“You’d think she could hang out with us a little,” Gabriel grumbled as he and Trissiny stepped into the inn’s stairwell. Behind them, Ruda appeared already to be making friends—despite having left them just seconds ago—by swaggering up to the most crowded table in the common room and offering to buy a round.
“Ruda’s a social creature, and she sees us all the time,” Trissiny said with a shrug. “Let her relax in her own way. We still see plenty of her during study sessions and our activities on behalf of the district.”
“I’m half tempted to ditch the studying, what with Tellwyrn not even being here,” he grumbled. “I was really hoping to have time to visit my dad while I’m in the city. Should’ve done that today, while Juniper’s having her sulk.”
“Tellwyrn would know.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “She always knows.”
“Perhaps you could send your father a message?” she suggested. “If he’s not too busy to join us briefly, I’m sure he’d be glad to see Toby again, too. And I wouldn’t mind meeting—”
“Oh, no you don’t,” he said sharply. “Seriously, not a good idea. My dad… He’s not as bad as Elspeth, but he doesn’t much enjoy the company of cleric-type people. Too many have asked pushy questions about my, uh, origin.”
“The word is ‘conception,’” she said dryly. “And yes, I can imagine. I’m a little curious myself about—”
“And that is why this isn’t happening,” Gabe said firmly. “Perhaps I should have said ‘smug, disdainful accusations disguised as pushy questions.’ We don’t talk about it. You will just piss him off, and he doesn’t need or deserve it.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” Trissiny said slowly, keeping her eyes on the stairs as she climbed. “It isn’t right to impose. I just can’t help…wondering. Clearly he had his reasons. I mean, you’ve got your issues, Gabe, but you’re generally too well-adjusted to have been raised by some kind of deviant lunatic.”
“Be still, my heart.”
They arrived at the top floor and came to a stop in unison. There were strangers in their lounge area.
“Um,” Gabriel said slowly. “Afternoon, ladies. Sorry to be pushy, but, uh, this floor is reserved…”
“Yes, and you took your time getting here,” said one of the elves, grinning.
“But you’re here now,” added the other. “So let’s talk business! What can we do for you?”
The visitors were both elves, dressed in simple clothing that might have belonged to any factory laborer if not for a striking preference for very dark shades. Grays, browns and deep blues, specifically, rather than black. One wore a suitably heavy winter coat; the other had a thick cloak draped around her shoulders, which ruined her otherwise passably normal look.
“Do for us?” Trissiny asked carefully. “And…you are?”
“I’m Flora,” said the one in the cloak, flourishing it as she bowed, then arranged herself atop it in a chair.
“I’m Fauna,” added her counterpart, offering a mocking salute.
“You called for aid from the Thieves’ Guild, yes?”
“So, here we are. Whatcha need?”
“…seriously?” said Gabriel. “Flora and Fauna?”
“They use tags rather than their real names,” said Trissiny. “It’s a religious thing, don’t be rude.”
“While she’s not wrong,” said Flora, “we’re apprentices; no tags yet.”
“Those actually are our names.”
“I see,” Trissiny said slowly. “And which of us are you following?”
The two elves exchanged a quizzical glance. “Following?” Flora asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Gabriel has just come back from speaking with Elspeth. It would take time for a message to be sent and responded to—much more time than this. You, or one of your compatriots, were waiting. Since you managed to get back here ahead of us, you’d almost have to have been there when he spoke with Elspeth.”
“Well, well,” said Fauna, smiling. “And here we were told she wasn’t quick on the uptake.”
“This is much better,” Flora added. “Dense people are such a pain to work with.”
“Consider it our audition, then,” Fauna added, smiling broadly at Trissiny. “We know what we’re about and can get the job done.”
“Which brings us back to our increasingly tedious original question…”
“What is the job?”
Trissiny drew in a slow, calming breath. “This is a very sensitive matter. Can I trust you two to be…discreet?”
“That’s a little like asking a Legionnaire if she’s ready for a fight,” Flora remarked.
“Not quite insulting,” added Fauna, “but missing the point to a nearly insulting degree.”
