It was a thing of beauty, really.
Not the Imperial itself. All white marble, gilded furniture and red plush carpeting, accented by stained glass and actual frescoes, it was a faux-royal monstrosity on the inside, albeit an unusually loud and bawdy one. Sweet had little use for such ostentation; when he’d run the Guild, he had frequently hammered home the point that anyone who flaunted their wealth was a mark whether they knew it or not. A thief who acted that way was looking to change places on the food chain.
Its business was another matter. A gambling den of any kind was a standing long con: a use of illusion and social pressure to part people from their money without resorting to any kind of force, which (best of all), relied on the greed of the victim to work. People who were content with their lot, who had no inclination to get something for nothing or take an apparent opportunity to put something over on a fellow citizen, were all but impossible to con. The richest class of the Imperial capital were almost terrifyingly easy. Night after night they came, frittered away impossible sums of money on games that didn’t even have to be rigged to offer them no realistic chance of winning, and every night they came back. It was beautiful. For the sheer elegance of it, Sweet could forgive the casino’s ostentation.
Besides, this place pretty much funded the Guild’s operations by itself. They were thieves, disciples of Eserion; they stole as a way of life, as a spiritual discipline, and to an extent because their presence kept more dangerous criminal elements from arising. They weren’t necessarily very profitable.
Sweet strolled casually across the gaming floor, navigating around roulette wheels and tables hosting a variety of card and dice games, smiling and waving to people he recognized. Well-dressed citizens who doubtless thought themselves his social betters politely stepped out of his way, and pulled aside newer patrons who apparently didn’t know yet how the Casino worked. He noted familiar faces and unfamiliar ones, and out of sheer force of habit kept an eye out for trouble. The Casino wasn’t his to run anymore, but he couldn’t help doing a quick visual sweep to ensure everyone was doing their job.
Only some of those present and working were members of the Thieves’ Guild. The men and women running the tables, definitely, as well as the girls chosen for their looks who changed money for chips behind barred windows along one wall. The cocktail waitresses sashaying through the crowd and the girls in lingerie gyrating on a stage near the bar were employees; Guild members were expected to have more pride than that. Many a thief had paid for his or her apprenticeship on a series of mattresses, just…not out in public. The guards were a mixed bag. Burly men in dark suits or the Imperial’s red-and-gold livery kept watch throughout the building; they were mostly hired on, with a leavening of actual thieves among them to keep them on their toes. Several doors and sensitive locations had other sorts loitering near them, however, more shabbily-dressed men and women who had in common a lean and hungry look that did not belong among the Imperial’s clientele, some openly carrying weapons. The choice of different kinds of guards helped the patrons differentiate doors they weren’t supposed to enter from doors they absolutely did not want to try entering.
“Care for a drink, sir? On the house.”
Sweet drew up short, startled, as a tray of cocktails was thrust in front of him by a winsome, dark-haired young woman who fluttered her eyelashes at him. Not one he knew, of course, or she wouldn’t have gotten in his way while he was obviously going somewhere. Like all her fellow servers, she wore a low-hemmed and high-collared sleeveless dress that was almost painfully tight; it kept the waitresses from being visual competition with the dancers while making them nearly as alluring. More so, in his opinion. Still, he had no time for flirting this evening.
“Not tonight, love,” he said with a wink, sliding a doubloon out of his sleeve and setting it on her tray. “People to do, things to see, you know how it is.”
Grinning delightedly, she bobbed a skillful curtsy without disturbing her tray and turned, swishing off into the crowd. Sweet gave himself a moment to watch her go, then resumed his own trek.
In a shadowy alcove disguised as a small grove of artificial trees—really, the décor in this place was way over the top—two men lounged on either side of an unimpressive wooden door, the bigger one cleaning his fingernails with a knife so elaborately evil-looking Sweet was sure it would break in half if he actually tried to stab somebody with it.
“Thumper!” Sweet said cheerily to the other man, who resembled nothing so much as a salesman in his fancy but inexpensive suit and slicked-back hair. “They still letting you work here?”
“Eh, give it a week,” he replied easily, but Sweet did not miss the momentary tightening of his eyes, the slight flare of nostrils. Still a lot of anger in this one, and very likely still enough to impair his performance. Well, it wasn’t Sweet’s problem anymore. “They’re expecting you, go on through.”
The bigger man had straightened quickly at his approach, and now appeared somewhat tongue-tied. Sweet recognized him, vaguely, a kneecapper who’d been only just raised to the most junior level of Guild membership at the time he’d left his position for the Church.
