Things looked more optimistic back outside. Imperial Square was still riled up, and the re-appearance of the armored and bloodied Hand of Avei with her mixed escort only stirred the pot further. Trissiny and company ignored the increasingly curious crowds, heading straight for the area in front of the Temple of Avei, where a ring of Silver Legionnaires and Imperial troops had appeared. Both parted before Trissiny without argument, as most of the women accompanying her were also in Legion armor, though a few gave sidelong looks at the three Guild enforcers.
“Toby,” Trissiny said in relief, immediately striding to his side.
He was sitting on the temple steps between Gabriel and a priestess who was in the process of cleaning blood off her hands, a nearby Legionnaire holding a bowl of water for her. Toby looked up and waved at Trissiny, chewing on a bite of the meat pie in his hand. “Triss! Don’t worry, clean bill of health here. How’d it go?”
“You do not have a clean bill of anything,” the priestess said severely. “Shut mouth, open mouth, insert food! He will be fine, General,” she added in a more moderate tone to Trissiny. “It was very fortunately just tissue damage, goddess be thanked. He wouldn’t be up already if I’d needed to stitch any organs. The light can mend flesh, but there is no quick cure for blood loss. He is to eat well and not exert himself for at least two days.”
“Thank you very much, Sister,” Trissiny said fervently.
“I can follow directions, you know,” Toby remarked. “Even without Trissiny’s help.”
“Then you are a rare jewel among men,” the sister replied sardonically.
Gabriel unconvincingly hid a laugh beneath a cough. “Anyway. What’s the news? I don’t see a certain someone in chains…”
Trissiny sighed, casting a sharp look back at the looming edifice of the Grand Cathedral. “No…and apparently you won’t in the near future. The Archpope really dug his heels in to uphold sanctuary for Syrinx. I wasn’t expecting that. And frankly, I don’t know why it was that important to him.”
“You have to consider just what kind of creature Syrinx is,” said Principia. Her squad had, without orders, arranged themselves in a loose inner ring inside the existing circle of soldiers, further separating the group from the crowd outside. The three enforcers had inserted themselves in the circle surprisingly seamlessly. “So much of what she’s gotten away with has been due to playing various forces against each other, with the trade-off of having to rein in her behavior—at least in public. Now? Justinian is the only one protecting her, which means he can keep her on a much shorter leash. There’s nowhere else for her to turn if he chooses to cut her loose. And with the cat out of the bag, she no longer has to hide her ugly streak. Politics aside, he just gained an extremely lethal weapon with its limiters removed. We’d better all expect to see some more considerable damage caused by that woman before someone finally manages to put her down.”
“I don’t know what’s been happening here,” the priestess of Avei interjected, frowning, “but that is the Bishop of the Sisterhood you’re talking about, Lieutenant.”
“Not anymore, she’s not,” Trissiny said sharply.
“She’s the one who made that gash you just mended, Sister,” Gabriel added.
“Should this conversation perhaps be held in a less public setting?” Corporal Shahai suggested.
“The hell with that! At exactly what point are you all going to be done covering for that woman?” Covrin snapped, clenching her fists.
“Easy,” Trissiny soothed. “Discretion is a good habit to be in, Corporal, but in this case Covrin has an excellent point. This entire debacle has unfolded because so many people were willing to protect Syrinx’s secrets. I don’t propose to indulge her any further.”
“What, exactly, did she do?” the priestess asked uncertainly.
“Exactly the same shit everyone’s always known she was up to,” Covrin replied, curling her lip, “but everyone was too chicken to say anything about.”
“All relevant details will be public soon enough, Sister, I’ve made sure of that,” Trissiny interrupted before the priestess could call Jenell down for insubordinate conduct. The paladin put herself physically between them, catching Covrin’s eyes. “For now, there’s the question of what you want to do next. This kind of thing can mess up a career in the Legions, but I’m sure we can straighten it out. If that’s what you want. It’s up to you where you go from here, Covrin. You’ve done more than enough and the Sisterhood has no call to ask you for more. And…I owe you an apology—”
“No, you don’t,” Covrin said adamantly, shaking her head. “Is this about you helping get me into the Legions in the first place? Then I have no quarrel with you, General Avelea. You didn’t do any of this, and you’re the one who came here to straighten it out as soon as you knew. In the entire damn Sisterhood you and Locke are the only people who’ve tried to help me. Thanks for trying, Locke,” she added, turning to Principia. “It wouldn’t have worked, back then, just made me more of a target. But you tried, and I’ll remember that.”
