Tag Archives: Alan Vandro

5 – 26

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Consciousness returned slowly and painfully, which wasn’t an unfamiliar experience for Shook. What was unfamiliar was the nature of the pain. He was used to blows to the head, stunner spells, powerful hits to his midsection that drove the breath from his body. This was altogether different. An ache lingered in all his muscles, as if they had been tense for hours; his limbs twitched feebly as feeling returned to them. It felt much like stretching an arm on which he’d inadvertently slept until it was all pins and needles, except everywhere. An aggravating muzziness lingered in his consciousness.

“…somewhat disappointed, but my chieftain was adamant that he be kept alive to be delivered to your Guild. Ah, well, at least I now have proof that my new toy is effective. Truly, that is more valuable than the fleeting satisfaction of ending this dog’s life.”

“Indeed.”

Shook twitched, the second voice triggering a reaction. Softer, feminine… Saduko. He twitched again in remembered outrage. His body was coming back under his control, as were his senses, and he managed to take stock of what was immediately outside his own skin. He was tied, though only by the arms. Kneeling, hands behind his back, like Kamari, but thankfully his own fate had been less permanent. The smell of ozone lingered; someone had fired a wand. Of course, he’d been shot. Hadn’t he? Why wasn’t he dead, then?

His slowed thoughts finally caught up with his ears. New toy. A wand that administered non-lethal shocks? Very illegal, prone to causing nasty burns; even the Thieves’ Guild didn’t allow their use, judging them too brutal. But he didn’t feel burned. A new type of weapon then, not one of the old half-charge wands. Just his luck.

“Ah, he returns to us.” Something prodded his shoulder; he let out an involuntary grunt. “You have learned the price of disrespect, dog. The lady’s terms are that you be left with your life, but you can lose a great deal short of losing that, yes? Remember your manners henceforth.”

Somewhat laboriously, Shook lifted his head. The motion made his neck ache. The ache passed, though, as it began to all over his body. That overwhelming soreness didn’t fade entirely, but receded enough that he could test his arms against the bindings. Solid… Damn.

There were only four guards in the room now, and only two of those had staves trained on him. Two sent away and half the remainder put at ease; they were confident he was harmless. That was infuriating. The steward smirked down at him, idly toying with what as far as Shook could tell was just an ordinary magic wand, though it appeared to be carved from ebony, an unusual material. Saduko stood nearby, free and apparently regarded with respect, but rigid as a corpse and wide-eyed.

“What say you, good lady?” asked the steward casually, sneering down at Shook. “Shall we further educate him as to his place before sending him on his way?”

She hesitated a beat before answering. “Th-that is not necessary.”

“Ah, I suppose your Guild will want him functional enough to answer questions. Pity. I was told that my toy could damage the brain if overused.”

Again, a pause. “Y-yes. He needs…to answer questions.” She had her arms folded tightly across her chest. “The Guild wants to know… What he knows. What he has been up to.”

Shook was still muzzy, and he wasn’t much of a people person to begin with, but there were some kinds of social perception so deeply trained into him—into all accredited members of the Guild—that they worked instinctively. This situation seemed obvious on the surface; his partner had set him up. But Saduko’s manner clashed with the rest of the picture.

Hesitant. Uncertain. Clearly frightened, looking for cues, body language indicated reaching for comfort. Following the steward’s lead, talking too much but saying little.

Lying.

He shook his head. It didn’t add up. She had the upper hand; what did she fear from the steward, her co-conspirator? And anyway, she was a reserved, blank-faced person most of the time; those made the best liars. Was she that badly rattled, and why? Or was it a double bluff, and if so, for whose benefit?

“Oh, you do not like this plan?” the steward asked him, misinterpreting his motion. “Too bad. Your opinions are not relevant here, dog. I suggest you learn to be comfortable on your knees. Such is the fate of all who try to steal from Chief Om’ponole.” The man folded his arms, still dangling that odd wand, looking ridiculously smug.

Shook stared up at him, worked his jaw to return the feeling in it, then very deliberately spat at the man’s feet.

One of the guards menacingly raised his staff; one of the others heroically tried to suppress a grin.

The steward’s face twisted with rage; he brandished the wand again in Shook’s direction, opening his mouth to speak.

A boom from outside was accompanied by a burst of colored light, briefly illuminating the thin paper shades covering the windows.

Everyone twitched, turning in unison to look. Seconds later there came another such sound, then a third, each accompanied by a bright flash.

“Fireworks,” the steward said, relaxing, then curled his lip in a disdainful expression. Shook was starting to wonder if he had any different ones; whether angry or amused, he looked smug. Worst kind of man. “That fool Vandro has truly spared no expense for his ridiculous party. Too bad you are missing it,” he added to Shook, again with a sneering smile.

“Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?” Shook grated. “How long’s it take? Gimme an estimate so I can plan my evening.”

The steward scowled again as if on command. Smug, predictable, and clearly not all that bright. Really, the worst kind of man. He must have industriously licked every boot in the province to have gained such a position of authority.

He raised the wand again, and again twitched and stopped at a bright explosion from outside, this one much closer. The steward snorted disdainfully, opened his mouth speak again—doubtless to deliver another of his self-congratulatory tirades, but froze completely as a very peculiar whistling noise from outside grew rapidly louder.

This time, the explosion was deafening, the flash brilliant even through the shades, and the very ground shook with it.

“What in hell’s name—that hit the ground!” squawked the steward. “Our grounds! What is going—” At a second sharp whistle, he yelped and covered his head with his arms.

This time, the whole world blew up.

Shook’s next conscious thought was annoyed resignation at how this night was turning out. One way or another, it seemed he wasn’t getting out of here without suffering a string of undignified injuries.

Smoke, yelling, running feet, the crashing of falling mortar… He opened his eyes, blinking a few times before he could make sense of a perplexing blend of darkness and light. A corner of the shed had collapsed; its edges were blackened, crumbling, and in a few places actually on fire. Booms and flashes were almost constant now, framed in the ragged gap in the walls. People were running away, which was quite sensible. He wished he could join them.

Then hands grabbed him from behind, hauling him painfully upright. Reflexively, he twisted, trying to kick backward.

“Stop fighting!” Saduko snapped. “They will not be distracted forever. We must escape now!”

“We?!” he snarled, kicking at her again and twisting out of her grip. “You led me into this trap!”

“Then why would I help you flee?” she shot back, producing a knife from her belt. Shook shied backward; she moved with him. “We don’t have time for this, Shook. Turn back around so I can free your hands.”

“Why? Why should I trust you?” he snarled. “That asshole knew you. He said you were the one who arranged all this. Why would he lie?”

“I don’t believe he did lie,” she said grimly. “I believe he thought I was his contact. And he ran away but was not harmed, which means he will be back with more guards any moment. Turn around!”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Aiya, you great fool! Can you not see? You are collateral damage here! The point was not to catch you, it was to make it seem I turned you in, you and Vandro and all the others. You are not betrayed, Shook! I am! Now for the last time, turn around! If you will not let me free you, I will leave you here!”

Shook stared at her dumbly for a moment. A fresh round of yells from the grounds outside jogged him back to life, and he silently did as she asked, tensing as his hands were grasped from behind. But she simply began sawing at the ropes; the knife went nowhere near his own skin.

The fireworks were still banging and flashing above, uncomfortably close, but no more hit the grounds themselves. He didn’t bother to worry about it. There wasn’t a thing he could do about them either way, and he had more pressing concerns.

Her explanation made sense. It was the only thing that did, really. So this whole trap wasn’t aimed at him, the renegade thief with a price on his head, but at the irrelevant foreign woman he was working with. That bothered him more than it should.

His bonds parted with a final snap and he whirled back to face her. “Thanks.”

Saduko nodded curtly. “We must return to Vandro.”

“Right.” He brushed past her. The collapsed corner of the shed led into the walled grounds; luckily the damage inflicted on the building hadn’t bent it enough that the opposite door was stuck. Shook pulled it open and peeked out. The outer grounds looked incongruously festive with their decorative fairy lights, lit by colorful flashes from above. He could already see the lack of guards on their patrols; they must have rushed inward to respond to the fire. Why had none come to the shed? Well, whatever, he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Looks like the coast is clear. Follow me. We’re not gonna take a straight route back; someone’s clearly after us, and I don’t wanna step into another trap.”

“Sensible,” she said, following him outside. He had just moved beyond the trees shielding the gardener’s door from the street when she gasped.

Turning to find the problem, Shook beheld one of Om’ponole’s guards, trussed like a pig at the base of the tree stand. He was glaring up at them, wriggling fruitlessly and making muffled noises around a gag.

Apparently at least one guard had run for the shed.

They weren’t alone.

“Shit fire,” he growled. Of all the times for his pet demon to be elsewhere. He could really use some more backup right about now. “Speed above stealth, but keep your eyes peeled. We’ve got company. The clever kind.”

His legs were sore and stiff, both from kneeling and likely from whatever that weapon had done to him, but even so it felt good to get moving again. The stiffness began to work itself out almost immediately; he gathered speed as he went, till he was pelting downhill toward the street, not pausing till he was across it in the inadequate shadow of another estate’s outer fence. Saduko came dashing up behind him, her shorter legs not matching his stride. She seemed to be in good shape, though. Wasn’t gasping, and even had enough spare breath to mutter imprecations in Sifanese.

Shook gave her just enough time to get abreast of him before taking off again, leading them one street back toward Vandro’s estate, which was on the opposite side of the city, then moving a block upward. Damn this fancy-ass neighborhood and its lack of cover… He quickly adjusted his tactics, moving back toward the center of Onkawa as quickly and directly as possible. Once into the warren of buildings and alleys he could start doubling back and zigzagging; trying to throw off pursuit out in the open would be fruitless.

Of course, the same maze of urban blind corners that could provide them with cover also offered a thousand potential ambushes, and it was a safe bet that whoever was stalking them knew this city a lot better than he.

“Slow…down,” Saduko panted, apparently having finally reached the limits of her endurance. Shook paused, giving her a critical look over his shoulder. She wasn’t quite doubled over, but leaned against a wall, gasping. In shape or no, he had to remember she was some kind of scholar, not someone accustomed to running around through alleys.

“We don’t have time,” he said curtly. “No telling who’s after us, but they were close enough to intercept that guard back at the palace. Probably have eyes on us right now.”

“Then running will only lead to a trap!” she said, straightening and glaring up at him. “Pause a moment; we must think. Give me time to work. I have equipment with me to distract and confuse pursuers.”

“Take half a minute,” he said, peering around warily. They had made it to a commercial district bordering the residential park, now dark and unoccupied. Wide open street, but lots of alleys emerging into it, not to mention shuttered fruit stands, deep shop doorways… This place was just lousy with cover. He couldn’t see anyone nearby, which meant exactly nothing.

Saduko was already busy fiddling with her devices; she had pulled out a whole handful of those little brass spider-star things. “This is the fastest plan; I regret that we do not have time to be careful. Get your knife; a cut on each of our hands to smear blood across several of these, and we can send decoys in all directions. They will not know who to follow.”

“Okay, that’s a pretty good plan,” he said grudgingly, reaching into his coat for his utility knife. He discovered that the Om’ponole’s steward and guards hadn’t even confiscated his wands. What a bunch of amateurs.

“It is indeed a good plan,” said a new voice from directly above. “You can drop it, though, Gimmick. We have this in hand now.”

Shook fumbled his knife, dropped it, and didn’t bother to lunge for it. Instead he closed his hand around the butt of the wand holstered under his arm.

“Ah, ah, ah, Thumper, let’s not go and do anything unwise. Remove that hand from your coat, very slowly, very empty. There’s a good boy.”

A man loomed at the edge of a building above, silhouetted against the moonlight above. The fireworks were finally trailing off, but brief flashes still illuminated him; far away as he was, Shook couldn’t make out any details, and the effect was annoyingly dramatic. He gave the speaker only a moment’s attention, though, being far more concerned with the eight figures that had melted out of as many nearby hiding spots, approaching them slowly. Every one had a wand out, pointed at him.

At him alone, not at Saduko.

Belatedly, he processed the fact that she had just been addressed by what was unmistakeably a Guild tag.

Shook slowly removed his hand from his coat, as directed, and raised both in the air, turning his glare back on Saduko.

“Bitch, I have absolutely no idea how, but on my father’s soul, I will pay you back for this.”

She just looked at him in silence. Her expression was shocked, confused, as if she were just as taken aback by this development as he. He wondered why she still bothered.

Unless…

No. This was a simple job; it had been foiled by simple betrayal. How many layers to this mess could there possibly be?


 

The crowd oohed and aahed satisfyingly at the fireworks display.

“Good man, Trigger,” Vandro murmured, swirling his cocktail in one hand. He had climbed through the house to one of the balconies overlooking the grounds when the lights in the sky started, seeking a moment of privacy to confer with his Butler, who he knew would find him swiftly. The party had progressed to the point that it was hard to find a shady spot not already occupied in the gardens themselves. Gratifying, in his role as host, but currently inconvenient.

As expected, Wilberforce materialized from the hallway, clearing his throat diffidently to announce his approach.

“Bless that meddling elf,” Vandro commented. “I’d been all set to explain away the shape-shifted succubus at the party if Tellwyrn happened across her, and did my best to plan things so it wouldn’t happen. And then my plans went to shit, which is the only reason we have any warning that something’s gone wrong.”

“Yes, sir,” the Butler said calmly. “The diversion appears to have been a success. Two explosives have ‘accidentally’ struck the Om’ponole estate. From a vantage on the villa’s roof, I discerned that one impacted within the interior grounds, and the other has damaged the wall gatehouse which was to provide Master Shook and Saduko-san’s point of entry.”

Vandro sucked in a breath and let it out through his teeth. “Watch your ass, Jerry,” he muttered, then spoke more loudly. “Whatever the hell that demon is up to, Jerry’s got the reliquary rigged so that if he dies, she goes back in it and stays there. She’ll be very careful to protect him from mortal danger. I hope we didn’t just accidentally make it all moot.”

“Master Shook is resourceful and a consummate professional,” said Wilberforce, folding his hands behind himself. “As is Saduko-san. I believe some confidence in their abilities is appropriate.”

“Quite right, Wilberforce, quite right.”

“I fear the news is not all good, sir.”

Vandro grunted. “What the hell now?”

“The interior security system has been brought up as you ordered, but parts of it have malfunctioned.”

Vandro turned to face him. “…parts?”

“Specifically,” Wilberforce said grimly, “the new features designed to detect demonic activity. In fact, the original system, while carefully left intact enough to avoid drawing attention, appears to have been altered. I judge that the purpose of this was to widen that blind spot. We are effectively blind to infernal movement on the estate at the moment.”

Vandro narrowed his eyes. “That thing is supposed to be voice-locked. Only you or I should be able to alter its settings.”

“Yes, sir. Or someone able to flawlessly mimic us.”

“Well.” He shook his head, chuckling wryly. “Well, well, well. It’s not as if we didn’t know she could do that. Wilberforce, old friend, I do believe we’re getting senile.”

“Indeed, sir,” Wilberforce said impassively. “Perhaps we should retire to someplace sunny, like Onkawa. We could buy a villa.”

Vandro’s laughter boomed out over the balcony, joining the sounds of merriment from below. “All right, all right, point taken. So, let’s deal with the here and now. The bitch has apparently gone to some effort to make sure we can’t spot her moving on the grounds, so… It stands to reason she’s still here.”

“Unless the point of this maneuver was to create that impression specifically so she could move elsewhere while we fruitlessly combed the estate for her.”

Vandro was shaking his head before the Butler finished speaking. “You’ll drive yourself mad playing that game. Anyhow, we don’t have a reliable way of hunting her down in the city at large anyhow; she can fly. No, best to assume she blinded us for a reason. She’s still here, Wilberforce, and whatever she’s doing, it’s not done.”

“As you say, sir.”

Vandro frowned in thought, taking a sip of his cocktail. “…we have plenty of power crystals in storage, correct?”

“Yes, sir, of all sizes. I ensure our stock is adequate to resupply every magical appliance on the estate. We could, in theory, reactivate every device present were they all to spontaneously burn out.”

“Good, good… Excellent. And how many are rune-capped and attuned to the network?”

“Nearly all, sir,” Wilberforce said slowly. “All except the smaller units which were part of our weekly supply shipment; with the party preparations, I regret that I have not had time to attend to all my normal maintenance tasks.”

“Well, nearly all should be enough. I want you to go activate them.”

“…activate them, sir?”

Vandro grinned broadly. “We have to face the prospect that our own security system can be used against us, Wilberforce. Scryers, golems, and all. Yes, activate them, every last one. You keep the master control runes on your person at all times?”

“Of course, sir.”

“And your access hasn’t been tampered with?”

“It has not. I have been using the runes as normal all evening.”

“Good. Activate all the surplus power crystals, and be ready to bring the whole grid up to full power when I give the order.”

“I…see. Yes, sir.”

“To be on the safe side,” Vandro added thoughtfully, “and to minimize collateral damage, take time to disconnect as many extra systems as you can. Whatever’s not absolutely needed to keep the place running.”

“Sir…the grounds are fully lit and active for this very extravagant party. Virtually all enchanted devices on the estate are actively in use at the moment.”

“I see.” Vandro sighed heavily. “Well, then, let’s hope Kheshiri doesn’t force my hand. Otherwise, this is gonna get very expensive.”

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5 – 24

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“How certain are you of this?” Zanzayed asked, his previous jocularity entirely gone.

“Let me be clear, I am not involved in this,” said Tellwyrn, folding her arms. “I offered to pass the message on to you, which I have now done. I’m out. But to answer your question, I have only the accusation from one source. The source in question has no reason to deceive me and in my estimation is too intelligent to antagonize me and you by making such a claim falsely. But yes, I’d suggest you do a little independent confirmation before taking action. Or not. Whatever, your problem, not mine.”

Zanzayed frowned, rubbing his chin with a thumb. “You said this was an Eserite priest?”

“Yeah. Their former Boss, actually. Currently a Bishop in the Universal Church.”

“Bollocks,” he said feelingly. “You’re right, Eserites don’t stir up this kind of trouble just for shiggles. I can see one trying to con a dragon—they’ve done it before—but one with that kind of rank is too invested in the status quo. Well, well, I must say I wouldn’t have expected this of Khadizroth. He’s always had a bug under his tail about the growth of human power, but this kind of thing is… It’s so sleazy, not like him at all. He’s either decided the situation is truly desperate or is actually getting to be fun in his old age. I’m going to assume the former. Am I boring you, Arachne?” he added dryly.

Tellwyrn was staring fixedly across the garden, frowning. “You see that guy?”

“You’re going to have to be vastly more specific, darling. This is a party.”

“That oily-looking fellow. His name is Shook, but what the hell is going on with his aura? It’s like he’s…”

She trailed off, but Zanzayed followed her gaze, frowning. “I see what you mean. I’m pretty sure that’s not a human. Was he always like that?”

“No,” she said curtly, and set off across the garden at a sharp pace.

“Good thing you’re not getting involved,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, gliding along behind her. “I know how much you hate that.”

The crowd parted for them as if they were surrounded by a swarm of foul-smelling wasps. Only Shook himself seemed to show no interest in their approach; he was wandering aimlessly around the periphery of the garden, his expression wooden. As the elf neared, dragon right behind her, he turned a corner around a hedge into one of the darkened areas Vandro had left. Tellwyrn picked up her pace, whipping around the blind corner right behind him. She reached out to grab Shook’s shoulder, not bothering to speak.

Her hand passed right through it.

Tellwyrn paused to give Zanzayed a significant look; Shook was already moving on, seeming not to have noticed her. She reached out again, this time with only a fingertip, and lightly touched the back of his head.

There came an electrical snap, a shower of sparks, and Shook dissolved. A selection of enchanting components clattered to the ground, burned out and several of them still sparking, overloaded by all the raw energy Tellwyrn had just pumped into the system.

“Well, how about that,” Zanzayed mused, bending to pick up one particular object. It was a small glass jar, connected via wires to a golem logic controller, in which sat a preserved piece of unidentifiable flesh.

A gasp sounded from behind them.

Tellwyrn and Zanzayed turned to behold a serving girl, clutching an empty tray to her chest as if to hide behind it. “D—d—did— You killed him!” she spluttered.

“Yes, that’s right,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “I have just transfigured this intangible, unresponsive person into a collection of enchanting components that would create a moving, self-sustained illusion of him.”

