Tag Archives: Saduko

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 – 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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Bonus #41: The Audit, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Jonathan Hogg!

“And here we are!” Tarvedh said as grandly as if ushering her into a throne room. He pulled open the frosted glass doors and stepped aside, actually bowing her to precede him into the office. Akinda acknowledged the gesture with a nod in passing, wondering about his demeanor. He, of all people, should know better than to try to suck up to her.

The central office of Falconer Industries was not what she had expected. It was a large space, though not as much as one might expect from the beating heart of a factory this size, and looked more like the private lab of some absent-minded wizard than the headquarters of a manufacturing company. The square room was bordered on three sides by glass: one wall of tall windows looking out at the factory’s front drive, the one opposite overlooking the main assembly line a story below, and the third of frosted glass in which the door was set. Directly across from her, the far wall could only barely be identified as brick, it was so covered in runic diagrams, enchanting schematics, and miscellaneous notes, some of which glowed subtly as if somebody had been jotting down ideas in expensive enchanting ink instead of the customary black. The whole room was a profusion of mismatched, comfortably battered furniture and enchanting paraphernalia, both free-standing equipment scattered about with no apparent plan and an assortment of power crystals and vials of glittering dust interspersed with the drifts of papers covering every flat surface—including, in some places, the floor. Somebody had scrawled what looked like a haphazard summoning circle on the floorboards in the corner.

Three of the four people present looked up at her entry, the smallest abruptly cutting off strumming a guitar, and Akinda was left standing there under their eyes while Tarvedh bustled around her into the office, pulled the door shut behind him, and finally turned to make the introductions.

“Here she is, sir,” he said with the same peculiar eagerness. “Mr. Falconer, this is Auditor Akinda. Ms. Akinda, Geoffrey Falconer.”

“Imbani Akinda,” she clarified, stepping forward and extending her hand.

“Ah! Of course, hello! Good morning!” Falconer was a nondescript man in his thirties who wouldn’t have been taken, at a glance, for either a brilliant enchanter or one of the richest people in the Empire. He set down the rod and vial of arcane dust with which he’d been working—rather carelessly, causing the vial to spill sparkling powder across his diagram—and hurried across the office to clasp her hand.

“Geoffrey!” the woman near him said in exasperation, snatching up a rag and rushing to join them as both Falconer and Akinda jumped slightly at the electric shock that snapped between their hands.

“Oh! Gods, I’m sorry,” the industrialist said, wincing and withdrawing his grip. His hands—and now Akinda’s—bore smears of enchanting dust. “Really, I do apologize, I have no excuse. You’d think that by this time I’d have learned…”

“He does that to everyone,” the woman said, offering Akinda the rag with a smile. “Employees, Imperial Marshals, Duke Madouri, everyone. It’s a wonder nobody’s shot him yet. The cloth is clean and magically neutral, I assure you. I make sure to keep them on hand,” she added, giving Mr. Falconer a look.

“No harm done,” Akinda said neutrally, wiping the arcane residue off her hand.

“My better half, Marguerite,” Falconer said, slipping an arm around the woman’s shoulders. Despite her remonstrative expression, she let herself be tugged against his side. “You know our head numbers man, Mr. Tarvedh, of course. This is Meron Talidar, our head of research and development.”

The man to whom he gestured had not looked up from the desk over which he was hunched with his back to the door, and still didn’t, though at being introduced he raised one hand to wave over his shoulder with an irritable grunt.

“Who is an irascible wizard of the oldest school,” Marguerite added with a sigh, earning no further response from Talidar.

“So I see,” Akinda observed, studying the man sidelong. Even with his back to her, his personal style bordered on affectation. He had unruly hair loosely tied back with a leather cord and apparently untrimmed for at least twenty years, a beard so bushy it was visible to both sides of his neck, and wore robes. Even among wizards, only Salyrites in formal attire and old men who couldn’t be bothered to learn what century it was still went about in robes.

“And this, of course, is our daughter, Teal,” Geoffrey concluded, turning a beaming smile on the last person in the office.

“Hello,” Teal Falconer said with all the uncertain politeness of any ten-year-old girl formally meeting a stranger. She carefully set down the guitar she’d been playing on her chair and approached, more cautiously by far than either of her parents. “I love your dress! That’s so beautiful, I’ve never seen one quite like it.”

“Thank you, Miss Falconer,” Akinda replied with a small but unfeigned smile. “You’ll rarely see a buba outside Onkawa, but I’m fond of traditional dress, even in Tiraas. I’m sorry to interrupt your playing; you handle that instrument beautifully for someone your age.”

“Thanks!” the girl said, breaking into a broad smile. “I get a lot of practice. What brings you to visit?”

Tarvedh cleared his throat, bending toward Teal and raising the pitch of his voice in exactly the manner one should never adopt toward any child old enough to recognize condescension. “Ms. Akinda is just here to do some business, Miss Teal! She’s an auditor from the central Vernisite bank in Tiraas.”

Teal had sighed softly as soon as the accountant started speaking to her, clearly used to him, but at that her eyes widened in alarm. “An audit? Are we in trouble?” she asked, turning to her parents.

“No, no, honey, it’s not like a Treasury audit,” Marguerite soothed, laying a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “It’s for expanding the main assembly line, remember? We’re taking out a loan from the central bank.”

“They do these things from time to time,” Geoffrey added, waving a hand vaguely. “We do a lot of business with the bank but once in a while they want to send somebody to look the business over, especially when we’re asking for a loan. The bank has to ensure its own interests, after all! It’s pretty routine, nothing to worry about.”

Teal’s eyebrows drew together in a worried expression. “Why do we need money from the bank? Don’t we have enough to just…build it ourselves?”

A round of glances passed between the adults.

“Oh, now, you don’t need to worry about that for a few years yet!” Tarvedh said with boisterous good cheer. “It’s all technical, Miss Teal. You just concentrate on your schooling and your music, there’ll be plenty of time to learn about business later.”

Both the elder Falconers shot him sidelong looks, less openly annoyed than their daughter’s, but not completely neutral. Mr. Tarvedh must really be an excellent accountant; the factory clearly did not hire its top staff based on social acumen.

“It’s actually very rare for a major business to finance its own activities, Miss Falconer,” Akinda said to Teal, in exactly the tone she would use to discuss the matter with a junior clerk at her own bank. As a child, she had hated adults talking down to her. “Especially venturous ones—major expansions and the like. It protects the business from loss, and creates opportunity for investors to profit. If the new venture does well, the loan is paid back with interest, and so the business and investors both benefit.”

“Oh,” Teal said thoughtfully. “What if it fails?”

“Oh, now, we don’t even think about that,” Tarvedh said, grinning nervously. “That is, there’s really no prospect of it! Falconer Industries is fully solvent and very profitable—”

“Thank you, Mr. Tarvedh,” Geoffrey Falconer said firmly.

“That’s the risk you take by investing,” Akinda explained. “There’s great profit in it, if you do it wisely, not to mention the benefit to the total economy by keeping money in motion, and new ventures always rising. Investors are in it for the chance of profit, and in the case of Vernisite institutions like mine, to help keep the economy moving. But whenever you take a risk, there’s a chance you will lose out, and that’s something investors have to accept. We minimize the risk by doing our due diligence and knowing exactly what we are getting into.”

Teal nodded. “And that’s your job.”

“Exactly,” Akinda said, smiling at her.

Geoffrey cleared his throat. “Well! We don’t want to waste your time, Ms. Akinda, so consider us at your disposal. Can we get you anything? Tea, biscuits?”

“Dear,” Marguerite murmured.

“Oh!” Mr. Falconer clapped a hand to his forehead, leaving a comical imprint of glittering arcane dust. “Drat, sorry. Does that count as an unsolicited gift?”

“The bank doesn’t consider basic hospitality an attempted bribe,” Akinda said with an amused smile. “And thank you, but not at this time. Perhaps I will take you up on it when reviewing your books later, but I would like to begin by looking over the facilities, if I may.”

“Of course! Like I said, at your disposal. I’d be glad to show you around myself, just let me find something to wipe off my hands…”

“Actually,” she said, quietly but firmly, “I prefer to roam unescorted by owners, as a rule. You understand.”

“Oh,” he said, blinking. “Of course, yes.” Clearly he didn’t, but wasn’t going to argue, which was good enough for her.

“But I would like to have someone on hand to answer questions,” Akinda continued, “if I could continue to borrow Mr. Tarvedh?”

“By all means, I should be delighted!” the accountant beamed, apparently meaning it sincerely. He didn’t strike her as being mentally equipped for deception. “I can offer a guided tour, Auditor—or, if you’d prefer, just tell me what you’d like to see and I’ll take you there!”

“The latter, I think,” she said, nodding politely. “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Falconer. Miss Falconer. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.”

“Of course, take your time,” Geoffrey replied. “I’ll probably be right here, but my assistant can find us for you if not. Tarvedh, take good care of our guest! Make sure she has everything she might need.”

“Without doubt, sir!”

“Bye,” said Teal, waving.

Tarvedh again bustled ahead to open the office door for her, but moments later they were out, and pacing slowly along the walkway leading to the main office, lined by doors to smaller chambers on one side and the railed drop to the factory floor on the other. Akinda stepped to the edge of this, trailing her hand along the rail and setting a slow pace while organizing her thoughts.

She rather liked the Falconers and their operation; rich people who did not let their wealth go to their heads appealed to her Vernisite sensibilities. Geoffrey Falconer more resembled an absent-minded academic than an industrialist, and it was noteworthy that he had married a mousy woman who wore glasses and went about the factory in a workman’s shirt and overalls. Falconer Industries had prospered mightily under Geoffrey, but he had inherited a business already wealthy enough that he could have easily obtained a beautiful noblewoman for a bride. Many young men in his position did exactly that.

Of course, a facade was only that, often as not. The Falconers wouldn’t be the first people she’d ever met who could understand what image would impress a follower of Verniselle and put it on. Even the child could have managed, by that age; she had encountered some truly ruthless sprouts among the seeds of the nobility and the newer industrial wealthy. Money did things to people.

Tarvedh was watching her as if afraid to speak. He was an odd little man—apparently loyal to his masters, and yet the very picture of a good Vernisite. Even the triple-coin pin at his lapel was perfect, richly detailed by a jeweler but made of plain steel, displaying wealth by having given work to a skilled artisan rather than by using expensive raw materials. His clothes were likewise well-tailored but far from ostentatious.

She decided it was better to start by putting him at ease.

“Teal?” Akinda inquired softly, raising an eyebrow.

He cracked a grin at that. “Ah, yes, well. Mrs. Falconer is an artist.”

“Ah, I see. Well, she seems a charming child.”

“Mm, as children go,” he said noncommittally. “Remarkably well-behaved! She often accompanies her parents, and I can’t recall the girl ever having caused a problem. If there must be a child underfoot, I’d rather it be Miss Teal than basically any other. Well! This is as good a place to begin as any! You see the main factory floor—this is where the main expansion we are planning will begin.” He stepped in front of her to the rail and leaned across it, pointing. “You see there, the far wall! The doors currently lead to a large lot with a gravel track where we test-drive carriages, but that can be moved basically anywhere. According to the plans we’ve drawn up, we intend to add a new wing onto the building itself, leaving the wall intact but removing the doors to open both production lines to each other. That’s the goal, of course, a second line added rather than an expansion to the first one.”

“Mm,” she murmured, sweeping her gaze across the room. “Mass-produced carriages are not currently the larger part of FI’s profit.”

“Ah, that is, not at present. Hence our interest in expanding! It’s the Imperial economy, you see—these are boom years, lots of money going around, and falling into lots more hands! Right now, the really expensive custom jobs for nobility and the like provide a wider profit margin, but the demand for mass-produced models has grown steadily, and all our projections insist it will continue to do so.”

“Enchanted carriages still are not a toy for the middle class, though.”

“Yet,” he insisted with a grin. “But the middle class is expanding and growing more affluent, and has been since not long after Empress Theasia was crowned, the gods rest her soul. You know, of course, that his Majesty Sharidan has taken more of an interest in the economy than his mother did, and the good times continue to roll! Especially since the treaty with the drow; the prices of some of our raw materials have bottomed out. But more relevant to our discussion here, the bulk of our R&D at the moment is on improving the efficiency of our production line rather than devising new enchantments. The second line will open up great new prospects for us! With the assurance of one always running, we can use the second for more experimental measures and greatly increase our rate of advancement. By investing in our own processes we will bring down production costs and therefore the costs of our products, making them more widely available to a broader customer base. Falconer Industries has its eye on the future!”

“I’d like to have a look at your R&D division, if possible.”

“…ah. That, as you might imagine, is more sensitive…”

“If it is too great an imposition…?”

“Oh, not at all, not at all!” he assured her hastily. “It’s just that the company will have to have some guarantees of security if you are to view any proprietary enchantments in development. Given your status with the cult, a written pledge of confidentiality will suffice.”

“I’m willing to do that,” she agreed in a noncommittal tone, resting both hands on the rail and gazing down at the assembly line. For the most part, the employees applying enchantments to carriage pieces and assembling them together were bent over their tasks, but once in a while she caught one sneaking a peek up at the walkway. The supervisor pacing up and down the line spent almost as much time looking up as at what she was supervising. Clearly, the rumor mill had forewarned them of her presence, and what it signified. “I have noted that FI is considered the most desirable employer in the province.”

“Not just the province!” Tarvedh said proudly. “I think you will find that Falconer Industries is a leader in the carriage business. We pay the best wages to be found south of the Five Kingdoms! And not merely to our enchanters—Mr. Falconer is adamant about taking proper care even of our unskilled laborers.”

“The employees are his family,” she said, and Tarvedh grinned. It was a tired old joke, but one no Vernisite could pass up, if only because nobody outside their cult ever got it. “It’s a positive sign, of course, very promising. But, obviously, the lack of a trade union’s presence anywhere in the company is a black mark.”

“You know very well there’s nothing we can do about that,” Tarvedh all but snapped, then stopped and drew a deep breath, visibly composing himself. Very loyal; that, too was a good sign. An employer who could secure that kind of devotion from a Vernisite in good standing with the cult would be looked on favorably by the bank. Akinda would note this in her report, but wasn’t about to make a point of it here. “His Grace the Duke,” Tarvedh continued in a calmer tone, “is…how to put this…extremely concerned with potential challenges to his authority. And he is prone to seeing such challenges in places where, well, others wouldn’t even think to look. It’s been an unfortunate characteristic of House Madouri since his Grace’s late father Ravaan had all that trouble with the Thieves’ Guild. Tiraan Province is a veritable wasteland when it comes to trade guilds and unions of any kind. It is far from FI’s fault, Ms. Akinda. And Mr. Falconer does his very best to insure the well-being of his employees in the absence of a proper union.”

“That brings us to the real problem, does it not?” Akinda said quietly, still watching the factory workers going about their tasks. Even to her untrained eyes, the operation was a smooth one. The assembly line flowed steadily, pieces of carriages being conveyed constantly forward on a mix of conveyor belts, enchanted carts, and the arms of burly men and women. Enchanters, upholsterers and woodworkers applied their crafts, and less-skilled laborers fitted pieces together; notably, the factory uniform was the same for all and the workstations were equally well-appointed, the difference in skills revealed only in their application. That was a positive sign, but one which bore further investigation. The bank’s research had found that segregating employees by skillset and level of compensation could damage company morale, but then, so could failing to appropriately acknowledge and reward those who had invested the time and effort to learn valuable crafts. “The bank is, of course, aware of the difficulties his Grace the Duke causes throughout the province. He appears particularly threatened by the success of Falconer Industries. I don’t say this to imply any fault on the part of the company, but it’s a fact that cannot help but influence the bank’s decision.”

“I would never speak ill of the Duke,” Tarvedh said with a bitter twist of his mouth as if not speaking ill of the Duke was a painful task. Akinda could well believe Geoffrey Falconer had given Duke Madouri an arcane shocker handshake, and perhaps not quite by accident. “But yes, his…micro-management of the province is…just in some cases, mind you…at least potentially more trouble than it is actually worth to the provincial government. You know, in terms of revenue generated.”

“Intrusive management is one thing,” she said. “House Madouri’s taxes upon Falconer Industries have grown downright punitive.”

Tarvedh sucked in air through his teeth, his chest swelling. “We make do, Auditor, I assure you. While the High Seat in Madouris may be less than reasonable, at times, the Silver Throne remains very interested in supporting its most valuable economic producers—and the Treasury has been…ah, discreetly sympathetic to our issues with his Grace. I can provide you a full list of the Imperial incentives FI enjoys. Nor do we over-rely on the Throne. Some of the Duke’s more unreasonable taxes and regulations can be evaded by transferring certain, ah, peripheral aspects of the business out of his domain. As the Rails and telescroll network are rapidly filling in their gaps, it is less and less of an imposition. We try not to overuse this method, however, lest his Grace…” His grimace was very nearly a snarl. “…take offense.”

Akinda nodded, keeping her expression neutral. “I would like to have a closer look at the assembly line, if I may.”

“But of course!” And just like that, Tarvedh was all smiles and sunshine again. “Not too close, you understand, our employees have their tasks down to an almost musical rhythm and we mustn’t get underfoot. But I’ll call Ms. Alvaraad over to show you around, and it should be fine. That’s the supervisor, you see—there she is, currently on the catwalk over there. Oh, but we’ll need to pick up goggles and rubber gloves first. I’m afraid the safety rules are inviolable, and apply also to factory guests. Even important personages such as yourself!”

“Good,” she said, nodding in approval. “First, though, could you show me where the…facilities are?”

“Ah! Yes, of course, that’s just perfect,” he burbled, stepping away from the railing and beckoning her own down the walkway. “We’ll make a stop by the employee services area, I think you’ll like what you see there. The cafeteria just underwent renovations last year—we’ve greatly improved upon the institutional benches and tables it used to have! There is also a cafe area with comfortable seating so it needn’t be all business on lunch breaks. And the whole place has been decorated! Mrs. Falconer insisted on having potted greenery, and selected the wall art herself—some of it her own work! You know, Falconer Industries was the first factory in Tiraan Province to provide a hot meal a day to its employees. Just this way down the stairs. Ms. Akinda. Yes, in fact, the washrooms were also improved recently, I think you’ll be impressed! The sinks run cold and hot water—”

“Thank you, Mr. Tarvedh, but this is one inspection I would prefer to make un-escorted.”

“Oh, um. Right. Of course.”

The women’s washroom did, indeed, speak well of the company, being clean and brightly lit, with the amenities Tarvedh had boasted of. Not a single fixture was out of order. Akinda didn’t dawdle just to enjoy the scenery, though; one bank of sinks and public toilets wasn’t tremendously different from another, unless you were a connoisseur of plumbing. Which she was not.

While she took her time washing her hands, twisting the faucets this way and that to get the temperature just right, the washroom door opened. Akinda’s eyes snapped up, watching in the mirror, but then she relaxed. It was nothing but a young girl in a factory uniform. Surely not much more than fourteen, the youngest a person could legally do factory work in the Empire. Of course, people did lie to get work, which this one might have. Her Sheng features made it hard to guess her age; all the peoples of the northern archipelagos tended to be slight of build and aged almost as gracefully as elves.

Well, perhaps it was too early in her visit for her to be contacted. It wouldn’t be too hard to ditch Tarvedh at intervals; he wasn’t the brightest star in the firmament, however good an accountant he might be. If nothing else, she could visit the washroom at least every couple of hours, especially if she took up the offer of tea.

But then the girl, pacing forward with her eyes on Akinda, deftly flicked a doubloon out of the sleeve of her coveralls into her hand. In the next moment she was rolling it back and forth across the backs of her fingers.

Akinda carefully twisted the faucets off and dried her hands on the towel, watching the girl’s reflection in the mirror.

The young Sheng stepped up to the next sink, made the coin disappear, and began washing her own hands, eyes meeting Akinda’s in the mirror without turning her head. “Good day, Mizz Akinda. How are you finding?”

Akinda blinked. That accent was distinctly Sifanese, not Sheng, and thick enough that she was clearly a new arrival to the continent. Most Imperials couldn’t tell the difference, but she had spent four years in Shengdu and was passably fluent in the language; one didn’t prosper in any of the island countries by mixing up their peoples. Most of them did not get along.

“And you are?” she asked politely.

The girl narrowed her eyes, shutting off the water. “It is not I who am she who is questioned.”

People underestimated bankers. In their own way, they had to be as perceptive and as predatory as thieves. Akinda did not speak more than a few words of Sifanese, just enough to place the accent, but she knew its grammar wasn’t nearly that garbled relative to Tanglish. This girl was far more nervous than she.

Well, she was a kid, after all. She had to hand it to the Thieves’ Guild, they knew what they were doing. Any company as big as Falconer Industries would be watching for spies, but they probably wouldn’t think to watch a teenager who barely spoke the language. Of course, there were a number of downsides to having a child do your dirty work.

“Where I’m from, it is polite to introduce yourself,” she said with a kind smile, turning to face the girl directly. “You know my name, after all.”

“Watash—” She broke off, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. “I am Gimmicku, that is all you need.”

“Gimmick,” Akinda said politely, omitting the extra syllable. Eserite bastards; what cruel idiot had given this girl a tag she could barely pronounce? Some of the poor kid’s story was obvious. Akinda was sure those were Sheng features; the teenager had at least one parent from the Kingdom. That could well explain why she’d been eager to get out of Sifan even at such a young age. Even more than most islanders, the Sifanese notoriously did not welcome perceived outsiders among them. Obviously, nothing good would come of vocalizing any of that, so she kept to business. “What do you have for me?”

“I do not have for you,” Gimmick said coldly. “You are to find answers for the Guild, Imbani Akinda.”

“And I will,” Akinda said, projecting calm. “But it will be a slower process if I must do it entirely on my own. I presume the Guild planted you here for a reason beyond making contact with me. If you can point me in the right direction, my work will be done faster and better.”

Gimmick hesitated, her eyes narrowing and cutting to the side. Akinda couldn’t help feeling for her; this was probably her first important job, and it was a much trickier matter than picking pockets or whatever the Guild usually had its younglings do. Not so much that she was shy about manipulating the girl, of course.

“Your boss wants information on the Falconers’ malfeasance,” she said gently. “I’m being escorted around by one of their favorite henchmen, who’s going to try to curate everything I see and hear. All I need is to find a less sympathetic voice. Someone who’s not happy with their job, and who might know certain secrets. I know you’ve been watching and listening here, Gimmick. If you can give me a name, and an idea when and where to find its owner, I’ll do the rest.”

Gimmick finally dried off her hands, again facing the mirror. She glanced at Akinda’s reflection in it, then lowered her eyes. “Thomas Schroeder.” She took her time with the name, laboriously pronouncing every letter, and got them recognizably right. After that, though, her diction accelerated and got less precise. “Staruwaiso man, yellow hair, he is working after the noon shift. Line sup… Soupero— Aiya!”

Definitely half Sheng; she hadn’t picked up that epithet in Sifan. “Supervisor?”

