Tag Archives: Asfaneh Sakhavenid

Bonus #37: Divine Right, part 4

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The great double doors were limned in white destruction for an instant before crumpling under the onslaught. Very fortunately they were too heavy to completely disintegrate, but burst violently inward, one sloughing off its hinges in the process. Even so, several shards of wood flew across the room and a couple of the thieves cursed, one doubling over in pain.

Theasia flinched at the sudden violence, and was immediately annoyed at herself for it. An Empress could not afford to evince such basic human weaknesses; a Princess should already be rising above them. Of course, behind her, Asfaneh squealed in terror, which made her feel a little better by comparison.

The horses still hitched to her carriage liked all this least of all, screaming and rearing against their bonds. Someone was trying to calm them, probably the same diminutive woman who’d taken over their care, but Theasia did not turn to look, even as panicked equine bellowing and the clatter of abused hitching continued. Her attention remained on what came through the door.

They were very professional, if she was any judge. The soldiers streamed in through the opening they had forcibly made two at a time, immediately peeling away to both sides with their staves raised and trained on the arc of Eserites, establishing a firing line across the front of the warehouse. Eight of them in total, men in Madouri crimson and gray, who moved with the fluid precision of experienced or at least well-trained troops.

She did note, though, that the Duke had let his armorers fall behind the times. These men carried the same heavy thunderbusses used in the Enchanter Wars, thick staves with cumbersome charging levers attached to their clicker mechanisms, exposed power crystals in their hafts, and copper tracings along their etched runes to help direct electric currents. Multiple points of potential failure, those; the things were finicky and tended to malfunction unless maintained with the most exacting care. But there were a lot of them still around after the wars, and in addition to being cheaper than newer staves which offered more reliability and a better rate of fire, the old models still hit harder per shot. Theasia had only contempt for any commander who felt this tradeoff a good bargain. These were the same weapons which had failed utterly to stand up to Horsebutt and his mounted archers.

“Easy,” Catseye murmured, and the Princess wasn’t sure who she was talking to. Between the pounding boots of invading soldiers and the ongoing panic of the horses, only she and the few nearest thieves were able to hear the quiet admonition.

A cloud of dust drifted through the warehouse, concentrated at the doors from whose ruin it came, and obscuring the street outside; the glow of the streetlamps and the feebler lamps inside made an eerie fog of it. The soldiers were standing right in it with uncovered faces, but they neither coughed nor closed their eyes even momentarily. Theasia had never had occasion to see House Madouri’s troops in action, but obviously they were soldiers worthy of the name. A number of House Guard forces were either ceremonial props or glorified brigands. She took note of this.

“Secure!” barked one man, and Theasia marked him as the commander. Nearest the door on the right, no visible insignia. That was standard procedure; Imperial codes of war forbade the targeting of officers as their lack turned a force of troops to a general menace to civilians and the countryside. In scuffles between Houses, the killing of officers was common for exactly that reason.

Two more silhouettes appeared out of the swirling dust—quite dramatically, Theasia had to admit. At the fore was the Duke himself, dashing as always in a long tailored coat in his House colors, wearing a grim expression and with a shamshir bared in his hand. He strode boldly into the warehouse with his weapon upraised, then spoiled his posturing by squinting and heaving an involuntary cough against a mouthful of dust.

She managed not to smirk.

“Princess, are you unharmed?” he asked. She had to give him credit, the tone was perfect. Sharp and commanding without being brusque, the voice of a noble in control of himself and the situation. Without doubt he’d had actual bards coach him on how to posture in front of others during a crisis. She had.

Theasia lifted her chin infinitesimally. “I was only just brought here, my lord Duke, and have not been mishandled. These thieves are…oddly personable.”

“I’m sure,” he began with exactly the wry tone she expected, just like the hero in a chapbook would have. Theasia had seen enough plays and read enough novels, both modern and classical, to be able to recite the entire next five minutes of conversation in advance, complete with stage directions, and was not looking forward to it. Thus, she found herself actually grateful when Asfaneh went shrilly off script.

“Oh, thank the gods you’ve come, your Grace!” the lady squalled, barely visible behind a rank of now-bemused thieves, except that she was hopping up and down and waving one hand. This flailing spooked one of the horses which their current handler had only just begun to calm.

Theasia did not miss the tiny flicker of annoyance that passed across Ravaan’s expression, and had to firmly expel amusement from her own. Poor fellow, he so wanted his dramatic moment. Unfortunately for him, this was not his play.

She did take advantage of the distraction to glance past him, taking in his companion without letting her gaze linger. Casper Scheinrich, in the final analysis, made for a more striking presence than the dashing young hero his liege was trying to be, which she suspected would have been unwelcome news to them both. Taller by half a head, he had his blond hair slicked back in a way which made his pale features even sharper; his own lack of coloration was a stark contrast to the tight, sweeping black coat he wore, the traditional garment of a Vidian priest.

Unintentionally, she met his blue eyes directly. The man inclined his head to her in a respectful gesture, then resumed sweeping his gaze back and forth across the assembled thieves.

“I am beyond relieved to find your Highness in good health,” Ravaan said with ostentatious sincerity. “It is only by the grace of the Gods I learned of this. Fortunately, I keep an ear to the ground—I’ve found it a good habit to cultivate, when one is trying to uproot a stubborn nest of bandits.”

