Tag Archives: Style

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High Commander Rouvad was not in her office; her aide directed Principia to one of the temple’s basements. Hopefully the Commander was not expecting her on any particular schedule, because the trip to get there, after climbing to the top of the temple and then down below it, took a quarter of an hour at least.

It was perhaps fortunate that Principia had spent most of the walk practicing her control over her expression. When she entered the basement in question to find Commander Rouvad and Bishop Syrinx standing over a table of battlestaves, she revealed none of her considerable ire on her face.

“Ah, Sergeant,” Rouvad said as she marched up to them and saluted. “Finally. How did it go with the Eserites?”

“I left them in Sister Tianne’s custody, ma’am,” Principia reported. “On my recommendation she is having them thoroughly clean out the outpost’s stables prior to releasing them.”

“An interesting choice,” Basra commented. Principia did not even glance at her.

“I see,” Rouvad mused. “What was your reasoning, Locke?”

“Guild apprentices aren’t particularly dangerous and don’t know anything useful about the fully accredited thieves who are, ma’am. Having them prosecuted would serve no purpose and irritate Boss Tricks. The Sisterhood doesn’t have the prerogative to administer punishments for civil offenses like arms trafficking. The Guild itself, however, would discipline apprentices for a failure of that kind, unless the chief enforcer felt they’d already suffered for it. Putting them to work and then letting them go satisfied the needs of both cults to enforce discipline, averted a confrontation the Guild might take as provocative, and even nurtured some goodwill.”

“Good initiative,” Basra said mildly. “I believe handling relations with the Guild is my job, however.”

“I have heard no suggestion that your Grace’s work is anything less than exemplary at the political level,” Principia replied, still at attention. “My squad is tasked with cultivating interfaith connections, however. I think much of the Sisterhood’s hostility to the Guild is due to a misunderstanding of mindset, even more than doctrinal conflict. Avenists are all about rules; Eserites are all about connections. Showing them that we can be reasonable and forgiving opens the door to future cooperation.”

“Even when that forgiveness is clearly self-serving?” Basra asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Especially then, your Grace. Otherwise they would merely be suspicious.”

“At ease, Locke,” the High Commander interjected. “It sounds to me like you handled the situation well. How is your weapons development project proceeding?”

Principia didn’t blink at the abrupt change of topic. “I am still working on the sticking point I referenced in my last progress report, Commander. The metal of a lance head makes a poor firing surface. Metal is a magical retardant; it holds passive enchantments well but doesn’t want to transmit magic through it, and as an added complication conducts electricity very well. The avenue I am pursuing at the moment is to tinker with the alloy used, which is difficult as I’m not a metallurgist by any means. I’ve sent for research materials from Stavulheim and Yldiron.”

Rouvad raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been following your requisitions, and I don’t recall seeing anything like that.”

“No, ma’am, I made those purchases with my own funds. I’m reluctant to spend the Sisterhood’s money on what I’m not certain will bear fruit.”

Rouvad sighed and shook her head. “You’re picking up some of Nandi’s habits. Your concern for the Sisterhood’s coffers is noted, Locke, but henceforth I would prefer you requisitioned anything you needed through the official channels. Projects like this need thorough records, and reading requisitions enables me to keep abreast of your progress without wasting both our time asking questions.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

The Commander turned to frown at the table of weapons, which Prinicipa took the opportunity to study. They had been heavily modified with large crystals at both ends and gold frameworks spiraling around the upper half of each. With the exception of one laid aside, whose framework was a tarnished gray and showed serious rust damage.

“It has probably occurred to you to wonder what the Silver Legion was doing interrupting a Guild arms meet,” Rouvad said. “This actually came from Bishop Syrinx, who was tipped off by Bishop Darling that what was taking place in that warehouse would be very important and of interest to us, specifically.”

“Eserites in general love to play pranks, especially on us,” Basra added. “Darling is too political to waste goodwill that way, though. He’s never led me astray before, so I presume that this was important.”

“Anything to add to that, Locke?” Rouvad asked.

“I concur with the Bishop’s assessment, Commander. I have not worked directly with Darling, but I know him and his reputation. He’s a bridge-builder.”

“Mm.” Rouvad nodded. “And that leaves us with our catch. There were three vendors present, according to our scouts; they all escaped, leaving a few hapless apprentices holding the bag. One was dealing in some orcish antiquities, and got out with his stock. That is potentially of cultural value to the Sisterhood, but a less likely prospect. The second had a selection of conventional weapons with illegal and nasty modification—again, not really the Sisterhood’s concern. Those we seized, and I am debating whether to simply destroy them or turn them over to the military police.”

“Why the uncertainty, ma’am?” Principia asked.

“Because,” Rouvad replied, “if we hand them off to the Empire, they will have questions if it later become necessary to give them these as well. Lord Vex wouldn’t be the least bit surprised at a major cult withholding evidence from him, but if I have to admit to it the loss of face could have practical consequences. And these, Locke, are why I called you here. The last Guild vendor had several crates of them, and was discussing a sale with two dwarves. At the moment it’s my assumption this is what Darling sent us to find.” She picked up the lone weapon with the tarnished metal and handed it to Principia. “What do you make of this?”

She accepted the staff and turned it over in her hand, examining every part of it carefully. “…well, at a glance, little more than you can see for yourself, ma’am. It’s a modified battlestaff. Why is this one different?”

“That one has been used,” Rouvad explained. “They all arrived in the same condition. We tested one, though, and after being fired four times it abruptly changed to that and stopped working.”

“How does it perform when fired?”

“It doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t appear to do anything. Here, watch.”

