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Being saddled with Reich began immediately.
“I’m curious, Tarvadegh,” she said as soon as they were in a private corridor outside the innermost sanctuaries of the temple in which Gwenfaer lived and from which she governed the cult. That wasn’t hard to arrange; the underground complex was sprawling and easy to get lost in unless you knew your way around. Finding a hallway with no one else in it was usually much easier than finding another person. There were countless possible routes to the exit, and Val had followed Reich simply because she had chosen to set their path and he didn’t feel like engaging in a pissing contest with her. “Vistirian is an old teacher of the Lady’s. Raskin is one of her favorite hands with which to reach into people’s pockets. I, of course, know why I am useful to her. But you—and I mean no offense by this—I’ve never heard of before today. How did you come to be a confidant of Lady Gwenfaer?”
He gave her a sidelong look of appraisal. Reich was wearing a mask of calm, open curiosity, which he took for an honest one as it was the sensible attitude in her situation. Had she tried to play coy, he might have been annoyed. He was wearing a similar mask himself, but now switched it—to a coy, slightly smug one he’d modeled off a burlesque dancer on whom he’d had an unhealthy crush as a teenager.
“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m her secret bedtime boy toy.” Pause for comedic timing, as his actor friends had taught him. “She likes it in the pooper.”
Reich switched back to her disapproving schoolmarm mask.
He showed it right back to her.
“Are you being difficult for a specific reason, Tarvadegh, or do you have a defective personality?”
“Eh.” He made a waffling motion with one hand.
“If you consider it in poor taste for me to ask your credentials without offering mine, that’s fair. For my part—”
“I know who you are, Reich,” he said, switching to a mask of weary acceptance, one inspired by his various ministrations to the grieving over the years.
“Ah.” Her own mask changed again, back to the serenely inquisitive one, and this time he knew it had to be much less sincere. “And you don’t approve of me. You aren’t the first. Which part troubles you, if I might inquire?”
“I’ll warn you up front: my sense of humor is wasted on most people…”
“Yes, you did warn me of that up front, didn’t you? Rather vividly.”
“…and that is the last personal detail I am interested in sharing, Reich. If you will kindly leave me alone, I will do my utmost to make this partnership as efficient and painless as I can, the better to end it sooner. Deal?”
“Hmm…I’m not sure I can meet those terms,” she mused. The farther this conversation progressed the more clear it was she was using that mask of calm to conceal her actual feelings, and Val resolved not to take it for a sincere one again even if it seemed situationally appropriate. “We are dealing with enough uncertainties without me having to work hand-in-glove with one more—not to mention that I cannot help being vaguely nervous about partnering with a man who seems familiar with my record, when the same is not true in reverse. One does hate to be at a disadvantage. Meet me halfway, Val. We all respect privacy; throw me a bone and I promise not to gnaw on your ankles.”
She wasn’t wrong, he had to acknowledge. He was letting his own aversion affect his conduct, and far too easily. That was not going to work if they were to actually get anything done.
“My acquaintance with the Lady is personal,” he said, putting on a mask of blank indifference to match hers of blank curiosity. “Regardless of my actual skill or utility, she trusts me.”
“Yes, it would have to be so,” she murmured, “if you’re comfortable making wisecracks like that scarcely out of her earshot. So, that’s the way it is. I’m the competent one and you’re the reliable one.”
He gave her another look out the corner of his eye, mask still in place. She matched it.
“See, Val, I can make jokes, too.”
“Think of me as your reflection, Lorelin. I have basically your skillset, with an opposing philosophy.”
“How intriguing,” she mused. “I wonder why the Lady wants two specialists in Vidian mind magic to tease the Bishop out of his hole and pick a teacher for young Master Arquin.”
“Gwenfaer knows what she is doing.” He permitted himself a sigh, a small one that did not break his current mask. “In my experience, everyone else will find out what she’s doing when it’s too late to stop her, and not a minute sooner.”
Reich had the audacity to laugh. “Well, then. While we make our way to the Cathedral, we may as well brainstorm. Who do you think ought to be the boy’s teacher?”
“Why don’t you do it?”
“Hmm…” She chewed her bottom lip pensively, which had to be purely performative; Val was already certain the woman constantly kept up enough layers of masks to conceal any hint of her actual thoughts. “That’s an interesting idea… I’m not sure I would be the best candidate, though. Young people wear on my patience.”
“I wonder what that feels like,” he said innocently.
She laughed, and he did not ignite a divine shield and bash her into the wall. So far, so good.
