Tag Archives: Trissiny

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“It went very well,” the newly re-minted Bishop Shahai assured her quietly, smiling.

“It’s kind of a blur,” Trissiny admitted, having to restrain herself from rubbing her hands against herself. At least the uniform gauntlets ensured no one could tell her palms were still sweaty. “I hate public speaking. Goddess, send me more demons instead…”

“More and more, politics is the arena of modern warfare,” said the elf. “No disrespect, Trissiny, but perhaps you should be glad you have a knack for making speeches and make peace with the need.”

“General Avelea!”

At that voice, they both looked up at the still-chattering scrum of reporters being held behind the line of Silver Legionnaires in the Temple’s main sanctuary. He was not the only person calling Trissiny’s name, as many of the journalists were still trying to get her or Shahai’s attention, but that voice out of them all cut straight through the noise. He did much the same physically, striding forward with a courteous nod to the Legionnaires—who, despite orders, instinctively shifted to let him through.

You just didn’t argue the right of way with a dragon.

“Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny asked in surprise.

Ampophrenon the Gold strode up to her and Shahai and inclined his head respectfully to each of them. “General, Bishop. Congratulations on your day’s work. I am truly sorry to so abruptly impose myself on Avenist business, especially at a time like this, but I fear the need is urgent. General Avelea, have you received a personal summons from Avei recently?”

“I haven’t…” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “What’s this about?”

Ampophrenon was already standing with his back to the reporters, and at that made a quick gesture with one hand. A shimmering rose in the air behind him like a heat mirage and the sound of voices cut off.

“I dare to hope that I will owe you an apology for wasting your time, General, but if not, you and your two counterparts may be urgently needed. The Conclave has had advance warning that a chaos event may be unfolding, or about to. And,” he added with a piercing glance at Shahai, “the specific timing rouses…suspicions.”

“Chaos event,” Shahai murmured, narrowing her own eyes. “He…would, wouldn’t he? If we presume his hand was behind the events at Ninkabi…”

“And at Veilgrad,” said Ampophrenon. “The evidence that he was involved with the skull of Belosiphon is all but conclusive. By the General’s own account, it is now in his possession.” The dragon paused, turning his attention on Trissiny, who had closed her eyes in an expression of concentration.

She opened them not two seconds later, her face going pale. “Veilgrad. Again.”

Ampophenon drew in a breath. “Curse that man’s remorseless ambition. That was at the goddess’s warning, I take it?”

“I had to ask directly, but yes. If she didn’t reach out to me first, it may not be as serious as it could.”

“There is that,” he agreed, “but such things must never be taken lightly. We cannot afford to risk teleportation to or near a chaos event, but I can still provide quick transportation there, for you and the other paladins.”

“Hopefully their gods will have warned them as well,” she said quickly. “I appreciate your aid, Lord Ampophrenon. Nandi…?”

“You go do what you do best, Trissiny,” the Bishop answered. “Goddess be with you. I’m going to summon Elwick and the squad. If Justinian has been forced by your maneuver to act in haste, he may have made a mistake upon which we can capitalize. Let me worry about the politics for now.”

Trissiny nodded, then grimaced. “And let that teach me to be careful what I pray for.”


“Hunter’s Quarter reports civilian evac is complete!”

“Squad C is in position, sir. Squad D moving up. The bait squad is standing by.”

“Colonel! Quartermaster reports there’s enough raw flashpowder in that fireworks depot to assemble enough explosive bolts for a full volley from the crossbows we’ve got on hand. He’s proceeding with the construction.”

“Good,” Adjavegh grunted without taking his eyes from their ceaseless scan of the windows. “Make sure his entire department is on it, Timms. There are no other priorities.”

“Yes, sir!”

A shadow fell over the command center and most of those present reflexively crouched down. It passed, though, and seconds later the skeletal dragon set down on another rooftop halfway across the city. Colonel Adjavegh alone had not moved, standing at parade rest in the center of the activity around him, eyes on the enemy. It was simple bravado, perhaps, but it mattered to the men and women under his command to see their leader focused and calm in the face of absolute, literal chaos.

Veilgrad’s Army barracks had its command center in a squat, square chamber on its roof, below only the watchtowers. All four walls had tall windows interspersed with thick stone columns—an addition constructed well after the Enchanter Wars, but in the age of mag cannons stone walls were of little use and the commanding view over the city and its surroundings was of more utility, especially at a time like this. Even so, the windows of course were heavily enchanted. Right now, several of them had soldiers with spyglasses keeping a constant watch on the beast currently terrorizing the city, while the command center itself roiled with messengers keeping Adjavegh appraised of all unfolding developments and conveying his orders.

“Sir!” His aide, Sergeant Timms, darted to his side bearing a sheet of paper she’d just taken from another such messenger. “A response from ImCom!”

“Finally,” Adjavegh grunted, snatching it from her. “I’m glad this is more interesting than the fresh gossip in the capital—what in the hell?”

“It’s pretty garbled, sir.”

“I can see that it’s garbled, Sergeant!”

“It was transcribed faithfully, sir. This came via telescroll, like our initial report to ImCom.” She craned her neck over his shoulder to study the page, which was a mishmash of letters strung together in an order that only formed words about half the time. “The scrolltower transmissions were probably scrambled by the chaos effect, Colonel. See, this looks like a request for clarification. The message they got from us was probably just as mangled.”

“If that’s the case…” Adjavegh hesitated a moment, squinting at the message, then raised his voice to a battlefield roar. “I want a full emergency shutdown on the Rail stations, now!”

“Sir,” replied a lieutenant, “the Rails immediately stopped running when—”

“The emergency shutdown, son! Get on it!”

“Yes, sir!” The man snapped off a salute and dashed for the stairs. The Rail stations in cities as large as Veilgrad were capable of launching a shutdown signal through the physical Rails themselves that would effectively disable the entire network, Empire-wide. It could be re-activated from Tiraas, but that would let Imperial Command know there was a crisis here, if they couldn’t communicate directly. To Adjavegh’s knowledge, the emergency shutdown had never been used, even during the Battle of Ninkabi. Its implied message was that the city sending it was under conditions too dangerous to approach.

They had worked out very quickly that the dragon was a chaos beast, when it had come under immediate attack from both the city’s formal defenders and several magic-wielding civilians. That had gone disastrously; Adjavegh had lost four squads of soldiers in the first five minutes, and who knew how many citizens who’d rallied to the defense. But with that bitter lesson had also come the insight that conventional lightning weapons did damage the beast, so long as they were fired from beyond point blank range. Once past the enchantment itself which conjured the lightning bolt, it was just an electrical discharge like those that came from the sky. The dragon seemed to recuperate rapidly from damage, but it had been damaged, if briefly.

Hence his current strategies in place. Adjavegh was laying a trap in one of Veilgrad’s open squares, positioning soldiers with battlestaves in windows surrounding the square. Once they were in place, the all-volunteer “bait squad” would attempt to provoke it into the killbox where it could be blasted apart by a torrent of lightning from all directions. So far the skeletal dragon hadn’t used any kind of breath weapon, merely attacking with its jaws, talons, and tail. If that failed, there was his backup plan underway: Timms and the Quartermaster had rustled enough working crossbows to outfit two squads and Q was at work crafting explosive bolts, using chemical flashpowder from fireworks rather than alchemicals, which might be ineffective against chaos.

As of yet, he had no Plan C.

“Damn scrolltowers,” he growled, crumpling the garbled message in his fist. “Guess that means we won’t be hearing an explanation from the Conclave of the Winds, either.”

“That’s not a dragon, sir!” called one of the young men at the windows with a spyglass.

“Come again, soldier?”

“It’s too small by half, sir, and when I can get a glimpse through all the smoky shit… Yeah, those aren’t bones. It’s made to look like a dragon, but that isn’t a skeleton, it looks like carved…uh, what’s that shiny black rock? Volcanic glass?”

“Obsidian,” said Timms.

“Right, thanks, Sergeant. It’s a necromantic construct, sir. Like those things with the last chaos crisis.”

“Good eye, soldier,” said Adjavegh. He had no idea how to put that information to use, yet, but more intel was always better. “Keep it up. Timms, what’s the status of the killbox?”

“Squads still moving into position, sir. It’s slow getting through the catacombs, with all the civilians down there.”

He gritted his teeth, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t safe to move troops aboveground, but this inconvenience was a sign that the measures in place to protect Veilgrad’s citizens were at least working. With the upper levels of the catacombs cleared and entrances to them in countless buildings across the city, people had fled below. Most had gone without even needing to be chivvied along. This was now city policy in response to emergencies like this; at Duchess Dufresne’s insistence, they had held drills. Bless that creepy woman’s foresight.

Now, the city was almost eerily quiet, for all that parts of it were burning and dozens of buildings in various states of collapse. With everyone fled or fleeing underground, there were few screams, and even the alarm bells had gone silent—mostly because once people stopped shooting at it, the chaos dragon had gone after those. Only two of the belltowers were still standing, as they were mostly automated and the chaos effects caused by the dragon’s mere proximity had shorted out the enchantments running them before it felt the need to knock them down.

Unfortunately, that left it with nothing to do but circle above the city, hunting for stragglers. Which it was now doing again, perched atop a trade hall and craning its neck this way and that.

“What?” Timms burst out suddenly. “No, no. Who ordered— Stop them! You, get over there and shut that down!”

Adjavegh turned to follow her furious stare even as another soldier darted to the steps. To his incredulous horror, he saw one of the mag cannon emplacements atop the nearest watchtower powering up and swiveling to take aim at the dragon. Some clicker-happy artilleryman apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity of the thing finally holding still.