The girl let out a shriek, turned and pelted off into the crowd. “Help! They’re murdering the guests!”

“You were asking me why I became an educator?” Tellwyrn said, turning to Zanzayed. “It’s because the world is full of morons.”


 

“He was considered the last member of the Thieves’ Guild to be thwarted by an actual adventuring party,” said Fauna, “so that’s why we date the end of the Age of Adventures from Vipertail’s death.”

“It wasn’t even his fault, really, just bad luck,” Flora continued. “He tried to run the Gray Prince on some guy, little knowing that the mark was in a questing party with an elf. Fellow was all excited about the opportunity, went back to tell his teammates, and… Well, there you go.”

“For some reason,” said Gabriel, “the more you explain, the less I understand.”

He was the only person in the common room even trying to engage with them. The inn, like most of Lor’naris this evening, was all but silent; in addition to the two Guild apprentices, only Gabriel, Toby and Trissiny were present, with two Silver Legionnaires flanking the door. The soldiers had made it clear they were on duty; they weren’t unfriendly, and even seemed to be listening to the elves’ story, but had rejected all attempts at conversation. Toby was sitting hunched over a table on which sat a cooling, untouched pot of tea, which the students had ordered mostly out of pity for the innkeeper, who’d done no business at all that day. Trissiny paced up and down in front of the hearth, frowning into the distance. Flora and Fauna seemed to be trying to lift the mood, but were making little headway.

“The Gray Prince is one of the standard cons,” Fauna explained. “You slather on some makeup and a pair of prosthetic ears—this pretty much has to be a human or half-elf to work—and spin your mark a story about how you’re a half-elf, half-drow who’s suffered all manner of persecution because of your heritage, yadda yadda…”

“Then,” Flora continued, “a spiel about your hidden wealth in drow plunder that you want to get out of the Underworld to start a new life here in human lands, but are blocked because all the drow hate you so much and need the mark’s help to retrieve it.”

“From there, you can go a couple of different ways. The easiest is just a scheme where they invest in an operation to fetch back your ancestral treasure…”

“…or, if you’re brazen and the mark is particularly dense, you can work it out as an elaborate banking deal and get access to their accounts.”

“Sounds…scarily effective,” Gabe mused. “I could see myself falling for that; lucky for me I don’t have any money. How come the guy being in a party with an elf threw it off?”

“Because there are no such things as gray elves,” said Fauna with a grin.

He frowned. “What? I’ve seen a bunch of gray elves in the last week. They’re all over this district.”

“You mean the little ones?” Flora chuckled. “Those are half-elves. Drow/human hybrids. No, drow and surface elves can interbreed, but the result will always be one or the other. One parent’s genes predominate.”

“Elves, of course, know this,” said Fauna. “Most humans do not. Thus, you don’t try to run the Gray Prince anywhere in the hearing of any kind of elf.”

“I see how brazenness could be an asset,” Trissiny said sharply. “It takes some to discuss crime right in front of two paladins and two Legionnaires.”

“Hey, we didn’t say we had ever done this,” said Flora.

“Nor would,” Fauna added piously.

“Anyway, you’re not wrong. The Gray Prince is an ignoble con.”

“As opposed to what?” Trissiny demanded.

“The distinction might be over your head,” said Fauna, “but it’s important to us. Ignoble cons punish the mark for being greedy; they’re less commonly used and only against people who we have already established are in need of a comeuppance.”

“Noble cons,” Flora went on, “punish the mark for being greedy and dishonest. The setup involves creating the illusion that the mark is able to put one over on the thief. A mark who’s honest avoids the trap.”

“So you only steal from the immoral?” Trissiny snorted expressively.

“Well,” Fauna said with a grin, “these are the spiritual principles of our cult. Some Eserites are less devout than others.”

“Converting the heathens, are we?” Bishop Darling asked, striding in from the kitchen. “That’s a great use of your time.”

Both elves shot to their feet.

“Just trying to keep morale up, Sweet,” said Flora. “Everyone’s in kind of a funk, things being as they are.”

“Not much else we can do, and the gang here needs all the support they can get,” added Fauna.

“Well, that’s very helpful of you,” said Darling sardonically. “Though I can see we’ll need to revisit your situational acting lessons, since you would not be spouting excuses if you thought I’d be pleased to find you here. Stonefoot is on the roof opposite this building coordinating the Guild agents in the area. Report to him and find out where he needs extra pairs of eyes.”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused glumly, filing past him and out through the kitchen.

Darling turned to Trissiny; his expression did not grow more cheerful. “A word with you in private, Avelea?”

“I’m keeping an eye on the situation here,” she said, stopping her pacing. “Reports are—”

“Now!” he barked, turning and stalking back into the kitchen himself.

Trissiny stared after him, thinking seriously about ignoring the command, then shook her head. “Come get me if anything develops,” she ordered the two Legionnaires, both of whom saluted.

The elves were already gone from the kitchen when she entered; Darling shut the door to the common room behind her, then crossed to the one opposite, which opened onto a side alley, and stuck his head out.

“Get moving!” he shouted. There came a faint scuffling from outside, and he pulled back in, shaking his head as he shut that door too. He crossed to the center of the room and set a small bell-shaped object down on the table there, depressing a tiny plunger in its top. Immediately, the faint buzz of arcane magic at work lifted the hairs along Trissiny’s arms, and a tiny, shrill whine sounded at the uppermost edges of her hearing. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, but unobtrusive enough not to be distracting.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Cone of silence,” he replied, crossing back over to her. “Latest thing out of Imperial Intelligence. Now even an elf won’t be able to overhear what’s said in this room.”

“I see,” she said crisply, then straightened her shoulders. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the additional Legionnaires patrolling this district.”

“Oh, I noticed,” he said darkly.

“My hope is that their presence will be a deterrent. We’ve received intelligence that some third party is attempting to rile both the locals and the soldiers of Barracks Four; my classmates are out attempting to soothe the Lorisians, and should the soldiers attempt anything, the sight of the Third present in force—”

“Trissiny!” he shouted, seizing her abruptly by the shoulders. She was so startled by this that she allowed it to happen, even when he began punctuating his words by bodily shaking her. “For the love of all that is holy in this world, will you please! Stop! Helping!”

“Excuse me?” she demanded, stepping backward out of his grip.

“You cannot bluff someone who can see your cards!” he exclaimed. “The Silver Legions have absolutely no legal authority to interfere with the civil guard, and the guards know this. The Legionnaires are out there, standing around looking intimidating, and they will have to keep doing so while they passively watch whatever happens tonight. Even if you did order them to intervene, their officers would refuse point-blank, as Legion policy dictates. What you have done is engineered a situation where, on top of everything else going on here, either the Silver Legions or just you are going to look impotent and foolish.”

“I—but—that—”

“I’ve managed to get a firsthand account of your first involvement in this,” he pressed on relentlessly. “The Lorisian watch was calmly talking down an aggressive patrol of soldiers as usual, until you stepped in, got confrontational with the troops and forced their hand.”

“I—”

“Every step of the way, you have charged right at the enemy directly in front of you, not considering how your actions would affect the rest of the situation! You set Panissar onto Barracks Four, you involved the Silver Legions twice, you intercepted every incursion by the guard, you had the barracks robbed, and now you’ve entrenched every party in this conflict such that none of them can afford to back down! And you know what? Some of those were exactly the right action. The problem is that you have no real way of knowing which, because all you’ve done this whole time is rush in headlong and act.”

“But—but—”

“It is inconceivable that I have to explain this to you, Trissiny, but the Age of Adventures is over. Look around you! Telescrolls, Rail lines, printing presses, scrying orbs. Do you know what all of these things are? They are connections. They tie everyone in the Empire closer together than we have ever been before. Every action anywhere has wide-reaching effects all up and down this web of connectedness. You cannot rush around swinging your sword! Everything you do resonates far beyond you. Not once have you considered this, you just up and do things! Damn it, girl, stop and think!”

He stared down at her. Trissiny gaped back, unable to form a reply to that tirade. Finally, she lowered her gaze, stepping over to the table and sat down on the edge of it, staring at the wall.

“I guess,” she said quietly, “you think I should be more like… Like my mother.”

Darling was silent for a moment, then sighed. “Your mother would have analyzed the situation from all angles, determined exactly what she needed to accomplish, formed a plan and acted carefully to achieve her ends without causing messy splash effects. Yes, you should’ve done that.”

Trissiny gritted her teeth, swallowing down a sudden lump in her throat. She desperately wanted to shout back at him, to rail against his whole Eserite view of the world. But in that moment, after hearing him lay bare her blunders over the past week, she couldn’t think of anything that would refute his point.

The table shifted as Darling sat down next to her. “But your mother,” he said more gently, “would never have tried to help a bunch of people who had nothing to offer her.”

She gulped again. “So… You know about…”

“She sent us a letter, yeah. After that debacle she caused in Last Rock, and immediately before vanishing off the face of the earth. Don’t worry about Prin, I’m sure she’s sipping cocktails on a beach on the opposite side of the planet, waiting for everything to settle down. She’ll turn up again when it suits her. No, Trissiny, I think you should try to be more like you.”

Trissiny looked up at him, confused.

“Avei didn’t pick you on a whim,” he said. “You are something new for a paladin. Elf and human, which gives you less strength but a greater aptitude for magic—quite a departure from historical Hands of Avei. You are the daughter of one of the world’s most duplicitous thieves, but brought up in the starkest traditions of the Sisterhood. You’re both things, Trissiny. It seems like you’ve spent your life trying your hardest only to be one. The other half of your heritage isn’t a disgrace or a weakness. It represents potential for the kind of skills that Avei will need in this new world: craft, magic, cleverness.”

He stopped, heaved a sigh, then hopped up, coming around to stand in front of her again. “All of which is a matter for another day. Right now, here’s what’s going to happen. Multiple powers are at work to fix this mess: the Imperial Army will be carefully cycling out the roster at Barracks Four to mix up the troops there, but not all at once. This will break up the anti-drow clique, what’s left of it after your rampage. Ambassador Shariss will be leaning on the community organizers here in Lor’naris, I and the Boss of the Guild will be leaning on our people to back down and accept the justice of the law as sufficient punishment for the men who attacked Peepers, the Church and several other cults are on the move to quell the disruptive individuals who keep inciting trouble. All of this will be done quietly, in private, so that all parties will be able to save face and back down without looking weak. Over the next few weeks, soldier involvement in Lor’naris will be increased, but the troops will be carefully supervised and put to positive use, to get them and the Lorisians used to each other, and encourage them to start thinking fondly of each other. There’s a lot of work still to be done in this district, and the Army has plenty of manpower to see to it. Someone is still stirring things up behind the scenes, but ferreting them out will have to wait till the immediate crisis is passed. We just have to somehow survive the night without a civil insurrection starting.”

“Okay,” she said meekly. “I guess… You don’t need me for any of that. I can just keep my head down, then.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” he said grimly. “We need to find a way for you to save face, too.”

Trissiny looked up at him, blinking. “Me?”

“Far too many hopes are pinned on you. The first public act of the new Hand of Avei cannot be to botch a simple civic negotiation and start a riot. Likewise, you don’t get to scurry off with your tail between your legs. I have a few ideas in that direction, but as I said, the more urgent problem—”

As if on cue, there came a rap on the door to the common room, and a Legionnare pushed it open, sticking her head in. “General? We’ve got movement in the street. Looks like almost the full company of Barracks Four have just marched into the district. The locals are mustering to meet them. An awful lot of them are armed.”

Darling sighed. “And here we go.”


 

“Now, Zanzayed, what’s this I hear about you slaughtering my houseguests?” Vandro asked genially, strolling up to the dragon. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of your fun—it is a party, after all—but a fellow could take this as a comment on his catering. Are the shrimp so unsatisfactory you have to start in on the company?”

“Actually, you’d need to speak to Arachne about that,” the dragon said cheerfully. “And it wasn’t a guest, but some kind of golem with an illusion spell attached.”

“Oh, really?” Vandro peered at the jar currently being bounced in Zanzayed’s hand, still trailing scorched wires. “And where is the lady, by the way?”

“Oh, she took off,” Zanzayed said dismissively. “Grumping and griping about all this being somebody else’s problem. You know Arachne, eager to stick her nose in until it looks like something needs to be cleaned up. Here’s a funny thing, though; off all the ways a person could set up an illusion spell, this has got to be one of the nastiest. This is a scrap of flesh from an incubus or succubus.”

“It’s a what now?”

“They’re powerful shapeshifters and illusionists, you see, which means they’re basically made of spell components for glamour, if you know enough demonology to make it work. Looks pretty fresh, too. Somebody summoned a child of Vanislaas, killed the poor bitch or bastard and carved it up for reagents, then set at least one in a golem and turned it loose in your party.”

“You wanna know the funny thing?” Vandro said mildly. “That’s not even the most disturbing thing I’ve heard this evening.”

“And this is why I like coming here. You throw the best parties, Alan.”

“Welp, that’s my epitaph taken care of, in case you get a bit more peckish than the caterers can handle. You mind if I…?”

“Sure, all yours,” the dragon said lightly, tossing him the jar. “Anyway! I have been kept from the bacon-wrapped shrimp for far too long. A reckoning is at hand!”

He swaggered off in the direction of a buffet table, scattering guests as he went.

“All right, folks, nobody’s being murdered,” Vandro said genially. “Just a couple of inquisitive magic-users messing up somebody’s idea of a prank. The real problem is none of us are drunk enough yet to find this as funny as we should. Wilberforce! Break out another couple of barrels, this crowd needs lubrication!”

He circulated carefully for a few minutes more, soothing worries and bolstering the mood, before working his way over to another quiet corner where his Butler waited for him.

“We’ve got a problem,” Vandro murmured. “That demon has gone off script. If these golem things are doing her job in the plan, there’s no telling where she is, or doing what. Are Jerry and Saduko gone?”

“They have been for some time, sir,” said Wilberforce. “Assuming they moved according to the timetable, they are well out of reach by now. Even in the carriage it is doubtful we could intercept them before they reach Chief Om’ponole’s estate.”

“Shit,” Vandro said feelingly. “All right…I guess that’s that, then. Whatever the hell Kheshiri is up to, I’ll have to trust Jerry’s still got his knack for improvising under pressure. I know my boy, he’ll pull through. Still…” He scowled, clutching his omnipresent cocktail hard enough to whiten his knuckles. “Put the security system on high alert. No alarms, don’t disturb the guests, but I want the golems active and on standby, and the full scrying network running. Especially the infernal sensors we just added. Find that damn succubus and get a collar on her before she does any more of whatever the hell she thinks she’s doing.”

“Yes, sir. And if I may make a suggestion?”

“Always, Wilbeforce.”

“We may be unable to reach Master Shook and Saduko-san directly, but they are not beyond your considerable reach in this city. A distraction at the Om’ponole estate may still be arranged; such will surely aid them if they are in distress, and even prove useful should the plan still be in place.” He coughed discreetly. “Master Trigger still owes you several favors, and I can reach his shop immediately via magic mirror.”

“Excellent,” Vandro said feelingly. “You’re a godsend, Wilberforce. Get it done, quickly and quietly.”

“Immediately, sir,” the Butler said, backing up and bowing. He turned and strode off into the depths of the house.

Vandro drew in a deep, calming breath, had a sip of his drink, then strolled off to hobnob some more, smiling broadly.

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5 – 22

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The garden was lit up like a dream from a fairy tale, and Shook wasn’t appreciating any of it. Floating lamps drifted about, some trailing intangible sparkles, trays of food hovered aimlessly through the crowd in lieu of waiters, submerged lights gleamed in the pool, soft but cheerful music played everywhere, and mysterious little flickers evocative of pixies (but thankfully not the real thing, as evidenced by the lack of destructive elemental invocations) darted among the greenery. The guests certainly seemed to be having a good time. At least, they were eating, drinking and talking to each other. A few were dancing. It was all rather subdued, but then, it was early. A good party got progressively more interesting as everyone got progressively more drunk. He could have resented the fact that he wouldn’t get to participate in that, were he not too tense to enjoy himself anyway.

Kheshiri hovered nearby, watching the guests with avid interest and occasionally dropping broad hints that she would like to circulate, which Shook ignored. They lurked at the edges of the garden, in a relatively shadowed corner—quite a few of those were scattered about, left deliberately out of the network of magical party lights. Vandro, being a thoughtful host, had made sure to provide semi-private canoodling cubbies at convenient intervals. This, too, was wasted on them; Shook held a mostly untouched whiskey in one hand and kept the other hovering near his holstered wand, seeming uninterested in putting his succubus to use.

She was, in her way, as tense as he, though for very different reasons. And unlike Shook, Kheshiri was enjoying the tension.

Shook eased slightly out into the light, noting their host approaching. Vandro moved deftly among the guests, navigating social currents like a salmon swimming up a river; Kheshiri had to admire his skill. He nodded, smiled, laughed, told jokes, putting just enough sincerity into each interaction to place his targets at ease, but not allowing himself to be slowed. Engaging without being engaged, leaving no resentments in his wake. For a moment, she considered longingly what might have happened had Vandro come into possession of her reliquary rather than a meathead like Shook. She might have been content to stick around longer, in that case; the fun they could have.

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro said more quietly, coming abreast of them. “We may have a problem.”

Shook’s tension increased all but imperceptibly. “How big a problem?”

“Not sure, yet. The plan can’t go forward without access to Om’ponole’s estate, which is Kamari’s job.” He glanced idly about, looking completely nonchalant, but verifying that no one was within earshot—and that no one within eyeshot have pointed ears. “He was supposed to send a message via courier with countercharms and shield frequencies for Saduko to get you inside the gates; they’re changed daily. That never showed.”

“Well, if we can’t get in…” Shook let his statement trail off.

“Anything might have happened,” said Vandro. “Not all of the possibilities kill the plan, and I’m not willing to waste this much preparatory work if we can help it. I need to borrow your girl, here.”

“Wanna work off a little stress?” Kheshiri asked flirtatiously. Shook shot her a glare.

“Down, girl,” Vandro said, amused. “I need you to do some scouting. It’s a while yet before we’ll have to move, but time is tight; you can get across the city fast enough on those wings, and you can get close enough to get some intel with your other gifts. If Kamari was caught, it’s all over, but if he was just delayed or unable to send a message, you can get the codes from him and we can proceed.”

“How’s she supposed to get in, if we don’t have those codes already?” Shook demanded.

“There’s nothing shielding the estate from directly above,” said Vandro, grinning. “I checked.”

“Also nothing shielding this estate from above,” Kheshiri noted.

“Yeah, and don’t think I won’t be correcting that first chance I get.”

Shook nodded. “All right, sounds like time’s of the essence. Get going, girl. And be careful.”

He gave her a pat on the butt that was half affectionate and half shove to get her moving. She tittered and grinned at him, but set off through the crowd as commanded.

She was just one more festively-dressed girl, hardly worthy of note. More people were coming than going, this early in the evening, but there was enough back-and-forth at the gates that her departure wasn’t attention-getting, either. Kheshiri slipped outside, strolled casually around a corner, and faded into invisibility as soon as she was hidden from view of the street between a bush and the outer wall of Vandro’s estate.

She patted the pocket in which was hidden Kamari’s missive, which she had intercepted earlier in the day. That had been her only opportunity to get out during the last-minute preparations, and her plans required some careful timing—the first step was now, and Vandro, predictably, was clever enough to see the solution she offered to the problem he didn’t know she’d created. Much better than dealing with Shook, to whom she often had to propose maneuvers while letting him think they were his own ideas. That was usually just the kind of challenge she enjoyed; it was mostly just annoying, now, as many times as he’d made her do it. Variety was the spice of life.

A pump of her wings sent her invisibly skyward; deftly navigating the winds, she followed the pattern of streets she’d memorized days ago, going nowhere near the Om’ponole estate. Following Amanika directly had been out of the question, as she wasn’t quite willing to trust her new enchantments to hide her demonic aura from the priestess’s senses. Luckily, Vandro had dealings with other members of the Thieves’ Guild; identifying them among his rotating roster of houseguests had been the only tricky part. From there, learning the location of their headquarters in Onkawa had been simplicity itself.

