“I’d help you if I could, Mr. Caine.” Captain Ravoud folded his hands atop the lowest pile of papers on his desk, staring intently at Toby. The desk was well-covered, stacks of paperwork drifting higher toward the edges, leaving a valley through which the Captain studied his guest. “I’ve made no secret of my sympathies or my feelings about all the drow in that district, but I would much rather avoid…well, all of this. Even if matters were different, I wouldn’t brush off a request from a paladin. Something you might mention to your colleague, so next time she may be more inclined to talk to all parties in a dispute before setting up a Silver Legion blockade.” He sighed heavily, closing his eyes, and leaned back in his chair, dropping his hands into his lap. “Unfortunately, the time to ask me was several days ago, when I still had a shred of control over the situation.”
Toby frowned, shifting in his seat. “These are still your soldiers, Captain. I understand they have a lot of respect for you, personally.”
“Don’t remind me,” Ravoud groaned, finally opening his eyes again. He was a young man for his rank, nowhere near middle age yet, though he had the look of someone who had put on years in the course of days. His eyes and cheeks were hollowed, and though he hadn’t allowed stubble to accumulate on his chin, his regulation-cut hair was ruffled, and his uniform seemed to fit loosely, as though meant for a more well-fed man. He was a portrait of stress. “Anyway, it scarcely matters. My orders and encouragements to keep calm only count for so much with the bloody Guild trying to provoke them at every turn. I’ve got dozens of men to look after, half of them out on patrols at any one time, and not a one trained for this kind of psychological warfare. It’s only a matter of time till one cracks, and not much time at that. Then…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
“We’re doing what we can about that,” said Toby. “I’ve sent messages to the Church and my own cult, and Trissiny is following up with some contacts she has with the Guild. If they can be persuaded to back off…”
Ravoud was shaking his head again before Toby finished. “I’ve contacted the Church; they say they’re looking into it. No help’s coming from that quarter. They have no actual control over individual cults, and even the Archpope’s authority doesn’t go far with the Guild. I’ve contacted ImCom, who shot me down and said as long as the Guild is technically on the right side of the law, we’re not to take any action. What with the mess this barracks has caused lately, anyhow, we’re under investigation and I’m under an injunction not to issue any major orders of any kind to my troops—basically nothing but the standard, day-to-day running of the regiment. I even tried to send a plea to the Guild itself.” He sighed, his expression bitter. “I’m assuming they’re the ones who sent me a sketch of my father asleep in his reading chair. It appeared on my desk during the two minutes I was in the toilet.”
“Holy—” Toby broke off, but Ravoud gave him a look of sour agreement, nodding.
“The Guild toes the line most of the time, but they are nasty when riled up. Purely, gratuitously vicious. Given the option, I think I’d rather have the Black Wreath after me.”
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” said Toby, “but please don’t lose hope. We are working on it, and hopefully there will be progress within a couple of hours. I realize Trissiny probably isn’t your favorite person right now, but she does have a knack for cleaving through bureaucracy. And it’s not just her, or me. One of our classmates is a member of House Awarrion; she’s doing what she can down at the Narisian embassy.”
Ravoud stared at him in silence for a long moment, swiveling slowly back and forth in his chair. The small, nervous motion seemed oddly childlike. Eventually, just before Toby was going to say something again, he drew in a deep breath and steepled his fingers. “You know why I’ve pursued a career in the Army, Mr. Caine?”
Toby shook his head, keeping his expression open and encouraging.
“My little sister, Alia, was an accountant. A Vernisite—not very devout, but you don’t get far in the financial sector without paying at least lip service to that goddess. And she was—is—pretty. That proved to be her downfall. You see, Mr. Caine, she was part of a trade mission opening channels of exchange in Tar’naris. There, she was entrapped.”
Toby frowned. “Entrapped?”
“Invited by a resident drow working at the embassy to invest in a development project. There was lots of construction going on; it was right after the Narisian Treaty, they were renovating basically the whole city, putting in all the agricultural infrastructure, and there was money flowing back and fourth like rainwater. All of that was common. Alia had the matter checked out by a local solicitor, just because it was in her nature to be careful. Everything was fully aboveboard, so she signed on, devoted a chunk of her savings. What ambitious young financial planner wouldn’t have jumped at such an opportunity? Such things were the reason she went there. A new diplomatic relationship between countries is a frontier, as surely as the edge of the Golden Sea. It attracts a different kind of adventurers, but lots of Imperials were sniffing around Tar’naris then.” He drew in a slow breath through his nose and let it out. “Not so much anymore, because of what happened to Alia, and dozens of others like her.”
