Iris stared at her, mouth slightly open, and Maureen found herself in the odd position of feeling too awkward even to cringe. She simply froze, waiting for the hammer to come down.
“Oh,” Iris said after an excruciating pause, clearly grasping for something to say. “…you are?”
“No!” Maureen blurted. “I mean, yes, but… I, it’s, I don’t…”
She opened and closed her mouth twice, and then finally gave up and hid her face in her hands.
It was another silent few moments before the bench shifted, Iris having stepped over to settle onto it beside her.
“So, um,” the human said a few seconds later, “I don’t…know how good my advice might be. I’m guessing not very. But…I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener? If that’ll help?”
“I don’t know what to do,” Maureen whispered.
Iris finally settled an arm around her shoulders. Well, a forearm. The difference in their sizes made it a slightly awkward gesture, but less awkward than the rest of this, all things considered.
“Is it about the Sleeper?”
Maureen sighed, then nodded miserably, finally peeking over her fingers. “I’m such a coward.”
“I think being terrified in this situation just means you aren’t crazy.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” she whispered. “You can be afraid when you’re in danger. You’re right, that’s just sense. Somethin’s wrong with you if you’re not. Courage an’ cowardice is all in what you do about it. An’ I just wanna run away.”
Iris held silent, rubbing her shoulder gently for a moment, before speaking. “Well, um. I missed you at lunch, but all your stuff’s still in the room. What I mean is, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to bolt, here. I wouldn’t have thought you were gonna until you said something.”
Maureen heaved a much heavier sigh, and leaned against her for a second before straightening up again. The position had tucked her right under Iris’s arm, which was a little uncomfortable.
“Truthfully, I hadn’t made up me own mind. I’ve been standin’ down here, ditherin’ on it.”
“Well, there you go, then,” Iris said with only sightly forced cheer. “Sounds like you’re not a complete coward.”
“You don’t understand,” she muttered.
“…okay, so, maybe I don’t. You can explain it to me, if you want.”
“I’m a gnome,” Maureen exclaimed. “Adventure is what we do. Hell, it’s what we are. Surely ye know that much?”
“I…well, gnomes do have that reputation, yes. I wasn’t gonna try to make assumptions, though. Since coming to this school and meeting all kinds of people I’ve been learning not to do that if I can avoid it. Gets awkward.”
“Sure, that’s sense. But when it comes to gnomes, aye, the stereotype’s there for a reason. We made it ourselves an’ work at livin’ up to it. Me mum already thinks I’m a nutter cos I like tinkerin’ with machines more’n roughhousin’. Me whole life, I never wanted t’go out an’ play with they other kids. They were always explorin’ the woods around the Hold, fightin’ off boars, fallin’ in caves, gettin’ lost fer weeks on end…”
“You let kids do that?” Iris demanded in horror.
“We’re gnomes,” Maureen said with a shrug, finally looking up at her. The human’s expression was equal parts fascinated and aghast. “It’s… Well, look, Iris, we don’t often talk about our business outside the Folk. There’s stuff you’re just not meant to know, so…don’t feel bad if some of what I do say doesn’t make much sense to ye.”
“Well, I mean, sure,” Iris said hastily. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Maureen, I’m not gonna pry. I’m just here to listen if you want to talk. Talking to somebody always helped me when I struggled with things.”
“Aye, don’t worry,” she said a little wryly, “I’m not about t’give away any great secrets. But you’ve gotta understand… Aye, gnomish children are pretty well expected to get into scrapes that’d bally well kill off humans twice their age, see? So when yer a kid who likes t’stay indoors, readin’ books an’ stackin’ yer toys up into interesting new shapes… Well, when I was real young, me mum thought I was barmy. An’ those were th’good years. Past a certain age, ye get to the point where not doin’ what your society wants makes people think…poorly.”
“I know a little about that, myself,” Iris said quietly.
Maureen nodded. “So, aye. I hate this, Iris. I just wanna make stuff! I like buildin’ things, not riskin’ me ears on adventures. Makes me a fair lousy gnome, but I’m me, y’know? An’ this…this Sleeper nonsense…” She swallowed heavily. “I was actually excited t’be comin’ here. Sure, I got a place at the school cos me uncle went adventurin’ with Tellwyrn back in the day, before she was a Professor an’ all. I got sent to the school cos me folks figured it was the only place left for a classic adventurin’ education. But Tellwyrn came to our place ta give me the interview, an once me mum an’ dad were outta the room, she made it clear what I could learn here didn’t have to be adventure if I didn’t want it to be.”
