Waking up in the morning after a deep night’s sleep is a feeling unlike any other. I’d forgotten how much I used to like staying wrapped up in my blankets on a cold morning while the tide of residual weariness slowly drifted away. Whatever dreams I’d had that night, however the previous day had been, for a few precious minutes none of that would matter. New day, fresh start, clean slate. Moments like that don’t last, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious.
My memories of the previous day woke up a few minutes after I did. The image of Bishop Rask’s rage twisted face was enough to drive away the pleasant comfort I’d been snuggled in and get me to sit up and take stock of where we were at.
“Way?”, I asked in dream speech.
“And at last she awakens!”, Way dream spoke back. I could tell she wasn’t that far away. I could also tell she was teasing me.
“What time is it? How late did I sleep in?”, I asked.
“A few hours past dawn. You missed out on low tide.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“You needed your sleep.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
“You may, just possibly, be right.”
I sensed her satisfaction at that admission.
“So, how much trouble do you think I got us into last night?” I asked.
“Less than I would have.”
“What? How’s that possible?”
“I don’t argue with people well.”, Way said. She sent along the memory of our ‘negotiations’ with the Kriltrix Hive. The Kriltrix had evolved from their world’s equivalent of locusts. They retained a similar feeding pattern after their Queen had been uplifted to sapience. When we’d realized that the world we’d met them on had been fully populated before the Kriltrix had arrived Way had reacted somewhat aggressively. One the plus side I had managed to save the Kriltrix Queen and once Way was done there wasn’t any need to bury the billion mindless warrior drones the Queen had commanded. Of course there also wasn’t a planet left to bury them on either.
“I’m not sure Professor Haffrun would give me particularly high marks for last night’s performance.” I said.
“It doesn’t matter at this point. They all left a little after dawn.”
“I’m a little surprised. I’d expected they’d come after us last night, or send someone to arrest us this morning.” I said as I pulled myself out from under the covers. I swung my feet down off the bed and immediately regretted the move. The floor was so cold I flinched away from it, curling my toes to grasp the escaping warmth.
“Is it against the law to speak to a Bishop like you did?”, Way asked.
“Not exactly, but someone at Rask’s level could trump up whatever charges they wanted. If he said I was in league with the diabolists there weren’t a lot of people there who could oppose him. On the other hand, with a charge like that he’d have to stick around and convene a trial. That would involve calling in at least one other Bishop, so maybe it just wasn’t worth his time.” I said, drawing on meta-awareness to act as my memory of Vale Septem’s legal customs.
I reached in my magic backpack and pulled out a pair of thick socks. That gave me enough shielding to hop across the floor to where my boots lay before the door. My traveling robes weren’t any warmer as I pulled them on but after the initial shock of touching the chilly floor, I knew to be ready for the robes being frosty as well.
“What are you doing now?”, I asked her as I exited the bungalow into the crisp spring morning air.
“Swimming, the water’s very nice!”, she sent the sensation of the warm salt water’s embrace as she glided across the bay.
“Umm, you’re warded against cold aren’t you?”, I asked, still shivering a bit in my chilly robes.
“Yes, how could you tell?”
“Because it’s freezing out here!”
To be fair, with the sun shining on me it wasn’t quite as cold as I was making it out to be.
“I should probably head in then.”
“Might be good. People probably think we’re nuts as it is.”
Way emerged from the tide following a wave that rolled up onto the shore farther than most. She’d been beautiful when I’d first met her and the two years since had only added to her loveliness.
Dawns Harbor was just off a major trade route through the human empire of the Holy Throne. That had meant the populace was used to seeing people of many different ethnicities. As a result we’d been able to keep the bodies we fashioned for ourselves close to our original physical bodies without fear of attracting too much attention.
In Way’s case that meant she had her youthful vibrancy paired with all the graceful accents of feminity a young woman might possess. She wasn’t a flawless beauty, flawlessness was the realm of glamor and other magical artifice, but she about as beautiful as any real person I’d ever seen.
