The carriage eased smoothly up to the curb, a sleek and expensive model that would have looked entirely suitable for this wealthy neighborhood except for the Falconer Industries logo on its doors marking it a company vehicle. One of those doors swung open and Trissiny slid out, pausing the second her boots had met the pavement to point accusingly back into the rear seat.
Behind her, F’thaan retreated, sitting down on the seat as instructed—with a whine of protest, but he did it.
“Good boy,” the paladin said with a smile, reaching in to scratch the demonic hound between his horns. He wasn’t quite full-grown, still possessing the lankiness and boundless energy of the puppy he’d been not long ago, but he had most of the height he would grow into, making it a very good thing that one of his owners was a strict disciplinarian.
“We’ll be back to pick you up at four,” Teal said from the driver’s seat as Trissiny finally stepped back, pushing the carriage door shut.
“Thanks again,” she replied cheerfully. “You two enjoy your day!”
“You, as well,” Shaeine said, favoring Trissiny with a rare smile of real warmth. Since their ritual at the Desolate Gardens, the drow had been generally more open with members of their group, but even still she was normally restrained in public.
Enchantments hummed back to full power as Teal guided the carriage forward and on up the street, and Trissiny turned to cross the short garden path with long strides, still smiling in anticipation.
The townhouse’s door opened exactly two seconds after her knock, revealing the familiar countenance of Glory’s Butler, who greeted her with a shallow bow and a small smile of genuine welcome. “Good morning, Ms. Avelea. It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“Hello again, Smythe,” she replied. “How’s everyone?”
“Quite well, as they will tell you at more length.” He stepped back, bowing and gesturing her gracefully forward. “Please, come in. And brace yourself.”
Trissiny had just stepped through the door and barely registered his warning before a whoop echoed off the marble and hardwood of the foyer and she was tackled from above.
But pure reflex she spun, gripping the person who’d just landed on her and tossing her in a flawless shoulder throw, which the acrobat negated by jackknifing her entire body around Trissiny’s and landing squarely on her back.
“Oof! Tallie, come on!”
“What is this?” Tallie demanded, clinging to Trissiny by wrapping her legs around her waist and grabbing two handfuls of her hair. “No, no, this won’t do it all! It looks wrong. Change it back immediately!”
“That’s its natural color, you goon. And don’t pull on it, what’s wrong with you?”
“It just isn’t right on you! You’re just so brunette, right to your core.”
“What does that even mean?”
“C’mon, let’s get you to a salon, my treat.”
“Oh, honestly, Tallie,” Layla sniffed, sauntering into the foyer from the nearby sitting room, “is there nothing you won’t nitpick? I quite like it, blondes are just so exotic. Hello, Trissiny!”
She stepped forward to wrap her arms around Trissiny in a hug, deftly slipping them in between Tallie’s grip.
“Hi, Layla,” Trissiny said resignedly, patting her back. “Good to see you, too. Is there some trick to getting her off?”
“Glory has had some luck with dog biscuits. Honestly, unless she starts gnawing your ears it’s simplest to just wait for her to get bored.”
“Wow, you just put on a show wherever you go, don’cha,” Darius drawled, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed. That lasted for one second until Rasha, who had plenty of room to slip through the door, nonetheless bumped him out of position in passing.
“Which part of this do you think was my idea?” Trissiny demanded, spreading her arms wide I a helpless gesture accentuated by the two young women clinging to her. “What, nobody else wants to pile on, too?”
“Excuse me,” Darius said haughtily, “but some of us remember how to be ladylike.”
“It’s true, he’s an inspiration to us all,” Rasha added, grinning broadly. “Gods, it’s good to see you again! Or it will be, I guess, when I can see all of you. Don’t listen to the wench, I love your hair. The blonde goes a lot better with your complexion.”
“I’m surrounded by traitors,” Tallie exclaimed, currently trying to braid Trissiny’s hair while still clinging to her like a monkey. “Tasteless traitors!”
“You know, until this moment, I’ve honestly never in my life spared a thought for how my hair looks,” Trissiny huffed.
“That’ll be the Avenist upbringing,” Layla replied solemnly, having finally released her and stepped back. “Don’t you worry, we’ll fix that. Just wait till I teach you how to contour!”
“Hey, wait a second,” Tallie protested. “Why am I the wench?”
“We all ask ourselves that, Tallie,” said Darius.
Smythe cleared his throat discreetly. “Glory and the other guest await in the green parlor. If you would follow me?”
“Well, I’d sure like to,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Wait, other guest?”
“Sorry to steal your thunder, Triss,” said Rasha. “This one was unexpected. Well, to us, anyway. I’m never sure how much Glory knows in advance.”
“And Glory likes it that way,” Layla added.
“Miss Tallie,” Smythe said diffidently, “I’m sure you don’t want another lecture about using the floor like everyone else.”
