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“Do you realize how infuriating all this is?”
“I can only imagine the depths of your inconvenience,” Rogrind said dryly.
“Oh, to be sure, you and your bullshit are not a positive addition to my day, but frankly? You’re just the icing on the cake,” Rasha informed him. “I am having the most frustrating week. Do you know how many times I’ve been chased, attacked, or abducted in just the last few days? This is ridiculous. I joined the Thieves’ Guild in large part so I would never have to feel helpless and put upon again. The damsel in distress bullshit is getting old fast.”
She expected either a glib retort or silence, depending on whether the dwarf was more inclined to play the freelance adventurer or hardened government agent at this moment. Not that it much mattered; Rasha herself was merely filling the air with an admittedly desultory attempt to deflect his attention while she searched for something she could use to leverage herself out of this new mess. Even so, she was surprised when Rogrind canted his head slightly as if giving her words serious consideration.
“The truth is,” he answered after a contemplative pause, “you are a diminutive specimen of your race, Miss Rasha. If you pursue a religion and career which consist mostly of entering combative situations with established powers, I’m afraid that inevitably means you will be on the back foot, physically speaking, for much of your life. Obviously, much the same is true of your mentor, Ms. Sharvineh, but she is adept at avoiding situations in which she is physically imperiled. That, of course, is the result of years of skilled effort bent toward establishing her secure position. Until you are able to establish such a bulwark, yourself…here you are.”
“Here I am,” Rasha repeated, now peering back at him closely. “Well, since we’re chatting, how would you have avoided getting nabbed, in my position?”
“First of all, don’t wander off by yourself.”
She winced. “Yeah, fair enough. Though in my defense, somebody was supposed to be watching my back. He took a break to get laid.”
“I wondered.” The dwarf’s face melted into an expression of pure disapproval. “How grievously unprofessional.”
“In his defense, it was with a dryad. And if you’d seen her—”
“I did see her, and while I take your point, I don’t consider that a mitigating circumstance. Sexual enticement is one of the oldest ploys in the book to distract an enemy agent; to fall prey to it from one’s own allies is a truly lamentable display. I expect that from newly enlisted soldiers, not field agents, or even established Guild thieves. In any case, aside from not committing rookie blunders, there are preparations you can make to ameliorate your physical vulnerability.”
“The martial arts, so I’ve been told.”
“Formal martial arts require a significant level of mastery to be useful in real-world situations. A Sun Style grandmaster could perhaps have disarmed me from your position, but few others. For practical purposes, the basic Eserite brawling techniques you’ve been taught should suffice for situations in which fighting would do you any good at all. No, by preparation, I mostly refer to equipment, and practice in using it. For example, the style of dress you seem to prefer provides ample fabric in which to conceal quite a variety of devices.” He gestured toward her heavy winter dress with the hand not currently holding a wand aimed at her heart.
Rasha idly lifted her left arm to inspect the sleeve—not the one in which her wand was hidden. “I suppose I could slip a knife in here…”
“Weapons are only the most basic of options,” said Rogrind. “Skilled foes will be prepared for them. Your resources would be better spent on unconventional applications of enchanting, or alchemy. One always has an advantage when one possesses tools and techniques for which the enemy is unprepared.”
Slowly, she lowered her arm, definitely not making the compulsive twitch of her right fingers toward her wand, as they wanted to. A thought had just descended into her awareness, bringing with it a note of embarrassment that she hadn’t made this observation immediately.
He hadn’t searched her.
Rasha was a member of a faction known for carrying concealed weapons—and he himself had just pointed out that she was dressed in a way which facilitated that. Rogrind was a veteran field agent, government trained. He knew better than this. And yet, not only had he failed to make even a cursory check for any such weapons on her person, he hadn’t even secured her hands before putting himself in a small moving box with her.
There was something going on here beyond the obvious.
They stared at each other in thoughtful silence for a long moment. The carriage passed through the busy city in eerie silence, its walls clearly charmed to cancel noise.
“You’re surprisingly free with the advice,” Rasha said at last, “considering I’m pretty sure you’re taking me out of the city to be murdered and hidden in a ditch somewhere. Wasted effort, isn’t it?”