“I, uh, yeah, it’s an honor to… I mean, go on through, Mr. Sweet, sir,” he added unnecessarily, sketching a clumsy bow.
“At ease, soldier,” Sweet said sardonically. Thumper grinned with actual humor this time.
“Yeah, he’s new. I’ll work with ‘im.”
“Glad to hear it. Stay sharp, gentlemen.” Pulling the door open, he slipped between them and through, into a dimmer, quieter space.
Sweet strolled through the darkened halls more quickly, now that there was nobody around for him to interact with. At this time of night, not many people would be in the Guild’s headquarters on business; night was when thieves were out in the city, hard at work. The relatively few who actually lived here were mostly at work on the casino floor, and most who used these offices to do business kept that to daylight hours. Here and there he came upon an open door with merry or muted sounds of activity beyond, or exchanged greetings with someone hurrying past on a similar errand, but for the most part it felt like he had the sprawling place to himself.
Along an exterior hallway, hang a left, cut through a small meeting chamber, down another stretch of hall, then down two flights of steps. A couple more turns and he was at his destination.
Down here, the stone halls were rough-cut and rounded from their great age. The Imperial was an old building, only repurposed by the Guild within the last century, but even it had been built upon the foundations of a much older temple. Exactly how old the lowest levels of the Guild’s headquarters were nobody seemed to know, but the stonework was as worn as anything in Tiraas and the iron accepts corroded in some places almost to nothing. Down here, torches provided the only light. They could certainly afford fairy lamps, but in the Guild’s heart of hearts, the thieves did not try to make things easy or comfortable for themselves. That would have made for weak thieves.
The chamber he entered was huge, opening before him and plunging twenty feet to the floor, with an unrailed rim of stone surrounding its upper edges. Below, novices and some very junior Guild members practiced a variety of skills; climbing, sparring, opening locks, all under the watchful eyes of more experienced trainers. Sweet smiled fondly down at the spectacle, but didn’t descend the narrow stone steps to the training floor or pause to watch. He moved swiftly around the perimeter of the upper level to a door directly opposite the one through which he’d entered.
This room was longer and narrower, and also more cluttered. The ancient stonework was all but concealed by maps, charts and wall hangings; pigeonholed desks lined its edges, interspersed with bookcases containing ledgers and scrolls by the dozen. It was considerably better lit, with fairy lamps hanging from the ceiling, and even had a long stretch of mismatched bits of carpet along its center, between the rows of desks. Most of these had been worn to an embarrassing state by years of foot traffic.
Now, the room was unoccupied, save for one person.
“Look who finally showed up,” Style said sharply, rising from the overseer’s chair (the only one with any padding, or armrests) in which she’d been lounging and swaggering over toward him. “Afraid to show your face around here while you’re behind on your tithes?”
“Style, we gotta do this every time? The Big Guy gets the first cut of every copper I bring in. You know it, he knows it, the Boss knows it. When have you ever succeeded in skimming off me? Save it for the newbies.”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” she said with a grin, then swept him into a hug as soon as she got close enough. “Good to see you around again, Sweet. Damn, though, you’re all gristle and bone. Doesn’t that Butler of yours feed you?”
“Well, gods know she tries,” he replied, matching her grin as he pulled away. Style was dolled up today in the Punaji fashion, with a heavy leather overcoat and preposterous wide-brimmed hat which bristled with feathers, plus giant clunking boots. Underneath she wore only a pair of harem pants in a screamingly loud pattern and several yards of ruffled silk wound around her breasts. It was a new look for her, but then, all her looks were knew. He’d wondered many times in the past how she managed to feed herself, given how much she spent on clothes. It definitely worked out for her, though; Style was a horse-faced woman and brawny as any dockworker, but had no trouble at all finding men to share her bed. Living proof that it wasn’t what you had that mattered, but how you worked it.
“Seriously, though, I’m not late. Not very early, either, which begs the question: where the hell is the Boss? He’s usually lying in wait for me.”
“Usually is, yeah.” Her grin widened, and he began to smell a rat.
“Care for a drink, Mr. Sweet, sir?”
He spun around, stepped back, and gaped. The pretty waitress who’d accosted him above stood smiling flirtatiously up at him, batting her lashes and proffering her tray, which still had his gold coin sitting amid the glasses.
