The newsroom of the Imperial Herald was exactly the kind of controlled chaos in which she thrived.
The bulk of the work being done was by various reporters and columnists scribbling away at their desks, which was on its own merits also the quietest thing happening in the room. It seemed to involve a lot of shouting back and forth, however, off-color jokes flying about with the same frequency as threats and insults, most of which were shrugged off. Along the inner wall of the big room, rows of taller desks, separated by wooden divider panels, were manned by more level-headed personnel, quietly plugging away at their arcane typesetters, converting the work of the journalists to something that could be delivered to the printing presses in the next room down. Aside from all the shouting, there was no end of running around; reporters dashed back and forth between the doors and their desks, between their desks and the typesetters, up and down the stairs that led to the editor’s office and to and from the kitchen with cups of tea and cheap pastries.
Six months ago, the staff of the Herald had discovered coffee. Two months ago, it had been added to the office budget and was now usually available in the kitchen. Evidently a lot more had been done each day since, though the jury was still out on how much of that “more” constituted work.
This had once been a factory, and the newsroom was one of the former production floors, with the presses occupying the other. At the far end of the newsroom from the front doors, a skeletal staircase of painted steel ascended to the office once occupied by the factory foreman and now the editor-in-chief, little more than a metal box suspended from the ceiling. It had glass walls, though, enabling him to gaze out over his minions at their labors like a deity on high, which pleased him to no end. Lakshmi’s desk was right at the base of the stairs.
Well, not her desk, and she was carefully leaving as little evidence of her presence as possible. Mr. Talivaar’s usual secretary had suddenly taken seriously ill and was out for two weeks, a fact which had initially made Lakshmi rather nervous about this whole enterprise, before Sweet explained that Razideh Aljaderad was not, in fact, sick, but canoodling in Onkawa with her married lover. All this was doubly impressive because he had arranged it without the support of the Thieves’ Guild and its resources…which, in turn, made an alarming suggestion about the capabilities of the Universal Church.
She glanced at the clock, rose from her chair and set off up the steps, keeping her pace sedate. The conservative dress she wore was driving her batty, and not just because of the corset, which made ascending stairs an exercise in breathless pain. It just wasn’t her. No Punaji should be caught in a contraption like this unless she were undergoing torture or something equally honorable. Only by constantly reminding herself it was a disguise did she cling to her sanity; disguises were part of her calling, and a feature of the game being played at a higher level than she usually did. Working with a man like Sweet on a job like this was an aspiration realized. It was worth being a little frumpy while on duty.
Would be nice if she could be frumpy and still breathe, though.
Lakshmi rapped gently at the frame of the open door to Mr. Talivaar’s office. He grunted, not looking up from his desk full of papers.
“Sir?” she said. “I’m heading out to lunch.”
At that, he did raise his eyes, scowling and chomping at his cigar. “What? Lunch?”
“It’s in my contract,” she said demurely.
He snorted. “Fine, whatever, go. Just be back on time for once, Rupa.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied meekly, turning to go without pointing out that she had not once been late.
On her way back down, she meandered into the kitchen and snagged a sticky bun (this place sprang for good pastries), wolfing it down before heading back out and making her way to the door. It was a long, slow way, a routine that as usual burned up a good chunk of her half-hour lunch period. She wandered in no hurry, gazing about wide-eyed at all the fuss and confusion, stammering and cringing when she had to dodge out of the way of reporters dashing to and fro on their various tasks. Most of them didn’t give her more than an annoyed look in passing. They didn’t care; Razideh would be back in a couple of weeks and then they’d see no more of their boss’s constantly befuddled, incompetent interim secretary.
In this manner she overheard her usual allotment of gossip, glanced at multiple projects being worked on, noted and analyzed the presence or absence of various members of the staff and slotted that intelligence into the mental picture she was building of everyone’s schedules. It had only been a couple of days, but she’d formed enough of an understanding to note the absence of one particular person who would ordinarily be here at this time. In the mess of unrelated stories and banal office politics she absorbed, that was the sole piece of interest.
