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“You okay, Gabe?” Toby asked in a soft voice.
“Fine,” Gabriel said shortly. At that, Trissiny looked over at him as well. He was staring out across the Rail platform with a fixed little frown creasing his forehead. Following an uncomfortable pause, he explained further, still without looking at them. “Just concentrating. There’s a Vidian magic technique to deflect attention, which I haven’t practiced as much as I should’ve, so it takes focus.”
“Ah,” Toby said, nodding. “Good idea.”
Vrin Shai’s Rail station was outside the city proper. Even in an age when mag artillery made stone walls somewhat redundant, the city’s fortifications were practically a sacrament, given which goddess claimed it as a sacred seat. Though Imperial codes required Rail stations to be located in areas with easy access to city streets, there had never been a prospect of the Rail line itself penetrating the outer defenses. Popular rumor was that the Surveyor Corps, when planning the Rail route and station, hadn’t even bothered to ask. Thus, the walls stood proud, and Rail traffic to and from Vrin Shai involved a rather inconvenient trek.
Trissiny had once again left her armor behind; the central temple was of course proud to hold onto it for a while, though Sister Astarian had seemed somewhat bemused at the Hand of Avei’s preference not to wear it. She had, however, smilingly promised to see about removing what remained of the blinding alchemic polish the steward in Calderaas had applied. In civilian clothes, the five of them might have been any mixed bag of travelers, their only distinctive feature being that Darling, Trissiny and Schwartz made an unusual concentration of Stalweiss descent for this part of the country. Still, Gabriel’s precaution was wise. In their short time in the city, the paladins had managed to make public spectacles of themselves several times; it was hardly beyond possibility that someone might recognize them.
And none of them were in the mood for curiosity seekers.
Darling and Schwartz had stepped off to the side to converse in a low tone; the three paladins simply clustered together on the platform, ignoring and being ignored by the other travelers awaiting caravans. Now, the other two turned and approached them again, causing Trissiny and Toby to look up, though Gabriel continued frowning fixedly into the distance.
The Bishop cleared his throat. “So! Mr. Schwartz has just been telling me that I was much too hard on you three.”
Trissiny sighed. “Herschel…”
“Now, hold up,” Darling said, raising a hand. “The fact is, he’s right.”
At that, even Gabriel looked up, his expression becoming quizzical.
“It’s tricky to find the right…perspective, here,” Darling continued, turning his head to gaze abstractly at nothing, much the way Gabriel had just been doing. “In reality, you’re young. Not only are you bound to make mistakes; you’re supposed to. That’s all part of the process. On the other hand, you three have such a huge weight of importance resting on you that everything you do creates waves that’ll end up affecting more people than you can imagine. In short… You can’t afford to be and do the things that you naturally, inevitably have to. And yes, that is wildly unfair, to which I must say, tough luck. That’s life. But, it’s something I should’ve been more mindful of.”
His eyes snapped back into focus, and he met the gaze of each of them in turn before continuing. “You fucked up, kids. You didn’t think carefully enough and created a big damn mess. But I also fucked up by reaming you out when what you needed was advice on how to not repeat that mistake. For that, I apologize.” He nodded deeply, the gesture verging on a bow. For a moment, the three of them could just stare in silent surprise. Schwartz folded his arms, looking satisfied; on his shoulder, Meesie did exactly the same.
“Well…apology accepted,” Trissiny said at last. “It’s not as if you were wrong, anyway. And your advice and help has been appreciated.”
“Glad to hear it,” Darling replied. “We’ve dwelled enough on what you did wrong, so let me offer the opposing perspective: you saw a problem, and you took action. Thanks to you, Calderaas is getting a bunch of new schools. Which…isn’t the kind of outcome the bards sing of; it’s not flashy, it’ll be years before the results start to show and a generation before it really changes things. But that is still important. Not to mention, you reminded some of society’s worst people that their bullshit does have consequences, which is something they need on the regular. Next time do it more carefully, but…” A faint frown of concern appeared on his own face. “Like Herschel just reminded me, what’s important is taking action. You might mess up and cause problems, but that’s nothing compared to the losses that’ll accrue if you never intervene. I really hope I didn’t scare you away from stepping in when you see a need.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Gabriel said.
