Tag Archives: Sister Magden

16 – 20

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

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

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

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

“Where did you get those swords?”

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

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

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

“From whom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Trissiny asked finally.

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

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

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

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

Embarrassed silence ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny shifted to face her, and nodded once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Purity is a nonsense concept.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 – 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, good job on that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So only you can talk while on duty?”

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

“Rasha?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zafi opened her mouth, then clamped it shut again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just ask, Medvidaar.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“General Avelea!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

“But—if—please—”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was exactly my thought,” Trissiny agreed.

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

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

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

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

Azalea and Zafi exchanged a glance.

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

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t matter. I still own it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is my intention, yes.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 – 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now you listen to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They started—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The elves did what?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what about—”

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

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

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

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

“Veilgrad stands!” he yelled unsteadily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natchua blinked at her, then turned to Fedhaar. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

He shrugged. “Lady, I’m in the Army. The brass rarely uses the best person for the job, but I don’t think it’s on purpose.”

“It’s like this,” said the dwarf, now with some amusement. “My crew are composed of my own people from Stavulheim, who have no particular faith in the Imperial government, and locals who are of…divided opinions. Some of ‘em will no doubt be reassured by knowing the Army is on the case, but not all, and maybe not most. Like I said, this is not a big deal. All of us together are well more than a match for the creature. But what I need to get my people back to work is assurance that there aren’t demons in the tunnels, so they don’t have to be looking over their shoulders every five seconds. I asked you to come, Natchua, to lend your credibility. We track the thing down and kill it, and then I can get the say-so of everyone’s favorite friendly local warlock and hero of the Battle of Ninkabi that it’s safe to get back to work.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, then grimaced apologetically at Captain Fedhaar. “Well… Crap. I guess I can’t turn up my nose at that, can I? As the least actually useful person here, it’d be an asshole move to not contribute what relatively little I can. All right, Agatha, fair enough. I’m in.”

“Glad to have you,” the dwarf said with a smile. “I’ll earmark you an honorarium from the discretionary—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I mean, thanks, but what the hell would I buy? Anything I need, Sherwin is happy to squander his ancestral wealth on. Save your funds for the folks doing the real work.”

“Huh,” Fedhaar grunted, staring at Natchua. “You weren’t kidding, Ms. Svanwen. Everything about her screams ‘cocky, irritating college kid,’ but damn if she doesn’t leave me with a positive impression.”

“Yeah, I’m a real fudge-dipped strawberry,” she drawled. “Everybody loves Natchua. All right, then! C’mon, nobody’s getting any younger. Let’s go fuck around in the dark demon-infested tunnels.”

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16 – 3

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“I spent some time thinking on it, like you asked. The thing is… Rasha isn’t exactly a name, at least not a traditional one. My sisters and all were all named like that, either after obscure literary references or just… Half-remembered bits of elvish or Sifanese our father heard once. It’s just not gendered, at all; it’s not rooted in enough tradition to be, either way.”

“It sounds like there’s an interesting story behind it,” Sister Iona said with her characteristic gentle smile, nodding. “Of course, what’s at issue is how you feel about it.”

“I feel attached,” Rasha said frankly. “It’s like you said a while ago: just because a lot of things need to change doesn’t mean everything does. You asked me to think about a name as an expression of my identity, and the only thing I can bring to mind is the one I already have. It’s mine. And… This sounds weird to say, but I find that now that I like myself, I like my name a lot more than I used to. Is that weird?”

“Nothing about it is weird,” she said with that gentle firmness she was so good at, helping to banish uncertainty without seeming pushy. “I’m glad you took the time to mull it over, Rasha. Remember, everyone’s journey is individual; if this is what’s right for you, then this is your truth. I hope I didn’t come across as pressuring you to take a new name.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” she replied hastily. “I mean, you didn’t. I may have nagged at myself about it a little; you know how I tend to get into my own head. When you described how common it is for people transitioning to rename themselves, I couldn’t help feeling like maybe I was doing it wrong.”

“And what do I always say about that?” Iona asked, smiling.

“There is no doing it wrong,” Rasha recited dutifully, unable to repress a smile in kind.