She set down in another darkened alley, double checked that it was empty, then faded back into view, adjusting her features as she did. When Kheshiri stepped out into the street and began walking toward the dilapidated drug den under which lurked the local Guild chapter, she wore the appearance and mannerisms of the Sifanese Eserite, Saduko.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” she murmured to herself, passing a few huddled tramps in various states of inebriation—most genuine druggies, several definitely Guild lookouts. “A succubus, an archmage, a dragon and a whole bunch of thieves walk into a party, and only one walks out happy.”

She didn’t permit herself to giggle; that would have been out of character. Besides, Saduko’s mysterious little smile suited her mood just fine.


Tellwyrn stood on the balcony, watching over the party like a gargoyle and feeling about as festive. She had refused offers from the servants of food, drink and entertainment, and met the tentative suggestion that she might enjoy socializing with the other guests with a chilling stare that had warded off any further overtures. Standing still in one spot while close to a hundred people immediately below enjoyed themselves wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time, but a good time was not what she’d come here to find. In three millennia of life, she had learned plenty of patience, for all that she didn’t usually care to exercise it. Anyway, this was far from the most uncomfortable vigil she had ever kept.

A stir began at the gates, and she zeroed in on it. This balcony wasn’t positioned to give her a clear view; a whole stand of ornamental palm trees thrusting out of an island in Vandro’s ridiculous little garden pool obstructed the details. However, around the periphery, she could clearly see people edging away from whoever (or whatever) had just walked into the grounds. The crowd rippled, looking from above exactly like a pool in which something had been dropped. She could hear, over the music and the general hubbub, some of the shocked whispers beginning to dart back and forth, including some which contained the all-important word.

Dragon.

A discreet little cough sounded behind her. “Professor Tellwyrn, the guest for whom you were waiting appears to have arrived.”

“Remarkably swift work, Wilberforce,” she said politely, nodding to him. “Thank you very much.”

“Of course, madam.”

With no further ado, she vaulted over the balustrade, dropping to the garden below and causing no small stir herself, which she ignored. Tellwyrn strode forward through the crowd, making a beeline for the gates and disregarding the protests of those she darted around. Pushing people out of the way better suited her temperament, but archmage or no, an elf was still an elf; shoving a bunch of humans would have required magic, which elevated it from rudeness to a misdemeanor. Even bothering to speak to Wilberforce had been more time than she’d wanted to spend, but there was absolutely nothing to be gained from alienating a Butler.

She was antsy to get this dealt with and get back to Tiraas; the gods only knew what those kids were up to. Leaving them unattended had been part of her strategy for the lesson she meant them to learn, otherwise she’d have popped back to check up every two hours. That didn’t make the anticipation any easier to bear.

Tellwyrn darted rudely between a conversing couple, swatted a floating tray of cocktails out of her way (and into the pool), squirmed through tiny gaps in the denser crowd now ringing the gate, and finally stepped forward into the clear space, gaining her first sight in several years of Zanzayed the Blue.

They preferred the shapes of humans or elves—Astratirox the Red walked around as a gnome—but the humanoid form of a dragon was always unmistakeable. There was the aura around them, the indefinable quality of magnetism and majesty, but universal as that was to their kind, it wasn’t conclusive or distinctive; lots of mortals were charismatic. The monochrome hair in improbable colors could have been the result of alchemical dye. No, what truly gave them away was the eyes. Pure, solid expanses of color, devoid of pupils, irises or any features at all, glowing intensely enough to light up a room, yet not so bright that one couldn’t comfortably gaze into them from inches away. Nothing else had eyes like a dragon.

Zanzayed was half-elf in aspect, which was unique among the dragons she’d met; he could have passed for a human in general body shape, albeit a tall and lanky one, but for the subtle points of his ears. His hair and gem-like eyes, of course, were cobalt blue. As usual, he was excruciatingly overdressed, in flowing multilayered robes of blue, silver and white, somewhat akin in style to a Sifanese kimono but far too heavily embroidered and surmounted by an oversized mantle that made his shoulders look absurdly broad for his lean frame. The delicate, jewel-encrusted slippers that peeked out from under his hem were pointed, curling up extravagantly at the tips; he actually had some kind of giant white fluffy thing like a feather boa draped decoratively over one shoulder, wrapped around his waist and trailing behind him. His long blue hair was tied back in a simple tail, but bedecked with white ribbons and bejeweled combs. The overall effect was breathtaking, which had more to do with his draconic aura than his sense of style. He was dressed like a particularly pretentious wedding cake; anyone else in that outfit would have looked idiotic.

“Arachne!” he cried in apparent delight, spreading his arms and striding toward her. Despite her rush to get to him, she stopped, folding her arms and awaiting his approach. Of course, the polite thing would have been to let their host greet such a distinguished guest first. Naturally, she didn’t care about that in the slightest. “Whatever brings you out to this corner of the world?” the dragon asked, coming to a stop before her and grinning. “I must say I was starting to think nothing would coax you down off that mountaintop of yours. Well, in the last decade or so, that is. Before that I was wondering how long it’d be before you lost interest in that whole ‘school’ thing. Really, Arachne, you, an educator? I can’t imagine it.” He reached out to chuck her under the chin.

“Zanzayed,” she said calmly. “You’re at least partially right; this isn’t my scene. In fact, I came here looking for you.”

“Oh, no!” he exclaimed in mock horror, placing a hand—each finger sparkling with rings—against his chest. “Are we going to have one of our celebrated duels? Let’s please don’t; I quite like this villa. It’s so delightfully tacky!”

The muttering among the onlookers had intensified when he spoke her name; at the word “duel,” the crowd began dropping its pretentions and trying in earnest to get away from them.

“I’m so glad you like it!” Alan Vandro boomed, approaching. “See, this is why I enjoy your visits, Zanzayed; you get me. I like to think I’ve started a trend here, and ‘delightfully tacky’ will soon be the go-to style for the rich and tasteless all over the Empire.”

“Inviting Arachne to your little soirees isn’t a solid strategy for living to spread your legend, Vandro,” Zanzayed said, smirking. “She does so love to break things.”

“How do you know that’s not just when you’re around?” Tellwyrn asked dryly.

“I read the history books, darling.”

“Why, you two are just like an old married couple,” Vandro said cheerfully. Around them, the other party guests seemed tentatively to be calming, taking note of the genial mood and Vandro’s presence and clear lack of alarm. “I gather you don’t get many chances to catch up?”

“Indeed, I find I must take every possible opportunity to enjoy Arachne’s company!” the dragon said, stepping up next to Tellwyrn and draping an arm around her shoulders. She raised an eyebrow. “After all, this is the future mother of my children you’re looking at. We have an arrangement.”

“We have a bet,” Tellwyrn corrected firmly, “and you haven’t won.”

“I will, though.”

“You’d better hope not. If it starts to look like you’re going to, I’ll simply kill you.”

“Darling, if you had the capacity to kill me you’d have done it centuries ago.”

“I’ve never tried in earnest, Zanza. I’m willing to risk my life in dealing with you, but not my ass.”

“And yet, we have that bet.” He grinned down at her.

“Because you’re not going to win. In any case, I didn’t come here to discuss that, either. Step inside with me; we need to have a talk.”

Zanzayed sighed dramatically. “Honestly, for such a rambunctious hellraiser you are such a drag sometimes. It’s a party. I just got here. We can discuss business after I’ve hobnobbed a bit and eaten Vandro here out of house and home.”

“Let’s kindly keep that to the metaphorical sense,” said Vandro with an easy grin. “I can’t exactly get a new house catered.”

“I have already spent more time on this than I wanted to,” Tellwyrn snapped.

“What, pray tell, is so very urgent?” Zanzayed asked in an aggrieved tone.

“It’s about Khadizroth.”

The dragon raised an eyebrow. “Oh, honestly, Arachne. What’d you do to him this time?”

“I’ve not been near him in four hundred years. It’s about what he did, and I’m not involved. I am passing on a message because I promised to do so.”

“Well, I haven’t spoken to him in nearly that long, and quite frankly I find him insufferably dull, so whatever—”

“Because,” she pressed on, “what he’s been up to is likely to mean trouble for all of your kind, and you’re the only one I can easily find and who I know will listen to me.”

At that, finally, Zanzayed’s expression sobered. “…all right, against my better judgment, you have my attention. I do hope you’re not planning to spoil my whole party experience, Arachne; Onkawa has been altogether a disappointment and I just don’t think my delicate constitution can take another blow. Vandro, you’d better have those delightful bacon-wrapped shrimp on hand.”

“In fact, I’ve got a reserved tub of them with your name on it!”

“Smashing! Whatever else happens, then, this night won’t be a total loss. Come along, my dear.” Zanzayed wrapped an arm around Tellwyrn’s waist and began leading her toward the main house; they moved effortlessly through a mobile open space, the other guests parting to let them pass like a school of fish making way for two sharks. “Let’s hear what my errant cousin has gotten into that you find so very pressing.”

“Hear that, everyone?” Vandro said genially behind them, grinning around at the onlookers. “Best sample the bacon-wrapped shrimp while there are any left. But for the love of all the gods, don’t eat them all before he gets back!”


Kheshiri caught his eye in passing, heading back for Shook’s corner; it would have looked a little suspicious for her to appropriate Vandro’s personal focus in the middle of the party. Anyway, even with them walking away, she wanted to stay as far as possible from Tellwyrn and that dragon. She had done her fair share of manipulating powerful and dangerous people, enough to know that she could, and also to know when she shouldn’t. Tellwyrn was a classic example of the kind of person to leave alone. Different people reacted in different ways to discovering someone was toying with them; she was prone to torching everything and salting the earth. That went double for dragons.

Shook had scarcely moved in the hour she’d been gone, if at all. He perked up at her approach, which was gratifying, even if his tone was typically curt. “Well?”

“Looks like the party’s back on, master,” she said softly, leaning in close. “You want the full report, or should we wait for Alan?”

He lifted his eyes from hers to glance around. “Mm… Just give it a moment. I’m sure he’ll be along pretty quickly.”

Indeed, Vandro was back within a minute, moving somewhat more quickly than previously. “Shiri, my dear, welcome back!” he said jovially.

She surreptitiously slipped a folded sheet of paper into his breast pocket. “All’s well, boss man. Kamari had it in his room along with an explanatory note; seems he’s in trouble on some trumped-up charge or other and has been on a heavily supervised extra shift all day, couldn’t find a moment to himself to engage a courier. But he apparently figured you’d be able to get someone in to check his things. Smart boy.”

“Smart boy who knows we have a succubus,” Vandro corrected. “See, Jerry? Intimidation value aside, this is why I wanted our partners to know what’s up. No plan survives contact with real circumstances; you can’t adapt on the fly if you don’t know the capabilities of the people you’re working with.”

“Appreciate the lesson, Alan, but I’ll leave you to handle the planning,” Shook said with a tense little smile. “Just point me at whoever’s head needs cracking.”

“Consider yourself pointed, my boy. Move on out; Saduko will meet you at the rendezvous spot in the city. You know the plan. Shiri, you’re up; just wait for them to get gone first. Oh, and Amanika’s at the Guild tonight, speaking of changing plans, so don’t make any appearances with her face.”

“Check and check.” Kheshiri gave him a mock salute.

“Showtime, kids,” Vandro said with a grin of pure delight, then turned and ambled off, calling a greeting to some acquaintance or other.

“All right, you heard him,” Shook said in a low tone. “Get in position. I’ll see you after the job.”

“Good luck, master,” she said, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek.

He smirked and reached behind her to squeeze her bum. “I won’t need it.” With that, he turned and swaggered off in the general direction of the gates.

“Of course not, master,” she said sweetly.

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5 – 21

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“I’d help you if I could, Mr. Caine.” Captain Ravoud folded his hands atop the lowest pile of papers on his desk, staring intently at Toby. The desk was well-covered, stacks of paperwork drifting higher toward the edges, leaving a valley through which the Captain studied his guest. “I’ve made no secret of my sympathies or my feelings about all the drow in that district, but I would much rather avoid…well, all of this. Even if matters were different, I wouldn’t brush off a request from a paladin. Something you might mention to your colleague, so next time she may be more inclined to talk to all parties in a dispute before setting up a Silver Legion blockade.” He sighed heavily, closing his eyes, and leaned back in his chair, dropping his hands into his lap. “Unfortunately, the time to ask me was several days ago, when I still had a shred of control over the situation.”

Toby frowned, shifting in his seat. “These are still your soldiers, Captain. I understand they have a lot of respect for you, personally.”

“Don’t remind me,” Ravoud groaned, finally opening his eyes again. He was a young man for his rank, nowhere near middle age yet, though he had the look of someone who had put on years in the course of days. His eyes and cheeks were hollowed, and though he hadn’t allowed stubble to accumulate on his chin, his regulation-cut hair was ruffled, and his uniform seemed to fit loosely, as though meant for a more well-fed man. He was a portrait of stress. “Anyway, it scarcely matters. My orders and encouragements to keep calm only count for so much with the bloody Guild trying to provoke them at every turn. I’ve got dozens of men to look after, half of them out on patrols at any one time, and not a one trained for this kind of psychological warfare. It’s only a matter of time till one cracks, and not much time at that. Then…” He trailed off, shaking his head.

“We’re doing what we can about that,” said Toby. “I’ve sent messages to the Church and my own cult, and Trissiny is following up with some contacts she has with the Guild. If they can be persuaded to back off…”

Ravoud was shaking his head again before Toby finished. “I’ve contacted the Church; they say they’re looking into it. No help’s coming from that quarter. They have no actual control over individual cults, and even the Archpope’s authority doesn’t go far with the Guild. I’ve contacted ImCom, who shot me down and said as long as the Guild is technically on the right side of the law, we’re not to take any action. What with the mess this barracks has caused lately, anyhow, we’re under investigation and I’m under an injunction not to issue any major orders of any kind to my troops—basically nothing but the standard, day-to-day running of the regiment. I even tried to send a plea to the Guild itself.” He sighed, his expression bitter. “I’m assuming they’re the ones who sent me a sketch of my father asleep in his reading chair. It appeared on my desk during the two minutes I was in the toilet.”

“Holy—” Toby broke off, but Ravoud gave him a look of sour agreement, nodding.

“The Guild toes the line most of the time, but they are nasty when riled up. Purely, gratuitously vicious. Given the option, I think I’d rather have the Black Wreath after me.”

“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” said Toby, “but please don’t lose hope. We are working on it, and hopefully there will be progress within a couple of hours. I realize Trissiny probably isn’t your favorite person right now, but she does have a knack for cleaving through bureaucracy. And it’s not just her, or me. One of our classmates is a member of House Awarrion; she’s doing what she can down at the Narisian embassy.”

Ravoud stared at him in silence for a long moment, swiveling slowly back and forth in his chair. The small, nervous motion seemed oddly childlike. Eventually, just before Toby was going to say something again, he drew in a deep breath and steepled his fingers. “You know why I’ve pursued a career in the Army, Mr. Caine?”

Toby shook his head, keeping his expression open and encouraging.

“My little sister, Alia, was an accountant. A Vernisite—not very devout, but you don’t get far in the financial sector without paying at least lip service to that goddess. And she was—is—pretty. That proved to be her downfall. You see, Mr. Caine, she was part of a trade mission opening channels of exchange in Tar’naris. There, she was entrapped.”

Toby frowned. “Entrapped?”

“Invited by a resident drow working at the embassy to invest in a development project. There was lots of construction going on; it was right after the Narisian Treaty, they were renovating basically the whole city, putting in all the agricultural infrastructure, and there was money flowing back and fourth like rainwater. All of that was common. Alia had the matter checked out by a local solicitor, just because it was in her nature to be careful. Everything was fully aboveboard, so she signed on, devoted a chunk of her savings. What ambitious young financial planner wouldn’t have jumped at such an opportunity? Such things were the reason she went there. A new diplomatic relationship between countries is a frontier, as surely as the edge of the Golden Sea. It attracts a different kind of adventurers, but lots of Imperials were sniffing around Tar’naris then.” He drew in a slow breath through his nose and let it out. “Not so much anymore, because of what happened to Alia, and dozens of others like her.”

“What happened?” Toby asked quietly.

“The investment was a fraud. It was a front for a criminal enterprise. Everyone involved was arrested, charged, convicted… Yeah, I’m sure all that was scrupulously legal. Those deemed responsible were all sold as slaves, which is apparently not unusual under the Narisian caste system. I spent a lot of time prying and sniffing around, and it turns out the exceptions were the ringleaders of the whole operation, the ones who’d set up the criminal activity, because they were members of a powerful House that pulled strings to get them out.” He leaned forward again, fury animating his expression. “It was a trap, Caine, the whole thing. The investments weren’t the point; the crime wasn’t, either. It was a way to snare the rarest and most expensive of luxury goods, of which the elite Tar’naris had been starved for decades: human slaves.

“And this is common. Do you understand that? It’s sufficiently common that the Empire has taken to strongly warning Tiraan citizens to avoid certain kinds of activity if they visit Tar’naris. It’s appointed a whole branch of the embassy there to try to prevent things like this from happening and retrieve entrapped humans when it does—because yes, it still does, and no, they can’t always get our people back. It’s all legal in Tar’naris.”

He gripped the edges of his desk, knuckles whitening. “My family have tried everything. Apparently, Imperial diplomatic personnel who get snared, and sometimes their families, can be pulled out citing some kind of privilege, but accountants aren’t that important. It’s not worth straining our relationship with a valuable ally to rescue our citizens from having been tricked into slavery. It took us months even to get in touch with Alia’s new owner, and they refused to see us. Not interested in doing business. Do you know what they want humans for? Of course you do, everyone does. My baby sister hopefully ended up in some drow noble’s harem, and that is the good option, because it’s at least as likely she was stuck in a brothel.”

“I’m so sorry,” Toby whispered.

“That is what they do,” Ravoud said, glaring at him. “That’s what they are like. They can’t raid us with swords anymore, because we have better weapons now. So they adapted. They are a society of predators who think of the human race as a resource. Am I happy to have a whole district of them here, in Tiraas itself? Bah. They’re so well-mannered, so civil, it’s so very easy to be taken in. I am just waiting to find out what all those drow in Lor’naris are really here for, and now… Well, now it seems I won’t.”

He slumped back into his chair, the outrage seeming to drain from him, leaving the man merely exhausted and mournful. “Something similar happened to Khalivour; it was a girl he’d been courting. It’s usually girls, though they’ll take men, too. He and I were in it for the same reasons: rise through the ranks, become somebody in the Imperial Army. Be important enough to give the order and have our loved ones fetched out of bondage in that nest of darkling depravity. Now he’s dead, and I’m almost certain to lose my command and any hope of future advancement.” A bitter little smile flickered across his features. “You know, it’s almost better this way. If all this had been forced on me by some enemy…I think it would drive me mad. But no, I failed to rein in Khalivour, even though I knew how he was. I let my officers know how I felt and why, let that influence their treatment of the darklings in Lor’naris. Some of this just happened, but I can see where I’ve been responsible. I can still say I am the captain of my own destiny. Even if it means I’ve failed utterly…there’s that.”

He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of brandy, setting it atop a pile of papers. “A gift from my father when I made Captain. Thirty years old. Khalivour and I were going to break it out, one day, when we managed to get Alia and Tamra back. Now… Looks like I’ll be ending the week making toasts to all the lost friends I failed to save.”

He met Toby’s eyes, looking totally drained of life, of hope. “I would help you if I could, Mr. Caine. I’d help a lot of people, but I’m afraid it’s too late. I’m in no position to help anyone.”


The villa was a bees’ nest of activity, workers scurrying this way and that setting up decorations and making preparations for the evening’s entertainment. Tellwyrn, watching from a second-floor balcony, could identify preparatory enchantment work that would become light displays, hover charms for floating tables, music boxes being chained together via golem logic controllers to play the same synchronized tunes everywhere simultaneously, plus innumerable other little details, several of which were mystifying even to her. Enchantments were being invented and refined at such a rate these days that she had fallen behind.

“And the best part is, it’s all on the cheap,” Vandro enthused, gesticulating with one of his omnipresent cocktails. “So much of the point of all this rigamarole is for the rich assholes to impress each other with how much they can afford to spend. Feh. I’ll have you know I have cut corners on round surfaces, used surplus materials, pulled in favors… Well, it’s all a boring bunch of stories. Point is, tonight I get to watch the wealthiest bastards in Onkawa turn green with envy at all the gold I can throw around, when I’ve not spent a tenth as much as they did on parties that weren’t half as flashy. It’s fucking delicious.”