A bell chimed twice from nearby, where a large clock was displayed above the ticket master’s stand. The woman behind the counter glanced up at it, then leaned over to speak directly into an arcane apparatus enchanted to amplify sound, making her voice resonate through the station. “Caravan from Madouris is inbound, ETA one minute! Travelers departing for Ninkabi, please assemble on Platform Three! Please remember to make space for disembarking passengers before boarding.”
“That’s us,” Toby said unnecessarily, turning to gaze up the line toward the east.
Trissiny stepped over to Schwartz, and he met her with a hug. Meesie hopped down from his shoulder to hers, spreading her tiny arms and pressing her warm little body to Trissiny’s cheek in an embrace of her own.
“Be careful,” he murmured. “I know you can take care of yourself, but…”
“But it’s good advice, anyway,” she replied, pulling back to smile up at him. “You be careful too, Herschel. Listen to Darling and let him do what he does.”
“I know the plan, don’t worry,” he replied, grinning. “I hate to leave you guys right in the middle of your quest…”
“You need to have things ready in Tiraas when we get there, though,” she said, “and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Listen to Darling—and Principia, for that matter—but listen…circumspectly. Senior Guild people are good at this kind of plotting, and neither of those’ll screw you over, but that doesn’t mean you should absorb every thought they try to put in your brain.”
“I’m not a complete idiot, you know,” he said wryly.
“Yeah, neither am I. Doesn’t mean neither of us has ever done anything idiotic.”
Flickers of blue lightning began to arc along the Rail line. The caravan appeared over the horizon before anyone could see it coming, throwing up sparks from the line and blue repulsor charms flaring alight in front of its lead car as it slowed. A whine so high-pitched it barely registered to the human ear sounded, as if physics itself were shrieking in protest at the sight of an object decelerating so fast without destroying itself.
Trissiny and Schwartz separated, Meesie hopping back onto her partner’s shoulder with a forlorn little cheep at his sister, and the other two paladins stepped over to them while the caravan’s doors open and dazed-looking passengers began to emerge.
“Take care of yourself, Schwartz,” Gabriel said, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.
“You, too,” the witch replied with a grin. “Don’t make my sister work too hard to keep you alive.”
“Don’t worry,” said Toby, raising an eyebrow. “Somehow it’s always me who ends up doing that.”
“You’ll be fine,” Darling added from behind them. “If this is a Vesk thing, he’ll strain you to the very edge of your capabilities and no further. You’ll come back smarter and harder, right in time for us to take care of business back home.”
“Any last minute advice?” Gabriel asked him. In the near distance, the ticket master started calling for passengers to board. “You probably know as much about Vesk as any of us, at least.”
“Yeah,” Darling said dryly. “Try to have fun, when you can. I hear tell it’s a riot, living through an actual adventure story—right up until you get to the part that’s meant to make the audience cry.”
Ninkabi was a city of terraces and bridges, and the striking contrast of heights and depths. Built along the last stretch of the N’Kimbi River, it was defined by its geography. In truth, within the Empire flatland cities like Mathenon and Onkawa were the exception, rather than the rule; most followed the model of Vrin Shai, Veilgrad, Calderaas, and Tiraas itself, occupying immense stone features which gave them each a distinctive skyline—and a considerable defensive advantage.
The N’Kimbi had carved out a double canyon over the eons, which itself had been somewhat broken by some long-ago seismic event, resulting in a series of waterfalls which descended from the rocky N’Jendo coast into the sea. Ninkabi occupied both banks of the canyon and the long island in the middle, descending the three tiers which had been re-shaped by mortal hands into regular terraces from the jumble of stone which it had been originally. The canyon walls, too, had been carved into and built outward, until the faces of buildings descended almost to the surface of the river, though the lowest two stories were usually unoccupied due to the annual flooding caused by snowmelt in the Wyrnrange. Numerous stone bridges crisscrossed the canyons, both at the surface levels and between openings along their walls, creating a veritable maze that boats couldn’t pass under during the flood season—not that most would have risked the waterfalls, anyway. Up top, Jendi architecture manifested itself in Omnist-style ziggurats and soaring minarets, the city as bristling with towers as it was rent by deep shadows. Within the shade of the many towers, though, the long central island contained numerous gardens, many with ancient, towering trees which added a lushly organic touch to the city’s angular lines.
