Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

[Not a lot happening in this one, except for the last couple of paragraphs, but it's overdue to get posted. The ending of this thing is drawing near, although there are still at least three chapters to go.]


Chapter Sixty-five: Family matters

Sister Rose may have been fast asleep by the time the encounters in Saus happened (no small trick, considering how far west she was, and how recently the sun had gone down in Kiyoka), but she didn’t stay that way.

Maybe it had been the life within her, now in its second trimester, pressing on her bladder; she thought not, there was no way he or she could be large enough to do that effectively yet. Maybe it was the revelers coming back from town; the soon-to-be newlyweds and some of their close friends had gone into Kiyoka for one last party. (A bachelor party wasn’t in either Brother Farley’s or Brother Miguel’s style, and nobody at the mission could have figured out how to host one.) No, that wasn’t it either; none of them were staying at the vineyard except Sister Marilyn’s mother, and Rose could hear deep, even breathing from her room. Nerves about tomorrow (or later today, based on the hour, she wasn’t sure)? She’d certainly faced more stressful situations lately.

She would never know that she’d awakened at almost exactly the same time as something singularly unfortunate was starting to happen in Saus.

Whatever the reason, she arose to do her business and cast a quick Hygiene spell, managing not to awaken Argus in the process. However, on the way back to their room in the tidy little house at the vineyard, she realized that she wasn’t the only one who was having trouble sleeping.

“Hi, Brad,” she almost whispered to the man on the couch with his eyes half open. “Can’t sleep?”

Her cousin was awake enough to flash her a sheepish grin. “Well, there’s – there’s barely enough room in bed for me.” There was truth to this statement. Lillith was starting her third trimester, and between her small-but-bosomy build and the twins she was carrying, she was already assuming decidedly matronly proportions.

Rose wasn’t buying it, though. She debated internally for a moment as to whether to probe further, decided that she could; Brad was her cousin, after all. “That’s all?”

Brad shifted postures slightly. “I – well, I didn’t want to keep her awake. But why are you up?’

“The same thing,” Rose smiled. This was at least partially true, even if she didn’t know exactly why she’d had to get up. “Everything okay?” she pressed on.

Brad fessed up. “I – I guess I’m nervous. I love Lillith, and our son and daughter, so much, and I’m not sure I’m going to be a good dad.”

“Said every parent who’s ever been worthy of the name,” Rose chuckled. “Including me, if I’m going to be worthy of it. But relax. You’re going to be a great father.” She was sure of that.

Not many people would blush when trying to get to sleep at that hour of the night, but Brad managed. “Th—thank you. And you’ll be a fantastic mom too, just like you’re fantastic at everything.”

It was Rose’s turn to blush, although hers was not as theatric as her cousin’s. “It’s kind of you to say so, but there are lots of things I’m not fantastic at.” She yawned; the conversation was starting to have the desired effect of putting her back to sleep. “Including staying awake. Do you think you can go back to your wife now and not be fantastic at that, either?”

Yawns, of course, are contagious, and Brad followed suit; but he wasn’t done quite yet. “One more thing, Rose. Do you think – well – would it be okay –“

Out with it, thought Rose; she was definitely ready for some sleep now. She was not, however, ready for what Brad said next.

“—If we named the twins for you and Argus when they’re born?”

She blinked several times and her mouth worked, before it formed into a wide, and completely genuine, smile. “I – we’d be delighted, Brad. Delighted and honored tremendously. But have you talked to Lillith about this?”

A wry grin. “It was her idea, actually.”

“Well, then, do it with our blessing. I’m absolutely certain that Argus will feel the same way. Now go and get some sleep.”

The two cousins shared a warm hug, being careful not to press too hard on the child in utero, and returned to their respective mates. Both were asleep in seconds …

… Just as that very bad thing was coming to its conclusion in Saus.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Chapter Sixty-six: Gustaf and Lester; or, predator and prey

“How much longer do I have to wear this ridiculous getup?” Father Lester grumped; he was much less a fan of pomp and pageantry than the man he was mimicking.

“Only another two or three hours,” a satrap soothed him. “You just need to be seen entering the temple, waving to the crowds and such, and then you’ll be able to change back into your robes and exit unnoticed via the back door.”

“I certainly hope so,” Lester harrumphed again as another minion fussed over his hair to get it to look like Patriarch Jeramel’s. Lester was a minor functionary in the great temple at Emerylon who had never been exactly a people person. The upper echelon of the Orthodox Church had noticed this fact – and his resemblance to the Patriarch -- some years earlier, and had moved him from the small-town temple where he’d been the senior priest into an office job, where he would deal with ledgers and accounting records, for which he was much better suited than interacting with parishioners. (Or with other priests, for that matter.) He’d served as a body double for the Patriarch before, but not in situations requiring this much external show and resemblance.

“Now, now, you should get into character – Your Eminence,” the satrap said, twisting the knife a little. He didn’t find the man in his charge to be very likeable, but one had to do what one had to do. They began the process of getting Lester into the ceremonial robes that Jeramel favored.

Meanwhile, in another building a mile or so from the main temple in Saus where Lester was being prepared for his role, another man was also making preparations of a very different kind.