Grip and Shahai both turned speculative looks on Principia, who just nodded back to Jenell. “I’d like to think I could’ve helped, but…hell, you may be right.”
“Then the choice is yours, Covrin,” said Trissiny. “What is it you want to do next?”
She hesitated a bare second before squaring her shoulders and answering. “I…want out. I’m so done with this whole cult. Basra was an open secret, and it keeps sticking out in my mind that the only two people who’ve tried to do anything about her are the only two Eserites in the entire Sisterhood. I am done with this bullshit. I quit.”
“Okay,” Trissiny said calmly, nodding. “Here’s the problem: I’ve checked, and according to Legion regulations this situation isn’t grounds for an honorable discharge, so—”
“Are you serious?!” Jenell exploded, clenching her fists again. “After all that—”
“Kid.” Grip turned fully around and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let her talk.”
Trissiny acknowledged the enforcer only with a fleeting glance. “…so I’m going to have to go in there and spend some time pulling strings and yelling at people. I have never actually tried to circumvent procedures like this before, so I honestly don’t know how long this is going to take. Meanwhile, Covrin, I’m afraid we’ll need to stash you somewhere. Legion SOP would be to detain you while the situation is sorted out, since even acting on my orders you were technically wildly insubordinate to a superior. I’m assuming you would prefer not to spend any time in a cell?”
Jenell folded her arms. “You assume right.”
“I figured,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a grin. “We did prepare for that, fortunately.”
“Very conveniently,” Gabriel piped up, “we are within spitting distance of the central temples of Omnu and Vidius, as well. I’ve had my people on standby to discreetly take in guests. Not that the Omnists wouldn’t be excellent hosts, I’m sure,” he added, lighly patting Toby’s shoulder, “but if there’s a chance of Legionnaires trying to fetch you before Triss can put a stop to it, you want to be among the Vidians. They can smile pleasantly and make Avenists chase their tails basically forever. Ah, no offense to…everyone present, it occurs to me.”
“Offended would be if that were untrue,” said the priestess, giving him a sidelong look. “As it is, the reminder is just annoying.”
“I doubt it’ll come to that,” Principia added to Jenell, “but it hurts nothing to be prepared. Shahai, Avelea—any insight into regulations that would help, here?”
Ephanie and Nandi exchanged a look. “The General’s correct about the regs,” Ephanie said after a pause for thought. “But…there’s necessarily some leeway in interpretation on some points.”
“I am aware of some precedents,” Nandi added, “which could be made applicable here, with a little creativity.”
“Good. I want you two to accompany and assist General Avelea. The fewer bridges burned, the better,” she added to Trissiny.
“Good thinking, Locke.”
“Do you expect a lot of trouble with this?” Toby inquired. “It seems both reason and justice are on your side, here. Surely the High Commander will agree.”
“The High Commander,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “is the head of a military chain of command, and has had people going around and over her head all day. Her first reaction when I showed her Covrin’s files of evidence on Syrinx was anger at Covrin for hoarding that instead of trying to prosecute it through the system. That’s why I opted to carry out our sting operation without informing her, and she’s not going to be pleased about that. Don’t worry, I will straighten this out, it just may take some doing. All right, Covrin, I know you don’t know Gabriel well but I can attest you’re safer with him than basically anywhere. I’ll get this done as quickly as I can.”
“I appreciate it, Avelea,” Covrin said, her tone much more subdued than previously. “All of it. Everything.”
“So!” Gabe said brightly, looking around. “That’s settled. Now, who wants to loan the Hand of Omnu a shirt?”