“You always seemed okay on field trips,” Iris said softly. “Like, out in the Golden Sea. Honestly I kinda thought you were in your element. You knew all about making campsites.”
“Oh, any gnome knows stuff like that,” Maureen said, waving a hand dismissively. “Raw basics. An’ we didn’t even have proper adventures!”
“Proper adventures,” Iris repeated, her eyebrows climbing. “I’m sorry, but do you remember the manticore? Or the harpies? Or that whatsit that wanted to eat Raolo?”
“That whatsit was a fairy, an’ those were all nothin’,” the gnome said with a grin. “Trash mobs an’ beginner dilemmas. Have ye heard the story o’ what the sophomores went through on their Golden Sea trip? Now that was a proper adventure!”
“The way I heard it, half of them nearly died. And considering most of them are nearly un-killable…”
“Exactly.” Maureen leaned back, letting her head thunk against the bench. “…exactly. There’s a part o’ me that can appreciate a story like that. Me upbringin’, aye? But not me. A life spent workin’ in a big factory, designin’ new machines… A dwarf’s life, basically, not a gnome. It’s a gnomish idea of hell, but t’me, it sounds like heaven. No matter who scared an’ fed up I am, I can’t go runnin’ home at the first sign o’ lethal danger. I can’t, Iris. I’m already the worst gnome there is. I can’t bear how me mum’d look at me…”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Iris murmured, “but…maybe being a good person is more important than being a good gnome? You’re one of the best people I know, Maureen.”
“Have you thought about runnin’?” Maureen asked, looking up at her again. “Tell ye the plain truth, Iris, half o’ what scares me is how all this seems targeted at us. Half our dorm’s been hit, an’ Raolo, who’s also our year. Plus Natchua an’ Shaeine, who’re connected to Szith through the exchange program. I’d suspect it was Addiwyn actin’ up again if she wasn’t one o’ the first to go.”
“I don’t run from enemies,” Iris said quietly, her eyebrows settling into a hard line. “Especially warlocks.”
“…you’d have made a more’n fair gnome.”
She grinned. “Well. I dunno about that, but considering the source, I get the feeling that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”
“It’s like everything that makes me love this place is bein’ taken away,” Maureen whispered. “Even Rook’s gone. I’ve got nobody left to Patter with.”
“Rook?” Iris’s eyebrows shot upward and she leaned away, staring down at her in shock. “You had a thing with Rook? The scruffy one?”
“A thing with—oh, ew!” Maureen wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be utterly daft, he’s well too old for me, an’ not my type even if I was inta tall boys! It’s not like that, Iris, it’s just…he spoke a bit o’ Patter, as much as a human can. It was a wee bit o’ home.”
Iris blinked, then shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Maureen rubbed at her face with both hands. “…all right. Well. You’ve noticed how me accent tends to…come an’ go?”
“I, uh, didn’t want to say anything. It seemed rude…”
“Oh, it’s not rude,” Maureen replied with a rueful smile. “And I’ve a million ways to deflect the conversation if ye had, we all learn ’em growin’ up. It’s not just an accent—it’s Patter. There’s a rhythm to it, a second language threaded through the Tanglish. A whole other layer of meanin’, a way to communicate that shares so much more than just words can.”
“Oh.” Iris blinked. “And Rook can do that?”
“Humans can’t do it,” Maureen explained, wincing. “It’s…this is a bit of a secret, by the way. Not a huge one, the Nemitites an’ some others doubtless know about Patter, but it’s not somethin’ we talk about outside the Folk, except with our most trusted friends.”
“Well, I’m honored, then,” Iris said with a smile.
Maureen smiled back. “But it’s a gnomish thing. It’s intuitive; half of it isn’t even verbal. You have to be a gnome to Patter properly. But there’s some very few humans, those who were brought up by the Folk as babies—aye, that does happen, there’s not a gnome alive who’d throw out an infant if there was nobody else to take care of ’em. They pick up a wee bit of it. Not enough to Patter fully, but if ye get ’em young, when their minds are unformed, they can do some o’ the basic patterns. Rook can, so we’d talk sometimes. Made me feel at home, a bit. Him too, I guess.”
“Huh.” Iris blinked again, twice. “So…Rook was raised by gnomes. How ’bout that.”
“I dunno ‘is story,” Maureen said, shrugging. “He didn’t offer, an’ fer anybody with a gnomish upbringing it’s powerfully rude t’pry. But…now he’s gone, him an’ the other lads, an’ nothin’ left behind ’em but rumors that a Hand o’ the Emperor did ’em in. Bit by bit, Iris, everythin’ I love about bein’ here is bein’ taken away.”
