Anastasia hardly noticed the poison in her coffee any more. They changed substances once every four days or so and as a result the flavor got a bit different, but the paladin knocked back the cups like her new favorite drink was about to be outlawed.
Across the table, Sybil watched her in vague fascination.
“Aren’t you worried that you’ll hurt yourself?” the psychic finally asked.
Anastasia shrugged. “I think I figured out what Aisling’s doing with this stuff. I’m building immunities, aren’t I?”
Sybil nodded. “To common toxins found when adventuring. We’ve been trying to get a hold of fiendish poisons but as it turns out those are very difficult to ethically acquire and we’re also not sure that the human body can acclimate to them.”
The paladin blinked slowly, then decided the best thing to do was change the subject. “Your title’s not like the others. What does it mean?”
Sybil dunked a piece of sweet bread into her own coffee. “It’s given to prophetesses that serve a city or nation. One of Aisling’s little jokes. She makes a lot of those.”
“I’ve noticed,” Anastasia said with a sympathetic look. “But I’m missing the punchline.”
“You sorta had to be there,” Sybil said with a sideways smile. “When Aisling came to the city, I was in a bad way. I was trying to do good in a bad town and a lot of people wanted me to stop. She tore her way through them like a raging tiger and offered me a job as her personal adviser and medic, right? So I take it, because I figure it’s better to be in a position to influence the latest tyrant than it is to be on bottom.”
“Sounds like you’ve done a good job of it too,” Ana mused. “Aisling told me she couldn’t run this place without you.”
“She’s right,” Sybil agreed. “But before all of that happened, she had to get a grip on the city. This crime family, the Sunhawks, they used to hold most of the harbor district. Aisling won some victories against them and got cocky, decided to strike at one of their ships. I warned her not to, said she’d get in trouble, but you’ve seen her get an idea on her head. She’s got a powerful mind and when she wants it to it runs on rails.”
Sybil remembered her bread and took a bite, though it was more coffee than pastry at this point.
“The battle was bloody and in the end she retreated, with roughly equal losses on both sides. And of course, I can’t resist the ‘I told you so’, right? So I ask her what she’s learned from it, and she gives me this look that could melt steel and says, ‘I’ve learned you’re a gods-damned prophet!’ before walking off in a sulk.”
There was a beat of silence, and then Anastasia burst into laughter.
* * * *
Sir Tromar Glasshammer arrived in Shatterdown late enough in the evening that Sybil said she wouldn’t count it against his day-and-a-night visit. Anastasia was ecstatic to see her mentor, though she had to give him a flying tackle to stop him from drinking the coffee.
“So how are you liking the city thus far?” Tromar finally managed to ask, after the two had been seated and he got over his vague shock at watching his squire deliberately drink toxic coffee.
“I…” Anastasia took a drink to get some time to gather her thoughts. “…I do not think those who rule here have evil ambitions, Master. Methods, maybe. Thoughts, definitely. But they are loyal, in their own ways, to Aisling and to her vision. There is much here for me to learn, but I cannot believe that anyone bent on destruction would create this sense of peace.”
The dwarven paladin nodded. “I notice that Aisling is absent.”
“My report will explain those circumstances. You must have passed it on the road. She – there is good reason.”
Tromar gave his apprentice a curious look, but did not press further on the subject. He watched in polite horror as Anastasia refilled her cup of coffee and took a contented sip of the steaming liquid. “What were your plans for the evening?”
“I’m due to train with Duke in an hour,” Anastasia began, only to be interrupted by the silken, genteel voice of Margrave.
“I’ve asked Duke to give me your attention for the night,” the maenad said, stepping up to the table. Margrave was the picture of a sailing gentleman; his mithral chain was covered by military finery, decorated with medals plundered from a dozen nations and with Aisling’s own sigil, the shattered tiara. Margrave’s skin glittered in the lamplight, giving him the impression of being dusted in stars.
“Sir Tromar,” Margrave greeted, graciously. “I regret that we did not meet on your last visit to Shatterdown. I had hoped you’d come yourself. I wanted Anastasia to have someone she can trust on hand for our first lesson.”
“And what will you be teaching me?” the young squire asked, suspiciously.
Margrave’s lips curled into a smile that had no warmth. “Evil, Anastasia Luxan. How it thinks. How it breeds. And how it can be used to control even the righteous.”
