A lot had changed in just two years.
The Rail caravans were less utilitarian in design, now, the spartan steel and glass construction clearly influenced by the aesthetics of modern carriages, painted in Imperial black and silver and with much more plush seating in a deep wine red. Gone were the (barely) padded benches within, too; each compartment had designated seats complete with armrests—and most importantly, heavy canvas harnesses which passengers could use to fasten themselves down.
Even the need for those was somewhat lessened. Discreetly glowing sigils decorated metal plates lining the baseboards and ceiling of the compartments, and for one who had traveled the Rails before they were installed, the effect was obvious: the violent slinging that occurred when the caravans navigated curves at faster than the speed of sound were significantly mitigated. Not completely; it was still a rough enough passage that everyone took advantage of the harnesses. Apparently the state of the art wasn’t yet up to neutralizing forces like that—or, more likely, such potent enchantments weren’t economical. Regardless, it was progress, clear and welcome.
The lawyers had been busy, too. Both the warning signs posted on Rail platforms and the fine print on the tickets cautioned, in addition to statements that Rail travel was dangerous and passengers accepted sole responsibility, that persons who for medical, religious, or any other reason should not be exposed to arcane enchantment should not ride the Rails.
Preferring not to draw attention, Trissiny had bought a ticket in Saddle Ridge rather than pulling rank for a free ride. Her armor, for now, remained back at the grove with Lanaera. She could easily summon it to her at need, but the idea was to avoid such a situation if possible.
Even with the improvements, a Rail ride wasn’t a gentle experience, especially for those not used to it. She ended up being the last off the caravan, just because the rest of her fellow travelers were in a much greater hurry to get themselves out of it, and she didn’t see fit to contest them.
The great Rail station of Calderaas, aside from its expanded warning signage, looked very much as she recalled from her previous visits. Some effort had been made to improve the place visually: there were now small trees in heavy pots located in discreet corners. They would require careful watering, of course, but the huge glass roof would provide plenty of sunlight. Still, after coming directly from an elven grove, she thought the poor things looked downright emaciated. More strikingly, banners had been hung from the arched roof high above, affixed to the steel supports directly. The Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field, alternated with Calderaas’s own rearing horse in gold over red.
She didn’t make for the station’s doors right away. There was bound to be at least one example of what she was looking for here; the trick was finding it without drawing attention, and thereby trouble.
Trissiny kept an eye out while walking among the Rail platforms, as she’d been taught in Tiraas. Face forward, gait purposeful, eyes constantly moving. First, she made her way to Platform 9, the same one upon which she’d waited for her caravan to Last Rock on her first visit here. There was still an elf selling tea from a stand on one of the attached spaces, under her sign labeled Platform 9¾. Trissiny bought a paper cup of the herbal brew, then headed away from the Rail platforms themselves toward the broad indoor avenue at the front of the station, lined with more permanent shops and people browsing, or moving to and from the Rail lines. There, she made a show of craning her neck to read shop signs before heading toward a notary and stationer, where she picked up a cheap street map of the city.
All the while, she carefully kept an eye out, as unobtrusively as possible, for what she sought. The first few minutes of this were discouraging, but she spied a likely prospect almost immediately upon stepping down from the platforms to the shopping court. A skinny girl was moving through the crowds, hawking newspapers, and several key details of her performance were off. She was carrying barely half a dozen papers, moving erratically through the crowd rather than picking a spot as a vendor usually would, and not trying nearly hard enough to draw attention to her wares. Suggestive, but not definitive. Trissiny wasn’t sure until she re-emerged from the notary’s just in time to see the paper girl collide clumsily with a well-dressed gentleman and stumble away, cringing and stammering excuses.
Trissiny tucked her map under her arm and waited until the mark had stalked off on his way before approaching the young woman.
“Morning,” she said in a pleasant tone, casually rolling a doubloon across the backs of her fingers. “You look like information is your business! Spare a few moments for a curious voyager who’s just tumbled off the turnip cart?”
The girl scarcely glanced at the coin, fixing her eyes on Trissiny’s face. “Time’s money, love, but moments and pennies I can spare. You hunting something in the city?”
“Not here to hunt, no. Just passing by and looking to be a courteous guest.”