-*-*-

A rigorous investigation – well, relatively rigorous, the Church being unwilling to look too closely into what had happened to Lester, who would be missed by no one – would come up oddly empty in figuring out who this man was, which Farrelian guild (if any) he was a member of, why he was preparing to do what he would do. Even his name would never be known. (Call him “Gustaf.”) It would be clearer who he was not; not an agent of the sort-of-government of Farrel (the diplomatic incident would die down quickly), not a member of the Gewehr (certain factions within the Church were already eyeing them with interest, although they wouldn’t be put to use until much later), indeed not a Farrelite at all, based on the tone of his skin, what remained of it.

Of course, somebody knew, the “somebodies” in this case being a small cadre of Albigensians who retained a grudge against the Church. However, nobody thought to ask them.

No matter who had hired him, Gustaf had found a good sniper’s nest. A nondescript two-story building along the route of travel between temples had a “For Sale” sign in front of it, and a bit of scouting the previous day had revealed that the building was currently unoccupied. Better still, its roof had a small canopy on top, for Luminosita knew what reason. This had afforded him enough shelter from the soft, dripping rain known as Luminosita’s Tears that he got a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

When he awoke, the rain had stopped. He knew that it would resume in the afternoon; he was counting on it, in fact, to help remove any traces of his presence … like, say, magically-silenced casings of a rifle round or two. In this, Gustaf was a pioneer of sorts, anticipating the silenced ammunition that a certain Gewehr assassin would use a couple of years later. They were expensive, and he only had three, to go along with his more plentiful regular ammunition. That would be more than enough. He tidied up his improvised campsite, loaded his weapon with the silenced rounds, and settled down for the hardest part of an assassin’s job: waiting.

-*-*-

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Lester said.

He truly did resemble Patriarch Jeramel, after his entourage was done with him; more than did the man at the Reformed temple, despite similar ministrations (and Sister Margaret’s and Father Stefan’s counsel). They’d taken the precaution of tampering with one of his shoes, just enough that he would limp slightly and be convincing in his use of a cane. He hobbled out to the waiting carriage, wearing a most insincere smile and making the Sign of Luminosita at the adoring(?) crowd that had assembled – or rather, been assembled – to watch him. The carriage pulled away as two other vehicles bearing a ceremonial guard fell in ahead of and behind him.

-*-*-

Meanwhile, a much less ostentatious, but much more crucial, caravan was leaving the Mechanist temple, and another was preparing to leave the Reformed one; the latter was closer to the destination, and there would be no need for it to depart yet.

-*-*-

Any time now, Gustaf thought. Then: “Aha,” he said softly to himself, softly enough that no one would hear (he hoped). A single wagon full of soldiers and priests was coming down the road; evidence, he thought, that his quarry was on its way. He was no spellcaster, but like many others in his trade, he had a visceral awareness of magic. This told him that there were spells being cast by the priests, presumably some kind of detection magic. He had to hope that the amulet he’d picked up in Albigenish – ironically, what might be called “military surplus” left over from the military action there years before (a leftover that would have mortified Sister Rose, among others, if she'd known of it) – would defeat whatever scrying was going on.

Apparently, it did; the wagon passed the building where he was hiding and continued on toward the temple.

It wouldn’t be long now …
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Chapter Sixty-seven: Flight

“So what am I going to do with you?” Bauti grumbled, more to herself than to Kassia Karvial, the nominal target of the question.

Cassie was scared, needless to say; who wouldn’t be after an interrogation by an elf? The question, at least, gave her hope that she wasn’t just going to be killed outright. Of course, she had no answer to the question, but clearly none was expected.

Bauti grumbled to herself again. “Where’s that Anilis-damned Sarine when you need her? She’s better at this kind of thing than I am.” Magic began to rally in the small room where the grilling had taken place.

“Better at what?” Cassie dared to venture.

“This.” She reached out to the girl’s forehead. There was a flare of magic, and a soft FZZZT. She didn’t bother to vocalize the “Forget!” and “Sleep!” commands; she didn’t need to, and the recipient of the spells wouldn’t remember them anyway. As Cassie crumpled in her seat, the Binding was dispelled, but Bauti didn’t think that would be important. In fact, it seemed like a good idea. When the janitor or priest of that ridiculous light-show god or whoever found her, it would just look like some girl had wandered in from the street and fallen asleep; there would be nothing to connect her to the passage of an elf. This consideration was what had led Bauti to spare her life in the first place.

The small chapel that had been pressed into service as an interrogation room was near the side door, the one that Cassie had mistakenly thought was secret. Bauti could have told her otherwise. After tidying the place up, to remove any evidence of her passage (other than the sleeping girl, of course), she slipped out the door of the chapel and headed for the exit, thinking as she went.

She hadn’t learned much from the interrogation; not much that her minders back in the Hell Hole would find interesting, she thought. Not only did the girl know nothing of airships inbound from Phidelphiel; she’d barely heard of the place, and certainly didn’t know anything about air traffic between here and there, and didn’t know anyone who did, and oh I’m scared. (That last part was reasonable enough.) About the only thing she’d had to say that Bauti found interesting at all was that this temple was going to be used shortly for some kind of ceremony for the Veracians’ ridiculous god-construct, and some Very Important People would be attending.

As Bauti thought about it, though, that last item was not so insignificant. Important people, both elves and humans, tended to have minions who weren’t particularly important themselves, but knew some important things. Picking out the right minion who knew something about air traffic might take a little work, and some mind magic (not to mention coercion, but that really didn’t need to be mentioned), but it should be doable. She just had to remain inconspicuous until the ceremony, whatever it was, began, and then a little adroit one-on-one questioning should do the trick.

