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The great double doors were limned in white destruction for an instant before crumpling under the onslaught. Very fortunately they were too heavy to completely disintegrate, but burst violently inward, one sloughing off its hinges in the process. Even so, several shards of wood flew across the room and a couple of the thieves cursed, one doubling over in pain.
Theasia flinched at the sudden violence, and was immediately annoyed at herself for it. An Empress could not afford to evince such basic human weaknesses; a Princess should already be rising above them. Of course, behind her, Asfaneh squealed in terror, which made her feel a little better by comparison.
The horses still hitched to her carriage liked all this least of all, screaming and rearing against their bonds. Someone was trying to calm them, probably the same diminutive woman who’d taken over their care, but Theasia did not turn to look, even as panicked equine bellowing and the clatter of abused hitching continued. Her attention remained on what came through the door.
They were very professional, if she was any judge. The soldiers streamed in through the opening they had forcibly made two at a time, immediately peeling away to both sides with their staves raised and trained on the arc of Eserites, establishing a firing line across the front of the warehouse. Eight of them in total, men in Madouri crimson and gray, who moved with the fluid precision of experienced or at least well-trained troops.
She did note, though, that the Duke had let his armorers fall behind the times. These men carried the same heavy thunderbusses used in the Enchanter Wars, thick staves with cumbersome charging levers attached to their clicker mechanisms, exposed power crystals in their hafts, and copper tracings along their etched runes to help direct electric currents. Multiple points of potential failure, those; the things were finicky and tended to malfunction unless maintained with the most exacting care. But there were a lot of them still around after the wars, and in addition to being cheaper than newer staves which offered more reliability and a better rate of fire, the old models still hit harder per shot. Theasia had only contempt for any commander who felt this tradeoff a good bargain. These were the same weapons which had failed utterly to stand up to Horsebutt and his mounted archers.
“Easy,” Catseye murmured, and the Princess wasn’t sure who she was talking to. Between the pounding boots of invading soldiers and the ongoing panic of the horses, only she and the few nearest thieves were able to hear the quiet admonition.
A cloud of dust drifted through the warehouse, concentrated at the doors from whose ruin it came, and obscuring the street outside; the glow of the streetlamps and the feebler lamps inside made an eerie fog of it. The soldiers were standing right in it with uncovered faces, but they neither coughed nor closed their eyes even momentarily. Theasia had never had occasion to see House Madouri’s troops in action, but obviously they were soldiers worthy of the name. A number of House Guard forces were either ceremonial props or glorified brigands. She took note of this.
“Secure!” barked one man, and Theasia marked him as the commander. Nearest the door on the right, no visible insignia. That was standard procedure; Imperial codes of war forbade the targeting of officers as their lack turned a force of troops to a general menace to civilians and the countryside. In scuffles between Houses, the killing of officers was common for exactly that reason.
Two more silhouettes appeared out of the swirling dust—quite dramatically, Theasia had to admit. At the fore was the Duke himself, dashing as always in a long tailored coat in his House colors, wearing a grim expression and with a shamshir bared in his hand. He strode boldly into the warehouse with his weapon upraised, then spoiled his posturing by squinting and heaving an involuntary cough against a mouthful of dust.
She managed not to smirk.
“Princess, are you unharmed?” he asked. She had to give him credit, the tone was perfect. Sharp and commanding without being brusque, the voice of a noble in control of himself and the situation. Without doubt he’d had actual bards coach him on how to posture in front of others during a crisis. She had.
Theasia lifted her chin infinitesimally. “I was only just brought here, my lord Duke, and have not been mishandled. These thieves are…oddly personable.”
“I’m sure,” he began with exactly the wry tone she expected, just like the hero in a chapbook would have. Theasia had seen enough plays and read enough novels, both modern and classical, to be able to recite the entire next five minutes of conversation in advance, complete with stage directions, and was not looking forward to it. Thus, she found herself actually grateful when Asfaneh went shrilly off script.
“Oh, thank the gods you’ve come, your Grace!” the lady squalled, barely visible behind a rank of now-bemused thieves, except that she was hopping up and down and waving one hand. This flailing spooked one of the horses which their current handler had only just begun to calm.