“Omnu’s hairy balls,” he breathed, seeing the inevitable unfold. He hadn’t given orders that the dragon not be fired upon with mag cannons; instead, he had disseminated the information that it was a chaos beast and presumed his soldiers knew what the fuck that meant, since every damn one of them had been trained on it. Allegedly. A running messenger wasn’t going to get down the stairs, across the battlements, and up the stairs in time…

And didn’t. Everyone in the command center cringed half a minute later as the mag cannon discharged with a roar.

It was a good shot. The barrel-thick beam of white light pierced the sky above the city and nailed the target dead-on—or would have, had it not been a chaos dragon. Several yards before the point of impact the beam itself dissolved, spraying the dragon with a heavy dusting of snowflakes. A solid coating of ice formed across the rooftop on which it sat, and then the ice burst into flame. A mag cannon burst contained a lot of magic for chaos to randomly distort. Adjavegh supposed it could have been a lot worse.

Not that it wasn’t plenty bad enough. The dragon shook itself furiously and roared, it’s eerie voice like nails upon a blackboard. Then, turning its blazing chromatic eyes upon the barracks from which the shot had come, it launched itself into the air and came winging right at them.

“Colonel!” Adjavegh turned to Timms just in time to catch the battlestaff she tossed at him. She was holding another herself. The two locked eyes for a second, and then he nodded. There was no need to communicate more.

Staff fire wouldn’t do much to help them, but if it was time to die for their Emperor, they would go down shooting. Across the command post, other officers and enlisted were drawing sidearms or equipping themselves from the weapon racks. There really wasn’t time for more than that, not even evacuating the tower.

It was a damn shame, Adjavegh reflected as time seemed to slow around them with the chaos dragon bearing down. He’d been skeptical of having an Eserite as his personal aide—you didn’t get many of them in the military—but Timms was the best he’d ever had. A con artist’s approach to logistics meant his soldiers got what they needed, regardless of what ImCom had decided to send where, and she had a deft hand at navigating Veilgrad’s peculiar local politics. Timms would’ve made a damn fine officer in time, if she wasn’t poached by Intelligence first.

Plus, now he wouldn’t get to tar and feather whatever absolute driveling moron had fired that cannon. That was a regret, too.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” the Colonel said, raising the battlestaff to his shoulder and keeping his eyes fixed upon the apparition of smoke and black bone surging toward them, “I am honored to have served with every one of you. For the Emperor!”

Then an explosion burst in midair directly next to the dragon, sending it tumbling away over the city walls and shattering windows and rooftiles in a four-block radius.

While the soldiers gaped from their command post, the dragon recovered, pirouetting in midair to face this new threat, and immediately being peppered by a series of purple-black streaks, all of which misfired in some manner upon impacting it. They fizzled, careened off-course, transformed into bursts of fire or clumps of dirt, even a flurry of flower petals. Enough of those effects were painful to fully distract their target from the barracks.

The dragon pivoted on a wingtip, diving at another rooftop. Adjavegh saw a blot of darkness swell seconds before its impact, and then the beast was under attack from another direction as it investigated the crushed roof under its claws. An orange summoning circle appeared in midair and out of it hurtled a chunk of black stone. That was apparently not magic; it hit the beast hard enough to send it tumbling off into the street below.

Once it burst into the air again, another series of shadowbolts seized its attention and it went haring off in a new direction.

“What in the hell?” Adjavegh lowered his staff in disbelief.

“Sir!” exclaimed the soldier with the spyglass, “it’s the Duchess!”

“The vampire?”

“No, sir, the other Duchess. The new one!”

“The—wait, the warlock? What in blazes is the woman thinking? No spellcaster can bring that thing down!”

“No,” said Timms, “but she can herd it out of the city!”

Indeed, the distant shape of Natchua Leduc was only visible now in the momentary surges of shadow as she vanished from one rooftop after another, continually firing her ineffective spells at the chaos dragon and goading it to chase her ever farther away. Toward the western walls, and the empty prairie beyond.

Colonel Adjavegh had not been best pleased at the recent political developments. In his opinion, the last thing House Leduc needed was to continue existing, and his impression of Natchua herself was that she was an irascible brat whose primary talents were rabble-rousing and preening. It had certainly not pleased him to learn that she’d publicly cut a deal with the Black bloody Wreath just the night before. In this moment, he was forced to revise his opinion somewhat.

“Avei’s grace,” he said grudgingly. “the girl may be an evil bitch, but if she’s going to be our evil bitch, I can live with it. All right, people, we’ve got a breather! The killbox and flashpowder plans are not to be discontinued in case it gets away from her and comes back. Timms, see if we can get some telescrolls through to Tiraas now that that damn thing’s leaving the area. Send physical messengers, too, through different city gates. Carriage and horse riders; worst case, something’s gotta slip through. Notify the evac squads there’s been high-level infernomancy cast above the streets and put together a cleansing team to get to work as soon as we have an all-clear.”

He paused amid the flurry of activity his orders provoked, and then added another.

“And I want the officer in command of that artillery post replaced and in a cell before I finish this sentence.”

“On it, sir,” Timms said crisply, already scribbling on her clipboard and gathering two messengers with pointed jerks of her head.

Adjavegh allowed himself a deep, steadying breath as he turned back to the western windows of his command post. In this day and age, one could forget that the oldest Imperial Houses were founded by adventurers. Modern nobles were the descendants of the people who had the fancy magic weapons looted from deepest dungeons and the skill and experience to use them. They made themselves rulers by stepping up and doing what was necessary during crises, when no one else had the will or the capability. Even the Leducs and Dufresnes had earned their position by conquering the greater part of the Stalrange on the Empire’s behalf. Having known his share of prissy aristocrats, he had assumed those days were long over.

Instead, he now found time, and a need, to mutter a prayer for the warlock of Veilgrad.

“Godspeed, you crazy witch. Give ‘im hell.”

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16 – 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fross,” Teal interjected, gentle but firm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stared at her.

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

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

Everyone continued to stare at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…fuck,” Gabe muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No! You only think about yourself!”

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

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

“Ugh.”

“Ew.”

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

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

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

“But he’s pretty much our dad.”

“Yeah, going after him would be…”

They both shuddered dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded primly and went back to her sausage.

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

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

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

“She just heard somebody coming to the door.”

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

“Yet! Give it time!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 – 41

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The subterranean Temple of Vidius was a veritable warren, designed to confuse those who had no business there. It was such a typically Vidian approach, creating needless complication which they themselves could navigate with ease while everyone else fumbled to keep up. So ingrained was the habit that they did it even in cases like the design of their main temple, where it caused more nuisance than benefit. Of course, there were areas where outsiders were not welcome, and others still in which secrecy and privacy must be upheld, but there were far less convoluted ways of achieving that end. It wasn’t as if anyone could just bumble in off the street and right into the High Commander’s office, or the chamber of the Dawn Council. Vidians just preferred to watch people chase their tails rather than go to the in-person effort of keeping them out.

It was not lost on Justinian that of the three temples in which the paladins could have chosen to meet him, they had selected this one.

Justinian’s estimation of the paladins’ abilities had steadily risen during the short trip here from the Grand Cathedral, when he had found himself with a considerable audience for his own passage to the Temple and been informed by Ravoud that evidently the trio had created that by riding all the way here from the city gates in a procession. Even at midnight, the passage of paladins had brought a crowd, who were still milling about in Imperial Square, discussing what they’d seen. Now, they had something further to discuss, and the Archpope had been seen emerging from his own citadel of power to follow them. Truly, what clever children—and how well they had diversified their skills in just a few years! They had certainly not learned that from Tellwyrn.

He had been required to leave behind Ravoud and his escort of Holy Legionaries, to the former’s vivid displeasure, but Justinian had soothed him and proceeded deeper into the temple accompanied by Bishop Raskin. It had never been the job or within the authority of the Archpope to make demands of the Pantheon’s member cults, particularly within their own temples.

Besides, this was not that kind of game.

They arrived, eventually, at a door which was suitably large and ornate to fit the gravity of the occasion, once Justinian no longer had a clear idea where exactly the twists and turns of their descent had brought them. Raskin stepped to one side and bowed deferentially.

“They await within, your Holiness.”

“Thank you very much for escorting me,” Justinian said, inclining his head in courtesy. “I hope I have not inconvenienced you too greatly, given the hour.”

“Nonsense, your Holiness, we are all here to serve the gods. I shall stand ready to return you to your soldiers when your business is concluded. Please feel no need to rush; I have plenty of time.”

“The courtesy is appreciated, my friend,” said the Archpope with a benevolent smile which Raskin returned. Neither felt any need to allude to Raskin’s planned denouncement of him tomorrow. It was such a pleasure to work with someone who understood how the game was played.

The door had no handle, but opened when Justinian placed a hand against it, swinging slowly under the effect of an obvious charm. He stepped through and, untouched, it drifted shut behind him. Even its gentle motion produced a resonant boom when it fell flush with the wall again, simply due to its size and weight.

The chamber beyond was circular, with a sunken floor reached by three steps which wrapped around the room and formed a mosaic at the bottom. Rather than the mask-and-scythe sacred sigil of Vidius, it was the much older symbol of duality the cult liked to use, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two teardrop shapes, black and white, wrapped around each other. This one also had smaller circles within the bigger shapes, showing the alternate colors to symbolize the essence of light and darkness found within one another.

Around the walls, in the upper tier atop the stairs, were three alcoves at right angles, forming a cross intersecting the room with the door at the fourth point. Chairs had been set in these, backlit by fairy lamps in floor stands, and in each chair was seated a paladin, staring down at him.

