Once his back was to the temple, Sweet stopped putting so much focus on controlling his expression, allowing a pensive frown to settle on his features. He bounded down the stairs three at a time, perhaps not terribly respectful conduct for visiting a religious sanctuary, but Izarites were hard to offend and his thoughts were already elsewhere.
“Any luck?” Fauna asked as he reached the street level.
“You know, I’m increasingly unsure,” he mused. “Still nobody who’d acknowledge having seen Bran, but this is the third place in a row where I’m starting to get…a mood.”
“Uh oh,” Flora said, widening her eyes. “He’s getting a mood. Where’s Price with a brandy when we need her?”
Sweet playfully swatted the back of her head. “Not my mood, wiseass, from the priests. It’s a pretty subtle thing, just a tension and wariness when I ask after Branwen. I wasn’t convinced I wasn’t imagining it until this place; that dude up there was definitely annoyed by me asking.”
“Huh. Now that’s weird,” Fauna said, also frowning as the three of them set off down the sidewalk, both elves flanking their trainer.
“I didn’t know it was possible to annoy Izarites,” Flora agreed. “We’ve…um, absolutely never tried.”
“Yeah, your not trying has been brought to my attention,” he said dryly. “But the thing is, you’re right, they’re a pretty unflappable lot. And hypothetically, if they were hiding Branwen for some reason, they would definitely not reveal it by betraying emotion when asked. So what’s this about, then?”
“Mmm,” Fauna hummed thoughtfully.
“Wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Sweet clarified. “Let’s hear some theories. Consider it a training exercise.”
The two leaned subtly forward to exchange a glance across him, in one of those brief, silent conversations they were always having. Sweet just waited, keeping to an average walking pace.
“They might react that way,” Flora said slowly, “if someone else had recently been here sniffing around after Snowe.”
“Especially,” Fauna added, “if it was somebody who might make them nervous.”
“Someone like Thumper,” Flora continued, nodding to herself. “Izarites are hard to rattle, but for empaths, being around that guy has to be like getting slapped in the face with a live fish.”
“Nice imagery,” Sweet said with a grin. “Of course, all this is pure speculation, but that was the same thought I had. Glad to hear I’m not the only one following that logic. So, now the question becomes whether this should alter our approach, and if so, how?”
“Well, before you decide on anything, we gathered some new intel for you while you were in there,” said Fauna.
“You two were supposed to be staying within sight,” he reminded them.
“Yes, but there are these wondrous new things called newspapers,” Flora replied sweetly while Fauna handed him one. “I know this must be mind-blowing for someone of your generation, but people actually go out and collect the news! And then they write it down!”
“Y’know what, I’m not even mad. You go ahead and milk this shtick for every drop you can.” Sweet held up the paper and rapidly skimmed the front page article as they walked. “You two’re going to spend a lot longer than I will having people point out how very old you are. Well, this is a hell of a mess. You thinking what I’m thinking?”
They both nodded, their expressions rapidly sobering.
“A bunch of murdered police doesn’t have to be any specific person, by itself…”
“But when we already know the Jackal’s in town, that’s pretty damn suggestive.”
“Plus, the gross things done to some of the bodies.”
“That is exactly that twisted fuck’s sense of humor.”
“Something like this is obviously going to enrage the local cops and trigger a city-wide crackdown,” Sweet murmured, lowering the paper and staring ahead in thought. “That’s too obvious for someone like him not to see it coming. So is it something he’s willing to risk for another purpose, or is it the purpose by itself? Hm. In theory, he answers to Justinian, who I absolutely know is ruthless enough to do such a thing as this, but he’s ruthless with an agenda. I cannot fathom what the hell this accomplishes except making everything he might want to do in Ninkabi a lot more difficult.”
“Makes shady shit difficult for anybody,” Fauna offered.
Flora nodded. “Maybe that was the point? If what Thumper talked about in that scroll was true, it could be beneficial to have an increased police presence.”
