Tag Archives: Bishop Darling

16 – 44

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“Why, hello, Juniper,” the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild said pleasantly, wariness in every line of his stance. “Are you lost?”

“Nope, I don’t think so!” she said with as much good cheer as she could muster. Juniper had developed a habit of quiet and calm, helped along both by elven and Omnist meditative practices and a series of traumatic epiphanies that had overshadowed her sunny disposition, but at the same time, she had not failed to notice the difference in how she was often treated these days, as opposed to her first year among mortal society. It was easy enough to put on a smile and a chipper tone of voice; it helped to put people at ease, right up until the moment when it started to make everything worse. For some reason it really unsettled people when she did something scary with a smile. “These are Avenists, right? Those Purist jerks who’ve been causing trouble?”

Tricks glanced fleetingly behind her at the priestesses, two of whom were trying to revive their collapsed comrade. “All due respect, little lady, but this is a private function. Tell you what, how ‘bout we offer you something to eat and a discreet ride out of the city?”

“Oh, thanks, but I’m not really hungry.” There were several audible sighs of relief from around the courtyard, which she ignored. “So I see you’ve got your own thing going on here, looks like pretty important religious business, right? I wouldn’t wanna intrude or anything. I’m just gonna take these three back to the Temple of Avei, then. Don’t mind me.”

“The fuck you say,” Style snarled, stomping forward as Juniper started to turn toward the Purists. “Bitch, I do not care who or what you are, this is the fucking Thieves’ Guild. You do not walk in here and give us orders.”

“Style,” Sweet warned.

“I’m afraid we do have a religious imperative not to be pushed around, Juniper,” Tricks added in a more careful tone. “That, in fact, is the very reason those three are here to begin with. It’s simply out of the question to allow—”

“Yeah, I don’t care about that,” Juniper said blithely. “My friends—you know, the paladins? All three of them?—have been working hard to straighten out the political situation with the Trinity cults and restrain the Church, and what you’re doing here would throw a big wrench in that. So, you’re not gonna, that’s all.”

“That a fact,” Tricks said quietly.

“This reminds me of a funny joke I heard!” Juniper kept her sunny smile in place and undiminished. “Where does a dryad sleep?”

That brought her a few moments’ pause, in which the three Guild officers in front of her visibly reconsidered their position; Glory was gently but firmly shepherding Rasha back toward the other apprentices and out of Juniper’s easy reach. A steady breeze of whispering and muttering passed over her from the thieves on all sides, in contrast the silence in the center. Juniper almost never heightened her senses to anything near an elf’s while in a city, as the noise made it impossible for her to think, but she did customarily keep her hearing more acute than the human norm, and picked up a lot of distinct commentary.

“Don’t even think about it, they’re a threat level eight. Even the Army doesn’t dare…”

“…the fuck does she think she is, comin’ in here…”

“One of ‘em ate my grandpa!”

“Why is it in the city!?”

“By Izara’s bloomers, would you look at the rack on her.”

“Put that away, she’s actually Naiya’s child! You wanna cause a fucking earthquake?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind that being the last thing I ever saw, know what I mean?”

“Fuck that, anything bleeds if you…”

“Screw this, I’m out.”

“Why do the pretty ones gotta be so scary?”

She kept her eyes on Tricks, still smiling, and pretended she didn’t hear any of it. Somehow, even the (technically) complimentary remarks weren’t exactly flattering, but Juniper couldn’t begrudge the humans their fear. Especially since she was about to specifically lean on it.

Apparently Antonio, even if he couldn’t hear as clearly as she, knew people enough to see where this was going and stepped in.

“In case there was some ambiguity,” he said in a carrying voice, “Juniper is a dryad. If you don’t know what that means, the short version is dryads are the demigod offspring of Naiya, impervious to most harm and strong enough to slap you into a spray of giblets. The only thing worse than getting attacked by a dryad is attacking one; if you succeed in hurting a dryad, you’ve just pissed off mother nature herself. Anyone who survives that gets to explain to the government what happened that caused half the city to be smashed.”

That only intensified the muttering, unsurprisingly, but at least the angrier voices abruptly went silent. Which wasn’t to say that the anger itself was gone, especially right in front of her. Tricks was now studying her through narrowed eyes, the very picture of a man rapidly putting together a plan, but Style took one long stride forward, close enough to lean in and plant one thick finger against the medallion Juniper wore on a braided cord.

“I’m gonna assume you’ve got some idea how faith works if you’re walkin’ around wearing the symbol of one, nature girl,” the chief enforcer grated. “Whatever else we are, we are a faith. Our central tenet is not getting pushed around by people with power. So unless you wanna kick off that local apocalypse Sweet’s talkin’ about, you’d better back the fuck off.”

She got quite a few mutters and several shouts of approval. Juniper just tilted her head, studying the taller woman with her eyes kept deliberately wide in an expression she’d been told made her look childlike and innocent, an idea she found bizarre in the extreme. Here and now, there was an obvious rebuttal to be made to Style’s statement, to the effect that pushing people around was the entire rest of Eserite faith, but getting into an argument here would defeat the purpose.

“It’s Style, right?” she said pleasantly. “You beat up Trissiny one time, didn’t you? Pretty impressive! That’s not gonna happen today.”

She planted her palm against Style’s sternum, and immediately the enforcer shifted the hand prodding at Juniper’s medallion to grab her wrist and attempt some manner of skillful arm twist, which was exactly as efficacious as trying to put a tree in a headlock. In the next second her grip was ripped free of Juniper’s arm along with the rest of her as the dryad stepped forward, straightened her arm, and pushed Style fifteen feet through the air. The chief enforcer crashed into the front rank of thieves, bowling the lot of them over and causing a general outcry around the courtyard.

With Juniper’s strength being a magical effect causing her movements to have the full weight of a tree behind them when she so chose, stepping forward into a movement didn’t add force as it did for most martial artists. On the contrary, Professor Ezzaniel had worked with her extensively to control her strength, mostly by controlling speed, on the principle that force was a product of mass and acceleration. If Juniper hit someone, she could reduce them to pulp. Learning to fight mortals non-lethally had been much harder, and the method they’d developed hinged upon smoothly accelerating from a dead stop after she had already made bodily contact. The timing was tricky, but Ezzaniel had drilled her without mercy until she could launch a watermelon across the quad from a standstill without bruising it through a combination of tightly controlled speed and smoothly increasing her own force mid-motion. Not that it was a perfect art; Style was going to have a badly bruised sternum, and possibly cracked ribs—not to mention whatever happened when she landed on a pile of people—but hopefully it would be nothing a good healer couldn’t fix in moments. And at least she still had ribs.

Obviously, the onlooking thieves didn’t like that one bit. There was a great deal of shouting; weapons were brandished and more than a few people actually stepped toward her, forestalled only by Tricks himself taking a step closer to the dryad, raising both his arms with palms out toward the crowd in a clear order for calm. He kept his eyes on Juniper’s as he approached, and after a couple of seconds, the spectators quieted enough that a mob was less immediately likely. The smell of fear predominated over anger, but Juniper knew that was no guarantee against violence. People in a panic were often more dangerous than people in a rage.

“All right, you’ve made your point, Juniper,” Tricks said once the noise had quieted enough that he could be heard throughout the courtyard without raising his voice. “You okay, Style?”

“Fucking,” Style wheezed, struggling upright and roughly shrugging off the hands that tried to help her. “…gonna…” Sweet had already disengaged from the confrontation, striding over to her and lighting up with a soft glow of divine light. He wasn’t so easy to dissuade, and based on what Juniper had observed of him, was probably aiming to prevent her from retaliating as much as intending to offer healing.

“Style also has a point, of course,” Tricks continued, his gaze holding Juniper’s. “You may be invulnerable, but you’re not alone. Those three you’re so determined to protect from the consequences of their actions are made of soft, squishy humanity. Not to mention that you yourself came here with somebody who I bet is a lot easier to bruise.” He finally tore his eyes from her face to look down at Sniff with a significant lift of his eyebrows, before focusing back on her and indulging in a faint smirk. “Didn’t plan this all the way through before you stepped in, huh?”

Juniper immediately dropped her own smile, ignoring the several indrawn breaths that resulted from her suddenly blank expression. “I guess not,” she answered. “You’re not wrong. And if you hurt my pet, I will tear off your right arm and eat it in front of you.”

The dead silence which resulted was broken only by soft weeping from behind her; the three Purists were not handling this drama very well, despite no longer being the focus of it. Everyone else was just staring at Juniper, with no sign that they didn’t believe her.

Teal liked to say that a threat was, in and of itself, an act of violence. It was Trissiny who’d told her the most effective way to leverage them, which ironically was with the least violence possible. People expected threats to be delivered with passion, and were far more unsettled to hear an offer of terrible harm spoken with calm detachment. Juniper didn’t really understand why, expect that humans inherently didn’t like unexpected juxtapositions. At any rate, the Eserite technique Trissiny had taught her was to make statements, not threats.

And, most importantly, to mean them with absolute sincerity. Which she did. To judge by the chilled silence now surrounding her, it worked.

Tricks, after a moment, dropped his gaze to her chest, and for a change he wasn’t looking at her cleavage, but the golden sunburst medallion resting on it.

“That’s not very Omnist of you, young lady,” he said softly.

Juniper shrugged. “Omnu doesn’t expect perfection. Everyone fails; you just can’t let a sin become a habit. You’ll only be the second guy I’ve devoured alive while he screamed and begged me to stop, and it’s been a few years. I don’t think that counts as a pattern.”

Now people were shuffling backward, pressing each other toward the walls to gain precious inches of space from her. Not Tricks, though; he just held her gaze, and she made herself stare back despite the surge of self-loathing she was now riding out.

Teal, Trissiny and Gabe all had various methods they’d been taught for controlling their emotions and putting on a performance; even Shaeine had described the method of Narisian public face, though that seemed proprietary to the drow and she’d never offered to teach anyone. None of that had made a lot of sense to Juniper. Instead, it was just her own faith by which she kept her own expression even, despite the feelings raging in her. Omnism was big on meditative disciplines, which Toby had patiently walked her through, and practiced with her. What she was doing here flew against everything she had so laboriously tried to change about herself, invoking her own savage propensity to violence as a means of coercing someone; remorse, shame, and grief clawed at her from the inside.

But she acknowledged them, and let them go. Feelings were just that; they did not require a response, didn’t even have to stick hard enough to change one’s expression. Juniper wrapped that hard-learned stillness around herself like a warm coat, allowing her emotions to pass over her unimpeded, including the pride she felt at being able to do this. Just a few short months ago, the practice had been frustratingly difficult.

At any rate, it worked. She could see in the minute shifting of Tricks’s expression that he took her calm promise at face value.

But, as the seconds ticked past and his eyes bored into hers, he still failed to back down. In his squint she interpreted rapid thought as he tried to reason a way out of this. Why was he being so stubborn? All around them, the other watchers had clearly decided she was not a fight they wanted; no one else continued to offer her any resistance.

Juniper finally tore her own gaze off the Boss’s to study one side of the courtyard and the thieves clustered there, and in noticing that they were all watching her and Tricks, she finally realized her mistake.

This was not, as she had first assessed them, a single pack, bound together by emotional closeness and common cause. Of course not, the Thieves’ Guild was too big an institution to be so united. It was more of a…watering hole, a meeting place of multiple packs and herds and lone wolves. She stood amid a meeting of different factions and isolated individuals, all with their own agendas. Personal devotion was the lesser share of what kept Tricks in power; he also could not be seen as weak, or they’d turn on him. She had inadvertently pushed him right into a corner from which he could not do anything except order violence that they all knew would be hopeless.

Well, shoot. The god had asked her to neutralize the brewing conflict, not ignite it twice as hard. Fortunately, her realization of what was actually happening immediately suggested a solution she could still enact.

“You Eserites.” Slowly, Juniper turned in a full circle, dragging her gaze around the room and studying the various thieves disdainfully in passing. “So scary. All the rich and powerful are just so intimidated by your… What? Clubs and brass knuckles? I guess it works for you. ‘Cause after all, you do work in your nice, safe, clean cities, where other people are the worst things you’re ever gonna see.” She completed her revolution, coming back to face Tricks, but let her eyes slide over him, turning again to regard the assembled thieves. “None of you have ever actually come face to face with a real monster, huh?”

She turned further, tossing her hair and staring around at them, this time in an obvious challenge.

From behind her came a muffled curse, and then scuffing footsteps. Unhurriedly, Juniper turned around to regard one of the thieves approaching her with a deep scowl, fitting a set of spiked iron knuckles onto his right hand. Just the sight of him told his story: he was taller than she and far wider, thickly muscled, with a twice-broken nose, cauliflower ear and a scar over one eyebrow.

She turned to face him fully and just stared as he came. In seconds, his expression faltered, and then his steps did.

Juniper made herself see, not a man, but prey. Taking in his size and build, the distribution of fat and muscle, she knew what the meat would taste like, how tough it would be to chew. How much energy it would give her, and how long it’d be before she felt like eating again. She knew the temperature of fresh blood, the smell of it. Where and how to exert pressure to deliver a quick death—or not to, simply incapacitate the prey so the heart kept pumping and the meat stayed fresher and more tender while she began eating.

She was not good at putting on false faces, but Juniper had a real one that could be a thing of horror. A street soldier like this man possessed an animal cunning of his own, instincts that enabled him to sum up people at a glance; they were enough to warn him, when she held those thoughts in the forefront of her mind, that he was not looking at a person. Meeting her utterly dispassionate gaze as it weighed him, he found himself staring into the eyes of an apex predator, and by pure instinct, stopped approaching.

“Uh, Rowdy?” said another voice from across the courtyard, “I really wouldn’t. This may be a good time to mention that dryad was at Ninkabi. Hey, it’s me, Thumper!” he added irritably in response to a round of scoffs from nearby. “You think I’m gonna forget a woman who looks like that? Seriously, I saw her kill a baerzurg demon by punching it. Y’know, one of those big armored ones that’re, uh…invincible?”

Slowly, the now-unnerved looking enforcer began to edge backward. Juniper turned to find that Tricks had also retreated to join Sweet and Style among the crowd. Because she’d accomplished her goal, buying him the opportunity to do so. He hadn’t backed down from her; the entire Guild had. Not one of them was in a position to call him out for it.

Movement caught her eye. Between two heads in the crowd was suddenly Eserion’s face; the god mouthed Thank you, then vanished in a shift of the throng.

Juniper heaved a sigh, shook her head, and turned to stare at the Purists. “Well, all right then, now for you.”

“Please don’t!” one shrieked, covering her face with her arms in a singularly counterproductive survival strategy, while one of her compatriots screamed wordlessly and the other just wept.

“Oh, shut up,” Juniper exclaimed, giving vent to her exasperation. After the last few minutes it felt good to just express what she was actually feeling. “I’m not gonna eat you! If I wanted you dead, why would I go to all this trouble? You three are going back to the Temple of Avei so Commander Rouvad can do some justice on you. After the crap you jackasses have been doing, that’s probably gonna be no fun at all, but it’ll be a lot better than what you were about to get here. Or what would happen if it was up to me. But it’s not, that’s the entire point. You get real justice, from somebody who’s authorized to actually hand it out, and you’re not gonna give me any sass about it. Right?”

All three of them quivered and stared at her mutely, and she sighed again.

“Okay, here’s how it is: dryads aren’t build for sprinting, see? So if you try to run away from me, I’ll have to have my friend here chase you down, and that’ll be a problem for you. Sniff, show ‘em your claw.”