Anastasia looked at Sir Tromar, who nodded warily.
“Meet me on the deck of the Fetch at your convenience. Armor and weapons will not be necessary, and your lives will not be endangered. I might suggest that you cease drinking the coffee, however.”
Margrave swept away and tucked his hands into his pockets. It was only after he left that Anastasia realized the common room had been deathly silent the entire time he was present.
* * * *
“The thing is, my collectives, and those of my students, give Aisling instant access to almost the entire city,” Sybil explained. “My vitalists can provide limited support throughout the Rabble, but more than anything else they transmit information to and from Aisling’s agents. A member of the Rabble in trouble can get backup, report suspicious activity, receive orders, or advise others in an instant, all without even having to open her mouth.”
“Must take a lot of managing,” Anastasia offered.
The prophetess nodded. “It does. But it’s worth it, especially for emergency responses. And it’s a great practical effect of something I was doing anyway – find psionic youths and help guide them. Not everyone is like me, of course, but I can help them figure out what’s going on when their power manifests itself, guide them through the process of controlled manifestation, and basically be the mentor I wish I’d had.”
The paladin leaned back in her chair. “You told me Aisling killed her way to the top, that she took over the city by force. Why didn’t you try to stop her, or moderate her actions?”
Sybil sighed and stirred her coffee. “Because sometimes, you just have to kill an awful lot of people. And that doesn’t make it better, but trying things the…the right way? There would have been a lot more suffering, a lot more injustice. Shatterdown was a sick city. It needed a scalpel to cut out the cancer.”
* * * *
The Fetch was a subtly wrong ship; its colors were just off from the sea around it, and its decorations and angles picked at the eyes like hangnails in the mind, making those not used to its presence look constantly for what was bothering them without realizing that the sum effect was composed of dozens upon dozens of tiny, deliberate flaws. When Anastasia and Sir Tromar ascended the gangplank they were greeted by the sight of Margrave standing near a chair on the deck. Next to the chair was a bronze stand full of fresh farm eggs, of the kind sold in Shatterdown’s markets.
“Please, sit,” Margrave invited Anastasia. The young woman had chosen to bring her dagger despite being told that she would not need weaponry, and she touched it compulsively before seating herself in the chair. Margrave took an egg from the bowl and placed it into her hand.
“Paladins are protected against fear,” Margrave began. “You are not free from fear, but your courage can never be corrupted by it. Thus do you feel fear, but never experience how it clouds your judgement and robs you of your reason. But if you are to understand evil, you must understand fear, and this is what I propose to teach you. My power can pierce your protections and make you feel fear as others do. My purpose is two-fold: to teach you to resist such power, and to show you how good people are lead to evil acts through fear and intimidation. I will not lie to you, Anastasia. You will suffer, and I will enjoy making you suffer. But you will profit as well. Is this acceptable?”
Anastasia thought deeply on the matter. Sir Tromar stood behind her chair and set a hand on her shoulder, in silent support of whatever decision she made. Finally, the red-haired paladin looked up at Margrave.
“Will this help me understand Aisling, and this city?” she asked, quietly.
“Yes,” came the answer, without hesitation.
“Then do it.”
Margrave rolled up the sleeves of his coat and pinned them into place. “Your task is simple. I will touch you. From that touch, you must preserve the egg in your hand for one minute, as measured by the clock you see behind me. Sir Tromar, you must not interfere. You understand this? You can encourage, you may speak, but you cannot protect the egg, nor use your power to aid her.”
The dwarf and his apprentice nodded their understanding. Margrave placed his fingers against Anastasia’s temple and concentrated. For a moment, nothing happened. And then –
Panic. Anastasia couldn’t breath for the heart-rending force of it. The bile rose in her throat and her mind raced in a thousand directions as it was assailed by elemental terror. The paladin screamed, her fingers curling around the egg in her hand. She babbled something that she hoped was ‘Stop, please stop’ but Anastasia couldn’t be sure of her own words.
Crush the egg a voice whispered in her mind, cutting through the fear. Crush the egg, and it’s all over.
The moment the cold yolk coated Anastasia’s fingers, the fear faded away, leaving behind only the hammering of her heart and a sick sense of shame and guilt. She looked down at the runny goo on her fingers and shivered.
“Ana,” Tromar began, “are you -“
Anastasia took a new egg from the bowl and interrupted her master.