The afternoon had worn on by the time Trissiny, far more tired and introspective, crossed the main sanctuary toward the front doors of the temple again. She ignored the whispers that followed her; at least no one dared try to approach her directly. Walking around in bloodstained armor doubtless helped with that. A point came where it was hopeless to try to avoid attention, and one had to settle for managing the impression one made.
To her surprise, Toby was waiting near the front doors. More surprising than his presence was his attire; he had acquired a set of Cultivator formal robes, such as he’d worn at that disastrous party in Calderaas. It was no great mystery where, since the temple of Omnu was right across the Square. Still, even as impressive a figure as he made in those stately garments, it looked almost peculiar. Toby was so much more Toby in the casual, working-class shirts and trousers he preferred.
“You look weary,” he said with a smile as she approached, “but not upset. Is that a good sign?”
“As good as I could have reasonably hoped for,” she agreed, and they fell into step together, exiting the temple. “Everything is…arranged.”
“How bad was it?” he asked quietly.
Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just glad it all happened behind closed doors. Rouvad means well and does her best, but…” She hesitated; they were stepping down from the front stairs of the city now, into the noise of Imperial Square, and the pair of them still made a visual impression that seemed to discourage people from coming closer, despite all the unabashed staring. Still, she pitched her voice a little lower. “It would be very unhealthy for the Sisterhood if the Hand of Avei publicly expressed a lack of faith in the High Commander.”
“Yet you feel it,” he murmured.
“This is not a time for soldiers,” Trissiny all but whispered. “Rigidity and over-reliance on systems are what allowed Syrinx to flourish. What allow Justinian to work his tentacles through the whole Empire. Rouvad is a good woman and a good leader, but she exemplifies those failings, and our…conversation…made it clear that she isn’t about to change.”
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“I’m sorry.” Trissiny threaded her arm through one of his, still gazing ahead even as he looked at her in surprise. “I know it’s a little late now to bring it up, but I am so sorry, Toby. You never owed me anything. It should have been your choice who to tell, and when. No one is entitled to be in your business like that without your consent.”
“It’s okay, Triss,” he said, squeezing her arm. “Honestly, I should have been more open with you. With a lot of people. Not that I don’t agree with your point, in principle, and I’d never tell anyone else how to live their lives, but for me? Keeping silent was never a reasoned decision, just nerves and cowardice. Better to have it done with. Still, I appreciate it. So… Does this mean we’re going to talk about the other thing she dragged into the light?”
Trissiny heaved a soft sigh. “I don’t…see how any good would come of it.”
Again, he gave her a gentle squeeze. “Maybe not. You still need to talk with him.”
“Toby…no, I don’t. You heard Vesk; it would be a mistake to dwell on anything that creature told us. And ours is a solitary path. You know it isn’t always going to be like this, the three of us working together. Paladins live short, dangerous, isolated lives.”
“Who’s to say?” he mused. “Things are changing. This new way works, Trissiny. It works in the world as it is now. I think it would be a mistake to try to judge yourself against the Hands of Avei of ages past. They weren’t equipped to deal with the modern world. To be brutally honest, I’ve read the histories and the Aveniad and it doesn’t seem like a good half of them were mentally equipped for the world they actually lived in.”
Her laugh was somewhat bitter, but still amused. Toby smiled and bumped her gently before continuing.
“That aside, you can’t leave something like that just…hanging. Take it from me. You’ve got to talk this out with him, one way or the other.”
“I…will think about it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He sighed. “Okay. Just actually do think about it, and don’t say that simply to stall. Promise me that?”
“All right, you old nursemaid, I promise,” she said, jostling him right back.
“Oh, and Schwartz turned up,” he said with a grin. “I actually feel sort of bad; he tried to join us outside the temple but the soldiers wouldn’t let him through.”
“What? Oh, Hershel.” Trissiny covered her eyes with her free hand. “He could’ve just yelled!”