The Commander lifted the staff in a standard firing position, grasping the clicker and tucking the butt under her arm to aim; despite leading a military which used an older generation of weapons, she was clearly not new to handling modern firearms. She took aim at one of the target dummies standing against the wall of the basement chamber and squeezed the clicker.

The crystal at the end of the staff emitted a burst of golden light, which flashed across the room to splash against the dummy. It dissipated instantly, rocking the dummy slightly but having no significant effect.

Rouvad lowered the staff and set it aside, carefully putting it separate from the other, unfired models. “We’ve also tested it against shield charms, in case it’s some kind of shield-breaker. It did nothing to those, either. It seems likely that it is intended to do something specifically to a person, which is deeply disturbing and, of course, explains why Darling might find it necessary to tip us off about this. But there is no ethical way to test that, of course. Before we resort to such measures, I want to see what can be learned through analysis. Thoughts, Locke?”

“Well, first of all, I understand what happened to the broken one, now,” she said, still examining it. “This is liargold.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an alchemical formulation of iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold. Liargold, in addition to looking like real gold, also mimics its magical properties. Not for long, though, as actually putting magic on or through it damages its structure, until it reverts to plain, simple iron pyrite. In fact, if you see any object made from pyrite, it’s probably exhausted liargold; it’s not workable like more useful metals. These weapons are cheaply-made knockoffs, probably nothing more than proofs of concept. Also, ironically, more illegal than the modified wands. You need a license and Imperial oversight to work with liargold, since its primary use is, of course, counterfeiting coins. I surmise these devices require gold to work. Which… Yes, I can see why nobody wanted to shell out for a whole crate of them.”

“I had a feeling you were the person to ask about this,” Rouvad said in a mildly satisfied tone. “I am temporarily suspending your enchantment program, Locke. For the time being, you will instead direct your effort to these things. Figure out what they are, how they work, and what they are meant to do.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said calmly. “Commander… Reverse-enchanting weapons is a completely different matter from designing new ones. My divinatory skills are minor and wholly inadequate to this task. I’ll need a dedicated scryer to work with.”

“We’ll get you one,” Rouvad said, then glanced at Basra. “For the time being, I want this kept quiet, at least until we know what we’re dealing with, here. In addition to figuring out what the devices themselves are, I want to know where they came from. You will both pursue that, from above and below, so to speak. I suspect Darling would have told you more if he intended to, Basra, but see if you can get anything more out of him.”

“Gladly, Commander.”

“And Sergeant, do likewise. Discretion is key, but I want you to dedicate your squad’s efforts to finding and following leads. This is now your primary mission; Captain Dijanerad will be informed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting. Her gaze cut sideways for a second to Basra, who was now studying her through narrowed eyes.

“And furthermore,” Rouvad said sternly, “there will be an absolute maximum of zero infighting between you two. I am aware of your history; I was present for it. Given your respective mandates, this will not be the last time you will find yourselves working in proximity to one another, if not actively together. Your tasks call for you to be calculating, discreet, and above all, diplomatic. If either prove unable in that regard, I will find something for you to do which better suits your demonstrated level of maturity. Am I understood?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She looked back and forth between them with an expression which would brook no nonsense. “Then you both know what you need to be working on. Locke, I know you’ve been out all night on assignment; go rest up with your squad.”

“Yes, ma’am. Commander, there’s something else. May I speak with you in private?”

Rouvad heaved a soft sigh, regarding her speculatively. “Well, I know you and I have no personal business, and as this is the first time I’m hearing of it, may I assume this pertains to your mission last night?”

“It—yes, ma’am, it’s an issue I became aware of at that time.”

“Well, Locke, that doesn’t quite qualify as infighting, but you are straining my tolerance. The Bishop has a right to be kept in the loop with regard to anything concerning our dealings with the Guild or the law. Spit it out.”

Basra folded her arms, keeping her expression neutral.

Principia did not indulge in even the slightest flicker of emotion on her own face. “Yes, ma’am. Trissiny Avelea was among the Eserite apprentices we apprehended and put to work last night.”

Rouvad raised her eyebrows, and turned to regard Basra, who shrugged.

“She either works fast, or isn’t the most quick-legged of thieves,” the Bishop said. “Both are in character, from what I understand, and I’d consider neither a failing.”

“And what did you do with Trissiny Avelea, Sergeant?” Rouvad asked quietly.

“Exactly as I did with the rest of them, Commander,” Principia replied. “No personal acknowledgment aside from a condescending put-down when she sassed me. I realize you have a low opinion of my background, but it’s prepared me well to recognize when someone is under cover and not blow it.”

“You have spoken with her in person, if I’m not mistaken?” Rouvad continued, her stare boring into Principia. “She knows who and what you are?”

“She knows.”

“All right.” The Commander shook her head. “I won’t trouble to remind you of the condition of your enlistment, since you clearly remember. Thank you for reporting this, but unless she appears to be in some danger, it’s not your concern or ours. And likely not even then. Hands of Avei are meant to be more resilient and adaptive than soldiers in general.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia glanced rapidly back and forth between them. “Commander, do I take this to mean you were already aware she was among the Guild?”

“Of course we were, Locke,” Rouvad said sardonically. “I am the mortal leader of this faith, and the Bishop is our official point of connection to the Church and the other cults. General Avelea does not go charging off to do whatever she likes without notifying her chain of command. I can only assume that results from Abbess Narnasia’s upbringing. It clearly isn’t genetic. Is that all, Locke?”

“What is she doing?”

