“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”
She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.
“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”
“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”
“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”
“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”
“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”
“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”
“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”
“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.
“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”
“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”
“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”
She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”
He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.
Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”
It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.
“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”
Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.
“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”
“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”
“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”
“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”
“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”
“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”
“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”
“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”
“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”
“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.
Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.
All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.
“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”
“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”
“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”
Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.
“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”
“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.
“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”
“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”
Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.
“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”
“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”
“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”
“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”
“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”
“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”
We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.
Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.
So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.
“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”
“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.
“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”
“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”
“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”
“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”
“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”
“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”
“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”
“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”
“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”
“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”
The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”
Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.
“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”
“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”
“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”
“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.
Ohh, yes. Chew on that.
“I’ll get it!”
“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”
“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.
“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”
“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.
“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”
“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”
“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.
“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”
“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”
“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”
She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”
“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”
“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”
“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”
Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.
“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.
“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”
“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”
“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”
“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”
Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.
“Yes. I knew it.”
The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.
“You son of a bitch!”
“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.
“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”
“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”
She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”
“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”
“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”
“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”
She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.
“Get him the fuck out of my house.”
“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”
Danny sighed softly. “If I—”
“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”
He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.
Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”
“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”
He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.