“This comes up a lot, does it,” said Trissiny.
“It’s usually about her clambering around on the ceiling,” Darius explained.
“I am unappreciated in my time,” groused Tallie, finally hopping down. “One day you’ll all be sorry!”
“Every day, hon,” Rasha assured her.
Trissiny found herself chuckling as they filed through the door into the parlor, herself in the middle of the line with Smythe bringing up the rear. “I’ve really missed you guys.”
In the green parlor, Glory was ensconced gracefully in the thronelike armchair with the high back, positioned before the windows and between two small potted fig trees, a bit of carefully arranged theater which was all part of her skill at controlling the room. True to form, she did not rise—no one who occupied an actual throne did so to greet a visitor—but leaned forward slightly with a smile of such warmth that her welcome was unmistakable.
“Thorn! It’s a delight to see you again; we’ve all been so looking forward to your visit. And your hair! That color is so fetching on you. Or I gather it was, before that unfortunate attempt at a braid. Tallie’s work?”
“Am I gonna have to take offense here?” Tallie demanded.
“Take two,” said Rasha, “and check back with us if the swelling doesn’t subside.”
“Thank you for inviting me, Glory,” Trissiny said, reaching up and grimacing as she tried to pull the braid loose with her fingers. “It’s good to see you, too! And also…” She turned toward the other person in the room, raising her eyebrows.
“There she is!” Sweet said brightly, waving in welcome with the hand not occupied with a small plate of butter cookies. “It has been a hound’s age, Thorn! Always a relief to see you haven’t been murdered yet.”
“Give it a week, it’s the holidays. All my enemies are on vacation. I didn’t realize you missed me this much, Sweet.”
“Alas,” he declaimed, “my normal roguish charm and Glory’s excellent cookies may give the wrong impression! But no, I’m afraid this is not a social call. For I am Sweet, crasher of parties and rainer upon parades!”
“Tooter of his own horn, yes, we’re all familiar with your resume. What can I do for you?”
“Why don’t we all make ourselves comfortable if we’re going to talk business?” Glory suggested in that skillful manner of hers which had the force of a command despite being light and gentle in tone. “I’ll not have a guest in my home pestered when she’s not even had something warm to take the chill off.”
Smythe was smooth to the point of being ephemeral, breezing through their formation like a hospitable ghost with such efficiency that by the time all five of them found their way into seats, each was carrying a plate of cookies and a cup of spiced tea.
“For serious, though, I am sorry to butt in on this,” Sweet said in a less playful tone, nodding to Trissiny and then Glory. “I know this is the big reunion and all, and I hate to make you talk business the second you’re in the door. Unfortunately, my job is about six times as difficult without the structure of the Church bureaucracy to help me along, and I’ve gotta grab what I can get.”
“What’s going on with that, by the way?” Trissiny asked. “I know why there’s still not an Avenist Bishop; Justinian’s dragging his heels on confirming any candidates. How long is the Guild planning to boycott the Church?”
“Oh, man, that’s a big question,” he said, grimacing. “Unfortunately, it’s basically a siege at this point. Tricks was hoping the embarrassment of having a member cult deliberately cut ties—which is unprecedented since the Enchanter Wars—would push Justinian into making some concessions, but he stood his ground, and now that the shock’s good and worn off, he is in exactly the same position he was before, but we can’t change course without so completely losing face that he’d have the permanent upper hand in every subsequent negotiation.”
“The other outcome we hoped for has also not materialized, despite Sweet’s efforts,” Glory added, nodding to the Bishop. “None of the other cults have seen fit to join us and the Avenists in solidarity.”
“Not that we don’t have sympathy,” said Sweet, “or even allies, but… Well, of the other cults that are skeptical of Justinian and inclined to agree with us, it’s not enough for them to want to disadvantage themselves, especially after they’ve seen how the Guild has been frozen out. In the last few months, Gwenfaer has taken to deliberately interfering with Justinian’s plans to the point he has personally called Bishop Raskin down on the carpet, but even so, Raskin remains at his post. I can relate; there’s a lot of advantage in maintaining access. That’s exactly why I stuck by his side for as long as I did. This was a risky maneuver, which…didn’t exactly work out for us.”
“There is also the case of the Izarites,” said Glory, pursing her lips in disapproval. “The Brethren have grown downright cold toward the Church, but Bishop Snowe herself is deep in Justinian’s pocket. At this point, it’s more likely that High Priestess Delaine will dismiss her from her position entirely than direct her to withdraw from the Cathedral. And she is reluctant to do even that, both to avoid the disadvantages the Guild and Sisterhood currently suffer, and because Izarites are traditionally very hands-off with their Bishop.”
“So what I’m hearing is the Pantheon cults are mostly a bunch of spineless chickenshits, that about right?” Tallie inquired.
