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At least he wasn’t in jail for long.
“Well, there she comes,” the officer who had arrested him said unnecessarily, turning to the door of the cell block. Even through the unholy noise of the place, the constant clamor of people in jail for reasons which usually boiled down to booze and brawling compounded by the echoing stone construction of the station house, Tony had heard her coming. Her voice had a distinctively coarse, piercing quality even when not raised in that cackling laugh of hers, which it was as she neared.
She was always laughing about some damn thing or other. Leave it to Rags to find somebody to josh with while walking into a police station to extricate her own apprentice.
“All right, where’s my—there we go,” Rags was declaiming even as she stepped into the cell block. Another uniformed soldier peeked in behind her, but then turned to leave, deciding she needed no further escort. The old woman shuffled across the dingy hallway, ignoring the soldier on duty for a moment to squint at Tony. “Hello again, chucklehead. Well, y’managed a whole three days this time! At this rate I’m gonna forget what you look like without bars coverin’ yer face.”
“I’m told the vertical lines are very slimming,” Tony said, striking a pose and turning his head to the side. “What about in profile, does it work with this haircut?”
“Boy, nothin’ works with that haircut.”
“I’m not even gonna point out the obvious,” Tony said to Sergeant Aradjev, who grinned.
“Sassing your boss’s style isn’t a smart play in your position, kid. I can’t say I mind all that much,” he added to Rags, folding his arms and lounging against the wall by his desk. “I’d be annoyed about having to pick him up twice a week, but at least the boy doesn’t bite me, or stink, or shit on the floor. Hell, he’s even funny when he stops being a little prick.”
“That has never happened,” Tony said earnestly.
“Yep, favorite customer right here,” Aradjev drawled. “One of these days I’m actually gonna charge his ass with something so we can keep him around. Beats having any of the rest of these air-wasters in the front cell where I have to look at ’em. Omnu’s balls, the last guy in there was surrounded by an actual cloud of fleas.”
This commentary brought a round of shouted curses from the denizens of the closest cells. Tony just edged to the center of his and concentrated on not touching anything.
It didn’t need to be pointed out that Rags looked more like she belonged in the drunk tank than Tony did. As usual she wore a bulky, ratty coat two sizes two large and stuffed with who knew what underneath so she resembled a misshapen ogre. A scarf that was more patches than scarf was wound around her head, hiding just enough of her gray hair that the escaping wisps only hinted at the chaos that must hide within. No two articles of clothing on her matched, even her shoes.
“How come you’re still down here mindin’ the drunk tank, Daoud?” she asked the sergeant, her leathery face creasing in a yellowed grin. “The place ain’t burned down yet, what more does a body gotta do to get promoted in this dump?”
“Oh, don’t get me started,” he grunted. “It’s a goddamn trap, is what it is. I mean, same’s true in reverse. How do you get promoted out of fucking guard duty? It’s not like there’s a lot of opportunity for distinguished service in manhandling shroomheads.”
“Now, that’s no good,” Rags cackled. “Next time you tell the story, it’s cos you banged the captain’s wife.”
Sergeant Aradjev obliged her with a booming laugh. “Maybe in another unit! If it got around I’d messed with Captain Mafaneh’s husband that wouldn’t be good for my own love life. And she’d break her foot off in my ass.”
“Oy!” Tony stepped forward to the bars, grabbing them with both hands. “Not to heckle you kids or anything, but I’m still—”
Rags’s whole routine was making people forget that she was a veteran of the Thieves’ Guild and not just some bag lady. She was good at it—so good that even her own apprentice was sometimes taken in. Like now, when her hand flashed through the bars toward his face with the speed and precision of a hunting eel.
The next moments were a whirlwind of shock and pain. Only in the aftermath, while Aradjev howled with laughter, did Tony manage to sort out that she’d grabbed him by the nose and yanked, banging his skull against the bars. Also, he was now sitting on the floor.
“Did I hear right?” Rags said, ignoring him again. “The little clown was picking on the Topaz College this time?”
“It was two warlocks,” Aradjev chuckled. “And we all know who started it but I can’t rightly say he was the one doing the picking.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.”
“Oh, he managed not to get himself hexed into a puddle, as you can see. Lucky for his ass there were officers on the scene before that got as ugly as it really should have.”
Tony, belatedly finding a measure of wisdom, kept his mouth shut. He even deliberately moderated his expression, doing his best to smile and look vaguely amused by all this and not as resentful as he felt. It got progressively harder as their inane chitchat carried on. Omnu’s breath, she stood there gossiping with the soldier while he stewed in a cell! For at least ten minutes!
They had done this song and dance enough times that he knew better than to complain. Or to betray impatience when the sergeant finally sauntered back to his desk, in no great hurry, and retrieved the keys to let him out.
“Hey, look at that, you finally taught him to heel,” Aradjev said amiably while opening the cell, nearly provoking Tony to lose his temper again—which was so obviously deliberate that Tony clamped down on the impulse and managed a grin at him as he stepped out into the hall. “Welp, here we are again. See you in a week, Mr. Darling.”
“I’ll bring the sparkling wine next time,” Tony said, winking. “Wear something sexy for me, sugar.”
“You know why I don’t mind letting you outta here so easy every time, kid?” Aradjev replied, his expression suddenly more serious. “Because if this is the way you talk to police, you are going to be dead faster than it would take for the courts to process you. It was warlocks this time, you little dipshit. I’m seriously amazed you haven’t eaten a lightning bolt yet. Go on, get outta here.”
“Say hi to the boys for me, Daoud,” Rags said cheerily even as she steered Tony toward the door.
