“I can handle this,” Rasha insisted at the front door of Glory’s house five minutes later.
“Rasha,” Jasmine said, firmly but kindly. “You are literally swaying as you speak. You haven’t slept all night. It doesn’t make sense to subject yourself to more of this, so long as you have any better option.”
“And I assure you, this is a much better option,” Glory added with a smile, coming up behind him to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’ll loan you the best guest room, right next to mine.”
“I am just so sick of being the weak link around here,” Rasha whispered, clenching his fists. If nothing else, it helped him straighten up and hold his posture.
“Whoah, that’s enough of that kinda talk,” Tallie declared. Having been the first to the door, she now turned and pushed back through the small crowd which had formed in the foyer, elbowing Layla aside with more energy than was necessary. She wrapped her arms around Rasha in a hug, the top of his head barely coming past her shoulder. “You’ve had a shitty night, that’s all. We’re not refusing to let you help; that’s the whole point of this, Rasha. We’re gonna need you soon, and for that, you need to be rested up.”
He sighed heavily, though after a moment he un-clenched enough to hug her back—briefly. Then he pulled insistently away. “All right. I guess. Fine. But don’t be too long.”
“Pfft, what’s the worst that could happen?” Darius said airily. “All we’re doing is traipsing through the suddenly-freezing streets of the city where dwarven spies are plotting to ambush and do horrible things to us, to rescue our witch friend who they’re also going to be ambushing, when we have no idea where the hell he even is. This is a Sunday stroll through the park! Really, Rasha, you’re not gonna miss anything.”
“Whose idea was it to give him talking privileges?” Ross wondered aloud.
“And on that subject.” Darius’s aspect suddenly sobered considerably and he turned to level a finger a Layla. “You are not coming. So let’s get the tantrum and the shouting out of the way right now, because we really do not have time to stretch this out.”
“Honestly, Darius, you’ve turned into the most frightful boor,” she sniffed. “I can see I shall be forced to spend a great deal of time re-acquainting you with the concept of basic manners. Of course I’m not coming; do you really think I’m daft enough to place myself in that kind of danger? You’re the Eserites, here. I assume they’ve taught you something in that Guild of yours.”
“Huh,” he said, staring at her in evident bemusement. “That’s…strangely forward-thinking of you. Are you feeling all right, sis?”
“Feel free to take my carriage,” she said, ignoring that and turning to Jasmine, who so far was the only other member of the group she seemed inclined to address directly. “I would prefer that Talvers remain here, if it pleases our hostess, but Ralph’s uniform has sufficient bundling for the cold, and you may find him useful. Do try not to let him be hurt, but if you are attacked, don’t worry about the carriage. If agents of the Svennish government damage it, I can sue the embassy. I’ve been wanting a new one anyway, and Father has been most obstinate about upgrading to the enchanted variety.”
“I will try to keep all that in mind,” Jasmine said solemnly. Tallie rolled her eyes so exuberantly she nearly tipped over backward.
“And,” Layla added in a quieter tone, “I realize this is a lot to ask, but please see that my brother doesn’t take any needless risks. If it proves possible.”
“Oh, we’ll manage him,” Jasmine promised her with a smile. “Tallie and I have had some practice in the art. There are ways.”
“They’re called boobs,” Tallie added helpfully. “Yours don’t count for the purpose. I mean, or so I would hope. Nothing would surprise me to learn about you nobles.”
Layla sniffed once more, then turned up her nose and pointedly gave Tallie the cold shoulder. “I shall expect to see you back by dinner at the latest, Darius. If I have to chase you down again, I shall be most put out.”
“Well, you heard her, ladies and Ross,” Darius said cheerfully, opening the door. “We better get this done quick-like, or perish in the attempt. C’mon, chop chop.”
Outside on the front step, they paused, tucking hands into coat pockets.
“Brr,” Ross said, peering up at the sky. “Carriage sounds pretty good.”
“Yeah, that’s great,” Tallie said flatly. “Let’s all ride in warmth and comfort and make what’s-his-name sit up top in the cold. Doesn’t matter, he’s just a servant. You’d fit right in with the fancy crowd, Ross.”
“Stop that,” Jasmine said irritably. “Whatever your issue is with nobles, don’t take it out on Ross, of all people.”
“Also, his name is Ralph,” Darius added. “Which you know, and would have remembered if you wanted to make a complaint like that with any credibility. Now seriously, are we riding or not? Because time is going to be a factor, here, and this weather is not kidding around.”
