“Once again, ‘any moment’ is not technically incorrect, but it is overly dramatic,” Bradshaw said with the strained patience of a perfectionist having to continually clarify. “The most accurate description of the situation is that we do not know what the trigger for opening the portals is—yet. I recommend all haste, but not panic. Clearly, something has prevented the portals opening at least this long, and we are working to figure out what.”
“Haste but not panic is the right action in almost any circumstance,” Grip said in a deceptively lazy tone, eyes on the dismantled wand she was cleaning. “Including if, for example, there were twenty-odd demon portals in the city that might open any fucking minute.”
“Grip, play nicely with the other kids,” Sweet reproved. “Bradshaw’s doing us a big solid and these stakes don’t allow for any infighting. What is it you need from us?” he asked the warlock.
“Embras and the dragon simply want to stay in communication,” Bradshaw replied a little less testily. “Khadizroth did mention Mr. Schwartz as a possible assistant in his own efforts. He and the elf seem competent but they are trying to chase multiple leads at once and the aid of another shaman couldn’t hurt.”
“I say, that’s a point,” Schwartz agreed, reaching up to stroke Meesie, who had started squealing in alarm. “Though I’ll admit the prospect of working under a green dragon is both tremendously exciting and rather terrifying.” His familiar bounded onto his head and began gesticulating wildly, keeping up her shrill commentary. “Meesie agrees,” Schwartz added solemnly. “It’s also worth keeping in mind that we have, ah, something of a history. Given what happened last time our paths crossed his…” He trailed off, looking over at Branwen.
“I have found Lord Khadizroth an eminently reasonable being,” she said with a reassuring smile. “He is well aware of what happened that night and bears us no grudge over Ildrin’s actions.”
“Makes sense to keep the finger-wigglers on the same page,” Grip mused. “Well! If that’s how it’s gonna be, I’d like to come along. You, too,” she added to Jenell. “This is an invaluable learning opportunity.”
Jenell opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, and shut it. Her tutor grinned wolfishly at her.
“I am of course honored at the opportunity to serve as your personal taxi service,” Bradshaw said in an exceedingly dry tone.
Shook cleared his throat. “For what it’s worth, I agree with the Bishop about Big K bein’ more or less reasonable. He doesn’t flame-broil people who don’t create a need. You, Grip, run a very significant risk of creating a need if you park yourself in a room with him for five minutes.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you can hang around with this dragon without setting him off, Thumper, any actual grown-up with a shred of functional impulse control should be fine.”
He clenched both fists and she grinned again.
“Peace,” Sweet exclaimed. “What did I literally just say about infighting?”
“Right,” Shook agreed, deliberately relaxing and straightening his lapels. “Sorry.”
Sweet gave him a tiny sidelong frown as if perplexed by that, but Schwartz hastily continued the discussion before it could be diverted any further.
“On that note! Just logistically speaking, might it not be best to combine both groups entirely?”
“How about no,” Flora and Fauna chorused. Schwartz turned to them, blinking in surprise, and Meesie sat bolt upright in his hair with her head tilted.
“Actually, the idea has merit,” said Bradshaw. “It is not without issues, though. Syrinx is supposed to be specifically finding Darling and company, and neither Embras nor Khadizroth want her coming at us. Not to tell you your business,” he added directly to Sweet, “but I wouldn’t want her sniffing after you unless you’re accompanied by some heavy-hitters. Also, given the increasing uncertainty and the fact that blithely trusting Syrinx to hold up her end of a deal would be hysterically stupid, it may be a good idea for the two Bishops to try to mobilize whatever there is of their cults in Ninkabi.”
“What exactly are Izarites supposed to do about a possible demon invasion?” Jenell asked scornfully.
“Protect and heal people,” Grip answered. “A priest is a priest, when it comes to demons. There’s value in other talents than yours, apprentice. Do not open your mouth if nothing’s gonna come out of it but ego.”
“So…are you in favor of blending the two groups or not?” Schwartz asked Bradshaw.