I was a different story. I didn’t mind how I looked, but I was nowhere near as pretty as Way. I’d developed enough in the last few years that I wasn’t in danger of being mistaken for a boy, though with a little work and a haircut I could probably still pass for one. Even in my nicest, most girly dresses, I was kind of plain though. It was something I took an odd pride in, mostly because I could have ‘fixed’ that with dream magic but had chosen not too. I wanted the ‘real me’ to be as real as I could be.
It probably helped that all of the people who might care about how I looked liked me the way that I was too. In that, and in many other ways, I was extremely fortunate.
“We should get some breakfast.”, Way said, in regular speech as she toweled off the salt water. She spoke a quick incantation to the Sixth Dominion and called a shower of water over herself, washing the remaining salt water out of her hair and swimming suit.
“I’m certainly hungry enough. The food was great last night but I could have used the next course to really feel full.” I said, following Way back into the bungalow while she changed into her armor. Going into town wasn’t likely to involve getting attacked, but then most successful attacks happened when they were unlikely. As an itinerant knight, it also wasn’t out of character for Way to be in armor any more than it was for me to be in my priestess robes.
I held that idea in mind as we walked into town and noticed that we were attracting more than our fair share of attention. It wasn’t pleasant interest or curiosity either. The first person we passed on the street turned around when he saw us and started walking the other way. The next paused at the door to her house, shutting it until we were past. The same pattern followed with the next three people we happened upon.
“They’re afraid.” Way whispered.
“They weren’t last night.”
“They may not have been able to see us clearly last night.”
“Or Rask spread some rumors about us.”
“That seems petty.”
“Yeah, if he wanted to make things hard for us, he could have trumped up some charge to summon us back for today.” I said.
“I think you may have been right about him being too busy. The company of soldiers left quickly this morning.”
“Something’s up. This is supposed to be a peaceful era. Why would a bishop be commanding a military force against a group of diabolists?” I wondered.
“Either its a large group, or someone in the group is exceptionally powerful.” Way suggested.
“Or they’re after something else entirely.”
“Possibly. We’re not running off to see what it is though.”
I smiled. Among her other traits, Way was very dependable. I hadn’t thought she’d let me off the hook for getting some R&R but I hadn’t expected her to beat me to the punch like that either. I could have protested, but ultimately she was right. Anything that happened here had happened again and again, across countless other iterations of the time loop. Whatever Rask’s pet project was, it hadn’t left a noticeable mark on history. For all his bluster and self importance, he just didn’t matter that much.
We arrived at the Inne to find that breakfast was still in full swing. The tables weren’t packed but there was a crowd of perhaps thirty or so people dining or waiting for their food to arrive. Way and I took one of the side tables, noticing as we did that conversations quieted or ground to a halt as we passed people by.
“What do you suppose they’re thinking?” Way asked in dream speech.
“Given that Rask was after diabolists? Probably that we’re under suspicion for aiding and abetting them. If we were full fledged diabolists, Rask would have to had to deal with us personally. If we’re just working with the diabolists then it’s a case for the civil authorities to deal with.” I replied in dream speech.
“Want to study while we wait?” Way asked, switching to normal speech for the benefit of those around us.
“Sure, you brought our books?”
Way answered by passing me a text named ‘Intercultural Communications and Conflict Resolution’. The joke wasn’t lost on me given the way I’d antagonized Rask. Normally we didn’t study from ancient handwritten tomes of vellum and leather, but our holotexts would have looked too out of place on Vale Septem.
I’d been in restaurants that had poor service but after an hour of waiting, during which the wait staff passed by our table but refused to acknowledge us on several occasions, it became clear that we simply weren’t going to be served. My stomach grumbled at the thought. Our packs had all kinds of dried trail rations, the standard fare of itinerant adventurers on many worlds, but the food at the Inne had been delicious and I was craving one of their loaves of bread like mad.
I looked at Way, frowning in both hunger and aggravation.
“Not the best start to our vacation so far is it?” she asked.
“Leaves room for it to get better right?”, I replied with a weary smile. In theory I could still shapechange. The (silly) thought crossed my head that, worst case, I could always turn into a landshark and just eat the damn wait staff. I chuckled and shared the idea with Way via dream speech, as well as the complete lack of seriousness behind it.