Sniff paced forward, causing the trio to edge away from him, but they wisely stared at the proto-bird as he, fanning his short wings for balance, balanced on one leg and extended his other foot toward them. He had birdlike talons—mostly. One of his claws was considerably oversized in relation to the others, and murderously hooked, a natural weapon designed to rend flesh.

“Thank you, Sniff,” Juniper said primly. “His species evolved so that if they’re chasing something down, it’s to kill and eat it, see? He’s not good with catching things, exactly. So if you try to run, it’ll end with you lying in the street in a puddle of your own entrails. And if you make me have to explain that to the police, I’m gonna be really annoyed! We understand each other?”

“Thank you!” the least rattled of the priestesses blurted. “We won’t—you’ll have no—we’ll go— Uh…thank you.”

“Good.” Juniper nodded once and slipped her enchanted ring back on, changing her coloring to a Tiraan average. She wasn’t built like most Tiraan in the face or figure, but it seemed the majority of humans didn’t look beyond coloration when casually sizing each other up.

She strode past them to the big double doors that apparently opened onto the alley beyond, leaving Sniff to hover around the terrified Purists. Herding wasn’t something she’d trained him to do, exactly, but Sniff was extremely smart and their druidic bond enabled him to pick up on a lot more of her intentions than a normal animal; she trusted him to help chivvy their prisoners in the right direction as needed. For now, Juniper stopped in front of the gates. They were heavy, solid, and locked.

“Any of you wanna help me out here?” she asked, turning to look over her shoulder at the assembled thieves. The crowd was already smaller as some of them had started to sneak off back into the Casino. Those remaining just stared at her, offering no response. “Well, okay,” she said with a shrug. “It’s not my house.”

Juniper had to spread her arms fully to grasp one of the doors, sinking the fingers of one hand into the crack between the two and the other between it and the wall. But with that done, all it took was bracing her legs and pulling. The wood groaned in protest for a moment, and then with a terrible clatter the lock burst open. She’d pulled from both sides, though, and when one of the upper hinges was ripped out of the stonework, she decided to just run with that instead of trying to swing the damaged door normally. Another yank ripped it fully off, leaving the other now-unsecured door to swing a few feet open.

Juniper trotted over to the wall and leaned the towering wooden gate against it, then turned around, dusting off her hands.

“Well?” she said imperiously, staring at the cowed Purists, and pointed at the opening she’d just created. “Go on. Out.”

They hesitated, and then Sniff hissed loudly from his position at their backs. A moment later, their odd little group was leaving the silent Thieves’ Guild behind.

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16 – 43

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“So he’s at least making an effort to keep all this on the level,” Grip explained as they strode rapidly up the sidewalk toward the Imperial Casino looming ahead. “Not gonna commence any proper beatdowns until there’s public confirmation, and that buys us some time while they get Rasha down there to ID her attackers. Hopefully more than some, if Glory’s got the sense to stall this.”

“Glory’s got no shortage of sense,” Sweet agreed. “Rasha’s no fool, either, and they’re both aware of the broader stakes, here. I don’t think Glory will go so far as to try to stymie Tricks outright, though.”

“Yeah, me either, but she really doesn’t need to. Better for us all if Tricks is persuaded to ease up on this, rather than making it a power struggle between him and…hell, anyone. Glory won’t make it any easier for him even if she doesn’t put her foot down.”

Sweet nodded. “So, you’re in the loop on this, Grip. Who else?”

“Pretty much goddamn everyone,” she said grimly. “He’s doing this in public, Sweet. Making a big fucking spectacle. Anybody working at the Guild itself knows, and everybody not actually on shift at the Casino’s come to gawk. At least, the ones who haven’t run to spread the word, and bring more rubberneckers home to see.”

“Shit,” he said with feeling. Grip nodded mutely. Neither felt a need to voice the obvious: the more people were there to watch Tricks put on the show he was arranging, the more pressure he was under not to back down. With effectively the entire local Guild looking on, it might not be possible to talk him down without posing an outright challenge to his leadership.

And the day had started so well, he reflected in resignation. Unless Sweet or someone else managed to come up with something extremely clever on the fly—or, as a dim part of him still dared to hope, Tricks was employing one of his classic fakeout schemes and not doing the damn fool thing he appeared to be doing—this could very well result in him having to topple the Guild’s leadership before lunch.

He didn’t know if it was better or worse that he stood a good chance of pulling it off. Webs and his faction were explicitly behind him, and he was reasonably sure Glory would lend her own influence if it came to a confrontation. Sweet, Webs, and Glory were the biggest players in Tiraas who dealt in networking and influence specifically, so that was as good as cinched. Grip famously disdained politics but her first instinct had been to come get him, which boded will for his support among the rank and file. Even Style, loyal as she was to Tricks, was recently questioning the Boss’s actions, and she had no reason to be negatively disposed toward Sweet. Yeah, he could almost certainly win that contest.

Damn it, he didn’t want to be Boss again. Quite apart from being personally done with the job, he was right now urgently needed in his role as Bishop. Even as they were dealing with this, the paladins were moving into position to launch their political attack on Justinian and upset the entire order of the Universal Church.

Sweet almost missed a step. How had he failed to put that together before now? Could Justinian have arranged this? He didn’t see how, but clearly something was up with Tricks and possibly the Big Guy himself. It was too perfectly timed to be a pure coincidence at the best of times, and where Justinian was concerned, coincidences never seemed to be just that.

“And speaking of rubberneckers,” Grip added after a dour pause, “does she really need to come?”

Sweet glanced back at Juniper, who managed to give him a smile despite being visibly somewhat out of breath due to their rapid pace.

He knew little about dryads, but it stood to reason that a tree spirit wouldn’t fare well moving at speed over a prolonged period. Some kind of metaphysical effect like that was the most probable explanation for her discomfort, as he had spent much of the previous night discovering that Juniper did not lack stamina or the capacity for physical exertion. She certainly wasn’t doing their discretion any favors, as even the jaded urbanites of Tiraas all had to stop and stare at her passing. The dryad was wearing a disguise ring that changed her coloring to a human normal, otherwise they’d be in deep trouble already, but even so, she was walking through the icy midwinter air in a short, elven-style dress with no sign she felt the cold. Moreover, striding along at her side was a hound-sized bird with a tail half again his length, which drew even more stares than her odd attire. Sniff, blessedly, was a well-trained specimen of whatever he was, sticking silently at his mistress’s side and not spooking or lashing out at the startled cries they passed, or the occasional child who unwisely tried to pet him.

“Don’t feel the need to push yourself if you’re having trouble keeping up, June,” he suggested with a kind smile.

“Oh, don’t worry about me!” Her voice was a bit breathless, but she smiled cheerily back and didn’t falter. “This is nothing. I should tell you about racing across half the Golden Sea sometime. That was a trial.”

“Right. Well, we are going to a fairly sensitive Thieves’ Guild…function. Most of the people there aren’t going to be really comfortable involving outsiders.”

“That’s okay,” she said brightly. “I’m with you!”

Sweet turned his eyes back forward, mulling. He didn’t know Juniper well, except in the purely physical sense. Obviously she wasn’t stupid; whatever else it might be, ULR was academically competitive. On the other hand, it wasn’t known for producing politically cunning graduates. There were institutions of higher learning which had that reputation, but Last Rock alumni were more known for being idiosyncratic. He simply didn’t have enough context to guess whether she was just a blithe fairy unfamiliar with human social nuances and failing to pick up the subtext here, or deliberately pretending to be.

Grip, as usual, favored an approach which sidestepped such dilemmas entirely.

“He means this is Thieves’ Guild business, and none of yours,” the enforcer snapped. “You should go back to wherever you came from. It doesn’t concern you.”

“This is about Church politics, though,” the dryad puffed, not slowing. “This whole thing Trissiny and the guys have been trying to straighten out all week, right? I’d better come keep an eye on it.”

Grip’s face settled into a calculatedly mulish stare she used on fools who needed a relatively gentle push out of the way rather than those who posed a significant threat, which warned Sweet that she didn’t appreciate what she was dealing with here. “Listen, you—”

“Grip,” he interrupted, “there’s an old joke about situations just such as this. Where does a dryad sleep?”

The enforcer hesitated, then scowled furiously and turned her own attention forward again, mutely leaving Juniper to trot along behind them. That was another thing neither of them needed to answer aloud:

Anywhere she wants.

This couldn’t be the first time Grip had come up against someone she could neither coerce nor intimidate, but it surely wasn’t a common experience for her. Nonetheless, the situation remained what it was. Sweet himself could possibly (probably, he figured) persuade Juniper to butt out and go about her business, but they simply didn’t have time to deal with the distraction.

So the two thieves and the dryad rushed into the Guild and the very heart of this fresh disaster.


It wasn’t happening deep in the shadowy bowels of the Guild proper, which was both good and bad. Tricks had assembled the thieves and his prisoners in an enclosed courtyard behind the Casino, a space occasionally used for events such as this but more commonly dedicated to receiving cargo for the kitchens. Doors opened on two sides into warehouses and larders, and a huge, sturdy wooden gate on the exterior wall faced a broad alley behind, wide enough to admit trucks and only not a street in its own right because all the buildings lining it faced the other way, with only their own rear delivery portals opening onto it.

This was good because it was a quasi-public space, open to the air in the only part of the district likely to be trafficked by people the Eserites respected—servants and teamsters, not the fancy rich who entered the Casino’s front doors. That suggested Tricks wasn’t planning to do anything which would result in a lot of screaming. It was bad because Tricks’s actions were neither logical nor in keeping with his own customary patterns, and if he was about to make a truly ugly spectacle, the ramifications could hurt the Guild’s perception in more eyes than those of the Sisters of Avei.

Sweet arrived in the nick of time, striding out of the storeroom entrance to find the loading area thronged on all sides with thieves, surrounding the spectacle of their Boss as he stared down three miserable-looking women in the vestments of the disbanded Purist sect. Their swords had been confiscated, obviously, but they’d been allowed to keep their uniforms on, chain mail and all.

Without hesitating, he pushed right through the onlookers to the unfolding drama in the center, where Boss Tricks was already in the process of grilling Rasha.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the apprentice was saying, her eyes on the three Avenists, expression clearly unhappy. “But Boss, I don’t want—”

“Then that’s all we need from you, Rasha,” Tricks said, gently and briefly patting her on the shoulder. It was one of those little touches that reminded Sweet his longtime friend and ally was still the man he’d always known, skilled at offering a bit of comfort where it was called for but mindful of Rasha’s history and how women in her position were often leery of being touched by men. “I’m sorry to have dragged you out here and especially for making you relive that bullshit, but absolute certainty was necessary. You’re welcome to stay if you want the satisfaction, but don’t feel any need.”

“Boss,” Rasha said more forcefully, causing Tricks’s attention to snap back to her face. “Am I or am I not the aggrieved party, here?”

Tricks blinked once, raising his eyebrows. “Well, of course. I didn’t think that was in question.”

“In that case, I believe I’m owed a say in what happens to them?”

The three priestesses clustered closer together; Sweet didn’t know what kind of night they must have had, but he saw none of the backbone he was accustomed to in Avenists. They were hollow-eyed, bedraggled, and at least one had clearly been weeping recently. Gods above, how bad had Tricks made this already? Was it too late to prevent the situation from getting even worse?

A stir went through the crowd at Rasha’s words, Eserites shifting closer in malicious anticipation of watching vengeance unfold even as the prisoners pressed into each other. Sweet came to a stop within two yards of the Boss; Tricks acknowledged him with a glance before again focusing on Rasha, and Sweet took the opportunity to take a quick visual census. Style, of course, loomed behind the Boss with her arms folded, wearing a leather-and-fur ensemble that looked almost Shaathist and a thunderous scowl. Glory herself had actually stirred from her nest for this and also stood at hand, right alongside her apprentice in a clear show of support. He noted her other three apprentices hovering in a knot in the crowd, alongside Jenell, to whose side Grip had just silently returned. Juniper had, fortunately, stopped just inside the courtyard to watch, behind the back row of thieves. Good; Sweet wasn’t worried about her being recognized, but that bird-thing of hers was going to start drawing attention the second somebody noticed it.

Webs was not in evidence, of course, it being his habit to deal with people only from his own secure ground. Thumper and Gimmick, however, were both across the courtyard in the front ranks; both looked right at Sweet and nodded once with significant expressions. He did not nod back, for the same reason he didn’t let out a sigh of sheer annoyance. Honestly, he understood that those two were specialists and not in political maneuvering, but they’d both been on multiple infiltration missions. Had absolutely everybody forgotten the value of basic discretion today?

Tricks was regarding Rasha solemnly, his jaw working as he mulled an answer with care before finally speaking.

“You’re not wrong, Rasha. I will definitely hear you out, and you’ll be accommodated if possible. But this, I’m afraid, goes beyond just you and them. This is a matter for the Guild as a whole. The one thing for which we can absolutely not show the slightest tolerance is the deliberate and knowing assault of one of our apprentices. For this, we require blood.”

An ugly growl stirred through the crowd, accompanied by several louder jeers and catcalls.

“Is blood more important than justice?” Rasha asked, her quiet tone a deliberate counterpoint to the growing intensity of the onlookers. Sweet noted, with approval, Glory’s secondhand techniques at work.

“We don’t deal in justice,” Tricks said with a sardonic little smile. “That’s Avenist business. I know you’ve been taught our doctrines on retribution, Rasha. When dealing with beasts like these, we employ pain, and fear. That’s all they can understand.”

“Yeah, no argument there,” Rasha said, turning to dispassionately regard the three beleaguered Purists. “They look plenty scared already, to me.”

“Not enough,” Tricks stated, his voice cold. “What’s your request, Rasha?”

“Avenist business, like you said,” the apprentice replied. “I want this to be done with, Boss. Roughing these up is going to cause no end of trouble, and just…look at them. Look at these dregs.” she shot the priestesses another look, filled with pure contempt. “They’re not worth it. The Guild shouldn’t be so much as inconvenienced over the likes of them. Send them back to the Temple of Avei. Let these assholes be Rouvad’s problem.”

Glory, now, laid a hand on Rasha’s shoulder, her face lighting up with approval and pride. Sweet was equally impressed; he hadn’t followed Rasha’s progress closely, but Glory had clearly taught the girl how to work a room. In the space of a few sentences, much of the tension had leeched from the crowd, and now a number of the watching thieves were nodding in agreement.

Not the Boss, however.

“I see your point,” he said, already shaking his head, “but on this, we can’t bend. It is an inviolable rule. They went after a Thieves’ Guild apprentice. There has to be punishment. There has to be fear. That fear is the only reason any apprentice of the Guild is left in peace long enough to be fully trained. If the bastards aren’t afraid to come after you…you’ll be cut down before you have a chance to fight back.”

“I also know the Guild’s codes on retribution, Boss,” Glory said, her smooth voice projecting over the stir in the watching crowd. “We retaliate only when it both brings satisfaction and serves a purpose. What purpose does this serve?”

“Seriously?” Tricks replied, shooting her an annoyed look. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the thing I just explained.”

“Not really,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “How does beating up these spread fear? They are already terrified witless. The Purists are simple bullies; there’s nothing to them but inner weakness and a pitiful desire to project it onto others. The work here is done, Boss. Going further would be nothing but a provocation against the Sisterhood of Avei, at exactly a moment when we need their support.”

“Ah, yes,” Tricks said, his voice soft but carrying. “Politics. The old bugaboo we can never quite get away from. But there’s a line, Glory. A point comes where principle has to win out. As long as I’m Boss, I’ll decide where the line is drawn, and I draw it at assholes attacking our apprentices.”