“Righto!” With a broad grin, she began casually backing toward the wall; Trissiny followed along, and in seconds they had positioned themselves out of the flow of traffic, against a spot between two small storefronts.
“Pinkie,” the girl said, tugging the brim of her cap.
“Thorn,” Trissiny replied, repressing her reflexive query. You didn’t get snarky about another thief’s tag unless the goal was to start a fight. “Sorry to take you from your own hunting, I won’t be long.”
“Eh, it’s not much of a hunting ground,” Pinkie said lightly, waving away her apology. “Just collecting the Unwary Tax here and there; no proper fun to be had in a place like this. What can I do you for, Thorn?”
“I’m just arrived; it’ll be my first time in Calderaas, or at least first time stepping outside the Rail station. Can you direct me to the chapter house?”
“Got specific business?” Pinkie asked in a deceptively disinterested tone. Getting that nosey was borderline rude, but Trissiny opted not to make a thing of it. She was the stranger here, after all.
She shook her head. “Just looking to make myself known to the local boss, and get the lay of the land. I don’t plan to be in town long, but I may be long enough to look for a job or two, and last thing I need is to step on anybody’s toes. I can do without getting my butt kicked for not knowing who does the kicking around here.”
“I hear that, sister,” Pinkie replied with a broad grin. “You want the Black Market, it’s easy to find. Head north toward the palace, hang a left when you reach the statue of Sultana Alizara, and follow Briar Street west till you reach the Theatre District. It’s a bit of a maze and you’ll have to wander a little, but any street or alley with black paper lanterns strung over its entrance leads into the Market. You’ll find it pretty quick if you’ve got eyes in your head.”
Trissiny couldn’t help raising her eyebrows. “It’s…actually called the Black Market?”
“This really is your first time in Calderaas, huh,” Pinkie said, grinning even wider. “Ours is an ancient city, steeped in tradition. We appreciate the classics around here. Where’d you roll in from, then?”
“Trained in Tiraas,” she said nonchalantly, “but I’m from Viridill.” One of Style’s basic rules: the less you lied, the less you’d have to remember.
“Ooh, Avenist country,” Pinkie said with a sympathetic wince. “I can see why you’d leave.”
“Yeah, I prefer not to spend any more time in a Legion cell. They have no sense of humor.”
They were already ambling back out into the shopping court, refraining from lingering too long in surreptitious conversation, and at that Pinkie laughed aloud. “Well, I hope you didn’t come here looking for a place less political than Tiraas. The local Houses love their so-called Great Game. Everybody’s a pawn, far as they’re concerned.”
“Thanks for the tip, and the directions.” Trissiny flicked the doubloon, which Pinkie deftly snagged out of the air. “Avei’s blessings upon you, sister!”
That earned another loud laugh, and the thief waved broadly as Trissiny turned to head for the doors. “Welcome to Calderaas!”
She made it barely another dozen steps before being intercepted by a man in a dark coat, with a silver gryphon badge pinned to the lapel. He planted himself directly in her path, fixing her with a flat stare.
“I don’t want any trouble out of you,” he rumbled, pointing one thick finger at her, almost close enough to touch.
“I don’t want trouble out of me, either, Sheriff,” she said politely. Had the coin roll been too brazen? Actually, a man responsible for the law in this station probably knew who the pickpockets were, and could guess what it meant when a stranger engaged one in private conversation. Fortunately, talking to police was one of the basic skills without which you didn’t earn a tag in the Guild. “I’m just passing through town to look up some old friends; I expect to leave within a day or two.”
“Hm,” he grunted, bushy eyebrows drawing together. The sheriff made no further comment, however, letting the silence hang heavily for another moment before stepping aside to let her pass.
Trissiny couldn’t help smiling wryly as she stepped out onto the street. It had been the same man who had greeted her so respectfully the first time she had set foot in the Calderaas station, two years ago. Tricks had been right; that distinctive silver armor protected her from more than physical harm. So long as it was there to be gawked at, most people wouldn’t even notice her face.
Her knowledge of cities worked against her, initially.