“As soon as that is any concern of yours, Locke,” Rouvad said in a tone of quiet warning, “she’ll inform you. If there is nothing else, you have your orders. Dismissed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia saluted her, then turned and did the same to Basra. “Welcome home, your Grace.”

“Why, thank you, Sergeant Locke,” Basra said with a pleasant little smile.

Commander Rouvad heaved a sigh.


There were multiple ways in and out of the Thieves’ Guild headquarters, unsurprisingly. The first thing all who applied for an apprenticeship learned was that grubby apprentices were not to be found trooping through the Imperial Casino. On this night, the five bedraggled youths coming home as dawn was breaking chose a servant’s access in a side alley, and thus earned themselves another loud lecture to the effect that grubby apprentices were not to troop through the casino’s kitchens, either.

They did their best to ignore the stares of fellow apprentices and knowing grins of full Guild members as they passed through the underground corridors to the Guild proper. Fortunately, it was the best time of day for that, with most of those keeping normal business hours not about yet and most of the night crowd having turned in. The Thieves’ Guild never truly slept, though, and even apprentices weren’t kept to any schedule but their own. No matter what time of day one chose to straggle in, reeking, sweaty, and exhausted, there was certain to be an audience of some kind.

In this case, perhaps the worst one possible.

“What the hell happened to you losers?” Style demanded as soon as they’d descended the stairs into the central pit, planting fists on her hips to stare incredulously at them. “You look like you’ve been mucking out a stable.”

“We fought a dragon,” Tallie said challengingly.

“And then we rescued a princess!” Darius added.

“And then we mucked out a stable,” Jasmine said wearily.

“Hn. Coulda been a lot worse, I guess,” she said, folding her brawny arms. Today’s outfit was some kind of elaborate faux-clerical robe, embroidered with stylized animals along the hem and cuffs in a manner that resembled plains elf decoration. It was one of the more effeminate things she’d worn in recent memory, but somehow the burly enforcer managed to make the outfit seem martial. “If you didn’t turn up by tonight I was gonna go rattle Sweet’s cage to get you back from the Avenists.”

“Oh,” Tallie said, her shoulders slumping. “So…you know about last night.”

“Heard the news straight from Pick himself,” she said grimly. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. You kids are just about the rankest fucking amateurs we have in this joint; nobody would expect you to know how to pull off an escape from a smoke-bombed room. Did any of you even think to check your exits before setting up in there?”

They glanced uncertainly at each other.

“Uh huh,” Style said sourly. “And naturally, Pick didn’t bother to show you that trick, or ask if you knew it. That on top of dragging a bunch of apprentices into that and then ditching them for the Legion. Just when I thought that little fuckhead couldn’t possibly climb higher up my shit list, he found a way. Oy, what the hell is this?” Her piercing gaze fixed on Rasha, who took a nervous step backward in response, and she scowled heavily. “No, you may not have a pet.”

“This is Rasha,” Tallie explained. “He’s new.”

“New, my exquisitely sculpted ass. I know every apprentice studying here.”

“New,” Jasmine explained, “as in, literally just arrived and had a meal when we found out about the job. He doesn’t have a bunk yet.”

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded, brows lowering still further. “You mean to say this scrawny little shrimp set foot in my Guild and literally the first thing he did, even before finding a place to kip, was get his ass to work?”

She took two long strides forward, into the middle of their group, causing Tallie and Darius to peel away in alarm; Rasha tried to backpedal away from the oncoming enforcer, but was stopped by Jasmine and Ross, who held their ground right behind him. Style bent forward to clap him on the shoulder so hard his knees buckled, and grinned broadly.

“You, shorty, have got a future. I’m gonna be watching you with great interest.”

“Stop,” Rasha growled, “calling. Me. Small.”

It only occurred to him belatedly that snarling like a stray dog at someone who was not only highly-ranked in the Guild but clearly physically capable of breaking him in half wasn’t the wisest thing he had ever done, even after the events of the last day.

Style’s grin faded, replaced by a more pensive expression which seemed oddly out of place on her bluff features.

“Kid,” she said seriously, “you’re small. That’s not an insult, it’s a simple fact, and a pretty fucking obvious one. You’re here to learn to be a thief; being small is all kinds of useful if you learn how to use it—which you had better get your ass to work doing. Anybody who rags on you for your stature has shit between their ears, and when it starts to spill out their mouths, the correct thing to do is walk the fuck away and talk to someone less disgusting.”

Style stepped back, dragging a speculative stare across them, then wrinkled her nose. “All right…Rasha, was it? I know you’re half-dead on your feet, but you’re new, so you get the speech. Everyone gets the speech; if I have to repeat the speech to you, it’ll be while going about my daily tasks wearing your ass as a boot. So long as you’re staying in my apprentice barracks, you will be a model fucking citizen. You will respect the persons, the privacy, and the possessions of your fellow apprentices. You don’t steal anybody’s shit or mess with it at all, you don’t force any kind of attention on anybody who doesn’t want it, and you do not test the limits to see how far you can push the rules. The line is drawn wherever I fucking feel like drawing it on a given day, and if I think you’re probing at me, I’ll smack the stupid out of you on the spot. Also, the barracks is to remain spotlessly clean—by which I mean, if I happen to pass through and am in any way dissatisfied with its condition, I will kick the shit out of each and every person residing therein, either sequentially or concurrently, depending on how much time I happen to have for apprentice bullshit that day. Simple solution is you keep your own area clean with regular attention, and if you spot something needs cleaning, you do it instead of waiting for others to. Eserion’s service attracts selfish people by nature; by the time you graduate to full Guild membership, you will demonstrate, among other things, that you can respect your fellow thieves, your Guild, and its facilities. Any questions?”