The warlock tilted his head from one side to the other in a waffling motion. “Thinking on it, I don’t see how a complete blending is workable. But we may want to reconsider who to station where. And we should definitely try to keep both groups in contact.”
“We are not interested in being under a roof with Khadizroth the Green,” Fauna stated.
“Or Vannae,” added Flora.
The discussion continued, almost immediately veering into argument again and then back, while Shook discreetly wandered around the perimeter for the room to stand next to his own Bishop.
“Sweet,” he murmured, “can you spare a minute for a talk? In private?”
Sweet looked at him, raising his eyebrows, then shrugged. Saying nothing, he straightened up from his slouched pose against the wall and slipped out through the door. Shook fell into step behind him.
They were ensconced in a safe house used by the local Guild, on loan to Sweet for the time being by Ninkabi’s Underboss. While the argument carried on in the sitting room, Sweet led the way through the kitchen and down the short flight of steps beyond into a dusty but surprisingly well-stocked wine cellar, slapping a switch in passing that made a single dim fairy lamp come on.
“Thanks,” Shook muttered once they were both over the threshold. There was no door, but the distance and intervening halls muffled the conversation out front to a bare murmur. “This is… Okay, there’s obviously more important stuff going on, so shut me up as soon as something interesting happens. But while we got a breather I…” He inhaled deeply and self-consciously straightened his suit again. “I wonder if I could… I mean, you are a priest. I just wanna bend your ear in that capacity.”
Sweet leaned back against the wall next to the door and folded his arms, keeping his expression calm. “Well, you know we don’t have much of a confessional tradition, Thumper, but I fancy I’m a pretty decent listener. What’s on your mind?”
He took a few steps to the end of a wine rack, then turned and paced back the other way. The words were hard to dredge up, but he was keenly aware that this was an inopportune time; the clock was ticking, as assuredly was the Bishop’s patience.
“Spending a couple a’ years with Kheshiri around really fucked me up,” he said abruptly, straightening up and making himself look Sweet in the eye. “I’m… Well, she’s gone, and I’m better off, obviously. Been thinkin’ over a lot of stuff as I have time, getting a handle on how bad she screwed me up an’ trying to undo some of the damage. Khadizroth has helped with that.”
“I will just bet he has,” Sweet said mildly.
Thumper heaved a sigh. “I’m not a moron, Sweet. The dragon’s got an agenda, same as anyone, but in his case… Augh, that’s a whole other conversation. It’s just… Okay, well, first things first: you tried to help me out a lot back in the day an’ I pretty much blew you off. I been thinkin’ back on a lot of real good advice I’ve been given by several people, including you. Better late than never, I guess. So, before anything else happens: thanks, Sweet, for trying. And I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
One corner of Sweet’s mouth turned upward and his eyes softened. He nodded once, gravely. “You are welcome.”
“But what I keep comin’ back to,” Shook went on, turning his head to glare at the wall, “is that… Well, that. All that was long before Kheshiri came along and as bad as she screwed with my head, she wasn’t the start of it. I… Sweet, I’ve fucked up a lot. And looking back, I’m not even sure, a hundred percent, how much of everything I thought I knew was bullshit. I’m pretty sure it’s at least some of it. I dunno where to draw the lines. All I’m absolutely confident of is I’ve really fucked up.”
Thumper snapped his eyes back to him; Sweet was still regarding him with the same bland look. “Huh?”
“Why, specifically, have you habitually fucked up?”
He breathed in, slowly, and back out. The reactive surge of anger was not appropriate. It was a good question. Sweet was trying to help, just as he had years ago.
“That, right there,” Thumper said flatly after a moment. “I get too mad and I don’t handle it well. Better’n I used to, but… I, uh, also think… I absorbed a lot of Alan’s views about the world an’ I’m starting to think some of ’em may be kind of…incredibly wrong.”
“I’ll help you out a bit, since this is progress,” Sweet said evenly. “You have a long pattern of blaming everybody but yourself when you fuck up, Thumper.”
