Sweet waited deep within the belly of the Guild. Off to one side of the training pit, perpendicular to the exit and the door to the Treasury with its shrine beyond was the Map Room, a chamber whose function was immediately obvious. The Guild had an institutional fondness for simple, descriptive names. Waist-high shelves lined two walls, filled with rolled up or folded maps which could be spread out on the circular table in the center of the chamber. Above the shelves, every stretch of wall was covered with permanently hung maps. The city, the province, the Empire itself, and various detailed portions of each were all depicted. The far wall, before which Sweet stood, was covered floor-to-ceiling by an incredibly detailed map of the city of Tiraas.
Legs akimbo, hands folded behind his back, head lifted to study the map, he made an impressive sight from the door, even (perhaps especially) in his slightly scruffy suit. That was the whole reason for his position. Truthfully, he was starting to get a crick in his neck; it was taking longer than he’d expected for those he’d summoned to arrive.
Finally, he thought as the door creaked open behind him. All the doors in the Thieves’ Guild creaked, otherwise people would tend to inadvertently sneak up on each other, which could result in…accidents.
He turned, slowly, starting with the legs but keeping his face aimed at the map for another second or two; it acknowledged those entering (initially ignoring them didn’t suit the image he wanted to project) while creating the impression that weighty matters occupied his attention, warring with his desire to greet them. Everything precise, everything calculated. When Sweet started really putting on a show, he often ran the risk of becoming distracted by how good he was.
Two elves slipped into the room, followed by a glowering Style. They still slipped and crept everywhere, as if afraid they were going to be thrown out; it had only been a couple of weeks and though Flora and Fauna were starting to settle in, there was a process. They had more to adjust to than most of the human Guild members. Dressed in simple shirts and trousers for training, better rested and more well-fed than when he’d first seen them, and best of all, smiling, they’d already come a long way from the two miserable streetwalkers he’d encountered outside the Pink Lady.
Well, aside from certain little details like what they were here to discuss.
“Ladies,” he said warmly, coming around the table to greet them. His smile was careful: he needed to be glad to see them, but not too chipper, in light of what was coming. The elves smiled back at him with a lot more enthusiasm. He was, after all, the one who’d not only sponsored their apprenticeships in the Guild but helped them settle in for the first few days. If not for Sweet, they would still be turning tricks in the Glums. That gratitude was real and counted for a lot. Or so he devoutly hoped.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you more often,” he went on. “They’ve got me running all over the city doing the work of three men. How are you getting along? Anything you need help with?”
“We are very well,” Flora said, still beaming up at him. “There’s a lot to remember, but the work is not arduous.”
“Training is good,” Fauna added. “Very satisfying. It’s good to flex minds and muscles again.”
Still they smiled in simple delight at seeing him. After some initial uncertainty, he had decided there wasn’t a crush developing there. Among other things…well, they definitely weren’t twins, upon closer inspection, and probably not even sisters. When nobody was paying close attention, they sometimes gave off a vibe that was very much not sisterly.
“They have potential,” Style grunted from behind them, folding her arms and not relaxing her glare. She was dolled up in an Eastern barbarian outfit that was even more revealing than her Punaji phase of last month. It was all boiled leather, with brass studs and fur accents; above the waist all she had on was a kind of thick leather brassiere such as barbarian women were often shown wearing on the covers of penny dreadfuls and pretty much never in real life, because it was a stupidly impractical garment even in a much warmer climate than the Eastern mountains. Some women bared skin to be alluring; Style bared her square shoulders, trunklike arms and craggy abs to discourage people from giving her backtalk. It worked.
“I’m glad to hear it. And I mean it: I may not be around much, but if you need anything, you can get a message to me.” Sweet let the smile slip from his face, leaving his expression grave. “For now… I asked Style to bring you in here because I’m afraid I have some pretty bad news. You may want to sit down for this.”