A glare full of adolescent affront met her eyes in the mirror. Gimmick nodded curtly, then turned and strode from the room.

Only after she was gone and the door shut behind her did Akinda allow herself to sigh heavily, grip the edges of the sink, and lean on it for a moment.

A lead. Now all she had to do was navigate her way between one of the most powerful industrialists in the Empire, the House of Madouri, her duties to her own bank, and the bloody Thieves’ Guild, pitting all of them against each other without allowing herself to become a target.


Akinda straightened up, composed her expression, turned, and glided back out to the factory floor to continue her tour.

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11 – 24

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At the brisk rap on her office door, Style shouted “What?!”

Jasmine slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. “Sorry to interrupt your evening paperwork, but from what I hear this is basically the only time you use this room.”

Style snorted and shoved a sheet of parchment to the side of her small desk. “Well, you got that right. Goddamn pen-jockeying. Interrupting this bullshit is a quick way back into my good graces. What do you need?”

“Well, this may seem a little awkward,” Jasmine said, touching the side of her face, “but I need you to punch me. I, uh, suppose you don’t hear that one very often.”

“You might be surprised,” the enforcer grunted. “Mostly from former bedmates asking for kinky shit that does not do it for me. I’m assuming that’s not what this is about.”

Jasmine grimaced, a faint blush darkening her cheeks. “Uh, no. It’s just, I had to use divine magic a little bit ago, and in that quantity it tends to naturally heal things. Mesmer said the bruises were supposed to stay as some kind of object lesson…”

“Fucking Mesmer.” Style rolled her eyes. “There’s a reason he’s neither an enforcer nor in charge. Sure, fine, in certain very rare circumstances, I can see making someone keep a minor injury as a disciplinary measure, but usually anybody who’s causing that much trouble would be booted out of here anyway. No, Jasmine, I don’t find it serves any practical purpose to have people walking around all gimped up. I thought you still had a bashed face because you were too stubborn to have him fix it. Nah, you’re fine.”

“Really.” Jasmine frowned, then shrugged, reaching for the door handle. “All right, then. Frankly, after that scene tonight I thought it made perfect sense. Well, not sense, but it was consistent with the picture I was starting to see of this place.”

“Cos you didn’t think about what you were seeing,” Style retorted.

“Well, it’s pretty clear you keep control through brute force.”

“And that is exactly what I’m talking about,” Style stated flatly, pointing at her with a pen. She then stared at the utensil as if surprised to find herself holding it, and dropped it onto the desk before continuing. “Nobody keeps control through brute force; that’s not how brute force works. Fear is always better than force; respect is better than fear. You have to use a careful combination of all three; they have an interesting interrelationship. You’re new, you’ll learn more about it. But no, Jasmine, I don’t go around punching everybody who needs to be put in line. Or even most of them.”

“Oh?” Jasmine kept one hand on the door handle, but so far made no move to turn it.

“A good enforcer can’t afford to be a one-trick pony. It’s all about the situation, and the people involved. There’s no magic formula that works all the time. All right, let’s consider you and your little group of friends, they’ll make a passable case in point. Now Tallie and Darius I will smack when they need correcting—and occasionally more than smack, if they start doing horseshit like assaulting full Guild members. Those two are talkers; engaging them verbally is just asking for more hijinks and throwing away the opportunity to teach a lesson. What they need when they’re screwing up is a reminder that their bullshit can have the kind of consequences that no silver tongue can escape from. Hopefully, after no more than a couple more repetitions, the lesson will start sinking in and they’ll toe the line without needing more reminders. If they don’t have that much basic innate intelligence, they’ve got no place here. Rasha…” She paused and shook her head. “I’m a little worried about that kid. Fragile people don’t do well in this place. But some of our best have started out that way. He’s one who needs encouragement more than correction. Plus, he’s a listener and a thinker, so explaining what he does wrong will do a lot more than belaboring the point. Likewise Ross, without the fragility.”

“But you’re comfortable smacking me around to make a point,” Jasmine said, finally taking her hand off the door and folding her arms.

“In point of fact, no.” Style mimicked the posture, leaning back in her chair. “That dust-up tonight wasn’t about discipline, it was about you directly and publicly attacking my authority. No, Jasmine, you’re not afraid of pain, and even if you were, you’re not motivated by fear. Roughing up brave people is counterproductive; it makes ’em feel all righteous, when an enforcer’s job is to make someone understand that challenging us is a mistake. Believe me, the Guild hasn’t prospered for thousands of years without knowing how to deal with Avenists. So no, Jasmine, if you will just refrain from creating scenarios where I have to fucking land on you, I’ll look forward to never again laying so much as a fingertip on your dainty little derriere.”

“Hm.” Jasmine frowned, but offered no challenge to her reasoning.

“Moving on,” said Style, “wanna tell me why you were throwing around so much magic you accidentally healed yourself?”

“Oh.” Jasmine sighed. “Well, the truth is, I was pummeling and then threatening Grip. I guess that probably changes your stance on the subject of punching me, huh.”

“There you go, making assumptions again,” Style snorted. “Rumor is an intel woman whose default state is barely sober enough to stand; there’s no good reason for any Guild member to be taking swings at her, least of all an apprentice. Grip is another matter. I know yours is an unusual situation, and I fucking damn well know what she’s like. Without specifics, I could believe either of you being at fault there. I’m still in suspense, by the way.”

“Well, Grip wanted me to be her apprentice.”

“And this led somehow to you going full paladin on her ass. You got a real way with people, kid.”

Jasmine scowled at her and snorted, but continued. “She was blackmailing me. Grip figured out who I am and said she would spill the story if I didn’t agree to be her apprentice. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about her for a few days; I settled for…brute force. It seemed like that was something she would understand, at least.”

“Hn,” Style grunted. “That’s some roundabout reasoning, even for her. Grip likes her plans complex, but… Well, watch yourself. People who assume they’re done with Grip have a tendency to learn otherwise, usually about when they get comfortable thinking it’s over.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Jasmine said with a sigh, reaching for the door again.

“Hang on,” Style ordered. “I agree that you entering a formal relationship with Grip may not be the best idea, but she is someone you, in particular, could stand to learn from. I’ve been meaning to discuss this with you, anyway. So far, Jasmine, you’ve been showing all the markings of a really talented enforcer in training. I mean, aside from your general social obtuseness, but that we can fix over the course of an apprenticeship. The major exception I see is this tendency you have to play the hero.”


“The thing about enforcers,” Style barreled on, “is that how much damage one is able to inflict ends up being less important than how threatening one seems. In your case, the very thing that made you interesting to Glory is a handicap. You’re so…well-behaved. Now, if you were a beefy dude like Ross, that would be absolutely ideal. Big scary guys who speak softly and mind their manners are exactly the right kind of intimidating; they can go places that shady thugs aren’t welcome, and don’t lose any of their looming menace factor in the process. You, though, are a pretty little blond slip of a girl—like Grip. And while Grip is a terrifying piece of work, you are not. Difference is, she has worked hard to become one.” She leveled a finger at Jasmine. “That is the distinction. Refrain from going off on a feminist rant about this, but the fact is, in the enforcer business, an attractive woman has to be three times as scary as a male counterpart to be taken as seriously. That’s just the way people perceive others. That means you have to build an aspect and a reputation to back up your threats, unless you want to have to break every goddamn kneecap you encounter. If you intend to keep going on the path you’ve apparently chosen, you’re going to have to either develop a cruel streak, or very convincingly pretend you have one.”

“That isn’t the path I chose!” Jasmine burst out. “That’s the entire point of me being here! I do not need the Guild’s help to learn how to fight or threaten people. I’m trying to be subtler.”

“Well, you’re doing a shitty job,” Style said bluntly. “You wanna be a con artist? Fine, do that. But do it; find someone who’ll coach you and start showing progress—fast. You haven’t done anything in that direction that I’m aware of beyond some cursory practice in picking locks and pockets. Right now you’re between the approach you claim to want and haven’t even looked at, and the one you’re actually good at and are afraid to pursue. Your trainers and I can help you build skills in either direction—or hell, both. But we’re not gonna choose for you, wouldn’t even if we could. Dithering is not acceptable.”

“Well, but.” Jasmine heaved an irritated sigh. “It’s not as if I’m a typical apprentice, right? My purpose here isn’t exactly to aim for full membership—”

“Then you can fuck off out of my Guild,” Style snapped. “I was extremely clear with you up front. No special treatment. You’re an apprentice exactly like all the rest. Your purpose is to work toward becoming a productive and valuable member of this Guild, or you can get yourself the hell out of it; we’re not providing room and board for every directionless teenager in Tiraas, here. I do not accept excuses or half-measures. You’re not on notice, kid; like I said, you show real promise as an enforcer. But I will be watching you, and unless you start really pursuing that potential, or other potential, you will be warned. From there it’s a short slide to the door hitting your ass on the way out. This isn’t a fucking summer camp.”

“I see,” Jasmine said quietly. “Then that’s…something to think about.”

“Yeah,” Style agreed, staring flatly at her. “Go to bed, Jasmine. Plenty of exciting new ways for you to fuck up tomorrow, but right now I think we’ve all had about enough.”

“Good evening, your Grace!” Principia said with exuberant good cheer. “What a surprise to find you working here so late. The candle burns at both ends, eh?”

“Locke,” Syrinx replied evenly after pausing a moment outside her office to study the Legionnaire. “And of course, you have no business in this part of the temple at this or any hour. Spit it out, I’ve even less patience for your idiocy than I have time for it.”

“So hostile,” Principia said brightly, falling into step beside the Bishop as she strode away down the hall. It was an upper level of the Temple, containing little but administrative offices, and at this hour was practically deserted; even the fairly lamps were dimmed. No one else appeared to be in the vicinity. “Very well, to the point. Those disruptors originated in Veilgrad, and turned up here in the hands of the Thieves’ Guild. It’s very likely they passed through the possession of the Guild underboss there, an Imperial Army corporal named Timms. Her tag is Smiler, if that helps. I can’t leave the city except on specific business so I can’t exactly go ask her; I think this dovetails more with your end of the investigation, anyway.

“Now, if Bishop Darling is playing coy about these things, it’s possible he doesn’t know anything and is trying to save face, but otherwise… The downside of his genius for cultivating contacts everywhere in Tiraas is that it leaves a lot of openings to track who he’s been talking to, and about what. What you need are access points, and luckily, there are some who are both links in his network and somewhat inherently friendly to Avenists.” She held up a small envelope, smiling slyly. “Those, I can direct you to. It would be personally awkward for me to be chasing the Bishop around that way, but if you’re caught doing it, I assume that will just be business as usual within the Church.”

Basra came to a stop, turning to face her and resting one hand casually on the hilt of her sword. She glanced fleetingly at the envelope, but made no move to reach for it. “What are you doing, Locke?”

“Helping you,” Principia said sweetly. “As is no more and no less than my duty.”

“Right. So I’m to go threaten this Smiler person with exposure to gain her compliance, is that what you want?”

“Oh, I should be so lucky,” Principia said with a grin. “I know very well you’re too intelligent to threaten a Guild underboss, though. No, your specific approach is up to you, and the less I know of it, the better, but you’re a resourceful woman. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

“I don’t suppose you plan to be so accommodating as to tell me the catch.”

“The catch is that you’ll actually be holding up your end of this job, and thus keeping yourself around and in the High Commander’s good graces. If I thought failing to turn up anything useful would get your butt booted back to Viridill, matters would be very different.” Principia shrugged. “But, it is what it is. All things being equal, I think this better serves me in the long run, even if it does result in continuing to have to put up with you.”

“You’ve developed an interesting way of addressing your superiors, Sergeant,” Basra said, though her tone remained calm and mildly inquisitive.

“Oh, certainly, go tell Rouvad I was mean to you.” Principia grinned. “I think you’re forgetting that the last time we shared this temple was before I proved myself valuable and you proved yourself crazy. Look, we can play nicely in front of the bronze, but we both know that you’re a sadistic monster and I’m a rebellious pain in the ass, and after that little business of you trying to murder my whole squad, prospects of us actually getting along are pretty much nil. But I’ve worked with people I hated a lot more than you. I see no reason we can’t work something out, here.”

“This is very slightly entertaining, but unless a reason emerges when I should bother myself with this and with you, Locke, I have much better things to do.”

“You know the reason very well.” The insouciant smile faded from Principia’s face. “In fact, you just hit it exactly. You and I have much better things to do than feud. When it comes down to it, we aren’t really in competition. Our objectives are similar, yes, but at the end of the day, I’m rank-and-file with an acknowledged knack for moving among unscrupulous types, while you are a political presence in this city’s halls of power. Neither of us could function in one another’s wheelhouse. The removal of one or the other would just be a lost asset for the Sisterhood, and us butting heads is likewise.”

“Ah, yes,” Syrinx drawled, lifting an eyebrow. “Here comes your vaunted commitment to the greater good.”

“I’m committed to my own best interests, exactly the same as you,” Principia retorted bluntly. “The difference is I’m at least capable of valuing other things, as well. I have goals and a career here, and dealing with your scheming on top of the rest of it is a headache I can do without. Do you need to find out how good I am at scheming before you realize how mutual our relationship is?”

“Our relationship, huh,” Basra said sardonically, brushing off the implied threat. “I see no reason to believe you are either a threat or a use to me.”

“Don’t you?” The smile which crept across Locke’s face was distinctly catlike. “Well, after all, we’ve gone head-to-head once already. You had the element of surprise and vastly superior positioning, and I still whipped you. Do you really wanna try it again without those advantages, Basra?”

They stared at each other, Principia with that sly smile, Basra without expression.

“Well,” the Bishop said at last, “Timms, was it? Also known as Smiler? I suppose I should be so lucky as to hope you’d do anything so rashly aggressive as try to trip me into a trap.”

“I shall take that as an acknowledgment of my base point,” Principia said, her face instantly shifting back to an innocently cheerful look. “Then I shall bid you good evening, your Grace, and I’m sure we’ll have a more fruitful discussion when you’ve seen the utility of my help. Don’t forget your notes!” Again, she proffered the envelope.


Principia raised her eyebrows. “No? No, what?”

“You’re a long way from earning my trust, Locke,” Basra said coldly. “And however you may choose to dress it up, in the end, that’s what you’re trying to do. Making yourself minimally useful according to your assigned duties isn’t going to cut it. I’ll tell you what. I will follow up on this lead, and if you have the basic self-control not to try to screw me over… We’ll talk further. About this job, and perhaps about what I can do for you beyond the bounds of your duties. And what I’ll expect you to do for me in exchange.”

She smirked faintly, then turned on her heel and strode off down the hall.

Principia stood behind her, watching her go with the slightly puzzled expression she had adopted during Basra’s last few sentences. Only when the Bishop was around the corner did she permit herself a faint half-smile, and tucked the envelope back into her belt pouch.

“Dunno, I was asleep before he came back,” Darius said absently, focusing on his breakfast.

“I don’t think the did come back,” Tallie said with a worried frown, pushing scrambled eggs around her plate. “I poked my head on on his bunk and it didn’t look slept in.”

“Rasha’s very neat about his space,” Jasmine offered. “My best friend back home is like that; she’s Punaji, too. Something about being on ships…”

“Yeah, but he’s not an early riser.” Tallie heaved a sigh, frowning deeply. “I don’t know, guys. Where could he have gone?”

“He’s in the Guild,” said Ross. “Nobody’d hurt him here.”

“But what if he left?”

“Why would he leave?” Darius demanded in exasperation. “It was the middle of the night and psycho dwarves are after us. Rasha wouldn’t have gone outside.”

“Don’t you care at all?” Tallie demanded, turning on him.

“Course I care,” he said with a shrug that belied his claim, scooping up another forkful of fried potatoes. “But I’m not ready to agree he’s in some kind of trouble. C’mon, you know Rasha, he’s got big thoughts for such a little guy. Always retreating into himself and staring moodily around. Yesterday was stressful for us all. Trust me, I’ve known people like him before. He’s not dumb enough to go out there and risk his safety. Probably just off somewhere thinking. He’ll come out when he feels like it. Like a cat.”

“He’s gonna miss breakfast,” Tallie muttered.

“We won’t let him starve,” Jasmine assured her, then turned to Darius with a frown. “Anyway, a little more concern would be appropriate. Just because he didn’t leave the Guild doesn’t mean this place is safe.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt apprentices here,” he scoffed.

“I am basically positive that’s not true,” she retorted. “Accredited thieves would probably not risk censure by being caught harming an apprentice. But let’s face it, these aren’t nice people. So far I’d say about half the ones I’ve met are good people, and most are only kind when they want something. If Rasha went off into some private corner around here…” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Something could have happened.”

Tallie slapped a palm on the table hard enough to make her silverware jump. “Damn it. I should’ve…”

“What?” Darius asked pointedly. “Tallie… I love that you care so much, but you’re not his mom. We can’t follow each other everywhere, and with all respect, Jas, I don’t think it’s wise to start assuming we’re in danger within the Guild itself. We need a safe haven, or we’ll all end up paranoid and crazy, and they really do protect apprentices here. C’mon, Ironeye could’ve probably disappeared us all good and proper, but she didn’t. Seriously, guys, I’m sure Rasha’s fine. If he hasn’t turned up by, say, dinner, then we should start to worry.”

“You afraid of the dark?” Ross asked.

Darius stared at him, blinking, then heaved a sigh and slowly set down his fork. “All right, what the fuck are you on about now?”

“Just that fear of the dark isn’t rational,” Ross said. “So rational arguments against it don’t work. It’s primal. Fear of the unknown, of what might be in the dark. Knowing there’s nothing out there does nothing for you. ‘swhy everyone has trouble sleeping after hearing a scary story.”

“Ross,” Tallie exclaimed. “We’re talking about Rasha!”

“Yeah, and something tells me we still are,” Darius said dryly. “This is one of those Vesker metaphors. They always draw ’em out more than is necessary.”

“Not wrong about that,” Ross agreed with a shrug. “Point is, our friend is missing an’ apparently didn’t come to bed last night. It’s fine to be worried. It’d be weird not to be worried. Don’t argue her out of worrying. Won’t work.”

“What, so I can’t offer comfort to someone who’s upset?” Darius retorted, scowling. “I don’t see how that’s any better.”

“This is incredible,” Tallie said to Jasmine. “We’re discussing the actual problem and these two are arguing about their feelings. When did we stop being the girls in this group?”

“Oi!” Darius protested. Jasmine just rolled her eyes and had another bite of eggs.

“Good morning.”

The soft greeting was punctuated by the arrival of a stack of wooden discs on the table beside them. All four stared incredulously up at Gimmick, who gave them a serene little smile.

“These are portable divination bafflers, keyed specifically to disrupt spells of location. It may be possible for a skilled scryer to discern details about your status even with them, and they will do nothing to counter fairy magic, but so long as you each keep one on your person, you should become un-trackable via arcane scrying by a mage or enchanter of nominal skill.”

“Nominal skill,” Tallie said blankly.

“There is, as they say, always a bigger fish, but I doubt you have antagonized the sort of archmage who can remotely neutralize these enchantments.” Saduko’s smile widened. “Your problems would be far greater were it so. These are passive charms and their power consumption is minimal, but they do consume energy. The enchantment is designed to absorb excess energy from the environment to replenish itself, which is abundant in Tiraas, but if your situation has not been resolved within six weeks, they will probably need to be recharged. Any professional enchanter will do this for a small fee.”

“I know how to recharge basic enchantments,” said Jasmine, staring up at her. “Just have to buy the dust…”

“Of course you do,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Excuse me, but I don’t believe we’d accepted Mr. Vandro’s offer.”

“Quite,” Saduko said placidly. “Webs has reconsidered his position and feels he was being unnecessarily mercenary with you. You may consider these a gift, delivered with his compliments and hopes for a fruitful future relationship.”

“Okay,” Darius said with a sigh, “what’s his angle?”

“I fear I cannot help you there,” she replied, shrugging. “I am frequently baffled by Mr. Vandro’s machinations. My skill set is specific and limited, and he employed me strictly in that capacity.”

“That was never his game,” Tallie said, slumping forward and leaning her forehead into her hand. The elbow she planted on the table narrowly missed her plate. “Damn it… It’s like the Boss said, just having us seen getting help from him places us in his camp, at least in everybody’s minds. And with everybody treating us like we’re Webs’s accomplices, our options for other supporters narrow until it’s basically true. Isn’t that right?” she demanded, lifting her head to look accusingly at Saduko.

The enchantress shrugged again. “Your reasoning seems solid, though such matters are above my head. Being voluntarily and deliberately in Webs’s camp, as you call it, I have never had to think in these terms. That is for the best. I prefer to leave such convoluted planning to him.”

“Why, that sneaky son of a bitch,” Darius said, sounding more impressed than annoyed.

“Well, this is shaping up to be a great day,” Tallie muttered, reaching for the stack. “And I was just thinking we have a prospect here that didn’t involve taking Webs’s help. I mean, our new buddy Schwartz is in the same boat as the rest of us, and he’s an acolyte of the actual goddess of magic. Surely he could hook us up with some kind of deal on anti-tracking charms…”

“And that’s why Gimmick had to come along so early to hand these off,” Darius said cheerily. “So Webs can get his hooks into us before we have the chance to realize that and act on it. Clever bastard!”

“Stop sounding so happy about it!” Tallie barked.

“Tallie, hon, we’ve been outmaneuvered. And that really shouldn’t surprise anybody, since this guy’s apparently been playing the game longer than we’ve collectively been alive.”

“Not quite that long,” Saduko said with amusement.

“Yeah, well, my point is, you can’t take these things personally.”

“Oh, just watch me,” Tallie said acidly.

“What I mean,” Darius added, “is you shouldn’t take it personally. It’s a game, at least in the minds of the people who tend to win it. You gotta stay loose, keep yourself detached. It’s the only way to keep your head cool enough to compete.”

She sighed heavily. “Someday, I’m gonna insist on detailed backstories from some of you.”

Darius grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. “Your place or mine?”

Saduko cleared her throat as Tallie reached for her fork, her glare at Darius suggesting she didn’t have eating in mind. “Those bafflers will function so long as they are on your person, but it is best as a rule to conceal them inside your clothes. If you are being tracked by a mage, and said mage gains a line of sight to them, he or she may be able to disrupt them permanently that way.”

“So noted,” Jasmine said quickly, reaching for the stack. “And…ah, good, there are five. We’ll make sure Rasha gets his. Thank you, Gimmick.”

“Ah, yes, that is the other matter,” Saduko continued. “Mr. Vandro pays well to be appraised of any interesting events transpiring in the city, and has just learned of one he felt would be relevant to you. Your friend Rasha is currently in an Imperial jail for assault.”

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11 – 20

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“Sounds like quite the adventure,” Vandro said genially when Tallie had finished the whole story.