The first part of the plan would be the more difficult. Elves stood out in human society, particularly female ones, who tended to be much taller than their human counterparts. Well, that was what Illusion spells were for. She’d picked one up from Bauti, ironically unavailable for this mission, that should be just right. Without a glance back toward Cassie, she cast. There; now she should be able to move in human space long enough to find a source. She stepped cautiously outside the temple, blinking in the light of day –

”HEY! THAT’S AN ELF!”

The (decoy) advance security team was arriving at the temple, and they were heading straight for the concealed entrance, since after all, their real function was to secure the scene so that the real Patriarch Jeramel, now inbound from the Mechanist temple, could enter unobtrusively and swap appearances with the decoy. Peregin Bauti was hardly the first elf to underestimate the magical capabilities of Veracian clergy; she would not be the last. One member of that team apparently had enough detection magic to penetrate the Illusion. Others would have more .,. offensive capabilities.

This wasn’t the time to pick a fight. She dropped the Illusion in favor of a quick Teleportation to get a hundred yards or so off toward the rear of the building, hoping that that surprise move would confuse the stupid humans long enough for her to escape (for now). Anilis smiled; she gained a few precious seconds, and as importantly, distance from the spellcasters. Without looking back, she ran.

=*=*=

In which she had company.

Bauti, as has been noted, was not necessarily the brightest light globe in the ceiling of Praenubilus Astu. It didn’t occur to her that so much casting and dropping of spells might cause some unintended magic to also get dispelled … like, say, the Sleep part of the magical forgetfulness she'd inflicted on Kassia Karvial.

Cassie had two advantages over her recent tormenter. First, she knew the lay of the land, and of the temple. As soon as she awoke, she knew both how to get to that hidden entrance, now nearly unobserved as the advance guard searched for the elf whom they perceived as their main object of interest (read: threat), and then back to the novitiate, where she would present herself, tail between her legs, and ask for forgiveness and sanctuary -- she wasn't quite sure why she needed to flee this place, but she was quite sure that she did. And then came the second advantage: she didn’t have to rely on an Illusion spell for disguise (she didn’t know that magic anyway), but could actually shift the flesh – still not nearly as proficiently as her recent mentor, but hopefully, enough that whoever had been abusing her (that much of her memory remained intact) wouldn’t recognize her. Certainly no elf would ever believe her capable of such magic. (Well, Drusia would, but she was half a continent away, at her Snamish home with her half-elven lover.)

Time to put theory into practice, she thought, and made herself look a bit older, her hair shorter and darker. She did not change her height or physique; now wasn’t the time to do something that might make her less coordinated. She also blinked briefly as she emerged into the sun … and then she too ran.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

[Not happy with the writing here, but it's overdue to get posted, and the next chapter is the key one, so ...]

Chapter Sixty-eight: Ears

It would be fair to say that a good many things known and practiced by the upper echelons of the Veracian Church would be, at the minimum, profoundly disillusioning to the populace of Veracia if they became widely known, and not just things pertaining to Luminosita himself (itself?). Prominent on any such list of uncomfortable realities would be the Veracian military’s embrace of magic. A detached observer would shrug at such a thing; Tsuiraku had won the Mage/Priest War, of course, and it has always been sound practice for the loser of a war to study the winner and incorporate what was learned into the reborn military where appropriate. But there were no detached observers in Veracia.

It was such a Tsuirakuan advantage, reverse engineered (thaumatically) to fit Veracian needs, that now came into play among the Veracian forces approaching the temple. The security team that had arrived at the temple, and found – horrors! – an elf fleeing at high speed, carried certain equipment for a communications network more or less equivalent to the Tsuirakuan crystal balls. Of course, such sacrilegious hardware couldn’t be allowed out into the general public; who knows what horrors might result, such as questioning the authority of the Church? But for a small, highly trained – and secretive – cadre of military people, being able to communicate threats to other members of the cadre was easy enough to justify as part of Luminosita’s divine Wisdom revealed to the higher-ups.

Rationalization or no rationalization, the leader of the advance party pulled out his non-crystal ball and spoke a single word into it: ”Ears.” This, anyone with the clearances and briefings to be on the non-Crystal-net system would know, was a simple code meaning “there is an elf here” – elves had long ears, after all. He knew, but did not advertise yet, that said elf had decamped – by the time this alarm was given, Peregin Bauti was over a quarter of a mile away. This didn’t bother the leader of the team at all; an absent elf was no threat, and the prospect of fighting a present elf was scary enough that he was having to work hard at bladder control just thinking about it. The team spread out and started doing the security work that they had come to do.

Some of the listeners, however, were stirred into considerably more – forceful action as their communications devices spoke.

=*=*=

The caravan bearing the well-disguised Patriarch Jeramel from the Mechanist temple had the easiest task: they simply turned around and returned, post haste, whence they had come. They’d get on the road again once an all-clear signal was given. If that meant the dedication ceremony was a bit late in starting, well, he was the Patriarch, after all, and he could come and go as he damn well pleased. The whole citizenry of Saus knew that.

His entourage, however, had some work to do. The Mechanist temple was small, as one might expect of a minor (if curiously important) sect that did not go out of its way to recruit new members. That was both good and bad. The small size meant that only the main entrance and a secondary gate at the rear of the building would have to be guarded. The bad part was that there was no defense in depth; if an elf was coming for the Patriarch, it would only have to breach the outer defenses, and His Eminence would be within easy reach. Well, nothing to do about that except prepare. As soon as the caravan was back, the captain of the guard set about stationing defenders where he could, to the quiet puzzlement of the passers-by.