The outskirts of the city along the canyon were delineated by high walls, of course; Ninkabi itself had rarely been sacked, but most of N’Jendo’s history had been marked by raids back and forth between the country and the orcs of Athan’Khar to the south, and the human nation of Thakar to the north. Those defenses had been tested innumerable times, over the centuries. Even during the long peace since the Enchanter Wars, Ninkabi had followed the example of Vrin Shai rather than Veilgrad; no suburbs had been allowed to spring up outside the walls. The Thakari were allies now and what dwelled in Athan’Khar never came out anymore, but the horrors lurking there discouraged any risk-taking with defenses.
The Rail station was at the highest point on the central island, at its easternmost edge with the looming Wyrnrange walling off the horizon in that direction, and the setting sun casting the rest of the city in orange and gold as it descended toward the sea on the other side. From this angle, they had an excellent view of Ninkabi’s maze of towers, bridges, and canyons. This, even at a glance, was a city of deep shadows. Now their task was to find the right scoundrel lurking in them.
“But before that,” Trissiny said, when they’d stepped to the edge of the Rail platform, “there’s something I need to do while we’re in the city.”
“Oh?” Toby asked. Gabriel, though, was already nodding.
They had to ask for directions, and it was a bit of a hike; what they sought was situated at the base of the second-to-last cliff on the central island, most of the way along the city. The trip involved descending three layers, where they found that there were both switchbacking stairs at the edges of the cliffs and long ramps which passed through tunnels, to allow horses and vehicles to pass between levels. Between this and the bridges, getting around in Ninkabi involved quite a bit of planning and backtracking; those tunnels had to be long enough that to come out at the base of a cliff, you had to enter almost the whole way back along that terrace, nowhere near the stairs.
Upon descending the first staircase, Gabriel successfully bullied the other two into renting a rickshaw to take them the rest of the way, pointing to the setting sun as evidence that they really ought to hurry this up.
They finally arrived, though, at a kind of amphitheater built right into the base of the cliff. The broad, semicircular space within was calm, deeply shadowed beneath both the cliff itself, the tall round walls which separated it, and overhanging boughs of trees which stretched outward from the gardens planted atop those thick walls.
Against the great wall stood the monument which was the focus of this place, a fountain which rose in tiers almost two stories, pouring water down in levels like a ziggurat. Stairs rose almost to its peak, creating access by which people could set down candles along the multiple rims of each level, where little indentations held them upright even against the water. Right now the candles were sparse, leaving the space dim as they were its only illumination.
This was, technically, a Vidian temple, and was watched over by priests of Vidius, but it was neither Vidians nor the general public who came to this place, as a rule. There were no icons displayed, no decorations anywhere in the space except for the inscription carved along the base of the Fount of the Fallen:
WE ARE STILL HERE
It was one of very few places in the world that the generally irreverent Eserites regarded as sacred.
The three paladins entered through an arch along the northern arc of the outer wall, pausing just inside to look around. Few were present, just the Vidian priests in their three alcoves spaced along the inner curve of the wall, and only two people currently visiting the shrine. A woman with Stalweiss coloring, in an expensive-looking silk gown, sat on the lowest edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in the water and seeming to speak quietly to no one. Halfway up one of the staircases, a dark-skinned man who might have been local had just finished setting a candle in place and lighting it, and now bowed his head, whispering in prayer.
“Welcome,” a voice greeted them quietly from the alcove just a few feet away. It had a stone counter built in front of it, leaving the priest behind partially walled off like a shopkeeper. Shelves lining the back held row upon row of unlit white candles. Currently occupying the space was a Tiraan woman who stuck out somewhat, due to her expensive-looking and obviously tailored suit.