“It’s not often, these days, I get the opportunity to speak as an old professional to a younger one,” he answered lightly. “And on that note, Rasha, a relevant piece of advice one of my early mentors gave me: if you are in a position to ask ‘is this the end,’ the answer is ‘not yet.’ A situation may be futile, but it only becomes hopeless when you decide that it is.”
“You’re…actually encouraging me to keep on fighting you?”
“After all we’ve been through?” One corner of his mouth twitched upward in a wry little partial smile. “I confess I would be disappointed if you did not.” The dwarf hesitated, his eyes flicking away from her toward the window separating the passenger compartment from the driver’s seat, where Sister Lanora would be partially visible from his perspective. Rasha nearly took advantage of his momentary distraction, but was forestalled by the fact that she didn’t actually have a plan yet, except maybe to tackle him. Which she had tried once before, to a dismal lack of effect, and then they hadn’t been in an enclosed space, nor he armed. The moment passed and he returned his focus to her face. “Sometimes, Rasha, the needs of the mission require us to accept…unwanted company. For a short while.”
She made no comment in reply, mulling. Was he hinting at something? There were enough little indications to indicate this whole situation was more than it appeared, but not enough yet to suggest what. Rasha, clearly, was still in a very dicey situation, and most likely a lethally dangerous one…but not exactly the one she’d thought.
She looked toward the side window of the carriage, noting the soldiers manning the guard post right outside as they passed through one of the city gates. Then she considered, for a second and a half, the hints Rogrind had dropped that his intentions were not as immediately murderous as he had first suggested, and inwardly steeled herself, deciding to take a risk.
Rasha exploded suddenly into motion, hurling her body with as much force as she could against the side of the carriage, grabbing and yanking the door handle.
“HELP! I’m being abducted!”
Rogrind did not move—didn’t even shift his wand hand to continue covering her, just watched in silence. The entire performance was utterly fruitless; the handled didn’t budge, the military police showed no indication they could see her through the windows or hear her shouting, nor her pounding on the door, and even her body-checking the vehicle itself didn’t make it rock by so much as an inch. Slowly due to the pace of traffic but still inexorably, the view outside changed to the walls of the bridge linking Tiraas to the mainland beyond.
This was the west gate, she noted; they were heading into Tiraan Province, not Vrandis. The domain of Trissiny’s Duchess friend, Ravana Madouri. That made absolutely no difference to Rasha inside this carriage, but it might become relevant if she managed to get out of it.
Slowly, Rasha drew back from the window and re-seated herself, folding her hands primly in her lap. “Worth a try.”
“Only naturally,” Rogrind said with a gracious nod of his head and the supreme confidence of one who knew his prisoner had no options.
Rasha had not really expected anything to come of that, in terms of getting out; her goal was to gather information, and she had just succeeded at that rather well.
His lack of reaction proved little, as he’d been aware before she moved that she wouldn’t succeed in escaping the carriage. But Rasha had just learned several interesting things about the carriage itself. One-way darkening of glass was a common charm, and in fact, the only charm she’d just detected which could be called common. The kind of silencing enchantments which could be laid upon windows with common enchanting dusts would bar noise from either side, but not the thumps of impacts directly on the windows themselves, yet the soldiers hadn’t even glanced over when she pounded on the glass. More telling was that the carriage hadn’t rocked in response to her sudden movement. Shock enchantments protected the wheels; it was a heavier-duty balancing charm than was standard that would prevent a vehicle from being shifted by sudden motion within. Rasha was small, but no carriage was that perfectly balanced without some extra enchantments. Then, there was the door itself; the lock hadn’t budged when she’d twisted the little knob. The lack of any further mechanism suggested it, too, was enchanted, and the kind of charm which would key it to a specific person’s touch was both definitely not standard and required its own power source.
This was a later-model Dawnco sedan, the sort of vehicle the Guild commonly used for getaway carriages, and not unlike those the Svennish agents had driven when chasing Rasha and her friends about last year. And it had been modified with serious extra enchantments, which told her two things.