“Alan,” she said, “I certainly appreciate your hospitality, and I can tell this is, indeed, going to be a hell of a party.”

“Well, this is like an RSVP from my ex-wife,” Vandro said, grinning. “There’s a big but coming.”

“Fancy parties full of snobby people… Well, if you moved the venue into a church, it’d be a who’s who of everything I hate. I really am just here on business. I need to find my dragon, give him a message, and haul ass back to Tiraas, hopefully before the eight students I’ve left there manage to burn it down.”

“Oh, don’t be so hard on the kids,” he said magnanimously. “I know we like to make jokes about the young—I mean, seems like every generation gets progressively more weak-minded. Still and all, they have to be pretty good kids if they made it into your school. How bad can it be?”

“Good?” She turned to face him, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t recruit based on good. In this case, we are talking about two paladins, a drow cleric, a half-demon with permanent foot-in-mouth syndrome, a pacifist bard possessed by a demon, a neophyte pixie wizard, a dryad and the Punaji princess. Unsupervised.”

Vandro stared at her for a moment, then whistled. “My gods, woman, we’ve gotta get you back to Tiraas ASAP, while we still have an Empire. Wilberforce!”

“Yes, sir,” said the silver-haired Butler smoothly, stepping out from the shade of the sitting room behind them and bowing. “I shall see to it that Zanzayed the Blue is recognized as soon as he arrives, if he sees fit to attend, and will personally inform Professor Tellwyrn immediately.”

“Thank you,” said Tellwyrn, nodding.

“It’s such a shame, though,” Vandro said with a sigh. “You’re the most prestigious guest I’m ever likely to have… And it’s going to be a hell of a party.”

“You don’t know Zanza like I do.” Tellwyrn stared down at the preparations underway, drumming her fingers on the balustrade. “I very much fear that you have no idea.”


“Yes, that is a serious problem,” said Shaeine.

“Wait, it’s true?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I was expecting you to say Rouvad was full of it.”

“Ravoud,” Trissiny corrected tersely. “Rouvad is—”

“The High Commander, yes, I know, sorry.” He rolled his eyes. “All due respect, Triss, get used to it. I can barely manage to say the right thing when I know what I’m talking about.”

“How do you know?” Ruda asked, grinning. “When has that ever happened?”

“Can we please, for once in our lives, stop bickering and focus?!” Toby exclaimed.

Silence fell while everyone stared at him in shock.

Toby drew in a deep, steadying breath. “Sorry. Shaeine, you were saying?”

The drow shook her head. “I’m afraid I have little to add on the subject. Certain elements within Tar’naris do, indeed, use trickery to ensnare humans into legal slavery. It’s a constant strain upon our relations with the Empire, something which causes my House a great deal of extra work. The problem appears to be intractable, however. Queen Arkasia refuses to ban human slavery because doing so would merely drive the market underground, weakening her regime and removing our legal recourse to extract those Tiraan citizens we can. Even so… The politics of the city are a delicate web to navigate. We cannot antagonize the wealthiest members of each House by forcibly retrieving what they think of as luxury goods, for which they have paid a small fortune.”

“But your family doesn’t do this, right?” Trissiny demanded.

“Indeed,” said Shaeine, “my mother has prohibited the practice for all members of House Awarrion. It would be impossible for us to deal with the Empire in good faith if we partook in such abuse of the spirit of the treaty. No one in my House is to possess an enslaved human.”

“Okay,” said Trissiny, nodding.

“That said, we have two.”

“What?” the paladin shouted. Teal, sitting beside Shaeine on the couch, sighed and closed her eyes, clearly not surprised by the news.

“It is a case in point, demonstrating how complicated the issue is,” said Shaeine solemnly. “Both were gifts, the refusal of which would have been a deadly insult that we could not afford to make. Zoe and Riley are members of my family, as loved as anyone else.”

“And so you freed them?” Trissiny said sharply. “They’re allowed to leave?”

Shaeine shook her head. “Freeing them from enslavement would still leave them legally liable for the crimes which were the reason of their situation.”

“Trumped-up charges?” Toby asked quietly.

“I’m afraid so,” Shaeine admitted, “but the fact remains. Narisian justice is swift and not gentle, even when it is wrong. It is precisely because they are loved that we do not allow them to be subjected to that. Riley has three children; my niece and two nephews. They are, I repeat, family.”

“That suddenly means a whole lot less when they’re not legally allowed to say otherwise,” Ruda pointed out.

“I am aware of this,” Shaeine replied, her tone subtly cold despite her calm. “We make the best of the situations given us. Complaining is pointless.”

“Okay, uh, hold it.” Gabriel lifted his good hand, which had been draped around Juniper’s shoulder. Whatever accommodation the two had reached, Juniper had been clinging to him all morning, looking miserable no matter how he reassured her. His other arm was still in a sling. “Clearly we all have issues with this, but we can talk about it any time. I think a time when we don’t have urgent problems would be better.”

“He’s right,” said Trissiny, nodding despite her unhappy expression. “I’m sorry to report I’ve made no progress. I’ve personally delivered messages for Bishop Darling at both the Church and the Thieves’ Guild headquarters, and even his house. He wasn’t at any of them, but I’ve got three assurances he’ll be informed as soon as he returns.”

“The Guild cooperated with you?” Toby asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Not immediately,” she said flatly. “The enforcer who met me at the Imperial Casino, where they keep their offices, attempted to send me to the opposite side of the city, where she claimed Darling was holed up with a mistress.”

“How do you know he wasn’t?” Ruda asked.

“Because I know how Eserites are, especially when they are dealing with Avenists. I politely asked her to tell me the truth, she repeated her story with professions of the utmost innocence, and I punched her in the mouth.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Oh, Trissiny,” Teal sighed.

“Um,” Fross chimed hesitantly, “how does that help persuade the Guild to back down?”

“Because,” Trissiny said testily, “as I just said, I know how they think. Eserites don’t write down their doctrines, but my education included a thorough grounding in everything known about how they operate. Everything is a game to them. ‘Mischief and misdirection,’ they say; it’s how they address virtually everyone. Yes, I probably made an enemy of one particular thief, but I had to wait for the four others present to stop laughing before we could continue talking, and then they all wanted to buy me drinks.”

“Tell me you didn’t,” said Ruda, grinning hugely.

“Of course I didn’t,” Trissiny snapped. “They’d have almost certainly been drugged, and anyway, as I keep having to remind you, I don’t drink. But after all that, I was more inclined to believe the man when he said Darling was out, but he’d pass along a message as soon as he returned. You just have to show them you’re willing to play the game.”

“And…punching them in the mouth is playing the game?” Gabriel asked.

“On a case by case basis. The woman in question was muscled like an ox and had a broken nose. I wouldn’t have struck a cutpurse or con artist; they’d consider that very poor form and probably grounds for retaliation. They respect people who beat them at their own games, though, which is why Silver Legionnaires are trained to spot enforcers when dealing with the Guild. Them we can take in a fight—usually—and it’s an established path to getting a dialogue going.”

“Religious people are insane,” Gabriel marveled.

“Here’s to that,” Ruda agreed, raising a bottle of rum in his direction. “I dunno how you get through the day, Boots, I really do not.”

“So…there’s a precedent for this?” Toby asked hesitantly. “You’re certain you didn’t just make things worse?”

“You know what, Toby?” Trissiny rounded on him. “After the week we’ve had, maybe you’re not in a position to criticize my diplomacy anymore. At least I’ve been trying.”

“Whoah, okay, that’s enough,” Teal said firmly. “This is a tense situation; let’s not start attacking each other. Okay?”

Trissiny muttered something and turned to stare out the window of the lounge. Toby just sighed, looking at her.

“So this is a waiting game, then?” said Gabriel. “We’ve got nothing else to pursue until we hear back from Darling?”

“And then,” Teal added glumly, “we have to hope he can and will get his fellow cultists to back off. But if that pans out, it’ll go a long way toward defusing this. Without the Guild putting pressure on the guard, a huge amount of tension goes out of the whole situation.”

“Yeah,” Gabe said, nodding glumly. “I’m just…scrambling to think of anything else we can do to help in the meantime. Sitting here waiting for the ax to fall is gonna drive me nuts.”

“There is one thing,” said Shaeine. “Those of us present, between us, can exercise a certain amount of political clout. I suggest we speak to the Imperial Army in support of this Captain Ravoud.”

“In…support?” Fross asked. “Are you… You heard the part where this guy hates drow, right?”

“Hate may be too strong a word,” Shaeine said evenly. “It must be said that he has a very legitimate grievance against my people. However, he has also expressed willingness to work with Toby, and the reality is that he was, according to the best information we have, not directly responsible for any of the attacks on Lor’naris, and values law and order above his own prejudices. I am deeply regretful that I failed to open a dialogue with him in the first place; I feel it might have averted a great deal of misfortune. Even so, he appears to be precisely the sort of person who can best keep things as civil as possible. In addition, he is known and trusted by the soldiers in Barracks Four; keeping him there will give them a sense of continuity that will be helpful in assuaging their own fears.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said slowly, “I see your point. I’ll pass that along to General Panissar. I doubt he’ll have time to see me or anything, but I can at least get him a message fairly quickly.”

“I was thinking more of a letter of endorsement, signed by you, myself and Toby,” said Shaeine. “We each have credibility and relevance to the situation; we have been in apparent opposition to Captain Ravoud, so our endorsement of him will have extra weight. I can compose it in minutes and submit it for your approval.”

“I think that’s a fine idea,” Toby said, nodding.

“Wanna hear some more good news?”

They all turned to stare at the staircase, at the head of which now stood a familiar pair of elves, grinning.

“Hello, Fauna, Flora,” Trissiny said wearily. “Is this good news in a sarcastic sense?”

“Not at all,” said Fauna. “This is the real deal.”

“We probably shouldn’t be telling you, but hell, we’re not officially Guild members yet, and it seems like more communication, not less, is best right now.”

“The short version is the Guild isn’t going to lean on Barracks Four much longer.”

“Darling got my message?” Trissiny perked up visibly.

The elves exchanged a glance.

“Dunno about that,” said Flora. “It’s the policy, though. As hard as they’re pushing those soldiers, the point isn’t to make them break. It’s to make it seem like it is.”

“What?!” Gabriel exclaimed.

“It’s a threat,” said Teal quietly. “People don’t often appreciate this, but threats are, themselves, acts of violence.”

“Exactly,” said Fauna, nodding approvingly. “Most of those soldiers didn’t do anything to us. They’re getting a one-day reminder of why they’d damn well better not, and then poof. Back to the shadows with us.”

“Even if one of them breaks and takes a shot, the Guild members shadowing them aren’t gonna engage,” Flora added.

“Those two who actually attacked Peepers, though…”

“Yeah, their asses are ours.”

“They’re in Imperial custody,” Toby pointed out firmly.

“Yeah?” Fauna grinned at him. “And it’s probably gonna snow tonight. That has what to do with anything?”

“It’s good news, indeed,” said Trissiny. “It makes our position a little easier.”

“Well, no,” said Flora with a wince. “That’s the other thing we came to tell you.”

“Great,” Trissiny sighed. “What now?”

“The thing you were initially worried about looks likely to happen,” said Fauna.

“What?”

“Somebody’s agitating the Lorisians,” Flora said grimly. “And those of Barracks Four who aren’t on duty. At each other, specifically.”

“What do you mean, agitating?” Teal demanded.

“It’s hard to say.” Fauna shook her head. “Some of it has to be due to the escalating tension, but… It’s too much, too fast. The Guild’s been watching both the district and that regiment closely, which is the only reason we happen to know…”

“And the only reason we happen to know is we’re very good at overhearing stuff apprentices aren’t supposed to be privy to,” Flora added.

“But there have been meetings.”

“Speeches.”

“Weapons distributed.”

“There may or may not be some kind of riot brewing…”

“…but it looks a lot like someone’s trying to arrange one.”

A heavy silence fell over the lounge, the students all staring at the two thieves.

“Who?” Toby asked at last.

Flora shrugged. “If we knew that, someone would be putting a stop to it. Maybe someone does, and is.”

“That’s quite possibly where Darling’s been all day. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of him either.”

“Well…it’s okay, right?” Gabriel said. “I mean, we’ve got the Legionnaires in the district.”

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said wearily, “the Legionnaires are warriors. We don’t train to suppress civil insurrections; the only way we train to fight is against enemies. With swords.”

“…shit.”

“I think maybe we’d better call in the Army,” said Toby.

“You do that,” said Flora, “and not only is Barracks Four good and fucked, so is Lor’naris.”

“A district full of drow that’s clean, productive and safe is one thing,” added Fauna.

“A district full of drow that’s involved in an armed insurrection… Well, that’s about nineteen different kinds of uglier. What do you think the Empire will do about that?”

“So…” Gabe looked around helplessly at the others. “What do we do?”

The silence stretched out.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

5 – 16

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“You’d think she could hang out with us a little,” Gabriel grumbled as he and Trissiny stepped into the inn’s stairwell. Behind them, Ruda appeared already to be making friends—despite having left them just seconds ago—by swaggering up to the most crowded table in the common room and offering to buy a round.

“Ruda’s a social creature, and she sees us all the time,” Trissiny said with a shrug. “Let her relax in her own way. We still see plenty of her during study sessions and our activities on behalf of the district.”

“I’m half tempted to ditch the studying, what with Tellwyrn not even being here,” he grumbled. “I was really hoping to have time to visit my dad while I’m in the city. Should’ve done that today, while Juniper’s having her sulk.”

“Tellwyrn would know.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “She always knows.”

“Perhaps you could send your father a message?” she suggested. “If he’s not too busy to join us briefly, I’m sure he’d be glad to see Toby again, too. And I wouldn’t mind meeting—”

“Oh, no you don’t,” he said sharply. “Seriously, not a good idea. My dad… He’s not as bad as Elspeth, but he doesn’t much enjoy the company of cleric-type people. Too many have asked pushy questions about my, uh, origin.”

“The word is ‘conception,’” she said dryly. “And yes, I can imagine. I’m a little curious myself about—”

“And that is why this isn’t happening,” Gabe said firmly. “Perhaps I should have said ‘smug, disdainful accusations disguised as pushy questions.’ We don’t talk about it. You will just piss him off, and he doesn’t need or deserve it.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Trissiny said slowly, keeping her eyes on the stairs as she climbed. “It isn’t right to impose. I just can’t help…wondering. Clearly he had his reasons. I mean, you’ve got your issues, Gabe, but you’re generally too well-adjusted to have been raised by some kind of deviant lunatic.”

“Be still, my heart.”

They arrived at the top floor and came to a stop in unison. There were strangers in their lounge area.

“Um,” Gabriel said slowly. “Afternoon, ladies. Sorry to be pushy, but, uh, this floor is reserved…”

“Yes, and you took your time getting here,” said one of the elves, grinning.

“But you’re here now,” added the other. “So let’s talk business! What can we do for you?”

The visitors were both elves, dressed in simple clothing that might have belonged to any factory laborer if not for a striking preference for very dark shades. Grays, browns and deep blues, specifically, rather than black. One wore a suitably heavy winter coat; the other had a thick cloak draped around her shoulders, which ruined her otherwise passably normal look.

“Do for us?” Trissiny asked carefully. “And…you are?”

“I’m Flora,” said the one in the cloak, flourishing it as she bowed, then arranged herself atop it in a chair.

“I’m Fauna,” added her counterpart, offering a mocking salute.

“You called for aid from the Thieves’ Guild, yes?”

“So, here we are. Whatcha need?”

“…seriously?” said Gabriel. “Flora and Fauna?”

“They use tags rather than their real names,” said Trissiny. “It’s a religious thing, don’t be rude.”

“While she’s not wrong,” said Flora, “we’re apprentices; no tags yet.”

“Those actually are our names.”

“I see,” Trissiny said slowly. “And which of us are you following?”

The two elves exchanged a quizzical glance. “Following?” Flora asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Gabriel has just come back from speaking with Elspeth. It would take time for a message to be sent and responded to—much more time than this. You, or one of your compatriots, were waiting. Since you managed to get back here ahead of us, you’d almost have to have been there when he spoke with Elspeth.”

“Well, well,” said Fauna, smiling. “And here we were told she wasn’t quick on the uptake.”

“This is much better,” Flora added. “Dense people are such a pain to work with.”

“Consider it our audition, then,” Fauna added, smiling broadly at Trissiny. “We know what we’re about and can get the job done.”

“Which brings us back to our increasingly tedious original question…”

“What is the job?”

Trissiny drew in a slow, calming breath. “This is a very sensitive matter. Can I trust you two to be…discreet?”

“That’s a little like asking a Legionnaire if she’s ready for a fight,” Flora remarked.

“Not quite insulting,” added Fauna, “but missing the point to a nearly insulting degree.”

“Fine, sorry,” said Trissiny. “I’ll just have to trust you to keep this to yourselves, then. I’m sure you’ve heard about the increasing problems Lor’naris is having with the city guard. Are you aware of the firebombing attempt this morning?”

“Of course, we’re not blind.”

“And yes, we know who was behind it.”

“You weren’t exactly subtle with the guy.”

“Okay, do you two always talk in tandem?” Gabriel asked. “I’ve gotta tell you, that’s more creepy than cute.”

The elves grinned broadly at him.

“And what makes you think we intend to be cute?”

“I need evidence!” Trissiny said loudly, shooting Gabe a glare. “Something concrete to tie the corrupt soldiers of that barracks to the bombing. Any such will be inside the barracks itself.”

The elves exchanged a glance.

“What, you expect them to have a log of their illegal bombing attempt?”

“No I don’t—why does everyone keep—” Trissiny cut herself off and breathed deeply again. “Look. I don’t anticipate there’ll be a signed confession. That operation, like all operations, required resources, and those came from somewhere. The Army’s bureaucracy being what it is, there will be a paper trail. If there’s anything definitive, I’d like you to find and retrieve it.”

Flora and Fauna regarded her in silence for a moment, then shifted to look at each other. They seemed to be having a mute conversation. Finally, Fauna stood from the chair she’d commandeered and paced over to the windows, where she peered out at the street. Flora crossed her arms, leaning back in her own seat. The cloak draped over it and under her created the suggestion of a queen on a throne.

“Robbing the Imperial Army itself, hm,” Fauna said at last. “That’s dicey.”

“Not the central headquarters, obviously,” said Trissiny.

“It’s more plausible than it sounds,” Flora mused. “People who it would be absolutely crazy to try to rob tend to skimp on their security. It’s unlikely anyone has ever tried this.”

“At least not at that particular barracks,” Fauna added, earning a grin from her counterpart.

“All right, General, we’re in.”

“There’s one important point,” said Trissiny. “I know how important credit for successful thefts is to you people, but it would really be best if your involvement in this is kept scrupulously quiet. For something so illegal and guaranteed to antagonize the soldiers in question…well, it’s better if the weight of it falls on me.”

“Hang on,” Gabriel interjected. “You said that if it’s for the greater good and we successfully prove the guards are corrupt, any charges for the break-in will be forgiven.”

“No,” she said patiently, “I said there is a precedent for that. Imperial magistrates have discretion in such matters, but they don’t pardon vigilantism in general—that’d be a recipe for anarchy. Hands of Avei are useful to the justice system because we operate with but outside the law.”

“Sharidan’s a pretty laid-back sort of chap,” added Fauna, “and the whole Tirasian Dynasty espouses the philosophy of the velvet glove, but at least on paper, the Empire is still a military dictatorship.”

“Imperial magistrates have an admirably ruthless appreciation for whatever gets the job done,” Flora agreed, “but she’s right—a Hand of Avei doing it is a whole different subject from a couple of apprentice thieves.”

“They take a very dim view of folks undercutting the power of Imperial authorities in particular.”

“Anything that smacks of rebellion, really.”

“So, no, Trissiny, we have no problem with you hogging the credit on this one,” Fauna said, grinning.

“All right, then,” Trissiny said. “You’re certain you can handle this? You’ve mentioned you’re just apprentices; I don’t want to be responsible for you getting hurt. Adding Bishop Darling to the list of people annoyed at me wouldn’t be a good move.”

“We wouldn’t have agreed to help if we weren’t confident,” said Flora.

“And I thought we’d already passed our audition,” Fauna added, “but if not…here, catch.”