-*-*-

The group now half way to the temple from the Reformed compound had the most complex job.

“Change in plans,” the dour captain of this security force, a man from Phidelphiel, told Father Stefan and Sister Margaret. “Don’t ask why.” He was the only one of the group with a communications device.

Margaret knew better than to ask. “What do you want us to do?”

“You three –“ the captain motioned to Margaret and two reluctant-looking soldiers – “are to ride on ahead to the temple, keeping your eye out for – threats.” He wasn’t sure whether he was authorized to say just what the threat was, but being from Phidelphiel, he wasn’t communicative in the best of times. “You” – to Stefan this time – “will stay with me and brief the patriarch.” The lower-case “p” in “patriarch” was audible in his voice.

“On what?” Stefan dared to ask.

If looks could kill, the caravan would have been light one Stefan. “On his speech,” the captain growled. “Now shut up and keep your eyes open. I have work to do.” He ducked back into the coach without further explanation.

Margaret and her escorts advanced in silence, but no discussion was necessary. She’d figured out that something had happened, she wasn’t sure exactly what, that might keep the real Patriarch from making it to the temple. The ringer they were escorting might have to fill in at the actual dedication ceremony. Whatever. In the event, there were no threats …

… But there was a scared teenaged nun-in-training, a bit out of her normal shape, waving frantically at this group as they got to about a quarter of a mile from the temple.

-*-*

As for the group that had departed the main temple with the carefully disguised Father Lester, they just had to keep on doing what they were doing; that was what decoys were for.

-*-*-

Right on time, Gustaf smirked to himself as this procession came into view. He’d have plenty of time to get his weapon ready to use, and to improve his cover. So he did; and as the ornate coach drew abreast of the building with his sniper’s crotch, he sighted carefully and fired.

With only the barest whsshh, the silenced bullet sped toward its target.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Chapter Sixty-nine: The streets of Saus

What happened next would have turned out very differently if the government had been more diligent about maintaining the streets of Saus. Of course, the true believers in the Veracian church would have said that it was all simply Luminosita’s Hand at work, and who could say they were wrong?

Whatever the cause, just as Gustaf fired, the coach bearing the decoy “Patriarch” hit a large pothole. A front wheel dropped into the crater so that the coach dipped by perhaps three or four inches just as the bullet arrived. Gustaf’s aim had been true; that was just enough that the bullet hit the frame of the door and missed the head that had been its target.

That was bad enough, from an assassin’s point of view, but there was worse, much worse. The bullet itself was silenced; whatever it hit was not. There was a loud kraak! as the wood and metal gave way, showering Father Lester with fragments. Some of these still had enough of the bullet’s energy to draw blood when they hit; but none could do fatal damage. The combination of blood and noise was enough to get the attention of the guards, in plenty of time for them to look around while Gustaf was loading his second silenced bullet, not that he thought it would do him any good.

=*=*=

Something is wrong here, very wrong, Elgin Bindiel thought. He’d just finished assembling the fertilizer/fuel-oil bomb that was supposed to bring down the front of the temple on Patriarch Jeramel when he finally showed up. The final touch was a time-delayed, magical fuze to give him ample time to flee the scene before the bomb went off. This last was almost an indulgence; he’d reconciled himself to figuratively going down with the ship if necessary – since there wasn’t anything to go home to in Provatiel anyway.

Little did he know.

He’d set the timer and started back through the subterranean passages when he heard the commotion of the advance party above and outside. That was very strange. The tunnels had always been almost eerily quiet when he was bringing in the explosive ingredients. Street noise had been completely muffled. A few times in the last day or two, he’d thought he heard faint noises of some Orthodox ceremony going on in the main sanctuary as he traversed the tunnels, and he’d frozen in place until they stopped. (He had no idea that Kassia Karvial had been responsible for almost all of those.) But that had been all.

This noise was different. His cousin’s unexpected, and expertly done, intelligence gathering had revealed that there would be an advance team at the temple before either the bogus Patriarchs or the real one appeared. According to Ardie, these people would be more or less perfunctory, just making sure arrangements were in place and then welcoming the ersatz Jeramel into a side door – so that he could change into the outfit of the normal priest that he was, while the real thing appeared without hoopla. But this was not the noise of a “perfunctory” security team. Something was going on up there.

Frowning, he hastened back to the tunnel entrance at the safe house and climbed up to the surface – and immediately became suspicious. Somehow, someone had got through the outside door; he could hear noises in the house. Whoever it was, at least they hadn’t cracked the inner security system. This gave him three choices on how to proceed. He could ignore them until the inner system showed signs of giving way – but it would, so that option wasn’t appealing. He could emerge fully armed with every bit of magic at his disposal and simply pre-empt against the intruder. That would normally mean big trouble for him, but he wasn’t expecting to be around to face a trial, either by the Apostates or by what remained of the Faithful. That left the third option: quick, quiet reconnaissance as soon as there were no noises outside the concealed entrance to the tunnel. Yes, that was really the only choice.

After a quick prayer to Luminosita, he cast a Damping spell, and then he gathered more magic for the offensive spellcraft that he was sure would follow. Cracking the “door,” he saw nothing at first …

… But then, in a dark corner, he saw a young woman holding a small child and staring at the opening picture in horror.

”CARLY!!??”

His third wife couldn’t hear his shout, due to the Damping spell, but she could see who was coming through the door, and that was enough.

