It was almost odd to find the Guild’s counting room full of accountants. During his tenure as Boss, of course, Sweet had seen this sight many times, but more recently he’d only been down here to meet with Tricks and/or Style about matters that weren’t for general consumption, and the counting room made an excellent spot due to the passive enchantments on the space which ruled out any attempts at eavesdropping. Not that anyone was likely to try eavesdropping on the Guild’s leadership, but thieves did not succeed in life by skipping obvious precautions.
Now, the rows of desks were occupied by men and women, most of them younger and a lot still apprentices. The majority of the accounting staff were there for the dual reasons that they provided the Guild with free labor, and their sponsors found this an excellent way to teach apprentices to handle money properly—a surprisingly important skill, which few people outside the merchant and banking guilds and the cult of Vernisalle bothered to learn. Some few, though, were number people by inclination and made this their whole career with the Guild.
It was to the foremost of these that Sweet made a beeline upon entering.
“Odds!” he called, grinning. Three nearby number-crunchers started violently, one dropping his pen; a few others gave him irritated looks. “Sorry,” he added contritely in a lower voice.
“Hey, Sweet,” said the master of the counting room, waving. “What brings you to my lair?”
Where many Guild members went out of their way to look as little like what they were as possible, Odds might as well have been an artist’s conception of the chief numbers man for a guild of thieves. Short, slight, dark-skinned and clean-shaven—even on top of his head—he wore round spectacles and a stylish, tailored suit. The avuncular look was ruined by a yellow silk tie embroidered with purple and scarlet diamonds, tucked into a waistcoat of the same screamingly insane pattern and held steady by a gaudy, bejeweled tie pin. He also carried an entirely useless cane of polished dark wood, topped by an enormous faceted crystal.
“Wonder if I could have a word with you in private,” Sweet said, holding up the thick folder he carried. “In the record room?”
Odds raised his eyebrows, but shrugged. “Sure, I can spare you a few minutes. Stay on task, people.” Rapping his knuckles on one of the desks in passing, he strolled over to the far wall and pulled aside a tapestry, revealing a hidden door. He ducked inside, followed by Sweet, and shut it behind them, sealing off the soft but busy sounds of the accountants at work.
“Do they normally throw a party when your back is turned?”
“Not nearly often enough,” Odds grunted. “Some of those kids I have to deal with act like they’re in freakin’ Hell. I would take a hit to the operation’s efficiency if I could just get those number monkeys to enjoy their jobs a bit more. But no, as soon as I get somebody who’s got an actual gift for the work, they get shipped off to head up the financial operations in another Guild post the gods know where. What’d you need, Sweet?”
They were in a smaller, irregularly lit room lined with file cabinets. One of the fairy lamps had gone dark, and another was flickering; this place evidently didn’t see much upkeep.
“Want you to have a look at this,” Sweet said, handing him the folder, “and then I’d like to check it against our own files.”
“Ah, Prin,” Odds chuckled, accepting it and noting the name on the cover. “World’s perkiest butt attached to a personality like a malicious honey badger who thinks she’s funny.”
“You’ve met her?”
“Once,” the accountant said distractedly. “It was enough. More’n one reason I was glad to see her walk away…” He trailed off, frowning at what he was reading, and Sweet held his own silence to let him.
Odds was a fast reader, unsurprisingly. He made it about halfway through the stack of papers in a couple of minutes before lifting his head. “I’m just gonna assume the rest of this is more of the same. Or is there a surprise toward the end?”
“It’s all like that,” Sweet said, shaking his head. “What do you make of it?”
“It’s bullshit,” Odds said without hesitation. “Anyone pulling off this stuff would be making more dough than the Boss, easily. Prin’s a low-end performer. Or rather, she was before she got put on guard duty in Last Rock. Since then she’s been drawing a salary, not doing jobs and contributing tithes. Not a big one, either.”
“And you don’t think she could be embezzling?”
“Sweet, did you read this thing? This is like the adventures of Foxpaw and Eserion himself if they lived in a more exciting world than this one. No, even apart from the fact that this is a crazy pile of fiction, you don’t skip your tithes. That never goes unnoticed.”
