“What the hell, Tricks?”
“Oh, don’t ‘what the hell’ me,” the Boss retorted scathingly. “What’re you suddenly so squeamish about, huh? The Falconers aren’t any of your business, Sweet, and just because you’ve got a paternal streak for Thorn doesn’t mean the Guild owes her so much as a say-so when planning jobs in her vicinity. I dunno what you’re getting so worked up over.”
Sweet stared at him, finding himself at a loss for words. Not for the first time in his life, but it was a very rare condition for him.
“You don’t…know. What I’m worked up over.”
“He’s not that worked up, Boss,” Style rumbled, regarding Tricks sidelong from where she stood against the room’s door. The counting room was busy at this hour, and this was no business which merited the use of Eserion’s inner sanctum, so they were speaking in the map room just off the central training pit.
“Whose side are you on?” Tricks demanded, giving her a grin that took any rebuke out of the question. Style, for once, didn’t respond to it, just studying him in silence.
“Okay.” Sweet held up both hands. “Okay, forget about the politics. Forget the Falconers, Duchess Madouri, Tar’naris, and all the delicate ongoing plots we have with each of them that might’ve been upended by this scheme.”
“Y’know, Sweet, there’s no point in saying ‘forget the politics’ if you just go and recite them all.”
“Trust me, that was the forgetful version; we could go into each at length. But seriously, never mind that. Boss, you sent two of our people to piss off fucking Vadrieny as directly and personally as they possibly could short of playing grabby hands with her wife. And you didn’t warn them she was even a factor! So yeah, I will goddamn well say it again: what the hell, Tricks?!”
“Just because I’m stuck doing desk work now doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about planning a job,” Tricks retorted. “Everybody I send out knows exactly what they need to. Teal Falconer is the kind of annoying pacifist who— Well, did you know she was actually bullied as a teenager? Girl could’ve had someone killed using just her allowance, and she let the children of her father’s employees push her around. That demon is as good as housebroken and has been for years.”
“Jasper is in the goddamn hospital!”
“Oh, you know Jasper pretty well, huh?” Tricks asked, grinning humorlessly. “Get up to Madouris a lot lately, do ya?”
“What the fuck does that have to do with—”
“Just that this is the Thieves’ Guild, Sweet. If I plan a job that puts somebody in the hospital, you ever consider that maybe they ought to be put there?”
Sweet stared at him for a moment, then pointed at Style. “Isn’t that her job?”
“I cannot fucking send Style to smack every head that needs it, much as she might prefer that.”
“I just…” Sweet rubbed at his temples. “Tricks, you don’t send Guild members into horrific danger without warning them what they’re in for! A job they’re not fully prepared for is gonna fail, that’s basic—”
“Sweet,” Tricks said flatly, taking a step closer to him, “I give you a lot of leeway, because we both know you’ve earned it and you’re worth it. But and the end of the day, you had your turn as Boss. You don’t tell me what to fucking do.”
They stared at each other in silence, Trick’s face expressionless while Sweet frowned in consternation.
“Right,” Style drawled after a few tense moments. “Should I call the twins in here to grow a tree for you two to piss on?”
“Look,” Tricks said in a softer tone, stepping forward again. This time, though, he reached out to grasp Sweet by the shoulder. “You do remember what the job’s like, Sweet. Sometimes you gotta keep people in the dark. There are things I have to do that I can’t explain to people, and the role of Boss sure as hell comes with hard choices to be made. That’s all right there in the job description. I get how you can feel left out of the loop sometimes, I do. But I do what I gotta do, and ultimately? You either trust me to do the job, or you don’t.”
He paused, then lowered his hand.
“Go ahead and take your time deciding which it is, Sweet. I wish I had time to hang out here all day chewing the fat, but just like every day I’ve got a thousand fucking things to be doing right now.”
Tricks turned and strolled toward the door, his gait for once free of the tension he usually displayed. Style stepped aside without comment and the Boss slipped out, leaving the door ajar.
“Style,” Sweet said quietly, staring after him, “is he…”
“Is he what, Sweet?” she asked, a hard edge to her tone.
Sweet frowned at the cracked door for a second longer before focusing his gaze on her face. “Is he okay?”
