She opened the door and stepped out to find Lord Vex staring at her. Seeing the unflappable spymaster visibly startled was quite satisfying, but Milanda kept her expression fully under control, calmly pushing the door shut behind her.
“Ah, good,” she said. “This is the right address, after all. I was a tad uncertain; this method of travel is still rather unfamiliar to me.”
“I can imagine,” Vex replied. “That was…quite an entrance.”
Milanda gave him an innocent smile. “What? Stepping through the door? I did say I would meet you here. I hope I’ve not kept you waiting long; I had to return to the base and gather a few supplies.”
“That,” he said with the ghost of a smile in reply, “is a closet, as I’m sure you noticed. When you said you had a more discreet way of entering, I assumed you were planning to use the kitchen door in the rear. Ah, well, whatever it is you did, this is undoubtedly better. None of the neighbors should have reason to recognize you or mark anyone’s comings and goings, but the more secrets we can keep, the better.”
His gaze flicked momentarily to the device attached to her ear, and then the box she was carrying, but just as quickly returned to her eyes, betraying no emotion now that he was over the initial surprise. As expected from such a man.
“Quite,” she agreed. “With regard to that, I hope you don’t object to me keeping you in the dark…”
She trailed off as he held up a hand to forestall her explanation. “Unnecessary, Ms. Darnassy. In this matter, I think it best that no one be told anything they do not absolutely need to know, given the risks involved. Should you or any of your new assistants fall into the hands of the Church, or anyone else, it’s best they have nothing to reveal under coercion. You, in particular, given your access to the secrets of the Hands. I trust you will keep this in mind when conversing with the associates I have found for you.”
“Of course.” Milanda glanced around the room. It was sparsely furnished, with only a few rustic-looking wooden chairs scattered about and a threadbare rug covering the floorboards, but this could have been an upper parlor in any mid-sized urban home. The wallpaper was peeling slightly and the floor was liberally marked by dents and scuffs; this was clearly not a well-off neighborhood. “I take it this place is secure, then.”
“Relatively,” he said with a shrug.
She snapped her attention back to his face, frowning. “Relatively? Lord Vex…”
“I assure you, I have taken no unnecessary risks,” he said, again with that vague smile. “Absolute security does not exist, Ms. Darnassy. The world is made of connections; there is always some thread that can be followed. The current situation is that our enemies have reason to fear action against them but none to expect it specifically, and especially not from you. This house was acquired via means not in the portfolio of my agency’s assets, which leaves no paper trail the Hands can easily access. Under the circumstances, it is adequate.”
“I see. If I may ask…?”
“Considering you are being asked to operate from here, that’s reasonable,” he said nodding. “This is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse, arranged for us by Bishop Darling.”
Her frown deepened. “Darling? Lord Vex, he was with the Archpope!”
At that, Vex grinned outright. “On the contrary, Antonio Darling is with no one. His agenda is his own, and all his allegiances—to the Church, the Throne, the Guild, whoever—are rivals he plays against each other for his own purposes. I am not absolutely certain what he ultimately wants; possibly only the thrill of the game. His strongest sympathies are with the Guild’s rather libertarian philosophy, however, and in this matter in particular he is already in our confidence. It may be best if you keep your own interactions with him to a minimum, but I anticipate no betrayal from that direction.”
“I see,” she said warily. “Well, then. And these…assistants?”
Vex made a face, half smile, half grimace. “Ah, yes. No sense putting that off any longer, I suppose. Come, I’ll introduce you.”
“Well, doesn’t that just fill me with confidence,” she muttered, but followed him into an upstairs hall and then down a staircase.
This terminated in a pretty typical living room, furnished in a comfortable but shabby style with clearly secondhand accouterments. The front door stood not far from the foot of the stairs, and a lit fireplace opposite, with cords of wood stacked nearby; there was no sign of an arcane heating range. Apparently, the Guild didn’t bother to keep its personnel in excessive comfort. A selection of charms and folded articles of clothing—all in black—were laid out on a low table before the patched sofa. Most immediately interesting to Milanda, though, were the three men present.
“Gentlemen,” Vex said, “meet Milanda, from whom you will take orders for the duration of this mission. Milanda, may I present Andrew Finchley, Thomas Rook, and Jacob Moriarty, most recently of the Imperial Army.”
All three had whirled upon her arrival from poking through the things on the table; Moriarty reflexively came to attention and saluted. Her first thought was that it was almost poetic: she was looking at a cross-section of the Empire itself. Rook was an ethnic Tiraan, his black hair too long to have been recently in the Army (assuming he cared a whit for regulations), and so tousled he’d either just awakened or was one of those guys who deliberately kept it that way. Finchley was a pale Stalweiss, with rare reddish hair and a smattering of freckles across his cheeks. Moriarty, who now relaxed, looking self-conscious, was a dark-skinned Westerner, taller than the other two and more strongly built…but then again, that might have been an illusion caused by their lack of his good posture. To judge by their names, though, they all three came from frontier families.
