for them.” With another quiet sigh, Natchua reached up to grasp his hands and squeeze them momentarily, then pulled herself out of his embrace. “Fortuitously, both succubi are in another room down at the end of this hall. I’ll go brief her real quick.”

“Good idea,” he said with a smile. “And I’m sure it has nothing to do with wanting to break up whatever those two are doing in a room together.”

“Vanislaads are generally not social with each other,” Natchua agreed, leading the way back out into the hall. “Mel and Shiri are pretty focused and they both have plenty to do; I’m not hugely worried about a feud brewing, but still. Doesn’t pay to take risks with their kind.”

“I’m right with you on that.”

She reached one door, grasped the latch and pushed it open. Then both of them froze, staring into the room.

Melaxyna was on all fours on the floor—actually, upon a closer look, she had all four of her limbs bent double and then bound with leather straps, calf to thigh and forearm to bicep, forcing her to balance painfully on her knees and elbows. Her head was mostly obscured, between the gag, the blindfold, and the pair of felt bunny ears leftover from the last spring festival. Both her wings were splayed out to the sides and actually nailed to the floor.

Behind her stood Kheshiri dressed in a formal ballgown with the addition of a broad leather collar from which dangled a cowbell, busy feeding the other succubus’s tail into an old-fashioned laundry mangle they’d somehow dragged up to this room.

Both their heads turned to the door.

“Do you knock?” Kheshiri demanded acerbically.

Natchua and Jonathan jerked back out, yanking the door shut, and simultaneously pressed their backs against the wall to either side of it.

“On the other hand,” Natchua decided, “I could just brief her in the morning.”

He cleared his throat. “Um, I note that it was the significantly more evil succubus in the advantageous position over the more trustworthy one. Should you actually…?”

“In fact, no, it wasn’t; that was Shiri in the…restraints. They’d swapped appearances.”

Jonathan covered his eyes with a hand. “Okay. Somehow, that’s the kinkiest part, and I can’t even articulate why.”

“Well, hell, this is good,” Natchua said, pushing herself off the wall and taking him by the arm. “If you keep two Vanislaads together, they’ll either go at each other like strange cats, or… Go at each other like bunnies. And two Vanislaads getting busy usually means the kind of play that would kill most people. So, it beats the hell out of the alternative. Now let’s go turn in. Suddenly I find I would like to make love slowly in the missionary position with the lights off.”


It was past dark when Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor, though not by much. She found the rest of her class still up and gathered in the front sitting room of their suite, with one exception.

“Trissiny!” Teal exclaimed upon her entry. “There you are, we were starting to worry. Is everything okay?”

“It’s been…a day,” Trissiny said wryly, striding forward and flopping into an unoccupied armchair. Teal and Shaeine were perched together on the loveseat, Gabriel and Toby lounging in smaller chairs, and Fross as usual floating overhead. F’thaan lay curled in front of the fire, though he looked up at her arrival and his tail thumped against the floor. “Are you two okay? You got everything squared away all right?”

“Once F’thaan was rescued, our afternoon was much more tedious than harrowing,” Shaeine assured her. “The authorities were not pleased by Vadrieny making a display of herself in broad daylight in the middle of the city, but we had ample legal representation.”

“Also, it helps that we were in the right,” Teal added. “Vadrieny’s actions were fully covered by the statutes governing defense of self and property. Except for some, ah, incidental damage to the pavement. The magistrate was persuaded to levy a fine and the bill for repairs, rather than anything more serious.”

“As it ever was,” Ruda drawled, gesticulating with her bottle of rum. “What’d get a factory worker jailed gets a factory heiress fined, in an amount that won’t even dent her allowance.”

“It does seem like people with money live under an effectively different set of laws,” Fross chimed.

“C’mon, doll, you know I love you,” Ruda added in response to Teal’s scowl. “But you exist in a context. There’s nothing gained by denying your advantages in life.”

“I’d like to see a factory worker make a Vadrieny-style crater in the street,” Gabriel remarked.

“I apologize that we were not able to drive you back here as planned,” Shaeine said to Trissiny.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Trissiny said quickly, “it ended up being Avenist business that kept me occupied most of the day. I wouldn’t have been able to take you up on it anyhow. I’m just glad to see you and F’thaan are back safe. Did June turn in already?”

“Actually, she’s spending the night up at Ravana’s hunting lodge,” said Toby. “With her sister, and the rest of Brother Ingvar’s group.”

“Yeah, you missed the big news of the day,” Gabriel added. “Ravana has effectively hired the whole sect to serve as the new foresters and game wardens for the province.”

“Really,” Trissiny said, leaning forward. “That’s…a peculiar move. Wouldn’t that get her in trouble with the Huntsmen?”

“Oh, but that wasn’t the big news,” he replied with relish. “There was a whole public announcement today while you were off in the capital. House Madouri has formally recognized Ingvar’s splinter group as the official and legitimate faith of Shaath.”

“Which means,” Toby added, “that legally they are, in Tiraan Province.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “She can’t just… Wait, why would she do that? It makes her an outright enemy of the orthodox Huntsmen! Not to mention probably the Universal Church. There’s a reason the Houses stay out of religious politics. The risk/reward calculation is never in the favor of people trying to meddle.”

“Well, like I was just saying before you came in,” Gabriel replied, “there’s a good chance of this getting her in good with the other cults. Pretty much nobody actually likes the Huntsmen.”

“And like I was just telling him, it doesn’t work that way,” Ruda retorted. “People who’ve got power and privilege want to protect those things above any other concern. The accepted thing is that nobles don’t meddle in cult business. If this becomes a precedent, the cults will be losing influence to the Houses. All the religious leaders are going to come down on her, or try to.”

“Ravana isn’t reckless enough to do something like that without considering the angles,” Trissiny mused. “What is she up to?”

“Uh, pardon me, but isn’t she kind of explicitly exactly that?” Fross objected. “I’m not denying that Ravana’s sly, but just from the stories I’ve heard it seems like her whole problem is a tendency to go on the attack without accounting for the broader context.”

“Oh, I think she’s considered the angles, all right,” Ruda drawled. “Question is how carefully she’s considered ‘em.”

“Well, that’s as good a segue as any,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Gabe, Toby, I think we need to take a page out of Ravana’s book.”

“Well, sure,” Gabriel said lightly. “But where are we going to get a mag cannon and a team of assassins at this hour?”

“I see that verbal diarrhea still hasn’t cleared up,” Toby said. “You need to eat more fiber, Gabe. Triss, which book did you mean, specifically?”

“The part where she’s making this a working vacation. I have spent my day preemptively shutting down an attempt by Justinian to induce a schism within the Sisterhood of Avei, and encountering growing evidence that he’s trying to do the same thing within the Thieves’ Guild. That,” she added, turning to Shaeine and Teal, “is probably why they sent a couple of hapless goons to try to abduct F’thaan.”

“I wondered,” Teal murmured. “They never had a realistic chance of getting him. It does seem like the Guild was deliberately setting itself up for failure.”