Tiraas and Vrin Shai had both been planned, and situated within highly defensible geographical features with regular shapes; the layout of their streets was downright mathematical. The same was true to a lesser extent of Veilgrad, the bulk of which had been built atop its distinctive rocky peninsula from the Stalrange over the prairie. Though it was less rigidly orderly, its position enforced a degree of regularity in its features.
Calderaas, by comparison, was a mess.
Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that it was a complete inverse of Tiraas. Positioned within a crater rather than on a mountaintop, it did have distinct boundaries, delineated by the ancient walls which lined the rim of the caldera, but the shape of Calderaas’s mountain was oblong and irregular. And even within that, its structures appeared to have sprouted up organically. The Royal Palace was near its center, and buildings had fanned out from it like the roots of an architectural tree, with streets forming haphazardly between them. The same had occurred in multiple places, from the city gates and major wall fortifications, from its Cathedral and main Pantheon temples, from the palaces of the original Houses who had first settled it—ancient bastions which had since changed hands multiple times. These features had extended a sprawl of urban growth until they overlapped and filled the caldera, forming the jumbled layout of the old city. And then had come the modern era, when the simultaneous rise of great factories and demolition of crumbling, unstable structures had repeated the process in miniature, resulting in a layout of streets that didn’t even try to make sense.
She had bought the map simply as cover while she scanned for a Guild member to ask for information, but now was grateful she had it. Even with the benefit of Pinkie’s directions, she would have swiftly gotten lost without it. Briar Street, for example, passed through no fewer than three intersections on the way to the Theatre District from which multiple streets branched off at weird angles and no signs indicated which one was still Briar Street.
It took over an hour, but she did get there. Ironically, navigating the Theatre District hadn’t been all that difficult, perhaps because she had been forewarned that it was a maze and by that point expected no different from Calderaan streets. Also, as the name suggested, it had a large number of theaters, which tended to be sizable buildings that made convenient landmarks and forced the streets into fairly regular patterns. It wasn’t long after entering the district that she found an alleyway with a string of black paper lanterns above it.
A few street performers were positioned next to the entrance, a young woman dancing while a boy played a spritely accompaniment on a violin. Past them, unobtrusive by comparison, was an old man seated on a barrel, whittling a block of wood with an excessively large knife. He sized Trissiny up as she stepped into the alley, but returned her polite nod and made no move to interfere with her.
The Black Market, as it turned out, was a single oval-shaped street in the center of the Theatre District, reached by a dozen different alleys and side streets. Every structure which faced it from the outside was considered Guild turf, though all were independently owned and mostly contained businesses which served the thieves and various unsavory types whose presence the Guild tolerated. The structures encircled by the round street were the Guild’s actual property and contained all of its directly owned interests.
All of this Trissiny learned during the judicious time wasting to which she devoted herself upon arrival. This was different from the Rail station; trying to deflect attention from what she was doing was not only a sure way to wear out her welcome, but was actually contrary to her intentions here. She was the unknown in this city, and getting anywhere with the local Guild meant making herself known, and making it plain that she wasn’t bringing trouble. As such, she meandered around, shopping and taking the excuse of those minor transactions to gossip with the Guild-aligned businesspeople she met. Dropping some coin didn’t hurt her position, either, and so she did.
By noon, she had had a decent lunch of kebab, followed later by a snack of cinnamon-sugared flatbread, acquired a set of lockpicks, a tough coil of rope, and a few basic alchemicals, and learned some interesting things about the city.
They had a very different relationship with the local nobility than did their counterparts in Tiraas, for example. While the Guild in the Imperial capital ran their ostentatious casino to openly and directly fleece the rich—in a way the rich didn’t even seem to mind, which Trissiny had always found rather brilliant—the Calderaan thieves regarded their own aristocrats with pure hostility. At the root of it were the different styles of local governance. The Silver Throne kept its nearby Houses at arm’s length, and between the presence of the Army serving as the capital’s police force and the much more fearsome specter of Imperial Intelligence, the scheming of nobles in Tiraas was kept at manageable levels. By contrast, the Sultana preferred (or was forced) to actively play politics with her own rivals, resulting in a hodgepodge of powerful Houses who engaged in perpetual, aggressive maneuvers against each other. These resulted in near-constant excesses which got bystanders involved, to their detriment, and that invariably brought retaliation from the Thieves’ Guild.
