Price would never have admitted how much she enjoyed dressing up the apprentices, and Darling would certainly never press her, but the results spoke for themselves. They got looks, of course, as they always did in the Cathedral, but so far as he could tell the looks were entirely due to their ears and not their attire or mannerisms. Flora and Fauna followed him demurely, clad in conservative but graceful frocks of dark blue and gray respectively, and had so far played the role of clerical students so well that even he could find no flaw in their performance. Of course, he still wouldn’t attempt this kind of test of their skills without his supervision. No one was going to interfere with a Bishop’s retinue, but elves alone in the Cathedral might otherwise not get ten paces without being stopped and questioned.
Or so he was idly reflecting, debating whether the innate injustice of it was something he ought to (or even could) address, when his theory was contradicted.
“Your pardon, Bishop Darling?”
He halted immediately, turning with careful smoothness—the Bishop’s mannerisms were more poised and languid than Sweet’s, and with all the various action lately the two roles had started to blend more than he liked. He seized upon every opportunity to emphasize the difference.
Of course, he recognized the person approaching him. There were relatively few elves in service to Pantheon cults, scarcely any in the employ of the Universal Church, and exactly one entitled to the uniform of a Bishop.
“Please, it’s just Antonio,” he said with a beatifically Bishoply smile. “I must endure far too much tedious formality as it is, without demanding it from equals.”
“Antonio, then,” Nandi Shahai replied with a nearly identical smile, and he immediately began to suspect that this one was trouble. Basra Syrinx’s absence had, needless to say, shaken up many people’s plans and routines, and her replacement was discreet enough to make it a challenge for anybody to get a good read on her. She had virtually no reputation outside the Sisterhood, who had nothing to say to any of his rumor-gatherers. “I wonder if I might requisition a few moments of your time?”
“You need only ask,” he replied, widening his smile by a very precise increment. Hers shifted equally precisely to match. Oh, yes, she was dangerous. He had seen the calm control of the older elves; seeing the calm control of a modern politician on an elf raised frightening prospects. “These are my apprentices, Flora and Fauna. Is this to be a private matter, or do you mind if they observe? My schedule affords me sadly few opportunities to show them the more ecclesiastical side of my work.”
He kept his expression open and solicitous, very much just a colleague dutifully concerned for the proprieties. Shahai once again shifted her own to mirror it in the most exact nuance, which confirmed his assessment that she was a skilled operator and made him begin to wonder whether she was subtly poking fun.
Darling made a mental note to grill the girls extensively later for their opinions of the new Bishop of Avei.
“The matter is no secret, at least not to me,” she said serenely, nodding to Flora and Fauna, who bowed in return. “I will leave it to you to judge whether it is sensitive—it concerns a member of the Thieves’ Guild with whom the Sisterhood may have a burgeoning problem.”
“Oh?” he said, allowing his gaze to sharpen. This was in line with his official duties and his numerous less-than-official ones, as she assuredly knew. Moreover, it was a disturbing prospect. Eserites who went sufficiently rogue to cause trouble for other cults tended to be big trouble for everyone before being finally reined in. “Please go on, you have my undivided attention.”
“Thank you,” Shahai said politely. “I shall try not to take up too much of your time. The individual in question is a Sifanese woman with the given name Saduko, who has claimed the Guild tag Gimmick. Her only distinguishing feature is a husky voice that suggests an old throat injury. To begin with, aside from the voice, we have only her word on any of that. I am not considering it confirmed that she isn’t simply someone using those names as cover.”
Darling, of course, was too professional to betray the sudden chill that ran down his spine, or so he hoped. One never knew what elvish senses could pick up; Flora and Fauna claimed that public spaces were usually too noisy for them to distinguish the speed of individual heartbeats.
“I am aware of a person matching that description, in fact,” he said, affecting a slightly worried wrinkle between his eyebrows. “The Saduko of whom I’ve been told is a model Guild member and an admirably discreet young woman. What has she done to antagonize the Sisterhood?”