It seemed Iris could find nothing to say to that. For a few more long minutes, they sat in silence.
“I can’t stay here,” Maureen whispered at last. “I can’t. And…I can’t go home either. I can’t do anything. Iris, what am I gonna do?”
“I don’t know, Maureen,” Iris replied softly. “Hon, I don’t think this is something I can help you answer. But… I can sit with you while you figure it out, if you want.”
“…aye. Yeah, that’s not nothin’.”
Slowly, Maureen leaned against her again. It was still awkward, but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad.
The door was not locked, for much the same reason Darling’s own was not; anybody trying to break into this house was either an imbecile or fishing for more trouble than most people wanted to risk. Darling, of course, preferred not to think of himself as an imbecile, but the next few minutes would likely tell.
It wasn’t, of course, as easy as just strolling up the path and walking in, but he hadn’t come here alone. Quietly removing the guards from the home of the head of Imperial Intelligence had required him to call in more favors than he’d ever before expended on a single job, but damn if it wouldn’t impress the hell out of Vex, which of course was the point.
He quietly closed the front door and paused in the entryway, examining the place. It was eerily familiar—very much like his own home, in fact. The tastefully expensive furnishings might have come right out of a magazine illustration, without a hint of personal identity anywhere. Whatever personality this place had, it was well concealed and likely not immediately accessible from any of the entrances. Which meant Darling wasn’t going to see it on this visit. He wasn’t nearly daft enough to think a house like this would have no interior defenses; getting inside had been as much as he’d been able to arrange. He had no plans to step through one more door. Gods only knew what might befall him further in.
No one was there to greet him at first, interestingly. Vex did not employ a Butler, and in fact had made a point of disapproving of Panissar employing one. Despite the Service Society’s vaunted discretion and neutrality, the spymaster felt it a gross abrogation of security to have such a powerful outside organization in a position to access Imperial secrets. It seemed strange that there were no servants, however. True, he had come in without knocking, but any well-trained household staff would be attuned to the sound of the door opening. This place was spotlessly clean, and Darling would eat his own shoes of Vex dusted it himself.
Even while he wondered on it, though, the swishing of fabric and rapid footsteps announced someone coming. Darling put on a pleasant smile and tucked his fingertips into his sleeve discreetly. He was still in full view of the windows…
A young woman bustled into the entry room from a hall doorway and stopped, staring at him rather stupidly. She was an immediately recognizable archetype: blonde, lovely, with elaborately styled hair and too much makeup, wearing a dress which was necessarily out of fashion. Current trends followed the Empress’s personal taste in severe, dark-colored gowns, which poorly suited the professional floozy. Her richly embroidered dress of blue velvet was daring, in the sense that if she moved too abruptly it was likely to slide right off her entirely. Despite its long, blousy sleeves and ankle-length skirts, it left enough of her chest on display she might have been cited for indecency if she left the house during daylight hours.
“Oh,” the girl said finally, in a voice so high-pitched it went past cute and into the territory of grating. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I never heard you knock! That silly maid should’ve answered the door.” She turned to look back into the hall, twisting her torso admirably into profile in the process. “Elzi! You silly girl, where are you?! There’s a visitor!”
“Now, that’s not necessary,” Darling said smoothly, not moving from his position. There was a wall immediately to his left; the room opened up on the right, with tall windows, the curtains currently not drawn, and a single low sofa flanked by end tables occupying the space. An entry where visitors could be kept waiting in a modicum of comfort while it was decided whether they should be allowed deeper into the house. Also, ample space for brawling, if necessary. “So sorry to barge in like this, but I need to speak with Quentin. Immediately.”
“Oh,” she said, turning back to him and batting her thick lashes, blue eyes wide and vacant. The girl sashayed forward a few steps, and he infinitesimally shifted his fingertips to touch the throwing knife up his sleeve, keeping his right hand against his side where she couldn’t clearly see it without doing anything so overtly shifty as moving it behind his back. “Well, Quenty’s usually not home at this time of afternoon—”
“He’s here,” Darling said. Calm and pleasant, but flatly implacable, with the faintest edge to his tone that she seemed not intelligent enough to grasp.
She showed no sign of having grasped it.
“Oh, you think so?” the girl tittered, coming forward another step. “Well, he’s probably up in his office, then. I can take you right to him!”
“That’s all right,” he said with a flirtatious wink. “I’ll wait right here.”
The girl stopped again, once more batting her lashes with an expression of thought which suggested it was a difficult labor for her. “But…but if he doesn’t know you’re here…”
“He knows,” Darling said quietly. “I can be patient. For a while.”