“I grew up on ships,” Rasha said, folding his arms. “Clean and tidy I can do.”

“Good.” Style nodded once. “Now, all of you. I can clearly see you’re exhausted, but on the roster of things about which I give a shit, that is substantially below the condition and the smell of you. You will all go wash yourselves and your clothes before soiling my lovely barracks with your reeking carcasses. Rasha, your fellow miscreants will conduct you to the facilities, show you where everything is and how to work it. Then, just pick whatever bunk isn’t occupied and help your goddamn self. Clear?”

“It’s a little excessive, isn’t it?” Jasmine noted. “I mean, my last roommate liked to curse like a sailor, too, but she worked it into conversation. Organically. You seem to be trying too hard.”

“Uh…” Darius stared at her, wide-eyed. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to get a rise outta me,” Style said dryly. “Because she was placed here by the gods specifically to be a thorn in my ass. Tell you what, Jasmine, I’m gonna refrain from clocking you because I find it a very positive development that you’re already picking up the habit of fighting with words instead of fists. Frankly, when you first showed up here, I didn’t think you had the necessary mental capacity. Now, either you learn quickly what fights are and are not worth picking, or you’ll end up picking your teeth out of the floorboards.”

“Uh, the floor’s stone,” Tallie said helpfully.

Style grinned broadly. “Yeah. That is what makes it an impressive party trick. Go get cleaned up, junior fuckups. You have a whole new day in which to make asses of yourselves ahead.”


The rest of the squad, including Casey, were in their bunks and apparently fully inert by the time Principia returned to the barracks. Nobody was even snoring, Merry having rolled onto her side already, which based on experience meant she’d been out for a while now. The arcane stove was active, but at its lowest setting, having very little work to do against the unseasonable warmth. She paused in the central aisle between beds to glance around at the others with a small smile, then set about unbuckling her armor.

Nandi’s blonde head appeared over the edge of the bunk above her own. “Anything interesting?” she asked in a bare whisper, soft enough the humans present would probably not have heard even had they been awake.

Principia shook her head, replying in the same tone. “In addition to a handful of Eserite guppies, the Legion seized some kind of experimental magical weapons, which are now our mission. I’m to figure out what makes ’em hum, while the squad tracks where they came from. And,” she added sourly, “we will be working parallel to our esteemed Bishop on this. She’s going to start from the top while we work from the bottom.”

“Hmm.” Nandi blinked languidly. She did not appear tired, which was no surprise. The Legions fed its soldiers well; both elves had enough energy stored in their auras to go for days without needing to rest, not that they tried to push it as a rule. “A matched set of risks and opportunities, that.”

“It occurred to me, yes.”

“Any notion where to start looking?”

“That is the problem,” Principia said with a sigh as she stowed away her armor and peeled off her underthings, reaching for her sleeping shift. The others had doubtless needed to wash up before getting into bunks; elves did not sweat much, and she found her own condition satisfactorily sanitary. “I’ve positioned myself rather poorly for this, Nandi. Keeping my distance from the Guild has left me with few useful contacts in the arms trade, especially here in Tiraas. I can’t go to Darling, because that’s what Syrinx is doing, and apart from not wanting to cross paths with her, I don’t want to tip him off that…well, any of it. Darling loves to be useful, but he files away every tidbit for future leverage, and I don’t need him planting any levers under my bum.”

“Well,” Nandi suggested, smiling as Principia climbed into her bunk, “we did just make some very junior acquaintances in the Guild, did we not? They probably don’t think the best of you right now, but surely a few of that handful were perceptive enough to see the trouble your decision kept them out of.”

“Guild apprentices won’t know anything useful that we could pursue,” she said dismissively, “aside from the very basics of who they were working for, and I’ll tie my ears in a bow if the Guild hadn’t covered those tracks before they even learned of this. Besides… There could be complications if the High Commander gets word of me trying to approach that particular group of apprentices.”

“One of them, anyway.”

Principia sighed. “Y’know, I never wondered, before, whether you were in the loop about that. Somehow, it surprises me not in the least.”

“I shall take that as a compliment.” Nandi was now staring up at the ceiling, still speaking in he tiniest of whispers, which Principia had no trouble hearing in the quiet cabin. “Well. As any hunter could tell you, the solution is obvious. If we cannot stalk our quarry, we must entice it to come to us.”

“Go to sleep, Shahai. I’ll brief the squad in full later today.”

Nandi smiled serenely up at the ceiling. “Yes, ma’am.”

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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6 – 13

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“Well, I don’t know what surprises me more,” Tricks said dourly. “You bein’ here on the orders of the Church, or the fact that you’d accuse me of such a thing right to my face.”

“Whoah,” said Sweet, taking a step back and staring at him in consternation. “Where did that come from?”

Behind Trick’s shoulder, Style grimaced, tightening her crossed arms, and Sweet’s bad feeling intensified. There was something very off in the vibe here. They were meeting, as usual, in the counting room beneath the Casino, but there the routine ended. Tricks looked worn out and bitter, Style was being uncharacteristically silent, and now he was on the defensive.

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he said more quietly. “And this is much less about the Church than it is about the Guild. They’re just questions, and let’s be honest, pretty obvious ones. What’s happening, Boss? You have to know you played right into the Wreath’s hands, sending out the enforcers that way.”

Style let out a lungful of air through her nose, her grimace intensifying, and Sweet started to actually worry. Not about himself—she’d be glaring at him if he were in trouble—but about the whole situation. As the least emotionally contained member of the group, Style was something of a barometer, and her unhappiness was infectious.