The pair exchanged a glance, but at his gesture, slowly lowered themselves into chairs beside the map table, Fauna pulling one over so they could sit side-by-side. Behind them, Style pushed the door shut and positioned herself in front of it, then folded her arms and resumed glaring. This earned her a couple of glances from the elves, but Sweet quickly recaptured their attention.
“I know you weren’t exactly close, but I thought you should be informed that Missy, from the Pink Lady, died last night.”
“…oh,” said Flora when he paused. They didn’t glance at each other this time; in fact, both girls looked rather nonplussed.
“I’m afraid it was pretty bad,” Sweet went on, eyebrows creased together in his best expression of Bishoply solicitousness. “Really quite brutal, in fact. Her digestive tract was strung all around the room, without having been, ah, disconnected, first. There were glyphs of some sort written on all the walls, floor and ceiling in her blood and…well, other fluids. And,” he added gravely, “her head was missing.”
“How awful,” Fauna said, gazing up at him without expression. Her tone tried at regret without much effort. Oh, the rain isn’t letting up. Oh, it’s okra stew for lunch again. Oh, Missy was savagely butchered.
“As per the terms of her will, Rose gets the property and the business.”
“That’s good,” Flora said with a bit more enthusiasm. “Rose cares about the girls. She tried to help us. As much as…possible.” She trailed off, looking away; Fauna reached over to squeeze her hand.
“I’m sorry to have taken so long to get to you about this,” he said sincerely. “I’ve been out all day dealing with it.”
At that, their eyes widened a fraction and they did exchange a glance. “You had to deal with it?” Fauna asked, sounding more actually concerned now.
“Well, surely you don’t think someone like Missy actually left a will, do you?” He gave them a very careful hint of a grin, conveying a touch of gallows humor without undercutting the gravity of the situation. “Putting those girls in Rose’s care seemed the best thing I could do for them, since I can’t exactly move them all into the Guild.”
“Ah,” Fauna said.
“I’m afraid that little matter took longer than it ought to have, since I wasn’t able to give it my full attention. There was the rather more urgent issue of dealing with the Imperial interest in the case. Even in the Glums, a murder that, ah, extravagant draws their interest. I don’t mean to imply that the Imps give a damn about anybody living down there, but you just can’t have people doing things like that while you’re trying to carry on a civilization. It’s bad for business, you see.” He sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, the whole city’s in a tizzy over it, now.”
“It is?” Flora asked faintly.
He nodded. “The papers got wind of it. Now everyone’s in a panic about there being a headhunter in Tiraas.”
Both of them stiffened. It was slight, but perceptible. They very obviously did not look at each other.
“Headhunters are a myth,” Fauna said tersely.
“That’s right,” Sweet agreed, nodding. “The official stance of the Church and the Empire has always been that elven headhunters do not exist. Just a scary bedtime story mothers use to make their little ones behave. Of course, interestingly enough, Imperial Intelligence somehow knows exactly what a headhunter attack looks like, and has protocols in place to deal with it.”
“…they do?” Flora croaked.
“Keep that to yourself, though,” he went on. “I probably shouldn’t have told you. I am the Church’s liaison to the highest level of Imperial government; I learn the most fascinating things on busy days like today. Let me tell you, it kept me on my toes, working this thing around to keep the Imps from busting in here to haul you two little rascals away. Quite apart from the sanctity of our temple, I’m kinda fond of you.”
“Now, wait a minute,” Flora protested. Both of them had gone quite rigid.
“Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of. I was able to deflect attention to Rake. Elowe something or other…what was his last name, Style?”
“I always called him Treefucker,” she grunted.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now. He’d been passing information on our jobs to the authorities for months. A known traitor is actually a fabulously useful thing to keep around, ladies; you can feed them false intel to throw your enemies off the scent, and when a situation comes up where you need to throw somebody under the carriage—like today—you’ve got a ready-made scapegoat on hand. So the Guild is down one elf, and I’m sure poor Elowe was more surprised than anyone to learn he’s secretly a headhunter, but…so it goes.”
