Tag Archives: Saduko

5 – 26

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Consciousness returned slowly and painfully, which wasn’t an unfamiliar experience for Shook. What was unfamiliar was the nature of the pain. He was used to blows to the head, stunner spells, powerful hits to his midsection that drove the breath from his body. This was altogether different. An ache lingered in all his muscles, as if they had been tense for hours; his limbs twitched feebly as feeling returned to them. It felt much like stretching an arm on which he’d inadvertently slept until it was all pins and needles, except everywhere. An aggravating muzziness lingered in his consciousness.

“…somewhat disappointed, but my chieftain was adamant that he be kept alive to be delivered to your Guild. Ah, well, at least I now have proof that my new toy is effective. Truly, that is more valuable than the fleeting satisfaction of ending this dog’s life.”

“Indeed.”

Shook twitched, the second voice triggering a reaction. Softer, feminine… Saduko. He twitched again in remembered outrage. His body was coming back under his control, as were his senses, and he managed to take stock of what was immediately outside his own skin. He was tied, though only by the arms. Kneeling, hands behind his back, like Kamari, but thankfully his own fate had been less permanent. The smell of ozone lingered; someone had fired a wand. Of course, he’d been shot. Hadn’t he? Why wasn’t he dead, then?

His slowed thoughts finally caught up with his ears. New toy. A wand that administered non-lethal shocks? Very illegal, prone to causing nasty burns; even the Thieves’ Guild didn’t allow their use, judging them too brutal. But he didn’t feel burned. A new type of weapon then, not one of the old half-charge wands. Just his luck.

“Ah, he returns to us.” Something prodded his shoulder; he let out an involuntary grunt. “You have learned the price of disrespect, dog. The lady’s terms are that you be left with your life, but you can lose a great deal short of losing that, yes? Remember your manners henceforth.”

Somewhat laboriously, Shook lifted his head. The motion made his neck ache. The ache passed, though, as it began to all over his body. That overwhelming soreness didn’t fade entirely, but receded enough that he could test his arms against the bindings. Solid… Damn.

There were only four guards in the room now, and only two of those had staves trained on him. Two sent away and half the remainder put at ease; they were confident he was harmless. That was infuriating. The steward smirked down at him, idly toying with what as far as Shook could tell was just an ordinary magic wand, though it appeared to be carved from ebony, an unusual material. Saduko stood nearby, free and apparently regarded with respect, but rigid as a corpse and wide-eyed.

“What say you, good lady?” asked the steward casually, sneering down at Shook. “Shall we further educate him as to his place before sending him on his way?”

She hesitated a beat before answering. “Th-that is not necessary.”

“Ah, I suppose your Guild will want him functional enough to answer questions. Pity. I was told that my toy could damage the brain if overused.”

Again, a pause. “Y-yes. He needs…to answer questions.” She had her arms folded tightly across her chest. “The Guild wants to know… What he knows. What he has been up to.”

Shook was still muzzy, and he wasn’t much of a people person to begin with, but there were some kinds of social perception so deeply trained into him—into all accredited members of the Guild—that they worked instinctively. This situation seemed obvious on the surface; his partner had set him up. But Saduko’s manner clashed with the rest of the picture.

Hesitant. Uncertain. Clearly frightened, looking for cues, body language indicated reaching for comfort. Following the steward’s lead, talking too much but saying little.

Lying.

He shook his head. It didn’t add up. She had the upper hand; what did she fear from the steward, her co-conspirator? And anyway, she was a reserved, blank-faced person most of the time; those made the best liars. Was she that badly rattled, and why? Or was it a double bluff, and if so, for whose benefit?

“Oh, you do not like this plan?” the steward asked him, misinterpreting his motion. “Too bad. Your opinions are not relevant here, dog. I suggest you learn to be comfortable on your knees. Such is the fate of all who try to steal from Chief Om’ponole.” The man folded his arms, still dangling that odd wand, looking ridiculously smug.

Shook stared up at him, worked his jaw to return the feeling in it, then very deliberately spat at the man’s feet.

One of the guards menacingly raised his staff; one of the others heroically tried to suppress a grin.

The steward’s face twisted with rage; he brandished the wand again in Shook’s direction, opening his mouth to speak.

A boom from outside was accompanied by a burst of colored light, briefly illuminating the thin paper shades covering the windows.

Everyone twitched, turning in unison to look. Seconds later there came another such sound, then a third, each accompanied by a bright flash.

“Fireworks,” the steward said, relaxing, then curled his lip in a disdainful expression. Shook was starting to wonder if he had any different ones; whether angry or amused, he looked smug. Worst kind of man. “That fool Vandro has truly spared no expense for his ridiculous party. Too bad you are missing it,” he added to Shook, again with a sneering smile.

“Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?” Shook grated. “How long’s it take? Gimme an estimate so I can plan my evening.”

The steward scowled again as if on command. Smug, predictable, and clearly not all that bright. Really, the worst kind of man. He must have industriously licked every boot in the province to have gained such a position of authority.

He raised the wand again, and again twitched and stopped at a bright explosion from outside, this one much closer. The steward snorted disdainfully, opened his mouth speak again—doubtless to deliver another of his self-congratulatory tirades, but froze completely as a very peculiar whistling noise from outside grew rapidly louder.

This time, the explosion was deafening, the flash brilliant even through the shades, and the very ground shook with it.

“What in hell’s name—that hit the ground!” squawked the steward. “Our grounds! What is going—” At a second sharp whistle, he yelped and covered his head with his arms.

This time, the whole world blew up.

Shook’s next conscious thought was annoyed resignation at how this night was turning out. One way or another, it seemed he wasn’t getting out of here without suffering a string of undignified injuries.

Smoke, yelling, running feet, the crashing of falling mortar… He opened his eyes, blinking a few times before he could make sense of a perplexing blend of darkness and light. A corner of the shed had collapsed; its edges were blackened, crumbling, and in a few places actually on fire. Booms and flashes were almost constant now, framed in the ragged gap in the walls. People were running away, which was quite sensible. He wished he could join them.

Then hands grabbed him from behind, hauling him painfully upright. Reflexively, he twisted, trying to kick backward.

“Stop fighting!” Saduko snapped. “They will not be distracted forever. We must escape now!”

“We?!” he snarled, kicking at her again and twisting out of her grip. “You led me into this trap!”

“Then why would I help you flee?” she shot back, producing a knife from her belt. Shook shied backward; she moved with him. “We don’t have time for this, Shook. Turn back around so I can free your hands.”

“Why? Why should I trust you?” he snarled. “That asshole knew you. He said you were the one who arranged all this. Why would he lie?”

“I don’t believe he did lie,” she said grimly. “I believe he thought I was his contact. And he ran away but was not harmed, which means he will be back with more guards any moment. Turn around!”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Aiya, you great fool! Can you not see? You are collateral damage here! The point was not to catch you, it was to make it seem I turned you in, you and Vandro and all the others. You are not betrayed, Shook! I am! Now for the last time, turn around! If you will not let me free you, I will leave you here!”

Shook stared at her dumbly for a moment. A fresh round of yells from the grounds outside jogged him back to life, and he silently did as she asked, tensing as his hands were grasped from behind. But she simply began sawing at the ropes; the knife went nowhere near his own skin.

The fireworks were still banging and flashing above, uncomfortably close, but no more hit the grounds themselves. He didn’t bother to worry about it. There wasn’t a thing he could do about them either way, and he had more pressing concerns.

Her explanation made sense. It was the only thing that did, really. So this whole trap wasn’t aimed at him, the renegade thief with a price on his head, but at the irrelevant foreign woman he was working with. That bothered him more than it should.

His bonds parted with a final snap and he whirled back to face her. “Thanks.”

Saduko nodded curtly. “We must return to Vandro.”

“Right.” He brushed past her. The collapsed corner of the shed led into the walled grounds; luckily the damage inflicted on the building hadn’t bent it enough that the opposite door was stuck. Shook pulled it open and peeked out. The outer grounds looked incongruously festive with their decorative fairy lights, lit by colorful flashes from above. He could already see the lack of guards on their patrols; they must have rushed inward to respond to the fire. Why had none come to the shed? Well, whatever, he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Looks like the coast is clear. Follow me. We’re not gonna take a straight route back; someone’s clearly after us, and I don’t wanna step into another trap.”

“Sensible,” she said, following him outside. He had just moved beyond the trees shielding the gardener’s door from the street when she gasped.

Turning to find the problem, Shook beheld one of Om’ponole’s guards, trussed like a pig at the base of the tree stand. He was glaring up at them, wriggling fruitlessly and making muffled noises around a gag.

Apparently at least one guard had run for the shed.

They weren’t alone.

“Shit fire,” he growled. Of all the times for his pet demon to be elsewhere. He could really use some more backup right about now. “Speed above stealth, but keep your eyes peeled. We’ve got company. The clever kind.”

His legs were sore and stiff, both from kneeling and likely from whatever that weapon had done to him, but even so it felt good to get moving again. The stiffness began to work itself out almost immediately; he gathered speed as he went, till he was pelting downhill toward the street, not pausing till he was across it in the inadequate shadow of another estate’s outer fence. Saduko came dashing up behind him, her shorter legs not matching his stride. She seemed to be in good shape, though. Wasn’t gasping, and even had enough spare breath to mutter imprecations in Sifanese.

Shook gave her just enough time to get abreast of him before taking off again, leading them one street back toward Vandro’s estate, which was on the opposite side of the city, then moving a block upward. Damn this fancy-ass neighborhood and its lack of cover… He quickly adjusted his tactics, moving back toward the center of Onkawa as quickly and directly as possible. Once into the warren of buildings and alleys he could start doubling back and zigzagging; trying to throw off pursuit out in the open would be fruitless.

Of course, the same maze of urban blind corners that could provide them with cover also offered a thousand potential ambushes, and it was a safe bet that whoever was stalking them knew this city a lot better than he.

“Slow…down,” Saduko panted, apparently having finally reached the limits of her endurance. Shook paused, giving her a critical look over his shoulder. She wasn’t quite doubled over, but leaned against a wall, gasping. In shape or no, he had to remember she was some kind of scholar, not someone accustomed to running around through alleys.

“We don’t have time,” he said curtly. “No telling who’s after us, but they were close enough to intercept that guard back at the palace. Probably have eyes on us right now.”

“Then running will only lead to a trap!” she said, straightening and glaring up at him. “Pause a moment; we must think. Give me time to work. I have equipment with me to distract and confuse pursuers.”

“Take half a minute,” he said, peering around warily. They had made it to a commercial district bordering the residential park, now dark and unoccupied. Wide open street, but lots of alleys emerging into it, not to mention shuttered fruit stands, deep shop doorways… This place was just lousy with cover. He couldn’t see anyone nearby, which meant exactly nothing.

Saduko was already busy fiddling with her devices; she had pulled out a whole handful of those little brass spider-star things. “This is the fastest plan; I regret that we do not have time to be careful. Get your knife; a cut on each of our hands to smear blood across several of these, and we can send decoys in all directions. They will not know who to follow.”

“Okay, that’s a pretty good plan,” he said grudgingly, reaching into his coat for his utility knife. He discovered that the Om’ponole’s steward and guards hadn’t even confiscated his wands. What a bunch of amateurs.

“It is indeed a good plan,” said a new voice from directly above. “You can drop it, though, Gimmick. We have this in hand now.”

Shook fumbled his knife, dropped it, and didn’t bother to lunge for it. Instead he closed his hand around the butt of the wand holstered under his arm.

“Ah, ah, ah, Thumper, let’s not go and do anything unwise. Remove that hand from your coat, very slowly, very empty. There’s a good boy.”

A man loomed at the edge of a building above, silhouetted against the moonlight above. The fireworks were finally trailing off, but brief flashes still illuminated him; far away as he was, Shook couldn’t make out any details, and the effect was annoyingly dramatic. He gave the speaker only a moment’s attention, though, being far more concerned with the eight figures that had melted out of as many nearby hiding spots, approaching them slowly. Every one had a wand out, pointed at him.

At him alone, not at Saduko.

Belatedly, he processed the fact that she had just been addressed by what was unmistakeably a Guild tag.

Shook slowly removed his hand from his coat, as directed, and raised both in the air, turning his glare back on Saduko.

“Bitch, I have absolutely no idea how, but on my father’s soul, I will pay you back for this.”

She just looked at him in silence. Her expression was shocked, confused, as if she were just as taken aback by this development as he. He wondered why she still bothered.

Unless…

No. This was a simple job; it had been foiled by simple betrayal. How many layers to this mess could there possibly be?


 

The crowd oohed and aahed satisfyingly at the fireworks display.

“Good man, Trigger,” Vandro murmured, swirling his cocktail in one hand. He had climbed through the house to one of the balconies overlooking the grounds when the lights in the sky started, seeking a moment of privacy to confer with his Butler, who he knew would find him swiftly. The party had progressed to the point that it was hard to find a shady spot not already occupied in the gardens themselves. Gratifying, in his role as host, but currently inconvenient.

As expected, Wilberforce materialized from the hallway, clearing his throat diffidently to announce his approach.

“Bless that meddling elf,” Vandro commented. “I’d been all set to explain away the shape-shifted succubus at the party if Tellwyrn happened across her, and did my best to plan things so it wouldn’t happen. And then my plans went to shit, which is the only reason we have any warning that something’s gone wrong.”

“Yes, sir,” the Butler said calmly. “The diversion appears to have been a success. Two explosives have ‘accidentally’ struck the Om’ponole estate. From a vantage on the villa’s roof, I discerned that one impacted within the interior grounds, and the other has damaged the wall gatehouse which was to provide Master Shook and Saduko-san’s point of entry.”

Vandro sucked in a breath and let it out through his teeth. “Watch your ass, Jerry,” he muttered, then spoke more loudly. “Whatever the hell that demon is up to, Jerry’s got the reliquary rigged so that if he dies, she goes back in it and stays there. She’ll be very careful to protect him from mortal danger. I hope we didn’t just accidentally make it all moot.”