“What the—” He shot a perplexed look at Style; how the hell had this girl gotten down here? Style, though, was trying and failing to contain laughter. He narrowed his eyes, peered more closely at the simpering girl, then swore. “Damn it, Tricks!”
Style let out a bray of amusement, giving up the fight, and the illusion melted. The girl’s posture and facial expressions subtly shifted and suddenly he was looking at a short, slender man in extremely skillful drag and a lot of makeup, grinning up at him. “That’s another one for me!”
“You are a pain the ass,” Sweet scolded. “We know you’re good, dammit, you don’t need to put on a show every time somebody comes to visit!”
“Oh, let me have my fun.” Tricks tossed the tray casually down on a nearby desk and pulled off his wig, further ruining the illusion. “I certainly don’t get much of it, what with trying to keep all you goons in line. It’s good to see you again, though. You know, you’re allowed to come visit, Sweet, you don’t have to wait till we’ve got business to discuss.”
“I know,” he said with a grimace. “You’re not the only one with too much on his plate, Boss. If I had the time…”
“Yeah, yeah, the time.” Tricks had unfastened the high collar of his dress as they spoke, and now reached behind his neck, grasping a string there, and pulled. In a swift, oddly disturbing display, the false breasts attached to it popped out of his neckline, and he casually tossed this apparatus to Sweet. “As always, it’s wasting. I will require you to hang out for a bit and catch up after business…but we better see to that first.”
He strolled off toward the closed door at the opposite end of the room, pulling a rag from within one sleeve and wiping makeup from his face as he went. Sweet draped the fake boobs around Style’s neck and followed, grinning at the swat he received in the back of the head.
They strode through in single file, Style pausing to shut the door behind them. This room was completely bare of furnishings or decorations, lit only but four fairy lamps, one in each corner. Its sole content was the towering statue of Eserion against the far wall, surmounting a small fountain which gurgled softly. Gold and silver gleamed faintly within the water. The three thieves approached solemnly.
Sweet pulled an Imperial decabloon from within his coat, pausing to press his lips against the golden gryphon inset into the platinum coin, then placed it gently in the fountain. Tricks touched his coin gently to his forehead before dropping it in; Style tossed hers, winking up at the statue as it splashed down. As one, they bowed to the idol, then stepped backward three times from it before turning to face each other again.
“All right, Sweet, what have you got for me?”
Sweet heaved a sigh. “Seriously, Boss, can you lose the dress? I can’t take you seriously like this.”
Tricks gasped in mock horror, fanning his face with one hand. “Land’s sakes, he just wants to see me in the altogether! A true gentleman wouldn’t stare so at my decolletage!”
“I’m keeping a wary eye on your decolletage, all right, otherwise Style’ll club me with it.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, this is like having kids,” Style growled. “Will you two settle down? Banter after the meeting, we’ve got shit to do.”
“Right, right,” Sweet said peaceably, winking at her, then his expression sobered. “Well, the news isn’t great. Things were proceeding more or less according to plan, but then a new player entered the game and everything’s gone to hell.”
Tricks frowned. “Who?”
“Elilial has officially made the opening moves of a campaign against the Empire.”
Style spouted off a few choice epithets, while Tricks’s expression grew grimmer. “You mean, more of a campaign than what she and the Wreath have been up to in general for lo these many years.”
Sweet nodded. “Planted herself in the Palace and got very close to the Emperor himself, then swaggered through a hellgate a few days later in a manner calculated to tip off Imperial Intelligence, and prevent the Hands from keeping it contained. There’s…um, more, but it’s Sealed to the Throne.”
“So?” Style snorted. “Spill.”
“Heel, girl,” said Tricks. “Sweet’s taking enough risks to keep us in the loop here. The Hands have some kind of fairy witchery up their sleeves; when something’s Sealed to the Throne, they’ll know immediately if somebody unseals it. Then we’ll be ass-deep in Hands within the hour.”
“And you’d need to find yourself a new inside man,” Sweet said dryly. “It’s a hell of a thing they’re sitting on, but shouldn’t affect us directly, any more than it will the rest of the Empire. I’ll do my best to warn you out of any danger if it comes up. Anyhow, I hadn’t even got to the best part, yet. It seems the Archpope was the one who warned Sharidan about Elilial being in the Palace, and provided the means to root her out. So the Church has counted coup, the Throne’s lost face, and now…”
“Oh, let me just fucking guess,” Tricks groaned.