“You take care out there, Maggie,” the sergeant replied, and then they were stepping out into the public area of the station.
He kept his peace at least until they were out on the street in Tiraas’s perennial drizzle.
“Thanks,” Tony said, jamming his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders. “…again.”
Rags grunted, not looking at him. “Fishing your ass outta the pokey’s all part of the job, boy. If I resented it, you’d damn well know by now. I want you to think about somethin’ next time you get impatient when I stop an’ chat with the guards, though.”
“I’m all ears,” he said, not trying for sarcasm but not making an effort to repress it.
“You have no criminal record, Tony, despite being in and outta that cell for a litany of petty offenses that should have you in a labor unit by now. Why? Not cos a’ your boyish good looks, that’s for damn sure.”
“It’s because you’re friends with the guards,” he grumbled. “I know, I know.”
“You know jack shit. It’s ‘cos I’m friends with everybody. And I ain’t gonna be around forever. Hell, long before I ain’t around anymore I’m gonna run outta patience with pulling your chestnuts outta the fire. It’s high time you started makin’ friends, too.”
“Oh, I dunno, I think I’m wearing Aradjev down,” he said cheerfully. “Two, three more arrests, tops, and I’ll have him eating out of my hand!”
Rags finally glanced up at him, her expression inscrutable. “What’re you so mad about, boy?”
“Me? Mad?” Tony stretched his arms wide, raising his face to the clammy precipitation. “What could I possibly be upset about, free as a bird as I am on such a lovely day?”
“You’re too nice a guy to be constantly gettin’ in the fights you do,” she said. “Specially with who you keep gettin’ in fights with. Ain’t gonna be much longer before somebody at the Guild notices we got an apprentice who seems to have a problem with the priests of other cults. How long d’you reckon your ass’ll last then? Yeah, you’re mad about somethin’. You got an ax to grind. Wanna tell me why?”
Tony kept his eyes forward, letting his face collapse into a scowl. Somewhat to his surprise, she didn’t press the question, and in fact didn’t speak again until they reached an intersection.
“Hang a left here.”
“Guild’s up ahead,” he pointed out. “Where are we going?”
“The Collegium,” she grunted. “Got business there.”
“And you need me along for that?”
“Damn right, bein’ as it’s your business. First off, you’re gonna deliver an apology at the Topaz College, an’ you better convincingly pretend you mean it. Don’t you make faces at me, boy. Absolute last thing you need is fuckin’ warlocks with a grudge on you, I don’t care which goddess they follow.”
“…yeah, yeah,” he muttered. “Fair enough.”
“An’ then we’re gonna see a friend o’ mine at the Emerald College an’ get you a thorough cleansing.”
“What? Why—oh, for fuck’s sake, Rags, they didn’t actually cast any infernal magic at me.”
“Ah, ah!” She raised one gnarled finger. “You didn’t see ’em cast any infernal magic! Ain’t the same thing by a long shot. Mess with that shit an’ you may not realize it’s happened for ten years, and then your organs start turnin’ to mulch. You ever watched somebody die o’ bone cancer, boy? Cos I have. You do not fuck around with warlock shit. We’re gettin’ you cleansed.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said sullenly.
Rags flashed him a grin. “Trust me, you wanna be in top form tonight. Ain’t every day I let you off the leash to do a solo job. An’ you, Tony, are gonna need all the help you can get.”
Evening found him in much more socially acceptable company. Not better; the well-heeled people gathering at this fashionable townhouse were exactly the sort the Guild regarded as both predators and prey, highly-placed vultures fond of looking down their noses at the masses who did the actual work that supported their lifestyles. No, these popinjays might have things he could want, but at least he respected Rags.
Anyway, if all went well, Tony wouldn’t be here long.
He got in with no trouble; though there was a servant in livery at the door, he was just taking coats and not demanding to see invitations. Tony had come dressed in a (borrowed) suit that didn’t leave him looking out of place here, though he didn’t know any of those present. He slowly circulated through the connected parlors and drawing room where party guests mingled, doing his best to meet inquisitive glances with what he hoped was a mysterious little smile and moving on before anybody could engage him in conversation.
Tony actually did feel guilty about all this. Oh, not for the planned heist; the rich man throwing this effete shindig could afford the loss of some of the jewelry with which he bedecked his young trophy wife. No, the twinge of his conscience was over the fact that he actually didn’t intend to rob the place, despite the plans he’d laid out for Rags’s approval.
It wasn’t that he feared being called out on it, but simply the principle of the thing. Rags was a good mentor and looked after him, even beyond having to extract him from jail semi-regularly. It didn’t feel good, putting one over on her. He had no worry about getting away with it, though. Jobs didn’t pan out for all sorts of reasons, and Rags herself had warned him it was better to abort one if necessary than face excessive risk, should there be unexpected complications. And if worse came to worst, he could just cop to being distracted by a pretty girl. As his mentor had taught him, the best lies were verifiable truths with a few important details omitted.
And speak of the Dark Lady, there she was.
“I was starting to worry, silly boy,” Anora murmured, manifesting out of the crowd at his side in that bewitchingly mysterious way she had. She slipped an arm through his and fell seamlessly into step with him.
“Oh, you should know better than that,” Tony replied, patting her hand. “What could possibly happen to me in a place like this?”
“Specifically,” she said, giving him a warm look up through her lashes, “I half expected you to have been challenged to a duel by now.”
“I am shocked,” he intoned. “Utterly shocked. Dueling is highly illegal! That you would think I’d engage in such a thing wounds me to my core.”