“We don’t have to listen to this,” Fauna snapped, leaping to her feet; Flora was a split second behind her. Both of them braced themselves as if for a fight. “You can’t just accuse someone of—”
“Girls,” Sweet said firmly, raising his hands in a peaceable gesture. “Please, think. I’ve just stated I believe you’re among the most dangerous creatures in existence, and were doing something unspeakably vicious about this time yesterday. Now, would I put myself in a room with you if I intended to piss you off?” He gave that a second and a half to sink in, then went on in a more soothing tone before they could begin forming more objections. “I am trying to help you. Please, sit down.”
They did, slowly, looking warily at him, around the room, and at Style, who was still leaning against the door.
“Now,” he continued, straightening up and folding his arms behind his back. “I hope you understand the problem we have here?”
The two exchanged another telling look. “We don’t have a problem with anyone in the Guild,” Flora said quickly. “Mis… That woman snared us into…into utter debasement. So she could make money. It was personal, and justified. We don’t want trouble with anyone else.”
“Ah,” he said, and shook his head. “I feared not. The issue is…how shall I put this…”
“You scrawny, knife-eared, pants-on-head psycho DUMB FUCKING TWATS!” Style roared, stalking toward them. Flora and Fauna again leaped out of their seats, backing against the table. “Do you ever stop to fucking think before you act?! This is not whatever fucking tree you swung down out of, this is motherfucking Tiraas! Did you actually think you could just strew someone’s guts around a room like she was a scarecrow and not bring the fucking Imps down on you? Down on all of us! So help me, if you ever put my Guild in this kind of danger again—”
“Style,” Sweet said sharply. “Enough. Please. Mistakes happen, we deal with them. These are apprentices; we’ll teach them, not box their ears. Girls,” he went on, again gentling his tone, “again, please, sit. You’re not in any danger here. I won’t say you’re not in any trouble.” He put on a more dour expression. “This is exactly the kind of thing we can’t just let pass; next time, you could do significant damage to the Guild.”
They looked at each other, then spoke in unison. “I’m sorry.” He believed it; both looked quite crushed as they slid carefully back into their seats.
“To begin with, I had to spread quite a bit of coin around today. That is being added to your apprenticeship debt. If you prove as skilled as I’m confident you will, you’re looking at probably an additional year of heavy tithing to the Guild after your elevation.”
“A year?” Flora said.
“Again, it was quite a bit of coin. I didn’t add anything for having spent an entire day of my time straightening this out, but you should know that next time you force a high-ranking member of the Guild to fix a mess you made…well, the consequences will depend on the situation, but they will be significant. Do you understand?”
They both nodded, then lowered their eyes to the ground. Between those big eyes, their pointed features and the presently downcast expressions, they seemed almost childlike. It was ironic; for all he knew, they were older than he. That, and they had spent last night festooning Missy’s entrails around her room like tinsel. From what he’d read about headhunters, in and around his various other tasks of the day, she had likely still been alive for part of that.
“Right…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t want to make any prejudiced assumptions about elves…”
“Enough, Style. But it’s obvious you two aren’t very familiar with city life. So, I am going to assume you’re more comfortable with the world of nature and try to spin a metaphor from that. I apologize for any insult given; it’s not intended.”
“It’s not insulting,” Flora said softly.
“Good, that helps me to know. Girls, you seem to regard Tiraas as a sort of hunting ground, that you can prowl through, strike your prey and retreat when you’re done. That about right?” He paused for them to glance at each other again and nod mutely. “It isn’t that you’re entirely wrong…but the matter is more complex. Hunting is an excellent description of much of what the Guild does, but… Well, think of the city as a spider’s web. Every touch you make resonates across the entire thing. Light enough touches to avoid attracting anything dangerous should be your goal. It grows more complicated from there, however. It isn’t just a matter of avoiding the attention of the very large, very hungry spider in the center. There are multiple spiders of various sizes, operating at cross purposes; multiple powerful organizations and agendas at work in the city, and you need to be intimately familiar with each before you go traipsing through their hunting grounds. The Guild is one such spider, one of the bigger ones, and that affords you some protection…but only some. You are also competing with millions of other little bugs, all doing the same dance, all trying to hunt one another without growing tangled in the web itself or attracting the attention of the spiders.”