“Glad to meet you,” she said politely, dipping her head.
“The honor is ours, ma’am!” Moriarty practically shouted, then clamped his mouth shut.
“Sorry about him, ma’am, he’s not good at improvising,” Rook said with a grin. “Omnu’s balls, man, we’re not in the Army anymore. You can give it a rest.”
“I actually don’t think he can,” Finchley said. Moriarty shot them both a sullen glare.
“I should let you know,” Vex said in a distinctly dry tone, “these men were discharged at the rank of private, and all three are rated as Class D troopers.”
“Oh?” Milanda turned to look at him again, raising her eyebrows. “Forgive me, but I’m not familiar with the Army’s terminology. Class D signifies…?”
“You’re aware of the letter grading system commonly used in academia?”
“It’s like that.”
She shifted her attention back to the three ex-soldiers, two of whom looked abashed, though Rook was grinning as if someone had just told a joke. “…ah.”
“What they are,” Vex continued, “is trusted. These three have been privy to state secrets at the highest level and amply proved their discretion, as well as their loyalty to the Throne. They are, additionally, already connected to our basic problem, albeit tangentally. They are currently in hiding from a Hand of the Emperor who means them harm.”
Milanda frowned. Trusted, but not reliable. That was not ideal, but still better than the opposite combination. Aloud, she said, “How so? What did you do to provoke him?”
“Nothing,” Finchley said with a sigh.
“Eh, wrong place, wrong time,” Rook said airily. “We were nearby when he went crazy.”
Moriarty cleared his throat. “If I may, ma’am? He was trying to use us as leverage against Professor Tellwyrn. We were most recently stationed at Last Rock, you see. The Hand threatened harm to us if she didn’t comply with him.”
It did not escape Milanda’s memory that much of this had been kicked off by Tellwyrn’s unexpected visit to the Empress. “You’re that close to the Professor?”
“Nope,” Rook chuckled. “Also, she was already trying to do what he wanted. I cannot emphasize enough that the man went absolutely batshit crazy.”
“Uh, ma’am? Lord Vex?” Finchley, at least, had the sense to look worried. “You said this was related… Do you understand why it is the Hand was acting so…unstable?”
She glanced at Vex, who nodded gravely to her.
“That’s as good a lead-in as any,” Milanda said. “I trust it has been emphasized to you how very secret this matter is?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Moriarty said crisply, nodding.
“National security,” Rook added with a wink. “Treason, trials and beheadings if we blab. All in a day’s work!”
“They use hanging, not beheading,” Moriarty muttered.
“We, uh, were also told this was possibly going to be very dangerous,” Finchley said, still a little nervously. “Honestly, after the hellgate, I don’t know how much worse it can be, but life has a way of surprising me.”
Rook snorted. “Which hellgate? Oh, wait…” He glanced at Vex. “Are we allowed to tell her about that?”
Milanda also looked at Vex. “How did these three end up being privy to state secrets, by the way?”
“Ma’am,” Rook said grandly, “you have the pleasure of being assisted by the three unluckiest sons of bitches in this blessed Empire!”
“No, previously classified materials are still classified,” Vex said, exasperation beginning to peek through his reserve. “Especially matters you were warned were Sealed to the Throne. Breaking that seal will draw the attention of the Hands, which is absolutely the last thing this mission needs. As you will understand if you will allow the woman to proceed.”
“Thank you,” Milanda said with what dignity she could muster. “With that established, then, this is the situation. Right now, the magical system empowering the Hands of the Emperor has been tampered with by hostile forces, which is causing them to behave irrationally, while also developing new powers.”
“Holy shit,” Rook whispered, the levity abruptly vanishing from his face. Finchley gulped loudly.
“Additionally,” Milanda went on in a grim tone, “the same hostile actors have been responsible, through the same means, for the lack of an heir to the Silver Throne being born. The specific perpetrators of these assaults have been stymied, for the moment, and their ability to take such action destroyed. We’re working on reversing the damage. Most immediately of concern to us, this was all done at the command of Archpope Justinian of the Universal Church.”
There was a beat of silence while they pondered that.
“Why, though?” Moriarty asked, frowning. “The Church can’t just take over the Throne. I don’t see how destabilizing the Empire helps Justinian.”
“The Church is one thing,” said Vex. “Justinian, specifically, is another. He is deeply ambitious and quite interested in gaining political power. I note that you did not seem surprised to learn he would do such a thing, Mr. Moriarty, only curious about his endgame. The Universal Church holds sway all over the world, and within the Empire it is the most concentrated single power aside from the Throne itself. In fact, the Church was, for a time, poised to take over political control of the Empire after the Enchanter Wars. Under pressure from several cults and Houses, it participated in the creation of the Tirasian Dynasty instead. The precedent does exist, though. There are many potential scenarios in which a sitting Archpope could put himself forward as a political leader if the need for one should suddenly arise.”