“I’ll. Just. Bet,” Catseye drawled. There were a few snickers from her companions.

Ravaan fixed his gaze on her, along with a disapproving scowl. “Are you in charge of this rabble then, woman?”

“This is a posse, boy,” she said sardonically. “Arguably a band, if you like the classics. A rabble doesn’t stare you down when you level weapons. But sure, if you’ve got something to say, you can say it to me.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” he quipped, even quirking his eyebrow. Gods, he’d apparently seen all the same plays she had, and wasn’t that a stinging indictment of her own tastes? “Very well, to business. I assume you people have done this for what you think is a good reason, but obviously whatever you hoped for is now off the table. You will immediately release the Princess to my custody.”

There came a shrill whimper from behind the group, and Theasia cleared her throat pointedly. Not that she would have admitted it, but she was starting to enjoy this just a little.

“And her companion, of course,” Ravaan added, almost managing not to look miffed.

Catseye blinked languidly, glanced back and forth along the ranks of his stony-faced soldiers, and then tilted her head like an inquisitive feline. “Or?”

For a span of three seconds, he actually looked taken aback. Scheinrich’s ever-moving eyes fixed on Catseye momentarily, then upon his master, before resuming their vigil.

“Come, now,” Ravaan said, gathering himself and frowning in patrician reproach. “I have a rank of military battlestaves leveled at your…what was it? Ah, yes, your posse. Excuse my befuddlement, but in the circles in which I move it is considered gauche to render overt threats of violence, so one strives to make them unnecessary. Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I leered and blathered something about your own charred corpse.”

“Now, son, the last thing I want is to criticize your sense of drama,” Catseye said, folding her arms, and Theasia could tell she was definitely enjoying this. “That was a hell of an entrance. One of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that. But you don’t seem to have considered the strategic implications of all this. For starters, you’ve got the Princess right in the line of fire your boys have laid out, there. Yourself, too, by the way.”

Ravaan hesitated, mouth slightly open, and his aristocratic self-mastery wavered. He shifted minutely backward, and went so far as to turn his head as if to glance at Scheinrich for support, though he quashed the gesture. Too late; the damage was done. It was the clearest confirmation of what Lord Shavayad had told her: the Duke was not the one making the plans in that pair. The slight lapse further revealed that Ravaan didn’t improvise well. He had come here expecting things to play out according to a certain script, had taken care to set it up thus, and at the first departure from it he was at a loss.

Scheinrich’s eyes had narrowed slightly, though. In what befuddled Ravaan, he saw meaning; the thieves were not sticking to the agreed upon plan, which meant they must have their own design. Theasia allowed herself to watch him directly now that he had focused his attention upon Catseye. Her right hand clenched unconsciously, rings and chains shifting against each other.

“So it is a stalemate,” he said aloud while Ravaan dithered, his Stalweiss accent slight enough to be barely perceptible. Clearly he had spent most of his life in Madouris, but had apparently come from his people’s home country, unlike the small clusters of local Stalweiss who were effectively just pale Tiraan. “Let us all do nothing hasty—these situations can suddenly resolve themselves in unforseeable ways.”

“Do tell,” Catseye simpered at him.

“Listen, you lot are lucky it’s me who found you first,” Ravaan said, and already he was reduced to blustering, puffing his chest out and raising his shamshir as if that were more threatening than the eight primed battlestaves. “As soon as the Emperor gets his hands on you, what he’ll do will redefine the Thieves’ Guild’s understanding of pain.”

“Seems to me we won’t have to worry about that if we’re charred corpses,” Catseye said with good cheer. “But since, again, your firing line is also facing the Princess, you might.”

“Now, look here,” he said peevishly. “You’ll get no possibility of mercy from the Silver Throne for this. Deal with me and it’ll go a lot better for you.”

“Ohh,” she mused. “So…you are offering us mercy, then.”

Theasia remained silent and as calm as she could manage, and was glad of it when Scheinrich’s unblinking gaze suddenly fixed upon her. There was no courteous nod this time; he smelled a rat.

“It is a prospect,” the Vidian said. “You can take no action while our weapons are upon you, and we cannot afford to harm the Princess. Clearly, we must come to some manner of arrangement.”

“You would really parlay with treasonous reprobates who have endangered my well-being?” Theasia asked, folding her hands primly before her. She immediately regretted that gesture, but neither Scheinrich nor the Duke appeared to notice it, and thus did not have occasion to note and wonder about her unusual jewelry.

“I must say I don’t care for the taste of it either, Princess,” Ravaan said with such perfect well-bred reluctance that it was clear he was back on a script he recognized. “Your own welfare is paramount, however. I will embrace an unseemly compromise if that is what it takes to save you.”

Theasia slowly drew in a breath, steeling herself for what must come next. All this, she had to acknowledge, was procrastination on her part, born of fear. This entire discussion was pointless, a chance for her and Catseye to amuse themselves at the Duke’s expense, and while that might be good enough for a Guild ruffian, she should demand better of herself. All that mattered had been getting them here. It was done, now it should be finished with.

Catseye had notice her inhalation, and was looking at her now.

“Got what you need, Princess?”