“It is most puzzling,” Shahai said solemnly. “First, she appears to have entered the employ of the Conclave of the Winds, or at least of one member thereof. It is on behalf of Zanzayed the Blue that she intruded on the Third Silver Legion’s grounds and attempted to secure an unsolicited meeting with Sergeant Locke.”
So many new connections spontaneously formed in the web of intrigues he carried around in his head that he could swore he felt his ears pop. Saduko and Zanzayed meant Webs—Webs was a link to Thumper, who was after Keys, who hung precariously between the Guild and the Sisterhood and had dangerous ties to both Tellwyrn and Trissiny Avelea. Saduko had been sent to undermine and sabotage Webs; was she operating with or against him now? That assignment had long since expired, which made either possibility troubling. Could he really have nothing to do with this? No; she, Webs, Thumper, Zanzayed and Tellwyrn—and bloody Kheshiri—had all been present at that disaster in Onkawa. Darling didn’t believe in coincidence…
“That is most troubling,” he murmured, frowning thoughtfully into the distance beyond Shahai’s shoulder. For once it was a totally unfeigned expression, as his natural response suited the role he had to play. That was always good; a successful liar had to be as natural as possible.
“Forgive the change of subject,” Shahai said, watching his face intently, “but I believe you worked closely with Bishp Syrinx, did you not?”
Oh, what was she up to now? Had that whole affair been a feint?
“A few of his Holiness’s initiatives put us side by side, yes,” he replied, controlling his expression again.
“These are interesting shoes I am left to fill,” she said with an inscrutable little smile. “I wonder, what did you think of her?”
“Basra’s ability to get results has been missed by several of us around here,” he said frankly. “She is quite skilled. One must be, to get away with being so difficult to work with.”
Shahai’s answering smile was a few degrees warmer and more genuine. “I see. I apologize for derailing the conversation. You seemed so concerned, it put me in mind of the many snipped threads which I am left to grasp here and weave back together. I fear Captain Syrinx did not leave detailed notes on most of her projects with the Church. Could this issue be related to one of them?”
“I would be astonished if so,” he said slowly. Of course, he knew well that a good way to get a moment of honesty out of someone was by forcing them to abruptly change focus. And she surely would know that he knew that… Just how old was this woman? She carried herself with the classic aloof calm of the older elves, but hell, he had taught Flora and Fauna to do that in the course of a week. Shahai could be younger than he, or older than the Empire. There was no telling how much skill and experience he was contending with here, and now she wanted to stick her nose into…
Well, why not? He’d had unexpectedly good results in the last year from extending unasked trust and honesty. Perhaps this was a good opportunity to build on that.
“Pardon my slowness,” he said with a self-deprecating little smile. “There is a whole tangled web of priorities and agendas you’ve just brought up, Bishop Shahai, and I almost didn’t know where to start.”
“Please,” she said pleasantly, “it’s just Nandi. I am but a temporary replacement.”
“Of course,” he replied in the same tone. “Ultimately, though, we have a cult member in common, and her safety must come first.”
Shahai’s gaze sharpened. “Safety?”
“Girls,” he said, angling his head to include his apprentices in the conversation, “go to my office and retrieve the blue folder in the top right corner of my desk, please.”
“You locked your office, your Grace,” Fauna noted.
“Oh, it’s not merely locked,” he said with a hint of a properly mischievous Eserite grin, mostly for Shahai’s benefit. Let her chew on that. “Fetch me the folder, and when I inspect the office afterward, if I can find no other traces of your retrieval, you both get two days off from training.”
At that, they both smiled right back, their delight unfeigned, but its presentation still well controlled. Oh, they were coming along nicely.
“Consider it done,” Flora said with rransparently feigned solemnity, and they turned in unison and glided back up the broad hall down which he had just led them.
“Nandi,” he said, turning back to his fellow Bishop and letting his own face grow serious again, “I wonder if we could step into your office? I’ll need to pass the information you gave me on to Boss Tricks, but first there are a few things you, Commander Rouvad and especially Principia need to know.”
A short succession of raps sounded on the office door, and then it was pushed open. Shook stepped inside, nodding to Khadizroth and then to Svarveld. “Am I interrupting?”