“Master Shook is resourceful and a consummate professional,” said Wilberforce, folding his hands behind himself. “As is Saduko-san. I believe some confidence in their abilities is appropriate.”

“Quite right, Wilberforce, quite right.”

“I fear the news is not all good, sir.”

Vandro grunted. “What the hell now?”

“The interior security system has been brought up as you ordered, but parts of it have malfunctioned.”

Vandro turned to face him. “…parts?”

“Specifically,” Wilberforce said grimly, “the new features designed to detect demonic activity. In fact, the original system, while carefully left intact enough to avoid drawing attention, appears to have been altered. I judge that the purpose of this was to widen that blind spot. We are effectively blind to infernal movement on the estate at the moment.”

Vandro narrowed his eyes. “That thing is supposed to be voice-locked. Only you or I should be able to alter its settings.”

“Yes, sir. Or someone able to flawlessly mimic us.”

“Well.” He shook his head, chuckling wryly. “Well, well, well. It’s not as if we didn’t know she could do that. Wilberforce, old friend, I do believe we’re getting senile.”

“Indeed, sir,” Wilberforce said impassively. “Perhaps we should retire to someplace sunny, like Onkawa. We could buy a villa.”

Vandro’s laughter boomed out over the balcony, joining the sounds of merriment from below. “All right, all right, point taken. So, let’s deal with the here and now. The bitch has apparently gone to some effort to make sure we can’t spot her moving on the grounds, so… It stands to reason she’s still here.”

“Unless the point of this maneuver was to create that impression specifically so she could move elsewhere while we fruitlessly combed the estate for her.”

Vandro was shaking his head before the Butler finished speaking. “You’ll drive yourself mad playing that game. Anyhow, we don’t have a reliable way of hunting her down in the city at large anyhow; she can fly. No, best to assume she blinded us for a reason. She’s still here, Wilberforce, and whatever she’s doing, it’s not done.”

“As you say, sir.”

Vandro frowned in thought, taking a sip of his cocktail. “…we have plenty of power crystals in storage, correct?”

“Yes, sir, of all sizes. I ensure our stock is adequate to resupply every magical appliance on the estate. We could, in theory, reactivate every device present were they all to spontaneously burn out.”

“Good, good… Excellent. And how many are rune-capped and attuned to the network?”

“Nearly all, sir,” Wilberforce said slowly. “All except the smaller units which were part of our weekly supply shipment; with the party preparations, I regret that I have not had time to attend to all my normal maintenance tasks.”

“Well, nearly all should be enough. I want you to go activate them.”

“…activate them, sir?”

Vandro grinned broadly. “We have to face the prospect that our own security system can be used against us, Wilberforce. Scryers, golems, and all. Yes, activate them, every last one. You keep the master control runes on your person at all times?”

“Of course, sir.”

“And your access hasn’t been tampered with?”

“It has not. I have been using the runes as normal all evening.”

“Good. Activate all the surplus power crystals, and be ready to bring the whole grid up to full power when I give the order.”

“I…see. Yes, sir.”

“To be on the safe side,” Vandro added thoughtfully, “and to minimize collateral damage, take time to disconnect as many extra systems as you can. Whatever’s not absolutely needed to keep the place running.”

“Sir…the grounds are fully lit and active for this very extravagant party. Virtually all enchanted devices on the estate are actively in use at the moment.”

“I see.” Vandro sighed heavily. “Well, then, let’s hope Kheshiri doesn’t force my hand. Otherwise, this is gonna get very expensive.”

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5 – 25

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Chief Om’ponole took a different approach to security than Vandro. There was a walled and fortified section of his grounds near the center, but it was surrounded by several acres of decorative garden, open on all sides to the streets which bordered it. Not that the estate was undefended; guards in ceremonial Onkawi armor patrolled the outer boundary, as well as the paths that meandered within. Their armor appeared to be silk and painted wicker, of all the ridiculous things, but the modern battlestaves they carried were not the least bit ceremonial.

Once onto the grounds, though, there was ample cover for intruders. Shook figured that amid that riot of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, he could have found a safe route to the palace even without the benefit of Kamari’s directions and map detailing the safest path to avoid the patrols. He wondered how often local street urchins snuck onto the palace grounds to steal low-hanging pomegranates and oranges.

Not that this particular neighborhood probably housed any urchins. He and Saduko had been forced to find a vantage point over a block from Om’ponole’s grounds, due to the prevalence among his neighbors for similarly open-planned estates. Aside from the lack of cover, people loitering suspiciously in a neighborhood this ritzy would have been intercepted by police within minutes, if not by private guards. Police would be better; they answered to the regional governor, who answered to the Tiraan Empire. House guards of aristocratic families this far from the capital had a tendency to make annoying people vanish.

The only cover they had found was a delivery wagon parked against the outer wall of an estate one lot distant from their target. A faint trickle of glittering dust seeped continually from one of its axles, blowing away in the light breeze as it fell, indicating a failed wheel enchantment; they were lucky this had happened so late in the day. Even among the wealthy classes who doubtless resented such a common sight parked among them, the relaxed attitude of the Onkawi meant the wagon was likely to stay here until regular business hours rolled around again and somebody could be summoned to fix it.

Saduko was fiddling with what looked to Shook like an extravagant timepiece, something like a pocket watch with a tiny hourglass attached, the latter filled with purplish enchanting dust rather than sand. He didn’t lean over her shoulder to watch her manipulate the device; he wouldn’t have understood anything he saw, and she had made it plain she did not enjoy his proximity. While he might otherwise have resented being thus rebuffed, he found Saduko admirably well-behaved for a woman. That was to say, polite and quiet. Between Kheshiri and Vandro’s groupies, he didn’t feel an urgent need to get laid; he could deal with her frigidity. Besides, after having led the way through Onkawa’s darkening streets as a good enforcer should, it was pleasant to be positioned to have a view of her cute little butt. She favored snug trousers.

“All is in order,” she said quietly, flipping shut the lid on the watch-like portion of her device and slipping it into a pocket. “The frequencies match Kamari’s intel; I can get us past the wards unnoticed.”

“What matters is the guards’ timing, then,” he said, stepping up to stand beside her. “Ready for that?”

“Of course.” She produced a tiny, spiky piece of brass with a small blue gem inset. “Your finger, please.”

He offered it silently and didn’t so much as wince when she pricked his fingertip with one of the gadget’s points, nor when the resulting droplet of his blood was sucked into the gem in the center. She transferred it to her other hand, where it joined a second identical object, no doubt primed with her own blood.

Shook offered her his arm; face impassive, she slipped her free hand through it. He led her out into the street and they set off toward the Om’ponole estate at a leisurely pace, just a couple of foreigners out for an evening stroll.

He kept his eyes on the roving guards, watching their progress, counting steps and seconds. “Match my pace and follow my lead,” he murmured. “I have the pattern down; I’ll get us to the insertion point at the blind spot. Be ready with your stuff.”

“I know my role,” she said calmly. Any of his fellow Guild operatives, especially one who didn’t like him, would have been snippy about it. She was just calm. He made a mental note to see about acquiring a Sifanese ladyfriend if he ever had to get rid of Kheshiri; they apparently raised them wonderfully respectful over there. Hopefully they weren’t all as flat in the chest as Saduko.

He saw one of the passing guards notice them, and gave no sign of it, bending his head toward his companion and putting on a fake smile. She kept her own eyes demurely downcast, and after a suspicious but cursory glance, the guard went about his route without giving them further attention.

This was far from Shook’s first caper; he timed it precisely. Their insertion point was an arbor twined with grapevines which formed an archway leading onto a hedge-lined path; they reached it just as the guards walking to either side were out of sight behind other stands of greenery. This occurred exactly according to the schedule Kamari had provided, which meant it was part of their assigned route. The fact that the route included such a hole at the border showed what amateurs Om’ponole’s people were. This plan would never have worked on any of the nobles’ estates in Tiraas.

Saduko tossed the two little brass stars to the street as they ducked into the shade of the arbor; instantly, illusory doubles of herself and Shook were strolling on at right angles to their original path, where they would be spotted by the guards walking away from the estate and back into the warren of the city’s streets. They might cause some commotion when they abruptly vanished in ten minutes, but that shouldn’t matter. At this hour, they might not even be seen.

She slipped her hand into her pocket, fiddling with one of her enchanting tools, and nodded to him. The wards were bypassed; they were in.

The route prescribed was a winding one. After only a few feet up the paved path, they slipped through a gap in the hedge and took a circuitous course through the upward-sloping grounds, avoiding patrols of guards and making maximum use of available cover. Saduko seemed tense enough to vibrate, but in truth this was laughably easy. Shook figured he could’ve made the approach even on his own, but having memorized Kamari’s map and directions, it was a literal walk in the park.

Keeping their pace careful, it took them less than ten minutes to reach a nook at one corner of the estate’s outer wall, where a small service door was hidden from view of the streets by a stand of lemon trees. It wouldn’t do to let the commoners outside see that Om’ponole’s flawless gardens required such mundane things as gardeners and tools. That would spoil the image. They really did not take their security seriously here.

Saduko knelt beside the door, placed her hand against it and closed her eyes, concentrating. “…as indicated. It is a standard enchantment, several years out of date, in fact. Quite sturdy; there must be a potent energy source supporting this estate’s network. But not complicated. I can circumvent it.” She fell silent, but her lips continued to move rapidly.

“Don’t need your little tool for that?” Shook asked. He began to be annoyed when she didn’t immediately respond, but quashed it. She wasn’t disrespecting him; she was working. He approved of professionalism.

“The focus was necessary to thwart a ward network of the size that covered the whole estate’s perimeter,” she said finally, opening her eyes and smoothly standing up. “To deal with such a small barrier, any decent enchanter needs only her mind. I’m afraid the lock is beyond my skill, however. That is your area.”

On a whim, he reached out and turned the knob. The latch clicked and the door swung smoothly inward on silent hinges.

“Amateurs,” Shook muttered, slipping inside. Saduko followed on his heels.

It was dark within. According to the plan, Kamari would meet them here; the outside door led to a shed built into the wall, housing tools and supplies for the gardeners. It had been dim outside; the decorative little lamps adorning Om’ponole’s gardens hadn’t been enough to wreck his night vision. Still, he couldn’t make out anything beyond the shapes of heavily curtained windows and murky shadows that might have been anything. He wasn’t about to go blundering around in the darkness.

Saduko carefully pushed the door shut behind them, and they waited in silence for a few tense moments.

“He’s supposed to meet us here,” Shook breathed to himself in annoyance, then raised his voice to a hoarse stage whisper. “Kamari? It’s us.”

Light exploded in the room.

It was too much, too fast; Shook was all but blinded, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes. Even in that first instant, however, he could already see that everything had gone wrong.

Kamari knelt in the middle of the floor, right in front of them, slumped forward so that his face was hidden, his hands obviously tied behind his back. He had clearly been placed there for dramatic effect; Shook allowed himself to hope the man was a prisoner, but only for a moment. Kamari was bruised, lacerated and abraded badly in multiple places, his ripped servant’s uniform heavily stained with blood. It was no longer dripping, however.

Shook had put enough holes in enough bodies during his career to know that living ones bled when you did so.

He could spare poor Kamari no more concern, however, because they were far from alone in the room. It wasn’t a large space, but plenty big enough to contain the six guards lining the walls. Shook suddenly found himself respecting their ceremonial wicker armor a lot more, and not just because of the staves now pointed at him. They did not look pleased to make his acquaintance.

“And here you are,” said a seventh man, well-dressed enough almost to be a minor noble himself, in the colorful fashion of Onkawa, with one of those silly little flat-topped hats they liked around here. He smirked unpleasantly at Shook. “How very punctual you are! I am pleased to see that our Kamari’s directions served you well. We might have altered the guards’ patrol to let you pass, but I refrained; I wished to see whether you knew enough to truly penetrate the estate’s outer defenses. I would applaud Kamari’s diligence in this, but…well, you know.”

Casually, he kicked Kamari’s shoulder with one sandaled foot. The lifeless servant slumped over onto his side. Mercifully, he landed in a position that still kept his face hidden from them. Saduko, pressed against the door, made a strangled noise in her throat.

“And you are?” Shook asked flatly, refusing to give this asshole the satisfaction of looking frightened.

“You have not earned my name,” the man said coldly. Some kind of higher servant, maybe a steward or personal assistant to the chieftain, likely. “Suffice it to know that you are now mine, and will remain so for the time being. Ah, yes, and our very helpful acquaintance! I apologize for this brutish reception, Saduko-san, but barbarians such as this understand no other language. Please, step this way; you are owed a great reward. My master lavishes honor upon those who serve him well.”

Saduko gasped. “What?” she squeaked, naked emotion audible in her voice for the first time since Shook had met her.

He wasn’t impressed by it. The rage that suddenly boiled up in him demanded outlet. How dare she? How fucking dare she spit on Vandro’s hospitality and his own loyalty?! Red tinged his world; he couldn’t even think beyond the overpowering need to inflict vengeance.

“You backstabbing little whore!” Shook whirled and lunged for her.

He didn’t hear the crack of lightning, but he felt it. Only for a second, though.


Mary and McGraw acted simultaneously; a rough wall of black igneous rock thrust upward between the group and the dragon, instantly reinforced by a glittering shield of pure arcane energy. Not a moment too soon; a torrent of dragonfire immediately blasted the barrier. Rock turned scarlet at the edges, beginning to drop off in globs under the onslaught. A shrill whine filled the air as the blue shield turned white and nearly opaque, flickering. McGraw gritted his teeth, clutching his staff as if he were hanging from it.

Joe could spare them no attention. More throwing knives flashed at the group, aimed at each of them; even with all his gifts, shooting them down tested his skill well beyond what he’d been prepared for. It was fortunate that he didn’t have a moment to question his capability. There was no time; there was only instinct. Angle, gravity and force told him trajectories; his hands moved on their own in minute adjustments, his mind flickering out to touch the enchantments in his wands with split-instant precision. Small knives fell harmlessly to the ground, bent and punctured by bolts of energy.