Justinian had to smile at how neatly they had reversed his planned trick of positioning. There was nothing for it but to step forward and stand in judgment before their collective eyes. He did have to wonder why the Vidians even had a room like this; they obviously went in for dualistic symbolism, and this was too perfectly arranged to have three parties convened around a single target. Most likely the chamber had some use in their secretive ritual magic. It would be just like Gwenfaer to repurpose such a thing on the fly just to help these three put him at a symbolic disadvantage.

He nodded his head again, just enough of an inclination to denote respect and courtesy without implying submission. In rank, an Archpope and a paladin related closely, hence this opening struggle over positioning.

“I am grateful to you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said aloud, “and apologize for the hour and notice. You are most courteous to be so accommodating.”

“We are all here to serve the gods, after all, your Holiness,” Toby said in an ironic echo of Raskin. “How can we help you?”

“It has come to my attention,” he said, “that you three are spearheading an effort to withdraw your cults from the Universal Church.”

“Full withdrawal isn’t on the agenda,” Gabriel clarified. “Nothing so permanent. But yeah, the Thieves’ Guild is still part of the Church, merely withholding its presence in protest. We feel they’re owed some solidarity.”

“In the case of the Sisterhood of Avei,” Trissiny added in a particularly sharp tone, “the same position is not voluntary on our part. After months of needless and petty obstreperousness, you now have the gall to begrudge us formalizing the position in which you have placed us?”

“I understand your position,” Justinian said smoothly. “The ebb and flow of politics inevitably causes some affront. I have asked you to attend me in order to request that you abstain from this measure, and of course, Trissiny, it is at the very least fair to offer concession in turn. I understand you have brought Nandi Shahai to the capital to step into the role of Bishop? Her performance in the role was most satisfactory; I would be glad to confirm her.”

“Too little, too late,” she retorted. “I see no need to offer you the chance to sign off on what you can’t stop from happening.”

“Not to mention that this says nothing about why our cults should accept your proposal,” Gabriel added.

“All of which is ultimately beside the point,” said Toby. “We have not done this lightly or without reason, your Holiness. Your long-standing pattern of behavior has demanded a check upon your ambitions. Even if you were willing to offer the true scope of concessions it would take to make your request acceptable, you’ve brought us to a place in which we would be foolish to believe your assurances.”

“You want to stop this from happening?” Trissiny said, raising her chin. “Resign your position as Archpope. I’m reasonably confident I can persuade High Commander Rouvad to accept that compromise.”

“I’m sure you don’t need me to specify that such a measure is not on the table,” Justinian said gently, still smiling.

The Hand of Avei shrugged, armor rasping softly. “Then it would seem we have nothing to discuss.”

“Why did you come here?” Gabriel asked, leaning forward intently. “You can’t have thought asking nicely was going to get this dropped. I know you’re way too intelligent to think everything you’ve done would be forgiven that easily.”

“Well,” Justinian replied, widening his smile in acknowledgment, “there is the fact that the very act of reaching out to you positions me favorably for the next round.”

“Snowe mentioned that,” Toby said noncommittally.

“Ah? She must think well of you, then. Branwen usually tries to conceal her intelligence from casual acquaintances.”

“We’ve seen a bit too much of her to buy it,” Gabriel observed, “even before Ninkabi.”

“That was only one reason, though,” the Archpope said with a more serious expression. “I expect you three of all people to understand the greater. There are some things that simply must be attempted, even if the attempt is inherently futile, merely because they are right. If a destructive conflict might be averted by talking… How can the impossibility of coming to an accord justify foregoing the conversation?”

“You’re a fine one to talk about justification,” Trissiny whispered. “We know what you did at Ninkabi. And at Veilgrad.”

“If you plan to accuse me of something, I do hope you are prepared to furnish compelling evidence,” Justinian said, serene.

“Oh, let’s not play that game,” Gabriel snorted with a wave of his hand. “We know, you know we know, we know you know we know, and your ability to cover your trail to a reasonable extent is only more antagonizing. How’d you get past the dreadcrawlers?”

He was far too adept at concealing his expression to react overtly, save with a convincing little lift of his eyebrows to convey confusion. “The what?”

“It was a nice gesture, chipping the limestone off the plaque,” Gabriel continued, eyes intent on Justinian’s. “Obviously not useful or necessary for anything, but…nice. I have a hard time squaring that with, y’know, everything else.”

“You will doubtless find this a humorous statement,” Justinian said, “but I am a nice person.” Indeed, Trissiny and Gabriel both made derisive noises. “A good person…I think not. One tries, but no. Too many hard choices cost me the right to make that claim long ago.” He paused, tilting his head fractionally. “I am not certain to what you refer, Gabriel, but I would like to think I’d take the time to show a small kindness if I could, no matter what else might be going on. Doubtless that was not the impression Eserion wished you to acquire when he took to sending you down into dank holes. Be wary, my young friends, of anyone who guides you on a journey. They are well positioned to determine what beliefs you acquire along the way.”

They were good, he noted. Not great, but they were inexperienced and learning. All three faces went impressively blank, revealing nothing. Had they been better, they would have looked confused rather than revealing they were hiding something. As it was, all he gathered was that he’d landed a point. They had not known he’d known about Eserion’s meddling. Perhaps it was for the best that this confrontation came before the trio gained more experience. Trissiny and Gabriel, at least, had the training to avoid such blunders, they only lacked the practice.

“Unfortunately,” he continued in their silence, “the other and most important reason I requested this meeting is no longer a possibility. You have—quite cleverly, I might add—succeeded in positioning us to your advantage, with the regrettable side effect that I cannot now risk revealing too much, as I am no longer in surroundings I can control. There are doubtless few if any places in this temple where words cannot be overheard, to say nothing of your valkyrie friends, Gabriel. The necessary security of my position limits my options here. Had you met me in the Cathedral as I asked, I intended to tell you everything.

They stared at him in impassive silence.

Then Gabriel grinned, mockingly. “Bullshit.”

“Well, not everything,” Justinian allowed. “Forgive me, it seems I succumbed to hyperbole. There are a great many things you should and deserve to know, but some secrets are simply too dangerous to reveal. There are truths protected by the existence of divine magic itself, things which result in a person being instantly struck to death by the gods if they learn too much. I enjoy protection, but it is granted to me, not achieved by my own works, and I cannot extend it to others.”

He spread his hands at waist height in a silent gesture of apology.

“Perhaps the gods would protect you, but I deemed the risk too great. I can work with your cooperation, or I would not come here to ask it. My plans were made around the assumption you would oppose me. The one thing I cannot accept is your destruction, my friends. I will not risk your lives, not over something as simple as a secret.”

Gabriel’s grin widened until it was an overt threat, exactly the kind of wolfish rictus which had been the last sight of many a person who pushed Arachne Tellwyrn too far. That was undoubtedly where he’d learned it.

“You, sir, are talking out your ass. ‘Oh, I would totally have told you everything if you’d just come to my own center of power.’ Please tell me you don’t actually think we’ll believe that. Because that would be insulting.”

“And why not?” Justinian asked with a mild smile. “Because I am obviously manipulating you? Lies are limited tools, Gabriel, and prone to twisting in the hand that wields them. If you would control what people think, you must learn to use the truth with skill, not suppress it. Any of your Vidian brethren could explain that much.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Toby said firmly. “The powers and influence you wield are well beyond those granted to an Archpope. We would be foolish to march into your own citadel.”

“And that’s the summation of all of this,” Trissiny said, her voice bitter. “The Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church is not safe for paladins of the Pantheon. Can you not see how you’ve corrupted, twisted everything, Justinian? But no, if you were willing to unleash the kind of death and destruction you have on innocents, you wouldn’t balk from that.”

“So you would think,” he whispered. “I admit to none of your accusations, but it should strain no one’s credulity to state that I have blood on my hands and wrongs to my name. One cannot exist in a position of power and not be so stained. I assure you of this much: I feel the weight of every one of my crimes.”

“And you will be brought to justice for them,” she swore, glaring down at him. “One way or another.”

Justinian nodded deeply. “That is my ultimate intent, yes. That certainty alone keeps me going. I could not maintain the strength to do what must be done if I were not sure that the balance would come for me in the end. All my plans aim at that conclusion.”

“Why do all this?” Toby asked. “Or, let me guess, is that the thing you can’t afford to tell us where the Vidians might hear?”

“I don’t fear the Vidians learning the truth about the gods,” Justinian said, shaking his head. “If I meant them ill, I would tell them. No…someday, everyone will know the truth. Know what they did. A great doom is coming, and with it…the rules will change. They will no longer be able to hide.”

“Is that really all it comes down to?” Gabriel asked, leaning back in his seat. “You’re mad about some secret? How much destruction are you willing to cause just because you hate the gods?”

“You won’t be so cavalier when you learn the truth,” Justinian sighed. “But no. I don’t hate them. I did, I think, when I first stumbled upon the secret myself. The horror of it is just too… And yet, the very fact of resolving myself to right that ancient wrong has changed my perspective. I’ve come to understand what it means, to choose between evils, to accept a terrible wrong in order to avert a greater one. I have…sympathy, now, for them. They could not do what was right, so they did what they thought best. I still think their choice was the wrong one, but having been there myself, I am no longer able to judge them for it. Now, there is only rectification of what was done. And ultimately, the only redemption possible. For them, and for me. Only then, finally, will everyone be free of this ancient sin.”

“None of that means anything,” Trissiny said harshly. “You can stand there muttering bout secret sins all you want, but you can’t even furnish an accusation! Even if you could, after what we know you’ve done, there’s no chance we’d take your word over the gods’.”