“Fine, sorry,” said Trissiny. “I’ll just have to trust you to keep this to yourselves, then. I’m sure you’ve heard about the increasing problems Lor’naris is having with the city guard. Are you aware of the firebombing attempt this morning?”
“Of course, we’re not blind.”
“And yes, we know who was behind it.”
“You weren’t exactly subtle with the guy.”
“Okay, do you two always talk in tandem?” Gabriel asked. “I’ve gotta tell you, that’s more creepy than cute.”
The elves grinned broadly at him.
“And what makes you think we intend to be cute?”
“I need evidence!” Trissiny said loudly, shooting Gabe a glare. “Something concrete to tie the corrupt soldiers of that barracks to the bombing. Any such will be inside the barracks itself.”
The elves exchanged a glance.
“What, you expect them to have a log of their illegal bombing attempt?”
“No I don’t—why does everyone keep—” Trissiny cut herself off and breathed deeply again. “Look. I don’t anticipate there’ll be a signed confession. That operation, like all operations, required resources, and those came from somewhere. The Army’s bureaucracy being what it is, there will be a paper trail. If there’s anything definitive, I’d like you to find and retrieve it.”
Flora and Fauna regarded her in silence for a moment, then shifted to look at each other. They seemed to be having a mute conversation. Finally, Fauna stood from the chair she’d commandeered and paced over to the windows, where she peered out at the street. Flora crossed her arms, leaning back in her own seat. The cloak draped over it and under her created the suggestion of a queen on a throne.
“Robbing the Imperial Army itself, hm,” Fauna said at last. “That’s dicey.”
“Not the central headquarters, obviously,” said Trissiny.
“It’s more plausible than it sounds,” Flora mused. “People who it would be absolutely crazy to try to rob tend to skimp on their security. It’s unlikely anyone has ever tried this.”
“At least not at that particular barracks,” Fauna added, earning a grin from her counterpart.
“All right, General, we’re in.”
“There’s one important point,” said Trissiny. “I know how important credit for successful thefts is to you people, but it would really be best if your involvement in this is kept scrupulously quiet. For something so illegal and guaranteed to antagonize the soldiers in question…well, it’s better if the weight of it falls on me.”
“Hang on,” Gabriel interjected. “You said that if it’s for the greater good and we successfully prove the guards are corrupt, any charges for the break-in will be forgiven.”
“No,” she said patiently, “I said there is a precedent for that. Imperial magistrates have discretion in such matters, but they don’t pardon vigilantism in general—that’d be a recipe for anarchy. Hands of Avei are useful to the justice system because we operate with but outside the law.”
“Sharidan’s a pretty laid-back sort of chap,” added Fauna, “and the whole Tirasian Dynasty espouses the philosophy of the velvet glove, but at least on paper, the Empire is still a military dictatorship.”
“Imperial magistrates have an admirably ruthless appreciation for whatever gets the job done,” Flora agreed, “but she’s right—a Hand of Avei doing it is a whole different subject from a couple of apprentice thieves.”
“They take a very dim view of folks undercutting the power of Imperial authorities in particular.”
“Anything that smacks of rebellion, really.”
“So, no, Trissiny, we have no problem with you hogging the credit on this one,” Fauna said, grinning.
“All right, then,” Trissiny said. “You’re certain you can handle this? You’ve mentioned you’re just apprentices; I don’t want to be responsible for you getting hurt. Adding Bishop Darling to the list of people annoyed at me wouldn’t be a good move.”
“We wouldn’t have agreed to help if we weren’t confident,” said Flora.
“And I thought we’d already passed our audition,” Fauna added, “but if not…here, catch.”
Trissiny turned and snagged the object the elf tossed out of the air, then frowned. “…this is my coin purse.”
“Sure is. Have I made my point?”
Flora rose gracefully to her feet and joined her compatriot. They bowed in unison, smiling cheekily. “You’ll be hearing from us as soon as the job’s done. Hope you’re not a heavy sleeper.”
“I’m not one to care overmuch about money,” said Trissiny grimly, looking into her coin purse, “but I had a little more silver than this.”