More realistically, there was the fact that they were making a fairly accomplished itinerant priestess grumpy. ‘Itinerant’ in this context translated to ‘combat capable’ and ‘used to solving problems with violence’. Yes, they might be scared of Rask, but he was far away and I was right here. Also I was much much scarier than Rask.
It wasn’t a struggle for the angel of my better nature to shoot that thought down though. The last thing these people needed was more fear in their lives. They were afraid of Rask because of his power, both that he might use it on them and that he might cut them off from it.
Dawns Harbor had a local guard but as a small seaside town they didn’t merit either a large force or a particularly well trained one. Most of the protection they enjoyed came from the sanctuary spells that were placed on the town by representatives of the Holy Throne, like Bishop Rask. Absent those spells, monsters of all sorts would be able to invade the town and its local environs. The spells weren’t given freely of course. The town tithed heavily for them, but they were still dispensed by the will of the Holy Throne, or more specifically the will of people like Rask.
That wasn’t the kind of setup that would last forever under normal conditions. Eventually people would find other ways to make themselves safe. That usually came at the price of a war of some kind, either against the monsters, or against those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, or (most often) both. Except that would never happen in Vale Septem. Over and over, history would repeat itself without the possibility of real growth or change. I felt little sick at that thought.
“We could always go someplace else.” Way said. Her frown said that she was feeling as hungry as I was. That made me think leaving was a great idea. Cranky Jin was bad, cranky Way was much worse. Plus, she need the R&R as much as I did and stressing over breakfast wasn’t exactly conducive for that.
“I understood that you girls were going to be staying in town so as to avoid causing any trouble?” I turned to look at the large man who’d spoken. He was standing behind me with his arm draped over the back of the seat I was in. There was an arrogance to the gesture, it said he didn’t consider me any sort of threat since I had a wide open shot at his torso (armored) and head (unprotected).
“And you would know or care about us why exactly?” I asked. Again, that was the kind of response that Professor Haffrun would dock me points for. As a diplomat, social judo was an art we were required to develop and practice. Technically I wasn’t working with the Diplomatic Corp at the moment though so blunt force social exchanges were potentially more forgivable.
“My name’s Watch Commander Brayson and it’s my job to know what kind of trouble might be in town and head it off before it gets out of hand.” the armored man said. He hadn’t come with any backup which said he was either reckless or had enough experience handling young adventurers that he didn’t think he needed anyone else along.
“Why would we be trouble?” I asked.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know. Just like I’m sure I don’t know why the good Bishop asked me to keep an eye on you. Said he’d sent for a Shadow Breaker team to do a routine inspection of the town. Given our proximity to the problem his force is moving to handle, it was only reasonable he said. He also wanted me to remind you two specifically that anyone who flees from the Shadow Breakers forfeits the assumption of innocence. So, maybe you can tell me. Why would you be trouble?” Brayson said.
The Shadow Breakers, meta-awareness informed me, parallelled the Inquisition from my world. They were the ones charged with hunting down those who worshipped or consorted with the dark powers of the world. Unfortunately, as the judge, jury and executioner in such matters, there was no one who oversaw the claims they made, no court of appeals. Like the Inquisition, the Shadow Breakers had become a political force more than anything else.
There were still trials of lowborn people, but these were primarily to reinforce the image the Shadow Breakers chose to project. Their primary purpose was to keep the various noble houses in line and bleed out any that were weak enough to be culled for the Holy Throne’s benefit. The number of Shadow Breakers were kept low not because of the training required, but because those who held their reigns didn’t like sharing that power anymore than they had to.
“I see. I presume word has gone out about that to the town in general.” I asked.
“No official statements have been made at this point.” Brayson said.
Which meant he’d told someone unofficially and allowed the town grapevine to disseminate the news. With the way news like that gets distorted, I was little surprised the townsfolk hadn’t gone for their torches and pitchforks already.
“Good. I wouldn’t want people getting the wrong idea. Did the Bishop say when he would be back? I’m hoping it will be while the Shadow Breakers are still here. I’m sure they’ll have some interesting questions for him.”