Indeed, the typical cloud cover over Tiraas currently hung lower and heavier than was the norm, clearly threatening precipitation. Given the temperature, anything that fell from above was likely to take the form of snow or sleet.
“No,” Jasmine said slowly, frowning in thought. “No…I think we should stay on foot. To be approachable.”
“Approachable by who, for fuck’s sake?” Tallie exclaimed. “The only people we’re likely to run into who’ll care about us at all are the damn dwarves stalking us.”
“Think about it,” Ross rumbled. “All we can do is go to the Salyrite temple. Dwarves’ll know that; we’re likely to meet ’em. And if they ambush us…”
“Then we’ll see how much they enjoy the outcome of that,” Jasmine said flatly. “Stay on main streets, on public sidewalks, in full view. Ignore any verbal overtures; if they gives us an excuse to claim self-defense, we’ll take it. And any police who become involved will take our side.”
“I like this plan,” said Darius. “Right off the bat I can see half a dozen holes in it, but god damn I am sick of being the mouse in this game. Claws out, let’s do it.”
Tallie shivered and wrapped arms around herself. “All right, well, good, then I hope you’re all carrying the cash Style doled out for Pick’s job. Cos first thing we’re doing if we’re not gonna ride is stop and get some freaking scarves.”
“I just don’t see the wisdom in this,” Schwartz protested. “Or the point, now. I mean, didn’t you only need to gather allies because you were trying to deal with the Bishop alone? And that’s changed now.”
Jenell sighed, her breath making a soft puff of mist in the chilling air. “Yes, fine, I am glad to have allies, but…that was never exactly the point, Herschel. You don’t understand the position I’m in. Alone is part of it; vulnerable is the worst.” She kept her eyes forward as they walked, the expression on her disguised face flat and grim. “There really isn’t anything I hate more than that. Always at someone’s mercy, unable to act, without resources. And even with you all working at Basra, I’m still in that position, don’t you see? All of you are out of my reach, except when I take extraordinary measures to have an hour to myself, like today. Even if I could contact you regularly… You answer to your Bishop and the College. Locke is about as responsive to other people’s plans as a feral cat. And Ami. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ami. But bards…are bards.” She finally shifted her head to look up at him, her expression still controlled, but not so much so that he couldn’t see the heartbreaking hint of pleading she was trying to suppress. “I need resources of my own, Herschel. Something I can use against Basra. Something. Anything.”
He drew in a deep breath, wincing. It was almost physically painful, seeing her reduced to this. “I hear you, Jenell, and I’m doing my best to understand your position. But…these guys. I mean, I rather like them all, myself, but they’re Eserites, and not even well-trained ones. They’ve got the independent spirit without all the skill. Don’t repeat this to any of them, but honestly, this group is not a good peg on which to hang your hopes.”
She let out a low, bitter laugh. “Oh, I know that, believe me. But they’re what I have to work with, and the facts of their situation mean they have hooks I can grab. Look, the point of sending them to the Finder’s Fee was to meet both Basra’s objectives and mine. I have to get them into Basra’s fold to keep her off my back; I need to do it in a way that carefully points out what a horror she is so they’ll be wary and I’ll be able to leverage them when the time comes. That’s a very delicate line to walk, Herschel, and if it was anybody but Eserites—or maybe bards—I’d say it was impossible. This is a really rare opportunity.”
“I still almost can’t credit it,” he muttered. “Why would Bishop Syrinx cultivate contacts in a place like that?”
“Well, she wanted mages she could call on for shifty, extra-legal work. It’s not like she could knock on Bishop Throale’s door and ask for a Salyrite to scry on Locke’s activities, now is it?” She let out another misty huff of annoyance. “Now I have to come up with a new plan. Basra has other contacts, but… Hell, I hope I haven’t burned my bridges with that group anyway. After sending them into what was apparently a trap…”
“It wasn’t your trap, and they all know that,” he assured her. “The mess in Glass Alley wasn’t your fault or theirs. I… All right, look, I can probably get them to meet with you. If you’ve got something useful to offer them, I don’t get the feeling they’re in a position to turn up their noses at it. But it’ll need more. That mysterious routine you tried last time isn’t likely to appeal again. Too much uncertainty already…”
“I know,” she said moodily. “Believe me, I know. All right, just… Please tell them you met me and that I’m interested in helping, all right? I will think of something else. I’ll have to, quickly. It’ll be tricky to speak with you again, I absolutely cannot be found talking to you or Basra will completely flip her shit, but I can get you messages at the Collegium, still. Right?”