“You’re right,” Tricks said wearily, slumping back into the overseer’s chair and propping his head up with one hand. “Sorry, Sweet, that came out more confrontational than it needed to. Yeah, I know. It was pretty damn obvious what the Wreath was playing at; that move was subtle by the standards of the general public, but not by their standards, or ours. If anything, it was weirdly aggressive.”

“So…” Sweet frowned. “…you were weirdly aggressive right back?”

The Boss stared up at him in silence for a moment before speaking. “You’re worried the Guild has been infiltrated.”

“Tricks, I’m almost positive the Guild has been infiltrated, and that’s got little to do with the current crisis. That’s a standing assumption and you know it. The Guild is decentralized enough that it’s not usually a major concern; there’s a limit to the damage a given spy can do. I’m worried that the Wreath’s infiltration has got far enough in to start affecting policy. And now you tell me this wasn’t due to anyone’s influence, but entirely your idea? Boss…you didn’t walk into their trap, you charged headlong.”

“And that makes me Wreath?”

“Dammit, Tricks…”

“No, no, I know. Sorry. You’re right.” Tricks waved a hand as if shooing away gnats. “I’m sorry. This has been… Y’know, you once told me that this had to be the cushiest job of its rank among any of the Pantheon’s cults, because the Guild all but runs itself and the Big Guy basically never has any orders to hand out. Remember that?”

“Sure,” Sweet said hesitantly. “Is that somehow relevant to…”

“I’ve gotta ask, Sweet.” Tricks leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and stared up at him almost pleadingly. “Were you just fucking with me? Was that some kind of tradition I have to pass on to the next poor asshole?”

“…Tricks, what’s going on?”

The Boss just stared at him. Style looked down at Tricks, her forehead creased in consternation, but held her silence.

“No,” Sweet said finally. “It was the plain truth as I experienced it. The whole time I was Boss I had to seek out the Big Guy’s opinion exactly twice, and got orders from him three times, in that entire span of years. None of it was hugely complicated, though it was never pretty.”

Tricks grimaced, leaning back again. “Well. Dunno if that makes me a better Boss than you were or a shittier one. And no, don’t ask; the Big Guy’s edicts are private, as you damn well know.”

“I think…it may or may not have to do with you,” Sweet said slowly. “There’s also the situation. Shit’s going down, Boss. Justinian’s making a play, Elilial’s making a play, Tellwyrn’s butting the fuck in, the Empire is faltering on multiple fronts… And then there’s shit like Principia’s whatever-she’s-doing. I think you just have bad timing.”

Tricks grunted sourly. “You want your fucking job back?”

“I really, really do not,” Sweet said fervently. “…but, man… If that’s a sincere offer, I think I might have to take it. Dunno if I’d cope any better than you are, but you’re scaring me, Tricks. I hate seeing you like this.”

Style gave a wordless grunt that conveyed emphatic agreement.

Tricks just heaved a sigh. “Nevermind me, I’m just bitching. It’s been two days since I slept and I’m overdue for lunch.”

“You’re overdue for fucking breakfast after the day you skipped lunch,” Style said quietly.

Tricks blinked, twisting his head around to look up at her. “What day is it? No, never mind, doesn’t matter. Soon as we’re done here I’ll eat something, get drunk, find someone to boink my brains out and get some sleep, I promise.”

“You better,” she warned. “I will enforce that. I’d do it myself, but damn…look at you. I’d break your spine.”

“You never have learned to be gentle, huh?” Sweet asked with a faint grin.

She smirked at him. “You will never know.”

“To drag this back in the general direction of the original point,” said Tricks, straightening in his chair, “no, Sweet, this was not my idea. This came down from the highest level. That much you may feel free to take back to Justinian.” He folded his arms loosely in his lap. “Whatever Wreath have wormed their way into the Guild are not in control. But in the short term… Eserion operates much the way Elilial does, and I can say without breaching his confidence that while he doesn’t take care of our business as a point of principle, he is willing to stir himself to deal directly with her. You said it, Sweet: shit’s going down.” He shook his head slowly. “This is not the first time I’ve been directed to play along with a Black Wreath ploy, and I would love to tell you I expect it to be the last, but I’m just not that optimistic.”


 

“Master Jenkins, you have a visitor.”

Joe carefully finished tucking the last throwing knife he had just pulled free from the target board into his palm before turning to fact the house. He hadn’t actually cut himself yet, but his introduction to the world of bladed weapons had begun with a long lecture on the safe handling thereof, delivered by two elves who were casually playing with knives like a pair of circus performers the whole time. As in most cases, he had decided the safest policy was to compliment Flora and Fauna on their artistry and then take them at their word.

On the other side of the small, walled garden, Price stood at attention next to the townhouse’s back door, from which Longshot McGraw was emerging, giving him a friendly grin.

“Joe, my boy,” the old mage said amiably. “How’re you holding up?”

“In all honesty, chafing under my house arrest,” Joe replied with a matching grin. “I feel entirely as good as new. What brings you by, Elias?”

“Oh, this is an attempt to ferret information out of our employer, clumsily disguised as a social call,” McGraw said blithely. “But, as the good Bishop appears to be out, I’m glad enough to actually socialize. You get to be my age, and the glittering attractions of the big city start to look less attractive and more annoying; give me a quiet drink with a friend any day. Unless, of course, I’m imposing.”

“Not in the least, I’m goin’ stir-crazy myself,” Joe replied, strolling back over to him. “Sit a spell, Bishop Darling’s stated on record that you and the others are always welcome.”

“Indeed,” said Price. “If you gentlemen would care to make yourselves comfortable, I shall bring refreshments.”