First, this was not some piece Rogrind, a disavowed ex-agent, could have picked up from a dealer. Custom charm jobs were expensive, and charms of this nature drew eyes from the government if they noted them being applied. After last winter’s events, nobody in Tiraas who did this kind of work for the Guild would sell to a Sven for fear of blundering into the latent hostility between Eserites and the Kingdom of Svenheim. Which meant Rogrind’s story about being sacked was a lie. Fired government agents might be lucky to walk away with the contents of their pockets, not expensive major equipment like this. That led to the question of just what the hell the Svennish secret service wanted with her now. That issue with the divine disruptors was long put to bed, and from everything Rasha knew of the dwarves the most believable thing Rogrind had told her was that they would want nothing to do with Purists.
And second, all these extra enchantments needed extra power. Basic carriage design had been part of Rasha’s unconventional training—not to the extent of being able to fix enchanted carriages, but specifically with an eye toward finding hidden modifications in them. She had re-positioned herself in a different spot on the seat, and already noted the difference in vibration. This might be a stroke of luck; beneath the rear-facing passenger seat would be one of the standard spots…
With that, Rasha had a plan. A desperate one with a high chance of backfiring catastrophically, but with the alternative being to trust that this old enemy, who had abducted her in concert with a new enemy, wasn’t really as hostile as he appeared… It was time to roll the dice.
Not exactly time; there were a couple more ducks she needed to line in a row before she could make a move, and of course, that lining up proceeded with terrifying lack of speed while the carriage itself picked up its pace, carrying her ever further from the city, and witnesses.
Rasha did not miss the irony that they were following almost exactly the route of the last winter carriage ride she and Rogrind had taken out of the city: north from the bridge, on the main highway toward Madouris, which at this pace they would reach within the hour, at the absolute most. That had been in the dark of night during a blizzard, which (despite the reckless speed at which every vehicle in that chase had driven) had slowed them considerably. Now, they were making good time on a well-traveled road, which warned Rasha what to watch out for. Once Lanora turned off onto a side road with fewer prying eyes, the end was close.
But not, as Rogrind himself had just advised her, yet at hand.
She’d made a performance of shifting this way and that on the seat, brimming with nervous energy that kept her readjusting her position and sliding back and forth to peer out the windows on both sides. Rogrind watched her, but did not comment or try to interfere, merely keeping his wand trained on her. At one point Lanora, apparently catching sight of Rasha’s constant movement through her peripheral vision, had thumped on the window separating the driver and passenger compartments in annoyance, which Rasha only happened to notice because she was moving at the time and had it in her field of view, as the silencing enchantment covered that window as well. Neither she nor the dwarf acknowledged Lanora’s displeasure. The actual point of all the shifting about had been for her to examine the vibrations coming from under the bench. And bless the thin padding of Dawnco’s economy carriage seats, she’d done it within minutes. Rasha had identified the spot, slightly left of center and directly under the front passenger bench, where the vibrations were most perceptible: the likeliest position for the secondary power crystal keyed to the carriage’s various extra enchantments.
So she finally planted herself as far from it as possible, leaning against the right wall in a position that both maximized her distance and gave her a clear line of sight to the spot, which she’d landmarked by identifying one button in the pattern sewed into the seat cushions. Now there was nothing but to wait for an opportunity, and hope it didn’t come too late.
And since that was too great a risk, Rasha did the properly Eserite thing and set about creating her own damn opportunity.
“I can’t square this geniality with your whole mission of revenge,” she commented.
“Revenge. Is that what you think?” Rogrind raised an eyebrow.
“You pretty heavily implied it. Besides, if you have such a low opinion of Purists, why else would you be helping her? It’s not like you and I have any business, apart from you settling the score after I spanked you last year.”
“That is certainly one way to describe those events,” the dwarf said, smiling faintly. “Another would be that you were in the vicinity when someone actually competent foiled my mission.”
“Yeah, and I note you’re not going after any of them. Bullying, petty grievances, assisting religious fanatics you claim to dislike… I can’t decide which part is the worst reflection on you.”
“You are attempting to provoke an emotional reaction from me,” he said, still with that ironic little smile. “I don’t mind that as such, except that the effort is so halfhearted. One does hate to have a front row seat, as it were, for an inept performance of one’s craft.”
She didn’t need him actually agitated, just to look away for a second; even a relatively minor emotional upset would cause most people to shift their eyes momentarily, but she wasn’t dealing with most people here. Rasha glanced out the window herself and stiffened.
The moment was nearly here. They were turning off the main road onto…
“Well, well,” she said quietly, staring at the scene as best she could from this angle. “Doesn’t this take you back. This was your idea, I take it?”