By that point, they were comfortably ensconced on the leather furniture in his drawing room, and had been served hot tea, sandwiches and cookies by Wilberforce, Vandro’s silent and efficient Butler. Their host himself had not joined them, either in sitting or eating; he stood near the fire, smiling down upon them with patrician goodwill. Wilberforce had refreshed his cocktail, but Vandro so far hadn’t so much as sipped the new one, apparently just keeping it in hand for gesticulatory purposes. Gimmick, or Saduko, stood so silently unobtrusive by the door that Schwartz, at one point, jumped in startlement when she spoke, apparently having forgotten she was there.

“And the worst part is, we didn’t even get what we came for,” Tallie said sullenly. “Any of us. Now, apparently, Schwartz is as out of luck as we are with regard to that magic shop, and we have no idea what Private Covrin was trying to tell us.”

“Well, as to that, I may have a few thoughts,” Vandro said lightly, wearing his characteristic easy smile and idly swirling his drink. “The Legionnaire’s mind, of course, is inscrutable to me; I rarely manage to figure out what women are thinking when they’re right in front of me explaining it! But in the context of your little dwarf problem… Yeah, I bet I can help you there.”

“Oh?” Darius said, perking up visibly. Most of the assembled apprentices did, though Jasmine frowned pensively and Schwartz chewed on his lower lip, Meesie chittering softly to herself in apparent displeasure.

“Hold your horses,” Vandro instructed. “We’ll get to that in a moment; first of all, I have to disagree with your assessment of what the worst part was. Tell me, at least, that you kids understand exactly how you fucked up in dealing with Ironeye?”

“Well,” Darius drawled, “punching one of her subordinates was probably not the best idea anybody in this room has ever had.”

“I know for a fact it was far from the worst,” Tallie shot back.

“That woman’s a thug and a bully,” Ross said flatly. “Some Eserite, picking on people like she does.”

“We didn’t do anything to her,” Rasha added. “Sending us into that trap when we asked for help was an asshole thing to do, no matter how you slice it.”

“That it was,” Vandro agreed. “Vanda Frost is an asshole when she wants to be, just like any good enforcer. The point, there, is what you kids do and do not have the prerogative to slice. Let’s consider the strange case of Glass Alley.”

“Yeah, what the hell is even going on in there?” Darius demanded, scowling. “I get that it’s a slum, but…”

“Well, first of all, there’s Frost’s little operation,” Vandro said, beginning to pace idly in front of the fire as he talked. “Now, full disclosure, I’ve only been back in the city a few months; I was theoretically retired to sunny Onkawa, and I keep telling myself I’ll go back there when my business is concluded, but hell, I love the game too much to leave it a second time.” He paused to wink at them. “So, Frost. Here she’s set herself up as the uncontested slum queen. Her word is law, and apparently she’s wearing Imperial badges like some kind of orcish chieftain to show how little she fears the Empire. Legally speaking, this behavior suits the criteria for rebellion. The good folk of Sarasio learned the hard way not to try that shit last year; doesn’t it strain credulity, kids, that she’s getting away with it right here in the Imperial capital?”

A pause ensued, in which his audience frowned in thought.

“You’re suggesting the Empire approves her actions there?” Jasmine asked finally.

Vandro laughed. “Approves, nothing. It’s doubloons to donuts the Empire is running this show behind the scenes; there’s no way they’d allow it if they didn’t have some kind of control. I’ll bet you anything Glass Alley is crawling with Imperial spooks, all gussied up as gutter trash.”

“Why?” Rasha asked.

“In a moment,” Vandro said. “Then, on the other hand, there’s the Guild. See, Frost has put together an actual gang, a group of Guild thieves who are loyal to her before the Guild itself—you met a few of them, I understand. No harm in that so far. But then, she’s used that gang to take and hold territory, enforce her own rules on non-Guild persons, and dictate how other Eserites are to behave in her turf. That, kids, is a capital no-no. Eserion prizes freedom and independence, but there’s a line; an organization like the Guild can’t afford to tolerate competition from within, much less open rebellion. Only times that’s happened it was because a sitting Boss had been acting up and needed to be removed, which is something Tricks would be well aware of. And yet, all we hear from the him with regard to Ironeye’s operation is thundering silence. Neither the Guild nor the Empire is doing a thing to dislodge her when they both have clear reason to.”

He paused, smiling down at them with vague smugness, clearly awaiting the obvious question.

Schwartz eventually obliged him. “What’s their motive to tolerate this?”

“Search me,” Vandro said with a grin and a shrug. “I mean, the actual nature of the agreements and interactions Ironeye has with the Empire and the Guild, those I could only guess at. Maybe someone more established here in town would have more intel on that, but frankly I don’t think that’s the relevant point to the likes of you and me. As for motive, consider the state of that district and what she’s doing there. Glass Alley has had a reputation for years as the place you can go to get sleazy shit that’s not trafficked in where civilized people dwell—and probably get robbed and murdered for your trouble. The rumor mill hasn’t really caught up with the times; it still has that rep, but matters are different since Frost took over. She’s running that place according to Eserite rules. It’s a rough patch of turf, still, no mistake about that, but the effect of Frost’s brutality has been to make it overall safer. She gets a cut of all illegal business that goes on, and uses it to pay as many of the local non-Guild thugs as are interested to serve as her enforcers. She even has a dress code for ’em! Then she uses them to lean on anybody who doesn’t wanna play her game. There are rules in Glass Alley now: no unsanctioned robbery, no unnecessary assault, no rape, no destruction of property.”

“Ah, excuse me, point of order,” Schwartz said with a scowl, holding up a finger. “All I did was ask for directions, and they set on me like starving wolves.”

“It’s almost like I can tell at a glance which of you kids isn’t Guild,” Vandro replied, grinning, while Schwartz’s scowl deepened. “Honestly, boy, you walked into a neighborhood like that and asked for directions? But consider what happened after that, and how Frost responded. Who bore the brunt of her thuggish displeasure, eh? Aside from that little prank with the self-locking room, she didn’t lay a finger on you kids.”

Schwartz blinked, comprehension dawning on his face, though Meesie still muttered sullenly to herself in his hair.

“That hints at the roots of all this,” Vandro continued, contemplatively swirling his drink now. “Despite what the nobles like to sneer at each other, poor folks do not behave like wild animals as a rule. What you saw in Glass Alley, the way they ganged up to attack like that—unless you’re party to an actual war of some kind, that’s desperation. And that’s what Glass Alley has been like. Tiraas has its share of slums, of course, but most of ’em are at least a little nicer. Glass Alley is where people ended up if they had nothing left, and no hope of functioning anywhere else.”

“So that’s who Ironeye chooses to pick on, is it?” Tallie growled.

Vandro shrugged, finally taking a sip of his cocktail. “Under Ironeye’s watch, three free clinics and four food pantries have opened in Glass Alley. She has her enforcers keeping watch over ’em round the clock, to prevent what would inevitably happen if she didn’t. To bring all this to a point, kids… This is a project, and a long-term one. Frost is profiting from her gig, as all slumlords do, but she’s also trying to help. If she seems brutal and overly theatrical—and I mean, come on, that outfit—it’s because that is what it takes to get through to the kind of people who live there, at least at first. She’s probably the only person they’ve ever had try to get through to ’em; most authorities treat people like that pretty much like rats. I understand her logic. It’s not the way I would’ve gone about it, but hell, I wouldn’t attempt a job like that anyhow. Nah, the real test’ll come when and if she manages to elevate that place to the point it doesn’t need her anymore.” He grinned sardonically. “Eserites aren’t mean to be in charge; our methods do not work for running an actual society. Be interesting to see if ol’ Vanda gives up power once she’s got a taste for it.”

“Huh,” said Darius. “Well. How ’bout that.”

“So that’s Glass Alley,” Vandro said, smiling down at them. “A big, extremely complex running job, backed by both the Guild and the actual Tiraan Empire, with the lives of however many hundreds of people live there in the balance. If this thing works out, it could set a whole knew paradigm for rescuing troubled places from themselves via Eserite principles—that’s a real game-changer, right there. All in all, it’s exactly the kind of place nobody wants a bunch of untethered apprentices bumbling into. No sponsor or trainer would have sent you there or let you go if they knew what you intended. Is it any wonder Frost reacted poorly to finding the lot of you involved in an altercation right in the middle of her grand project?”

“There’s poorly,” Rasha protested, “and then there’s locking us in a closet!”

“How d’you figure?” Vandro asked mildly.

“I thought that was rather a harsh response, too,” said Schwartz.

“Yeah, but what’d she actually do to you?” their host insisted. “Were you harmed in any way, or just…inconvenienced? It sounds like she even sent someone along to keep an eye on it. Frankly, I suspect you’d have been let out of there and sent on your way within a couple of hours.”

“What makes you so certain?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Grinning, Vandro held up a chiding finger at her. “I said ‘suspect;’ it’s a jump from there to ‘certain.’ But that’d be pretty standard. You are apprentices, and while any Guild member has the prerogative to discipline you for sticking your noses into a job they’re running—hell, a good many’d take it as a moral obligation to do so—no member of the Guild is gonna bring you to any actual harm, or allow you to suffer it if they can prevent it. The Thieves’ Guild can be a rough place, yeah, and if you haven’t figured that out by now you’ve probably got no future here. But like all successful entities, it assiduously protects its younglings.” He winked. “Good ol’ Vanda herself sounds like she went mama bear on your behalf. Or do you think she customarily says ‘hello’ with rockets, ice bombs, and electrified harpoons? Nobody’d still be in that district if there was an armored boogeyman stomping around doing that shit over every little thing.”

A thoughtful silence descended while they digested both the insight and the sandwiches.

“That was quite the set-up she’s got, though,” Darius said eventually. “I mean, with the armor and the glowing eyes and Omnu’s balls, how many weapons has she got in that thing? It looked like she could take on a strike team.”

Saduko sniffed disdainfully. “Do not mistake the belt of badges for anything but a theatrical touch permitted by the Empire. Ironeye is a skilled enforcer, in that she rules through fear and psychological warfare. Her armaments are designed toward that, not combat effectiveness. They are only tricks and gimmicks, both mechanical and magical.”

“And word has it you’d know a thing or two about gimmicks,” Vandro chuckled.

She smiled, very faintly. “I am most curious where she obtained that runeblade of hers. That is the real thing, and by a wide margin the most dangerous weapon in her possession. The rest…? Frost could not stand against a skilled spellcaster of any school, much less a strike team. I have my doubts how effective she would be against an enforcer of comparable experience not encumbered by impractical armor. Mr. Vandro’s point is well-taken. Despite how it seems, she is allowed to continue because neither the Guild nor the Empire see fit to extinguish her. Both could do so without difficulty.”

“Sooo,” Rasha said slowly, “she gave us, basically, a slap on the knuckles…”

“And then,” Darius finished, growing a shade paler, “we wrecked one of her places and assaulted one of her people. Shit.”

“Whoah, whoah!” Ross protested, pointing accusingly at Tallie. “We didn’t assault anybody.”

Tallie drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh. “Worth it.”

“Was it?” Jasmine asked dryly. “I may ask again after you’ve had a talk with Style.”

Tallie placed a hand over her eyes, leaning against the back of the couch. “…I don’t suppose you’ve got anything a little stronger to put in the tea?”

Vandro let out a jovial, booming laugh. “Well, as long as you learned the lesson, that’s what matters. I can’t do a thing about the ass-kicking you lot are gonna get from Style when you head back to the Guild, much less the grudge Ironeye is probably gonna carry. For now, though, I’ll consider my duty to the younger generation done.”

“I, um…” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “I’m sorry, I made it clear I’m not a Guild apprentice, right?”

“Consider it a free education, sonny boy,” Vandro said with a genial wink. “Won’t do you any harm to understand a bit about how Eserites think, and if you’re gonna keep hanging around with ’em, it just might do you a world of good.”

Meesie hopped down from Schwartz’s head to his shoulder, patting his cheek insistently and squeaking in agreement.

“So with that out of the way,” Vandro continued, “and if you’ve all had enough nibbling to hold body and soul together, come with me. I wanna show you something that’ll shed some light on your dwarf problem.”

The long basement room to which he escorted them was clearly an enchanting workshop. It was extremely organized in layout, lined by neat rows of shelves containing bottles of sparkling dusts, stacks of parchment of different types, and an impressive selection of inert power crystals. There were several tables strewn with projects clearly in progress, and in one corner stood a sizable rack of various wire and glass components for the physical construction of enchanted equipment.

Schwartz paused at the door, took one look around, then plucked Meesie off his shoulder and whispered a few words to her. The little fire-mouse squeaked once in farewell before vanishing completely.

“You kids are in luck,” Vandro said jovially, leading the way into the workshop. “Gimmick, here, is one of the best security-specialized enchantresses around. This is her personal working space—and on that note, kindly keep your hands firmly to yourselves at all times. Not that I don’t trust you, of course, but it seems to me you’ve already offended enough Guild members for one day’s work. This way!”

As they all trickled into the room, their host headed straight across it toward the display at the far end, while Saduko took up a position by the door, watching them all with hawkish intensity. No doubt, she shared Vandro’s concern for having anything in this chamber trifled with, and probably with a great deal more personal investment.

Against the far wall was a peculiar apparatus consisting of a large-scale map of the city, set in an extremely thick metal frame. Attached to the top of this on hinges were several framed panes of glass, each supported by spring-loaded arms that enabled them to be lowered over the map, or raised above it.

“Here, as you can see, is our fair city,” Vandro began, tapping a finger against the map with the hand not still holding his drink. “Nothing special. But when I do this…”

Moving carefully with one hand, he lowered the first pane of glass into place over the map, then touched one of the runes marking the edge of its metal frame.

Immediately, a riot of glowing blue burst into being above the map. It was difficult to make out at first glance, but upon closer, more careful inspection, the haze of blue light revealed itself to be a profusion of circular shapes, a few with crisp outlines but most fading outward into dimness, where their edges were obscured by the innumerable other blue circles covering the glass pane. The circles were all translucent, adding a layer to the map without hiding any of the markings upon it.

“Whoah,” said Tallie in an unimpressed tone. “Shiny.” Darius nudged her with an elbow, whereupon she elbowed him right back.

“Let me continue and see if you can guess the theme,” Vandro said with a grin and a wink, already reaching to lower the second pane of framed glass.

This one, once activated, added another layer of the increasingly complicated display, this one of golden circles. There appeared to be far fewer of them than of the blue ones, but the sight of all of them together began to be rather confusing.

“It’s magic!” Rasha said suddenly.

“Well, of course it’s magic,” Darius sneered. “Generally speaking, when you see glowy shit attached to a device in a magic workshop—”

“Oh, shut it, Darius. I mean, it’s a map of magic in the city! Look, see how the biggest cluster of yellow circles is around Imperial Square? That’s the Grand Cathedral, and the Trinity’s three temples that are there. Look, there’s the Casino! And the rest of those are temples and shrines, I bet.”

“Oh,” said Tallie. “Oh, wow. If the blue ones were arcane, no wonder they were all over the place. This damn city’s practically sparking with the stuff.”

“Good eye,” Vandro said approvingly. “See, I knew you’d get it.”

“I’ve actually seen devices like this before,” Schwartz said with a trace of smugness. “I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone, though.”

“Sure,” Ross grunted.

“Yep, and the Finder’s Fee has one as well; most well-equipped magic shops in the city do. Now, you’ll note there are a lot fewer fae energy fields in the city,” Vandro said, sliding the third pane down and activating it. “Reacts poorly to the presence of so much arcane magic, and anyhow, it’s not as widely favored among human civilizations.”

“Uh, why is the biggest concentration of it around the Square, as well?” Rasha asked, pointing. Indeed, of the relatively few circles of glowing green on the map, the only one of significant size overlapped with the central golden glows of the Church and adjacent temples.

“That,” said Vandro, “is actually centered on the Imperial Palace, and in answer to your next question: I don’t know, I don’t wanna know, and neither do you. The secrets of Emperors are rarely useful and always dangerous. And just for the final touch…”

He lowered the last frame into place, switched it on, and revealed a series of orange circles scattered across the city. There were more of them than green ones, but they were without exception tiny, some little more than pinpricks.

“There are that many fields of infernal energy active in Tiraas?” Jasmine demanded, aghast.

“More,” Saduko said calmly from the door behind them. “I rarely find a use for the last pane. The only infernal magic users worth knowing about are, almost by definition, not trackable.”

Vandro cleared his throat in the grim silence that ensued. “Yeah, well, speaking of things better off left alone… But in any case, my purpose here is to make a point, not to help you find anyone in particular. Just look at all the magic running around loose in this town!”

Indeed, according to the augmented map, there wasn’t an inch of space anywhere in Tiraas not swamped by magical energy; almost all of it was under a haze of arcane blue, and much buried in overlapping arcane fields. But between that, and the fae and divine spheres as well, the city had total magical coverage.

“The subject at hand, of course, is surveillance,” Vandro intoned, idly swirling his drink again. “Specifically, how those dwarves are doing it—because they’re obviously tracking you in some way, to know so accurately and quickly where you are. Now, both conventional and magical surveillance ought to be impossible with you at the Guild, which is not only warded to hell and back but not the kind of place it’s smart to hang around, gawking at apprentices. Obviously, they’ve found a way around this—one way or the other. Your new buddy Private Covrin makes it pretty clear which.”

“How’s that?” Ross asked.

“Well, she found you the same way, if I’m not mistaken! And then sent you to the Finder’s Fee, which has one of these little beauties, to spill the beans. Saduko, hon, wanna take it from here? You’re the expert, after all.”

Expressionless, she nodded to him in a gesture that was nearly a shallow bow before turning to the apprentices. “Any statement about what is and is not possible with magic should be followed by the implied qualifier ‘in theory.’ In theory, the Guild’s wards should not be penetrable, at least not without tripping them and earning the direct attention of the Guild’s employed mages.”

“The Guild employs mages?” Rasha exclaimed.

“Hell, the Guild has mages,” Vandro replied, grinning. “Eserion teaches a philosophy, kid. It’s true we don’t favor magic-users as a rule, but you really think there are no casters out there who don’t find our worldview appealing? But we digress. Gimmick was in the process of explaining your predicament.”

“Indeed,” she said. “The purpose of showing you the map display is to reveal how very many overlapping magical fields are in effect in Tiraas. All permanently placed spells must be calibrated to account for this. To say nothing of the interactions that can occur between intersecting fields of arcane magic, the presence of divine, fae, and especially infernal energy in various places creates complicating factors which must be carefully considered when establishing a permanent enchantment of any significant size—which includes defensive wards over a region the size of the Imperial Casino and its underground offices. And where there are so many intersecting forms of magical radiation, there are…variables.” She smiled thinly. “These variables can be exploited, by one with the necessary skill. I have often done so myself. Most places in Tiraas where significant magic is done are warded—the temples, government and military offices, even banks and major factories. All of those wards are vulnerable to careful incursions, which can be hidden from detection by the background haze of other magical resonances. The only reliable way to counter this is to have a sapient caster, and preferably more than one, actively monitoring the wards at all times.”

“Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of wards?” Darius asked, scratching his head.

“Not entirely,” Saduko replied. “But more to the point, there are very few organizations which have the budget and skilled personnel to do this. Mostly just the Imperial government and Salyrite temples. The Guild does not.”

“Which means,” Vandro concluded in a satisfied tone, “if you’re relying on the Guild’s standing wards to protect you from magical tracking… Well, somebody persistent enough may just be able to disappoint you. Now, once you understand that, it should be obvious what you need to do to compensate, yeah?”

“It…should?” Tallie asked, blinking, and turned to look questioningly at the others. Most of them shrugged.

“Personal wards,” Schwartz said, suddenly grinning. “Tracking deflector charms are commercially available! They’re, uh, not cheap. But they’re available.”

“Won’t those have the same problems?” Darius asked.

“On the contrary,” said Saduko, “because a person is mobile and constantly moves through the different overlapping energy fields of the city, there is no way to use those fields to exploit ward vulnerabilities. Such techniques rely on knowing the position and composition of every relevant magical influence; they are only useful on stationary targets.”

“So, uh…” Tallie turned to Schwartz. “Exactly how not cheap are we talking, here?”

“Umm,” he winced. “Well, I guess… If you had a really good job…or an inheritance…”

Rasha sighed heavily. “Typical.”

“Now, now, let’s nobody panic,” Vandro said cheerfully. “You are, after all, in a room with one of the best in the business—I think I already mentioned that!” He winked at Saduko, who made no response. “Obviously, Gimmick’s time and talents are valuable. However, I might find it worthwhile to foot the tab for you, should you decide to employ them.”

“Uh huh,” Tallie said dryly. “And…what would that cost us?”

“Well, I’ve gotta be honest,” he replied. “None of you kids really have anything I want. However, I’m a big believer in the great chain of connection, y’know? We’re all in this rotten world together. Today, I find myself in a position to help you out. Maybe someday soon, you’ll be in a position to help me.”

“You are talking,” Jasmine said slowly, “about trading money today for an as-yet undetermined favor in the future. That is possibly the worst deal I’ve ever heard of. It’s almost a chapbook cliché. This is how loan sharks hook people.”

“Kid,” Vandro said, his expression suddenly serious, “you are just about as dead right on that as anybody has ever been, and it gives me hope for the future that you knew it without having to be told. Now, nobody disappoint me by answering this right now. You’ve got some thinking to do, and some research to do.” He grinned and winked again. “Tonight, I want you to head back to the Guild, take what you have coming from Style, and then consider whether you’ve got any better options than to take ol’ Alan’s deal. And most especially learn what you can about everybody involved, here. Me, Gimmick, Ironeye… In fact, while we’re at it, I suggest you ask around about Keys, whom you also know as Sergeant Locke. All of us have a rep, and you’d better know exactly who and what you’re dealing with before you start dealing. Be careful, be smart, and be sure.” He sipped his drink again, watching them acutely over the rim of the glass. “But don’t be too long.”

Alan Vandro was a man who enjoyed his comforts, but did not allow them to rule him. As such, while he spent lavishly on large, fancy dinners whenever he had someone to entertain, on quieter nights he often had nothing but a liquid supper. This was one such night. The house was quiet, with Wilberforce off driving the kids home. He stood in the drawing room, near the fireplace, pensively gazing out the window at the street. Night was falling on Tiraas, not that one could tell from this angle. The character of the light changed as sunlight gave way to streetlamps, but it never really got dark here.

“So,” he mused, swirling the last sip of his evening cocktail in the bottom of the glass. “Isn’t that interesting. Factions within the Sisterhood, they said. And here I’d started to think Keys had gone and made herself untouchable behind those ramparts.”

“Alan,” Saduko said quietly from across the room (she never stood close to him unless it was necessary, which he had noticed with amusement and never commented upon), “I have never presumed to advise you in your affairs unless asked, but if you are considering taking some kind of action against an active member of the Silver Legions…”

“No, don’t worry, I haven’t taken leave of my senses quite yet,” he said, turning to grin roguishly at her. “That’s the whole point, doll. Why take action my own little self when I can just…pick a side? Particularly if there’s a side that already wants more or less what I want.” He turned back to the window. “In your various travels through town, what have you heard about this Bishop? Syrinx, was it?”