“Exactly! Everyone’s journey is individual, Rasha. I’ve helped guide a lot of women through these initial steps. It has given me a sense of how they tend to progress, usually, enough that I notice when someone is taking an uncommon path. At moments like that, I pay closer attention because there are often pitfalls on those paths. But in all these years, it has never become formulaic, or rote. All of these stories are unique. And in your case? I’ve watched you grow into yourself with amazing depth in the last year, Rasha. I am honestly not worried about your future, not with regard to this name thing, or in general. You are doing wonderfully. We’re simply at a stage where I find myself running through my checklist, making sure we’ve done everything as thoroughly as we can.”

Rasha’s smile faded slowly into seriousness. “Does that mean… Are we nearing the end?”

“There is no timetable,” Iona reassured her quickly. “The Sisterhood provides this support for as long as it’s needed. Many of the women I work with keep coming back for years, but then, some have ended their sessions as soon as their physical transitions are finished. How long we keep going is entirely for you to decide, Rasha. Consider me at your disposal.”

“I appreciate you, Sister,” Rasha said, her smile returning. “Has… Um, Sister Eivery said she wanted me to come for at least a couple more sessions, at weekly intervals, but she said as long as there are no surprising complications, I actually shouldn’t need any more alchemy.”

“Yes, she’s kept me appraised of your progress,” Iona said, nodding. “It’s quite a milestone. Are you feeling comfortable in your body?”

“So much so that it’s a constant euphoria,” Rasha said with quiet fervor. “I was so used to feeling wrong for years I just thought that was normal. Not feeling that way… It’s like being drunk. Is that weird?”

Iona tilted her head to give her a look over the rims of her glasses, a smile playing about her lips to soften the mock-severe expression.

“I know, I know,” Rasha said, grinning. “Nothing is weird.”

“Some things are a little weird,” the priestess demurred, still smiling. “It’s all right for them to be, and valid to feel that way. The question to which we’ve come, then, is how much longer you feel our sessions should continue.”

Rasha hesitated, her face falling still. The silence stretched out.

Sister Iona just watched her with patient, welcoming calm, and Rasha took a moment to turn her head to gaze out the window, knowing from experience that the priestess would give her as much time as she needed to marshal her thoughts.

The view wasn’t great; these rooms in the uppermost corridors of the Temple of Avei were designed to be comfortable and intimate, but they were in the medical wing, after all. Attached to the Silver Legion grounds as it was, that left it looking out over the descending arc of Tiraas rather than the famous Imperial Square, with a view that was half-blocked by an Imperial government building and a Rynean museum. Rasha had always found that it suited her, though. Having grown up on the docks, grandeur wasn’t really to her taste, though she had grown accustomed to Glory’s lavish standard of personal comfort.

She looked back at Iona’s eyes, prompting another gentle smile from the older woman, but the priestess just kept waiting for her to gather herself. Iona, she was pretty sure, was Thakari, to judge by her build and the shade of her skin. Identifying people by ethnic markers was one of the skills in which Glory was training her, and Westerners were by far the easiest: they ranged from the lean, almost-black Onkawi up in the tropics and grew thicker and paler the farther south one went to the sub-arctic N’Jendo/Athan’Khar border. Other divisions were subtler and still eluded her. Glory insisted that even among the Tiraan, an experienced eye could differentiate between the Calderaan, Tira, Vrandin and Mathena. Rasha still wasn’t entirely certain this was not one of Glory’s elaborate jokes.

“I am…sort of…torn,” she said finally.

Iona just nodded once, her silence encouraging.

“I don’t feel…ready,” Rasha admitted. “I still feel like I gain from every one of these sessions. I don’t want to quit them.”

“There is no hurry to,” the priestess assured her.

“And yet…I want to be done,” she said, lowering her gaze. “I just… I feel like I’m missing out, just sitting here and doing this. I keep remembering last year, how all my friends rushed off to Puna Dara to fight the Rust and save my own people, while I’ve done nothing but sit here in Tiraas learning…” She pursed her lips. “Learning how to be a girl. I feel like I should be doing so much more.”

“It is valid to feel that way,” Sister Iona said, nodding again. “But when you’re feeling something negative that drags you down and isn’t an accurate reflection of your situation, it’s very helpful to stop and remind yourself of what things are actually like. You can’t banish an emotion by denying it, but letting yourself feel a more positive one can be as simple as deliberately appreciating what you can about your life.”

