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She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

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16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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16 – 30

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My help?”

Natchua made a wry expression. “Is that so astonishing? You’re a paladin, I thought helping people was all part of the job.”

“Well, yes, but… I mean, in very specific… I’m just surprised you need something from me.” Trissiny cleared her throat, grasping for the remnants of her poise and studiously ignoring Gabriel’s insufferable grin. “Is this somehow related to your, ah, social event this evening? And congratulations on that, by the way.”

“It is, yes, and thank you,” Natchua replied, grimacing.

“Okay, not to de-Rail this,” Gabriel interjected, “but I’m sorry, I’ve just gotta. You’re going to be a noble, now? An Imperial noble?”

“A Duchess, so they tell me,” Natchua grumbled, her expression growing if anything more unhappy. “Look, I’m aware this whole thing probably seems like me conning my way into… Well, let me just be clear, this is something Malivette and Ravana have cooked up between them, and Sherwin’s on board because, honestly, can you imagine him holding out with those two trying to wheedle him into doing whatever thing they have in mind?”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I can see it.”

“How has nobody murdered him yet? I shoulda taken that bet when Ruda offered it.”

“I,” Natchua continued irritably, “am going along with this because I have been persuaded that it’s in the best interests of Veilgrad, and of…me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations.”

“Yeah, funny how becoming a high-ranking aristocrat can be in the best interests of you,” Gabriel said innocently.

“Being involved in that kind of power is very much a double-edged sword, Gabriel, and I know you’re smart enough to know that. For one thing, after this summer, apparently it carries a risk of being visited by you three in a waterboarding mood!”

“You really know how to ask for a favor,” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua pressed one hand to the side of her face and closed her eyes for a moment. “I… Sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry, that’s just the worry talking. Omnu’s balls, I am out of my depth with this entire thing… Oh, uh, sorry, Toby.”

“If he’s not going to take exception to that, I’m certainly not,” Toby replied, amused. “I decided long ago that picking my battles meant that one was never going to be on the agenda. Why don’t we have a seat over here, by the fireplace? I can tell you’re stressed by all this, Natchua. These things are often easier to discuss in more comfortable surroundings. Care for something to nosh? Apparently the kitchen here is always open, and the staff seems to take real pride in fulfilling requests.”

“Still the team dad, I see,” Natchua said, even as she allowed him to lead her to the sofa nearest the main hearth. “Uh, no thanks, I’m honestly too nervous to eat. You all got your invitations, right?”

“We did,” Trissiny answered, perching on the arm of a plush armchair while Gabriel flopped fully into another one. Toby and Natchua both elected to stand, she already beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Thanks for thinking of us, Natchua, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. No slight intended, we’re just…kind of up to our necks in something, here.”

“That’s fine, I know it’s ridiculously short notice,” Natchua agreed, nodding. “It’s… Okay, that’s as good a segue as any. All this is pretty much what I wanted to ask you about, Trissiny.”

Segue or not, she then stopped talking, pacing a few laps up and down in front of the fire with a perturbed expression while the three paladins watched. After a few seconds, Gabriel opened his mouth, but Toby caught his eye and gave a single shake of his head. It was only a moment longer before Natchua finally found the thread of her thoughts again.

“So, there’s a lot of preparatory work involved in this noble thing, you know? And because Vette and Ravana are so dead set on moving fast to take everybody by surprise, it’s all being crammed in at the last second, so I’ve spent my morning dealing with… Just, all kinds of bullshit. But anyway, the thing that stuck out to me was my interview with the old steward of House Leduc. Scrappy old Vernisite guy, seems to be completely still there in the head despite his age. Under Sherwin he’s had basically nothing to do except make sure the Manor gets its weekly food delivery, and he was so excited that it’s going to be an actual House again.”

“What does that entail, exactly?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, being an actual House again. Not that I’m criticizing, you understand. Even you cannot possibly be a worse leader than Sherwin.”

“I don’t entirely know is the problem,” Natchua said in mounting frustration. “That’s exactly the issue! Apparently there’s a lot and I comprehend very little of it, but there are all these well-trained people who are oh so happy to step in and take all the details off my hands. It all came to a head for me when I was listening to Mr. Vonstraum—uh, that’s the steward I was talking about—tell me what kind of business and financial enterprises a fully active noble House is expected to do, and then there was this…this one moment.”

She abruptly stopped pacing, turning to meet Trissiny’s eyes.

“He mentioned how the Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is basically an afterthought since House Leduc withdrew from all its activities. Just a few people with nothing to do, really.”

“We discovered that when we were there,” Toby said, nodding. “What Eserites there still are have other priorities, too. Apparently the Underboss is in the Army, and one of the others ended up as one of Malivette’s…uh, attendants.”

“Jade, yeah,” Natchua said with a mirthless grin. “’Attendant’ is a word for it, I guess. But anyway, it was the way Vonstraum said this. He was practically drooling at the prospect of doing business in a Guild-free city.”

“I was never real clear on why that’s the case,” Gabriel added. “What about Veilgrad discourages Eserite activity?”

“Veilgrad’s a scary place,” Trissiny explained. “The Guild is active where there are powerful interests being predatory. And…that’s not really how things work, there; the usual predators are the prey. With the local ruler being a fair-minded vampire with an interventionist streak, it’s very hard for large-scale corruption that to take root. The way I understand it, the Guild was only needed to keep House Leduc itself in check, because they were the only ones with the oomph to push back against House Dufresne. With them effectively gone…” She spread her hands in a half-shrug.

“Exactly!” Natchua nodded. “That’s it exactly. To be frank, I’m not sure it was ever a great idea for the Guild to draw down with Malivette in charge, just because she doesn’t tend to pick on the little guys; that’s a lady who urgently needs some checks on her power if I ever met one. But now House Leduc is coming back, and… Trissiny, you’re the only Guild contact I know. I need to get more people out there to my city. Veilgrad needs a full Thieves’ Guild presence, as quickly as possible.”

All three stared at her in surprise while she gazed earnestly at Trissiny.

“Wait, so…” Toby blinked. “Your first act upon joining the nobility is to try to increase the Eserite presence in your domain? You do know how they tend to feel about nobles?”

“Of course I know,” Natchua said testily, shooting him a scowl. “That is literally the entire point, Caine, I thought I just explained that.”

“Well, this is pretty on-brand for you, Natch,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “First you make me grudgingly respect you, and then you immediately ruin it.”

“…sorry.” The drow lowered her eyes, her shoulder shifting in a small exhalation. “I know, you’re right, I’m not very… Well, you know. It’d be easy enough to say I’m only going to do business in a certain way, but the overarching lesson of my day so far has been that I do not in the slightest understand how a noble House operates. It’s a hugely complex enterprise, and apparently it’s able to function pretty well without much direct oversight, but here’s the thing: my options are to reactivate what remains of the old Leduc structure, with all the corruption and predation that implies, or allow Malivette to basically hand-pick one for me, which’ll effectively make me her pawn. I’d be wary of that even if she and Ravana weren’t conspiring to reshape the political landscape of the Empire for their personal benefit. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m a pretty fast learner; I know I’ll ultimately have it in hand, and be able to control my people properly. But that’s eventually. Nobles get trained for this from birth, and for good reason. It’ll likely take me years to be in full control, and in that time the gods only know what kind of havoc will be unleashed in my name, to say nothing of what Vette will do with her own reaffirmed authority over the province. I just… I will feel a lot safer with a firm presence in Veilgrad to keep the nobles in check. At least until I can wrap my head around the running of House Leduc’s interests enough to handpick better people for its agents and put some rules in place, but even after that point. Just, on general principles, you know? Nobles should not be free to do whatever goddamn thing they want, and with Vette in as good as she is with the Throne, Tiraas won’t help. I need the Guild. Can you help me, Trissiny?”

Her expression was very nearly pleading.

Trissiny inhaled deeply, blinking her eyes as if she was having difficulty processing all this. “Okay… Well, first of all, Natchua, there’s really not a thing I can do about this. I’ve got no operational control at all within the Guild.”

“What?” Natchua looked incredulous. “You don’t— But wasn’t it a huge deal when you joined up with them? I mean, you’re the Hand of Avei!”

“And in the Sisterhood of Avei, yes, that’s a big deal,” Trissiny said wryly, “but one thing Eserites really do not like is people trying to claim unearned authority over them. My Avenist rank means nothing there except for a quick way to piss everybody off if I tried throwing it around. In the Thieves’ Guild I’m just a bottom-ranking neophyte enforcer with no major jobs to her name and only a few connections.”

“I see.” Natchua’s shoulders slumped.

“Now, hang on,” said Trissiny. “Guys, were you leaning toward attending that coming-out party at Malivette’s place tonight? I know we’re busy, but…”

“I’m not sure what else is going to happen on this front between now and tomorrow,” said Toby. “That’s when our big announcements are all being made, right?”

“I was definitely planning to go,” Gabriel added. “Accepting Ravana’s invitation out here meant not going home for the winter; I’m not gonna pass up a chance to see my dad again if one pops up like this.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Natchua said, nodding eagerly at him. “Hesthri would also love a chance to spend some time with you.”

“Mnh,” he grunted, almost aggressively noncommittal.

“Right, so, here’s the bad news,” said Trissiny. “There’s some kind of issue in the Guild’s upper leadership right now that may impede any major operations or reassignments. The good news is that what you’re talking about here should appeal to any Eserite in principle. And I do happen to know exactly the right person to pull the strings I can’t and get some more people sent out to Veilgrad, if it can be done. So yeah, Natchua, I’ll be there tonight, and if I can make my RSVP plus one, I may be able to answer your request.”


“I’ve gotta say, Sweet, I’m surprised to see you comin’ to me with this.”

Ever the gracious host, Vandro waited till his guest was comfortably seated in his parlor with a scone in hand and the other members of the household likewise served before firing off the piercing question.

“Well, who else would I come to?” Sweet asked with his usual disarming grin, one Webs would naturally recognize as a facade. He wasn’t interested in wasting time playing mind games with this one; so long as Webs was likewise willing to keep the conversational chicanery to the necessary minimum, there was no reason this couldn’t be a civil discussion. “You know I like to cultivate my own networks, but let’s be honest, the both of us inherently limit ourselves purely because of who we choose to pal around with. And I’ll freely admit that the political hamster wheel I’ve been running since Ninkabi has cut down on my ability to keep up with even my usual rounds in the city. If I’m looking for dirt on Tricks… Well, who’s the most well-connected critic of Tricks to be found?”

“Hm,” Vandro murmured, actually taking a sip of his omnipresent blue cocktail. Sweet took that as a sign he was surprised by all this; the man was famously never without an alcoholic drink, but usually brandished it undrunk as a conversational prop, and was known to put people off guard by pretending to be impaired while stone sober.

He was the only one drinking. Sweet and Thumper had both declined cocktails, and Wilberforce hadn’t even bothered to ask Gimmick. The Butler was now off in the kitchen preparing tea while the four of them sat around the low parlor table with scones which none of them were eating.

Vandro was silent for the moment, holding the cocktail just under his nose and studying Sweet through pensively narrowed eyes. That was a good sign; he’d take pains to obscure his acute analysis if he thought they were at cross-purposes. Always ready to deflect awkwardness anyway, Sweet decided to give Webs whatever time he needed to ponder by switching the focus of the conversation.

“Thumper, you’re limping. What’ve you done to yourself this time? I honestly thought you’d lay low for a while after you got out Style’s tender care.”

“You bet your ass I have,” Thumper assured him. “I’m fine, Sweet, this is just a li’l momento of my last chat with Style. It’ll straighten out in time.”

“What?” Sweet scowled in sudden displeasure. “Style wasn’t supposed to fucking maim you, the Boss was crystal clear on that.”

“Oh, she didn’t,” Webs interjected, now watching Thumper with an annoyed grimace. “Style’s nothing if not a pro. And Jerry here would be back to a hundred percent long since if he’d gotten a proper healing and then stayed off his feet for a week like the docs goddamn well instructed. I keep tellin’ you, boy, what’s the damn point of me hirin’ the best healers in the capital if you won’t fucking do what they say?”

“I hear you, Alan,” Shook replied with the patience of a man who’d had this conversation repeatedly and expected to do so again. “An’ like I told you, I’m fine. It’s fine. Main project of my life right now is gettin’ my own head together, what with all the magic bullshit and that succubus, not to mention cleaning up after my own goddamn stupidity. A little pain here an’ there helps me focus. It’s not like I don’t have it coming, anyway.”

“Omnu’s balls, Thumper!” Sweet exclaimed. “You have got an absolute genius for taking the wrong lesson from any given situation. Walking around wounded is useful for exactly nothing! You wanna engage in self-flagellating bullshit, just join the Huntsmen and have done with it.”

“The hell you say,” Thumper retorted with a smirk, straightening one of his lapels. “Have you seen how those assholes dress?”

“He has been attending Avenist temple services,” Saduko commented, and then met Thumper’s annoyed scowl with a polite little smile.

“Yeah, and ain’t that the fuckin’ icing on the cake,” Vandro huffed.

“Hey, it’s instructive!” Shook protested. “I’ve already spotted half a dozen specific ways in which they are full a’ shit, but also a good handful of useful thinkin’ points I never considered before. Man’s gotta keep an open mind, y’know? Just not too open.”

Vandro cleared his throat pointedly before bringing the conversation back on track. “Well, Sweet, I gotta ask: what is it about this that’s got you scheming to knock Tricks off his pedestal? So he’s bein’ high-handed and too much in control; I’ve been sayin’ that for years.”

“First of all,” Sweet said flatly, setting his scone and plate down on the table, “nobody’s knocking anybody anywhere. My whole point here is to find out if it’s gonna be necessary to do anything about Tricks, which is why I’m here asking what else you might know about him overreaching.”