“Nothing good,” she said immediately. “Basra Syrinx is respected, and in some quarters, feared. I have heard nowhere any hint that she is liked.”

“Good, good,” he murmured. “That gives us plenty to work with. All right, I need some more info before we go and do anything too proactive. Details on Syrinx, and also on this aide of hers, Private Covrin. Clearly, one or both of them has some connection to Sparkler and the Finder’s Fee, which by itself is just fascinating.”

“It’s going to be hard for me to maneuver in Glass Alley after today,” she said. “Ironeye will take offense at our intervention. She will not harm a fellow Guild member without cause, but…”

“Yes, but,” he agreed. “We both know there’s a lot short of harm that can make someone’s life difficult. No, Saduko, you keep well clear of her; I’m not about to risk getting those talented fingers of yours broken. Luckily, there’s no shortage of saps who can be sent into that rathole with simple assignments. See if you can round up a few, in and around getting some details on Syrinx and her girl.”

“These waters become increasingly hazardous,” she warned. “You know as well as I what Frost is like. And what I have heard about Syrinx is…troubling. She is a good politician and a poor Avenist, by all accounts. Ruthless, vindictive, devious. Unnecessarily cruel toward those who oppose her, it is said.”

“In short,” he replied, grinning out at the city, “an evil bitch.” Vandro tossed back the last of his drink, savoring the familiar burn as it went down. “Sounds like my kind of woman.”

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11 – 19

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“Nothing,” Rasha said moments later, rising from where he had been crouched by the door. “There’s no lock, no…nothing. These bars came out of some mechanism in the door frame itself, nothing I can work at with a lockpick.”

“Do you actually have a lockpick on you?” Darius said pointedly.

Rasha scowled and rubbed his palms on his trousers. “Well, it’s sort of academic now, isn’t it?”

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!” said the bait device with disgusting good cheer.

“Shame,” said Tallie from the opposite side of the room, experimentally tugging on the bars blocking off the other door. “You’re pretty nimble with picks, for someone who’s new at it. Or so Flora said. Okay, this fucker isn’t budging. Whatever they’re attached to is in there good. Unless someone with a little more beef would care to have a go?”

“Way ahead of you,” Darius grunted. Rasha had moved aside to let him hook his hands over the scratched and half-decayed wooden frame of the door. It creaked in protest, then shifted an inch. The whole place looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Ross moved up next to him, also getting a grip; at a nod from Darius, he heaved back as well, and there came a crack of splintering wood as the frame was wrenched loose another few inches.

Tallie and Schwartz backed away against the opposite wall to watch; Jasmine, after glancing up at them, busied herself prowling among the dusty bottles of cleaning supplies on the shelves.

Darius crowed in triumph as he and Ross finally ripped an entire chunk of the door frame free, bringing with it a substantial piece of the half-rotten wood of the adjacent wall. His jubilation died almost instantly, and everyone pressed forward, craning their necks to see what he’d found.

“Okay, so, something’s just occurred to me,” Darius said, rapping his knuckles on the plate of solid iron which had been behind the old wood paneling. “The bitch who set us up for this was dressed entirely in…well, this stuff.”

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

“Don’t see any seams,” Ross grunted, peering closely at the heavier iron lining the now partially exposed doorway. “The mechanism would be in the bottom… This doesn’t match the building. This is solid.”

“It goes all the way around,” Schwartz said quietly, his eyes closed. “Except the floor, that’s just stone… Um, sensing elemental composition isn’t my strongest suit, but if you give me some minutes to meditate I can look for weak points.”

“What kind of fucking maniac builds an iron room in the back of a disused shop and dresses it up to look all innocent?” Tallie snarled.

“I think you met her,” Darius said wryly. “Remember? The scary-as-fuck one with the lightning and the harpoons and explosives and holy fuck what is going on in this district?!”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” Schwartz said, grimacing and opening his eyes. “I’ve got spells that could easily break us out of an old cleaning closet and possibly an iron cell, but… There’s some kind of arcane circuitry running behind these walls. I can feel it now that I try, but I’m no arcanist; I can’t tell what it does. My fae magic could cause…um, a really bad reaction.”

“Well, maybe that’s our solution?” Darius suggested. “Cause a bad reaction, blow out a chunk of the wall?”

“How about no,” Ross growled.

“Exactly,” Schwartz said emphatically. “Be the subject magic, chemistry, politics or interpersonal relations, the rule of thumb is: if it’s volatile, don’t blindly poke at it.”

Meesie, sitting upright in his hair, squeaked in agreement, nodding her tiny head.

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

Tallie clapped a hand over her eyes. “Jasmine, sweetie, while you’re over there…?”

Jasmine had begun sorting the bottles into different clusters; at Tallie’s prompting, she paused, picked up the enchanted device with the voice, raised it over her head and slammed it onto the stone floor, where most of its pieces shattered. Just for good measure—or maybe just for emphasis—she stomped hard on the remains, splintering them further.

“Thank you,” Tallie said fervently.

“My pleasure,” Jasmine replied. “Okay, nobody panic, I think I have an idea.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” Rasha said tersely.

“Schwartz, a couple of questions,” she said, turning to the witch.

He held his arms wide in an expansive gesture, smiling ruefully. “Clearly, my time is yours.”

Jasmine grinned faintly before continuing. “First, can you work some of your magic in here if you’re not doing it at the walls themselves?”

He frowned, then turned in a slow circle, peering this way and that at something the rest of them couldn’t see. “Hm. Hmmm… I can’t tell much about the nature of these enchantments, but I think it’s probably just to make the iron resistant to magical tampering… Yes, I don’t find any triggers in there. Something would likely have reacted to Meesie if it was going to.”

“Good,” she said, nodding. “And are there any charms like that on the bars themselves?”

Tallie moved aside, giving him space to examine the bars of the rear door. “Um… It’s faint. Just because there’s less metal, I think. Actually, this I can see close enough to be fairly sure it’s a standard strengthening enchantment. I’m no arcanist, like I said, but arcane enchantment is everywhere, these days. If you’re going to practice the Craft in any capacity, you learn to recognize most of the old standbys.”

“Perfect,” she said in satisfaction. “Here’s what I need: can you whip up a spell to aggressively purify the air?”

“Your allergies acting up?” Darius said snidely.

Schwartz blinked, then frowned. “Um…sure, that’s child’s play. Why?”

“Because,” Jasmine said, turning back to the selection of bottles she had moved aside onto their own shelf, “I’ve got the ingredients here to make a potent solution that’ll dissolve iron. However, it will also put off some extremely toxic fumes which would kill us in about two minutes in an enclosed space like this. So unless you can cleanse poison out of the air, that’s a no go.”

“Uhh…” His frown deepened. “I see. Yes, I can do that. I can also add small charms to each of us to improve our breathing, and depending on what kinds of fumes you’re talking about, I think the more protection, the better.”

“Sounds like a good policy,” she said, nodding. “All right, get to work on that, if you would, please. Everybody stand back from the drain; I need some bottles for mixing, so I’m gonna pour a few of these out.”

“You’re an alchemist?” Tallie said sharply, staring hard at her.

“Oh, goodness, no,” Jasmine replied, kneeling to very carefully pour a faintly shimmering blue solution into the small grate in the floor. “Alchemy is basically chemistry with magically reactive substances. Like chemistry, it’s a whole lot of math and memorizing tables and reactions… I really don’t have a head for the theory. I had a really good alchemy teacher, though. Actually, the man’s a howling idiot, but he does know his subject. He did a whole unit on useful stuff you can make from common household alchemicals. That I paid attention to; I like practical knowledge. This stuff is all old, but what I need appears to be still good.”

“Who are you?” Tallie demanded.

Jasmine hesitated in pouring, then lifted her head to give her a guarded look. “I thought we agreed not to ask questions like that.”

“Don’t give me that,” Tallie shot back. “I told you all my whole story. These two are just a couple of guys, nothing special,” she added, pointing at Darius and Ross.

“Hey,” Ross protested, frowning.

“Just for that, you sleep alone tonight,” Darius said with a smirk.

“Rasha is here because he’s mousy and effeminate and has been picked on his whole life, and the Guild is a religion based on taking down bullies. Sorry, Rasha, but that was all pretty transparent,” she added.

Rasha scowled, but then shrugged fatalistically, saying nothing.

“You, though.” Tallie folded her arms, staring at Jasmine through narrowed eyes. “You insist on being such a mystery. You’re some kind of martial arts savant, trained by the Sisterhood and… What did that guy say? Punaji? Drow? And now this. Jasmine, who the hell has an alchemy teacher?!”

“Anybody who’s been to college,” Ross grunted. “Or had private tutors.”

“There, see?” Tallie pointed accusingly at him. “That isn’t normal!”

“It’s not abnormal,” Schwartz offered weakly.

“You know,” Jasmine said quietly, “you raise a good point, Tallie. I…haven’t really appreciated the advantages I’ve been given. At least, not enough. I think I owe some people thanks, and maybe apologies.” She smiled up at the other girl. “Thanks for that. Sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants.”

“That was not the point!” Tallie shouted.

Meesie chittered irritably at her, pointedly tugging at her long ears.

“Tallie,” Darius said soothingly. “Sweetheart. Baby. Honeypie.”

“Asshole, are you trying to see how much it takes to make me come over there and neuter you with leftover alchemicals?”

“I’m making a point,” he said, “and holy shit, girl, we need to settle on a safe word before getting into that kind of fun stuff. Seriously, though, Jas is right. We’re all here for another start; her past becomes our business when she decides to share it, and not before. Leave it alone.”

Tallie folded her arms, grumbling sullenly.

“Also,” Darius added, winking, “there was subtext, there. You are getting close to needing a kick in the pants if you can’t respect everybody’s privacy.”

“Fine, whatever!” Tallie thew her hands up and began pacing back and forth at the short end of the room, having to about-face every three steps.

A silence fell, in which Schwartz retreated to one corner of the little room and began rummaging in his pockets for spell components, and Jasmine set to work very carefully mixing fluids on the floor by the drain.

“Soooo,” Darius said after a few long moments. “Who wants to tell ghost stories?”

Tallie’s shoe hit him in the face before he noticed she’d taken it off.

Less than half an hour later, Tallie tried the handle of the door to the front room of the shop, which was now accessible, the iron bars having been removed and stacked in the corner. Nubs of melted iron remained at the top and bottom of the door, but the solution, despite the acrid fumes it had put off, did not actually heat the metal; Jasmine had warned them not to touch what remained, but at least no warmth emanated from it. The metal floor grate had also dissolved when she poured the leftover solution into it, discarding what remained into the sewers.

At least the place smelled nice. Thanks to Schwartz’s magic, the air in the dingy supply closet was now bracingly clear and crisp, very much like the atmosphere in a mountain forest in the early morning. It even smelled faintly of pine, which he insisted was a coincidence.

The door, though, was still locked. Tallie sighed, rolled her eyes, and turned to Rasha.

“Don’t see a keyhole on that one either,” he said with a shrug.

“Shut by itself, remember?” Ross added. “Must have mechanisms in the hinges.”

“I knew you poured that stuff out too early,” Tallie said accusingly to Jasmine.

“Actually,” Jasmine countered, “without the iron bars blocking it, that’s just a door, I bet. Ross, would you be so kind?”

“Glad to,” he rumbled, backing up a few steps.

The room wasn’t wide enough to give him much of a running start, but Ross was heavy, and a lot of that was muscle. At the first solid impact of his shoulder against the door, it tore right off its hinges, collapsing to the floor in the shop outside and kicking up a veritable hurricane of disturbed dust. The newly liberated apprentices retreated as one from freedom, coughing and trying to wave the resulting smog away.

“Excuse me, I believe this is my venue,” said Schwartz, pushing to the front of the group. Planting himself in a wide stance in the doorway, he raised both hands dramatically.

The blast of wind which erupted forth from his palms ripped through the shop, knocking over bottles, blowing down hanging herbs and stirring up even more dust, even as it carried the rest away. The bell jangled in protest as the front door of the shop was banged outward, rebounding off the wall outside. Schwartz kept up the pressure until the last of the greasy cloud of dust had been expelled fully out onto the street of Glass Alley.

Finally, he lowered his hands, and the wind subsided. Schwartz lifted his nose, smugly surveying his handiwork.

“I say we keep him!” Darius said cheerfully, clapping Schwartz on the shoulder nearly hard enough to make the reedy man stumble. “C’mon, how many thieves have their own wizard? I promise I’ll look after him! I’ll feed him and brush him and walk him every day…”

Meesie chittered reprovingly at him.

“Witch,” Schwartz corrected a little stiffly, adjusting his glasses. “Not a wizard. That’s a different school of magic entirely.”

“Darius, quit pissing people off for five minutes,” Tallie said, shoving him toward the door. “Don’t mind him, Schwartz. He’s a dickhead, but he doesn’t mean any harm.”

“Actually he somewhat reminds me of my little sister,” Schwartz remarked. He seemed mystified when she devolved into gales of laughter at that. Darius opened and closed his mouth, for once at a loss for words.

“Uh, ‘scuze me,” Ross rumbled. “This was a trap. It won’t be ignored. We shouldn’t hang around.”

“Good call,” Jasmine said firmly. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Are we still going to look for that magic shop?”

“Oh, hell yes we are,” Tallie declared, the mirth fading from her features. “After all the bullshit we’ve put up with, I’m not about to drop this now. C’mon, guys, let’s move out. And starting now, we take no prisoners.”

“When did we take any prisoners before?” Darius asked, scratching his head.

“Actually, it was kind of the other way around,” Rasha said helpfully. “We got taken—”

“Move it!” Tallie barked.

Most of Glass Alley had seemed to have a few disreputable-looking people here and there, or so they’d noticed in passing. To judge by the speed with which Schwartz’s attackers had assembled a mob, there must have been more out of sight, alert for the sounds of trouble or opportunity. What these folk did all day remained an open question, but whatever it was, anyone in the vicinity of the trapped apothecary’s shop had clearly taken the explosion of dust and wind from its front doors as a signal to be somewhere else. The usual loiterers were notably absent from the street outside when the apprentices and Schwartz emerged.

With some notable exceptions.

Two women were standing on the sidewalk immediately outside the shop, one of whom they already knew.

“You broke out?” said Casethin, who had acquired a bottle of whiskey in the time it had taken them to reach, get snared in and break out of the shop. “Oh, crap. That’s not good.”

“You’re goddamn right it’s not,” Tallie growled, glaring at her and cracking her knuckles ostentatiously. “And oh, look! Someone without scary armor and magic tricks who’s been sent to see how that little prank turned out. Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe I feel a violent episode coming on.”

“Whoah, keep it in your pants!” Casethin raised the hand not occupied with her bottle soothingly; she didn’t retreat or seem particularly upset by the threat, however. “Kid, I don’t have any stake in this. You can bust out, stay in jail, take over the Guild or die of the pox for all the difference it makes to me.” She paused to take a long swig before continuing. “That was a sympathetic ‘oh, crap.’ Now you’ve gone an’ flouted Vanda’s authority, and damaged her property. She is gonna be pissed.”

“I’m not at all certain how much I care about that,” Schwartz said loftily, folding his arms. On his shoulder, Meesie imitated the gesture, squeaking in agreement.

Darius cleared his throat. “Um, I think I’ll care about that a little if I have to discuss it with her. Let’s haul ass to someplace else so we don’t have to care about it. I dunno if you guys remember, but that didn’t strike me as a lady we ought to screw around with.”

“Smart boy,” said Casethin.

“Now that’s something I bet you don’t get called often,” Rasha remarked.

“There’s a time and a place, Rash,” Darius retorted.

“It’s Rasha.”

“I know what I said.”

“The Finder’s Fee,” Tallie said shortly, still glaring at Casethin. “Where is it.”

The redhead raised an eyebrow and had another drink. “Really? You’d follow my directions there? Not quick learners, are you?”

“What I’m thinking,” Tallie said, “is that since Ironeye’s apparently already gonna be pissed with us, it won’t make things much worse to haul you there by the scruff of the neck and bounce you off a few walls if it turns out to be the wrong place.”

“Child,” Casethin said condescendingly, “I am a fully trained and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. You kids are already gonna catch a whoopin’ from Style when Vanda finishes complaining to her. Style hates listening to complaints, but Vanda’s not somebody she can just brush off. So guess who that’ll get taken out on? Sure, you can prob’ly kick my ass, some of you look pretty scrappy. I was you, though, I’d be thinking about what happens after that.”

“The Finder’s Fee is reached directly by a side alley which starts just around the curve of the road,” said the other woman suddenly. She was Sifanese by appearance and had traces of that accent, as well as a husky quality to her voice which hinted at an old throat injury. “It is between a red brick structure and an old Army supply depot, currently condemned and barricaded.”

There was a pause while everyone shifted their attention to her, including Casethin, who for some reason looked annoyed.

“And,” Darius prompted, “you are…?”

“Gimmick,” said the Sifanese woman with a faint smile. “Also a member of the Guild. Not a member of Vanda Frost’s little…clique.”

“No, you’re here representing another clique,” Casethin said sourly. “I may just take a vacation. Somethin’ tells me Vanda’s gonna be breaking furniture tonight, what with one thing and another…”

“All right,” Tallie said warily, studying Gimmick as if for the hidden trap in her helpful tip. “Thanks. Would you mind accompanying us there? I’m a little tired of getting lost in this district.”

“Oh, Sparkler will not see you,” Gimmick said languidly. “Rumor, here, has made certain of that.”

“What rumor?” Rasha demanded.

“Yo.” Casethin raised the hand clutching her whiskey.

“In fact,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you will find that any individual or establishment in Glass Alley worth visiting has either been warned about you, or will be by sundown. Ironeye’s displeasure is not worth risking for those who must live and work here.”

“I believe I’m starting to actually hate that woman,” Tallie said, tilting her head back to stare up at the thin sliver of sky visible between the tenements surrounding them.

Casethin snickered. “Yeah, you do that, kid. Best of luck with it.”

“Jasmine, please punch her.”

“I will not,” Jasmine stated, folding her arms. “Don’t go around beating people who annoy you, Tallie. Beat people who threaten you.”

“Yes, yes,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Like a good Eserite. Fine.”

“So…all this was just…wasted?” Schwartz looked like he didn’t know whether to be crushed or furious. Meesie patted his cheek consolingly.

Gimmick coughed discreetly. “Actually…”

“Oh, here it comes,” Casethin groaned, rolling her eyes.

“I do not know what you were seeking in that magic shop,” Gimmick continued, ignoring her. “However, there is another ranking member of the Guild who would like to speak with you.”

“Um,” Schwartz said nervously, “I’m starting to think not getting involved in any more Eserite politics would be best, at least for me…”

“Not just you,” Ross muttered.

“Hang on,” Tallie said, holding up a hand. “Who the hell wants to talk with us?”

“For such a new group of apprentices,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you have generated an inordinate amount of rumor and attention from members with established reputations. Attracting Glory’s notice, being coached by Grip and Silence, interacting with the ever-difficult Keys, and now antagonizing Ironeye. With respect, you are already involved in Eserite politics, in a depth which I very much doubt you comprehend. It would be wise, in your position, to seek out more allies. One is now reaching out to you.”

“Purely out of the goodness of his little heart, I suppose,” Darius sneered.

“Of course not,” Gimmick replied with the barest hint of disdain. “You train with the Bishop’s apprentices, yes? Flora and Fauna? Have you learned anything from them about Sweet’s operational philosophy?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” Rasha piped up. “He was Boss for a while. All about connections, doing favors…”

“Exactly.” She smiled thinly. “You are being offered a favor. You will doubtless be expected to repay it, should you accept. However, it will cost you nothing to listen, and in your position… Perhaps taking on a small debt is the lesser evil, yes?”

They exchanged a round of dubious glances, mostly looking confused and mistrustful. Casethin simply watched them in silence, wearing a sardonic expression and idly swirling her bottle of whiskey.

“So,” Tallie said at last, fixing her gimlet stare back on the redhead, “shall I assume that whatever we decide here will go right back to Ironbitch?”

“Mm hm,” she drawled. “Along with the fact that you called her that.”

“Well, then, gang, I think our course is clear and obvious!” Tallie said brightly, turning to smile broadly at the rest of them. “Let’s go dig ourselves in deeper!”

“I wish you’d found another way to phrase that,” Jasmine muttered.

“Oh, and one more thing!” Tallie said, holding up a finger as if just having remembered something. Abruptly, she whirled and drove a fist into Casethin’s stomach.

The redhead dropped her bottle, folding to the sidewalk with a pained wheeze.

“Tallie!” Jasmine protested.

“Oh, that is gonna bite us on the ass,” Darius muttered, slapping a hand to his face.

“Hey, I’m a thief, not a saint,” Tallie said cheerfully, then turned and bowed to their newest acquaintance, who was watching all this with a nonplussed expression. “Lead on, oh gimmicky one!”

Gimmick was dressed in a nondescript and slightly shabby fashion, doubtless so as to avoid undue attention in Glass Alley. The enchanted carriage to which she escorted them, however, was of a late model and clearly high quality. Parked safely outside the seedy district in a locked and gated lot (to which she had a key), it was a converted delivery truck, the cargo space fitted with benches and the barrier between that and the cab removed.

She drove them to a sufficiently nice neighborhood that it was perhaps just as well she parked the truck discreetly behind the townhouse which was their destination; their clothes would have stood out here, possibly to the point of drawing the constabulary. That would have been true even before they had been knocked to the pavement and trapped in a dusty back room.

Gimmick led them through the townhouse’s back door, and straight through the kitchen onto which this opened. She came to a stop in the finely-appointed hall beyond, the apprentices and Schwartz clustering nervously behind her. Their progress was barred by a stately gentleman with neat gray hair, wearing a Butler’s uniform and a supercilious expression.

“Good afternoon,” he said serenely. “You are, of course, expected. The master will receive you in the drawing room. This way, please.”

Gimmick half-turned to give them an inscrutable look before following him. They trooped obediently after her, Tallie once again taking the lead.

The drawing room into which they were led was a handsome and somewhat rustic space, its wall paneling a dark-stained oak, dominated by a huge fieldstone fireplace with a mounted unicorn’s head above the hearth. A matching armchair, loveseat and sofa of burgundy leather were arranged haphazardly around a low table.

Beside the hearth, in which a low fire smoldered, stood a tall man who was still powerfully built, though he was growing portly with age. His graying hair had begun to recede, and his complexion was ruddy with an apparent combination of windburn and alcohol, to judge by the cocktail glass in his hand. He turned to grin at them, though, and his eyes were as sharp as his shoulders were still broad.

“Well! So these are the little rascals I’ve been hearing so much about. No trouble, I hope, Saduko?”