“Very much obliged, ma’am,” McGraw said courteously, pausing in the act of taking out his cigarette case to nod to her.

Price flicked her gaze briefly but deliberately to the case. “It is rare that we have such pleasant weather in Tiraas. By all means, don’t waste the opportunity to pollute the air outdoors instead of in.”

She slipped back inside, leaving McGraw staring after her, not moving.

“I do believe I’ve just received a hint,” he said ruefully, tucking the case away.

“Nah, that just means she likes you,” said Joe with a smile, pulling out a chair from the small wrought-iron garden table set up on Darling’s back patio. “It’s an expression of familiarity and comfort, or so I’ve chosen to believe. I knew I was part of the family the day I left muddy boots in the hall and received a four-second passive-aggressive character assassination that plumb drove the breath outta me.”

“Well, call me overcautious, but I’ve met enough Butlers in my time that I’ve developed a policy of playing it safe around ’em,” said McGraw, seating himself as well. “Learning a new trick, are we?”

Joe sighed, setting the knives carefully on the table. “The girls were kind enough to show me the basics. I’ve been getting in some practice. I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without practicing with my wands, but…”

“I don’t reckon the neighbors would much appreciate that,” McGraw noted.

“Exactly,” Joe nodded. “The Bishop is a generous host; I rather suspect he would supply me with a magically shielded target if I asked, but… My wands are quieter than the mass-produced variety, but not silent, and there’s really no way to dampen the flash. Besides, you never know who in the surrounding houses might be an arcanist or witch, and would sense the discharge. All it’d take is one of the idle rich to learn some kid was shootin’ off weapons behind the Bishop’s house and there’d be no end of trouble.”

“Indeed,” McGraw said, a twinkle in his eyes belying his grave tone, “you might have to tell ’em all just which Kid you are and become a local celebrity.”

“Only in my nightmares,” Joe muttered.

“You know, Tiraas does have shootin’ ranges. Not my scene, but I’ve had occasion to visit a few, here and there.”

“I’m aware,” Joe said with a sigh, “and I do plan to frequent them if we’re to stay in the city over the long term. Sadly, my caretaker deems that an unsuitable degree of excitement for me. It’s not so bad, really. Turns out I’ve got a knack for throwing knives, too. The more skills a body has, the better.”

“That’s true, and a wise observation,” the wizard said, nodding. “I must say you seem hearty enough. Why the short leash, if you’ll pardon my askin’?”

Joe shrugged. “Believe me, I’ve asked the same thing. And it’s not like Mary’s shy about explainin’ herself. It’s just…she gets going, and I get lost. I have worked out from context that ‘cardiovascular’ refers to the heart and blood vessels. A cardiac arrest means a heart attack, which apparently I’m still at risk for, or so she claims. There’s also ‘pulmonary,’ which I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.”

“Seems to me there’s a simple enough solution to that,” McGraw said mildly.

“Yeah,” Joe replied, grimacing. “But when she first started in on it, I was too prideful to admit ignorance in front of the legendary immortal. By the time I got more comfortable around her, well… At what point can you fess up to playin’ smarter than you really are for weeks?”

McGraw actually laughed. “These things have a way of runnin’ away with you, I’ll grant. Forgive me for exercising an old man’s prerogative to dispense advice, kid, but the sooner you get over choking on your pride, the happier you’ll be in the long run.”

“I believe you,” he said ruefully. “But it’s not as if I’m under poor care. I grew up a stone’s throw from an elven grove. In my experience, elves know what they’re talking about, especially the elders, and most especially a shaman. Soon as I’m free to roam, I think I’ll go pester the Nemitites for some definitions.”

A soft croak commanded their attention; both turned to behold a crow perched on the garden wall, watching them.

Joe grimaced. “…ah.”

The bird launched itself into a shallow dive, and then Mary landed lightly on the grass, her moccasins making no sound.

“’Pulmonary’ refers to the lungs and their operation,” she said with a faint smile. “Ask questions, Joseph. Ignorance is a fault only if you refuse to correct it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, chagrined, and only belatedly remembered to stand. By that point she had reached the table, and placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently back down.

McGraw half-rose, doffing his hat to her. “Ma’am,” he said respectfully. “Always a pleasure. I’ve been makin’ a point of keeping in touch with the others, but I hadn’t run across you since we reported back from the mountain.”

“I make it a point not to be run across unless I have specific reason,” she said mildly. “But I, too, have been keeping watch over all of you, and over our host. You came here to inquire when we will be expected to move, yes?”

“That was the idea,” he said with a faint grimace. “I don’t personally feel a great urgency to go out and cross wands with whatever passel o’ horrors we’ll be called on to deal with, but there’s only so much sittin’ around I can take. Most particularly when I know what I now know about what’s loose in the world.”

“I have seen many apocalypses come and go,” she said, calm as ever. “These things happen. Darling is being diligent in his pursuit, but it is, at this stage, a waiting game. To rush it is to court ruin.”

“I think we all understand that,” Joe said with a sigh. “Doesn’t mean it’s driving me any less crazy. Seems like I went straight from being cooped up in a bordello for weeks to being cooped up here. If this is gonna be the pattern…”

“You were cooped up where?” McGraw asked in a tone of great interest.

“Oh, that’s right, I hadn’t told you the story. That was Billie; she’s come to visit every few days. Well, a while back I had occasion to meet the new paladins, along with an assortment of other mightily interesting folk…”

The back door of the house opened at that moment, and Bishop Darling himself strolled through, looking more tired than usual. “You should be glad for your currently limited amount of social contact, Joe; you seem to attract interesting people. They won’t always come with the likes of Tellwyrn or myself to keep them in line.”