“Just tedious progress reports,” the dwarf said with a tight little smile. “Made ever more tedious as well as irritating by the lack of any progress to speak of.”
“You mustn’t be so negative, Mr. Svarveld,” Khadizroth said with a patrician smile. “Every dead end your crews explore in the old mines rules out a threat and furthers our progress. I am only sorry that your team must shoulder the tedium themselves.”
“Well, the lack of actual retrieval is unusual and tad disheartening,” the foreman said, relaxing so far as to smile at the dragon, “but it’s not as if mucking around in tunnels isn’t our favorite thing to do. And I must say this surveying work is far quicker than actual digging.”
“Nonetheless,” Khadizroth replied, “if there is anything any of us can do to make your jobs easier, please don’t hesitate to come to me. This isn’t a pleasant task for any of us; I don’t want anyone to suffer unduly.”
“Oh, we’re all right,” Svarveld demurred quickly. “As I said, we’re all professionals. I may want to talk to you in a few more days about shift schedules, though. We’re getting far enough out from the town that the space we need to cover spreads us pretty thin. If those elves get any more aggressive, that could be a problem.”
“That,” said Shook with a cold half-smirk, “could finally relieve the tedium for the rest of us. I just did a sweep of the town’s outskirts, K, and Shiri’s off scouting Raea’s band from the air. And yes, before you ask, from a very safe distance. I know my girl; she doesn’t take unnecessary risks.”
“I appreciate your diligence, Jeremiah,” said Khadizroth, leaning back in his chair. Aside from his smooth emerald eyes and green hair, he looked simply like a wood elf, right down to his preferred attire. That made his surroundings seem peculiar; wood elves, or indeed elves in general, were rarely found seated in plush chairs behind heavy desks.
“Well, I may be a thief, but I’m not dishonest enough to accept unearned praise,” Shook said, shrugging. “Truth is, I am bored to the ragged edge of insanity, here. We all are, and I’m frankly beginning to worry about what’ll happen if Jack doesn’t find some outlet for his…himself. If those elves don’t start getting aggressive, I might suggest we move first.”
Svarveld coughed discreetly. “Well. Security’s over my head, gentlemen. Unless you want my input, Mr. K?”
“Your input is always valued,” Khadizroth said, nodding deeply to him. “But your skills are best used directing your miners, Mr. Svarveld. I won’t keep you from your work any longer.”
“Till next report, then, sir,” the dwarf replied, bowing. He paused in the act of turning away to give Shook an exceedingly blank look, then crossed to the door, stepping widely around the enforcer, and slipped out, shutting it quietly behind him.
“If I were a more paranoid person,” Shook said dryly, “I might be tempted to think he doesn’t like me.”
“He has, in fact, passed along to me a few complaints regarding you, Jeremiah, from several of his crew,” Khadizroth said. His tone remained soft and mild as usual; his blank green eyes were annoyingly hard to read, but the dragon’s expression was merely thoughtful.
Shook snorted, crossing to one of the other chairs in the office—the one near the bar—and pouring himself a drink even as he sat down. A drink of water, of course. Risk had no standing bodies of water, but boasted no fewer than three wells, and was well equipped to supply its current occupants. Shook had taken to enforcing a limit on hard drinks on himself: one, after dinner, period. It grated, but as dull as it was around here, he knew very well he would drink himself comatose before noon every day unless he maintained serious self-discipline.
He had scarcely exaggerated. The boredom was weighing heavily on their whole party. He had nothing to do with his time except patrol the town, inspect the miners, screw Kheshiri and play cards with the Jackal and Vannae—gods knew the elves were no good for conversation. He was also seriously concerned about what the Jackal might do if he grew too bored. Shook had been around enough men who enjoyed killing and hurting to recognize the type. If you couldn’t get rid of them, keeping them entertained was a high priority.
Not that he’d mentioned it to Khadizroth, nor would, but Kheshiri’s growing boredom was also making her an ever-increasing hassle to deal with. He knew little about the psychology of succubi, but the Jackal had mockingly disclosed enough of that lore to make him suspect he had underestimated the volume of trouble he was taking on in keeping her on a longer leash. Well, if worse came to worst, he could always put her back in the reliquary. That would be a shame, though; he very much liked having physical access to her.