The nobles, being nobles, took this into account, and tried to trip each other up into antagonizing the Guild. Trissiny quickly discovered that the Eserites deeply resented being made to play a role in the Game of Houses, but saw no alternative; if not for them, hardly anything would keep the nobles in check. The Houses certainly didn’t fear the Sultana the way they did the Emperor. In fact, only the ruling House of Aldarasi regarded the Guild with any real respect, and rumor was that neither the Sultana nor the local Underboss enjoyed this irony.
All of which was mildly interesting, but Trissiny didn’t much care about local politics herself. However, her entire purpose here was to discreetly gather information about where, how, and why the Imperial government in Calderaas might be holding two paladins against their will—which, of course, she didn’t dare ask about directly. So local politics it was. Fortunately that appeared to be the topic of chitchat around here; getting people she met to talk politics was even easier than giving them her coin. Unfortunately, the picture she was painting in her mind of the situation in Calderaas only added to her questions without answering them.
There scarcely was an Imperial presence in Calderaas these days, and hadn’t been since the Enchanter Wars. House Aldarasi, together with House Madouri and the Universal Church, had conspired to place the previously-obscure House Tirasian on the newly-restored Silver Throne, in a gamble to control the resurgent Empire without becoming targets themselves. Sarsamon Tirasian had capitalized on Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign to seize the reins in truth, earning the enmity of his former sponsors—with the exception of Calderaas, which was the largest target of the Enemy’s depredations. The old Sultana, rather than choking on her pride, had thrown full and unconditional support behind House Tirasian and received it in turn, a policy her heirs had kept up.
The Sultanate being one of the Silver Throne’s closest political allies, Calderaas enjoyed more autonomy than any Imperial province save Viridill. The Imperial government didn’t operate as a distinct entity here; the Sultana was the Imperial governor, and all Tiraan business was conducted from her palace, by her hand. Even the local Army garrisons were positioned in fortresses outside the city, with only a single detachment holding the Royal Palace and another the city walls.
Noon found Trissiny standing in front of the local shrine to Eserion, consisting of a pool in which coins glinted in the sun, sourly munching her cinnamon bread and coming to the conclusion that she had taken completely the wrong approach, here. Calderaas had been heavily Avenist since before the Imperial period, and the entire Aldarasi family had attended Last Rock University since it was founded. She should have showed up in full armor, riding Arjen, and requested an audience with the Sultana.
No sooner had she made up her mind to go do exactly that than someone loudly and pointedly cleared his throat behind her.
Trissiny turned, unhurried, to find herself confronted by a truly enormous man with an iron-studded cudgel hanging from his belt. Two more obvious enforcers flanked him, a man and a woman—both smaller, and wearing holstered wands. All of them, for now, kept their hands conspicuously away from their weapons.
“Well, hi there,” Trissiny said mildly. What now?
“Hello, Thorn,” the big man replied, in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice for so burly a man. “Welcome to Calderaas.”
“Thanks,” she said, putting on a polite little smile. “It seems you have me at a disadvantage…?”
“And I think we both know that’s the only advantage I’ve got here,” he said, polite but making no secret of his unhappiness. That put Trissiny on alert. True, these three posed little physical threat to her, but there was no reason they should know that, unless… “The Boss wants to talk to you. Now.”
The Boss was in Tiraas. The local ringleader’s correct title would be Underboss. Something told her that pointing that out wouldn’t make this conversation any friendlier.
“That’s the best news I’ve had all morning,” Trissiny said, deliberately smiling harder. “I would love to talk with the Boss. Please, lead on.”
“Ringer,” the big fellow said curtly, directing himself to the woman at his right. She immediately opened her mouth to protest, then closed it at receiving a furious scowl from him. Hunching her shoulders in displeasure, she slouched past Trissiny with poor grace, one hand now hovering near her wand. At the big man’s gesture, she followed the woman, and the other two fell into step behind her. The formation indicated they perceived a threat here; the posture and nervous gait of the woman in the lead suggested she half-expected to be attacked from behind at any moment.
Oh, yes, they knew who she was—that, or had been told she was something even more dangerous than a paladin. Trissiny was leaning toward the first option, since they were at least treating her with a modicum of respect. That also explained why the local Underboss would summon her; they probably wanted an explanation for her presence and intentions.