Weaver had drawn a wand from within his own coat and returned fire while Joe was still on the defensive. That put a stop to Vannae’s attack—fortunately, as Joe wasn’t at all sure how long he could have kept that up. Gifted or no, no human moved as quickly or precisely as an elf. Vannae was forced to dodge back from them, bouncing like a greased jackalope.

Joe and Weaver both pressed their attack while he was off-balance. Joe had seen elves in motion, of course, even in battle, and even before the confrontation with the White Riders in Sarasio. He had never had occasion to shoot at one, though, and was finding it a frustratingly fruitless experience.

Behind them, the dragonfire slackened off, and Joe angled his body to give himself a look at their companions without letting Vannae out of his field of view. McGraw was kneeling on the ground, panting; Billie stood beside him, laboring feverishly at a squat tube she had placed on a tripod on the rock. The stone barrier had been reinforced into a small mountain nearly as thick as it was stall, molten and still glowing at the edges, but not penetrated. Heat sufficient to melt rock should have roasted them all from sheer convection; either Mary or McGraw must have counteracted that somehow. Likely the former, given the latter’s apparent condition.

He returned his attention to the elf, trusting his companions to deal with Khadizroth. He and Weaver weren’t making any headway, however. Vannae even found time to hurl a tomahawk at them; Joe easily shot down the much larger missile.

“I thought you were some kind of crack shot,” Weaver growled.

“I am!” Joe protested. “Something’s not right. The math isn’t working!” He was beginning to grow truly alarmed; his instincts, his sense of angles and numbers, was telling him the shots he was firing should be striking flesh, no matter how the elf bounded. He had begun by aiming for arms and legs as was his usual pattern, but as Vannae continued to slip around his shots, had switched to what should have been lethal hits. It made no difference; he hit nothing but air and stone.

“The math?!” Weaver roared. “Boy, when did you find time to scarf down a glittershroom?!”

“He’s doing something,” Joe realized. “Magic! He’s messing with reality somehow.” Even as he said it, he realized how unlikely that was. Such alteration took enormous power, not the kind of thing even an expert shaman could do while jumping around evasively and not appearing to concentrate. Using magic to alter his perceptions, though, was extremely basic witchcraft.

“Oh, really,” Weaver said grimly, holstering his wand. “Keep him busy a bit longer.” The bard drew out his flute, raised it to his lips, and blew.

Uncomfortable as they were, Joe was suddenly very glad of his magic earplugs.

His ears told him he was hearing the sweet, high tone of a flute; all the rest of his senses suggested he was standing next to a just-rung bell the size of a haycart. The whole world seemed to vibrate, the very air resonating. He could feel the earth humming in response.

Vannae staggered, sort of. It was only a momentary lapse, and elven agility enabled him to recover immediately. It was a moment, though, and Joe brought his wands to bear again.

This time, the elf simply managed to move faster than he had expected. He only clipped Vannae on the upper arm and thigh as the elf spun out of the way. Whatever Weaver was doing had canceled out his magical advantage.

Weaver ran out of breath, though; the sound of the flute ended, and there as a second’s stillness. The elf stared at them, wide-eyed; the two adventurers stared back, panting.

A roar sounded from behind them, and something flashed blindingly blue against the darkness.

Joe chanced a glance over his shoulder, just in time to see Khadizroth’s massive form hurled bodily backward. The dragon actually flew over a hundred yards, slamming into the outer wall of the caldera and tumbling to the ground, apparently stunned.

There was a circular hole burned through the center of Mary’s rock wall, and Billie’s device was belching smoke and appeared to have spontaneously rusted to scraps.

“YEAH!” the gnome crowed, pumping a fist in the air. “Suck it, scaletail!”

Joe sensed movement and responded with a wild flurry of small energy bolts. Vannae had started to charge them, but had changed his course at Joe’s reprisal, again barely dodging. His buckskins were scorched where the Kid had grazed him, but if he was in pain, it wasn’t slowing him down. Worse, he had clearly reinstated whatever spell he was using to interfere with Joe’s aim. A further barrage of shots all went wild. Barely so, but barely was enough; he was making no progress against the elf.

“Finish him off!” McGraw rasped behind them.

“I’m out, I’ll need a bit to set up another weapon,” Billie replied, and then whatever else was said was buried under another blast from Weaver’s flute.

This time Vannae staggered much less gracefully, favoring his hit leg.

Moving faster than thought, Joe put a bolt of white light through his other knee. The elf screamed out in pain, stumbling to the ground. Two more blasts pierced each of his hands, and he collapsed to the rock floor.

Weaver’s flute trailed off and the bard gasped for breath. Behind them the others were chattering; Joe tuned them out, unwilling to take his attention off the elf again. Wounded or no, elves were slippery and quick. He approached slowly, both his weapons trained on Vannae. His opponent seemed to pose no threat, however; he lay there curled around himself, shuddering.

“Well,” said Weaver with satisfaction. “One down, just the big one to go.” He raised his wand.

“Stop!” Joe barked, stepping in front of him.

“Are you—get out of the way, kid,” Weaver snapped, trying to step around him. Joe kept moving, keeping himself positioned to ruin the bard’s line of sight without letting Vannae slip out of his peripheral vision. Even with the elf doing nothing but laying there, it was tricky.

“He’s down! You are not going to shoot a fallen, injured man who poses us no threat.”

“The only enemy who poses no threat is a dead one, and you can’t always assume that about them. Boy, I do not have time to indulge your naivete. This is real life; sometimes you have to do ugly things with far-reaching consequences. Now move it!”

He stepped forward, as if to push Joe bodily out of the way.

Joe raised his wand.

The bard stopped, staring at the tip of the weapon from inches away.

“…do you really think that’s wise, boy?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Joe replied. “I think it’s ugly, and likely to have far-reaching consequences. I surely do wish you’d left me with a better option.”

They stared each other down across the wand for a silent moment.

Then, the rush of wings, the tremendous thump of the dragon’s bulk landing on the other side of the fallen elf. Immediately forgetting Weaver, Joe whirled, aiming both wands. They were the best modern enchantment could produce, but he had no idea if they could penetrate a dragon’s hide. Billie’s peculiar weapon sure hadn’t. It seemed he was about to find out, though; there was nothing between him and the dragon but one prone elf.

Khadizroth, however, merely stared down at him, tilting his head to one side as if puzzled.

“I am pleased to have met you, Joseph Jenkins, however briefly,” the dragon rumbled. “You evince a sense of honor I had begun to think extinct among your race.”

Slowly, very carefully, Joe lowered his weapons. If the dragon wasn’t going to attack, he wasn’t about to be the one to start the violence up again.

“I think there’s enough perfidy and virtue everywhere to satisfy anyone,” he replied. “If you’re only seein’ one or the other, maybe that says something about the company you keep.”

The dragon emitted a booming huff accompanied by a gout of black smoke; Joe whipped his weapons back up before he realized Khadizroth was laughing. “And wise, for a child.”

“Something my pa once told me,” he said tersely, forcing himself to lower his wands again.

“Indeed. I would prefer not to destroy you, Mr. Jenkins, if it can be arranged. Your society badly needs the influence of your ideas.”

“We can still come to an agreement,” Joe said. “This doesn’t have to be any uglier than it has been already.”

“Have you something to offer that you neglected to mention initially?” The dragon moved his whole head on his serpentine neck, swiveling his gaze around their group; Joe glanced back to see the others forming up beside himself and Weaver. McGraw seemed to be refreshed, likely thanks to Mary’s aid. “No? Then we remain at the same impasse. I ask that you grant me a momentary reprieve, however, to tend to my friend.”

“You’ve gotta be joking,” said Billie.

Khadizroth lowered his head to stare down at her, featureless green eyes expressionless, the expression on his scaled muzzle—if any—totally inscrutable. “I give you my word, Billie Fallowstone, I shall only move Vannae to a safe place and set a healing upon him. Then I will return, having made no further preparations to battle you, and we may resume from here.”

“What I’m having trouble with is that’d be a goddamn stupid thing for you to do,” Weaver said. “I really can’t see you as being an idiot.”

“Sometimes, Gravestone Weaver, honor must precede reason. If this is the price you demand for allowing me to tend my friend, I shall pay it.”

“We accept those terms,” said Mary.

“Wait, we what?” Billie demanded.

Khadizroth, however, nodded respectfully to her. “Thank you. I shall return anon.” With astonishing tenderness, he carefully lifted Vannae’s twitching form in his massive front claws. Then, giving a mighty pump of his wings, he was aloft, gliding swiftly out of the light of his glowing garden over the caldera’s rim.

“There’s no way he’s just tending to that elf,” Weaver exclaimed. “Gods only know what tricks you just gave him the chance to pull out!”

“He won’t,” Mary said evenly. “Khadizroth the Green prizes his honor, and his reputation for upholding it, above almost everything else. He will do exactly as he promised.”

“But that’s crazy! He’d be handing us a free chance to plan something against him!”

“Then let us by all means use that chance instead of complaining,” she replied, a bite in her tone. “I can neutralize him, but not alone. I must make my preparations. You see that spot, the small clearing between those three glowing maple trees?” She held out an arm, indicating a spot near the middle of the caldera. “He must be brought there, on the ground, stunned or momentarily incapacitated. Can the four of you do this?”

“We’ll make it happen,” McGraw promised, nodding.

“Good.”

There was a flutter of small wings, and the crow vanished into the surrounding darkness.

“And we’re gonna do that fucking how, precisely?” Weaver demanded.

“Language, there’s a—”

“Joe, I appreciate it, but you can give that a rest,” said Billie with a grin. “Been a long damn time since I could fairly call myself a lady.”

“What about the long shot?” Joe asked, turning to McGraw. “Your signature move, isn’t it?”

McGraw was already shaking his head. “No good, kid. There’s not room in this crater to set it up. I’d need at least three times the space to get one going strong enough to put down a dragon.”

Joe frowned. “How many gates would it take?”

“I said—”

“Hypothetically, then. Indulge me, please.”

McGraw snorted. “Hypothetically? Hell, I can give you precise numbers. Five jumps will magnify a standard wandshot to roughly the power of an Imperial mag cannon; one of those was once used to bring down a dragon. But, as I said, there’s no room. We could set up maybe two in here, at most.”

“Somebody wanna let the rest of us in on the joke?” Weaver asked.

“They’re talkin’ about dimensional amplification,” said Billie. “You pump a burst of arcane energy through a series of unstable dimensional portals. If you do it right, your shot garners up loose energy from the portals and grows more powerful with each one. Exponentially. So yeah, about five jumps’d turn a basic wandshot into fuckin’ artillery fire. Y’know how battlestaves are longer than a wand? Same basic principle. I was tryin’ ta do something similar with my gizmo that I just blew up taking down Khadizroth.”

“That sounds like half a dozen things in a race to see which can go catastrophically wrong first,” said Weaver in awe.

“Well, yeah, you may ‘ave noticed it blew up. There’s a reason Imperial mag artillery units don’t try this on battlefields.”

“You can angle the portals, though,” said Joe, making a spiral shape in the air with his fingertip. “Like a nautilus shell. Get the angles exactly right, and the portals will naturally redirect the shot. We can fit them into the crater that way.”

“Joe, that’s pure theory,” said McGraw. “What you are talking about… You’d need to set up those portals with a degree of precision that’d take a whole platoon of engineers a week and a mountain of blueprints to achieve. And that’s in a laboratory, not out here. And then you’d have to land your shot into the portal array with a precision that just ain’t humanly possible.”

“I can do both.”

They all stared at him.

“Kid, I get that you’re eager to please,” Weaver began.

“Look,” said Joe impatiently, “we don’t have time for my whole biography. Will you just trust that I’m not fool enough to risk all our lives on a boast I can’t back up? There’s a reason I’m the best wandfighter in my province.”

“Be that as it may,” said McGraw, “you aren’t a mage. You can’t conjure a dimensional portal.”

“Mm,” Billie mused, stroking her chin thoughtfully. The tufted tips of her ears twitched rapidly. “If I can supply you with portal focus stones, can you set ’em up properly?”

“It’s the angles that are the problem; the ground out here is badly uneven,” said Joe. “Can you compensate for that?”

She grinned broadly. “How about fixing ’em to tripods with adjustable legs? Then you can set ’em up to make any angle you need in three dimensions.”

“That could work,” Joe said, unable to contain his excitement.

“You’ve got equipment on hand for that?” Weaver exclaimed.

“Laddie boy, I got equipment on hand for shit you ain’t crazy enough to imagine.”

“All right,” said McGraw, thunking the butt of his staff against the ground for emphasis, “it’s a plan. Joe, are you sure you can do this? Because you are quite literally gambling our lives on it.”

“I make my living gambling; I know what it looks like.” Joe met the old man’s steely gaze, willing him to believe. “This ain’t a gamble. As long as Billie’s, uh, tripods work the way she says, it’s just math.”

McGraw drew in a deep breath and blew it out hard enough to ruffle his mustache. “All right. Billie, how much time you need to get those things ready?”

“Uh… Gimme seven minutes. No, nine, I’ll need to find a corner to tuck myself in where the dragon doesn’t fry my ass.”

“Nine minutes.” McGraw nodded. “We’ll have to distract the dragon that long; he’ll be back any second, most likely.”

“Healing spells work that fast?” Joe asked, surprised

“With something as powerful as a dragon working ’em, they do. Then Billie hands the stones off to Joe, who’ll have to place ’em around the crater properly while the rest of us distract him more. Then the moment of truth: Weaver and Billie maneuver him to the right position, I conjure the portals at the focus stones, Joe takes his shot, and Mary springs her trap.”

“We are just so indescribably boned,” Weaver said fatalistically.

“It’s a plan, though,” said McGraw, “and it beats the lack of one.” He turned to stare at the dark rim of the caldera; they all fell still, listening to the approaching sound of wingbeats. “And we are out of time.”