“Isn’t it accurate, though? I’m nothing but an apprentice, after all. I study and practice with Glory and the others, I come here, and that’s pretty much…”

“Well, anything can sound tedious if you put it that way,” Iona countered, openly grinning now. “Not getting into the tensions between our cults, Rasha, I can absolutely assure you that no Eserite I’ve ever met has had a less than interesting life. Your dreary apprenticeship is with no less a luminary than Tamisin Sharvineh, who has the ear of dukes and generals and circulates with the Empire’s elite. And honestly, Rasha, you may have missed out on the escapade in Puna Dara, but… Do you still write to Trissiny?”

“Regularly, yes,” she said with a smile. “She’s actually going to visit soon. School is out for the winter and several of her friends are staying in Madouris over the break with Duchess Ravana.”

In fact, she was looking forward to that more than she admitted. Even after months of correspondence, she couldn’t help thinking of her friend as Jasmine, and couldn’t quite picture her blonde. Steady, reassuring Jasmine was sorely missed; she and Ross had been the calming presences in their group of friends.

“One thing I can tell you about Hands of Avei,” Iona said a little wryly, “is that if you’re going to stay in the orbit of one, you can expect to find yourself frequently outclassed to an extent that’s not great for the ego, while also being regularly dragged into adventures the likes of which you could never have anticipated. The truth is, Rasha, you are very young. Everyone your age is young, but you are also standing at the beginning of a lot of paths that lead in very interesting directions indeed. If there’s one thing you needn’t worry about, it’s that this is all you are. It’s only the beginning, I promise you. What we do here is by definition a transitional phase. None of use can know the future, Rasha, but yours isn’t going to be boring, that much I can confidently predict.”

Rasha found herself grinning at that. Before she could answer, the clock sitting on Iona’s desk chimed.

“Ah, I don’t have an appointment after yours today,” the priestess said quickly, “so this time there’s no need to rush off if you’d like to talk a while longer.”

“Actually…” Rasha stood, floating up from the settee in a smooth and poised motion in which Glory had drilled her; doing actual drills of that had felt ridiculous at the time, but she was very grateful in hindsight. Even Sister Iona had found cause to compliment the progress she’d made as a direct result of the courtesan’s tutelage. “Do you mind if we leave it at the usual time, today? I want to think some more on what you said.”

“Of course, Rasha,” Iona replied, also standing. “That’s half the benefit of having defined sessions, and you’re very good about progressing on your own. At the usual time next week, then?”

“Yes, please,” Rasha said with a grateful smile.

“And you know my office schedule, if you ever need to talk in a hurry.” Iona uncharacteristically hesitated, a small frown drifting over her features, which caused Rasha to frown worriedly in response. The priestess was one of the most consistently warm and composed people she’d ever met. “Actually, I do have to make a request of you today, Rasha, and I can only promise you that I don’t mean any offense.”

“What’s the matter?” Rasha asked, beginning to be actively worried now.

“I wonder,” Iona said, still with that concerned little frown, “if you wouldn’t mind leaving the temple through the side entrance today, the one just before the hallway transitioning to the barracks.”

Rasha drew her own eyebrows further together. “I don’t see why not… Is something going on, Sister?”

“I’m sure you recall my mention of the Purists,” Iona replied, momentarily clenching her lips in disapproval.

“You mean, that obscure Avenist faction that wants to murder me on principle?”

“They’ve never escalated to murder that I know of,” the priestess said reassuringly, “and between you and me, I hesitate to call their doctrine principle. But they’re somewhat less obscure right here and now, as over a hundred of them from across the continent have gathered in Tiraas to present grievances to the High Commander. And they first tried it in Viridill, at the Golden Legion headquarters and then the Abbey, and both Locke and Darnassy laughed them off. These women were already riled up beyond their norm by the time they got here. I’m just…concerned.”

Rasha put on a carefully sculpted expression straight from Glory’s training, a look that expressed disdain with just enough humor not to be offensive to the person she was talking to. “Really, Sister Iona, I can’t emphasize enough how little I’m afraid of a flock of bullying hens.”