“That should be sufficient, yes,” Theasia replied as graciously as she could manage. On cue, all the thieves reached into their own coats.

The soldiers took a step forward in unison, raising their weapons higher. Ravaan peered at Theasia in open befuddlement.

Scheinrich’s eyes narrowed to blue slits.

“The lesson here, my lord Duke,” Theasia said, lifting her chin, “is not to reach too eagerly for low-hanging fruit. When your first overture to the Guild was rebuffed, you should have considered it final. When they later reached out to you in turn, you should have been far more suspicious.”

“Your Highness?” Ravaan raised his eyebrows quizzically. “With respect, I believe you may be confused as to—”

“Stop,” she said disdainfully. “Refrain from wasting my time, Ravaan. If it is not painfully clear to you already, this is not your scheme—it is mine. You are guilty of conspiring to abduct the Princess of Tiraas. That you planned to immediately return me safely home and take credit for the rescue does not make it any less treasonous.”

“How dare you!” he retorted, quite clearly aghast and insulted, and with none of his previous uncertainty or blustering. That fact might have made it more believable, had he not been a noble. This was precisely how they reacted to being fairly caught in their own lies: with completely sincere outrage at the idea that their actions might have consequences.

“Your Grace,” Scheinrich said quietly, “with respect, do not offer her the satisfaction. It is pointless; clearly this has been her plan from the beginning.”

A puff of air escaped Catseye’s nose and her shoulders jerked once in a silent little chuckle. “All this time, everybody thought the Princess was a piece to be moved on the board, when it turns out she’s a player. We live in interesting times.”

“You are a roguishly charming sort, Catseye,” Theasia said lightly. “I rather look forward to hearing your testimony.”

“I’ve got a simple rule about going to court, your Highness. Well, less a rule than a word: don’t. Still…testifying for the prosecution? That’d be a gas. Might be worth it just for the novelty.”

“All right, see here,” Ravaan said quickly, his voice beginning to rise in pitch. “You have nothing to gain by harming me, your Highness, and you already know I intended nothing but for you to be treated with the utmost respect. As you are clearly eager to step out of your father’s shadow, I see every prospect for us—”

“It’s too late, your Grace,” Scheinrich said, barely above a whisper, then raised his voice. “Sergeant at arms.”

Ravaan froze, then turned to him, already shaking his head. “No, Casper. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s out of the question.”

“There’s no compromise to be made here,” Scheinrich insisted softly. “Treason is treason. The degree of the offense matters less than who witnesses it.”

“Absolutely not!” Ravaan said vehemently. “You can’t even consider—”

“Ravaan,” the older man said, his tone oddly gentle. “It’s them, or us. Her life or yours.”

The Duke stared at him in silence for a drawn-out beat, then quite abruptly turned his back on the Princess and the thieves, his shoulders hunching in shame.

“This truly will mean dark days for the Empire.” Scheinrich’s own aspect was cool and collected as he turned instead to face them, meeting Theasia’s gaze without flinching. “But House Madouri will survive. Sergeant at arms, you may fire at will.”

“M-my lord?” the man said uncertainly. Disciplined they may be, but even House Madouri’s most trusted troops balked at orders to assassinate the heir to the Imperial throne. Interesting, and worth knowing.

Theasia was already raising her fingers to her brooch, but despite previous orders that they would wait for her signal, she wasn’t the first. A luminous sphere of blue light flashed into place around one of the thieves, kicking off a chain reaction. Each charm in succession activated, each personal shield flickering alight and then merging into a single long bubble, putting of sparks and a constant crackle of arcane power.

Upon reviewing Professor Araani’s early designs, she had responded to his request for further direction with orders that the charms should be suitable for soldiers fighting in formation, and thus could not interfere with one another at close range. Quite the contrary, the design he had finally produced would connect to any identical charm within its radius, forming a single arcane shield. According to Araani, this had the added effect of strengthening the overall defense, as stress upon any point would be distributed across the entire network, giving it effectively no single weak spot. In order to break it through brute force, an enemy would have to overpower every linked charm simultaneously.

That immediately proved highly relevant.

The House troops had no idea what they were seeing, but a soldier had one instinctive reaction to enemies at close range suddenly lighting up with unfamiliar magic.

The thunderbusses discharged very nearly in unison, a volley of high-powered lightning capable of splitting stone walls at that range slamming into the Guild’s defenses. The shields sparked, whined, and blazed nearly white, but they held.

Theasia did not begrudge herself a tiny gasp of relief.

“Drop ’em!” Catseye bellowed above the noise of Asfaneh’s shrill keening and the renewed panic of the horses, and Theasia, in unison with the thieves, reached up to switch off her shielding charm. The barrier flickered unevenly out of existence.

One of the charm’s weaknesses was that weapons could not be fired through it from the inside (yet; the Professor was optimistic that that could be overcome). That made this second the most dangerous part of the whole encounter, when they stood exposed before their enemies, but those lever-action thunderbusses had weaknesses of their own, including that they had to be manually recharged before they could be fired again. Well-drilled troops could fire a shot every four seconds. Four seconds was less time than the thieves needed to whip out wands and return fire.

Their mismatched collection of little sidearms didn’t even approach the firepower of the soldier’s staves. At that range, there was no reason they needed to.