“How certain are you,” he asked with a sad little smile, “that you know what you know?”

Gabriel shook his head, then looked at each of his comrades in turn. “Well. I think we’re pretty much done here.”

“There doesn’t seem anything more to be gained,” Toby agreed softly.

“Past time,” Trissiny spat.

Golden light rose around all three of them, shining out from their respective alcoves and overwhelming the glow of the fairy lamps. This was more than just the summoning of divine magic, however. With the light came pressure, the personal invocation of awesomely powerful entities, and suddenly the spacious ritual chamber was very cramped indeed, as the personal attention of the three greatest deities of the Pantheon was summoned onto that spot.

“You can spin whatever lies you like, Justinian,” Trissiny declared, her voice echoing, “but we know what you did, and what you are. And now, so shall they.”

Justinian bowed his head. “Your servant stands ever at the ready, to carry out the will of the gods when it is revealed.”

For a moment, all was silent as the immense force of their regard fell upon him. Vision seemed to shift and falter, each paladin’s aspect being simultaneously just their own, and that of another being entirely, and also everything in between. For long moments, it seemed the lines between mortal and deity were blurred.

But when they spoke, it was as themselves, out of the air itself and not through the lips of their mortal anchors.

“Well done,” Omnu’s warm and deep voice pulsed in the very stones around them, “good and faithful servant.”

“Keep faith, Archpope of the Universal Church,” said Avei, a resonant alto that seemed to come from within the hearts of those listening as much as it vibrated through the air. “The times grow ever darker. It falls to you to bring the light to our people.”

Vidius said nothing, simply conveyed a must surge of approval that washed over all of them.

“My thanks,” Justinian said softly, then raised his head. He met Gabriel’s eyes while he spoke, keeping his own expression utterly calm in contrast to the boy’s increasing shock. “Now go back to sleep, you tired old things.”

On command, their presence faded, leaving the four mortals alone once more in the chamber.

“Well. That’s unfortunate.”

The deadly calm of Trissiny’s voice was his only warning. For a woman in full armor, she could move with astonishing speed, and uncanny silence; Justinian barely raised a wall of divine light in time to deflect the sword that had nearly plunged into his throat. A pulse of energy sent her staggering backward, but she immediately lunged forward again, ramming her blade into the barrier.

Gabriel launched himself forward in the next moment, whipping out his gnarled black wand and extending it to full scythe form even as he brought it down in an overhead swing. The tip of the blade impacted the sphere of power surrounding the Archpope, which rippled under the pressure. Not, in fact, the pressure, but the nature of that all-destroying valkyrie weapon. It was hungry, its nature seeking the annihilation of whatever it touched.

Under that force, the shield rippled…and stilled. Justinian turned a cold shoulder to Trissiny’s repeated and ineffectual hammer blows upon his shield, once again meeting and holding Gabriel’s gaze as the scythe of death just rested there, seemingly impotent.

That was when he felt the pressure again from his left, the consciousness of Omnu pushing down on him. Justinian’s connection to the cosmic entities which now called themselves gods was of course not the same as that which the paladins had, a thing of ancient machines, attunement of vast energy fields, and meditative disciplines of his own devising. But he had done that work years ago, otherwise he would never have risked coming here. Shaking his head, he simply directed his will back into the staid, mechanistic intelligence of the god, as he had before.

This time, it did not bend. Someone else was pushing on Omnu’s very being, commanding the god to think in a certain way. Someone with a far more powerful connection to him than Justinian had.

He turned, staring to Tobias Caine, who simply stood in evident serenity before his chair, hands folded. He was not straining, or fumbling; this was no last desperate attempt, but the execution of a feat he already knew how to do. Something he had clearly done before.

Well, that answered some of Justinian’s lingering questions about Ninkabi. More immediately, it raised the first actual danger to himself he had faced in many years.

The Archpope acted decisively, before Omnu’s will could fully coalesce under Toby’s direction. The pulse of divine energy which surged outward from him threw all three paladins bodily backward, even as a second blast was drawn in the opposite direction—not crushing them between the two, but cushioning the force, to prevent them from being dashed physically against the stone walls behind their alcoves.

It was at the exact moment of that impact that he unleashed a subtler surge of the Light, snapping directly into their minds and severing their own workings. All three divine auras winked out, along with the golden wings fanning behind Trissiny—and, most importantly, Toby’s immediate connection to his god.

Many knew that mind magic was the province of the divine, but relatively few bothered to study it. Those crafts were difficult and incredibly dangerous, and suppressed when not outright prohibited by many of the Pantheon cults. Despite the intricacy of most mental workings, it was actually fairly easy to disrupt a spellcaster’s focus on any magical working they sought to perform, if you knew how. The real trick in using the mind snap was to time it exactly with a physical attack and give no outward sign that anything else had been done. Most people would naturally assume their concentration had been disrupted by the bodily impact and fail to realize you had done anything else, and thus, fail to develop a defense against the mental attack they never realized had been used.

Justinian shoved them back and forth with a series of outward and inward pulses of powerful kinetic force, rattling all three and causing their own divine shields to collapse, before finally depositing them none too gently into their seats in the alcove. Then, finally, quiet restored itself in the chamber as the three rattled paladins stared down at him.

After a moment, he deliberately let his aura drop, leaving the room in the dimmer light of the surviving fairy lamps. Two had been knocked over, one of which had shattered.

“Now that we have established beyond doubt that you pose me no physical threat,” he said, calm as ever, “there is something I need you three to understand: I have nothing for you but admiration. I urge you to remain committed to doing what you believe is right, with all the courage and ingenuity you can muster. If that must put us at cross-purposes, so be it. The one thing you must not do is give up. Despair is a sin, my young friends—perhaps the ultimate sin. So long as we aspire to do and to be more, so long as we look out on the world and see not only what is but what could be, we are doing justice to the only thing that makes us more than brute beasts.”

He bowed once, as they just stared at him in shock and confusion.

“Thank you for meeting with me. We shall doubtless speak again. Until then.”

They didn’t speak, or even get up, as he turned and glided back the way he had come to the door, which had handles on this side. The silence remained behind him even as the door boomed shut again, sealing them back in the trap he had just sprung and walked away from.

“Your Holiness,” Bishop Raskin said, bowing. Apparently the man had just stood there by the door, as patient as any Butler. “I trust your meeting went well.”

“A most fruitful discussion, your Grace,” Justinian replied, nodding to him. “You have my thanks for waiting. I fear I must call upon your aid to find my way back out.”

“No imposition at all, your Holiness, that’s why I am here. This way, if you please.”

While he followed the Bishop back toward his men and the surface, Justinian kept his face serenely calm, and furiously planned.

He had never really hoped for an accord with the paladins, and was not exactly certain whether the seeds he had attempted to plant with that conversation had properly taken root. It seemed their plan would proceed starting tomorrow, and the true endgame would begin. He was…as ready as could reasonably be expected. Obviously it would have been ideal for him to set the timing himself, but one could not ask too much.

The biggest concern by far was Toby. How had he learned to do that? It could ruin everything, and it was far too late in the game for such a disruptive new element. Worse, he could not even remove the threat; without Tobias’s prodding, nothing would shift the Omnists into action, and Justinian needed them on the move along with everyone else when the moment came. Toby had to be alive and active to the end. His cult wouldn’t even seek revenge if he murdered the boy in the middle of Imperial Square.

So he walked, and already began plotting new measures. He had come too close to be thwarted now.

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16 – 40

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“Altogether, a successful evening,” Ravana declared.

If the night wasn’t technically over, it was getting there. In truth, it wasn’t much past midnight, and an event like this wouldn’t truly stagger to a halt until after dawn, but by this point in the party it wasn’t so much a single party as several dozen smaller ones. Many of the guests were thoroughly drunk, on both the alcohol Malivette had provided and various other substances they’d brought themselves. Natchua wasn’t very well-versed in drugs, though she could of course recognize the several people sprawled out in blissful glittershroom highs, both in relatively private corners and…not so much. Several individuals had been courteously but firmly escorted from the grounds by guards due to manic behavior that Ravana explained resulted from cocaine. This, it seemed, was a substance popular among the nobility and virtually unavailable to anyone else. Natchua had already resolved to find out if there was any hidden away in House Leduc’s vaults and if so, dump it in a fire. She was still Narisian enough to hold nothing but contempt for those who hid from their problems in a fog of intoxication.

Aside from pickling themselves in whatever their brine of choice was, guests were taking advantage of Malivette’s private rooms—and shrubbery, and under the chestnut tree in her rear garden, and in a nearby toolshed—in groups of between two and five, many leaving trails of hastily abandoned clothing to their various hiding spots. Natchua, and presumably Malivette, had to politely ignore a lot of intimate noise they couldn’t escape hearing.

She was doubly glad that Leduc Manor was still in such an incomplete state that she could not reasonably have offered to host the party there.

“Is it always going to be like this?” she demanded once the three Duchesses had convened upon the widow’s walk atop Dufresne Manor for a private chat.

“Oh, don’t expect it to be nearly this easy most of the time,” Malivette replied.

“Easy?!”

“These are the lower nobility,” Ravana explained, one of her little almost-smirks hovering about her mouth as usual. “The more ambitious among them are rather clever; it is to them I referred when calling this event a success. We have established influence, which can be parlayed into practical benefit as they come to us for further opportunity. They, however, are the minority; most of these are the sons and daughters of actually clever ancestors who made something of themselves so that their descendants could spend money managed by servants who deserve it better. Things will indeed be very different when you begin to interact with the higher nobility—our actual peers. The movers and shakers of Imperial politics are as ruthless as any Narisian.”