Apparently the old fortress had been a landmark, an unused Enchanter Wars-era ruin left intact purely for its historicity. After the murderous schemes of Basra Syrinx had blown the whole thing up last winter, the Empire hadn’t even bothered to clean the grounds; the field was now littered with widespread outcroppings of fallen masonry, currently dusted with fresh snow. It made them look oddly serene, a contrast to Rasha’s memory of the violence through which this spectacle had been created. She even caught a glimpse of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the very ground to shield them from the fallout. Only the wrecked carriages had been removed.
“Not as such,” the dwarf murmured, finally shifting his head to follow her gaze. “It does make for a conveniently isolated spot, though, positioned along this otherwise well-trafficked route. How history repeats itself, hmm?”
She’d started moving the instant his gaze was off her, letting the wand slide gently out of her sleeve rather than flicking it into her palm as she normally would; a slower motion was less likely to catch his eye. Rasha looked over at the button she’d identified, made an educated guess how far down the target would be, and fired.
Moment of distraction aside, Rogrind could not miss the soft hiss of a beam wand discharging at that proximity, much less the light. In a split second he was on top of her, trying to wrestle the weapon from her grip. He only failed because he’d mistaken her intent; the dwarf was much stronger than she, but in gripping her wrist and keeping the wand aimed away from himself and Lanora, he inadvertently kept it pushed in more or less the exact direction she wanted.
Rasha grunted and struggled against him in dreadful futility, managing only to twitch under his weight and muscle. Her shot had achieved nothing save a smoking hole in the upholstery. Now, in defiance of all wand safety, she clamped down on the clicker and kept up a continuous beam. Immediately the handle began to warm dangerously in her grip as she raked it this way and that across the general area of her target, able to move only in minute jerks and hoping that would be enough—
Her vision returned, fuzzy. She could hear nothing but a shrill whine deep in her own head, beyond which the world was silent. Had she actually been unconscious? Everything was so hazy. It was cold. Rasha was…face down? Weakly, she tried to rise…
A big hand grabbed her arm, hauled her upright; she was too dazed to protest. Then there came a stab of pain through the sensory fuzz. She managed to focus on the thing he tossed away as it fell to the snow: a fragment of wooden paneling from the carriage, one jagged end crimson where it had been lodged in…her. Oh, right, that was why her shoulder suddenly hurt. Good, good, her training whispered at the back of her head. Shoulder injuries could disable your arm, but rarely killed you, at least not immediately.
He—the dwarf, Rogrind, she focused on him now, noting his disheveled hair and burned suit—was hauling her bodily away; she stumbled, trying to keep up. What was… Oh, fire. There was burning wreckage. Blearily, Rasha looked back. The carriage was blown perfectly in half, both large pieces burning merrily and a wide spray of charred wood spread around the site. It sat in brown winter grass in the ditch by the road, the nearby snow blasted away by the explosion.
Well, that was one thing gone according to plan, anyway. Shoot the power crystal, disabling the carriage. It had been disabled a little harder than she’d hoped; that crystal must’ve been powering a lot more than the enchantments she’d identified to have had that much oomph in it. Made sense in hindsight, a spy agency vehicle would have all kinds of hidden tricks. Well, live and learn. Which she had, so far.
Suddenly the grip manhandling her shifted. Rasha blinked, trying to focus again on Rogrind as he pressed something against her lips. Glass? A bottle? No, a vial. With his other hand he gripped the back of her neck and made her tip her head up, pouring it into her mouth. Poison? No. She knew this flavor—sour, subtly fruity, tingling with contained magic. Healing potion.
Rasha’s vision and her mind began to clear, and the pain in her shoulder receded along with the shock. Also, the ringing dropped steadily in pitch, descending into a dull roar and then even that faded as her eardrums were mended. She became conscious of a different pain on her other shoulder—right about where her heating charm had been pinned. Ah, yeah, that would’ve burst from being that close to an arcane explosion, and healing potions didn’t work well on burns. Still, she was still alive, and now she could see, hear, and think.
Also, she was cold. Outside in the winter, with no heating charm or even a coat.