The Grand Cathedral, needless to say, was a kicked beehive. The Universal Church was hard at work both assisting in the city’s recovery and coordinating the efforts of the various cults doing the same, not to mention dealing with a sudden influx of Huntsmen of Shaath, who had an unfortunate tendency to cause problems when suddenly introduced to urban environments. The halls of the Cathedral complex were intermittently tricky to navigate simply due to all the people rushing back and forth, some of whom were carrying heavy loads of supplies. On the upside, chaos was a boon to discretion. Two priests could pass through all that furor without attracting the slightest notice, which under those circumstances was for the best.
The traditional offices of the Vidian Bishop were a suite of two rooms, rather than the single large one most Bishops were assigned. Val caught Lorelin shooting him a speculative look when he led the way there, doubtless wondering why a street-level priest such as himself would be so familiar with the section of the Cathedral where such august personages worked.
It was a given that she’d deliberately let him see her wondering, too. This was going to wear him out; having to think this way was a big part of why he hated dealing with the political movers and shakers. Not that he couldn’t do it, he just resented the necessity.
They entered without knocking, as was customary. The first room was square and, while not overly large, not cramped even with the rows of bookshelves lining two of its walls and the desk taking up much of another, next to the door into the inner office. Behind the desk sat a young woman in formal gray robes marking her an acolyte. She did not have the hood or ceramic mask on; they rarely did outside the temple of Vidius itself. Non-initiated tended to find that formal getup aggressively creepy, and Vidians were nothing if not willing to adjust their outer appearances to achieve a desired effect.
“Good day,” she said politely, and with some trepidation—clearly too new to the cult to have a proper command of the Masks yet. “I’m afraid Bishop Querril is secluded in prayer at the moment.”
“Yes, so we have heard,” Reich said from behind a pleasantly formal mask. “I am Lorelin Reich; this is Val Tarvadegh. We were sent by Lady Gwenfaer to speak with the Bishop. This is urgent.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she swallowed. “Oh. Um, I’m afraid…his Grace…”
“How many times have you been yelled at already this morning?” Val asked, letting a mask of patronly amusement slide onto his features. It was one he had cultivated for dealing with street children. Getting it just right had taken some work; it was tricky to convey openness and good humor with no hint of condescension.
“I’ve stopped keeping count,” the acolyte said, clearly warming to him somewhat, though not enough to look substantially less guarded.
“Why on earth would anyone yell at you?” Lorelin asked.
“Not everyone looks at a situation and tries to reason out all the factors at play to decide where best to spend their efforts, Lorelin,” Val said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s just our cult. An awful lot of people will throw the most appalling tantrums at even the slightest setback.”
“Even the kind of people who would have business with a Bishop?” she demanded, adopting a skeptical mask. Val had suspected she was putting on a show for the acolyte, here, and that confirmed it. Lorelin Reich unequivocally did not need the nuances of human social interaction explained to her.
“Especially those,” he replied, playing along. “Important people aren’t used to having their way blocked by underlings.”
“Well, I’m very sorry we have to add to your burdens, then,” Lorelin said, turning a kindly mask upon the acolyte. “Unfortunately, the Lady commands, and she outranks even his Grace.”
The poor girl swallowed again. “I, um, wasn’t notified you were coming. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be difficult, but going against the Bishop’s express orders without confirmation from the cult…”
Reich smiled and opened her mouth, and while Val didn’t doubt she could shmooze this girl into doing whatever she might possibly ask, he decided he did not want to spend the whole afternoon playing this game. His fellow cleric closed her mouth again, turning to him in surprise when he simply stepped past the desk and reached for the latch to the inner office door.
“Oh! Sir!” the acolyte fretted.
“Don’t worry, I will personally assume full responsibility,” he said, adjusting his kid-friendly mask with a roguish wink. “You can feel free to tell his Grace I threatened you or something, it wouldn’t be the worst rumor about me swirling around.”
“I’ll just bet,” Lorelin muttered, which he ignored, pushing the door open and stepping through.
Like many ranking Vidians, Alonsius Querril had a taste for the dramatic. His private space was laid out more like a temple than an office, with its walls lined by heavy velvet drapes reminiscent (no doubt deliberately) of stage curtains, and a dais against the wall opposite the door surmounted by a large idol of the cult’s mask-and-scythe sigil sculpted in wood and polished to a glow. The Bishop’s actual desk was tucked away in the corner least visible from the door, half-hidden behind a folding screen.