Sweet grunted. “And yet, Style tries to shake me down for skimping every time I set foot in here…”
“Style tries to mug me for lunch money three times a week, despite drawing a salary that’d buy her into the lower nobility if she wanted. That’s what happens when you keep one of the world’s best leg-breakers cooped up in here on administrative work. Seriously, though, you steal from the Guild, the Big Guy himself notices. It doesn’t fucking work. Where’d you get this pile of lies?”
“It’s a copy of the file the Sisters of Avei have on Principia.”
Impossible as it seemed, Odds’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Now just why in the hell do the Sisters have a file on Prin?” Notably, he didn’t seem curious how Sweet had acquired such a thing.
“You probably haven’t heard, but Prin has a daughter. Just turned eighteen.”
“I hadn’t heard that, no. Sort of wish I still hadn’t. It’s a frightening thought.”
“No kidding, especially considering that Principia’s daughter is the new Hand of Avei.”
Odds stared at him for a moment.
“I’m afraid so.”
He shook his head. “You ever get the feeling the gods are just fucking with us?”
“Only when I’m awake,” Sweet said dryly. “Anyway, that is why the Sisters have been making note of Prin’s exploits; they’re worried about her corrupting the girl, I think. So these aren’t lies; this is operational data used by the world’s most established military force. Either they know something—a whole hell of a lot of somethings—that we don’t, or for some reason they mistakenly think Principia’s been doing all this.”
“All right, well…” Odds looked around, scratching the back of his neck with the head of his cane. “I agree, that’s worth looking into, seeing how dramatically it fails to add up. And you’ve got the rank and clearance, so I guess we better crack open Prin’s file.”
He crossed over to one wall, tracing a finger along labels. “Let’s see, these are currently active agents…. Enforcers, special ops, cats, cutters, informants… Con artists, here we go.” He tugged open a long drawer and began paging through the dusty files therein.
“You keep a separate category for the type of work a person does?” Sweet asked with interest. “That’s crazy. A lot of our people don’t have just one specialty.”
Odds spared him an annoyed glance. “See, this is why I was glad when you got kicked over to the Church. You never took an interest in this stuff, Sweet. I’d try to explain our methods and your eyes’d just glaze. Tricks, now, he makes sure to know how everything works. Yeah, some folks’re into more than one basket of fruit, so it can take a while to figure out which section they’re filed under. Specially since different people are in charge of each category and aren’t permitted to compare notes.”
“What?” Sweet boggled at him. “Odds, this is the filing system of the damned. Never mind being able to find anything in here, what the hell is keeping everyone honest?”
“We have a god to do that,” Odds replied, glancing up at him again, this time with amusement. “Like I was saying earlier, you don’t steal from the Thieves’ Guild. Nobody who tries it is after money; that’d be stupid. Some, though, get a bug up their butts about something or other the Boss does and thinks they’re going to stick it to us. Every time somebody tries, the Big Guy lets the Boss know who to call down for it.”
“That…never happened while I was Boss,” Sweet said, frowning. “Shit. Was I so bad he didn’t want to talk to me?”
“Nah,” Odds said distractedly. “Tricks is an operations guy; you’re a people guy. He may run a more profitable Guild, but he doesn’t have your knack for keeping everybody happy.”
Sweet narrowed his eyes. “How much more profitable?”
“Solid fifteen percent, across the board.”
“Are you fucking—”
“Here we go!” Odds straightened up, pulling out a file. “Locke, Principia. Let’s see what you’ve been up to, darlin’…” He laid the file open atop the others filling the drawer, paging through it. “Pretty skimpy. Yeah, this is all stuff we knew about. It’s not a fraction of what the Avenist file claims. Let’s see, narrowing it to the last twenty years… Yeah, there’s that one big job, the blackmail thing. Heh, she actually got herself pregnant for that? Now that’s dedication to the craft. Also explains where the kid comes from, I guess. But the rest of this is small time hustling. The Sisters’ records are full of epic stuff. Look at this last entry, they claim she posed as an elvish shaman to enter the house of a dwarven smith clan whose heir had a rare wasting disease. Then stole a bejeweled mithril rapier, then traded that to the king of the Punaji for freedom for a friend of hers who was going to be executed for trying to rob his vaults… And disappeared before the dwarves figured out she’d poisoned their boy in the first place.” He paused for breath. “You could make a novel out of that one alone. The Sisters have a seriously exaggerated idea of what Prin’s capable of.”
