For centuries Onkawa had been known in song and story as the Jewel of the West, but in the modern era it had also taken to calling itself the Tiraas of the West. The first city-state of the coastal provinces to join the Empire’s march and the only one to do so willingly, it had old and deep ties to the Silver Throne and was one of the only places in this part of the continent where to be seen as Tiraan was considered desirable.
Like Tiraas, Onkawa was a political capital, a seat of learning and culture filled with libraries, museums and academies, as well as a financial center home to trade guild halls and trading syndicates. It was also a city whose shape was defined by rivers and cliffs, with some districts perpetually filled by the roar of waterfalls.
The similarities ended there. The cliffs which bordered Onkawa on its western edge were an uneven sixty to a hundred feet high—tall enough to be good and fatal if one were to tumble off, but hardly the imposing drop of the Tira Falls. All manner of stairs, ramps and tunnels made travel up and down all but routine. Three rivers passed through the city, broad, shallow and sluggish as opposed to the Tira’s furious rapids, pouring over the cliffs into a lake below the city. Where Tiraas was a walled city tightly packed onto its island mountaintop, Onkawa sprawled across the granite plain above the marshlands below; no fewer than three concentric rings of old walls marched through it, most now crumbling and neglected, and the city continued to meander ever outward like a spreading urban puddle. There was no major industry to speak of, no factory antennae lighting up the night, though the Onkawi had their share of fairy lamps, Rail lines and scrolltowers. Best of all, at this time of year, was the city’s tropical clime.
In fact, quite a few of the well-to-do of Tiraas chose to winter in the Jewel of the West. The pace of life was slow, the cost of living low, the streets colorful and the people cheerfully outgoing. If one hadn’t the luxury of garden walls and hired guards, though, life in Onkawa tended to be dangerous and dirty. For the richer classes, the squalor of the baking streets just outside their villas was as distant as the freezing drizzle back home in Tiraas.
Approaching one of these estates, Kheshiri couldn’t help being impressed by both its defensible position and lavish appointments. The walled compound backed right up against a stretch of the old city walls, which towered above, cutting off the view to the south. Its own walls were much more modest, but glistened along their upper reaches, where shards of broken glass had been arranged into abstract mosaic murals—with their sharp edges extending outward. Beautiful and vicious; she appreciated every part of it. From the street out front, she could see three guards patrolling the tops of these walls, as well as the tops of trees extending upward from the gardens within.
The broad gates, though, stood open. A guard lounged outside, slumped against the wall and seeming half-asleep under the beating sun, but she could feel his acute attention to his surroundings. A broad-brimmed hat protected him from sunstroke while also concealing his eyes, and he wore neither armor nor uniform, though a scimitar was thrust through his colorful sash and he cradled a staff in the crook of one arm. As she strolled up, a trio of laughing young women sauntered out of the compound, ignoring both her and the guard.
Kheshiri paused in front of the open gate, peering about and putting on an intimidated expression. There was music and laughter from the gardens within; she could see people lounging around a broad pool. It seemed more like some kind of resort than a private residence.
“Help you?” asked the guard, eying her up and down with lazy approval.
She had chosen to style herself as a local. Her skin was as dark as his, a shade or two past mahogany, her thick black hair tied back in the multiple braids currently worn by fashionable young Onkawi women. The rubber sandals flapped annoyingly when she walked—amazing how they all seemed used to it here—but she enjoyed the sheer, colorful wraparound garment that passed as a dress, tied about the waist by a broad sash in a manner that emphasized her curves.
“I-is this Mr. Vandro’s residence?” she asked a little uncertainly. Kheshiri, as always, knew precisely where she was, but a big man with a weapon usually liked to feel superior, especially when talking with a pretty girl. Confidence and competence played up the “mysterious and alluring” angle, which didn’t suit her current character.
“It is,” he said, nodding and not exerting himself overmuch to maintain eye contact. “Come to join the party?”
“Oh, I… No, I’m not visiting. I have a message for Mr. Vandro.” She raised the envelope in her hand, pressing it protectively against her breast—and drawing his attention there.
“Shame,” the guard said with a vaguely smarmy smile. “Just head on in. Follow the path straight through the garden to the main house. Mr. Vandro’s probably busy, but you can leave a message with Wilberforce, his Butler. Any of the servants can call him for you.”
“Oh! Oh, um, okay. Thanks!”
He looked her over again, one side of his mouth twitching upward in a grin. “Don’t mention it.”