“What happened?” Toby asked quietly.
“The investment was a fraud. It was a front for a criminal enterprise. Everyone involved was arrested, charged, convicted… Yeah, I’m sure all that was scrupulously legal. Those deemed responsible were all sold as slaves, which is apparently not unusual under the Narisian caste system. I spent a lot of time prying and sniffing around, and it turns out the exceptions were the ringleaders of the whole operation, the ones who’d set up the criminal activity, because they were members of a powerful House that pulled strings to get them out.” He leaned forward again, fury animating his expression. “It was a trap, Caine, the whole thing. The investments weren’t the point; the crime wasn’t, either. It was a way to snare the rarest and most expensive of luxury goods, of which the elite Tar’naris had been starved for decades: human slaves.
“And this is common. Do you understand that? It’s sufficiently common that the Empire has taken to strongly warning Tiraan citizens to avoid certain kinds of activity if they visit Tar’naris. It’s appointed a whole branch of the embassy there to try to prevent things like this from happening and retrieve entrapped humans when it does—because yes, it still does, and no, they can’t always get our people back. It’s all legal in Tar’naris.”
He gripped the edges of his desk, knuckles whitening. “My family have tried everything. Apparently, Imperial diplomatic personnel who get snared, and sometimes their families, can be pulled out citing some kind of privilege, but accountants aren’t that important. It’s not worth straining our relationship with a valuable ally to rescue our citizens from having been tricked into slavery. It took us months even to get in touch with Alia’s new owner, and they refused to see us. Not interested in doing business. Do you know what they want humans for? Of course you do, everyone does. My baby sister hopefully ended up in some drow noble’s harem, and that is the good option, because it’s at least as likely she was stuck in a brothel.”
“I’m so sorry,” Toby whispered.
“That is what they do,” Ravoud said, glaring at him. “That’s what they are like. They can’t raid us with swords anymore, because we have better weapons now. So they adapted. They are a society of predators who think of the human race as a resource. Am I happy to have a whole district of them here, in Tiraas itself? Bah. They’re so well-mannered, so civil, it’s so very easy to be taken in. I am just waiting to find out what all those drow in Lor’naris are really here for, and now… Well, now it seems I won’t.”
He slumped back into his chair, the outrage seeming to drain from him, leaving the man merely exhausted and mournful. “Something similar happened to Khalivour; it was a girl he’d been courting. It’s usually girls, though they’ll take men, too. He and I were in it for the same reasons: rise through the ranks, become somebody in the Imperial Army. Be important enough to give the order and have our loved ones fetched out of bondage in that nest of darkling depravity. Now he’s dead, and I’m almost certain to lose my command and any hope of future advancement.” A bitter little smile flickered across his features. “You know, it’s almost better this way. If all this had been forced on me by some enemy…I think it would drive me mad. But no, I failed to rein in Khalivour, even though I knew how he was. I let my officers know how I felt and why, let that influence their treatment of the darklings in Lor’naris. Some of this just happened, but I can see where I’ve been responsible. I can still say I am the captain of my own destiny. Even if it means I’ve failed utterly…there’s that.”
He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of brandy, setting it atop a pile of papers. “A gift from my father when I made Captain. Thirty years old. Khalivour and I were going to break it out, one day, when we managed to get Alia and Tamra back. Now… Looks like I’ll be ending the week making toasts to all the lost friends I failed to save.”
He met Toby’s eyes, looking totally drained of life, of hope. “I would help you if I could, Mr. Caine. I’d help a lot of people, but I’m afraid it’s too late. I’m in no position to help anyone.”
The villa was a bees’ nest of activity, workers scurrying this way and that setting up decorations and making preparations for the evening’s entertainment. Tellwyrn, watching from a second-floor balcony, could identify preparatory enchantment work that would become light displays, hover charms for floating tables, music boxes being chained together via golem logic controllers to play the same synchronized tunes everywhere simultaneously, plus innumerable other little details, several of which were mystifying even to her. Enchantments were being invented and refined at such a rate these days that she had fallen behind.
“And the best part is, it’s all on the cheap,” Vandro enthused, gesticulating with one of his omnipresent cocktails. “So much of the point of all this rigamarole is for the rich assholes to impress each other with how much they can afford to spend. Feh. I’ll have you know I have cut corners on round surfaces, used surplus materials, pulled in favors… Well, it’s all a boring bunch of stories. Point is, tonight I get to watch the wealthiest bastards in Onkawa turn green with envy at all the gold I can throw around, when I’ve not spent a tenth as much as they did on parties that weren’t half as flashy. It’s fucking delicious.”