“Yeah, but you don’t increase the police presence by reducing the number of police,” said Sweet. “Almost thirty officers so far, if this reporter is right. In a city the size of Ninkabi the local force can maybe absorb that, but…probably not any more. Plus there’s not much in the way of reinforcements available, even if the mayor wants to request them. With the Empire moving to war footing in response to this wolf nonsense, Ninkabi’s getting a detachment like every other city, but after that there are no other soldiers to send. They’ll all be deployed.”
“Thumper was vague,” Fauna mused, “probably cos he doesn’t understand the subject well, but this sounds like more magic bullshit. Could it be related to the wolf dream thing?”
“Worth considering,” Sweet agreed, “but we’re still just speculating. We need some hard info to go with these wild theories. Hmm… Well! You know how I hate to cogitate on an empty stomach. I’m gonna keep heading toward the next temple on the list; think I’ll cut through the alleys across this block…”
“You wanna cut through alleys while there’s a serial killer on a rampage,” Flora said flatly.
“It’s broad daylight and I’m not a cop, and also don’t interrupt. See if you can find a vendor slinging local cuisine, something we don’t see often at home. Tiraas doesn’t import much Jendi food. Catch up when you’ve found us something to nosh while we walk.”
“Really?” Flora protested. “Really? You’re sending us on a snack run?”
“That is correct,” he said piously. “As is no less than your duty to your spiritual guide and guardian.”
“We should dose him with laxatives,” Fauna suggested.
“Nah, he needs to work today. Tempest peppers will suffice.”
“I’m still hungry,” Sweet said in an annoying singsong cadence.
Both elves groaned and rolled their eyes melodramatically, but turned and slouched back up the sidewalk the way they had come, complaining the whole time. Sweet kept to his course, grinning and tucking the folded paper under his arm.
It was impossible not to feel a swell of pride in the girls. When he’d switched to code words they had played along seamlessly, without reacting or breaking character for an instant. Really, he reflected, they might be coming to a point where he just didn’t have much more to teach them. Sponsored apprentices always studied longer than those who rose through the Guild’s general pool, gaining the benefit both of a particular trainer’s in-depth tutelage and access to their existing connections to get the student started on a career. Of course, he’d always have the benefit of greater experience, but there came a point when the baby birds had to leave the nest. Keeping them under his wing longer than they needed to be could be detrimental to them in the long run. It had been nearly three years, which was about typical for a sponsored Guild apprenticeship. And the girls unquestionably knew their stuff. They were at a point where he was quite comfortable treating them as partners on a job, not just pupils.
But when it came to his two apprentices in particular, there were concerns beyond their command of Eserite philosophy and technique. Obviously, he couldn’t keep a pair of headhunters on short leashes forever. He had extra concerns about setting them loose, though. Sweet more than trusted his girls by now. He’d never fully stop worrying about them, though…
Sweet gently pushed that chain of thought aside to be pondered on at a less urgent moment, redirecting his attention to the city as he strolled through it.
He didn’t have his finger on the pulse of Ninkabi as he did in Tiraas, of course, but some things were universal. The tension in the city was evident in the way people walked and spoke to each other—faster and furtively, respectively. Between the police murders and the night spent listening to howling wolves and trying to rouse people taken by the dreams, this place was steadily rising beyond a simmer. It wasn’t boiling over just yet, but there was only so much tension a city could take.
That had to have been the point of the Jackal’s rampage, but…why? Eserite doctrine made it absolutely clear that you did not fuck with cops; the Jackal was no Eserite, but he was also no fool, and that particular creed was fully rooted in pragmatism. Even when the problem being addressed was a corrupt police force, the Guild dealt with that by cutting into the crooked politicians and other rich figures behind them. Directly attacking police was an open invitation to urban war. He had to know this. What did it gain him, or Justinian?