Sweet sighed softly. “So…is there any chance they’re right about any of this?”
“Just a second,” Odds mumbled, frowning. He now had both files open and was leafing through them, back and forth. “I dunno… It is fishy. They’ve got notes on a lot of the little stuff, too, the same things we have records of. Some of ’em they missed, I guess they haven’t managed to follow her around all the time. It’s crazy, though. If Prin was pulling small jobs and big ones and only reporting the small… Well, that’s classic embezzlement, and the Big Guy would call her down for it. Nothing like that’s happened.”
“Hm. You’ve been doing this for years, Odds, trust your instincts. Does anything about those files jump out at you as suspicious?”
Odds chewed his lower lip for a moment. “I’d have to go over ’em in a lot more detail, build a comparison chart… Huh, it is kinda strange about the name.”
“Locke, Principia.” The tapped the name scrawled on the Guild file with one long forefinger. “They’re supposed to have all relevant nomenclature right there on the front. It should have her tag, too, but it’s just last name, first name. Probably only means somebody was in a hurry when they filled this out, or it was a new kid doing it. Only thing that leaps off the page at me as out of place, though.”
A prickle ran down Sweet’s spine. “Hm… Check under K.”
“Under K?” Odds frowned at him. “What am I looking for under K?”
“Keys. It’s her tag.”
“You think she has two files?” Odds squinted thoughtfully into the distance for a moment, then shrugged. “I dunno what that would explain, but it’s not impossible, I guess. Yeah, gimme a minute.” He lifted the thick Avenist file off the drawer and began rooting through the pages several inches up from where he’d found Principia’s Guild file. After only a few moments, he suddenly stopped. “Well, as I live and breathe. Here we are, under Keys.”
Sweet crowded in closer as he pulled out the new file and laid it open atop the other. “Let’s see… Yeah. This is more little odd jobs of the kind she’s known for, but also… Also a couple of bigger ones.” Odds’s frown deepened. “Set herself up as a money launderer for some non-Guild group, stole their entire haul from a stagecoach robbery and then arranged for them to get nailed by the Sisters while she made off with the gold. Here, joined an adventuring party to loot an abandoned old Avenist temple…once again, turned on the group, set them up for the Sisters to nab. This time, she actually made an offering to Avei at another temple, gave back all the treasure. Which explains how she managed not to get on that goddess’s shit list. Paid the tithe to the Big Guy, though, apparently out of her own pocket.” He raised his eyes to meet Sweet’s. “Both of those are in the Avenists’ file, too.”
Sweet rubbed his chin, frowning in thought. “…where’s P?”
“Excuse me? You need to go? You know where it is.”
“What are you, nine years old?” Sweet scowled at him. “P, the letter P. In the filing system.”
“Oh! Right. Next drawer up.”
“Watch your fingers,” he said, pulling the indicated drawer open and beginning to shuffle through its contents. Odds barely managed to snatch the open folders from the top of the one they’d been working on, muttering a curse. “Also, why in hell’s name is the alphabet arranged in ascending order here?”
“Well, ex-Boss, there are characteristics of our system that suit the unique needs of the Guild, some that encourage snoopers to get themselves lost, and some that are just out-of-touch fuckery perpetrated by our forefathers, some of whom clearly couldn’t spell. Like I said, we don’t have to worry about embezzlement around here. We mostly worry about people having too much access to other people’s info. A corrupt accountant some decades back actually dug into this for blackmail material. That’s why we keep different people assigned to different divisions, so nobody has access to everybody’s records.”
Sweet stopped suddenly. “Odds…look at this.”
Odds leaned in, peering at the indicated file. “Principia Locke. Holy monkey fuck, she has three? And why the hell is it under her first name? Even our system isn’t that obtuse.”