Sweet nodded. “Justinian’s fondest desire is approved. The Universal Church is forming its own independent military.” Style’s swearing intensified; he had to raise his voice slightly as he continued. “They have permission for a small, elite force, adequate to defend the Church’s holdings and carry on some anti-demon operations. Not enough that the Church can take or hold territory, but… It’s something. The biggest immediate change will be that the Imperial Army isn’t going to be responsible for securing Church holdings anymore. Justinian is one step closer to being his own political entity. It’ll take him some time, at least a year, I’d think, to get this thing up and running smoothly, but it’s going to happen. I don’t see how it can be pushed back at this point.”
“There wasn’t anything you could do to stop this?” Style complained.
He sighed. “I greased most of the wheels myself. Remember, I’m Justinian’s inside man, too, and I’m good at making connections. Even with Imperial approval, there were roadblocks in place; I managed to disappear a few of them.”
“What the fuck?!” Style roared, her face darkening with rage. “What the incandescent donkey fuck? Isn’t this what we sent you in there to stop from happening? This specific exact thing? And now you go off and—”
“Settle, Style,” Tricks said firmly.
“Settle.” His voice grew sharper and she subsided, glowering. “Hon, you know I love you, but this is why you’re my enforcer and I’m the Boss. You don’t have a knack for subtle. If Sweet pitched in to help this thing along, that means there was nothing he could’ve done to stop it.”
“You didn’t have to fucking help it!”
“Yes, I did,” Sweet said grimly. “Because that game was over, we’d lost, and I had to think of the next one.”
Tricks nodded. “If he’d tried to get in the way, or even just refused to help, Justinian would know that Sweet doesn’t have his back, and that’d be the end of him ever learning anything useful or being in a position to take action. Now, he’s earned some trust, gotten closer to the Archpope, and might be able to throw the next round our way.”
She glared back and forth between them, then suddenly deflated, kicking the ground savagely with one booted foot. “Well…just… Fuck, is all.”
“Pretty much,” Sweet agreed. “The upside is my gambit did succeed. I’m getting more face time with his Holiness, and he’s hinted at involving me in something else he’s cooking up. But I’m afraid I just didn’t work fast enough or gain enough trust ahead of time to put a stop to this when it was still possible.”
“So what’s his next play?” asked Tricks.
Sweet shook his head. “Don’t know yet. I also don’t know what security he’s got. I do know he doesn’t have anything like the Hands have set up, to let him know automatically if he’s been betrayed. That’s fae business, and the Church refuses to have anything to do with it. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to make myself useful with smaller tasks that won’t affect the Guild or the Big Guy’s interests. Just basic brown-nosing, but it’s paying off. I want to be in the best position possible when the next big thing goes down.”
“Right,” said Tricks, still frowning. “Keep me posted.”
“Okay, wait,” said Style. “So Elilial’s up to something big, right? Can we use that? At the very least it seems like it’d keep the Archpope busy…”
Tricks was already shaking his head before she finished speaking. “It’s just one more hand stirring the pot. A clever operator, which Justinian is, can turn that to his advantage. Remember what I’m always telling you about running a con? Misdirection. Anything that creates chaos is potentially useful, if you know how to use it.”
“Feh. I’ll stick to breaking kneecaps, thanks.”
“The trouble is we don’t yet know the extent of Elilial’s plans,” said Sweet. “Not her timetable or even more than the broadest strokes of what she actually wants. She’s making a play for the Imperial government, sure, but my instinct tells me that’s a feint; she has always been obsessed with the gods of the Pantheon. Right now, though, everyone’s waiting to see her next move.”
“Right. So when she moves, we move, and hit the Church while they’re not looking.”
“Style,” Tricks said patiently, “we do not have the manpower or resources to ‘hit the Church.’ You’re talking about one of the most powerful institutions on the planet, with the backing of dozens of deities.”
“We hit Justinian, then. Don’t tell me that wouldn’t help; no other Archpope has been half the pain in the ass he is.”
“A direct attack on the Church is not happening,” he said firmly. “There are too many ways we can lose and no real way to win. This is a game of maneuver. We need to weaken Justinian and keep him weak until he goes away. You’re right that he’s the problem here, him and his ambitions.”
“And trying a sneak attack on someone right when they’re at their most alert for trouble is a horrible idea,” Sweet added. “Remember, everyone’s on tenterhooks, waiting to see Elilial’s next play. Maximum possible security by everyone, everywhere. No, we wait. When the next step of the game is in motion we’ll have to move fast, but it’d be a critical mistake to move too early.” He turned to Tricks. “With that in mind, wait till you hear about the possible other player getting involved.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” groaned Style. “Who else can possibly stick their nose into this that matters enough for you to worry about? Naphthene? Fairies? Orcish revanchists? Arachne Tellwyrn?”
