Tag Archives: Sister Magden

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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