Scheinrich stepped in front of the Duke even as lightning blazed all around them, the shield of golden light with which he wreathed himself and his master rippling as it was clipped by wandshots. The thieves had been specifically instructed not to kill the Duke, but in such a tumult, accidents happened. Even if some of them had been inclined to make an accident happen, Theasia had expected this outcome; the average priest’s divine shield could stand up to multiple hits from an average lightning wand.

Silence did not fall, though every single Madouri soldier did. The horses had had absolutely enough of this and appeared to be trying to tip over the carriage, and Asfaneh was wailing ceaselessly as if she had been shot, which Theasia knew was impossible. The room stank of smoke, ozone, and a surprising meaty smell. It took her a couple of seconds to realize, with abject horror, that no one nearby was barbecuing at midnight. That was charred human flesh.

That was not a useful emotion, so she crushed it down.

“So,” Theasia said, stepping forward out of the Guild’s formation and raising her right hand, “it’s treason, then.”

Scheinrich released the Duke to turn back to her, though he kept the golden shield up around them both.

She moved the fingers of her left hand to place the tips of the middle two against the sapphire positioned in her palm, activating the enchanted device. Light blossomed in the sapphires set into the gems along her right hand, accompanied moments later by tiny arcs of loose electricity. The network of enchantments included what Araani called a grounding charm, creating a sympathetic connection to the earth through which any electricity which escaped the weapon’s innate directional charms would be redirected without passing through her body.

Scheinrich stared her down, secure behind the power of his god, as Theasia stalked toward him. She was not deterred; the well of divine magic might be infinite, but the amount one man could draw was not.

Theasia raised her right hand and pressed it flat against the bubble of the shield, causing it to ripple and spark. Then she added the tip of her little finger to the crystal on her left palm.

Power surged, her entire hand crackled with renewed arcs of contained lightning, and Scheinrich’s shield turned white under the abuse. A high chiming noise rose in the air around them, sounding like nothing so much as a bell in pain. Arcane pounded divine toward a conclusion the Circle of Interaction made foregone.

The cleric’s shield fizzled, and he stumbled back, both he and the Duke receiving a nasty shock from the burst of suddenly uncontested magic. Not a lethal one, just disorienting; channeling enough power to crush the shield at a single blow would have instantly burned out her weapon, which was why she had instead worn it down over time.

Scheinrich retained enough presence of mind to push Ravaan roughly away from himself, throwing his arms wide to block him from Theasia. Ineffectual, but revealing. Even in the last extremity of danger, he did not flee or try to sacrifice his master. Conniving and self-serving the man might be, but ultimately, his loyalty was real.

Not that it mattered.

Theasia took two steps to her right, re-positioning herself so that her line of fire at Scheinrich would not arc through him onto Ravaan, and added a fourth finger to the crystal on her left hand.

The power which raged from her fingers was not like the single, neat shot of a battlestaff. It was a constant torrent, a storm of wild arcing bolts that surged over the priest’s body, consuming him in searing arcane light. He was hurled the entire width of the warehouse to impact the wall and then slump to the ground, unmoving.

That was also as much as the weapon itself could handle. Even as Theasia withdrew her fingers from the activator crystal, its output was fading to desultory little crackles; glancing down, she could see that several of the sapphires were cracked, and patches of the gold had corroded where it had been partially transmuted under the strain to something which wasn’t quite gold. Ah, well. She had known beforehand that the device was only good for one shot. That was not what occupied her mind now.

Theasia Tirasian’s entire life had been predominated by a feeling of weakness. Even the trappings of Imperial power which festooned her at all times only served to underscore the fragility of it all. The rule of House Tirasian was, at best, tolerated, and that only because her father was exceptionally good at playing the Houses against each other. She herself was a frail creature, sick with something for which no possible cure existed, doomed to a short life spent in bouts of intermittent pain and illness.

Yet at that moment, standing in the dark heart of her city with a fistful of lightning, an enemy charred to ruin before her and another cowering at her feet, she had a vision of the future. Her future, and that of the Empire.

Her Empire.

Ravaan had staggered to his feet, staring at her with eyes wide as the moon. When she turned to face him, he stumbled backward reflexively—and then, belatedly, noble pride reasserted itself and he straightened his spine. At some point he had dropped his sword and now had nothing with which to face her except his own hauteur. That he drew around himself like a suit of armor, tilting his head back to look coldly down his nose at what he must think was his approaching death.

Theasia stepped within arm’s reach, raising her hand and its enchanted weapon, and straightened his tie.

The Duke’s eyebrows drew together in an uncertain little frown. The Princess smiled up at him through her lashes, putting on the insipidly simpering smile she used to beguile men at court who were too stupid to be worth bothering with but too powerful to ignore.

The glacial cold of her voice stood in stark contrast to her expression.

“No one will believe you.”

It was satisfying in a way that was almost sexual, seeing so close the naked fear which peeked through his aristocratic composure.

Oh, there was going to be no end of cleanup necessary after this night’s work. Shavayad would help immensely—but then, he was something upon which she would also need to get a grip, him and whatever angle he was working. Handling Ravaan after this was going to be dicey; an enemy under control was in many ways more useful than an ally, but that was a path fraught with countless risks. She had not only drawn the very personal interest of the Theives’ Guild but handed them advanced enchantments to play with, which she had better see distributed to the Imperial Army posthaste lest they fall behind. And her parents. They were going to eat her alive.