“This is an Avenist matter, Rasha,” Iona said quietly. “You have your faith; I have mine, and it includes strict doctrines about conflict. No Avenist worth the iron in her blood would seek unnecessary confrontation, or allow noncombatants to be drawn into it. You are here as a guest and petitioner, entitled to the temple’s protection, and I don’t want you having to deal with this nonsense. Please, Rasha.”

It had been perilously close to a provocation, asking an Eserite to shy away from even the chance of confronting a confirmed asshole in need of a comeuppance, but at Iona’s soft explanation Rasha felt her rising pique melt away into chagrin. Of course, she wasn’t the only one here with a religious imperative, and while she naturally had issue with some of the Avenists’ ideas, it couldn’t be argued that the Sisterhood overall, and especially individuals like Trissiny, Iona, and Eivery, had been very kind to her.

“Of course, I understand,” she said, nodding in acquiescence. “No sense courting trouble, after all.”

“Indeed there is not.” Iona opened the door to usher her out into the hall, again smiling warmly. “You will always be welcome here, and I don’t want anyone trying to make you feel otherwise.”

“I’ll be sure not to listen to anyone who does,” Rasha promised. “See you next week as usual, Sister Iona.”

“Next week, then. Take care of yourself, Rasha.”

She was still smiling slightly as she glided down the hall after Iona closed her office door behind. By this point, the ladylike glide was practiced enough that she could do it without conscious concentration. A lot of things felt like they’d come together over the last year. Iona was right: building an identity was necessary work and took time. The more ready she felt, though, the more anxious Rasha was to get to actual work. Eserion’s faithful weren’t called to sit around in comfort while corrupt people had their way with society.

Fortunately, she didn’t have any more time to stew in her thoughts, as the path took her to a staffed checkpoint at the end of the upper hall, where the Sisterhood felt it prudent to keep track of who was passing in and out of these publicly available offices in their medical wing. This also afforded Rasha some extra practice at her poise and control, as the pretty Legionnaire was on duty.

“Hi there,” the woman said with an easy grin as she approached the doorway to the stairwell where two troops were always stationed. Half a head taller than Rasha (but so were most people), she was Tiraan, with her black hair twisted up in a regulation bun rather than cut short, and even in full armor and standing at attention she had a permanent twinkle in the eye, a way of looking roguish that would have better suited an Eserite. And she was friendly in a way that had several times left Rasha inwardly scrambling to figure out if she’d meant anything by it. “If it isn’t the cute Punaji lady! I thought this was the right day of the week.”

She slowed to a halt before the doorway, meeting the soldier’s eyes with some bemusement. That seemed a little more definitive… One of Glory’s lessons about not creating potential awkwardness in what should be safe places swam across her memory, but she let it float away, instead reaching for more pertinent recollections of her sponsor’s coaching. Posture, expression, just the slightest tilt of her head so making eye contact with the taller person made her look up through her lashes…

“And hello to you, too. My friends call me Rasha.”

The woman’s grin widened in response, and she made a little double-waggle with her eyebrows. “Does that mean we’re friends?”

This was new ground. Bless Glory’s tutelage, that question alone would have set a younger Rasha to blushing and stammering incoherently. Now, she knew how to harness emotion and control it, not allowing the very physical thrill prickling up and down her spine at being openly flirted with to determine what was expressed on her face. Conversations had rhythms, and her repartee had been not only coached by the courtesan with whom she was training, but deliberately practiced with Layla (and Tallie, earnestly pretending she was just helping Rasha while soaking up the same lessons).

“Better that than the alternative, isn’t it?” she rejoined, concentrating on her face. Left side of the lips turned upward in a half-smile, deliberately softening the muscles around her eyes so it didn’t look like a smirk…

The second Legionnaire on the other side of the door rolled her eyes, but Rasha’s new “friend” gave her a very similar not-quite-smirk in return.

“Glad to finally meet you, Rasha. I’m Zafi. Might I offer you an escort to the front doors? I’d hate to think of a guest in our temple getting lost.”

Yes! Not because she needed help finding her way, as Zafi had to know; she’d been on duty here off and on for half a year now, and they’d met at least once a month. Rasha kept the glee firmly contained, simply giving her a soft smile accompanied by a languid blink of her eyes. Glory had made her befriend a stray cat to get that one down.

“In fact, I would appreciate it. I hear there are dangerous extremists about today.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Zafi said solemnly. “Hey, Nimbi, do me a favor?”