“Just remember, each of us has a role to play in this, so whatever you do, don’t get killed during your turn at distracting him,” said Billie. “Except Weaver, who is purely a diversion and thus expendable.”

“You can all go straight to hell,” said Weaver, incongruously sounding more cheerful than Joe had ever heard him.

Then they had no more time to talk, for the dragon had swooped down on them. The blast of his wings blew off their hats and shoved them backward as he beat down, slowing his descent, and still struck the ground with enough force to noticeably shake it.

“So,” Khadizroth rumbled. “Are you prep—”

Weaver shot him in the face.

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5 – 14

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Joe hunched his shoulders, trying to lift up the high collar of his coat to the brim of his hat and offer his ears some protection from the Tiraan cold. The coat was new, and pleasingly thick—a necessary adaptation to the climate—but he’d lacked the foresight to invest in a scarf or gloves. The weather in Sarasio made such considerations unthinkable, and so he hadn’t thought them. He was kicking himself now.

The sidewalks in this ritzy neighborhood had been cleared of ice, so he felt safe in accelerating his pace, the better to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. Carriages and riders passed him on the road now and again, but no one else was braving the elements on foot, which spared him the effort of removing his hat should a lady pass. Manners came before comfort, but he could still be grateful that the need didn’t arise. Any other time, he might have peered around appreciatively at the graceful houses with their elegant gardens; despite having grown up in a rough town, he couldn’t help feeling that all this was much more to his taste. The girls back at the Shady Lady would give him no end of ribbing for that…

The right house wasn’t difficult to find; he’d memorized the address, the old brownstones were clearly numbered, and the street was logically laid out. The gate at the correct address was unlatched and standing open a couple of inches in unspoken invitation. Joe carefully restored it to the same position behind himself after slipping through, crossed the narrow garden in a few strides and pulled the bellrope.

He had only a couple of seconds to wait on the little porch before the door opened, revealing a young ginger-haired woman in a black-and-gray suit.

“Mr. Jenkins?” she said. “Welcome; you are expected. Do come in.”

“Ma’am,” he said politely, removing his hat as he stepped inside. Faint social discomfort nagged at him; she was obviously some sort of servant, but he wasn’t about to relax his standards with regard to the treatment of ladies. It worsened when she deftly helped him out of his overcoat; Joe tried not to shuffle his feet awkwardly as she hung it and his hat on a peg in the hall alongside several others. He was accustomed to doing for himself.

“This way, please,” she said, indicating a short hallway splitting off near the stairs to the second floor. “The Bishop and the rest of your party await.”

“I’m not late, am I?” he asked uncertainly. He’d been careful to allow himself plenty of time…

“Not at all, sir. Please, make yourself comfortable within. Refreshments shall be provided momentarily.”

Joe nodded to her and stepped warily through the indicated door. It was a well-appointed parlor with blue patterned wallpaper, tastefully furnished and just short of crowded; the group wasn’t large, but neither was the space. He had only a moment to gather impressions before his host descended upon him.

“Mr. Jenkins! I’m so glad you could come. Please, have a seat, enjoy the fire. I hope the Rail ride wasn’t excessively horrible.”

“Could’ve been worse,” he replied, carefully eying the man now vigorously shaking his hand. Antonio Darling was blond and well-groomed, wearing an open and honest expression of the kind that, in Joe’s experience, honest people seldom used. “Thanks. Hope I didn’t keep everyone waiting.”

“Well, you’re the last one here. What do you think?” The speaker was a man in a dark suit who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, to judge by his face, unlined but set in a disgruntled expression that gave the impression of being habitual. He had a somewhat scruffy goatee set in a wash of five o’clock shadow, and brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail. What appeared to be a guitar case leaned against his chair.

“Oh, don’t be any more’ve a dick than you can help,” said a gnomish woman perched on the arm of the couch, reaching over to swat the man’s knee. “We’re all early; no need to criticize the boy fer bein’ the only one with the good manners to show up on time.” She grinned and winked at Joe, who smiled tentatively in response. He’d never met a gnome before. She wore what he’d have thought of as men’s work clothes, with an improbable pair of thick goggles perched atop her reddish hair.

Joe sank into the only available seat, on the couch between the gnome and the only other woman present, nodding at each of them and doing his best not to stare. The other woman was an elf; she had upward-pointing ears like the wood elves he was used to, but was dressed in the style of the plains tribes, in bleached and fringed buckskins with faintly dyed vertical patterns that would have provided camouflage in the tallgrass. Most strikingly, her hair was black. She gazed at him contemplatively for a moment before nodding back, face expressionless.

The other man present, sitting across the low table from him in another chair, nodded as well. He was an aging fellow in a ragged suit that had once been of good quality, his brown face deeply lined and fringed by a neatly-trimmed white beard. An impressive wizard’s staff leaned against the arm of his chair, inches from his hand.

“Welcome, everyone,” said Bishop Darling, returning to his own seat at the head of the table, a position from which he effectively commanded the room. “Now that we’re all here, allow me to introduce everybody! I, of course, am Antonio Darling, Bishop of the Universal Church and your host. It’s good of you all to come; I apologize for the short notice and appreciate your flexibility.”

“I’m as flexible as needed when properly bribed,” said the lean man in the black suit.

“Indeed,” replied Darling with a smile. “This, of course, is Damian Weaver. Occupying the other chair is Elias McGraw, and on the sofa, our new arrival Joseph Jenkins, the irrepressible Wilhelmina Fallowstone—”

“That’s Billie, to those who don’t want their kneecaps blasted off,” said the gnome, grinning and punching Joe in the arm. For such a tiny person, she hit hard.

“And, finally, Mary the Crow, who presumably has another name but declines to share it.”

“I offered you my name once, if you’ll recall,” said the elf mildly. “You weren’t interested.”

“Forgive me, dear, I’m not quite myself when mind controlled. By definition.” There was something icy in Darling’s smile; Mary smiled in return, evidently in complete calm. “We’ll have tea and biscuits out in just a moment, but for now, I imagine you’re all curious why I asked you to join us.”

“I might be mistaken,” said McGraw, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But given the roster you’ve assembled, I’d have to guess you want something difficult, dangerous and possibly of questionable legality accomplished.” Joe silently agreed. He had heard, of course, of every one of these people; he’d grown up on the stories of their exploits. Being intimidated by the company he kept was a new experience for him, but he found himself tongue-tied.

“The legality of what I want is something of a gray area,” said Darling with a grin, “but we’ll come to that in a moment. There’s an important background to this that you should understand before we get to discussing any specific tasks. Ah, thank you, Price.”

The girl in the suit had returned bearing a tray of tea and cookies, which she set on the low table and made a discreet exit. The Bishop began pouring tea and handing out cups as he continued.

“I’m sure you heard about the recent rash of murders in Tiraas, targeting clerics in supposedly secure areas.”

“I followed that rather closely,” McGraw said, nodding.

“I didn’t,” said Weaver. “Murders? What happened?”

“The details are gruesome and mostly irrelevant,” Darling continued, his expression solemn. “The short version is that virtually anyone associated with the Church or a major cult who was both known to be involved in some kind of shady business and had taken part in operations against the Black Wreath has been wiped out. Most were killed inside actual temples, where they by all rights ought to have been safe from warlocks or even assassins.”

“Sounds like the Wreath made themselves useful for once,” said Billie, grinning. “Is this still goin’ on? I’ve been out east for the last few months.”

“Not that I’ve heard,” said McGraw. “the assassinations trailed off a couple weeks ago. Almost as suddenly as they started.”

“What’s reasonably sure is that this was beyond the capability of the Black Wreath itself,” Darling said, folding his hands in his lap now that everyone had their tea. “If they could do stuff like that on a whim, they’d likely have been doing it for lo these many years. His Holiness the Archpope is of the opinion the Wreath contracted with high-level, extremely dangerous adventurers to do the deeds themselves. Two such, the assassin known as the Jackal and our friend Mary, here, were known to be in the city during these events.”

The five of them exchanged a round of wary glances. Well, four of them; Mary seemed calm to the point of being disinterested.

“High-level adventurers,” McGraw said at last. “A fella could almost take that for an accusation, your Grace.”

“Oh, don’t be dense,” Weaver snorted. “If he thought we were priest-killers of that caliber, he wouldn’t have put himself in a room with all of us, Butler or no Butler.”

“Lemme stop ya there,” said Billie. “’Priestkiller’ is the common name for a gnagrethyct, a particularly nasty bugger of a demon. Not something you wanna accidentally bring up in the wrong company, ‘specially when the Black Wreath is being discussed.”

“Why, thank you, Miss Fallowstone,” Weaver said with saccharine disdain. “I do so enjoy a spot of aimless pedantry with my tea.”

“Enough,” Mary said quietly. “Focus.”

“I bring this up,” Darling went on, “to explain Archpope Justinian’s newest project. There just aren’t that many adventuring types left in the world, at least not of the caliber of those of you can claim. You five represent a significant chunk of those who are still in the business, so to speak.”

“I’m out of the business,” Weaver cut in, “and I’m still waiting to hear about what you offered to tempt me back in.”

“I am coming to that,” the Bishop assured him. “His Holiness has decided that if the likes of you are still going to exist in this world, they should work for the Church, or not at all. Those who can be recruited, he plans to use to deal with those who refuse. I am responsible for executing this program.”

Another silence fell, this one colder; now, they all stared at Darling. The expressions were not friendly.

“A fella could take that for a threat,” McGraw said grimly.

“Same objection applies,” Weaver mused. “You’re not quite daft enough to threaten us all to our faces, are you, Darling?”

“Indeed,” said the Bishop with a knowing smile. “I should point out that it is Justinian’s grand idea. I am the man in charge of making it happen.”

“It’s unclear to me why that hair needs to be split,” Joe said quietly.

“Is it truly?” Mary asked, raising an eyebrow.

“He’s not gonna just come out and say it,” said Weaver with a smug little smile. “One doesn’t just up and tell a bunch of dangerous strangers that one isn’t completely in the pocket of one’s nigh-omnipotent boss.”

“Let’s just say that my warning you all of this is a good faith offering,” Darling said smoothly. “You all know, now, which way the wind is blowing, and have some time to arrange your affairs to deal with it in whatever fashion you will. I, for my part, have a much more personal matter for which I would like to employ your skills. Justinian’s adventurer project means I can justify making the Church’s resources—and funds—available to you if you should choose to help me with this goal, and while you are officially on a Church payroll, you are assured not to be a target.”

“Uh huh,” Billie said wryly. “And once you hook us, we’re good an’ hooked. We leave, the rest hunt us down, yeah?”

“Nope,” said Weaver, pausing to sip his tea. “The hell I’m going to mix it up with any of you lot, I don’t care who’s paying or how much. And if I walk out of this deal, be it right now or after a long series of engagements together, I will go straight back to Last Rock and screw anybody who wants to try and dig me out.”

“Gonna go back to hidin’ under Arachne’s skirts, then, eh?” asked Billie with a smirk.

“First of all,” Weaver replied, looking down his nose at her, “there is no shame in taking advantage of the protection of an extraordinarily powerful and cranky individual, and second, you’d take position behind her skirts too if you knew what an exquisite little butt she has.”

“Language,” Joe said coldly. Everyone turned to stare at him. “Let’s consider what kinds of conversation are appropriate in the presence of ladies.”

They continued to stare. Finally, though, Mary smiled.

“Oh, this one is absolutely adorable,” Weaver said at last, grinning unpleasantly.

“He ain’t exactly wrong, however,” McGraw noted. “If you can’t be a gentleman, at least show a little restraint. And in any case, all this is cuttin’ into our host’s exposition, which I for one would like to hear.”

“Thank you,” said Darling gravely, his lips twitching with repressed humor. “I’m not going to make you any guarantees about what the future may hold. Suffice it to say that for right now, I’m offering the prospect of sanctuary from the Archpope’s bad list and the opportunity to profit considerably.”

“What’s the job, then?” asked Billie, cocking her head to the side.

Darling smiled beatifically. “I want to hire you to deal with a dragon.”

“Oh, hell yes!” she crowed, hopping up to stand on the couch and grinning with manic glee.

“Hell, no,” said Weaver, standing and setting his teacup on the arm of the chair. “Include me out. I have been on more than my share of suicidal exploits, thank you. There’s not enough gold in the Imperial treasury.”

“Please!” Darling held up a hand. “Everyone, please. Sit, allow me to explain. I wouldn’t presume to drag you all out here with only the offer of something as pedestrian as money. Recall that the telescrolls I sent to each of you indicated that far more valuable forms of payment would be rendered.”

“Knowledge,” Mary said quietly. Weaver and Billie sank back into their respective seats, both studying Darling very carefully now.

“Knowledge,” the Bishop said, nodding. “As a high-ranking official of the Universal Church, I have access to certain resources of an oracular nature.”

“Bullshit,” Weaver said, smiling pleasantly.

“Language,” Joe said automatically.

“Hush, child.”

Mary shifted in her seat. “He speaks truth…at least partially. The Archpopes have been accumulating oracles of all kinds for centuries; that is precisely why they are so rare in the world at large. I am surprised to learn that anyone besides Justinian himself has access to them, however.”

“That is a fairly recent development,” Darling admitted. “But think about it: my claim is its own proof. Each of you wants something, some specific piece of knowledge that, for all your skills and powers, you have not been able to acquire yourselves. Billie wants to know a location; the Kid is hunting for a name, Longshot for a method. The Crow seeks the elaborate answer to a deceptively simple question, and Gravestone wants nothing less than to spit in the eye of a major god without suffering the obvious consequences; he only needs to know how. And assuredly, none of you have let it be known what you’re all after. How, then, did I find out enough of your desires to tempt you out here?”

The Bishop leaned back in his chair, hands folded before him, wearing a smile that was half serene and half smug.

“And knowing what I seek to know,” Mary said softly, “you would still help me learn it?”