She tilted her blonde head to one side, staring quizzically up at him, then her expression cleared and she smiled, a touch too warmly. “Well, then, if you’re sure. Maybe while we wait—”
The projectile made only the softest sound when it punched through the glass of the front window, boring a neat hole rather than shattering the whole pane. It struck her perfectly on the side of her graceful neck and lodged there, little more than a needle attached to a pencil-thick length of rune-engraved wood. The girl managed a single gurgle and collapsed, slumping against the sofa with one arm draped across it, her head lolling back.
“I don’t think that was called for,” said Quentin Vex, stepping into the room and regarding Darling with a mildly disapproving expression. “There’s really no point in asking what happened to my house guards, is there?”
Darling stepped over to the fallen woman and calmly plucked the dart from her neck, tucking it into his pocket. “There we go; wouldn’t want you to overdose. I’m told alchemical drugs are very precise, but no sense taking risks, eh?” In fact, there was virtually no risk at all, except of him leaving evidence.
Vex shook his head and strode forward. “If you insist on—”
“Not one more goddamned step, Quentin.”
He didn’t bother pulling out his knife. Vex halted two steps into the room, blinking somnolently.
Darling, meanwhile, picked up the girl’s hand, running his fingertips along her wrist, up under her sleeve. Her eyes tracked him, the only thing she could currently move; even her facial expression was frozen in vacancy.
“There we are,” he said in satisfaction, withdrawing the wand he found strapped to her forearm. “Long, baggy sleeves—not part of the kept bimbo’s customary uniform. She’s good, isn’t she? If I hadn’t come here looking for something like this, I’d never have given her a second thought. Oh, my, this is a nice piece, isn’t it?”
The wand was beautifully crafted, its haft bounded in fancifully wrought silver with a large pearl on the end. Darling held it up to the light, admiring the workmanship. It was a shortened variety, perfect for concealing in pockets, at the expense of most of its firepower and accuracy; a weapon like this was all but useless at a range of more than two yards, but a nasty surprise for up-close fighting. Illegal for exactly those reasons, of course. This was a type of wand favored by spies and criminals.
“A gift,” Vex said curtly.
“Well, I promise I shall treasure it,” Darling replied, giving the young woman a wink and slipping her wand into his own sleeve.
Vex cleared his throat. “Maybe you should consider not digging yourself any deeper, Antonio. Trixie isn’t someone you want for an enemy.”
“Oh. Really?” Darling stared down at the paralyzed girl, blinking in apparently thought, her hand still held in his. She gazed blankly back.
He shifted his grip, squeezed, and wrenched. In the quiet foyer, the snap of her wrist breaking was plainly audible. She couldn’t even blink, but her pupils shrank to pinpricks.
Vex had not so much as twitched. That said nothing about whether he cared for the girl; he was too much a professional, and the injury too easily healed. Darling hadn’t really expected him to show his hand in response to what amounted to petulance. “This begins to seem downright out of character, Antonio,” Vex said. “Not your actual character, of course, but the role you like to play in public. Are you sure you want to take the masks off?”
“They’re off,” Darling said curtly, straightening and dropping Trixie’s arm. Vex’s eyes locked on his, sharp and focused, with no trace of the spymaster’s normally sleepy expression. “My apprentices overheard the most interesting thing last night, Quentin. Care to hazard a guess what it was?”
“You have indulged in all the melodrama you’re going to, Antonio. Say your piece before I decide you’re not worth allowing to leave here.”
He didn’t acknowledge the threat, which they both knew was empty. All part of the scene. “I took the time to follow up on rumors rather than risking all this based on one source. And guess what? It seems pretty well confirmed that the newly-unhinged Hands of the Emperor have acquired the ability to teleport.”
He took one step forward; Vex held his ground, eyes narrowed.
“So perhaps you can clarify something for me,” Darling said icily. “I have the Emperor hidden, at your request, with a member of my Guild—in her own home, where a child lives. All this on the presupposition that if the Hands start moving in his direction, your people on the scene will know in advance and have time to give warning and get my people to safety. Perhaps you would like to explain to me, Quentin, how they are meant to do this if the Hands can be on the site instantly?”
“Oh, don’t stop now,” Vex sneered. “Finish your monologue, Antonio. Storybook villainy suits you so perfectly.”
With the tiniest jerk of his arm, Darling dropped the wand out of his sleeve into his hand and shot him.
That, finally, got a reaction. The room was too long and the wand too inaccurate to hit at that distance, but the unfocused blast of light smashed a fairy lamp and charred a wide burn in the wallpaper far too close to Vex for comfort; the spymaster bolted to the side, bringing up a weapon of his own from behind his belt.