“Probably to keep it away from the other two so nobody noticed…” He pulled the file loose, set it atop the open drawer, but then suddenly stopped, frowning.
“Problem?” Odds asked.
Abandoning the third file, Sweet took a step to his right, patting another filing cabinet. “What’s in here?”
“That one? Those are records for the enforcers.”
“Good.” He pulled open the drawer which corresponded to the one in the con artist cabinet containing the letters K and L.
“Sweet, what are you doing? I didn’t bring you here so you could rummage around in everybody’s records. If Keys is an enforcer, I’m the Empress.”
“You’d look smashing in a ball gown,” Sweet said distractedly.
“Nah, I don’t have the ankles for it. Hems this season are just too high. That’s the moral decay of our culture for you.”
“I refuse to ask how you know that.”
“And maybe that’s your problem, buddy. If you took an interest in fashion, perhaps you wouldn’t walk around looking like an unmade bed. And that’s after that Butler of yours works on you.”
“Locke.” Sweet yanked out a file. “Principia Locke.”
Odds stared. “She’s in the enforcer cabinet?” he finally said softly. “Why?”
Sweet stepped back into the center of the room, holding Principia’s enforcer file. He turned in a slow circle, studying the rows upon rows of file cabinets. “Odds, my man, I think we’ve got some serious digging to do. We may wanna call the Boss in here.”
“All right, Sweet, let’s hear it,” Tricks said grimly, stepping into the record room. Style entered on his heels, tugging the door shut behind her. Today she was in some kind of maroon military uniform (belonging to no army that actually existed), bedecked with huge golden epaulettes, braided piping and a ludicrous number of shiny medals.
“Ah, you’ve had a chance to look over our little gift from the Avenists, I see,” Sweet said cheerfully, noting the thick file in Tricks’s hand.
“Yeah, and for future reference, if you want to get my attention you can just send over the jaw-dropping evidence in the first place,” the Boss said sourly, “instead of wasting time sending imperious demands via messenger.”
“Well, someone’s in a mood.”
“No more’n usual,” Style muttered.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” said Tricks, scowling. “I’m never not ass-deep in administrative bullshit these days, and this was a shock my delicate constitution didn’t need. Exactly how the hell did you get your hands on the Sisterhood’s records? Surely you didn’t manage to impress Rouvad that much.”
“No, this came to me by the same phenomenon which is the undoing of all really great cons.”
Tricks raised an eyebrow. “Sheer bloody happenstance?”
“Bingo.” Sweet nodded. “Justinian has us looking into independent operatives who might be behind the cleric murders; he had Basra get into the Sisterhood’s records and draw up a list of everyone in the Empire who’s a free agent too powerful to be ignored. Imagine my amazement when Prin turned up on the roster. Basra let me keep that copy, and here we are.”
“Here we are,” Tricks repeated grimly. “You’re telling me this stack of fairy tales is accurate?”
“That and more,” said Odds from behind. Sweet moved out of the way, allowing Tricks and Style a clearer view of the accountant. He had pulled a folding table out of the corner in which it had been stashed and was sorting through stacks and stacks of files—all of them carrying some variant of Principia’s name. “They didn’t catch everything. I’ve confirmed each of these jobs from the reports she submitted herself. She’s reported and paid tithes on quite a few pieces of work that aren’t mentioned in the Sisters’ notes. Not more than one or two were in any single file, and they’re cushioned with smaller jobs, the kind that make her look like strictly small potatoes.”
“What do you mean, any single file?” Style demanded. “Everybody’s supposed to have one file of listed jobs. How the hell many does Locke have?”
“At least thirty-eight,” Odds said solemnly.
“What?” She gaped at him. “What the buttfucking what?!”
“At least three under each classification of agent,” Sweet clarified. “Filed under first name, last name and tag. She may have others that we haven’t thought to check for.”
“How,” Tricks asked quietly, “is that remotely possible?”
“It’s actually pretty easy,” Odds admitted. “She’d just have to know the names of everybody who handles the files, and send in different reports marked to each of them specifically. Privacy protocols mean they won’t compare notes. Lots of our people do this, for various reasons, mostly having to do with wanting some kind of special treatment from somebody they’ve buttered up. This way nobody has any notion of the volume or quality of the jobs she’s been doing.”