“Hello, Rupa,” the receptionist said a touch too brightly as she wandered past toward the front doors. “Off to lunch?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied in her vague, slightly baffled tone. “Same time every day.”
“Mm.” Darsi raised her eyebrows. “Your…friend is out there. He seems to be waiting across the street for you this time.”
Lakshmi followed her pointed look, finding Joe lounging outside the cafe opposite the Herald’s office, clearly visible through the glass panels inset in the front door, and had to repress a grimace. Amateurs…
“Ah…look, Darsi, can you do me a favor?” she asked, lowering her voice and leaning subtly across the receptionist’s desk.
“Sure, whatcha need?” Darsi replied, keeping her tone carefully casual. Like most really good practitioners of her profession, she was an inveterate gossip hound.
“If he comes inside again, could you be, y’know, nice to him?” Lakshmi asked earnestly. “He’s a stoic kid, but… Well, since his sister died, he’s got basically no one. She was my roommate, so… It’s not the same as family, but I try to keep an eye out for him.”
“Oh, honey,” the receptionist said, her eyes misting up. “Of course, of course. You poor thing, I had no idea.”
“Thanks,” Lakshmi said with one of the vague smiles she affected in this role. “See you in thirty!”
“You take care, hon!”
She smiled again, turned and meandered out. Mindful of the glass doors and Darsi’s voracious appetite for juicy intelligence, she kept her pace sedate and her path slightly wavering all the way across the street. Rupa Singh, bumbling secretary, was no threat and not particularly interesting to anyone. There was no telling how a nest of journalists would react to the presence of Peepers, Thieves’ Guild listener, in their midst.
Joe straightened up at her approach, doffing his had courteously. “Ma’am.”
“Joe,” she replied, linking her arm with his and leading him a distance up the street, out of view of the Herald. “For your information, I am the roommate of your recently-deceased sister, which is why you’re hanging around me. That smug little weasel behind the front desk is getting snoopy, which we don’t need. And for all the gods’ sakes, keep Weaver away from the office.”
“That suits everyone just fine,” Joe replied with an amused expression. “He prefers lurking in the upper stories watching through windows. Doesn’t have to talk to anyone that way, which…again, is to everybody’s benefit. I’m afraid I’m not much for lying, though.”
“I am very sorry to have to impose on your sensibilities,” she said with such a total lack of sarcasm in her tone that her words practically dripped with it. That was a neat trick she’d learned from Principia.
“Well, there’s that,” he said, “but I’m mostly concerned that my lack of practice will throw off your game.”
“Hmm.” Lakshmi shot him an appraising glance sidelong. “Fair enough, then. The idea is for you not to have to tell anyone that story, but… I’m sure you’ve lost people you care about.”
His expression stilled immediately. “Everyone has.”
“Right. Well, the trick to telling a good lie is to keep the untruth to an absolute minimum. If you have to bluff it, call up that memory and say it hurts, you don’t want to talk about it. Anyone will respect that. And it gives us a story, if necessary. Frankly, I should’ve thought of something like this earlier. People like simple stories, familiar ones. The most likely explanation for me meeting a boy every day at lunch is made creepy by the fact I’m twenty-three and you’re…what, twelve?”
“Old enough to know when I’m being baited,” he said with a smile. “Any word today?”
“Possibly,” she said, frowning. “I’ve still only got the one lead that’s even remotely promising. Carter Long has been pursuing some story, and has pulled up reference materials on the Wreath and demonology in general. Honestly, that may not mean squat. If there’s anything like that going on in the city, it’s obviously newsworthy. The only thing at all suggestive is that nobody else at the paper seems to be looking into anything of the kind, at least not that I’ve found.”
“Hm,” he mused. “With the Wreath as active as Bishop Darling says they are, that does seem…odd.”
“Right. Look, Joe…” She glanced around casually; the street was busy at noon, but everyone was hurrying about on their own business, no one paying inordinate attention to one young couple strolling along arm-in-arm. “This may be nothing, but I’ve got a feeling…and I’ve learned to trust my feelings. I need you and Weaver to be especially watchful today.”