Querril himself was on his knees, head bowed, before the idol with his back to them. He did not move upon their entry, though he immediately spoke.
“I hope you manipulated your way past my aide instead of bullying her. She’s a studious child with a good heart.”
“I agreed to let her decide how it went down,” Val replied.
“Tarvadegh,” Querril said in an openly fatalistic tone. He finally rose ponderously to his feet, his once-impressive height somewhat blunted by a slight hunch that had come with age, and turned to lay a gimlet stare upon them that hardly seemed to bother with a mask. “And Reich. These truly are the end times.”
“That being the case, I am somewhat surprised to find you still sequestered in here, your Grace,” Reich replied smoothly. Tarvadegh noted with amusement that her mask was now as close to true blankness as could be. Bishop Querril had a reputation as a fussy old man, but he had not attained his role without being infamously incisive. She at the least feared that his perception would be more than a match for her deflection. Which was probably the case.
“Oh?” Querril was no Gwenfaer, but his masks were both smooth and deep; it took some real focus to discern the artifice behind the full force of personality he turned upon Reich now, his disapproval a very nearly physical force that filled the office. “I suppose you feel I ought to be out there inciting rebellions just to turn them in to the Empire for reward money? Or embezzling Sultanate treasury funds? Keeping the grand old tradition of frontier witch hunts alive?”
“You are familiar with my resume,” she said, still blank-masked. “How very flattering. I am comfortable with disapproval of my methods, your Grace, but the fact remains that this cult’s activities, including the exorbitant salary of its Bishop, are funded in part by my efforts. At the end of the day I do my job, even when it is unpalatable.”
“Shut up, Reich,” Querril ordered. “Today of all days, I am not going to listen to moralizing from an Eserite who picked the wrong cult to rise through. Yes, I’m sure Lady Gwenfaer must want me back at the temple in the worst way, to have sent you two out here to shake the branches. What I am not sure of is how concerned I am with that.”
“This is a historic moment for our faith,” Val insisted quietly. “Omnu’s breath, man, a paladin! After eight thousand years, we get a Hand of Vidius. To be alive at a time like this!”
“A half-demon paladin,” Querril said, suddenly projecting exhaustion so persuasively Val found himself actually wondering whether it was a mask. The Bishop turned his back on them again, slowly sinking down to his knees before the idol. “You two, and likely Gwenfaer as well, only see the situation and how to exploit it. Not one of you, I guarantee, has paused to think on what this means.”
“It means that the cult is facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Val, “and nobody has time for this, Querril. You are needed.”
“And you need a new partner, Val,” the Bishop grunted, adjusting his legs to kneel more comfortably. “Playing the bad guard doesn’t suit you.”
“That’s the least of the reasons I need a new partner,” he muttered.
“I would be offended, but neither of you are wrong,” Reich added. “Fine, I will take over the role. This is not acceptable, your Grace. You are the Bishop of our faith, at a time when we desperately need both leadership and a practiced hand to interface with other cults which, unlike ours, know how to handle a paladin. You can play the stubborn old man on your own time. Right now, Lady Gwenfaer has given her orders, and we are here to see them carried out.”
“Just think how much it’ll embarrass the cult if I have the Holy Legion carry you two out,” Querril replied with his back still to them. “Lady Gwenfaer and Archpope Justinian each have the privilege of removing me from my position if either finds my service unsatisfactory. Until that time, this is my office, and I wish to be secluded within it. I have praying to do. As do we all, not that I expect the likes of you to bother. Good day.”
Val and Reich met each other’s eyes, silently weighing the pros and cons of trying to push this further. After a pause, he shook his head, and she nodded minutely in agreement.
“I guess we’ll leave you to it, then, your Grace,” Val said, reaching for the door latch.
“Take some time to contemplate,” Reich added, pausing before following him out. “This is not concluded, but there is a…grace period. We also have to deal with others who don’t face the future on their knees.”
She shut the door firmly.
The acolyte behind the outer desk sighed. “He’s not coming out, is he.”
“Oh, one way or another, I guarantee he is,” Val replied. “But apparently not right at this particular moment, no.”
“Thank you for your help,” Reich said politely the girl, her assertiveness of a moment before completely obscured behind a smiling mask. “Please make sure his Grace is well. This is a very stressful time for him, it seems.”
“I do what I can,” the Bishop’s aide said sadly. “Gods watch over you both.”
They stopped, out in the hall, finding it much quieter than before. There was activity at the intersection in the near distance, but the space around them was presently free of people.