Kheshiri affected a bashful duck of the head as she trotted past him into the grounds. She didn’t roll her eyes once out of his view—there were people about, it wouldn’t do to break character. It was tempting, though. Big man with a weapon.
She looked thoroughly impressed and out of her element while traversing the lavish gardens, hunching her shoulders and picking up her pace on being catcalled by one of the guests. All the while, she analyzed her surroundings carefully and came up impressed. The guards weren’t numerous, but they were strategically placed. Doors were sturdily constructed, in contrast to the usual Onkawi custom of making things as flimsy and open as possible to encourage cooling breezes; Vandro’s estate made use of heavy oak doors and shutters, often with large cut-outs as a concession to airflow, set with thick iron bars in sturdy frames. More bars lined the windows, and whatever access there was to the wall tops was apparently locked away, available only to authorized personnel. More of those deadly glass murals lined the inner walls; this place could protect itself from its guests as well as any potential invasion.
The central building was pleasantly cool, shaded from the sun and inhabited by a constant, gentle breeze. The architecture provided part of that, no doubt, but considering some of the things she’d seen lately Kheshiri had to wonder if there was some passive enchantment at work, too. The long hall rose two stories from its marble floor, lined with huge silken hangings that billowed in the soft currents of air; a long, low pool ran the length of the center of the floor, fed by a laughing fountain at the far end.
It was quieter, too. A young Sifanese woman sat on a bench near the far end, idly fanning herself and reading a magazine; she glanced up at Kheshiri but quickly dismissed her from interest. A local servant was pushing a mop across the glossy marble; the succubus made a beeline for him.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, “I just have a message to deliver, I was told to ask for Wilberforce?”
The man looked up at her, blinking as though waking up. “Oh, uh, he’s around somewh—”
“May I help you, miss?”
Kheshiri had heard him approach, of course, but still jumped slightly and gasped before whirling to face the Butler. He was a man in his later middle years, hair gone steely gray, but still trim and unbowed, his eyes sharply intelligent. His neatly pressed suit looked like it would have to be horribly uncomfortable in this climate, but he didn’t even appear to be sweating.
“Um, are you the, uh, him?”
“I am Wilberforce, Mr. Vandro’s Butler,” the man said blandly.
“Oh! Good, the guard said… That is, I have a message for Mr. Vandro. He said you could get it to him?”
“And may I tell Mr. Vandro who called upon him?” the Butler asked, deftly plucking the envelope from her hand.
Kheshiri bit her lip. “I don’t think I’m… I mean, I’m sure it’s all explained in the letter.”
“I see,” he said, somehow clearly expressing disapproval without breaking his courteous deadpan in the slightest. She was impressed in spite of herself. “I will see that Mr. Vandro receives this with all haste.”
“Oh, thanks so much,” she said, practically gushing with relief. “I, uh… I’ll just be going then. Thank you!”
“Not at all, miss,” he said politely.
She could feel his eyes on her as she trotted back out into the garden, and he wasn’t inspecting her rump. Kheshiri made a mental note to be careful around that one in the future.
“Be safe,” the guard outside said to her as she exited the compound.
“Thank you!” she replied with a demure smile, setting off back the way she had come at a respectable clip. He did stare at her butt as she departed. She resisted the urge to put a little more than her customary sway into it.
Two streets over, five minutes later, she was still in a wealthy district, though the walled private villas had yielded to exclusive shops—jewelry, antiques and the like. The street ran along one of the city’s three rivers, an ornamental iron rail on one side and storefronts on the other. She had subtly tweaked her appearance as she stepped onto the boardwalk, not drastically enough to draw attention, just the addition of some jewelry and cosmetics and an improvement in the cut and fabric of her dress, so she wouldn’t look out of place in this neighborhood. The guards wouldn’t pay attention to a clearly wealthy woman out for a mid-morning stroll.
People flowed along on all sides, and she let the currents of the crowd carry her. Most of those present were Onkawi, tall humans with dark skin and colorful local garments, though in a district this ritzy there were more than a handful of olive-skinned Tiraan present, and even some paler Stalweiss types. Or possibly folk from the newly-settled Great Plains region; they apparently tended toward pale complexions as well. The new world took some getting used to; last time Kheshiri had been out and about, there was nothing within leagues of the Golden Sea but elves and centaurs. She spotted three gnomes sitting on the rail, chatting, and at one point a dwarf trundling along the street, but the people were overwhelmingly human. No elves at all, which suited her fine. Elves were annoyingly perceptive.