“Well, I have good news for you, Miss Rasha,” Rogrind said in a layered tone of aggressive joviality. “If you are so devoted to your freedom as to blow up vehicles while inside them, I can safely predict you will not be a prisoner often or for long.”
“I do what I can,” she said modestly, giving an experimental tug on her arm. His grip shifted not an inch; he was half-covered in soot, his hair and clothing charred and half his coat torn away, but other than that appeared unperturbed. Dwarves were inconveniently sturdy folk.
Something small bonked off the other side of Rasha’s head, and by sheer instinct she tried to catch it. Her cold-numbed fingers didn’t succeed in seizing the object, but she did note as it fell that it was another glass vial. She turned her head in the direction it had come from and met Sister Lanora’s burning gaze.
The Purist had her sword out; she was disheveled and not as badly burned, having been separated from the explosion by more layers of carriage, though blood dropped down half her face from where something had struck her on the temple. It made a perfect complement to her expression.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself, you little monster,” she hissed, bringing the sword up. “That was your last act of defiance.”
Rasha was suddenly yanked away, struggling to stay on her feet as Rogrind hauled her behind himself. “Ahem. This inconvenience aside, the terms of our agreement are met, Sister Lanora. We are in private, and you have the girl.”
“That is not a girl!”
“Whatever you say,” he grunted. “Before this proceeds any further, it is time for your end of the deal.”
“As soon as that pestilential brat is—”
“No.” Even without shouting, he projected his voice at a volume which cut her off neatly. It was a good trick, Glory had of course taught her apprentices that one early on. “You have already unilaterally modified our agreement once, and I have to say I am not best pleased with the results. The documents, Lanora. Now.”
The ex-priestess glared, her grip on the sword shifting, and for a second Rasha thought she might take a swing at the dwarf. Then she produced a wordless, feral snarl and stabbed the tip of the longsword into the frozen earth to free her hands, with which she snatched a bag hanging from her belt and began to rummage inside it. Even Rasha knew better than to treat bladed weapons that way; Trissiny would have… Well, that was the least of what Trissiny would be upset by, here, but it really said something about the Purists as a whole.
“Here,” Lanora snarled, hurling a leather-bound journal at the dwarf, which he neatly snatched from the air. “Take it and get out of the way!”
Saying nothing, he did so. Rogrind released Rasha, stepping aside and immediately opening the book, his eyes darting rapidly across its contents as he began to leaf through pages.
That left Rasha and Lanora facing one another with nothing between them but the chill of winter.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” Rasha admitted, taking a step back and tucking her chilled fingers into her sleeves. Her wand was lost, but she still had the knife in her other sleeve, right where she’d minutes ago suggested to Rogrind that she could one day start keeping one. “You had an actual message from a goddess. Do you know how many people have only dreamed of something like that? Who cares if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear? You could—”
“Shut up!” the woman shrieked. “Just shut it! I lost everything, do you understand that? I gave my life to Avei and she threw me away like so much trash. And for what?! To make some kind of point? All I have is this, boy. I can’t stick a sword in that bitch goddess—or even Trissiny Avelea, realistically. But at every step, your face has been there mocking me, and I can sure as hell do for you.”
“Well,” Rasha acknowledged, continuing to retreat as the former priestess kept pace, raising her sword. “I have to admit, I have no argument for that. Except to point out that you’re a moron. But then, you know that, don’t you?”
Lanora bared her teeth like a wolf about to pounce and raised the longsword over her head.
Rasha whipped her left arm forward, hurling the knife.
It went spinning away a full yard to Lanora’s right. Her fingers were almost numb from cold.
Lanora barked a mocking laugh and stepped forward, bringing the sword down. Mid-swing, there came another deafening boom from close by. The carriage was already done for; this time, what exploded was Lanora herself.
The left side of her midsection burst, spraying blood and viscera across the snow; she physically buckled as the core of her body was suddenly lacking a chunk of its structure. The sword tumbled to the ground, sinking beneath the snow, as its owner collapsed. She tried to press her hand over the wound, but the hole was bigger than her hand. Staring uncomprehendingly at the crimson stain spreading around her, Sister Lanora slumped fully to the ground.