While she had been about to give up using the Guild as an angle, she hadn’t been lying that this was a very positive development. The Underboss of Calderaas would be a great help, especially if she didn’t need to play coy with them about her identity. If, of course, they were inclined to be helpful. There was a lot a hostile Guild leader could do to make her life difficult if that was their intention.
She was escorted past the shrine and to a short flight of stairs which led up to an inconspicuous door in the large structure that predominated this end of the area encircled by the Black Market. By its entrance it might have been a slightly shabby townhouse, though it was too large. Trissiny deliberately refrained from guessing what she was walking into; uninformed theorizing could fog the mind and impair actual observation, according to her Eserite teachers.
Somebody emitted a sudden, loud laugh across the street, and the woman leading the way up the stairs jumped forward, spinning to fix Trissiny with a suspicious glare. Behind her, one of the men stifled a snicker.
“I’m not going to stab you or anything,” Trissiny said gently.
That didn’t seem to improve Ringer’s mood; she narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’re funny, Thorn?”
“Uh…no,” Trissiny said honestly. “Witty banter isn’t one of my gifts. Trying it just ends with me embarrassed, usually. I literally meant I’m not going to stab you.”
“Enough, Ringer,” the big guy said quellingly. “Go on, up to the Boss.”
Muttering rebelliously, Ringer turned back around and carried on up the stairs. At the top she opened the door and ducked through quickly, leaving Trissiny to follow.
She wasn’t given much time to take in the slightly dilapidated entry hall before being ushered up another flight of stairs. This place was laid out like a tenement or office building, with a stairwell in front and halls with stained and torn carpet leading away from each landing, lined with doors. There were fairy lamps, but spaced widely enough to leave general dimness and patterns of shadow.
They escorted her up four stories, down a hall to an intersection lined on one side by windows looking out over the Market. Opposite those was a single wooden door, more ornately carved than the rest in this building, flanked by once-fine but now slightly shabby couches. Upon their arrival, the apparent leader of this little troupe finally took pity on Ringer and stepped forward to rap on the door himself.
“Yes?” The voice from within, slightly muffled, was clearly feminine.
“It’s me, Boss,” he said. “Thorn’s here.”
“Well, send her in, send her in!”
He turned the latch and pushed it open, then stepped aside, nodding to her.
“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, then deliberately nodded to Ringer, too. This earned her only a suspicious glare. With a soft sigh, she passed through the door.
“Be a dear and kick that shut, would you?” said the apparent Underboss of the Calderaan Guild, standing with her back to Trissiny. “No sense carrying on private business out in front of everybody.”
Rather than kicking it, Trissiny carefully pushed the door shut, while studying her new environs. It was an office, oval in shape with the entrance at a narrow end; there was a desk at the far side, but nearer at hand an arrangement of low couches, end tables, and comfortable chairs which seemed to encourage casual gathering. The walls were totally lined with bookshelves, all well-laden with a substantial library, and from the apex of the domed ceiling hung a chandelier which bristled with small fairy lamps in crystal settings. It more resembled a rich person’s private study than a thief’s office.
“Welcome to my little lair,” said the Boss, turning around and offering Trissiny both a smile and a glass of what she had just finished pouring. “I am Cardassa Araadia, but you can call me Velvet. Here, I know it’s a little early in the day, but I think you’ll enjoy this. It’s an elven vintage—hard to come by, but lighter and sweeter than most domestic wines.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Trissiny said carefully, “but I don’t drink.”
Velvet hesitated in the act of extending the glass of pinkish wine to her, then sighed softly. “Ah. Of course you don’t. Well, live and learn, I suppose.” Setting the glass on the desk behind her, she took a sip from the other one she had poured. She was a surprisingly diminutive woman, no more than shoulder-high on Trissiny, with hair as much salt as pepper but a face showing only the faintest lines around her eyes. Her clothing was clearly tailored, and not only because it was cut to flatter her figure; she had commissioned what would be considered a men’s suit had it not been made of colorfully embroidered silk like a noblewoman’s gown.
“Any relation to House Araadia?” Trissiny asked quickly, as much to steer attention away from her refusal of the drink as because she cared.