He picked the clearest-looking alley, a fairly wide one which appeared to cut through the entire block to the main street on the other side, and strolled in without slacking his pace. In fact, he lengthened his stride slightly, as if eager to get through it and out quickly. Of course, a darker, dimmer, and more private space would have suited his purpose better, but for the same reason he couldn’t give the impression that’s what he was up to.
Perhaps nothing would come of it, anyway. It was a long shot, banking on the idea that his poking around among the Izarites had already been noticed, but given that the most likely person to have been doing the same recently was Thumper, it wasn’t improbable that that route was being watched. Still, codewords aside, it had been simple truth he’d pointed out to Flora: it was broad daylight and he wasn’t the preferred target of whoever was preying on police in this city.
Still, he didn’t manage to be truly surprised when, far enough into the long alleyway that the streets in both directions were comfortably out of sight, a sphere of golden light sprang into existence around him, ringing like a bell as it repelled a brutal strike.
“Cheating,” the Jackal complained loudly, already skittering backward and switching his grip on his knife to a defensive posture.
“Smarter than you,” Sweet corrected, turning and giving the elf his most shit-eating grin. The divine shield faded from around him in a perfect invitation—particularly admirable, as it wasn’t under his control. They really were ready. “That was a good try, though! Seven out of ten—points for form, even if you flubbed the landing.”
“I just keep wondering,” the Jackal cooed, grinning right back, “going over and over it in my mind. Why the hell has nobody killed you yet? It really is a cosmic oversight.”
“Didn’t we just go over this?” Sweet replied, rolling up the newspaper to wag it at him reprovingly. “Smarter than you. And also than most people, though I guess that doesn’t necessarily follow. Hey, remember that time in Tiraas when I walked right into a trap you’d set and still ended up kicking your ass?”
“Oh, please,” the elf scoffed, “as if I’d be that easily baited—”
He shot forward mid-sentence with no warning, at a speed which suggested his natural elven gifts had been augmented further in preparation for this. Had he been contending with simple human reflexes it might have worked; Sweet couldn’t have sworn he’d have been able to get another shield up in time to avoid a knife to the throat. As it was, though, the Jackal was adroitly kicking off the golden sphere that had snapped back into place by the time he’d realized what was happening.
And then it was pretty much none of his business as two more forms in dark clothing tore into the assassin. Sweet stood placidly behind his bubble—since he couldn’t actually take it down, the thing having been put there by one of the girls—and watched the three elves scrap in the narrow alley.
It really was something to see, not least because his eyes could scarcely follow it. Three slim blonde figures ricocheted about the alley like billiard balls, bouncing wildly off the walls and each other with impossible agility, slashing with knives and the odd beam of light from Flora’s wand. The pair had subdued the Jackal on their last encounter, assassin though he was, and that was before they’d had two more years of Eserite training.
In seconds the assassin saw which was the wind was blowing and retreated straight up, kicking back and forth off the closely-spaced walls without trouble. In fact, Sweet could have done that; what made it impressive was that with Flora and Fauna still trying to bring him down, all three of them made an erratic path up, down, and sideways, before the moving scuffle finally managed to climb over the lip of one of the facing buildings, four stories up.
Sweet was impressed in spite of himself that the Jackal had managed it, with two trained elven street fighters nipping at his heels. Nothing wrong with that; it was generally a better idea to respect an enemy’s skills than to underestimate them.
Then they were gone, and he was left standing there, effectively imprisoned by the shield.
He’d just had time to make an annoyed face when it flickered out. Sweet sighed, shook his head, and turned to continue on his way. A large part of him wanted to reach for the comforting glow of divine light, just in case the Jackal gave his apprentices the slip and doubled back, but it wasn’t as if he’d be able to put up a shield fast enough should it come to that. Sometimes, you just had to trust your crew. And besides, Eserion didn’t encourage his priests to rely overmuch on magic. What was the point of having wits if you made excuses not to use them?