“Uh, right,” he agreed, frowning. “But, honestly, Jenell, there are other considerations here besides you. Hasn’t it occurred to you that involving these kids with Syrinx is maybe kind of cruel to them?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with grim amusement. “Those kids aren’t all what they seem. There’s one in the group whom even Basra won’t dare harm, and also won’t antagonize by harming any of the others. They might be the only people safe around her, at least for the time being.”
“Well, that isn’t mysterious at all,” he said testily. “Just once, I’d like to know the whole of what’s happening around here…”
“Wouldn’t we all,” she agreed, patting his arm. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I’d like to bring you into the loop, but there are secrets here that go way over even Basra’s head; spilling those beans could be more than my life is worth. Just…trust me, you’ll probably be safer with those apprentices than anywhere else, too.”
She stopped suddenly, both speaking and walking. Schwartz trailed to a halt, too, blinking at her in surprise, then followed her gaze up the sidewalk ahead of them. Immediately, he froze as well.
He had followed main roads to the Great Hall, but now, on the way back, he’d let Jenell set their course, which mostly consisted of less-trafficked back streets; she was somewhat justifiably paranoid about being seen by the wrong people, even in disguise. Now they were passing through a block of factories, down a wide side street meant to provide rear access to these buildings for delivery trucks. Even just after midday, there were no deliveries or anyone else about at present. With the heavy precipitation clearly imminent, even the nearby factories had shut down, their crackling antennae dimming to the occasional spark of unformed arcane residue. Tiraas itself was slowing down, as people who had not been dressed for the sudden cold fled into whatever indoors they could.
But someone had just stepped out of an alley directly in front of them, facing the two and just standing there. A short, stocky someone with a red beard.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Schwartz whispered.
“One of those dwarves?” Jenell murmured.
“Yes. At least I think—” He broke off, tensing, as the dwarf had started toward them. Schwartz reflexively stepped forward, planting himself ahead of Jenell and holding out his arm as if to block access to her, and only realizing belatedly how utterly silly that was, interposing his thin frame between the threat and the trained soldier.
Anyhow, physical force wasn’t where his strength lay. He snapped his fingers, and with a sharp pop and a tiny cascade of harmless sparks, Meesie appeared on his shoulder. She immediately bristled like a scared cat, chattering a tiny reprimand at the approaching dwarf.
“Good evening, Mr. Schwartz,” he said amiably. “And to your companion. Companions, I suppose I should say,” he added with a genial smile at Meesie.
“No,” Schwartz snapped.
The dwarf stopped, a few yards still distant, and regarded him with a calmly curious expression. “Oh? No? Forgive me, but in my studies of Tiraan formality, I never encountered that response to a simple greeting. Is there some piece to this ritual I am missing?”
“The piece where you go away,” Schwartz replied. “I’m not interested, and I’m not doing this. Leave me alone.”
The dwarf heaved a sigh. “Honestly, I don’t know where all this obstinacy comes from. I do believe you’re spending too much time around those Eserites, Mr. Schwartz. All I seek, all I have ever asked for, is a simple conversation.”
“Well, you can—” He broke off at the sudden pressure of Jenell’s fingers on his arm.
“We’re alone here, Herschel,” she murmured. “No telling what or who is down these side alleys. And more information always beats less. If he wants to talk politely…do.”
Schwartz hesitated, glancing back and forth between her and the dwarf. Meesie growled a shrill warning.
“What an admirably sensible young lady,” the dwarf said, doffing his hat courteously to Jenell. “Forgive my presumption in pointing it out, but perhaps this is more the style of company you should keep. She does seem to be a positive influence.”
“Fine,” he said curtly. “Speak your piece and have done with it.”
“Very good,” the dwarf replied, nodding to him. “Really, my needs are simple. You were present at the interrupted exchange wherein my companions and I sought to acquire those devices which were then seized by the Silver Legion. The Sisterhood of Avei, unfortunately, is quite impenetrable, which renders them sadly beyond our grasp. Without that option, I have an all the more urgent need to learn what I can of the provenance of those devices. Our only lead is within the Thieves’ Guild.”
“Well, I certainly can’t help you with that,” Schwartz said warily.