“In response,” Trissiny continued, “the Sisterhood is dropping its attempts to get Justinian to confirm a new Bishop. Tomorrow, if the arrangements can be made fast enough, Commander Rouvad is going to appoint one without his approval, and have her take over our interfaith operations, as Bishop Darling is currently doing for the Guild.”

“Risky,” Ruda said, her expression intent. “You’ll either end up freezing the Universal Church out of the only thing it actually does, or being frozen out by the Church. It all depends on how many other cults you can get to sign on with you.”

“Exactly,” Trissiny agreed, nodding and turning back to the boys. “The Guild hasn’t been having much luck, but they’re nearly as unpopular as the Huntsmen. Joined by the Sisterhood, things will change. And if all three Trinity cults take a stand…”

“You realize we don’t actually have the authority to do that,” Toby said seriously. “I’m not refusing you, Trissiny. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree and I’ll back you on this. I saw what a danger Justinian is as close up as you did. I just want to warn you, whatever relationship you have with Commander Rouvad, it’s likely more productive than any attempt I could make to get the Dawn Council to… To do anything.”

“Same goes, sort of,” Gabriel agreed. “I like the idea, Triss. But Lady Gwenfaer is the scariest person I’ve ever met, largely because I suspect she’s the smartest and I don’t actually have any idea what she thinks or wants. I walk in there asking her to go to war with the Archpope, and the only certainty is she’ll find some way to profit from it.”

“I think I see an inherent risk in this,” Fross added. “So, Justinian’s closest backers are the Huntsmen, right? And thanks to Ingvar, they’re split and effectively neutralized, right? So now, a few months after that happened, the two cults that have most openly defied him are having internal divisions he’s fostered.”

“Yeah, that’s about the time frame it’d take to set up something like that,” Ruda agreed.

“I see where you’re going, Fross, and the same had occurred to me,” said Trissiny.

Gabriel chuckled. “Well, hell, I almost hope he does try to instigate a schism inside the Vidians. Let Justinian get a taste for dealing with real schemers.”

“Once again, Arquin, not how it fucking works,” Ruda said with clear exasperation. “A group that’s already prone to politicking and infighting is more vulnerable, not less. There may be elements in it that are too good for Justinian to fuck with, but there are also a million other cracks he can wedge his fingers into. Only takes one little grip for him to start pulling the whole thing apart.”

Gabriel sighed, his smile fading. “I see your point. Man… Bishop Darling suggested I pick a faction and commit to them, but… Val’s been trying to coach me on the intricacies of Vidian politics, but it’s like the web a spider would make after you dunked it in coffee. I still don’t even know where to start finding a group of allies who can stand up to him and hold the rest of the cult together if he attacks it.”

“Actually,” Toby said pensively, studying him, “I think you know exactly where to start, Gabe. You just won’t like it.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter >

16 – 15

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                     Next Chapter >

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re sure?”

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

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

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Maybe not biologically…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

That did not help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see. And which…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No guarantees, but I believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

His eyebrows drew together slightly, but he said nothing.

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

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

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

Rake squinted at her in silence.

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

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

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

His face went blank again.

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

He twitched.

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

Rake swallowed heavily.

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

He had gone almost white, but still said nothing.

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

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

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

He blinked in confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He swallowed again.

“Jasper, too.”

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                      Next Chapter >

16 – 14

< Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter >

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone nodded, expressions grim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“…or?”

The man swallowed visibly.

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

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

“Ma’am, get back!” he snapped.

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                            Next Chapter >

16 – 12

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

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

“No! Sit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oof! Tallie, come on!”

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

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

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

“What does that even mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every day, hon,” Rasha assured her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darius choked on his tea.

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

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

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

“Really, you two,” Glory said disapprovingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Noted,” he mumbled.

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

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

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

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

Trissiny made a face. “Ehhh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darius and Layla were both already nodding.

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

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

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

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

Rasha nodded thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

“In a personal sense? Honestly, no.”

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

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

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

“Accurate, though,” Darius said, grinning.

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

“A very wise approach,” Glory said approvingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

16 – 5

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter >

“And this is the Sanhevid Suite, where you’ll be staying,” Ravana announced, coming to a stop in the center of the wide common area, planting herself beside a marble statue of a hooded woman wielding a bow and gazing sternly at some distant horizon. “Doors to either side of the hearth behind me lead to the residential area, where there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. Beyond that, both halls open onto a small library with attached reading room and office. To the left, here, beyond the colonnade, is a solarium opening onto a private courtyard, with the dining hall adjacent. Kitchen, laundry, and servant’s quarters are in the basement; someone will be on staff at all hours, and the enchanted bell in each bedroom activates a signal in the kitchen, so do not hesitate to summon someone for anything you need, at any time. I do hope you’ll be adequately comfortable.”

“Wow,” Gabriel said simply, looking wide-eyed around the great hall of the Sanhevid Suite, which apparently counted for a small mansion in its own right. It was a two-story affair, with windows on the second floor admitting sunlight to complement the fairy lamps attached to each of the marble pillars. The place was laid out very much like a Shaathist lodge, a long area strewn with furniture extending from huge doors on one end to an enormous hearth on the other, though the décor ran toward marble, velvet, and gilt-framed paintings rather than hunting trophies.

“Adequately?” Toby added, grinning. “Ravana, this is… Well, it’s nicer than most of the places Tellwyrn’s made us stay on trips.”

“Most?” Gabriel gave him an incredulous look. “This is nicer than anyplace we’ve stayed. By orders of magnitude.”

“Um, ex-fuckin’-cuse me,” Ruda retorted, “but I distinctly recall putting you ingrates up at my house on one of those trips.”

Gabriel smiled sweetly at her. “I know what I said.”

“Arquin, how long’s it been since I fucking stabbed you?”

“Let us remember that we are guests here,” Shaeine interjected smoothly, “and refrain from getting hethelax blood on any of the furnishings. According to Professor Rafe, it is rather acidic.”

“It’s fine, there’s a courtyard,” Gabriel assured her. “Honestly, Ravana, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of Tiraas. I think I’m gonna be afraid to touch anything in here.”

“Ah, I take your point,” she mused, nodding. “Hm… How about this?”

Ravana stepped over to the nearest column, where a frosted glass vase full of out-of-season tulips rested atop a decorative plinth at its base. Picking up the delicate vessel in one hand, she regarded it critically for a moment, then turned and hurled it across the room.

It was a good throw; the crystal unerringly struck another marble column, where of course it shattered, strewing flowers, water, and glass fragments across a wide area. Everyone stared at it in disbelief, then turned those looks on Ravana herself, who had immediately folded her hands demurely at her waist, looking self-satisfied.

“I know that to some of you, servants are in and of themselves an unseemly indulgence,” she said lightly, “but do keep in mind that everyone working in this manor is paid from the House treasury, as I have reduced taxes to ease the burden on local business my father created. Any materials used in cleaning or repair are purchased nearby. I do ask that you please refrain from burning the place down, but short of that? The worst thing you can possibly do is contribute to the local economy. Keep that in mind, Gabriel, and please don’t hesitate to make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can.”

