Behind Glory’s property stood a stable with a walled yard attached, its gated drive leading onto a little side street shared with her next door neighbor, opening onto the street proper. The stableyard was crowded to the point of bustling, now, as the entire household sorted themselves into the two enchanted carriages waiting at idle, their enchantments powered up to warm them before embarking. Both Glory and Vandro drove late-model Falconers, though hers was a smaller, sportier model without as much passenger space. Layla’s horses were carefully bedded down in warm stalls; though Glory herself did not keep animals, she maintained facilities for guests who did.
“Interesting girl, that one,” Vandro mused, watching Jasmine talking quietly with Schwartz and Glory by the door of the other carriage, the girl apparently showing them how to work one of those disruptor staves she’d brought back from the Temple of Avei along with her witch friend. “Got brains and muscle, but clearly isn’t the ringleader of this little pack. Doesn’t wanna put herself forward. No, I’d peg little Miss Tallie in that role—or she will be, when she grows into that bluster of hers. Frankly, those two are the only ones I mark as having a future in the Guild. The boys are sadly unremarkable.”
Wilberforce, sitting beside him on the carriage’s driver bench, cleared his throat softly, directing his face toward Grip, who lounged by the gates, watching him watch Jasmine. Vandro gave her a grin and a wave; she made no response to this, and after a moment pointedly turned her head away.
“I trust, sir,” the Butler said softly, “that you noted Miss Tallie’s remark about the Avenist Eserite mother.”
“Mmm.” Vandro took a swig from a silver hip flask, smiling to himself. “Now, we know damn well from our research that Keys doesn’t have a daughter—or at least, not one that she raised. That business with House Takhvaneh ’bout twenty years back, though… Everybody figured she nixed the pregnancy first chance, but Jasmine’s the right age, and I’d believe from her looks she’s a half-elf. Thrown away by her shiftless mother as a baby, just now trying to reconnect… Why, there’s just all kinds of ways for that to go badly, eh? Especially with the right encouragement.”
“Conversations between her friends have hinted at an Avenist upbringing,” Wilberforce noted. “A possible motivation for Locke to seek out the Sisterhood as she has.”
“I didn’t miss that either, old friend. Keys, it would seem, wants this a lot more than the girl does. How delightfully fraught with possibility.”
“There is also the fact,” Wilberforce added dryly, “on a less optimistic note, that you tend to get along poorly with Avenists.”
“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” Vandro said with a sigh. “Well, hell, I’m not too old to make a few compromises. These kids are a lot more interesting than the momentary convenience I thought they were at first. We’ll have to work on cultivating ’em. Assuming, that is,” he added cheerfully, “we don’t all get murdered by dwarves tonight.”
“Hey, uh, Jasmine?”
She paused, having been about to climb into the carriage after making her farewells to Tallie, Ross, and Darius, who now strode up front to join Grip at Vandro’s carriage. The larger and more powerful of the two, it had been designated to carry more of the group. Schwartz was hovering by the rear fender of their own ride, looking nervous.
“Are you all right?” she asked, then winced. “Well, I mean, apart form the obvious. Believe me, there’s no shame in being apprehensive about something like this.”
He actually barked an incredulous little laugh, while Meesie squeaked reproachfully at her. “Oh, no, nothing like… Well, actually, I am quite nervous, that’s true. After Athan’Khar, though, this really isn’t so bad as all that.”
“Athan—wow.” Jasmine blinked. “You’ll really have to tell me that story someday.”
“Actually, I think I really will,” he replied, his expression growing grimmer. “That’s where I first met Bishop Syrinx…among other things. Look, that’s what I actually wanted to talk about, uh, Jasmine. I haven’t found a moment to grab your ear since the temple, and something about that Grip woman makes me think sharing possibly personal information in her hearing isn’t the best idea…”
“You’ve got good instincts,” she said with a sigh.
“It’s just…” Schwartz awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. Meesie stood up to tug on his ear and point at Jasmine, squeaking encouragingly. “Well, frankly, I think you were a little too hard on Principia. She means well, and that thing with the Bishop… Well, trust me, she is fully entitled to feel hostile. I don’t think you quite appreciate just how…” He paused and swallowed heavily. “Just what Basra Syrinx is like.”