“Herschel? Yell? When people are conducting delicate healing and then having serious discussions? He would never. He caught up with us at the temple, though, and Covrin was glad to see him. I hate to sound mercenary,” he went on more solemnly, “but was it worth butting heads with Rouvad and possibly damaging your relationship? Surely Covrin would have been okay…”
“I wasn’t trained intensively as a priestess,” Trissiny said, “but I was educated in the basics. One of the matters that often comes down to Avenist clerics to handle is helping victims of abuse. One of the first things you do with such a victim is give her back her power. Give her choices to make, even small ones, and then see to it that what she says, goes. Covrin has been horribly failed and in fact betrayed by the Sisterhood. I can’t have it impose on her any further.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Good. Well, that sort of comes to the reason I came to meet you. Covrin’s not at the temple anymore.”
She came to a halt; they were more than halfway across the Square at that point. “What? Where? Is she all right?”
“If anything, I think she’s even safer,” Toby said dryly. “She carried on making decisions as soon as you were gone. You might actually get a kick out of this…”
“Thanks, Denise,” Grip said, depositing a stack of coins on the counter and handing one of the sweet rolls to Jenell. “Keep the change.”
“You know, you really don’t have to keep buttering me up, Tessa,” Denise replied with a smile. “Randy’s crap wasn’t entirely your fault, and you’re already one of my best customers even without tips!”
“Lady, nothing I do is to appease my guilty conscience,” the enforcer said flippantly, already backing out of the enclosed pastry stand. “Don’t have one. You just keep making the best shit in town and I’ll keep coming back. Deal?”
“See you next time, then,” the baker said, waving as the two women ducked back out into the falling twilight. The fairy lamps had just come on while they were under the little stand’s awning, adding a clean glow to the dimness.
“You seem so…nice,” Jenell said, staring at Grip and not yet taking a bite of her sweet roll.
“Yeah? You seem so…surprised.”
“Well, the way everyone reacted when you offered to, y’know, take me in… It seemed like even the other enforcers were scared of you.”
“Nah, Duster’s a pal of mine and Ninetails is a particular kind of crazy that makes her pretty much impervious to my charms.” Grip took a bite of her roll, ambling down the street in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and Jenell finally did likewise. They chewed in silence for a bit before the older woman swallowed and continued. “An enforcer works through fear. The entire Guild does, even those who walk a subtler path than I do. That’s the point of us, to give the bastards something to be afraid of so they stay in line. The most important thing about using fear as a weapon is not to do so indiscriminately. Mad dogs get put down. People have to know that you’re dangerous, but they also have to know that you’re only dangerous under specific conditions, and that you won’t come after ’em unless they make it necessary. That’s the entire point, kiddo. We exercise fear to get results, not because it’s fun to scare people.”
Jenell nodded seriously, chewing away at her treat with a pensive frown. “I hope this isn’t gonna cause you trouble.”
“I love trouble,” Grip said frankly.
“I mean…of the serious kind. Until General Avelea gets the Sisterhood squared away…”
“That’s Thorn to you, apprentice. And as for the Sisterhood, Farzida Rouvad can kiss my ass. I almost wish I’d be getting the chance to tell her so myself, but if I know my girl, by the time Thorn is through applying her boot up and down that temple every living soul within will know the score. Nah, don’t worry about it. Everything’s probably sorted out by now, and even if there are snags, it’ll be fine.”
“Seems like a delicate line to walk,” Jenell murmured. “A lot of the things you say, I can imagine Basra saying.”
“I believe that,” Grip agreed, nodding. “I’ve known people like Syrinx. You’ll know more of them, if you stick with this. The difference is that you’ll be able to deal with them in the future. I’ll be frank, kid, you fucked up in multiple directions with that one. You should have let Keys help you—she’s twice as smart as Syrinx on her worst day. You should’ve leveraged that witch boy you’re so fond of, or your acquaintanceship with Thorn’s fellow apprentices. Trying to finish Syrinx yourself was a mistake, and even if that weren’t true, the way you went about it was doomed if Thorn hadn’t intervened.”
“Well, what the hell would—”
“Peace, child, I am still talking.” Jenell subsided immediately under Grip’s level stare. “Everything you did wrong was a matter of technique. And technique, Jenell, I can teach you. Technique I wouldn’t expect you to have known without that training. What matters is what was already inside you: the spirit, the will to stare your own tormentor in the face and say ‘fuck you, this ends with one of us destroyed.’ That you have to have to begin with. You’ve got it, girl. If you can just shut up and learn, I will turn you into a force that will scour the Basra Syrinxes of the world away like the grime they are and not even chip your fucking nails.”