“All right, well, fact remains, it seems like an arbitrary thing to me. So he tried to rip off the Falconers. Why’re you so fond of them? Or that weirdo fuckin’ demon dog of theirs?”

“I struggle to have any opinion about the Falconers or their pets,” Sweet replied. “They seem okay, for industrialists, but who’s got tears to spare for the problems of rich people? My issue is who they’re connected to. That dog also belongs to the drow wife of the Falconer heiress, who is a noble of the Narisian diplomatic House—and this right at a moment when shit between the elves and the Empire is at maximum tension to begin with. And then there is fucking Vadrieny. That little snatch-and-grab could’ve kicked off a massive diplomatic crisis, which would make it a colossally goddamn stupid thing to do, and it sent two Guild members in good standing right into the claws of an archdemon without warning ‘em they were about to piss her off. Whatever you think about Tricks’s leadership style, he’s never been stupid, and he has never mishandled honest thieves like that before. Something is up, Webs.”

“Huh,” Vandro grunted, swirling his cocktail and staring at it. “When y’put it like that, I do kinda see your point. But that highlights the problem here, Sweet: it takes a little explainin’ to the likes of me to suss out why Tricks may be acting out of character. By the same token, most of my, shall we call ‘em, social circle likely haven’t noticed anything outta the ordinary either. Those who think the way I do are not likely to be happy about the Boss anyway, and I can’t say how many will share your observation that this is something new an’ different.”

Saduko cleared her throat. “Also, as Webs has been very clear that he is not interested in plotting to unseat the Boss, most of those who have his ear will not have been watching Tricks more closely than anyone else.”

Sweet raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah, while we’re talkin’ about this, I gotta say I never got it,” Thumper admitted. “You’re always goin’ on about how much you don’t like Tricks’s leadership, Alan. That Om’ponole job in Onkawa that went so completely tits up sounded like you were beginning to work on a longer-term plan to undercut his authority. What changed?”

“You think anything’s changed?” Vandro chuckled. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry m’boy, I’ve spent the last couple years largely worryin’ about you. But no, I have still been running jobs, and even moved myself back here to Tricks’s backyard to keep doin’ it. Being that I am not angling to take over his position, the best play to undercut him is to earn more cred than he is while loudly complaining about his leadership. Truth be told, it’s not gonna draw much attention except from the people who specifically keep an eye on Guild politics. But then, that’s exactly the point.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of it, then,” said Thumper. “You’d be as good a Boss as he is. If you’re not gonna try to take over, what—”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah!” Vandro leaned back in his seat, holding up his cocktail and his free hand in a defensive gesture. “I’m an operations guy, Jerry. That’s what I do: I plan big jobs and direct my minions with a firm guiding hand. The only thing that makes me any better than Tricks is I damn well know my place! The Guild’s not supposed to be run like a tight ship. Boss Webs would be the same shit from a new asshole. That’s why I’m not trying to unseat the Boss. I got no business doing that, when there’s no adequate replacement for him lined up. Best use of me right now is to use my influence to counter his.”

“It might not be as hard as you think,” Sweet murmured. “Tricks has hinted to me for years that he wouldn’t mind passing the job back…”

“Perhaps I do not understand,” Saduko said delicately. “I know the central operation of the Guild in Sifan is different, as with all the Pantheon cults. Leadership there is a position of honor, for which there is much competition. Is it truly not so in Tiraas?”

“Aren’t you half-Sheng?” Thumper asked. “I thought their branch of the Guild ran more or less like the Imperial one.”

“I am an Imperial citizen,” she said in such an icy tone that he leaned away from her, “and I have never been to Shengdu.”

“Way I hear it, nothing there that’s worth seeing is still standing after the civil war,” Vandro said lightly. “But no, Gimmick, around these parts we take it as given that anybody who wants to be in power is automatically disqualified. So,” he added with a grimace, “I’m well aware that my carrying on may result in exactly that. If I just didn’t care for the position, I might suck it up and try to move in on Tricks anyway, but my specific point is that I wouldn’t be a better Boss than he is—or even a much different one. So me tryin’ to take his job would be nothing but a completely pointless upset of the Guild’s operations. But!”

He leaned forward, brandishing his cocktail almost accusingly at Sweet.

“Now you’ve brought this up, Sweet, I’ll tell you what I can do for you. I got no answers for you right now, but you’re right that I’m in good with the people who can get ‘em. It’s a matter of askin’ some friends of mine to think carefully about things they may’ve seen lately, and start looking closer at other stuff. It’s doable. But the price I demand for this assistance is your backing if we decide what’s needed is a new Boss. I got somebody in mind who I think would be the best candidate to take over.”

“Once again, Webs,” Sweet said firmly, “I am not committing to that course of action yet. I’m still in the very early stages of deciding if that’s what needs to be done.”

“Of course, everybody’s clear on that,” Webs replied, waving his sloshing drink impatiently, “that’s why I said if with all the emphasis. If, Sweet.”

“All right, if,” he replied. “Obviously I’m not gonna sign off on something like that without knowing exactly who you’re planning to put forward.”

“Is it really not obvious?” Vandro grinned broadly at him. “Nobody here actually thinks we need a new Boss as such; we’re all just concerned about the current one. If the worst case scenario has to go down, it’ll mean massive disruption in the Guild, and the next poor bastard to fill the role needs to be both very familiar with its workings and very skilled at soothing people’s ruffled feathers and coaxing folks back to business as usual. I’m talking about you, Sweet.”

“Huh,” Thumper said into the startled silence which ensued. He and Gimmick were both studying Sweet pensively. That was the moment when Wilberforce bustled back into the room with a laden tray and began pouring tea.

“I, uh… I feel like I’ve skipped a chapter, here,” Sweet admitted after taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “It was my impression you weren’t much more pleased with my performance as Boss than Tricks’s, Alan.”

“Only problem I had with you was that your obsession with not rocking the boat came right after Catseye set it on a dangerous course, Antonio. That woulda been a problem just because she was so ham-fisted, but there’s also the fact that trying to transition from a Boss who was boinking the Empress to a Boss and an Emperor who weren’t even on speaking terms without functionally changing our methods made our legal position shakier than it needed to be.”

Thumper had just choked on a bite of his scone, and Saduko hesitated in lifting her teacup, staring at Vandro with wide eyes. Wilberforce simply carried on distributing cups as if he could hear none of this.

“Hey, now, let’s not distribute scurrilous rumors about the dead,” Sweet protested.

“Pardon me,” Vandro said wryly, “but isn’t your whole point in bein’ here an acknowledgment that I know stuff you don’t? Trust me, Sweet. It wasn’t every Thursday night or nothin’, but Catseye and Theasia hit the sheets at least a handful of times during their overlapping reigns. They were in bed politically speaking on a much consistent basis, to the point of the Guild being used more’n a few times to shut down Theasia’s opponents. You’re pretty cozy with the Empire, true, but not in the same way, and your throwdown with Justinian this fall proved to my satisfaction you’ve got a line past which you’ll take a stand for Eserite principle. What is important here is that you are here, concerned about this and taking action. If it turns out that Tricks has gone bad and needs to go, I’m satisfied you will recognize the need for change and do what needs to be done to fix whatever else he broke. I’ll have your back, if that’s the case, but I won’t try to tell you what to do. Me bein’ the power behind the throne ain’t any better than me taking over in person. So that’s the deal, Sweet. I’ll help you figure out what’s up, on the condition that if we decide Tricks is compromised like you fear, you will take your old job back.”

Sweet stared at him in consternation; Webs just gazed back, a knowing little smile hovering around his mouth.

“It’d…probably be easier,” Thumper offered after a few seconds of silence. “Everybody likes you, Sweet. And we know from history that you’re a competent Boss.” Saduko nodded mutely.

“All right…look.” Sweet shook his head. “I am going to proceed on the assumption that this is all theoretical and hope that stays the case, all right?”

“Sure,” Webs agreed. “I would too. But…”

Sweet heaved a sigh. “But… I’m not gonna make you any promises about how long I would stay in the big chair, Webs. You no doubt remember I didn’t go for a fraction of Catseye’s longevity last time.”

“Even better,” Vandro said with a broad grin. “Cos I know you also won’t step down until you’ve got somebody lined up who you’re sure can handle the job right.”

“Isn’t that exactly what got us into this situation?”

Vandro shrugged. “If we’re proceeding on the assumption that whatever’s up with Tricks is a new development, I don’t see how you could’ve anticipated it years ago. And maybe this’ll teach you something about picking a successor with a less hands-on approach next time.”

“How sure are you that your network can turn up the info we need, anyway?”

“How sure are you that Tricks is actually compromised?” Vandro retorted with a smug little grin.

Sweet indulged in glaring at him. He had not come here prepared to make a decision like this… Which, of course, was exactly why Webs was springing it on him now. And the truth was, it was a well-sprung trap. If he tried to deflect or put this off, Webs would take it as a refusal, and then… Could he dig up the information he needed without him? That was frustratingly unclear. He’d already spoken with Glory, who was also well-connected in the city and throughout the Empire, and they had the same problem: both were known to be generally well-disposed toward Tricks, which meant Guild members who shared Vandro’s viewpoint would be skeptical of them if approached. Some could be brought around, sure, but how fast? How much time did they even have left to work on this?

Damn it, he was cornered. The decision had to be made now. He’d just have to hope it was the right call… And that he could fix it, somehow, if he was making a mistake.

“All right, Webs. Deal.”

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16 – 28

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McGraw had spent by far the majority of his career in the wilderness and small towns of the Great Plains frontier, but not all; he had ranged widely enough over the years to have been in more than a few urban safehouses. Enough, at least, to recognize one on sight. When you’d seen one, you’d seen them all, these empty but well-maintained residences kept by various powerful organizations against times when they needed to discreetly stash someone for a while.

They were so empty, despite being fully furnished. There was no personality or character, just bland arrangements of styleless furniture and only the most neutral and inoffensive of decoration, when there was any at all. Interestingly, he had always recognized the home of Bishop Darling as another such place. That had been only the first hint that “Bishop Darling” was a role being acted rather than a real person, McGraw was just as glad to have parted ways from the man on amicable terms before he had to find out what was underneath that mask. The Darling residence had even less personality than this place, which at least identified its owners by having golden eagle sigils or casually displayed copies of the Aveniad or Avenist librams in every room. The front parlor even had a full shrine to Avei; a small and plain one, but still. Avenists might occasionally mutter “war is deception” or some such aphorism but as a rule they didn’t care for sneaking around or hiding their intentions.

Following his careful exploration of the mid-sized middle-class townhouse (only three bedrooms, but none of the team were overly particular about their living conditions), he returned now to that front room, his first view down the hallway revealing Joe leaning against the wall and watching something.

“Serviceable place,” McGraw observed, approaching. “Cozy, but not—”

He broke off when Joe raised one finger to his lips, crossing the last few feet in silence to peek into the room.

Everyone else was here, Shay lounging in the room’s most comfortable chair and Casey also leaning against the wall, next to the door in a position which made her invisible to someone approaching it. McGraw had noted her tendency to do that and similar things; someone had taught this girl stealthy habits. They were all watching the fifth member of the group, who appeared to be doing particularly unconventional witchcraft in front of the little shrine to Avei.

Like most who’d gravitated or been assigned to the First Legion, their two actual priestesses of Avei did not exactly fit in with the rest of the Sisterhood. Shay Iraa liked beer and loud, off-key singing, and thus spent a lot of her free time in taverns frequently getting into brawls, which had only been tolerated because she had extricated an astonishing number of battered women from their situations. Even so, the Sisterhood was just as happy to have her off training in Viridill rather than having to be retrieved from jail every other week. All in all she resembled the popular stereotype of an Eserite, and was always ready to demonstrate that upside the head of anyone unwise enough to point it out.

Bandi Avelea, on the other hand, was easy to mistake for an Omnist, given her stereotypically serene bearing and devotion to the martial arts, as well as her emphasis on meditative and spiritual disciplines which were held in less esteem in the pragmatic Sisterhood. Indeed, upon first seeing her demonstrate her fighting style during a First Legion training session, McGraw (and others present) had mistaken it for a Sun Style sequence until she began serenely explaining and demonstrating on a luckless target dummy all the ways in which she could kill a person with one unarmed hand.

Now, Sister Bandi stood in a defined spell circle consisting only of seven crystals arranged around her, which McGraw only knew was fae in nature because of the unpleasant prickling it caused against all the arcane magic he had stored in his own aura. There was a limit to how much fae magic a priestess could do, if only because most fairy spirits objected to being in the presence of so much divine energy. But by settling for strictly low-tier spells and getting a little creative, one could always pick up some extra versatility from outside one’s own preferred skill; he’d done so himself.

What she was doing more resembled a very slow dance, or perhaps a martial arts sequence performed at half speed. The priestess, eyes closed, moved evenly through a fluid series of motions with her arms and legs, flowing in a manner that almost resembled water held within the tube delineated by her spell circle.

Casey leaned over to him and murmured, “She’s checking if we can pick up any traces magically. I figured it’s worth a try. Hate to just sit on our hands while we wait for General Avelea and Nandi to come back with more orders.”

McGraw nodded once, understanding. Trissiny was engaged in some high-level political maneuvering with the aid of her fellow paladins and had to return to their current base in Madouris to check up on the progress of that, while Shahai was at the Temple of Avei meeting with the High Commander. She, at least, would be back with orders by that evening, but Trissiny had been clear that there were numerous unexpected events in the air and she might not be able to return that day.

He leaned over toward Casey in turn, lowering his head and his voice to mumble in a low tone even Joe shouldn’t have been able to pick up. “I’ll get ya a rolled-up newspaper t’whack me with if y’want, boss lady, but meantime, a word of advice.”

Her eyes flicked up to his face, expression neutral, as he continued.