“You have a striking way of making a point,” Trissiny observed.

Ravana’s smile increased fractionally, and she inclined her head. “I have learned from the best.”

“Are we…still in the same house?” Juniper asked hesitantly, pulling her head out of the doorway to the solarium she’d circumspectly been investigating while everyone talked, Sniff silently at her heels as always. “It sounds like this ‘suite’ is bigger than most people’s houses.”

“Ah, yes, hence my uncertainty,” said Ravana. “This would ordinarily be used as guest quarters for visiting nobility and their own households. I believe its size is adequate to your group, but it is not in keeping with formal etiquette to house disparate individuals here. All things considered, and given that placing you each in separate rooms of a quality suitable to your stature would have made it logistically difficult for you all to find one another, I took the risk of presuming you would not be overly concerned with the formalities. If I have erred, I humbly apologize, and of course can make any alternate arrangement of your choosing. There are abundant private rooms, of course, or I can set you up as a group in one of the outlying guest houses. Or, if you prefer a familiar touch of whimsy, a suite of tavern rooms on the grounds.”

“Your first instinct was correct, Ravana,” Teal assured her with a faint smile. During the last year, she had either gotten over her antipathy toward the Duchess or learned to conceal it, and now appeared quite at ease in Madouri Manor. “This is more than comfortable enough, and we wouldn’t dream of putting you to any more trouble. Right, everyone?”

“Indubitably!” Fross chimed, swooping back into the room. “Guys, you have got to see that library! There’s a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Viridici!”

“Isn’t that one notoriously unreliable?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes, because it hasn’t been printed in six hundred years! It’s not even in intelligible modern Tanglish!”

“Hold on, back up,” Gabriel requested, still blinking at Ravana. “Did you say you have a tavern…in your house?”

“Three, on the grounds,” she said placidly. “Madouri Manor as it stands today was the original fortified city of Madouris. As the Lower City spread beyond its walls, the larger structures around the citadel became the residences of lower nobility. Then the Outer City rose around the second ring of walls, and gradually my ancestors encouraged the other families to gentrify the Lower City, eventually leaving these grounds for House Madouri and the city and provincial government alone.” She paused, grimacing prettily. “Unfortunately, my more recent ancestors pushed even those out, leaving the Manor as the largest private residence in the world, a testament to excess that even a Sheng Emperor would have thought a bit much. I have been migrating government offices back into the grounds; you would not believe how hobbled the local bureaucracy has been, simply due to being scattered across the city. Of course, you have the run of the Manor; you will be able to tell what structures serve official purpose. It should not be hard to avoid getting in anyone’s way. Feel free to patronize the taverns, if you like. I am quite serious about encouraging you to take advantage of any available amenities, everyone. It is the least I can do, as I fear I shall perforce be a somewhat negligent hostess.”

“This is your idea of negligent?” Ruda snorted, flopping down on a gilt-armed sofa. “Damn, girl. I’m scared to see what it looks like when you get generous. Be honest, you ever drowned somebody in champagne?”

“Oh, it’s not the accommodations,” Ravana said, smiling. “Those I can provide. It’s just that this is necessarily a working vacation for me. While attending school, my ability to manage the province is hampered by distance, even in this modern age of telescrolls and Rails. I must make full use of the time I have at home to attend to as many affairs as can be squeezed in. Rest assured, I shall make every effort to attend to you, but it won’t be as much as I’d like, so the least I can do is provide ample comfort and entertainment during your stay.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Well, we don’t want to get in your way, then…”

“You are anything but in my way,” Ravana said firmly. “I have been quite looking forward to showing you all around my city. Scorn and the other girls from the Wells will be arriving by tonight, and I mean to have a proper welcome banquet with everyone. Indeed, I find myself eager to consult the political minds among you on the newest issue with the elves.”

“Do understand that neither Teal nor I can render comment in any official capacity,” Shaeine began.

“Please.” Ravana held up one hand, still smiling. “You are my guest, Shaeine, I will not have you put on the spot or otherwise discomfited. If you’d like to chat about it, I would obviously love to hear your take. If not, that is the end of it. It’s very important to me to maintain personal connections beyond the political. Bad enough I can’t publicly associate with Sekandar anymore, I’ll not have any tension raised between Houses Madouri and Awarrion.”

“Wait, what happened with Sekandar?” Gabriel asked. “I thought you two got along well.”

“Oh, we do, but unfortunately his mother is…out of sorts with me. Being a well-bred Calderaan boy, Prince Sekandar obviously cannot gainsay her in public, so our conversations at school have been somewhat abridged in the last few months. It’s dreadfully tedious, but such are politics.”

“Ravana,” Teal asked in the chiding tone of a teacher interrogating a child over a broken vase—while, herself, standing practically in the shards of a broken vase— “what did you do to the Sultana?”

Ravana shrugged daintily. “I have simply been a good neighbor to the people of Last Rock while enjoying their hospitality. I furnished several small business loans to residents, after the fashion I have found so productive here in Madouris. Sadly, her Excellency has chosen to take this as a territorial infraction. I do say she is overreacting somewhat.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. “You, the sitting governor of another province and rival Great House, began an economic program obviously modeled on the means you used to secure your influence in Madouris, in a fringe territory over which the Sultana has nominal but little real control, probably causing her to lose face in front of the other Houses of Calderaas, who at their most congenial are a pit of underfed alligators. And you’re surprised she was miffed?”

“I said that her Excellency overreacted,” Ravana replied, lifting her nose, “not that she was entirely without a point.”

“Yeah, I’d get on top of fixing that if I were you,” Gabriel suggested. “Sekandar’s a swell guy and all, but if Princess Yasmeen is anything to go by you do not want the Aldarasi women on your case. I think even you may not be rich enough to shrug that off, Ravana.”

“Mildly sexist,” Trissiny stated, giving him a pointed look, “but regrettably apt.”

He bowed grandly to her.

Ravana herself drew in a breath, causing her thin shoulders to rise, then let it out slowly, sweeping a languid and incongruously warm smile around the group. “Now, this is exactly why I was so grateful you all agreed to visit me over the holidays. I am surrounded by legions of yes-men at home; nobody outside of school dares talk back to me. It’s no wonder my father entirely lost his sense of proportion.”

The front door of the Sanhevid Suite clicked discreetly shut, and the group shifted to look that way as Ravana’s Butler came gliding swiftly across the floor toward them.

“Your pardon, my Lady,” Yancey said, bowing to her. “The contacts in N’Jendo with whom you were corresponding concerning the Harpy affair have arrived.”

Poised as always, Ravana betrayed her incredulity only by a momentary pause, and the most infinitesimal lift of one eyebrow, before replying. “How?”

“It appears a telescroll signaling their acquiescence to your last suggestion arrived while you were welcoming our guests, my Lady. Veilwin intercepted and read it, and took it upon herself to teleport to Jennidira to retrieve them. I have made them comfortable in the Azure Parlor.”