“…you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
Succinctly, he sketched out the history of the exploding girl phenomenon, including the presence of Elilial’s child in Tellwyrn’s camp and the evidence of Tellwyrn tracking the Demon Queen’s movements. “By the last meeting of the council there wasn’t a concrete plan in place, but it looks like the Empire’s leaning toward trying to passively use Tellwyrn to run interference with Elilial. She appears to be doing that anyway, so it becomes a matter of discreetly helping her along.”
“Risky,” Tricks said skeptically.
“Yes,” Sweet nodded. “But I think it’s actually a solid idea. If you look at her movements historically, Tellwyrn gets really aggressive with people who try to put something over on her, but I don’t think she’ll fly off the handle at a good faith offer of aid. In fact…I think we may want to look into it ourselves.”
“Too risky for my blood.”
Sweet held up a hand. “Hear me out. At the meeting I floated the idea of using the three soldiers who witnessed Elilial’s manifestation as a peace offering, and General Panissar went for it. The Empire is stationing them at Last Rock. On the grounds of the University itself.”
“They’re putting troops on Tellwyrn’s property?” Style said, aghast. “She’ll go berserk.”
“This isn’t troops, it’s three guys who apparently aren’t even any good at their jobs. They’re being placed there under an old law that allows the Empire to quarter soldiers in civilian institutions at the host’s expense during a crisis. Bad as that sounds, in practice it means these guys will have nothing but their staves and the clothes they’re wearing; they’ll be dependent on Tellwyrn’s hospitality for everything. In short, they are no threat to her. They’re a peace offering, a little gesture that the Empire wants to open a relationship.”
“And best of all,” said Tricks thoughtfully, “they’re an opportunity we can use. We can watch this to see how she reacts with no stake in the outcome. Nice work, Sweet.”
“I do what I can,” he said modestly.
“This means I’m gonna want someone reliable in Last Rock to keep an eye on things as they develop. The hell I’m leaving this up to Keys.”
“Why,” Sweet said dryly, “you mean you don’t find Principia just a joy to work with?” Style snorted loudly.
Tags were both a practical necessity for protecting a thief’s real name, and a spiritual rite within their faith. Upon elevation to full membership, a thief was tagged by their primary trainer in one of the Guild’s few actually religious rites; the working name thus bestowed would serve not only to identify them within the Guild, but signify their approach to Eserion’s service.
Keys had been so named for her nigh-preternatural ability to get into and then back out of places she was not supposed to be. And not just places, but situations, even arguments… She would pop in out of nowhere and deftly weasel her way back out once she had what she wanted. The utility of this trait for a thief was obvious and considerable, but occurring as it did in someone who was allergic to authority and usually working her own agenda, it made her a nightmare for whoever was responsible for keeping her under control. Principia’s assignment to Last Rock had been her own request three years ago, when Sweet was still running the Guild, and he’d been delighted to have her out of his hair. Plus, there was the hopeful prospect that she’d irritate Tellwyrn and cease to be his problem for good.
The Guild had a standing policy of not messing with powerful individuals who tended to be vindictive, so the only qualification for the Last Rock position was that the person holding it should be willing to not do anything, which suited Keys down to the ground. Now, though, they actually needed someone reliable on the scene, which complicated matters considerably. Based on the dark look Tricks was giving him, the current Boss had followed this thread of thought all the way to its logical conclusion.
“I’ll find somebody,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair, still mussed from the wig. “Got a couple of ideas… Anyhow. Unless you’ve got something else of crashing urgency to report, Sweet, there’s a little something I need to tell you.”
“Oh?” He glanced back and forth between them. “See, now Style is grinning. That makes me nervous.”
“As well it should,” said Tricks with some amusement of his own. “We’ve been approached directly by…an interested party. One who wants to open talks, and asked to speak with you specifically.”
“You.” The Boss grinned fiendishly. “And best of all, this request comes with an endorsement from the Big Guy himself.”
That brought Sweet up short. Eserion was a hands-off sort of god. On the rare occasions when he gave explicit instructions to the Boss of his Guild, it meant something big was brewing.
“I hope you’re well-rested, brother,” Tricks went on, “because you’ve got another appointment coming up.”