“Best way to impress folks like General Avelea is by not tryin’ to impress them. People of action only get irritated if the spot you maneuvering for favor.”

The sergeant’s cheeks darkened slightly and he saw her eyes narrow in displeasure, just as expected.

But then Casey turned her head to resume watching Bandi’s odd ritual, her expression of annoyance turning to one of contemplation. She didn’t even try to deny it; by that point, no one in the First Legion didn’t know Casey Elwick was an ardent fan of Trissiny Avelea and undoubtedly over the moon at having the chance to work directly under her.

“Okay, thanks for the tip,” she said softly, “but I don’t know what else to do, here. Irrespective of impressing anybody, we accomplish nothing by loafing around waiting for orders. It’s not like this is a regular Legion. If we can’t take some initiative toward the mission, what’s the point of us? If you’ve got a better idea for how to spend our time, Elias, I’m open to it.”

He quite liked Casey; for someone so young (he’d eat his hat if she was eighteen) she had a good head on her shoulders, and not only the habit of thinking carefully before acting but the solemn aspect of someone who had learned her restraint and strategy through suffering. She reminded him a lot of Joe, in that respect.

“When you put it that way, it does seem like the most solid move in our position,” McGraw agreed, tipping his hat. “My apologies, Sarge. Y’get to be my age and it’s easy to forget y’ain’t the only person in the room who knows what he’s doin’.”

She gave him a sidelong smile at that, but further conversation was cut off by the end of Sister Bandi’s ritual.

She straightened up, first raising her arms out to both sides and then bringing them up, overhead, and down to fold her hands at her waist, and finally opened her eyes. At that signal, all seven of the crystals around her tipped over in unison.

“It is well you insisted on this measure, Sergeant,” she said seriously.

“You got a lead?” Casey asked, straightening up.

“I did warn you that my very basic oracular craft is unlikely to pick up on trails of subtle maneuvering, and indeed I did not. But focusing upon the Purists, I was touched by spirits their intentions have moved. Vengeance, and violence. They are about to strike.”

At that, Joe also straightened up.

“At who?” Casey demanded.

Sister Bandi shook her head, the beads in her multitude of thin black braids clattering softly. “While the spirit is still upon me, I can lead us toward the place. But it is like a hound tracking a scent. I cannot see where it will end, or what will meet us there.”

“If those fools go after Trissiny, they’re toast,” Joe said. “They can’t be dumb enough not to know that…”

“Oh, I dunno,” Shay disagreed, “they are pretty damn dumb.”

“Trissiny’s Eserite friends,” Casey said. “Rasha, the Sakhavenids, and…what’s her name, the acrobat.”

Shay finally joined the others in bolting upright. “Shit. Disgraced or not, if priestesses of Avei stick swords into Guild apprentices it’ll be war in the streets by sunset.”

“Okay, we’ve gotta move,” Casey said, glancing rapidly back and forth across the group, all of whom were staring expectantly at her for orders. “But… We can’t just…”

She faltered, and McGraw gave her an encouraging nod. He could tell what needed to be done, and he would tell her if she didn’t work it out herself. But he waited, at least for a moment. Casey was smart enough and she’d grow faster as a leader and tactician by doing these things for herself. He knew his role in this party; it was the wise old wizard’s job to support the scrappy young heroes, not take over. Showing some faith in the young sergeant was worth a delay of a few minutes.

In fact, it only took a few seconds before her eyes fixed on him and widened slightly in inspiration. “Elias! Can I borrow one of those portal runes of yours?”

“What’s mine is yours, boss lady,” he agreed, already fishing one out of his pocket to hand over. “Though you do realize it won’t let you teleport without a push from yours truly.”

“No, but you can find it, right? And teleport to it?”

“Ah,” he said, nodding and deliberately clearing his expression as if catching onto her plan. It was the best strategy, which was why he’d immediately thought of it, but it cost nothing to encourage her. “You’re right, that I can.”

“Defending this position isn’t important in and of itself,” Casey said to the others, “but this is where the General and the Bishop expect to find us, so we can’t just disappear from here. Elias, I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave you behind for now. Wait here in case one or both of them returns; the rest of us will go try to intercept…whatever’s about to happen. You’ll be able to bring either of them right to us, if that’s what she orders. If we’re in deep trouble and need backup, I’ll destroy the rune. Will you be able to sense that?”

“With a little bit o’ concentration, I can manage that,” he agreed, nodding again. “Shouldn’t be too hard to ‘port right to its last position, then.”

“Good. If that happens, be ready for maximum trouble. Our goal here is to prevent a big messy fight from breaking out; if I have to call in our wizard for firepower, situation’s FUBAR.”

“Understood, Sarge.”

“Sorry for ditching you,” she said again. “It’s the best I can think of. All right, everybody, move out. Bandi, lead the way.”


The formal announcement would come the next day; Rouvad, like Trissiny, wanted to move fast and begin working before Justinian or anyone else had time to prepare political countermeasures. But before embarking on her new set of duties, the High Commander had wanted Nandi’s impressions of the project her previous squad had been working on and had to abandon upon the First Legion’s formation. Locke had, with Billie Fallowstone’s help, quietly continued her weapons research in Viridill, but now it seemed her erstwhile research partner had finalized her original project.

And so, Nandi found herself in Sister Eivery’s basement workshop with the gnomish priestess and the High Commander, holding and studying what had apparently been a regulation Silver Legion lance before it had been heavily modified.

“Well?” Eivery prompted, grinning up at them. “How’s it look?”

“Expensive,” Rouvad said flatly, taking the spear from Nandi. “Are the glowing runes and this… Is this shaft coated in lacquer? Eivery, is this absolutely necessary?”

“Arguably not,” the gnome admitted. “It put ‘em on the demonstration model, there, so you can see it’s doable. There’s a reason most battlestaves don’t ‘ave that, it adds to both the cost of manufacture an’ the weight. But the point is that it protects the runic engravings, see? Yer average battlestaff ain’t gonna see use as an actual staff, whereas the whole point o’ these, so I was given ta understand, is for ‘em to double as firearms and spears. Thus, they’re gonna be seein’ a lot o’ physical contact.”

“It can probably be dispensed with,” Nandi said. “If properly used, a lance’s head will see physical impact a lot more than the rest of it. Eivery’s right, though, the proof of concept is valuable.”

“Darn tootin’,” Sister Eivery agreed.

“Agreed,” Rouvad rumbled. “All right, I understand the clicker mechanism and I think I can intuit the reason for this clunky device at the base of the spearhead. What I note is that these runic engravings are a lot more extensive than on any battlestaff I’ve ever seen. Can you explain why?”

“Aye, give it ‘ere,” the priestess said imperiously, ignoring the sardonic expression with which the High Commander handed the modified lance back to her. “It’s the enhanced engravings that make it all work, see? I actually didn’t ‘ave the inspiration meself, but stumbled across th’basic method from the works of an old Hand of Salyrene, Andronimus the Spellblade.”

“Curious,” said Nandi. “If this solution was found as far back as Andronimus’s time, I wonder why no one has adapted it already? Magnan, at the very least, would have pounced on such an innovation, and he certainly had access to Salyrite records.”

“Aye, but it wasn’t in those records,” Eivery replied, grinning madly. “Andronimus ‘ad quite the stick up ‘is arse about people stealin’ ‘is works an’ never wrote down ‘is methods. This one was noted in the last place anybody’d think ta look, cos nobody studyin’ magic reads Tellwyrn’s published journals. They’re mostly a list o’ complaints about legendary figures, good fer comic relief an’ a touch o’ historical detail. But! In between gripin’ about how Andronimus snored an’ ate ‘orrible stinky cheeses and ‘ad terrible taste in music, she mentioned a sword he made that cast lightnin’ from the tip an’ how clever the method was. See, metal’s no good fer electrical enchantments on account of ‘ow conductive it is, so Andronimus placed the enchantment on the handle, which caused the lightnin’ bolt to form a few inches beyond the tip o’ the blade!”

“Hm,” Nandi murmured. “Modern firearms do that anyway, albeit just beyond the tip. Even a wooden shaft would be destroyed if you tried to channel that much electricity physically through it.”

“An’ there’s been no reason to modify that,” Eivery agreed, raising the lance to firing position and grasping the clicker, “cos nobody’s considered puttin’ blades on a firearm till that crazy elf came along. Modern armies fight at a distance. And so, behold!”

The crack of the weapon was functionally indistinguishable from that of a conventional battlestaff. Its lightning bolt charred and half-destroyed Eivery’s unshielded target dummy, with no backward arcing along the shaft or spearhead.

“And that heavy bit at the base of the spearhead,” Nandi said, “that has a grounding charm to prevent accidents?”

“Just so! Also, talkin’ of accidents, I discovered quite coincidentally that if ye do this, make the bolt form more’n a foot forward o’ the end o’ the staff, ye gain a lot of accuracy! These aren’t as precise as beam weapons, obviously, but they won’t arc nearly as much as an ordinary staff.”

“So,” Rouvad said, muted excitement in her voice, “you could increase that even further?”

“Sorry, Commander.” Eivery shook her head, raising the staff to plant its butt on the floor; in that position, it towered over her. “This is as far as I’ve been able to extend it. That’s why its engravings are so long. There’s just no room fer more.”

“But you said the original inspiration was a sword. On the handle! That was a much shorter surface and a much longer distance, if it sparked beyond the tip of the blade.”

“Aye, an’ I also said it was Hand of Salyrene that made it! Whaddaye want from me?”

Rouvad turned back to Nandi. “So you see where we are. Eivery has already refined Locke’s armor enchantments for efficiency; the updated versions will stand up to staff fire and augment soldiers’ abilities in several important respects. That makes an inherently more expensive kit than any Imperial trooper’s, but that’s the price to be paid for better-equipped soldiers. With the finished firing lance, we only have to begin training our soldiers with them.”

“First we ‘ave to make this stuff,” Eivery objected. “I don’t mind workin’ me fingers down, Commander, but I’m one gnome. If ye want me to equip a Legion, gimme ten years.”

“Yes, production is an issue,” Nandi agreed. “The Sisterhood does have a contract with Reviani Firearms, does it not? I know we don’t order many energy weapons, but for just that reason, they would likely appreciate the business.”

“I am…reluctant to give these specifications to an established firearms company,” Rouvad said, frowning. “We will have the element of surprise upon the first battlefield deployment of this equipment. The more people who know of it…”

“Well, buildin’ an in-house enchanter corps’ll take almost as long,” said Eivery.

“Our paladin has contacts with Falconer Industries,” Nandi commented. “They don’t make any weapons at the moment, but have the manufacturing capacity to produce almost anything. And if FI can’t do it, Geoffrey Falconer undoubtedly knows who can, and could arrange an introduction.”

“That’s a good idea,” Rouvad replied. “We’ll both be in close contact with Trissiny over the next few days anyway. I will raise it with her at the next opportunity. In the meantime, Eivery, please put together as many kits of the new gear as you can without exhausting yourself. I’ll assign you whatever enchanters we have who can be trusted. Ideally, I’d like to send a few to Locke’s outpost and be able to outfit one squad from the Third’s Cohort One to begin training.” She paused, then smiled. “I’m glad to have you back here, Nandi. I’ve missed your insight.”

“Aye, well, if we’re done with all the huggin’ an’ kissin’,” Eivery huffed, “I didn’t get ta tell ye the really neat thing I discovered.”

“There’s more?” Nandi asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Aye, another ‘appy little accident, ye might say,” the gnome chuckled, already at work unscrewing the spearhead from its shaft. “A neat trick that works as a result o’ this specific model’s design. If ye just take off the bayonet, like so… ‘Ere we are.”

She bounded over to a low stack of bricks she’d erected in the middle of the workshop in the form of a wall that was shoulder-high on her. Grinning, the gnome pressed the head of the lance, minus its blade, against the wall aiming at the half-wrecked target dummy which was across the room on its other side.

“Wait,” Nandi objected, “don’t tell me… There’s no way that thing can fire through walls?”

With another perfectly ordinary thunderclap, a bolt of lightning flashed from a point a few inches beyond the wall and finished demolishing the target.

“Eh? Eh?” Eivery cooed, waggling her eyebrows at their expressions. “Ehhhhhh?”


It had already been a full day not long after noon, and so by the time Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor she found herself eagerly looking forward to some lunch and a cup of hot, strong tea, and not just to help wash away the winter chill. A steward informed her upon arrival at the Manor that Ravana was not present at the moment, which she had to admit was something of a relief. Trissiny had yet to decide exactly how she felt about the diminutive Duchess, but one thing was certain: Ravana Madouri demanded her full attention when she was present, for much the same reason she would have carefully watched a large spider if she found herself in a room with one.

Returning to the suite her classmates were inhabiting during their vacation, she was pleased to find Toby and Gabriel there waiting for her, in fact having a conversation just inside the door, rather than in the sitting area of the main hall itself.

“Trissiny!” Gabe said, grinning in welcome. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. How’d it go?”

“All according to plan,” she replied, smiling back, “though my business today was mostly just squaring away details. I had a couple of interesting conversations with dragons I’d like your opinions on, but that can wait. How’d your meetings go? Are we ready to move?”

The boys exchanged a look, and then a nod.

“I’m as certain of Gwenfaer’s support as I reasonably can be,” Gabriel replied, turning back to her. “She gave every indication of wholeheartedly supporting the plan. And… Before that, we had a little chat about trust. I’m convinced of her reasons for opposing Justinian, and I made a point that she’s going to have to start being generally less squirrelly about it, but if she can behave I am willing to extend a little trust. At least, enough to let her earn more.”