Butler training was truly a rival for a noble upbringing in terms of facial control; Yancey managed to convey his withering disapproval of this Veilwin’s presumption without altering his expression a hair beyond the strictly polite.

“I see,” Ravana said, pausing to press her lips into a thin line. “Well. Speak of the Dark Lady. Or…can we even say that anymore?”

“I think I’d rather we did,” said Trissiny. “Elilial is neither dead nor neutered, and undoubtedly is already at work encouraging the world to forget what a monster she has always been. Let’s not oblige her.”

“Duly noted,” Ravana agreed, nodding to her. “Well! It seems it has begun. I am terribly sorry to abandon you all so abruptly, but this matter won’t wait. I shall do my utmost to join you and the others for dinner; this should not occupy me beyond the afternoon. In the meantime, Yancey will see to all your needs.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about us,” Ruda said lazily from the sofa, on which she was sprawled lopsidedly with one leg thrown over its arm. “Go on, be the boss lady. See ya at dinner.”

“And thank you again for having us,” Toby added.

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Ravana assured them, inclining her head deeply. “Do excuse me, then.”

She turned and glided out, Yancey on her heels. The Butler held the suite’s door for her with a bow, then slipped out behind the Duchess and pulled it shut after them.

“So, uh…” Fross darted over to swoop across the mess of the shattered vase. “Should we…call somebody about this? Cos I could probably clean it up pretty easily but I’m not sure if that’s, like, rude to the servants or what.”

“Hmm.” On the other side of the chamber, Gabriel ambled toward a matching vase and reached for it.

“No, Gabriel!” Trissiny shouted, charging to intercept him.

Teal slipped an arm around Shaeine’s waist; F’thaan, already tired from the day’s journey, was draped asleep across the drow’s feet. “And to think I was afraid we’d have a dull holiday.”


In any other house, the Azure Parlor would have been considered a ballroom. A relatively small and intimate one, suitable for parties of no more than two dozen, but still. The majority of its floorspace was taken up by a sunken area reached by steps down from the carpeted main floor, where the dancing surface itself was a mosaic depicting a cloudy sky. Its matching domed ceiling was a far more intricate fresco of a blue dragon, painted nearly to scale and coiling in on himself as though twisting about in midair in a pose that just barely crammed his entire sinuous length into the available space.

Ravana’s new guests had remained on the upper portion, where seats and refreshment tables were distributed. They had been generously served; on one of the tables were laid out trays of tea, hot mulled cider, and warm pies of both meat and fruit in portions that would have provided a full meal for more than the three of them. The woman in the group was sipping a mug of cider, but other than that the refreshments appeared untouched. Still wearing their fur-lined winter cloaks, all three were standing, and staring upward at the ceiling fresco.

Veilwin was slouched in an armchair off to one side in a posture that clashed with her elegant brocaded dress, munching on a slice of cherry pie.

“Zyndirax the Blue was an off-again, on-again paramour of Duchess Tamira Madouri,” Ravana said, gliding into the room. “I suspect the scandal was the sole cause of her interest in him; she did love to ruffle people’s feathers. Welcome to Madouri Manor, Brother Ingvar and guests! I most humbly apologize for keeping you waiting. The truth is that I was not expecting you to visit me so soon.”

She shot a sidelong look at her Court Wizard, who snorted (spraying crumbs in the process) and pointed a forkful of pie at her.

“You said you were on a tight schedule for the next two weeks,” the elf said accusingly. “Made a whole production of it, big speech and everything. Remember? We’re all to chip in an’ try to smooth things along. Well, I cut off some corners and saved you some time. You’re welcome.”

Veilwin was the only elf Ravana had ever seen with dark circles around her eyes, and they had never diminished in the time she’d known her. As usual, her gown was of expensive silk brocade, and free of any tear, stain, or wrinkle due to the considerable enchantments laid upon it, which contrasted starkly with the mussed state of her blonde hair. Now, she also had crumbs all over half her face, which somehow suited her.

“I assure you, we are not put out,” Ingvar interjected, striding forward with a warm smile. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, your Grace. Especially conscious.”

“Ah, ah,” Veilwin chided with her mouth full, wagging the now-empty fork. “It’s ‘my Lady.’ The Duchess is trying to retire the ol’ Grace thing, says it’s old-fashioned. She’s a modern girl, is Ravana.”

“Veilwin,” the Duchess said with a too-wide smile, “do you recall our discussion about you speaking in front of guests?”

Veilwin grunted and tucked silently back into her pie.

“Yes, I understand this is not the first time we have met,” Ravana said, accepting Ingvar’s outstretched hand and inclining her head in response to his bow. “As those events were relayed to me, I owe you my life.”

“I did little…my Lady,” he demurred. “Anyone would have carried an unconscious woman out of a battlefield.”

“I assure you, it was not a small thing to me. A Madouri pays her debts.”

“I would consider it a grave dishonor to claim a debt over something so morally obligatory, my Lady,” Ingvar said gravely, then smiled again. “But perhaps it can be a starting point for a positive relationship.”

“Well said,” she agreed, smiling back. “Now, I see you have met my Court Wizard. I also apologize for whatever Veilwin said and/or did before I was able to intervene.”

Behind her, Veilwin snorted again.

“I have no complaints, my Lady,” Ingvar said tactfully. “We hunters have straightforward manners ourselves. Allow me to introduce my friends, Dantu and Dimbi.”

They nodded in turn, clearly uncertain of the formalities involved in meeting a Duchess; Ravana inclined her head politely to each of them in response, allowing her amusement to tinge her smile. Dimbi was a young woman, Dantu a surprisingly old man, and both were Westerners, probably locals from the area around Ninkabi where Ingvar and his followers had been roaming in the months since the battle. Though Dimbi was visibly uncomfortable in these opulent surroundings, the white-haired Dantu seemed quite at ease, and even intrigued by everything he saw.

“A pleasure,” she said. “And on the subject of beginning a positive relationship, there is the matter concerning which I reached out to you.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ingvar said, his expression sobering. “I confess, Lady Madouri, I was surprised to learn you had involved yourself in this at all. I mean no offense by that, of course. You have been extremely generous, and I thank you for what you’ve done.”

“But you are uncertain about my motives?” she prompted, then smiled gently. “Please, Brother Ingvar, don’t worry, no offense is taken. We are what we are: myself a scheming noble, and you too intelligent not to know a scheming noble when you meet one. I would never be so churlish as to be affronted by a person possessing basic common sense. We have time to delve into my reasons for stepping in; for now, I suspect you must be very eager to meet the Harpies. I know they will be very glad indeed to finally meet you.”

“That is certainly true,” he agreed. “Are they here, then?”

“Not in the city, no; it didn’t seem the wisest place to house them. Rest assured, I have made sure to provide for their safety and comfort. I’ll take you to them now, if you’re amenable.”

“Very much so,” he said, allowing the eagerness to touch his voice.

Ravana smiled again, then half-turned. “Veilwin, take us to the lodge, if you please.”