“I was not able to enter Glass Alley unnoticed, unsurprisingly,” she replied, folding her hands behind her back and lifting her chin. “Rumor followed me almost from the moment I arrived. I kept your name out of it, but it’s not as if she does not know…”

“Ah, well, water under the bridge,” he said lightly, gesticulating with his half-drunk cocktail. “If Frost wants to come down here and smack me around, I suppose that’ll be that. She won’t, though. Did Rumor follow you out?”

“She was occupied regaining her breath,” Gimmick said dryly, “after the young lady, here, punched the wind out of her.”

Their host threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Ah, now that’s music to the old ears! I knew inviting you kids over was the right idea. Had a feeling from the beginning. All right, everybody, don’t be shy! C’mon in, have a seat, make yourselves comfortable!” Grinning, he gestured them toward the sofa and chairs. “Settle yourselves in, and let’s talk about what ol’ Alan Vandro can do for you.”

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9 – 17

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“All right, here we are,” Principia announced upon their arrival at the quiet intersection. “Pair up and move out. You know your routes and your orders; meet back here in thirty.”

“Sarge,” Farah said hesitantly. “Are you…sure about this?”

Prinicipa raised an eyebrow behind her helmet. “Am I sure about going out on patrol? If you don’t feel like it, Szaravid, you’re welcome to tell the captain. No, wait, I just remembered I’m responsible for you dodos. The captain is not to hear of this. Move your butt.”

“I mean, splitting up,” Farah said doggedly. “What with the…you know, situation.”

“We’re in the middle of Tiraas, and the situation is annoying, private, not an immediate threat to life and limb. We’ve lived through those; you should know the difference. Besides which, we are all trained, armed and armored professionals.”

“I just…”

“Avelea, if your patrol partner is not moving by the time I finish this sentence, kick her in the…there we go.”

Ephanie grinned at Principia as she turned to follow Farah down the street. Casey nodded to her and peeled off in the other direction.

“She’s not wrong, you know,” said Merry, setting off after her.

“I know,” Principia replied. “That doesn’t mean we get to just do whatever. Off you go, Lang.”

She waited until both pairs were a few yards distant and moving without glancing back before crossing the intersection and setting off on her own route.

The city was just waking up. Tiraas never truly slept, but its activity went in patterns. The hours before dawn were always the quietest, when the night-dwellers had begun to finish their business and creep home but the more average citizenry were not yet up and about. Now, with the sun just barely peeking over the walls, the streets were lit both by the gray of dawn and the harsher glow of fairy lamps. Activity was present and growing, but still quiet, sporadic, and as often as not carried out by people who seemed half-asleep.

Principia exchanged nods with a few shopkeepers unlocking their doors, as well as some early pedestrians, and granted a few to several who didn’t acknowledge her. That was par for the course in a major city, though she had noted that people in general were more inclined to be friendly toward Legionnaires than other random citizens. It also seemed to mitigate the hostility that some felt toward elves, or at least the expression of it.

“Morning,” she said cheerfully to a pair of men in Imperial Army uniforms coming toward her on the sidewalk.

“Good morning… Sergeant,” one said politely, pausing to glance at her insignia. “What brings you out this early?”

“Same as you, I expect,” she said, coming to a stop, as did they. “First light patrol.”

“Oh?” The older man, with a lieutenant’s bars, glanced around. “Huh.”

“Something wrong?”

“I guess not. Just never seen a Legionnaire patrolling without a partner before.”

“Well, it’s not standard practice, but my squad’s under-staffed at the moment and this is the shift they gave me.” She shrugged. “I just go where I’m kicked, y’know?”

“That I do,” he replied with a nod and a faint smile.

“We should move on, Talour,” said the other soldier gruffly, not looking at Principia. The lieutenant gave him a disparaging look.

“So, what’s his story?” Principia asked easily. “Doesn’t like elves? Not an Avenist?”

“I don’t—” The corporal whipped his head back around to peer more closely at her face, what was visible through her helmet. “Wait, you’re an elf?”

“Yeah, but keep it under your hat,” she said solemnly. “Nobody’s caught on yet. I’m hoping to make captain before they find out.”

Lieutenant Talour grinned outright. “Don’t worry about him, Sergeant. No one in the Army has a problem with Avei, and any who have a problem with elves keep it to themselves. Some of the lads don’t as much care for having other military forces active in the city, is all.”

“Not that spears and shields are any threat to a modern army,” the corporal added with just a hint of sullenness. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Huh,” she mused. “Well, I guess I can see that. The way I always figured it, though, you and I are in different lines of work.”

“Oh?” The corporal frowned.

“Well, if somebody were deranged enough to snatch a purse right in front of me, then sure, I’d deal with that. Ultimately, though, you lads are the ones charged with protecting the city. When the Silver Legions are sent to actually fight something, it’s something exotically evil, usually at the end of a very long trip. Here on the home front, we’re mostly to be seen. A reminder that Avei’s still watching over us all.” She smiled disarmingly. “Scenery, as one of my superiors recently put it.”

“I…suppose that makes sense,” the corporal said. Despite his grudging tone, he relaxed his posture slightly.

“Okay, I have to ask,” said the lieutenant, “and please feel free to tell me off if I’m crossing a line, but… Isn’t that helmet uncomfortable with your ears?”

“You cannot imagine,” she said fervently.

“Oh, I can imagine a lot,” Talour replied with a grin. “I’ve done tours at Fort Vaspian and Tidecall. My feet still aren’t dry. And have you ever tried drow cuisine? Bugs and mushrooms.”

“Yeah? Imagine, then, wearing a codpiece two sizes too small. Twice.”

He gaped at her. The corporal tried to smother a snicker behind his hand.

“They’re sensitive, is what I’m saying,” Principia added, winking.

“I…well. I’m sure I’ll find some use for that information,” he said, blinking.

“Got a use in mind?” Principia grinned. “Don’t start with flowers—give her candy. Chocolate if you can afford it. Elves hardly ever get real sugar at home.”

“We’d best move along,” said the corporal, now grinning openly. “Stay safe, Sergeant.”

“You too, boys,” she said cheerfully, offering a salute and resuming her walk.

They’d barely had time to recede out of earshot (theirs, not hers) when another presence materialized alongside her.

“That was very well handled.”

“Good morning, Gimmick,” Principia said without turning to face her. “How surprising it is to see you first thing on the very day after I last got rid of you.”

“My duties leave me mostly at liberty,” Saduko said pleasantly. “I do so enjoy the city at this hour. It was always my favorite time of day, even at home. I like the grayness of dawn, when there is daylight but before the true glow of the sun appears. The contrast with the city’s artificial lights is interesting.”

“I would never have taken you for a poet. So, what duties are these?”

“Few, specific and rather lenient,” said the thief with a shrug. “At present, I am to befriend Zanzayed the Blue on behalf of my employer. On behalf of Zanzayed I am to solicit your attention—he very much desires to speak with you. It is a veritable chain of secondhand befriendment. Is that a word? Befriendment? It seems as if it should be.”

“I’ve never head it, but Tanglish is forgiving, and evolves fast. I bet if you use it in public a few times it’ll catch on.”

“Splendid. In any case, after you have duly rejected Zanzayed’s vicarious advance of the day, I will once again be twiddling my thumbs, so to speak. Unless there is someone whose favor you would like me to solicit?” She half-turned her face toward Principia as they walked, smiling.

“Everyone I want to talk to, I already can,” Prin replied. “What, exactly, does Zanzayed want with me?”

“I do not know,” Saduko admitted, “and I am not curious. All I am told is that he wishes to speak with you privately. Beyond that, I very much hope to resolve the matter in one way or another before I am forced to become curious. Knowing too much about the affairs of dragons seems unwise, to me.”

“A strange perspective for someone who works for one.”

“I don’t work for him,” Saduko said with a thin smile. “I work for someone who wants me to get on his good side. You are Guild; you appreciate such distinctions.”

“You know, the fact that I’m Guild is at issue, here. The Guild respects the time I spend on duty with the Legion. Both cults do; they do not get into each others’ hair with me as a go-between. You are courting trouble, Gimmick.”

“I am not representing the Guild,” Saduko said mildly, “nor violating its policies. Yes, I have no doubt you have already initiated an investigation into me. Frankly, if the Boss orders me to leave you be, that will be something of a relief. It is an excuse which will satisfy both Zanzayed and my employer, and will spare me having to keep annoying you. A mere half-blood I may be, but where I am from, making a pest of oneself represents a contemptible failure of character.”

At that, Principia finally glanced at her. “Half…what?”

“Half Sifanese.”

“And…? I’m sorry, but I can usually spot a demihuman. I must be losing my touch.”

“Ah, yes,” Saduko said, shaking her head. She smiled as she did so, however. “This is why I enjoy Tiraas; no one can even tell, and if they could, they would not care. No, I am entirely human, but only half Sifanese; my mother hailed from an even farther country, one not thought of kindly in Sifan. Kiyosan is not Tiraas; there is only one breed of human widely represented there, and they can immediately spot one with the wrong kind of blood.”

“I see,” Principia mused. “You’re being remarkably forthright.”

“You will see my reticence if you touch upon a subject I consider private.” Saduko shrugged again. “As I have said, it disagrees with me, being an imposition upon you. I would rather emphasize that I mean neither harm nor trickery.”

“A little selective openness, sure,” Principia nodded. “I know the tactic. What about your real employer, then? Who’s he? Or is that one more sensitive?”

“Alan Vandro,” Saduko said immediately, “also known as Webs. Are you acquainted with him?”

“I’ve heard the name. Both names. He’s got a rep. Isn’t he retired?”

“I believe he tried,” she said with amusement. “A person like that can never truly quit the game, though, any more than you could.”

“And so he sends you to risk your hide meddling with dragons, Avenists, and myself. Must pay well.”

They turned a corner, putting the rising sun to their backs. Saduko was silent for a long moment before speaking.

“He is a purist, dissatisfied with the Guild’s current structure. In Vandro’s opinion, the Guild has become far too centralized, too much of an institution.”

“Sure,” Principia said immediately, nodding. “He’s right about that; ever since Catseye was Boss. I’m not too worried, though; the Guild goes through cycles, same as everything else. I’ve lived to see two previous rises of bureaucracy. The Big Guy always straightens things out.”

“Ah, but ours is a hands-off kind of god,” Saduko replied. “When he wants something cleaned up, it is we who hold the brooms. I think Webs sees that as his duty, this time.”

“And you agree.”

“I was sent by the Guild to infiltrate his operation,” she said frankly. “For my efforts, I got this.” Saduko reached up to unbutton the collar of her shirt and tug it open, lifting her chin to display her throat. At the base of it, a pale of scar tissue line stretched across her windpipe above the collarbone, faded and only slightly ridged. The wound was either very old or had been heavily treated through magic and/or alchemy. “Oh, they paid me well, of course—but you and I both know the value of money.” Face now impassive, she carefully re-buttoned her collar and straightened her shirt. “I used to love to sing. I used to be able to. It is only because Alan Vandro expended his resources without restraint or hesitation that I am now able to speak. He did this even though he should have counted me as his enemy.”

“Man knows how to recruit,” Principia murmured.

“I know his flaws,” Saduko said curtly. “I know when I am being bribed; I am not blind. But this was a bribe I was pleased to accept.”

“Are you pleased to work for him?”

Saduko tilted her head, giving Principia a thoughtful sidelong look. “He is one of those men who has an innately poor opinion of women. You are acquainted with Jeremiah Shook, I understand; Vandro was his first trainer, and from what I have gathered, the source of some of his attitudes.”

“I see,” Principia said flatly.

“They are very different men, however. Whatever Vandro thinks of women, he does not discriminate professionally, nor speak disparagingly to anyone’s face. The man is professional enough to look past his prejudices, far-sighted enough to care generously for those in his employ and willing to extend mercy to fallen foes. A sense of honor covers a multitude of moral failings. I am content in his service, to the point that I care little what he thinks of my sex. Perhaps I would not fare so well as you in Avei’s service.”


“Now I have talked a great deal,” Saduko continued, her tone suddenly light. “What of you? Perhaps you can tell me why Zanzayed the Blue would be interested in you to the extent of—”

Principia dived forward, rolling nimbly into a doorway and bracing herself in a compact crouch behind her shield. Saduko broke off, staring at her in confusion, only moments later looking up to behold an enchanted carriage barreling down the street toward them. It was an expensive Falconer, or had been; a model several years old and with its body replaced by mismatched and clearly shabbier part, but the base enchantments were clearly fully functional. Functional, and performing up to the famous Falconer standards. The thing was moving at a speed that could only conservatively be called “unsafe.”

Saduko glanced back at Principia, then at the carriage, then finally pressed herself against the wall of the storefront as it drew abreast of them. It veered close to the sidewalk in passing, the side door flew open and a figure leaned out, which was the last thing she saw before a tremendous splatter of blue paint few out and over them both, coating Principia’s shield and most of Saduko’s torso.

Prin was rising smoothly to her feet the instant her shield had absorbed the impact. In a single rapid motion, she stepped out to give herself room, drew back her lance and hurled it like a javelin after the fleeing vehicle.

The weapon flew straight and true. As the carriage accelerated away, the lance zipped straight into the spokes of its rear wheel. It immediately slammed against the frame, locking the wheel and sending the carriage skidding to one side. There came a sharp bang and a burst of sparks as the wheel enchantment broke, and the wheel itself came flying off, sending the carriage to the street. Its driver tried to keep it going for a few more seconds, resulting in another shower of sparks as it dragged its rear fender along the pavement, followed by several more bursts of light and a prolonged noise like fireworks signaling a broken axle and subsequent cascade failure of the charms running it.

“And that’s something new to add to my list of shit not to try on an elf,” Principia said with belligerent satisfaction. “You okay?”

“W…why… I…” Saduko blinked and spat out a dribble of blue paint. She had been absolutely soaked; it covered her from chin to knees. Principia had paint on her boots and helmet, including one stray drop on her eyebrow, but most of the wet volley had been absorbed by her shield, where it now completely obscured Avei’s golden eagle.

The driver of the carriage had already hopped down and was skittering off down a side alley. Two more men struggled from within, one staggering as he wrenched himself loose from a strap around the arm which had kept him from falling out while he threw the paint. In moments, both were taking off after the first man.

“Hey,” Principia said more firmly. “Are you injured? Speak to me!”

Saduko twisted her mouth, finding an untouched spot on her sleeve on which to scrub her tongue. “Fleh. Vile.”

“I guess that’ll do. You should probably come back to the barracks with me,” said Prin, gently taking her by the elbow and urging her forward. “Get looked over by a healer and have a dose of potion. Depending on what the paint was made for, and from, it could be toxic. Lucky you didn’t take in much.”

“Does this happen to Legionnaires often?”

“I have to say, this I did not expect,” Principia said mildly. “C’mon, we’re falling behind.”

“Surely you don’t mean to chase them,” Saduko protested. “They have a substantial head start. And I know elves are fast, but you are weighed down by armor…”

“I am trusting my squad to have done their jobs, which will render chasing unnecessary,” Prin said smugly. “I assume it occurred to you that it was odd for Third Legion patrol routes to be posted in the public area of the temple, yes?”

“When would I have seen—”

“Gimmick, I’d love to play this game with you, but I really do not have time right now.”

Saduko paused in wiping paint off her face onto her remaining sleeve to give her to a disgruntled look. “Fine, very well. I presumed it was some manner of trap. Given the Legion’s nature, what we would think of as a noble con, one I could walk into and not trip so long as I did nothing manipulative or hostile. Did you not find me very forthcoming? You mentioned it specifically.”

“Yes, I’ll acknowledge my mistake there: it was you I expected to step into this. I’ll be very interested in learning who those guys are. Anything to add to that?”

Saduko’s expression grew even darker. “Merely that when you do find out, I insist on seeking some recompense for this. I don’t have so many clothes that I can replace whole outfits easily. And if you have never been struck by liquid moving at that speed, it stings.”

“Yes, that would be standard procedure. In here, this is where they went.”

“How could you have arranged a trap?” Saduko demanded, following Principia into the alley. “Surely you haven’t blocked…every…”

Principia drew her sword and the three men skidded to a halt as they tried to exit back the way they had come.

“So,” she said firmly, “that’s assault, and while I don’t exactly know the civil codes pertaining to the use of an enchanted carriage, I bet you just broke a bunch of them. Needless to say, you are under arrest.”

“We don’t answer to dragon-lovers!” one snapped. The voice was clearly female; this was the individual who had been driving the carriage. All three had made some effort at concealing their identities, with heavy coats, caps and scarves. The driver also had a thick pair of goggles over her eyes.

“Is that what this is about? Just who are you people? Don’t.” Principia’s calm tone suddenly turned hard as the three tensed together. “There’s something you don’t know. Y’see this young woman behind me, who took the brunt of your attack? She is a member of the Thieves’ Guild. You’ve assaulted members of two major cults. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You can either submit to arrest and be taken back to the Temple of Avei to face justice, or you can try to run, and the Guild will take this up with you in its own time.”

They hesitated, huddling closer together and exchanging a round of glances.

Behind them came the tromp of boots. Saduko leaned around Principia to look past the attackers, discovering two Silver Legionnaires advancing up the alley in shield wall formation. Only two were enough to block the narrow space; in those confines, their braced shields with lances protruding made a very menacing spectacle indeed.

“Avelea, Szaravid,” Principia said, nodding to them. “Good timing.”

“Only kind we have, Sarge.”

“Now, you’re thinking you are anonymous,” Principia went on, returning her gaze to the vandals. “In the first place, that carriage of yours had a deliberately rebuilt frame over solid core enchantments—if the person who did that for you isn’t actually a member of the Guild, he or she works with them on a daily basis. It’s a finite roster of enchanters who do that kind of work. Besides, this end of the alley may look less stabby than the other end, but all I have to do is take down one of you. I guarantee that one will tell the Sisterhood anything they choose to ask. Someone will find you if you run, and you had better pray to Avei it’s her people. So what’s it gonna be?”

The tallest figure immediately raised his hands in the air.

“Jethro!” protested the third, who by voice was also a woman.

“I said this whole thing was dumb!” he exclaimed. “I said it! I’m not getting in any worse with the Legions, Talia, and I’m sure as hell not setting the Guild after me! Omnu’s balls, you and your damn schemes…”

“Wise man,” Principia said approvingly. “Whoop, it appears to be academic now, anyway.” Behind her, with another clatter of heavy boots on pavement, Casey and Merry had appeared in the alley’s mouth. In the near distance a bell was ringing, the kind used by the military police to summon aid to a crisis. “You had your window to run if you were going to try it. Does anybody feel like getting themselves in any more trouble?”

Moments later, all three were on their knees on the alley floor, hands on their heads, stripped of hats and scarves and being efficiently searched by Ephanie.

“How did you do this?” Saduko asked quietly. “I watched your squad split off. They were going in completely separate directions. And there is no way you could have predicted which alley they would run down!”

“I sure as hell didn’t predict the carriage,” Principia muttered. “Getting sloppy, making assumptions… Maybe I’m just too old to adapt fast enough to new enchantments. No, Saduko, it sounds like you didn’t do your homework, either. You saw the same things these turkeys did, and concluded exactly what you were meant to. Them, I understand; you should raise your game a bit. Tell you what, if you’ve figured it out by the time we get back to the temple I’ll buy you dinner. Oh, hey there, lads!”

She moved toward the mouth of the alley, where the two Imperial soldiers from before had arrived, staves in hand, studying the scene carefully.

“Sergeant,” said Lieutenant Talour. “Looks like you did manage to find something more than scenery.”

“It found me,” she protested innocently.

“I assume this has something to do with the wrecked carriage now blocking the street?”

“Bet your bars it did.” She half-turned to point with her sword at the three captives, now being helped to their feet with their hands bound behind their backs. “I’d appreciate an Army escort back to the temple to observe proceedings—it’ll cut down on the number of reports and interviews to be done later.”

“But?” Talour drawled.

“Yeah, as the target of an obviously premeditated assault, I’m claiming Legion privilege on this one.”

He sighed heavily, looked carefully at Saduko, at the three attackers, at Principia and finally at the remaining Legionnaires.

“All right,” he said finally. “But after this, I’m gonna ask you to stay safe again, and this time, put some effort into it, yeah?”

“I will do my very best,” Principia said sweetly.

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9 – 10

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“Well, at least we didn’t have to have coffee,” Merry said.

“Are you still going on about this?” Ephanie exclaimed. “You lost a few hours of sleep. By tomorrow, it will be like it never happened.”

“Now, Avelea, keep in mind your squadron duties,” Principia said solemnly. “Lang is the designated complainer. She can’t do her job if you’re going to be all reasonable about stuff.”

Merry rolled her eyes. “I can do my job just fine, unless you take a vow of silence, Sarge.”

“Indoor voice, Lang,” Principia replied calmly. “You know I like to keep things casual, but you can’t be flouting the chain of command in public.”

Merry hesitated at that, glancing back at the parade ground from which they had just retreated. Most of the other squads were also trickling back to their cabins, though Squad Three were on cleanup duty. None appeared to be in earshot. Not human earshot, anyway.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Merry said anyway. She didn’t quite manage a tone of authentic contrition, but also didn’t sound sarcastic or bitter, for once. Principia gave her a sly half-smile which brought a scowl in return. A silent scowl.

“Goddess bless LQ,” Farah groaned, setting her helmet down on the bench set up outside their cabin and pouring herself a glass from the pitcher of water laid out waiting for them. Beads of condensation wreathed it, testifying to its temperature. Though the weather wasn’t hot by any means, chilled water was a treasured luxury after their drill, and until the recent shakeup in the cohort’s leadership, would have been an undreamed one.

Their new quartermaster, one of the lieutenants Dijanerad had brought in, was indeed a gift from the goddess, or so the soldiers saw her. She was clever enough to obtain things like ice that would normally not be part of their budget, thoughtful enough to do so and efficient enough to have things like this ready and waiting, leaving no other sign of her passing. The Ninth Cohort, being city-stationed and still somewhat under strength, was far from the best-equipped in the Legion, but they got remarkable mileage from what they did have.

“Mm hm,” Principia agreed, standing to one side and studying the corner of their cabin in silence. Casey gave her an odd look in passing, before joining the others around the bench. In addition to chilled water, there were towels—slightly threadbare, which probably explained how LQ had obtained them—a welcome touch as they wouldn’t have time to bathe properly before mess. “Can I help you with something?”

The others paused, looking up at her uncertainly; she was still watching the edge of the building, rather than them.

Then someone stepped around the corner and bowed.

“Forgive me,” she said smoothly. It was a very distinctive voice, cultured, accented and slightly raspy. “I of course did not wish to disrupt your practice. Though I am no judge, it is very impressive to see you at work. Your unit is like a finely-tuned machine.”

“Are you lost?” Principia asked mildly. “The temple complex, where you’ll find the priestesses, is immediately reached from Imperial Square. That’s also where you’d go first to enlist. Sorry, I’m at a loss what else a person might want in the Legion’s grounds.”