“I will, if you agree to accept my terms, do my best to uncover your answer and deliver it to you honestly and in full,” Darling said gravely. “In your case, however, I make no promises about what else I may do with that information.”

“Hm,” she mused, but spoke no further.

“I am similarly skeptical,” Weaver commented. “You described my ambitions pretty well. I’m finding it hard to believe a man of the Church would be willing to help me in that.”

“The Church, though it tends to forget this fact, is ultimately just an administrative convenience,” said Darling with a grin. “It’s there to help the various cults coordinate and avoid conflict. It’s not my god you’re looking to thwart; I don’t figure it’s any of my business how you feel or act toward other faiths.”

“And after we deal with this dragon of yours, we get our answers?” McGraw said, peering at the Bishop through narrowed eyes.

“That is the somewhat thorny issue,” Darling admitted. “I don’t know if any of you have ever tried to extract a straight answer on a factual subject from an oracle, but it’s very much like pulling teeth. Rectally.”

“Convenient,” Billie noted. “And bloody disgusting metaphor, by the way. I might just borrow that one myself.”

“Be my guest,” Darling said with a smile. “Getting your answers, in all honestly, is likely to be a longer-term project than wrangling Khadizroth.”

“Khadizroth the Green?” Weaver exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, you don’t ask for much, do you?”

“What I mean,” Darling pressed on, “is that what I am offering does, indeed, imply a longer-term cooperation between us. For your immediate help, however, there will, as I said, be ample remuneration, provided by the Church.”

Another quiet fell.

“Tempting,” McGraw said, stroking his beard. “Very tempting. Also tricky and potentially problematic in several different ways.”

“If by that you mean it’s a big fat trap, then I agree,” Weaver said grimly. “I’ve not quite made up my mind whether the bait is juicy enough to lunge for.”

“By all means, you should take time to think it over,” Darling said smoothly. “In fact, talk amongst yourselves without me present. I do have certain time constraints, but I certainly won’t begrudge you taking the day to consider.”

“A whole day, eh?” Billie said dryly. “Well, that’s downright magnanimous of you.”

“Time is, as I indicated, a factor.”

“Welp!” She set aside her plate and hopped down from the couch; on the floor, she wasn’t tall enough to see over its back. “If we’re done here for the time being, how’s about us honored guests toddle off and have a high-level adventurin’ lunch? Seems we’ve got notes to compare.”

Weaver sighed. “Might as well, I guess.”

“I for one would welcome some additional perspective,” Joe murmured.

“Perfect!” the gnome grinned up at him. “I know just the place.”


 

“Hey there, neighbor!” Kheshiri said cheerfully, popping out of a side room.

Saduko jerked away from her, skittering almost to the opposite side of the hall, and the succubus tittered in amusement. It was a reaction of pure revulsion, not startlement—the enchantress had proven quite difficult to surprise. The demon was in her disguise as the local girl Shiri, a pretty young woman who had no apparent reason to arouse such a reaction. Luckily for Saduko, they were alone in this particular hallway.

“Why are you off your leash?” Saduko demanded coldly.

“Oh, Master’s off playing with his wands again,” Kheshiri said, pouting. “I swear, all he does anymore is gossip with Vandro and blast artificial targets. I’m just about crawling up the walls with boredom.”

“That is neither my problem nor of any interest to me,” the woman said with her customary Sifanese reserve. They weren’t quite as cold as drow, but they had stern ideas about proper behavior. “Leave me be, creature. I have no wish to interact with you outside of planning sessions.”

“Or even then?” Kheshiri asked, grinning. Saduko merely turned and strode away. “That’s a shame,” the succubus said cheerfully, falling into step behind her, “because I find you very interesting. What ever can you be up to, sneaking about the way you do?”

Saduko’s shoulders stiffened—almost imperceptibly, but Kheshiri was finely attuned to the tiniest shifts of body language. She grinned savagely, enjoying the effects of her needling. “It’s how good you are at it that caught my attention. People sneaking around clumsily are dull; they almost never lead to anything good. Just fools having affairs and stealing things, mostly. But you? No uncomfortable glances around, no awkwardness or fumbling, you just very skillfully manage to be coming and going from empty places all the time, just when nobody’s there to catch you. How very fascinating. I just can’t resist a puzzle.”

“In the courts of Kiyosan, discretion is a priceless skill,” Saduko said icily. “One must step lightly and know how to avoid attention, or one does not survive, must less prosper.”

“There, see!” Kheshiri said brightly, running a few steps to bring herself alongside the woman. “Already you’re sharing things about yourself. I feel very close to you. We’re making progress!”

“I explain the minimum that I must, because you will make trouble otherwise,” the woman snapped. “Now leave me.”

“Aw, don’t be like that. Whatever you’re after, you just might find I can help. I’m a helpful kind of girl!”

Saduko came to a stop, reached into the collar of her shirt and pulled out a necklace, a silver ankh on a thin twisted chain. She thrust this at Kheshiri, chanting a few words in Sifanese.

Kheshiri yelped and staggered backward against the wall; her facade rippled, momentarily exposing glimpses of her milky complexion and sharp features through her disguise. The shadow of wings flickered behind her for a bare second.

“That,” she snarled, “is rude.”

Saduko smiled coldly. “I attempted the polite approach first, for all that things such as you deserve no such consideration. Now leave, before I am forced to be truly insistent.”

“See you when I see you, then,” the succubus sneered, and faded into invisibiliy.

Saduko stood staring at the place where she had been for a moment, then glanced warily around the hall before turning to continue on her way.

At the next intersection, she suddenly spun, yanking out the ankh again and brandishing it, snapping out her chant.

“Dammit!” Kheshiri squawked, popping into visibility a mere few feet away and staggering backward.

“You have entirely consumed your meager allotment of my patience,” Saduko said, glaring at her. “I am also carrying a wand, creature. If I have to dissuade you from meddling a third time, I shall be forced to assume the holy symbol is insufficient for the task.”

“You are not nearly as clever as you think,” Kheshiri growled. “A smart person would make allies out of enemies, not the other way around.”

Saduko didn’t even bother to answer this time, reaching into her pocket and drawing out a short wand. Its stubby shaft couldn’t hold a large power crystal nor provide sufficient carving space for the runes that would improve its range and accuracy, but it’d be more than adequate for delivering crippling electric shocks from a few feet away.

“Fine!” Kheshiri snapped, backing away. “Your loss, bitch. When it counts, remember I made the offer.” She faded from view again, continuing to retreat as she did so.

For a moment, she feared the woman would fire the wand into the apparently empty hall for certainty’s sake, but after another few seconds of suspiciously staring about, she pocketed it again and went on her way.

The succubus, of course, followed her all the way to her room.

At the door, Saduko played her little trick with the ankh again, holding it up and delivering the singsong blessing as before. Kheshiri, waiting invisibly a few feet away, grinned in silence. Very few people ever actually encountered demons; in this age of scrolltowers, newspapers and mass-printed novels, a lot of folk had acquired some truly absurd notions in lieu of the survival knowledge their ancestors might have had. For example, when dealing with demons, faith counted for nothing; you needed power. That demanded a pact with some god or other, which it was clear that Saduko did not have.

Satisfied that she had at last driven off her pursuer, the enchantress began unlocking her door, and Kheshiri did a quick survey of their surroundings to see what she could use. Potted plants, wall hangings, windows… Ah, windows with unsecured shutters. They were in a hallway near the back of the estate; as with most places in Onkawa, the window was large and left open by default to admit a cooling breeze. Kheshiri slipped silently over to it, leaned out and took a grip on the shutter.

As Saduko opened her door, she yanked. The shutter clattered against the window frame, simulating an errant gust of wind, an illusion aided by the powerful flap of the demon’s wings, which it effectively disguised.

The children of Vanislaas were gifted with the power to shift into any shape worn by their erstwhile species—that is, they could disguise themselves only as humans. Kheshiri, never one to be content with any limitations placed upon her, had pressed the boundaries of what was acceptable and possible to the point that even those trained at handling incubi and succubi had often been completely blindsided by her tricks. In a way, that had been her downfall; ultimately, the Black Wreath had found her too interesting (and too potentially useful) to simply destroy, but far too dangerous to leave running around loose. Thus she had been cornered and bound to that damned reliquary.

Now, the thing she shifted into was human, technically—a human a bare few weeks into its earliest development cycle. Her timing was perfect: once propelled forward into the air by the beat of her wings, she shed nearly the entirety of her mass in a display that made a shameless mockery of physics, shriveling to a tiny blob of invisible flesh. Immediately she was blind, deaf and totally helpless, the zygote unable to do anything but exist, and that not for long in the open air. It wouldn’t take more than a second, however. As Saduko spun to stare at the banging shutter, the little lump that was Kheshiri sailed right over her head, through her open door and into her room.

Unable to see, she had to guess at the timing, but she was well-practiced at such dicey maneuvers. Just inside the door, Kheshiri snapped invisibly back to her true shape, spreading her wings to halt her forward momentum. There was, of course, no space to glide, but she had ample room to come to a midair halt, clasp the thick beams supporting the high ceiling and swing herself up onto it, where she crouched catlike, wings compressing against her back. Barely a second had passed; to Saduko, the tiny sound of moving air this caused was only a continuation of the same gust that had startled her in the first place.

Satisfied, the enchantress stepped into her chambers, closing and locking the door behind her, oblivious to the demoness crouching above. Kheshiri could feel the lines of power trapping the walls and windows, the spells that would alert their mistress if the door’s frame, hinges or lock were manhandled, even the few miscellaneous enchantments on the carpet ready to impede the unwary. Saduko hadn’t exaggerated her resume, clearly; she was a very competent spellcaster when it came to security. She’d neglected, however, to provide measures to warn her of anyone passing through a door that she herself had opened, and as Kheshiri had learned long ago and many times since applied to her own benefit, nobody ever looked up.

The enchantress made a quick visual check of her room, no doubt ensuring that her spells were all active. Lucky that she hadn’t added anything specifically to detect demons, especially since she knew she was sharing a house with one and clearly wasn’t happy about it. It had been a gamble, risking that, but anti-demon measures were divine magic; few arcanists had reliable tricks in that line, and hardly any of those were as young as Saduko. Kheshiri noted with some satisfaction that her room wasn’t nearly as large as Shook’s suite, nor as well-appointed.

Her smugness vanished when Saduko knelt before a small cabinet, taking nearly a minute to disarm protective spells and open it, and drew out a tiny idol. The faint, acrid crawl of nearby divinity stung her while the enchantress prayed. No priestess was she, but sincere enough in her faith that her meditations attracted some small amount of her god’s attention.

Kheshiri slunk backward as far and as silently as she could, till she was huddled against the wall, barely clinging to the beam, and poured as much concentration as she could manage into her invisibility, even reaching into her rarely-used gifts for deflecting divine detection, tricks she had learned from an unwary Elilinist warlock ages ago. She didn’t fear the bombast of Avei, the pursuit of Shaath or the various eccentricities of most of the gods, but this one… This one was savvy. He didn’t fling his power around, but he kept an eye on his people, and they were capable enough to be treated with caution.

Despite her discomfort and fear, Kheshiri’s imagination bloomed with this revelation, and with new possibilities.

People in the Empire tended to think the Empire was the world. It was understandable; in addition to being the planet’s most politically powerful government, Tiraas housed the leader and central offices of the Universal Church, as well as those of nearly all the Pantheon’s cults. It was easy to overlook the fact that the cults existed outside this continent.

Which, she reflected as Saduko tucked away her little idol of Eserion and set about re-sealing its housing, made this a wonderfully clever ploy on the part of the Thieves’ Guild; send in a foreigner to infiltrate Vandro’s operations, and nobody would think to wonder if she might be one of theirs. Even if they did, it was unlikely Vandro had the capacity to check up on her history in Kiyosan—if that was even where she came from. Saduko’s accent was right, but accents could be faked, and there were more than a handful of ethnic Sifanese born and raised in the Empire.

It seemed that Kheshiri wasn’t the only party interested in derailing the planned heist for her own benefit. She was going to have competition and no end of trouble. This whole thing had just gotten immeasurably more complicated. Even as she began pondering the problem of getting out of this room undetected and unscathed, Kheshiri grinned to herself.

Oh, the fun she was going to have.

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5 – 8

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“Oh, hey!” Fross cried suddenly, and zipped off toward the door of the cafe, leaving her classmates staring after her, mystified. The door opened a few inches, untouched, and she swerved through the gap into the street outside.

“Uh…” Gabriel looked down at his sandwich. “Are my table manners that bad?”

“Yup,” said Ruda lazily, then belched. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Uncouth fucker.”

The door swung open again, fully this time, and Teal stepped back, holding it for Shaeine, who passed through with a smile. They made straight for the other students’ table, Fross buzzing excitedly around their heads.

“Hey, guys!” Ruda said cheerfully, waving a breadstick. “How’ve you been? Seen Juno and the boys?”

“We have not encountered them since this morning,” Shaine said, “though we’ve been outside the district.”

“Oh?”

“We actually went to see Imperial Square, and Shaeine had to stop by the Narisian embassy on the way,” said Teal, holding out a chair for Shaeine.

Trissiny looked up from her ruminations at that. “Official business?”

“Of a sort,” the drow replied, calmly folding her hands in her lap. “I anticipate no further need of my presence at the embassy, but it was necessary to present my compliments and offer my services to the Ambassador.”

Trissiny frowned. “Why’s that, if you don’t think you’re needed?”

“It is a question of status,” she explained, smiling at Teal as the bard sat beside her before returning her gaze to Trissiny. “As the matriarch’s daughter, my hereditary rank in House Awarrion considerably exceeds hers. As an appointed ambassador to our most important ally, however, her earned position considerably exceeds mine.”

“So how do you decide who’s top dog?” Ruda asked.