He tilted his head, looking quizzically at her. “How so?”
“Especially watchful,” she repeated firmly. “Not just keeping an eye open for signals or unusual activity. Long is out of the office at a time when he’s usually hard at work at his desk. That means he’s following up on a lead. If I haven’t missed the opportunity already… Well, something’s afoot. After days of nothing, I’m gonna get a little more aggressive. He makes a move, I’ll follow him.”
“So you need us to watch for you leaving, and possibly being unable to signal as you’ll want to avoid attracting attention,” he said, nodding. “You realize if you do that, one way or another, it’ll blow your cover.”
“And then, if this is a bust, we move on to a different newspaper,” she said flatly. “Because if this doesn’t pan out, there’s nothing here worth pursuing, and Darling has indicated we’re on a tight timetable.”
“Right, then.” He sighed softly. “You’ll want to keep your eyes on this guy’s desk. I guess this means you’ll be heading back? Without lunch?”
“Disappointed?” she asked with wry amusement.
Joe shrugged. “Well, it’s my turn to treat, is all.”
Lakshmi shook her head. “Joe, it’s not that I don’t love the chivalry, but have a care. Some Avenist is going to take offense one of these days. There’s a school of feminist thought that says holding doors and chairs for women is implying that they’re too weak to do for themselves.”
“It was a woman who taught me to shoot,” he said calmly. “I’ve known far too many to doubt their capacity. But in a world that doesn’t always fairly acknowledge a woman’s worth…” He shrugged. “I find it hurts nothing to remind ladies that they are valued.”
“Hmm.” Lakshmi gave him a thoughtful look. “You know what, Joe?”
“In about…three years, I want you to look me up.”
He gaped at her, a very satisfying lapse in his usual poise (which did not belong on someone so young). Then he blushed, which just made it better.
Returning to the office, she met Darsi’s excessively sympathetic smile with a sad one. Ah, well, it spared her having to make conversation with the silly piece of fluff.
And on the subject of fluff, the approach through the foyer made it impossible not to see the artwork of the Herald’s new patron saint, which she had enjoyed not having to look at on the way out. Journalists hadn’t a god of their own, though the newsroom contained more than a few small idols of Vesk, the god of bards, which was the closest match. They weren’t a particularly devout lot at the best of times, though, and in the last week had found a new idol to revere. The posters in the foyer were life-sized, and hung on the walls on either side of the receptionist’s desk.
Lakshmi hadn’t met Branwen Snowe, exactly, but had glimpsed her from the near distance, and could critique the likeness. They were recognizable, surely, all pretty, auburn-haired and demure, but somewhat exaggerated. She was about that bosomy, sure, but not nearly so wasp-waisted, nor as tall. Also, there was absolutely no way her Bishop’s robes would cling to her figure like that. Still and all, Snowe provided something for everyone; the (mostly male) rank and file certainly enjoyed eyeballing her likeness, and Talivaar was over the moon about what she’d done for sales. Apparently her advice was already quite well-spoken-of throughout the city, too.
Lakshmi managed not to roll her eyes as she passed under Bishop Snowe’s beatific gaze back into the newsroom.
Here, again, she made her aimless, cringing way back to her desk, not letting her interest show on her face upon noting the presence of Carter Long back at his desk. He was a slight young man with a dark Western complexion, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his nose and a predilection for cheap suits. Now, she observed, he was arranging papers, not writing or interacting with his fellow reporters.
She continued on her way, seating herself behind her own desk near the stairs, pulled an expense sheet in front of herself and set about pantomiming working at it with an un-inked pen. Glancing up every few seconds without raising her head was enough to keep her quarry’s activities under surveillance. A frisson of excitement darted down her spine. Finally, after days in this tedious hole, wasting her talents on these people and their silly gossip, she just might be getting somewhere.
That, or this was all perfectly innocent and she was wasting time even harder.