“I think this metaphor is getting away from you, Sweet,” Style commended with a mirthless grin.
“Oh, shut it, I think I’m doing fine.”
“I think so too,” Fauna piped up. “It…explains some things. We…” She glanced over at Flora. “We didn’t think anybody would care. Nobody ever cared about any of us, or anything else that happened in the Glums.”
“And that is why you cannot just run around and do things,” Sweet said firmly. “You don’t understand who is active and powerful in this city. You don’t know what they care about, what will or won’t provoke them to take action. That’s not a criticism, ladies, it’s an analysis of your situation, and part of the purpose of your apprenticeship will be to rectify that ignorance. Until you have achieved this knowledge, though, you are two bugs with unusually big stingers which won’t do you a damn bit of good if you don’t know which are the sticky strands or where the other predators lurk. In fact…it’s those big stingers of yours that cause us some problems, now.”
“Can we stop with the bug metaphors?” Style groaned.
“Fine, I’ll speak more plainly. Flora, Fauna, you’re dangerous. I promise you, however, that you are not the most dangerous things lurking in this city. The Church and the Empire both have powers under their control that could crush you. If you act carelessly, if you give them a reason to do so, they won’t hesitate. And you are members of the Thieves’ Guild, now; your actions both reflect on us and involve us. Nothing you start up with a rival faction will affect only you. Today you got Elowe killed. That’s no great loss; he was, as I said, a traitor. Next time, it could be me. Or anyone else.” They both looked up again at that, alarm registering broadly on their faces. “Now do you understand the problem?”
Both nodded. “We won’t do anything else without your orders,” Fauna promised.
“Let’s not be too hasty,” he said, holding up a hand. “The worship of Eserion heavily emphasizes a love of freedom; you don’t want to be bound too restrictively to the Guild. This is a relationship; you’re not servants. But while you are still apprentices, I will hold you to that promise. And you will stay apprentices at least until I—and your trainers—am confident that you don’t absolutely need to be held to it anymore. Clear?” They nodded again.
Sweet leaned back against the edge of the table, folding his arms and turning his head to speak to them sidelong. “Now, as a rule, the Thieves’ Guild does not dispense death. It’s messy, irrevocable, draws very persistent attention from the authorities… It’s a lot of the things we most ardently avoid, is what I mean. However, if there is one truth all thieves can embrace, it’s that rules are not meant to be absolute things. There are times when…well, let me just say that people of your unique talents are useful to have around. Again, I don’t want you doing diddly dick out there in my city until I’m reasonably sure you’re not going to inadvertently screw the pooch again. To get us to that point…it looks like you’re going to need a somewhat more refined curriculum of training than most of your fellow apprentices.”
“Refined, how?” Flora asked.
“To begin with, you’ll be working closely with Style here.” They gave Style a very careful look; she grinned back in a way that showed far too many teeth to be friendly. “The finer points of causing pain you clearly have down; she’ll teach you about the blunter ones, which are more generally useful to our sort of people. She will also teach you how to carry yourselves so as to create the impression you need to for any given circumstance, and I guarantee you’ll find no better trainer in that art anywhere.”
“Your flattery isn’t getting you any closer to my bed, Sweet.”
“Baby, I quit fantasizing about that after you broke that guy’s back. Additionally, girls, I am going to break with my usual policy and take you under my personal tutelage.” At that, their heads snapped around in unison and smiled bloomed on their faces. “The reason I don’t take on apprentices is, as I mentioned earlier, I quite simply have too goddamn much to do. You’ll get a better idea how I spend my time as we go forward, because if you’re going to be underfoot demanding my attention, I assure you, you’ll make yourselves useful in the process.”
“We will,” Fauna promised.