=*=*=

“What’s this about an elf?” Sister Margaret asked Cassie as she pulled her up onto the small coach with the two grim-looking guards. Grim, and annoyed; there was nothing in their orders about picking up hitchhikers. But for the moment, they were reporting to the senior nun. Probably.

“She was at the temple,” Cassie panted. Her memory was coming back despite Bauti’s command to Forget, although there were still gaps. “She – questioned me, she wanted – to know about the Patriarch.”

Margaret produced a most un-nun-like oath. Then she produced something else not part of a nun’s usual equipment: a small handgun that had been secreted in her robe.

=*=*=

Gustaf’s aim was better with his second shot, but again, foiled by circumstances. This time it was that the procession had moved to nearly a full gallop, and the coach bearing his target was pulling away. He was able to get only a quick view of “Jeramel” …

… But Jeramel’s guards also got a quick view of Gustaf. The magical silencing did not preclude a muzzle flash, nor did it keep sun from glinting off the barrel of the rifle.

“THERE HE IS!” shouted several voices as the assassin fired.

The bullet whistled soundlessly down and smashed into Father Lester’s shoulder …

… Just as the two spellcasters in the entourage hurled Force Bolts up at their enemy.

Their aim, or at least their luck, was better than the gunman’s. What remained of his body toppled lifelessly into the street as the carriage pulled away at its top speed, this time bearing a gravely wounded Patriarch stand-in back to the Orthodox temple from which the procession had come.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

[Again, not entirely satisfied with the writing here, but again it's overdue...]

Chapter Seventy: Change of plans

In that passionate embrace, enveloping husband, wife and child, Elgin Bindiel’s whole world changed.

He’d been resigned to dying in the explosion that destroyed the Patriarch and brought down his apostate church. After all, there wasn’t any reason not to. He did not fear death, not while doing Luminosita’s Work, and it would probably be necessary to be sure that the plan worked. Besides, there wasn’t anything to go back to in Provatiel, from all that he had been able to gather.

Things were different now. Provatiel may have been destroyed – but his life, his family, had not been. Now he had a reason to live. At least one of his wives, and her only child (he did not know about the unborn one yet), had escaped the carnage there. Furthermore, he knew that Carly Bindiel was herself a child in certain regards, in knowledge of the ways of the world. She – they – would need protecting in a world that had turned hostile to the One True Faith and those that practiced it. He had vowed only two years ago to commit his life to that protection. Elgin Bindiel kept his vows.

Even when they were at cross purposes with each other.

“We have to get out of here,” he whispered in his wife’s ear.

=*=*=

“I think,” Sister Margaret said to Kassia Karvial, “that we’d better get you to somewhere safe for now. Our Reformed temple should be as safe as anywhere I can think of. The place where you were hiding … isn’t safe anymore.” She motioned to one of the grumpy soldiers escorting her. “Change in plans. You people take Ms. Karvial back, and get her secured. I’ll continue on to the temple. Catch up with me when you can.” She made sure her handgun was on display. “I’m not going to get taken by surprise this time.” (This was an error.) The soldier didn’t like it, but he started to turn the coach around.

“Reformed temple,” Kassia said breathlessly; whether it was from her hurry to get to the coach, or the prospect of going to such an alien place, wasn’t immediately clear, but she would clarify it. “My mentor is Reformed, a very nice nun named Sister Rose. Do you know her?”

Margaret was taken aback. “Yes, I know Rose well,” she said once her thoughts cleared. “She’s very nice indeed, very helpful, very – committed to helping her sisters in Luminosita.” Even as she leaves the Church, but conducting Marilyn’s wedding counts, doesn’t it? But … “She isn’t here now, though. She’s in Kiyoka, with her husband.” I think. “She’s going to have a baby, so they asked me to make this trip instead of her.”

Cassie’s eyes got big, and she broke into a huge smile; she too was from a minor denomination in which priests and nuns were allowed to marry, after all. “Oooo! How wonderful!” she enthused, and continued in the same vein until the coach was turned around and ready to bear her to the Reformed temple and safety …

… While Margaret continued on to the other, now sinister temple, to face Luminosita alone knew what.

=*=*=

Colonel Tatliel had a problem, a big one.

The security plan (which he had carelessly mentioned to his wife, who even more carelessly blabbed it to Sister Ardith) covered the contingencies that might arise if the convoy bearing the faux Patriarch was attacked. He’d even made sure it described what to do if the attacker, contrary to all known diplomatic understandings, was an elf. However, it said nothing about what to do if there were two attackers, one of them an elf, as appeared to be the case.

(Of course, he could not know – yet – that Peregin Bauti had absolutely zero interest in harming the convoy or anyone in it, except to the extent necessary to squeeze information out of some minion. He also could not know that there was actually another threat to the Patriarch – the real one – buried beneath the temple’s bell tower.)

The human(?) attacker posed no threat to anyone now, of course. Even as the coach was turning around, he could see the charred remains fall to the street. However, the corpse posed a different problem. The advance party had done what they could to get traffic, whether pedestrian, horse or vehicular, shunted off to side streets and away from the Patriarch. Streets in Saus never stayed empty for long, though, and passersby had filtered back into the roadway in some numbers, to be shooed back to the side by the guards in front of “Jeramel”’s coach. That was fine; that was part of the original plan. After all, for the decoy and ruse to work, there had to be enough gawkers to spread the word that His Eminence was on the way to the consecration.