Trissiny turned and snagged the object the elf tossed out of the air, then frowned. “…this is my coin purse.”

“Sure is. Have I made my point?”

Flora rose gracefully to her feet and joined her compatriot. They bowed in unison, smiling cheekily. “You’ll be hearing from us as soon as the job’s done. Hope you’re not a heavy sleeper.”

“I’m not one to care overmuch about money,” said Trissiny grimly, looking into her coin purse, “but I had a little more silver than this.”

“Consider that a fee,” said Fauna cheerfully. “Not for the job—that’s just our civic duty—but for summoning a couple of thieves and then impugning our skills.”

“See you soon!” Flora chirped, and they set off down the stairs at a good pace that wasn’t too efficient to disguise an obvious swagger. The two students watched them depart.

“Man,” Gabriel said at last, “you make friends everywhere you go, don’t you?”


 

“Well. Well well well well well well!”

Shook froze, stiffening. Beside him, her arm tucked through his, Kheshiri shifted to look over her shoulder at the voice from behind them.

Strolling through the courtyard wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time, but he was running out of ways to keep himself occupied, and in any case needed some time to think. Even Vandro’s endless supply of amenable girls were losing some of their novelty, largely because Shook had become rather spoiled by having a woman on hand who obeyed without question, refused him nothing, never complained about her treatment and always came back for more. He was now wondering if this was just the natural side effect of having a captive succubus or if Kheshiri was deliberately messing with his head. He’d told her to be quiet, so there was little harm in having her along while he contemplated her wiles. Anyhow, it made her happy; she’d actually been acting jealous of him and the time he spent around other women, which was almost endearing.

Slowly, he turned to face the speaker, who was framed in the open gate to the villa’s grounds, hands on her hips, wearing a particularly shit-eating grin.

“Look who’s out and about and not in jail,” Arachne Tellwyrn said brightly. “Those Guild lawyers really know their stuff. And Kheshiri! Someone finally let you out of your bottle, I see.”

Kheshiri, who was in her standard mortal disguise, scowled in blended puzzlement and irritation. “Excuse me? Have we met?”

“Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know I was watching… Well, never mind, that’s all ancient history. Whatever are you doing with this galoot?”

“And why wouldn’t I be?” the succubus asked, twining both of her arms around Shook’s and resting her chin on his shoulder, smirking. “He’s a demigod in the sack.”

Tellwyrn snorted loudly.

“May I fucking help you?” Shook grated.

“Why, Jerry, you found us an elf!” Alan Vandro exclaimed, strolling up to them with a cocktail in one hand. “Why don’t you introduce us? I see you two have met.”

Shook wasn’t quite sure what Vandro did with his time when the man was out of his sight, but this was not the first time he’d seen his host appear as if by magic in time to prevent a tense situation from going sour. Vandro described his estate as a haven of fun and relaxation, and it seemed he had the will and the means to prevent anyone from ruining the atmosphere.

“Alan Vandro,” Shook said tensely, not taking his eyes off the new arrival, “this is Arachne Tellwryn.”

At that, Vandro actually looked startled. “Wait—really? Are you sure? The Tellwyrn?”

“The the herself,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “Good, you’re the fellow in charge of this joint. I understand you like to throw a lot of frivolous parties.”

“Why, yes I do!” Vandro said, beaming. “Some of the best and most frivolous people in the province put in appearances at my little shindigs, but I must say you would be an honored guest indeed.”

“Uh huh,” she said, deadpan. “I’m looking for someone who’s been loitering in this city, likely crashing the most hoity-toity events being held, if I know him. Unfortunately I’m having the damnedest time tracking him down, as just mentioning his name seems to make people wet themselves and slam the door in my face.”

“Oh. Really?” Vandro frowned thoughtfully. “You’re looking for Zanzayed the Blue?”

“Ah,” she said with satisfaction, “then he is here?”

“Well, I certainly hope so,” Vandro replied, grinning. “I’m having one of my asinine little get-togethers two nights hence and I’ve already ordered all his favorite hors d’oeuvres. It’ll just break my little heart if he doesn’t come.”

“You want him to come?”

“Are you kidding?” Vandro grinned even more broadly, idly swirling his drink. “Everyone practically shits themselves at learning they’re in a room with a dragon. Ever seen a bunch of rich, powerful assholes in that sweet moment when they learn they are not the biggest, baddest thing around?”

“Frequently,” she said with a reminiscent smile.

“Glorious, isn’t it?”

“Definitely has its points.”

“Yeah, Zanzayed was still in the city last I heard, but there’s no telling how much longer he’s going to stay. Apparently things went sour with that noblewoman he was trying to work over. If I were him, I’d find the place serving the most free drinks and put them out of business, but who can say how dragons think?”

“Mm. As long as the drinks are of good quality, served by pretty girls in the company of well-dressed nobles…that’s more his scene.” Tellwyrn sighed, glancing around the courtyard. “Day after tomorrow, then? Damn it all, I’d really hoped to have this dealt with faster than that, but there’s just no running him to ground when he doesn’t want to be…”

“Well, now, I’d hate for you to have come all this way only to leave disappointed,” Vandro said magnanimously. “We’ve got all kinds of room, and it’s full of absolutely tasteless amounts of luxury. Why not stay and enjoy my hospitality until you find your friend?”

“What?!” Shook burst out. “Alan, have you lost your mind? This creep lives to wreck other people’s business!”

“Jerry, son,” Vandro said, suddenly tense, “let’s not be needlessly provocative with the charmingly eccentric archmage.”

“The hell with it,” Shook snapped. “If she decides to incinerate everyone or turn me into a lawn sculpture, she’ll just fucking up and do it, and there’s not much anybody can do to stop her. I’ll be damned if I’m giving her the satisfaction of seeing me cringe and grovel first.”

“Why, Mr. Shook,” Tellwyrn said with a little smile. “You’d best be careful; keep showing that kind of backbone and I’ll find myself respecting you. Then I’ll be really annoyed.”

He just glared at her. Kheshiri, wisely, remained silent.

“There, see? All friends!” Vandro said cheerfully. “What do you say, ma’am? My home is yours as long as you need it.”

“Very generous,” Tellwyrn said skeptically. “What’s the catch?”

“Well,” Vandro said, stepping over and placing a hand at the small of her back, gently ushering her toward the main house. For a wonder, Tellwyrn let herself be ushered. “I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me clumsily trying to get into your pants.”

“Ah, I see.”

“I’m over-ambitious, y’see, and not terribly bright.”

“I believe you.”

“Honestly, hon, it’s not even that you’re my type, but… The bragging rights. You understand.”

“Quite.”

Shook, staring after them, clenched his fists until his knuckles crackled under the strain.


 

“You look like hell,” Gabriel noted.

“Nice to see you too,” Toby said wryly, massaging the back of his stiff neck and glancing around the lounge. Dusk was falling; the dim light from the windows had taken on a reddish tint. “Where is everyone?”

“Ruda is downstairs in the common room and looks like she plans to make a night of it; the lads just trooped down to join her. But you probably knew that. Shaeine and Teal took off for the embassy hours ago, and I suspect they found something a lot less official to occupy themselves after that. Fross and Trissiny went for a walk—well, a walk and a hover, I guess. About time, too, she was pacing like a caged tiger and looking about as friendly.”

“I assume you don’t mean Fross,” Toby said, grinning.

“Good catch, smartass. And of course, you know where Juniper is.”

Toby sighed heavily. “I’m ridiculously tired for as little as I’ve actually done all day.”

Gabriel shut the book in his lap, moved it to the low table and set down the clipboard with the paper on which he was writing on top of it. “I don’t think so. You’ve basically been holding yourself at maximum tension waiting for the hammer to fall all day. That’d exhaust anyone. And seriously, man, I know I say this a lot but right now you specifically need to lighten up.”

“I know,” Toby groaned, leaning against the wall. “So you keep telling me. And it’s not even that I disagree…”

“But…?” Gabe prompted.

He sighed. “I just… I don’t understand her.”

“She’s a fairy, man. You’re not supposed to understand her.”

“Yeah, but it’s…” Toby sighed again. “Tastes like pig. You know?”

“She’s not gonna start hunting people in the streets,” Gabe said. “You know the rules she’s operating under.”

“It’s not that. Something’s bothering her, and… With most people, I’m good at working out what’s wrong and helping if I can. Lots of them just need someone to listen. But with Juniper… I can’t read her. One minute she’s just this naïve, good-hearted girl who’s kind and cheerful and I know exactly where I stand, and the next she’s something terrifyingly alien. That’s what’s weighing on me. If she does snap and start… Well, I don’t know how to see it coming.”

“Toby, I hate to say it, but you’re probably making it worse.”

“Worse?”

“Seriously, you’re just pissing her off at this point. I really don’t think we have anything to worry about unless something specifically sets her off. Which you’re kind of doing.”

Toby frowned. “She told you that?”

“No, I haven’t talked to her since this morning. But she told us all she wants some space to herself with no people around, and you then spent the whole day hovering. Come on. How would you feel?”

“That’s…well, crud, you’re completely right.” Toby leaned his head back, thunking it against the wall. “Uh, I’m an idiot.”

“You’re overburdened with the cares of others,” Gabriel said wisely. “Sometimes, my friend, you’ve gotta let people make their own mistakes.”

“Well, it seems to have worked with you.”

“Exactly!” Gabe said cheerfully. “In any case, just…go relax, man. Take a nap, go down and hang with Ruda and the boys. Something to take your mind off all this.”

Toby glanced at the short hall which terminated in the narrow stairwell that led to the roof. “I don’t… Finchley, Rook and Moriarty only agreed to take a break because I said I wouldn’t leave her unwatched.”

“You’re not,” Gabriel assured him. “I will sit in this room until she either comes through and goes to bed or you come back out. Fair?”

“I…yeah. Thanks. In fact, a nap sounds like a really good idea. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

“Or, don’t try again. Try leaving her alone for a while.”

“I’ll think about it,” Toby muttered, turning and shuffling into their room and shutting the door gently behind him.

Gabriel shook his head and reached for his book again.

“Psst.” He looked up to find Juniper peering around the corner from the roof access hall at him. “Is he gone?”

“Uh…he’s in there, getting some sleep. Are you okay?”

She was still in her human guise, but had dispensed with all the mandated outer garments. After spending the whole day on the privacy of the roof, she was soaked with sleet, her hair wind-blown, sopping wet and actually twisted into odd shapes by patches of frost. Freezing water dripped down her, plastering her sheer sundress very distractingly to her skin. Despite all that, she didn’t seem at all uncomfortable.

“I’m fine,” Juniper said crossly. “I just wanted a little time to myself. There aren’t many plants in this city, and the only animals are humans. It’s all so…weird. Hard to center myself.” She sighed, turning to stare gloomily out the windows.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” Gabriel inquired, getting up and walking over to join her.

Juniper shrugged. “I’ve never understood this thing where people ask about asking. If you’re curious, ask. No harm in that.”

“It’s about respecting your feelings,” he said with a smile. “Giving you a chance to cut off the conversation if you don’t want to talk.”

“Oh. Well… I guess that makes sense. That’s actually very considerate.” She turned to give him a bright smile. “What did you want to know?”

“Well, it’s… A little awkward, I’m not sure how to…”

“Gabriel, you have had your penis in every part of me where it would fit. Seriously, just spit it out. I’m not gonna be shocked.”

He flushed deeply, then cleared his throat. “It’s just, if this weren’t a school sanctioned trip, if there were no rules… I’m just trying to figure out where we stand. Would you actually…y’know…eat me?”

“Of course not!” she exclaimed, looking scandalized.

Gabriel un-tensed a bit. “Okay. Yeah, I figured, but I just…”

“I mean, no offense, Gabe, but nothing eats demon. Blech. I realize you’re only half, but I can smell it on you, and… Yeah, it’s not unpleasant, you know, but definitely not appetizing.”

He had re-tensed while she spoke. “I…see. Um. What about the others?”

“Others? Our classmates?”

“Yeah.”

She shrugged, looking back out over the street. “Well, mother forbids us eating elves, so that rules out Trissiny and Shaeine. And Fross is basically a little clump of pure magic; no nutritional value except to other pixies.”

“And…” He paused to swallow heavily. “Ruda? Toby?”

“Sure,” Juniper said nonchalantly. “I mean, I’d have to be hungry. Not just peckish, but seriously needing nutrition. Otherwise I’d must rather keep them alive. I like Ruda and Toby. Even when he’s being an annoying mother hen.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand how you can think that way,” Gabriel said very carefully. “They’re… They’re your friends. Wouldn’t you miss them if they were gone?”

“Of course I would,” she said patiently. “And I will, when they die. Which they will. You’re all going to die, eventually, and when you do, something will be nourished by your flesh. I would think you’d care enough about me to prefer that would be me than some random bunch of microbes.”

“I, um… You should know there’s a kind of a disconnect there,” he said. “This kind of talk really bothers people.”

“You asked!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, I did,” he said soothingly, “and I appreciate you clearing it up for me. It’s just gonna be hard to…process. For humans, caring about someone… Loving someone means you wouldn’t eat them.”

“Oh, you people and your taboos,” she said, scowling. “Your laws and customs, and stupid square buildings and fences and domestications and all these completely arbitrary, made-up rules that don’t mean anything but you act like they’re the center of the world!” Juniper’s voice rose steadily while she spoke, until she finally slapped a hand against the windowpane. The whole thing rattled in its housing, but thankfully didn’t break. Gabriel began easing backward away from her. “I’m just so tired of it! How can you live like this? You’re animals! You are all. Just. Animals! Just act like it!”

Juniper stopped, drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Feh… Now I’m all tense and wound up. C’mon, let’s go have sex.”

“Um,” he said hesitantly. “I, um… It’s not that I don’t… I mean, I’ve just gained a sort of perspective about you and I, uh, I need time to think about it. I mean, I’ve kind of misjudged you, and I want to treat you fairly, and that’s gonna involve some sorting out how I really feel, and, y’know, what to do about it…”

“Gabriel,” she said impatiently, “you can do all that anytime.” A sudden, sly smile crossed her face, and she pressed forward, backing him against the wall and pushing her chest into his. Gabriel let out a soft squeak when she leaned in and nipped gently at the base of his throat. “You can do that after you spend a couple of hours enjoying every pleasure my body can give you.”

“I…well…that… Yeah, okay.”


 

“Yeah, yeah,” Lakshmi said, smiling fondly. “You can tell me all about it on the way home.”

“Aw,” Sanjay whined. “It’s still early! I wanted to go to the park!”

“Kid, it is nearly dark. You know what kind of creeps hang around in the park at night?”

“Creeps like you?” He stuck out his tongue at her.

“Exactly,” she said, nodding solemnly. “You wouldn’t want to meet them in the dark of the night, would you? C’mon, squirt, it’s getting colder and we still have to eat. Home.”

Sanjay fell into step beside her. The sidewalks had emptied enough for them to walk together without needing to weave and dodge around other passersby. “Home was in Puna Dara,” he muttered rebelliously.

“Yeah,” Lakshmi said softly, nodding.

Sanjay looked up at her in surprise. “What, really? You’re not gonna give me some speech about how this is our new home?”

“What, this ice city?” She shuddered. “Please. Tiraas is a place, like any other. We’re Punaji, and don’t you ever forget it. But…this can be a good place. There are opportunities here we’d never have found back home. Just takes a little work and cleverness, is all. If we do our part to take care of the city, it’ll take care of us.”

“So that’s why you were in such a hurry to tell that paladin about the bomber?”

“Exactly. That, and she’s a useful person to get on the good side of.” Lakshmi patted him on the head, which was covered by a thick knitted cap. “Now c’mon, pick up those feet. I don’t wanna be out in this miserable cold any longer than we absolutely have to.”

As they passed a small newsstand, boarded up at this hour, a young woman in a thick longcoat and heavy scarf who’d been leaning against the nearby wall reading the day’s paper looked up, honing in on their conversation. She stood in silence while Sanjay and Lakshmi continued up the sidewalk, letting them get a good twenty paces ahead before folding the paper and tucking it under her arm, stepping out onto the walkway after them.

As she fell in, she carefully adjusted her collar, making sure the heavy overcoat and scarf concealed the Imperial Army insignia below. Night was falling, people were hurrying to get home out of the cold, and nobody paid any attention to her, least of all the two Punaji she followed toward their home.

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5 – 8

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“Oh, hey!” Fross cried suddenly, and zipped off toward the door of the cafe, leaving her classmates staring after her, mystified. The door opened a few inches, untouched, and she swerved through the gap into the street outside.

“Uh…” Gabriel looked down at his sandwich. “Are my table manners that bad?”

“Yup,” said Ruda lazily, then belched. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Uncouth fucker.”

The door swung open again, fully this time, and Teal stepped back, holding it for Shaeine, who passed through with a smile. They made straight for the other students’ table, Fross buzzing excitedly around their heads.

“Hey, guys!” Ruda said cheerfully, waving a breadstick. “How’ve you been? Seen Juno and the boys?”

“We have not encountered them since this morning,” Shaine said, “though we’ve been outside the district.”

“Oh?”

“We actually went to see Imperial Square, and Shaeine had to stop by the Narisian embassy on the way,” said Teal, holding out a chair for Shaeine.

Trissiny looked up from her ruminations at that. “Official business?”

“Of a sort,” the drow replied, calmly folding her hands in her lap. “I anticipate no further need of my presence at the embassy, but it was necessary to present my compliments and offer my services to the Ambassador.”

Trissiny frowned. “Why’s that, if you don’t think you’re needed?”

“It is a question of status,” she explained, smiling at Teal as the bard sat beside her before returning her gaze to Trissiny. “As the matriarch’s daughter, my hereditary rank in House Awarrion considerably exceeds hers. As an appointed ambassador to our most important ally, however, her earned position considerably exceeds mine.”

“So how do you decide who’s top dog?” Ruda asked.

“That is precisely the issue. Those two things do not correlate in any way. So long as the matter was left unaddressed, my presence in the city would throw the social calculations of all resident drow into disorder; leaving the matter that way would be considered an openly hostile act on my part. Quite apart from the fact that my mother would seal me in a spider box for doing such a thing, it would be incredibly irresponsible to so disrupt Narisian operations in the city.”

“Well, yeah,” said Ruda, grinning. “Hence the spider box.”

“You guys actually do that?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I thought that was a joke!”

“Presenting myself to the Ambassador,” said Shaeine, disregarding the byplay, “and publicly placing myself at her disposal, resolved the issue. I acknowledged myself to be subordinate, and thus her authority remains unquestioned.”

“When I was growing up,” said Teal, “my parents always told me that social rules and customs were arbitrary and often silly, but it was important to respect them in order to get along with people. Going to social events and dealing with the nobility, it always seemed to me they were dead right. The more I learn about Narisian culture, though, the more elegant it all seems. Purposeful.” She smiled at Shaeine. “Everything they do has an immediate reason behind it.”

“You think spider boxes are in any way reasonable?” Gabriel said, grimacing.

“Narisians are extremely courteous and responsible from a very young age,” Shaeine noted serenely. “How has your morning been?”

“We found some trouble,” Trissiny said dourly. “I don’t know if it’s what Tellwyrn brought us here to do, but it’s not something I think we can afford to just leave alone.”

“Oh?” Teal frowned. “What’s up?”

“It seems the guard have been pressuring the residents of Lor’naris. They don’t seem to like the idea of the locals providing their own neighborhood security.”

“I suppose,” Shaeine said slowly, “that is not entirely unreasonable. Tiraas is a military power; the thought of foreign citizens establishing a militia in its capital might be seen as hostile.”

“Those people are not a militia,” Trissiny said firmly, scowling. “They have no armor, no weapons. They don’t even have a chain of command! There’s barely even a schedule, they just show up and keep an eye on things. There are never more than six on duty at one time; four to watch the entrance to the district and two more to walk up and down the street. All they do is walk and watch; if there’s an actual problem, they call for help from the rest of the citizens. I think I know a little about military matters, and I’m here to tell you the Lor’naris volunteer watch is a complete and total non-threat. They wouldn’t pose a hazard to an actual militia, much less to the world’s highest concentration of the world’s largest and best-equipped military.”

“What kills me,” said Ruda, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms, “is the goddamn stupidity of it all. Doesn’t the local guard benefit from people keeping their own shit together? The less trouble there is, the better they look.”