“Not at all, Antonio, not at all,” Anora purred, leaning subtly into him. “If someone challenged you to a duel, you’d respond by punching him. And then I would be known as the fool who invited a lout with no social graces to a party!”
“Hmm…yes, I see your point,” Tony said seriously. “That’s a real concern. Perhaps we’d better get me out of here before somebody ends up with a black eye. Or worse, a blackened reputation!”
Again she looked up at him, and it was perfect. The mischief in her little smile, the way it accentuated her dimples, the angle of her head that emphasized her eyelashes and the lines of her heart-shaped face. There were pretty girls whose beauty lay in their own seeming unconsciousness of it; Anora Nazaar was not one of those. She knew exactly what she was doing, had it down to a science. It made Tony inherently wary of her, even as he played along.
Which didn’t preclude him from enjoying the offered view, of course.
“Don’t worry, we have plenty of time,” she murmured in a much lower tone, keeping her playful expression in place for the sake of the other party-goers but her voice pitched for his ears alone. “This way, but don’t rush. Try not to look like you’re up to something.”
“You needn’t worry about me,” he replied at the same volume, likewise maintaining the amiable grin of any youth flirting with a pretty girl at a party. “You’re talking to a guy with actual formal training in exactly that.”
Anora gave him another of those coy, subtly heated smiles, and he replied with a broadening of his grin and a wink, even as he inwardly steeled himself. Tony wasn’t in danger of actually falling for her—he knew too much to trust her that well. Still, she was good at this game, and he could easily imagine her persuading him to make any number of big mistakes.
They moved unhurriedly through the guests, maintaining inconspicuous chitchat while working progressively toward the back of the house. There was nothing unusual about that in and of itself; even if they were spotted slipping out of the public areas, that was something couples did at parties. No one should suspect what they were actually up to.
She ducked into the kitchen, and he followed. Anora swept right past the surprised-looking cooks toward the basement stairs in the back, and Tony trotted obediently on her heels, offering friendly smiles and nods to the servants. Mentally he counted this as more evidence for his theory that she was noble. There was no House Nazaar, but names could be changed like hats, and even the nouveau riche were not so blind to the very existence of working people. Eserites knew well the significance of servants and the importance of not being seen by anyone when up to no good. Aristocrats tended to regard the people who worked for them as furniture.
At least the cooks did not attempt to waylay them, and moments later they were in the cool dark of the wince cellar. Anora made for one wall where, instead of racks of bottles, there was a row of huge casks such as a winery might have. Pausing to give him a smile that verged on a smirk, she grasped and twisted the tap protruding from one.
The entire front of the enormous barrel swung out on silent hinges.
“Nice,” he said appreciatively.
“Isn’t it?” she replied with a wink. “Now, at the risk of affronting your gentlemanly manners, I think I should go first.”
“But of course, my lady,” he replied gallantly, offering her a hand up into the barrel. “Allow me.”
“My thanks, kind sir! Do tug the lid closed after us; it will latch by itself.”
The cask, of course, opened onto a hole in the basement wall, which became a tunnel. Once he had shut them into the darkness, light flared, and Anora held up one of those pricey new handheld fairy lamps, again favoring him with that knowing little smile. He followed her without complaint into the shadows beyond.
Tony was no stranger to the expansive sewer system beneath Tiraas; this was a level above that, but at least he was accustomed to moving through cramped, dark spaces. Until you were used to it, the experience could be quite oppressive. He simply followed her, minding his step on the damp floor and ignoring the mildewy smell of the air. If nothing else, the way she backlit herself with her lamp gave him a pleasantly artistic view of her slim figure cutting through the darkness.
Anora led him through a hatch in the floor at the end of this tunnel—which, by his calculations, would have passed under the street and through what should have been the cellar of the house beyond, indicating that whoever lived there was also in on this secret, though he couldn’t spy another door in the dimness as they passed. The hatch took them down into the sewer system proper, where she continued on purposefully, taking turns without hesitation. If she expected him to be disoriented, she had underestimated him, or so he hoped. Thanks to his training with Rags and others from the Guild, Tony kept track of their course and the time it took, comparing it to his own mental map of the city in which he had grown up. He did not recognize any of the subterranean scenery, not having explored much of the sewer system yet, but by his projections their twenty-minute hike through the darkness brought them into an industrial district. When she finally stopped and directed him to ascend a ladder, he anticipated that it would lead to the basement storage of a factory.
“Ah, this is our final destination, then?” he inquired, smiling at her in the cold blue lamplight. “Or at least, you don’t want to lead the way any further?”
“Tony,” she replied with just a hint of wry patronization in her smile, “I am a lady. And I am wearing a dress. No, young man, you can climb up the ladder ahead of me, I think. And lift the heavy trapdoor while balancing atop it, incidentally.”
He had to laugh at that. “Well, you have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“Yes, I have. The secret, I find, is to make sure I am always right.”
“Now that sounds like hard work,” he said, already clambering up. The iron rungs were damp, as was everything down here, and he didn’t rush, especially when pushing the heavy wooden door up at the top. It wasn’t onerously difficult, however. “Nothing’s going to jump out at me, I hope? After all, we are meeting your…what’s the word, cell?”
“’Circle’ is more commonly used,” she said with amusement from below. “Don’t worry, I would hardly spring you on them unannounced. You’re anticipated. Go on, Antonio.”
“I’m going as on as I can,” he grunted, levering his body halfway up through the opening and planting one hand on the stone floor beyond to finish lifting the trapdoor with his other. It was dark in the large space he entered, unsurprisingly, and he didn’t miss the fact that her lamp had spoiled his dark vision, giving whoever was waiting up here the drop on them, should they choose to use it.
