“You’re certain?” Thanos pressed.
“I am.” Atandis, the High Priestess of Miros, spoke through clenched teeth, eyes bulging with the strain of the spell she was sustaining. Her face was white and she was sweating profusely; and the hand raised before her, fingers crooked into a peculiar grasping gesture, was trembling. The warcaster was surprised, and not a little alarmed, to see a welter of golden sparks glittering against the elf-woman’s skin,
“He knows nothing?” Breygon asked, leaning on his bow. His eyes were as narrow as the cleric’s, and his jaw as tight, but for different reasons.
“Nothing!” Atandis hissed.
“No point in continuing, then,” Thanos shrugged. “You might as well –”
With a sudden convulsive gasp, the grey elf’s shoulders sagged, and she toppled backwards. The warcaster had been expecting this, and stepped forward to catch her, cradling her easily in his arms. Though she was close to his own height, she was as slender as a willow wand, and her weight was negligible.
Before them, the individual who had been the focus of her spell – an elf, a man of middle years and well-worn features, as if he were a tradesman or hunter – sagged in the high-backed chair that Tua had brought in from the dining room. He was only half-conscious.
After the mob had been dispersed, Thanos had sent Karrick out into the streets to find one of their number for questioning. The warrior had returned within minutes, the unconscious labourer over one shoulder, a bruise already purpling on the man’s cheek. Thanos had tried to rouse the fellow, without success. Casting a jaundiced glance at his adjutant, he’d asked, “What’d you hit’im with?”
“Use a club next time,” the warcaster had grunted. “Or a mace. You’ll do less damage.”
To forestall further mucking about, an impatient Breygon had called upon the Protector’s might to heal the man. When the fellow began blinking his eyes, the ranger balled up a fist and prepared to ask his questions.
“Allow me.” Thanos had thrust his comrade summarily aside. Then, to the utter astonishment of his long-time allies, he’d laid a hand on his surcoat, raised the other, and had whispered something under his breath. The bruised elf, blinking, had turned his eyes immediately to the human’s.
“We’re friends,” Thanos had said pleasantly, not taking his eyes from those of their impromptu guest. “All we want to do is ask you some questions.” A glance at Breygon. “All right?”
“Yes,” the ranger had replied slowly, raising an eyebrow at his colleague. “Just a few questions. That’s all.”
“Placet,” their guest had replied, sounding dazed.
“And after that,” the ranger had said, looking oddly at Thanos, “I’m going to have some questions for you.”
“No doubt,” Thanos murmured.
Their interrogation of the man had taken only moments. His name, it transpired, was Damran Tosk, and he was, as his garb and calloused hands suggested, a labourer who spent his days loading carts on the docks of the Arsenal, and his nights wherever he might lay his head in peace.
“After a cup of wine or two,” he’d added with the open honesty of the enchanted.
“But that,” he’d added before either of his interrogators could pose another query, “was before I found the truth of the Fire.”
Thanos saw the half-elf’s fingers clench again and cleared his throat hastily. “Who showed you this truth?” he’d asked.
“Orotil,” the man had replied, sounding half asleep. “Orotil Nyissta. We’d heaved bales together on barges up and down the river. He knew I was down on my luck, and brought me along one night.” A theatrical sigh. “Promised me a cup, he did; but by the time the lady’d finished her talk, I were done with wine.”
“She’s that convincing, is she?” Thanos had murmured.
“Talk the birds down outta tha' trees,” Tosk had replied. “Thass' where I met Lady Lissy, too. She healed me.”
“You were wounded?” the warcaster had asked, surprised. “How? In battle?”
Battle o’the sheets,” the fellow had admitted, completely
unabashed. “Red fester. Got it at the Hook’n’Tackle. Hurts like a pike up the ar – ”
“I'm sure,” Thanos had interjected. He cast a glance over his shoulder and saw that Atandis was frowning mightily.
Karrick, though, was grinning. “Hook and Tackle, eh?” he’d muttered. “Gotta remem –”
“Shut it,” Thanos had whispered. Turning back to their subject, he’d said, “Tell me everything you know about Shaivaun Shabat. And the one you call 'Lady Lissy'.”
That, it turned out, had been annoyingly little. Tosk had attended services at the Lucum for five years without ever witnessing anything untoward. He approved of ‘Lady Lissy’s’ preaching, and had nothing but shy admiration for the stirring words of the high priestess, Shaivaun.
“She’s wonderful,” he’d sighed, while Karrick made sotto voce retching noises.