Long was very clearly squaring away his effects, the kind of activity that usually preceded an evening’s departure from the premises. Not all the journalists at the Imperial Herald were so precise; a good many of those desks remained in a state of greater or lesser disaster round the clock. This fellow liked things neat and orderly, though. That he was doing this now strongly suggested he did not plan to be back here before tomorrow.
It was just after lunch. Long was too dutiful to skip out on his job—she’d only been watching him a few days, but she was fairly certain of that assessment—which meant wherever he was going was work-related. Given the timing, it had to be something big. And he’d been reading up on the Black Wreath… She’d pulled some of the archives for him herself.
He rose, rather abruptly, carrying a briefcase, and Lakshmi gave up her pretense. He had a sheet of paper in his other hand. If he was just taking it to the typesetter to be transcribed…
Long wove his way through the mess of desks and coworkers, reached the end of the row adjacent to the long bank of typists…and turned left, heading down the side of the room.
Right for her.
She returned her attention to the sheet of paper on the desk in front of her. In seconds, he had reached her…and then passed, heading into the kitchen. With his briefcase?
From the kitchen, there was an access to the back hall which led to storage and cleaning supplies… Lakshmi had not had the opportunity to explore it fully, but it would make sense if there were a back exit from the building in there somewhere. In the context of this, it was the only thing that made sense. Carter Long had no business putting his desk in order and carrying his briefcase and notes into a cleaning closet.
Which meant he didn’t want anyone taking note of his departure. There were rules at the Herald against actively sabotaging a fellow reporter. Well, just one rule, really: you could only do that to reporters who worked for other papers. But a lot of the staff here had proven they weren’t above snatching a scoop from an in-house rival should the opportunity arise. Which, in turn, meant that whatever lead Long was chasing was big, and juicy.
She rose smoothly, turned, and followed.
In the kitchen, she caught a fleeting glimpse of his lean form vanishing through the rear door into the back hall. Lakshmi went right after him, silently as she could, and peered through. It was narrow and dim; if he happened to turn, there’d be no way for her to hide. On the other hand, she was the editor’s secretary; she might have any number of possible reasons to be rummaging around looking for supplies. Hell, if he caught her, she could ask him where something was.
Lakshmi stepped into the dim hall, following the furtive reporter at what she judged a safe distance. Thank all the gods for her premonition; at least Joe had been forewarned that something might be afoot today.
Those two hotshots had better be paying attention.
“Look alive,” Weaver said by the window. Joe was at his side in a flash, tossing down the novel he’d been pretending to read on the bed. The hotel fronting the offices of the Imperial Herald tended to cater to journalists, who, it seemed, did not expect much in the way of material comforts. It was cramped, shabby, and generally not a pleasant place to be cooped up. Especially with Weaver.
He reached the window just in time to see Lakshmi looking very pointedly up the general direction of their room before heading off down the street, right after a slender fellow carrying a briefcase.
Beside him, still watching the street below, Weaver had just finished crushing one of the captive ladybugs he’d collected and kept in a tiny mesh cage, whispering rapidly to the remains of the poor insect in his fist.
“I guess she was serious,” Weaver said aloud. “This could be the big one. All right…we’ll need to split up.”
“Right,” Joe said. “How will—”
“You stay on her, I’ll go get Darling. I’ll be able to find you.”
Joe grimaced, quickly discerning his unspoken plan. “Ugh… Tell me you’re not going to send that invisible death thing to sit on my—”
“Why are you still here?” Weaver barked, already heading for the door.
Joe clenched his teeth in annoyance, but had to acknowledge the rebuke was warranted. He darted to the other window—they, or rather Darling, had paid through the nose for a corner room—and was quickly out on the fire escape. Lakshmi was vanishing down the sidewalk all too rapidly; he didn’t take excessive care with his personal safety on the way to street level. It didn’t matter too much, as he could sense every detail of where to place his feet and hands to get down with maximum efficiency.
On the street below, he had to run to get close enough; this would all be for naught if Peepers managed to lose him in the crowd. The sight of a well-dressed teenager dashing pell-mell down the sidewalk definitely drew more attention than he wanted, but he had other concerns.