The sorceress sighed through her nose and swallowed a bite of pastry. “I am almost finished with my pie.”

“You are finished with it,” Ravana corrected. “You may order anything you want from the kitchens later. It’s not as if I don’t feed you. It’s time to work.”

“Ugh.” With ill grace, Veilwin tossed her plate down onto the table and the fork after it, then stood, absently brushing crumbs off her face. “Fine, if you’re in such a damned hurry.”

She strode toward the group, raising one hand as she went, and blue light began to flicker within her eyes. Matching sparks snapped in the air around them, accompanied by a faint whine of gathering arcane energy.

“Uh, hang on now,” Dimbi said nervously, “is she really—”

Veilwin snapped her fingers, the arcane light flashed, and the five of them vanished.


The distant sounds of birds calling from the nearby rainforest were barely audible over the murmur of breeze and the waves. It was a gorgeous day, cloudless and just cool enough that the unimpeded sun did not feel too hot. Such weather was rare, as this was usually the rainy season; it likely wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. From her chosen lounge chair on the beach, she had a view of the wide central bay of the Tidestrider archipelago, with the forest-clad peaks of mountainous islands rising all around the horizon. During the summer months, the lodge she was renting would have housed several groups of the vacationing wealthy, but now the winter chill assured her solitude. The first peace and quiet she’d had in months.

The lounge chairs were arranged in pairs, with low wooden tables between them; she had piled hers with books. Mostly novels, though the volume currently open in her hands was a treatise on bardic archetypes printed in Glassian. Tellwyrn’s eyes had stopped tracking back and forth across the page for the last few minutes; she just held the book up almost like a shield, scowling at it and listening to the crunch of footsteps in the sand steadily encroaching upon her privacy.

“I just can’t get over how warm it is,” Eleanora Sultana Tirasian marveled aloud, setting a tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses on the table next to the book pile and folding herself gracefully into the second lounge chair. “Isn’t this place at more or less the same latitude as Ninkabi?”

“Ocean currents,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “Tropical water comes straight down the west coast from the equator. You’re from Onkawa, there’s no way you don’t know that. You also had to be aware I noted your battlemages porting in all around. This had better be pretty damn good, Eleanora. I am on vacation.”

She finally looked over at her, then raised her eyes in surprise. Tellwyrn was wearing a loosely-fitted kimono, but the Empress of Tiraas, she now observed, had clad herself in a skimpy traditional Tidestrider garment—traditional, at least, in the warmer latitudes to the north—which showed off far more of her dark skin than she ever did in public.

“Yes, Arachne, I know,” Eleanora said with a smug smile. “Terrible vengeance if I disturb it, and so on, and so forth.”

“Do you know how much time off I get a year?”

“Of course I do, the academic year is common knowledge. Do you know how much time off I get a year? None, Arachne. The answer is zero.”

“Oh, yes, your life is so very dreary,” Tellwyrn sneered. “In your extravagant palace, where you spend each night in the arms of a different beauty gathered from across the Empire. My heart bleeds.”

“I only have three regular mistresses at the moment,” the Empress said lightly, pouring tropical punch into both glasses. “Sharidan keeps only four. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to collect them, even with the resources at our disposal. Women beautiful enough to catch my eye, but also with enough intellect and character to be worth talking to…well, they tend to get jealous and competitive with one another, which we obviously can’t have. There just aren’t that many candidates who meet all the right criteria. A life of power is such a lonely one…”

“You do realize that you being Empress is the only reason you don’t get punched more often, right?”

“Obviously. So, have you heard about the elves?”

“No, and fuck ‘em. Nobody likes elves. Stuck-up pricks.”

Eleanora chuckled. “They’ve announced a unified government. A permanent alliance of Tar’naris, every forest tribe on the continent, twenty-nine participating plains tribes, and Qestraceel.”

“Bullshit,” Tellwyrn snorted. “The drow have been sending out feelers for, what, a year? Two? It’ll take ‘em a century to get even a quarter of that roster off their asses.”

“Yes, that is more or less everyone’s analysis. And yet, they’ve gone and done it. You can imagine the shockwaves this has created.”

“Is this you trying to make small talk due to being unable to discuss anything except politics, or are you actually going to try to convince me to cut short my vacation? Answer carefully, Eleanora.”

“Yes.” The Empress held out one of the glasses to her, smiling slyly. “You know, Quentin suspects you are a high elf.”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh, and finally slapped her book down on the table, but made no move to accept the drink. She just glared mulishly at the Empress.

“I don’t get to take vacations,” Eleanora repeated, the levity fading from her expression. “And I most especially can’t now, Arachne, not with this crisis unfolding. So consider my position. I do need your help, which means disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. I don’t have the power to compel you, and persuading you means not disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. You see my dilemma?”

“So,” Tellwyrn drawled, “you are going to crash my vacation, because buttering me up is your only viable option, and thus you get to finagle a beach vacation for yourself out of a political disaster. I am, grudgingly, quite impressed.”

“How often do you think doing my duty to the Empire will require me to loaf about in a resort with the single most interesting woman I’ve ever taken to bed?” Eleanora rejoined, the self-satisfied smirk returning to her face. “I can hardly afford to pass up this chance, you see.”

“And what if I just decide to tell you everything I know about the high elves right away? That’s what you’re fishing for, right? I know you don’t think I’m in good with any of the other kinds.”

“Well,” the Empress mused, “I suppose that would be the absolutely ideal outcome for me. And I confess, if you pick this of all moments to be agreeable and compliant for once in your life I will be rather pissed off.”

The elf finally accepted the outstretched glass. “I’m not a high elf, Eleanora. At least, not that I know of. I went to Qestraceel to find out. It didn’t go well.”

“I see. Then…?”

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about them. And in keeping with my general ‘fuck the elves’ policy, I find I’m quite amenable to dishing on them to the Empire. Provided, of course, that I am sufficiently buttered up.” She lay back in the reclining seat, smirking herself and lifting the glass to her lips. A second later, she grimaced. “Eugh. I hate coconut.”

Eleanora shook her head, lounging back in her own chair. “You have got to be the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not even close to true, and you know it.”

The Professor reached out with her glass, the Empress clinked her own against it, and they both gazed placidly out across the waves.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter >

15 – 77

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                    Next Chapter >

“And you know what the really surprising thing is? I’m not even angry.”

Tellwyrn had swiveled her desk chair sideways and leaned it back as far as it would go, practically lounging in it with herself in profile relative to the students crowding her office. The fingers of her left hand drummed a slow and steady beat against the desk; with her right she held up the Mask of the Adventurer, slowly turning the innocuous-looking artifact this way and that and watching how the afternoon sunlight from her broad window gleamed along its understated silver decorations.

“Barely surprised, even stranger,” she mused, studying the mask. “Oh, a little bit, sure. A person doesn’t have something like this dropped on their desk and not spend a few moments pondering what, in general, the fuck. But it’s really striking how quickly that faded into this vague yet all-consuming sense of ‘yeah, that sounds about right.’”