Frustrated, Thanos had asked their own high priestess, Atandis, to examine the man’s motivations more closely. Rather than waste time with lesser magics, the grey elf had exercised a form of might exclusive to the mortal servants of the Powers, opening herself to the glaring majesty of Miros herself, and then – at considerable personal cost – directing that awful power into the heart and soul of their guest.
The spell had been for naught; no magic, however potent, can compel a victim to reveal something that he does not know. Worse, the effort involved was staggering, and left Atandis on her knees, white-faced and gasping.
While Breygon watched the still-dazed prisoner, Thanos bent over the high priestess. “Are you well?”
“I will be,” the woman murmured. “After a couple days’ rest.” She put a slender arm around his shoulders, and he helped her to another chair. Tua appeared with a cup of wine, and the elf-woman took several unsteady sips.
“I’ve never seen a casting take such a toll,” he said, deeply concerned. “What manner of spell was that?”
“We call it Quaestiuncula,” she replied unsteadily. “ ‘The little question’. It is a sanctified spell, and like all such spells, draws its potency directly from the holy might of our divine mistress.”
“I wouldn't've thought that Miros would harm one of her own servants,” the warcaster frowned.
Atandis smiled wanly. “The harm is not deliberate. And do not mistake me; it is glory and joy, joy most profound, to open one’s self to her holy touch.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Great joy. But…it is not easy.”
“I can see that,” the warmage mused. “Are you able to cast the spell again?”
The elf-woman shook her head without speaking. “I did not…arm myself to do so twice in one day.” She held out a shaking hand. “The cost is high. It would not…not be wise.”
“Perhaps we should’ve saved it for the other one, then,” Thanos grimaced. “ ‘Lady Lissy’,” I mean.
“There’s always Karrick,” Breygon growled. He was still staring at Tosk, his lip curled in an angry snarl.
The warrior frowned. “Nice to be appreciated,” he said. “But I don’t hit girls.”
“That ‘girl’, as you call her,” the ranger said drily, “is at least two hundred years your senior. She tried to kill us, she traffics with demons –”
“If she isn’t one herself,” Thanos interjected.
“She’s not,” Joraz said quietly. He had been watching the proceedings from a chair of his own, observing silently without speaking. “I’d know.”
“So she’s not a demon,” Breygon snorted. “Wonderful! She just ensorcelled a couple hundred commoners into trying to beat my door in and murder my servants, my friends and my lo...my lifemate. And unless I miss my guess, she’s the one who summoned a quartet of elementals to try to beat us into the ground the other day, and cost me Angin, my only link to the divine." He snarled unconsciously. "I’m not overly concerned about the delicacies of her gender at the moment.”
He turned back to Karrick, gesturing angrily at the front of the house. “I presume you’re under no illusions about what would’ve happened had they been able to get in here!”
“I’ve sacked a few cities,” Karrick replied phlegmatically. “So...no.” He shrugged. “But don't forget, we won. They didn’t get in, the ringleader’s tied up with a couple of placemats stuffed in her mouth, the mob’s been dispersed, your lady's fine,” – he paused for breath – “and the big boss’s head is on a wagon in the stable.
“And even if none of that were true,” the warrior summarized bluntly, “I still don’t hit girls.”
“I’m not certain how our hostess would feel about you beating answers out of a woman in her house anyway,” Thanos said mildly.
“Oh, you might be surprised how your hostess feels about it.” All eyes turned to the dining room doorway. Amorda was standing in the arch, one hand braced unsteadily against a door-post, the other clutching a shawl around her shoulders.
Breygon was at her side at an instant, offering her his arm. “You’re supposed to be resting!”
She put a grateful hand on his wrist to steady herself. “Tua said there’d been a to-do,” she murmured. “That, and the shouting and screaming, Kakall trumpeting, and all the banging on the door...kind of woke me up.”
“It’s sorted,” the ranger shrugged. “Go back to bed.”
“I don't think so,” she added with a tiny smile. “There also seems to be some sort of metal dragon statue in my garden. I thought we’d talked about that.” She poked him playfully in the chest. “You do the killing; I do the decorating. Was I unclear?”
Breygon felt the strangling urge rise in his shoulder. “Bed!” He pointed to emphasize the command.
Amorda smiled weakly. “I’m fine. Really!” Leaning on him for support, she walked slowly over to where the dazed, captive commoner sat, head lolling, in his chair. “Who’s this?”
“Damran Tosk,” Thanos supplied. “He’s a stevedore, from the Arsenal. He doesn’t know much. Just that Shaivaun was an almighty motivational speaker.”
“I could’ve told you that much,” the elf-woman sighed. “In fact, as I recall - I did.”
“And he mentioned somebody called ‘Lady Lissy’,” Karrick added.