“I know. That’s going to mean a change of sleeping quarters, I’m afraid, since it’s going to be a lot easier for you to commute to the Guild for daily training than it will be for me to get down here to train you. As such, you will be moving into my home. The cover story will be that you’re housemaids; I have a civilian identity to keep up, after all. My Butler will show you that particular set of ropes.”
“Your…a servant?” Fauna asked, frowning. “Can he be trusted with…Guild business?”
Style brayed in amusement, earning a pair of annoyed looks.
“Guild business, she says.” Sweet shook his head. “Girls, I’m a high-ranking priest of Eserion. I don’t employ anybody who’s not a member of this Guild in good standing. Don’t worry about that, you’ll get to know her in good time. For now, I want you to concentrate on training. What you’ll be learning from me is the subtle art of being a spider. Knowing where the strands are, how to navigate them, pluck them, make the web itself serve your needs. Tiraas is a living thing, girls. She breathes, she feels; she has moods. You have to romance her.”
“That would be disturbing even if you didn’t segue into it from more spider talk,” Style said, grimacing.
“I intend,” he went on, ignoring her, “for you to gain a sense of perspective. You’re going to learn how to get by in this city without dealing out death…and how to do so, if the need arises, with such circumspection that it doesn’t come back to bite you—and the rest of us—on the ass.”
Again, they exchanged a long glance, then Fauna looked back up at him with a particularly inscrutable expression.
“You want us to kill for you.”
“No. No.” He straightened, turning to face them directly and staring down with more intensity. “I want you to use your skills for your own best interests. As your sponsor and trainer in the Guild, that means my task is twofold: I need to prepare you to do so in this extremely complex world without causing unforeseen havoc, and I need to help you understand why the Guild’s interests are your own. Ours is not an authoritarian cult, ladies; the Guild retains the loyalty of its members because it earns that loyalty. In time, you’ll understand why, but for now, I just ask that you trust me, and trust the Guild, to have your back when you need it.”
“Like today,” Style snapped, “when Sweet ran his ass ragged all over the fucking town to fix your fucking screw-up, when we should’ve just given your fucking heads to the Empire, gift wrapped.”
“My ass is not ragged, thank you,” he said wryly. He words had their effect, though; the elves looked very suitably abashed. “But she’s not wrong. We look out for each other here. Now, do you have questions about any of this?”
Flora bit her lip and looked at the ground, but Fauna raised her eyes to gaze at him seriously. “Eldei Alai’shi,” she said, “what you call headhunters… It’s a very specific path. It involves…bargains, rituals, contracts with powers that… What I mean is, there’s reason we’re not welcome among our tribe, or any tribe. None of this is done lightly, and there are costs. Whatever happens in the future, you cannot expect us to serve as assassins. The spirits demand purpose, and challenge. The prey must be worthy—either because it deeply deserves to suffer, or because it will not fall easily. Preferably both.”
“We do not and cannot kill at a whim,” Flora added, “or none of those…men…would have survived laying hands on us. We cannot kill for…for business. It may not be possible for us to serve you the way I think you expect.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he mused. “It sounds to me like you may be precisely the thing I need.” Sweet glanced over at Style; behind the elves’ back, she grinned broadly at him. They’d done this routine enough times to have it down pat. Once, he had jokingly suggested that he could be the bad cop for a change; she’d laughed for nearly a full minute, then punched him. “As I said, the Guild doesn’t kill lightly. Ideally, not ever, but we’re not exactly idealists here. No, there are exceptional circumstances afoot, growing more exceptional faster than I can get a handle on them. I have something specific in mind that your spirits might find to their liking.”
“You don’t know the spirits,” Fauna remarked, and there was both bitterness and sour humor behind her voice.
“Perhaps,” he said. “Let them be the judge. Tell me… Have you two ever heard of the Black Wreath?”
Again, the two looked at each other, but this time much more slowly. Faces blank, they held gazes for a very long moment, communicating on some level he couldn’t grasp. Then, just as slowly, they both turned their heads face him again. Identical smiles blossomed across their faces.
There was nothing childlike about them now.
He smiled back.