The muttering swelled again, once more accompanied by a few shouts. Rasha kept admirable composure, but the wide-eyed look she gave Glory revealed her growing nerves. Glory herself drew breath to continue, but Sweet could already tell that was futile; clever as she was with her tongue, Tricks was equally so, and a contest of verbal acuity was pointless when only one contestant had the authority to order an end to it.

“Where’d you get them, Tricks?” he asked, lightly but loudly.

Everyone turned to look at him, the Boss himself with a faint lowering of his eyebrows. At any other time, Sweet would have assumed it was strictly performative; Tricks was too good to reveal what he was feeling. But then, he could usually tell when Tricks was playing a game, unless he snuck up on him in one of those disguises he loved so much. Now, he had the unsettling feeling his old friend was exactly as close to the frayed end of his rope as he seemed.

“That’s in the category of business you don’t need to worry about, Sweet,” the Boss said brusquely.

“Cos the way I heard it, these were last seen being hustled away by the Huntsmen of Shaath. Right?” Sweet turned to Rasha, who nodded emphatically. “Specifically, the Orthodox faction that’s loyal to the Archpope. The Archpope who we’re within a hair’s breadth of proving set up the Purists in the first place to fuck with the Avenists. The Avenists who got this trouble dumped on them specifically for sharing our position with regard to Justinian’s fucked up shenanigans in the Church.”

“Sweet,” Tricks warned.

“And now I gotta wonder,” he pressed on, “how the hell you got them from Shaathist custody to yours in the space of one night. Did you actually kidnap three hostages out of a lodge, or the Cathedral itself? Because that’d be a feat so incredible I’m pretty goddamn sure nobody in this Guild has the capacity to pull it off.”

Nods from around the courtyard. Eserites did not deal in kidnappings, for both doctrinal and pragmatic reasons. Professional ethics aside, it was messy to steal anything that could think and fight back.

“And the other option,” Sweet pressed on, staring at Tricks unblinkingly, “is that they were given to you. By Justinian’s Huntsmen.”

Silence. The crowd seemed to hold their breath.

“Hey, you’ve gotta protect your sources, I know how it works,” Sweet said with deceptive lightness when Tricks just glared at him. “No worries, I know who else I can ask. Hey ladies! A moment of your time?”

He had actually turned and taken a step toward the captive priestesses when the Boss answered in a much sharper tone.

“Do you wanna be Boss, Sweet?”

At that, he had to stop and turn back to him.

“I’m not challenging you—”

“That is not what I asked you,” Tricks snapped. “Do you want to be Boss again? Because quite frankly, Sweet, I’m pretty sure I enjoy sitting in the big boy chair even less than you did. If you want the job, you just say the word any damn time. We’ll go invoke the Big Guy’s presence and get it done, and that’s a promise. But until you say the word, I am still Boss. I’m the one who has to keep the big secrets and handle the ugly shit nobody else wants to do. As long as that’s the case, you can either fall in line, or shut your mouth. Those are the options, Sweet.”

“This doesn’t need to be a whole thing, Tricks,” Sweet said, facing him fully and not breaking eye contact. “I wouldn’t’ve backed you for Boss in the first place if you hadn’t more than earned my trust. All I’m asking is some reassurance. Tell me there’s more going on here than I know. Tell me you’re not swiping at obvious, low-hanging bait dangled by an enemy of the Guild. Because it looks like you’re letting yourself fall for a brazen con, and I know you’re way too smart for that. Just let me know what else is up, that you’re not about to undo every bit of my work for the last half a year and plunge the Guild into an unwinnable fight for fucking nothing. Come on, Tricks, that’s not much to ask. Is it?”

Tricks stared back at him.

The silence stretched out, until someone else pushed forward into the center.


“Whoof, what a mess.”

Juniper was watching Antonio push forward into the unfolding confrontation, where the Boss of the Guild was grilling Trissiny’s friend Rasha about three miserable-looking priestesses huddled together in the center of the courtyard. She could barely see between the heads of the crowd anyway, even though she was taller than most human women. It was no great loss to turn and regard the person who’d suddenly spoken immediately to her left, and then she had to stare.

He was a scruffy-looking Tiraan man of indeterminate age, wearing (oddly enough) a tuxedo with the neck open and untied cravat hanging down his chest. Sniff flattened his crest, staring up at the man in clear unease. Juniper, for her part, didn’t recognize him, but she could perceive at a glance what he was. Given his presence here of all places, that pretty much told her which one.

“But don’t worry,” Eserion continued in the same low tone, giving her a wink, “I have a plan. Now, thing is, it’s a pretty bad plan. Countless steps, lots of moving parts, no end of people to manage. A whole big thing, know what I mean?”

“Trissiny says the best plans are simple plans,” she replied carefully. “She said any plan with more than three steps is a daydream.”

They were speaking quietly, but not whispering, and yet none of the thieves immediately around seemed to be aware of them. It was odd that no one had reacted to Sniff yet. In the middle of the courtyard, the well-dressed woman with Rasha had just interjected, but her voice wasn’t so loud as to drown out their soft conversation in the back.

“Thorn’s a smart cookie,” the god agreed with a pleased grin. “Not one of our best people by far, at least not yet, but she learned from some of the best. Knows her theory. Yeah, this whole business has me really stretching my legs; gotta run around putting out fires, make a million little corrections when shit starts to go belly up. You see how it is. That, now, is another example.”

He nodded toward the drama unfolding up ahead, where Antonio had just interrupted the conversation. Juniper was only following with half an ear, but it didn’t even take that to see the quickly ratcheting tension between the Bishop and the Boss.

“Case in point,” Eserion said more quietly, his expression sobering as he watched the unfolding argument. “That’s a confrontation that needs to happen. But not now, not yet. It gets impossible to keep the timing straight, y’know? Right now, what I need is to put a complete halt to this whole affair, slap a hard wall between Tricks and Sweet and get those damn Purists out of here.”

He turned back to her with an amiable grin.

“So! Can I ask a favor, June, honey?”

“I’m…still very much learning how to use fae magic,” she said carefully. “I’m just a novice. Last night was the first time I felt spirits actually tell me I should do something, but they did, so I stuck with Antonio like they said. Did you have something to do with that?”

“It’s my policy not to mess with Naiya’s little helpers,” he said, winking again. “Honestly, I never really find a reason to, anyway. So long as I’m not up to any bullshit I shouldn’t be, it usually turns out their nudgings line up with mine. That being the case! If you’re willing to do me a solid, how about you go put a stop to all this?”

A chilly silence had fallen; she glanced aside to see Antonio and the Boss locking eyes. Juniper nodded once to Eserion, then turned and pushed her way none too gently through the crowd. So heavy was the atmosphere in the courtyard that few of the discommoded thieves even protested beyond irritated mutters, though a couple cursed as they caught sight of Sniff pacing alongside her.

She stepped out into the center, her sudden appearance causing everyone to turn their gaze on her, and took off her disguise ring.

That prompted a general outcry; enough people knew the basics about dryads to recognize when her green hair and golden skin meant. Juniper had found that even among humans not inclined to get it, her recent preference for elven attire often helped them connect the dots for some reason. Thieves pressed back away from her and Sniff, many cursing or shouting. She could smell shock and fear suddenly rising. And, oddly enough, more than a handful of cases of arousal, interlaced with nuances of scent that her sexual senses parsed as belonging to people particularly attracted to the monstrous and dangerous. Actually, there were a lot more of those scattered around than she’d have expected from a crowd of the general public this size.

Eserites. Who knew?

She strode forward to plant herself in the middle of the space, equidistant between the three prisoners and the knot of Guild leadership who were now staring at her in dismay, and put on her sunniest smile.

“Hi! I’m Juniper!”

One of the Purists fainted.

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16 – 42

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“All right, so. How did we mess that up?”

Breakfast in Madouri Manor was a somewhat subdued affair, due to the late hours everyone present had kept the night before. In fact it was a late hour now, closer to brunch than proper breakfast, but the Lady of the house had only just returned from her overnight stay in Veilgrad and many of her guests, for all that they were at least out of bed now, couldn’t be said to be fully awake. No one answered Gabriel’s question, at least not immediately; most of them just blinked blearily at him.

Yancey emerged from the servant’s entrance to the dining room in which they convened with his usual fortuitous timing, pushing a trolley laden with cups, saucers, and serving pots, one of which produced fragrant steam.

“Ah, splendid,” said Ravana, perking up visibly. “A spot of coffee is just the thing to begin a challenging day following another of the same.”

“Hard drugs for breakfast,” Raolo said with a raised eyebrow. “Damn, I should pal around with more nobles.”

Hard drugs,” Scorn chuckled. “You are a very cute elf, Raolo. I will have a cup, please, Yancey.”

“Right away, miss,” the Butler said with a deferential nod, already stirring sugar into the cup he had placed at Ravana’s hand.

“In point of fact,” said the Duchess primly, “coffee is explicitly not a drug within the Tiraan Empire, as of a Treasury ruling issued two months ago. On the grounds that its active ingredient is also present in tea and chocolate, and is no more addictive than alcohol and overall less deleterious to one’s health, coffee is classified as a foodstuff. Immediately following this ruling, I purchased one of the few domestic plantations in the Onkawa highlands. This is one of my own products, and quite splendid in quality if I do say so myself.”

“One of your products,” Toby drawled. “Somehow, I can’t picture you working on a plantation.”

“I can,” said Trissiny, “and I will call up the image whenever I need a laugh from now on. But seriously, Gabe asked an important question. How did we mess that up?”

“Well, it seems pretty clear that you underestimated the Archpope’s capabilities,” Fross chimed, swooping in a circle over Trissiny’s head. Despite not needing to eat, the pixie enjoyed socializing with friends and rarely missed a meal. “So I guess the pertinent question is whether you blundered or he’d hidden his powers well enough you really couldn’t have anticipated that.”

“In fairness,” said Toby, “we didn’t actually go in there planning to try to assassinate him. That just sort of…happened.”

“Three guesses which of you made that happen,” said Ruda, grinning and leaning over to prod Trissiny with her elbow.

“I saw the man turn off the entire Trinity like they were a fairy lamp,” Trissiny retorted, leaning away from her roommate. “I maintain it was a reasonable reaction.”

“I for one will not sleep well,” Szith murmured, “knowing that a man willing to flood entire cities with demons and undead has such power at his fingertips.”

A hush fell over the table, in which only the soft clink of porcelain was audible as Yancey distributed coffee to those who indicated they wanted it.

“Anyway, I’m not sure how we could have seen that coming,” Trissiny finally said, frowning at the center of the table. “That’s just not the kind of thing anyone should be able to do. That, and the power behind that divine shield he used…”

“I talked with Vestrel about that,” said Gabriel. “Apparently to resist the scythe like it did, it had to constantly rejuvenate itself. Which… I mean, if he’s drawing from the entire Pantheon, stands to reason, but the thing is that amount of power should theoretically be running through him, which should theoretically fry him like a fillet at a fraction of that intensity.”

“Those feats are a logical extension of what we know he can do,” said Fross, now drifting slowly in figure eights above the table. “He is the Archpope and thus a divine caster of significant strength, and you had firsthand knowledge that he’s been monkeying with the Elder God machinery that created the Pantheon in the first place…”

“I’ll tell you what you did wrong,” Ruda declared, resting an elbow on the table to point at him. She had declined coffee, tea, or anything else, having brought her own jug of local Last Rock moonshine to breakfast. “You shoulda gone in there and Ravana’d him right from the beginning.”

Ravana set down her coffee cup in its saucer with a soft but decisive clink. “I know that I will regret learning exactly what that means, and yet I must ask.”

“Oh, c’mon, it’s not like we blame you for all the evils of the world,” Ruda said, grinning at her. “It’s one specific and consistent thing. You dig up the most unconventional and horrifically overpowered insanity you can find and point it at the first person who pisses you off. That is the approach you guys should’ve taken with Justinian. The reason you didn’t know his physical capabilities is because he’s managed to never have to show them to anybody before; he’s that good a string-puller. You don’t try to get clever with a man like that, it’s just playing his game, on his terms. You drown him and everything in his vicinity with a tsunami of overkill.”

“Hey! You pronounced that correctly!” Fross chimed in excitement, swooping around Ruda’s head. “Most Tanglophones just substitute a silent t instead of properly articulating the tsu syllable! That’s actually a very ironic phenomenon, since ‘tsunami’ is Tanglish’s only loanword from Sifanese and contains one of the very few sounds that don’t—”

“Fross,” Teal interjected, gentle but firm.

The pixie immediately halted in midair, dimmed her glow and floated lower. “Aaaaand I’m being pedantic and de-Railing the conversation. Sorry, I was just happy. I like it when things are correct.”

“I’m not sure exactly what…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at Fross. “…tidal wave of overkill we could have leveled at him. I mean, that is more or less what we tried to do.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t Ravana him,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Ravana, care to explain the difference?”

“Your own capabilities are well established, frequently and in public,” Ravana explained, giving Ruda a somewhat dour look. “It sounds as if you attacked him with everything in your standard arsenal—all of which he would be aware of in advance and thus, being Justinian, prepared for. To destroy a target such as he, one must employ not only overwhelming firepower, but unconventional assets which he could not reasonably anticipate.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, again frowning at nothing.

“There was something I noticed,” Gabriel said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought. “Remember when he did all that with the Light to stop us beating on him? At the time I thought he just broke our concentration with sheer physical pushback, but looking back I noticed… Didn’t it seem like all our shields, Triss’s wings and Toby’s invocation shut down at precisely the same instant?”

“Well, it was an area of effect attack,” said Trissiny. “And it hit pretty hard. Naturally that would break our focus, and at the same time.”

“Not the same, though,” Gabriel said, shaking his head. “Toby was a couple yards further away. And look, if you’re hit with a big wall of energy and something you were trying to concentrate on goes belly up, you’d naturally assume that was why. It just seems really in character for that guy to do something sly under the cover of something overt, just to stop us from noticing. Divine magic is where most mental magic lies, right? Are there methods of disrupting enemy spellcasting?”

“There very much are,” Shaeine answered immediately. “Themynrite and Scyllithene clerics both employ them. That craft is exceedingly difficult to learn. Less difficult to ward against, but even that is not a skill one acquires in an afternoon.”

“That’s a really good observation, Gabe,” said Trissiny. “Something we need to be on guard for, next time. As for…unconventional overkill…” She leaned back in her chair, staring up at the chandelier. “I think I’ll pay another visit to the Conclave, as soon as I have the time. After our business in Tiraas today, maybe. Zanzayed seems to like having me around, but if I want to learn some divine craft, Ampophrenon is probably a better bet. I think I can get him to teach me. It’s hard to read a being like that, but he seemed to regard me positively.”

“Yeah, he mentioned you last night,” Teal agreed. “Quite favorably. Overall he comes across as surprisingly progressive for someone older than Tellwyrn.”

“I can begin coaching you in the basics of defense against a divine interrupt,” said Shaeine, “but yours is a good idea, Trissiny. As Ruda and Ravana point out, our enemy will be aware of what you can learn from me. The dragons are a likely source of magical skill he will not know.”

“Seems to me that learning divine skills is a good starting point,” said Gabriel, “but, and nobody hit me, it might be a good idea to pick up some specifically anti-divine techniques. At least, whatever we can safely use alongside our own magic.”

“I’m instinctively leery at the notion, but it seems strategically sound,” Toby murmured.

Gabriel nodded. “Yeah, if Trissiny’s got an in with the Conclave anyway, it might be worthwhile to ask… Oh, what’s the red guy’s name? Vaz something.”