Theasia did not miss the tiny flicker of annoyance that passed across Ravaan’s expression, and had to firmly expel amusement from her own. Poor fellow, he so wanted his dramatic moment. Unfortunately for him, this was not his play.
She did take advantage of the distraction to glance past him, taking in his companion without letting her gaze linger. Casper Scheinrich, in the final analysis, made for a more striking presence than the dashing young hero his liege was trying to be, which she suspected would have been unwelcome news to them both. Taller by half a head, he had his blond hair slicked back in a way which made his pale features even sharper; his own lack of coloration was a stark contrast to the tight, sweeping black coat he wore, the traditional garment of a Vidian priest.
Unintentionally, she met his blue eyes directly. The man inclined his head to her in a respectful gesture, then resumed sweeping his gaze back and forth across the assembled thieves.
“I am beyond relieved to find your Highness in good health,” Ravaan said with ostentatious sincerity. “It is only by the grace of the Gods I learned of this. Fortunately, I keep an ear to the ground—I’ve found it a good habit to cultivate, when one is trying to uproot a stubborn nest of bandits.”
“I’ll. Just. Bet,” Catseye drawled. There were a few snickers from her companions.
Ravaan fixed his gaze on her, along with a disapproving scowl. “Are you in charge of this rabble then, woman?”
“This is a posse, boy,” she said sardonically. “Arguably a band, if you like the classics. A rabble doesn’t stare you down when you level weapons. But sure, if you’ve got something to say, you can say it to me.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” he quipped, even quirking his eyebrow. Gods, he’d apparently seen all the same plays she had, and wasn’t that a stinging indictment of her own tastes? “Very well, to business. I assume you people have done this for what you think is a good reason, but obviously whatever you hoped for is now off the table. You will immediately release the Princess to my custody.”
There came a shrill whimper from behind the group, and Theasia cleared her throat pointedly. Not that she would have admitted it, but she was starting to enjoy this just a little.
“And her companion, of course,” Ravaan added, almost managing not to look miffed.
Catseye blinked languidly, glanced back and forth along the ranks of his stony-faced soldiers, and then tilted her head like an inquisitive feline. “Or?”
For a span of three seconds, he actually looked taken aback. Scheinrich’s ever-moving eyes fixed on Catseye momentarily, then upon his master, before resuming their vigil.
“Come, now,” Ravaan said, gathering himself and frowning in patrician reproach. “I have a rank of military battlestaves leveled at your…what was it? Ah, yes, your posse. Excuse my befuddlement, but in the circles in which I move it is considered gauche to render overt threats of violence, so one strives to make them unnecessary. Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I leered and blathered something about your own charred corpse.”
“Now, son, the last thing I want is to criticize your sense of drama,” Catseye said, folding her arms, and Theasia could tell she was definitely enjoying this. “That was a hell of an entrance. One of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that. But you don’t seem to have considered the strategic implications of all this. For starters, you’ve got the Princess right in the line of fire your boys have laid out, there. Yourself, too, by the way.”
Ravaan hesitated, mouth slightly open, and his aristocratic self-mastery wavered. He shifted minutely backward, and went so far as to turn his head as if to glance at Scheinrich for support, though he quashed the gesture. Too late; the damage was done. It was the clearest confirmation of what Lord Shavayad had told her: the Duke was not the one making the plans in that pair. The slight lapse further revealed that Ravaan didn’t improvise well. He had come here expecting things to play out according to a certain script, had taken care to set it up thus, and at the first departure from it he was at a loss.
Scheinrich’s eyes had narrowed slightly, though. In what befuddled Ravaan, he saw meaning; the thieves were not sticking to the agreed upon plan, which meant they must have their own design. Theasia allowed herself to watch him directly now that he had focused his attention upon Catseye. Her right hand clenched unconsciously, rings and chains shifting against each other.
“So it is a stalemate,” he said aloud while Ravaan dithered, his Stalweiss accent slight enough to be barely perceptible. Clearly he had spent most of his life in Madouris, but had apparently come from his people’s home country, unlike the small clusters of local Stalweiss who were effectively just pale Tiraan. “Let us all do nothing hasty—these situations can suddenly resolve themselves in unforseeable ways.”
“Do tell,” Catseye simpered at him.