“That would be Licia,” Amorda nodded. “Licia Facis.”
All eyes snapped back to her again. “You know who he’s talking about?” Thanos gaped.
“Of course,” their hostess shrugged. “Lissy’s been Shaivaun’s protégé for…oh, I don’t know. A hand of years, at least.” She smiled wanly. “It was quite the scandal, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
Thanos, Karrick, Joraz, Breygon and Valaista all looked blank. Tua, however, whistled and shook his head. “Hooo, yeah!” the Wilder elf snorted.
Breygon glanced down at his would-be aide. “Explain,” he growled.
“Domina Licia’s surname is ‘Hastafraxinus’,” Tua shrugged.
“Ah,” Thanos murmured. “Duodeci. Of course.”
“Of course,” Amorda confirmed with a rueful nod. “She’s the daughter of Jer Kavor Hastafraxinus, the Governor of Capavallis. Which means that she’s the grand-daughter of Count Eoltan of Astraputeus, the Queen’s counsellor, who also happens to be head of prosapiae Hastafraxinus. Which, I'm sure you'll recall, is one of the houses most closely allied with House Æyllian and the throne."
She dropped a shoulder, and Breyon found his lip curling. "Eoltan," she went on without expression, "is a close personal friend of the Queen, a former comrade-in-arms of Landioryn and Kaltas, and the highest-ranking vassal of my…of your uncle. Duke Bræagond.” She patted her husband’s hand.
Breygon made a visible effort to master his disquiet. “I can’t believe anyone is willing to pay homage to that imbecile,” the ranger growled.
“Most of his vassals don’t,” Amorda allowed. “Ever since he and Inscia agreed to live seiugatus, he’s stayed at the palace, and she’s kept up the ducal court, for Lamboris at least, at Heron Gate. That’s here in town, up near the north end of Greatisle.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Since she holds court, most of the Lamboris vassals end up paying homage to her, instead of to him.”
“I can see how that might be preferable for them,” Thanos nodded. “But back to Licia, if you don't mind.”
“Of course,” Amorda nodded. “Yes, as you can imagine, it was the talk of the town when she decided to take up the emerald stole of a priestess of Istravenya.”
“Why?” Karrick wondered aloud. "Why should that bother people?"
“Because,” Breygon growled before anyone else could speak, “the nobles disdain worship of the Forest Gods. They praise Hara, and in doing so praise themselves; and they tolerate the Protector, because if they didn’t, the commoners would probably rise up against them. But they consider the other forest gods to be...plebeiain. Csaeleyan, Tioreth…even the Forest Mother herself; these are beneath the lofty notice of the so-called 'Divine Twelve'.”
“And Istravenya too, I suppose?” Thanos asked. curious.
The ranger nodded. “Worst of the lot, from the perspective of the high-born. Which, I suppose, is why it was so bloody odd that the nobles have been flocking to the White Fire. That’s never happened before.” He ground his teeth. “I should’ve made that connection sooner.”
“I should have made it for you,” Amorda murmured. She took her husband’s hand and held it gently. “I’d told the Bird-catcher that the new lure of the cleansers for the nobles bothered me. Told him months ago, in fact. It was the reason he had me watching the Lustroares and Shaivaun’s cathedral in the first place.”
Breygon and Thanos both stared at her. The elf-woman waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not a secret anymore,” she snapped. “My usefulness to the Queen as insidiatrix is over.”
“I thought we were going to talk about that,” the half-elf sighed.
“There’s nothing to talk about, cara meum,” the elf-woman smiled. “Look at it this way: now I can stop pretending to be a loose-kneed fritterhead, and start acting like a real noblewoman.” Her lip twitched – the closest thing she would allow herself to a grimace. “Maybe I’ll be a better princess than I was a spy.”
The ranger, not knowing what to say, put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She seized it at once.
“Don’t beat yourself up about not figuring Shaivaun out,” Karrick snorted. “When people start acting funny, demons ain’t the first thing you usually suspect.”
“If it’s so improper for nobles to worship the…the more rural of the forest gods,” Joraz asked, puzzled, “then why did the Queen…why did she permit her grand-daughter, Myaszæron, to become one of Valatanna’s elect? They’re a sect of the White Fire....aren’t they?”
“They are,” Amorda confirmed. “But there are two answers to that, both of them pretty simple. The first is that members of the royal family do what they want. Within reason, of course, and only so long as they’re not within the direct line of succession.”
“What’s the other?”
Amorda grinned tiredly. “Can you imagine anyone preventing Mya from doing something she really wanted to do?”