It would be fine, he mentally assured himself, finally clambering out of the opening to lay the trapdoor down flat for her. The Black Wreath recruited through coy little games like this all the time, and no new prospect would be introduced to anything truly dangerous. New members could expect to be around for years before being trusted with anything beyond silly secret handshakes and meaningless rituals that resulted in no actual magic.
Tony straightened up, stepping aside to leave room for her, and squinted into the blackness. He couldn’t even tell how large this basement was. Were those shapes in the dark, or just his mind playing tricks?
Without warning a warm body was pressed against him, a strong arm pinned both of his at his sides, and a blade was pressed against his throat. Tony froze, obviously.
“Hey there, sailor,” a man’s voice whispered sibilantly beside his head. “Got a light?”
Tony wanted to swallow nervously, but the line of cold steel on his neck made him refrain. “Hold your horses, she’s coming up with the lamp,” he said, trying for nonchalance.
Very, very carefully, his shifted his head just enough to the side to get a sidelong look at his captor’s face, and with a sinking feeling began to suspect he’d gotten himself into real trouble this time.
The purplish highlights in the man’s black hair might have been a visual artifact of the bluish arcane lamp that was now rising into the room as Anora climbed through the opening. The bone-pale skin, while odd enough, could have just been that of someone who hadn’t gotten any sun in years. But those eyes… The irises were an impossible shade of mauve, and clearly faceted, glittering like jewels.
As if to confirm Tony’s fear, a single bat-like wing stretched into his peripheral vision before withdrawing again. He had, obviously, never seen an incubus in person, but the description was unmistakable.
The demon laughed at him, and he found it in himself to be annoyed as well as terrified.
“This is the one?” said a new voice. A woman emerged from the darkness into the blue circle of Anora’s lamp, tall and a tad sharp-featured, but otherwise almost aggressively unremarkable in appearance. Tiraan, middle-aged, wearing a simple dress and a skeptical expression. She eyed Tony up and down critically. “Hm. I don’t know what I was expecting. Someone…scruffier.”
“Well, he was attending a formal evening,” Anora replied, stepping around in front of Tony with the light, and his hopes fell further. The flirtatiousness was gone from her, leaving a coldly analytical look. “I assure you, Guild apprentices are quite scruffy indeed. This is…a costume.”
“Now, that’s a little strong,” he said, clinging to insouciance like a life raft. “So, uh, who else is coming? This seems like a pretty meager little cell. Sorry, circle.”
Neither woman replied, just studying him in silence.
Gingerly, Tony cleared his throat. “Say, buddy, would you mind awfully easing up just a little? A guy’s gotta breathe.”
“Oh, I like him,” the incubus giggled, which was considerably more unsettling than if he had sneered and snarled like a chapbook villain. “Let’s keep him!”
“We’ll see,” the older woman said flatly. “All right, Antonio Darling, you’re here. Why are you here?”
“Would, uh, would I be correct in guessing that at this moment I’m not exactly welcome to leave?”
“You can be as clever as you want if it makes you feel better,” she said. “I wouldn’t begrudge you that. I assure you up front, however, you will tell me everything I wish to know. You will do so thoroughly and accurately. These are foregone conclusions. What it is within your power to determine is how difficult this process is, and what befalls you afterward.”
“I don’t mean to criticize your technique, but you really oughta ask the questions before you start in on the threats, ma’am. Gives the mark an opportunity to be cooperative up front. Also, you’ll want a good guard to balance out the bad guard. Anora there should be keeping up the coy ingenue routine already established. Seriously, this is just wasted opportunity.”
Anora actually smiled at him. It looked genuine. That, he was more aware than ever, meant less than nothing.
“I did say you could be clever,” the woman replied in a dry tone, “but that doesn’t mean my patience for empty blather is long. What is your objective in infiltrating the Black Wreath?”
Tony blinked, not having to feign his confusion. “To…join? Did I not make that clear? Is…is this not the usual procedure?”
“Wrong answer!” the incubus said with truly alarming eagerness. “Now I get to—”
“Behave,” the elder warlock said curtly. “And you, resist the urge to prevaricate. We get no shortage of members from the ranks of the Pantheon cults, and a regular stream of clumsy attempts by the Sisterhood and the Topaz College, among others, to place agents in our numbers. We very rarely have prospects from the Thieves’ Guild. Can you guess why?”
“At a guess? I’d say you guys don’t have a monopoly on resentment of the unfairness of the cults.”
“There is also the matter that the Guild, more than any of the others, produces people who make very good double agents, when they have a mind to. Therefore, Eserites we inherently regard with deep suspicion. And now, here you are, apparently relying on the Dark Lady’s servants to be fumbling nincompoops if you thought it was going to be this easy. So what I want to know, first of all, is whether Catseye herself is behind this, or one of her underlings is getting ambitious. Because I know you didn’t think this up yourself, apprentice.”
“Whoah, whoah, you seriously have the wrong idea,” Tony said as earnestly as he could. “I mean, seriously. The Guild absolutely does not send apprentices to do delicate work like infiltration; I’m just barely allowed to do simple heists without supervision. If the Boss knew I was here she’d be helping your buddy skin me. Come on, you just said the Thieves’ Guild is good at this game. You can’t honestly think they’d try to use an apprentice to penetrate the Wreath?”
“Well, look at you,” she said, deadpan. “Clever, silver-tongued, and charming. Unfortunately, Antonio, I already have someone whose job it is to be clever, silver-tongued, and charming. Vathraen, I think it’s time for you to get a little…territorial.”