She worked her mouth once in a chewing motion, then turned her head to glare at the map of the Empire on the far wall. The muscles in her jaw clenched, and then the head enforcer shoved the door closed again with one hand.
“Sweet, what kind of shit did the Big Guy have you do, when you were Boss?”
“Very little,” he admitted. “The Guild more or less runs itself if you prioritize looking after the people doing its business. At least, that was my approach. I know we’ve had this conversation before, Style.”
“Yeah, and I know you know it isn’t like that for Tricks. He’s got… I dunno, Sweet, the Big Guy’s stuff is Boss’s ears only. It’s been like that ever since he took over. I’ve kinda gotten used to him making calls I thought were odd, but they always either worked out so I could see the point in hindsight, or nothing apparently came of ‘em in the end. And nothing ever crossed…this kind of line.”
“So it’s not just me?” Sweet asked almost plaintively. “I know I’m not crazy. This shit is seriously over the edge.”
“Well, he’s not tagged Tricks because he likes to do stuff the straightforward way. The man’s more than earned my trust, Sweet, and I’d like to think yours too.”
“Are you forgetting who put him forward to be Boss in the first place?”
She nodded once in agreement. “If he does something I don’t get, I can live with it and trust it’s going somewhere. He’s never done anything like sending a pair of goobers like Rake and Jasper up against a fucking archdemon, though. And…that last bit at the end, there. That is not the Boss I know. ‘Fuck you, I do what I want’ is not part of his personality. Hell, his vocabulary. At least… I wouldn’t’ve thought so,” she added, scowling deeply.
Sweet heaved a sigh, running a hand over his hair. “Fuck. I don’t like the way this feels, Style. Doing shit behind his back…”
“What shit?” she asked, her tone deceptively mild. “We’re just chatting.”
“Yeah.” He locked his eyes on hers. “You up for chatting about anything else the Boss has done recently that seemed…off to you?”
Style narrowed her eyes very slightly. “Didn’t you say you ran off and left Thorn in charge of a delicate political negotiation? Fucking Thorn?”
“That baby bird’s gotta get pushed out of the nest sometime. Thorn’s got it in her to be as sly as Keys ever was, she’s just spent her life being discouraged from developing that skill. Well, she needs it now, and nobody’s got time for her to practice on small fry. I think we’ve got something just as urgent to focus on here.”
“Yeah, well, that’s as good a starting point as any,” she said, grimacing. “You’re the people guy, Sweet; can you think of any reason for the Boss to send Ninetails to handle relations with the Avenists at a time like this?”
Sweet’s eyes slowly widened. “…why the fuck don’t we keep chairs in here? I gotta sit down.”
“So I hope you’ll understand if I am a tad out of sorts with the Guild right now.”
“I don’t understand at all,” Trissiny murmured, slowly pacing back and forth in front of High Commander Rouvad’s desk. “Ah, not you, Commander, your position is wholly reasonable. I just can’t make sense of this pattern. Now of all times, interfaith relations deserve both careful handling and a high priority.”
“Yes, I would have thought so, myself,” Rouvad agreed, her expression severe. “Nonetheless, here we are. I get more or less the same content from various Guild messengers, but in the last few weeks Bishop Darling is the only one who brings me anything slightly useful. And I could live with empty platitudes, but I am less amused when they come from people who try to start fights with my Legionnaires or generally behave in my presence like feral animals. Are you acquainted with this Ninetails character?”
“Not personally,” Trissiny said, shaking her head and not pausing in her pacing. “I’m not personally familiar with every thief in Tiraas, obviously.”
“Well, I would take it as a kindness if you’d inform Tricks that my patience is not limitless. It’s a delicate political time for the Sisterhood internally, to say nothing of dicey relations between cults and with the Church, and being seen taking a conciliatory stance with disruptive thieves is only going to cost me face within my own cult. Exactly when I can least afford it.”
Finally, Trissiny trailed to a halt, staring at the wall for a moment, then turned to face the High Commander directly. “This may be premature, but I am suddenly starting to see a pattern I don’t like.”
“Do tell,” Rouvad said flatly.
“I was privy to the aftermath of another strange Guild action today: two thieves attacked my friends Shaeine and Teal and tried to steal their dog.”