“Well, good. It’s kind of funny, though, you being the one to make demands like that of your cult leader. Usually that relationship goes the other way.”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “I did not mention how I have valkyrie friends who can invisibly watch everything she does and a valkyrie scythe that Vidius explicitly wants used to cut the rot out of the cult. Seemed kind of redundant, y’know? She’s a sharp enough lady to have figured all that out already.”

“Good plan,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “That’s Eserite practice, too, you know. If you’ve got an unspoken threat to hold over somebody, you only cheapen it by pointing it out.”

“Good to know,” he said wryly.

“Sounds about as straightforward as it went with the Dawn Council,” Toby reported. “I gained…some support, and I’m afraid I burned a few bridges in the process. But most importantly, the Bishop is on my side. I’m as certain as I reasonably can be that the cult will fall in line with the plan.”

“Good,” she said seriously. “I’m sorry if it got you in trouble with them, though, Toby.”

“Thanks,” he said with a soft smile, “but to be honest, the fault here is theirs, not yours or even mine. The Dawn Council’s entire method of dealing with everything is to bow to inevitability, after they’ve waited to be certain what it is. It was just a matter of making myself inevitable. They’ll bow. Some of them are not going to be happy about it, though. Future engagements with them may be… Well, not as good.”

“Man, it’d be nice if we could just convince everybody to do the sensible thing,” Gabriel complained. “Sometimes, though, you just gotta apply the stick instead of the carrot. If we can help with anything, Toby, we’ve got your back.”

“I appreciate it,” he said, smiling again. “But anyway! Before we move on to that, Trissiny, there’s something unexpected to deal with.”

“Well, of course there bloody is,” she said with a sigh. “I’m really starting to sympathize with Ravana. What this time?”

“It turns out,” Gabriel said, grinning, “that you have a visitor.”

“Me?”

“You,” Toby confirmed, already turning to head back toward the doors into the remainder of the suite.

She followed, alongside Gabriel, already frowning in thought. Who would be seeking her out here? Practically everybody she knew, she’d already talked with today. Herschel knew she was staying in this Manor over the winter break, but now that she thought about it, she hadn’t notified Ravana or her guards to let him in. One of her elvish relatives? Trissiny wouldn’t put it past Lanaera to be able to bully her way into a noble’s house, but she didn’t care for leaving her grove any more than any other Elder shaman did.

They only made it a few more paces before the mystery resolved itself, their guest emerging from a side parlor. She had no doubt heard the whole conversation; Trissiny’s visitor was, indeed, an elf. Just not any of the elves she would have expected.

Trissiny came to a stop, blinking in surprise. “Natchua?”

“Trissiny, good, you’re back,” the drow greeted her tersely. “I’m sorry to barge in on your vacation like this, especially when you’re obviously having a busy day, but I need your help.”

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16 – 27

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“I dare to hope this will not take long, but it doesn’t pay to make excessively optimistic assumptions about wholly unprecedented events,” Ravana said, coming to a stop in the middle of the marble-floored parlor adjacent to her chambers which she had designated an official teleportation arrival and departure point. “Regardless of how much time this demands, Veilwin, I’ll expect you to remain sober for the duration, and I will have Yancey enforce this if need be. Take us to the lodge, please.”

The elf wasn’t even looking at her, staring at one of the doors to the chamber with her eyes narrowed. Yancey quirked an eyebrow at this, which was as voluble an expression of disapproval as he ever produced in the presence of the Duchess.

“Veilwin?” Ravana prompted. “While we’re young, please.”

“Hang on,” the sorceress replied. “There’s news coming that I think you’ll wanna hear.”

Ravana bit back her instinctive reply, reminding herself that there was no point in having an elf as her Court Wizard if she wasn’t going to take advantage of all the fringe benefits.

Indeed, it was only seconds later that the pounding of booted feet came into the range of human hearing, and moments after that, the door burst open to admit the commander of her House Guard—likely the only person who could have dashed through the halls of Madouri Manor without being detained by soldiers.

“My lady!” he exclaimed upon finding her waiting, barely out of breath. “Thank the gods I caught you. There’s a situation unfolding in front of Falconer Industries you’ll want to see.”

“Lord-Captain Arivani,” she replied evenly, “there are hundreds of inexplicable refugees attempting to cross my lands, and currently detained by Sheriff Ingvar in a facility which does not have the resources to keep them. Is this more important than that?”

“I…couldn’t say, my Lady,” he admitted. “But it was your explicit instruction that any incidents of public rebellion against your authority be brought directly to your attention.”

“Gods send me patience,” Ravana hissed. “Rebellion, is it? Very well, Lord-Captain, you are correct. This I want to see. How great is the danger?”

“My men have secured the roof of the tariff office just across from FI, my Lady. It has a good view of the action.”

“Excellent work. Veilwin, it seems we shall be taking a detour before visiting the lodge, after all.”

“Yeah,” the elf said smugly, already making one of her needlessly dramatic hand gestures as sparkles of arcane light gathered in the air around the four of them. “I had a feeling.”


The rest of the excursion was uneventful and smooth, even to the extent of the entire party being teleported back to the Conclave embassy in Tiraas with a minimum of backtalk, which likely was exactly why Ampophrenon chose that moment to spring his surprise.

“Principia Locke may deny involvement in classical adventuring, but it is clear she understands the practicalities better than one who has learned of them only from books,” the gold dragon said as he and Trissiny talked quietly a bit apart from the rest of the group, who were being courteously given a city map and directions from the Conclave’s public steward. “The division of deployed assets into five-person bands is traditional for good reason, and her training style is exactly that which got the best results from the greatest adventurer guilds, when they still operated.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Trissiny admitted. “It all seemed a little chaotic to me.”

“In comparison to a proper military boot camp, I shouldn’t wonder,” Ampophrenon replied with some amusement. “But the looser approach will help enforce standards while respecting the freedom agents like that require, and she has applied the necessary strictures to keep everyone on task and aimed at the same goals—methods developed over centuries. Locke was either in one of those guilds at some point, or has studied them extensively. Altogether, General, I deem it a most promising endeavor, and an enjoyable visit on my part. I only regret I was unable to speak with Khadizroth, but doubtless he has his own tasks to pursue.”

Snuck in at the end as it was, that stinger had the desired effect of rocking Trissiny’s composure—not by much, but she failed to suppress a slight jerk of her head.

The dragon’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell exactly where he was looking, but his expression and the position of his head gave her the impression of someone watching her sidelong for exactly such a reaction.

“If I might ask a favor, General Avelea,” Ampophrenon continued in the same courteous tone before she could recover, “when next you see Khadizroth, I wonder if you would be so kind as to pass along to him that he is always welcome to join us here.”

The extra few seconds were enough for her to regain her footing, though this had altogether been a valuable reminder that she wasn’t equipped to play mind games with a being such as he.

“Attempting to poach my personnel, Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny replied, raising her eyebrows and affecting a bland tone. “I could call bad form.”

The dragon’s lips quirked in a faint smile, but his voice remained as even and mannerly as ever. “I suspect you must be aware that the Conclave’s formation was inspired in part by Khadizroth’s own adventures of the past few years. We do not compel any of our brethren to join, but all have a place with us should they choose it. In any case, we have long since opted not to pursue any action against Khadizroth for his various errors in judgment, in particular as he has been helpfully in contact with us concerning the deeds of Archpope Justinian.”

“Has he.”

“This was before he enlisted in the First Legion,” Ampophrenon clarified. “We have not heard from him since. It seems needlessly vindictive to castigate one of our own for errors which he has fully committed himself to correcting, in his own way. Perhaps a stint in Avei’s service will provide him the penance he seeks, as well as the opportunity to effect some progress in undoing Justinian’s schemes.”

“So,” she said, watching him intently, “you are aware of the Archpope’s…ambitions.”

“Their specifics are frustratingly obscure, but we make it a point to be as aware of the world as possible, and I in particular am quite concerned with such a betrayal of the Pantheon’s most sacred charge,” the dragon said gravely. “I lack your insight into the recent events at the Temple of Avei, but even from the reports that reached me I can discern a pattern. It seems to me, General Avelea, that this is no time for those of us who are driven by principle to let ourselves be divided by misunderstandings. Khadizroth’s place among your Legion will not be a sticking point between the Sisterhood and the Conclave. On that you have my word.”

He smiled, the expression calm and open. After a moment, Trissiny had to smile back.

That silence hung for a few seconds, in which her own expression faded back to thoughtfulness, and Trissiny decided to accept his implied invitation by taking a slight risk.

“Where do they all come from?” she asked quietly, making a subtle gesture toward the two Conclave soldiers currently talking with her own party. Joe was well-mannered as always and McGraw seemed likewise, but the two Avenist priestesses—despite the fact that neither of them would be taken for such at a glance, which was no doubt part of what they were doing here—seemed openly skeptical. “If the Conclave had been scouring the streets of Tiraas for every pretty woman who might want a job…that’s the kind of thing the Sisterhood would notice.”

“Indeed,” he acknowledged, nodding once. “It was, in fact, the opposite; the Conclave did not elect to employ many of those who first sought us out, as they were a melange of opportunists and spies. Instead, my brethren have recruited from among the most unfortunate. Employment here comes with a very progressive package of benefits, including medical care by green dragons, which in addition to being better than most nobles receive, includes cosmetic glamour of the recipient’s choice. A proper application of the fae craft can even suppress the effects of chemical addiction.”

For a moment, Trissiny was again rendered silent by the weight of it. If they could gather drunks and shroomheads out of the gutters and turn them into this… Well, it explained a great deal. And raised further questions.

“I gather,” she said aloud, “such benefits would be suspended if the individual in question left the Conclave’s service. That is quite an incentive for loyalty, Lord Ampophrenon.”

He nodded again, his expression more grim. “It becomes inherently somewhat coercive, does it not? To say nothing of the implications of deliberately recruiting among the most unfortunate in the first place. There is also the fact that such exotic benefits are a ruthless cost-saving measure, as people willingly work for less than the average wage to have access to them. I raised these concerns with my fellow members of the Conclave, who it must be said indulged me in a full meeting to discuss the matter. Ultimately, their decision was that since no one is being forced to do anything against their will and our compensation is the finest they could ever hope to receive, we are not committing any ethical violation.”

“I see,” she said, not meaning her voice to be cold but hearing it anyway.

“The Conclave of the Winds is a necessity of this political moment,” the dragon said softly, now gazing across the great hall of the embassy. “More importantly, it presents the hope of betterment, for both your kind and ours. Our institutions are never perfect, Trissiny. Governments, faiths, the Church itself, my own Order of the Light… All are unavoidably flawed. I believe the Eserites have a saying about this.”

“I’ve heard it a time or two,” she agreed wryly. The dragon gave her a sidelong smile.

“Yet we cannot abandon them,” he continued, his expression quickly sobering again. “The world is always somewhat…broken. I have come to think it is meant to be. Can you imagine a world with no hardship—or more farfetched, with no difficult decisions to be made?” Ampophrenon shook his head. “Such eternal complacency could only bring out the worst in us all. We are tested, yes, constantly. It is our duty, and our only option, to rise to these trials, and make what difference we can.”

“People have often said to me that the gods never test us beyond what we can bear.”

His lips thinned for a moment. “I have seen far too many people destroyed by trials they had no reasonable hope of overcoming. Good people, who were sorely missed. Life is not so conveniently purposeful. And yet, we stand.”

“What else can we do?” she whispered.

The dragon inclined his head to her, the gesture both a nod and a bow. “I enjoy your conversation, General Avelea. You, too, are always welcome here. Feel free to call up on me if I can aid your battles, however overt or subtle they may be. Or simply if you wish to visit.”

“Thank you for everything today, Lord Ampophrenon,” she replied, nodding back. He gave her a final smile before retreating to the stairs.

Trissiny turned around, finding her own party approaching at the signal that her conversation had ended. Zanzayed, somewhat to her surprise, was still with them, and it was he who spoke up before any of them could.

“You do realize he was hitting on you, right? You’re exactly his type, Trissiny.”

“Really, Zanzayed,” she sighed.

“Hey, you’re family! I wouldn’t lead you wrong. I’m serious, Puff absolutely does have a type, and it’s ‘Hand of Avei.’ He’s had seven of ‘em over the years.”

“The hell you say!” Shay Iraa exclaimed.

A silence fell over the chamber as the various dragonsworn present turned to stare at the rough-looking woman who had just sassed a dragon right to his face. Sister Shay was still glaring at Zanzayed, clearly not bothered by any of this. Trissiny was already beginning to like her.

“Yeah, they don’t teach you that, do they?” the blue rejoined, smirking. “You’ve got the rank to bully your way into the Sisterhood’s hidden archives; do it if you’re curious, Triss. But seriously, though. If you decide to pursue that, wait till you’re ready to settle down. Puff is a nice, old-fashioned, marriage-minded dragon. Don’t toy with his little heart.”

“Well, he did invite me to drop by,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come around sometime and see what other hilarious gossip you’ve accumulated over the millennia, cousin.”

Zanzayed grinned. “Always a pleasure. Do give Arachne my love.”

“If you keep trying to get a rise out of me, I’m gonna tell her you challenged her to a duel.”

“You are a horrible little wench,” the dragon chuckled, ruffling her hair. “You’d better come visit. We need to hang out more.”


“’Rebellion’ may have been overstating it, Lord-Captain, but you were still correct to bring this to me,” Ravana said, lowering the spyglass from her eye and handing it to Yancey. “Has this demonstration shown any signs of becoming violent?”

“No, my Lady,” he admitted. “There’s at least one Omnist monk in there, which is probably helping keep things calm. So far they’re just marching in a circle with those signs. But they’re blocking the factory’s main entrance, which is not doing FI any favors.” Yancey handed him the spyglass after having a look, and he raised it to his own face, which fell into a scowl as he studied the demonstrators. “Unwashed ingrates. If the young Mrs. Falconer and her wife want to slaughter idiots who tried to steal their dog, what business is it of theirs? It wasn’t even in Madouris.”