“The Queen might,” Karrick laughed. “She’s tough as a week-old loaf, that bird.”
“The Queen might, but I’ll bet she wouldn’t,” Breygon snorted. “Remember her daughter. My grandmother – Mya’s mother – was a captain of the Defensores, the holy warriors of the White Fire. Szæronýla didn’t just serve Istravenya; she went all the way and moved in with the torvae, too.” He shook his head. “I can just imagine how the Queen felt about that. After grandmother becoming a Wilder-loving vagabond, Mya becoming a chaste servant of Valatanna probably seemed a blessing.”
“Don’t prejudge your great-grand-mama,” Amorda clucked. “It’s hard to tell what she would and wouldn’t approve of. I’m starting to think that there’s a lot more to her Serene Majesty than I once thought.”
“We’ll never know, unless she comes back,” Breygon shrugged. “Which can’t come too soon. I’m getting a little tired of standing attendance on Landioryn, running errands for him, and holding his bloody hand.”
“No offence, but the longer Her Divine Stunningness stays away, the better,” Thanos snorted. “Until she’s back, or Landioryn pulls his thumb out of his bung-hole and assumes the crown, I can’t be charged.”
“Why is that?” Joraz asked.
“Diplomatic agreement between Ekhan and the elf-realm,” the warcaster shrugged. “Reciprocal courtesy of rank. Charges against general officers can only be preferred by a head of state.” He grinned tightly. “I think Kald bumped me up the ladder to forestall the lawsuit. And maybe to thumb his nose at the Starhall a little bit.”
“I’m sure there were other reasons,” the monk said generously.
“I thought you didn’t care about the suit?” Amorda said, surprised.
“I don’t,” Thanos snorted. “But we don’t need anymore diversions to pull us away from our quest. We need to get out of this realm and get on with our business. The longer we stay here, the faster the distractions seem to pile up.” He bowed. “Even the excrutiatingly lovely ones.”
Amorda giggle prettily.
Thanos sighed. He nodded at the side-chamber where they’d secured the captured priestess. “Licia, eh?”
Amorda nodded, eyeing him narrowly.
“Not that I know of,” the elf-woman shrugged. “No side-loves either.”
The warcaster blinked. “Would you know, necessarily?”
Amorda stared at him. “Are you joking?”
“Of course not.” Thanos stood, rubbing his hands together. “Okay. We need answers, and Atandis isn’t in any shape to provide any more right now.” He nodded at the gray elf, whom Tua had helped to a couch, and who was dozing open-mouthed in an uncomfortable slouch. “As much as I dislike it,” he continued, looking unhappy, “I think we’re going to have to get physical with ‘Lady Lissy’.”
“Count me out,” Karrick growled.
Thanos’ face coloured and he looked about to shout something when Amorda intervened. “Why not let me try?”
Karrick snorted. “You? Due respect, lady, but you look like you just went three rounds with a hill giant.”
“Oh, thank you,” the elf-woman said coolly, cocking an eyebrow at the warrior. “With that silver tongue, I can see why the ladies find you irresistible.”
“They do, though,” Karrick laughed. “Why, there’s this noble lass up at the Fang – Domina Letifera, they call her – who can’t get enough of me!”
“Yes, I know her,” Amorda replied in the same, disinterested tone. “Her real name’s Tchamma Soheek. She’s a legend in the capital, and a regular at places that feature…ahh, exotic fare.”
“Like me,” Karrick nodded.
“Hardly. You’re a vanilla blancmange compared to her normal menu,” Amorda chuckled.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, the word around the palace,” the elf-woman shrugged, “is that she’s doing her best to work her way through the orders. And that she’s gone better than two-thirds of the way.”
“The knightly orders?” Thanos asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“No, she finished them off a century ago,” Amorda replied neutrally. “Quickly.”
“The religious orders, then?” Breygon asked, curious despite being certain that he did not really want to hear the rest.
“I’m fairly certain,” Amorda said clinically, “that she had covered all of the faiths before her Saltatio. At least, all of the faiths represented in the Realm.”
“Well, what the hells do you mean, then?” Karrick expostulated.
“I mean that she’s working her way through the orders of life,” the elf-woman said with a nasty grin. “You know – animals, magical beasts, fey, giants…”
Thanos and Joraz stared, wide-eyed. Tua laughed out loud. Breygon turned slightly green.
“And I know for a fact that she didn’t start with humanoids,” Amorda added mischievously. “And you’re certainly not her first son of Esu, my friend.”
“Even aberrations?” Joraz asked, white-faced.
“It’s possible,” the elf-woman shrugged. “There are humanoid aberrations. Shape-shifters and such. They’re not all beholders and rust monsters.”