“That is precisely the issue. Those two things do not correlate in any way. So long as the matter was left unaddressed, my presence in the city would throw the social calculations of all resident drow into disorder; leaving the matter that way would be considered an openly hostile act on my part. Quite apart from the fact that my mother would seal me in a spider box for doing such a thing, it would be incredibly irresponsible to so disrupt Narisian operations in the city.”

“Well, yeah,” said Ruda, grinning. “Hence the spider box.”

“You guys actually do that?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I thought that was a joke!”

“Presenting myself to the Ambassador,” said Shaeine, disregarding the byplay, “and publicly placing myself at her disposal, resolved the issue. I acknowledged myself to be subordinate, and thus her authority remains unquestioned.”

“When I was growing up,” said Teal, “my parents always told me that social rules and customs were arbitrary and often silly, but it was important to respect them in order to get along with people. Going to social events and dealing with the nobility, it always seemed to me they were dead right. The more I learn about Narisian culture, though, the more elegant it all seems. Purposeful.” She smiled at Shaeine. “Everything they do has an immediate reason behind it.”

“You think spider boxes are in any way reasonable?” Gabriel said, grimacing.

“Narisians are extremely courteous and responsible from a very young age,” Shaeine noted serenely. “How has your morning been?”

“We found some trouble,” Trissiny said dourly. “I don’t know if it’s what Tellwyrn brought us here to do, but it’s not something I think we can afford to just leave alone.”

“Oh?” Teal frowned. “What’s up?”

“It seems the guard have been pressuring the residents of Lor’naris. They don’t seem to like the idea of the locals providing their own neighborhood security.”

“I suppose,” Shaeine said slowly, “that is not entirely unreasonable. Tiraas is a military power; the thought of foreign citizens establishing a militia in its capital might be seen as hostile.”

“Those people are not a militia,” Trissiny said firmly, scowling. “They have no armor, no weapons. They don’t even have a chain of command! There’s barely even a schedule, they just show up and keep an eye on things. There are never more than six on duty at one time; four to watch the entrance to the district and two more to walk up and down the street. All they do is walk and watch; if there’s an actual problem, they call for help from the rest of the citizens. I think I know a little about military matters, and I’m here to tell you the Lor’naris volunteer watch is a complete and total non-threat. They wouldn’t pose a hazard to an actual militia, much less to the world’s highest concentration of the world’s largest and best-equipped military.”

“What kills me,” said Ruda, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms, “is the goddamn stupidity of it all. Doesn’t the local guard benefit from people keeping their own shit together? The less trouble there is, the better they look.”

Gabriel drew in a deep breath and blew it out in an explosion that was barely a sigh; Fross, hovering silently over the middle of the table, was actually pushed back a few inches. “You guys are missing the point. Tiraas is a human power.”

Everyone stared at him.

“Yes,” said Teal. “And?”

“And,” he said, frowning at her, “right here in its capital, in the very jewel of the Empire, a bunch of weird-ass foreigners show up—no offense, Sheaine—move into a slum district that even the local guard had given up on, and whip it into shape in just a couple of years. Suddenly the place where you could always go to get knifed or robbed is full of people taking their kids to school, all clean, orderly and increasingly prosperous. It’d be a slap in the face to the guard if Tiraan citizens had done it. The Narisians made them look bad.”

“That’s fucking idiotic,” Ruda snorted. “The guard made themselves look bad. I’m sorry, but if a bunch of outsiders who don’t know the culture show up out of nowhere and make a better go of it than you were, the issue is that you suck.”

“Yeah?” Gabe said wryly. “Why don’t you go explain that to the soldiers. See what happens.”

“Soldiers?” Shaeine tilted her head. “I thought the problem was with the civil guard.”

“They’re—” Trissiny and Gabriel started to speak at the same moment and broke off, staring at each other. He bowed his head, gesturing for her to continue.

“In the capital, they’re the same,” she said. “Tiraas is Tiraas. In many respects, the city is the Empire, at least in miniature. There’s no mayor or distinct municipal government; the Emperor is the local head of state, and Imperial offices run the city directly.”

“Holy shit,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “And stuff actually gets done?”

“Well, the relevant Imperial offices have separate departments for managing the city,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Otherwise, no, nothing would get done. But yeah, among other things, there’s no civil guard as such. The Imperial Army provides military police.”

“So it’s the Lor’narisianites against the Army?” Fross chimed in distress bobbing up and down. “Wow. Oh, wow. They’re really not gonna win that.”

“So far it hasn’t become a ‘versus’ issue,” said Trissiny, “and hopefully it will not.”

“Well, hell, if it comes to it, Trissiny can just call in the Legionnaires, right?” Gabriel suggested, grinning.

“I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting I set the Silver Legions into armed conflict with the Imperial Army in the heart of the Empire,” she grated, glaring at him. “Yes, they would muster if I called them, unless their officers invoked the long-standing precedent we have of disregarding unethical or incredibly stupid orders. And then, once Avei got through ripping my hide into strips, High Commander Rouvad would take her turn.”

“Was just a thought,” he mumbled.

“I thought you had the same rank in the Imperial Army?” Teal asked.

“That…is a courtesy, as I understand it,” Trissiny said more calmly. “A concession to Avei’s authority and the influence of the Sisterhood, based on the logical presumption that a Hand of Avei is well-trained in matters of strategy and may at any time be involved in campaigns that might necessitate the aid of soldiers. Those men are not spontaneously harassing the locals on a whim; someone is ordering it. If I start countermanding them… Well, I would pretty much have to go to whatever barracks is responsible for securing this area and take it over. That would also cause endless trouble.”

“But, uh, what are you gonna do, then?” Fross asked. “It sounds like you’re taking this pretty seriously.”

Trissiny sighed. “I got the name of a commander and am going to send him a letter. If it continues, I’ll go down there and speak with him personally.”

“Fear the Hand of Avei!” Ruda crowed. “For her wrath is terrible and her boots are shiny!”

Trissiny scowled. “And what’s your idea to help, then?”

“Me?” She snorted and took a swig of her drink. “Hell no, I’m staying out of this.”

Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “What? But I thought…”

“Look, it’s not that I don’t sympathize with the people here,” Ruda said. “I’m always gonna side with the people keeping their own shit together over uniformed assholes trying to push them around. But, first of all, I am not convinced that us butting into this is a great idea at all. Folks in Lor’naris are, as I said, capable of dealing with their own issues. It seems to be pretty much their defining trait.”

“But—”

“Furthermore,” Ruda went on firmly, “let’s keep in mind that I am heir to the throne of the Punaji nation. I can let my hair down in Last Rock and nobody gives a damn. This is different. Me sticking my sword into an internal security matter in Tiraas would cause an even bigger shitstorm than you calling in the Legions.”

“That…kind of goes for me, as well,” Teal said nervously. “I mean, my family aren’t royal, or even noble, but anything I do in the capital will reflect on Falconer Industries. Me butting into the Army’s affairs is… Well, we can afford to lose some business, frankly, but it’s not just about the bottom line. Damaging my family’s credibility could put a lot of good enchanters out of their jobs. At minimum.”

“Opposite problem.” Gabriel raised a hand. “First rule of being a half-demon in Tiraas: keep your head the fuck down. This city is full of people who barely need an excuse to blast it off, and have the authority to do that.”

“Pfft, you can count on me, Trissiny!” Fross declared, zipping back and forth. “Apparently nobody takes pixies seriously around here. We’ll just see about that!”

“I’m not asking for any rash action, Fross,” Trissiny said quickly. “I still don’t know what needs to be done. I’ve spoken with the residents at some length, at least those who serve in the watch, but I don’t yet have the Army’s perspective on the matter.”

“I will speak with Ambassador Shariss about this,” said Shaeine. “It clearly is a diplomatic concern if Narisians are being abused by the Army in the capital—though in acknowledgment of Ruda’s point, the fact that the residents of Lor’naris have not already sought aid from the embassy is telling. They would take such action if they deemed it necessary. However, with regard to your plan to talk to the Army… Perhaps it would save time to go over the heads of the local barracks? Seek out a higher authority? You have the explicit rank, not to mention the prestige.”

“It isn’t that simple,” Trissiny said glumly. “I think you may underestimate how much bureaucracy is involved in running an army. It’d take me longer to get an appointment with a highly-ranked official than we’ll probably be in the city. I could barge in, but that’s an excellent way to guarantee they don’t listen to a thing I tell them, particularly when they’ll probably resent me butting into their business in the first place. The local barracks captain is my best bet. I do have enough authority to get to him and make him listen.”

“You realize that’s probably the guy whose idea all this is,” said Gabriel. “Some outsider forcing her way in and telling him how to run his barracks is likely just gonna make him dig his heels in.”

“Yes,” she snapped, “I do realize that, thank you.”

“Perhaps there is another option,” said Shaeine. “As part of my introduction at the Narisian embassy, I was informed of major social events occurring in the city during the course of my projected stay. I did not think any such would likely be relevant to me at the time, but I do recall that General Toman Panissar, the commander of the Imperial Army, is hosting a very lavish party at his home tomorrow night.”

A momentary silence fell.

“You’d need an invitation to get into that,” Teal said at last, frowning.

“Oh, the hell you would,” Ruda replied with a grin. “C’mon, look who’s at this table. We’ve got foreign royalty, foreign nobility, the heiress to the biggest non-noble name in the Empire and the freakin’ Hand of freakin’ Avei. One or two of us might be able to gatecrash. Three, they probably wouldn’t turn away. All four? No chance, they wouldn’t fucking dare tell us we couldn’t come in. And hey, Fross is a curiosity! Extra points right there.”

“Yay! I’m curious!”

“What about me?” Gabriel demanded.

“Gabe,” Ruda said condescendingly, “what the hell would you do at a fancy society party? Do you even know which one is the shrimp fork?”

“Really, now?” he said sourly. “What would most of you do at a society party? I can see Shaeine fitting in there, but… Do you know which one is the shrimp fork?”

Ruda grinned. “Yup. The shrimp fork is the one with which I stab the shithead who tells me I’m using the wrong fucking fork.”

“I shall consider my point made,” he said.

“I don’t know about this,” Teal said nervously. “I mean… I try to avoid parties. That means dresses, and I really do not have one. And tomorrow night? That’s kind of late to…”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Ruda said breezily. “A good tailor with the right enchanted equipment can do a rush job, set us up with suitable duds overnight. That shit ain’t cheap, but let’s be honest, we can afford it.”

“Okay, you want me to come out and say it?” Teal grimaced. “I hate wearing dresses.”

“Then don’t,” Shaeine said quietly. Teal turned to her, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “I have seen Imperial formal wear, and… You would look positively stunning in a well-fitted tuxedo.”

Teal flushed slowly, but said nothing, merely holding the drow’s gaze. They stared into one another’s eyes in silence.

“Ugh,” Ruda groaned, throwing her head back. “People are still eating in this room, you two.”

“I don’t have a dress uniform with me,” Trissiny murmured, “but I could get one easily enough at the Temple. And… Gabriel isn’t wrong; I can’t imagine being anything but profoundly uncomfortable at a society event. But it would get me in a room with General Panissar.”

“Yup,” Gabe said fatalistically. “And that can only end well.”


Silence held sway in the room.

Amanika stared at Kheshiri, blank-faced. Saduko and Kamari glanced uncertainly at once another, at Vandro, at Kheshiri and Shook. Vandro himself simply stood there, holding his drink and smiling complacently. Kheshiri kept her gaze on Shook, who had tensed to the point that his hand quivered on the glass it held, the other clenched in a fist at his side.

“Shiri, honey, we’re waiting,” Vandro prompted gently.

At last, she cut her eyes to him, expression blank. “You don’t command me.” She returned her gaze to Shook.

After a tense moment, he nodded slowly. “Do it.”

She sighed, shrugged…and changed.

Warm brown skin bleached white in two seconds—not pale as some strains of humans were, but white, an icy matte color that didn’t belong on flesh. The broad features of a pretty Onkawi girl lengthened into more sharp-edged shapes; her black hair uncoiled itself from its braids, taking on subtle highlights in unnatural colors. Dark eyes faded to crystalline blue-violet, her tail uncoiled behind her, and finally, in acknowledgment of Vandro’s initial command, a pair of spiny wings stretched into existence, then stretched further, extending until they brushed the walls.

Kamari dropped his glass.

“Aiya,” Saduko whispered, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.

“Now, let’s nobody go an’ do anything abrupt,” Vandro said cheerfully. “My boy Jerry has full control over her. Ain’t that right?”

Shook nodded curtly, glancing at Kheshiri. The succubus dropped her eyes demurely. Then, moving with a sinuous grace and far more sway than necessary, she stepped over to him, descended to crouch on the ground at his feet and wrapped her arms around his leg. Cheek pressed to his thigh, she stared smugly at the others in the room.

Shook rested his free hand on her head after a moment, twining his fingers in her hair.

“So you see,” Vandro went on, swirling his daiquiri idly in one hand, “just what we have attending to stealth and security. You have nothing to worry about, my friends. Anybody trying to put pressure on you will be very capably dealt with.”

“And,” Saduko said quietly, “any betrayal from us will be punished beyond the mercy of death.”

“My dear,” said Vandro, shaking his head sadly, “I am very nearly hurt. I only hope in time I can reassure you that I don’t deal so heavy-handedly with my business associates.”

“Bringing this thing here was not a step in that direction,” she said evenly.

“We’re running a complicated job,” he replied with a grin. “We’ll make use of every available resource—particularly the ones nobody expects we have. To that end, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway for thoroughness’s sake: the demon is a secret. Not a word of this is to be breathed to anyone outside this room. Clear?”

He waited for them to nod before carrying on, beaming. “Jolly good! Now, I beg your forgiveness for hustling you along, but I need to clear up a few things with Jerry in private. Of course, you are all honored guests here; avail yourselves of any amenities my villa has to offer. Kamari, I’m afraid you’ll have to do so in the private areas, as we don’t want to getting around that you have any association with me just yet. Still, there’s plenty for you to do. Wilberforce will see to it you don’t lack for entertainment.”