“I have some ideas in that direction, in fact,” Jasmine said quietly, nudging the carriage door fully shut. “That was the whole point of that, Schwartz.”
He blinked. “I, uh…how so?”
“Of the two of them, Syrinx is the one who worries me,” she said seriously. “Locke is…well, she has more than her share of faults, but I know pretty well what they are, and she’s not a danger except to people who deserve it. It was Syrinx I needed to land on to bring her in line. And if I’d done that while going easy on Locke, Syrinx would have made her pay for it later, when I wasn’t there to see. She would almost have to, given the way she thinks. I tried to put them on equal footing to protect Locke, and I’m trusting her to be clever enough to have picked up on that.”
“Oh.” He blinked again, twice. “Oh, I see. Well, um… I quite frankly would never have thought of that.”
Jasmine shook her head. “Neither would I, not so long ago. We really do need to have some longer conversations about this, Schwartz.”
“Right, yes,” he agreed. “But…clearly not tonight.”
She smiled, opening the carriage door. “We’ll just add that to our reasons to be certain to survive, eh?”
After she had climbed in and shut the door behind her, he shook his head and began clambering up to the top of the carriage. “Well, I thought I had plenty of those, but I suppose a bit more can’t hurt.”
Meesie ran a complete lap around the top of his head, chattering her agreement.
Night and the snowstorm had reduced the streets of Tiraas to a lamp-lit netherworld; even more windows than usual blazed with light, as if those within sought to fight back the cold by sheer volume of fairy lamps. Outside, however, the city was nearly desolate compared to its usual level of activity. Pedestrians were almost nonexistent, the few other carriages about moving slowly and cautiously in the snow. Twice on their way to the west gate, they passed carriages that had skidded off the road and collided with lamp posts, one having demolished a row of mailboxes in the process. In both cases, military police and the presumed owners of the vehicles were standing by them, competing to look more put out. Compared to the mess Tiraas usually faced in the winter, this storm was downright gentle; there was little wind and no ice, just thick snowflakes continually tumbling down. After hours of this, though, the snow was accumulating to a difficult depth.
“This could be trouble,” Glory murmured, shifting the curtain with one finger to study the passing scenery. “I expected more activity on the streets than this. If we are caught in an area where there is no one to see…”
“Tiraas is the heart of the Empire,” Jasmine said. “The Tiraan Empire is the predominant nation in the world. The center of human civilization never sleeps. And this city of all places is used to snow; everyone was just unprepared by the mild winter. It won’t be shut down that thoroughly. Look, there are people around, even if only a few, and the police are patrolling more than usual. As long as we don’t venture into side streets like they caught us in last time, it should be fine.”
“This is a main street, right?” Rasha asked nervously. “The one going right from Imperial Square to the west gate?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Glory with a smile. “If Tiraas is the Empire’s heart, this is one of its arteries. Jasmine is probably right; I just can’t help feeling a little nervous. I’m accustomed to sitting in the center of my web and letting the trouble come to me.”
“I am sorry to involve you in all this,” Jasmine said quietly.
“I’m not,” Glory replied without hesitation, absently squeezing Rasha’s shoulder. “This needs to be done, and anyway, I clearly needed to be shaken out of my routine. It’s a terrible sin for an Eserite to grow complacent.”
“They still back there?” Rasha asked tersely.
Jasmine, who was sitting on the front bench facing backward, nodded, her eyes flicking to the rear window. “Still keeping pace.”
“Uh oh,” Glory said suddenly, again looking past the curtain. Layla, Rasha, and Jasmine all crowded over to see.
Another carriage had suddenly pulled up out of an intersection and was keeping pace alongside them, not quite close enough to be menacing. Its driver’s bench had its windscreen and canvas top raised, but as they stared, one of its side windows swung open, revealing the face of a female dwarf, who gave them a pleasant smile and casually held up a wand.
Glory pulled back the curtain entirely, smiled back with equal politeness, and lifted her hand to deliver an obscene gesture. Rasha barely suppressed an outburst of nervous laughter.
“They’re too good to make a mistake like this,” Jasmine murmured. “If they didn’t ambush us before we got out of your neighborhood, they won’t here. We’re obviously making for the gates; much more opportunity outside the city.”