“I will not do you any favors,” the other Legionnaire said irritably. “Not that you need one, as you well know escorting a guest is an acceptable reason to leave your post. Try to keep the dawdling to a minimum, would you?”

“You’re a peach, Nimbi,” Zafi said with an irrepressible grin, already stepping aside and gesturing to the door with a grand bow. “Right this way, if you please, m’lady.”

“Now, now, just Rasha is fine,” she replied, already sashaying past her. “I thought we were going to be friends, remember?”

Zafi laughed obligingly as she followed, and then they were descending the stairs in sudden silence. Still desperately keeping facial composure, Rasha groped about inside her head with increasing frenzy for something to keep the conversation going. Shit, what now? She’d practiced this stuff, why was it not…

“I’m sure you don’t need your personal business pried into, so by all means shut me down if I get too nosy,” Zafi said, and Rasha barely managed not to gasp with relief. “Is it true you’re Eserite?”

“Oh?” Rasha asked, channeling her sudden wariness into a coy sidelong glance. “Am I the subject of gossip in the ranks?”

“I hope you’re not offended,” Zafi said lightly. “You just can’t parade a mysterious and exotic lady in front of soldiers on a weekly basis and expect there not to be gossip. Simply isn’t done.”

“Now I find myself wondering where that rumor originated,” she murmured. It was a serious question; counseling was supposed to be absolutely confidential. And if there were Purists sniffing around the temple…

“Alas, I fear hunting that down is beyond my skill,” Zafi lamented. “You know how rumors work. It’s so hard to trace them back to their source it’s almost like they burst up out of the ground like cabbages. Why, is that one true?”

“I’m certain I have no idea where such a thing could possibly have come from,” Rasha said primly, while flicking a doubloon out of the wide sleeve of her winter dress into her palm. She made the coin roll smoothly across the backs of her fingers, flicked it in a flashing arc to her other hand where she rolled it the rest of the way and then made it vanish into the other sleeve. “Really, the very notion!”

Zafi whistled appreciatively at the performance. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for being intrigued! They do say Eserites are…dangerous.”

“Anyone with a mind to be is dangerous, darling,” Rasha said, shooting her a sly smile.

The soldier winked, and she felt a flutter in her chest in response. “You’re talking to someone with a sword, cutie, don’t have to tell me twice. It’s almost a let down, unraveling some of the mystery. Almost more fun to wonder what your deal is, the enigmatic lady of the upper hall! I’ve even heard a rumor you’re a personal friend of the Hand of Avei.”

And that, actually, might explain some things. Iona and Eivery had earned her trust, nor had she had cause to doubt the discretion of the specialists who administered the alchemy and magic involved in physically transitioning. It stood to reason, though, that within the Sisterhood there had to be countless parties watching Trissiny’s comings and goings, legitimately or not. All it would take would be one wrong pair of eyes having spotted her with the paladin during last year’s shenanigans…

She pushed that aside to be worried about later, shooting Zafi another coy look. “Would you like to meet her?”

The soldier almost tripped, but didn’t stop, giving Rasha a wide-eyed stare as they walked. “Shut up. Are you serious?”

“Now, I probably shouldn’t promise I can produce her,” Rasha said lightly. “Trissiny’s not a dancing pony, after all. But, she may be in town soon, and I’ve got a feeling if I pitch it to her as my in with the prettiest trooper in the Third Legion, she just might have a sense of humor about it. No harm in asking, at least.”

“Okay, I take it back,” Zafi said, and it was astonishingly gratifying how visibly impressed she was. “The odd little revelation only deepens the mystery. Now I want to unravel you like an onion.”

Oh, the subtext in that one was beyond clear, and Rasha’s first impulse was to seize it like a chunk of driftwood in a storm. But if there was one thing in which Glory meticulously coached her apprentices, it was the art of seduction. One must never be too hasty; one did not grasp or cling, but gently led along. She could tell by the eagerness in the woman’s eyes she’d successfully set a hook. Now was time to reel just a little bit at a time. The prey had to make an effort of their own, had to want to. That, Glory had emphasized, was the crucial difference between courting and harassment.

“Well, fortunately for you,”she said, coming to a stop and turning to smile directly at her, “you know just where and when to find me. Maybe by next week I’ll know a bit more definitively.”