“Oh, thank heavens,” the incubus cooed, unwrapping his arm from around Tony’s midsection even as he pressed subtly harder with the blade. “I was starting to think you mooks were gonna drag this out all night!” He grabbed Tony’s left hand, his skin a touch warmer than the human norm.
“Hey, now,” Tony said, not fully disguising the nervousness in his voice. “Whoah with the hand-holding! That’s second date stuff.”
“Oh, you’re just precious,” Vathraen giggled, and then, to Tony’s revulsion, pressed a big smooch to his cheek.
Then he grabbed the first two fingers of his hand and wrenched them backward. Both bones snapped audibly. Tony did not begrudge himself the shrill sound he made; in truth he felt rather proud of himself for confining it to the back of his throat.
“You must appreciate the pacing, here,” the woman said pitilessly. Anora’s face was blank, rather than actively ruthless; could there be possibly real sympathy buried in there? He was keenly aware, through the stab of pain, that he was grasping desperately at any source of hope. “Vathraen is an artist. Ordinarily we could draw this out for days, if need be. He does like to start with the fingers, but the customary technique is to snap one joint at a time, with enough pause between for the victim to grow used to that amount of pain before adding to it. Two at once is downright hasty. You should take that as indicative of the time limit under which I am operating, and be aware that this can very quickly escalate to the most final outcome possible if I do not start seeing some cooperation from you.”
“Guild training is more than enough to slip out of a hold like that,” Anora commented. “He’s extending a little cooperation just by standing there. It’s hardly a hopeless case.”
“The knife helps, I’m sure,” the other woman said sardonically.
“There, see?” Tony panted, playing it up just a little bit. As pain went, broken fingers was a lot less than he’d dealt with in the past and once over the initial shock, he could cope with it. Better if they thought him more beaten down than he was, though. “Good guard! I told you that was a better approach. I feel more amenable already.”
“I really do like him,” Vathraen said with evident sincerity. “Can I cut him a little? I bet that’ll make him even funnier!”
“We’ll see,” said the warlock. “This is a simple question, Antonio. Whose idea was it for you to be here?”
Even through the pain and fear, he couldn’t help feeling contempt. This was why nobody professional used torture to extract information. The Guild didn’t, the Sisterhood didn’t, Imperial Intelligence didn’t. He’d told them the truth in the first place, and now he had to come up with a convincing lie to stop them from inflicting more pain. They had guaranteed they weren’t going to get anything useful from him no matter what happened. This was the work of the nefarious Black Wreath? This amateur hour blundering? He was beginning to think making contact with these people was a bad idea for reasons beyond the danger it had put him in.
Coming up with a name would be easy enough, and he quickly ran through a mental list of enforcers he knew who would fuck these clowns up backward and forward if they pressed the issue. Serve them right if he set them after that sadistic loon Grip, who he was pretty sure murdered stray dogs in her spare time. But there was also the issue of what someone like that would do to an apprentice who tried to throw her to the Wreath for a chew toy. Did he dare name someone higher up and truly dangerous, like Silence? Or even the Boss? The warlock had suggested Catseye herself as a possibility.
The real question was what answer would get him out of this room alive. And if, as he suspected, there was no such answer, how badly he could damage them through misinformation, if that was all he could manage to do…
Tony opened his mouth to hem and haw for more time, resigned to the likelihood of at least a few more broken fingers before he could cobble together a strategy, but before he could speak the incubus stiffened—causing him to do likewise as the blade nicked him. He felt blood well up all along its length.
“We have more visitors,” Vathraen announced in a much colder tone than before. The warlock turned, raising one hand to the side, and a swirl of orange flame materialized around it, adding a new dimension and intensity to the light in the large basement. In the augmented glow, Tony could finally see all the way to the wall, and the door at which they were all staring. Anora angled herself to keep both the entrance and Tony in her field of view, raising the fairy lamp.
Now the approach of footsteps was audible even to him. Whoever was coming down the stairs behind that door was sure making no effort to disguise their approach. In fact, that loud combination of shuffling and stomping…
The door was flung open, and Tony would have clapped his un-mangled hand to his forehead had he not been too afraid to move.
“Why am I not surprised,” Rags grumbled loudly, stomping into the room.
“Stay back!” the warlock snapped, raising her fireball.
“Aw, shove it, Doreen,” Rags retorted, not slowing. “Is that a fuckin’ incubus? Since when does your little club trust you to keep a critter like that on a leash?”
“Here, now,” Vathraen protested. “I’m sure we can all murder each other like civilized people without resorting to hurtful language.”
“Was this your idea, Maggie?” the warlock demanded shrilly. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I better come rescue my dumbass apprentice, for not even the first time today,” Rags snorted. “My idea! My ass. I’d like to think you’d know by now I got better sense than to try something this pants-on-head moronic. Tony, exactly how fucked up are you this time?”
“Uh…” Tony lifted his left hand, glancing at it, and then instantly averted his eyes. The pain was well within what he could bear, but something about the sight of his fingers pointed the wrong direction made it considerably worse. “Y’know, all things considered, I’ve done worse to myself shaving.”
“Well, I got questions about what you shave with, then,” she grunted, finally coming to a stop a few yards away when Doreen raised her spell-channeling hand with the clear intent to throw that fistful of fire. “Fuck it, I ain’t even gonna claim the right of retribution on this one, that’s nothin’. That’s a bee sting! For an asshat scheme like this you deserve a lot worse. Daoud’s right, if there was any justice or goddamn sense in the universe you’d be dead three times over, already.”