“Unless they know it’s a trap, of course,” said Layla. To the annoyance of virtually everyone, the young noblewoman seemed to find this whole affair to be splendid fun.
“And that’s where our current measures—ah, there we go,” Jasmine said in satisfaction as the current measures went into effect.
Up ahead, one of the doors of Vandro’s carriage had swung open, and Tallie leaped out, catching the lip of the roof with one hand and nimbly swinging herself up top, clearly not encumbered by the full-length battlestaff she carried. There, she dropped to a crouch, aimed the staff directly at the new carriage, and lit up behind a sphere of blue light which sparkled continuously as snowflakes pelted it.
Snow wasn’t as bad as rain, but a personal shielding charm wouldn’t hold up long in this weather. As the seconds passed, it became increasingly clear that what protected her was not an ordinary shielding charm.
Enchanted carriages could be outfitted with much larger and more potent power crystals than they needed, which then could be keyed to any number of enchanted devices carried within range of the carriage itself—such as energy shields. This was military gear, and while its use in civilian carriages was not a criminal offense, it definitely violated the enchanted vehicle safety codes, not to mention any insurance policies on the vehicle in question.
Quite coincidentally, both Vandro and Glory’s personal carriages had these devices installed and ready to run. The carriages themselves, unfortunately, could not be shielded, as for some reason that interfered with the enchantments powering their wheels; even Tallie’s bubble hovered closer to her than normal, to keep it out of range of any important systems it might damage.
Beside their own carriage, there suddenly paced a glowing red lion nearly as large as an ox. Meesie turned her maned head to growl at the dwarves, loud enough to be plainly audible in both vehicles even over the hum of their wheel charms and the sounds of slush being crushed beneath them. Though they couldn’t see it, Schwartz up top would be doing something to show off his magic, too.
The carriage immediately veered to put a lane’s worth of space between them, and fell back to drive parallel to its counterpart a few yards behind.
“Yeah, you’d better run,” Layla said, grinning.
Jasmine gave her a quelling look, which she appeared not to notice, before replying. “If they attack us now, where the police will intervene, we win—they set that up themselves by facing down the Guild the way they have. They’re not backing off because they’re afraid, Layla; they’re encouraging us to stand down our defenses and not attract the military police. No, this is how all cons are structured. You have to present the mark with the opportunity to put one over on you. We’ve made it plain we’re ready for a fight; they don’t know just how ready we are. They think we are riding into their trap, and once we do, we’ll spring ours.”
“And…just how many cons have you run?” Layla asked pointedly.
Jasmine grimaced. “Uh, this will be my first.”
“I see,” the aristocrat muttered. “Well, I suppose our lives are a sufficient stake. Doesn’t the Guild traditionally start apprentices off stealing, I don’t know, pocket change? Fruit from street vendors? Candy from babies?”
“It’s a good grift, regardless,” Glory said firmly. “No plan survives contact with reality, but we are well-prepared to improvise. That is the important thing.”
“I see the gates up ahead,” Rasha reported. “And Tallie’s shield is off again. Just the two carriages after us, still…”
“The gate guards may stop us,” Layla said, frowning.
Glory smiled. “The gate guards aren’t going to intervene as long as Meesie is back to mouse shape and Tallie isn’t showing off a shield that works better than it should in the snow. The sheer amount of traffic in and out of this city inevitably makes it impossible to scrutinize anyone too closely.”
“Traffic’s pretty light,” Rasha said, frowning nervously.
“But habits endure,” said Glory. “Anyway, if we are stopped, we have our cover story. Two wealthy dilettantes and their entourages repairing to our estates in Madouris after a most unsettling encounter with dwarven toughs. Shock, dismay, and so on. Still, I’m quite certain they won’t trouble us. Both these carriages are, if I say so myself, distinctive…”
“Wait, what about highway patrols?” Layla interrupted, watching the gates draw closer ahead. Traffic had, in fact, thickened, though that only meant there were four other carriages visible, none driving close enough together to force anyone to slow down in the snow. “Surely roads are heavily monitored this close to the capital…”
“Actually,” Glory said with a smile, “the capital itself is directly administered by the Silver Throne, but the lands outside it are part of Tiraan Province, governed by House Madouri. Among the new Duchess’s reforms has been the dismissal of most of her father’s rangers and public guardsmen, whose primary skill was taking bribes.”