“I suspect you don’t know what you’re saying,” Natchua murmured, staring down at the party grounds on which a handful of well-dressed bodies were sprawled, “but I take your point.”

“If anything, they’re worse,” said Malivette. “Narisians are ruthless because they’re from a low-resource environment which requires them to be. Imperial nobles are monsters by choice, for the sheer love of power. But don’t worry, we’re still the bigger monsters; there’s nothing to be gained and a lot of risk in coming after us. Complacency remains a killer, ladies, but as of now, the game is ours to lose.”

“By the way, I’ve been busy talking to my…new fan club,” Natchua grimaced. A number of fashionable young nobles had been quite taken with her handling of the Wreath’s leader early in the evening. They were witty and closer to her own age than most of the party guests, but she suspected, not very useful political contacts. Still, she hadn’t wanted to be rude, and so had indulged their interest. Not any of the several invitations to bed she’d received, but the conversation at least. “I’ve sort of lost track of who’s still here. Are we private up on the roof? There were at least a few individuals who have means…”

“The elves left early on,” said Ravana, “and the rest of the Last Rock contingent departed about an hour ago. I loaned my wizard to the three Hands for rapid transportation to Tiraas, and Bishop Darling gave Fross and Juniper a ride back to Madouris. A perk of rank is the ability to charter a Rail caravan even at this ungodly hour. Speaking of which, Vette, I give it about fifty fifty odds Veilwin will ‘misinterpret’ my instructions and not return to collect me. I can, of course, get my own caravan, eventually…”

“Pish tosh, nobody wants to deal with Imperial functionaries at the end of a long day, much less rattle about in that infernal contraption,” Malivette said airily. “I’ll be only too glad to host you overnight. Rest assured, the best rooms are thoroughly sealed off from the rabble.”

“I deeply appreciate your hospitality.”

“Least I can do. So yeah, we can consider this a private moment, finally, in which to talk.” The vampire turned her red eyes upon Natchua and grinned a little too broadly. “What’s a good topic… Oh, I know! How about all the surprises you are so full of suddenly, Natch?”

“I am sorry about that mess,” she said, grimacing. “That was a real cute trick Mogul pulled. In hindsight, I think I was pretty overconfident not to see something like this coming, the way he’s been hanging around…”

“Oh, pff.” Malivette waved a hand. “That wasn’t a bother, I thought you handled him well, and it’s not like you hadn’t kept me updated about his stalking. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t let yourself believe that is in any way put to bed; I suspect you finally found a way to piss him off even more than you did by killing his friends. But no, Natchua, I was in fact referring to your brilliant idea to restock my city with Eserites.”

“Didn’t we already settle this?” Natchua said mildly. “I thought we all came to a satisfactory arrangement with his Grace.”

“Oh, yes, because obviously I’m going to tell an Eserite right to his face I don’t want him around after I went to all the trouble of cleaning up my city enough that they bloody well left. Listen here—”

“Malivette, really,” Ravana interjected in a soothing tone. “They’re not so very troublesome unless you intend to do the sort of thing which antagonizes them, and I thought we were in agreement that such practices are unhealthy for the economy anyway. Truly, so long as you don’t plan to abuse your subjects, having Eserites about is quite beneficial. I find they save me a bundle on law enforcement and they are fabulous for clearing out entrenched corruption. The Vernisites like seeing them around, too, which is a further economic boon.”

“I am less bothered by the Eserites than by the fact that I suddenly have to deal with them,” Malivette complained. “Surprise thieves are about as much fun as surprise rats. Nobody who deposits either on my front steps is getting a grateful smile from me!”

“Come now, I know you didn’t agree to include Natchua in this in the expectation we would be able to control her. A certain amount of indulgence should be extended, to say nothing of a measure of resignation toward the…unexpected. But you,” she added, turning a stern look on Natchua, “ought to keep in mind that springing surprises upon your allies will cost you in the long run if you make it a habit. It’s not as if you have any to burn.”

“I don’t take you lightly,” Natchua assured them both. “And it’s not as if we’re at cross-purposes. Any time I feel the need to trip you up, you can be assured it’s over a matter of principle. Nothing else would be worth it.”

“Your principles are…vague,” Malivette said skeptically.

“Well, then, you get the satisfaction of figuring me out,” Natchua replied with a saccharine smile. The vampire just wrinkled her nose. “Anyway, with that settled, isn’t there anything more important we should be doing right now? We haven’t said so explicitly, but at this point it’s unambiguous that the three of us and our Houses are set against whatever it is Justinian is cooking up.”

“After Ninkabi, any but the most cravenly opportunistic are set against him,” Ravana replied, her voice gone cold. “He has slithered as usual into the gap between what we can reasonably assume he has done and what can be proven in a court of law, and skillfully leveraged his own propaganda apparatus to keep broad public opinion on his side. But even in that, the cracks are forming. The Veskers are refusing to aid his public relations, and my own papers have significantly eroded Church support in Tiraan Province in the last few months.”

“I think our next business lunch should focus on that,” said Malivette. “I confess, it’s not a tactic I would have thought to employ. I’m quite interested in learning from your techniques, Ravana.”

“I shall be glad to instruct you,” Ravana replied, inclining her head. “For now, though. You are correct, Natchua, but we should take care to recognize a contest in which our interjection would gain nothing. The paladins will have to deal with whatever Justinian is about to spring on him. And petty as it may seem by comparison, we still have our own event to oversee.”

She gestured broadly at the grounds stretching out around their feet, filled now with long-suffering servants and entertainers, and party guests casually debauching themselves in every corner.

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. “I’d almost rather deal with the Wreath.”


Even after midnight in the dead of winter, Tiraas never truly slept. The city gates remained open and under full guard, the streets were well-lit, and though traffic was light, it still flowed. Thus a procession such as theirs could not avoid being the center of attention. Especially as their transport to the capital had been via the auspices of a particularly grouchy mage who had refused to teleport any closer to the city center than the gate town on the western side of the chasm, forcing them to ride the rest of the way to Imperial Square. Across the long bridge and up one of the city’s most important avenues, accruing crowds all the way. Long before they arrived, people had lined the streets, all watching and some cheering as all three living paladins rode their divine mounts abreast through the capital.

At least everyone cleared out of the way enough for them to do so. Trissiny rode in the center, if only because Arjen towered over the other two horses. In proximity to other steeds, his enormous bulk was even more striking, huge enough that a slender half-elf perched astride him might have looked comical, had she not borne herself with straight-backed military dignity. Flanking Trissiny and Arjen were a study in contrasts, Whisper’s fiery eyes and shadowy aspect a stark counterpoint to Roiyary, whose sorrel coat glistened in the lamplight as if she were a living sculpture of sunbeams. As luck would have it, the three paladins were even dressed for the occasion, having come straight from a formal party. Trissiny had summoned her silver armor atop her Silver Legion dress uniform, Toby was in his seldom-worn Cultivator robes, and Gabriel had on a dark suit under his midnight green Punaji greatcoat.

The only odd touch was Raolo, sitting behind Toby in Roiyary’s saddle. He was the object of no small amount of speculation, but Toby just rode calmly on, a small smile hovering about his features. Blessedly, all four were insulated from the chill in the air by top-quality warming charms, a parting gift from their recent hostess. There were perks to palling about with Duchesses.

They passed in a kind of island of solemnity, the crowds around the intermittent and often fairly quiet, though isolated cheers and hails did greet them regularly. This performance would likely have caused bedlam at any other hour of the day, but in the deepest part of the night, even Tiraas was sleepy enough that there just weren’t all that many people willing to stand in the frigid air and gawk. It afforded them the opportunity to speak as they rode, at least.

“This may work even better than you thought, Triss,” Toby said, nudging Roiyary closer to Arjen. “I didn’t think there’d be even this much attention.”

“You’re too humble,” Raolo chided playfully. “You’re paladins. The only paladins! And these are some damn impressive horses.” Roiyary blew out a snort and Whisper tossed her head, whickering.

“Yeah, we’re lucky that Veilwin is such a sourpuss,” Trissiny agreed. “Where did Ravana dig that woman up? But I should’ve thought to ask her to put us down outside the gates myself. This is drawing much more attention. Even he won’t be able to hush this up.”

“Tauhanwe sometimes get like that, especially arcanists like us,” said Raolo. “I don’t like to judge somebody whose story I don’t know, particularly when I have cause to feel sympathetic. You’re not kidding, though, that elf is amazingly unpleasant. What I wanna know is how Ravana of all people puts up with that. I once saw her make a waitress at the A&W cry for bringing her the wrong wine.”

“Once in a while I have to pause and ask myself why we’re friends with Ravana,” Toby muttered.

“Because she campaigned hard for it,” said Trissiny. “Gotta respect the sheer determination.” She paused, glancing to the other side. “You’re quiet, Gabe. You okay?”

“Mm.” Gabriel stared absently ahead, guiding Whisper with his knees. “Yeah, just… Had a hell of a conversation. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, good.” Trissiny hesitated again, wincing. “Uh, I really don’t want to be insensitive, especially since I prodded you into that…”

“Don’t worry.” Gabriel shot her a smile. “I’ll have it together when we need to face down you know who. It’s not a traumatic revelation or anything, just some stuff that bears thinking about.”

“Wanna talk about it?” Toby offered. “No pressure, but it often helps.”

“I’ve been unfair to Hesthri,” Gabriel admitted, frowning ahead again. “And I feel guilty about that. I was… Well, it really wasn’t a situation like Locke at all.”

Trissiny gave him a look of wide-eyed surprise. “Wait, don’t tell me that was your main comparison!”