“You’re asking for whatever you get, fucking with somebody’s pets,” Veilwin opined, looking bored. “I’d’a just killed the bastards.”

“I pity any poor animal which has to depend on you for care,” Ravana said absently, herself frowning in the direction of the protest. It was sizable, already more than thirty people. She wouldn’t have thought there were that many people in the city who’d be willing to protest Falconer Industries, which was deservedly popular. If anything, they were risking retaliation from FI’s own employees, who had famously once squared off with Thieves’ Guild enforcers. The House Madouri guardsmen currently standing in a line in front of the closed gates were probably protecting the demonstrators as much as the factory, whether they knew it or not.

Yancey, as usual, echoed the direction of her own thoughts. “Several of those signs mention Vadrieny by name, my Lady. While not a secret, the archdemons have been absent from the mortal plane since the Hellwars; their names were reduced to obscure theological trivia before the founding of the Empire. It does not prove anything…”

“And yet,” she murmured in agreement.

“Madouris is prosperous under you,” Veilwin added, which may have been the closest thing to a compliment she had ever paid her employer. “And most of those yahoos look pretty well dressed. Takes a lot to get comfortably well-fed people out in the goddamn snow at mid-morning on a workday to march around chanting slogans. Especially over something that clearly doesn’t affect them at all.”

“I did wonder at the attempted kidnapping,” Ravana mused. “Apart from my expectation of better treatment from the Thieves’ Guild, such a fool’s gambit is unlike them. As a deliberate provocation, it makes more sense.”

“Give the word, my Lady,” Arivani urged grimly, “and I can have my men clear that rabble into cells where they belong.”

“No!” she barked, causing him to jerk back in surprise. His startled expression quickly morphed into near-hurt reproach before he mastered it.

Ravana took a breath of the chill air, reminding herself what she was dealing with. She employed Ludo Arivani because he believed the sun shone out of her skirts, because an administration such as hers which favored the velvet glove over the iron fist absolutely needed a high-ranking thug for situations in which its preferred approach would not do, and because it was generally advisable to keep a military commander who hadn’t the aptitude to organize a coup, even had he been inclined to try. Also, men like him came in useful in the event of regrettable situations in which a scapegoat needed to be discarded. All of this factored into her handling of him; it was for these reasons precisely that she had made it clear he was not to try to deal with civil unrest except under her direct oversight.

“I have made carefully-cultivated popularity a cornerstone of my rule,” she explained in a more moderate tone. “The damage caused to my reputation by engaging in the type of brutality for which my father was notorious would be catastrophic. That, I suspect, is at least part of the reason for this…episode.”

The Lord-Captain nodded, seeming mollified by the explanation. “I’ve got men under my command who’re good at knife work and listening in the dark, Lady Madouri. We can avoid more episodes like this if you’ll let me spread them through the city.”

“Madouris is not a sovereign state,” she said patiently. “I can have my own propaganda machine or my own secret police, and the one I chose is already pushing the Throne’s tolerance. If I tried to have that slice of cake and eat it too I would be set upon by the Veskers and Imperial Intelligence. I need neither headache, let alone both.”

And so she lacked convenient knives in the dark, as indeed Lord Vex would never tolerate that, but there was also the fact that her network of listeners spread through the province did not report to Arivani; he didn’t need that kind of influence. More immediately, those listeners had not forewarned her of this. A demonstration of this size could not be assembled in total silence. Thus, it had not sprung up organically. This had been orchestrated; the question was by whom?

“Veilwin,” she said, staring at the protesters through narrowed eyes, “can you work any kind of divination which would isolate members of that crowd who were set there as deliberate agitators, rather than the gullible sheep I must presume most of them to be?”

“Come on, you know better than that,” the sorceress said brusquely, ignoring Arivani’s displeased glare at her tone, “you study at Tellwyrn’s school. You’re talking about fae divination, not arcane scrying.”

“That is what I feared,” Ravana said with a sigh. “Then do you believe Barnes is competent to perform such a ritual?”

Veilwin snorted loudly. “That puffed-up—”

“Veilwin,” she interrupted in an unusually steely tone, “I put up with a great deal from you, and mean to continue so doing. In return, I expect the skills for which I generously compensate you to be available when I need them. It’s time to work. In your professional opinion, with no needless inter-disciplinary sniping, can Barnes do this?”

“Well…sure,” the elf said, her voice more subdued. “Any witch could, and…yeah, he’s better than most. But that’s contingent on the targets not having been warded against it, which when it comes to fae magic, well… That ends up being a pissing contest between Barnes and whoever’s at the other end, which there’s just no way to call in advance.”

Ravana nodded once.

Arivani opened his mouth to speak, but she held up one hand for silence, and he obediently subsided. She stared sightlessly out over the square ahead and the chanting individuals currently complaining about the violent archdemon in their midst, eyes shifting rapidly back and forth as she contemplated.

“Lord-Captain,” the Duchess said at last, “these…specially skilled soldiers you mentioned. Are there any among your command who could discreetly join that crowd, out of uniform and without revealing their affiliation, and agitate them to attack the factory?”

Veilwin turned an incredulous stare on her, which she ignored.

“I’ve just the man, my Lady,” Arivani said avidly. “Montrois used to do union-breaking work in Chevantre. That’s why he’s here, the local Vernisites set the Glassian Theives’ Guild after him and he had to leave the country. I’ve not had him train any of the other troops, my Lady, but he’s pointed out a few he thinks have the knack.”

“Splendid.” Finally, a stroke of luck. “This is what you will do, Lord-Captain Arivani. Send this Montrois into that crowd, along with whatever other personnel you and he deem competent for the task, forewarned to watch for a signal from you. Summon Barnes from the Manor and instruct him to be ready with whatever materials he needs to divine hostile intent; bring him here and have him stand by. Also, bring out as many medics from the House Guard as you can assemble, and place Barnes among them. Gather my lightcap artists and place them here and on other nearby rooftops, wherever they can get the best view of the action down there. Understood so far?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“When all this is prepared, then you will give the signal to your men below, and get that crowd to try storming the gates. At the very least, have them attempt to attack the police forces in place and cause some property damage nearby. I want an abundant selection of lightcaps of these violent criminals in action ready for tomorrow’s papers, to discredit any further attempt at this utter nonsense. My people among the writing staffs will handle the rest. Give the cappers time to get enough shots before you intervene, and then put down the mob. No energy weapons or blades, make a show of restraint, but the more minor injuries inflicted, the better.”

He grinned wolfishly. “As you command, Lady Madouri.”

“And then,” she continued, turning to meet and hold his gaze, “take them to the medics. Understand? No jails, except in the case of any individuals who make it truly unavoidable. Use the chaos to separate your plants out from the crowd and treat everyone for injuries, then let them go—but not til Barnes has had the opportunity to scan everyone. He is to do so discreetly, passing it off as medical diagnosis. If he manages to identify any of the agitators, they are also to be released, as soon as he’s confident he can track them. When this is all done, I want a spectacle to be made of my restraint and mercy in the face of reprehensible violence by despicable ne’er-do-wells. Are my orders clear?”

“Explicitly, my Lady!” he promised, saluting.

“There is likely to be significant collateral damage, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently, “and substantial risk to the factory and its personnel. Should we warn the Falconers?”

Ravana shook her head. “I know Geoffrey’s uses; they are many and I respect him for them, but they do not include subtlety. They can’t be brought into the loop.”

“The Falconers have been the victims in all this from the very beginning,” Veilwin pointed out with an edge to her voice.

“It is often said,” Ravana observed, “that to make an omelet one must break a few eggs. To rule is to make an endless succession of omelets while standing in the very henhouse. Explaining the process to the chickens would be not only pointless, but cruel. We will continue on our way, Veilwin. This day’s work is likely to bring the Throne’s attention, and I want numerous witnesses able to attest that I was on the other side of the province while it all happened. That means all of this will rest upon you, Lord-Captain Arivani. Hew closely to my instructions, improvising only what you must, and remember my ultimate goal.”

He saluted again, his eyes fervent. “I will not fail you, Lady Madouri.”

Ravana smiled and reached out to touch his arm, which undoubtedly made his entire week. “That is why entrust you with your position, Lord-Captain.”

That, and on the day when he did fail her, it shouldn’t be too hard to replace him.

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16 – 26

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“I was going to say, I can point out the location on a map,” Trissiny commented, her breath misting on the air as she peered around at the snow-covered mountainside and the old temple complex just up ahead, “but I see you already know exactly where the First Legion is headquartered, for some reason.”

“I’m not just a pretty face, Trissiny,” Zanzayed said primly, adjusting the collar of his heavily embroidered robe.

“The Conclave has been careful to keep abreast of world events,” Ampophrenon added, inclining his head respectfully toward her. “It was formed in large part to overcome the broad tendency of our kind to fail at so doing, General. I apologize if this seems intrusive; we saw no indication that the First Legion’s headquarters were meant to be a secret.”

“It isn’t, don’t worry. I was just surprised,” she assured him. “I see you even picked us a prime landing spot! Far enough out to give them forewarning without making for an inconvenient winter hike. Very deft, Zanzayed, almost as precise as Professor Tellwyrn’s.”

Almost,” he huffed. “You see how she talks to me! Me, her own some-number-removed cousin, whom she has met exactly twice! No respect, this new generation.”

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon agreed mildly while they strode forward toward the complex, “I am impressed by how quickly she has picked up the art of handling you, Zanzayed. I have had the honor of working with many Hands of Avei, and hold them in the highest esteem, but it must be said that most have not been so…socially adroit.”

“Now, that’s something I don’t often get called,” Trissiny remarked.

The headquarters Rouvad had assigned to Locke and her upstart Legion was an old temple complex high in the weathered mountains of Viridill, which had been mostly abandoned due to sheer inconvenience, even among the various Avenist facilities perched in the highlands, like the Abbey itself. The sole access to this remote spot was a single steep, winding flight of weathered stone steps carved right into the mountains which made large-scale supply deliveries all but impossible, and would have been absolutely suicidal to climb currently, while covered with ice.

It was an impressive complex, built across four small peaks with deep ravines between them and connected by stone bridges, two of which had fallen at some point. Currently, the First Legion HQ looked somewhat eclectic, having clearly been quickly renovated; ancient granite temples had been hastily (but apparently carefully) repaired with patched walls of wood, brick, and metal, and the two broken bridges were spanned by similar constructions. All of the paths were cleared of snow, and there were even greenhouses and a number of smaller outbuildings of uncertain purpose appended to the existing structures, one of which was topped by an exhaust antenna along which occasional crackles of electricity arced.

Zanzayed had set them down on a cleared-off, round stone patio at the head of the treacherous stairs, and separated from the temple campus proper by an arched stone bridge which, to judge by its weathered state, was part of the original construction but still evidently sound. Beyond it was a half-ruined structure which had been a gatehouse once before the archway collapsed and was later cleared out of the path; of the original gate, there remained no trace. The half of the building which still possessed a roof now also had an improvised metal stovepipe emerging from an upper arrow loop and puffing out wood smoke. As the three of them crested the arch of the bridge, the gatehouse door opened and a very small figure emerged.

“Zounds,” the gnome exclaimed, waving eagerly. “General Avelea, what an honor! Please, come on in, make yourselves at home. And you brought dragons! It’s Lord Ampophrenon and Lord…Zanzayed, aye?”

“Our reputation precedes us,” Zanzayed preened.

“Gnomes are always well-educated,” Ampophrenon replied.

“Thank you,” Trissiny answered the gate guard, “Mr…?”

“I’m Bonkers, ma’am,” he said, grinning. “It’s me moniker, not me condition, never fear.”

“Nice to meet you,” Trissiny said with the merest hesitation, while Zanzayed snickered outright and Ampophrenon gave him a disapproving look. “I need to speak with Captain Locke immediately, if you would conduct us to her.”

“Ah…” He winced, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m not to leave me post, ma’am, no disrespect intended. Thing is, I’m alone on watch just now, as me partner already went to fetch the captain soon as you popped in. Reckoned you’d wanna talk with ‘er, an’ the other way ‘round, as well.”

“Good thinking, then,” she said, nodding. “Ah, and speak of the Dark Lady. That was quick.”

The door of the nearest temple structure, one occupying the same peak as the gatehouse, had opened while Bonkers was speaking, and three figures approached them rapidly, the first two gliding rapidly over the frosty stone paths (being elves) while the third picked her way more carefully along behind.

“I’m willing to bet ‘Dark Lady’ isn’t even the worst thing you’ve called me, though not usually to my face,” Principia called as she trotted up. “Trissiny, welcome! And Lord Ampophrenon, what an unexpected honor. What’d you bring him for?” she added, pointing accusingly at Zanzayed.

“Seriously?” he exclaimed. “I’ll have you know I am literally the only member of this party who has contributed materially to it so far!”

“He’s right, Locke,” Trissiny agreed, “and just because he’s family does not mean you get to insult visiting Conclave delegates while in uniform. Keep a civil tongue in that head.”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it,” Zanzayed huffed at her.

She winked, unrepentant. “That is how rank works, yes.”

“You really belong in this family,” he informed her.

“Hey, now,” Trissiny exclaimed, “I don’t think that kind of language is called for.”

“Below the belt, Zanza,” Principia added reproachfully. “People do have feelings, you know.”

Zanzayed threw his arms up in the air and turned away in a dramatic sulk.

At Principia’s side, Nandi Shahai cleared her throat pointedly. “Perhaps we could conduct our visitors indoors and provide some refreshments?”

“Actually,” Trissiny said more seriously, “it’s good that you two came out in particular. I need to speak with both of you alone. But Lord Ampophrenon has expressed an interest in what you’re doing out here, and I for one would be very glad to hear his thoughts about the Legion. If our guests could have a tour of the facilities…?”