“Razzavinax the Red,” Ravana corrected. “A capital idea, Gabriel. He is quite personable, and in fact an established teacher of magical technique to mortals. I doubt you wish to or even can study any infernomancy in detail, but he undoubtedly knows several basic tricks to use against divine casters.”

Everyone stared at her.

“I know,” Iris said, “I know I’m going to regret the answer, but… Why, Ravana, have you been hanging out with the red dragon?”

“Oh, I’ve not had the pleasure of Lord Razzavinax’s company myself,” Ravana said lightly. “I have struck up an amicable correspondence with his consort, Lady Maiyenn, after I sent her a baby gift.”

Everyone continued to stare at her.

“This is the bulk of what a lady in society does,” the Duchess explained, now with a sardonic undertone. “Form connections to be exploited at need. I am a very useful person to know, as is Maiyenn, and each of us recognized this trait in the other. Intelligent self-interest begets courtesy. You likely have sufficient contacts within the Conclave as it is, Trissiny, but should Lord Razzavinax prove resistant to aiding the Hand of Avei I would be pleased to arrange an introduction.”

“Thank you,” said Trissiny, a bit dryly. “So, the dragons are a good starting point for some extra tricks against Justinian. I also need to arrange another quick trip to the First Legion’s base.”

“Uh, hang on, there,” Ruda protested. “I know I told you to use overkill, Shiny Boots, but I dunno if bringing in more of your pet adventurers is exactly gonna help against the Archpope.”

“No, I tend to agree,” Trissiny said with a smile. “The team I brought to Tiraas has already performed beyond my expectations, but still, you’re right. Justinian isn’t the Battle of Ninkabi; in most situations, adventurers work better in small groups. It’s not about that. Talking of unconventional assets… I need to notify Billie Fallowstone that one of her pet projects has just become urgent. And, Captain Locke knows how to build divine disruptors.”

Another short silence fell, in which most of the junior class grimaced.

“Those things,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I never imagined a day would come when I’d want to have them around.”

“And yet, here we are,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “Good thought, Triss. If my scythe didn’t break his shield, I don’t expect any handheld weapon will, but even so. Most of his tricks are going to be divine in origin, or at least his minions’ will. Those damn things will come in very useful. That is, if Locke can produce some.”

“Um, if I recall correctly,” Fross interjected, “which, not to chime my own glockenspiel, I always do, those weapons are made largely from gold.”

“I didn’t say it would be convenient or budget-friendly, but this is urgent,” Trissiny replied, grimacing. “The Sisterhood can afford it. I may have to arrange some more resources for the First Legion, but it’s doable. Meanwhile, all of this is tomorrow’s battle. More immediately we’ve got our announcements with our respective cults, and that will begin putting major pressure on Justinian in the political and religious arena.”

“As such,” Ravana stated, “were I he, I would choose this moment while you are all thus engaged to launch a preemptive retaliation.”

“…fuck,” Gabe muttered.

“I think,” Iris suggested, “this would be an excellent day for all of us to have a little outing into Tiraas. We can do some sightseeing and shopping while the paladins do politics. And, you know…be around.”

“Some of us are…very unconventional assets,” Scorn agreed with a toothy grin.

“I am shamed to say this,” Szith replied softly, “but I cannot assist.”

“Right, Narisian politics,” Ruda said quickly. “Last thing we want is to land you in trouble with House An’sadarr, Szith, don’t worry about that. Teal, Shaeine, I assume the same goes?”

“On the contrary, we have more freedom to assert ourselves,” said Shaeine, taking her wife’s hand. “Both by virtue of our respective rank and position in our own societies, and our effective alignment as of Justinian’s recent attack on Falconer Industries and his general opposition to the Silver Throne, toward which the Confederacy desires a conciliatory stance. Szith risks censure by stepping into human politics, but I am positioned to do so with more impunity.”

“That raises a pertinent question,” said Ravana, adopting a sharp expression which was ominously familiar to most of them. “Have you, any of you, issued a formal and public accusation against Justinian regarding the various disasters we are relatively certain he has engineered during the last several years?”

“You know the problem with that,” Toby replied. “Just because we’re pretty sure it was him pulling the strings doesn’t mean we can prove it. And accusing someone that powerful of something we can’t compellingly back up…”

“Yes, I understand,” she said, nodding. “Very well, then. While you are launching your salvo on behalf of your cults, I shall make a formal announcement that yesterday’s altercation in Madouris was instigated by the Universal Church, and also accuse Justinian of arranging the disasters which befell Ninkabi, Veilgrad, and Puna Dara.”

“Whoah,” Gabriel protested. “Ravana, I know you’re already kind of neck deep in this, but that’ll make you a major target. And he’s covered his tracks too well—”

“So did my father,” she said coldly. “I was forced to lie to have him removed; that the lie in question happened to be the very truth he so skillfully concealed was beside the point. I realize you all enjoy making facetious remarks about my predilection for frontal attacks, but this, specifically, is the time for them. Justinian can attempt to discredit me, sue me for slander, and launch propaganda against me, but I am more than equipped to handle all of the above. With the three Trinity cults, the Eserites and half the Shaathists poised to turn on him, it is the optimal time to add House Madouri’s weight to the cause. The point is to put constant, widespread pressure on him from every side, more than he can wiggle out from under. Our enemy is a master manipulator who thrives when he can keep his foes dancing about; I submit that he has been indulged more than long enough. It is time, my friends, to declare war.”

This time the pause which fell was grim and intent. No one suggested disagreement, even by facial expression.

“Then I guess we better eat up good, and head to Tiraas for some ass-kicking right after breakfast,” Ruda said, grinning. “Uh, I guess that means we need to wake up our missing teammate first. Juniper was pretty tuckered out after getting home last night, huh?”

The usual number of seats at the breakfast table were filled, but that was because Raolo had joined them overnight. One familiar face was, indeed, absent.

“Oh, uh,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “Yeah, about that…”


“Thank you,” Juniper said, smiling up at Price as the Butler refilled her teacup. Price inclined her head graciously in acknowledgment as she retreated from the table.

“Don’t be shy, if you’re still hungry I’m glad to empty the larder,” Sweet assured her with a grin, lounging in his chair at the head of the table. He was attired in his Eserite style this morning, calculatedly shabby and wearing louder colors than befitted a Bishop of the Universal Church. In fact, he hadn’t had cause to put on the ecclesiastical persona of Bishop Darling for months, though ironically the pressure of the political situation behind it had been wearing on him. Today, he looked and felt more relaxed than he could remember being in ages. “I don’t often get to entertain guests; it’s a pleasure to roll out the red carpet!”

“Oh, this is already plenty generous,” Juniper assured him with a smile, forking up another bite of sausage. Behind her, Sniff chomped more of the same from a bowl set on the floor against the dining room wall. “You’re a good host, Antonio.”

“Oh, I just bet he was,” Flora said acidly.

“Not that we need to bet,” Fauna added, tapping the pointed tip of her ear. “That was quite a production last night, you two.”

“My apologies for the rest of the household,” Sweet said to Juniper. “I swear to you I have taught them manners, but they usually decide not to use ‘em. Elves are kinda like cats.”

“Well, sorry if not everybody at the table has as much reason to be as loose and relaxed as the pair of you,” Flora snorted.

“Yeah, some of us had to make due with not even sleeping properly in our cold, lonely beds thanks to the racket from yours!”

“Maybe we’d like to boink the dryad, did you ever think about that?”

“No! You only think about yourself!”

“Did I think about you two while cavorting after midnight with a bosomy bundle of carnal ingenuity?” Sweet mused, idly swirling his teacup. “No, I honestly did not. Not for a second. And it seems to me it’d be creepy as hell if I had any other answer to that question.”

Juniper finished swallowing her bite of sausage and smiled gently at them while scooping up a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Now, now, no need to be competitive. I’d be glad to make love to either of you. Or both, whatever you prefer.”

“Ugh.”

“Ew.”

The dryad paused with her fork halfway to her mouth, raising her eyebrows at their matching grimaces. “Well. That’s a reaction I don’t often get. It’s not great for my feelings, I have to say.”

“Oh, sorry, it’s not about you,” Flora hastened to assure her.

“Yeah, you’re a sweetheart and astoundingly gorgeous,” Fauna agreed.

“But he’s pretty much our dad.”

“Yeah, going after him would be…”

They both shuddered dramatically.

“Well, okay,” Juniper said with a shrug, tucking back into her meal. “I’m still a little bemused by the nuances of family relationships, so I’ll have to take your word on that. If you ever change your minds, I’m up for it.”

“And what an odd little family we are,” Sweet said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well, all joking aside, we should probably thank you,” Flora said with a grudging little smile.

“It seems like forever since we’ve seen him this relaxed,” Fauna agreed.

“I am pretty good at what I do,” Juniper replied pleasantly.

“Damn skippy you are,” Sweet said emphatically. “It makes me think the whole world could benefit from a night of the ol’ slurp and snuggle. Or at least, several people who specifically need to be unwound a little bit. Hm, I bet I could even find somebody to ever so tenderly extract the stick from up Thorn’s butt…”

“Hey.” Suddenly frowning, Juniper pointed her fork at him. “You leave Trissiny alone.”

“Whoah, whoah!” He raised both hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean me. I wouldn’t lay a hand on her, even if I thought she was interested. Maybe it’s arrogant of me but I think of myself as kind of a mentor to Thorn. That’s not something you exploit. Some things are sacred, y’know?”

“Yeah, Tellwyrn has a rule like that. And that’s not what I’m concerned about,” the dryad shook her head. “It’s… Okay, I can’t help sensing sexual details about people, and I make a point not to share anybody’s private business with anyone else…”

“Appreciated,” Sweet, Flora, and Fauna all chorused.

“But, this is relevant, so I expect you to keep it to yourselves. Trissiny has a very monogamous nature, okay? She’s not like you and me; we do just fine with various casual lovers, but not everyone does. And she does look up to you, Antonio, so if you told her to go out and get laid I think there’s a chance she might go and do it. But she’d feel really bad about herself afterwards, and then I would be mad at you!”

“Well, every step in that chain is more to be avoided than the last,” he said solemnly. “I’m glad you spelled it out, Juniper, thanks for that. I’d hate to accidentally cause more problems for somebody who doesn’t need any.”

She nodded primly and went back to her sausage.

A second later, Price turned her head toward the door, then suddenly strode out into the hall.

“Oh,” Juniper said softly, glancing guiltily after the Butler. “Did I go to far? Sorry, no matter how many times it happens I sometimes forget not everybody’s okay with frank discussions of sexuality…”

“Nah, it’s not you,” Flora assured her.

“She just heard somebody coming to the door.”

“We still haven’t figured out how Price always picks up on that before we do.”

“Yet! Give it time!”

On cue, the doorbell rang, as Sweet brandished his teacup at the two elves.

“If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times to leave Price alone. On the list of shit I don’t need, you two stirring up trouble with the Service Society occupies several slots!”

The sounds of a visitor being welcomed into the front hall grew steadily louder while he spoke, until after only a few seconds, Price returned, face impassive as always.

“Sir, you have an urgent visitor from the Guild.”

“There you are,” Grip stated, striding in past the Butler. “I was afraid you’d already be halfway across town at this hour of the—what the fuck is that?!”

She came to a stop, pointing incredulously at Sniff, who had just finished his sausage and now raised his head to peer back at her.

Juniper scooted her chair back from the table, bringing her more into Grip’s line of sight. “I’m a dryad. It’s nice to meet you, too.”

The enforcer stared at her, then at Sniff, blinking rapidly. “I—that—what’re—no, fuck it, I don’t have time for this. Sweet, you need to get your ass down to the Guild, pronto.”

He had already stood up, abandoning his half-eaten breakfast. “How bad is it?”

“Pretty goddamn bad, and the core of the problem is how little pull anybody but you and Style has with the Boss—and Style’s apparently isn’t enough, on her own. You heard about how those Purist rejects tried to corner Glory’s apprentice yesterday?”

“Ohh, I don’t like where this is going,” he muttered.

Grip nodded. “Yeah, somehow Tricks has got his hands on a few of them, and he’s about to send us to war with the Sisterhood of Avei.”

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16 – 37

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They chose a room at random down the first hallway they explored, and once inside immediately stopped, momentarily so forgetting what they were here for that Raolo didn’t even bother to push the door all the way closed. Instead, both of them stared at the wall of the small study, which was covered with newspaper articles, framed and under glass, and all featuring headlines about a certain drow.

“So this is why they made her a Duchess,” Raolo said in disbelief. “I was really wondering about that.”

“It’s all noble politics. I was mostly concerned she was being taken advantage of somehow,” Toby admitted.

The elf shook his head, still staring at the framed papers. “Always worried about others, Toby.”

It was a quality Toby valued in himself, one he couldn’t see as inherently a bad thing even if he had to acknowledge he took it too far sometimes, yet the undercurrent in Raolo’s tone told him they were already returning to the problem. Whatever the problem actually was; he remained far from certain about that.

He reached out, almost gingerly, to take Raolo’s hand. Immediately Raolo squeezed his in turn, and the relief was like a physical force straightening his spine again. He needed that to cling to, as the elf finally turned away from the wall of articles to meet his eyes again.

“So.”

“So,” Toby repeated awkwardly. “I… Well, I don’t understand what I did wrong, but I’m sorry. I won’t do it again if you’ll just explain it to me. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

For whatever reason, that just made Raolo look exasperated. “Augh… Toby, you’ve done nothing wrong. You have been faultlessly respectful and considerate and did exactly as I asked.”

“Okay, then… What’s—”

“Did you ever consider that I didn’t want you to do what I asked?” Raolo asked plaintively.

He blinked. Then twice more. Opened his mouth to speak, closed it, squinted, and blinked yet again.

“…no?”

“Of course not,” Raolo sighed. “Look, Toby… I love my family, okay? They gave me everything I have, made me who I am. The same goes for my tribe as a whole. It’s just so much easier to love them from a thousand miles away in Last Rock where I don’t have to deal with them constantly disapproving of the thing that most defines me.” He held up his free hand, allowing tiny blue arcs of unformed arcane power to crackle between his fingers for a second. “Maybe in, like, ten years I’ll be glad to go home for, oh I dunno, a week. That sounds like about how long I’ll be able to stand the pressure by then. But right now? It’s miserable. I would rather do anything else, especially if it means I get to do it with you.”

“I see,” Toby said slowly. “But…you were pretty insistent.”

“Yeah.” Raolo nodded, grimacing. “I should go home and be the dutiful son. I really, really ought to. I owe it to them. So…that’s what I said.”

“Okay, I guess I’m beginning to get it,” said Toby. “Wow, it makes so much sense when you point it out. I’m really sorry I failed to read between the lines, there. In hindsight—”

“Would. You. Stop that?!” Raolo exclaimed, finally letting go of his hand. “Veth’na alaue, Toby, I am not in the right, here! I’m being irrational and childish and unnecessarily difficult!”

“I. Um.” There was really no serviceable answer to that, forcing him to fall back on the old standby. “Sorry?”

Raolo stared at him for three seconds, then said very calmly, “Would you excuse me for just a moment?”

“Oh. Well, sure…”

“Thanks.” The elf turned away, walked to the other side of the room until he stood six inches from the wall, facing it. Then he reared back and thumped his forehead against the oak paneling, causing several of the framed articles to bounce.

“Raolo!”