They froze, wands aimed at each other. The wall smoldered.
“You find me annoying, I know,” Darling said calmly. “You don’t know whose side I am truly on, and even as well as you control yourself, it irritates you, the way I play both ends against the middle.”
“Both?” Vex spat. “There are far more ends than that in your game.”
“Well, if you want to know what really matters to me, congratulations! You’ve forced my hand, Quentin.” Darling’s voice rose steadily as he continued. “You do not screw over the Thieves’ Guild! You came to me in good faith, promising to look after one of my people if she did the Throne an enormous favor. I added my own word to this. You made me a liar, put Eserites at risk of harm by your own agents, and broke faith with Eserion after coming to us for help. Do you have any idea what you’ve nearly sparked off? You can’t possibly not know! The Guild has taken kings right off their thrones for lesser insults than this!”
“Oh, spare me,” Vex snarled, no sign of his customary reserve in place. “Don’t you dare try to paint this as some kind of moral issue, you hypocrite. You’re no less a cold-blooded snake than I, and you know damn well what thrones and guilds are like! Yours, mine, everyone’s, everywhere. We did what we had to do, it required playing loose with the truth, and if it had all gone well, you’d never have been the wiser. Well, you caught me, fine. Win some, lose some. There’s nobody here but us bastards, Antonio; insult me by playing the martyr and I may decide to take all this personally.”
“I’m going to show you a little more of who I really am, Quentin,” Darling said flatly. “Right now, what I ought to do, as a faithful servant of Eserion, is take this right to the Boss and call for punishment for this hubris. We both know what would happen next—or at least, one of us does, and one has a general sort of idea.” Slowly, he lowered his arm. Vex did not do likewise, keeping the wand aimed at him, but his eyes flicked momentarily to the hole punched in his window, and he did not fire. “Instead, I’ve pulled out all the stops to stay his hand. You’ll never know how hard I had to lean on Tricks to keep this under wraps—and I only did that because I didn’t think I could keep it from him. I did this to stop the kind of bloodbath that should ensue when a sitting Emperor betrays the cult of Eserion the way ours just did. I did this because I am not your enemy, despite your apparent effort to make one of me.”
He slipped the wand into the pocket of his coat, eyes never leaving Vex’s.
“So now, I’m going to go to the home of my friend and Guildmate Peepers, and inform her that her houseguest lied and screwed us over and placed her and her little brother in immense physical jeopardy. I will not harm him in any way, nor allow her to—and not gonna lie, it may be a hell of a task to stop her. But his safe house is about to be gone. You’ve got that long to find another place to stash him. That’s your problem, not mine; in the position you’ve stuck me in, I can’t do you any more favors, however positively I may feel toward the Emperor. Or did until very recently, anyway. And that’s the end of it, Quentin. The Empire will not retaliate—against me, against Peepers, against the Guild. You will not interfere with me going over there. This all hangs by a thread, which you will cut if you make one more move in a direction the Boss finds even mildly distasteful. Understand?”
Darling held his gaze one moment longer before turning his back. He grasped the door handle, but paused before turning it, and spoke without looking back at Vex.
“You can’t fuck up like this again. Not one more time. I’ve worked too long and too hard to keep the Guild and the Throne in good standing with each other. No matter what duress you’re under, Quentin, do not make us enemies. We’ve both got much bigger fish to fry.”
Finally, he opened the door and stepped out.
The Imperial Guard, naturally, raised their weapons as someone teleported directly into the residence. In theory, only duly authorized mages should have been able to get through the wards, but those guarding the harem wing had recently had harsh lessons about the danger of trusting too much in their defenses.
Neither Vex nor the Azure Corps battlemage batted an eye at the staves leveled at them, simply standing motionless and waiting for the all clear.
“Stand down,” the officer on duty said after a moment, and all four soldiers returned their weapons to the upright position, falling back into parade rest around the room.
“Thank you, Major,” Vex said to the mage who had brought him. The man saluted, stepped back from him, and then with a short sparkle of blue light, vanished. The spymaster turned back to the officer who had spoken. “Where is she?”
“Here,” Eleanora herself stated, gliding into the room. “Fortunately—or is that why you chose to come during my customary tea time?” Despite her light tone, the Empress’s expression was sharp, tension visible in the set of her shoulders.
“I did not decide on the timing myself, your Majesty,” Vex replied, nodding deeply in a gesture that was nearly a bow. “I came to report that it’s in motion, now. Darling bought it.”