“Perfect!” Principia said brightly. “Iraa, you know the sights. Please show our guests around, and make sure you swing by the mess hall and fix Zanza up with some bacon.”

“Uhhh… I mean, sure, Captain,” the third woman with them replied, clearly nonplussed. Though she had the broad shoulders (and twice-broken nose) that tended to come from Legion service, her manner of addressing her commanding officer contradicted that impression.

“I don’t suppose that bacon comes wrapped around shrimp?” Zanzayed asked with almost childlike hope.

“Zanzayed, this is a military facility hundreds of miles inland,” Principia said patiently. “Why would we have shrimp?”

“Well, why have you got bacon, then? How ‘bout that, huh?”

“We are grateful to be accommodated, Captain Locke,” Ampophrenon interjected courteously. “We would not dream of asking any special treatment.”

“You’ll be in good hands,” Principia promised him. “Sister Shay Iraa here knows the place inside and out, and is delightfully plain-spoken, I think you’ll find.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Iraa replied, deadpan. “Well, then! If you’ll come this way, uh…my lords? Let’s get you started at the bunker, grab something to nosh.”

“Now you’re talking my language!” Zanzayed said, following the priestess up the path toward the next bridge.”

“I am surprised you have room in a place like this to train in adventurer activities,” Ampophrenon added as the three headed off.

“Oh, this is just the topside, there’s old tunnel networks to all kinds of interesting places. We got caves, a nice clearing behind that peak over there, a patch of pine forest, the ravine floor under us… Most of ‘em show signs of being used for military training before we moved in.”

Trissiny turned back to the two elves as Iraa and the dragons vanished over the bridge’s arch. “So! I guess congratulations are in order, Captain Locke. You must be the most rapidly-promoted officer in centuries.”

“Not even in the top fifty, according to Nandi here,” Principia replied cheerfully. “Though apparently I am something of a record for an officer in peacetime.”

“War tends to create career opportunities in the most unfortunate way,” Shahai agreed solemnly. “The command post is over here, General.”

“So, I have to ask,” Trissiny added in a lower tone as they moved off, glancing over her shoulder. The gatehouse guard had already discreetly retreated to his post, shutting the door behind him against the winter chill. “Bonkers?”

“We have everyone vetted by our top fae and divine casters for hostile intentions,” Principia assured her. “Aside from that… These are adventurers, not soldiers, and a good few of ‘em are here at least partly because of the amnesty. I’ve made it policy not to pry into anything we don’t explicitly need to know.” She grinned at Trissiny. “This ain’t your grandma’s army, General.”


“Well, no, I’m clearly not happy about it,” Principia said, one short but thorough explanation later when the three of them were ensconced in her office with its late-model arcane heater. “I went to a lot of trouble to get Nandi into my squad in the first place, and she’s been invaluable in keeping this place shipshape, what with all the large personalities we’ve got here. But I’m also not an idiot, and… It’s the right call, Trissiny. I saw firsthand how she performed as Bishop, and it’s exactly the approach this situation needs. You are definitely gonna be missed around here,” she added directly to Shahai, “but I can clearly see the sense in it. The Sisterhood right now has more need of you there.”

“I wouldn’t presume to proclaim myself the best woman for any task,” Shahai said almost diffidently, “but given your general pattern of interactions with the High Commander, General, I consider the fact that you are both in agreement on this to be an adequate endorsement.”

“Also, you know,” Trissiny said dryly, “orders.”

“Of course,” Shahai replied with a wry smile. “I will go wherever Avei requires me, no questions asked. Your pardon; after five centuries of service I’m afraid I’ve become prone to speaking my mind.”

“Well, Rouvad and Locke both think you’re worth it, and I’m inclined to agree.”

“So, about the other thing,” Principia said more seriously, getting up from her seat and crossing to open the door, “I believe I know just the right backup for you. Hey, ELWICK!” she bellowed down the hall outside. “Get in here!”

“I had an uncomfortable realization yesterday when dealing with the Purists,” Trissiny admitted while Principia returned to her chair. “With you and the squad no longer in the Temple, I have no personal connections there, aside from Rouvad herself. Being able to pull rank is nice, but it’s also useful to have access to a view from lower on the chain of command. Fortunately, I managed to strike up an acquaintance with Azalea Hsing that I think will prove positive.”

“Oh, that’s an excellent choice,” Shahai agreed, nodding. “Sister Azalea is clever and far-sighted, and good at gathering Legionaries and novice Sisters under her wing.”

Casey Elwick appeared in the doorway, saluting. “You squawked, Capt— General Avelea!”

“Come in, Sergeant Elwick, and shut the door,” Principia ordered. “Congratulations are in order. I’m giving you field command of the First Legion’s first-ever active deployment. You’ll be operating directly under General Avelea, but mostly on your own, like we’ve trained.”

“Thank you,” Casey all but squeaked, then swallowed and controlled her voice. “I will not let you down, ma’am! What’s the mission?”

“The General will brief you fully when you’ve assembled your team,” Principia said, nodding at Trissiny before the latter could answer. “The short version: urban counterintelligence. Go gather up, let’s see… McGraw, Jenkins, Iraa, and Bandi Avelea.”

“Sister Shay is still escorting our other guests around the campus,” Nandi reminded her.

“Right, so find her last. You’ll be moving out with the General and Shahai in one hour, Sergeant, and you’ll need time to get everyone briefed before departure. Let’s make it sharp, the General’s time is valuable.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Casey barked, saluting again. “I’m on it!”

“Dismissed,” Principia said, and the young sergeant rushed out so rapidly she almost forgot to shut the door behind herself.

“I have to admit,” said Trissiny, “I’m a little surprised at how well this place is shaping up. It’s a strangely appropriate outgrowth of your little oddball squad. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had all turned to disaster. No offense.”

“None of us would’ve been surprised,” Principia said ruefully. “But the real test is coming; apparently you’ll get to see it firsthand. Oh, but speaking of!” She suddenly straightened up in her chair, grinning. “My squad had a secondary mission in Tiraas that I’ve quietly continued out here. While everybody’s getting rounded up and packed, General, you wanna see something cool?”


“A rifle?” Trissiny asked, turning the blocky device over in her hands. “What does that mean?”

“Refers to the rifled barrel,” Billie Fallowstone replied from the other end of her underground workshop, where she was affixing a strong shielding charm to a training dummy. “The long hollow bit there, it’s got spiraling grooves on the inside, to stabilize the projectile in flight. Can’t take credit for the notion, it was Locke’s idea!”

“I love taking credit,” Principia added, “but truth be told, that one was actually Rouvad’s.”

“Aye, ye get surprisin’ bursts of insight from folks with no actual engineerin’ skill,” Billie agreed with an irrepressible grin, trundling back over toward them. “Some distance from the problem helps, I guess. Let’s see it, then, General.”

Trissiny carefully handed the weapon back to her and watched as the gnome briskly opened a hinged panel in the top of its squared midsection and slotted in a tapered metal object she picked up from a nearby table, then shut and latched it again.

“Here now, what’s that?” Principia demanded, peering down at the procedure. “What happened to the metal balls? I thought we agreed shaped projectiles were too farfetched—”

“You agreed that,” Billie said scornfully, “an’ you were right, insofar as yer eyes were too big fer yer belly, as usual. All that fancy talk o’ spiral-shaped projectiles an’ aerodynamic fins was pie in th’sky, but a cylinder with a cone on one end fits neatly in the barrel and is stupid easy to cast. I can whip up a mold me damn self usin’ scrap I’ve got layin’ around, an’ any foundry can crank out thousands of ‘em by the hour if we go inta production. The shaped bullets’re a good seventy percent more accurate than those fool balls the dwarves were usin’. Here, General, care ta do the honors?”

“Sure,” Trissiny said warily, accepting the loaded weapon back. “The ammunition goes in that top compartment, there? Seems awfully inconvenient; you can’t have much rate of fire that way.”

“Aye, yer dead right. That li’l girl ain’t a production model, I’m still prototypin’ various features. I got me a much more efficient magazine design in progress over there.” She waved at a miscellaneous pile of tools and scraps on her workbench which might have been anything at all, as far as Trissiny could tell. “Now, use the rune there to prime it.”

Trissiny touched the rune, and the arcane device obligingly hummed to life. A thin slot revealing the power crystal lit up with a blue glow on one side, just behind the ammunition compartment.

“Now, be sure ta brace the big ‘eavy pommel against yer shoulder, good an’ solid,” Billie said seriously. “There’s a good reason I made it that way. First model I tried was built along the standard battlestaff model, with the butt tucked under yer arm. An’ that’s the story o’ how I discovered this thing’s got about ten times the recoil of a lightnin’ staff. Damn well shot outta my grip across the room backwards.”

“Duly noted,” Trissiny said, carefully holding it as directed. She had fired battlestaves, of course, but not often, and the different shape of the rifle made it a somewhat awkward grip, but it seemed to fit well enough. Moving carefully, she took aim at the target dummy, which now stood behind the blue glow of a military-grade shielding charm. “Ready?”

“Whenever you are,” Principia said with an anticipatory grin.

Squeezing the clicker produced a flash of blue light from the power crystal’s slot and also from the tip of the barrel, accompanied by a thunderclap almost exactly like the discharge of a battlestaff, which was nigh-deafening in an enclosed space. The rifle did indeed try to jerk right out of her grasp; Trissiny found herself nearly aiming at the ceiling a second later when it was back under control, the end of its long muzzle smoking faintly.

There was now a gaping hole in the center of the dummy’s body. The shielding charm, rated to stand up to sustained staff fire before failing, had been snuffed out like it was never there.

“Nice shot!” Billie crowed. “Yer a natural! Aye, the toys Locke was tinkerin’ with used an explosive charge like the dwarven original, which seemed t’me needlessly cumbersome an’ askin’ fer trouble. An arcane acceleration charm’s way too power-intensive, but you can cobble up a real efficient contained explosion that uses less power per crystal than the standard staff shot, an works beautifully ta fire th’projectile. Also won’t blow yer arm off if ye light up a cigarette.”

“Why didn’t the dwarves refine it this much?” Trissiny asked, still frowning at the slain target dummy with the smoking rifle in her clenched hands. “You’ve only been at this a year or so, and they’re rather famous for engineering.”

“There are a million possible answers to that, and we don’t know enough to guess which might be true,” said Principia. “Such things usually come down to social or economic factors rather than the technology itself. What do you think of it so far?”

“Shield-breaking utility aside,” Trissiny said softly, “this thing would do terrible damage to a living body. Different damage than a lightning bolt, but… I’m not sure if better, or worse?”

“I’ve tested that girl’s older sisters on pumpkins an’ melons,” Billie said seriously. “Yer right, it is not pretty. Makes a fair neat little hole goin’ in an’ a honkin’ big terrible one comin’ out the back. Ye hit somebody in the right spot with one o’ these an’ I reckon the best healers would be stymied.”

“There’s also the matter of escalation,” Principia added. “I talked about this with Rouvad. The first battle in which these weapons are used will be an absolute rout, but immediately after that tactics and devices to counter them will begin to be deployed. The projectile weapon itself is enough of a jump forward that there’s no telling how far that arms race will run before it settles back into any kind of equilibrium. I suspect the Svennish are aware of the same thing. The base concept is pretty clearly aimed at negating the Tiraan Empire’s military capabilities, but it can’t be a coincidence that we took the original from an intelligence agent while their soldiers have never been seen with such weapons.”

“It’s a big improvement over battlestaves in range, accuracy, an’ stoppin’ power,” said Billie, “but can’t match ‘em for rate o’ fire or economy. An’ the ammunition situation is actually a step back from arrows. Metal projectiles are smaller, but about as ‘eavy an’ more expensive to make.”

“Well,” Principia snipped, “maybe if you used the original spherical ones—”

“Blow it out yer arse, Captain. This ‘ere’s my workshop, an’ I’ll not be party to the deployment of inferior technology!”

“I need to think about this,” Trissiny stated abruptly, bending to hand the weapon back to Billie with great care. “Don’t get me wrong, ladies: you’ve done fine work here. This is extremely impressive. But I can’t help having the sinking feeling you’re about to unleash something horrific on the world.”

“Aye,” Billie said solemnly as she accepted the rifle into her arms, “we’re not blind ta that, General.”

“What it comes down to,” Principia added, “is that we didn’t invent this technology; we’re just refining it. The knowledge was out there, and bound to be used sooner than later. So the issue becomes one of whether it’s going to be our people who get ravaged by its first deployment, or someone else’s. That is a damn ugly choice to make, Trissiny, but I don’t see how we could make a different one.”

“You’re right about that,” Trissiny murmured. “What’ve you come up with in terms of countering this, Billie?”

“So far?” the gnome hedged, wincing. “Me best notion is armor. Made o’ materials which do not, at this time, exist. Got meself a couple ideas fer alchemical treatment o’ wood an’ ceramic, but that’s not me field of specialty. An’ I’ve not even tried scalin’ the tech up to a cannon-sized siege engine. I’ve frankly no idea what ye even could do against that.”

Trissiny inhaled deeply and then blew the air out in a huff. “All right. Thank you for bringing me up to speed on this; I very much fear it’s going to be relevant far too soon. For now, I think we’ve still got a little time before I need to brief Elwick’s team and have Zanzayed bring everybody back to Tiraas. Changing the subject, Locke, where is Khadizroth?”

“In his own chamber, pretty far underground,” Principia answered. “You need to talk with him, too?”

“I was actually hoping to,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “but that was before Ampophrenon invited himself along for this visit. I’m not sure we’re ready for that confrontation to unfold.”

“Yikes. No kidding,” Principia cringed. “But you needn’t worry; Khadizroth knew it the second two dragons arrived on our doorstep and warned me even before Iraa came to do likewise. Then he went to hide himself away.”