He inhaled and exhaled again. Then a second time, suddenly aware that the anger he was feeling was something he’d summoned, subconsciously, because it was easier to deal with than shame. “Yeah, I see that now. Specially the last couple years… I had it worked around in my head how the Guild had turned against me because of Keys’s lies, and… This thing with Justinian, I thought if I could get some results from him… I dunno.”
“Keys’s report from Last Rock was some seriously troubling shit, Thumper,” the priest stated tonelessly. “You wanna offer me some insight on that?”
Thumper looked away from his eyes again, crushingly aware it was simple cowardice and unable to summon up the strength to do better. “Keys…irrespective of anything else, has always been an insufferable piece of shit and you know it. I’m not gonna cop to anything she said until I hear the full details of it.”
“Well, that is not the response of a man who’s done nothing wrong,” Sweet retorted, and Shook just barely managed not to flinch. “So that tells me what I need to know. The fine details are Style’s problem.”
“I’m…I’m trying to do better, Sweet,” he said helplessly. “I’ve fucked up, I know it. I just…I want a chance to make things right, if I can. How do I get outta this, and earn that?”
Sweet’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. Then straightened up, shaking his head. “If that’s where this is going, Thumper, I don’t have time for it.”
Shook felt the betrayal like a stab in his chest. “But—”
“Has it ever once crossed your mind that there are things you just don’t get out of?” Sweet held his stare, and this time he found he actually couldn’t look away. “You crossed a line with her, Thumper. It’s a universal line everybody in every civilization in all of history knows not to cross, and you did it anyway. There is some shit that is just not excused by a bad upbringing. And then you ran instead of facing the consequences like a man. What you’re asking me now is to keep not facing consequences, and whatever progress you’ve made, that shows me it’s not enough.”
Shook finally lowered his eyes, fully occupied by the plummeting feeling inside himself. Sweet wasn’t done, though.
“I always approve of anybody trying to improve themselves, but in your case, the appropriate time for this was a decade ago. And especially before you interpreted an enforcement mandate as an excuse to get handsy with a fellow Guild member. Redemption is for the bards, Thumper. It’s a pretty story device that works well enough for made-up people in imaginary stories, but in real life? Nothing that’s done can be undone. Actions have consequences. Everybody fucks up and we’ve all got blood on our hands; character is measured by how you face responsibility. And you are still trying to duck out of it.
“You wanna man up, finally? You need to make peace with the fact that the consequences of your actions may be extremely final, Thumper. Facing them might not be something you come out the other side of. And you especially need to internalize the fact that this is what you’ve chosen. If you still don’t have the wits to see how you’ve created your own situation, or the guts to take your medicine…”
Sweet shrugged again, and turned to step into the stairwell.
“You can try running again. Gods know it’d be less paperwork for us. I can’t promise how far you’d get, but it might be far enough. There’s big shit going down, Thumper, and everybody has more important things to deal with than you. It’s your call. But if you’re really serious about doing better, then you know what you have to do. If you’ve got it in you.”
He climbed the stairs in silence. Thumper saw his legs hesitate at the top before he finished ascending, and returned to the others.
Shook turned his back to the doorway. His fists were clenched so hard his nails were cutting into his own skin. Breathe. In, out… Calm. Except this time there was no calm there. He was fighting a losing battle with the anger.
No, he realized, not with anger, not anymore. Sweet, with a few piercing sentences, had managed to take even that from him. Nothing Khadizroth had taught him had left him prepared to cope with shame.
The footsteps on the stairs behind him were softer. Oddly, for once in his life, Shook couldn’t find it in himself to care who was creeping up on him from behind.
“I think that was partly the situation talking,” Branwen Snowe murmured, stepping up into his peripheral view. “I have never known Antonio to be deliberately cruel.”
A bitter laugh tore itself from Shook’s throat, and not just because there were obviously things about Antonio she didn’t begin to imagine. “Ah, hell, ain’t his fault he’s right. I mean…well, you know what I mean. I guess you were listening in on most a’ that?”