“Oh, to be sure, I would hardly expect it of you,” the dwarf agreed with a pleasant smile. “But your young friends can. Eserites, you see, are rather hard on their would-be members. The majority of any group of apprentices to the Guild are going to wash out anyway, for one reason or another. The only thing I want of those young people is their help finding information to which I do not have access, and they may. I am prepared to compensate them most generously, even to the point of shielding them from the Thieves’ Guild, should the nature of our association happen to annoy the Guild’s leadership.”
“And you think you can actually do that?” Schwartz asked skeptically.
The dwarf’s smile widened by a hair. “The Guild has no presence in the Five Kingdoms. That is not to say they have never tried to establish one. Here, in the Empire, we are at something of a disadvantage in dealing with them. Where I am from, that state is decisively reversed.”
“Fine,” Schwartz snapped. “I’ll tell them what you said. Now good night.”
“Ah, yes,” the dwarf said, shaking his head regretfully. “Well, I’m afraid matters have recently become rather more complicated than that.”
“Of course they have,” Jenell muttered. Schwartz noted that she had offered no objection to his protective stance; if anything, she had edged more behind him. Not fear, he realized, at least not for her safety; she could face severe consequences from other corners if she were recognized.
“Your friends,” the dwarf said in a solicitous tone, “have embarked on an unwisely aggressive course. Specifically, it seems they intend to ask you, Mr. Schwartz, to use your particular skills to track myself and my associates. Now, it should go without saying that we take all reasonable precautions, but the nature of fae magic, as I’m sure you’re aware, makes it rather difficult to thwart. So many unknowable variables.” He shook his head. “This could quickly become a very disagreeable situation for us all. In the interests of everyone continuing to get along, I’m prepared to provide you with anything you reasonably request, in exchange for your assurance that you will not do them this favor.”
Schwartz stared at him, then turned his head to look at Jenell’s eyes. Meesie growled again.
He could see the same thought on her face that was ringing in his own skull. Foreign agents, the kind of people willing and capable to oppose the Guild, owing him a favor? What he couldn’t do with that. Odds are these people could manage to threaten even Syrinx’s carefully laid schemes.
Then Jenell’s expression closed down, and she shook her head almost imperceptibly. Schwartz gave her a tiny nod of agreement.
It was just too risky. They knew too little about these people. The whole problem with Syrinx was the multiplicity of parties and agendas involved, preventing them from knowing what was happening, what anyone was up to, what they could do without incurring retaliation. Adding another wildly unknowable variable to the mix could tip the whole thing into disaster.
“I am not,” he said carefully, “going to make you any promises. I do not trust you, and quite frankly, I don’t like you. Now if you will excuse us.”
The dwarf sighed softly. “Now, Mr. Schwartz, I’m afraid you are being both obstinate and disingenuous. That is tantamount to a declaration of your intention to inconvenience me, and we both know it. I’m certain you mother did not raise you to behave this way.” He smiled, again, just as pleasantly as always. “Of course, it must be hard, raising two children alone. I’m sure she has an easier time of things now, with just your sister to think of. And Melody will be of an age to move out on her own soon enough.”
Meesie burst into flames, screeching in fury. Jenell had gone pale, even behind the already-pale face of her enchanted disguise.
Schwartz, though, felt a sudden and total calm descend over him. Somewhere deep beneath it, his heart was thudding in his chest, but it was a strangely distant thing. Unbidden, his senses expanded, taking in the magic around them. The spirits, the currents of life, all the perceptions which made up the realm of the fae.
“Have you ever been to Athan’Khar?” he heard himself ask evenly.
The dwarf blinked. “Forgive me, but I don’t see—”
“I have,” Schwartz continued. “You should visit sometime. Just so you can appreciate how very much you don’t scare me, you contemptible little piece of shit.”
He snatched Meesie off his shoulder, the flames wreathing her not so much as singeing his fingers, and hurled her forward.
An explosion of fire occurred in midair halfway between Schwartz and the dwarf, and in the next moment, his quarry had been bowled over backward, a pony-sized leonine creature wrought from pure crimson flame landing on him.
Meesie opened a maw filled with fire-sculpted fangs and roared directly into the fallen dwarf’s face. The paw planted on his chest, already the size of a plate, flexed, revealing blazing claws which ripped five perfect rents in his suit.
Wreathed in an awareness of the currents of magic around him, Schwartz felt the life force of the second dwarf who darted out of another alley behind them, sensed the enchanted objects he wore which made his approach silent.