“Interesting people do have a way of tearin’ up the scenery,” McGraw said gravely.

Darling pulled out one of the remaining chairs and plopped himself down in it. “Elias, good to see you. Why do I suspect you didn’t bother to come in through the door, Mary?”

“At a guess, because you are a swift learner,” she said serenely. “Welcome home. Have you learned anything interesting?”

Price had emerged from the house behind him, carrying a laden tray. She set this down on the patio table and began pouring tea and parceling out cucumber sandwiches in silence while they talked.

“Interesting,” Darling said with a sigh, “in the sense of raising more questions than answers, and answers only of the alarming variety. Joe, I know you’ve been somewhat forcibly isolated from events. Are you all aware of the recent ruckus in the city?”

“I do read the paper,” said Joe, nodding. “Several, in fact, to get a balance of editorial slants. I’ve gotta say, it seems out of character, how the Legions acted. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up over it.”

“To say nothing of the Guild’s actions,” Mary added, watching Darling closely.

“That’s not spoken of as openly,” said McGraw, “and certainly not in print, but I’ve not managed to escape the rumors myself. Can’t say I’ve managed to overhear much that’s in favor of the Black Wreath, but a number of the major cults have smudged their good names in comparison recently.”

“I’m operating on the assumption you’re all intelligent enough to work this out for yourselves, but I’ll spell it out anyway,” Darling said grimly. “This—all of it—is a Wreath plot. It’s not yet unfolded enough that I can see where it’s going, but the early stages suggest an effort to discredit the Pantheon’s cults. What troubles me is I can’t envision an endgame to this. In the long term, there’s just no way Elilial can win back the hearts and minds of the general public. If that were on the table, she’d have done it at some point in the preceding eight thousand years.”

“She has, in fact, done so several times,” Mary noted, “sometimes on a fairly considerable scale. I agree, however, that in the current climate, such an outcome is highly unlikely. Which suggests that this is not her long-term goal, but a more immediate one.”

“Which means,” Joe said slowly, “there’s something else coming. Something big.”

“That’s where we’re at, yeah,” Darling agreed, scowling. “And I’ve got Justinian doubtless trying to spin this to serve his own plots, the Guild and the Sisterhood having royally embarrassed themselves, and no one apparently reliable to back up counter-Wreath efforts but the bloody Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“The provincial attitude of the Huntsmen has often overshadowed their effectiveness,” Mary noted. “This would not be the first time the Wreath has underestimated them, either. If I may point it out, you also have us.”

“You lot are, indeed, an ace in the hole,” Darling agreed. “But we are all left in Joe’s position at the moment: stuck waiting. In order to make good use of this massive collection of firepower I’ve so carefully lined up, I need a target, and an environment in which I can safely fire at it. Otherwise I risk furthering the Wreath’s agenda yet again. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t know about the five of you, but I’m not naïve enough to bank on that assumption.”

“Wise,” Mary said, nodding.

“In my experience,” said McGraw, crossing his legs and lounging back in his chair as he sipped his tea, “the defensive is a bad place to be. Being stuck in a waiting position is the proper time to look into unconventional ways to seize the initiative. Something the enemy won’t anticipate.”

“I am, in fact, exploring several possibilities,” said Darling. “Once again, there is you lot; shifty situation or no, you may end up being the tiebreaker. It’s also a good time to research new skills. How’s your knife-throwing coming along, Joe?”

“I daresay I’m very nearly enough to have another contest with Fauna and not quite as severely humiliate myself,” Joe said gravely.

“Mm.” Darling gave him a sidelong look. “Just for your edification, if she finds out you let her win, she’s gonna kick your ass.”

Joe froze, blinking. “Um…pardon?”

“I know only the broad strokes of how your ability works, but it’s not at all a leap to figure out that knife-throwing of all things would come as naturally to you as breathing.” Darling grinned at the Kid’s abashed expression. “Anyhow, I’m looking into branching out myself. It was recently pointed out to me that the Church has a holy summoner program, and training is available. With the Wreath bopping around, maybe a little demonology would be worth picking up.”

“You as a warlock?” McGraw mused. “…I could almost see that.”

“Thanks,” Darling said dryly. “Anyhow, not a warlock, obviously. I’m not much with the divine flash, but I’m still a priest. Too much holy magic stored in the aura makes that impossible.”

Instantly they all turned their heads to him, identical frowns falling across their faces. Darling looked from one face to another and back, his eyebrows climbing in surprise.

“What? What’d I say? What’s that look for?”

“Who told you that?” Mary asked evenly. “About holy magic in the aura.”

“Someone who’d taken advantage of the aforementioned training,” he said slowly. “Why?”

She raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid they misled you.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s just…startling,” Joe said carefully, “hearin’ that from a priest. Usually magic-users of any stripe are better versed in the Circles of Interaction.”

“I’m an Eserite,” Darling said, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. “My god does not encourage the use of magic when mortal skills will suffice. Would someone care to explain the issue, please?”

“You two mind if I take this one?” McGraw asked, setting down his tea and straightening. When they both nodded to him, he turned to face Darling. “Specializing in one form of magic can inhibit you in learning the others, but not to any great degree. Except in very rare cases, magic is something you do, or have, not something you are. All four schools have in common that magical power grows with time and use, which is why the older casters are nearly always the stronger. But the nature of that barrier is different for each school. What you describe, storing power in the aura…that’s arcane magic that works that way. Storage capacity’s like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s flexed. With divine magic, the barrier’s in handling the power safely.”