“Well, you’re right that he’d totally do something like that,” Rook said thoughtfully. “He was starting in on Professor Tellwyrn last year. I never did figure out how that helped him, either. I think the man just plain doesn’t like anybody who might have more power than him.”
“If it’s not another secret, what’s the source of this information?” Finchley asked.
“That is the core of the problem, and the reason for this mission,” said Milanda. “I am the source of this information, and more than that I can’t tell you, at least on that subject. That is because all the means through which it was acquired are extremely sensitive state secrets, which absolutely cannot be revealed. This means the government has no evidence to bring against Justinian, and any action taken against the Church by the Empire will, to all appearances, be unprovoked hostility.”
“Which,” said Vex, “considering his established aims, Justinian could easily use to justify efforts to further weaken the Throne and usurp its authority.”
“Crap,” Finchley muttered.
“So,” said Milanda, “he has placed the Silver Throne in such a position that it cannot openly retaliate against his attempts upon it, nor even exercise overt self-defense.”
“And so,” Rook said with a broad grin, “that leaves less-than-open means!”
“Exactly,” said Milanda, smiling in return.
“I need to make something explicitly clear,” Vex said seriously. “In this matter, despite the various ties each of us has to the Imperial government, we are not officially acting on its behalf. This mission is undertaken by private citizens, without Imperial sponsorship. That means that if you run into any trouble, no matter how severe, the Empire will not and cannot come to your aid. No one in the Empire, even in Intelligence, knows this is going on, and if they did, they would be legally unable to intervene. Legally, what we’re going to do will be the actions of vigilantes, and the Empire itself will be obligated to take punitive action against you if you are caught.” He smiled languidly. “Do please try very hard not to get caught.”
This time, all three men swallowed.
“You have, at least, been provided with tools,” Vex continued, gesturing at the table, “which I see you have already taken the liberty of investigating. These are charms and enchanted equipment of beyond state of the art quality. There are few organizations which could provide them, of which the Throne is, of course, one. This operation being unsanctioned, all of these were acquired strictly off the books and can’t be traced back to any Imperial department—at least not directly—but their presence will be suggestive, at the last. You should try not to let them be observed, and definitely not captured, by any enemy. The collective value of those materials, gentlemen, is greater than the sum total of the resources that have gone into your upkeep and training from birth until now.”
Finchley very carefully laid the shielding charm with which he had been toying back on the table.
“I will confess,” said Vex with a frown, “all this leaves me…concerned. It is a critical mistake to rely on fancy equipment above skill. I’ve sent agents to their deaths before, but only for the sake of missions of the utmost importance in which no other alternative existed. I am unaccustomed to squandering lives the way I very much fear I am, with you.” He glanced at Milanda. “The specifics of your operations will not be up to me, and it’s best I know as little about them as possible. I do suggest, however, that you try to avoid combat situations.”
“Understood,” Moriarty said, saluting again. “We will exercise the utmost care! And I’ll begin studying the manuals of this equipment immediately.”
Vex actually blinked. “Manuals?”
Moriarty hesitated, looking uncertain. “I…yes, sir. Per policy of Imperial Command, all enchanted equipment is to be issued with full documentation.”
“Omnu’s balls, you goober,” Rook exclaimed. “The man just got finished explaining how off the books this whole thing is. There’s no documentation!”
“But…” Moriarty was beginning to look increasingly alarmed. “…but…we need to be acquainted with any tools to be used before—”
“It’s like talking to a brick wall,” Rook said to Finchley.
“It’s more like talking to Moriarty.”
“Actually, now you mention that, it’s a little like talking to Tellwyrn.”
Vex drew in a deep breath. “I can acquire documentation for you. That is probably a better idea than leaving you to figure out how to use these on the fly, as it were.”
“We would be tremendously grateful, my Lord,” Moriarty said smartly, already looking relieved.
Milanda cleared her throat. “And on that subject, I have a little something for you as well.” Vex glanced at her, betraying no surprise, as she held up the metal box she carried and opened it. “I trust you lads noticed my…jewelry?”
“It’s quite fetching!” Rook said gallantly. “Unconventional, I like it. Elvish?”
“Not exactly,” she said with a smile, holding the box so they could see its contents: within lay three more earpieces, identical to the one she wore. “I brought one along for each of you. Help yourselves. Please go ahead and put them on; they fit over the ear, like mine.”
The three men reached forward to take the proffered devices with clear uncertainty. Moriarty fumbled a little to get his affixed in his ear, Rook pausing to critically examine his before doing so.