“I apologize for intruding on your privacy,” she said with evident sincerity, reaching up to rest one hand against his upper arm. Her blue eyes were soulful and kind; in that moment he could almost forget the dozens of tiny signals he’d picked up over the last few days that Snowe was as cunning a creature as Syrinx in her own way. “Priestesses of my faith experience the emotions of others much the way you do smells in the air. Except I can’t just hold my nose, so to speak. It’s impossibly difficult to be around someone who is in as much pain as you are and not try to do something about it.”
For whatever reason, the conversation was helping. Maybe it just gave him something other than his own inadequacy on which to focus. Shook ran through another breathing exercise, then unconsciously smoothed a hand over his hair. “Yeah, well. Thanks for your concern, Bishop, but I figure I’m all confessed out for the time being. ‘less you have a wildly different interpretation than Sweet did…”
Still gazing up at him, she shook her head slowly. “I’m not going to contradict anything he said. Ironically, an Avenist would have told you much the same; I’ve always been amused by how similar your two faiths are beneath the surface. I do have my own set of biases, though, Mr. Shook. I’m an Izarite.” She laughed softly. “Not a very good one, but still.”
At that, he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Whaddaya mean, not good? How come they made you the Bishop, then?”
“There’s a reason the Brethren don’t much care for politics,” she said softly. “Izara’s way is to do what good you can, right where you are, for whoever you can immediately reach. Me? I have always been a…big picture person. I believe deeply in the power of love, in how much the world needs more of it. I’ve never been able to content myself with the needs of the moment, though.”
She smiled, an expression so warm and caring he actually found himself believing it. Her small fingers gently squeezed his bicep. “I think, Mr. Shook, you might be an authentically bad person.”
It was truly amazing how much that actually hurt.
“I don’t say that lightly, or about many people,” she went on seriously. “Antonio was not wrong, about responsibility and justice. But I can’t make myself think that is the most important thing. However flawed you are, Jeremiah… I believe you are becoming aware of that, and earnestly trying to do better. And to me, that is what’s important. It’s not my prerogative to speak for anyone you may have hurt. In the big picture, though, I consider the good a person can go on to do more valuable than any punishment that can be levied against them.”
She closed her eyes, shook her head slightly, and let out a tiny huff that was just a shadow of a rueful laugh. “The Guild, the Sisterhood…not many will see it the way I do. But I hope that’s worth something to you, at least.”
Breathe in. Breathe out. Calm was a choice. Surprisingly, he found it more within his grasp now.
Gently, he removed her hand from his arm and stepped back. “Right. Cos I’ve got all these forces circling that’ll take me down, but maybe with you I can still be spared, is that it?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean—”
“Look, your Grace, I already know you’re smarter than you like to appear. I also know you’re hard enough to come all the way out here to try to kill a former colleague of yours. None of that’s a criticism, mind you, because frankly I think it’s a goddamn shame we still haven’t managed to put a knife in Syrinx’s eye. But enforcement is as much about drama and manipulation as force. More so.” He gave her a humorless little smile, noting how blank her face had gone. “Due credit, it was a good recruitment pitch. An’ cos I like you, I’ll offer some free advice: don’t try that again on another Eserite enforcer. They’ll all see through it, an’ some’ll take offense.”
Thumper took a step back from her and inclined his upper body in a shallow bow.
“You really are more than meets the eye,” she said with a rueful smile. Gods, she was still doing it.
“I thank you for the kind words, Bishop. Dunno how sincere they were, but it helps nonetheless.”
Again, that gentle expression. “If I wanted to lie to you, Jeremiah, I would have spared your feelings.”
“Well, then.” He nodded, and turned to head for the stairs. “Best get back, there ain’t much time for screwin’ around.”
Thumper kept his gaze fixed straight ahead as he climbed back up into the kitchen and turned toward the living room and the still-ongoing argument therein. A thought had just occurred which put a little of the steel back into his step.
Unless they all had some very good luck very soon, this city was likely to shortly be filled with a thousand screaming, hell-crazed reasons not to have to go back to the Guild and grovel for Keys, Style, and Tricks. He was aware this was still a cowardly way of thinking, but it was cowardice he could meet with a wand in hand and blood under his nails, and right at that moment, that sounded like a compromise he could accept.