Gabriel drew in a deep breath and blew it out in an explosion that was barely a sigh; Fross, hovering silently over the middle of the table, was actually pushed back a few inches. “You guys are missing the point. Tiraas is a human power.”

Everyone stared at him.

“Yes,” said Teal. “And?”

“And,” he said, frowning at her, “right here in its capital, in the very jewel of the Empire, a bunch of weird-ass foreigners show up—no offense, Sheaine—move into a slum district that even the local guard had given up on, and whip it into shape in just a couple of years. Suddenly the place where you could always go to get knifed or robbed is full of people taking their kids to school, all clean, orderly and increasingly prosperous. It’d be a slap in the face to the guard if Tiraan citizens had done it. The Narisians made them look bad.”

“That’s fucking idiotic,” Ruda snorted. “The guard made themselves look bad. I’m sorry, but if a bunch of outsiders who don’t know the culture show up out of nowhere and make a better go of it than you were, the issue is that you suck.”

“Yeah?” Gabe said wryly. “Why don’t you go explain that to the soldiers. See what happens.”

“Soldiers?” Shaeine tilted her head. “I thought the problem was with the civil guard.”

“They’re—” Trissiny and Gabriel started to speak at the same moment and broke off, staring at each other. He bowed his head, gesturing for her to continue.

“In the capital, they’re the same,” she said. “Tiraas is Tiraas. In many respects, the city is the Empire, at least in miniature. There’s no mayor or distinct municipal government; the Emperor is the local head of state, and Imperial offices run the city directly.”

“Holy shit,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “And stuff actually gets done?”

“Well, the relevant Imperial offices have separate departments for managing the city,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Otherwise, no, nothing would get done. But yeah, among other things, there’s no civil guard as such. The Imperial Army provides military police.”

“So it’s the Lor’narisianites against the Army?” Fross chimed in distress bobbing up and down. “Wow. Oh, wow. They’re really not gonna win that.”

“So far it hasn’t become a ‘versus’ issue,” said Trissiny, “and hopefully it will not.”

“Well, hell, if it comes to it, Trissiny can just call in the Legionnaires, right?” Gabriel suggested, grinning.

“I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting I set the Silver Legions into armed conflict with the Imperial Army in the heart of the Empire,” she grated, glaring at him. “Yes, they would muster if I called them, unless their officers invoked the long-standing precedent we have of disregarding unethical or incredibly stupid orders. And then, once Avei got through ripping my hide into strips, High Commander Rouvad would take her turn.”

“Was just a thought,” he mumbled.

“I thought you had the same rank in the Imperial Army?” Teal asked.

“That…is a courtesy, as I understand it,” Trissiny said more calmly. “A concession to Avei’s authority and the influence of the Sisterhood, based on the logical presumption that a Hand of Avei is well-trained in matters of strategy and may at any time be involved in campaigns that might necessitate the aid of soldiers. Those men are not spontaneously harassing the locals on a whim; someone is ordering it. If I start countermanding them… Well, I would pretty much have to go to whatever barracks is responsible for securing this area and take it over. That would also cause endless trouble.”

“But, uh, what are you gonna do, then?” Fross asked. “It sounds like you’re taking this pretty seriously.”

Trissiny sighed. “I got the name of a commander and am going to send him a letter. If it continues, I’ll go down there and speak with him personally.”

“Fear the Hand of Avei!” Ruda crowed. “For her wrath is terrible and her boots are shiny!”

Trissiny scowled. “And what’s your idea to help, then?”

“Me?” She snorted and took a swig of her drink. “Hell no, I’m staying out of this.”

Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “What? But I thought…”

“Look, it’s not that I don’t sympathize with the people here,” Ruda said. “I’m always gonna side with the people keeping their own shit together over uniformed assholes trying to push them around. But, first of all, I am not convinced that us butting into this is a great idea at all. Folks in Lor’naris are, as I said, capable of dealing with their own issues. It seems to be pretty much their defining trait.”

“But—”

“Furthermore,” Ruda went on firmly, “let’s keep in mind that I am heir to the throne of the Punaji nation. I can let my hair down in Last Rock and nobody gives a damn. This is different. Me sticking my sword into an internal security matter in Tiraas would cause an even bigger shitstorm than you calling in the Legions.”

“That…kind of goes for me, as well,” Teal said nervously. “I mean, my family aren’t royal, or even noble, but anything I do in the capital will reflect on Falconer Industries. Me butting into the Army’s affairs is… Well, we can afford to lose some business, frankly, but it’s not just about the bottom line. Damaging my family’s credibility could put a lot of good enchanters out of their jobs. At minimum.”

“Opposite problem.” Gabriel raised a hand. “First rule of being a half-demon in Tiraas: keep your head the fuck down. This city is full of people who barely need an excuse to blast it off, and have the authority to do that.”

“Pfft, you can count on me, Trissiny!” Fross declared, zipping back and forth. “Apparently nobody takes pixies seriously around here. We’ll just see about that!”

“I’m not asking for any rash action, Fross,” Trissiny said quickly. “I still don’t know what needs to be done. I’ve spoken with the residents at some length, at least those who serve in the watch, but I don’t yet have the Army’s perspective on the matter.”

“I will speak with Ambassador Shariss about this,” said Shaeine. “It clearly is a diplomatic concern if Narisians are being abused by the Army in the capital—though in acknowledgment of Ruda’s point, the fact that the residents of Lor’naris have not already sought aid from the embassy is telling. They would take such action if they deemed it necessary. However, with regard to your plan to talk to the Army… Perhaps it would save time to go over the heads of the local barracks? Seek out a higher authority? You have the explicit rank, not to mention the prestige.”

“It isn’t that simple,” Trissiny said glumly. “I think you may underestimate how much bureaucracy is involved in running an army. It’d take me longer to get an appointment with a highly-ranked official than we’ll probably be in the city. I could barge in, but that’s an excellent way to guarantee they don’t listen to a thing I tell them, particularly when they’ll probably resent me butting into their business in the first place. The local barracks captain is my best bet. I do have enough authority to get to him and make him listen.”

“You realize that’s probably the guy whose idea all this is,” said Gabriel. “Some outsider forcing her way in and telling him how to run his barracks is likely just gonna make him dig his heels in.”

“Yes,” she snapped, “I do realize that, thank you.”

“Perhaps there is another option,” said Shaeine. “As part of my introduction at the Narisian embassy, I was informed of major social events occurring in the city during the course of my projected stay. I did not think any such would likely be relevant to me at the time, but I do recall that General Toman Panissar, the commander of the Imperial Army, is hosting a very lavish party at his home tomorrow night.”

A momentary silence fell.

“You’d need an invitation to get into that,” Teal said at last, frowning.

“Oh, the hell you would,” Ruda replied with a grin. “C’mon, look who’s at this table. We’ve got foreign royalty, foreign nobility, the heiress to the biggest non-noble name in the Empire and the freakin’ Hand of freakin’ Avei. One or two of us might be able to gatecrash. Three, they probably wouldn’t turn away. All four? No chance, they wouldn’t fucking dare tell us we couldn’t come in. And hey, Fross is a curiosity! Extra points right there.”

“Yay! I’m curious!”

“What about me?” Gabriel demanded.

“Gabe,” Ruda said condescendingly, “what the hell would you do at a fancy society party? Do you even know which one is the shrimp fork?”

“Really, now?” he said sourly. “What would most of you do at a society party? I can see Shaeine fitting in there, but… Do you know which one is the shrimp fork?”

Ruda grinned. “Yup. The shrimp fork is the one with which I stab the shithead who tells me I’m using the wrong fucking fork.”

“I shall consider my point made,” he said.

“I don’t know about this,” Teal said nervously. “I mean… I try to avoid parties. That means dresses, and I really do not have one. And tomorrow night? That’s kind of late to…”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Ruda said breezily. “A good tailor with the right enchanted equipment can do a rush job, set us up with suitable duds overnight. That shit ain’t cheap, but let’s be honest, we can afford it.”

“Okay, you want me to come out and say it?” Teal grimaced. “I hate wearing dresses.”

“Then don’t,” Shaeine said quietly. Teal turned to her, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “I have seen Imperial formal wear, and… You would look positively stunning in a well-fitted tuxedo.”

Teal flushed slowly, but said nothing, merely holding the drow’s gaze. They stared into one another’s eyes in silence.

“Ugh,” Ruda groaned, throwing her head back. “People are still eating in this room, you two.”

“I don’t have a dress uniform with me,” Trissiny murmured, “but I could get one easily enough at the Temple. And… Gabriel isn’t wrong; I can’t imagine being anything but profoundly uncomfortable at a society event. But it would get me in a room with General Panissar.”

“Yup,” Gabe said fatalistically. “And that can only end well.”


Silence held sway in the room.

Amanika stared at Kheshiri, blank-faced. Saduko and Kamari glanced uncertainly at once another, at Vandro, at Kheshiri and Shook. Vandro himself simply stood there, holding his drink and smiling complacently. Kheshiri kept her gaze on Shook, who had tensed to the point that his hand quivered on the glass it held, the other clenched in a fist at his side.

“Shiri, honey, we’re waiting,” Vandro prompted gently.

At last, she cut her eyes to him, expression blank. “You don’t command me.” She returned her gaze to Shook.

After a tense moment, he nodded slowly. “Do it.”

She sighed, shrugged…and changed.

Warm brown skin bleached white in two seconds—not pale as some strains of humans were, but white, an icy matte color that didn’t belong on flesh. The broad features of a pretty Onkawi girl lengthened into more sharp-edged shapes; her black hair uncoiled itself from its braids, taking on subtle highlights in unnatural colors. Dark eyes faded to crystalline blue-violet, her tail uncoiled behind her, and finally, in acknowledgment of Vandro’s initial command, a pair of spiny wings stretched into existence, then stretched further, extending until they brushed the walls.

Kamari dropped his glass.

“Aiya,” Saduko whispered, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.

“Now, let’s nobody go an’ do anything abrupt,” Vandro said cheerfully. “My boy Jerry has full control over her. Ain’t that right?”

Shook nodded curtly, glancing at Kheshiri. The succubus dropped her eyes demurely. Then, moving with a sinuous grace and far more sway than necessary, she stepped over to him, descended to crouch on the ground at his feet and wrapped her arms around his leg. Cheek pressed to his thigh, she stared smugly at the others in the room.

Shook rested his free hand on her head after a moment, twining his fingers in her hair.

“So you see,” Vandro went on, swirling his daiquiri idly in one hand, “just what we have attending to stealth and security. You have nothing to worry about, my friends. Anybody trying to put pressure on you will be very capably dealt with.”

“And,” Saduko said quietly, “any betrayal from us will be punished beyond the mercy of death.”

“My dear,” said Vandro, shaking his head sadly, “I am very nearly hurt. I only hope in time I can reassure you that I don’t deal so heavy-handedly with my business associates.”

“Bringing this thing here was not a step in that direction,” she said evenly.

“We’re running a complicated job,” he replied with a grin. “We’ll make use of every available resource—particularly the ones nobody expects we have. To that end, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway for thoroughness’s sake: the demon is a secret. Not a word of this is to be breathed to anyone outside this room. Clear?”

He waited for them to nod before carrying on, beaming. “Jolly good! Now, I beg your forgiveness for hustling you along, but I need to clear up a few things with Jerry in private. Of course, you are all honored guests here; avail yourselves of any amenities my villa has to offer. Kamari, I’m afraid you’ll have to do so in the private areas, as we don’t want to getting around that you have any association with me just yet. Still, there’s plenty for you to do. Wilberforce will see to it you don’t lack for entertainment.”

“Thank you, sir,” the burly servant said nervously. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Kheshiri yet.

They filed toward the door in silence, all three stepping well out of their way to avoid the spread of the demon’s wings, now somewhat furled and closer to hip level. As soon as the door clicked shut behind Saduko, the last to leave, Shook whirled on Vandro.

“Just what the hell—”

“First of all,” Vandro said calmly, “I am not upset at you bringing a demon into my home, Jerry. It’s apparent you do have her restrained, and hell, in light of our earlier conversation I’m glad to see you reaching at unconventional resources. You’re gonna need that if you mean to run down this Locke bitch and straighten out the elements in the Guild that’ve turned on you. But boy, you have got to be more careful. She was spotted the first day here.”

“How?” Kheshiri demanded, scowling.

Shook swatted her on the side of the head. “You keep your mouth shut till someone asks your opinion, whore,” he growled without looking at her. “It’s a good question, though, Alan. How? Who?”

“Jerry, my boy, you were just in a room with a priestess. You had a demon within arm’s reach of her; you really think any magical disguise would’ve fooled someone soaked in the light of the gods? Come on, now. Amanika’s in and out of this estate all the time; she spotted your little pet immediately.”

“She did? She is?” Shook frowned. “I never…”

“Never noticed her?” Vandro said dryly. “No, I’ll just bet you didn’t. No rack or ass to speak of, face of a billy goat, dresses like she’s trying to convince all the other dykes to bow down before their queen. Boy, I have told you about this, time and again. Women are trouble, every last one of ’em, but most are not in any way stupid. That’s exactly why they’re trouble. You have got to start paying attention to the women around you. There are much more important calculations to be made about a woman than the likelihood and desirability of nailing her. The pretty ones use beauty as a weapon; the homely ones make use of the fact they’re basically invisible. If Amanika didn’t happen to be more indebted to me than the local Guild chapter…well, guess how that would’ve ended for you. She’ll keep your secret because I vouched for you.”

He stopped and sighed; Shook actually lowered his gaze, abashed.

“Anyhow,” Vandro went on, “Amanika assures me you’ve got no more infernal magic in you than the piddly residue you’d get from spending time around this critter.” He leaned down and ruffled Kheshiri’s hair. “So either you’re one of the most powerful warlocks alive, or not a warlock at all, and having trained you myself I pretty much know which. So I busted out the scrying equipment and observed you have an object of considerable infernal and arcane power on you. That’s the mechanism, I take it.”

“Yeah,” Shook said slowly, nodding. “She’s bound to a reliquary. I can put her in it, when I get tired of her mouth. It’s vintage Black Wreath work, but I had it modified with some modern enchantments to secure her more thoroughly and bind it to me.”

“Good man,” Vandro said, nodding approvingly. “This is why you’re still my favorite student. You’ve got your blind spots, Jerry, but you use the ol’ noggin more than most enforcers can be bothered to. Still, you’re pushing your luck. What was spotted once can be spotted again. I’m gonna hook you up with my magic guy in the city; he can mod this reliquary of yours to help keep your pet concealed. Long as you take a little more care about who you rub elbows with, it should prevent another slip-up like this.”

“This guy’s trustworthy?” Shook asked tensely.

Vandro burst out laughing. “Boy, if you’re gonna ask dumb questions…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shook muttered.

“Boris has never let me down yet. He does infernal and arcane work; between the two, you can spot pretty much any type of magic if you’ve got the right equipment. Or, more importantly, you can stop any school of magic from spotting what you want hidden.”

“There’s always a bigger fish,” Kheshiri murmured.

“I see you’re forgetting your manners, bitch,” Shook said, staring coldly down at her. “We’ll discuss that in private, later.”

“Sorry, master,” she said, a quaver in her voice.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Vandro said, beaming in approbation. “If only you could shut the real kind up as easily. But yeah, she’s got a point; you get her in a room with an archmage or paladin and the jig’ll be up no matter what kind of precautions you take. Still, shouldn’t be too hard to stay away from those. Now, then, about the plan. She can do it, I trust? Shapeshift to mimic us and secure our alibis?”

“Answer him, girl,” Shook said.

“Changing shape is simplicity itself,” the succubus said promptly. “Mimicry… That’s all about acting. To really sell the role, I’ll have to spend time around each of them, enough to properly observe their mannerisms. I don’t think they like me, though.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” said Vandro, waving a hand. “At the party you won’t be spending enough time around anybody to need to sell the illusion. You’ll have to do for all six of us, remember. The point is to be seen here and there. Don’t waste time conversing with people, just make sure you’re spotted with each face on.”

“Then yes, sir, I can do it,” she said, waving her tail. “Easily.”

“Attagirl,” he said with a grin, and turned his face back to Shook. “And now, of course, the real, ultimate question. How is she in the sack?”

Shook stared at him silently for a moment, then slowly, a smile stretched across his face. He lightly stroked Kheshiri’s hair with his fingertips. “Absolutely, incomparably magnificent. She’s a handful sometimes, but I’ve got to say, the bitch knows what she’s for, and she takes pride in her work. Justifiably.”

“Ah, my boy,” Vandro said, shaking his head, “I think this is divine compensation for your run of bad luck lately. What I wouldn’t have given for a girl with a body like that who’d shut up on command at your age… Hell, I’d give a lot more for one now.”

Shook looked contemplatively down at Kheshiri, then gave her hair a gentle tug. She rose smoothly to her feet.

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Shook said with a faint grin. “Why don’t you try her out?”

Vandro raised his eyebrows. “You’re joking.”

“Alan, it’s like you said: we’re family. Besides, you’ve been more than generous with your hospitality. I’m serious, borrow her for the night. And don’t worry about bringing her back in the same condition; she heals up fast, and she’s an experience you won’t wanna hold back with. Now, Kheshiri,” he went on, turning his stare to her, “Alan is the man to whom I owe everything I know. I expect to hear you’ve given him the greatest night of his life, or I’m gonna take it out of your ass. Clear?”

She looked thoughtfully up at him for a moment, then turned her considering gaze on Vandro, and smiled. “Mm… He strikes me as a man who’s sampled innumerable pleasures over a very full life. That’s a tall order, master.”

Shook chucked her gently under the chin. “You’re a tall girl.”

“I won’t embarrass you, master,” she said, waving her tail, then gave him a wicked little smile, gazing up through her lashes. “And afterward, if I bring back a favorable review… Can you still take it out of my ass, please?”

“Okay, damn,” said Vandro. “I want one.”

“No, you don’t,” Shook replied. “Enjoy the good and don’t worry about the headaches involved with keeping her reined in. My gift to you.”

“Well, of course,” Vandro said easily, grinning as Kheshiri stepped over to him and snuggled under his arm, draping a wing around his shoulders. He wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her rump. “It’s like I’ve always said; if it’s got tits, it’s trouble. Best you can do is find one that’s no more trouble than she’s worth.”

The demon smiled.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

5 – 7

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The unforgiving sun made midday naps a venerated tradition in Onkawa—at least during the summer. Now, in winter (such as it was), the climate was mild enough that Shook had no trouble bearing the heat with nothing but a wide-brimmed hat to shield him. He was sweating, of course, but that didn’t bother him overmuch.

Vandro’s palatial residence truly had it all, including a shooting range. Shook stood in the long, shaded alley between the rear of the villa and the defunct city wall it abutted, firing bolt after bolt of light into the targets eighteen yards away. A whole bank of sizeable power crystals supported the shielding charms over them; these could have stood up to artillery fire. There were also golem logic controllers that would make the targets move. Much as it galled him to acknowledge it, he wasn’t up to that just yet.

He was getting pretty good, though. After a fourth consecutive bullseye, his concentration was momentarily disrupted by a cheer and applause from Kheshiri.

Shook glanced over at her, annoyed but keeping his features carefully schooled. She was off to the side, lounging on a low divan shaded by a huge parasol. She had, as usual, draped herself to show off her figure, lying on her side in a way that emphasized the curve of her hip, twisting her torso so as to make the arch of her breast stand out. Since she’d been around, he had been paying close attention to her wiles, and had incidentally picked up a few things about women that he’d never bothered to know. For instance, that unnatural position, mouth-watering as it was, must put an excruciating strain on her lower back. Or at least, it would have on a real woman’s. He also knew that the tight, colorful Onkawi robe she wore didn’t contain the kind of undergarments that would make her bosom stand out that way when she was reclining, which meant she was using her shapeshifting to cheat.

He had told her first thing, in their very first meeting: he was not stupid. Still, her games didn’t particularly surprise him. She thought she was leading him along, into some trap down the road, wearing down his alertness, earning his trust. He was rather looking forward to brutally disappointing her. Shook had already decided he’d be keeping Kheshiri, even after he’d straightened out Principia and got himself back in the Guild’s good graces, as he deserved. This was looking like it’d be a long-term project, though; plenty of time to break her in properly. Even knowing she was trying to undermine him, the succubus was enjoyable to have around. Not just sexually, either. She had a biting sense of humor, an appreciation of malice that was gratifying when he was dealing with somebody who needed to be taken down a peg, and a knack for easing his tensions that was no less effective because he knew she was using it to manipulate him.