“Feels weird,” Finchley said with a grimace, prodding at the device now hooked over his ear. Vex watched all this with aloof disinterest, despite the acute attention Milanda knew he must be paying.
“Oh, I dunno, I bet it makes us look dashing!” said Rook, once again grinning like a fool. “Well, maybe not you two, but in my case—”
All three yelled in surprise, clapping hands to their ears; Moriarty leaped sideways as if he could get away from the voice suddenly sounding in his head. Vex raised an eyebrow, glancing at Milanda.
“Gentlemen,” she said, not hiding her own amusement, “meet Walker. Since you’ll be based in this house for the duration, and I will need to come and go on a separate schedule, we need a way to stay in contact. These gadgets will provide it. You can keep in touch with me and with each other this way, as well as Walker, who is helping to oversee this operation from another—more secured—location.”
“Walker, that’s an unusual name for a girl,” Rook muttered, poking at his earpiece.
“Really, that’s the part of this you’re hung up on?” Finchley said dryly.
“He has a point,” Walker said, audibly amused. “What an interesting group of helpers you’ve found, Milanda.”
She refrained from pointing out that she hadn’t found them.
“This is incredible!” Moriarty enthused. “Instantaneous two-way communication—and with such small devices! Why, the smallest magic mirrors are bigger than dinner plates, and those are the masterworks of significantly powerful mages. This really is beyond state of the art!”
Vex shot her a sidelong look, but continued to withhold comment.
“So, uh, is there anyone else we can expect to meet, here?” Finchley asked, uncomfortably twisting his earpiece.
“Hopefully not,” Milanda assured him. “At least for now.” Gods, it wasn’t as if she had anybody else to inflict on them except for ancient artificial intelligences and dryads. Based on what she’d seen so far, the thought of these three meeting a dryad was almost as troubling as the thought of a dryad getting involved in this in the first place.
“Whichever of you is playing with your earpiece, kindly cut it out,” said Walker. “Those devices are designed to muffle irrelevant feedback. If you’re rubbing hard enough to make the noise I’m hearing, you are going to wear a hole in your epidermis.”
“In my what?” Rook exclaimed, but jerked his hand away from his ear.
“Well, then,” Finchley said, folding his arms in a clear attempt to keep his hands away from his ear. Milanda sympathized; she wasn’t used to the sensation of something hanging over and partially in her ear, herself, though her life at court had equipped her with enough restraint not to fidget with the thing. “What, exactly, is it we will be doing, ma’am?”
She hesitated. What, indeed? Milanda had plans, but rather general ones at the moment—more general than five minutes ago, adjusted for having become acquainted with her “staff.” Just what to do with these three was a real question. Loyal, trustworthy…clearly not very competent. Vex was right: it would be a miracle if they got through this without anybody getting killed.
“Our first mission, tonight, I will be going on alone,” she finally said. “As we’ve just demonstrated, you’ll at least be able to keep in touch. What I learn will help determine our next steps, which will enable me to form more coherent plans. Right now, all this is in a very early phase. The long and the short of it, gentlemen, is that the Church has highly secret programs which have been used to harm Imperial interests. Just as the Throne itself cannot afford to reveal its hand by taking direct action, the Church will have to disavow its own secret operations if they are exposed or damaged. And that means we have a measure of impunity with which to damage them. In short…” She smiled. “We are going to stir up the waters, and see what fish we can catch.”
Lord Vex cleared his throat. “And with that, I must take my leave. Milanda, if I might have a word with you before I depart?”
“Of course, milord,” she said politely. “I’ll be right back, boys.”
“We’ll be right here,” Finchley said somewhat fatalistically.
Milanda followed Vex into the kitchen, where he headed straight for the rear door. He paused before reaching for the knob, turning to her.
“You seem to have this well enough in hand,” said the spymaster, “and as I emphasized, the less I know about the details from here on out, the better. I can be questioned by Hands of the Emperor at any time. There is one thing, though.”
He was studying her closely, now, with enough intensity that the degree of his interest was clear despite his customary reserve. “I find myself suddenly reminded of an old incident report I studied. Years ago, during the reign of Empress Theasia, it was recorded that the Hands of the Empress captured and detained an extremely dangerous fairy known as the Dark Walker. I have no further knowledge of the creature, which means they kept her in one of the very few—perhaps the only—facility which is totally outside my purview.”
“My, you really do have thorough records,” Milanda said pleasantly.
Vex stared at her in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy… Please, be extremely careful.”
“I assure you,” she said in a more serious tone, “I am taking every possible precaution, and some I very recently would not have thought possible. This is no time for needless risks. Beyond that, however, I believe we should stick to our established rule. No information shared beyond what is absolutely necessary.”
“Quite,” he said with a sigh. “I dearly hope you know what you’re doing, for all our sakes. No one else can.”