“General Avelea sends her regrets,” Rogrind said dispassionately. Rasha turned her incredulous stare on the dwarf. He had tucked the black book under one arm and was now holding a… It resembled a wand, but heavier, an iron tube with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism, now emitting smoke from its business end. Rogrind was already tipping a small vial of some powder into it, followed by a little metal ball. “She preferred an amicable resolution. Unfortunately, she is not here. And I like my loose ends neatly tied.”
He leveled the weapon. Lanora stared up at him in dull-eyed disbelief, and then the sound came again. It was thunderously loud, even more so at that proximity than a lightning wand. The Purist’s expression vanished along with her face and the greater part of her head.
Rasha averted her gaze, cringing, and wasn’t ashamed of it. The Guild inured one to violence, somewhat, but that…
Rogrind lowered his weapon with a sigh. “What a mess. If only I hadn’t lost my wand… Ah, well. You are a clever lass, Rasha; I trust I needn’t explain too much of this?”
“You…” She had to swallow and then clear her throat before she could speak properly. “Yeah, I guess after last winter, you did owe Trissiny a favor, huh?”
“Fortunately for us both, Trissiny Avelea is too intelligent to deal in such intransigent currencies as favors and debts,” he answered with a wan smile. “She presented herself at the Svennish embassy the day after our last visit to this spot, and rather than making complaints or demands, arranged for the Silver Legions on multiple continents to be armed and armored with Svennish steel. It all but singlehandedly resurrected our metalworking industry; a masterful exercise of soft power. My King has made his orders clear: what the Hand of Avei wants, she gets. In this case,” he held up the book, tucking his weapon back inside his coat now that the smoke had stopped, “documentation linking the Purists to the Universal Church.”
“You could have told me what you were doing, instead of scaring me half to death with this nonsense! Don’t you think I would have helped?”
“Rasha,” he said patiently, already fishing in his pockets again (what remained of them), “what part of our previous encounters do you think left me with the impression that you could be trusted to hold up your end of a sensitive operation? Not that you haven’t grown dramatically under Tamisin Sharvineh’s tutelage, but I could hardly take that risk. I do greatly regret involving you. Our arrangement was a hair’s breadth from completion on optimal terms—Lanora was about to be taken into protective custody in return for the documents, where she would have been safe, as the Archpope’s influence in the Five Kingdoms is minimal. But alas, you happened to cross her field of view as we were making the handoff, escorting three of her erstwhile companions evidently in custody. And then…” He grimaced. “She demanded your head for her compliance. That ridiculous woman was quite irrationally obsessed with you.”
“Yeah, she, uh, mentioned that.” Rasha glanced at the spreading stain that had been Lanora, then shuffled back; the blood was seeping rapidly through the snow and had nearly reached her own slippers. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just take the book from her at that point?”
“Her bag of holding was spelled to open for no one else; it would take a skilled enchanter weeks to extract it. And a person in her mental state, while easily manipulated, is nearly impossible to coerce. Once a person has nothing left to motivate them but spite, they can’t be forced to do anything. Here.” He had found what he wanted in his pockets: another vial of liquid. The agent downed half of it with a grimace, and then stepped forward to hand the remainder to Rasha. “Potion of weather resistance. It’s no personal heating charm, but it will stave off hypothermia for a while.”
Rasha accepted without hesitation; her fingers were already so numb she could barely tip the liquid into her own mouth, but she managed, and immediately blessed warmth began to spread through her.
“She was a centimark from freedom,” the dwarf murmured, frowning down at the woman he’d just killed. “Protection for herself and any of her comrades we could find. It was a generous deal, and a better ending than she deserved. But she threw it away for a chance at petty vengeance, and now look. This is what vindictiveness gets you.”
“Revenge is a sucker’s game,” Rasha quoted, nodding.
“And now we are stranded in the woods, in midwinter, standing over a fresh corpse.”
“You’re awfully liberal with the complaints, for somebody whose fault all this is!”
“And who blew up the carriage?” he countered, then smiled and held up a hand to forestall her rebuttal. “This is how it goes sometimes, Rasha. We made the best decisions available with the information we had, and ended up needlessly at cross-purposes to our mutual detriment. Such is life. Now, let us put that aside and see what we can do about survival.”
“Yeah, I guess it’d be a shame if Trissiny didn’t get those documents, after you went to all this trouble.”
The spy nodded, his polite smile firmly in place. “Precisely.”