“I can’t decide if we’re being insulted or let off the hook,” Gabriel muttered.

“I’ll take the one if it comes with the other,” Juniper muttered back.

“Hell, there’s a nice compliment in there if ya squint,” Ruda added, grinning.

“It has to be said that I’m not without responsibility in this,” Tellwyrn continued, turning the mask over to examine its inner face. “You certainly went and did exactly what I instructed, didn’t you? I think I can be forgiven for failing to anticipate this outcome, but really. The combination of you lot, that location, and vague instructions to have a spiritually meaningful experience? Yeah, I’ll own it, on a certain level I was sort of asking for this. Not sending a proper University guardian with you, even. I swear I thought that was a good idea but now I’m sort of grasping for the reason why.”

“Locke performed…adequately in that role,” Trissiny reported. She had changed out of her armor, but was standing at parade rest with only her sword buckled over her leather coat to identify her rank. “She’s jumpier than I would have expected under certain kinds of pressure, but I can’t fault her intent, or results. It all worked out.”

“Yes,” Shaeine agreed, “upon balance I believe your experiment can be considered a success, Professor. Though you may, in the future, want to personally escort groups which present a similar set of risk factors as ourselves.”

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl, still not looking at them, “I find I’m less annoyed about this thing than by the lot of you fucking off two provinces away to throw yourselves into a battle. Surprised? No. But by the same token, I know this is a conversation we have had before. More than once.”

“It was necessary,” Toby said in perfect calm. “I am sorry we broke your rules, Professor. In a case like that, however… We always will.”

“Mm.” She lifted her other hand to grasp the Mask by both its edges and brought it down toward her face.

All of them inhaled sharply, going wide-eyed and rigid.

Tellwyrn stopped moving, then half-turned her head to smirk at them.

The whole group let out their suspended breaths in unison, followed by Ruda emitting a slightly strained chuckle.

“You’re a bad lady,” Gabriel accused.

“I’ll tell you what.” Tellwyrn gently laid the Mask down on her desk and swiveled the chair forward to face them directly, straightening up in the process. “This is a one-time offer, don’t expect it to become general policy. But on this one occasion, if you can satisfy me that this was a successful educational experience, I will consider the lesson imparted and we can proceed without any further punishment. So?” Planting her elbows on the desk bracketing the Mask, she interlaced her fingers and stared at the group over them. “What did we learn?”

There came a pause, while several of them turned to peer uncertainly at one another.

“Consider it a group effort,” Tellwyrn prompted dryly. “I don’t care which of you comes up with an answer, so long as I’m satisfied that it’s one you’ve all absorbed.”

“We should be more respectful of the unpredictable things in this world,” Shaeine said softly. “Of magic, in particular, but generally. There can be severe consequences for assuming that the rules will always apply.”

“Yeah…that’s a really good way to put it,” Toby agreed, nodding. “From everything we know about the rules of magic, there was no reason to think this exact thing would happen, but it was reckless to think nothing of this nature could.”

“It’s not so much we didn’t think it could as it wouldn’t have occurred to us, or any sane person,” said Ruda. “But…damn. No more fucking around with mixed magic in sacred sites. It coulda been a shit ton worse.”

“It is sort of ironic,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “For most of my lifetime, it would have been the baseline assumption of everyone, magic user or not, that much about magic was unknowable and not to be trifled with. Then along come I, to drive away the cobwebs of ignorance and instill you all with methodical thinking. Lo and behold, it worked, and here you are lacking fear of the unknown, when that is the exact quality that would have kept you out of this mess. It’s enough to make a person reconsider their whole life.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Fross chimed.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “That’s Nemitite doctrine. Have you been reading the theology textbooks now, Fross?”

“Yes, Professor, they make for really great light reading when I want a change of pace from magical theory. Also super helpful! A lot of stuff people do makes more sense when I understand the underlying philosophies that inform their behavior. But anyway, what I mean is, I don’t think your ultimate project here is wrong, not at all. Knowledge is never not better than ignorance. I guess we just hit a point where we got a little too full of our fancy University education and failed to respect the amount of ignorance we still had.”

“Well said,” Trissiny agreed.

“All right,” Tellwyrn said, finally cracking a faint smile. “That’s a good lesson indeed, and I am satisfied that you’ve absorbed it. All things considered, it worked out well. Whatever else happened, this thing enabled you to do a lot of good. Needless to say, if you ever again demonstrate a failure to consider the ramifications of tampering with unknown powers I will descend upon the lot of you like the personified wrath of Avei with a caffeine habit and a toothache. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Which leaves us with…this.” She leaned back again, picking up the Mask. “The thing itself.”

“Really sorry to dump this on you, Professor,” Teal said earnestly. “But, well, Mr. Weaver said you might be the best person to look after it, and I can really see the sense in that.”

“Oh, yes,” Tellwyrn said, now staring expressionlessly at the Mask. “I can take it, sure. Chuck it in the vault with the rest of the collection, can do. Ever since I started making it my business to get the really dangerous crap permanently out of everyone’s hands, nobody’s come close to even finding where I stored it all, much less cracking my defenses. Course, I never had a god make a stab at it before.”

“You…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at the others. “Is a god after that, in particular?”

“Well, you tell me, Avelea,” Tellwyrn replied. “Since it seems like Vesk was at least ankle-deep in the creation of this thing and then up to his balls in everything that happened afterward. You three should know what he’s like, after this summer.” She pointed at Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel in turn. “Imagine you’re in a story. In a story, if there’s a big fancy magical sword that gets its own entire chapter of exposition, that thing is getting stuck in somebody before the third act climax. Probably after being the object of its very own epic quest.”

“But it…sort of was stuck in somebody,” said Juniper. “Uh, metaphorically, I mean. The mask was used in the battle; it gave Jacaranda her power back and that pretty much decided the whole thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “When you put it that way, the fact that there are pixies spread across half of N’Jendo now is indirectly your fault, as well.”

“What, you got a problem with pixies now?” Ruda asked, grinning. “Are you gonna take that, Fross?”

“She’s right,” Fross said quietly. “That is going to cause some real big problems.”

“So, yes, the Mask was used,” Tellwyrn said, “and it was a deciding factor in what can be understood as the big story arc running at the time. Hopefully… Hopefully that will be enough. The problem is the scale of it. What you’ve got here is the kind of thing that alters the destinies of nations for centuries to come, not a single event. At least, that’s how it would be in fiction. I’ll hide it away as best I can, because what else am I going to do? But I can’t help wondering exactly what’s going to happen to bring it back out again.”

“Okay, that’s already giving me a headache,” Ruda complained. “You sound like a fuckin’ bard. The world doesn’t run on fucking story logic!”

“Anything Vesk has his hand on this heavily is going to run at least somewhat on story logic,” Trissiny said, frowning deeply. “It would be a good idea to try to think in those terms, if you find him in your proximity. Which is annoying beyond belief because I am not good at it.”