“Listen, you lot are lucky it’s me who found you first,” Ravaan said, and already he was reduced to blustering, puffing his chest out and raising his shamshir as if that were more threatening than the eight primed battlestaves. “As soon as the Emperor gets his hands on you, what he’ll do will redefine the Thieves’ Guild’s understanding of pain.”
“Seems to me we won’t have to worry about that if we’re charred corpses,” Catseye said with good cheer. “But since, again, your firing line is also facing the Princess, you might.”
“Now, look here,” he said peevishly. “You’ll get no possibility of mercy from the Silver Throne for this. Deal with me and it’ll go a lot better for you.”
“Ohh,” she mused. “So…you are offering us mercy, then.”
Theasia remained silent and as calm as she could manage, and was glad of it when Scheinrich’s unblinking gaze suddenly fixed upon her. There was no courteous nod this time; he smelled a rat.
“It is a prospect,” the Vidian said. “You can take no action while our weapons are upon you, and we cannot afford to harm the Princess. Clearly, we must come to some manner of arrangement.”
“You would really parlay with treasonous reprobates who have endangered my well-being?” Theasia asked, folding her hands primly before her. She immediately regretted that gesture, but neither Scheinrich nor the Duke appeared to notice it, and thus did not have occasion to note and wonder about her unusual jewelry.
“I must say I don’t care for the taste of it either, Princess,” Ravaan said with such perfect well-bred reluctance that it was clear he was back on a script he recognized. “Your own welfare is paramount, however. I will embrace an unseemly compromise if that is what it takes to save you.”
Theasia slowly drew in a breath, steeling herself for what must come next. All this, she had to acknowledge, was procrastination on her part, born of fear. This entire discussion was pointless, a chance for her and Catseye to amuse themselves at the Duke’s expense, and while that might be good enough for a Guild ruffian, she should demand better of herself. All that mattered had been getting them here. It was done, now it should be finished with.
Catseye had notice her inhalation, and was looking at her now.
“Got what you need, Princess?”
“That should be sufficient, yes,” Theasia replied as graciously as she could manage. On cue, all the thieves reached into their own coats.
The soldiers took a step forward in unison, raising their weapons higher. Ravaan peered at Theasia in open befuddlement.
Scheinrich’s eyes narrowed to blue slits.
“The lesson here, my lord Duke,” Theasia said, lifting her chin, “is not to reach too eagerly for low-hanging fruit. When your first overture to the Guild was rebuffed, you should have considered it final. When they later reached out to you in turn, you should have been far more suspicious.”
“Your Highness?” Ravaan raised his eyebrows quizzically. “With respect, I believe you may be confused as to—”
“Stop,” she said disdainfully. “Refrain from wasting my time, Ravaan. If it is not painfully clear to you already, this is not your scheme—it is mine. You are guilty of conspiring to abduct the Princess of Tiraas. That you planned to immediately return me safely home and take credit for the rescue does not make it any less treasonous.”
“How dare you!” he retorted, quite clearly aghast and insulted, and with none of his previous uncertainty or blustering. That fact might have made it more believable, had he not been a noble. This was precisely how they reacted to being fairly caught in their own lies: with completely sincere outrage at the idea that their actions might have consequences.
“Your Grace,” Scheinrich said quietly, “with respect, do not offer her the satisfaction. It is pointless; clearly this has been her plan from the beginning.”
A puff of air escaped Catseye’s nose and her shoulders jerked once in a silent little chuckle. “All this time, everybody thought the Princess was a piece to be moved on the board, when it turns out she’s a player. We live in interesting times.”
“You are a roguishly charming sort, Catseye,” Theasia said lightly. “I rather look forward to hearing your testimony.”
“I’ve got a simple rule about going to court, your Highness. Well, less a rule than a word: don’t. Still…testifying for the prosecution? That’d be a gas. Might be worth it just for the novelty.”
“All right, see here,” Ravaan said quickly, his voice beginning to rise in pitch. “You have nothing to gain by harming me, your Highness, and you already know I intended nothing but for you to be treated with the utmost respect. As you are clearly eager to step out of your father’s shadow, I see every prospect for us—”
“It’s too late, your Grace,” Scheinrich said, barely above a whisper, then raised his voice. “Sergeant at arms.”
Ravaan froze, then turned to him, already shaking his head. “No, Casper. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s out of the question.”