“Well, that leaves us our other project while he gets his head in order,” Reich said. “What do you think, Val? Since we’re here, is there anything we can do toward that while at the Cathedral or—what are you staring at?” She turned to follow his eyes, then frowned back at him, finding nothing at the end of the hall toward which he was fixedly peering.
“Still and invoke,” Val said quietly, the first words of a mantra that Vidian clerics of their specialization would have heard countless times during their training.
Reich moved to follow his eyes again, this time imposing a meditative state upon her mind and channeling the slightest amount of divine magic in just the right way, a preparatory measure that did virtually nothing on its own save to make the practitioner, for all intents and purposes, a tiny patch of Vidian holy ground, a necessary first step toward a number of more complicated workings.
Then she actually gasped. Val didn’t bother trying to guess whether the betrayal of surprise was genuine or an act; he could drive himself crazy trying to unravel her constant performance, and there were much more interesting things to focus on right now.
Both of them moved to the other side of the hall and pressed their backs to the wall, giving the valkyrie room to pass. Nothing could be seen of her expression, or indeed of most of her; there was just a blurred, watery shape swathed in black, with huge ebon wings. The scythe was crystal clear by comparison, and even knowing it couldn’t physically touch them, both gave her even more room than respect demanded. They both knew exactly what that weapon could do.
Val thought the valkyrie might have turned to look at them in passing, though it was impossible to say for certain as she didn’t slow down. At the very least she had to have discerned that they could see her. She walked by, though, and only stopped in front of the door to the Bishop’s office.
There, she gripped her scythe just below the blade, and deliberately sliced at the door latch once. The scythe, of course, passed right through the solid matter with no effect.
Then she turned and continued on, folding her wings to a more compact shape as she stepped out into the landing where there were other people. They both stared until she had descended the stairs out of view.
“What do you make of that?” Val asked quietly.
“It’s a portent, obviously,” Reich replied in the same tone. “Of what, I can’t even guess. It’s not as if we didn’t already know great matters are afoot, and if she was trying to communicate something to us you’d think it would have been less deliberately cryptic.”
“I can’t imagine what else that was about,” he said. “There’s nobody else here who can even see her. Querril probably can, but she didn’t even go in. And I’m certain she wasn’t surprised that she failed to actually cut the door out of the wall.”
“How did you notice her?” Reich asked, gazing at him with a speculative mask. “Do you just walk around open to channeling all the time?”
“That sounds exhausting,” he said with a shrug. “I just had a feeling. I try to pay attention to those. Well… I’d say keep your senses open in case any more come to visit, but for now I don’t think we can do anything else about it. You were voicing an idea that has merit: what can we learn while we’re here at the Cathedral?”
“Ah, yes,” she said, switching deftly back to her standard mask of open politeness as if this business were in any way settled. “I was thinking the Arquin boy isn’t even Vidian; we might have good luck picking someone accustomed to working outside the cult.”
“You sure you don’t want the job?”
“More so all the time. We are here, and you seem familiar with Bishop Querril. Do you know of any other priests of the Brethren attached to the Cathedral who might make good prospects?”
“Querril’s entire staff consists of that poor beleaguered teenager in there,” Val replied. “I can think of a couple of possibilities, but… Okay, how about this. What say we pump a few outsiders for perspective? You must be acquainted with several of the other Bishops.”
“Well, Syrinx, but I don’t want to involve her in our business.”
“No kidding,” he agreed fervently. Everybody who dealt with religious politics in Tiraas had at least some idea about Bishop Syrinx. “I’m on good terms with the Eserite Bishop, and he’s a fantastically useful person for just such times at this, but he’ll be out in the city on a day like today. I do have some friends among the Church’s parsonage, though…”
“And I helped arrange employment for a few officers in the Holy Legion,” she said, putting on a knowing mask. “Let’s have a few casual conversations, see if anyone feels particularly positive about a priest of the Brethren and cross-reference any such names with people we know.”
“Good,” he agreed. “In fact, let’s split up. We’ll cover ground faster that way, plus we can meet back here in an hour and rattle Querril’s cage again. Maybe if we make it clear we’re not going to leave him alone he’ll get tired of trying to hide in there.”
“You just can’t wait to get rid of me,” she said, adding coy amusement to her mask.
He mimicked it as precisely as he was able. “Yes, but it’s also a good plan. Unless you have a better?”
“No, that works out, I think. Both your contacts and mine are probably better not being brought into contact with one another. I’ll see you in an hour, then, partner.”