“Hey, it’s not like I have many points of reference for absentee mothers! You gotta understand, I never thought about this. I know that sounds weird, but at a very young age I worked out that my dad was a really good man, doing a really good job by me, even though it was incredibly hard on him. I definitely understood what a demon was. I just figured… He made a mistake, it was behind us, and I never wanted to drag that up again. I didn’t want anything to do with that half of my heritage. I avoided thinking about it. So, when she pops up again, yeah, my brain went right to Locke. She’s the closest analogue in my experience. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t… What happened wasn’t Hesthri’s fault. Locke is just an asshole. Uh, no offense, Triss.”

“No offense taken, and the point is not contested,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, I’m willing to admit I’ve always wondered. It must’ve been an incredible story.”

“Not that it’s any of our business, if you don’t care to talk about it,” Toby said pointedly.

“It’s fine,” Gabriel hastened to assure them as Trissiny started to grimace apologetically. “She’s right, it is a hell of a story. I’d kinda like to share it with you, in fact. For instance, I never knew my dad was a spy.”

“He what?” Toby exclaimed, only belatedly composing his features for the benefit of the crowds they were passing. “I mean… Are you serious? Are we talking about the same man?”

“I know, right?” Gabriel grinned. “Well… Maybe spy is too strong a word. Dad was…uh, he called it the Shadow Corps.”

“That sounds like spy stuff to me,” said Raolo. “I mean, just the name.”

“Sort of,” said Trissiny. “That’s discreet ops—not quite the same stuff Imperial Intelligence does, but those are the soldiers the Army deploys in places where it can’t afford to be seen deploying soldiers. Lots of Shadow Corps veterans go on to become Imperial Marshals, mostly with Intelligence. Those who survive, that is. It does mean your father’s probably one of the few Tiraan soldiers to see actual combat while enlisted during peacetime.”

“Yeah, so,” Gabriel said, “it is a humdinger of a story, but it’s also classified to hell and back, so maybe this isn’t the place to bring it up.”

“I can see how that might be slightly indiscreet,” Toby said solemnly, even as he waved to a knot of young citizens on a passing street corner who raised a cheer as the three divine steeds drew abreast of them.

“Tell you one interesting tidbit, though,” Gabriel added thoughtfully. “Apparently I owe General Panissar my life. Strictly by the letter of the law, both Dad and Hesthri could’ve ended up executed when they were caught, and my ass tossed in some shithole orphanage. It seems the General put his foot down on that. Said dishonorable discharge was bad enough for a good soldier who made a mistake.”

“Panissar does have a reputation for backing up his troops, even when it’s not politically convenient,” Trissiny mused, herself frowning at the street in front of them now. “I hope to meet him again. In hindsight, I think I was unfair to him during our one previous conversation.”

“Lots of regretful unfairness going around tonight,” Gabriel agreed.

“You sure you don’t wanna tell the story now?” Raolo asked, grinning. “It sounds like it’d be good enough for a novel on its own. And hey, I’ve got a great new muffling spell I’ve been meaning to debut. It blocks lip reading as well as sound.”

“Hey, really?” Gabriel looked over at him in interest. “That sounds like fae craft, how’d you integrate that?”

“Actually that was what made me think of it! You can still do a lot of things with arcane spells that’s more the province of fae magic, it’s just that the fae automatically does a lot of the legwork that you have to do manually with the arcane.”

“Sure, sure, but it seems like a lot of that effort is prohibitive, hence the specialization.”

“Exactly! So you gotta look for shortcuts. See, I found a way to make a barrier that doesn’t alter sound so much as language processing. Have you heard of Hathanimax’s Curse of Dysphasia?”

“Holy shit, you worked that into a barrier spell? Or would it be more a field of influence? No, if you did that it’d also—”

“Sorry to interrupt, magic nerds, but we’re here,” Trissiny stated. The others fell quiet as they emerged from the mouth of the street into Imperial Square itself. The great temples, the Imperial Palace, and the Grand Cathedral loomed all around, stark against the cloudy night sky, their upper spires rising beyond the illumination of the streetlamps. “I hope you’re ready, gentlemen. It’s time to go to work.”


The private prayer chamber of the Archpope was also quiet at midnight, even with him there. The lamps had been dimmed, casting its high arched ceiling into shadow. Upon the dais at the top of the stairs had been set a single candle, its wavering light reflecting off the three masterwork stained glass windows surrounding it in mesmerizing patterns. Aside from that, the room was not dark, but dim, as if in concession to the late hour despite the lack of any external light. Even those windows did not border the outside of the Cathedral; rather, the central one hid the doorway down to the Chamber of Truth.

Archpope Justinian knelt before the altar in prayer, exactly where he had been for hours now. It was a feat of endurance; there he had remained while the candle before him slowly burned down. There was no one present to see, no need for him to put on a show. He simply took matters of spiritual discipline that seriously.

When, finally, a triple knock on the door resonated through the room, he at long last raised his head. Justinian rose to his feet, his movements smooth and precise despite the stiffness of his long immobility, and turned to face the door far below. There he stood, framed by the candlelight and the stained glass depicting the Trinity, patron gods of those he had summoned here. Perhaps to stare down from on high at his guests was a petty maneuver; he certainly gave them enough credit to assume they would perceive and be resistant to the symbolism. But it was still worth doing. Power was power, in all its forms, and Justinian did not deny even to himself that what was about to unfold was a contest of power.

“Enter,” he called, his voice even and mellifluous as always, untouched by hours of meditative silence.

The door opened, and three figures stepped inside, pausing for the last to push the chapel’s door shut behind them, and knelt.

They were not the three figures he had summoned.

“Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said with a smile, inclining his head to his two trusted lieutenants. “And Bishop Raskin, welcome. I hope all is well?”

He did not descend the stairs or invite them to climb, so the three stood up, as there would clearly be no formal kiss of his signet ring offered.

“I humbly apologize for disturbing you at this late hour, your Holiness,” the Vidian Bishop said diffidently. He of course did not outwardly acknowledge the fact that he had been addressed formally by title, marking him apart from the other two. Raskin was as inscrutable as any member of his faith, constantly taking in more information than he gave out.

“I am not at all disturbed,” the Archpope assured him, still smiling kindly. “In fact, I was awake in any case, awaiting an appointed meeting.”

“Yes, your Holiness,” Raskin replied, inclining his head in an almost-bow. “So Colonel Ravoud informed me. Please do not reprove the Colonel; he admitted me to your presence despite this preexisting appointment because it is pursuant to this matter that I have come to you. As a service to my paladin and his colleagues, I come bearing a message.”

“I see,” Justinian murmured, shaking his head once. “The paladins decline to grace me with their presence, then? Most regrettable, but not a complete surprise.”

“I humbly beg your Holiness’s pardon,” Raskin demurred, “but that is not the case. Gabriel Arquin, Trissiny Avelea and Tobias Caine are as always ready to serve the Pantheon and available to coordinate efforts with the Universal Church. Given your Holiness’s late and hasty summons, the Hands of the gods assume the matter to be one of urgency and hastened back here from Veilgrad to place themselves at your disposal. They await in a prepared space within the Temple of Vidius. If it pleases your Holiness, I stand humbly at the ready to conduct you to them.”

The silence of midnight hung heavy in the chapel for a long moment. Raskin remained benignly impassive; Branwen was also blank-faced, which was far more unusual.

Finally, Nassir Ravoud’s shoulders swelled as he sucked in a hissing breath through his teeth. “Those three arrogant, disrespectful little—”

And then he was cut off by the Archpope’s laughter. Justinian’s warm voice boomed through the tall chapel with pure, joyful mirth, causing his visitors to stare up at him in bemusement.

“Ah, truly, what admirable young people,” the Archpope said at last, wiping a tear from one eye. “Please, Nassir, take no offense on my behalf. After all, how could I be so presumptuous as to demand that paladins attend my presence and then refuse to meet them halfway? I thank you, Bishop Raskin, for being so quick to accommodate them and myself. Come, my friends, we must not keep such important personages waiting.”

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16 – 38

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“What the hell is this?”

For just a moment, he’d made her freeze up. Confronted with this public gambit, Natchua’s mind ran away with all the dire possibilities, aided by the pressure of the incredulous glares upon her, and the part of her that was meant to respond intelligently came up completely blank.

For just a moment.

Then she found herself talking, and in a suitably scornful tone, not entirely sure what she was doing but riding the feeling she had that this was the right move. According to Elilial, Natchua’s “cunning” was an instinctive quality, a gift of hers that propelled her onward past what the likes of Mogul himself had achieved through practice. If the goddess was right, perhaps this unthinking confidence was precisely what she needed to prevail.

And of course, if the goddess was wrong—or lying—Mogul had just decisively outflanked her and anything she said from here was only going to make it worse.

“Why, it’s a kraagthshnorik,” Mogul said with theatrical innocence. “You did send us to deal with it, if you’ll recall, my lady. Your notes were most concise; it was entombed precisely where you indicated.”

The kraagthshnorik snarled a muffled protest, squirming against its bonds and achieving nothing but a puff of smoke from its nostrils and a patch of disturbed gravel. That, and a few abortive shrieks from the nearest aristocracy.

“Oh, he’s a comedian now, too,” Natchua snorted, ignoring the speculative murmurs that sprang up from all around the party grounds. “You just blew the last tattered shreds of my patience, Mogul, don’t pretend you don’t know I was referring to its presence here. Do I walk into your home and defecate on the carpet?”

“Are we speaking literally or metaphorically?” he inquired.