“Some of ‘em,” Sweet said with clear amusement. “Some just have no care for politics, and many of those that do espouse the practice of keeping one’s enemies close.”
Trissiny heaved a sigh. “What a mess. I can’t help feeling some of this is my fault.”
“The Sisterhood’s situation, maybe,” Sweet said frankly. “But you did the right thing. After what we learned, there was just no ethical way to leave Basra where she was. In hindsight I am not proud of the years I spent making use of her, even given all the hints of what a warped piece of work she could be.”
“Well,” Trissiny said with a small grin, “use is one thing. In Ninkabi I did convince her to give me a hand.”
Darius choked on his tea.
“Yes, that must’ve been embarrassing for her,” Sweet said solemnly. “To have victory within her grasp, and then…”
“I guess her grip on the situation wasn’t as firm as she thought.”
“Y’might say you beat her to the punch!”
“Really, you two,” Glory said disapprovingly.
“Uh, what am I missing, here?” Tallie asked, glancing back and forth between them in confusion. Rasha leaned over and whispered in her ear; in the next moment she burst out laughing so hard Layla preemptively confiscated her teacup before it could spill.
“Well, anyway,” Trissiny said, suppressing her smile, “I gather all this wasn’t what you wanted to talk about.”
“No indeed,” said Sweet, leaning forward to set his cup down on the low table before his chair. “So, Underboss Pizazz informs me that you’re staying with Duchess Madouri over the break.”
“Yes, that’s so,” she said warily. “Is that…a problem?”
“Oh, not at all,” Sweet reassured her. “You’re not in any trouble, don’t worry. But Tricks and Pizazz are both curious about some points, and you being here is a handy opportunity for me to get a few questions answered, if you don’t mind.”
“Well, I don’t see why I would,” Trissiny said, shrugging. “I’m under no obligation to keep Ravana’s secrets. Actually, I don’t think I know any of her secrets.”
“Wait, hang on,” Darius interjected, “I need to clear something up, here. Am I to understand that the Underboss of Madouris is called Pizazz?”
“A thief’s tag is a sacrament, apprentice,” Glory said coolly. “One attached to someone who knows multiple ways to kick your ass. Aside from proper decorum, you should consider whether someone who got to be a city Underboss with a moniker that makes people laugh is worth offending.”
“Noted,” he mumbled.
“The Guild’s leadership in general is quite curious about the Duchess,” Sweet continued, “being that she is a newer face in the political scene and already notably unpredictable, and especially due to her being far more willing to work with us than practically any sitting noble.”
“Really?” Layla asked, visibly intrigued. “The Duchess Madouri cooperates with the Guild? Who initiated that?”
“She did, in fact,” said Sweet. “After she took over the province, her first act was to start dismantling her father’s old network of corrupt cronies who were running it into the ground. A good thing to do, of course; equally of course, the network of corrupt cronies didn’t care to get dismantled. The Duchess found that deploying law enforcement was a lot slower, pricier, and less certain than informing the Guild in detail of what these bastards had been doing and how to reach them, and then making sure that neither the courts nor the papers took an interest in anything that followed.”
“Damn,” Darius muttered. “Sounds…actually like a pretty good ally.”
Trissiny made a face. “Ehhh…”
“And that is Tricks’s position exactly,” Darling stated, pointing at her and nodding. “That girl is…well, she’s a case, all right. We’re very interested in gaining some insight into her. She sensibly keeps everyone at arm’s length, but every hint that emerges points to a pretty spooky individual who is very good at maintaining a positive public reputation. You can see why we’re anxious to get a perspective from someone who knows her personally, good ally or no.”
“I think Ravana is…useful,” Trissiny said slowly. “Cooperating with her up to a point could be very beneficial indeed, but I wouldn’t recommend trusting her outright. You should be wary of what she might do. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the Boss and Pizazz have been doing. Guess that doesn’t add much, does it?”
“Well, you’re the one on a first name basis with her,” Sweet said, giving her an encouraging nod. “Any deeper insight to offer?”
Trissiny frowned at the window for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “This may not make much sense, but… Well, I actually had a fairly deep conversation with Ravana just last night, and the impression I was left with was that I’d probably consider her an absolute monster if I hadn’t seen glimpses of the little girl who grew up alone and unloved.”
“No contradiction there at all,” he said immediately. “That is exactly how monsters get made.” Glory nodded in silent agreement.
“She’s got this peculiar philosophy she’s developed,” Trissiny continued, “about how being a just and generous ruler is purely the act of a far-thinking pragmatist, with no room for sentiment. Honestly, I think Ravana truly wants to be a good person and do the right thing, but has to try to rationalize decent actions to herself to fit with her self-image as a ruthless tyrant, because she’s got it into her head that kindness is for fools and suckers.”