For the first time in her life, Theasia felt not a hint of doubt that she would handle it all.

“And now, my lord Duke, let us discuss the future.”

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Bonus #36: Divine Right, part 3

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Teenagers sneaking out of their houses at night were a cliché so ancient the trope was well-represented not only in the modern chapbooks Theasia had been able to sneak, but in the staid old bardic sagas her mother approved for her. She had always rather resented those fictional kids their freedom. As it turned out, sneaking out of a palace secured by a sizable army, a corps of sorcerers, and an invisible network of spies leavened among the very servants was slightly less of a prospect for a teenage girl than tunneling out of a prison using a spoon. She had given up on it by age sixteen, when she had never once made it to the outer walls, let alone past them, and the repercussions of getting caught had started to eat significantly into her already scant freedoms.

Amazing how much easier it was when she was abetted by Imperial Intelligence itself.

“Oh, your Highness, I really think this is a bad idea,” Asfaneh fretted even as the carriage emerged from the courtyard into the street running alongside the Palace, totally unchallenged. “Please, can’t we go back? This is extraordinarily dangerous, how can it possibly be worth it?”

“I appreciate you coming with me, Asfaneh,” she said with a kind smile. Her mother had taught her not only the smile, which was as carefully constructed as a suspension bridge, but the trick of “addressing” the concerns of subordinates by politely failing to address them. Truthfully, she didn’t much like Lady Asfaneh Sakhavenid, but it was only because of the woman’s personality; she had no moral objection to her and no cause to complain of her service. Quite the contrary.

An Imperial Princess obviously needed ladies-in-waiting, a need which was complicated by Theasia’s medical condition. She had to be accompanied by nurses whenever possible, without letting it be known that she was. Her parents had found a solution by carefully fostering a few insignificant noble families like House Sakhavenid, which (like House Tirasian until very recently) only barely qualified as nobility and were treated with disdain by wealthier and more influential Houses. It was useful for many reasons to have a core of smaller Houses scattered around the Empire who were both grateful to House Tirasian and aware that the rug could be yanked out from under them if they displeased; just one of the benefits was the supply of noble daughters who could be trained in medicine and sworn to secrecy. The prospect that fidelity to the Tirasians might provide access to the capital and the Palace for their youngest generation could then be dangled in front of more recalcitrant Houses as well. Not that any of those would ever have a member placed close to the Princess, but as her father had explained to her, a political action should serve multiple purposes, or not bothered with.

Asfaneh was an Izarite priestess of low rank and ability, but a competent nurse with an encyclopedic knowledge of the various medicines, alchemical and mundane, which Theasia’s condition might require, and what symptoms called for the application of each. She was also a feather-headed puff of fluff who sighed at handsome boys, obsessively read execrable poetry, and generally behaved like the worst stereotype of an Izarite—but she was also the only one of Theasia’s attendants who had gone so far as to intercede with the Empress to argue that Theasia needed more freedom more than she needed coddling. In the face of that loyalty, Theasia was very careful never to let slip how much Asfaneh’s personality annoyed her, and took pains to see to it she was well-rewarded for her service. In fact, she felt rather guilty about involving the poor woman in this escapade, but she had not been willing to risk this without the accompaniment of one of her nurses, and the nature of the adventure required the one she trusted most.

Now, the tightening of Asfaneh’s mouth indicated that she had noticed Theasia’s little trick and didn’t appreciate it, but she looked mutely out the carriage window instead of arguing. Theasia continued to smile blandly, despite her nervousness which she felt like an electric charge buzzing in her limbs.

All this had been carefully arranged. It was practically scripted; if all went well, she would have accomplished everything she set out to and be back in her bed before her parents ever marked her absence. But so much could go wrong…

She looked down at her hands folded in her lap, watching the shifting light of passing street lamps gleam upon the jewelry there where it managed to penetrate the curtains. It was a more florid piece than she favored, a construct of jeweled rings connected by loops of worked gold and stretches of twisted golden chain, all linked to a sizable sapphire in a golden setting sewed right into her fingerless satin gloves at the back of each hand. More dangling chains tied each jewel to lavish bracelets, and the rest was thankfully hidden by the wide, lacy sleeves currently in vogue. In fact, those wires twined all the way up her arms and around her upper body, where they were linked to less extravagantly designed crystal settings hidden beneath her dress. Having this thing made had been the main reason for the delay, and even so it had been very rapid work for a jeweler; Shavayad’s man in the city clearly was accustomed to strange projects and discreet orders. It was impressive enough that he had re-worked Araani’s cumbersome gauntlet into this, let alone so swiftly.

Two weeks after their conversation in the Araanis’ basement, everything had finally been arranged. Now came what the spymaster had called “the fun part.”

Theasia had firmly steeled herself against reacting to that statement.

“What unusual pieces, your Highness,” Asfaneh commented, having noticed the direction of Theasia’s gaze. “I never saw you wear those before. In fact… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”

“Exotic, aren’t they? It’s a Sheng design,” the Princess lied with her bland smile firmly in place. “To be quite honest, I don’t think it is to my taste, but I find myself curious whether I can spark a fashion. How many times do you think I need be seen in public wearing these before all the ladies in Tiraas absolutely must have a set?”