Gabriel frowned at her. “Are…you a priest of Vidius?”
“Oh, not me,” she said diffidently, waving a hand. “I’m just watching this post for a little bit, as a favor to a friend. I work with the Universal Church.” Gold glittered at her sleeves; her cufflinks alone looked pricey enough to be an affront to Eserite sensibilities. Actually, with her short hair and sharp suit, the woman looked a lot like Teal Falconer, with a darker complexion and more expensive tastes.
Trissiny stepped over to the counter. “May I have a candle, please?”
“Of course,” the woman said politely. “It’s two pennies.”
“You charge for these?” she demanded, frowning.
“This is genuine locally-sourced Jendi beeswax,” the woman in the suit replied with a placid smile. “Those bees worked hard to make these for you, and no telling how many keepers got stung in the process. The candles are hand-made by traditional artisans—no factory products here. Two pennies is exceedingly reasonable, especially considering that even a holy site requires some upkeep.”
Trissiny shook her head ruefully, already reaching into her pocket. “Well, when you put it that way, fair enough.” The woman smiled, accepted the coins and handed over a candle with no further comment, and Trissiny turned back to her friends. “I won’t be long.”
“You take as much time as you need,” Toby said firmly. “There is no rush.”
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Gabriel added. “Say whatever you need to.”
“Here,” the woman said suddenly, holding out an arcane cigarette lighter to Trissiny. It was as expensive as her suit, crafted of silver with gold embossing and engraved with a stylized V. “There are also matches and lighters for sale here, but you can borrow mine. I don’t recommend using matches anyway; the splashing water doesn’t agree with them.”
“Oh. Thank you very much,” Trissiny said, accepting it. “I’ll bring it right back.”
“Like the boys said, hon, take your time. I’m in no rush, either.”
She headed off to the fountain, and Toby and Gabriel discreetly edged away to stand with their backs to the wall on the other side of the arch. They tried not to stare, but there really wasn’t much else to look at; the woman at the candle stall was also watching Trissiny, wearing a small smile.
Trissiny picked a staircase some distance from the other two Eserites currently at the fountain and climbed, selecting a spot about halfway up. There, she wedged the white candle into one of the slots, lit it with a lighter, and then produced a gold doubloon from inside her sleeve. The paladin kissed the coin before tossing it into the water. Then she paused, bending over her candle, and speaking softly to nothing, like the others.
“His name was Ross,” Gabriel said suddenly, barely above a whisper. Toby looked up at him in surprise. “Evaine collected him. He died protecting Schwartz from wandfire. Trissiny and her other friends were just seconds too late to save him. I think you would’ve liked him, Toby. He didn’t much care for fighting; he was trying to talk his enemy down when she shot him, and he’d been really close to succeeding.” He hesitated, and sighed softly. “Ross was a bard, before apprenticing with the Guild. This whole thing… It’s a constant reminder that can’t be easy for her. I wonder how much of that was deliberate on Vesk’s part.”
“Did…she tell you all this?” Toby asked quietly.
Gabriel shook his head. “Evaine did. She was very impressed. Ross went right to the realm of heroes.”
“Have you told Trissiny?”
“I…no. That’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up, y’know? And I’m really not supposed to be ferrying information between the living and the dead, anyway. There’s a good reason Vidius insists on a solid barrier, there. I was going to tell her and her other Eserite friends anyway, back in Puna Dara, but…” He trailed off, and shook his head again.
“Yeah,” Toby murmured. “Not easy at all. I think she would like to know, though.”
“I’m still wrestling with it. Trissiny is my friend and I want to. But…that would be pretty blatantly playing favorites. If I reassure my own friend about dead loved ones, how do I justify not going around and doing the same for everyone else on the planet? Favorites are something death cannot have.”
“I see the dilemma.” Toby laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and giving him a very gentle shake. “I’m not sure what the right thing is, there, Gabe. But I’m confident it’ll be what you end up doing.”