What was not part of the plan was that those passersby would converge on the body of the would-be assassin, as was happening now. Some appeared to be beating the corpse with any cudgel they could find, never mind that the target of their rage was quite obviously dead. Others had started a grisly gathering of souvenirs, including the rifle (and, quite unknown to the looter, the one silenced bullet still remaining in its magazine). To say that this would encumber the later investigation of the murder would understate the case significantly. A faithful few had dropped to their knees in prayer; one brave soul, apparently a Healer, looked like he might even be preparing to try some Healing magic on the body, although the first group would quickly put the kibosh on that.

Meanwhile, there was still the problem of the elf at, or near, the temple. If there was any news from there other than the Ears code word, Tatliel was unaware of it. Could there be a connection between that intruder and this assassin? He doubted it. His knowledge of elven things was limited, as was the case for most Veracians, but everything he’d learned had convinced him that elves had neither need nor desire to consort with humans when going about their plans, whatever they were. He thought he could defer worrying about that particular problem for the moment, not without reason.

A thing that did require immediate attention, however, was the growing mob on the street. They would have to be dispersed so that the coach bearing the gravely – indeed, mortally – wounded Father Lester could rush back to the great Orthodox temple. What would happen from there was part of the contingency planning that was still relevant: anxious news reports about the Patriarch’s health would issue from the temple – followed by the jubilant news that, due to Luminosita’s Power, the Patriarch would make a full recovery, although there were tragic deaths among his retainers. (Not that many people would care that that meant Lester, but the forms had to be observed.)

But the crowd had been close enough to see the blood and splinters, sense the gravity of the Patriarch’s wounds. The cover story would lose its credibility if the man’s recovery was too quick – not to mention the problem of getting the real Jeramel, by now holed up in the Mechanist temple, into the bloodstained robes worn by the false one. No, to make the whole fiction hang together, the consecration ceremony would have to be canceled. Tatliel issued the code word to that effect – that too was part of the contingency planning – and turned his attention to the dying Lester, although it was already clear that the Healing magic being poured into him would do no good.

=*=*=

Of course, neither Elgin Bindiel nor Sister Margaret received that code word.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

Chapter Seventy-one: Dulce et decorum est…

Far away, and quite powerless to do anything about what would follow, Sister Rose began to snore, just as Sister Margaret reached the temple.

=*=*=

Margaret’s name was enough unlock certain doors at the Reformed temple for Kassia Karvial. Father Stefan’s, in turn, unlocked more. Within minutes, Cassie had been installed in secure, if spartan, quarters, where she would remain until …

… Until, Stefan had to admit, he wasn’t sure what.

The conversation he was having with the girl, in the entirely legitimate guise of helping her get settled, was also serving as a debriefing on what had happened to her at the temple, and even though she was organizing the information well (better than he would have at that age, he freely admitted), it wasn’t making it clearer just what this elf was up to. Throw in her father’s weird admonition, which had triggered Cassie’s flight, and his immediate disappearance to Luminosita alone knew where, and it wasn’t at all clear just what she needed to protected from.

Then, remembering something that Margaret had told him when she first arrived at the warp gate, he had a brainstorm. I think Rose will go along with this … and forgive me, Sister, if I’m wrong.

“You said Sister Rose was your mentor, and she’s now in Kiyoka and having a baby,” he said to the girl. “I understand that Rose’s husband owns a vineyard outside Kiyoka. I wager that’s a safer place from the elves than here; they don’t wander around Tsuiraku the way they do here, from what I’ve heard.” (This was not strictly true, but was true enough.) “What would you think of going to help Dr. Cleiviein, that’s Rose’s husband, with the vineyard for a few months, and then helping Rose with the baby for a while when it arrives? You could take a break from your studies and just learn more Polymorph magic from Rose when you both have time.”

Cassie’s open face went through a series of emotions in short order: delight, followed by doubt, followed by hopefulness. “I – that would be wonderful, Father! But – I’m a Mechanist, and people in our church aren’t supposed to travel outside the country without special permission. Can you – can I – can Rose –“

Stefan smiled. “I think it can be arranged.” He knew, as the girl did not, that Rose’s predecessor, Sister Agnes, had also been a Mechanist. “I’ll have a word with – some people I know when we’re done here. And now, let’s go back to the first time you saw this elf in the temple …” The debriefing continued.

-*-*-

Margaret was not completely sure what to expect when she got to the temple. What she saw, in any event, was a rather clumsy attempt at crowd control. It was still two or three hours before the consecration was supposed to start, but onlookers had already started to arrive with that pomp and ceremony in mind – well, that and the street vendors who were also setting up to sell bad food at inflated prices, not to mention “genuine” artifacts of the One True Church as souvenirs. In the previous few minutes, these had been joined by others who had seen the late Gustaf’s assassination attempt, and the sudden about-face by the carriage bearing the “Patriarch.” The mix of these two populations was causing some very unusual rumors to start making the rounds.

”It was an elf that did it, I saw her!” “A lightning bolt, I tell you, in-cinny-rated the Patty-Arch right in his seat!” “It’s all a fake, I tells ye! Them Tsoo-raky devils is prob’ly landin’ in Saus right now!” “Lum’nosity’s hand saved His Em’nence, I see’d it wi’ my own eyes…” “DEMONS!” “Naw, it was an elf, I was standin’ right here, saw it come outta the temple, then it tel’ported a block or more up the way…”

Hmmm. That last one sounded interesting,
Margaret thought, as the other rumor mongers were herded away from the temple by the militia. At the minimum, it was consistent with what Cassie had told her, and the man with the rumor was a few increments less frenzied and wild-eyed than those around him. She decided to talk to him, and ten minutes later, was glad she’d taken the time. “Harry,” as the man called himself, was an apothecary somewhere in town, and had an eye for detail and getting things right. One detail that he probably couldn’t have made up was that the elf had emerged from the side entrance, a door that few in the lay public knew about, just exactly as Cassie had said.