“Thank you, sir,” the burly servant said nervously. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Kheshiri yet.

They filed toward the door in silence, all three stepping well out of their way to avoid the spread of the demon’s wings, now somewhat furled and closer to hip level. As soon as the door clicked shut behind Saduko, the last to leave, Shook whirled on Vandro.

“Just what the hell—”

“First of all,” Vandro said calmly, “I am not upset at you bringing a demon into my home, Jerry. It’s apparent you do have her restrained, and hell, in light of our earlier conversation I’m glad to see you reaching at unconventional resources. You’re gonna need that if you mean to run down this Locke bitch and straighten out the elements in the Guild that’ve turned on you. But boy, you have got to be more careful. She was spotted the first day here.”

“How?” Kheshiri demanded, scowling.

Shook swatted her on the side of the head. “You keep your mouth shut till someone asks your opinion, whore,” he growled without looking at her. “It’s a good question, though, Alan. How? Who?”

“Jerry, my boy, you were just in a room with a priestess. You had a demon within arm’s reach of her; you really think any magical disguise would’ve fooled someone soaked in the light of the gods? Come on, now. Amanika’s in and out of this estate all the time; she spotted your little pet immediately.”

“She did? She is?” Shook frowned. “I never…”

“Never noticed her?” Vandro said dryly. “No, I’ll just bet you didn’t. No rack or ass to speak of, face of a billy goat, dresses like she’s trying to convince all the other dykes to bow down before their queen. Boy, I have told you about this, time and again. Women are trouble, every last one of ’em, but most are not in any way stupid. That’s exactly why they’re trouble. You have got to start paying attention to the women around you. There are much more important calculations to be made about a woman than the likelihood and desirability of nailing her. The pretty ones use beauty as a weapon; the homely ones make use of the fact they’re basically invisible. If Amanika didn’t happen to be more indebted to me than the local Guild chapter…well, guess how that would’ve ended for you. She’ll keep your secret because I vouched for you.”

He stopped and sighed; Shook actually lowered his gaze, abashed.

“Anyhow,” Vandro went on, “Amanika assures me you’ve got no more infernal magic in you than the piddly residue you’d get from spending time around this critter.” He leaned down and ruffled Kheshiri’s hair. “So either you’re one of the most powerful warlocks alive, or not a warlock at all, and having trained you myself I pretty much know which. So I busted out the scrying equipment and observed you have an object of considerable infernal and arcane power on you. That’s the mechanism, I take it.”

“Yeah,” Shook said slowly, nodding. “She’s bound to a reliquary. I can put her in it, when I get tired of her mouth. It’s vintage Black Wreath work, but I had it modified with some modern enchantments to secure her more thoroughly and bind it to me.”

“Good man,” Vandro said, nodding approvingly. “This is why you’re still my favorite student. You’ve got your blind spots, Jerry, but you use the ol’ noggin more than most enforcers can be bothered to. Still, you’re pushing your luck. What was spotted once can be spotted again. I’m gonna hook you up with my magic guy in the city; he can mod this reliquary of yours to help keep your pet concealed. Long as you take a little more care about who you rub elbows with, it should prevent another slip-up like this.”

“This guy’s trustworthy?” Shook asked tensely.

Vandro burst out laughing. “Boy, if you’re gonna ask dumb questions…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shook muttered.

“Boris has never let me down yet. He does infernal and arcane work; between the two, you can spot pretty much any type of magic if you’ve got the right equipment. Or, more importantly, you can stop any school of magic from spotting what you want hidden.”

“There’s always a bigger fish,” Kheshiri murmured.

“I see you’re forgetting your manners, bitch,” Shook said, staring coldly down at her. “We’ll discuss that in private, later.”

“Sorry, master,” she said, a quaver in her voice.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Vandro said, beaming in approbation. “If only you could shut the real kind up as easily. But yeah, she’s got a point; you get her in a room with an archmage or paladin and the jig’ll be up no matter what kind of precautions you take. Still, shouldn’t be too hard to stay away from those. Now, then, about the plan. She can do it, I trust? Shapeshift to mimic us and secure our alibis?”

“Answer him, girl,” Shook said.

“Changing shape is simplicity itself,” the succubus said promptly. “Mimicry… That’s all about acting. To really sell the role, I’ll have to spend time around each of them, enough to properly observe their mannerisms. I don’t think they like me, though.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” said Vandro, waving a hand. “At the party you won’t be spending enough time around anybody to need to sell the illusion. You’ll have to do for all six of us, remember. The point is to be seen here and there. Don’t waste time conversing with people, just make sure you’re spotted with each face on.”

“Then yes, sir, I can do it,” she said, waving her tail. “Easily.”

“Attagirl,” he said with a grin, and turned his face back to Shook. “And now, of course, the real, ultimate question. How is she in the sack?”

Shook stared at him silently for a moment, then slowly, a smile stretched across his face. He lightly stroked Kheshiri’s hair with his fingertips. “Absolutely, incomparably magnificent. She’s a handful sometimes, but I’ve got to say, the bitch knows what she’s for, and she takes pride in her work. Justifiably.”

“Ah, my boy,” Vandro said, shaking his head, “I think this is divine compensation for your run of bad luck lately. What I wouldn’t have given for a girl with a body like that who’d shut up on command at your age… Hell, I’d give a lot more for one now.”

Shook looked contemplatively down at Kheshiri, then gave her hair a gentle tug. She rose smoothly to her feet.

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Shook said with a faint grin. “Why don’t you try her out?”

Vandro raised his eyebrows. “You’re joking.”

“Alan, it’s like you said: we’re family. Besides, you’ve been more than generous with your hospitality. I’m serious, borrow her for the night. And don’t worry about bringing her back in the same condition; she heals up fast, and she’s an experience you won’t wanna hold back with. Now, Kheshiri,” he went on, turning his stare to her, “Alan is the man to whom I owe everything I know. I expect to hear you’ve given him the greatest night of his life, or I’m gonna take it out of your ass. Clear?”

She looked thoughtfully up at him for a moment, then turned her considering gaze on Vandro, and smiled. “Mm… He strikes me as a man who’s sampled innumerable pleasures over a very full life. That’s a tall order, master.”

Shook chucked her gently under the chin. “You’re a tall girl.”

“I won’t embarrass you, master,” she said, waving her tail, then gave him a wicked little smile, gazing up through her lashes. “And afterward, if I bring back a favorable review… Can you still take it out of my ass, please?”

“Okay, damn,” said Vandro. “I want one.”

“No, you don’t,” Shook replied. “Enjoy the good and don’t worry about the headaches involved with keeping her reined in. My gift to you.”

“Well, of course,” Vandro said easily, grinning as Kheshiri stepped over to him and snuggled under his arm, draping a wing around his shoulders. He wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her rump. “It’s like I’ve always said; if it’s got tits, it’s trouble. Best you can do is find one that’s no more trouble than she’s worth.”

The demon smiled.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

5 – 7

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The unforgiving sun made midday naps a venerated tradition in Onkawa—at least during the summer. Now, in winter (such as it was), the climate was mild enough that Shook had no trouble bearing the heat with nothing but a wide-brimmed hat to shield him. He was sweating, of course, but that didn’t bother him overmuch.

Vandro’s palatial residence truly had it all, including a shooting range. Shook stood in the long, shaded alley between the rear of the villa and the defunct city wall it abutted, firing bolt after bolt of light into the targets eighteen yards away. A whole bank of sizeable power crystals supported the shielding charms over them; these could have stood up to artillery fire. There were also golem logic controllers that would make the targets move. Much as it galled him to acknowledge it, he wasn’t up to that just yet.

He was getting pretty good, though. After a fourth consecutive bullseye, his concentration was momentarily disrupted by a cheer and applause from Kheshiri.

Shook glanced over at her, annoyed but keeping his features carefully schooled. She was off to the side, lounging on a low divan shaded by a huge parasol. She had, as usual, draped herself to show off her figure, lying on her side in a way that emphasized the curve of her hip, twisting her torso so as to make the arch of her breast stand out. Since she’d been around, he had been paying close attention to her wiles, and had incidentally picked up a few things about women that he’d never bothered to know. For instance, that unnatural position, mouth-watering as it was, must put an excruciating strain on her lower back. Or at least, it would have on a real woman’s. He also knew that the tight, colorful Onkawi robe she wore didn’t contain the kind of undergarments that would make her bosom stand out that way when she was reclining, which meant she was using her shapeshifting to cheat.

He had told her first thing, in their very first meeting: he was not stupid. Still, her games didn’t particularly surprise him. She thought she was leading him along, into some trap down the road, wearing down his alertness, earning his trust. He was rather looking forward to brutally disappointing her. Shook had already decided he’d be keeping Kheshiri, even after he’d straightened out Principia and got himself back in the Guild’s good graces, as he deserved. This was looking like it’d be a long-term project, though; plenty of time to break her in properly. Even knowing she was trying to undermine him, the succubus was enjoyable to have around. Not just sexually, either. She had a biting sense of humor, an appreciation of malice that was gratifying when he was dealing with somebody who needed to be taken down a peg, and a knack for easing his tensions that was no less effective because he knew she was using it to manipulate him.

Seeing his distraction, she took the opportunity to ooze upright, daintily picking up one of the tall glasses of iced punch that sat on a tray on the ground nearby, and slinked over to him, offering it. “A cold drink, boss? You need to be careful in this heat.”

“Mm,” he said noncommittally, picking it up and taking a sip. Damn fruity concoction, not at all to his taste, but using chilled drinks as everyone here did to beat the heat, it would have been a bad idea to go for the hard stuff he preferred. Even he wouldn’t have been able to hold that quantity of liquor.

“Good shooting, my boy,” said Alan Vandro, strolling forward. Shook managed, barely, not to jump; he hadn’t noticed the man there. Kheshiri, of course, was clearly not surprised, though she positioned herself behind him, peering demurely at their host over Shook’s shoulder. Their cover story was that she was a Shaathist, not particularly devout, but into the cult because she enjoyed being told what to do and occasionally slapped around by her man. This explained their dynamic, but necessitated some change in her public address of him; even for an alleged Shaathist, “master” would have raised eyebrows. He didn’t much like abusing Vandro’s hospitality by deceiving him, but a captive succubus was something he didn’t fancy trying to explain—to anyone. “You’re enjoying my little gift, then?”

“It’s anything but little, Alan,” Shook replied, tilting the wand skyward to study it. Not a proper enchanter wand; he hadn’t a spark of magic in him and couldn’t have used one. Still, this was a top-of-the-line model, hand-crafted using the finest materials by a master enchanter. It packed a significantly stronger punch than its mass-produced cousins, would last longer between rechargings and had several useful enhancements. Vandro had given him two of these, along with a proper wandslinger’s belt which held extra power crystals and components, plus grounding and shielding charms to repel incoming wandfire. “I’ve gotta say… Part of me hates the necessity. Seems like there’s no honor in the old profession any more. If you’re gonna kill a man, or just rough him up, you should be able to see the look on his face when you do it.” He sighed, lowering the weapon and slipping it back into its holster. “But that’s the world, now. It’s becoming clear to me I’ve been living in the past; failing to make use of the resources available is part of the reason for my current troubles. This was…timely. And they’re beauties. I can’t thank you enough, Alan.”

“Hell with that, you’re family, my boy,” Vandro said, waving him off. “And don’t sweat your missteps. What matters is you learn from your mistakes and survive to apply the lesson. Isn’t that right, honey?” he added, winking at Kheshiri.

“If you say so, sir,” she said demurely, lowering her eyes.

“It’s not all tactics and equipment, you know,” Vandro went on, watching Shook’s face closely. “Ever think you might have made some errors in how you behave? Who you trust?”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What are you getting at, Alan?”

“Think about it, boy. You’ve always been a faithful man of the Guild… And yet, here you are. They want you dragged back kicking and screaming, and the bitch who set it up is apparently lounging on her sofa, eating bonbons and having a giggle at your expense. Something sure as hell ain’t right about this. How’d you manage to get so thoroughly taken for a ride? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should happen if everything in the Guild is being run as it should.”

Shook frowned, but didn’t comment, finding nothing he could say to that.

“So, say you clear your name,” Vandro went on, still studying him carefully. Kheshiri, now, was watching him just as closely. “What do you gain? Your name should’ve been clear to begin with. Someone aside from Principia fucked you over—or at the least, she took advantage of failures in the Guild’s leadership. How long before it all happens again? Will throwing her ass in an oubliette somewhere really solve the problem?”

“Well, what the fuck do you expect me to do?” Shook demanded, flinging his arms out in a furious shrug. “I can’t just leave this like it is! What’s the point of anything if I can’t get my life back?”

“The problem isn’t you, my boy,” Vandro said, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. “Never was. All I’m saying is, it looks like the problem runs deeper that you may have realized. I’m glad to see you’re lookin’ beyond the immediate future, expanding your repertoire, so to speak. Here’s the question: how far are you willing to expand it?” He glanced significantly at Kheshiri, and Shook felt a moment of unease. “How many things are you willing to consider you may have been wrong about?”

“I know when something’s being hinted at,” Shook replied. “Get to the point, Alan. This kind of pussyfooting around isn’t like you.”

Vandro threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, fair enough, my boy, fair enough. C’mon, there are some folks I think you should meet. I was just about to have a discussion with ’em myself; you should come along, see if you can’t learn anything useful.”

“All right,” Shook said, nodding. He was far from certain where all this was leading, but Vandro had more than proven his trustworthiness, many times in the past and more recently as well. “Shiri, I’ll be back later. Stay out of trouble.”

“Nonsense, bring her along!” Vandro said glibly, slapping him on the shoulder. “I bet you can find a use for her in all this, too.”

Shook frowned again, saying nothing, but let Vandro lead him off into the main house. He had a feeling about this… Not a bad feeling, but not a comfortable one. The two men stepped into the shade, Kheshiri trailing obediently behind them.