“I’ll try to give you some pointers,” Teal promised.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Tellwyrn agreed. “In fact, in lieu of proper punishment, I have extra homework for you lot after this. I want you to go to the library, ask Crystal for copies of The Myth Eternal by Ravinelle d’Ormont, and write a three-page essay predicting possible next events resulting from your field trip, which you will justify citing the text’s description of tropes and narrative structure. This is a group project; I want you to compare notes and each turn in an individual essay describing a different outcome. On my desk by Friday.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to punish us if we answered your question!” Gabriel protested.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin, and as I said, this is not a punishment,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Would you like one of those instead?”

“Uhhh…”

“Irrelevant, because this is what you’re doing. All right, all of you out. Go rest, be in class as usual tomorrow. And see if you can try not to kick any more colossal metaphysical hornet’s nests for at least a week or so, hmm?”

Several of them sighed, but they turned and began filing out.

“Has anybody else noticed that something terrible happens to every city we go to?” Fross chimed as she drifted through the open door.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Ruda agreed. “You fuckers are never visiting me at home again.”

“Correlation is not causation, Ruda,” Shaeine reminded her.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel as he shut the door behind them. “I feel like ‘Causation’ could be the title of our biography…”

Tellwyrn stared at the closed office door for a few moments with a bemused little frown, then leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared down at the Mask.

It stared innocently back.


He was apparently the last to arrive.

“So I see this isn’t to be a private meeting,” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, gliding forward toward the base of the stairs in the Archpope’s personal prayer chapel. For once, Justinian was already standing at the base of the steps instead of waiting dramatically at the altar up a story-tall flight of steps, framed by the towering stained glass windows, one of which concealed the door to his secret chamber of oracles.

Bishops Snowe and Varanus were present, of course; that was almost a given. This was where the Archpope had most often assembled his inner circle of four—now three—Bishops. What was unusual was the presence of guards, two Holy Legionaries standing at attention to either side of the stairs, and Colonel Ravoud himself waiting behind the Archpope at parade rest.

“Antonio,” Justinian said gravely, inclining his head. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure you have much to tell me.”

“Mmm… No, I really can’t think of anything,” Darling answered, standing before him still with that serene Bishoply smile in place. Branwen gave him a wide-eyed look, Andros remaining inscrutable as ever behind his bushy beard.

“I confess that surprises me,” said Justinian, not sounding surprised in the least. “Especially after Branwen brought such an exhaustive report.”

“Why, precisely,” Darling agreed. “I’m sure she handled it just fine. And now, I believe there are some things you want to tell me.”

“You believe so?” Justinian asked in just as mild and pleasant a tone.

Darling smiled beatifically at him. “There had damn well better be.”

All three soldiers shifted their heads to stare right at him, Ravoud stiffening slightly.

Justinian’s eyes shifted past him to the door he had just come through, which now opened again. “Ah, good. The final necessary party to this conversation. Thank you for joining us, Basra.”

Keeping his pleasant smile firmly in place, Darling turned slowly to face her. In neither Church nor Avenist attire, she wore severe black garments which, he realized on a second glance, were a color-reversed version of Ravoud’s white Holy Legion dress uniform. The only insignia was a golden ankh pinned over the left breast. The dark color incidentally served to emphasize the white bandages peeking out from her left sleeve. An ornate gold-hilted short sword hung at her belt; well, that style of weapon only required one hand, after all.

Branwen drew in a sharp breath through her nose; Andros folded his arms, grunting once. Basra pulled the door shut behind her, then paced carefully toward them across the ornate carpet, her dark eyes fixed on Darling.

“Bas!” he exclaimed in a tone of jovial delight, spreading his arms wide. “How perfectly lovely to see you again! We have so much to catch up on!”

A practiced flick of his wrist brought the wand up his sleeve shooting out into his palm. She was still most of the way across the room; even with her trained swordswoman’s instincts Basra had time only to widen her eyes and stop moving before he’d brought it up and fired.

The crack of lightning was deafening in the acoustically designed chapel. A blue sphere of light ignited around her, the shielding charm of a sufficient grade to absorb the close ranged wandshot without flickering.

Basra bared her teeth in a snarl and dashed right for him, clawing her sword loose as she came. Darling shot her twice more before the pound of heavy boots on the carpet made him shift position to face the nearer of the Legionaries, who was bringing his ornate halberd down with the clear intent of barring them from reaching each other.

Darling grabbed the haft of the weapon with his free hand and spun, using his weight and the man’s own momentum to send him staggering right into Basra’s shield. It was disgustingly easy. Honestly, why had Justinian campaigned so hard to have his own private military if this was all he did with them? Not only was a halberd a hilariously dated weapon, the clod was using it indoors and obviously had no idea how, to judge by how easily it was taken from him.

It was heavy and unwieldy, and he had no chance of doing anything effective with it one-handed, but fortunately the quality of the Holy Legion remained constant; Darling was easily able to sweep it into the second soldier’s feet, sending the man stumbling to the ground. He hadn’t even tried to jump. It was an open question whether he physically could have in that ridiculous lacquered armor, but he’d done nothing except try ineptly to change course as the slow and heavy polearm came arcing at him. Never mind halberd technique, these guys hadn’t been trained in the very basics of hand-to-hand combat. What the hell was the point of them?

“Antonio,” Justinian protested in a tone of patrician disappointment.

“Be with you in a moment, your Holiness,” he said cheerfully, dropping the halberd.

Basra had just shoved the stumbling Legionary off her, and now received three more swift shots. Still the shield held; that thing was military grade. She was closer now, though, and lunged at him again with a feral snarl.

The shield was even phased to allow her to attack through it, which was cutting edge and really sophisticated charm work. Unfortunately for Basra, his more old-fashioned tricks were just as good. Her sword didn’t even draw sparks as it raked across the divine shield that flashed into being around him.

“Should’ve stayed down,” he informed her, winking. “It suited you.”

She made a noise like a feral cat and stabbed at him again, ineffectually. He fired back, the impact of the wand creating a burst of static and the sharp stink of ozone at that range. Basra stumbled backward, blinking the effects of the flash away from her eyes.

A thump and clatter sounded from behind him, and he re-angled himself to check the scene without letting Basra out of his field of view. The tableau told a story at a glance; Justinian looking exasperated, Branwen openly amused, Ravoud flat on his back on the stairs and Andros just lowering the arm with which he’d clotheslined the Colonel when he had tried to join the fray.

“Really?” Justinian said disapprovingly. “I would have hoped you two would try to reason with him, at least.”

“We are completely behind you, your Holiness,” Branwen assured him. “Rest assured, the moment Antonio begins doing something inappropriate, we will restrain him.”

“Eventually,” Andros rumbled.

Darling grinned and shot Basra again.

A wall of pure golden light slammed into place across the entire width of the chapel. It was a solid construction at least a foot thick, easily the most impressive Lightworking Darling had ever seen.

As rarely as they were called upon to exercise it, one could easily forget that a sitting Archpope was at least one of the most powerful divine casters in the world. Once in a while, one had found cause to demonstrate it, such as Archpope Sairelle’s famous binding of Philamorn the Gold.