Armed now with testimony from two different, reliable sounding people (and still with her gun), Margaret knew just what she had to do. It took a few minutes, and the dropping of one very highly placed name, to get the militia to let her into the building. Once inside, she stopped first at the small chapel where Cassie claimed the elf had conducted her interrogation. It showed signs of recent use; and although Margaret’s magical skills were only those of the average senior nun, that was enough for her to be able to tell that yes, the use had had a magical component.

Suddenly, Margaret wished that she had not entered the temple alone; but one did what one had to do.

Gun drawn (not that she thought it would do much against a homicidally-inclined elf), she continued into the building. The main sanctuary appeared undisturbed. There was a great deal of empty space in the rear of the building where the genealogical records of the Church had once been kept. This, she knew, was supposed to be empty at the moment. Such records as had survived the fire a few months earlier were now stashed in some Luminosita-forgotten warehouse, to be returned to storage here once the place was officially consecrated. It took some time, and some magic, to inspect this area, but to all appearances, the coast was clear. She returned to the sanctuary and carefully checked the various nooks, crannies and alcoves on its perimeter, and verified that the Ward she knew to have been on the main outer doors was still there. Unlike the repository/library, there were signs of comparatively recent use here, but only things that would have been appropriate for the hoopla that would surround the Patriarch when the consecration was in full swing.

Now came the part that she desperately wanted not to do.

Cassie had also told her about the more secret entrance that she’d originally used to gain access to the steeple/bell tower. (Harry had not, but there was no reason why he should know about it. Bauti could also have mentioned it, but she was not available for consultation.) Working backward from the steeple, which had contained some of the girl’s personal effects but nothing else, she located the concealed door that Cassie had sheepishly told her about. A quick magic check, and some careful listening, found nothing … and first muttering a prayer to Luminosita, she opened the door.

Well, that’s disappointing, she thought, with a mild sense of relief. The passageway beyond the short stairs seemed empty too, but it would soon become clear that it was the main storage area for the temple, formerly used and not yet refilled with the goods that its churchly use would require. Slow, careful checking led her to some store rooms that contained a few copies of texts and hymnals; signs that there had once been sacramental wine here, although none was present now; and so on. A side passage led toward a stairwell that would go back toward the chapel, presumably with another concealed door at the top. She decided she’d better check on that later; it might be how the elf had got the girl up to the chapel for her interrogation. (This was correct.) First, though, she had to finish clearing this level …

… And it was only a few minutes later that she found the concealed door to the second, lower underground level that routine traffic in the temple was not supposed to know about.

She would never be sure just how she’d found this door. It really didn’t matter. She made the same checks as on the previous door, with the same results; but she made a terrible error as well.

This door led to a much less traveled passage with side rooms; or so she would have found if she had completed her exploration of this level. However, her journey ended at the first store room, the one directly under the steeple.

She realized, as she opened the door to that room, that she’d failed to do the magic checks before entering that she’d done every time she opened a door on the previous level; and there was incredibly strong magic here. It didn’t take any sensitivity at all to see where it was coming from. There was a large stack of something in the middle of the room, with a faint petroleum smell emanating from it – and a coruscating magical glow all over it, not unlike, she thought in the last few seconds of her life, what Rose had told her, one tearful evening, was what her first (only? Now wasn’t the time to worry about that) husband had seen at the end of his life … And the time for the Patriarch’s expected appearance at the front of the bell tower now came, with a chiming of bells that the few remaining people at the thrown-together outdoor seats would hear (not that it would do them any good), but Margaret would not.

Right on time, before the Ward he’d applied could chase Sister Margaret away, Elgin Bindiel’s improvised explosive device functioned.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

Chapter Seventy-two: Keeping it short

As usual, Sister Rose got up early to do her prayers, leaving Argus sleeping; she wasn’t putting her heart into them quite as strongly as even six months earlier, but some things just had to be done. As she left the garden and walked back to the house, she wondered whether this bit of routine would survive her departure from Luminosita’s service. She decided it would. For one thing, the premise was wrong; she would shortly be leaving Luminosita’s church, but service was a different matter, and she didn’t think she would ever leave that.

To her great surprise, Argus, not normally one to be up with the sun, was awake when she tiptoed back into the house; awake, dressed, and making coffee. “For our house guest,” he almost-whispered once the morning kisses and other pleasantries were exchanged. “Just in case the mother of the bride is an early riser too.” This was delivered with a typical sheepish, almost awkward Argus smile.

Some newlyweds (was she? She still wasn’t sure) might have felt a twinge of jealousy at this comment, but Rose (and Argus) had moved beyond such things long ago. “That’s very sweet of you,” she smiled, debating internally whether to ignore the usual admonitions to mothers-to-be to avoid caffeine. She decided she could on special occasions, and any day when Argus was up so early had to qualify. Besides, it smelled heavenly. Taking a mug, she set to work on breakfast. (She certainly had to admit: Tsuirakuan gadgetry, like a thaumatic frying pan, took some of the work out of that.)