“There’s no compromise to be made here,” Scheinrich insisted softly. “Treason is treason. The degree of the offense matters less than who witnesses it.”
“Absolutely not!” Ravaan said vehemently. “You can’t even consider—”
“Ravaan,” the older man said, his tone oddly gentle. “It’s them, or us. Her life or yours.”
The Duke stared at him in silence for a drawn-out beat, then quite abruptly turned his back on the Princess and the thieves, his shoulders hunching in shame.
“This truly will mean dark days for the Empire.” Scheinrich’s own aspect was cool and collected as he turned instead to face them, meeting Theasia’s gaze without flinching. “But House Madouri will survive. Sergeant at arms, you may fire at will.”
“M-my lord?” the man said uncertainly. Disciplined they may be, but even House Madouri’s most trusted troops balked at orders to assassinate the heir to the Imperial throne. Interesting, and worth knowing.
Theasia was already raising her fingers to her brooch, but despite previous orders that they would wait for her signal, she wasn’t the first. A luminous sphere of blue light flashed into place around one of the thieves, kicking off a chain reaction. Each charm in succession activated, each personal shield flickering alight and then merging into a single long bubble, putting of sparks and a constant crackle of arcane power.
Upon reviewing Professor Araani’s early designs, she had responded to his request for further direction with orders that the charms should be suitable for soldiers fighting in formation, and thus could not interfere with one another at close range. Quite the contrary, the design he had finally produced would connect to any identical charm within its radius, forming a single arcane shield. According to Araani, this had the added effect of strengthening the overall defense, as stress upon any point would be distributed across the entire network, giving it effectively no single weak spot. In order to break it through brute force, an enemy would have to overpower every linked charm simultaneously.
That immediately proved highly relevant.
The House troops had no idea what they were seeing, but a soldier had one instinctive reaction to enemies at close range suddenly lighting up with unfamiliar magic.
The thunderbusses discharged very nearly in unison, a volley of high-powered lightning capable of splitting stone walls at that range slamming into the Guild’s defenses. The shields sparked, whined, and blazed nearly white, but they held.
Theasia did not begrudge herself a tiny gasp of relief.
“Drop ’em!” Catseye bellowed above the noise of Asfaneh’s shrill keening and the renewed panic of the horses, and Theasia, in unison with the thieves, reached up to switch off her shielding charm. The barrier flickered unevenly out of existence.
One of the charm’s weaknesses was that weapons could not be fired through it from the inside (yet; the Professor was optimistic that that could be overcome). That made this second the most dangerous part of the whole encounter, when they stood exposed before their enemies, but those lever-action thunderbusses had weaknesses of their own, including that they had to be manually recharged before they could be fired again. Well-drilled troops could fire a shot every four seconds. Four seconds was less time than the thieves needed to whip out wands and return fire.
Their mismatched collection of little sidearms didn’t even approach the firepower of the soldier’s staves. At that range, there was no reason they needed to.
Scheinrich stepped in front of the Duke even as lightning blazed all around them, the shield of golden light with which he wreathed himself and his master rippling as it was clipped by wandshots. The thieves had been specifically instructed not to kill the Duke, but in such a tumult, accidents happened. Even if some of them had been inclined to make an accident happen, Theasia had expected this outcome; the average priest’s divine shield could stand up to multiple hits from an average lightning wand.
Silence did not fall, though every single Madouri soldier did. The horses had had absolutely enough of this and appeared to be trying to tip over the carriage, and Asfaneh was wailing ceaselessly as if she had been shot, which Theasia knew was impossible. The room stank of smoke, ozone, and a surprising meaty smell. It took her a couple of seconds to realize, with abject horror, that no one nearby was barbecuing at midnight. That was charred human flesh.
That was not a useful emotion, so she crushed it down.
“So,” Theasia said, stepping forward out of the Guild’s formation and raising her right hand, “it’s treason, then.”
Scheinrich released the Duke to turn back to her, though he kept the golden shield up around them both.
She moved the fingers of her left hand to place the tips of the middle two against the sapphire positioned in her palm, activating the enchanted device. Light blossomed in the sapphires set into the gems along her right hand, accompanied moments later by tiny arcs of loose electricity. The network of enchantments included what Araani called a grounding charm, creating a sympathetic connection to the earth through which any electricity which escaped the weapon’s innate directional charms would be redirected without passing through her body.