“Consider that a fee,” said Fauna cheerfully. “Not for the job—that’s just our civic duty—but for summoning a couple of thieves and then impugning our skills.”
“See you soon!” Flora chirped, and they set off down the stairs at a good pace that wasn’t too efficient to disguise an obvious swagger. The two students watched them depart.
“Man,” Gabriel said at last, “you make friends everywhere you go, don’t you?”
“Well. Well well well well well well!”
Shook froze, stiffening. Beside him, her arm tucked through his, Kheshiri shifted to look over her shoulder at the voice from behind them.
Strolling through the courtyard wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time, but he was running out of ways to keep himself occupied, and in any case needed some time to think. Even Vandro’s endless supply of amenable girls were losing some of their novelty, largely because Shook had become rather spoiled by having a woman on hand who obeyed without question, refused him nothing, never complained about her treatment and always came back for more. He was now wondering if this was just the natural side effect of having a captive succubus or if Kheshiri was deliberately messing with his head. He’d told her to be quiet, so there was little harm in having her along while he contemplated her wiles. Anyhow, it made her happy; she’d actually been acting jealous of him and the time he spent around other women, which was almost endearing.
Slowly, he turned to face the speaker, who was framed in the open gate to the villa’s grounds, hands on her hips, wearing a particularly shit-eating grin.
“Look who’s out and about and not in jail,” Arachne Tellwyrn said brightly. “Those Guild lawyers really know their stuff. And Kheshiri! Someone finally let you out of your bottle, I see.”
Kheshiri, who was in her standard mortal disguise, scowled in blended puzzlement and irritation. “Excuse me? Have we met?”
“Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know I was watching… Well, never mind, that’s all ancient history. Whatever are you doing with this galoot?”
“And why wouldn’t I be?” the succubus asked, twining both of her arms around Shook’s and resting her chin on his shoulder, smirking. “He’s a demigod in the sack.”
Tellwyrn snorted loudly.
“May I fucking help you?” Shook grated.
“Why, Jerry, you found us an elf!” Alan Vandro exclaimed, strolling up to them with a cocktail in one hand. “Why don’t you introduce us? I see you two have met.”
Shook wasn’t quite sure what Vandro did with his time when the man was out of his sight, but this was not the first time he’d seen his host appear as if by magic in time to prevent a tense situation from going sour. Vandro described his estate as a haven of fun and relaxation, and it seemed he had the will and the means to prevent anyone from ruining the atmosphere.
“Alan Vandro,” Shook said tensely, not taking his eyes off the new arrival, “this is Arachne Tellwryn.”
At that, Vandro actually looked startled. “Wait—really? Are you sure? The Tellwyrn?”
“The the herself,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “Good, you’re the fellow in charge of this joint. I understand you like to throw a lot of frivolous parties.”
“Why, yes I do!” Vandro said, beaming. “Some of the best and most frivolous people in the province put in appearances at my little shindigs, but I must say you would be an honored guest indeed.”
“Uh huh,” she said, deadpan. “I’m looking for someone who’s been loitering in this city, likely crashing the most hoity-toity events being held, if I know him. Unfortunately I’m having the damnedest time tracking him down, as just mentioning his name seems to make people wet themselves and slam the door in my face.”
“Oh. Really?” Vandro frowned thoughtfully. “You’re looking for Zanzayed the Blue?”
“Ah,” she said with satisfaction, “then he is here?”
“Well, I certainly hope so,” Vandro replied, grinning. “I’m having one of my asinine little get-togethers two nights hence and I’ve already ordered all his favorite hors d’oeuvres. It’ll just break my little heart if he doesn’t come.”
“You want him to come?”
“Are you kidding?” Vandro grinned even more broadly, idly swirling his drink. “Everyone practically shits themselves at learning they’re in a room with a dragon. Ever seen a bunch of rich, powerful assholes in that sweet moment when they learn they are not the biggest, baddest thing around?”
“Frequently,” she said with a reminiscent smile.
“Glorious, isn’t it?”
“Definitely has its points.”