Seeing his distraction, she took the opportunity to ooze upright, daintily picking up one of the tall glasses of iced punch that sat on a tray on the ground nearby, and slinked over to him, offering it. “A cold drink, boss? You need to be careful in this heat.”

“Mm,” he said noncommittally, picking it up and taking a sip. Damn fruity concoction, not at all to his taste, but using chilled drinks as everyone here did to beat the heat, it would have been a bad idea to go for the hard stuff he preferred. Even he wouldn’t have been able to hold that quantity of liquor.

“Good shooting, my boy,” said Alan Vandro, strolling forward. Shook managed, barely, not to jump; he hadn’t noticed the man there. Kheshiri, of course, was clearly not surprised, though she positioned herself behind him, peering demurely at their host over Shook’s shoulder. Their cover story was that she was a Shaathist, not particularly devout, but into the cult because she enjoyed being told what to do and occasionally slapped around by her man. This explained their dynamic, but necessitated some change in her public address of him; even for an alleged Shaathist, “master” would have raised eyebrows. He didn’t much like abusing Vandro’s hospitality by deceiving him, but a captive succubus was something he didn’t fancy trying to explain—to anyone. “You’re enjoying my little gift, then?”

“It’s anything but little, Alan,” Shook replied, tilting the wand skyward to study it. Not a proper enchanter wand; he hadn’t a spark of magic in him and couldn’t have used one. Still, this was a top-of-the-line model, hand-crafted using the finest materials by a master enchanter. It packed a significantly stronger punch than its mass-produced cousins, would last longer between rechargings and had several useful enhancements. Vandro had given him two of these, along with a proper wandslinger’s belt which held extra power crystals and components, plus grounding and shielding charms to repel incoming wandfire. “I’ve gotta say… Part of me hates the necessity. Seems like there’s no honor in the old profession any more. If you’re gonna kill a man, or just rough him up, you should be able to see the look on his face when you do it.” He sighed, lowering the weapon and slipping it back into its holster. “But that’s the world, now. It’s becoming clear to me I’ve been living in the past; failing to make use of the resources available is part of the reason for my current troubles. This was…timely. And they’re beauties. I can’t thank you enough, Alan.”

“Hell with that, you’re family, my boy,” Vandro said, waving him off. “And don’t sweat your missteps. What matters is you learn from your mistakes and survive to apply the lesson. Isn’t that right, honey?” he added, winking at Kheshiri.

“If you say so, sir,” she said demurely, lowering her eyes.

“It’s not all tactics and equipment, you know,” Vandro went on, watching Shook’s face closely. “Ever think you might have made some errors in how you behave? Who you trust?”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What are you getting at, Alan?”

“Think about it, boy. You’ve always been a faithful man of the Guild… And yet, here you are. They want you dragged back kicking and screaming, and the bitch who set it up is apparently lounging on her sofa, eating bonbons and having a giggle at your expense. Something sure as hell ain’t right about this. How’d you manage to get so thoroughly taken for a ride? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should happen if everything in the Guild is being run as it should.”

Shook frowned, but didn’t comment, finding nothing he could say to that.

“So, say you clear your name,” Vandro went on, still studying him carefully. Kheshiri, now, was watching him just as closely. “What do you gain? Your name should’ve been clear to begin with. Someone aside from Principia fucked you over—or at the least, she took advantage of failures in the Guild’s leadership. How long before it all happens again? Will throwing her ass in an oubliette somewhere really solve the problem?”

“Well, what the fuck do you expect me to do?” Shook demanded, flinging his arms out in a furious shrug. “I can’t just leave this like it is! What’s the point of anything if I can’t get my life back?”

“The problem isn’t you, my boy,” Vandro said, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. “Never was. All I’m saying is, it looks like the problem runs deeper that you may have realized. I’m glad to see you’re lookin’ beyond the immediate future, expanding your repertoire, so to speak. Here’s the question: how far are you willing to expand it?” He glanced significantly at Kheshiri, and Shook felt a moment of unease. “How many things are you willing to consider you may have been wrong about?”

“I know when something’s being hinted at,” Shook replied. “Get to the point, Alan. This kind of pussyfooting around isn’t like you.”

Vandro threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, fair enough, my boy, fair enough. C’mon, there are some folks I think you should meet. I was just about to have a discussion with ’em myself; you should come along, see if you can’t learn anything useful.”

“All right,” Shook said, nodding. He was far from certain where all this was leading, but Vandro had more than proven his trustworthiness, many times in the past and more recently as well. “Shiri, I’ll be back later. Stay out of trouble.”

“Nonsense, bring her along!” Vandro said glibly, slapping him on the shoulder. “I bet you can find a use for her in all this, too.”

Shook frowned again, saying nothing, but let Vandro lead him off into the main house. He had a feeling about this… Not a bad feeling, but not a comfortable one. The two men stepped into the shade, Kheshiri trailing obediently behind them.


 

The villa was even larger than it looked; more than half its interior volume was under ground level, carved from the massive slab of granite on which Onkawa sat. Underground living was another adaptation against the heat which was widely practiced in the city, or at least was among the wealthier classes. The effort of actually carving out subterranean chambers discouraged many.

Vandro led them to a long, narrow lounge two levels down. It was lavishly appointed, as was everything in the villa, lit by sun crystals rather than fairy lamps, which enabled potted ferns and a dwarf fig tree to flourish in the corners.

The meeting, it seemed, was already in session when they arrived. Vandro’s party doubled the population of the room. On a wicker chair against the far wall sat a young Sifanese woman who rose on their entry, bowing politely. Two others, locals by their dark coloration, stood beside the room’s small bar, holding cocktails. The man wore a fairly cheap suit and a nervous expression; he was of average height, but very powerfully built, making him look almost squat. The woman was tall, bony and rather gawkish, though her manner was stately. She wore a simple tunic and slacks, in a style that wasn’t quite Tiraan or Onkawi.

“Here we are!” Vandro boomed, holding out his arms as he stepped into the room as if to embrace everyone present. “All finally gathered. Thanks for waiting, everybody, I hope it wasn’t too long. Damn it, Kamari, I told you you don’t have to serve drinks! You’re a guest here.”

The burly man had already begun mixing three more daiquiris. His teeth were large, even and very white; his grin was almost luminous in his black face. “This is Onkawa, Mr. Vandro. Guests are family, and family do for each other.”

“Cheeky bastard,” Vandro said with a grin, gesturing Shook and Kheshiri in. “Everyone, this is my old apprentice, Jeremiah. I’ve told you about him. And that’s his ladyfriend, Shiri. Jerry, the fellow who won’t get it into his head he’s not a servant here is Kamari; take advantage while you can, he makes the best damn cocktails I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Only glad to serve,” Kamari said cheerfully.

“Over there is Saduko, a visitor from Sifan. Hands off, now, m’boy, she’s an honored guest. And this, of course, is Amanika, priestess of Eserion and something of a muckety-muck in the local Guild chapter house.”

Shook froze, staring at the woman. She inclined her head to him, politely but distantly. “That’s the first time I have been called that, exactly. Hm, I might just keep it, though. Has a nice ring.”

“You should get business cards printed up,” Vandro said, winking.

“Alan,” Shook said warily. “I’m not sure if…”

“Relax, my boy, nobody here is gonna snitch on you. Yes, Amanika knows the orders about you, but you’re in my place, and I vouch for you. We’ve already had this conversation. Isn’t that right, Nika?”

“Quite,” she replied calmly, peering first at Shook and then Kheshiri. “All is as I told you.”

“See? There you go, all friends here.” He handed Shook a daiquiri. “Nobody’s gonna turn you over to the Guild. Hell, nobody here is turning anything over to the Guild. The fact is…we’re here to plan a job. I want you to be part of it.”

“I’m…honored,” Shook said carefully, holding the icy drink but not sipping. Kheshiri had accepted another from Kamari. “That’s problematic, though. My situation being what it is, it’d raise all kinds of eyebrows if I sent in my tithe on a job.”

Vandro sipped his daiquiri, watching Shook with a knowing little smile. “Now, Jerry, what did I just say? We’re not giving the Guild shit.”

Shook stiffened, his hands clenching on the glass. “Alan… You know you’ve been like a father to me, and I owe a lot to your generosity. But I can’t be party to shafting the Big Guy. Eserion does not let people get away with that, even if I were willing to turn against him. Hell, you of all people—”

“Now, Jerry, there you go making assumptions,” Vandro interrupted, grinning. “Nobody’s gonna try to stiff the Big Guy. Even Kamari and Saduko have agreed to pay the proper tithe, despite the fact they aren’t Eserites. No, Eserion gets his cut, as always; this is not negotiable. We’re just not giving it to him through the Guild.”

There was silence in the room, while Shook scowled and others sipped their drinks, or in Saduko’s case, just stood with an impassive expression.

“Go on,” Shook said finally.

“It started three Bosses ago,” Vandro said, beginning to pace up and down. “Catseye was…just too damn ambitious. She pulled off some epic jobs, yeah, and that bought her a lot of cred, which is how she got away with all she did. She organized us far too heavily, personally mobilizing large groups on large jobs. Made the Guild more centralized than it used to be.

“Then came Sweet, the ultimate people person. Honestly, I liked him, and I’d have been all right with his style of leadership if he hadn’t followed Catseye…or if he’d been willing to dismantle her bureaucracy. He didn’t; instead, he used it. Kept his eyes everywhere, stuck his fingers into everyone’s business. Again, nobody complained, even though he never pulled down the kind of income Catseye did, because Sweet was all about keeping everyone happy. Not much of a Guild leader, in short, but he was a kickass high priest. A lot of us owe him a great deal.”

“Yours truly included,” Shook said, finally sipping his fruity drink and grimacing at the taste. “Sweet was the first person aside from you who took an interest in me, made sure I got a fair chance.”

Vandro nodded. “Which brings us to the current situation. Tricks is another Catseye, an operations fellow. And he, again, built on what those before him created. Catseye’s ops protocols, Sweet’s information network, and his own cunning and knack for planning cons. Once again, everybody seems fine with this state of affairs; he doesn’t keep the Guildmembers as happy as Sweet did, but damn does he rake in the gold.”

“I’m not seeing the problem, here,” Shook said.

“Don’t you?” Vandro’s stare bored into him. “You, of all people? Boy, just how the hell do you think Principia managed to get her tentacles into the Guild’s structure and use it against you the way she has? The Guild is not supposed to have a fucking structure, at least not one like this. We all know the catechism. All systems are corrupt. The Thieves’ Guild has lost its way, become an institution. It is behaving exactly as institutions do: accumulating power, developing new rules and traditions, and gradually twisting everything around till all its actions are about prolonging its own existence, instead of pushing the Big Guy’s principles.”

“Omnu’s balls, Alan,” Shook breathed. “You’re talking about rebelling against the Guild!”

“No, no, Jerry.” Vandro shook his head emphatically. “Come on, you’re smarter than this. You overthrow something, well, then you’re stuck with the unenviable task of running whatever you just took over. Hell no, we’re not rebelling. That’d just put us in power, which isn’t what we want or what the Guild needs. The problem isn’t that the Guild needs a regime change; it’s that the Guild needs to not have a regime.”

Shook frowned into his drink, pondering. Amanika spoke into the ensuing silence.

“We do not propose to replace the leadership of the Guild; merely to undermine it. To introduce the random elements that should be the norm for those in Eserion’s worship.”

“It’s about setting a precedent,” Vandro agreed, gesticulating with his glass. “What we do here will be carefully spread around the continent and beyond, whispered of until others try it—with, perhaps, a little help from us. One by one, jobs will start being sponsored that cut the Guild out of the action, making the Boss look impotent and foolish and depriving the bureaucracy of tithes. Eventually the Boss will go back to being the figurehead and spiritual leader he’s supposed to be. Not a man who’s knee deep in everybody’s damn business.”

“I can…see your point about undermining respect for the Boss,” Shook said slowly. “But you’re not about to starve the Guild. Trust me, I worked security at the Imperial Casino for years. The Guild could run itself on that place alone. Indefinitely.”

“One thing at a time, my boy,” said Vandro, grinning. “One thing at a time. The relevant question in the here and now is this: are you in?”

Shook glanced around the room. Vandro was grinning, as was Kamari. Amanika studied him with a calm yet intent expression; Saduko was impassive as a statue. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder at Kheshiri. She nodded slowly.

“Hell with it,” he said. “What’s the job?”

“That’s my boy,” Vandro crowed. “All right, we’re still in the early planning stages, but I’ll run you over the basics. Our target is one Chief Om’ponole.”

“They still have chiefs here?” Shook demanded, curling his lip.

“We have chiefs in the way that the lord governor of Calderaan Province styles himself a King,” said Amanika with a faint smile. “Nations that joined the Empire willingly enjoy certain privileges. At the end of the day, though, there is only one law under Tiraan rule.”

“Om’ponole doesn’t even have any political clout,” agreed Vandro. “What he has are business interests. In short, he’s a rich asshole of exactly the kind that we exist to teach a little humility to.”

“All due respect, Alan, what’s that make you?” Shook asked, smiling wryly. “I mean…this place.”

“You’re not wrong, boy,” Vandro said with a grin. “That’s our in, though. As far as the rest of the hoity-toity types in Onkawa know, I’m a rich asshole just like them. That means I get invited to all their bullshit parties, and they come get shitfaced on fruity booze here in my humble abode when it’s my turn to pass out invitations. You would be amazed how much I learn about all their various palaces this way.”

“Alan is hosting one such party fairly soon,” said Amanika. “Om’ponole will be here, as will everyone who fancies themselves important. While this is going on, we will liberate the contents of his personal safes.”

“Everybody has a role,” said Vandro. “Kamari, here, is a servant on Om’ponole’s estate—a servant who isn’t paid a living wage, nor given so much as a ‘thank you’ or solstice bonus. Classic rich asshole mistake; you keep this in mind when you’re my age and have your own nest egg, Jerry. Everyone working on these grounds is well provided for. I don’t employ people with drug addictions, gambling habits, or chronically sick or imprisoned relatives. No cracks for somebody to get their claws in. I know all their names and ask about their day; I damn well say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they water my plants and fetch my slippers.”

“Mr. Vandro has very generously offered me employment on his estate,” Kamari said with his infectious grin. “I am only too glad to help him arrange a proper resignation for me from the Chieftain’s household.”

“Hell, I’d run more than a job to get this man on my staff,” Vandro chortled. “So help me, if I could slap a pair of tits on this daiquiri I could get rid of all the damn girls always cluttering up my gardens; I’d have no more need of them.”

“You give me far too much credit, sir,” Kamari laughed.

“Needless to say, Kamari’s our inside man. He gets our team into Om’ponole’s estate, and Saduko gets us into his valuables.”

“She’s a safecracker?” Shook asked, turning to regard the young woman.

“I am an arcanist,” she said calmly. Her Tanglish was good, but carried more than a hint of a lilting accent.

“Saduko comes to us from the University at Kiyosan,” explained Vandro. “In fact, she’s a specialist in creating magical security—exactly what we need to defeat it. Unfortunately, she has found that Onkawa isn’t exactly the melting pot that Tiraas is, and in any case, the lucrative avenues of legitimate employment are typically granted to citizens over foreigners, even when the foreigner is the better man—or in this case woman—for the job.”

“So it is everywhere,” Saduko said philosophically. “The economy in Sifan does not support many persons of my skill set at present. I gambled that life would be better in the Empire. When one gambles, alas, one must expect eventually to lose.”

“Don’t you worry, darlin’,” Vandro said, grinning. “You help us through this and I guarantee I’ll have plenty more work for you.”

“No more stealing,” she said stiffly. “That was our arrangement.”

“I’m a man of my word, Saduko. One job to prove your skills, and after that… Well, you’ve seen my place. I have plenty of perfectly legal uses for a person of your profession.”

“I, for my part, will handle the Guild end of this,” said Amanika. “Ensuring that the Big Guy receives his cut without going through Guild channels. That will require some creative laundering and the aid of someone with a close spiritual connection to our god.”

“The fact that Amanika’s on board with this is a sign of Eserion’s favor,” said Vandro smugly. “You know how many people there are with exactly that skill set?”

“I will also, as needed, act to direct the Guild’s attention away from us,” added the priestess with a faint, mysterious smile.

“Sounds solid so far,” said Shook slowly. “What is it you need me for?”

“You and the girl,” said Vandro. Shook raised his eyebrows sharply.

“Shiri? What the hell do you expect to do with her?”

“Now, now, my boy, don’t be modest!” Vandro smiled beatifically, turning back to face the rest of the group and holding his daiquiri for all the world like a scepter. “Jeremiah, here, is one of the best enforcers the Guild has. He and the girl are providing security. I’m gonna have to level with you all, and I hope you won’t take offense: for a job like this, when we Guild thieves employ outside contractors, security is needed not only for our protection during the heist itself, but also…afterward. There are all kinds of pressures that can fall on a person to rat out their partners, and for those of you who don’t enjoy the Guild’s direct support…well, extra measures are needed to keep you safe. Should you have any trouble with authorities, or anyone, Jerry and Shiri will see to it they get off your back. In addition to getting you through the job itself without getting shot, stabbed or imprisoned.”

“And,” Saduko said, twisting her mouth distastefully, “should we decide to reveal what we know to any outsider, they will silence us.”

“Now, darlin’, I’m not even considering that possibility,” Vandro said kindly. “I respect your intelligence far too much; you both know very well which side your bread is buttered on. In theory, yes, that could happen. I’m sure we don’t need to worry about it, though. Do we?”

“No worries, boss,” Kamari said, nodding emphatically. “I’m with you all the way.”

“I keep my word,” Saduko said coldly.

“I think you’ve got the wrong idea about Shiri,” Shook said, glancing at her. She was doing a marvelous impression of demure confusion. Even he was nearly fooled. It seemed Kamari was likewise puzzled by her inclusion in this, though Saduko was unreadable and Amanika wore a knowing expression that he didn’t like at all.

“Well, now, we have two uses for your little pet, there,” Vandro drawled. “There is the matter of after-the-fact enforcement. She’ll be marvelous for tracking down anybody who needs to be hushed up, not to mention getting close to them. During the job itself, though, she’ll be providing our alibis.”

“What are you talking about?” Shook said sharply.

“We’ll all be at the party,” said Vandro. “We will be seen there, by innumerable witnesses of unimpeachable character. Since we, obviously, will in fact be across the city at Chief Om’ponole’s palace, this will be a perfect job for a shapeshifter.”

“A…a shape…” Shook stared at him.

“Absolutely,” Vandro said, grinning broadly. “You know what they say: when life gives you demons, make demonade. How’s about a little demonstration, first?” He turned to Kheshiri and winked. “Darlin’, show us those pretty wings.”

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5 – 3

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For centuries Onkawa had been known in song and story as the Jewel of the West, but in the modern era it had also taken to calling itself the Tiraas of the West. The first city-state of the coastal provinces to join the Empire’s march and the only one to do so willingly, it had old and deep ties to the Silver Throne and was one of the only places in this part of the continent where to be seen as Tiraan was considered desirable.

Like Tiraas, Onkawa was a political capital, a seat of learning and culture filled with libraries, museums and academies, as well as a financial center home to trade guild halls and trading syndicates. It was also a city whose shape was defined by rivers and cliffs, with some districts perpetually filled by the roar of waterfalls.

The similarities ended there. The cliffs which bordered Onkawa on its western edge were an uneven sixty to a hundred feet high—tall enough to be good and fatal if one were to tumble off, but hardly the imposing drop of the Tira Falls. All manner of stairs, ramps and tunnels made travel up and down all but routine. Three rivers passed through the city, broad, shallow and sluggish as opposed to the Tira’s furious rapids, pouring over the cliffs into a lake below the city. Where Tiraas was a walled city tightly packed onto its island mountaintop, Onkawa sprawled across the granite plain above the marshlands below; no fewer than three concentric rings of old walls marched through it, most now crumbling and neglected, and the city continued to meander ever outward like a spreading urban puddle. There was no major industry to speak of, no factory antennae lighting up the night, though the Onkawi had their share of fairy lamps, Rail lines and scrolltowers. Best of all, at this time of year, was the city’s tropical clime.