The street was well-patrolled and orderly, for the most part. One person tried to pick her pocket; she calmly raked the offending hand with vicious claws that in the next instant weren’t there. The would-be cutpurse was too professional to draw attention, but she could feel the pain and shock radiating from him. She savored it until he vanished into the near distance behind her.
It took her nearly half an hour, keeping to a meandering pace, to spot a suitable mark. He was clearly a merchant, strolling along rapidly, his mouth moving in silence as he peered at a sheet of expensive white paper in his hand. His clothes were well-cut, but rumpled and bore ink stains. Rich, but careless—perfect.
She had placed herself at the rail, leaning against it and gazing dreamily out over the water. At the target’s approach, she “absentmindedly” backed up, and he walked right into her. Kheshiri yelped and went staggering, wheeling her arms for balance.
“Oh, gods!” The man dropped his list and reached out frantically, catching her in time to save her from tumbling to the pavement. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t—are you all right?”
“Watch the hands!” she snapped, pushing him away. “And watch where you’re going, idiot!”
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated, wringing his hands as he stepped back. “I just didn’t see—are you quite all right? Let me make it up to…”
“Hmph!” Sticking her nose in the air, she strode past him, stalking away down the boardwalk and ignoring his last shouted apology as he receded into the crowd behind her.
She crossed the river at the next footbridge that came up, and waited till she was two streets distant from it to inspect the contents of the merchant’s purse. Excellent—loaded with doubloons, and even four decabloons. A few silver pieces, too, but clearly he was of a class that didn’t consider copper coins worth the effort of carrying.
Kheshiri stopped at a food cart to acquire a delightful confection of crushed ice and orange juice. In and around flirting with the scrawny youth manning the cart, she inspected the enchanted devices which composed it. A cold-creating charm, another to condense moisture out of the atmosphere and a third, much simpler enchantment powering a grinding wheel to keep the resulting frost thoroughly mixed, all working together to create an unlimited supply of crushed ice—at least as long as its power crystal held out, which was likely to be basically forever. Those things were used in wands, staved and even horseless carriages.
It was amazing. Back in her day…well, it wasn’t that magic wasn’t used on such frippery, but only the richest of the rich could have afforded it. Royalty, or upper aristocracy at minimum. Now? This car sat right on the street, dispensing wonder for pocket change to whoever happened by. Humanity had come so far, so fast…
Kheshiri found a bench in a small, sunny park, and lounged, basking in the sun and enjoying her frosty treat. It wasn’t that she had nowhere to be, but she took her time finishing the confection, then licking the melted juice from her fingers unabashedly before finally rising and continuing on her languid way.
It was nearing noon and the streets had mostly cleared by the time she got back to the crumbling, sprawling inn-cum-tenement from which she had set out that morning. The heat was nothing to her, obviously, but the city’s human residents customarily took shelter during the hottest part of the day. Kheshiri navigated the stained hallways and rickety steps back to the room and rapped on the door.
There came furtive motion from within; she stood patiently, waiting for him to identify her through the peephole. All of a sudden, the door was yanked open and Shook grabbed her by the arm, hauling her roughly inside and slamming it behind her.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he snarled, rounding on her.
“I’m sorry!” she said, shrinking in on herself and staring up at him wide-eyed through her lashes. “I really thought I knew this city, but it’s not like Tiraas, with all the historical architecture. They keep changing everything! All the landmarks are different, some of the streets are different even. There’s some kind of temple where the Royal Avenue used to be!”
His annoyance diminished visibly, even to the point of a faint smirk cutting through his scowl. “You got lost?”
“Not lost,” she hedged. “Just a little…turned around. A few times.”
Tension leaked from his shoulders and he actually chuckled, grinning at her unpleasantly. “Well, of all the goddamn things. I thought succubi were supposed to be smart.”
“I am smart,” she said defensively. “It could’ve happened to anyone!”
“Sure,” he said dryly. “Did you at least get your errand done, you silly trollop?”
“Of course I did! I wouldn’t have come back if I hadn’t. Your friend Vandro has a hell of a place; he’s done pretty well for himself, by the looks of it. I didn’t get to see him but I left the letter with a servant—”
He crossed the space in one long step, seizing her arm in a bruising grip and glaring down into her eyes. “You gave that letter to a servant?”
“It was the best I could do!” she squealed. “I promise, master, I couldn’t get any closer—that place is like a fortress. It was obviously a senior servant, he had on a suit even in the heat…”
“Wait, what kind of suit?” he said sharply. “Describe it.”