“How in fuck’s name did we not know this was going on, but the motherfucking Sisters of Avei did?!” Style demanded, snatching the file from Tricks and furiously paging through it.
“That much, at least, I can understand,” Tricks said slowly. “Running a con on someone has little to do with how smart they are; if they’re dumb enough, you pretty much don’t even need to con them. It’s all about finding out what people expect to see, and then showing them that. So they don’t look beyond it to what’s really there.”
“Exactly,” Sweet said, nodding. “Prin’s spent decades making sure nobody wants to be around her by being an aggravating pest whenever anybody is. She pisses off Guild members left and right, turns in reports and tithes for piddly little jobs, so naturally her reputation is as an underperforming bitch. Not even worth keeping track of. So we weren’t keeping track of her, but the Avenists were.”
“I guess it wouldn’t be necessary for her to throw them off,” Odds commented. “The Guild and the Sisterhood don’t exactly sit down for tea and conversation.”
“Yeah, it was just dumb chance that set me onto this track,” Sweet admitted. “She moves around a lot, does her little cover jobs in the cities where the Guild has a presence, then heads out to do the big stuff in relative isolation. Assuming we didn’t compare notes with the Sisters was safe; they dislike us almost as much as they do the Black Wreath. If it weren’t for a serial killer in Tiraas and Justinian’s twisty, underhanded response to it, we’d never have found this out.”
“I’ve put together a sort of map,” Odds added. “She’s been slowly migrating up and down the continent for over a century. With this big a territory to work and her lifespan, she can set the proper pace, rob a place fucking dry and move on to the next, and by the time she’s back where she started there’s basically a whole different generation of people living there. It’s…brilliant.”
“What is she even doing?” Style asked, clenching both hands on the file until the thick cardboard binding crackled in protest. “Is this embezzlement?”
“No,” said Odds, shaking his head, “it’s pretty much the opposite of that. Anti-embezzlement. She’s set all this up to make sure the Big Guy always gets his cut of every job she does. In fact, several of these she didn’t even profit from, and paid the tithe out of her own funds. But with her records spread across all these files, nobody notices just how effective a thief she is. She fulfills all her responsibilities and dodges the credit.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Tricks sounded almost weary. “If you’re too good, you get promoted. Be honest, Style, do you enjoy working here in the casino more than you did being out there cracking heads? I’m run ragged most of the time, and Sweet looks and acts a lot healthier since he got moved from his desk job to being back in circulation in the city. Prin, apparently, is another like us; she wants to be out there doing the work, not in here running the Guild.” Gently, he took the folder back from her. “And with a record like this, plus an indefinite lifespan? There’s no way she could’ve dodged a promotion. An immortal master thief would be the perfect Boss.”
“But she always pays her tithes,” Sweet said softly. “Always. And we know enough of her movements to know she’s not spending this money on herself. I mean, Omnu’s balls, she has to have pulled in more than the average noble House’s treasury in a given year, but you’d never know it from her lifestyle.”
“All but the last three years,” Odds added. “It stops since she went to Last Rock. Apparently she really has been sitting on her hands out there.”
“What the fuck is she buying, then?” Style exclaimed.
“You’re missing the point,” Sweet said, shaking his head. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the work, about our purpose in life. She steals to test her skills and humble the powerful, not to enrich herself.”
“She’s faithful. A true believer,” said Tricks. “Hell, apparently a model Eserite.”
“Well…fuck.” Style drew in a deep breath and blew it out. “I feel increasingly shitty about us sending an apparent rapist to ride her tail.”
Sweet and Tricks cringed in unison.
Odds’s eyebrows shot up. “We did what?”
“Obviously, this changes the whole tone of the matter with her and Thumper,” said Sweet.
Tricks nodded. “You’ve got that damn right. We may be looking at the best, truest Eserite alive, here. No way she’d have turned on the Guild after centuries of this kind of faithful service without seeking personal advancement—unless she was driven to it. Specifically, in this case, by my stupid mistake.”