Jenell nodded again, seeming unable to find words. Her expression conveyed it all, a blend of resolution and eager ferocity that made Grip smile.
“But there has to be a difference,” the enforcer went on, “between us and them. Syrinx hurt whoever she had to, to get whatever she wanted. We hurt people as well—badly, at times. The how and the why are hugely important, or we’re nothing but another group of monsters. You understand why we hurt people?”
Jenell hesitated, opened her mouth, then closed it again. She glanced sidelong at Grip to find the enforcer watching her closely. “I… No, never mind.”
“You looked like you were about to say something, there.”
“It’s… Probably not the right answer.”
“Jenell, it’s your first day as an apprentice. Your first hour. In a couple weeks I’ll start expecting you to know right answers. Right now I want to hear what you think.”
Jenell stared ahead, a glare at some unseen enemy descending over her features, but she nodded. “We hurt people, because some people just need to be hurt.”
The silence stretched out, until she nervously snuck another peek at Grip. To her surprise, the other woman was regarding her with an inscrutable little smile, her sweet bun dangling forgotten from her hand.
“Kid,” Grip said, patting Jenell firmly on the shoulder, “this is gonna work out.”
They continued on into the lights and shadows of the city, soon vanishing from view amid the press of people, machinery and magic that was Tiraas. Behind, outside Denise’s pastry stand, another figure chuckled, watching the pair fade with distance.
“Well, I’m glad somebody gets to walk away with a happy ending,” Vesk said aloud, turning back around with a grin and a wink. “But don’t you worry, I’ve seen to it the benefits will keep racking up. Oh, I didn’t help much with the paladins’ little gambit back there. Sure, the whole plan was mine, but for a fella like me, that was nothing. The tricky part was making Trissiny think she’d thought it up, but that girl needs the boost in confidence when it comes to her scheming skills. The only thing preventing her from being as crafty as her mother is her belief that she’s not. As for the rest? Sure, Darling could’ve arranged for all those Bishops to be present at that inconspicuous little prayer service, but I did it without expending any of his political capital—and he’s gonna need that in the coming days. I also tipped off a few reporters to be in the audience, more importantly. Between that and my own bards, the story that’s already spreading will be shaped by careful hands. By this time next week, they’ll be calling her Trissiny the Uniter, and all the political damage she did to her cult in Calderaas will be mended, and then some. The Sisterhood may have lost its Bishop to a painful scandal, but they’ve gained a hero—one who’s revered by far more than their own cult. And you all know how much I love a hero!”
“Oi.” Denise emerged from within the stall, wearing a grim expression and tapping a rolling pin against her palm. “Look, you’re not hurting me any, but I am trying to run a business here. I can’t have a guy in a doofy hat talking to himself in front of it. If you’re not gonna buy anything, clear off.”
Vesk looked over at her, blinking, then turned back the way he was facing.
“And what of all the faces we’ve met in passing? Like Denise the pastry chef, here. Or the Jenkins brothers, the feuding families of Sarasio? Ansheh in the Golden Sea, Lars Grusser the mayor of Veilgrad? Was Brother Ingvar always fated to become a hero in his own right, or did he wander too close to the web and get snared? Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all. But straying across the paths of the real Big Damn Heroes can be just the thing that elevates today’s bit character to the next episode’s protagonist. Who knows what our very own Denise might be called upon to do tomorrow? Heroism loves a humble beginning!”
“Hey,” Denise insisted. “If you need a place to stay the night, I can point you to an Omnist shelter. Or do I need to yell for the police?”
He winked at her. “But that, of course, is another story.”
With that, Vesk turned and sauntered away down the street in the opposite direction from Grip and Jenell, whistling an optimistic tune that hadn’t been heard aloud in some thirty thousand years.
Denise watched suspiciously to make sure he was leaving, then snorted, shook her head, and went back into her pastry stand. “This damn town…”