Like the danger Peepers might be walking into, and the…whatever it was…that Weaver had apparently sent to accompany him. He wasn’t sure which unsettled him more.
There were all sorts of districts in Tiraas, all sorts of neighborhoods, each home to wildly different types of people. They ran the full gamut of wealth and social class, and some could be quite dangerous—not all for the same reasons, either. At least one particularly ritzy district, inhabited chiefly by nobles, could be risky to walk down at night, not because of criminal activity, but due to overzealous House guards who had a reputation for mistaking pedestrians for spies.
In the whole city, though, there was really only one empty district.
It was empty only for this moment in time, a part of the city’s continuing evolution. The island city of Tiraas had no room to grow, so as the art and science of architecture advanced, it frequently had to clear out the old to make room for the new. This process was precisely at its midway point in the Mid-Lower Southeastern Ward, a small neighborhood bordered by canals which had been home to the less desperate poor until last year, and would be home to the tenuously middle-class once the old apartments had been knocked down and replaced with new houses outfitted with all available modern magical conveniences.
Carter Long didn’t for one moment believe that because this area was theoretically abandoned, it wasn’t dangerous. The people he had come to meet couldn’t have been the only ones who saw the potential in a district currently beneath the notice of the city constabulary. Even if no one else who happened to be skulking about here chose to bother him… Well, there was the fact that he was on his way to a face-to-face confrontation with some very bad people. He kept a hand free and tucked into his coat pocket, where he had a wand. Brandishing it would only lead to trouble, but he didn’t want to have to fumble for it, should it be needed.
Even so, he wished for the sheet of paper on which he’d written down the directions he had been given. It was tucked in another pocket at the moment, ready to be consulted if necessary. He’d carefully memorized it all, of course. Double-checking was simply a thing he did whenever possible, for the sake of thoroughness. And, truth be told, comfort.
The right building was easily found—the street signs and numbers were all still in place. Its front door was not only unlocked, but broken and hanging open.
The old apartment’s interior was every bit as shabby and unlit as he would have expected of a place such as this; Carter found himself wishing he’d thought to bring a fairy lamp. Obviously, there were no interior lights active; fuel-burning fixtures would be completely neglected, and anything as valuable as fairy lights would have been scavenged long since. The halls were lit only by windows at either end, which didn’t so much provide light as create spooky glowing spots in the dark distance.
Finding the right room on the third floor took some doing, given the lack of illumination. He had to really strain to read the numbers on the room doors, and many of those were missing, either in whole or in part. The stairwell was the easiest part of the whole trip; it ran along the building’s exterior, and had windows whose glass had long ago been smashed out, letting in sunlight and a refreshing breeze.
Eventually, though, he located Room 317, which he was unsurprised to find still had its attached numbers. There was no light from under or around the door, no smells, no sound. This might as well have been as empty a place as the rest of the old wreck of a building. Carter took a deep breath, steeled himself, and knocked.
The door opened instantly.
Room 317 was fully furnished, well-lit with modern fairy lamps and seemed quite comfortable. Not so much so that it would have stood out from its neighbors when the neighborhood had been occupied, but there was a slightly shabby hominess to it, right down to the apparently handmade quilt on the bed and lace doilies draped over an end table and the mantlepiece. Carter spared all of it only the most cursory of glances, though, fixing his attention on the room’s occupant.
He stepped back from the open door, wearing a broad smile, and bowed, doffing his white straw hat. The man was dark-skinned, old enough to have lines on his clean-shaven face, and dressed in an immaculate suit of snowy white.
“Ah, hello,” Carter said, trying for poise. “I was told to come to…”
“And you must be Mr. Long,” the man in white said, still smiling. “Here for the scoop of the century, of course! Do come in, sir. Let’s see if we can’t make you famous.”
Carter cleared his throat and did as he was directed, fighting back nerves. He was, after all, stepping into a room with…well.
“And…have I the pleasure of addressing…?”
“Embras Mogul,” his host replied, his warm smile jerking upward on one side to become a distinctly sly grin. “Mortal leader of the faith of Elilial. So, Mr. Long, I take it you have some questions for me.