He reached out through the link with his familiar spirits, finding them in total accord with his purpose. Upward he stretched with his mind, to the towering antenna of the dormant factory behind which they stood. Dormant, with only the faintest residual flickers of energy along its length—but even residual flickers along a four-story coil made a torrent of destructive power when seized and directed.
Lightning arced from the antenna, scarring the side of the factory as it snapped downward and blasted the approaching dwarf off his feet. He fell without a cry and skidded another yard across the pavement before falling still, smoking in the cold air.
Schwartz stepped forward, coming up beside Meesie, who was snarling at the pinned dwarf and demanding his full attention. He laid a hand on the seething flames that made up her mane.
“If you attack my family,” he said quietly, “you’ll find that my mother is even less afraid of you than I am, and considerably more willing to resort to violence. I’m assuming, here, that you think yourself in a position where you don’t have to care about the fallout of assaulting an Imperial sheriff, so you’d better think about what kind of woman is given that position in a frontier town. If you ever threaten my family again, though.” He leaned forward, holding silent until the dwarf tore his eyes from Meesie’s burning fangs to meet his gaze. “I swear on Salyrene’s name, I will make you beg before I finish you.”
Without straightening, he flung out a hand, grasping at the natural cold in the very atmosphere. Moisture congealed out of the air itself, solidifying into a cluster of horizontal icicles hovering beside him. With another thought, he called up a blast of wind, ruffling everyone’s hair and clothes and causing Meesie’s fire to flicker, and most importantly, sending those jagged shafts of ice at the mouth of another alley as fast as bolts from a crossbow.
The dwarf who had poked her head out around that corner, taking aim at him with a wand, fell back with a shriek of pain, pierced in five places by spears of ice.
“I’m glad…Lucy…suggested we have this talk,” Schwartz said, finally drawing himself back up to his full height. He had been within a hair’s breadth of addressing her properly, but Jenell definitely didn’t want her real name used here. He made a mental note never to tell her Lucy had been his first dog. “I think we understand each other a bit better, now. C’mon, Lucy, let’s get out of here.”
He waited for her to catch up to him, eyeing the snarling Meesie and the pinned dwarf as she passed. Jenell didn’t speak until they had moved a dozen yards further up the street at a long stride.
“You’re just going to leave her there?”
“She’ll hold him long enough for us to get away,” he said quietly, chancing a glance back. The dwarf, sensibly, seemed to be offering Meesie no resistance. “She can’t hold that form but for a few minutes. Shorter if anything damages her; if he pulls a wand and shoots her at that range, that’ll be the end of it.”
“Ah,” she said tersely. “And then she’ll reappear with you.”
He looked at her in surprise. “How’d you know that?”
“I remember. From Athan’Khar. That monster.”
“Imperial Square is just a few blocks up,” she said quickly, managing to lengthen her stride further. Schwartz, whose legs were longer anyway, had no trouble keeping up. “That’s public enough we should be safe; we have to split up there. Disguise or no, I cannot be seen with you.”
Again, she looked uncertainly up at him. “What’ll you do next?”
“I should go…” He trailed off. Where? Back to the Collegium? To the Guild? Either of those places would be safe, assuming the Guild would let him in… He had to find the apprentices and warn them.
“Go to the Temple of Avei,” she said when he failed to produce an answer. “I’ll take a side entrance; you go in the front. You can get through the temple to the Legion fortress in the back. Warn Locke. She can get word to the Eserites without being in nearly as much danger as you.”
“Ah. Right. That’s good thinking.”
“I’m not just a pretty face,” she said grimly. “…you know, if you want some real certainty, you could have Meesie finish him off.”
Schwartz grimaced and shook his head. “No. I can’t.”
“Herschel, if things keep going the way they have been, I don’t think you’re going to have the luxury of being this squeamish.”
“I know,” he said curtly. “But it’s not just that. The bastard threatened my family, Jenell. He’s part of a group, and he didn’t just do that on a whim. They’ve researched me, they know who I’m connected to. I need one of them left alive to explain to the others what a very bad idea that is.”
They speed-walked in silence for nearly a minute before Meesie suddenly reappeared on his shoulder. She squeaked eagerly, bounding onto Schwart’z head and squirming down into a little nest in his hair, nose pointed forward. By unspoken consensus, Schwartz and Jenell both increased their speed until they were nearly running.
“After this,” she said after another long moment, slightly out of breath, “I’m even gladder to have you along, Herschel.”
“Thanks,” he panted, not bothering to try voicing his full feelings. Glad he was along? That made one of them.