Asfaneh pursed her lips for a moment. “Your Highness, I don’t wish to overstep,” she said with the hesitant condescension of someone who intended to widely overstep, “but I’m growing more and more concerned about you with everything I learn tonight. The jewelry is one thing, but…sneaking out to a party? These diversions are growing dangerous, and you mustn’t let them become a pattern. Believe me, your Highness, I understand about wanting to test boundaries! I was your age once, after all.” She was exactly two years older than Theasia, still not old enough to legally work as a secretary in a government office. She’d been younger than Theasia was now when they had met. “But one must be mindful of consequences! The damage to your reputation is the least of what could go wrong with an…an adventure like this. Princess, please take no offense, but you have been very sheltered and I begin to wonder if you’re truly aware of the concept of danger.”

This was one of those times when Lady Asfaneh’s proven track record of devoted loyalty was all that stood between her and a slapping. On average Theasia smiled through at least one such event a day.

“I’m aware of more than you realize, Asfaneh,” she said pleasantly. “As always, I appreciate your willingness to accompany me despite your own misgivings.”

“I wish you would stop doing that,” the lady said with overt annoyance for the first time in their relationship, and Theasia blinked. Now, how to go about encouraging more of that? She found it both more likable and more worthy of respect than all her years of simpering.

The carriage rocked slightly as if something had impacted it, then came to a stop, one of the horses whickering in confusion.

“What’s happening?” Asfaneh asked in alarm. “Why are we stopping? This is the middle of nowhere!”

This was close to the center of Tiraas, barely four blocks from the Palace itself, the absolute minimum distance they had to travel to reach a spot where there would be nobody on the street even in the middle of the night.

The carriage door abruptly opened and a man in a ragged black coat stepped swiftly inside. “Good evening, ladies!”

Asfaneh screamed and scrabbled away from him—but rather than retreating to a corner, she stumbled awkwardly across the space to plant herself in front of (and half on top of) Theasia. “Get out! Get out!”

She went silent when he raised a wand, a thick shaft of wood as long as his forearm, deeply engraved with enchanting symbols along its length and with a softly glowing power crystal protruding from its angled handle. Theasia noted it was a newer model with no charging lever attached to its clicker mechanism, meaning it could be fired as fast and as frequently as its wielder desired, at least until it overheated. The man did not point it at them, at least, but its presence was a firm enough message.

“I apologize for this interruption,” he said, grinning, his gravelly voice suiting his scruffy attire and thick stubble perfectly. “I’m afraid you’ll be late to your party. But don’t you worry, ladies, this evening should be plenty diverting.”

“Do you have any idea who—”

“Course we do,” a woman interrupted Asfaneh, climbing into the carriage from the other side. She was as roughly-dressed as the man and otherwise unremarkable in appearance, except for her vivid green eyes, a shade of viridian that seemed almost to glow in the dim light. “And may I just say, it’s a real honor to make your acquaintance, Princess! And you too, miss, of course.”

Asfaneh was still trying to block Theasia with her body, which involved a lot of awkward shifting and wiggling now that she had to do it from two directions. Theasia gently took her by the shoulders and pushed her aside onto the seat.

“Her title is ‘Lady,’” she said with the driest aloofness she could muster. “I hope my driver has not been harmed?”

“Course not, whaddaya take us for? Some kinda thugs?” The rough-looking man grinned as if this were a fantastic joke, pulling the carriage door shut and settling onto the seat across from them.

There came a muffled slap of reins and the vehicle started moving again, the green-eyed woman shutting her door even as they took off into the night.

“You will suffer for this, I promise you,” Asfaneh spat. “Once the Emperor learns what you’ve done, it’ll be your heads on pikes!”

“Young lady, this is the twelfth century,” Green Eyes said with a smirk. “Nobody uses pikes for any reason, much less for heads.”

“Might put our heads on plates,” her companion mused. “Whaddaya think? A nice silver platter? I think that’d set off my chiseled features pretty good.”

“Sarsamon’s too soft a touch for that, way I hear it,” she said amiably. “’Sides, beheading’s for traitorous nobles. Couple of trash like us abducting a member of the Imperial family, that’s a hanging.”

“Oh, well that’s no good,” he grumbled. “All that swingin’ around, how’m I supposed to keep my good side to the audience?”

“You’re insane,” Asfaneh blurted.

“Shh,” Theasia soothed, patting her shoulder and causing her jewelry to rattle. “Please compose yourself, Lady Asfaneh. They would have harmed us if they intended to.”

“That’s right, ladies,” the woman said airily. “You just sit back and relax, leave the work to us. We’re gonna go for a ride and have a little stopover. So long as everybody stays polite and professional, there’s not a single reason anybody should get so much as their hair ruffled. I promise we mean you no harm.”

“As if I would believe that!” Asfaneh snapped.

“Let’s not provoke them,” Theasia murmured, patting her again. “Just do as they say and remain calm. And when all this is over, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’ It’s something to look forward to, is it not?”

Her lady-in-waiting gave her a truly indescribable look. But at least she fell quiet.