“Ah, good,” Trissiny said fervently. “Damage controlled, then. Still, it seems a waste; I was taking advantage of a rare opportunity to make sure it was Zanzayed he met with first, and under my supervision. We can’t keep him away from the Conclave forever, but I’d rather not start with its cannier members.”

“Do not underestimate Zanzayed,” Principia warned her. “I have twice seen him directly cooperating with Imperial Intelligence, and Quentin Vex does not associate with fools. Zanzayed is thousands of years old and has survived brawls with Arachne and Kuriwa. He wouldn’t be the first person to downplay his own intelligence for strategic advantage.”

“Aye,” Billie agreed, grinning. “You actually study under Admestus Rafe, right? Same principle applies.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Trissiny said with a pensive frown. “Well, then. I guess I have no other pressing business here. Let’s go get everybody caught up and then move out. Not that I’m not enjoying the visit, Locke, but the real trouble’s unspooling in Tiraas as we speak, and I don’t like leaving it out from under my eyes any longer than necessary.”

“There’s always trouble out from under your eyes, Trissiny,” Principia said. “You can’t plan for everything. The best you can do is stay flexible and learn to think fast and react smart.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that impression. I just hope I can learn fast enough.”

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16 – 24

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Finding herself already in the Embassy District, Trissiny opted to summon Arjen and ride the relatively short distance to the compound held by the Conclave of the Winds. This neighborhood, accustomed as it was to the presence of august personages from the world over, afforded her relative freedom from the gawking and pointing she usually got in public while wearing the silver armor that enabled her to walk into embassies and get unscheduled meetings with ranking personnel; even the police officer of whom she’d asked directions had been polite but not fawning, or even visibly impressed. There were also a good number of foreigners about, for obvious reasons, and so she was the subject of some whispering, but Trissiny could live with that. She was altogether more bothered by the cold. Having left the Svennish embassy around midmorning and found the day unexpectedly sunny for Tiraas, she had to dourly admit that this was probably as warm as it was going to get all day.

Embassies were at least easy to identify, even for one unfamiliar with the neighborhood, as they obligingly bedecked themselves in flags. The Conclave’s multicolored hexagon encircled by a wing-like glyph on a white field was displayed as prominently as any, enabling her to zero in on her target as soon as she was on the right street. The dragons had set up a towering flagpole to fly their colors notably higher than any of the others in the area, which was exactly the sort of petty posturing nobody was going to call them down for. Because they were dragons.

She rode Arjen past the guards at the open gate, neither of whom attempted to stop her, dismounting midway up the path to the palatial embassy proper and leaving him with a pat on his velvety nose to return to the divine plane as always. Again, she was not impeded—a paladin’s uniform opened many doors—and in fact, the two guards bracketing the embassy’s door came to attention, one opening the door for her.

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely.

“Ma’am,” the guard replied in a crisp tone.

She slowed, indulging her martial upbringing in casting a critical eye over the soldiers—which, to judge by their discipline, they were, rather than civil guards. The Conclave kept its troops in metal armor, lined with white fur, but in addition to sabers they carried battlestaves and had wands holstered. They were also, every one she’d seen so far, women, and notably more attractive than soldiers needed to be.

Dragons.

Trissiny repressed her instinctive antipathy. There was no suggestion any of these women were here against their will, which made it none of her business.

Inside, the sight of the embassy’s great hall caused her to stop and spend a heartbeat just taking in the view.

Apparently the Conclave had been hastily granted this compound by the Empire on the day of their very sudden appearance at the capital, and moved into the then-empty palace left behind when the Syrrinski delegation had relocated themselves to a smaller structure at a more trafficked intersection. However make-do the initial habitation had been, the Conclave had since had ample time to make the embassy their own.

They’d stripped the walls to reveal bare stone, covered the windows with heavy drapes, replaced what had probably been a marble floor with gray flagstones, knocked out the fluted columns which would’ve matched the embassy’s exterior to install heavy square pillars of fieldstone, and disabled all the fairy lamps. All the illumination now came from a selection of braziers and standing lamps, all holding fire rather than magical light, and at least some clearly augmented with smoky incense. The relative dimness served to accentuate the furnishings, which were a mismatched collection of carved luxury woods, pricey fabrics, gilt and silvered limbs, and intricate carpets. Everything was visibly expensive, most of it clearly antique, and absolutely nothing matched.

Evidently the draconic aesthetic was tasteless opulence against a starkly rustic backdrop.

No dragons were immediately in evidence, though there were more humans about than Trissiny had expected, including a servant tending to braziers and several individuals crossing the great hall at a businesslike gait with stacks of paperwork in hand. More soldiers were stationed about, rigidly at attention with a discipline she could not fault; all were female, and all remarkably pretty of face.

Where were they getting these women? How did they recruit them? The Sisterhood kept tabs on the Huntsmen’s eternal campaign to entice women into their ranks; surely someone would have noticed had dragons been doing the same. Trissiny had heard nothing to that effect, however.

“General Avelea! Welcome!”

From the large desk set up across from the entrance now approached a tall half-elven man, smiling broadly. Trissiny noted that the dragons also had classical sensibilities when it came to garbing their servants; in addition to the old-fashioned armor on the guards, most of the other personnel in the room wore sweeping robes, like wizards and clerics in old adventuring parties were often depicted. This fellow, though, was actually in a doublet and breeches, which was somehow even more anachronistic, but he had the lean frame to pull it off.

“Good morning,” she said. “I apologize for intruding on you without warning…”

“Not at all, not at all,” the steward hastily reassured her. “I can only imagine how unforgiving a paladin’s schedule must be. It is an honor to have you in our embassy, General! What can the Conclave of the Winds do for you?”

“Actually,” she said mentally preparing herself for an argument, “I need to speak with Zanzayed the Blue.”

“Of course, General,” he said, to her surprise. Snapping his fingers, he turned to point at another young man still waiting behind the desk. “Ivan, notify Lord Zanzayed he has a visitor. If you would, General Avelea,” he said, turning back to her with a bow while the youth dashed off toward one of the room’s curving staircases, “please make yourself comfortable here. I will have refreshments brought.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said hastily. “I don’t mean to take up any more of your time than I must.”

“Please, General, the hospitality of the Conclave couldn’t bear to have you mistreated under our roof. At least something to ward off the chill of the day?”

He snapped his fingers again, beckoning, and a new figure approached from behind the desk—in fact, from a door behind it obscured by a curtain, hence why she had not noticed them before. This was a woman—young, as pretty as any of the guards, and considerably more underdressed, to the point the tray of steaming mugs she carried seemed like an imminent threat to her expansive cleavage. She glided forward with surprising grace considering her burden and executed a deep curtsy, smiling up through her thick lashes in an openly flirtatious manner.

Apparently they didn’t entertain many Avenists here.

Trissiny was spared having to come up with a polite response to this by the sharp sound of a battlestaff being thunked twice against the stone floor, followed by the voice of one of the soldiers ringing through the great hall.

“Lord Ampophrenon the Gold!”

Instantly every human in the room knelt and lowered their heads, including the serving girl, still holding up her tray, leaving Trissiny standing alone.

“Please, rise,” pleaded a deep baritone from above, and she turned to spot the tall humanoid form of the dragon in his famous golden armor descending the stairs, just in time to catch his embarrassed-looking wave as he urged everyone back to their feet.

Interesting. Then did the other dragons insist on this obeisance that Ampophrenon did not care for, or perhaps did he just like to put on a show of modesty while also soaking up the reverence? The latter was a cynical thought, but consistent with the reputation of dragons. Trissiny was deliberately trying to get in the habit of teasing out social and political currents like this, though so far the effort had mostly just revealed how little frame of reference she had for it.

Ampophrenon’s featureless golden eyes had settled right on her, and he descended the stairs in a rapid glide, quickly crossing the floor in a few long strides. “General Avelea, welcome to our embassy. It is an honor to finally meet you!”

“Likewise, Lord Ampophrenon,” she answered, bowing. To her surprise, he bowed back as soon as he was close enough, one casual gesture sending both the steward and the waitress backing away from them.

“I feel I still owe you an apology for my absence at Ninkabi. It is shameful that none of our Conclave learned of the attack in time to assist in the defense—for me, in particular.”

“As suddenly as it happened, I hardly think anyone who wasn’t there can be blamed,” she demurred. “The paladins only made it in time because Xyraadi came to find us.”

“Ah, yes, the Sisterhood’s old khelminash ally,” the dragon said, his expression growing intent. “These times grow more interesting with each passing day. I am given to understand that you have struck up a friendship with none other than Vadrieny the Ravager?”

Ah, yes; this particular dragon had a history with her, didn’t he?

“I have,” Trissiny stated, holding his gaze firmly. “And she is as good a friend as any I’ve ever had. I’m not sure how much you’re aware of Vadrieny’s situation, Lord Ampophrenon, but having one’s entire history and identity erased changes a person. She has little resemblance to the Vadrieny of history. I suspect you would scarcely recognize her.”

“That is a relief to hear,” he said, nodding. “Especially after this morning.” Trissiny blinked in surprise; Teal and therefore Vadrieny had been with her all morning, until they’d dropped her off outside the Svennish embassy less than an hour ago. What could they have possibly done? Fortunately Ampophrenon continued. “The papers are full of the account of her terrorizing a city street yesterday, here in Tiraas.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, frowning in annoyance. “Well, I haven’t seen the papers, but I personally helped clean up the aftermath of that. A pair of thieves attempted to abduct her pet dog. There was some incidental property damage, for which the Falconers are of course being financially responsible, but Vadrieny stopped the criminals. Without killing them, which to be quite frank was more restrained than I might have been.”

“I’m very pleased to learn that,” the dragon said with a smile, “and most especially to have a firsthand account. A drawback of the modern proliferation of information is that relatively little of it seems accurate. The picture painted by the newspapers has been…rather more dramatic.”

“Oh?”

“For heaven’s sake, Puff, can’t you get your own visitors?”

Belatedly, the sergeant at arms thunked her staff twice on the floor. “Lord Zanzayed the Blue!”

“Yes, yes, everybody calm down. As you were,” Zanzayed said impatiently, causing the various dragonsworn in the room to abort their descents, only a few of them having made it to a full kneel, and straighten back up. He crossed the room from the staircase at a rapid glide that caused his fancifully embroidered robes to fan behind him like the train of a peacock, grinning broadly and spreading his hands in welcome. “Trissiny! What a delight to see you again! You look much better as a blonde. What brings you to my humble abode?”

“Humble?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “Actually, never mind that. Hello again, Zanzayed, I’m sorry I haven’t found time to visit before. The truth is, I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Yep, this is what it’s like to have family,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You never see them unless they want something.”

“Right,” Trissiny retorted, “so should I assume that since you haven’t visited me either, it’s only because I have nothing you want?”

The blue dragon burst out laughing. “Now that’s the way to do it! That’s perfect, Triss, you’ve got your mother’s wit, plus the knack for not being such a bitch about it. I can see the benefit of Arachne’s training! All right, all right, I do like to josh but seriously, I don’t mind at all doing you a solid. Whatcha need?”

“It’s a pretty prosaic thing to ask of a dragon, sorry,” she apologized, “but I need to get to the First Legion headquarters in northern Viridill, gather up some people, and get back here to Tiraas, as quickly as it can be arranged. Only teleportation will be fast enough to suffice.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” he said, unimpressed. “I do respect the sheer gumption, asking a dragon to be your personal taxi service.”

“Well, if you’re busy, I certainly understand,” Trissiny said with a deliberately false smile. “I was in the neighborhood, is all. I can head down to the Wizards’ Guild and spend the Sisterhood’s credit—”

“Now, now, I didn’t say no, did I?” he interjected.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the least dignified thing you’ve done lately,” Ampophrenon agreed. “In fact, General Avelea, if you intend to visit your adventurer legion, I wonder if I might prevail upon you to come along? I’m certain Zanzayed doesn’t mind doing such a minor favor, after all,” he added pointedly to the blue. “It’s not as if he has anything more important to do.”

“You should stop helping before I’m forced to refuse on principle,” Zanzayed retorted. “Long as this one restrains his urge to henpeck, Trissiny, sure, I’d be glad to give you a lift. I did the same for Arachne not long ago, and at least you’re polite.”

Trissiny found herself hesitating, glancing rapidly between them. Ampophrenon’s presence had not been part of her plan. Zanzayed’s insistence on coming along, despite his expected complaining, had borne out her theory: the Conclave would very much like to have a look at the First Legion, or specifically, one individual in it. More than a few commentators had suggested it was formed at least partly due to the actions of Khadizroth the Green, in whom they remained deeply interested. Hence her intention to make Zanzayed the first point of contact between them, under her own supervision; he was noted to be the least versed in the art of political maneuvering, mostly because he wasn’t known to care about much of anything beyond his own immediate interests.

Ampophrenon the Gold was a different matter entirely.

But could she refuse his presence without overplaying her hand? And would that even create a problem if she did? Moments like this made Trissiny keenly conscious of just how much she still had to learn about this kind of maneuvering. And it had all been going so well before Ampophrenon involved himself…

“Actually,” she said slowly, “if you’re interested in seeing it, Lord Ampophrenon, I’d be glad of your presence. Captain Locke is trying to resuscitate a dead tradition; I’d love to hear the observations of one who was an expert in adventurer strategy when it was an active force.”

“The honor would be mine, General,” the gold dragon assured her with a courtly bow. “I shall be only too glad to be of service, in light of my failure to do so at the Battle of Ninkabi. I’m sure Zanzayed doesn’t mind one extra passenger.”

“Well, you could stand to lose a few pounds, but we’ll make do,” Zanzayed snipped, holding his arms wide and calling up a rising sparkle of visible arcane magic that Trissiny knew for a fact was entirely unnecessary for a wizard of his skill. He’d even modulated the characteristically unpleasant buzz of the arcane to a three-tone harmony. “Stand clear, everyone!”