“Yeah, Zanzayed was still in the city last I heard, but there’s no telling how much longer he’s going to stay. Apparently things went sour with that noblewoman he was trying to work over. If I were him, I’d find the place serving the most free drinks and put them out of business, but who can say how dragons think?”
“Mm. As long as the drinks are of good quality, served by pretty girls in the company of well-dressed nobles…that’s more his scene.” Tellwyrn sighed, glancing around the courtyard. “Day after tomorrow, then? Damn it all, I’d really hoped to have this dealt with faster than that, but there’s just no running him to ground when he doesn’t want to be…”
“Well, now, I’d hate for you to have come all this way only to leave disappointed,” Vandro said magnanimously. “We’ve got all kinds of room, and it’s full of absolutely tasteless amounts of luxury. Why not stay and enjoy my hospitality until you find your friend?”
“What?!” Shook burst out. “Alan, have you lost your mind? This creep lives to wreck other people’s business!”
“Jerry, son,” Vandro said, suddenly tense, “let’s not be needlessly provocative with the charmingly eccentric archmage.”
“The hell with it,” Shook snapped. “If she decides to incinerate everyone or turn me into a lawn sculpture, she’ll just fucking up and do it, and there’s not much anybody can do to stop her. I’ll be damned if I’m giving her the satisfaction of seeing me cringe and grovel first.”
“Why, Mr. Shook,” Tellwyrn said with a little smile. “You’d best be careful; keep showing that kind of backbone and I’ll find myself respecting you. Then I’ll be really annoyed.”
He just glared at her. Kheshiri, wisely, remained silent.
“There, see? All friends!” Vandro said cheerfully. “What do you say, ma’am? My home is yours as long as you need it.”
“Very generous,” Tellwyrn said skeptically. “What’s the catch?”
“Well,” Vandro said, stepping over and placing a hand at the small of her back, gently ushering her toward the main house. For a wonder, Tellwyrn let herself be ushered. “I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me clumsily trying to get into your pants.”
“Ah, I see.”
“I’m over-ambitious, y’see, and not terribly bright.”
“I believe you.”
“Honestly, hon, it’s not even that you’re my type, but… The bragging rights. You understand.”
Shook, staring after them, clenched his fists until his knuckles crackled under the strain.
“You look like hell,” Gabriel noted.
“Nice to see you too,” Toby said wryly, massaging the back of his stiff neck and glancing around the lounge. Dusk was falling; the dim light from the windows had taken on a reddish tint. “Where is everyone?”
“Ruda is downstairs in the common room and looks like she plans to make a night of it; the lads just trooped down to join her. But you probably knew that. Shaeine and Teal took off for the embassy hours ago, and I suspect they found something a lot less official to occupy themselves after that. Fross and Trissiny went for a walk—well, a walk and a hover, I guess. About time, too, she was pacing like a caged tiger and looking about as friendly.”
“I assume you don’t mean Fross,” Toby said, grinning.
“Good catch, smartass. And of course, you know where Juniper is.”
Toby sighed heavily. “I’m ridiculously tired for as little as I’ve actually done all day.”
Gabriel shut the book in his lap, moved it to the low table and set down the clipboard with the paper on which he was writing on top of it. “I don’t think so. You’ve basically been holding yourself at maximum tension waiting for the hammer to fall all day. That’d exhaust anyone. And seriously, man, I know I say this a lot but right now you specifically need to lighten up.”
“I know,” Toby groaned, leaning against the wall. “So you keep telling me. And it’s not even that I disagree…”
“But…?” Gabe prompted.
He sighed. “I just… I don’t understand her.”
“She’s a fairy, man. You’re not supposed to understand her.”
“Yeah, but it’s…” Toby sighed again. “Tastes like pig. You know?”
“She’s not gonna start hunting people in the streets,” Gabe said. “You know the rules she’s operating under.”
“It’s not that. Something’s bothering her, and… With most people, I’m good at working out what’s wrong and helping if I can. Lots of them just need someone to listen. But with Juniper… I can’t read her. One minute she’s just this naïve, good-hearted girl who’s kind and cheerful and I know exactly where I stand, and the next she’s something terrifyingly alien. That’s what’s weighing on me. If she does snap and start… Well, I don’t know how to see it coming.”