Their new destination was a warehouse in one of the rising industrial districts, with a large door easily wide enough to admit the carriage. Torches and oil lamps lit the space, barely adequately; when the carriage doors were opened and they were directed to disembark, Theasia looked out upon a cavernous chamber whose ceiling and corners were lost to shadow.

All according to plan. Practically scripted. She was in control. She repeated this like a mantra as if it would ease the mounting speed of her heartbeat. Theasia could control her expression with practiced ease, but the doctors had warned her against stressing any of her organs excessively. One had admitted, when she pressed, that a heart attack would very likely be her cause of death, and that was practically optimal, considering how much faster it was than death by failure of the liver or kidneys.

“Princess, run!” Asfaneh abruptly screamed as soon as they were out of the carriage and surrounded by scruffy Thieves’ Guild reprobates. The lady bodily shoved the nearest thief away from Theasia, a gesture which proved totally ineffectual.

Theasia, of course, did not move, and would not have even had she not been here by her own design. Run where? They were shut in and surrounded. She was progressively revising her opinion of Asfaneh, who had considerably more courage than she had realized, but even less sense.

The man she had tried to body-slam stood a head taller and twice as broad; he was barely jostled, but turned a scowl on the young lady and raised a hand.

“Hey, Brick,” said the green-eyed woman, emerging from the carriage last. “You want your fingers broken in any particular order, or should I improvise?”

He hesitated, grimaced, and then lowered his hand and bowed to Asfaneh, to her visible amazement. “Beggin’ your pardon, miss, my apologies. Force o’ habit. We’re just simple thieves, after all, an’ not used to such…esteemed company.”

She squeaked and scurried over to Theasia, where she clung to the Princess’s arm.

“Welp! Here we are,” Green Eyes said, sweeping a grandiose bow and flinging out one arm to gesture around the empty warehouse and the gaggle of thugs. Theasia quickly took stock; the thieves were watching her mostly with a kind of bemusement, which was encouraging. She had expected leering. There was no sign of her driver, but a thin woman even younger than herself was tending to the horses. That was all she could take in with a single glance, but the woman kept speaking so the Princess quickly resumed meeting those eerie eyes. “Welcome to this miscellaneous spot in the manufacturing district! Please don’t bother memorizing the location; the poor sap who owns this joint doesn’t know we’re here and wouldn’t be happy about it. We aren’t quite daft enough to bring you to a real hideout.”

“Drat,” she said neutrally. “I shall have to re-work my escape plan entirely.”

That earned her several grins, including from the speaker, who seemed to be in charge. “I will be your host this evening; you can call me Catseye. You know Spiff, of course.” The ragged fellow from the carriage ride grinned and tipped his hat, winking at Asfaneh. “And despite Brick’s little lapse, rest assured you’re not here to be roughed up in any way, shape, or form. I’d introduce everybody else, but you don’t care and a lot of the lads prefer their anonymity.”

“Catseye?” Asfaneh said incredulously. “Spiff? Those can’t possibly be names!”

“This Empire was recently brought to its knees by someone called Horsebutt,” Theasia pointed out.

“Bit of Imperial propaganda, that,” Catseye said amiably. “Heshenaad translates more as ‘the space behind the horse;’ it’s an old equestrian term from Calderaas, referring to how not to handle horses. You don’t ever wanna approach them from their blind spot. The Empire misnamed him on purpose to make him sound ridiculous, which pretty much backfired when we then got our heshenaads kicked by the guy with the silly name.”

Theasia raised an eyebrow. “Our?”

“Hey, we may be thieves,” Catseye said, raising one of her own, “but we’re all Tiraan here.”

There came a muffled throat-clearing from a young woman in an overlarge coat, with a scarf hiding all of her face save her black hair and almond-shaped eyes.

“Except Wakizashi,” Catseye said with a sigh, “who would like to remind everyone that we are a brutish and savage people with a history no longer than the fall of last autumn’s leaves.”

Wakizashi bowed.

“Wakizashi,” Theasia said, tilting her head. “That’s a Sheng term, is it not?”

There came a beat of silence, in which the Sifanese woman’s glare turned murderous, followed by uproarious laughter from every other thief in the warehouse. Asfaneh pressed herself against the Princess amid the tumult, wrapping an arm around her protectively.

“Kid, I like you,” Catseye said, grinning at Theasia.

“How charming. Finally, something worth noting in my diary.”

“Well, timing being what it is, we’re gonna be here a little while,” the thief said, and clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s have some damn hospitality, already, you louts are making us look bad! Come on, roll out some seating and let’s bust open the refreshments.”

“What are they waiting for?” Asfaneh whispered while the thieves busied themselves fetching things from crates. Theasia just shook her head and patted her companion’s hand comfortingly.

“Luxury accommodations, as requested!” Brick proclaimed, setting down the second barrel a few feet behind them. The big man whisked off his coat and draped it over the two upright barrels, forming a makeshift bench.

“Good evening, ladies!” said another thief, approaching with a grin, a tin of salted fish and a box of crackers. “Tonight’s menu is herring, caught in the majestic waters of our very own Gulf of Punamanta, probably at some point in the last six months, chased by a local specialty: machine-formed nautical biscuits, made right here in Tiraas, the very jewel of our Empire. I recommend putting a little fish on each cracker, it makes it harder to taste both. And here’s Spangle with the wine list!”