In fact, quite a few of the well-to-do of Tiraas chose to winter in the Jewel of the West. The pace of life was slow, the cost of living low, the streets colorful and the people cheerfully outgoing. If one hadn’t the luxury of garden walls and hired guards, though, life in Onkawa tended to be dangerous and dirty. For the richer classes, the squalor of the baking streets just outside their villas was as distant as the freezing drizzle back home in Tiraas.

Approaching one of these estates, Kheshiri couldn’t help being impressed by both its defensible position and lavish appointments. The walled compound backed right up against a stretch of the old city walls, which towered above, cutting off the view to the south. Its own walls were much more modest, but glistened along their upper reaches, where shards of broken glass had been arranged into abstract mosaic murals—with their sharp edges extending outward. Beautiful and vicious; she appreciated every part of it. From the street out front, she could see three guards patrolling the tops of these walls, as well as the tops of trees extending upward from the gardens within.

The broad gates, though, stood open. A guard lounged outside, slumped against the wall and seeming half-asleep under the beating sun, but she could feel his acute attention to his surroundings. A broad-brimmed hat protected him from sunstroke while also concealing his eyes, and he wore neither armor nor uniform, though a scimitar was thrust through his colorful sash and he cradled a staff in the crook of one arm. As she strolled up, a trio of laughing young women sauntered out of the compound, ignoring both her and the guard.

Kheshiri paused in front of the open gate, peering about and putting on an intimidated expression. There was music and laughter from the gardens within; she could see people lounging around a broad pool. It seemed more like some kind of resort than a private residence.

“Help you?” asked the guard, eying her up and down with lazy approval.

She had chosen to style herself as a local. Her skin was as dark as his, a shade or two past mahogany, her thick black hair tied back in the multiple braids currently worn by fashionable young Onkawi women. The rubber sandals flapped annoyingly when she walked—amazing how they all seemed used to it here—but she enjoyed the sheer, colorful wraparound garment that passed as a dress, tied about the waist by a broad sash in a manner that emphasized her curves.

“I-is this Mr. Vandro’s residence?” she asked a little uncertainly. Kheshiri, as always, knew precisely where she was, but a big man with a weapon usually liked to feel superior, especially when talking with a pretty girl. Confidence and competence played up the “mysterious and alluring” angle, which didn’t suit her current character.

“It is,” he said, nodding and not exerting himself overmuch to maintain eye contact. “Come to join the party?”

“Oh, I… No, I’m not visiting. I have a message for Mr. Vandro.” She raised the envelope in her hand, pressing it protectively against her breast—and drawing his attention there.

“Shame,” the guard said with a vaguely smarmy smile. “Just head on in. Follow the path straight through the garden to the main house. Mr. Vandro’s probably busy, but you can leave a message with Wilberforce, his Butler. Any of the servants can call him for you.”

“Oh! Oh, um, okay. Thanks!”

He looked her over again, one side of his mouth twitching upward in a grin. “Don’t mention it.”

Kheshiri affected a bashful duck of the head as she trotted past him into the grounds. She didn’t roll her eyes once out of his view—there were people about, it wouldn’t do to break character. It was tempting, though. Big man with a weapon.

She looked thoroughly impressed and out of her element while traversing the lavish gardens, hunching her shoulders and picking up her pace on being catcalled by one of the guests. All the while, she analyzed her surroundings carefully and came up impressed. The guards weren’t numerous, but they were strategically placed. Doors were sturdily constructed, in contrast to the usual Onkawi custom of making things as flimsy and open as possible to encourage cooling breezes; Vandro’s estate made use of heavy oak doors and shutters, often with large cut-outs as a concession to airflow, set with thick iron bars in sturdy frames. More bars lined the windows, and whatever access there was to the wall tops was apparently locked away, available only to authorized personnel. More of those deadly glass murals lined the inner walls; this place could protect itself from its guests as well as any potential invasion.

The central building was pleasantly cool, shaded from the sun and inhabited by a constant, gentle breeze. The architecture provided part of that, no doubt, but considering some of the things she’d seen lately Kheshiri had to wonder if there was some passive enchantment at work, too. The long hall rose two stories from its marble floor, lined with huge silken hangings that billowed in the soft currents of air; a long, low pool ran the length of the center of the floor, fed by a laughing fountain at the far end.

It was quieter, too. A young Sifanese woman sat on a bench near the far end, idly fanning herself and reading a magazine; she glanced up at Kheshiri but quickly dismissed her from interest. A local servant was pushing a mop across the glossy marble; the succubus made a beeline for him.

“Excuse me,” she said politely, “I just have a message to deliver, I was told to ask for Wilberforce?”

The man looked up at her, blinking as though waking up. “Oh, uh, he’s around somewh—”

“May I help you, miss?”

Kheshiri had heard him approach, of course, but still jumped slightly and gasped before whirling to face the Butler. He was a man in his later middle years, hair gone steely gray, but still trim and unbowed, his eyes sharply intelligent. His neatly pressed suit looked like it would have to be horribly uncomfortable in this climate, but he didn’t even appear to be sweating.

“Um, are you the, uh, him?”

“I am Wilberforce, Mr. Vandro’s Butler,” the man said blandly.

“Oh! Good, the guard said… That is, I have a message for Mr. Vandro. He said you could get it to him?”

“And may I tell Mr. Vandro who called upon him?” the Butler asked, deftly plucking the envelope from her hand.

Kheshiri bit her lip. “I don’t think I’m… I mean, I’m sure it’s all explained in the letter.”

“I see,” he said, somehow clearly expressing disapproval without breaking his courteous deadpan in the slightest. She was impressed in spite of herself. “I will see that Mr. Vandro receives this with all haste.”

“Oh, thanks so much,” she said, practically gushing with relief. “I, uh… I’ll just be going then. Thank you!”

“Not at all, miss,” he said politely.

She could feel his eyes on her as she trotted back out into the garden, and he wasn’t inspecting her rump. Kheshiri made a mental note to be careful around that one in the future.

“Be safe,” the guard outside said to her as she exited the compound.

“Thank you!” she replied with a demure smile, setting off back the way she had come at a respectable clip. He did stare at her butt as she departed. She resisted the urge to put a little more than her customary sway into it.

Two streets over, five minutes later, she was still in a wealthy district, though the walled private villas had yielded to exclusive shops—jewelry, antiques and the like. The street ran along one of the city’s three rivers, an ornamental iron rail on one side and storefronts on the other. She had subtly tweaked her appearance as she stepped onto the boardwalk, not drastically enough to draw attention, just the addition of some jewelry and cosmetics and an improvement in the cut and fabric of her dress, so she wouldn’t look out of place in this neighborhood. The guards wouldn’t pay attention to a clearly wealthy woman out for a mid-morning stroll.

People flowed along on all sides, and she let the currents of the crowd carry her. Most of those present were Onkawi, tall humans with dark skin and colorful local garments, though in a district this ritzy there were more than a handful of olive-skinned Tiraan present, and even some paler Stalweiss types. Or possibly folk from the newly-settled Great Plains region; they apparently tended toward pale complexions as well. The new world took some getting used to; last time Kheshiri had been out and about, there was nothing within leagues of the Golden Sea but elves and centaurs. She spotted three gnomes sitting on the rail, chatting, and at one point a dwarf trundling along the street, but the people were overwhelmingly human. No elves at all, which suited her fine. Elves were annoyingly perceptive.

The street was well-patrolled and orderly, for the most part. One person tried to pick her pocket; she calmly raked the offending hand with vicious claws that in the next instant weren’t there. The would-be cutpurse was too professional to draw attention, but she could feel the pain and shock radiating from him. She savored it until he vanished into the near distance behind her.

It took her nearly half an hour, keeping to a meandering pace, to spot a suitable mark. He was clearly a merchant, strolling along rapidly, his mouth moving in silence as he peered at a sheet of expensive white paper in his hand. His clothes were well-cut, but rumpled and bore ink stains. Rich, but careless—perfect.

She had placed herself at the rail, leaning against it and gazing dreamily out over the water. At the target’s approach, she “absentmindedly” backed up, and he walked right into her. Kheshiri yelped and went staggering, wheeling her arms for balance.

“Oh, gods!” The man dropped his list and reached out frantically, catching her in time to save her from tumbling to the pavement. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t—are you all right?”

“Watch the hands!” she snapped, pushing him away. “And watch where you’re going, idiot!”

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated, wringing his hands as he stepped back. “I just didn’t see—are you quite all right? Let me make it up to…”

“Hmph!” Sticking her nose in the air, she strode past him, stalking away down the boardwalk and ignoring his last shouted apology as he receded into the crowd behind her.

She crossed the river at the next footbridge that came up, and waited till she was two streets distant from it to inspect the contents of the merchant’s purse. Excellent—loaded with doubloons, and even four decabloons. A few silver pieces, too, but clearly he was of a class that didn’t consider copper coins worth the effort of carrying.

Kheshiri stopped at a food cart to acquire a delightful confection of crushed ice and orange juice. In and around flirting with the scrawny youth manning the cart, she inspected the enchanted devices which composed it. A cold-creating charm, another to condense moisture out of the atmosphere and a third, much simpler enchantment powering a grinding wheel to keep the resulting frost thoroughly mixed, all working together to create an unlimited supply of crushed ice—at least as long as its power crystal held out, which was likely to be basically forever. Those things were used in wands, staved and even horseless carriages.

It was amazing. Back in her day…well, it wasn’t that magic wasn’t used on such frippery, but only the richest of the rich could have afforded it. Royalty, or upper aristocracy at minimum. Now? This car sat right on the street, dispensing wonder for pocket change to whoever happened by. Humanity had come so far, so fast…

Kheshiri found a bench in a small, sunny park, and lounged, basking in the sun and enjoying her frosty treat. It wasn’t that she had nowhere to be, but she took her time finishing the confection, then licking the melted juice from her fingers unabashedly before finally rising and continuing on her languid way.


 

It was nearing noon and the streets had mostly cleared by the time she got back to the crumbling, sprawling inn-cum-tenement from which she had set out that morning. The heat was nothing to her, obviously, but the city’s human residents customarily took shelter during the hottest part of the day. Kheshiri navigated the stained hallways and rickety steps back to the room and rapped on the door.

There came furtive motion from within; she stood patiently, waiting for him to identify her through the peephole. All of a sudden, the door was yanked open and Shook grabbed her by the arm, hauling her roughly inside and slamming it behind her.

“Where the fuck have you been?” he snarled, rounding on her.

“I’m sorry!” she said, shrinking in on herself and staring up at him wide-eyed through her lashes. “I really thought I knew this city, but it’s not like Tiraas, with all the historical architecture. They keep changing everything! All the landmarks are different, some of the streets are different even. There’s some kind of temple where the Royal Avenue used to be!”

His annoyance diminished visibly, even to the point of a faint smirk cutting through his scowl. “You got lost?”

“Not lost,” she hedged. “Just a little…turned around. A few times.”

Tension leaked from his shoulders and he actually chuckled, grinning at her unpleasantly. “Well, of all the goddamn things. I thought succubi were supposed to be smart.”

“I am smart,” she said defensively. “It could’ve happened to anyone!”

“Sure,” he said dryly. “Did you at least get your errand done, you silly trollop?”

“Of course I did! I wouldn’t have come back if I hadn’t. Your friend Vandro has a hell of a place; he’s done pretty well for himself, by the looks of it. I didn’t get to see him but I left the letter with a servant—”

He crossed the space in one long step, seizing her arm in a bruising grip and glaring down into her eyes. “You gave that letter to a servant?”

“It was the best I could do!” she squealed. “I promise, master, I couldn’t get any closer—that place is like a fortress. It was obviously a senior servant, he had on a suit even in the heat…”

“Wait, what kind of suit?” he said sharply. “Describe it.”

“Uh… Black coat with tails, charcoal gray slacks, waistcoat and bow tie.”

Again, Shook relaxed. Not for the first time lately, Kheshiri wondered about the effect his mood swings must have on his heart. “Oh. A Butler. That’s okay, then. I guess you managed not to completely fuck it up.”

“I wouldn’t let you down, master,” she said earnestly.

“No,” he mused self-importantly, studying her down his nose. “You’re a bit of a ditz sometimes, but I can’t say you don’t know what’s good for you.”

He released her and crossed to the window, twitching aside the ragged curtain to peek out. The little room was stifling; even in his shirtsleeves, Shook was drenched in sweat. The curtain admitted only a slight breeze, but he had insisted on it being left in place, and the door closed, despite the usual custom in Onkawa. Their privacy was far more important than their comfort. Well, his comfort. She could make do anywhere.

Kheshiri shifted back to her own appearance, stretching. She didn’t have room to extend her wings in here, but coiled and uncoiled her tail vigorously, savoring the freedom of motion.

“So,” she said hesitantly, “now what, master?”

“Now we wait,” he said, still peering out through the gap at the edge of the curtain. “Alan’s never let me down yet. He’ll come through.”

She slinked up behind him and began to knead his shoulders. “Then everything’s going according to your plan,” she breathed into his ear. “I’m sorry I made you wait, master. Can I help you…ease the tension?”

Shook turned to study her face, lifting one hand and stroking her cheek with the back of his knuckles. He smiled, the lopsided, self-satisfied little smirk he often got when inspecting her. Not bothering to reply, he tugged her close, tilting up her face to kiss her roughly.

Kheshiri purred and melted against him. The kissing was relatively new, but he’d been doing a lot more of it lately. Bit by bit, he was growing more relaxed around her, more certain he had her firmly under control.

Everything was indeed going according to plan.


 

Late in the afternoon, the sun had lowered enough that the constant breeze over the plains had begun to alleviate its fury. Shook and Kheshiri, again in her disguise as a local woman, sat on an outdoor patio at a restaurant several orders of social magnitude above their current residence, sipping iced lemonade and watching the street. Even in his best suit and with her looking fully presentable, the waiter had given them some very dubious looks. Fortunately, Shook was too preoccupied to notice. It was always a headache, running interference between him and polite society.

Several hours after she’d returned, a uniformed messenger, looking even more out-of-place in their slum than they did here, had arrived, directing them to this restaurant at this time. Or rather, to this restaurant half an hour ago. Shook kept his attention on the street, watching for the arrival of their putative guest; uncharacteristically, he remained calm. Aloof and somewhat tense, but not gradually working himself up the way he usually did when someone made him wait. Kheshiri had to wonder about this Alan Vandro and his relationship with Jeremiah Shook.

She shifted her chair subtly closer to his and experimentally ran her foot up his calf under the table.

“Cut it out,” he said curtly, not even looking at her. Kheshiri didn’t have to feign her disappointed frown. Whatever was going on, it was enough to distract him from the effect she had on him. That wasn’t good.

Shook straightened. An enchanted carriage had arrived out of the traffic, pulling up against the curb outside, an unnecessarily large and lavish model driven, she saw, by Wilberforce the Butler. He brought the machine to a stop and hopped down from the driver’s seat, opening the door.

The man who stepped out had clearly been big and powerful in his youth and was only slightly less so now. He had just the faintest stoop to his posture and a modest gut, but his shoulders were broad and his arms still thick. Clearly not local, he had what had once been a pale complexion, stained patchy red by sun and wind, his wild hair and neatly-trimmed beard gone pure white. Stepping out of the carriage, he instantly fixed his eyes on Shook and grinned so hugely she could have counted his teeth, regardless of the distance.

“Jerry, my boy!”

Alan Vandro bounded up the steps to the little terrace, his loose khaki-colored suit fluttering around him in the breeze. Shook had also stood, Kheshiri following suit behind him, and stepped forward to meet the man, grinning just as broadly. They clasped hands firmly and Vandro clapped Shook on the shoulder.

“I hear you’re living like a king out here,” Shook said, still smiling broadly. “Palace and all!”

“You don’t seem to be doing as badly as I expected, yourself,” Vandro replied, leaning around him to leer at Kheshiri. “What’s this little morsel, eh?”

“This is Shiri,” Shook said, letting go of the older man and stepping back to the table. “My most prized possession. Shiri, Alan here taught me everything I know.”

“I tried to teach him everything I know,” Vandro said, still grinning, “but there’s a limit to how much sense can be pounded into a skull that thick.”

Shook, to her amazement, laughed. Vandro, meanwhile, bowed over her hand, pressing a kiss to the back of her knuckles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Shiri. Jerry, lad, I’ve been telling you all these years you need to come out here and sample the local flavor. I guess now you’ve finally acquired a taste for dark meat, here you are.”

“Well, I’d like to say I just wanted to look you up for a visit,” Shook replied as they resumed their seats, Vandro taking one across from them, “but the truth is I need your help.”

“Goddamn right you do, boy,” Vandro said, his expression growing more serious. Kheshiri was fascinated. Here the man kept Shook waiting, mocked him to his face and flirted with his woman, and rather than blowing up the way she’d learned to expect, Shook treated it all as a joke. Amazing. “I’ve been hearing the rumors. Dunno what you did to piss Tricks off, but he’s good and pissed off.”

“Gnn.” Shook bared his teeth, grunting in annoyance. “I’ve only been able to get bits and pieces, here and there—the first of which convinced me to avoid Guildmembers for the time being, which is exactly what’s made it hard to get news. What’ve you heard?”

“Well, my boy, you’re wanted back at the Guild posthaste,” Vandro said, lounging back in his chair and accepting a glass of lemonade from the waiter without even glancing up at him. “And not in a friendly way. Somehow you’ve also managed to get the Avenists out for you. That’s pretty fucking impressive, Jerry.”

Shook growled. “None of this is my fault. It all comes back to that fucking bitch Principia.”

“Yeah, I figured from the context there was a woman at the back of this somewhere.” Vandro shook his head. “I’ve told you and told you, my boy, they are none of them worth upsetting your life over. I dunno what it is with you and women, but you’ve got to learn to just get what you need and kick ’em to the curb when you’re done.”

Kheshiri, too amused to be offended, kept her peace. Clearly these two man’s men wouldn’t welcome her input in the conversation. That suited her just fine; one learned more and revealed less by keeping one’s mouth shut.

“That cunt is a traitor to the Guild,” Shook snarled. “I’m the one tasked with dragging her home. And what do I find? Tricks no sooner sent me out than turned on me.”

“The word on Principia Locke is she’s also wanted to answer some questions,” Vandro said ruminatively, sipping his lemonade, “but far, far less urgently than you. Clearly, she’s held in somewhat better regard. How’s that work, with her evidently being a traitor?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Shook exclaimed, clenching his fists on the table. “But I am gonna find her and find out.”

“Now, there you go, getting worked up about it,” Vandro said easily. “I bet that’s exactly how you got into all this in the first place. You take everything too damn personally, always have. Now, this Principia… I never met her, but I’ve heard the rumors for years. She’s got a good, solid rep on her. Sneaky as a weasel and a big pain in the ass to deal with. Not hard to figure she’s twisted events to make you look bad. You can’t let it get under your skin, Jerry, that’s how she plans to bring you down. You’ve gotta get your side told. Even the playing field before you get yourself and her back into the Guild’s clutches.”

“Not so easy to do when I’m the next goddamn thing to being declared traitor, myself,” Shook said morosely.

“Well, now, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that,” said Vandro with a grin. “Obviously, things aren’t gonna stand as they are. Some bitch gaming the system to make my apprentice her fall guy? No, I don’t fucking think so. We’ll deal with this, Jerry. You were right to come here. Long as you’re out there chasing after her like the coyote and the hare, you’re playing her game. Now, we’ll play mine. I guarantee the bitch won’t know what hit her. Meanwhile, you and your ladyfriend will stay with me.”

“You don’t get Guild visitors?” Shook asked sharply.

“I get Guild visitors.” Vandro’s grin widened. “And they know to mind their fuckin’ manners in my place. This isn’t Tiraas, my boy; the Guild’s a powerful presence here, too, but matters are different. It’s not so hard to move without their say-so…or their knowing about it. Trust me, I’ll show you the ropes. Who knows, maybe I can even arrange for you to have some work while you’re here. A thief shouldn’t be sitting on his ass when there’s a city this rich full of complacent turkeys waiting to be plucked.”

Shook grinned, and Kheshiri didn’t bother to hide her fascination. So even a man like Jeremiah Shook could have a friend—an actual friend, who seemed to care about him as a person. What was more, a powerful friend, whose presence opened up all kinds of options for him.

She’d have to do something about that.

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