“Oh, now that’s just unfair,” Zafi chided, but not without her irrepressible grin. “You can’t leave me hanging for a whole week!”

“Wow, you really must want to meet the paladin.”

“Yeah, sure. Paladin, whatever.” She waved one gauntleted hand absently, still holding Rasha’s gaze with a new warmth in her eyes. “But now I have to wait a week to see my lady of mystery? Have pity on a poor soldier, Rasha! Who knows if I’ll even be posted on that hall by then?”

“Now, I know for a fact soldiers are allowed to trade assignments,” Rasha said with a wink. “I bet if you really wanted to, it wouldn’t be too terribly hard to make sure you’re there. After all, you can’t expect a lady of mystery to make it too easy.”

“You’re a playful little minx, aren’t you?” Zafi complained, but in a cadence which suggested it was mostly a compliment. “All right, Rasha. You’re on.”

“Am I?” Rasha retorted, re-using that sly little almost-smirking smile. “I guess we’ll see in a week, won’t we?”

She turned slowly, another maneuver in which Glory had meticulously coached her. One step away, angling her body gradually, holding eye contact all the way through the pivot until just before it became physically awkward to do so, and then smoothly completing the shift to glide away with her head high. Perfectly executed, if she did say so herself.

Only after completely turning and starting to walk away did Rasha realize she’d gotten caught up in flirting with the soldier and, completely ignoring Sister Iona’s request, taken the usual route through the main temple; now she was in the great entrance hall that opened onto Imperial Square. Well, she reflected ruefully, at least now she knew some attention and a pretty face was all it took to smack the sense right out of her. Rasha honestly had zero memory of any of the scenery through which they’d passed, though she could have recited every word of her conversation with Zafi.

It could have been worse. It was a common enough weakness, and knowing it meant she could coach herself to pay more attention next time. Live and learn.

She kept heading toward the doors without slowing, subtly glancing to both sides just out of common sense and wariness. Indeed, the great hall looked a bit more stirred up this morning than she was accustomed to, with more priestesses than usual milling about near the statue of Avei and half the usual Legionnaire posts unattended, suggesting the soldiers kept being sent off on various errands. There were more petitioners about, though mostly hustling through the sanctuary rather than gathering in prayer or discussion. At a casual glance, it looked more like the response of a public to some outer development than any tension stirred up by a renegade faction imposing themselves on the temple.

Which was good, as far as it went, but also raised some questions. It might behoove her to check out a newspaper vendor on the way home.

Rasha’s mulling was abruptly de-Railed by a sudden and terrifying question: did Zafi know what went on in that upper hallway, what she was there for? If she didn’t… Would she care? Should Rasha tell her? But when, and for the gods’ sake, how?

She kept walking mostly by reflex while these fresh worries thrummed in her brain. Eyes forward, face still carefully composed, Rasha proceeded without really seeing where she was going, and thus walked right into the ambush.

An ambush it was, and a skillful one at that. A woman melted out of the shadow of a column and stepped straight in front of her, and two more slid in smoothly from behind to finish blocking the path forward. They arranged themselves in a tight arc in front of Rasha, deftly creating the impression of hemming her in even if they hadn’t managed so much as a complete semicircle around her. It was very neatly done, the kind of maneuver that could only have been executed if they’d planned it out carefully and been watching for her to appear.

That fact alone sharpened her focus with a surge of adrenaline, even before she took in the spectacle of what they were wearing.

All three were priestesses of Avei, but clearly not of the same mainstream sect as those Rasha was used to here in the temple. They wore the typical white robes, yes, but with chain mail tunics over them, and over that gray tabards on which Avei’s eagle sigil was embroidered in white. Steel-backed leather bracers peeked out from the wide sleeves of their robes—a lightweight and easily concealed substitute for a shield very useful in hand-to-hand combat. Eserites made use of such pieces. Altogether, it required no imagination to guess that this was the uniform of a particularly militant sect of the Sisterhood.

Most alarmingly, they all wore swords hanging from their heavy belts. Not traditional Avenic short swords for massed infantry combat, but one-handed longswords better suited to dueling. The woman in the center had her hand suggestively on the heavy pommel of hers.

“So,” she said in a grim tone, staring down her hooked nose at Rasha, “you’re the one.”

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