“Okay.” Turning back and showing no sign of pain despite the red mark on his forehead, Raolo returned to him with a serious expression. Tobias, you are… You’re the best person I know. I love how caring you are, how you’re always looking out for others. But the thing is, you do that for everyone. It’s how you… Well, I know we’re young and this has only been a thing for a few months and I haven’t wanted to push at you, and I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful to the first person in my life who’s unequivocally put my needs first, but… But I am starting to feel like I’m just another person around you. Being looked after the way you do for all your friends.”

“Are you…under the impression that the, ah, the things I do with you are things I do with everybody?” Toby demanded.

That earned a reluctant smile. “No, and I don’t mean to undervalue that intimacy. It’s just… Aw, balls, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it.” Raolo covered his eyes with both hands, shaking his head in helpless denial. “I sound like such a lunatic right now.”

“No, you don’t,” Toby said automatically. It was the wrong response; Raolo lowered his fingers, revealing a scowl.

“You’re doing it again.”

“Sorry.”

“What do you think that is?!”

“Well, sorry!” Toby exclaimed, throwing his own arms up. “I don’t understand what’s happening here! Can’t you just tell me what it is you want me to do?”

“That!” Raolo surged forward, grabbing him by the shoulders, and then pulled him into a hug which Toby immediately reciprocated despite his exasperation. “I just want you to sometimes not take care of me. I want to feel special to you.”

“You want…” Toby tightened his arms around him, biting back the first response that came to mind. And then the second. And only belatedly realized he was still doing the exact opposite of what Raolo was asking. But this was hard, and he still didn’t understand it. “Have I made you think you aren’t special to me?”

“You did nothing wrong,” Raolo insisted, squeezing him in turn. “You did what you always do, what makes you so unequivocally good, and part of what I love you for. It’s just…”

“I do that for everybody?” Toby echoed.

Raolo’s nod rubbed his hair distractingly against Toby’s cheek. “Here it is, the first time we’re away from school and at liberty since we’ve been an item, and I can’t fault your choices or your respect for my choices, but the fact remains, you’re off having paladin adventures with your friends and I went home to be passive-aggressively sniped at by my parents. And less passively by my sister.”

“I said I was sorry for…wait.” Toby drew back, just enough to be able to study his face. “Are you jealous?”

Raolo grimaced. “I told you I was being irrational.”

“Raolo!”

“I know.”

“Raolo, aside from the guy who’s basically my brother, they’re all women! Two of them are married and one’s three inches tall and physically sexless!”

“I know! I promise I don’t feel threatened by Gabriel. It’s not about them, it’s…” Closing his eyes, he leaned forward to rest his forehead against Toby’s, right where he’d recently bonked it on the wall. “The bond you have with them is made of shared experiences, trauma, victory… I can’t help being bitter at you letting me go home instead of having the opportunity to share another adventure with you. I want to build something like that between us. You know, I have read my adventuring histories; paladins always have their own parties. I may not be a dryad or archdemon, but do you have any idea how powerful an elven wizard can become? I can totally pull my weight as a Hand’s companion.”

Toby chuckled in spite of himself. “I hear what you’re saying, but Rao… Most of these adventures have been due to class trips. I’d love to have you come with us on the next one. Do you want to be the one to pitch that to Tellwyrn?”

The elf snorted softly in amused agreement. “I know, that’s fair. I’m not blaming you. This is…talking about the future. You know, someday, Teal will be running Falconer Industries, or helping with whatever it is Shaeine will end up doing for the Confederacy. Ruda will be off ruling her country, gods only know what the fairies will be up to, and you’ll probably still work with Gabe and Triss from time to time but we both know the Trinity will likely send their Hands in different directions. But I can still be by your side. I know this is new, Toby, but… Elves don’t love lightly. We heal slowly from heartbreak, and try not to risk it. I do love you, and I wouldn’t be involved with you at all if I didn’t see a future. If I thought you were treating this casually.”

“I…like the sound of that,” Toby whispered, shifting his head just enough to rub Raolo’s nose with his own. “Even if I don’t like the idea of putting you in danger… Just the thought of you being there with me is perfect.”

“But that’s the future,” Raolo agreed. “In the present, I just wish you could stop with the Omnist thing, at least with me.”

“Rao, my faith is at the very core of who I am.”

“I know! I’d never ask you to change, just to…relax. Stop looking after me the way you do everyone else.” He opened his eyes, and they glittered with emotion. “I want you to feel…comfortable, and safe enough to let down that sense of duty and let yourself be mad at me when you feel it. I want you to desire me enough to ask me to come home with you for the holidays instead of seeing my family. I’d do it in a heartbeat, if you asked. I just want you to ask. I want to be special.”

Toby drew in a slow breath and let it out equally slowly.

“That’s a meditation exercise,” Raolo accused.

“Relax,” Toby murmured. “That’s…what you’re asking isn’t easy.”

“I know, love. Honestly, if it was just selfish, I wouldn’t even ask. But Toby, everybody needs to have a safe place to let go and just be. Let me be your safety.”

“My safety.” Slowly, he nodded, the gesture incidentally rubbing his nose against Raolo’s again. The elf nuzzled him in return. “Okay.”

Then Toby drew back, shifting his grip to seize Raolo by his thin shoulders, and gave him a hard shake.

“I am not a telepath! Damn it, you know I’d do anything I could to make you happy, but crap like this is just gonna keep happening if I don’t know what you want! Omnu’s breath, Rao, I adore you but this is some grade-A free-range nonsense! If we have a problem I need you to talk to me about it like the grown-ass elf you are—”

That was as far as he got before a display of elven agility brought Raolo squirming out of his grip, and then forward, throwing his arms around Toby’s neck and silencing him with a kiss that was as close to bruising as such a slender creature could manage. He found he didn’t mind the pressure in the least, and in fact, found it the best medicine. The tension and frustration of the last few minutes faded as if banished by a spell. Toby clutched him close, sliding one hand up to cradle his head and all but drinking him in.

Raolo also took the initiative in pulling back, but only after a few minutes and even then only because he needed air.

“That’s my boy,” he whispered with a grin of avid mischief.

Toby squeezed him closer, beginning to walk them both insistently toward the far wall—or more specifically, toward the writing desk standing against it. “And?”

Raolo bit his lower lip coyly. “And, yessir.”

“Good.”

The elf’s legs hit the desk and he nimbly slid up onto it, his fingers pulling at Toby’s robe as the paladin surged forward to seize him in another breathless kiss.

Behind them, unheard even by Raolo’s acute ears, the door to the study pulled the rest of the way shut. Out in the hall, Sapphire carefully stretched a stocking over the latch in the universal signal, and then turned to stroll back to the party, smiling.


Iris was standing off to the side, out of range of the dancers, holding a glass of sparkling wine. Ravana knew she didn’t like sparkling wine, or wine in general. Which wasn’t the point; Ravana also knew the glass was a prop, something for her to do with her hands. One hand, anyway, the other being occupied clenching in her skirt.

The Duchess came to stand silently beside her roommate and friend, following her gaze. They watched as the two paladins came to a stop and separated, then as Gabriel spoke briefly to a woman in uniform by the serving tables, and then as the two of them discreetly slipped away to go into the house.

Iris heaved a sigh. “I…am ridiculous.”

Ravana regarded her in silence.

“And worse,” the witch added after a pause, “I’m a coward. Well, you know what, this tears it. It’s been a year and a half. If I haven’t managed to screw up the guts to just talk to him, I am officially hopeless. It’s time to just forget the whole thing. Hey, Ravana, what are the odds I could find a nice young lord here to marry me?”

Ravana shook her head. “Nice lords of any description are rare, and aristocrats mostly marry for political advantage, not sentiment or even attraction. Now, I suspect you could quite easily find a wealthy lord or lady to make you a very lavishly kept mistress. You look ravishing in that gown, and your dark complexion is rather exotic in this part of the Empire.”

Iris made a grimace of mingled amusement and bitterness. “Thank you. So, hey, there’s my career planned out.”

“Don’t be absurd, you’re worth far more than that,” Ravana said almost brusquely. “I do agree with some of what you were saying, but rather than simply dropping the matter, what I’d suggest is just asking him. Even if it ends in nothing but rejection, at least that would be closure. And you wouldn’t be dithering anymore.”

“You saw that as clearly as I did,” Iris whispered.

The Duchess emitted a very ladylike little snort. “Those two are going to dither about with even more stamina than you have. I don’t expect it would be too difficult to snatch him, especially with that neckline. Not that Trissiny isn’t attractive, but you have the advantage in buxomness and everyone knows Gabriel’s pref—”

“You urgently need to stop,” Iris interrupted.

Ravana grinned. “I am only half jesting, Iris. If not now, then back at my manor. There is no shortage of available rooms.”

Iris covered her eyes with her free hand, still not drinking from her glass. “Ravana, please. What about you, then? Any of these fancy lads seem like a nice political prospect for you?”

“As I consider my point made, I shall indulge your transparent deflection,” Ravana said magnanimously. “In any case, no. I will not marry, I think. Any House in the Empire would benefit greatly from a union with House Madouri, but none have anything to offer me in return that is worth it. Especially now that I have achieved a firm alliance with Houses Dufresne and Leduc.”

“That seems kind of…grim. Doesn’t that fact free you up? You could marry for love, if you don’t need to do it for politics.”

Ravana’s expression had grown distant; she watched the party guests as they twirled into the next dance, not seeming to actually see them.

“I think I am what the Izarites call asexual.”

Iris looked at her sidelong. “You…divide in half to make two smaller Duchesses?”

Ravana made a silently eloquent face which both acknowledged and disapproved of the joke. “I refer to the orientation, not the reproductive strategy. I am twenty years old and have never felt the slightest stirrings of attraction toward anyone of any gender. Sexual desire is a thing I comprehend intellectually; on a visceral level I remain baffled at the damage people are willing to inflict upon themselves to indulge it. At my age, that seems rather definitive, don’t you think?”

“You make it sound like twenty is the verge of senility,” Iris said with a wry smile. “Maybe you’re just picky? Haven’t met the right person?”

“I don’t believe there are right or wrong people as a binary. As best I understand it, attraction is a spectrum, and my position on it is nowhere.” She paused to take a small, appreciative sip of her own wine. “This is not to complain, Iris. If anything I consider myself fortunate. Unburdened by the expectations of a spouse and living in an age in which children born out of wedlock face no legal and relatively little social stigma, I am free to rebuild my House’s imperiled bloodline by selecting the best available genetic donors.”

Iris shuddered. “That sounds so clinical.”

“It is, to me,” Ravana said, shrugging. “It is a tradition of my family. You may have noticed that I am blonde despite being—mostly—an ethnic Tiraan? The trait is recessive, but House Madouri has deliberately added infusions of elven blood at roughly hundred year intervals, for its longevity, stamina, and magical aptitude. We have endured for a thousand years without falling to the inbreeding that has destroyed so many noble Houses by managing our genome as if our children were thoroughbred racing steeds. It is especially relevant to me, as the last living member of my bloodline.”

“You make it sound like you can just…grab whoever you want to make them…perform.” Iris grimaced, finally took a sip of her drink, and then grimaced harder. “Ugh, bubbles.”

“I am hardly going to force anyone,” Ravana said, amused. “Nor do I expect much difficulty in the…acquisition. Though I am far daintier than the so-called Avenic ideal, I am hardly a warthog. And even if I were, many would not decline an invitation to the bed of a Duchess.”

“But…you don’t want to,” Iris protested. “I mean, if you’re not actually interested in…”

Ravana’s face went distant again. “You know, my grandfather was gay.”

Iris blinked at the abrupt change of subject, but didn’t answer. Ravana went on without apparently expecting her to, anyway.

“He managed to gird up his loins, in an unusually literal example of the expression, and sire one child in his lifetime. My father. Who so adored and remained loyal to my mother that even after her death he never so much as looked at another woman.”

“That’s so romantic,” Iris sighed with a slightly dreamy smile.

“My mind boggles at such abominable selfishness,” Ravana said icily, causing Iris’s smile to vanish in an instant. “Aristocrats are raised in depthless privilege. We wear and sleep in silk, dine on delicacies using silver and crystal, enjoy the benefits of the finest education that can be had and entertainments such as most people could never dream to experience. All this is a due and necessary offset for the tremendous pressures my social class must endure in the execution of our responsibilities. But far too many—including, to my shame, those within my own House—have embraced the privilege and eschewed the price. This luxury is paid for by the people who look to us for leadership. They are owed that leadership in return. Among other things, my people require stability and the assurance of continuity; a succession crisis can be absolutely devastating to a nation, or even a province. Yet, my own father and grandfather could not see past their own desires. At a time when our House had been driven to the edge of extinction by the Enchanter Wars, they left it there rather than submit to a minor personal indignity that pales before the suffering our populace will endure if the local government collapses.”

She paused, grimaced, and rubbed her finger around the rim of her wineglass, making it produce a clear, high-pitched tone.

“And just to rub salt in the wound, they were male. A man with the resources of an ancient and rich House can accumulate mistresses and sire a veritable village over the course of an average lifetime. Instead, that duty falls to me, whose ability to reproduce is…biologically constrained.”

“I think that may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ravana shrugged, the ghost of a smile drifting across her features for a bare moment. “It is what it is. So, I will keep an eye out for interesting sources of genetic material and, when the time comes, dose myself with alchemical aphrodisiacs and do what is necessary. Five times, I should think. I calculate that is the greatest number of children I can balance with my other responsibilities while still giving them each the individual care and attention they require. That is not optional; people raised with great power but no tenderness often end up rather twisted. I consider myself a relative success story of that scenario, and I am well aware that many people find me…unsettling. I find I am sufficiently looking forward to motherhood that I am not excessively bothered by the…squishy realities involved in achieving it.”

“Squishy realities. Now there’s a turn of phrase,” Iris sighed. “Funny enough, my first thought was to remind you that love potions are illegal. As if that was even a consideration for you.”

“Actually, that is funny,” Ravana said with a smile. “Such potions are a felony to administer to another person, and potentially a capital crime to do so without the victim’s consent, but they fall within the Noble Loophole governing controlled recreational drugs. I can dose myself with anything I like under the law.”

“The what governing what?”

“Anything which one must have a government-issued exemption to sell,” Ravana explained. “Opium, sevenleaf, glittershrooms and the like, and also certain alchemicals. You see, it is illegal to manufacture, purchase, sell, receive, or bestow controlled drugs. But, if you happen to have one for whatever reason, it’s not a crime to own or use it on yourself. That’s part of why glittershrooms are so popular; they’ll grow anyplace dark and dank. It’s quite common for people to find them entirely by accident in their own cellars. The law only constrains any means of acquiring drugs rather than having them because of the nobility, you see. For most people, it is presumed that if you own a controlled substance you committed a crime to get it, shrooms aside, and can thus be prosecuted. But because the inventories of House vaults are private, the Treasury cannot prove we didn’t just have vials of cocaine and love potions sitting in there left over from a past generation.”

“Wait, if the Empire can’t tell what you’ve got in storage…”

“Oh, the Treasury has the right to inspect and tally coin, bank notes, real estate, basically any form of liquid assets, and concealing such from the Throne is an offense for which a House’s charter of nobility can be revoked. But the Treasury requires specific cause to inspect a House’s vaults, and the burden of proof necessary is steep. So! As long as a House doesn’t skimp on its taxes, as a reward its members have a legal excuse to do whatever drugs they might wish.”

She smiled placidly up at the taller girl, who just stared back in something like horror.

“You know, stuff like this is why nobody trusts the nobility,” Iris complained. “This is exactly what I worry about Natchua of all bloody people suddenly having access to.”