That was a dangerous line to play. If Rask was able to call a Shadow Breaker team into the field on short notice like that, he had to have fairly deep connections with them. On the other hand pretending that I had dirt on him might give the locals here a reason to keep their hands off the aforementioned torches and pitchforks. It was certainly better than looking afraid (and therefore guilty) like a normal person would. There was even an outside chance that the Shadow Breakers weren’t friendly with Rask and would welcome an opportunity to break him down, but the odds there were longer than it was worth playing for.
Commander Brayson looked at me critically for a moment, trying to judge how serious I was.
“Yeah, I just can’t imagine how you could be trouble.” he said after a minute had passed.
“You probably also want to tell us that the people in town would feel more comfortable if they didn’t have to worry about strangers lurking about, right?” Way asked.
“I have no official position as to the whereabouts of guests to our town, providing they are behaving in a lawful manner. I will say that people who come to our fine shore intending to recuperate tend to find their rest more peaceful when they avoid the bustle of town though.”
“And do these resting people tend to eat while they’re here?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I suppose some go foraging for food and find themselves traveling to quieter spots.” Brayson replied.
He could have said ‘get out of my town’ but that might have upset Rask if the bishop actually was trying to snare us in the Shadow Breaker’s net, so instead he made it clear that he wouldn’t do anything to stop us from leaving on our own.
“Oh I’m sure we won’t be foraging much or getting lost. I’d really like to talk to the Shadow Breakers and offer them my insight on a few things.” I said.
“Good, good. So you’ll be staying put. I’m sure the bishop will be glad to hear that.”
“Yes, in fact it looks like we may be staying put right here for a while. It’s a nice spot to read and business has been so busy we haven’t had a chance to eat yet.” I said it loud enough that the three nearest tables and two of the wait staff could hear it clearly.
“You should see Healer Grida when you’re done. She asked after you as well, and it’s her bungalow that you’re set up in.” Brayson said, addressing Way instead of me.
“Will she need it back?” Way asked.
“She didn’t say. Just wanted to check in on your recovery I believe.”
“I remember being taken to her house in town. I’ll make sure to stop by there.” Way said.
“I will let you two get back to your breakfast then. Do try to stay out of trouble.” Brayson said, and detached himself from the booth we were sitting in.
A few minutes later, a waitress of a few years younger than us came over carrying a large tray of breakfast fare.
“Sorry for the wait. The, uh, cook was busy.” she said as she put out plates of scones, bowls of jam and a sampling of different meats and cheeses. For drinks she poured us each a cup of a sweet, minty, lemony, beverage that went nicely with the other dishes.
“My name is Kari, if you’d like any more just let me know.” she said and then scampered off back to the kitchen.
Whether out of helpful exuberance or simply a desire to ensure we left as soon as possible, Kari had given us far more than a standard portion so, even as hungry as we were, we had a hard time finishing the dishes off. Since both Way and I were starving by that point we did give it a valiant try however. Once it was clear we were done, Kari swooped by again to gather up our plates and verify that we didn’t need any more food.
“Listen, not everyone here thinks you’re bad.”, Kari leaned in and whispered.
“That bishop…”, she began and then cut herself off, unwilling to risk voicing whatever complaint she had in mind. Before either Way or I could respond, she turned with the empty dishes she was carrying and fled back to the kitchen.
We were gathering our books together and getting ready to leave when we heard shouting begin in the kitchen. At first it was generally inaudible over the chatter of the other patrons but the voices rose in volume until more or less everyone in the Inne could hear them.
“I told you we don’t serve their kind!” an older woman’s voice rang out through the growing silence.
Kari’s reply was muffled by the door so that I couldn’t make out her reply, except to guess that she was the one who was yelling back.
“Then you’re fired! Get out of here!” the older woman screamed.
There was some more screaming, punctuated by sound of pots and pans being thrown before Kari burst out of the kitchen in tears and dashed out of the Inne.
I looked at Way and saw that she shared my intent. It was a ripple from our actions that had caused Kari grief. She owned the choices that she made, so in a sense it wasn’t our fault she got fired. On the other hand, we did owe her a debt of gratitude and even without that I’d want to see things made right for someone who was brave enough to feed strangers like we’d been.
As we rose to follow after Kari, I noticed that Way had burned a sigil into the table, a scythe with a handle of lightning. Under it were the words “Bill me”. Tactfully she’s left out the “if you dare”.