“Alan,” she said, “I certainly appreciate your hospitality, and I can tell this is, indeed, going to be a hell of a party.”
“Well, this is like an RSVP from my ex-wife,” Vandro said, grinning. “There’s a big but coming.”
“Fancy parties full of snobby people… Well, if you moved the venue into a church, it’d be a who’s who of everything I hate. I really am just here on business. I need to find my dragon, give him a message, and haul ass back to Tiraas, hopefully before the eight students I’ve left there manage to burn it down.”
“Oh, don’t be so hard on the kids,” he said magnanimously. “I know we like to make jokes about the young—I mean, seems like every generation gets progressively more weak-minded. Still and all, they have to be pretty good kids if they made it into your school. How bad can it be?”
“Good?” She turned to face him, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t recruit based on good. In this case, we are talking about two paladins, a drow cleric, a half-demon with permanent foot-in-mouth syndrome, a pacifist bard possessed by a demon, a neophyte pixie wizard, a dryad and the Punaji princess. Unsupervised.”
Vandro stared at her for a moment, then whistled. “My gods, woman, we’ve gotta get you back to Tiraas ASAP, while we still have an Empire. Wilberforce!”
“Yes, sir,” said the silver-haired Butler smoothly, stepping out from the shade of the sitting room behind them and bowing. “I shall see to it that Zanzayed the Blue is recognized as soon as he arrives, if he sees fit to attend, and will personally inform Professor Tellwyrn immediately.”
“Thank you,” said Tellwyrn, nodding.
“It’s such a shame, though,” Vandro said with a sigh. “You’re the most prestigious guest I’m ever likely to have… And it’s going to be a hell of a party.”
“You don’t know Zanza like I do.” Tellwyrn stared down at the preparations underway, drumming her fingers on the balustrade. “I very much fear that you have no idea.”
“Yes, that is a serious problem,” said Shaeine.
“Wait, it’s true?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I was expecting you to say Rouvad was full of it.”
“Ravoud,” Trissiny corrected tersely. “Rouvad is—”
“The High Commander, yes, I know, sorry.” He rolled his eyes. “All due respect, Triss, get used to it. I can barely manage to say the right thing when I know what I’m talking about.”
“How do you know?” Ruda asked, grinning. “When has that ever happened?”
“Can we please, for once in our lives, stop bickering and focus?!” Toby exclaimed.
Silence fell while everyone stared at him in shock.
Toby drew in a deep, steadying breath. “Sorry. Shaeine, you were saying?”
The drow shook her head. “I’m afraid I have little to add on the subject. Certain elements within Tar’naris do, indeed, use trickery to ensnare humans into legal slavery. It’s a constant strain upon our relations with the Empire, something which causes my House a great deal of extra work. The problem appears to be intractable, however. Queen Arkasia refuses to ban human slavery because doing so would merely drive the market underground, weakening her regime and removing our legal recourse to extract those Tiraan citizens we can. Even so… The politics of the city are a delicate web to navigate. We cannot antagonize the wealthiest members of each House by forcibly retrieving what they think of as luxury goods, for which they have paid a small fortune.”
“But your family doesn’t do this, right?” Trissiny demanded.
“Indeed,” said Shaeine, “my mother has prohibited the practice for all members of House Awarrion. It would be impossible for us to deal with the Empire in good faith if we partook in such abuse of the spirit of the treaty. No one in my House is to possess an enslaved human.”
“Okay,” said Trissiny, nodding.
“That said, we have two.”
“What?” the paladin shouted. Teal, sitting beside Shaeine on the couch, sighed and closed her eyes, clearly not surprised by the news.
“It is a case in point, demonstrating how complicated the issue is,” said Shaeine solemnly. “Both were gifts, the refusal of which would have been a deadly insult that we could not afford to make. Zoe and Riley are members of my family, as loved as anyone else.”
“And so you freed them?” Trissiny said sharply. “They’re allowed to leave?”
Shaeine shook her head. “Freeing them from enslavement would still leave them legally liable for the crimes which were the reason of their situation.”
“Trumped-up charges?” Toby asked quietly.