Well, she reflected as the three of them disappeared in a gratuitous flash, you couldn’t win them all.


“It’s just such an absolute delight to see you again, Gabriel!” Lady Gwenfaer nattered on. “Let me get you something. Tea? I have some lovely chocolates from Glassiere, I’ve just been waiting for someone to come along worth sharing them with. Oh, please, do make yourself comfortable! Sit anywhere you like. And get out of that heavy coat! I do so want you to feel relaxed here.”

He felt anything but relaxed here, and the fact that she both knew it and knew exactly why only fed his tension. Gabriel deliberately kept his posture calmly and as un-tensed as he could make it, cultivating a mask of aloofness which did not even try to suppress the suspicion in his eyes. Obviously, he did not take off his coat.

As with the previous time she had entertained him, Gwenfaer met him in her private chambers, an inner sanctum deep inside the underground temple complex beneath Imperial Square. It was actually ironic and a fine example of the cult’s prized duality; the innermost chambers were obviously sacred spaces, arranged for prayer and religious ceremonies, and then past the final door was this cozy little apartment, in which the mortal leader of the Vidian faith was now puttering about a small kitchen, making tea.

Also as before, she herself was wearing a robe that was clearly designed to resemble a disheveled housecoat, despite the immaculate condition of its silken skirt and wide sleeves. It revealed an excessive amount of pale cleavage and in fact seemed perpetually on the verge of sliding off her shoulders, and yet remained firmly fixed in place, exactly where she wanted it. Gabriel himself was a bit more worldly now than on their previous encounter, enough at least to respect the artifice that went into such a garment. As well as the way her blonde hair evoked the tousled aspect of just having slid out of bed, and yet was glossy and flowed down her back like the carved mane of a marble sculpture. And while he still knew very little about cosmetics, he knew that his own failure to spot them didn’t mean they weren’t there—and that nobody just woke up with their lips or eyelids colored that way.

While the tea kettle was heating, she came bustling back carrying a plate on which fancy-looking chocolates were artfully arranged, and Gabriel did not miss the unnatural way she held it—close to waist level, the better to accentuate her bust, in a posture absolutely no one used for transporting food.

“Please, Gabriel, do sit down,” Gwenfaer chided gently. “Come, I think you’ll enjoy these.”

“I hear you’ve been making trouble for the Archpope,” he said, not moving to do any of what she suggested. “To the point he’s called poor Bishop Raskin down on the carpet a few times. From what people tell me, it’s starting to seem like you’ve set the Brethren to impeding Church activities just for the hell of it. Or maybe just to see how much you can get away with?”

She sighed with almost childlike peevishness, making a little pout which belonged on someone half her age at the absolute most. It was downright creepy how well the woman pulled it off. Shaking her head, Gwenfaer bent to set the plate of chocolates on the low table between her couches, deliberately positioning herself so that the motion gave Gabriel a view straight down to her waist.

He immediately averted his eyes, then clenched them slightly in annoyance. A better action would have been to look, without allowing his expression to be altered in the slightest. All this flirting was blatantly a power play, not anything sincerely romantic, and he’d just ceded her at least a measure of that power. It wasn’t as if he needed a reminder that he was way out of his depth, trying to play these games with this woman.

“Really, right to politics?” she asked in coquettish disappointment, straightening back up and giving no indication she was even aware her posture had had an effect on him—which, somehow, only emphasized how in control she was. “Honestly, Gabriel, it’s not that I mind, but there’s a reason civilized people try to soften up such talk with pleasant little amenities.”

“Yes, thank you for showing me the amenities, they’re magnificent as always,” he said sarcastically, and the smile of amusement she gave him at that was the first expression he’d ever seen on her face that looked genuine. “The curious thing about it is apparently you’re the reason there’s an Archpope Justinian at all. The way I heard it, when the last one retired, you were one of the leading contenders for the position until you nominated him. So, what gives? Do you back Justinian or not?”

Gwenfaer sighed and gave him an indulgent smile, looking up through her eyelashes. “Would you please relax? Whatever’s set you on the warpath, I’m sure between us we can settle on a strategy to deal with it. Come, have a seat.” She patted the spot next to herself invitingly, and with her other hand picked up a chocolate, holding it out as if she intended to feed him with her fingers.

Gabriel held her gaze for a moment, then deliberately drew the gnarled black wand from within his coat. It extended to full scythe form in his grasp and he planted the butt against the floor, the impact muffled by her thick layers of carpet.

Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the divine weapon and then back to him, looking not the least bit perturbed. Mildly inquisitive, at most.

“I would appreciate your help with something, Lady Gwenfaer,” he stated. “Well, several things, in fact.”

“Of course, I’m—”

“To begin with, yourself. I am in a completely intractable position with regard to you. We need to resolve that before moving on to more pressing matters.”

“Why, Gabriel,” she said in wide-eyed concern, “whatever have I done to impede you?”

“That,” he said, pointing at her. “You have to be aware that I’m not here to do run-of-the-mill Vidian stuff. Vidius has told me in so many words I’m here to straighten out the cult, and clean out some of the rot. The only reason I haven’t so far is I am still working to get a sense of who’s who and what’s what, and the fact that this place is a constantly-writhing nest of snakes at the best of times does not help. I’d like nothing more than to count on your help, Lady Gwenfaer. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to direct me.”

“It goes without saying, Gabriel,” she said sweetly, making sure to gaze up through her lashes to emphasize the double meaning. “Anything I can do for you, you need only ask.”

“And that’s why it’s such a problem,” he said with open irritation, “that you keep working so hard to make yourself completely impossible to trust.”

He’d more than half expected her to make another playfully flirtatious comment in response, but instead, she carefully set the chocolate back down on the plate and folded her hands in her lap.

“Are you under the impression, Gabriel, that I’ve been…unusually disingenuous toward you?”

“In point of fact, no,” he said, drawing his eyebrows together in a quizzical expression. “I actually asked Tarvadegh. He insisted you treat everyone the same way. Also, he seemed exhausted just by the memory of being in a room with you.”

“Val, you gossipy fishwife,” she huffed, and once again, the real amusement in her tone seemed like an unaccustomed flash of genuine emotion through her constant facade. Of course, Gabriel couldn’t afford to trust that, either. “That observation is quite apt, Gabriel. The Doctrine of Masks may be something you are learning to use, but to me? It is a way not merely of acting, but of being.”

And just like that, her entire aspect changed. She leaned back against the rear of the couch, stretching both arms across it, and while that pose could have been interpreted as sexy, her expression was even and sharp, eyes fixed on him as if analyzing him like a specimen under a magnifier.

“Does this make you feel more at ease?” Gwenfaer inquired, and while her voice was no less throaty, the subtleties of her inflection were knowing and detached, nothing at all like her little-girl coyness of before.

“Yes, thank you, that’s a start.”

Gabriel finally stepped forward around the other couch and seated himself directly opposite her. Still holding his eyes, she raised one eyebrow.

“I’m not sure why. Surely, you have to be aware that I am no different, and definitely no less in control of how you perceive me.”

“Sure, but nothing was ever gonna change that.” He kept one hand on the haft of the scythe, resting its butt on the floor between the couch and table. “It would be pretty stupid on my part to let my guard down with anyone in this place, don’t you think? But at least as long as you’re not acting like a showgirl, I can at least feel like you’re taking this seriously. Trust is earned, and that takes time. Meet me halfway, and it’s only fair I give you a chance. Right?”

“You make a peculiar kind of sense,” she said with a knowing little smile. “Well then, if I have earned a measure of your tolerance, you were asking about Justinian, yes? I wonder what’s set you after him suddenly.”

“I wonder where you stand with him,” Gabriel shot back. “You as good as put him where he is, but now you seem to be trying to hamper him?”

“That’s not so contradictory as you make it sound. Yes, I played my role in making him Archpope. At the time, Gabriel, I was angling to rise through the ranks, and at a crossroads where I could have pursued the office of Archpope for myself, or the leadership of the Brethren. In that situation? My decision was the strategic one. I avoided a pitched power struggle between the other Bishops, and by positioning myself such that it seemed to my fellow Vidians the papacy had been mine to give away, I leveraged myself into…” She made a languid gesture with one hand. “Well, where you see me now.”

“I see you now, but not so much what you’re doing. Why help Justinian become Archpope if you dislike him so much? Was the power that important to you?”

“I can’t honestly say whether it would have been,” she said, leaning forward and folding her hands in her lap again. Gwenfaer’s eyes narrowed, still fixed on his own in an expression of open displeasure. “Though I lean toward the belief that had I understood Justinian better, I would have fought him. The matter at hand is that I had no idea what kind of creature I was climbing into bed with. You don’t know what it was like, then, Gabriel; this was before you even discovered girls, I think. Justinian Darnay was the Izarite Bishop, which in and of itself was a courtesy post nobody took seriously, least of all the Izarites. He was so likable, such a friendly non-entity. Handsome and slightly interesting due to having done some actual adventuring, during what must surely have been the last time anyone did that and was willing to admit to it. Until this year, of course. Basically, he was a living portrait of the ultimate bland, no-name, nothing politician. I’m not by far the only one who thought Justinian’s papacy would be a serene, steady time in which we could all carry on with our various maneuvering under the nose of everyone’s favorite mild-mannered uncle.”

There was silence for a moment. Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the side, and she worked her jaw once as if chewing her tongue.

“Wow,” Gabriel said at last. “That did not go the way you expected, huh?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I respect his maneuvering tremendously,” she acknowledged, focusing back on his face. “It was an utterly brilliant ploy. Nobody knew exactly what we were putting in power when we voted him there. And then he was in place, and slowly began putting things in order the way he liked them. The Church was just…interfaith cooperation, before he came along. Now the thing is an actual religious institution in its own right. Its cathedrals were spaces for any Pantheon cult to use, but not only do they have unique Church services instead, now, he’s got chapels in every town on the frontier and working into older cities across the Empire and beyond. And with its own private guard force, research projects, countless methods of exerting political influence…” She shook her head, looking equal parts impressed and angry, and causing Gabriel to marvel at the control she had over her expression. “And all because the Bishops were so certain we’d just installed a hapless figurehead under whom we could go about business as usual. Can you imagine, playing harmless at that level for that long, and using it to attain ultimate power? I don’t think I could have pulled that off.”

Lady Gwenfaer paused, letting the silence hang heavily for a moment before continuing.

“And that, I hope, explains the apparent contradiction to you, Gabriel. I am, in large part, responsible for Justinian being where he is. And his ambitions have grown to the point where I deem it no less than my obligation to impede him. I held aloof for years because I couldn’t discern any end goal behind his maneuvering. I still can’t, but whatever else he is doing, he is centralizing power and authority under the papacy to a degree which for very good reason has not existed since Sipasian’s day. Anyway,” she added in a deliberately more glib tone, once again lounging back against the couch. “That’s why I have made it a point lately to interfere with him. I gather you would not have come here to sound me out unless something beyond the usual run of Church politics had moved you. So I’ll ask again, Gabriel: why are you suddenly so concerned with Justinian?”

He studied her thoughtfully for a moment before replying. She just gazed back, a vision of patience.

“Vesk sent us on a quest this summer,” he said at last. “All three paladins.”

“Vesk did? That sounds annoying.”

“You truly cannot imagine,” he agreed. “I think he had multiple goals, and I suspect I don’t know the half of them. But at least one was to ensure we learned that Justinian has somehow gotten access to ancient machinery of the Elder Gods that was involved in their final destruction, and the Pantheon’s creation. And that he has been using it to try to affect the gods themselves.”

Gwenfaer’s expression did not change by a hair, but very slowly, she straightened up until she was sitting as rigidly upright as a soldier.

“You are certain of this?” Her voice was quiet, and devoid of apparent emotion.

He nodded. “I’ve seen the evidence, incredible as it is. There are also indications, though they’re only circumstantial or you would have been hearing about it already, that he had a hand in what happened to Ninkabi. And the chaos event in Veilgrad before that. In addition to his political ambitions, Justinian is messing with magic nobody needs to touch, and seems to be very interested in how godhood works. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out for you what that equation adds up to.”

She nodded mutely.

“So, yes, we are in agreement,” Gabriel continued. “Justinian needs to go. And I am here, now, because while politics are definitely not my strong suit, Trissiny is heading up an attack on that front and needs our help.”

“Ah, Trissiny,” Gwenfaer said with a vulpine smile. “I like that one. Laressa’s knack for political theater, Sharai’s capacity to smite big old honking demon lords, and the ruthlessness to waterboard aristocrats in public. And still just finding her stride! She’ll go down as one of Avei’s finest, mark my words. What is she up to now?”

“I’m sure you already know the Thieves’ Guild cut ties with the Church in protest after Ninkabi. Bishop Darling has been serving as their interfaith conduit directly with the other cults, rather than going through the Church’s organization.”

“Ah, yes, poor Antonio,” she said solicitously. “He’s been running himself quite ragged.”

“As of today,” Gabriel said, watching her closely, “the Sisterhood of Avei is going to join the Guild in solidarity. Justinian has been refusing to confirm their Bishop candidates, so the High Commander will be appointing one to fill the role regardless, and will also withdraw from the Church. The Avenists have a lot more credibility and influence than the Eserites; this alone may be enough to get the ball rolling with the other cults. But to make it a definitive push, they need the other two Trinity cults to join them.”

For a moment, Gwenfaer just stared at him with her eyes slightly narrowed. Then, slowly, a smile blossomed across her face, a grin that by the second grew wider as it grew more overtly malicious.

“Oh,” she breathed, pausing to lick her lips once in a truly predatory gesture, “I like it.”

This time, he fully believed her.

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