“Oh, splendid,” Layla huffed, folding her arms. “Then we shall only meet bandits. Well, I’m sure we can handle those.”
“There are no bandits in Tiraan Province,” Glory said, now openly amused. “While the new Madouri guard corps is being trained to her more stringent standards, Duchess Ravana has made a standing contract with the Thieves’ Guild chapter in Madouris. Guild thieves who apprehend highwaymen will be compensated equally to the value of whatever was stolen, plus a bounty, and she prefers that the courts not be burdened with prosecuting such scoundrels when their heads will suffice to prove the cessation of their activities.”
“That,” Jasmine said with a grimace, “is just begging for the worst kind of abuse.”
“For a run-of-the-mill criminal cartel, perhaps,” Glory replied, shrugging placidly. “The Guild acts out of principle, however, and the Duchess has played to that perfectly. Boss Tricks has made it very clear that her offer is not to be abused in any way. Between that and Ravana making sure this arrangement is an open secret in the province, the highways around Tiraas are actually safer than under the old Duke’s administration.”
“She sounds quite the charmer,” Layla said, looking pointedly at Jasmine, who made no reply.
The gate guards did not even flag them to slow. Apparently, two luxury carriages (one with significant physical damage) with armed individuals sitting on top did not warrant closer inspection, a fact upon which Layla commented with some asperity as they eased carefully onto the bridge across the canyon.
“Well,” Glory said idly, “some of us have standing arrangements with gate guards, as I was trying to say earlier. Any Eserite who moves in circles of a certain class, really. I would be astonished if Webs weren’t fully paid up with the local constabulary. He does so love spending his money on bribes.”
“I guess if the dwarves really wanted to put us neatly out of the picture,” Rasha murmured, gazing out the window at the dizzying drop into blackness just beyond the bridge rails, “this would be the place.”
“Oh, what a lovely thought,” Layla exclaimed. “Really, thanks ever so.”
“You have to climb to get off the side of this bridge,” Jasmine said with a smile. “And those walls are more than sturdy enough to absorb collisions.”
“It ends up being tested more often than you’d think,” Glory added. “In fact, the Emperor is rumored to be drawing up legislation governing the use of enchanted carriages, requiring one to pass tests and obtain a license to drive.”
“That sounds like an entirely superfluous administrative burden,” Layla sniffed.
Beyond the bridge was another walled and gated town guarding the approach to Tiraas, and beyond that, the Imperial highway extending forward into snowy darkness. The road forked just beyond the outer gates, heading westward toward Viridill and north to Madouris. The provincial capital was a proverbial stone’s throw from Tiraas itself; each city was visible from atop the other’s walls. From the ground, however, in the dark and in the snow, with a stretch of forest bracketing the road ahead, there was no evidence of civilization once the outlying farms and shops petered off into the dimness.
Both carriages accelerated as they eased past the last fairy lamps into the tree-lined woods, trusting their wheel enchantments to keep them grounded. A few ruts had been carved through the white blanket ahead by other vehicles, but no effort had yet been made to clear the road, and they threw up sprays of snow to both sides as they went.
Behind them, there were now three carriages pursuing. Two were cheap Dawnco sedans of the type which had intercepted them in the city, while another stood taller and more squared in shape; it was hard to tell from ahead, with its lamps shining directly in the eyes of anyone looking back, but it appeared to be a delivery truck.
“I really hope your other allies got themselves into position,” Layla said tersely. “Otherwise our evening is going to be rather more brief than we had hoped.”
“They wouldn’t let me down,” Jasmine murmured, her eyes glued to the pursuing vehicles. “Any of them. They know where to go. We just have to hold long enough to get there.”
Suddenly the lights grew brighter. The two sedans separated to both sides and sped up to a truly reckless velocity, clearly moving forward in an attempt to flank the Eserite convoy, while the truck kept its position at the rear.
Rasha grunted, lifting one of the gold-wrapped disruptors. “And here they come.”
“Well, they have us outnumbered and alone, with no witnesses or support,” Glory said calmly, settling back into her seat, her calm smile illuminated by the flash of hostile carriage lamps accelerating forward. “Those poor bastards.”