Darling shot it, just to be sure. No effect.

“Enough,” Justinian stated, hand outstretched and glowing. “Antonio, I understand your frustration—”

“I am well aware that you do,” Darling stated, turning to stare at him with the pretense of conviviality gone from his features. “And I’m aware that you are aware that ‘frustration’ is in no way the word.”

“This of all moments is no time for you to succumb to impatience,” the Archpope said soothingly. “It is no secret that we have all acted upon complex agendas, Antonio. For this long, at least, we have all been able to relate to one another like—”

“Ah, yes, that’s really the thing, isn’t it?” Darling said with a bitter grin. “Because as we all know, I’m Sweet of the thousand agendas. Whose side is he on? The Guild, the Church, the Empire? I’m the guy who can smile nicely at everybody and play every side against the middle, committing to none. And I, I, am now officially done with this. That fact alone should warn you just what kind of line you’ve crossed, Justinian.”

Ravoud had bounded back to his feet, stepping away from Andros, and now strode forward, pointing accusingly at him. “You will address his Holiness as—”

“Pipe down, Nassir,” Darling ordered. “When I need someone to get humiliated by the Last Rock Glee Club I’ll tag you into this.”

“Please, Colonel,” Justinian said gently, making a peaceful gesture with his free hand. Ravoud clamped his mouth shut, looking anything but happy, but stepped back and folded his arms, glaring at Darling. “We have been through a great deal together, Antonio. I will not downplay the severity of recent events, but surely you do not think that now of all times it behooves you to throw everything away.”

“Do you know how many people died in Ninkabi?” Darling demanded. “Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Nobody knows, because they are still finding bodies. And oh, what a perfect storm of factors had to align to make that catastrophe happen! Basra here, Khadizroth and his crew, the Tide. Every one of them your pawns, Justinian.”

“And yet,” the Archpope said softly, “not even the first time I have been complicit in the mass summoning of demons into a major city under siege. Though as I recall, it was someone else’s plan, the last time.”

So he was willing to admit to that in front of Ravoud and these incompetent non-soldiers of his? Interesting.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Darling retorted with open scorn. “Tiraas was a series of small controlled summonings by professionals, with the full oversight of the Imperial government. In Ninkabi twenty hellgates were indiscriminately opened after your pet assassin went on a murderous rampage to cull the local police. The fact you’d even bother making that comparison shows you have no argument to make, here.”

Justinian lowered his hand, and the wall of light vanished. On its other side, Basra still clutched her sword and glared at him, but didn’t move forward again.

“So this, finally, is the price of your conscience?” the Archpope asked in utter calm. “It is steep indeed, Antonio.”

“Oh, is that what you think is happening here? My moral outrage compelling me to make a brave stand? I would have thought you knew me better by now, Justinian. I’m more than sleazy enough to stick right to all manner of perfidy just to keep a close eye on it. I’d have walked out on you long ago if I was going to do it out of anger or disgust. But you have burned way too many bridges with a single torch this time. You cannot keep a lid on the details of what happened in Ninkabi, not now that most of your own enforcers have run off to who knows where with all their knowledge. This rat is leaving this ship, Justinian, unless you can give me a compelling and immediate reason to think you can survive the backlash coming your way and guarantee that nothing like this ever happens again.”

“And what would satisfy you?” Justinian inquired.

“For starters?” Darling pointed at Basra without looking in her direction, keeping his gaze locked on the Archpope’s. “Kill her.”

“That is a trap,” Justinian replied before Basra could react. “A rhetorical snare, Antonio. You seek to manufacture an excuse to do what you wish and blame my unreasonable refusal, knowing very well that I cannot give any such cruel order.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to,” Branwen stated.

The Archpope shifted to look at her, his eyebrows lifting incrementally. “Branwen…”

“I know you believe you can control that creature, your Holiness,” she said, giving Basra an openly contemptuous glance. “Or at least, want to believe you can. I cannot imagine how you could still think so after the last week.”

“I have been saying it for years,” Andros grunted. “A rabid animal should be put down, not put on a leash. Events continue to prove me ever more correct.”

“The events in motion are greater than any of you can yet realize,” Justinian said softly. “Basra still has a role to play. As do you all.”

“One thing hasn’t changed, Antonio,” Basra herself sneered, stalking forward. “Anything you believe you can do, I can still do better.”

He turned slowly to face her. Then, suddenly grinning, Darling held up both his hands and began to applaud.

Andros let out a hearty boom of laughter, and Basra lunged at him with her sword again.

“Basra.”

The Archpope’s voice brought her to an immediate halt. She glared at Darling with her face a mask of truly psychotic hatred, literally quivering with the desire to attack, but she did not move.

“Of this I assure you,” Justinian stated. “Every bitter price I have levied, every sin with which I have stained my soul, is in service to a greater good which will be worth the cost when it has done. Too much has been paid, now more than ever, for us to stop. This must be seen through to its end, or all of this suffering has been for nothing.”

Darling turned back to him. “Boss Tricks demands all the assurances I just asked of you, Archpope Justinian. Until they are produced, the cult of Eserion will choose to manage its relationships with the rest of the Pantheon directly, forgoing the mediation of the Universal Church. So, bye.”

He turned and walked right past Basra toward the door.

“You know, it wasn’t Eserion who saved you.”

Darling slowed to a stop, but did not turn around, and Justinian continued.

“I had a similar experience, Antonio. I witnessed something the Pantheon prefers to keep far from mortal knowledge. I survived only by the intervention of another god, one who questioned the injustice of keeping their secrets at the expense of so many lives. That is what happened to you, is it not? And so much of the course of your life has proceeded to its current point because you believed it was Eserion the defiant who shielded you. Eserion allowed you to think so, but it was not he.”

Still, Darling didn’t turn, subtly rolling the wand between his fingers.

“Will you really throw away all those years of searching,” Justinian asked softly, “when you are so near to the end? The time is fast approaching for all questions to be answered. You have labored with such industry and cleverness to obtain these secrets, Antonio. I would hate for you to come so close only to miss them.”

“Okay.” Darling turned halfway, just enough for the Archpope to see his face. “Let’s hear it, then. Spill the big secret, tell me what the gods are hiding and what really happened at the end of the Elder War. I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

“You of all people,” Justinian said, spreading his hands slightly at waist height to indicate those gathered near him, “understand that this is no place or time for such revelations. But soon, Antonio.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s the thing,” Darling said, smiling again. “I don’t need you for that, either. Not anymore. Oh, and Baaaasra,” he added in a saccharine singsong, widening his smile to a wolfish grin as he turned it on her. “You can’t hide in here forever. You know it as well as I; you’ll go gibbering mad if you even try to keep yourself so confined. I will be seeing you again. Real soon.”

He turned his back on the silent assemblage and strode out, kicking the chapel door open, then kicking it again to close.

It shut behind him with a boom of echoing finality.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                     Next Chapter >