 

The villa was even larger than it looked; more than half its interior volume was under ground level, carved from the massive slab of granite on which Onkawa sat. Underground living was another adaptation against the heat which was widely practiced in the city, or at least was among the wealthier classes. The effort of actually carving out subterranean chambers discouraged many.

Vandro led them to a long, narrow lounge two levels down. It was lavishly appointed, as was everything in the villa, lit by sun crystals rather than fairy lamps, which enabled potted ferns and a dwarf fig tree to flourish in the corners.

The meeting, it seemed, was already in session when they arrived. Vandro’s party doubled the population of the room. On a wicker chair against the far wall sat a young Sifanese woman who rose on their entry, bowing politely. Two others, locals by their dark coloration, stood beside the room’s small bar, holding cocktails. The man wore a fairly cheap suit and a nervous expression; he was of average height, but very powerfully built, making him look almost squat. The woman was tall, bony and rather gawkish, though her manner was stately. She wore a simple tunic and slacks, in a style that wasn’t quite Tiraan or Onkawi.

“Here we are!” Vandro boomed, holding out his arms as he stepped into the room as if to embrace everyone present. “All finally gathered. Thanks for waiting, everybody, I hope it wasn’t too long. Damn it, Kamari, I told you you don’t have to serve drinks! You’re a guest here.”

The burly man had already begun mixing three more daiquiris. His teeth were large, even and very white; his grin was almost luminous in his black face. “This is Onkawa, Mr. Vandro. Guests are family, and family do for each other.”

“Cheeky bastard,” Vandro said with a grin, gesturing Shook and Kheshiri in. “Everyone, this is my old apprentice, Jeremiah. I’ve told you about him. And that’s his ladyfriend, Shiri. Jerry, the fellow who won’t get it into his head he’s not a servant here is Kamari; take advantage while you can, he makes the best damn cocktails I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Only glad to serve,” Kamari said cheerfully.

“Over there is Saduko, a visitor from Sifan. Hands off, now, m’boy, she’s an honored guest. And this, of course, is Amanika, priestess of Eserion and something of a muckety-muck in the local Guild chapter house.”

Shook froze, staring at the woman. She inclined her head to him, politely but distantly. “That’s the first time I have been called that, exactly. Hm, I might just keep it, though. Has a nice ring.”

“You should get business cards printed up,” Vandro said, winking.

“Alan,” Shook said warily. “I’m not sure if…”

“Relax, my boy, nobody here is gonna snitch on you. Yes, Amanika knows the orders about you, but you’re in my place, and I vouch for you. We’ve already had this conversation. Isn’t that right, Nika?”

“Quite,” she replied calmly, peering first at Shook and then Kheshiri. “All is as I told you.”

“See? There you go, all friends here.” He handed Shook a daiquiri. “Nobody’s gonna turn you over to the Guild. Hell, nobody here is turning anything over to the Guild. The fact is…we’re here to plan a job. I want you to be part of it.”

“I’m…honored,” Shook said carefully, holding the icy drink but not sipping. Kheshiri had accepted another from Kamari. “That’s problematic, though. My situation being what it is, it’d raise all kinds of eyebrows if I sent in my tithe on a job.”

Vandro sipped his daiquiri, watching Shook with a knowing little smile. “Now, Jerry, what did I just say? We’re not giving the Guild shit.”

Shook stiffened, his hands clenching on the glass. “Alan… You know you’ve been like a father to me, and I owe a lot to your generosity. But I can’t be party to shafting the Big Guy. Eserion does not let people get away with that, even if I were willing to turn against him. Hell, you of all people—”

“Now, Jerry, there you go making assumptions,” Vandro interrupted, grinning. “Nobody’s gonna try to stiff the Big Guy. Even Kamari and Saduko have agreed to pay the proper tithe, despite the fact they aren’t Eserites. No, Eserion gets his cut, as always; this is not negotiable. We’re just not giving it to him through the Guild.”

There was silence in the room, while Shook scowled and others sipped their drinks, or in Saduko’s case, just stood with an impassive expression.

“Go on,” Shook said finally.

“It started three Bosses ago,” Vandro said, beginning to pace up and down. “Catseye was…just too damn ambitious. She pulled off some epic jobs, yeah, and that bought her a lot of cred, which is how she got away with all she did. She organized us far too heavily, personally mobilizing large groups on large jobs. Made the Guild more centralized than it used to be.

“Then came Sweet, the ultimate people person. Honestly, I liked him, and I’d have been all right with his style of leadership if he hadn’t followed Catseye…or if he’d been willing to dismantle her bureaucracy. He didn’t; instead, he used it. Kept his eyes everywhere, stuck his fingers into everyone’s business. Again, nobody complained, even though he never pulled down the kind of income Catseye did, because Sweet was all about keeping everyone happy. Not much of a Guild leader, in short, but he was a kickass high priest. A lot of us owe him a great deal.”

“Yours truly included,” Shook said, finally sipping his fruity drink and grimacing at the taste. “Sweet was the first person aside from you who took an interest in me, made sure I got a fair chance.”

Vandro nodded. “Which brings us to the current situation. Tricks is another Catseye, an operations fellow. And he, again, built on what those before him created. Catseye’s ops protocols, Sweet’s information network, and his own cunning and knack for planning cons. Once again, everybody seems fine with this state of affairs; he doesn’t keep the Guildmembers as happy as Sweet did, but damn does he rake in the gold.”

“I’m not seeing the problem, here,” Shook said.

“Don’t you?” Vandro’s stare bored into him. “You, of all people? Boy, just how the hell do you think Principia managed to get her tentacles into the Guild’s structure and use it against you the way she has? The Guild is not supposed to have a fucking structure, at least not one like this. We all know the catechism. All systems are corrupt. The Thieves’ Guild has lost its way, become an institution. It is behaving exactly as institutions do: accumulating power, developing new rules and traditions, and gradually twisting everything around till all its actions are about prolonging its own existence, instead of pushing the Big Guy’s principles.”

“Omnu’s balls, Alan,” Shook breathed. “You’re talking about rebelling against the Guild!”

“No, no, Jerry.” Vandro shook his head emphatically. “Come on, you’re smarter than this. You overthrow something, well, then you’re stuck with the unenviable task of running whatever you just took over. Hell no, we’re not rebelling. That’d just put us in power, which isn’t what we want or what the Guild needs. The problem isn’t that the Guild needs a regime change; it’s that the Guild needs to not have a regime.”

Shook frowned into his drink, pondering. Amanika spoke into the ensuing silence.

“We do not propose to replace the leadership of the Guild; merely to undermine it. To introduce the random elements that should be the norm for those in Eserion’s worship.”

“It’s about setting a precedent,” Vandro agreed, gesticulating with his glass. “What we do here will be carefully spread around the continent and beyond, whispered of until others try it—with, perhaps, a little help from us. One by one, jobs will start being sponsored that cut the Guild out of the action, making the Boss look impotent and foolish and depriving the bureaucracy of tithes. Eventually the Boss will go back to being the figurehead and spiritual leader he’s supposed to be. Not a man who’s knee deep in everybody’s damn business.”

“I can…see your point about undermining respect for the Boss,” Shook said slowly. “But you’re not about to starve the Guild. Trust me, I worked security at the Imperial Casino for years. The Guild could run itself on that place alone. Indefinitely.”

“One thing at a time, my boy,” said Vandro, grinning. “One thing at a time. The relevant question in the here and now is this: are you in?”

Shook glanced around the room. Vandro was grinning, as was Kamari. Amanika studied him with a calm yet intent expression; Saduko was impassive as a statue. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder at Kheshiri. She nodded slowly.

“Hell with it,” he said. “What’s the job?”

“That’s my boy,” Vandro crowed. “All right, we’re still in the early planning stages, but I’ll run you over the basics. Our target is one Chief Om’ponole.”

“They still have chiefs here?” Shook demanded, curling his lip.

“We have chiefs in the way that the lord governor of Calderaan Province styles himself a King,” said Amanika with a faint smile. “Nations that joined the Empire willingly enjoy certain privileges. At the end of the day, though, there is only one law under Tiraan rule.”

“Om’ponole doesn’t even have any political clout,” agreed Vandro. “What he has are business interests. In short, he’s a rich asshole of exactly the kind that we exist to teach a little humility to.”

“All due respect, Alan, what’s that make you?” Shook asked, smiling wryly. “I mean…this place.”

“You’re not wrong, boy,” Vandro said with a grin. “That’s our in, though. As far as the rest of the hoity-toity types in Onkawa know, I’m a rich asshole just like them. That means I get invited to all their bullshit parties, and they come get shitfaced on fruity booze here in my humble abode when it’s my turn to pass out invitations. You would be amazed how much I learn about all their various palaces this way.”

“Alan is hosting one such party fairly soon,” said Amanika. “Om’ponole will be here, as will everyone who fancies themselves important. While this is going on, we will liberate the contents of his personal safes.”

“Everybody has a role,” said Vandro. “Kamari, here, is a servant on Om’ponole’s estate—a servant who isn’t paid a living wage, nor given so much as a ‘thank you’ or solstice bonus. Classic rich asshole mistake; you keep this in mind when you’re my age and have your own nest egg, Jerry. Everyone working on these grounds is well provided for. I don’t employ people with drug addictions, gambling habits, or chronically sick or imprisoned relatives. No cracks for somebody to get their claws in. I know all their names and ask about their day; I damn well say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they water my plants and fetch my slippers.”

“Mr. Vandro has very generously offered me employment on his estate,” Kamari said with his infectious grin. “I am only too glad to help him arrange a proper resignation for me from the Chieftain’s household.”

“Hell, I’d run more than a job to get this man on my staff,” Vandro chortled. “So help me, if I could slap a pair of tits on this daiquiri I could get rid of all the damn girls always cluttering up my gardens; I’d have no more need of them.”

“You give me far too much credit, sir,” Kamari laughed.

“Needless to say, Kamari’s our inside man. He gets our team into Om’ponole’s estate, and Saduko gets us into his valuables.”

“She’s a safecracker?” Shook asked, turning to regard the young woman.

“I am an arcanist,” she said calmly. Her Tanglish was good, but carried more than a hint of a lilting accent.

“Saduko comes to us from the University at Kiyosan,” explained Vandro. “In fact, she’s a specialist in creating magical security—exactly what we need to defeat it. Unfortunately, she has found that Onkawa isn’t exactly the melting pot that Tiraas is, and in any case, the lucrative avenues of legitimate employment are typically granted to citizens over foreigners, even when the foreigner is the better man—or in this case woman—for the job.”

“So it is everywhere,” Saduko said philosophically. “The economy in Sifan does not support many persons of my skill set at present. I gambled that life would be better in the Empire. When one gambles, alas, one must expect eventually to lose.”

“Don’t you worry, darlin’,” Vandro said, grinning. “You help us through this and I guarantee I’ll have plenty more work for you.”

“No more stealing,” she said stiffly. “That was our arrangement.”

“I’m a man of my word, Saduko. One job to prove your skills, and after that… Well, you’ve seen my place. I have plenty of perfectly legal uses for a person of your profession.”

“I, for my part, will handle the Guild end of this,” said Amanika. “Ensuring that the Big Guy receives his cut without going through Guild channels. That will require some creative laundering and the aid of someone with a close spiritual connection to our god.”

“The fact that Amanika’s on board with this is a sign of Eserion’s favor,” said Vandro smugly. “You know how many people there are with exactly that skill set?”

“I will also, as needed, act to direct the Guild’s attention away from us,” added the priestess with a faint, mysterious smile.

“Sounds solid so far,” said Shook slowly. “What is it you need me for?”

“You and the girl,” said Vandro. Shook raised his eyebrows sharply.

“Shiri? What the hell do you expect to do with her?”

“Now, now, my boy, don’t be modest!” Vandro smiled beatifically, turning back to face the rest of the group and holding his daiquiri for all the world like a scepter. “Jeremiah, here, is one of the best enforcers the Guild has. He and the girl are providing security. I’m gonna have to level with you all, and I hope you won’t take offense: for a job like this, when we Guild thieves employ outside contractors, security is needed not only for our protection during the heist itself, but also…afterward. There are all kinds of pressures that can fall on a person to rat out their partners, and for those of you who don’t enjoy the Guild’s direct support…well, extra measures are needed to keep you safe. Should you have any trouble with authorities, or anyone, Jerry and Shiri will see to it they get off your back. In addition to getting you through the job itself without getting shot, stabbed or imprisoned.”

“And,” Saduko said, twisting her mouth distastefully, “should we decide to reveal what we know to any outsider, they will silence us.”

“Now, darlin’, I’m not even considering that possibility,” Vandro said kindly. “I respect your intelligence far too much; you both know very well which side your bread is buttered on. In theory, yes, that could happen. I’m sure we don’t need to worry about it, though. Do we?”

“No worries, boss,” Kamari said, nodding emphatically. “I’m with you all the way.”

“I keep my word,” Saduko said coldly.

“I think you’ve got the wrong idea about Shiri,” Shook said, glancing at her. She was doing a marvelous impression of demure confusion. Even he was nearly fooled. It seemed Kamari was likewise puzzled by her inclusion in this, though Saduko was unreadable and Amanika wore a knowing expression that he didn’t like at all.

“Well, now, we have two uses for your little pet, there,” Vandro drawled. “There is the matter of after-the-fact enforcement. She’ll be marvelous for tracking down anybody who needs to be hushed up, not to mention getting close to them. During the job itself, though, she’ll be providing our alibis.”

“What are you talking about?” Shook said sharply.

“We’ll all be at the party,” said Vandro. “We will be seen there, by innumerable witnesses of unimpeachable character. Since we, obviously, will in fact be across the city at Chief Om’ponole’s palace, this will be a perfect job for a shapeshifter.”

“A…a shape…” Shook stared at him.

“Absolutely,” Vandro said, grinning broadly. “You know what they say: when life gives you demons, make demonade. How’s about a little demonstration, first?” He turned to Kheshiri and winked. “Darlin’, show us those pretty wings.”

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