“What are your plans while I’m over at the mission getting ready for the ceremony?” she said a few minutes later, around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

The sheepish grin again. “Well, I had some, but I changed my mind. We haven’t been doing well with plans, have we? But you know what they say: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans … why are you looking at me like that?”

Rose had a sheepish grin of her own, that quickly gave way to something more thoughtful. “You’re not thinking of going Luminositan, are you? That was from the Orthodox Book of Wisdoms, chapter one, verse thirty-nine.” She did not quote verse forty: But Luminosita’s Plan for you endures, is great, and will guide your life even when all other plans fail. Nor did she cite the definitely non-Orthodox expansion in the Commentaries, written by none other than her own distant ancestor Bishop Nuria, a passage that perhaps came closer than any other in the Commentaries to getting the Reformed denomination declared heterodox: “These are wise words, but one must remain vigilant to avoid the trap of experiencing an evil, declaring ‘it is all part of Luminosita’s Plan,’ and thereby neglecting to replace the evil with good.”

Knowing none of this, Argus poked at the eggs, then continued. “Well … I thought I’d go over with you. Calm down the grooms if they need it, see if anyone needs help, that sort of thing.”

Rose was touched. The notion that either Brother Miguel or Brother Farley would need any calming down seemed rather far-fetched; but it was the thought that counted. “Then we’ll make it so,” she said, and turned her attention back to eating for two.

An hour later, the pair were standing in the sanctuary of the Mission, checking out arrangements. Most everything was right where Sister Margaret had left it a couple of days earlier, Rose noted with satisfaction. Neither brides nor grooms were anywhere in sight; the weddings that would happen in a few hours might have been – untraditional in certain regards, but that part of the tradition would be upheld. Instead, Father Red was emerging from his study, accompanied by the prissy Brother Jerald, who had swallowed his misgivings about proceedings long enough to agree to provide music, and a young nun whom Rose did not know; Sister Antoinette, brought in recently to provide “technical support” similar to what Sister Agnes, now raising her child up north, had done. Rose guessed she was a Mechanist, as Agnes was, given the role she was playing, but she didn’t know. Of course, it also didn’t matter.

“So are you still sure you don’t want me to conduct a quick ceremony for you and Argus before we get to the main attraction?” Red teased Rose through his gap-toothed grin, which was particularly wide this day. Rose smiled in return, and softly said, “Thanks, but I don’t think that’ll be necessary…”

And then the thing happened that she would remember for the rest of her long life.

Argus cleared his throat, catching the attention of all the Luminositans, even Jerald, although he returned to fussing with the organ without listening to what Argus had to say. Everyone else was listening, however … “Actually, as long as we’re both here, I – would not object if you did just a brief ceremony for us, Father.”

Give the Abbot credit: he only looked stunned for a couple of seconds before the grin returned. (Contrast Rose, whose mouth hung open and eyes were wide.) “Well, just call me Red, and yes, I think we can probably do that,” he allowed. “Toni, could you mind the office for a few minutes?” The young nun, who could barely contain her surprise – and joy – at what was happening, got out a happy “Yessir!” and bounced back down the corridor, practically dancing and skipping until she got to the office door and disappeared.

“Did you two plan this?” Rose asked Argus and Red as soon as she regained her composure.

“I certainly did not,” Red shook his head, but Argus’s usual sheepish smile was replaced by one more – impish? Had Rose ever seen that before? Through it, Argus said, “It was what we were talking about this morning, about how life happens while you are making other plans. I’m tired of planning. I – want us to have a life.” He turned to take a still stunned, but suddenly radiant, Rose’s hands.

Red’s grin widened to the point that it looked like his face was going to split in half. “Well, I guess that’s my cue,” he chortled. “We can skip the preliminaries; you’ve both been through this before, and you know how you feel, all the stuff you’re committing to, all that. So the big question is –“ he turned to Argus – “you want to marry her?”

“Yes.” That simple.

To Rose: “You want to marry him?”

Rose was more verbose even as she struggled to hold the tears back. “More than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.” This was literally true.

Red’s grin couldn’t have widened any more without hurting himself. “Okay, then you’re married.” Then a brief serious moment: “By the powers invested in me by Our Lord Luminosita, the Holy Veracian Church, and the government of Veracia under His Eminence the Patriarch, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” And with a sly grin to Argus: “You may now kiss the bride.” Of course, they hadn’t been waiting for instructions to do that.

Red allowed the happy couple a good, long time for that marital kiss, and finally cleared his throat. “Congratulations, and you’ve given me a bit of paperwork to do before the main ceremony starts at noon. You can sort out the exchange of rings yourselves.” He’d noticed, as the normally highly observant Rose had not, that Argus had managed to extract a pair of rings from the well-tailored suit he was wearing. “I’ll get out of your hair and let you get ready for Farley and Kristi and Marilyn and Miguel. Congratulations again … and don’t forget your lines, Sister.” With a smile and wink at Rose, he turned and walked down the corridor, whistling something topical as he went.

-*-*-

Only to find, unfortunately, that his good mood vanished at the door to his study, where Sister Toni/Antoinette stood looking as distraught as he’d seen any woman in a very long time. “Y-yes, dear, what’s the matter?”

The girl rushed into his fatherly embrace and sobbed for a minute before getting it out. “Oh, Father Red, something terrible has happened …”

News of what had happened at the temple in Saus had finally made it to Kiyoka.
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