“You seem unsurprised,” Khadizroth prompted, and Shook realized he had drifted off in thought.
He grunted and took a sip of water. “Feh. Dwarves. In their culture, thieving is a greater crime than murder.”
“That is a slight exaggeration,” said the dragon with an amused little smile.
“A very slight one,” Shook snorted. “The long and the short of it is, I’m hardly surprised that dwarves wouldn’t take to me. Fortunately, I do not give one single shit what they think. Makes my life a lot easier.”
“In the short term, I suppose it would,” Khadizroth murmured, folding his hands atop the desk and staring across the office at his pool. Not for the first time, Shook pondered how calm, how approachable the dragon was. Stories about them made much of their aura of majesty, the tendency they had to command awe and obedience simply by their presence. Khadizroth was, if anything, humble. Despite everything, Shook couldn’t help liking him a bit.
He liked the office, anyway; the dragon had simple but expensive tastes, and the magic on hand to indulge them even out here in the frayed end of the sticks. It was a pleasingly masculine space, paneled in dark wood, with a plush maroon carpet and old weapons displayed on the walls. Old weapons, bladed ones, nothing magical or modern, and all of them not only of quality make but bearing the marks of long use. Despite the generally low level of light, the dragon grew plants in large pots in each corner. Cacti, succulents and stands of field grasses, not floofy flowery plants like some ladies’ teahouse. Opposite his desk he had constructed a stone semi-circle which contained a pool of water, complete with two lazy carp and floating lily pads.
“Specifically,” the dragon went on after a long moment, “Svarveld says your inspections of his delving operations do more harm than good.”
“Yeah. Well.” Shook took a drink of water, averting his gaze. “Quite frankly, I’ll have to own that. I know precisely fuck all about mining; I only go down in those holes to get away from the rest of our delightful crew and keep myself occupied. Sorry; I’ll give ’em some space. Not like I was doing any good down there anyhow.”
“They don’t seem to much mind having their shoulders looked over,” Khadizroth said mildly. “The miners take great pride in their work, justifiably. But several have complained that you bother the women in the crews.”
Shook snorted loudly. “Oh, please. What the hell are women doing in a mining crew anyway? I don’t know whether they’re being indulged by rich daddies or are there to provide comfort to the real workers and dwarves are just too cagey to admit it in front of tall folk. Either way, the whole idea is ridiculous. Anyhow, they’ve got nothing to complain about. I’ve not laid a hand on a one of them, nor given ’em a cross word.”
“You might be surprised how much you can convey merely by looking.”
Shook grinned. “Then again, I might not. I’m an enforcer, K; you can’t effectively enforce by breaking everybody’s kneecaps. Mostly, people just need to be afraid of you. Break one or two kneecaps and get real good at glaring, that’s how it’s done.”
“If any of the female members of Svarveld’s crew are afraid of you, they’ve not mentioned it,” said the dragon with a thin smile. “I don’t believe they are intimidated by much, in fact; dwarves are a famously stalwart and hardy people. They have seemed to me offended, annoyed, in some cases even disgusted. But no, not afraid.”
“You sure seem to have done a lot of listening to these women’s opinions,” Shook said, scowling.
“As you yourself pointed out, my friend, there is a lack of much of anything to do, with our dwarven allies shouldering most of the actual work. I find that listening to everyone’s input fills my day quite satisfyingly.”
“Yeah, well, take ’em with a pinch of salt. Half of what a woman tells you is drama, a third is lies, ten percent is useful pertinent information, and the rest random noise.”
“What specific figures,” Khadizroth said, gazing calmly at him. “You’ve expressed similar views before, Jeremiah. I wonder what makes you think this? You are, after all, talking about half of all sentient species.”
“Not dragons, I note. And aren’t you the biggest, baddest, most powerful race there is? And not a female amongst you. I think my point stands.”