“Not that they’ll acknowledge it any longer, but yes,” Velvet said with a mischievous little smile. “I’m not actually disowned, either. Local aristocrats try not to provoke us too directly—right up until they do. In fact, there’s a veritable river of noble blood flowing through the Black Market. A lot of the people who are most sick of the Houses and their bullshit were raised by some of them. I understand you were trained alongside most of the next generation of House Sakhavenid, yourself.”
Well, if she hadn’t been sure already that her identity was known here, that confirmed it.
“Acquaintances of yours?” Trissiny inquired politely, refusing to rise to the bait.
Velvet grimaced around another sip of elven wine. “Sakhavenid? Hardly. They’re a tiny backwater House from rural Mathena; my relatives would dismiss them as jumped-up farmers. That’s neither here nor there. The Thieves’ Guild isn’t a very centralized organization, for obvious reasons, but there is a degree of communication among its chapters. Things the Boss in Tiraas makes sure his Underbosses know of. For example, there are certain tags we’re told to watch for, as the person in question is one who a local boss will want to be aware of when they show up at our doorstep. You had better believe Thorn is one of those.”
“Ah,” Trissiny said with mild chagrin. “That answers my next several questions. Good to know. It would have been nice to know before now,” she added irritably. “I could have spared us both some time and come right here.”
“Now, where’s the fun in that?” Velvet’s expression did not match her playful tone, now. “I like having a little time to watch what you do before having to demand to know, in person, what the hell you’re up to in my city. Especially since you’ve been floating around my Market for the last hour, asking pointed questions about the Imperial presence in Calderaas. Whether Imperial Intelligence or the Azure Corps has a local office. Where the Empire might be keeping important prisoners. Whether there’s been friction between the government and the cults. That paints an interesting picture, Thorn. I can’t quite make it out, but I’m starting to get the impression that when I do, I am not going to be happy.” She set the wineglass down on her desk hard enough that the remaining wine sloshed over the lip.
“That was fast,” Trissiny said, impressed in spite of herself. “You’re really on top of the news here.”
“That’s why I’m in charge,” Velvet said flatly, “and I’m letting that pass because you are known to be more likely to tell someone off than flatter them. Embrace that instinct, Thorn; my ego can take a pounding, but I have a special stiletto for people who try to butter me up. What the fuck are you doing in Calderaas, and how much of a mess am I going to have to clean up when you’re done with it?”
She hesitated barely a moment before answering. “Well. As you’ve probably surmised, it’s paladin business. I am on a mission given to me by Vesk.”
Velvet did not react overtly to this news. “Are you the Hand of Vesk, now, too? You’re really branching out, girl.”
“Vesk is a troublemaker,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Alone among the gods of the Pantheon I would probably decline one of his requests. But apparently, I am the last paladin he approached with this. According to Vesk, both the Hands of Omnu and Vidius are also in Calderaas, and have fallen afoul of the Empire somehow in the process of fulfilling his quest. He claims they are being held in Imperial custody, in secret. I am here to get them out. With that done…I’ll consider whether I want to go chasing Vesk’s fairy tales. Right now I’m leaning heavily toward no.”
The Underboss narrowed her eyes. “That’s the daffiest pack of lies I’ve ever heard. The Empire, holding paladins against their will? Omnu may be an old softy, but Vidius would personally kick down the Emperor’s door.”
“You see my problem,” Trissiny replied, nodding. “On the one hand, I have no less than a god telling me this; it’s not as if I can just brush him off. On the other…this is crazy nonsense. Something is going on here, and the only thing I can be sure of is that I haven’t been accurately told what. Hence my discreet approach, and attempt to gather information via the Guild before acting. Something’s seriously fishy about all of this. It’s not a situation in which I want to charge around swinging my sword.”
“Well, praise whichever of the old bastards is listening that you have that much restraint,” Velvet muttered. “This’ll teach me to complain about the nobles; I do not need the fucking gods playing checkers with my city as a game board. All right, let’s back up. What exactly did Vesk want you—”
A sharp knock came at the door, and Velvet broke off, her nostrils flaring in irritation. “I hope this is very important,” she called.