“You…didn’t send him?” Doreen asked hesitantly, finally lowering her hand. The infernal flame wreathing it began to dim, flickering down to almost nothing. Anora backed away from the group, glancing rapidly between each of those present. “No, you wouldn’t. I know you’re smarter than this.”
“Damn right you do!” Rags huffed. “Take a hint from your demon-zombie fuckboy over there: you don’t gotta be insulting.”
“You know,” Vathraen mused to Tony, “that might be the most ironic thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Wow. I bet there’s some real competition for that title.”
“You have no idea.”
Doreen let the spell dissipate entirely, turning her attention back to Tony. “You actually were just looking to join?”
“Well, not now!” he exclaimed, pouring on the exasperation. “I mean this with all possible affection and respect, but fuck you guys. Except you, Anora. Since you’re a lady, you can merely get bent.”
“I believe I can accept that,” she muttered.
“Tony,” Rags said with a sigh, “for once in your life, shut your mouth. Doreen, call off your dog, wouldja?”
“Aw, c’mooooon,” Vathraen whined. “We never get to kill anybody!”
“I have half a mind to drown this place in hellfire and you two with it on general principles,” Doreen said tightly.
“I know, hon,” Rags replied in an incongruously sympathetic tone. “An’ I know the other half o’ your mind is well aware that I, not being my bonehead teenage apprentice who does his thinkin’ with the glands in his pants, did not come down here without both knowin’ there was warlocks afoot and makin’ sure people would come after me if I’m not out pretty damn quick. Look, this is a big, stupid cock-up all around, an’ everybody here oughtta be embarrassed to be part of it. Especially you,” she added severely, pointing at Tony.
“I wouldn’t mind so much if she wasn’t right,” he said aside to the incubus.
“Brother, I hear ya,” Vathraen agreed, still not moving the blade from his throat. It was starting to feel sticky where blood was drying along its edge.
“Now, you can go ahead an’ make it as much worse as you want,” Rags continued, making a wry face at Doreen. “But since that wouldn’t be eliminating witnesses so much as settin’ the entire Guild to hunt your ass down, you can’t kid yourself it’d be the smart thing to do. I say we all take our various young people home an’ deal with the embarrassment of all this by everybody agreeing to pretend none of it happened. That work for you?”
“It isn’t that simple, and you know it,” Doreen insisted.
“Oh, would you fuckin’ stop?” Rags said scathingly. “You an’ Tony there are the only ones acting alone. C’mon, I know the Wreath didn’t sign off on this shit-show. Your higher-ups ain’t gonna get into a dust-up with the Guild over this, not when they can just throw your ass to the wolves an’ cut their losses. Guild’s another matter. We can not have people takin’ a poke at apprentices. You know Catseye’s policy on that. And to fucking reiterate, I didn’t come here without telling people where I was goin’!”
Doreen drew in a deep breath through her nose and then let it out the same way. “Vathraen…”
“Aw, no,” he groaned.
“Aw, yes,” she snapped. “Put it away and let the kid go. We are going to…pretend none of this happened.”
There was a frozen moment when Tony thought the demon was about to slit his throat out of sheer spite. Vanislaad were known to be contrarian and unpredictable… But Vathraen huffed angrily and yanked the blade away from his neck, releasing him. He wasted no time in skittering out of the incubus’s reach, but the Vathraen seemed to be paying him no more attention, muttering a soliloquy of curses at the far wall and childishly stomping his foot.
“Of all the stupid bullshit,” Rags grumbled, shuffling toward Tony and reaching into her pockets. Doreen and Anora both tensed, but the old woman just pulled out a roll of cloth and a vial of red liquid, and they relaxed. “Kid, I like you, but there’s a limit to how much I’m gonna keep cleanin’ up after.”
“That’s fair,” Tony said weakly.
“All right, gimme that hand, let’s get you straightened out.”
“Uh…” He looked past her at the Wreath. “Should we maybe do that…later?”
“Sooner’s always better’n later with injuries, you sissy,” she grunted without sympathy. Behind her, Doreen jerked her head toward the door, and her party began moving in that direction—Anora immediately, the incubus with much pouting and flouncing. “First I gotta set those bones back in the right place, an’ that’s gonna hurt like a sumbitch. Figure you’d rather do that in an abandoned factory basement where there’s nobody to hear you screaming like a girl.”
“You don’t know I scream like a girl,” he said, offended.
“You seem like the type. Here, hold these. Oh, for the—with the other hand, numbskull, not the one I gotta work on!”
It happened bewilderingly fast. She was fussing over him like an old mother hen, but the second he awkwardly gathered the bandages and vial of potion into his free hand Rags smoothly spun to face the door and the departing Wreath cultists.
From that angle he couldn’t see the wands she produced from inside her sleeves, but their effect was unmistakable. The first two simultaneous shots struck Doreen and Vathraen in the back; the third which hit Anora was less than a second behind.
There was an instant of stunned silence while all three crumpled to the ground.
Then the faintest groan, and a weak twitch from Anora.
Tony opened his mouth on instinct to protest what he knew was coming, but again Rags was faster than he. She shot Anora again, and this time the girl lay still.
More methodically now, Rags turned both wands on the prone form of the incubus and fired six more bolts into his body. By the end of it, Vathraen was smoking and what was left of him had begun to flake away into charcoal.
In the aftermath, Anora’s fallen fairy lamp left the room dim and lit by a shifting glow as it slowly rolled away from her body across the stone floor. The stink of ozone, sulfur and burned flesh hung heavily on the air.