“I’m afraid so,” Shaeine admitted, “but the fact remains. Narisian justice is swift and not gentle, even when it is wrong. It is precisely because they are loved that we do not allow them to be subjected to that. Riley has three children; my niece and two nephews. They are, I repeat, family.”
“That suddenly means a whole lot less when they’re not legally allowed to say otherwise,” Ruda pointed out.
“I am aware of this,” Shaeine replied, her tone subtly cold despite her calm. “We make the best of the situations given us. Complaining is pointless.”
“Okay, uh, hold it.” Gabriel lifted his good hand, which had been draped around Juniper’s shoulder. Whatever accommodation the two had reached, Juniper had been clinging to him all morning, looking miserable no matter how he reassured her. His other arm was still in a sling. “Clearly we all have issues with this, but we can talk about it any time. I think a time when we don’t have urgent problems would be better.”
“He’s right,” said Trissiny, nodding despite her unhappy expression. “I’m sorry to report I’ve made no progress. I’ve personally delivered messages for Bishop Darling at both the Church and the Thieves’ Guild headquarters, and even his house. He wasn’t at any of them, but I’ve got three assurances he’ll be informed as soon as he returns.”
“The Guild cooperated with you?” Toby asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Not immediately,” she said flatly. “The enforcer who met me at the Imperial Casino, where they keep their offices, attempted to send me to the opposite side of the city, where she claimed Darling was holed up with a mistress.”
“How do you know he wasn’t?” Ruda asked.
“Because I know how Eserites are, especially when they are dealing with Avenists. I politely asked her to tell me the truth, she repeated her story with professions of the utmost innocence, and I punched her in the mouth.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“Oh, Trissiny,” Teal sighed.
“Um,” Fross chimed hesitantly, “how does that help persuade the Guild to back down?”
“Because,” Trissiny said testily, “as I just said, I know how they think. Eserites don’t write down their doctrines, but my education included a thorough grounding in everything known about how they operate. Everything is a game to them. ‘Mischief and misdirection,’ they say; it’s how they address virtually everyone. Yes, I probably made an enemy of one particular thief, but I had to wait for the four others present to stop laughing before we could continue talking, and then they all wanted to buy me drinks.”
“Tell me you didn’t,” said Ruda, grinning hugely.
“Of course I didn’t,” Trissiny snapped. “They’d have almost certainly been drugged, and anyway, as I keep having to remind you, I don’t drink. But after all that, I was more inclined to believe the man when he said Darling was out, but he’d pass along a message as soon as he returned. You just have to show them you’re willing to play the game.”
“And…punching them in the mouth is playing the game?” Gabriel asked.
“On a case by case basis. The woman in question was muscled like an ox and had a broken nose. I wouldn’t have struck a cutpurse or con artist; they’d consider that very poor form and probably grounds for retaliation. They respect people who beat them at their own games, though, which is why Silver Legionnaires are trained to spot enforcers when dealing with the Guild. Them we can take in a fight—usually—and it’s an established path to getting a dialogue going.”
“Religious people are insane,” Gabriel marveled.
“Here’s to that,” Ruda agreed, raising a bottle of rum in his direction. “I dunno how you get through the day, Boots, I really do not.”
“So…there’s a precedent for this?” Toby asked hesitantly. “You’re certain you didn’t just make things worse?”
“You know what, Toby?” Trissiny rounded on him. “After the week we’ve had, maybe you’re not in a position to criticize my diplomacy anymore. At least I’ve been trying.”
“Whoah, okay, that’s enough,” Teal said firmly. “This is a tense situation; let’s not start attacking each other. Okay?”
Trissiny muttered something and turned to stare out the window of the lounge. Toby just sighed, looking at her.
“So this is a waiting game, then?” said Gabriel. “We’ve got nothing else to pursue until we hear back from Darling?”
“And then,” Teal added glumly, “we have to hope he can and will get his fellow cultists to back off. But if that pans out, it’ll go a long way toward defusing this. Without the Guild putting pressure on the guard, a huge amount of tension goes out of the whole situation.”
“Yeah,” Gabe said, nodding glumly. “I’m just…scrambling to think of anything else we can do to help in the meantime. Sitting here waiting for the ax to fall is gonna drive me nuts.”
“There is one thing,” said Shaeine. “Those of us present, between us, can exercise a certain amount of political clout. I suggest we speak to the Imperial Army in support of this Captain Ravoud.”
“In…support?” Fross asked. “Are you… You heard the part where this guy hates drow, right?”