“Uh… Black coat with tails, charcoal gray slacks, waistcoat and bow tie.”
Again, Shook relaxed. Not for the first time lately, Kheshiri wondered about the effect his mood swings must have on his heart. “Oh. A Butler. That’s okay, then. I guess you managed not to completely fuck it up.”
“I wouldn’t let you down, master,” she said earnestly.
“No,” he mused self-importantly, studying her down his nose. “You’re a bit of a ditz sometimes, but I can’t say you don’t know what’s good for you.”
He released her and crossed to the window, twitching aside the ragged curtain to peek out. The little room was stifling; even in his shirtsleeves, Shook was drenched in sweat. The curtain admitted only a slight breeze, but he had insisted on it being left in place, and the door closed, despite the usual custom in Onkawa. Their privacy was far more important than their comfort. Well, his comfort. She could make do anywhere.
Kheshiri shifted back to her own appearance, stretching. She didn’t have room to extend her wings in here, but coiled and uncoiled her tail vigorously, savoring the freedom of motion.
“So,” she said hesitantly, “now what, master?”
“Now we wait,” he said, still peering out through the gap at the edge of the curtain. “Alan’s never let me down yet. He’ll come through.”
She slinked up behind him and began to knead his shoulders. “Then everything’s going according to your plan,” she breathed into his ear. “I’m sorry I made you wait, master. Can I help you…ease the tension?”
Shook turned to study her face, lifting one hand and stroking her cheek with the back of his knuckles. He smiled, the lopsided, self-satisfied little smirk he often got when inspecting her. Not bothering to reply, he tugged her close, tilting up her face to kiss her roughly.
Kheshiri purred and melted against him. The kissing was relatively new, but he’d been doing a lot more of it lately. Bit by bit, he was growing more relaxed around her, more certain he had her firmly under control.
Everything was indeed going according to plan.
Late in the afternoon, the sun had lowered enough that the constant breeze over the plains had begun to alleviate its fury. Shook and Kheshiri, again in her disguise as a local woman, sat on an outdoor patio at a restaurant several orders of social magnitude above their current residence, sipping iced lemonade and watching the street. Even in his best suit and with her looking fully presentable, the waiter had given them some very dubious looks. Fortunately, Shook was too preoccupied to notice. It was always a headache, running interference between him and polite society.
Several hours after she’d returned, a uniformed messenger, looking even more out-of-place in their slum than they did here, had arrived, directing them to this restaurant at this time. Or rather, to this restaurant half an hour ago. Shook kept his attention on the street, watching for the arrival of their putative guest; uncharacteristically, he remained calm. Aloof and somewhat tense, but not gradually working himself up the way he usually did when someone made him wait. Kheshiri had to wonder about this Alan Vandro and his relationship with Jeremiah Shook.
She shifted her chair subtly closer to his and experimentally ran her foot up his calf under the table.
“Cut it out,” he said curtly, not even looking at her. Kheshiri didn’t have to feign her disappointed frown. Whatever was going on, it was enough to distract him from the effect she had on him. That wasn’t good.
Shook straightened. An enchanted carriage had arrived out of the traffic, pulling up against the curb outside, an unnecessarily large and lavish model driven, she saw, by Wilberforce the Butler. He brought the machine to a stop and hopped down from the driver’s seat, opening the door.
The man who stepped out had clearly been big and powerful in his youth and was only slightly less so now. He had just the faintest stoop to his posture and a modest gut, but his shoulders were broad and his arms still thick. Clearly not local, he had what had once been a pale complexion, stained patchy red by sun and wind, his wild hair and neatly-trimmed beard gone pure white. Stepping out of the carriage, he instantly fixed his eyes on Shook and grinned so hugely she could have counted his teeth, regardless of the distance.
“Jerry, my boy!”
Alan Vandro bounded up the steps to the little terrace, his loose khaki-colored suit fluttering around him in the breeze. Shook had also stood, Kheshiri following suit behind him, and stepped forward to meet the man, grinning just as broadly. They clasped hands firmly and Vandro clapped Shook on the shoulder.
“I hear you’re living like a king out here,” Shook said, still smiling broadly. “Palace and all!”
“You don’t seem to be doing as badly as I expected, yourself,” Vandro replied, leaning around him to leer at Kheshiri. “What’s this little morsel, eh?”
“This is Shiri,” Shook said, letting go of the older man and stepping back to the table. “My most prized possession. Shiri, Alan here taught me everything I know.”