“Thanks,” Gabriel said, a little wryly.
The woman in silk had just stood up, turning to go, but she paused with a visible gasp, staring upward. Gabriel and Toby twisted their heads to follow her gaze.
Three stories up, at the edge of the outer wall beneath a tree, stood the blurred but unmistakable shape of a valkyrie, scythe in hand and black wings spread. After a moment, seeing that she’d been noticed, Vestrel stepped backward out of sight of the space below.
“Vidian holy ground,” Toby said thoughtfully. “Hm. Does that just…happen? The way you described events at the temple in Last Rock, I though valkyries had to specifically want to be visible, even there.”
“You know,” Gabriel said, lowering his eyes to frown at nothing, “it occurs to me I’m not actually sure what the rules are about that. It hadn’t seemed important, before, but…maybe I oughta ask Vestrel for a rundown.”
“That might be a good idea. More information is always better than less.”
Trissiny, true to her word, didn’t take long. Whatever she had to say to Ross or on his behalf, she was done while the other man on the other stairs was still kneeling. She looked suddenly tired, though more pensive than morose, giving both of them a wan smile while crossing back to the alcove with the lighter in her palm. Toby and Gabriel drifted over to meet her there, all three paladins arriving at about the same time.
“Thanks again,” Trissiny said, handing the lighter back to its owner.
“You are welcome,” the woman replied, inclining her head courteously. “Glad I could help. Now, are you kids about ready to go?”
There was a beat of uncertain silence.
“Excuse me?” Toby asked, frowning. “Go where?”
“Ah, my apologies, I did that in the wrong order. I’m Nell; pleased to meet you.” The woman bowed to each of them in turn, wearing a knowing smile. “We have some friends in common, and I hear tell you’re in town to see Mortimer Agasti and get your hands on one of his treasures. I can help you with that.”
“You said…you work for the Universal Church?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.
“With,” Nell corrected, raising one finger rather like a schoolteacher. “Not for. An easily-missed but very important distinction!”
“And…what’s your stake in this, exactly?” Trissiny demanded.
“Personally?” She shrugged, still with that bland smile. “I gain nothing from it, save the satisfaction of being involved. It’s been a long time since paladins were active in the world and longer still since they were on an honest-to-gods quest. Even if it is just Vesk trying to weave himself a shiny new fairy tale. There’s no way I’d pass up the chance to gawk at this from up close!”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Toby, “are you Vidian or Eserite?”
“Neither,” Nell replied pleasantly. “What I am is well-informed and connected. I know everybody interesting and everything important in Ninkabi. More to the point, I know Mortimer, and that means I can help you get what you want. You should be aware that he sees nobody. No visitors, no petitioners, no nothing. I’m one of very few acquaintances for whom he’ll break that rule. If you want to get a chance to present your case to the man himself without kicking up a ruckus that’ll upset Ninkabi even more than you did Calderaas, you’ll be needing to have me along.”
“You are awfully well-informed,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “How could you possibly know who we needed to talk to? That name was only mentioned—” She broke off, eyes widening again, and glanced down at the lighter, which the woman was still holding in one hand, positioned so its engraved V was facing them.
“Ah, ah, now. A little discretion, please! I’m sure you three understand not wanting to make spectacles of yourselves. It’s just Nell, to my friends.”
Verniselle winked at them, and tucked the lighter away in the breast pocket of her tailored coat.
“We very much appreciate your help…Nell,” Toby said carefully. “Your guidance would be more than welcome.”
“Oh, please don’t start being all formal,” she said, lightly punching him on the shoulder. “Trust me, where we’re going, that’ll only draw exactly the attention you don’t want. All right, kids, if we’re all done here, let’s head out. You’ve got good timing; we should reach Mortimer’s place a bit after dark, if we selectively dawdle. It’ll be open but not too busy yet. Thisaway!”
The goddess of money, merchants and bankers turned and strolled off through the nearest arch, casually flipping a platinum coin that would have bought a lower-end enchanted carriage. There was nothing for the three paladins to do but follow.