“There are roughly as many dryads as dragons in the world,” Khadizroth said wryly, “if not more. In any case, pardon my curiosity. I am simply interested in the reason for your antipathy. Such hostility is never without some root cause, in my experience.”
Shook made an involuntary twisting expression with his lips; even he couldn’t have said whether it was a grin or a sneer. “Root cause? I trust the evidence of my senses, that’s all.”
“Really?” Khadizroth suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at Shook as though his attention were captivated. “You do? Why is that?”
Shook stared back at him. “…are you kidding? What else can you do?”
“I wonder if you would indulge me in a little experiment,” Khadizroth said with a smile.
“Sounds creepy,” Shook said warily.
“I suppose anything can be, if looked at askance,” the dragon replied. “But I think you’ll find this instructive. Close your eyes for a moment.”
Shook squinted at him suspiciously, but Khadizroth only gazed calmly back at him. After a few seconds, moved more by idle curiosity than anything else, he complied.
“Good,” said the dragon. “What do you see?”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, eyelids are very slightly translucent, of course. Can you see the outline of the window behind me?”
Shook frowned. “Nope. Just black.”
“Very good. Now raise your right hand and wave it back and forth in front of your face.”
“…are you just trying to make me look stupid? You must be as bored as the rest of us.”
“I’ve seen the rise and fall of nations, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “I am not so easily entertained. Trust me—just try it.”
Shook sighed, but finally did so, lifting his hand and waving it rapidly in front of his closed eyes. A moment later he frowned, and did so again more slowly.
“What do you see?”
“It’s… Just a shadow. A faint image of… Well, that’s a neat trick, I guess, but like you said, eyelids are slightly dah!”
He yelped embarrassingly and jerked backward in his chair nearly hard enough to tip it over. He had opened his eyes to find Khadizroth’s face inches from his own, the glow of his eyes dominating his view.
“Clearly not,” the dragon said with a measure of satisfaction, straightening up and backing away a few steps. “Why, then, were you able to see the shadow of your hand through your closed eyelids?”
“That’s a rhetorical question, right?” Shook growled, clenching his hands on the arms of the chair and clinging to his self-control. He did not appreciate pranks like that. Approachable or not, though, Khadizroth was still a dragon, and not someone to whom it would be smart to show his temper. “This reeks of a lesson.”
“It’s a simple trick of the mind,” Khadizroth said, turning and pacing back around behind his desk. “Your brain knows where your extremities are. Even when you cannot actually see, it constructs an appropriate image. Especially when you cannot see, in fact; when you actually can, it has no need to. That is not the only thing about your vision which is counterintuitive. Due to the specific anatomy of the human eyeball, the picture you have of the world is upside-down and has a blank spot in the center. The brain corrects for both of those deficiencies.”
“That’s…interesting,” Shook said carefully.
“You don’t believe me,” Khadizroth replied with a smile, seating himself again.
“All due respect, K, if you’re gonna tell tales like that, you can’t fairly expect to be taken at face value.”
“You are a trained follower of Eserion, Jeremiah; you know how lies work. If I were going to lie, would I not tell a believable story?” He gave that a pause to let it sink in before continuing. “A less believable tale isn’t necessarily true, of course. In this matter, though, are you willing to acknowledge that my knowledge widely exceeds yours, and that I have no motive to trick you?”
“I…suppose,” Shook said grudgingly.
The dragons folded his hands in his lap, leaning back. “In any case, those interesting facts only serve to demonstrate my true point. Everything we see, hear, and touch…everything we know about the world…is filtered and processed through very imperfect mechanisms. We do not interact with reality itself, Jeremiah, but only with the vague shadows our senses tell us, reconstructed by our flawed minds.”
“What’s your point?” Shook demanded.
Khadizroth shrugged. “You say you trust the evidence of your senses? I don’t. It’s a lesson I have learned painfully.”
“What can you trust, then?” Shook exclaimed. “I don’t get what you’re driving at. Do you stagger around blind?”
“No,” the dragon mused. “Obviously you cannot function without placing a great deal of faith in these flawed perceptions. One must, however, keep in mind that those perceptions do have flaws, and potentially great ones. Believing without question in what you see is a path to self-deception. Over time, I have learned that the only true wisdom is in knowing that you are a fool.”