“Oh, come on,” Tallie scoffed, “nobody could be that twisted in the brain and function.”
“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Trissiny said dryly, “let’s check with the actual nobles in the room.”
Darius and Layla were both already nodding.
“Oh, I could absolutely see an aristocrat ending up that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have never seen that specific mindset in person, but it really isn’t hard to imagine someone working themselves around to that perspective.”
“You have to understand what it is like, growing up with all that privilege, all those expectations and luxury and power,” Layla said more pensively. “You have to find a way to justify it, and as you get old enough to see what the world and other people are like, that grows progressively harder. Stupid individuals, of course, go through life never questioning anything, but those with an ounce of wit? Well, one of two things happens: they either double down on their self-obsession, or have to reach some kind of…accommodation. Some run away from it, like Darius and I; others build up a mental framework for their world that makes it seem fair and right that they enjoy their position, and then naturally get violent when that cage is shaken. People assume nobles are just arrogant and greedy—and make no mistake, they are—but the truth is that unless they reject their positions, they have to find a way to feel right, and justified. Otherwise their entire world doesn’t make sense anymore. And anyone will fight like a cornered animal if you try to take away their comfortable understanding of reality.”
“All that sounds like a lot of reasons why I should feel pity for the poor little rich kids,” Tallie said, her voice dripping skepticism.
“Layla makes a very good point, in fact,” Glory said softly. “I have observed that very pattern during my long association with the various rich and powerful of Tiraas. Empathy, Tallie, is a potent weapon you should never hastily discard. Only when you understand someone’s mind and can feel their heart can you truly destroy them.”
Rasha nodded thoughtfully.
“This is actually pretty helpful,” Sweet mused. “Maybe not in the most immediately strategic sense, but knowing the shape of the girl’s mindset helps me get a feel for where we stand. I did notice she backed off on pushing that narrative about you three paladins being the new heroes of the people not long into the new academic semester, Thorn. Your doing?”
“Oh, you’d better believe we all leaned on her about that,” Trissiny said, grimacing.
“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Reading those papers, I thought you were in cahoots with her about it.”
“Everyone did,” Rasha said softly. “That, obviously, is why she did it.”
“Overall, I’m getting the impression you’re not overly fond of her,” said Sweet, watching Trissiny closely.
“In a personal sense? Honestly, no.”
“Hm. If you don’t mind my asking, why agree to spend the holidays with her, then?”
“She’s been pushing for it pretty much all semester,” she said, frowning ruminatively. “Most of us have other things we usually do during breaks, but Ravana was really set on having the whole group together off-campus. Ultimately, everybody had their own reasons for agreeing. I was…well, curious. All the nobles I know are either Last Rock fringe cases, deliberate self-exiles like Layla and Darius, or absolute vicious deviants who live permanently up their own butts, like that arrogant naga Irina Araadia. It’s like Glory said: you can’t really fight someone unless you understand them. Looking at the world now, I’m getting the impression I am going to end up butting heads with as many entrenched politicians as warlocks and necromancers and whatnot. Ravana is a convenient opportunity to observe the species up close.”
“The species,” Layla sniffed. “Very nice.”
“Accurate, though,” Darius said, grinning.
“Ah, so this is a learning opportunity for you, as well,” Sweet chuckled.
“A very wise approach,” Glory said approvingly.
“Overall,” Trissiny went on, “nothing I’ve seen makes me think Ravana is going to be a threat to the Guild’s interests. She has nothing like an Eserite mindset, but I think that in general she’ll be inclined to do what’s best for the people of her province, even if her reasons are a bit squirrelly. But I’d caution the Boss and Pizazz never to take that for granted. I don’t think the woman actually has any moral scruples; she actively disdains the idea of them. If she decides something is in the best interests of her duty, well, no moral consideration is going to make her even hesitate. But she does take that duty seriously.”
“All very good to know,” Sweet said, nodding. “Thanks for dishing with me, Thorn, that kind of insight is well worth me coming down here. Pizazz will be glad to hear your thoughts, too. But anyway!” he said, slapping his knee and leaning back, “with that out of the way, I understand there’s another interfaith matter closer to home everybody wanted to bring up with you. Rasha?”
“Rasha?” Trissiny turned to her, raising her eyebrows.
Rasha sighed softly. “Yes, well. I assume you’re familiar with the Purists?”
“Purists?” The paladin’s eyebrows rose further. “Wait, with a capital P? Did you have a brush with one of those ninnies? I am so sorry, Rasha. Quite honestly, nobody has much patience for them. If you just passed their name and location to Grip and let nature take its course, I don’t think anyone in the Sisterhood would even complain.”
A tense silence fell over the room. Trissiny looked at each of them in turn, then sighed grimaced and leaned forward to set down her cup and saucer on the table.
“All right, sounds like I’d better hear the long version. Who do I need to clobber this time?”