“Actually, my business is personal,” the young woman said with a calm smile. She kept her hands folded demurely in front of her, a picture of nonthreatening goodwill, but the rest of Squad One slowly straightened up nonetheless, putting down towels and cups. Each still had a lance in hand, due to the lack of a place to set them and the presence on the grounds of Captain Dijanerad, who had vivid opinions on the subject of weapons casually lying around like toys. “Lord Zanzayed is most eager to speak further with you, Ms. Locke.”

“Not to quibble,” Principia said, “but under the circumstances it would customarily be Sergeant Locke.”

“Of course, of course, forgive me,” the woman replied smoothly. “It is difficult to know, in an unfamiliar situation, which of a person’s aliases they wish to use, is it not? I thought perhaps I would gain Keys’s attention faster than the Sergeant’s, but decided upon a middle ground.”

“And…you are?” Principia asked, staring her down.

She bowed again. “My name is Saduko. I am both pleased and honored to make your acquaintance.”

“Yes, sure,” Principia said, raising an eyebrow. “But who are you?”

The young Sifanese woman smiled, and this time there was something subtly gleeful in the expression beneath the courtesy. “Well. The word translates poorly, but on this continent, they call me Gimmick.”

“And now you’re carrying messages for the dragons,” Principia mused.

“For one dragon,” Saduko said modestly. “I do not presume to reach above my station.”

“You work fast,” Principia noted. “This is quite a promotion from serving canapes.”

“Ah, so you did notice me,” she replied demurely. “How very flattering. I am merely a humble messenger, however. It is Lord Zanzayed who craves the honor of your company.”

“Lord Zanzayed knows how to reach Bishop Shahai, I’m sure. In fact, there are numerous official channels to her. That would be a great deal easier than getting someone in here to talk to me.”

“It is not for me to ponder the motives or desires of my employers,” Saduko said with a self-effacing smile. “But perhaps his lordship has not sought out the Bishop because he wishes, specifically, to speak with you. I understand why, if I may say so. You have…quite the reputation, in various quarters.”

“Form and stand!” Principia barked. Immediately, her squad made a line extending from her left, standing at attention, lances in hand and planted on the ground. Saduko reflexively stepped back from them, only the faintest flicker of uncertainty passing across her expression, quickly mastered.

“Who let you in here?” Principia asked quietly.

“I’m not sure I understand…Sergeant,” Saduko replied, her calm smile returning. “The gates are not closed.”

“The gates are attended, and the guards do not admit just anyone to a military facility. They would definitely not have sent you here to give a personal message to a non-commissioned officer who is on duty. So, Gimmick, did you gain entry to these grounds on false pretenses, or did you just sneak in?”

“That, with all respect, is poor form, Keys,” Saduko replied. Her polite smile was still in place, but her tone had become noticeably cooler. In fact, it seemed to worsen the slight rasp in her voice. “One does not interrogate a fellow professional as to her methods. You have surely lived long enough by the Big Guy’s example to know better.”

“You are, depending on what you think is going on here, either failing to respect my cover or maliciously interfering with my personal life,” Principia barked. “You see these armed, unamused-looking women? They are shortly going to expel you from the grounds, and let me assure you, Saduko, this is the kinder approach from where I’m standing. I can believe Zanzayed might have told you to do this, in which case someone is going to correct his manners in due time, but I know damn well the Guild didn’t send you. In fact, considering their arrangements with the Sisterhood concerning individuals involved in both cults, I also know they aren’t aware you are doing this, and if I really wanted to harm you, I would tell them. I don’t, so I won’t. At this time.”

“I see.” Saduko’s smile had faded, though her expression was still calm. “I apologize, Sergeant, for my misstep; I had honestly hoped we would get along better. There is no need for weapons; I can find my own way out.”

“You can find it faster with help,” Prin said flatly. “Squad, escort this young lady—politely—to the exterior gate.”

All four saluted crisply and moved forward, forming a four-point formation around Saduko. They stood a touch too close to be mistaken for an honor guard.

“This way, if you please,” Ephanie said firmly to their uninvited guest.

Saduko paused to bow deeply to Principia. “I look forward to seeing you again, Sergeant, under more congenial circumstances. Is there a message I may carry back to Lord Zanzayed?”

“If his mother didn’t teach him manners, it’s certainly not your job or mine,” Principia said dryly. “Forward march.”

Saduko didn’t force Squad One to subject her to the indignity of a manhandling; she began moving when they did, though the first few steps were backward as she kept an appraising stare on Principia. She turned, though, and strode calmly along with her head high. By her manner, one might have thought the four soldiers were an honor guard.

Principia let out a sigh as they retreated toward the gate, finally turning around and saluting Captain Dijanerad, who stood a few yards distant.

“Why,” the Captain asked, “Locke, is it always you?”

“I am a very interesting person, Captain,” Prin replied. “If you’ll forgive my absence from the mess, I think I had better go report this posthaste.”

“Bishop Shahai is dining with the High Commander, as it happens,” said Dijanerad. “Do you think this is important enough to interrupt their lunch?”

“I’ve got a dragon apparently interested in me, ma’am,” Principia replied. “It’s at least important enough to go stand outside until they’re done.”

“I can’t really argue with that,” the Captain said with a faint smile. “Your squad knows how to attend their duties in your absence?”

“That hurts, Captain,” Prin said reproachfully. “Really. I thought we were friends.”

Dijanerad’s lips twitched in poorly suppressed amusement. “Dismissed, Locke. And don’t joke with the High Commander. I believe you know her opinion of your sense of humor.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said solemnly, saluting again and turning to stride off toward the temple. She waited until she was well out of earshot of the parade grounds to indulge in a scowl and mutter to herself. “Got me barking orders and having Eserites thrown out… Omnu’s breath, these bloody women are turning me into one of ’em.”


It wasn’t a large square, nor was it in a central location, being skewed far toward the northwest wall of the city, but this was by far the most crowded and lively place they had yet seen in Veilgrad. Much of that, of course, was due to the thriving market taking place here. Stalls ringed the buildings facing the square itself, wooden affairs sheltered only by canvas awnings, but despite their lack of walls none of them appeared to be temporary structures. Their posts and boards are as sturdy as anything else in town, and many were as carefully polished and carved. Several had stovepipes running from cast iron stoves which, though not now lit, would become very important when winter rolled down from the Stalrange.

Aside from the economic value of Stosshlein Square, the place clearly had cultural value. The buildings framing it were tall stone structures ringed by battlements, one of which was topped with floors in a more decorative style—like the central keep in which Grusser lived, it resembled a sprawling cottage planted atop a fortress. The other two were just fortresses. They were actually guild halls now, each hosting several craft and trading houses, but had originally been made for war. From the very center of the square rose a tall column atop which sat a statue of a man in armor astride a rearing horse. To judge by the style of his armor, this commemorated a Tiraan warrior, though they had seen other memorials to Stalweiss heroes as they passed through the city. Veilgrad clearly honored every part of its complex history.

It was easy to appreciate Stosshlein Square from their current vantage; not only did they have a fantastic view, but they were distanced from the press of people going about their daily business. The larger, more complex of the structures bordering the square had a pub on its upper floor which had a wide terrace looming over the square itself. It was a lovely day to sit outdoors and enjoy a cup of tea, sunny and with a slight wind.

“Trissiny, I have a question and I’m concerned it’ll make me sound conceited,” Fross confessed in a low tone, hovering close to Trissiny’s ear. At some point she had finally learned to control her volume.

“Well, go ahead and ask,” the paladin said with a smile. “I know you well enough to know you aren’t actually conceited.”

“Thanks! Well, it’s… I mean, everywhere we go, people kinda make a big deal of us, don’t they?”

Trissiny nodded, keeping her gaze on the view over the battlements and the square below. “Yes, I’ve noticed. I think I see where this is going.”

“It’s just that…we’re a paladin and a pixie. I mean, those are both unusual sights, right? And it’s pretty crowded around here. Does it seem weird to you that no one’s come over to talk to us?”

Deliberately, but unhurriedly, Trissiny turned slightly in her chair, glancing back at the pub. Its front wall was an ingenious structure of wooden panels on hinges attached to tracks in the floor and ceiling; it could be folded back entirely to made a single open space leading from within to the balcony. Now, at her gaze, over a dozen people abruptly turned away, devoting themselves intently to their own drinks and conversations. None of the tables immediately adjacent to the one they’d chosen were occupied.

“I think,” Trissiny said softly, “it’s common knowledge where we are staying.”

“Yeah…I had a feeling that might be it,” Fross said. “Well…shoot. I hope this isn’t going to cause us trouble later.”

“Me, too.”

The pixie swooped over the table once, seemingly just for something to do, before coming back to hover near Trissiny again. “Well, anyway, do you think it’s good or bad that we’re the first ones back?”

“I think we’ll really only be able to tell in comparison,” Trissiny said, idly turning her teacup in a circle on the table. “Objectively our meeting went pretty well. I’m not sure what to make of everything the Colonel said, but at least we have tacit permission to proceed.”

“Yeah, this would be pretty difficult if the Empire told us not to. Oh! Hey!”

She shot upward and then darted out into the pub, buzzing around Toby and Juniper, who had just emerged from the stairwell. Both smiled as they greeted Fross, the dryad waving at Trissiny. She was wearing the enchanted ring Tellwyrn had given her last winter, altering her coloration to a Tiraan standard, though this time she was also in one of her customary sundresses and with bare feet. Juniper wasn’t exactly a secret, but everyone (including the dryad herself) agreed that it was probably wisest not to flaunt her presence in the city.

“Wow, I’m a little surprised,” Toby said lightly, coming over and pulling out a chair. “I was actually expecting we’d be the first ones back. Good news or bad?”

“Good…ish. Neutral news,” Trissiny replied with a smile. “Basically, Imperial Intelligence was already aware of us and doesn’t mind us working.”

“I had the impression they were glad to see us!” Fross reported. “Well, some of them, anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s the other bit,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “There was a bit of a difference of opinion… Well. How about we wait for the others before making a full report?”

“Sure, makes sense,” Toby said agreeably, reaching for the teapot. “Probably best to go over things when all eight—uh, nine—I mean, ten, of us are here. Mind if I…?”

“Oh, sure, help yourself! I got a pot for everybody, but we can get more if it runs low. And…ten?”

Juniper rolled her eyes. “He means Ariel.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, grimacing. Juniper laughed.

“Ariel is very smart!” Fross chimed.

“I think she is, yes,” Toby said solemnly, pouring himself a cup of tea.

“She’s also a jerk, though. In the long run, it all balances out.”

Juniper began laughing outright; both paladins had to grin.

“Yes, I tend to agree,” Toby said. “Well, anyway. I don’t mind telling you how our visit went. I can repeat the whole report when the others are back, because it’s quite simple: we got nothing.”

“We made some friends,” Juniper said, shrugging. “That’s not quite nothing. I thought they were very nice.”

“Yes, they were,” Toby agreed. “Omnists in general are inclined to be friendly and kind to guests. Also, you’re basically a fertility idol to them. Juniper was a celebrity,” he added to the others, winking.

“Eventually,” the dryad said, reaching for a teacup. “Once everyone was confident I wasn’t going to… Um, hurt anybody.” She fell quiet, eyes on her cup as she poured, expression carefully neutral.

“Point being,” Toby continued, “they just aren’t involved in anything. They certainly aren’t going to impede us—I was never worried about that, anyway—but they also don’t know anything useful. The friar who greeted us didn’t even seem to know that Veilgrad was having problems. They weren’t all that oblivious, just not…”

“Not tactically helpful?” Trissiny prompted.

“Yeah, that sums it up.” He nodded. “I have to admit it’s a running weakness of Omnists. Being a monastic order, and being positioned so that people who need our services come to us, rather than vice versa… Well, there’s a kind of perpetual lack of involvement in the world.”

“But you study martial arts!” Fross protested. “I mean, famously! The Sun Style is serious business!”

“As an exercise form,” Toby said, “and in extreme situations, for self-defense. This is why Omnu has a history of calling Hands, I think. Not just to keep himself active in the world, but to keep the whole faith active. We have a tendency to retreat behind our walls and just tend our gardens if nobody shakes us up from time to time.”

“There are worse ways to live,” Trissiny mused, gazing out over the square. Toby blinked, looking over at her in surprise.

“I know we’re waiting for the others, but could we get some food?” Juniper asked. “I have a little money…”

“My treat,” Trissiny said with a smile. “I opened up a tab. It seems likely we’ll be coming back here, and… Okay, I’ll say it. The less we stay in that manor, the better.”

“It’ll be important to stay in circulation!” Fross agreed.

“Exactly,” Trissiny said, nodding.

“And also, you don’t like Malivette.”

“Exactly,” Trissiny repeated in a grimmer tone.

“Is there a waiter?” Juniper asked, peering around. “Or do we go to the bar?”

“There are waitresses, but I have a feeling we’re going to have a hard time getting their attention,” Trissiny said dryly. “At least, we have so far. I had to chase one down to get a pot of tea.”

“Oh. Uh, Toby, would you mind?” Juniper asked. “I hate to impose, but… I mean, all these people, it’s a little…”

“Say no more,” he replied with a smile, setting down his teacup and standing up. “What would you like?”

“Oh, whatever’s handy! Nothing too heavy, though, I think we should be polite and wait for the others before having an actual meal. Just something to snack on.”

“I’ll go see what they’ve got warmed up and ready,” he said, smiling. “Back in two shakes.”

“Trissiny,” Juniper asked thoughtfully as Toby retreated into the noisy pub, “how much do you know about Omnism?”

“The basics. My education covered that much of all the Pantheon cults. I don’t have any real spiritual insight into their practices or dogma, or anything.” She tilted her head curiously. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that…well, at the temple, with all the monks and…um, monkesses?”

“Nuns, technically,” said Fross, “though in that cult they’re also called monks.”

“Oh. Right, well… I mean, before today I’d been thinking it was just Toby, but I have never been around a bunch of people so sexually repressed. It was almost painful. Is…is there a reason they’re like that?”

Trissiny coughed, her cheeks coloring. “I, uh… I really don’t… If you’re that curious, June, you’d probably be better off asking an Izarite.”

“I guess,” Juniper said, settling backward in her chair and frowning. The chair, which was a sturdy wooden affair that looked like it could be used as a battering ram, creaked slightly with the motion. Juniper sometimes forgot to moderate her weight when she was distracted.

“So, uh…” Fross did a slow figure eight above the teapot. “Should we be…worried? About the others? I mean… I don’t know how long these things should take.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Trissiny said quickly. “Huntsmen aren’t animals, despite what they seem to think. Gabriel and Ruda are both important enough people to be greeted at the lodge with all courtesy, no matter how awkward or rude they are.”

“Ruda isn’t generally rude to important people,” Juniper said, “and I kinda don’t think they’re the ones we should be worried about.”

“I know,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “But honestly… I wouldn’t have agreed on Teal and Shaeine taking that task if I thought they wouldn’t be fine. The worst case scenario is basically Vadrieny having to introduce herself. Reclusive warlock or no, this Lord Leduc can’t possibly be crazy enough to start trouble up with her. I doubt he’d try to hex two visitors, anyway; he’s apparently the one member of his family who had enough restraint to survive their…hobbies.”

“That is good reasoning and you’re probably correct,” Fross chimed, bobbing in the air above her head. “But, y’know, that’s reasoning. On a strictly emotional level… I’m a little worried.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, staring out over the square. “Yeah. I know.”


Yornhaldt retained the presence of mind not to whistle—it was a library, after all, but he couldn’t fully restrain the spring in his step as he made his way through the halls back toward the exit. It was one of the more remote repositories of knowledge in Svenheim, and he had been in one of its most distant wings; he had a good long hike to get back to, well, anywhere.

Not that he minded. His brain was seething with possibilities, implications, and more than a fair share of jubilation at the puzzle he had cracked. Now, the foremost question was whether he should extend his stay in Svenheim or head back to Last Rock and share his finding with Arachne. In truth, this was an excellent stopping point. The lore he had dug up and connected presented a puzzle with no immediate solution, one which required thought and planning before a solution could be approached. It was a good opportunity to add her insight to the mix. Well, anyone’s insight, really, but Arachne was the only one he trusted to help him with this particular puzzle. But research was calling to him. There was more knowledge out there, just begging to be uncovered… What to do?

Anyhow, that could be decided that evening, over a celebratory scotch in his suite. For now, he had his thoughts and the walk to occupy him. Long as it was, the journey was hardly onerous. Others were about, and the halls of the Drassynvardt Archive were pleasingly quiet and orderly. Just the thing after his months of research. Well, part of the thing; he was also looking forward to that scotch.

Yornhaldt’s tenure as an adventurer had been brief. Just a couple of years, really, accompanying Arachne to the locations of several treasure troves she knew. The wealth buried in old dungeons and the hidden places of the world was staggering, and she was aware of an awful lot of it, having left most where it was because, as she put it, “what the hell would I buy?” It had taken them a few years to round up enough capital to found the University, and she had insisted the whole time that it wasn’t proper adventuring, lacking mystery. Still, it had been an adventuring career, and he hadn’t come through it without developing a few instincts.

They not only gave him warning but gave him a rudimentary plan of action. Finally noticing the unpleasant prickling on the back of his neck, Yornhaldt brought his focus back to the present and mentally reviewed the last few minutes, which he had been too distracted by his own thoughts to fully experience as he was going through them. He was walking through a long hall, illuminated by slightly flickering electric lamps, the Drassynvardt curators disdaining Tiraan enchantments on a point of principle. Only the tunnels were carved out of the rock, the actual library chambers being situated in natural caves, which resulted in a very sprawling floor plan with long hikes like this one between areas. Someone was following him—a dwarf, male, neatly groomed and avuncular, just the sort of academic who was a perfect fit for the environment. What was tweaking Yornhaldt’s instincts, then?

It was, he realized, the man’s behavior. He walked in silence, and hadn’t been behind Yornhaldt the whole way. The man had been there while he had navigated his way down the iron stairs and balconies ringing the library chamber in which he’d been studying, and had been watching Yornhaldt specifically and unflinchingly. Just staring, his focus on the dwarf, not the books.

He was being stalked.

Up ahead loomed a side passage; Yornhaldt altered his course, going left rather than straight on back to the central archive and its path to the city.

The footsteps behind him continued, taking the same turn.

Well, he’d been certain enough the man was following him—now, at least, he was less likely to be heading into an ambush. What the blazes did the fellow want? Someone who’d been watching him closely might have an inkling what he was researching, but who would even do that?

The parties that might bother to watch him and might object to the nature of his studies made a short, disturbing list.

Yornhaldt stepped to his right as he emerged into another small cavern filled with shelves of books, lit by a single flickering chandelier hanging from above. Really, this was no larger than his classroom back at Last Rock. That could be good, or bad.

He planted himself a few feet from the door to the right, just out of easy reach, facing it. Sure enough, in seconds his pursuer appeared, clearly having picked up his pace to keep Yornhaldt in view. Finding his quarry clearly waiting, he slammed to a halt, rearing back in obvious surprise.

“Pardon me, friend,” Yornhaldt said politely, “I seem to have turned myself around somehow. Do you know the way back to the main archive?”

For a moment, they simply stared at each other in silence.

Then suddenly the other dwarf burst alight. Golden radiance flared out from him, solidifying in the next moment into a divine shield.

A similar sphere formed around Yornhaldt, in arcane blue.

“Something the matter?” he asked pleasantly. “Are we in danger?”

The man simply glared at him, not deigning to answer. He held out his hand to one side, pointing at the ground; a golden circle formed, and Yornhaldt sensed a rush of infernal energies as a dimensional barrier was perforated.

A holy summoner. Well, that told him nothing; in human lands, there were only a few cults (and more recently, the Universal Church) which did that, but they had first learned the art from the dwarves. Being able to access divine magic without the need of a god’s blessing, their race had found that if demons were needed, it was best to call upon them using divine means. It was a roundabout method which lacked both the power and the fine control attained by true warlocks, but one greatly reduced one’s chances of spontaneously combusting or contracting terrible degenerative diseases.

Yornhaldt kept one eye on the summoning circle, most of his attention on his opponent. This close, he could feel the relative strengths of their shields. The arcane neutralized the divine, in theory, though it was the weakest interaction on the Circle, and he could tell this chap was powerful enough that simply overwhelming him would be time-consuming and difficult. The addition of a demon leveled the field considerably. Light above, if he was calling up something sentient, Yornhaldt could be in real trouble. Spellcasting demons could wrench arcane energies away and channel them into their own infernal spells.

He formed an exploratory burst of raw arcane power, refined enough to be controlled rather than just flung, poured it into his shield and then mentally directed it to be extruded from the outside. His opponent glanced over at his ongoing summons, doubtless expecting Yornhaldt to try to disrupt that—a logical move, and thus one for which the summoner would have countermeasures prepared. Instead, Yornhaldt was playing a hunch.

The amorphous flow of magic came free of the shield and he dropped it to the ground, then forward at the man’s feet, where he deliberately destabilized it, causing an explosion.

The summoner cried out in surprise and pain as he was flung off his feet and sent careening against the shelves, shoes smoking. Yornhaldt permitted himself a satisfied smile.

Those spherical shields had that weakness: what did you do where your sphere intersected the ground beneath you? Paladins and such were drawing power directly from a god, who handled such details; Yornhaldt took advantage of the nature of the arcane to phase it slightly so that it continued under the ground without disrupting that. A fellow mage could seize upon that phasing and use it to penetrate the bubble (he had countermeasures ready for that, of course), but it was sturdy enough against the other schools of magic. You couldn’t do that with a divine shield, though; the divine light, once made solid, was unyielding. This fellow had left himself the tiniest gap to stand on. A tiny gap had been all Yornhaldt had needed.

Unfortunately, he was a hair too slow, and the thing being summoned burst forth, shooting upward and spiraling around the ceiling.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. Just a katzil demon, very like an enormous snake that flew and could spit fire. A problem to deal with, but not something that could counteract his defenses.

Yornhaldt threw a cage of arcane currents around the creature, designed to impede its movement without forming solid barriers. Making hard objects used a lot of power, but these free-floating spells where more efficient; it would hurt and interfere with the demon proactively, and also react to contain any fire it tried to exhale.

His enemy, meanwhile, had rolled back to his feet, apparently not minding his scorched and still steaming shoes, snarling now at Yornhaldt. He flung out a hand and Yornhaldt felt disruption ripple through the energies around him. A simple banishment? Please. A moment’s concentration, and the divine spell was neutralized and absorbed, its energy boosting his own shield. Clearly this fellow had expected to take him by surprise. He wasn’t prepared for a real fight.

He revised his opinion a moment later when the spell cage he’d put over the katzil collapsed, destroyed by a second divine banishment while he’d focused on the first. Those simple disruptive charms were a cleric’s main counter to a mage; not surprising the summoner would make use of them. More to the point, he had cast two simultaneously, and with the presence of mind to make a dramatic gesture calling attention to one while sneaking in the second.

It occurred to Yornhaldt that he might be in real danger here.