Saying nothing further, Rags just tucked away her wands and turned back to him. Tony was staring in shock while she took his injured hand in both of her own, and moved her fingers to the broken bones.
She was right about his screaming, too.
“We’re gonna get you another cleansing, of course,” Rags said suddenly after he had followed her through the city in silence for half an hour. “But we’ll be goin’ to a different friend of mine. This time you gotta settle for a back-alley hedge witch. While I sure as hell wanna know why you were fuckin’ around with warlocks twice in the same goddamn day, I don’t really care to have that talk with the Salyrites.”
“Okay,” Tony said quietly. “Is this…?”
“Nah, this is a little lounge a buddy owns,” Rags grunted, climbing the iron stairs to the third-floor door. “Strictly a daytime joint, but I got a key. Lets me do some business here at night if I wanna. That’s a pretty easy arrangement to set up, an’ you oughta keep it in mind. Lotsa honest shopkeepers’re glad to let you use their places after hours if you earn their trust. Once it’s known there might be Thieves’ Guild folk hangin’ around at night, guess whose joint absolutely does not get fucked with when the local kids are feelin’ rowdy?”
“Good idea,” he mumbled while she produced a key from somewhere in her voluminous coat and opened the door.
There was a single fairy lamp in the space beyond, one of the older kind that flickered unevenly like real fire and couldn’t be turned off. Or maybe the owner had just left it lit on purpose. It was a small lounge, nothing more than a bar, some chairs and a sofa, and a pool table. It had a good view, though. One wall was mostly windows, tall ones which looked out on the market street below.
“Here we go,” Rags said in a satisfied tone, shuffling over to the billiards table. “Let’s shoot some pool.”
Tony stared at her, then at his left hand, which was swathed in bandages. The vial of healing potion she’d made him drink had helped, but not tremendously. Rags ignored him, setting up the balls and selecting two cues from the stand in the corner. She meandered back over to him, holding one out.
Tony looked at the stick, then at her, then pointedly raised his bandaged hand.
“It ain’t surgery, y’big baby,” she grunted. “Won’t hurt ya any. Go on.”
Slowly, he took the pool cue from her with his good hand, but did not yet move to do anything with it.
“Why what?” Rags returned, her eyes glinting in the low light. “Why was I ready to swoop in an’ save your ass yet again? You better believe I checked out everybody you were dealin’ with when you laid out that heist. The mark an’ all his fancy-ass guests were run o’ the mill rich jackasses, but that cute little piece of tail you were workin’ for an in was another matter. Anora was her real first name, but she’s a by-blood of House Daraspian and a legacy Wreath kid. Big fuckin’ trouble. Why did I turn up right when you were in danger? Cos I had people watchin’ you at that party, too, an’ when the first fuckin’ thing you did was take your floozy an’ vanish, they came an’ got me. That entire kitchen staff you two sashayed right past was in my pocket. Why did I know where to find you? I’ve told you time an’ again, boy, I know everybody in this town. Including Doreen, me an’ her go way back. I know who Anora Daraspian was apprenticing under, I know who Doreen has connections with in the factory districts, an’ from there figurin’ out what place she’d use that’s easily accessible from that house party was just arithmetic.”
She paused, staring at him in silence for a moment, before continuing.
“Why did I kill them? Because right now, the only people who know that Antonio Darling tried to join the Black Wreath are either standin’ in this room, or lyin’ dead in that basement. Well, that incubus can be summoned again, but ain’t nobody gonna take his word for jack shit. Even the Wreath don’t listen to them, they’re made of lies an’ fuckin’ mischief even by demon standards. Why was I able to get the drop on two warlocks an’ a fuckin’ incubus on the fly when you did your best to plan your whole game an’ still got outfoxed by a teenage girl? Aside from me just bein’ better at this than you, I’m Rags. Good ol’ Maggie Maxwell. Everybody knows me, an’ everybody knows I’m harmless. Everybody knows it so hard it’s always a surprise no matter how many times I do shit like that.
“Which brings us to why I wanna shoot pool, an’ I’d hope you’ve seen the pattern by now. I know shit you don’t, Tony, an’ I know what I’m doin’. You’re gonna have to trust me a bit longer. Now break.”
Mechanically, he moved to the table. It was awkward indeed, but he finally just set his bandaged hand down on the felt surface, using it for a rough brace while he lined up the cue with the other hand.
The clack of balls echoed through the dim lounge, and Tony straightened back up, gazing abstractly down at the table, now with billiard balls strewn across it. He just stared, though, not even planning his next shot yet.
“Stop,” Rags instructed. “You ever think about pool, boy? About that first shot, how those little fuckers all just fly every which way. Whaddaya think of that?”
Tony shook his head. “If I say I haven’t thought about it, you’re just gonna get mad.”
“Bullshit. Nobody thinks about stuff like that. Well, nobody except weirdos. Like me, for example.” She grinned at him, leaning on her own cue. “Or a pal I got in the Sapphire College who’s into theoretical physics. He says that in theory, it should be possible to predict precisely where each ball will end up when you break ’em like that, but to do the math you’d need to know the mass an’ position of every single damn thing in the universe.”
“Math is not really my thing,” Tony acknowledged. “Or physics. Or magic. Or the universe.”
Rags grunted and leaned over the table, lining up a shot. It wasn’t her turn, but he didn’t care enough to say anything. She deftly sank three balls with one hit.
