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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.”
“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.”