“Toby, I hate to say it, but you’re probably making it worse.”
“Seriously, you’re just pissing her off at this point. I really don’t think we have anything to worry about unless something specifically sets her off. Which you’re kind of doing.”
Toby frowned. “She told you that?”
“No, I haven’t talked to her since this morning. But she told us all she wants some space to herself with no people around, and you then spent the whole day hovering. Come on. How would you feel?”
“That’s…well, crud, you’re completely right.” Toby leaned his head back, thunking it against the wall. “Uh, I’m an idiot.”
“You’re overburdened with the cares of others,” Gabriel said wisely. “Sometimes, my friend, you’ve gotta let people make their own mistakes.”
“Well, it seems to have worked with you.”
“Exactly!” Gabe said cheerfully. “In any case, just…go relax, man. Take a nap, go down and hang with Ruda and the boys. Something to take your mind off all this.”
Toby glanced at the short hall which terminated in the narrow stairwell that led to the roof. “I don’t… Finchley, Rook and Moriarty only agreed to take a break because I said I wouldn’t leave her unwatched.”
“You’re not,” Gabriel assured him. “I will sit in this room until she either comes through and goes to bed or you come back out. Fair?”
“I…yeah. Thanks. In fact, a nap sounds like a really good idea. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Or, don’t try again. Try leaving her alone for a while.”
“I’ll think about it,” Toby muttered, turning and shuffling into their room and shutting the door gently behind him.
Gabriel shook his head and reached for his book again.
“Psst.” He looked up to find Juniper peering around the corner from the roof access hall at him. “Is he gone?”
“Uh…he’s in there, getting some sleep. Are you okay?”
She was still in her human guise, but had dispensed with all the mandated outer garments. After spending the whole day on the privacy of the roof, she was soaked with sleet, her hair wind-blown, sopping wet and actually twisted into odd shapes by patches of frost. Freezing water dripped down her, plastering her sheer sundress very distractingly to her skin. Despite all that, she didn’t seem at all uncomfortable.
“I’m fine,” Juniper said crossly. “I just wanted a little time to myself. There aren’t many plants in this city, and the only animals are humans. It’s all so…weird. Hard to center myself.” She sighed, turning to stare gloomily out the windows.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” Gabriel inquired, getting up and walking over to join her.
Juniper shrugged. “I’ve never understood this thing where people ask about asking. If you’re curious, ask. No harm in that.”
“It’s about respecting your feelings,” he said with a smile. “Giving you a chance to cut off the conversation if you don’t want to talk.”
“Oh. Well… I guess that makes sense. That’s actually very considerate.” She turned to give him a bright smile. “What did you want to know?”
“Well, it’s… A little awkward, I’m not sure how to…”
“Gabriel, you have had your penis in every part of me where it would fit. Seriously, just spit it out. I’m not gonna be shocked.”
He flushed deeply, then cleared his throat. “It’s just, if this weren’t a school sanctioned trip, if there were no rules… I’m just trying to figure out where we stand. Would you actually…y’know…eat me?”
“Of course not!” she exclaimed, looking scandalized.
Gabriel un-tensed a bit. “Okay. Yeah, I figured, but I just…”
“I mean, no offense, Gabe, but nothing eats demon. Blech. I realize you’re only half, but I can smell it on you, and… Yeah, it’s not unpleasant, you know, but definitely not appetizing.”
He had re-tensed while she spoke. “I…see. Um. What about the others?”
“Others? Our classmates?”
She shrugged, looking back out over the street. “Well, mother forbids us eating elves, so that rules out Trissiny and Shaeine. And Fross is basically a little clump of pure magic; no nutritional value except to other pixies.”
“And…” He paused to swallow heavily. “Ruda? Toby?”
“Sure,” Juniper said nonchalantly. “I mean, I’d have to be hungry. Not just peckish, but seriously needing nutrition. Otherwise I’d must rather keep them alive. I like Ruda and Toby. Even when he’s being an annoying mother hen.”