“I don’t much appreciate being called a fool,” Shook said, clutching the chair even harder.
“I was referring to myself, actually,” Khadizroth replied, his tone mild as ever. “Though the point applies to anyone. I have been dramatically wrong about many things, Jeremiah. I have made great, terrible mistakes. Rather recently, in fact.”
“Well,” Shook said, beginning to relax slightly, “I don’t get the impression anyone who lacks some flaws of character ends up in a merry little band like ours.”
“Indeed,” Khadizroth said with a wry smile. “Ultimately, I think, it is about power.”
“Power?” he repeated cautiously.
Khadizroth nodded. “One tends to blame others for one’s misfortunes—it is natural and instinctive. The mind reacts to protect its self-image. Obviously, whatever unpleasant thing befalls us is someone else’s fault, because we are each of us the hero of our own story. We cannot be in the wrong, or the world just doesn’t make sense!” He sighed. “I am embarrassed at how long I had to live to get over that gut reaction. I have seen so many others brought to ruin by it. In the end, it robs you of your power. So long as I am at fault for the ills of my life, so long as I accept the responsibility and the blame, I remain the one in command of my destiny. If I am the architect of my failures, I can be the architect of my successes. If they are imposed upon me, however, I become a victim. Weak, helpless…at the mercy of others.”
“This…is all pretty roundabout,” Shook said, frowning. “You’re starting to lose me.”
“Yes, forgive me, I do tend to natter on. One of those faults I was telling you about.” The dragon shook his head, smiling self-deprecatingly. “I suppose my point is that it’s unwise to place too much faith in yourself. Embrace being wrong, my young friend. It’s the only path I’ve found, in all my years, to eventually being right.”
“How did we get onto this from discussing women, of all things?”
“Well, it is a general observation,” Khadizroth mused, “but it did not come out of the blue. I suppose we are all wrong about certain things in particular.”
Blessedly, Shook was spared having to find a safe and useful response to that by the abrupt opening of the door.
“Is—master!” Kheshiri skittered in, sliding across the floor to kneel beside Shook’s chair. She was grinning hugely, her tail waving in eagerness.
“Whoah, girl,” he said with an indulgent smile, fondly resting a hand on her head. “What are you, a puppy? Rein it in. What’s got you so worked up?”
“Apparently she has news,” the Jackal drawled, strolling in after the succubus. “Wouldn’t give poor old me the time of day until she’d checked in with her dearest, darlingest master.”
“As is proper,” said Shook, smirking faintly. “What’s the big idea, Shiri?”
“Raea has friends,” the demon said, grinning savagely. “Three new arrivals are meeting with her little band now—three whose descriptions I recognize. An old man, a Westerner, in a ragged coat with a wizard’s staff. Younger man in a dark suit, ponytail and goatee. Gnome chick with far too many pockets.”
At that, a similar grin spread across the Jackal’s narrow features. “Well, finally. I was starting to think those lazy bastards would never get here. It’s just rude, making us wait around like this.”
“You are extremely fortunate, Kheshiri, to have made it back here safely,” Khadizroth said grimly. “The necromancer Weaver travels with a soul reaper.”
Kheshiri suddenly went deadly still, staring up at the dragon with a frozen expression.
“Excuse me, a fucking what?” Shook demanded.
“A complication,” said the Jackal, grinning even more widely. “An invisible death spirit which can send your little pet there straight back to Hell with a touch. My, this does make our job more interesting! Looks like you’re not gonna be with us much longer, pretty bird,” he added, leering down at the succubus. She gave him a disdainful look.
“We’ll not squander any of our number in the pursuit of foolishness,” Khadizroth said firmly. “If those three are meeting with Raea, we must assume the others are nearby, or on the way. Kheshiri, let’s hear as many details as you managed to gather.” He leaned back slowly in his chair, raising his green eyes to study the ceiling, and allowing himself a faint smile. “It does not do to act without information. Since we are about to have such important company, we must be certain to greet them properly.”