“Anything’s possible, isn’t it?” Breygon snarled. “What about dragons?”
Before Amorda could answer, Thanos held up a hand. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said harshly. “You don’t bring up dragons, and I won’t bring up fey.”
Breygon thought about that for a moment, then nodded agreement. “How about plants, then?”
The elf-woman’s answer was an eloquent shrug.
“Constructs too?” Karrick asked, appalled.
“Hunh, nothing odd about that,” Tua interjected. “Just gotta pay the Disciples a visit, and they’ll fix you right…what?” he asked, suddenly nervous as all eyes turned to him.
“Enough!” the ranger snarled, interrupting their reverie. “I’m ending this before somebody asks about oozes and revenants! I’d rather keep my breakfast where it is, if it’s all the same to you.” He turned to his wife. “Do you really feel up to questioning our prisoner?”
Amorda shrugged. “You’re short on time, Atandis is out cold, and since Ony and Kallie have gone back up the hill, I’m all you’ve got right now. Besides,” she added with a playful flick of her finger against his lips, “you know how persuasive I can be.”
“I do indeed,” he said drily. “Very well. Let’s – ”
“And then, once we’ve learned evertything we can,” she continued, overriding his words, “We’ll bundle her up and take her to the Bird-catcher. I promise you, he’ll wring her dry.”
The four adventurers turned to stare at her. Thanos recovered first. “Excellent!” he exclaimed.
“The Bird-catcher? Really?” Breygon asked, startled.
“Really,” his wife nodded. “I’ve been trying to crack the Lustroares for him since he put me on to them last summer. You lot managed it in a week. He’s going to want to hear what you have to say. And you’re going to want to ask him some questions, too.”
“And why is that?” Thanos asked.
“Because of what Lissy was shouting,” Amorda replied. Her face grew serious again. “The ‘worship of the worm’, as she put it…that’s the innermost cult of the Secrecy. The Secrecy of the Rod, I mean.”
“Not them again!” Breygon exclaimed.
Amorda started. “‘Again’?”
The ranger sighed. “We cleaned out a hidden temple of their order. In Ellohyin, in northern Zare, about four months ago. They’d managed to capture a celestial being – Lööspelian’s sister, in fact, an archon of the horn called Elliastralee – and were torturing her to extract...err...her tears. We thumped the acolytes, and set her free.”
“Angel tears?!” Amorda cried. “Holy Mother! What’d you do with them?”
“Destroyed them,” the ranger replied tersely. “It was the right thing to do, but...we handled it badly. It caused a rift in our party and cost us our priest, and later our caster.” He nodded at the two Ekhani soldiers. “Thanos and Karrick joined us shortly after those two left.
“In any event,” he went on sourly, before his wife could interrupt again, “we defeated the high priestess – she was a Gasparri human, one Shier Tyrek – but she escaped before we could kill her. And, as was the case today, we had to plow through an awful lot of deluded commoners to get to her.”
“That is the way of those who serve chaos,” Joraz said quietly. “The price of their power is ever borne by their misled minions. So it has always been, with those who follow dread Vilyacarkin.”
Thanos sighed. "The Secrecy of the Rod. Bad news. But what do they have to do with the Auceps?”
“Vilyacarkin is the patron goddess of the Sobrinatrii,” Amorda shuddered. “Our shadowed cousins. They call her Dashnorrej in their tongue.”
“‘The lover in the darkness’,” Joraz translated helpfully.
“I still don’t see the connection,” Thanos said, looking puzzled.
Amorda sighed. “When she needed someone to fill the Bird-Catcher’s post,” she said reluctantly, “the Queen looked for the sneakiest, most devious, most underhanded professional ne’er-do-well she could find. One who met the definition of an ‘honest traitor’.”
“What’s an ‘honest traitor’?” Karrick asked, frowning.
“One who stays bought,” the elf-woman replied. “Unfortunately, to find a suitable candidate, she had to look outside of the Realm. A very, very long way outside.” She shuddered suddenly. “If you get my meaning.”
Thanos rubbed his brow. “I think I see where you’re going with this.”
“Not unless you can see in the dark,” Amorda jested weakly. “The current Bird-Catcher is the best man she could find for the job. He’s a wizard and a master of arcane lore, a brilliant thinker, a subtle politician, a deadly assassin, and a terribly skilled liar. He’s the most deceitful, conniving scoundrel I’ve ever met.”
“Sounds like you admire him,” Karrick said thoughtfully.
“ ‘Admire’ isn’t exactly the word I’d use,” Amorda grimaced. “You see, he’s also a Drow.”