“I don’t… I don’t understand how you can think that way,” Gabriel said very carefully. “They’re… They’re your friends. Wouldn’t you miss them if they were gone?”
“Of course I would,” she said patiently. “And I will, when they die. Which they will. You’re all going to die, eventually, and when you do, something will be nourished by your flesh. I would think you’d care enough about me to prefer that would be me than some random bunch of microbes.”
“I, um… You should know there’s a kind of a disconnect there,” he said. “This kind of talk really bothers people.”
“You asked!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, I did,” he said soothingly, “and I appreciate you clearing it up for me. It’s just gonna be hard to…process. For humans, caring about someone… Loving someone means you wouldn’t eat them.”
“Oh, you people and your taboos,” she said, scowling. “Your laws and customs, and stupid square buildings and fences and domestications and all these completely arbitrary, made-up rules that don’t mean anything but you act like they’re the center of the world!” Juniper’s voice rose steadily while she spoke, until she finally slapped a hand against the windowpane. The whole thing rattled in its housing, but thankfully didn’t break. Gabriel began easing backward away from her. “I’m just so tired of it! How can you live like this? You’re animals! You are all. Just. Animals! Just act like it!”
Juniper stopped, drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Feh… Now I’m all tense and wound up. C’mon, let’s go have sex.”
“Um,” he said hesitantly. “I, um… It’s not that I don’t… I mean, I’ve just gained a sort of perspective about you and I, uh, I need time to think about it. I mean, I’ve kind of misjudged you, and I want to treat you fairly, and that’s gonna involve some sorting out how I really feel, and, y’know, what to do about it…”
“Gabriel,” she said impatiently, “you can do all that anytime.” A sudden, sly smile crossed her face, and she pressed forward, backing him against the wall and pushing her chest into his. Gabriel let out a soft squeak when she leaned in and nipped gently at the base of his throat. “You can do that after you spend a couple of hours enjoying every pleasure my body can give you.”
“I…well…that… Yeah, okay.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Lakshmi said, smiling fondly. “You can tell me all about it on the way home.”
“Aw,” Sanjay whined. “It’s still early! I wanted to go to the park!”
“Kid, it is nearly dark. You know what kind of creeps hang around in the park at night?”
“Creeps like you?” He stuck out his tongue at her.
“Exactly,” she said, nodding solemnly. “You wouldn’t want to meet them in the dark of the night, would you? C’mon, squirt, it’s getting colder and we still have to eat. Home.”
Sanjay fell into step beside her. The sidewalks had emptied enough for them to walk together without needing to weave and dodge around other passersby. “Home was in Puna Dara,” he muttered rebelliously.
“Yeah,” Lakshmi said softly, nodding.
Sanjay looked up at her in surprise. “What, really? You’re not gonna give me some speech about how this is our new home?”
“What, this ice city?” She shuddered. “Please. Tiraas is a place, like any other. We’re Punaji, and don’t you ever forget it. But…this can be a good place. There are opportunities here we’d never have found back home. Just takes a little work and cleverness, is all. If we do our part to take care of the city, it’ll take care of us.”
“So that’s why you were in such a hurry to tell that paladin about the bomber?”
“Exactly. That, and she’s a useful person to get on the good side of.” Lakshmi patted him on the head, which was covered by a thick knitted cap. “Now c’mon, pick up those feet. I don’t wanna be out in this miserable cold any longer than we absolutely have to.”
As they passed a small newsstand, boarded up at this hour, a young woman in a thick longcoat and heavy scarf who’d been leaning against the nearby wall reading the day’s paper looked up, honing in on their conversation. She stood in silence while Sanjay and Lakshmi continued up the sidewalk, letting them get a good twenty paces ahead before folding the paper and tucking it under her arm, stepping out onto the walkway after them.
As she fell in, she carefully adjusted her collar, making sure the heavy overcoat and scarf concealed the Imperial Army insignia below. Night was falling, people were hurrying to get home out of the cold, and nobody paid any attention to her, least of all the two Punaji she followed toward their home.