“I tried to teach him everything I know,” Vandro said, still grinning, “but there’s a limit to how much sense can be pounded into a skull that thick.”
Shook, to her amazement, laughed. Vandro, meanwhile, bowed over her hand, pressing a kiss to the back of her knuckles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Shiri. Jerry, lad, I’ve been telling you all these years you need to come out here and sample the local flavor. I guess now you’ve finally acquired a taste for dark meat, here you are.”
“Well, I’d like to say I just wanted to look you up for a visit,” Shook replied as they resumed their seats, Vandro taking one across from them, “but the truth is I need your help.”
“Goddamn right you do, boy,” Vandro said, his expression growing more serious. Kheshiri was fascinated. Here the man kept Shook waiting, mocked him to his face and flirted with his woman, and rather than blowing up the way she’d learned to expect, Shook treated it all as a joke. Amazing. “I’ve been hearing the rumors. Dunno what you did to piss Tricks off, but he’s good and pissed off.”
“Gnn.” Shook bared his teeth, grunting in annoyance. “I’ve only been able to get bits and pieces, here and there—the first of which convinced me to avoid Guildmembers for the time being, which is exactly what’s made it hard to get news. What’ve you heard?”
“Well, my boy, you’re wanted back at the Guild posthaste,” Vandro said, lounging back in his chair and accepting a glass of lemonade from the waiter without even glancing up at him. “And not in a friendly way. Somehow you’ve also managed to get the Avenists out for you. That’s pretty fucking impressive, Jerry.”
Shook growled. “None of this is my fault. It all comes back to that fucking bitch Principia.”
“Yeah, I figured from the context there was a woman at the back of this somewhere.” Vandro shook his head. “I’ve told you and told you, my boy, they are none of them worth upsetting your life over. I dunno what it is with you and women, but you’ve got to learn to just get what you need and kick ’em to the curb when you’re done.”
Kheshiri, too amused to be offended, kept her peace. Clearly these two man’s men wouldn’t welcome her input in the conversation. That suited her just fine; one learned more and revealed less by keeping one’s mouth shut.
“That cunt is a traitor to the Guild,” Shook snarled. “I’m the one tasked with dragging her home. And what do I find? Tricks no sooner sent me out than turned on me.”
“The word on Principia Locke is she’s also wanted to answer some questions,” Vandro said ruminatively, sipping his lemonade, “but far, far less urgently than you. Clearly, she’s held in somewhat better regard. How’s that work, with her evidently being a traitor?”
“I don’t fucking know!” Shook exclaimed, clenching his fists on the table. “But I am gonna find her and find out.”
“Now, there you go, getting worked up about it,” Vandro said easily. “I bet that’s exactly how you got into all this in the first place. You take everything too damn personally, always have. Now, this Principia… I never met her, but I’ve heard the rumors for years. She’s got a good, solid rep on her. Sneaky as a weasel and a big pain in the ass to deal with. Not hard to figure she’s twisted events to make you look bad. You can’t let it get under your skin, Jerry, that’s how she plans to bring you down. You’ve gotta get your side told. Even the playing field before you get yourself and her back into the Guild’s clutches.”
“Not so easy to do when I’m the next goddamn thing to being declared traitor, myself,” Shook said morosely.
“Well, now, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that,” said Vandro with a grin. “Obviously, things aren’t gonna stand as they are. Some bitch gaming the system to make my apprentice her fall guy? No, I don’t fucking think so. We’ll deal with this, Jerry. You were right to come here. Long as you’re out there chasing after her like the coyote and the hare, you’re playing her game. Now, we’ll play mine. I guarantee the bitch won’t know what hit her. Meanwhile, you and your ladyfriend will stay with me.”
“You don’t get Guild visitors?” Shook asked sharply.
“I get Guild visitors.” Vandro’s grin widened. “And they know to mind their fuckin’ manners in my place. This isn’t Tiraas, my boy; the Guild’s a powerful presence here, too, but matters are different. It’s not so hard to move without their say-so…or their knowing about it. Trust me, I’ll show you the ropes. Who knows, maybe I can even arrange for you to have some work while you’re here. A thief shouldn’t be sitting on his ass when there’s a city this rich full of complacent turkeys waiting to be plucked.”
Shook grinned, and Kheshiri didn’t bother to hide her fascination. So even a man like Jeremiah Shook could have a friend—an actual friend, who seemed to care about him as a person. What was more, a powerful friend, whose presence opened up all kinds of options for him.
She’d have to do something about that.