Nonetheless, and though he kept his physical aspect relaxed and focused, he remained actively worried for the next twenty minutes as he made his way back into a public street and toward the next temple on the list. Not just for himself, either. Flora and Fauna were good, and they’d bested the Jackal before… But he was the Jackal.
Sweet was actually a little proud of himself for managing not to react with open relief when the pair of them emerged silently from a narrow alleyway he passed to fall back into step flanking him.
“Let’s see,” he said, putting on a thoughtful expression and pointing to each of them in turn. “One, two…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Fauna groused. “We lost him, obviously.”
“We could’ve got him, or at least finished him off,” Flora added, scowling, “but not without making a big damn mess.”
Sweet nodded. It went without saying that in truth, the Jackal was not a match for the pair of them, or even probably just one, not if they went all out. Whatever enchanting and alchemy he’d used to augment his stealth, speed, and whatever else, a headhunter would tear him apart like a dog catching a squirrel. If, of course, they used the power available to them.
Unfortunately, Flora and Fauna were hamstrung by the need to conceal what they were. They were fully capable of chasing down incubi, but as they’d discovered after a close call last year, they could be evaded by the simple expediency of their target getting lost in a crowd, which was a trick someone might use to escape pursuit even if they didn’t know their pursuers couldn’t afford to show powers in view of the public. That incident had nearly been a disaster; they’d caught the demon’s trail again by sheer luck, and thereafter only summoned Vanislaads for their hunts far out into the wilderness, where the risk of exposure was minimal.
“You made the right call, then,” he said. “All right, I’m calling this. Change of plans; let’s meet up with the others. Even if we haven’t managed to locate Branwen, we’ve got info they’ll need.”
Notoli’s was one of those establishments which catered to a concept more than a crowd: discretion. Its maze-like main floor was laid out in a series of deeply secluded booths and private rooms, tables serviced by waiters who wore tiny bells on their uniform caps so there was no chance of them accidentally sneaking up on any patron’s conversation. It was the preferred meeting place in Ninkabi of not only visiting Eserites, but numerous other parties who did not want their business known.
Quite coincidentally, the food was very good.
Having cut off their own pursuit a bit early, Sweet and the elves were the first to arrive, and secured a quiet corner booth in one of the larger public rooms; he didn’t think absolute discretion would be necessary given their business, and given the presence of such as Grip and, if the other party proved more successful, Thumper, it might be better to have other diners within view to discourage any unfortunate outbursts. Not that he was really expecting it to come to that. His own quarry should’ve been easier to find, and Grip, for all her strengths, was not a tracker.
In his heart of hearts, though he of course kept it to himself, Sweet was therefore a little bit peeved when, after a shorter wait than he’d expected, a waiter escorted no less than five people to his booth.
“Well, well,” he said as soon as the diffident serving man had departed. “This is quite a haul, Grip.”
“It all went much better than expected!” Schwartz said brightly, sliding into the booth without hesitation. “I won’t lie, I was dubious about our prospects, lacking any direct link to Mr. Shook to use for tracking purposes, but the spirit guides came through! Meesie was quite helpful, of course.” His fire-rat familiar sat upright on his shoulder, squeaking proudly. “I hypothesize that the general disruption in ambient fae magic due to recent events may have worked in our favor instead—”
“Yeah, yeah, best witch,” Grip interrupted, not without a small smile. “I’ll buy you a cookie. Now hush up.”
“Thumper,” Sweet added blandly, “you’re looking well, all things considered.”
Shook grunted and slid himself onto a seat, on the opposite side from Schwartz. Jenell had seated herself next to the witch; now Grip sat down on Thumper’s other side, boxing him in. Sweet was impressed in spite of himself. Both enforcers had to understand fully the logistics of their posture, but the usually prideful and cantankerous Shook had let himself be pinned in without protest or even hesitation. Flora, next to whom he was now sitting, eyed him sidelong but kept her peace.