Natchua flicked out her right hand, spewing forth a column of shadow tentacles to the accompaniment of another few screams—really, at some point these people were going to have to run out of things by which to be shocked—and brought the whole fifteen-foot-long mass down at the imprisoned demon. Mid-descent, the ends of the tendrils formed together into a massive scythe blade of black light limned in sullen purple, which stabbed straight through the kraagthshnorik’s central body.

The demon emitted a booming yet plaintive groan and collapsed, its huge bulk disintegrating into charcoal and sulfur-smelling smoke right before their eyes. Mogul’s magical chains around it also slumped loose, and then dissipated themselves.

“Explain yourself,” Natchua ordered, pleased with her mask of icy contempt.

“Me?” Mogul spread his hands, still making himself a picture of well-meaning confusion. “My lady, whatever do you mean? You ordered—”

He at least had the good sense to break off when her shadow apparatus, which she had not dismissed so readily as his chains, whipped back into the air to bring the tip of its blade to rest right in front of his face. The scythe itself was nearly as long as he was tall.

“Natchua, I did not realize you and Embras had a relationship,” Malivette stated, gliding over to stand by her.

“Best of friends!” Mogul said cheerily.

She could kill him, of course. She was at least thrice the warlock he could ever hope to be. The tentacle scythe inched fractionally closer to his face.

Then she dismissed it, withdrawing the tendrils which had formed its base and in general continuing to make decisions faster than the rational mind could process what she was doing.

She should kill him, which he knew, and there was the rub. He had walked right up to her and made a pest of himself. Natchua could not see, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of any other Wreath or demons in the vicinity, but she knew they had means of hiding, even from her senses. Their gift of stealth she could penetrate, but the trick of warding themselves against even an elf’s natural perceptions was a thing of shadow magic, not infernomancy, and all they had to do was actively abstain from infernal craft and she would be unable to detect them that way. Mogul would not have done this without insurance, and whatever countermeasures he had planned risked collateral damage among these assembled nobility that would be politically catastrophic for her, well beyond the embarrassment he was trying to inflict. Unless he expected her to think of all that and… No, that was a dead end line of thought and not something upon which he would have banked his very life; Mogul’s whole problem was that he was an overly cautious planner, a schemer spinning webs rather than the aggressively fox-like master of cunning Elilial had claimed she wanted.

Plus, he’d walked into the home of Malivette, who might or might not be smarter than Natchua but had proven she had less patience for his bullshit, on an evening when she was hosting all three living paladins—who not only were likely to attack him on sight regardless of anything else going on, but had learned the necessity of so doing right here in Veilgrad.

And yep, there was Trissiny, already stalking over toward them, her furious glare switching from Mogul to Natchua even as the drow made note of her presence. The other two were… She quickly sorted through the haze of muffled sounds to isolate their voices, both inside the manor. They’d have to be properly distracted to have failed to sense the arrival of that large demon on the grounds—which made Natchua suspect afresh that Mogul wanted a violent confrontation. Yes, Gabriel was in a room talking quietly with Jonathan and Hesthri, and Toby was…good and diverted. He might still get what he wanted, to judge by Trissiny’s expression. Allegedly she was better about thinking before acting since training with the Thieves’ Guild, but she was still Trissiny, and this was still exactly what it looked like.

All these thoughts flashed across Natchua’s mind in the space of a half second, and were still in the process of sorting themselves when she answered Malivette in a tone of aloof irritation.

“I did brief you, Vette; he’s been loitering around, pestering me for days. I finally decided if the Wreath were planning to make a local nuisance of themselves, they might as well be useful in the process. So I directed Embras here to a list of local dangers around Veilgrad which I intend to vanquish anyway before any more loggers and trappers fail to come home from the woods. The Wreath do love to talk a big game about how they serve and protect the world from demons. I assure you, I did not give him license to make a mess upon your front lawn,” she added, returning her glare to Embras with a disgusted curl of her lip, as if he were a dog which had just tracked mud into the house.

“You do not let the Black Wreath help,” Trissiny interjected through gritted teeth. “Take it from someone who learned it firsthand, Natchua, in this very city. The chaos crisis was worse than it needed to be because we failed to destroy them when they came with an oh so reasonable offer of aid. Their demon-summoning unbalanced the whole region, and that was before they turned on us!”

Natchua made her expression deliberately more polite, as much as she could be non-confrontational with the paladin and not lose any more of the face she was desperately scrambling to save in front of the gathered nobility. All while wishing she could afford to make pointed expressions to the effect that this was not the time for any Hand of Avei antics.

“That’s because you let them help, Trissiny. I gave them specific tasks and outlined consequences for failure, noncompliance, or collateral damage. Which it seems I shall now have to enforce.”

“I sense that I have disappointed you, my Lady,” Mogul intoned with a farcical display of solemn contrition. “Do inform me how I might make amends, I beg you. I remain ever humbly at your service.”

And now Xyraadi had emerged from the crowd, approaching them with a similar expression, and Natchua nearly despaired. She’d been pleased to invite the khelminash, who was not only a friend but someone to whom she owed a lot, and in fact it had seemed her presence here would set a useful precedent, but Xyraadi’s feelings about the Wreath were roughly the same as Trissiny’s and her approach to expressing them only minimally more subtle.

Well, at least if this whole thing ended up as bad as it looked like it was about to, she could be reasonably sure Embras Mogul would be dead before he could enjoy the results of his scheming.

“I say, that was a rather prescient strategy,” Ravana said smoothly, herself gliding forward into the fray armed with a wineglass and an aloof smile. “The world has awaited with trepidation the full outcome of Elilial’s peace with the Pantheon; I suppose it stands to reason that the Wreath need not strictly be a banned organization any longer, provided they can render a useful service like the other cults. And abide by a…” She looked pointedly at the large patch of charcoal dust and disturbed gravel and sniffed. “…standard of behavior.”

“You’re not serious!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I see the sense in it,” said Malivette, regarding Mogul with a more pensive expression. Like a specimen on a dissection table rather than a misbehaving animal. “Obviously they must make some accommodation with the new order of things. Equally obviously, they need to get over their grudge about Ninkabi; we cannot have warlocks jumping about, harassing our nobility. It’s an elegant solution, Natchua, and how very like you to step out in front of a problem and shape it toward a useful end. I knew you would do well in this role.”

“You are too kind, Malivette,” Natchua replied graciously, inclining her head and hardly having to fake her amicable expression. Inwardly, she felt a rush of pure gratitude toward the pair of them for closing ranks with her in the face of this. Not that they had a choice; any public humiliation Natchua suffered at this moment would impact Malivette and Ravana nearly as much, and she was undoubtedly going to hear more about this at length later.

“That, of course, presupposes that the cult in question possesses the basic sense to comply with the needs of civilized society and not make nuisances of themselves,” Ravana added, looking down her nose at Embras, which took real skill on her part as he was a head and a half taller than she. “This little episode shows, at best, exceedingly poor judgment.”

“It does seem quite clearly to be an attempt to embarrass you in public, Natchua,” Malivette agreed, still examining Mogul with disdainful interest. “A rather sophomoric one, though. Is this really the best the notorious Black Wreath could conjure up to avenge their defeat? I recall them being… Well, I won’t say impressive, but less desultory in their machinations than this.”

Even Trissiny seemed to have calmed, studying Mogul through slitted eyes but making no move to intervene. Xyraadi was still bouncing a ball of golden fire from hand to hand, but did not appear about to throw it.

“Well, I think you’ll find that is the Black Wreath in a nutshell,” said Natchua, deliberately pitching her voice to resonate across the grounds. “People forget that Elilial is the goddess of cunning, not demons; her own cult certainly did. The last handful of years leading up to the Battle of Ninkabi have been an uninterrupted string of defeats and debacles at the hands of virtually everyone they ran across. The Empire, the Universal Church, the Thieves’ Guild, Trissiny here and her fellow paladins. I understand even my magic professor from Last Rock found time to slap a few of them around on a lark. They were reduced to a handful of warm bodies by the time I got down to them. And all because of…this.” She gestured with ostentatious contempt at the dirty spot that had moments before been a fearsome demon. “The Black Wreath are many things. Devious, duplicitous, arguably not unintelligent, even rather crafty at times. But cunning? No.” Natchua tilted her own head back, staring down her nose at Embras in an imitation of Ravana’s posture. And beginning to hear alarm bells in the back of her head at the lack of any discomfiture on his part under this verbal abuse, but she pressed on. He had to be put in his place in front of these onlookers or her own burgeoning reputation would take damage she’d require years to repair. “Cunning is an entirely different quality, the ability to scheme while on the move and under pressure. The Wreath under this one’s leadership has been utterly dependent on their ability to lay plans in advance, unable to adapt or respond swiftly to changes on the board. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what becomes of a cult which forgets its deity’s central value: it becomes a sad remnant whose sole means of retribution is making a stain on the floor.”

To her immense satisfaction, they laughed. The same privileged observers who a minute ago had been squealing in terror of a bound demon now produced a chorus of judgmental titters at the expense of the warlock standing in their midst.

And Mogul himself… He kept his head angled so that Natchua could not see his eyes, but his mouth beneath the broad brim of his hat remained set in an easygoing smile. He stood easily, his posture loose and nonchalant with both hands in his pockets, quite lacking the telltale signs of tension and displeasure she’d managed to wring from him on every previous encounter around Veilgrad. As she stared down at him, his lips stretched infinitesimally, that knowing smile broadening just enough to betray a flash of white teeth.

In that moment, now that it was too late, realization slammed down on Natchua and she understood how he’d just outmaneuvered her.

Mogul finally unfolded himself, sweeping off his hat and executing a low bow before the three disapproving Duchesses.