Natchua could physically hear everything happening on the manor grounds, but the nature of elven hearing meant most of it was a blur which her subconscious filtered out as superfluous. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t even zero in on mentions of her own name with any reliability, given how much speculation about her was going on at this party. So it was mostly coincidence that she caught Iris’s last comment, helped along by the fact that she made sure to check up on whatever Ravana and Malivette were doing at a given moment, on the grounds that she now heavily depended on both while still trusting neither. And Vette was currently right in front of her.

She glanced aside at the witch, but deemed it not worth pursuing. After all, Iris undeniably had a point.

More immediately, her focus was swiftly demanded when a sudden chorus of screams from the front gate of the property interrupted her own conversation with Malivette and Bishop Darling.

Immediately both Duchesses were moving forward toward the source of the disturbance; being each of them an extremely dangerous creature in her own right, if there was trouble it only made sense for them to lead from the front. Natchua was less certain why Darling followed along, but didn’t spare him the attention to question his apparent lack of survival instincts.

In fact, it was he who offered the perfect commentary at what was now approaching her through the manor grounds as terrified nobles fled in all directions.

“What in the secondhand celestial monkey fuck is he doing?”

Obviously, it was the demon most people were frightened of; the thing was a good twelve feet tall and covered with the obligatory scale armor and spikes, complete with glowing eyes and flickers of fire snorting from its nostrils. Natchua wasn’t particularly concerned with that, however, as she could tell at a glance that the magical chains trussing it up like a cocoon were solid and more than adequate to the task. Those same chains were holding the beast aloft as it was propelled through the air at a walking pace.

Behind, holding the other end of the chain, strode a grinning man in a white suit. He came to a stop in the middle of the driveway, shifted the imprisoned demon out of the way and then, with a flick of his wrist, slammed it to the ground. The resulting crunch brought a muffled growl of outrage from the muzzled beast, which in turn prompted a new chorus of screams.

Embras Mogul doffed his hat and swept an elaborately courtly bow.

“Duchess Natchua of House Leduc! Your humble servant has completed the task you assigned. By your kind patronage and at your command, the Black Wreath stands ready to continue our devoted service to our new mistress. What orders have you?”

In the terrified silence which followed, everyone on the grounds turned to stare at Natchua.

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16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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16 – 30

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My help?”

Natchua made a wry expression. “Is that so astonishing? You’re a paladin, I thought helping people was all part of the job.”

“Well, yes, but… I mean, in very specific… I’m just surprised you need something from me.” Trissiny cleared her throat, grasping for the remnants of her poise and studiously ignoring Gabriel’s insufferable grin. “Is this somehow related to your, ah, social event this evening? And congratulations on that, by the way.”

“It is, yes, and thank you,” Natchua replied, grimacing.

“Okay, not to de-Rail this,” Gabriel interjected, “but I’m sorry, I’ve just gotta. You’re going to be a noble, now? An Imperial noble?”

“A Duchess, so they tell me,” Natchua grumbled, her expression growing if anything more unhappy. “Look, I’m aware this whole thing probably seems like me conning my way into… Well, let me just be clear, this is something Malivette and Ravana have cooked up between them, and Sherwin’s on board because, honestly, can you imagine him holding out with those two trying to wheedle him into doing whatever thing they have in mind?”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I can see it.”

“How has nobody murdered him yet? I shoulda taken that bet when Ruda offered it.”

“I,” Natchua continued irritably, “am going along with this because I have been persuaded that it’s in the best interests of Veilgrad, and of…me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations.”

“Yeah, funny how becoming a high-ranking aristocrat can be in the best interests of you,” Gabriel said innocently.

“Being involved in that kind of power is very much a double-edged sword, Gabriel, and I know you’re smart enough to know that. For one thing, after this summer, apparently it carries a risk of being visited by you three in a waterboarding mood!”

“You really know how to ask for a favor,” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua pressed one hand to the side of her face and closed her eyes for a moment. “I… Sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry, that’s just the worry talking. Omnu’s balls, I am out of my depth with this entire thing… Oh, uh, sorry, Toby.”

“If he’s not going to take exception to that, I’m certainly not,” Toby replied, amused. “I decided long ago that picking my battles meant that one was never going to be on the agenda. Why don’t we have a seat over here, by the fireplace? I can tell you’re stressed by all this, Natchua. These things are often easier to discuss in more comfortable surroundings. Care for something to nosh? Apparently the kitchen here is always open, and the staff seems to take real pride in fulfilling requests.”

“Still the team dad, I see,” Natchua said, even as she allowed him to lead her to the sofa nearest the main hearth. “Uh, no thanks, I’m honestly too nervous to eat. You all got your invitations, right?”

“We did,” Trissiny answered, perching on the arm of a plush armchair while Gabriel flopped fully into another one. Toby and Natchua both elected to stand, she already beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Thanks for thinking of us, Natchua, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. No slight intended, we’re just…kind of up to our necks in something, here.”

“That’s fine, I know it’s ridiculously short notice,” Natchua agreed, nodding. “It’s… Okay, that’s as good a segue as any. All this is pretty much what I wanted to ask you about, Trissiny.”

Segue or not, she then stopped talking, pacing a few laps up and down in front of the fire with a perturbed expression while the three paladins watched. After a few seconds, Gabriel opened his mouth, but Toby caught his eye and gave a single shake of his head. It was only a moment longer before Natchua finally found the thread of her thoughts again.

“So, there’s a lot of preparatory work involved in this noble thing, you know? And because Vette and Ravana are so dead set on moving fast to take everybody by surprise, it’s all being crammed in at the last second, so I’ve spent my morning dealing with… Just, all kinds of bullshit. But anyway, the thing that stuck out to me was my interview with the old steward of House Leduc. Scrappy old Vernisite guy, seems to be completely still there in the head despite his age. Under Sherwin he’s had basically nothing to do except make sure the Manor gets its weekly food delivery, and he was so excited that it’s going to be an actual House again.”

“What does that entail, exactly?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, being an actual House again. Not that I’m criticizing, you understand. Even you cannot possibly be a worse leader than Sherwin.”

“I don’t entirely know is the problem,” Natchua said in mounting frustration. “That’s exactly the issue! Apparently there’s a lot and I comprehend very little of it, but there are all these well-trained people who are oh so happy to step in and take all the details off my hands. It all came to a head for me when I was listening to Mr. Vonstraum—uh, that’s the steward I was talking about—tell me what kind of business and financial enterprises a fully active noble House is expected to do, and then there was this…this one moment.”

She abruptly stopped pacing, turning to meet Trissiny’s eyes.

“He mentioned how the Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is basically an afterthought since House Leduc withdrew from all its activities. Just a few people with nothing to do, really.”

“We discovered that when we were there,” Toby said, nodding. “What Eserites there still are have other priorities, too. Apparently the Underboss is in the Army, and one of the others ended up as one of Malivette’s…uh, attendants.”

“Jade, yeah,” Natchua said with a mirthless grin. “’Attendant’ is a word for it, I guess. But anyway, it was the way Vonstraum said this. He was practically drooling at the prospect of doing business in a Guild-free city.”

“I was never real clear on why that’s the case,” Gabriel added. “What about Veilgrad discourages Eserite activity?”

“Veilgrad’s a scary place,” Trissiny explained. “The Guild is active where there are powerful interests being predatory. And…that’s not really how things work, there; the usual predators are the prey. With the local ruler being a fair-minded vampire with an interventionist streak, it’s very hard for large-scale corruption that to take root. The way I understand it, the Guild was only needed to keep House Leduc itself in check, because they were the only ones with the oomph to push back against House Dufresne. With them effectively gone…” She spread her hands in a half-shrug.

“Exactly!” Natchua nodded. “That’s it exactly. To be frank, I’m not sure it was ever a great idea for the Guild to draw down with Malivette in charge, just because she doesn’t tend to pick on the little guys; that’s a lady who urgently needs some checks on her power if I ever met one. But now House Leduc is coming back, and… Trissiny, you’re the only Guild contact I know. I need to get more people out there to my city. Veilgrad needs a full Thieves’ Guild presence, as quickly as possible.”

All three stared at her in surprise while she gazed earnestly at Trissiny.

“Wait, so…” Toby blinked. “Your first act upon joining the nobility is to try to increase the Eserite presence in your domain? You do know how they tend to feel about nobles?”

“Of course I know,” Natchua said testily, shooting him a scowl. “That is literally the entire point, Caine, I thought I just explained that.”

“Well, this is pretty on-brand for you, Natch,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “First you make me grudgingly respect you, and then you immediately ruin it.”

“…sorry.” The drow lowered her eyes, her shoulder shifting in a small exhalation. “I know, you’re right, I’m not very… Well, you know. It’d be easy enough to say I’m only going to do business in a certain way, but the overarching lesson of my day so far has been that I do not in the slightest understand how a noble House operates. It’s a hugely complex enterprise, and apparently it’s able to function pretty well without much direct oversight, but here’s the thing: my options are to reactivate what remains of the old Leduc structure, with all the corruption and predation that implies, or allow Malivette to basically hand-pick one for me, which’ll effectively make me her pawn. I’d be wary of that even if she and Ravana weren’t conspiring to reshape the political landscape of the Empire for their personal benefit. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m a pretty fast learner; I know I’ll ultimately have it in hand, and be able to control my people properly. But that’s eventually. Nobles get trained for this from birth, and for good reason. It’ll likely take me years to be in full control, and in that time the gods only know what kind of havoc will be unleashed in my name, to say nothing of what Vette will do with her own reaffirmed authority over the province. I just… I will feel a lot safer with a firm presence in Veilgrad to keep the nobles in check. At least until I can wrap my head around the running of House Leduc’s interests enough to handpick better people for its agents and put some rules in place, but even after that point. Just, on general principles, you know? Nobles should not be free to do whatever goddamn thing they want, and with Vette in as good as she is with the Throne, Tiraas won’t help. I need the Guild. Can you help me, Trissiny?”

Her expression was very nearly pleading.

Trissiny inhaled deeply, blinking her eyes as if she was having difficulty processing all this. “Okay… Well, first of all, Natchua, there’s really not a thing I can do about this. I’ve got no operational control at all within the Guild.”

“What?” Natchua looked incredulous. “You don’t— But wasn’t it a huge deal when you joined up with them? I mean, you’re the Hand of Avei!”

“And in the Sisterhood of Avei, yes, that’s a big deal,” Trissiny said wryly, “but one thing Eserites really do not like is people trying to claim unearned authority over them. My Avenist rank means nothing there except for a quick way to piss everybody off if I tried throwing it around. In the Thieves’ Guild I’m just a bottom-ranking neophyte enforcer with no major jobs to her name and only a few connections.”

“I see.” Natchua’s shoulders slumped.

“Now, hang on,” said Trissiny. “Guys, were you leaning toward attending that coming-out party at Malivette’s place tonight? I know we’re busy, but…”

“I’m not sure what else is going to happen on this front between now and tomorrow,” said Toby. “That’s when our big announcements are all being made, right?”

“I was definitely planning to go,” Gabriel added. “Accepting Ravana’s invitation out here meant not going home for the winter; I’m not gonna pass up a chance to see my dad again if one pops up like this.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Natchua said, nodding eagerly at him. “Hesthri would also love a chance to spend some time with you.”

“Mnh,” he grunted, almost aggressively noncommittal.

“Right, so, here’s the bad news,” said Trissiny. “There’s some kind of issue in the Guild’s upper leadership right now that may impede any major operations or reassignments. The good news is that what you’re talking about here should appeal to any Eserite in principle. And I do happen to know exactly the right person to pull the strings I can’t and get some more people sent out to Veilgrad, if it can be done. So yeah, Natchua, I’ll be there tonight, and if I can make my RSVP plus one, I may be able to answer your request.”


“I’ve gotta say, Sweet, I’m surprised to see you comin’ to me with this.”

Ever the gracious host, Vandro waited till his guest was comfortably seated in his parlor with a scone in hand and the other members of the household likewise served before firing off the piercing question.

“Well, who else would I come to?” Sweet asked with his usual disarming grin, one Webs would naturally recognize as a facade. He wasn’t interested in wasting time playing mind games with this one; so long as Webs was likewise willing to keep the conversational chicanery to the necessary minimum, there was no reason this couldn’t be a civil discussion. “You know I like to cultivate my own networks, but let’s be honest, the both of us inherently limit ourselves purely because of who we choose to pal around with. And I’ll freely admit that the political hamster wheel I’ve been running since Ninkabi has cut down on my ability to keep up with even my usual rounds in the city. If I’m looking for dirt on Tricks… Well, who’s the most well-connected critic of Tricks to be found?”

“Hm,” Vandro murmured, actually taking a sip of his omnipresent blue cocktail. Sweet took that as a sign he was surprised by all this; the man was famously never without an alcoholic drink, but usually brandished it undrunk as a conversational prop, and was known to put people off guard by pretending to be impaired while stone sober.

He was the only one drinking. Sweet and Thumper had both declined cocktails, and Wilberforce hadn’t even bothered to ask Gimmick. The Butler was now off in the kitchen preparing tea while the four of them sat around the low parlor table with scones which none of them were eating.

Vandro was silent for the moment, holding the cocktail just under his nose and studying Sweet through pensively narrowed eyes. That was a good sign; he’d take pains to obscure his acute analysis if he thought they were at cross-purposes. Always ready to deflect awkwardness anyway, Sweet decided to give Webs whatever time he needed to ponder by switching the focus of the conversation.

“Thumper, you’re limping. What’ve you done to yourself this time? I honestly thought you’d lay low for a while after you got out Style’s tender care.”

“You bet your ass I have,” Thumper assured him. “I’m fine, Sweet, this is just a li’l momento of my last chat with Style. It’ll straighten out in time.”

“What?” Sweet scowled in sudden displeasure. “Style wasn’t supposed to fucking maim you, the Boss was crystal clear on that.”

“Oh, she didn’t,” Webs interjected, now watching Thumper with an annoyed grimace. “Style’s nothing if not a pro. And Jerry here would be back to a hundred percent long since if he’d gotten a proper healing and then stayed off his feet for a week like the docs goddamn well instructed. I keep tellin’ you, boy, what’s the damn point of me hirin’ the best healers in the capital if you won’t fucking do what they say?”

“I hear you, Alan,” Shook replied with the patience of a man who’d had this conversation repeatedly and expected to do so again. “An’ like I told you, I’m fine. It’s fine. Main project of my life right now is gettin’ my own head together, what with all the magic bullshit and that succubus, not to mention cleaning up after my own goddamn stupidity. A little pain here an’ there helps me focus. It’s not like I don’t have it coming, anyway.”

“Omnu’s balls, Thumper!” Sweet exclaimed. “You have got an absolute genius for taking the wrong lesson from any given situation. Walking around wounded is useful for exactly nothing! You wanna engage in self-flagellating bullshit, just join the Huntsmen and have done with it.”

“The hell you say,” Thumper retorted with a smirk, straightening one of his lapels. “Have you seen how those assholes dress?”

“He has been attending Avenist temple services,” Saduko commented, and then met Thumper’s annoyed scowl with a polite little smile.

“Yeah, and ain’t that the fuckin’ icing on the cake,” Vandro huffed.

“Hey, it’s instructive!” Shook protested. “I’ve already spotted half a dozen specific ways in which they are full a’ shit, but also a good handful of useful thinkin’ points I never considered before. Man’s gotta keep an open mind, y’know? Just not too open.”