“Oh,” Rouvad snorted, lowering her eyebrows. “You mean their demon.”
“Hellhounds are from the same plane as the Rhaazke,” Trissiny said patiently. “They are infernally stable and lack the aggression characteristic of demon species native to Hell proper. F’thaan is, for all intents and purposes, a dog with unique magical traits. And for the record, he is a good boy. I’m only bringing this up because it parallels the situation here. There are all kinds of reasons for the Guild not to antagonize them; they are connected to Falconer Industries and House Awarrion directly, and less directly to House Madouri, all institutions with which the Guild has established relationships that should rule out such an aggressive action. And according to the actual suspects, they were ordered directly to do this by Boss Tricks himself. Bishop Darling is off verifying that with the Boss right now, which is the only reason he didn’t come here with me.”
“Where are you going with this, Trissiny?” Rouvad asked, her tone quieter but more serious.
Trissiny held her gaze, eyebrows drawing together in concern. “It may be too early to draw conclusions, but I have a sudden worry. I think… Tricks may be compromised, somehow.”
“Compromised,” Rouvad intoned. “By whom, exactly?”
“Do we really need to keep dancing around this? The cult most solidly behind Archpope Justinian’s agenda has been split by a major religious schism since Ninkabi, and all but neutralized as a political force because of it. Now, we have the first hints of similar schisms brewing within the two cults most directly opposed to him. Do you truly imagine that’s a coincidence? First these Purists, who have obviously been getting significant financial backing and organization from someone, and now an abrupt pattern of squirrelly behavior from Boss Tricks himself exactly when the Guild can least afford it.”
“Do you hear yourself?” Rouvad asked quietly. “An accusation like that, against a sitting Archpope, is not a small matter, Trissiny.”
“Do you believe it’s something I would say lightly?” Trissiny stepped forward and planted her fists on the desk, leaning toward her over it. “Commander, this is not something I just pulled out of my butt this afternoon. Justinian is pursuing an agenda of his own, which is not in alignment with the Pantheon’s, much less any of the member cults. Just this summer, a god of the Pantheon sent all three paladins on a mission to ascertain this fact, and we received aid from several others in the process. We learned definitively that he has been tampering with Elder God artifacts and attempting to affect the nature of the gods themselves. The man is an enemy. Or did you really believe he’s spent an unprecedented span of months blocking the Sisterhood from having Church representation out of personal pique?”
“Do I need to remind you,” Rouvad replied in a near-growl, “that you incited this entire dilemma by going behind my back to uproot Bishop Syrinx?”
“Do you really want to play that game?” Trissiny shot back. “Syrinx was an asset of Justinian’s and for numerous other reasons a major problem for the Sisterhood. We can discuss who caused that problem and who solved it, or we can put it behind us and deal with the situation we are in right now. I know which I’d prefer.”
Both women stared at each other in silence for five heartbeats.
Then, slowly, Rouvad leaned back in her chair. “You realize the story you’re telling me is incredible, Trissiny.”
“It’s more incredible than you can imagine,” she agreed. “You’re only hearing about it; I had to live through the whole thing. I have seldom been so rattled.”
“And rightly so.” Rouvad paused, pressing her lips into a line, and then shook her head. “You are not unstable, or a fool, or a liar, and clearly well within Avei’s good graces. Obviously I have no choice but to believe you, no matter how insane this tale sounds.”
“I appreciate your trust, Commander,” Trissiny said, straightening back up.
Rouvad shook her head again. “I do not care for the way you’ve gone about certain actions, Trissiny. But obviously, the same is true in reverse, or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we are on the same side.”
“And allowing ourselves to forget that is doing the enemy’s work,” Trissiny agreed, nodding.
“That being the case, what is it you suggest doing about this? If being frozen out by the Church is truly a malicious action meant to harm the Sisterhood, outside the usual run of politics…”
“In general terms,” Trissiny said, taking a step back, “the course I’d recommend is to turn the tables on Justinian: freeze him out instead of letting him do it to us. Bishop Darling has been attempting to rally support with the other cults against the Church. It’s not gone well; the Eserites have always held themselves somewhat aloof, and obviously the cults are reluctant to sacrifice their footing with the Church. Matters will be different if we lend the Sisterhood’s weight directly to the same cause.”