He nodded politely, then turned and walked in the opposite direction to the one in which she set off. Val went to the end of the hall, then turned around and came right back, sinking into a meditative state as he moved.
Reich was fully out of sight by the time he reached the office door, and he was fully immersed, holding onto both divine magic and his mental projections that pushed away the attention of other unguarded minds. True invisibility was well beyond the scope of Vidian mind magic, but they got excellent mileage out of not being noticed.
Actually getting into the office was the hard part, and a barrier only passable by someone of Val’s skill; lesser practitioners could not sustain the illusion of somebody else’s problem while manipulating physical objects. But he opened the door and shut it behind him without the acolyte looking up from whatever she was frantically scribbling. It was feasible since she was the only person in the room, and he could focus his attention upon her directly, pushing hard against her awareness and nudging her attention firmly into her task.
Crossing the office without her noticing was a breeze, and after another brief spurt of intense focus to deflect her while opening the inner door, he was safe.
There was really no point in keeping up the effort once in the inner office. Val Tarvadegh was better at this than Alonsius Querril had been at his age—he knew this, having asked people who would know—but he wasn’t at the level necessary to outmaneuver a highly experienced practitioner.
“Of course it is not news to me that you’re up to something, Tarvadegh,” Querril said without turning around. “But I find that considerably less off-putting than the other one being up to something. Is that why you ditched her?”
Val considered telling him about the valkyrie, then decided to leave that for leverage in case he needed it later in the conversation.
“Why are you really hiding in here, Querril?”
“I told you already, boy.”
“And you seemed to be of the opinion I misunderstood. Which was true. So explain it to me.”
The old man’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh. “Or?”
“I realize we aren’t close, your Grace, but you know my reputation well enough to be aware I have not begun to be annoying.”
That brought a tiny huff of amusement, and Querril finally turned. He didn’t stand, this time, but awkwardly shuffled around to sit down with his back against the idol, stretching his skinny legs out on the steps of his dais.
“What do you think it portends that Vidius has done this, now?”
“What kind of change?”
“Honestly?” Val shrugged, letting his face set a mask of what he was really feeling: annoyance, mild confusion, worry. Trying to hide his true mask from Querril was probably wasted effort. “I haven’t had time to maunder on it and I frankly am glad of that. I’m not a philosopher, your Grace, I talk to people and do things. Gwenfaer gave me a task, so I’m doing it, and so much the better.”
“That’s not a bad way to be,” Querril allowed, “but keep in mind what the Veskers always say: every fault is a virtue taken to an extreme.”
“The Veskers are talking about characters in epic poetry, Querril. That’s all they ever talk about.”
“And what do you think these masks we wear are, if not characters? You’re a priest, Tarvadegh. Some prayer and contemplation is inherent in your vocation. Don’t neglect it.”
“All right,” Val said, shrugging again. “For now, let’s agree that I’m somewhat neglectful. Correct me. I mean specifically.”
Querril closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the idol. “People are going to focus on the demonblood thing. I’ve no doubt some consider that the cause of my own unease. That was an inspired move by Vidius; something like that can’t help but seize everyone’s attention. It’s a mask, Tarvadegh. It conceals the important part. The bit he doesn’t want us to see coming.”
“I’m in suspense, here.”
“The boy is not Vidian.” The Bishop opened his eyes, and there were tears in his lashes. Val had the sudden irrational thought that the anguished expression on the old man’s face was not a mask at all. “He knows nothing of our traditions. He has no grounding in the Vidian mindset. A half-demon boy, growing up on the streets of Tiraas with no religion, yet with enough principle or just smarts to stay out of the Black Wreath’s clutches. A friend of an orphan monk who would become the Hand of Omnu. A student of Tellwyrn’s. Place yourself in the position of a god, Tarvadegh, and don’t worry about the presumptuousness of it. You, a deity, have chosen someone like this to be the first-ever paladin of your cult. Why would you do this?”
Val slammed a mask of serenity down on his features just to keep the sudden realization from knocking him over.
Querril was watching him knowingly. “There, see? You do get it, when you take a moment to try. What is it the Eserites are always saying about systems?”
“We aren’t Eserites,” Val said woodenly.