The gestured grandly with the cracker box at another man, this one a lean Westerner with his hair up in braids threaded with beads and metal charms, who was holding a visibly dusty jug.

“You are in luck, your Highness,” he declaimed. “Tonight we feature a particularly amusing Calderaan corn moonshine. I find this a surprisingly oakey vintage, with the most delicate notes of wheat and citrus, with an almost playfully presumptuous finish. It is, of course, white, as the main course is fish.”

Asfaneh whimpered and squeezed Theasia tighter.

“That’s very kind,” the Princess said politely, “but no thank you.”

“As you wish,” Catseye said amiably. “We have a bit of a wait ahead of us, though, and I’m afraid luxurious accommodations aren’t even adjacent to our list of priorities. This is a big nuisance for you girls at absolute best; I don’t mean to make it any more uncomfortable than necessary.”

Theasia gave Asfaneh’s hand a squeeze before the girl could say anything. Either she got the message or hadn’t been planning to chime in that time; at any rate, she stayed quiet, and Theasia turned her attention fully to Catseye, disregarding the offered “amenities.”

“What made you decide to become a thief?”

That, finally, pierced the veneer of conviviality, not just from Catseye but from the room at large. Smiles faded and the Guild members grew still, turning suddenly contemplative stares on her. Asfaneh squeaked softly at the attention.

Catseye, after a pause, tilted her head back, looking defiantly down her nose. “What made you decide to become a princess?”

“Hmm.” Despite the stress of the situation and the risk she was taking by effectively poking at this woman, Theasia couldn’t help being actually interested. All her life, the Thieves’ Guild had been presented in her social circles as a monster that lurked in every shadow. Yet obviously, these people had their own perspectives and reasons for the things they did. They certainly did not act quite like anyone else she had ever met. Thieves in stories were altogether more…menacing. “So you imply that all our lives are scripted, our fates preordained?”

“That’s more grandiosity than I would give to anything, ever,” Catseye said in a drier tone, tucking her hands into the pockets of her ratty longcoat. In the faded golden lamplight, her vivid green eyes seemed practically to glow; it was clear (and even a little unimaginative) where her nickname derived from. “Life is about what you do with what the gods hand you. You got a palace, an education, and a shitload of responsibilities nobody sane would ask for, with all the lavish luxuries to match. Me, pretty much the opposite. Same goes for most of those here. Either of us could’ve chosen to be resentful and make a general pest of ourselves. Or, we can take life seriously, stifle our complaints, and see how much we can get done in the situation we’ve got to work with.” She shrugged, quirking one side of her mouth in an ironic smile. “I know what I chose. After this night’s work, I’m getting increasingly curious about you.”

“Oy, Catseye!” Theasia was spared having to respond to that by the voice from the rafters; a scrawny boy who could hardly have been more than fifteen had appeared, balanced precariously on a beam in the upper darkness near the window through which he had just clambered. “We got incoming, looks like our mark. Two swells in fancy suits and six guards with swords and staves, just like he promised.”

“He’s early, though,” Catseye murmured, meeting Theasia’s gaze. “Nobles never can wait their bloody turn… All right, Selim, good work. Get back up there and sing out if anything unexpected happens, but remember to stay quiet about the rest of what’s planned.”

“I’m not stupid, Cat,” he snorted, shimmying back out into the night.

“Curtain’s rising! Places, everybody!” Catseye clapped her hands and the various thieves flowed into motion, arranging themselves in a menacing half-ring around their leader, the Princess, and Lady Asfaneh, who was trembling so hard Theasia was partially holding her up by now. “Ladies, this marks the last portion of the evening where I can personally guarantee that everyone involved will remain polite. You may wanna discreetly remove yourselves to behind the carriage over there.”

“You know very well that isn’t an option for me,” Theasia replied. “Asfaneh, here.”

It was easy, in light of her peculiar hand jewelry, to miss the relatively simple sapphire brooch she had pinned to the throat of her gown. Now, she withdrew an identical one from the cunningly hidden pocket in her skirts and carefully affixed it to Asfaneh’s own dress, to the woman’s clear confusion.

“Princess, what—”

“Lady Asfaneh,” she said, firmly but gently. “I want you to stand behind the thieves until I tell you otherwise. If at any point you feel you are in physical danger, grab this brooch and press down on the sapphire until it clicks. But not unless you actually discern a threat. Is that clear?”

“Your Highness, no,” she said, forgetting protocol. “I’m not going to leave you!”

“I’ll be right here,” Theasia insisted. “This is important. I will make it a command if I must, but I would rather you trust me.”

Asfaneh peered at her, wide-eyed, then glanced around at the watching thieves.

“I know what I’m doing,” Theasia said softly.

“I’m very much afraid you know less than you think, Princess,” the lady whispered.

“There is simply not time. Go, Asfaneh. Now.”

She drew in a deep breath and scrunched up her face, and for a moment Theasia feared she would have to ask the Guild to manhandle her attendant. But Asfaneh finally let out a tiny noise of dismay and turned, scurrying off through a gap in the thieves’ loose formation.

“You ready for this, Princess?” Catseye asked her quietly as she turned back to face the door.

Theasia shook her head. “Is anyone ever—”

Lightning flashed and the huge warehouse door exploded inward.

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