Vandro cleared his throat pointedly before bringing the conversation back on track. “Well, Sweet, I gotta ask: what is it about this that’s got you scheming to knock Tricks off his pedestal? So he’s bein’ high-handed and too much in control; I’ve been sayin’ that for years.”

“First of all,” Sweet said flatly, setting his scone and plate down on the table, “nobody’s knocking anybody anywhere. My whole point here is to find out if it’s gonna be necessary to do anything about Tricks, which is why I’m here asking what else you might know about him overreaching.”

“All right, well, fact remains, it seems like an arbitrary thing to me. So he tried to rip off the Falconers. Why’re you so fond of them? Or that weirdo fuckin’ demon dog of theirs?”

“I struggle to have any opinion about the Falconers or their pets,” Sweet replied. “They seem okay, for industrialists, but who’s got tears to spare for the problems of rich people? My issue is who they’re connected to. That dog also belongs to the drow wife of the Falconer heiress, who is a noble of the Narisian diplomatic House—and this right at a moment when shit between the elves and the Empire is at maximum tension to begin with. And then there is fucking Vadrieny. That little snatch-and-grab could’ve kicked off a massive diplomatic crisis, which would make it a colossally goddamn stupid thing to do, and it sent two Guild members in good standing right into the claws of an archdemon without warning ‘em they were about to piss her off. Whatever you think about Tricks’s leadership style, he’s never been stupid, and he has never mishandled honest thieves like that before. Something is up, Webs.”

“Huh,” Vandro grunted, swirling his cocktail and staring at it. “When y’put it like that, I do kinda see your point. But that highlights the problem here, Sweet: it takes a little explainin’ to the likes of me to suss out why Tricks may be acting out of character. By the same token, most of my, shall we call ‘em, social circle likely haven’t noticed anything outta the ordinary either. Those who think the way I do are not likely to be happy about the Boss anyway, and I can’t say how many will share your observation that this is something new an’ different.”

Saduko cleared her throat. “Also, as Webs has been very clear that he is not interested in plotting to unseat the Boss, most of those who have his ear will not have been watching Tricks more closely than anyone else.”

Sweet raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah, while we’re talkin’ about this, I gotta say I never got it,” Thumper admitted. “You’re always goin’ on about how much you don’t like Tricks’s leadership, Alan. That Om’ponole job in Onkawa that went so completely tits up sounded like you were beginning to work on a longer-term plan to undercut his authority. What changed?”

“You think anything’s changed?” Vandro chuckled. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry m’boy, I’ve spent the last couple years largely worryin’ about you. But no, I have still been running jobs, and even moved myself back here to Tricks’s backyard to keep doin’ it. Being that I am not angling to take over his position, the best play to undercut him is to earn more cred than he is while loudly complaining about his leadership. Truth be told, it’s not gonna draw much attention except from the people who specifically keep an eye on Guild politics. But then, that’s exactly the point.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of it, then,” said Thumper. “You’d be as good a Boss as he is. If you’re not gonna try to take over, what—”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah!” Vandro leaned back in his seat, holding up his cocktail and his free hand in a defensive gesture. “I’m an operations guy, Jerry. That’s what I do: I plan big jobs and direct my minions with a firm guiding hand. The only thing that makes me any better than Tricks is I damn well know my place! The Guild’s not supposed to be run like a tight ship. Boss Webs would be the same shit from a new asshole. That’s why I’m not trying to unseat the Boss. I got no business doing that, when there’s no adequate replacement for him lined up. Best use of me right now is to use my influence to counter his.”

“It might not be as hard as you think,” Sweet murmured. “Tricks has hinted to me for years that he wouldn’t mind passing the job back…”

“Perhaps I do not understand,” Saduko said delicately. “I know the central operation of the Guild in Sifan is different, as with all the Pantheon cults. Leadership there is a position of honor, for which there is much competition. Is it truly not so in Tiraas?”

“Aren’t you half-Sheng?” Thumper asked. “I thought their branch of the Guild ran more or less like the Imperial one.”

“I am an Imperial citizen,” she said in such an icy tone that he leaned away from her, “and I have never been to Shengdu.”

“Way I hear it, nothing there that’s worth seeing is still standing after the civil war,” Vandro said lightly. “But no, Gimmick, around these parts we take it as given that anybody who wants to be in power is automatically disqualified. So,” he added with a grimace, “I’m well aware that my carrying on may result in exactly that. If I just didn’t care for the position, I might suck it up and try to move in on Tricks anyway, but my specific point is that I wouldn’t be a better Boss than he is—or even a much different one. So me tryin’ to take his job would be nothing but a completely pointless upset of the Guild’s operations. But!”

He leaned forward, brandishing his cocktail almost accusingly at Sweet.

“Now you’ve brought this up, Sweet, I’ll tell you what I can do for you. I got no answers for you right now, but you’re right that I’m in good with the people who can get ‘em. It’s a matter of askin’ some friends of mine to think carefully about things they may’ve seen lately, and start looking closer at other stuff. It’s doable. But the price I demand for this assistance is your backing if we decide what’s needed is a new Boss. I got somebody in mind who I think would be the best candidate to take over.”

“Once again, Webs,” Sweet said firmly, “I am not committing to that course of action yet. I’m still in the very early stages of deciding if that’s what needs to be done.”

“Of course, everybody’s clear on that,” Webs replied, waving his sloshing drink impatiently, “that’s why I said if with all the emphasis. If, Sweet.”

“All right, if,” he replied. “Obviously I’m not gonna sign off on something like that without knowing exactly who you’re planning to put forward.”

“Is it really not obvious?” Vandro grinned broadly at him. “Nobody here actually thinks we need a new Boss as such; we’re all just concerned about the current one. If the worst case scenario has to go down, it’ll mean massive disruption in the Guild, and the next poor bastard to fill the role needs to be both very familiar with its workings and very skilled at soothing people’s ruffled feathers and coaxing folks back to business as usual. I’m talking about you, Sweet.”

“Huh,” Thumper said into the startled silence which ensued. He and Gimmick were both studying Sweet pensively. That was the moment when Wilberforce bustled back into the room with a laden tray and began pouring tea.

“I, uh… I feel like I’ve skipped a chapter, here,” Sweet admitted after taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “It was my impression you weren’t much more pleased with my performance as Boss than Tricks’s, Alan.”

“Only problem I had with you was that your obsession with not rocking the boat came right after Catseye set it on a dangerous course, Antonio. That woulda been a problem just because she was so ham-fisted, but there’s also the fact that trying to transition from a Boss who was boinking the Empress to a Boss and an Emperor who weren’t even on speaking terms without functionally changing our methods made our legal position shakier than it needed to be.”

Thumper had just choked on a bite of his scone, and Saduko hesitated in lifting her teacup, staring at Vandro with wide eyes. Wilberforce simply carried on distributing cups as if he could hear none of this.

“Hey, now, let’s not distribute scurrilous rumors about the dead,” Sweet protested.

“Pardon me,” Vandro said wryly, “but isn’t your whole point in bein’ here an acknowledgment that I know stuff you don’t? Trust me, Sweet. It wasn’t every Thursday night or nothin’, but Catseye and Theasia hit the sheets at least a handful of times during their overlapping reigns. They were in bed politically speaking on a much consistent basis, to the point of the Guild being used more’n a few times to shut down Theasia’s opponents. You’re pretty cozy with the Empire, true, but not in the same way, and your throwdown with Justinian this fall proved to my satisfaction you’ve got a line past which you’ll take a stand for Eserite principle. What is important here is that you are here, concerned about this and taking action. If it turns out that Tricks has gone bad and needs to go, I’m satisfied you will recognize the need for change and do what needs to be done to fix whatever else he broke. I’ll have your back, if that’s the case, but I won’t try to tell you what to do. Me bein’ the power behind the throne ain’t any better than me taking over in person. So that’s the deal, Sweet. I’ll help you figure out what’s up, on the condition that if we decide Tricks is compromised like you fear, you will take your old job back.”

Sweet stared at him in consternation; Webs just gazed back, a knowing little smile hovering around his mouth.

“It’d…probably be easier,” Thumper offered after a few seconds of silence. “Everybody likes you, Sweet. And we know from history that you’re a competent Boss.” Saduko nodded mutely.

“All right…look.” Sweet shook his head. “I am going to proceed on the assumption that this is all theoretical and hope that stays the case, all right?”

“Sure,” Webs agreed. “I would too. But…”

Sweet heaved a sigh. “But… I’m not gonna make you any promises about how long I would stay in the big chair, Webs. You no doubt remember I didn’t go for a fraction of Catseye’s longevity last time.”

“Even better,” Vandro said with a broad grin. “Cos I know you also won’t step down until you’ve got somebody lined up who you’re sure can handle the job right.”

“Isn’t that exactly what got us into this situation?”

Vandro shrugged. “If we’re proceeding on the assumption that whatever’s up with Tricks is a new development, I don’t see how you could’ve anticipated it years ago. And maybe this’ll teach you something about picking a successor with a less hands-on approach next time.”

“How sure are you that your network can turn up the info we need, anyway?”

“How sure are you that Tricks is actually compromised?” Vandro retorted with a smug little grin.

Sweet indulged in glaring at him. He had not come here prepared to make a decision like this… Which, of course, was exactly why Webs was springing it on him now. And the truth was, it was a well-sprung trap. If he tried to deflect or put this off, Webs would take it as a refusal, and then… Could he dig up the information he needed without him? That was frustratingly unclear. He’d already spoken with Glory, who was also well-connected in the city and throughout the Empire, and they had the same problem: both were known to be generally well-disposed toward Tricks, which meant Guild members who shared Vandro’s viewpoint would be skeptical of them if approached. Some could be brought around, sure, but how fast? How much time did they even have left to work on this?

Damn it, he was cornered. The decision had to be made now. He’d just have to hope it was the right call… And that he could fix it, somehow, if he was making a mistake.

“All right, Webs. Deal.”

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16 – 22

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The door wasn’t locked, so she went right through without hesitation. Hesitation, even so much as looking around at the apparently abandoned storefront or tugging experimentally at the door itself would have sent an unconscious signal to anyone watching that she was up to something surreptitious, and Lakshmi was far too good at what she did to make such a rookie blunder. It was late and Lor’naris was dim, but the relative lack of fairy lamps was because the drow residents preferred it darker, and by the same token, the street was about as busy as it would be at noon. Even if she was a stranger here, though, people would instinctively ignore someone going calmly about their business and betraying no furtive mannerisms.

Inside, the abandoned state of the old shop was even more obvious. Mostly cleaned out, it still contained some of the detritus of a space which had been vacated by owners who didn’t care to pack unnecessary freight: a few miscellaneous wooden boxes, a half-broken chair, two mops propped in one corner. Mostly, though, it contained dust and cobwebs. There was a fairy lamp, but a small handheld portable model, not installed in the shop itself. A thief’s special, it projected a weak and carefully directed light that would be difficult to spot through the windows assuming it was properly handled.

He was already there waiting, sitting on one of the crates rather than the suspicious-looking chair. Sweet, uncharacteristically, didn’t look up immediately, and even in the dimness Lakshmi got a good look at the fatigue in his posture, though the meager light didn’t reveal much about his expression.

“Ah, Peepers!” the Bishop said cheerfully, bounding to his feet with all his customary verve as if that glimpse hadn’t happened. “Glad you could make it. I am sorry for dragging you out in the middle of the night, but I promise I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t important. Any trouble getting a sitter?”

“Sanjay’s plenty capable of looking after Padma for a few hours, especially at night,” she said, pacing carefully toward him through the dusty gloom. “Being an uncle’s done wonders for his sense of responsibility. Being real, Sweet, if I’m not gonna get any sleep anyway I don’t mind the chance for it to be out in the fresh air for once, but even so this had better be good. Dagger emphasized hard that it was urgent, otherwise I wouldn’t have shown up at all.”

“Quite right, quite right,” he said, bending to pick up the shaded lamp. “Let’s not waste any more of your time, then. This way, if you please!”

He led the way through the ratty curtain covering a doorway into the back of the shop, and she followed, hesitating for a moment only when she saw that he was guiding them down a narrow flight of stairs into a basement.

Upon first coming to Tiraas, she had been somewhat starstruck by Sweet and particularly grateful at the chance to play a role in his schemes; he was a master of her own specialization, not to mention a former Boss of the Guild who’d earned even more respect by voluntarily stepping down just when he could’ve been getting comfortable with power. Peepers had looked up to him. But that was before…everything. For an information and connections guy, Sweet sure did like to get hands-on and didn’t shy away from danger, not to mention that he courted bullshit both magical and political that was way out of her league. She had learned to be exceedingly cautious of anything he wanted to drag her into. Had his former apprentice not heavily emphasized that this was extremely important, Lakshmi would likely have brushed off the invitation to meet. She now had two younger souls to protect, and no more patience for Sweet’s over-the-top escapades.

The basement, at least, was more brightly lit; there were four fairy lamps, all portable lanterns but of a much greater strength, and laid about atop the old crates that were strewn against the walls. In the bright light, the labels still visible on the boxessuggested that this shop had previously dealt in alchemical reagents. There was an audible squeaking as an uncomfortable number of rats scattered at the humans’ arrival, but Lakshmi didn’t pay attention even to that.

Standing barely a yard from the wall farthest from the stairs was a wooden gateway that looked ostentatiously witchy, being cobbled together from fresh branches—several still with sprigs of leaves attached—and affixed by braided twine and twists of enchanting-grade copper wire. Several miscellaneous crystals, feathers, and other fae-looking doodads were wedged into gaps in the wood along its length.

“Sweet,” Lakshmi said in a tone of warning.

“Okay, yeah, this is some weird shit,” he said frankly, stopping in front of the gate and turning to look at her. “But I’ve been researching this stuff carefully for a good while now and I’m confident it’s safe as long as we both follow some necessary safety rules. When we get to the space beyond the gate, it’s important above all else to stay calm. And the second anything even smells like it’s starting to go wrong, we come right back through.”

“The fuck I’m going through any magic gate, have you lost your mind?” she exclaimed. “Have you forgotten the last time you hauled me into your bullshit? Or the time before that?”

“Peepers,” he said, expression totally serious, “I am not here to haul you into anything. All of this is about you, not about me. You and your family are in danger you need to know about, and this nonsense, as crazy as it clearly is, remains the best I can do. I promise I’m going to explain everything, but I can’t do it until we go through the gate.”

She folded her arms, adopting a mulish expression. “Can you at least explain why you can only explain inside the gate?”

“Yes, I can,” he promised, “And I intend to. Inside the gate.”

“You are an asshole, Sweet.”

“Correct,” he agreed with a grin. “But I’m on your side, Peepers.”

Lakshmi held his gaze for a few drawn-out seconds during which he maintained an earnest expression. In fairness, the danger he had always posed was just the caliber of stuff he was into, and how that tended to pan out for ordinary people like her. Sweet had never deliberately misled her and always moved quickly to protect her when his shenanigans put her at risk. Which, apparently, was happening yet again.

With a heavy sigh of ill grace, she shook her head and stomped forward. “All right, fine. I’ll hear you out. Where the fuck does your magic doorway go, exactly?”

“Right here,” he said with a smile, “just in a different dimension. That’s why I chose this basement. On the other side it should just be another empty basement.”

“Uh huh,” she grunted. “Fine. After you.”

He made an elaborate bow, at which she sneered, then turned and sauntered through the improvised doorway. In the middle of it, he appeared to suddenly slide sideways out of its frame, and vanished from view.