“An’ then there’s this part,” Rags continued, working her way methodically around the table, carefully picking her angles and dropping one ball after another into the pockets while she talked. “This part… Once the big random break is done, you can see the patterns. Shift the whole thing at once and don’t nobody know what the fuck’s gonna happen. One ball at a time, though? That you can predict, control. It gets simpler the fewer of ’em you have to work with. But to be good, you don’t do ’em one at a time. You sink as many in a shot as you can. That’s the funny balance you gotta strike, isn’t it? Ain’t possible to predict everything when all the balls are in play, it just ain’t. But bein’ good at this game means comin’ as close to that as you can.”
“I know a metaphor when I smell one,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about, but I know it isn’t pool.”
“You know why I picked you?” she asked, still shooting and not looking up at him. “It’s cos you’re such a sweet kid, Tony. You’re nice. You always do favors for people, you joke an’ know how to make everybody feel better. You’re a good listener. Everybody likes you, cos you deserve to be liked. You’re just a good guy, is all.”
“G’aww, I’m gonna blush.”
“’cept when you brush up against whatever it is that’s got you so mad, down deep in your core. Then you get mean, an’ pick fights with no regard for whether you can win. Now, I could tell right from the start you got anger in you, but shit, that’s as normal as it gets. Everybody who walks into the Guild lookin’ to apprentice is either enraged at some great injustice or lookin’ to commit one. An’ we always get the ones mad about some particular fuckery. People who are worked up at the injustice of the world in general go to the Avenists. Yeah, I knew you had a good mad on about somethin’, Tony. I remember bein’ young an’ I wasn’t gonna push ya on it, even when the pattern started to emerge. Tell ya what, though, you havin’ a bug up your ass about the other cults is one thing. When that turns into you tryin’ to sign on with the Wreath, I think I gotta ask you what’s the deal.”
She finally straightened up, and leaned on her cue again, meeting his as the last ball rolled into a side pocket.
“What are you so mad about, Tony?”
He turned his head, staring at the windows. “When I was a kid…” Tony paused, shook his head, tried again. “Have you ever seen something…something you shouldn’t? That threw everything into doubt, and…” He trailed off once more, closing his eyes.
“Tell me this, then,” Rags said, her voice gentle. “Is it the cults? Or is it the gods?”
“…they’ve lied to us,” he whispered. “I don’t even know about what, exactly. I definitely don’t think Elilial is right. But they lied. And they’re everything, you know? Every single thing that makes up human society comes from one Pantheon cult or another. If it’s all lies… I have to know. And knowing means…”
“Well, it’s a good thing you fucked up your chance to join the Wreath, then,” Rags said mildly. “Cos you ain’t never gonna get truth outta the Queen of fuckin’ Demons. The Wreath doesn’t give answers, Tony, they recruit soldiers. You’re either fanatically dedicated to their crazy-ass apocalypse, or they can’t have you knowin’ their secrets.”
He turned around and sat on the edge of the pool table, letting his head droop.
“Here’s the thing I want you to understand, Tony,” Rags said, coming over to sit beside him. “Your real problem is you got a false separation in your head. You got your own personality, your nature, that makes you the funny guy who’s everybody’s friend. And then you got that anger in you that makes you see an enemy an’ decide ‘that’s it, no more Mister Nice Guy.’ That second one needs to go.”
“How can you be an Eserite without being angry at what’s wrong with the world?” he asked plaintively.
“You can’t,” she said, poking his shoulder with her bony finger. “An’ that’s just it, boy. The anger is a motivation, a tool…not a way of makin’ decisions. You wanna take down your enemies? You stay Mister Nice Guy. Just ’cause you’re mad don’t mean you stop smiling!”
He turned to face her and blinked.
“Because the city is like a pool table,” she said. “The world is. You got no idea what’s gonna happen if you just exert force right into the goddamn middle of it. The only way to have any control is to judge the angles from every side. I have control because I know everybody, an’ everybody likes ol’ Rags. I got any number o’ people who’d do me a favor, or owe me one. Anything I need, I can reach out my hand an’ bam! There it is. All cos I’m Mister Nice Guy, too. It ain’t about power, boy. It’s about connection.”
Slowly, Tony began nodding his head. “That…makes a lot of sense. I’m sorta wondering why this is the first time you’re explaining it in those terms.”
“You ain’t my first apprentice, boy. People learn better when they watch and imitate an’ figure shit out for themselves. I was content to wait for you to do it in your own time, but then you started fuckin’ around with warlocks an’ it got urgent.”
“Fair enough,” he grumbled.
“I’m not gonna tell you to drop this idea you got,” she said, placing one gnarled old hand on his arm. “You wanna take on the gods? Well, nobody’s succeeded at that yet an’ you won’t either, but that ain’t the point. Bein’ Eserite means you don’t take bullshit from people who got power they don’t deserve. If you think that’s the Pantheon, well…so be it. But I want you to put it aside for now, Tony. Right now, you’re a cueball, an’ you keep getting smacked around to whatever end is decided by whoever’s turn it is to shoot. Shelve your crusade, an’ come back at it when you’re the guy holding the cue.”
“I don’t want to bring down the gods,” he said, looking at the floor. “…I just want the truth.”
“Then like I said, it’s a damn good thing you didn’t manage to join the Wreath,” Rags chuckled. “They woulda ruined everything that’ll give you a chance to get it. You stay free, stay sweet, an’ stay smart. You watch carefully an’ don’t make a move till you got yourself in the right position to do it. An’ then? Ain’t nobody gonna see you comin’. Maybe not even the gods.”
“Yeah,” he murmured. “Yeah, okay. You’re right. I can wait.”
“Wait,” Rags agreed. “But if this is truly what you believe is right, don’t wait forever.”