The katzil dived at him, hissing in fury—it had not liked that cage. Greenish flames splashed harmlessly against his shield, and Yornhald directed a wall of pure force at it, knocking the demon off balance and sending it reeling away, then projected another at the summoner. He staggered backward, his divine shield protecting him from the worst of it, and Yornhaldt followed that up with a simple arcane bolt. The shield held against that, too, but flickered, and he called up another one.

This time, the katzil attacked his shield bodily, fangs scraping across its surface and its coils striking the sphere hard enough to imperil Yornhaldt’s balance. He released the spell rather than risking it flying off in a random direction, painfully aware they were having this confrontation surrounded by precious books.

Another attempted banishment rippled through his shields; he gathered it up into another arcane bolt, chiding himself for having nothing to use here but exchanges of brute force. He was sadly out of practice at this. Teleporting away was an option, of course, but he held that in reserve in case this went badly. Far better to neutralize his enemy and find out who was after him, and why.

The bolt smashed the divine shield, and the katzil dived at him again, this time spraying flames in a wide arc over him.

“Not the books!” Yornhaldt bellowed, desperately throwing up a wall of solid light between the gout of fire and the shelves. “Damn your eyes, control that beast!”

Suddenly his shield flickered; in that moment when he was distracted forming the wall, something had seized onto his aura. Reaching out with his mind, Yornhaldt belatedly realized he was standing in a summoning circle, stealthily placed around his feet while he had been busy with the fight. It wasn’t calling anything up, per se, but forming a channel of infernal energy, which was disrupting his workings.

Ingenious, really. He had to admire the technique, and the strategy.

Unfortunately, it meant the next banishment caused his shield to collapse.

His retaliatory bolt was far more powerful, collecting a great deal of loose energy as it went, and upon its impact his rival’s shield also imploded and the caster was sent hurtling backward to slam against the bookshelves. He slumped to the ground, stunned.

And then the katzil sank its fangs into Yornhaldt’s shoulder.

It had only a split second to worry at him like a hound before he nailed it point-blank with another arcane bolt; the unfortunate demon perished, fragments of flesh turning to dust and charcoal before they’d been flung far enough to hit anything.

Yornhaldt staggered, clutching his wounded arm and taking stock. Demon destroyed, summoner temporarily down. He’d better deal with the man more permanently…somehow… That bite was really throbbing. Also burning. His sleeve was rapidly becoming soaked through with blood.

It occurred to him belatedly that katzils were venomous. Not one of the worst poisons out there, but any venom of infernal origin was going to be very bad.

It was bad enough he almost didn’t notice the prick in his other shoulder. In fact, he became really aware of it a second or two after it had occurred, and looked over to find a small brass-bound hypodermic syringe stuck into his arm, plunger fully depressed. Blinking his eyes against suddenly blurry vision, Yornhaldt lifted his gaze to behold a figure—tall, human, and swathed in an ash-gray robe.

“Oh, drat,” he mumbled.

“I believe that’s enough exertion, old fellow,” the man said, amusement in his voice. “You just relax, now.”

Yornhaldt was only dimly aware that he was falling, aware that his senses were diminishing into unconsciousness. This was a disaster. He had to get back to Arachne with what he’d learned.

Had to…

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Several hours later, a confused and increasingly frustrated Squad One found themselves at Bishop Shahai’s modest apartment not far from Imperial Square, laden down with bags and packages. It was actually quite the achievement to have found a modest apartment this close to the seat of Imperial power, as the real estate here was some of the most expensive in the world. Most people who had the need or desire to be that close to the Palace (or the Grand Cathedral, or the central Omnist or Avenist temples) and the money to move in wanted something larger and more luxurious anyway. There were a number of clerics who preferred proximity to their temples, however, and as such there were buildings owned by the Church and several of the major cults, divided into humble dwellings that suited the desires of their occupants.

Hers was a simple one-story affair that couldn’t have been more than a handful of rooms, to judge by the fact that its kitchen and main living area were all one open space. A space which was cozy verging on cramped with all six of them present; they were packed in close enough to be reminded how much bulk armor added to a person.

“Just put those down wherever it’s least inconvenient, please,” the Bishop directed them. “Then have a seat. I don’t entertain much; I apologize for the lack of comfortable chairs. Feel free to pull one over from the table if you need. I’m going to make us some tea.”

They obeyed slowly, setting down bags and paper-wrapped packages as neatly as possible against the walls, out of the way of the furniture, looking warily around all the while. The furniture was bland and could have come with the place, though personal touches had been added. Soft elven blankets woven of geometric patterns had been draped over the small sofa and single armchair, and on the mantle stood a golden eagle idol—stone, not gold, of course—with several strings of carved beads draped around its heavy base and hanging over the lip of the mantlepiece itself. The only article of really unique furniture was a display case containing a peculiar variety of things behind glass: a broken Avenic short sword, two ornately carved tomahawks, a battered shield bearing the golden eagle, several small leather pouches, and four glittering unicorn horns.

Bishop Shahai moved efficiently about the stove, preparing a pot to heat and setting up a tray with cups, sugar, and other paraphernalia, her back to them. Straightening up from setting down a folded package of expensive silk cloth, Merry scowled at Principia, leaned closer and opened her mouth to whisper.

Prin thrust a finger into her face, glaring, and pointedly tugged at her ear. Merry snapped her mouth shut and contented herself with looking disgruntled.

“Private Elwick, you’re closest,” Shahai said over the soft clink of crockery. “There’s a plate of sandwiches in the cold box, top shelf. Would you kindly set them on the table? And the rest of you, dig in. Tea will be ready in a few moments, I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“Do you…commonly have plates of sandwiches ready for guests, your Grace?” Ephanie asked in a carefully demure tone.

“No,” Shahai replied with an amused little smile, finally turning back to face them. Casey passed between her and the group, obediently carrying a platter stacked with ham sandwiches to the table. “I specifically have one ready. At this point in the evening I expect you all to be rather tired, and increasingly fed up with me. Food and strong tea make a good pick-me-up; we’ll need this little respite before finishing our tasks for the evening.”

“You planned this?” Farah inquired.

“I plan ahead as much as possible, in as much detail as possible, for all situations,” the Bishop said serenely, pulling out a chair and seating herself. “Thank you, Elwick. Please, all of you, sit down. Yes, Szaravid, according to my schedule, by this point in the evening Squad One has spent several hours accompanying me hither and yon to a variety of luxury shopping establishments, standing guard while I browsed and carrying my purchases. I’m aware of the relationship this squad had with Bishop Syrinx, at least the broad strokes; I can only imagine how irate you must be by this point. My compliments on your poise, by the way.”

“I assumed all this was mission relevant, somehow,” Principia said mildly, helping herself to a ham sandwich.

“Oh?” Shahai raised an eyebrow.

“The accumulation of luxury and misuse of temporary authority over a squad would be dramatically out of character, your Grace. I know something of your record as well; you were quite right about Bishop Syrinx. It seemed wise to cultivate an awareness of her successor.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Shahai said, smiling. “Well, in any case, this building is owned by the Universal Church, its apartments rented to various clerics. The walls are exceedingly thick, and additionally bolstered with noise dampening enchantments. It’s a very discreet sort of building. This marks the first point in the evening where we can converse in guaranteed privacy. My apologies for making you wait, but the whole point of our performance this far tonight has been just that: a performance, put on for whoever might have been watching. I was unwilling to make assumptions about the security of our environs except in—ah, excuse me.”

The teapot had begun whistling; she stood and glided briskly back to the stove. The assembled Legionnaires glanced uncertainly about at one another, then at Principia, who was chewing away as placidly as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

Shahai returned, setting the tea tray beside the sandwiches and beginning to pour out cups. “Eat or not as you wish, ladies, but I do insist upon the tea. This is a very strong blend, and just the boost we will all need, as we are about to go deal with dragons at the end of an already long day. Please, use as much sugar and milk as you need to make it palatable. If anyone is especially fatigued, I have something even stronger for emergencies. Have you heard of coffee?”

She looked up in surprise at the chorus of groans; Principia chuckled into her sandwich.

“That’s the stuff that tastes like the inside of my boots, keeps you awake for about four hours and then you’re suddenly comatose standing up unless you take another dose,” Merry said, accepting a cup of tea. “Sarge gave us that once.”

“Once,” Principia emphasized, “when I’d kept them out past midnight. Generally I think you get better results from people by letting them get enough rest.”

“I quite agree,” Shahai said, smiling. “Drugs are a poor substitute for any of the things for which people substitute them, but they can bridge the gap in a rough situation. Well, then, on to a much-overdue explanation. What do you know about dragonsworn?”

There was a beat of silence; Farah paused in the act of sipping her tea, staring at the Bishop in surprise.

“People who are sworn to a dragon,” Ephanie replied at last, “just as the word says. I understood that wasn’t common.”

“It’s uncommon for the simple reason that dragons are uncommon,” Shahai said, “and many of them are rather standoffish. But yes, as long as dragons have interacted with the mortal races, some members thereof have dedicated themselves to a certain dragon’s service. In fact, with the Conclave’s current ambitions, I suspect this will be the greatest sticking point in their negotiations with the Empire. Now that they seek to be acknowledged as an independent government, anyone taken into their service will effectively become an agent, if not a citizen, of a foreign power, rather than an eccentric who keeps unusual company. I’m actually quite curious to find out how they will resolve the matter, because at the moment, I’ve no idea. But yes, dragonsworn are a known phenomenon, and their whereabouts are carefully watched by anyone who takes an interest in world events. Including the Sisters of Avei.”

“I figured,” Principia said, pausing to take a sip of tea. “Accumulating expensive hoard-worthy trinkets was an obvious link to the dragon issue. You think there are dragonsworn in the city? It was my understanding the dragons arrived alone.”

“Ah, yes, the…trinkets.” Shahai sighed, giving the piles of packages a disapproving stare. “I am sorry about putting you ladies to that kind of work. But yes, Sergeant, people are already lining up outside the de facto Conclave embassy, wanting a variety of things. Some—perhaps more than a few—are interested in working for the dragons. They have that aura of majesty that tends to inspire such responses. Beyond that, however, there have always been some few dragonsworn in the city, and somewhat less few who are known to do business with them. This afternoon we have visited most of those. These comprise more of a grapevine than an actual intelligence network, but I don’t imagine it will be long before our draconic visitors are aware that I have just gathered a pile of…hoard-worthy trinkets, as you put it.” She paused to smile at Principia.

“People from all walks of life, but notably the wealthy and powerful, will be trying to curry favor with the dragons for a variety of reasons, most of which are no concern to us. My mission here is simply to establish open lines of communication and friendly terms with them, to ward off any potential hostilities and create opportunities for possible future benefit. A vague and simple directive, which nonetheless is made quite challenging by the fact that the dragons have no incentive to take us seriously at all. Virtually the only interaction between dragons and the Sisterhood in eight thousand years have been occasional clashes between individuals and Hands of Avei. Most of those ended in the fatality of one or the other. In this, it’s fortunate for us that they have no particular interest in our cult. What I have to do is make them interested, and favorably so.”

“A tall order,” Principia mused.

“Indeed,” Shahai said wryly. “This afternoon’s errands were the first half of the plan, though it may take some time for word to get back to our targets. This evening’s will finish the job. We discussed earlier the impact of having two elves in the delegation sent to speak with them. When we meet the dragons themselves, I intend to be vague; the point is to set them wondering what we are up to. To set us apart from the countless petitioners who will be competing for a slice of their attention. They, if all goes well, will come to us. As such, once we return tonight, I mean to withdraw somewhat and give them time to stew. If no overtures have been made within a week, we’ll try something else, but apart from that, your squad will return to regular duty rotation to be called for when I have need of you again. With the exception of tomorrow,” she added with a smile. “I’ve reserved you for the morning. Do get some sleep.”

“We appreciate that,” Principia said approvingly.

“Ah, your Grace?” Casey said. “It’s…dark out. Almost everything is closed by now. People will be going to sleep. Is this an appropriate time to visit dragons?”

“All part of the plan, Elwick,” Shahai said, sipping her tea. “Dragons… It’s an open question whether they need to sleep, or just indulge in it occasionally for the pleasure of dreaming. Regardless, they can do it for days at a time, even weeks, but generally only do so two or three times a year. They won’t be in bed. Most people don’t know this, so we won’t have to fight through a crowd. And they assuredly know what a peculiar time of day this is for us to be making social calls.”

“Thus contributing to the infamy you’re cultivating,” Principia said with a smile. “Apologies for any perceived brown-nosing, Bishop, but you’re good at this.”

“At this?” Shahai stared ruminatively into her tea. “This has never been done. Let’s hope we all prove to be good at it. In any case, ladies, finish up here. We are not in any hurry.”


The hastily repurposed palace currently housing the Conclave delegation stood not far from Imperial Square, in a residential neighborhood that was wealthy in the manner that the sea was damp. These were the homes of the highest ranking officials of the Imperial government, the various cults and the Universal Church, not to mention the residences of foreign ambassadors and several properties kept by heads of state from overseas. Some of these actually visited with some regularity—the Tiraan Empire did not seek anyone’s favor, but waited for seekers to come to it—while others maintained these properties simply as a point of status. No official embassies stood here, though flags of many countries were displayed and no small amount of diplomatic business had been done behind these walls. None of the buildings on this street could truly be called a house. They ranged from mere mansions at the lower end to palaces which had prompted the current Emperor’s mother to pass laws limiting just how defensible non-Imperial structures in the city could be made.

This one was of an older style, all done in white marble with fluted columns—in fact, it ironically resembled an Avenist temple, if one ignored the highly decorative stonework. Imperial soldiers stood guard on the grounds in significant numbers, almost as if the government expected some kind of attack. Or perhaps they were simply keeping the peace. Whatever the reason, every entrance and ground floor window was covered, as well as the gates of the property itself. More soldiers patrolled the grounds, the outer wall, even the roof.

There were two long banners hanging in gaps between columns flanking the front door. They formed a white field with a divided hexagon in the center, split into six colors: blue, green, red, gold, silver, and black. A peculiar sigil lay over that, in white with a black border that distinguished itself from the background. The symbol didn’t appear to depict anything in particular; it looked more like a glyph in some foreign language.

“Looks almost like a wing,” Farah murmured. “See, the—”

“Scenery,” Bishop Shahai said, quietly but pointedly. Farah instantly fell silent, staring straight ahead. Principia gave her a very sharp look.

Rank had its privileges; the soldiers on duty at the gate saluted the Bishop rather than attempting to stop her. She nodded back in perfect calm, striding up the slightly curving path toward the doors with Principia just behind and to her right and the rest of Squad One forming the four corners of an invisible box around them.

The soldiers at the door saluted, as well, but made no move to usher them in. Principia stepped forward to pull the door open herself.

Within, the palace looked suitably wealthy, but also rather bare. Everything was marble trimmed in gilt, with an extravagantly frescoed dome forming the entry hall’s ceiling and a geometric mosaic for a floor. There was no furniture, though, of any kind, not even rugs or curtains. Apparently the new residents had brought nothing with them, and the old had left nothing behind.

There were more banners, however. These were also white, lacking the multicolored hexagon, but there were six of them and each bore the sigil in one of the draconic colors.

At this hour, the property was relatively quiet. A few people were present in the room; two more Imperial Army officers stood silently at attention, a mixed handful of folk in nondescript attire loitered near the walls, and a portly man in his later middle years in an obviously expensive suit was in the process of crossing the space toward two figures who had just entered from a side door.

Both were dragons.

To judge by their obviously displayed colors, these were Zanzayed and Varsinostro, and two less similarly attired people had rarely stood together. The blue dragon was an almost comical portrait of less-than-tasteful opulence, while the green wore simple wood elf attire. Nonetheless, their presence was arrestingly powerful, even ignoring the people present as they were. A tremor rippled through the onlookers at their entrance, several people letting out soft sighs or murmured observations.

The Avenist party had crossed the room at a sharp pace, and were just barely beaten to intercepting the dragons by the rich man, thanks to his head start.

“Your Eminences,” he said, bowing low and doffing his stovepipe hat, “if I might—”

“Good evening,” Bishop Shahai spoke over him, striding forward.

“Good lady,” the man said in indignation, puffing his chest out at her, “kindly wait your—”

He broke off as Ephanie stepped in front of him, planting the butt of her lance on the floor with a thunk that echoed through the bare chamber, staring flatly from behind her faceguard. The fellow gaped at her, then flushed and stepped backward, muttering something that might have passed for polite.

“Well, this is different,” Zanzayed the Blue commented, smiling in a way that might have been sincere or sarcastic. Something about his featureless eyes made his expression hard to read. The green dragon, who had come to a stop beside him, folded his arms and watched, his face a mask of patience.

“I am Nandi Shahai, Bishop of the Universal Church from the Sisters of Avei,” she said, nodding to them. It was a deep, respectful nod, but clearly the sort of gesture bestowed on an equal, not a being of fathomless, catastrophic power. “Welcome to Tiraas.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Varsinostro said evenly. “We have found the city most welcoming, with some few specific exceptions.”

“Why, Principia!” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning in apparent delight. “I must say, this is the greatest and best surprise I’ve had in a whole day of surprises! When did you join the Silver Legions? That’s got to be one of the crazier things I’ve ever heard. Well, regardless, it’s a delight to see you!”

“It is?” Principia asked, nonplussed.

“I wasn’t aware you knew Zanzayed, Sergeant Locke,” Shahai said in a perfectly pleasant tone. The warning was hidden in the awareness of their orders, invisible to onlookers.

“We’ve never met,” Principia said firmly. “I’m positive I would’ve remembered that hairdo.”

“Oh, it’s all secondhand,” Zanzayed said with an airy wave of his hand, rings glittering in the light. “I’ve heard all about you, of course. You might say I’m an old friend of the family,” he added to Shahai, winking. “We really ought to find the time to sit down for a chat, since we’re both in the city!”

“I don’t talk to my family,” Principia said in a tone that was just a hair too polite to be overtly unfriendly.

“I note that your Conclave’s chosen iconography reflects all six draconic colors,” Shahai remarked. “There have been no silver or black dragons for some time, if I am not mistaken.”

“The Conclave is for all of our kind,” Varsinostro stated. “Present and future. We would not have any potential members excluded even by implication. In particular, those…extremes…would better be brought into the fold to deal with the rest of us socially than left to pursue their own ends, unfettered.”

“I see,” the Bishop mused. “That does make sense.”

“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure, your Grace?” the green dragon asked pointedly.

“I’m certain you know the areas of Avei’s interest,” Shahai said crisply. “We promote justice and protect the interests of women. As you have decided to assertively join civilized society, this creates a potential interest, my lords. Any actions you take will fall under the purview of the judicial system. And dragons have a…fraught history with regard to women.”

“Ah, yes,” Zanzayed said solemnly, folding his hands. “That. You mean that thing where we sometimes take mates and lovers exactly like anyone else, and mortal societies regard the matter with revulsion because… Well, actually, I never have cared enough to figure out what the specific objection was, once I determined there was no actual logic in it.”

Shahai smiled at him very pleasantly. “On another subject, Zanzayed, have you visited Mathenon Province recently? I believe dwarven archaeologists recently unearthed some very unusual ruins directly off the Old Road between Viridill and Stavulheim. Some sort of amphitheater.”

He sighed dramatically, turning to Varsinostro. “There, you see? This is why religious people are a pain to deal with. Every nice thing you do gets swept under the rug, but you make one little error in judgment and somehow their descendants manage to shove it in your face after two thousand years.”

“Let’s be polite, Zanzayed,” Varsinostro said calmly. “We are guests in this city as much as the Bishop is in this house.” Despite the muted warning directed at both of them, his expression was one of amusement.

“Did you really come here just to be confrontational?” Zanzayed asked, impatience creeping into his tone as he turned back to Shahai.

Her smile wavered not by a hair. “On the contrary, Lord Zanzayed, if anything, I would like to offer my services. You may find it…challenging…to cultivate personal relationships among human society, given the reputation you have with regard to women, justly or not. The Sisterhood is in a unique position to help you navigate these waters. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like any assistance in settling in.”

“How very considerate,” Varsinostro said, gazing intently at her.

“It is the duty of a priestess and a soldier to serve,” Shahai intoned, bowing. “I will take no more of your time this evening, my lords. Welcome, again, to Tiraas. Squad, fall in.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Zanzayed asked behind them. The Bishop simply kept moving toward the door.

Not that the dragons were left with nothing to do. They had gotten scarcely a few feet when the gentleman in the hat surged forward again. Once again, he was beaten to the punch.

This time it was a young Sifanese woman who slid smoothly forward, holding a glowing rune on the flat of her open palm. It sparked faintly, then abruptly transformed into a steaming platter.

At the burst of magic—and rare magic at that, for transfiguration was usually done only by a master mage, the pre-formatted kind being very expensive—both dragons turned to stare sharply at her.

“Good evening, most exalted ones,” she said deferentially. In addition to her lilting accent, she had a raspy quality to her voice, not quite the husky tone of a lifelong smoker, but as if something had injured her throat at one point. “My employer, like each of these good people, most humbly craves but a moment of your attention, and does not presume to so impose without offering some small recompense for the distraction. I understand, Lord Zanzayed, these are a favorite of yours.”

Shahai led the squad outside, the front doors of the palace shutting firmly and cutting off sound from within. They heard only one more line of the girl’s spiel.

“Bacon-wrapped shrimp?”

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5 – 28

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“Sir,” Wilberforce murmured, leaning close to Vandro’s ear. He already had his employer’s undivided attention, having arrived far more quickly than his usual efficient but decorous pace. Unusual behavior from Wilberforce was a cardinal sign that something had gone wrong. “We have visitors from the Thieves’ Guild in significant numbers. I have taken the liberty of activating the golems; if you move now, you may be in time to greet them at the gates.”

Vandro nodded, turning back to his erstwhile conversation partner with a rueful smile. “Terribly sorry, m’lord, but it seems I have to go put out a fire. The perils of hosting, you know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the aristocrat replied with a lofted eyebrow, looking somewhat bemused. It always came as a surprise to his type that lowly commoners found something more important than themselves on which to focus.

Thanks to Wilberforce’s warning, Vandro made it to the broad, well-lit pathway between the gates and the house that formed the party’s center of mass just before the Guild made their entrance. He wasn’t quite in time to pose front and center and be waiting languidly for their arrival, but it would have to do. Pacing and presentation mattered in these affairs.

Six entered first, fanning out to either side of the path in a reverse arrowhead formation. Though swift and coordinated, no one would have mistaken the ragged bunch for soldiers; they wore clothing in dark colors and advanced states of scruffiness, ostentatiously displayed clubs and knives, and menacing expressions. The guests drew back from them, conversation disintegrating into nervous whispered all over the gardens, followed by chilly silence as the thieves took up positions, apparently if not actually controlling the estate’s entrance.

Of course, all that was for show, as well. Most of these people dressed comfortably and casually when at their real work, and quite a few slept on silk. A good thief was someone who did not stand out in a crowd; they usually had to go out of their way to properly menace the normals, including dramatic changes in costume and demeanor.