The door opened slightly, and the large man who had been sent to collect Trissiny leaned his head in. “Uh, I dunno about important, Boss, but… It seemed pretty relevant to your current business. We’ve got a couple guys out here who were trying to break into the place.”
Very slowly, Velvet blinked her eyes, twice. “…I’m sorry, Rooter, I seem to have gone momentarily deaf. Or perhaps insane. I could’ve sworn you just told me that somebody was trying to break in to the headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild.”
“Uh, yeah, Boss. That’s why I thought you’d wanna know. I can knock heads on the street just fine, but what-the-fuck weirdness is your department.”
The Underboss rubbed her eyes with both fists. “Just who are these assholes? Please tell me they’re not Guild.”
“Never saw ’em before.”
Velvet looked accusingly at Trissiny. “Second piece of impossibility I’ve heard in the last two minutes. Are you going to pitch this to me as a coincidence?”
“Hey, I came here alone,” Trissiny said, holding up her hands. “I don’t know of anybody who’d—” She broke off suddenly, eyes widening.
“Yep, I know that look,” Velvet said grimly. “There’s somebody suddenly realizing how they screwed up. Spit it out, Thorn.”
“Um.” Trissiny turned to address Rooter, whose face was still peeking in around the door. “Is one of these guys a skinny blonde fellow with glasses, accompanied by a fire elemental shaped like a rat?”
“Huh?” He frowned at her. “Hell, no, they’re just a couple of galoots, look like factory workers. If there was magic involved that’d’ve been the first thing I said.”
“Well, all right then,” she said with relief, turning back to Velvet. “They’re not mine.”
“Actually, they are,” Rooter said.
“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. Velvet just rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, they say they came here to rescue you.”
“Nobody who knows who I am would think I need rescuing,” she snapped. “Especially from the Guild!”
“All right, this is just a waste of time, now,” Velvet said curtly, striding forward. She brushed past Trissiny and yanked the door open, causing Rooter to beat a hasty retreat out of the doorway. “Spit it out! Who the fuck do you think you are and what’s broken in your head that made you think sneaking in here was a good idea?”
“Ain’t tellin’ you shit!” a man’s voice squalled from the corridor outside, immediately followed by a thump, a yelp of pain, and the sound of an abortive scuffle.
Trissiny slipped out and carefully squeezed around Velvet, studying the scene. Ringer and the other enforcer were present, standing guard over two young men who were kneeling in the middle of the hall with their hands bound behind them. Both were, as Rooter had said, dressed rather like factory laborers, in denim overalls over flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and mud-stained boots. One wore a battered cowboy hat; the other, who had apparently just been struck, was currently bare-headed, but a similar hat lay on the floor a few feet away.
“There you are!” the one not currently recovering from having his head smacked exclaimed. “It’s okay, miss, we was sent here to rescue you!”
“Well?” Velvet drawled, folding her arms and shooting Trissiny a look. “Care to bring me up to speed?”
“I have no idea who these are,” Trissiny said honestly, staring at the two in puzzlement.
“Then this is all pointless,” Velvet said dismissively. “Take these two losers outside, beat ’em purple and throw them in the canal. If you ever see either of them in the Market again, break their arms.”
“WAIT!” squawked the hatless man, straightening up with some apparent difficulty. “Waitwaitwait just a sec! Ma’am, you gotta remember us! It was two years ago, we met in the Rail station!”
Trissiny suddenly squinted, taking a step forward to peer more closely at him. “…hang on.”
Velvet held up a hand to forestall Ringer, who had clearly been about to follow her orders.
“Actually,” Trissiny said slowly, “…yes. I do recognize you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the other man said, nodding frantically. “I’m Ezekiel, an’ this here’s my brother Jebediah—”
“Jenkins,” she finished.
“Yes!” Jebediah crowed, then elbowed his brother as best he could with his arms tied. “See! I told you it was her! Didn’t I tell you?”
“Boy, you have got to learn when not to run your mouth,” Ezekiel muttered. “Always, is when, just so’s ya know.”
“So,” Velvet said with mounting impatience, “I take it you don’t want these two roughed up?”
“Oh, on the contrary,” Trissiny said flatly. “Rooter, may I borrow your cudgel?”