“I’ll tell you what I told Grip,” Shook said flatly. “I know I’ve got some stuff to account for, but I’ll explain myself to the Boss. Not you two goons.”
“I’ve already pointed out that’s not how it fucking works and he knows it,” Grip added in a bored tone.
“Fine, then there’s no need to keep picking at that scab,” Sweet said soothingly, noting the way Thumper was tensing up. “I believe this time we can defer old business, while we deal with fascinating new business.”
He looked pointedly at the last person to join them, still standing there at the head of the table wearing an ash-gray robe and a sour expression.
Thumper cleared his throat. “Sweet, this here’s my very good buddy Bradshaw, on loan from the…” He glanced casually around the room. There were other diners, in other booths, but the place was designed with heavy fabric curtains and numerous potted plants to muffle acoustics. Still, he lowered his voice significantly before continuing. “…Black Wreath. Bradshaw, this is Bishop Darling and his apprentices.”
“Delighted,” Bradshaw stated in a flat drawl that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but hostility.
“Annnnd…” Sweet deliberately tore his gaze from the warlock to meet Shook’s eyes. “You trust this character?”
Grip snorted loudly.
“Trust ain’t the word,” Thumper said, shooting Bradshaw a neutral look. “I am… I’m gonna say about eighty-five percent confident he doesn’t plan to hex my ass, at least until our current mutual business is taken care of. And assuming that goes well, I’m inclined to give him an’ the rest of his buddies a fair head start before I tell any authorities where I last saw ’em. That’s about as warm and fuzzy as it gets around here.”
“Oh be still, my trembling heart,” the warlock said, deadpan.
“Well, all righty then,” Sweet said congenially. “While your credibility is running pretty thin these days, Thumper, I’m willing to extend a little faith. Gods know I’ve made worse deals with worse people, probably for lesser stakes. Please have a seat, Mr. Bradshaw, and let’s talk about what we all might have in common.”
Bradshaw’s mouth thinned into a disgruntled line and he deliberately peered at each of them in turn.
“Oh, sit down,” Grip exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, it’s not like you can’t just shadow-jump away the second anything happens you don’t like the smell of. And nobody else here is stuffed to the gills with cancer magic. Don’t act like you’re the one making allowances.”
“My goodness, are you always this charming?” Bradshaw snipped. “And all the way over here I thought you were putting on an act for my sake.”
“Oh, she’s rarely this charming,” Shook said wryly.
“Children, please,” Sweet said in exasperation. “Not at the dinner table!”
Bradshaw shook his head, but finally deigned to perch at the very end of the booth seat next to Jenell, who gave him an extremely neutral look.
“Great, all friends!” Sweet said magnanimously. “I’ll open with a question: Thumper, when’s the last time you saw the Jackal, and are you still working with him?”
Shook grimaced bitterly. “Couple days ago, an’ fuck no. Our whole group’s been pared down to the bone. Somebody stole Kheshiri’s reliquary and she’s gone, and now that demented fuck has finally snapped. At least, that’s my theory, since I can’t conceive of a single goddamn productive goal he could have for the shit he’s been doing. Last I heard he’s taken to offing cops. I don’t have to tell you where that kind of horseshit leads. I think two years of acting like an actual fucking person half the time was too much pressure for all the crazy in his head.”
“Well, how about that,” Sweet mused. “Funny story, we just had a brush—”
On either side of him, Flora and Fauna abruptly tensed and started to rise from their seats. Their sudden movement made Bradshaw half-stand himself, turning to stare suspiciously and raising one hand as if prepared to cast.
“Good, you’re all here.”
A chair was slammed against their table, its back impacting the edge hard enough to make the silverware bounce. Basra Syrinx seated herself straddling it, fixing her eyes on Sweet’s and seeming to ignore everyone else present, though most of them had just drawn weapons on her.
“Shut up and listen,” she ordered. “We don’t have much time.”