Vandro narrowed his eyes slightly at the next wave to enter, but carefully held his neutral posture. Four more Guildmembers came forward, pushing a pair of bound prisoners before them. They stopped a few yards into the estate, ignoring the gasps of the onlookers, and forced the captives to their knees. Jeremiah Shook merely looked furious, if somewhat rumpled; Amanika had clearly been worked over. Her clothes were torn and stained with both dirt and blood, one of her eyes was swollen shut and a dried trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth still decorated her chin. She slumped to the ground, head lolling.

Finally, another pair entered with the last three armed thieves behind them. The well-dressed man, a dark-featured Onkawa local, was slim, tall and stately, wearing an intolerably self-satisfied smirk. On his arm, looking stupefied and as tense as a plucked guitar string, was Saduko.

“Forgive the overly dramatic entrance, Webs,” he said airily. “It seems someone forgot to deliver my invitation.”

“Why, that’d have been me, Toss,” Vandro replied easily. “I confess I plumb forgot to want you at my party. Things start to slip the mind, when you get to my age.”

Toss, the leader of the local Guild’s chapter, grinned at the frisson of nervous conversation that swept through Vandro’s crowd of well-heeled guests at the sound of his tag. He was known in the city.

“Ah, but how could I let this occasion pass unremarked? I confess I’ve had cause to be worried about your loyalties of late, but our dear Gimmick, here, has put my mind to rest.” He patted Saduko’s hand where it lay on his arm; she flinched. “And to think we thought she was spying on you. Instead, you have oh-so-deftly rooted out the subversive elements within our local chapter and delivered them into our hands. Along with the fugitive Thumper! Truly, this is a great night for the followers of Eserion, and we owe all this success to you, Webs. Bravo,” he said, drawing out the last word in a silky drawl.

Vandro studied Saduko idly, his mind whirling. Her, Guild? Possibly. He’d checked out her credentials, but those were so very fakeable, especially coming from overseas as they did. He had also studied how she thought and acted while his guest, and found her generally self-contained and a skilled walking poker face as long as she had time to prepare, but easy to rattle and throw off her game. Right now she looked good and rattled, and clinging to her equilibrium by a ragged fingernail.

That was one plot uncovered, then; Saduko had been sent to observe and possibly interfere with his and Amanika’s undercutting of the Guild, but she was either a far more advanced player than he believed, or her own scheme had come unraveled. There was no reason to assume the former when he knew the latter could be explained by yet another actor whose full play had yet to be revealed.

Kheshiri. What could she hope to gain by all this?

“Son of a bitch,” Shook spat, his voice soft. Vandro gave him a warning look, and was met with a venomous glare. He suppressed a sigh. Jerry was a good kid, when he used his head, but that damn temper of his reliably made him stop using it, exactly when he needed it most.

“Seems you’ve been a little rough with our friends, there,” Vandro said mildly. “I mean, if you’re gonna work someone over, sure. Dragging valuable prisoners all over the city, though, letting one apparently bleed herself half to death? Truly, the complexity of your plots is over my head.”

Amanika lifted her face a fraction, and the look she gave Vandro was fleeting, but icily calculating. Not so dazed and beleaguered as she appeared, then, and apparently not taking this turn of events at face value. Good girl; if only she’d been a trifle less homely he’d have looked for reasons to have her around more often.

“I think the time has come for a clearing of the air,” Toss proclaimed, smiling with immense self-satisfaction. “There has been too much suspicion and discord, do you not think so? Let all of Onkawa see that the Thieves’ Guild stands united. Let them see what befalls those who seek to undermine Eserion’s people.”

Vandro shrugged and took a sip of his cocktail. “Your funeral.”

Toss’s smile did not diminish in the slightest. “Why, Webs, I could very nearly take that as a threat. And on the heels of your very valuable assistance to your Guild, too! Surely you cannot have meant that the way it sounded.”

He made a swift motion with his free hand and the six thieves forming his advance guard began moving slowly forward, their gazes coldly intent upon Vandro.

Then Wilberforce glided forth out of the crowd to stand at Vandro’s shoulder. The enforcers instantly halted in their tracks, staring at the Butler. Two glanced uncertainly back at Toss; the rest were studying Wilberforce, clearly mentally calculating whether they could take him on.

They couldn’t, which was beside the point as far as Vandro was concerned. He couldn’t afford to let this come to blows. To say nothing of the risk to his guests, it was blindingly obvious that Toss wanted a confrontation. Whether or not he believed that Vandro was behind the ensnaring of Shook and Amanika (he hadn’t got that from Saduko; why would Kheshiri promote that particular notion?), he knew a rival when he saw one. If Vandro fought the Guild openly, whether he won or lost the battle would be irrelevant in the long run.

“This is why I don’t invite you to parties, Toss,” he said genially. “Nor do I intend to stand here all night bantering with you. Honestly, I don’t give you a thought when you’re not right in front of my face. No point, really; you’re not gonna be in charge long.”

Toss’s smile became a hungry grin. “Oh, I think you’ve grown a little too flushed with your recent success, Alan Vandro. You challenge me openly? In front of all these—”

He tried gamely to keep on talking, but the sheer volume of Vandro’s booming laugh made it pointless. Vandro had practiced that laugh, honed it for that very effect.

“Challenge you?” he chortled, wiping at his eyes. “You silly, sad little man. If I were to challenge you, in the best case scenario I’d end up having to do your tedious job. Nah, what could I possibly gain by going to the trouble? I mean, look around you. Look at this!” He indicated them all, the enforcers, the prisoners, with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. “This very public display of force, this airing of Guild laundry in the faces of all the finest folk in the city? This just isn’t how we do business, Toss, and it’s inconceivable to me that a chapter house head hasn’t figured that out at by this stage in his career.”

“Don’t you point at my—”

“And that’s another thing,” Vandro went on merrily. “This here thing you’re doing, this attempt to use social pressure to force me to either confront you or bend knee? Well, Toss, this is just plain clumsy. I almost hate to tell you, my boy, but you suck at this game. Challenge you? Please. Tell you what I’m gonna do. Since I’m retired and all, I’m gonna sit here in my villa, enjoying the ill-gotten fruit of my lifetime of labor, throwing ridiculous parties and hobnobbing with all my fancy friends, and generally ignore you. I don’t have to challenge you, y’moron. Hell, I don’t think I could save you if my own life depended on it. It’s a damn miracle you’ve lasted this long.”

Toss’s grin had become a decidedly less controlled baring of his teeth; his grip on Saduko’s arm was clearly hard enough to bruise, now, though, she bore it without complaint. “You are one more careless word from—”

“All systems are corrupt,” Vandro said, projecting from the diaphragm and completely overwhelming Toss’s growling delivery. Tragic, how few thieves studied public speaking; it was a priceless skill in their line of work. “We all know the catechism, Toss. You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to prove it.”

The enforcers were all watching Toss, now, their expressions a lot more thoughtful. Vandro knew most of them personally, knew there was nothing personal against him in their presence here, merely the execution of what they saw as their duty. A duty he’d just called into question by turning Toss’s attempted trap around on him.

He glanced at the prisoners; Amanika was smiling, keeping her face angled downward to mostly hide it. Shook still glared at Vandro, his expression a mask of betrayal. Hopefully he could calm the boy down long enough to explain…

In that moment, he understood Kheshiri’s plan. All this had been arranged, his plans subverted, Saduko’s deception turned against her, Toss’s ambition and cruelty manipulated, to create this scene, where Vandro was accused of betraying Shook, and couldn’t afford to deny it. Amanika could read between the lines well enough, but Shook and Toss were thugs who’d made good through hard work and judicious brutality. Shook had heard Vandro tacitly admit having set him up for a fall and the reward, and wouldn’t look beyond that. Unless he could separate Shook from Toss’s custody now, the boy’s trust in him would be completely severed. Leaving him alone in the world with the Guild and the law after him, no one he could trust…except his demon.

He also realized that his understanding had come a moment too late. Because that was the moment, and he was totally unprepared to take advantage of it.

Vandro opened his mouth to press his case, to begin working around to a demand that Shook and Amanika be released to his custody, knowing he wasn’t going to have enough time.

Sure enough, the winged form melted out of nothing right behind Toss, reached around with a large knife and slashed Saduko across the throat.

The screams and panic that followed broke what remaining order there was among the Guild enforcers. Toss stared at the woman now dangling limply from his arm, convulsing as she helplessly pressed a hand to her neck, completely failing to stifle the gushing of her blood. The three enforcers at the rear rushed forward, their swings missing the demon as she went aloft with one powerful beat of her wings. One of them actually struck Toss, sending him and Saduko crashing to the ground.

Kheshiri descended on the two men holding Shook, stomping directly on the head of one and launching herself off again, swooping about them as all four guards abandoned their charges to swipe at her. Released, Amanika turned and struggled frantically over to Saduko as best she could with her arms bound behind her, already glowing with healing light.

In the confusion, the succubus slashed through Shook’s bindings; he rolled forward, coming nimbly to his feet, and bared his teeth in a snarl at Vandro, reaching into his coat. Did he still somehow have his wands? Toss, that damned idiot…

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro began.

“Save it!” Shook spat, bringing out his weapons. He glanced at Wilberforce and very deliberately did not point them at Vandro.

“Protocol: activate!” Vandro’s voice boomed across the garden, considerably louder than a human throat could actually have spoken. Unsurprising, as it came from Kheshiri, who was now perched atop a palm tree. “Execute program: great escape!”

They unfolded on all sides: benches, wastebins, pieces of decorative statuary, picnic tables. The various heavy stone accents decorating Vandro’s garden slid apart in pieces, revealing their interior metal frames and the blue glow of the arcane magic that made the golems run. Re-sorting themselves swiftly into more or less humanoid shapes, they took form and stepped forward, raising the wands that had been concealed within them.

Vandro sighed. His own security commands prevented them from revealing those weapons except in a case of utmost emergency. Outfitting golems with wands was extremely illegal; this was gonna cost him a fortune in bribes.

“Now, when did you find time to do that?” he asked, a note of admiration in his tone.

Kheshiri smirked down at him. “I suggest you all listen carefully,” she said, still boomingly loud, but in her own voice. Silence fell at her command, the guests and Guild enforcers staring up at her in horror. In that tense moment, the only sounds were the canned music still playing throughout the garden and Amanika’s furiously whispered prayers as she attempted to heal Saduko without the use of her hands. “The program these golems are acting on means they’ll destroy anyone who attempts to interfere with my master or myself as we make our departure. It also locks you out from issuing further commands, Alan, so don’t bother.”

“Simple, but effective,” he said, nodding. “As a professional courtesy, I hope you’ll leave me the counter-code to discover after you’re safely away.”

“Oh, there’s no counter-code,” she said sweetly. “You’ll have to shut them down the hard way. Whatever that may be.”

“Those were expensive, Shiri.”

“You can get more golems, Alan. I only have one master.”

Vandro sighed, turning his gaze to Shook. “Jerry, my boy, think this over carefully. You are being played, here.”

“How stupid do you think I am, Alan?” he snarled, convulsively raising his wands.

Wilberforce tried to step in front of Vandro; Vandro gently pushed him aside. “Watch it, boy,” he said firmly. “Right now, that question has an answer.”

“Master, run,” Kheshiri urged. “I’ll stay here and make sure nobody tries anything.”

“Just think on it, first chance you get,” Vandro said firmly, his eyes boring into Shooks, willing him to understand. Damn it, boy, think!

Shook stared back at him, and beneath the raw fury in his expression, Vandro saw the hurt. Hurt, he knew, was at the bottom of all rage. This was going to damage the boy, maybe beyond what could be fixed.

“Go, master. Please.”

Shook steeled himself, directing his eyes upward at his thrall. “Right. I’ll meet you at—”

“Don’t say it! Don’t give them any clues. Just go, be safe, hide. I can find you anywhere.”

Shook turned without another word, and set off for the gates at a run. In seconds he was out of view around the corner.

“Now then,” Kheshiri purred, turning back to grin down at Vandro. “Since we’ll be together for a while, I see no reason for the party to end here. How about you give us a little jig, Vandro.”

“You can’t be serious,” he said dryly.

“Can’t I?” She grinned with near maniacal glee. “I own your golems, Alan. I can demolish these Guild lackeys and your own security with a word. That means I own you. So…dance for me. Now.”

“You played a good game, Shiri,” Vandro said. “I respect skill. If you’d been willing to be professional, I’d have let you leave here safely. You need to learn when to quit, girl. Wilberforce, power up.”

None of the onlookers could see Wilberforce apply his thumb to the master control rune in his pocket. They only saw the entire estate explode.

Only the magical appliances therein, of course, but in a fully tricked-out modern rich man’s home like Alan Vandro’s estate, that might as well have been the whole thing. Every reserve power crystal in storage spontaneously poured its full load of energy into all the active devices; suddenly channeling several orders of magnitude more power than they were designed to contain, every apparatus on the grounds that used arcane energy burst apart in a series of booms and flashes. The whole house was lit up, windows blazing as if lightning had struck within; the gardens hosted a ferocious shower of sparks and explosions as light fixtures, music boxes, food fresheners and security golems disintegrated, flinging sparks and fragments in all directions.

The screams trailed off a few seconds after the explosions, leaving behind shocked quiet. It was darker, but not totally dark; the levitating party lights operated under their own power, and cast shifting, eerie patches of colored illumination in the absence of the estate’s main lighting. The smell of smoke and ozone hung heavily over everything. Small fires flickered in dozens of places.

The golems slumped, inert and smoking, emitting small sparks and most missing pieces.

“What say we play a different game?” Vandro suggested cheerfully. He lifted high his cocktail glass in Kheshiri’s direction as if toasting her. “Friends and neighbors, servants and gatecrashers, fellow acolytes of Eserion! For one night only, I’ll be paying the sum of one hundred decabloons to whoever brings me that demon’s corpse!”

Kheshiri took one look at the sheer number of those present who turned out to be carrying wands, and vanished.


Snow had begun falling, a soft counterpoint to the ominous quiet that filled the street.

The soldiers were hard-eyed, but disciplined, holding their ranks as they marched into the district. The full regiment seemed to have come; they filled the entire avenue, offering no path of escape past them.

Opposite them, residents of Tar’aris, bundled against the cold, had begun melting out of doors and alleys, staring equally hard-eyed at the approaching troops. Quite a few of them were openly carrying wands. They began to form a loose crowd blocking off the street as well.

Silver Legionnaires in their concealing winter gear stood at attention at intervals, several patrols having stopped and positioned themselves along the sidelines between the two groups. They stood firm and rigid, offering no move in either direction.

The students of the University wormed their way out of the crowd, where they had been trying to talk with various members of the community. Teal and Shaeine parted from Avrith, Bob and the small knot of citizens they had accompanied, stepping forward to meet the others in the middle. Ruda appeared out of an alley, Fross darting about above her head. Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel arrived in more of a hurry, having had a longer walk from the inn; they were accompanied by two Legionnaires and Bishop Darling. The latter was leaning close to Trissiny as they walked, whispering urgently into her ear. The paladin appeared to be listening closely, deep in thought.

A startled motion rippled through the watching crowd as Juniper arrived from a nearby rooftop, hitting the ground with a solid thud that left cracks in the pavement. She straightened up, brushing at her ill-fitting dress, and stepped up to join her classmates.

Darling peeled off and Trissiny directed the Legionnaires away with a simple hand motion. The rest of the students gathered with them, placing themselves between the soldiers and the citizens. The eight students—nine, including Vadrieny—represented enough offensive power to seriously damage that regiment, if not to smash through it entirely. Fortunately, they didn’t look like it; the soldiers didn’t see the threat, and thus didn’t react as if threatened. At least, not so far.

The man marching in the lead held up a hand. “Halt!” Behind him, the troops came to a stop in unison, their boots thundering once upon the pavement.

For a few moments, all was still. The groups stared at one another across the uncomfortably small open space in the street between them.

It was Captain Ravoud who finally spoke up.

“I see a lot of Silver Legionnaires in this district, General Avelea. May I ask what your intentions here are?”

Trissiny glanced at Darling; he nodded encouragingly at her.

“There has been serious misconduct on the part of a few of your troops, Captain,” she said firmly, her voice echoing in the silent street. Several soldiers shifted at her words. “That has given rise to a lot of rumor and ill feeling. Silver Legionnaires are known to be women of good character, also trained to understand military actions, and to see and report accurately on tactical details. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know they are here to observe.” She paused, then added more pointedly. “Whatever transpires here, there will be no unjust accusations of misconduct against your soldiers. We’ll see to that.”

Ravoud stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, General.”

She nodded back, then began stepping backward toward the sidewalk. Toby was the next to move, widening his arms and silently ushering the rest of the students along with them. Ruda snorted disdainfully, but let herself be herded. As a group, they shifted out of the way, taking position at the edge of the street and clearing a direct path between the soldiers of Barracks Four and the citizens of Lor’naris.

Ravoud squared his shoulders and took one step forward. Two figures emerged from the crowd; Bob and Avrith paced forward to come nearly within arms’ distance of him.

“Corporal Robert Hollander,” Ravoud said, his voice pitched loud enough to be clearly audible to all present. “And… Avrith, isn’t it?”

“You may call me Mrs. Hollander, Captain, if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ravoud’s lips thinned. “I thought it was the women of your kind who determined the family name.”

“As a rule, yes,” she said, her voice mild. “My family, however, do not care for me to use their name so long as I choose to bind myself to a human. Bob’s family are my family, his home my home. His country my own.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravoud said firmly, “I have received intelligence that there is an armed insurrection forming in this district. You will immediately surrender any weapons being gathered for the purpose of rebellion against His Majesty the Emperor and submit any persons responsible for this action to Imperial custody.”

“Yep,” Bob said laconically, pulling a wand out of his pocket and holding it out to Ravoud, butt first. “Here you go.”

The Captain stared at him, open-mouthed.

“This has only been going on the last day or so,” Bob went on. “Folk none of us knew, making very pointed suggestions in taverns and the like. Several of us got together and decided on a course of action: we took to meetin’ with these chumps, tried to encourage them along a bit. I wish I had better to tell you, but we got nothing out of ’em but these gifts. If I have some of my friends come forward carrying arms to turn in, Captain, will you kindly refrain from having them shot?”

Ravoud blinked twice, then visibly steeled himself. “If… As long as they approach slowly, with hands in plain view and those weapons held pointed down.”

“All right, you heard the man,” Bob said more loudly, half-turning to address those behind him. “Slow and polite. Let’s not make the lads any more nervous than they already are.

A dozen people melted out of the crowd. Drow and human, male and female, they all held wands by the hafts, hands nowhere near the clickers, tips aimed at the pavement below their feet. Ravoud watched them approach warily, then turned his head to issue an order of his own. Two soldiers stepped forward and began collecting the wands, looking somewhat bemused.

“We have examined those weapons and unfortunately found nothing that seems useful,” said Avrith. “They are mass-produced and of middling quality. Perhaps the resources of the Empire can find out more about them than we, but I fear they were meant to be untraceable.”

“Everyone you see here was personally present at a meeting with at least one of these agitators,” Bob added. “Well, I mean, those of use stepped forward, here. The rest of those folk back there are just curious about the commotion, I think. We’re all happy to recount everything we saw and heard.”

“The men in question took pains to be anonymous,” said Avrith. “I cannot prove the use of disguise charms, but it would not surprise me. They offered no names and refused to reveal any patron, or the source of those weapons. However, several of us are soldiers, of both Tiraan and Narisian extraction, and two of the witnesses are trained diplomats. We met with them with the specific intention of gathering information. It is my hope that some of our recollections will prove useful to you in tracking them down and putting a stop to this.”

Ravoud just continued to stare at her, seeming at a total loss for words.

“Tiraas is our home, Captain,” Avrith said more softly. “This city has offered us a place when our own would not. We will protect and serve it in any way we can, as fervently as any other citizen. All of us.” Bob took her gloved hand in his.

“I…” Ravoud trailed off, then swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “I…thank you for your cooperation, citizen.”

“Great,” said Bob wryly. “D’you mind if we have the rest of this discussion someplace a bit warmer? We can go to your barracks, if you’d like, or there are spots closer where we can set up and do interviews.”

“None of us have any appointments,” Avrith added. “Consider us all at your disposal.” There were agreeing nods from the rest of the individuals standing alongside her.

“I…think a local place would do fine,” Ravoud said slowly. “No need to drag this out any more than it must be.”

Trissiny cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Captain, the Third has set up a command post in an unoccupied shop nearby. You may consider that at your disposal.”

“Thank you, General,” he said, nodding respectfully to her. “In fact, that would be perfect. Your Legionnaires can continue to…observe.”

“Of course. Soldier, show him where it is.”

The nearest Legionnaire saluted her before stepping over to Ravoud. She patiently stood by while he turned and issued orders to his men; shortly, the bulk of the regiment had turned and were marching back out of the district. Quite a few looked mystified, but they kept their ranks and their discipline. A small detachment of Imperial soldiers remained with the Captain and the citizens who had stepped forward to be interviewed, and in short order they, too, were departing, led by the woman in armor toward the Legion’s command center.

Darling drew in a deep breath and blew it out dramatically as the street finally began to clear of onlookers. “All praise be to whoever the hell is watching over us and willing to take credit for that. And I mean that in my official, ecclesiastical capacity.”

“Wait, so…that’s it?” Ruda demanded. “All that work, all that skullduggery and gathering tension, and it all ends like that? Just a few words and everybody’s friends again?”

“It is a little anticlimactic,” Fross agreed.

“Yes, Ruda, that’s it,” Toby said firmly. “And I, for one, will be spending a great deal of the rest of the night giving prayers of thanks. This is the best ending to all this we could possibly have hoped for.”

“I don’t know how much credit any of us can take,” Trissiny added grimly.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Darling, patting her on the back. “You’ve just successfully refrained from igniting a civil war. It was a good day.”

“Great,” she muttered.

“And no, Princess, everyone’s not friends,” he added more seriously. “There’s a long way yet to go… But the going has begun, and will continue. The hard part was always getting us through this confrontation.”

“But…we didn’t do anything,” said Gabriel.

The Bishop grinned at him. “No, you didn’t, did you? If you remember nothing else about this mess, Mr. Arquin, remember that. Good people taking care of their own affairs are always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes, people need saving, that’s true. Most of the time, though, a hero is just somebody who reminds everyone at large to be their own best.”

“Aw,” said Fross. “Now, that’s uplifting! How come Professor Tellwyrn never gives us lessons like that?”

“Combination of complex factors,” said Ruda. “Mostly stemming from the fact that Tellwyrn’s a rotten bitch on her best day.”

They began drifting back in the direction of their inn, letting off tension in the form of good-natured bickering as they went.

Behind them, leaning against the wall of an alley, Professor Tellwyrn stood in silence, wearing a calm smile. She simply watched until the students were nearly out of sight around the curve of the street, then straightened, brushed off her tunic, and vanished with a soft pop that barely disturbed the falling snow.

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