Scheinrich stared her down, secure behind the power of his god, as Theasia stalked toward him. She was not deterred; the well of divine magic might be infinite, but the amount one man could draw was not.
Theasia raised her right hand and pressed it flat against the bubble of the shield, causing it to ripple and spark. Then she added the tip of her little finger to the crystal on her left palm.
Power surged, her entire hand crackled with renewed arcs of contained lightning, and Scheinrich’s shield turned white under the abuse. A high chiming noise rose in the air around them, sounding like nothing so much as a bell in pain. Arcane pounded divine toward a conclusion the Circle of Interaction made foregone.
The cleric’s shield fizzled, and he stumbled back, both he and the Duke receiving a nasty shock from the burst of suddenly uncontested magic. Not a lethal one, just disorienting; channeling enough power to crush the shield at a single blow would have instantly burned out her weapon, which was why she had instead worn it down over time.
Scheinrich retained enough presence of mind to push Ravaan roughly away from himself, throwing his arms wide to block him from Theasia. Ineffectual, but revealing. Even in the last extremity of danger, he did not flee or try to sacrifice his master. Conniving and self-serving the man might be, but ultimately, his loyalty was real.
Not that it mattered.
Theasia took two steps to her right, re-positioning herself so that her line of fire at Scheinrich would not arc through him onto Ravaan, and added a fourth finger to the crystal on her left hand.
The power which raged from her fingers was not like the single, neat shot of a battlestaff. It was a constant torrent, a storm of wild arcing bolts that surged over the priest’s body, consuming him in searing arcane light. He was hurled the entire width of the warehouse to impact the wall and then slump to the ground, unmoving.
That was also as much as the weapon itself could handle. Even as Theasia withdrew her fingers from the activator crystal, its output was fading to desultory little crackles; glancing down, she could see that several of the sapphires were cracked, and patches of the gold had corroded where it had been partially transmuted under the strain to something which wasn’t quite gold. Ah, well. She had known beforehand that the device was only good for one shot. That was not what occupied her mind now.
Theasia Tirasian’s entire life had been predominated by a feeling of weakness. Even the trappings of Imperial power which festooned her at all times only served to underscore the fragility of it all. The rule of House Tirasian was, at best, tolerated, and that only because her father was exceptionally good at playing the Houses against each other. She herself was a frail creature, sick with something for which no possible cure existed, doomed to a short life spent in bouts of intermittent pain and illness.
Yet at that moment, standing in the dark heart of her city with a fistful of lightning, an enemy charred to ruin before her and another cowering at her feet, she had a vision of the future. Her future, and that of the Empire.
Ravaan had staggered to his feet, staring at her with eyes wide as the moon. When she turned to face him, he stumbled backward reflexively—and then, belatedly, noble pride reasserted itself and he straightened his spine. At some point he had dropped his sword and now had nothing with which to face her except his own hauteur. That he drew around himself like a suit of armor, tilting his head back to look coldly down his nose at what he must think was his approaching death.
Theasia stepped within arm’s reach, raising her hand and its enchanted weapon, and straightened his tie.
The Duke’s eyebrows drew together in an uncertain little frown. The Princess smiled up at him through her lashes, putting on the insipidly simpering smile she used to beguile men at court who were too stupid to be worth bothering with but too powerful to ignore.
The glacial cold of her voice stood in stark contrast to her expression.
“No one will believe you.”
It was satisfying in a way that was almost sexual, seeing so close the naked fear which peeked through his aristocratic composure.
Oh, there was going to be no end of cleanup necessary after this night’s work. Shavayad would help immensely—but then, he was something upon which she would also need to get a grip, him and whatever angle he was working. Handling Ravaan after this was going to be dicey; an enemy under control was in many ways more useful than an ally, but that was a path fraught with countless risks. She had not only drawn the very personal interest of the Theives’ Guild but handed them advanced enchantments to play with, which she had better see distributed to the Imperial Army posthaste lest they fall behind. And her parents. They were going to eat her alive.
For the first time in her life, Theasia felt not a hint of doubt that she would handle it all.
“And now, my lord Duke, let us discuss the future.”