“Hate may be too strong a word,” Shaeine said evenly. “It must be said that he has a very legitimate grievance against my people. However, he has also expressed willingness to work with Toby, and the reality is that he was, according to the best information we have, not directly responsible for any of the attacks on Lor’naris, and values law and order above his own prejudices. I am deeply regretful that I failed to open a dialogue with him in the first place; I feel it might have averted a great deal of misfortune. Even so, he appears to be precisely the sort of person who can best keep things as civil as possible. In addition, he is known and trusted by the soldiers in Barracks Four; keeping him there will give them a sense of continuity that will be helpful in assuaging their own fears.”
“Okay,” Trissiny said slowly, “I see your point. I’ll pass that along to General Panissar. I doubt he’ll have time to see me or anything, but I can at least get him a message fairly quickly.”
“I was thinking more of a letter of endorsement, signed by you, myself and Toby,” said Shaeine. “We each have credibility and relevance to the situation; we have been in apparent opposition to Captain Ravoud, so our endorsement of him will have extra weight. I can compose it in minutes and submit it for your approval.”
“I think that’s a fine idea,” Toby said, nodding.
“Wanna hear some more good news?”
They all turned to stare at the staircase, at the head of which now stood a familiar pair of elves, grinning.
“Hello, Fauna, Flora,” Trissiny said wearily. “Is this good news in a sarcastic sense?”
“Not at all,” said Fauna. “This is the real deal.”
“We probably shouldn’t be telling you, but hell, we’re not officially Guild members yet, and it seems like more communication, not less, is best right now.”
“The short version is the Guild isn’t going to lean on Barracks Four much longer.”
“Darling got my message?” Trissiny perked up visibly.
The elves exchanged a glance.
“Dunno about that,” said Flora. “It’s the policy, though. As hard as they’re pushing those soldiers, the point isn’t to make them break. It’s to make it seem like it is.”
“What?!” Gabriel exclaimed.
“It’s a threat,” said Teal quietly. “People don’t often appreciate this, but threats are, themselves, acts of violence.”
“Exactly,” said Fauna, nodding approvingly. “Most of those soldiers didn’t do anything to us. They’re getting a one-day reminder of why they’d damn well better not, and then poof. Back to the shadows with us.”
“Even if one of them breaks and takes a shot, the Guild members shadowing them aren’t gonna engage,” Flora added.
“Those two who actually attacked Peepers, though…”
“Yeah, their asses are ours.”
“They’re in Imperial custody,” Toby pointed out firmly.
“Yeah?” Fauna grinned at him. “And it’s probably gonna snow tonight. That has what to do with anything?”
“It’s good news, indeed,” said Trissiny. “It makes our position a little easier.”
“Well, no,” said Flora with a wince. “That’s the other thing we came to tell you.”
“Great,” Trissiny sighed. “What now?”
“The thing you were initially worried about looks likely to happen,” said Fauna.
“Somebody’s agitating the Lorisians,” Flora said grimly. “And those of Barracks Four who aren’t on duty. At each other, specifically.”
“What do you mean, agitating?” Teal demanded.
“It’s hard to say.” Fauna shook her head. “Some of it has to be due to the escalating tension, but… It’s too much, too fast. The Guild’s been watching both the district and that regiment closely, which is the only reason we happen to know…”
“And the only reason we happen to know is we’re very good at overhearing stuff apprentices aren’t supposed to be privy to,” Flora added.
“But there have been meetings.”
“There may or may not be some kind of riot brewing…”
“…but it looks a lot like someone’s trying to arrange one.”
A heavy silence fell over the lounge, the students all staring at the two thieves.
“Who?” Toby asked at last.
Flora shrugged. “If we knew that, someone would be putting a stop to it. Maybe someone does, and is.”
“That’s quite possibly where Darling’s been all day. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of him either.”
“Well…it’s okay, right?” Gabriel said. “I mean, we’ve got the Legionnaires in the district.”
“Gabriel,” Trissiny said wearily, “the Legionnaires are warriors. We don’t train to suppress civil insurrections; the only way we train to fight is against enemies. With swords.”
“I think maybe we’d better call in the Army,” said Toby.
“You do that,” said Flora, “and not only is Barracks Four good and fucked, so is Lor’naris.”
“A district full of drow that’s clean, productive and safe is one thing,” added Fauna.
“A district full of drow that’s involved in an armed insurrection… Well, that’s about nineteen different kinds of uglier. What do you think the Empire will do about that?”
“So…” Gabe looked around helplessly at the others. “What do we do?”
The silence stretched out.