“The really terrible thing about Eserites is that they aren’t wrong. What we are, Tarvadegh, is corrupt. A corrupt system. You wouldn’t have come so easily to that conclusion unless you already understood this. Every cult suffers from a tendency to attract the absolute last people it needs; you’ve met them all. The Avenists who just want to stick swords in people, the Vernisites who just want to get rich, the Shaathists who just want to abuse women. Eserites who only care about stealing, Veskers… You know, I’m sure that if your religion centers on being an annoying little twit there must be a way to do it wrong, but I can’t imagine how. The point stands, anyway. There are also Vidians who are so obsessed with their maneuvers and games of power that those have become the end, and not the means.”
“Not all of us,” Val protested. “You make it sound worse than it is. We’re nothing if not balanced.”
“Balanced,” Querril grunted. “No, boy, I make it sound exactly as bad as it is. Of all those faiths, all the members thereof who do their religion wrong… Do any of the other ‘bad’ cultists consist of half the cult?”
The silence hung between them.
“We’re about to be culled,” Querril said at last, hanging his head. “And we need to be. We deserve to be. I have given my life to this faith, and now at the end, I have to accept that we have failed our god so catastrophically that he feels the need to take a scythe to us. Let an old man pray, Val Tarvadegh. What else is left to me, now?”
“Poor Lorelin is going to be so hurt that you left without her,” Gwenfaer said with playful reproof when he reported back to her alone.
“She’ll live,” Val said bluntly. “Probably. I don’t care either way. In the end, we didn’t manage to drag Querril out of his hole because, as it turns out, he’s the only one here who is right.”
“Is he?” She tilted her head, blinking prettily like a slightly simple-minded schoolgirl, and he had never been so tempted to grab the head of his faith by the shoulders and shake her until her perfect hairdo came undone. “Well, that gives some perspective to the other task I set you, does it not? It seems all the more important that young Gabriel Arquin should have a teacher who also understands this problem, and the severity of it. Especially since, as we now agree, that is likely to be the major thrust of his duties to Vidius.”
“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Gwenfaer, but that’s your problem now. If I had the skills or the right mindset to help the Hand of Vidius start cleaning house around here I’d have been doing it for years already. You know very well the opinion I have of some of the sleazers we keep on the payroll. But I don’t, so I’m going to go right back to doing what I can with the people who actually matter out there, and keep my head far enough down that it doesn’t roll when the scythe starts swinging!”
“Oh, that’s all right, Val,” she simpered, patting him on the cheek. “Don’t you worry, I’ve already selected teachers for Gabriel.”
He hesitated, allowing overt suspicion to taint his mask. “Teachers? Plural?”
“Of course, darling, we are still Vidians, after all! We must have a matched pair of everything. Gabriel needs an honest, principled teacher worthy of his trust, and an example of the problems infesting the Brethren. He must learn from both. I believe I picked out perfect specimens of each for him, but for thoroughness’s sake, I arranged a little test for them. And wouldn’t you know it, they both went and did exactly what I expected them to!”
“…oh, no. No, you don’t, you rotten bitch!”
“Don’t be such a fusspot, Val,” she said fondly, reaching up to ruffle his hair. “You’re great with kids. And Vestrel approves of you! That is not a small thing at all.”
“I do not want to go to Last Rock! Have you ever been there?”
“I know for a fact that you haven’t.”
“It’s exactly like every dreary little dustball of a town, except with dozens of wannabe adventurers and that screeching pyromaniac Tellwyrn! The worst of both worlds!”
“And what could be more Vidian than that?”
“I cannot believe you would willingly inflict Lorelin Reich on those poor yokels!”
“Where but in Tellwyrn’s shadow could I rely on dear Lorelin to behave herself for a few months, until Gabriel is ready to bloody his scythe on his first target?”
He could only stare at her, barely keeping his mask in place. She didn’t do it often, but now, Gwenfaer let him have a peek through the facade at the calculating mind beneath all her antics. It was there in the glint of her eye, the wry set of her lips.
“…is it that bad, Gwenfaer? Do we really need to be…culled?”
“Oh, Val.” She took his face in both her hands, and wonder of wonders, managed to make the gesture sweetly comforting without a hint of condescension. “However bad it is or is not, you’re one of the good ones. I can assure you of that. You won’t be the one called on to swing the scythe; your task is to uphold the good, not destroy the bad. There’s no one I would rather count on to do it.”
Slowly, he drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh that ruffled her bangs.
“Well… Damn it all. I guess I’d better go pack.”
“That’s the spirit! Bring me something exotic back from the frontier!”
“I hate you,” he stated.
Lady Gwenfaer rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek again, though she was tall enough that she didn’t actually need to. “And you obey me anyway. That’s why you’re my favorite.”