Lakshmi grimaced in distaste, giving very serious thought to just turning around and buggering off. The same instinct of self-preservation that warned her to stay out of Sweet business made her hesitate, though. If she was already in this business—which meant it would be yet more fallout from one of his previous debacles—then he was right. She needed to know, to be prepared. There’d be no other way to protect her family.

Cursing under her breath, Lakshmi stalked forward and stepped into the doorway too fast to be able to talk herself out of it.

Immediately she had the very bizarre sensation that in the process of taking a single stride through its flat dimensions she had abruptly turned ninety degrees and set off to the side, and then she had to come to a stop to avoid running into the back wall of the basement.

“There we go!” Sweet said cheerfully from behind her. “Now, we can talk in peace.”

She stepped around the gate, carefully not moving back through it, to rejoin him in the middle of the basement, peering critically around. Immediately, Lakshmi could see what he’d meant about this being another dimension. Superficially, it looked exactly like the dingy underground room they’d entered via the stairs, but clearly the rules here were subtly different. A diffuse green glow lingered around the wooden gateway itself, and the four fairy lanterns now appeared surrounded by little wisps of blue light, as if they’d summoned arcane fireflies. Also, she noticed, the clearly-printed labels on the old crates were no longer in Tanglish. Lakshmi couldn’t tell what language that was; the spiky glyphs gave her the odd feeling they weren’t actually meant to be read.

“So… What dimension is this, exactly?”

He spread his arms, beaming, as if the shabby and now eerie basement space were a museum to be shown off. “Welcome, Peepers, to the dimensional insulation layer! Also known as chaos space.”

“God dammit, Sweet—”

“Now, now!” He held up one hand to forestall her very reasonable protests. “Remember what I said? It’s vitally important to stay calm. This place has innate defenses; it’s not safe to be here for long. It’s fine over the relatively short term, but the longer we’re here, the closer we come to getting a reaction we do not want. We’ve bought some extra time by being underground; being unable to see the sky will protect you from some of the unease. But getting upset will only shorten the time before somebody notices we’re in here and comes to do something about it, and we want to have our chat and be gone before that happens, trust me.”

“What the fuck does seeing the sky have to do with anything?”

“That’s one of those things where knowing will only make it worse,” he assured her. “Remember, Peepers, compose yourself. You’re about to hear some shit that is going to seriously upset you. Please concentrate on keeping an even keel.”

She folded her arms again. “You’re not doing a great job of selling this to me, Sweet. Why do we need to be in a creepy-ass netherworld in order to have this particular conversation, exactly?”

“It’s a little trick I’ve picked up,” he said, seating himself on a nearby crate. “There are certain very potent magical effect that will inform the caster when a breach has occurred, anywhere in the world. The Silver Throne uses one of these, powered by a fairy geas, to protect some of its secrets; once something has been Sealed to the Throne, if anyone outside the seal learns of it, Hands of the Emperor know right away and can send agents to quarantine the breach. Unless said breach occurs here, in an extradimensional space created specifically by the Elder Gods to block magical effects.”

He had the effrontery to grin at her.

“I’m about to tell you a couple of things which are Sealed to the Throne, Peepers, and I’d just as soon not be immediately hauled away for treason.”

“Oh, fuck no,” she exclaimed. “That’s exactly the kind of bullshit I want to stay out of! You know how much I love learning secrets, Sweet, but not the goddamn Emperor’s! That shit’s more trouble than I can handle.”

“That’s the problem exactly,” he said, his expression immediately sobering. “You are already in the trouble, Peepers. Listen, I fulfill a lot of different roles and have to be a different man in different situations. Some of my loyalties are inevitably tested against each other, and this is one of those times. In the end, I am first and foremost an Eserite, and that means this time I’m siding with you, hence all this rigamarole.”

“Why?” she demanded, narrowing her eyes.

“You’re Guild,” he said, meeting her gaze. “More to the point, the Imperial government—actually, the Emperor in particular has screwed you over. You’ve always played straight and done the right thing, Lakshmi, and in return you’ve been conned and put in danger. I’m not having it. So I’m gonna tell you what you need to know to protect Padma and Sanjay, but I’m doing it carefully. There’s no sense in us both getting in trouble with Imperial Intelligence, not when I know a spiffy magical workaround.”

The very bad feeling in her gut intensified the longer she talked.

“All right, all right, enough backstory. The suspense is starting to get to me, Sweet. What the fuck does the Imperial government want with me?”

Sweet hesitated, drawing a shallow breath and letting it out, which of course only alarmed her further.

“Okay. Awhile ago, there was a plot within the Imperial Palace that forced the Emperor to go into hiding, briefly. I assisted with that, and arranged for him to be stashed for a few days in the absolute last place anybody would look.”

Lakshmi’s stomach plummeted as intuition notified her she should be terrified in advance of her logical mind actually putting together what the danger was.

“The man you knew as Danny,” Sweet said, still holding her eyes, “was… Well, it was short for Sharidan.”

“No,” she whispered.

“As in,” he continued, relentlessly, “Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian.”

“No no no no,” Lakshmi babbled, raising both hands to clutch at her hair.

“Which means,” Sweet continued in a gentler voice, “Padma is the rightful Princess of the Tiraan Empire.”

“You SON OF A BITCH!” Lakshmi shrieked, hurling herself across the room at him with clawed fingers outstretched. Sweet caught her wrists deftly, which was probably for the best as she wasn’t a fighter and didn’t really have a plan here. It was cathartic to struggle with him, even if the knee she tried to aim at his crotch only impacted painfully against the edge of the crate. “Why would you—how could you do this to me!?”

“Okay, whoah!” he snapped, still gripping her arms and forcing her back a step despite her struggles. “We’re here because I have a role with this and I feel responsible for looking out for you, but let’s keep in mind exactly who did what! I asked you to open your home to the guy, Peepers. Open your pantry? Sure, you could argue that was implied. Your heart? Not relevant, but debatably a logical side effect. Legs? That was entirely on you!”

She went rigidly still, glaring at him and breathing heavily.

“And remember,” Sweet continued in a more even tone, still holding her arms, “you probably just shaved a good chunk off the time we’ve got here. Calm, Peepers. As justified as you are in being upset, you need to control it. Okay?”

They stared at each other in silence for a few seconds, and then she finally drew in a heavy breath and took a step back. Sweet released her arms, and Lakshmi used them to straighten her hair.

“All right,” she said, pleased with the evenness of her tone despite the panic-induced rage pulsing at the back of her throat. “Who else knows this?”

“The problem is I’m not sure,” he said frankly. “I haven’t told anybody and won’t. Cloak and Dagger know, but I trust my life to their discretion and I promise you can too. At issue is whether Sharidan knows. Keeping tabs on you after I removed him would be a possible course of action Quentin Vex might take; if he did, you can bet he’s followed up and knows the truth. If you’ve got access to good enough magic, there are ways to verify paternity without the subject even knowing it.”

“Wouldn’t…” She had to pause and swallow before continuing. “Wouldn’t they have done something if they knew?”

“Maybe, but possibly not,” he said, frowning. “You know about the Tirasian Dynasty’s lack of an heir and the pressure that puts on the Throne. At issue is that you’re Guild, and I know. If the Silver Throne seized the child of a member of the Thieves’ Guild for any reason, then all the intricate politics of the situation would suddenly cease to matter. The Boss would have to go straight to war over something like that; doctrine and everything we stand for demands it. If they know, they’ll want to play this smart.”

“And of course,” she said bitterly, “just asking me isn’t even a prospect.”

“The fact they haven’t makes me suspect they don’t know,” Sweet said. “It would be a likely action. Likely, but not inevitable. They’ll also be thinking in terms of security and necessity, and might just be waiting and watching to see what happens. I don’t know, is the thing. But you deserve to be aware this is hanging over your head and what might result from it, Peepers. I’ve got your back; if the Throne makes a move on you, then I will bring the Boss in and we’ll act. It’ll destroy basically all of my work over the last ten years, not to mention causing massive trouble throughout the Empire and beyond, but… That simply can’t be tolerated. The way Sharidan deceived me and used you was plenty bad enough. The Throne doesn’t get to do that horseshit. Not to a member of the Guild.”

She nodded once, curtly. “What if he gets another heir?”

Sweet heaved a deep sigh. “That’s where it gets even more complicated. This is also classified, but it turns out there was some kind of magical effect over the Palace preventing anyone there from getting pregnant, which is why of all the women that guy takes to bed, you were the first to catch it: you were outside the effect. I dunno exactly what it was, but what I’ve been told is that it was disabled and should fade with time. And he does keep a stable of his own girls, so hopefully, he’ll get a more acceptable heir soon enough. Once that happens, you should be more or less in the clear. The Throne isn’t going to want an Eserite-raised Punaji heir if they’ve got any better prospects.”

“That fucking asshole,” she hissed.

“Calm,” he reminded her. “You are goddamn right, but remember: calm. Once we’re out of here you can beat the shit out of a training dummy, that always helps me. But keep it firmly in mind, Peepers, because I haven’t told you the bad part yet.”

“The fucking bad part?” She paused, deliberately breathed in and out, and rolled her shoulders once. “Right, I know, calm. How, I calmly ask you, was that not the bad part? How the fuck is there a worse part!?”

“This is also Sealed to the Throne,” he said solemnly. “About three years ago, Elilial took human form and infiltrated the Palace.”

Lakshmi heard herself squeak embarrassingly.

“Specifically,” Sweet continued with a grimace, “she got herself a position in the Imperial harem. As the Emperor’s favorite. And because magical sterility whammy doesn’t work on goddesses, she got herself a demigod heir as the firstborn child of the Emperor.”

Lakshmi staggered backward and sat down hard on another crate.

“I’ve done my research on demigods since then,” Sweet continued, “and it’s all frustratingly vague. There are basically no rules; it’s not a biological process, the deity involved seems to choose how it goes down. For all I know, she’s still carrying, or the kid might’ve been born the very next day. That really doesn’t matter, legally; primogeniture is not a factor in Tiraan inheritance. The heir to the Silver Throne does have to be a blood descendant of the current ruler if one is available, but among the prospects, the Emperor or Empress can designate whichever they think is the best candidate, regardless of who was born first.”

She stared at him, wide-eyed and finding nothing to say.

“I know you’re sharp enough to connect the dots on your own,” Sweet said gently, “but I’m gonna spell all this out just for the sake of thoroughness, because we need to be on the same page. What this means, for your purposes, is that Elilial and the Black Wreath are clearly trying to put their own heir on the Silver Throne. So they do not want any alternates to exist, and the Throne itself very much does.”

Lakshmi slumped, lowering her head to stare at the floor.

“The good news,” he offered, “is that Elilial definitely doesn’t know about you or Padma. And there’s no reason she should find out; everybody already in the know is highly motivated to keep it from her, especially Imperial Intelligence, if they’re even on that short list.”

There was silence in the room. Out of the corner of her eye, Lakshmi noted one of the rats coming out of hiding. Viewed from across the dimensional barrier, it looked washed out and wavery, as if she were seeing it through water or smoke.

“You okay, Peepers?” Sweet asked softly.

She raised her head to stare at him. “Am I okay? Is that even a fucking question?”

“Fair,” he agreed, nodding. “I just wanted to make sure you’re still with me. I know this is a lot to lay on a person.”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do about this?” she whispered.

He sighed again. “I…seriously thought about not telling you, to be honest. Because it’s an absolute motherfucker of a thing to have hanging over someone’s head, and there’s just not much you can do except live with it. I didn’t do this to be cruel, I swear…”

“No.” She shook her head. “No, you’re right. I’m an Eserite, and an information gal. Knowledge is power; above all else, I hate being in the dark. But god dammit, Sweet.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, nodding. “I’m glad to hear that. What decided me is that there is something you can do, if it comes down to a confrontation. If Imperial agents take Padma, you come to the Guild. We may not be able to get her back, but we will fucking well make them pay for it.”

“And if they take me?” she asked bitterly.

“I’ll be watching for that,” he said. “As will Cloak and Dagger. If you disappear and then suddenly there’s a Princess, we’ll know what’s up. If they wanna be really thorough, Intelligence might be able to nab me, but they won’t get the elves, I promise you that.”

“Which leaves…”

“The other antagonists,” he said, nodding again. “It’s hard to say where Elilial stands in all this, with most of her plans in shreds and now her truce with the Pantheon in effect. The Empire isn’t a signatory to that, but… There’s a lot of uncertainty there. If she or hers come at you, you may not get the luxury of much time to react. In that event, Peepers, you just start saying some of this out loud.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What would that— Oh. It’s still Sealed, isn’t it?”

“Exactly,” he grinned. “You stepping back into the real world with this info in your head won’t trigger the effect, but you telling anybody will. So, absolutely don’t do that. Unless you get cornered by the Wreath, in which case, start babbling. Imperial agents will be on you as fast as they can teleport, and they will immediately side with a human against demons or warlocks even if they don’t know the situation. And if they do, they’ll protect you and Padma against whatever.”

“Which would leave us in the other situation…”

“Yeah,” he acknowledged. “It’s not perfect, Peepers. But it’s what we can manage to do. And remember: there is a very real possibility of all of this blowing over. Once Sharidan sires some heirs of more conventional parentage, Padma becomes much less interesting to House Tirasian, and said other heirs will be Elilial’s foremost problem. We all just gotta keep our heads down and hope for the best. And if we don’t get the best… Do what we can.”

“You are a real bastard, you know,” she said. “The pisser is how you can completely wreck my life but still mean so well.”

He sighed. “I’ve got your back, Peepers. That’s the best I can do. In my defense, even given some of the stuff I’ve brought you into, I could not reasonably have predicted this. And, again,” he added with a touch of asperity, “I did not tell you to sleep with the guy!”

Lakshmi shook her head, then got to her feet. “Don’t think this is settled, just because…”

She trailed off, the sound first coming too vaguely to interrupt her, but very shortly she could no longer ignore it. The deep groaning echoed through the very bricks around them, not unlike the noises made by old buildings settling, except it was not a sound made by any building. It was a voice. A deep, enormous voice, moaning in apparent pain.

“What the f—”

Sweet jumped to his own feet in alarm as crimson rivulets of blood began to seep out of cracks in the brickwork all around them.

“Time to go,” he stated. She was already moving toward the gateway.

Almost not fast enough. With a rumble and a roar, a veritable deluge of apparent blood came pouring out of the stairwell, rushing toward them.

“Go go go!” Sweet pushed her ahead as they both charged at and through the magical gate. Moving at that speed, the sideways sensation of passage was even more jarring, though less so than both of them smashing against the wall on the other side, especially as he hit right on top of her.

At least this wall wasn’t bleeding.

Behind there came a loud crack, and Lakshmi squirmed out from under Sweet—who was still trying to bodily protect her, she noted almost fondly—to find his two elven proteges in the room in the process of beating the wooden chaos gate to smithereens with cudgels.

“You cut that close, Sweet!” Fauna exclaimed.

“We are about to go in there after you,” Flora added.

“Well, damn, I didn’t mean to worry you,” he said, peering warily at the wreckage. “Wait, were we just in there too long? Or did something happen on this side?”

The elves exchanged a look.

“There was…a ripple,” Fauna admitted, glancing at Lakshmi.

“A chaos effect,” Flora added.

“Very slight,” Fauna said hastily. “It probably wouldn’t have affected anything except an open gateway to the chaos dimension.”

“Wait,” Lakshmi interjected, “so when you said bad shit would go down if we were in there too long and drew attention, you didn’t mean…that fucking nightmare?”

Sweet drew in a breath and let it out in a huff, running a hand through his hair. “No, that was… Well, would you look at that. Once again, life gets just a little more complicated.”

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