“Mistakes,” said Style. “There’s a plural there.”
“Thank you,” he said acidly.
“Got your back,” she replied, grinning, then sobered quickly. “So…what do we do about this?”
“First thing’s first.” Tricks stepped forward and gently laid the folder down along with the other files on Odds’s makeshift desk. “Sweet, burn this. Odds, you put the rest of those right back where they were, let her continue on as she has been. I’m calling a Hush on this whole thing. None of you ever breathes a word of it to anyone. Forget you even know of it.”
“Yeah, I know what a fucking Hush is,” Style said sardonically.
“It’s for rhetorical effect,” Sweet said, grinning. “The man knows how to give a speech. Let him work.”
“This is a fucking masterpiece,” Tricks said solemnly. “The con to end all cons, perpetuated on the very people who ought to have known better. This is the highest practice of our craft I’ve ever seen, heard of or imagined. I would sooner take a sledgehammer to the bicentennial stained glass gallery in the Cathedral than mess this thing up for her. It’s a work of art, a thing of beauty. We’re gonna leave it alone. Got it?”
Odds nodded; Style grunted affirmatively. “Agreed,” said Sweet.
“More immediately,” Tricks said, then sighed. He turned away from the table and began pacing; the cramped space didn’t give him much room to do so, and he had to turn around every four steps. “Obviously, I’m no longer seriously entertaining the notion that Prin’s a traitor. Consider that warrant canceled. Style, put out the word to all your enforcers, everywhere: the hunt is off. Prin is considered a member in good standing; she’s welcome to come home safely, at any time.”
“No…no. Overcompensating.” Sweet shook his head emphatically. “That says something has changed. If you want to protect her secrets, it’s gotta be more subtle.”
“Excuse me,” Style said pointedly, “but you do not get to bark orders around here anymore, ex-Boss.”
“Right,” he said, chagrined. “Sorry. This is why I shouldn’t take apprentices; I get used to ordering people around and it goes right to my head.”
“He’s right, though,” said Tricks. “And the day I refuse to listen to advice from my top people is the day you need a new Boss. Mind the tone, though, Sweet. You do that in front of the rank-and-file and I’ll have you cutting purse strings in Glass Alley for a week.”
Sweet stood at attention and saluted. “Sir, yes, sir!”
“Can I hit him?” Style asked. “Pretty please?”
“Heel, girl.” Tricks shook his head. “And back on subject, yes, it’d blow Prin’s operation if we reveal we know about it. And…well, she’s still a person of interest, isn’t she? We need to debrief her about all this business, even if she’s not in trouble. All right, this is what you tell your enforcers: She’s not wanted or suspected of any offense against the Guild, but if seen she’s to be ordered to return here to report. They don’t force her, but make it clear it’s not a request.”
“Got it. And if she refuses that not-a-request, which we both fucking know she’s gonna do?”
“Then she’ll be wanted for an infraction against the Guild, albeit a much more minor one than we’ve been discussing, and we’ll deal with that.”
“I wouldn’t assume she’ll bolt, though,” Sweet said ruminatively. “She has too much invested in the Guild. A little reassurance that we’re not gonna nail her ears to the wall may be all it takes to bring her home.”
“Right, well, just for your information my people haven’t even seen her,” said Style. “Anywhere. In weeks. All this is well and good, but we don’t know where the fuck she is.”
“Or doing what,” Odds remarked, already busily replacing Principia’s various files in their proper cabinets. “If she’s getting back to the Big Guy’s business, though, I bet she sends in a report and a tithe as expected.”
“And that leaves the other party implicated in this brouhaha,” Sweet pointed out, raising an eyebrow.
Tricks sighed, his expression grim. “Yeah. Style, tell your enforcers this as well: I want Thumper’s ass back here yesterday. This goes beyond needing his perspective on the matter. The fuckery he’s apparently been up to is going to make us all look bad in the best case scenario, and we all know better than to count on that being the scenario that happens. If he’s ignoring orders to return, then he’s to be considered fugitive. Collar him and bring him home. Alive…” He scowled. “Or whatever’s convenient.”