“My dear Lady Leduc! And Lady Dufresne, upon whose home I have so brashly intruded. Even the Lady Madouri, clearly a more honored guest here than I. It occurs to me, belatedly, that my little jape was in rather poor taste. If this unworthy servant might beg your indulgence for another moment, do tell me how I might make amends for this affront! My only desire is to prove my goodwill. After all, we must all enter this brave new world together, is it not so?”

Natchua breathed in and out carefully. She could still kill him… But no, she’d been right in the first place; he undoubtedly had backup ready to cause carnage among her guests and the havoc that would create might set Imperial Intelligence after her, or worse. At the absolute least, she would look petty, violent, and unstable if she attacked him after that speech, which would rule out any of the cooperation they were hoping to gain from the nobility gathered here.

Ravana and Malivette, to her deep displeasure, shifted subtly to aim their faces toward Natchua, inclining their heads forward slightly in a clear signal that they would defer to her on this matter, exactly when that wasn’t what she needed. Even Trissiny was just watching, silent and intent, but showing no sign she meant to thrust her sword into this. Typical, the one time Natchua wanted her to lash out…

But no. There they stood, having successfully saved face and blunted Mogul’s social attack. And all it had cost was the public agreement of three Duchesses of Great Houses of the Empire, before a notoriously vengeful Hand of Avei who now publicly deferred to their judgment, that the Black Wreath had a valid role to play in the world.

Even the Silver Throne, though it wasn’t bound by anything they said, might hesitate to outright contradict the formal stance of all three Houses, given the relationship between the aristocracy and the Emperor after the post-Enchanter Wars reforms. This would undoubtedly set every minor House represented here to scheming for whatever scraps of advantage they might gain from this, but there was no question at all of any of them openly defying the dictates of Houses Leduc, Dufresne, and Madouri.

Mogul had just goaded her into formally legitimizing his cult.

How many people, now, had warned Natchua that sooner or later her hasty approach was going to backfire? Well, she bitterly reflected, it was probably a blessing that nothing in the process had exploded or gotten anyone killed. Yet.

“Ladies,” she said, putting on a light tone and stalling for time in which to frantically think of a way out of this, “I am, as you know, somewhat new to this position. How would you recommend dealing with an obstinate servant who presumed to disrupt a social event with a petty display of pique?”

“Any such servant would be summarily dismissed, at the very least,” Ravana said, idly swirling her wineglass. “But I suppose that rather puts us back where this started, does it not? Clearly this…individual…needs to be taken in hand. And have his knuckles rapped.”

“Where I am from,” said Xyraadi, “he would lose his left hand for such an affront, and be sent to employ the other one breaking rocks in a quarry.”

“Are you talking about Hell or medieval Glassiere?” Trissiny asked.

The demon paused, tilted her head contemplatively, and then nodded. “I stand corrected. Where I am from, he would be partially flayed and suspended above a bed of tissue-dissolving carnivorous plants until his frame disintegrated too much to be restrained, with a steady stream of healing magics applied to prolong the process and ensure he remained conscious throughout.”

From somewhere nearby came the sound of an unfortunate noblewoman being sick.

“That sounds like rather more time and effort than this is worth,” Malivette said dryly.

Mogul continued to look unperturbed by this line of discussion, even amused, but it had given Natchua the few seconds she needed to hit on an idea. If he wanted to play mind games, she could play mind games.

She took two strides forward, physically separating herself from her allies and coming within a few feet of Mogul, then lifted her chin regally and stared down at him.

“I gather it is considered inadvisable for warlocks to visit Sifan.”

“Oh, indeed, my Lady,” Mogul assured her, grinning. “Do not mistake the indulgence you and I have both received from Ekoi-sensei in these lands for the reaction of the kitsune if we dared set foot on their precious islands. They tend to express their displeasure with even more imagination than Xyraadi, here.” He had the utter gall to wink at the Khelminash, who conjured another fireball and visibly contemplated hurling it at him.

“Then I gather you may be rather ignorant of their culture.”

He shrugged. “I’ll admit that was something of a sticking point in my previous interactions with the esteemed Professor Ekoi. I believe I wrapped my head around the basics, though not with much…nuance.”

Natchua put on a vulpine smile that required little effort at dissembling. “Do you know how a Sifanese retainer delivers a formal apology?”

“If you are suggesting that I open my belly, dear lady, I’m afraid I lack the appropriate ceremonial sword.”

“Oh, no, no,” she assured him with a cold grin. “We both know you haven’t enough guts to spill. No, Mogul. You will kneel. Down on both knees, and then press your forehead to the ground, with your hands palm down in front of you.” She tossed her hair, taking note with malicious satisfaction of the way his smile finally slipped away. “Words are worth nothing; if you are penitent, show me. Prostrate yourself, servant, and when I judge you have made an adequate show of submission to my will, I shall forgive your transgression. This time.”

He stared at her, all amusement gone from his face, and beneath his outrage at the suggestion Natchua could practically sense the wheels turning. There was no such custom in any of the nations of the Empire and never had been. What might be a formal display in Sifan was a grotesque humiliation anywhere in the domain of Tiraas.

This was a battle of social positioning, not magical power; if the price of legitimacy granted by House Leduc and its allies was for the mortal leader of the Black Wreath to debase himself like a slave before its upstart Duchess… Well, that was simply a bad bargain. The Wreath was already down to a shadow of its former strength, and dependent on its dangerous reputation to gather the defiant personalities it needed to rebuild itself. If he did such a thing, in front of an audience which would ensure the story spread to every corner of the Empire by dawn, he would all but place himself and all his followers directly in Natchua’s power. They would have no other hope of being taken seriously, much less support, from any quarter.

There was no way the proud arch-warlock of Elilial would take such a bargain. Staring him down, she allowed her lips to curl further upward even as his scowl deepened. Natchua silently enjoyed watching him suffer on the horns of that dilemma. All his careful scheming, and still she got the better of him!

The timing of what happened next, descending on them just as she dared to think herself victorious, was undoubtedly not a coincidence.

It did not bear her down as the experience had in the past. It appeared not to affect, or even be noted by, any of the others present; Trissiny in particular would have reacted violently, but there was no sign that she, the Duchesses or Xyraadi felt anything, much less so much as a peep from the minor nobility watching this confrontation. Mogul, though… He felt it. She could see it in the sudden stiffening of his shoulders, the way his expression froze. This was only happening to the two of them.

The pressure. The unmistakable sensation of another intelligence looming over them, a mind so vast and powerful that just to be in its presence was to feel one’s own insignificance before the full scope of the universe. For an infinite moment, the silent intelligence of a deity weighed down on Natchua and Embras. Examining, judging.

And then, through its touch upon their minds, there came a clear surge of amusement.

Then the sensation lifted entirely from Natchua, leaving her once again alone in her own thoughts. But not Mogul. He stiffened further until he was nearly vibrating, his whole face clenching with rage as a command was laid upon him—a command he clearly abhorred with his entire being.

But he obeyed it. As Natchua stared in utter disbelief, the leader of the Black Wreath sank to his knees before her. Then bent forward, stretching out his arms toward her feet, and pressed his face to the gravel, causing his hat to slide gracelessly to the side.

Trissiny emitted a strangled sound. Natchua just barely managed not to echo her.

“With the utmost humility,” Mogul said, his voice somewhat muffled by the ground but impressively clear of emotion, “I apologize for my affront, mistress. I beg the opportunity to serve you, in the hope of making amends. Myself and mine are pledged to your cause.”

For the first time, Natchua silently prayed to the patron goddess whose favor she had sworn never to seek.

Oh, you evil cunt. So help me, I will get you for this.

Elilial sent her nothing further, not so much as a vague sensation to show that she’d been listening.

And she, as the Duchess of House Leduc, had to honor her word. Otherwise, her failure to do so would be part of the story spread across the Empire and no one would ever cooperate with her again.

“You are forgiven.” Natchua had to draw on her full store of Narisian reserve to keep her tone expressionless, but she managed. “This time. Be aware that you have fully expended your share of my tolerance, Mogul. If I am forced to correct you again, it will be the last time.” She hesitated, then added grudgingly, “You may rise.”

He did so with far more speed than he had descended, settling his hat back in place atop his bald head and immediately tilting it again to obscure as much of his expression as possible. The remainder showed that his own self-control hung by a thread.

“By your leave, then, my Lady,” Mogul intoned. “I look forward to working with you again.”

Before anyone could comment on the obvious sarcasm, shadows swelled up around him, and then he was gone.

Immediately, a surge of exclamations and the swell of excited chatter erupted from the noble audience all around them. Within the small group still standing around the spot where Mogul had been, Trissiny was the first to speak.

“I cannot believe you just did that.”

“You and me both, sister,” Natchua sighed, then caught herself. Actually, Trissiny of all people she might want to bring into the loop on this, if it was going to be an ongoing thing. Not here and now, though; that conversation called for the assurance of privacy. There were still other elves on the grounds, and also she had been warned that some of the nobility liked to employ expensive arcane charms to snoop on one another’s conversations at social events like this. “It occurs to me, in hindsight, that making him pay for it in humiliation might not make him any easier to deal with in the future.”

“You think so?” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua cleared her throat. “Yes, well. I’m embarrassed to ask you to help clean up my mess, Triss, but… If I understand how this paladin thing works, I think you sort of have to.”

Xyraadi let out a low whistle.

“You understand this is why nobody likes you, right?” Trissiny said, staring at the drow. “Tell me you do get that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua sighed. “Shall I go ahead and bring you a punchbowl?”

For just a moment, she thought the paladin was going to slug her.

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16 – 36

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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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