“Take our interfaith relations back into our own hands,” Rouvad mused. “Truthfully, I like the notion. My patience with Justinian’s waffling is even lower than my patience for Trick’s antics, and that was before I learned of… Well, this. I already see an issue, though, Trissiny. If the Guild is suddenly a notably unreliable ally, we’d only be isolating ourselves further.”
“Which is exactly why it’s important to bring as many other cults into alignment with us as possible. In the meantime, the Guild’s internal issues are going to have to be dealt with, just as we ourselves need to nip this Purist nonsense in the bud. I’ll work on that if I can; in the meantime, I can get you information on who within the Guild can be trusted. Bishop Darling, for one, and you can reach out to Tamisin Sharvineh for both a steady hand and widespread connections. If you’ll extend a little patience, Commander, I will get you more to work with as soon as I’m able.”
“Mm,” Rouvad grunted. “We’ll see. And you said all that was general terms.”
“I do have a suggestion,” said Trissiny, nodding. “Appoint a Bishop.”
Rouvad barked an incredulous laugh. “What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past five months? And didn’t you just declare that trying to do business with the Church is effectively useless?”
Trissiny shook her head. “You’ve been trying to work with Justinian—whose goal is obviously to waste time and hamper our movements. I’m saying, cut him out of it entirely. Appoint a Bishop, unilaterally, to take charge of the Sisterhood’s interfaith relations, and the Church be damned. What exactly is he going to do about it? Procrastinate harder? Taking action to render the Church’s voice in our affairs irrelevant is a decisive move that will turn the tables and marginalize him.”
The Commander was silent for a long moment. Then, finally, a smile cracked her reserve. Just as quickly, it faded back into an expression of contemplation.
“It figures. Just as the mission of Squad 391 become urgently applicable, they’ve been shuffled off to Viridill to train adventurers. That kind of mandate… I have to say, it calls for a different skill set and personality than a standard Church Bishop. I’ll have to begin reviewing personnel files anew to find a suitable candidate.”
“Actually, it seems to me an old candidate would be better than a new one. Nandi Shahai did excellent work as Bishop, during her brief tenure in the role. Can you think of anyone better suited for this iteration of the job?”
“Hmm.” A small smile continued to twitch at the corners of Rouvad’s lips. “You’re not wrong about that. Locke won’t like it at all, of course. She relies heavily on Nandi to keep her new band of rabble in line.”
Trissiny folded her hands behind her back, raising her chin and settling unconsciously into parade rest. “I apologize if this smacks of me suggesting how to manage your troops, Commander, but in my personal opinion, Locke’s development as an officer can only benefit from regular reminders that there’s a chain of command and she will obey orders.”
That brought an outright grin from the High Commander, but it faded quickly back into seriousness and she leaned forward again, staring intently at her paladin. “You do know, Trissiny, what happened the last time there was a major split of cults against the Universal Church.”
“This isn’t the Enchanter Wars,” Trissiny said softly. “Archpope Sipasian was a fool who let Magnan the Enchanter lead him around by the nose. Magnan did the same to the Emperor, and the head of the Collegium. Justinian is anything but a fool; he knows precisely what he is doing, and in my opinion, it’s just as urgent that he be stopped. More to the point, his power-grabbing has antagonized enough established powers that there are plenty of allies against him just waiting to be rallied. The Silver Throne would love nothing more than an excuse to push hard against him. We have only to plant a flag and gather others to it.”
“We have to get our own house in order before we can step into that role,” Rouvad warned. “Are you certain the sudden rise of the Purists is Justinian’s doing?”
“I can’t see any other explanation, but no, there’s no definitive evidence yet. I intend to acquire it in the course of removing them as a factor.”
“I’m not one to advocate for inaction, but you need to be careful. This is no time for another outburst like your performance in Calderaas this summer.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, Commander. In fact, I think this has been arranged to capitalize on just such an act, if I repeated that mistake. That’s why I am taking an entirely different approach.”
Rouvad raised one eyebrow. “But no less decisive?”
“If anything,” Trissiny said with a grim little smile, “much more so.”