“Users of holy magic do not store or produce it themselves,” Mary said, “but rather channel it from an outside source. The divine burns if drawn upon too deeply. You build up a tolerance, not a capacity, and that tolerance does not inhibit the use of other schools. I have seen Scyllithene priestesses hurl shadow blasts from behind sacred shields, and call upon divine light to heal their wounded demon thralls.”

Darling’s frown had grown progressively deeper as she spoke, and he switched his gaze from an abstract contemplation of the distance to her face at that last. “You meet a lot of Scyllithene priestesses?”

“Hardly a lot,” she said calmly, “but I have lived a long time, and been many places.”

“Whoah, hang on,” Joe interjected. “Doesn’t holy magic kill demons by nature?”

“You confuse nature with source,” she said. “The holy magic to which you are accustomed would, because it is channeled through the gods of the Pantheon. Their rules demand that their power be harmful to demonkind. Clerics of other gods, for example Themynra, have fewer restrictions. Then, too, the dwarves are often able to call on divine energy without the aid of any god. There are many ways to drink from that well.”

“So…that might not have been completely wrong?” Darling asked thoughtfully. “Given the source of the power I’d be using, having it around could inhibit using infernal magic?”

“Only if you tried to use them concurrently,” said Mary. “And by the way, while I do advocate a broader understanding of demonology, I strongly suggest you stick to learning theory and whatever practical applications you can use via divine methods, which are several. Please do not attempt to handle infernal power directly.”

“I’m not an idiot, Mary.”

“No,” she said evenly, “you are a man who has safely picked up weapons that others feared to touch in the past. The infernal is not a weapon, it is a poison. The barrier to its use is, as with divine magic, in handling it safely.”

“That’s why you never meet an elderly warlock,” McGraw said with a grin. “You can pull down any amount of hellfire you want on your first try, provided you’d bonded with a powerful enough demon. It’s just that you’ll find your body and spirit so badly twisted by the effort you may not be able to feed yourself afterward, much less bust out more magic. Difference is, the gods’ll usually stop their servants from burning themselves out. Demons are typically divided between those who don’t care if their warlocks riddle themselves with cancer and mutation, and those who find it hilarious when they do.”

“I am beginning to rethink this whole enterprise,” Darling said solemnly.

“Do,” Mary agreed, nodding. “At the very least, until you acquire more accurate information. It might also be worth determining whether your source intentionally set you up for that fall. If not, they themselves may be in danger.”

“Mm…” he mused. “I doubt Justinian would let one of his favored servants make that kind of mistake. On the other hand, I can’t think of any motive Bishop Snowe would have for letting me do so, especially when…”

“You know Bishop Snow?” Joe cut in, straightening up and smiling. “Think you could get me her autograph?”

Darling stared at him. “…I’m sorry, what?”

“I didn’t realize y’all were acquainted,” McGraw added. “That’s one sharp lady. You hear she’s got a book coming out?”

“What?!”

“Of course, I read her column,” Joe said, nodding. “Planned to get a copy, assuming I’m allowed to visit something as exciting as a bookstore.” He gave Mary an accusing look.

“Bookstores are not, generally speaking, stimulating environments,” she said calmly. “Matters become different when a local celebrity is launching a debut book.”

Darling could only gape at them.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

4 – 7

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

It was almost odd to find the Guild’s counting room full of accountants. During his tenure as Boss, of course, Sweet had seen this sight many times, but more recently he’d only been down here to meet with Tricks and/or Style about matters that weren’t for general consumption, and the counting room made an excellent spot due to the passive enchantments on the space which ruled out any attempts at eavesdropping. Not that anyone was likely to try eavesdropping on the Guild’s leadership, but thieves did not succeed in life by skipping obvious precautions.

Now, the rows of desks were occupied by men and women, most of them younger and a lot still apprentices. The majority of the accounting staff were there for the dual reasons that they provided the Guild with free labor, and their sponsors found this an excellent way to teach apprentices to handle money properly—a surprisingly important skill, which few people outside the merchant and banking guilds and the cult of Vernisalle bothered to learn. Some few, though, were number people by inclination and made this their whole career with the Guild.

It was to the foremost of these that Sweet made a beeline upon entering.

“Odds!” he called, grinning. Three nearby number-crunchers started violently, one dropping his pen; a few others gave him irritated looks. “Sorry,” he added contritely in a lower voice.

“Hey, Sweet,” said the master of the counting room, waving. “What brings you to my lair?”

Where many Guild members went out of their way to look as little like what they were as possible, Odds might as well have been an artist’s conception of the chief numbers man for a guild of thieves. Short, slight, dark-skinned and clean-shaven—even on top of his head—he wore round spectacles and a stylish, tailored suit. The avuncular look was ruined by a yellow silk tie embroidered with purple and scarlet diamonds, tucked into a waistcoat of the same screamingly insane pattern and held steady by a gaudy, bejeweled tie pin. He also carried an entirely useless cane of polished dark wood, topped by an enormous faceted crystal.

“Wonder if I could have a word with you in private,” Sweet said, holding up the thick folder he carried. “In the record room?”

Odds raised his eyebrows, but shrugged. “Sure, I can spare you a few minutes. Stay on task, people.” Rapping his knuckles on one of the desks in passing, he strolled over to the far wall and pulled aside a tapestry, revealing a hidden door. He ducked inside, followed by Sweet, and shut it behind them, sealing off the soft but busy sounds of the accountants at work.

“Do they normally throw a party when your back is turned?”

“Not nearly often enough,” Odds grunted. “Some of those kids I have to deal with act like they’re in freakin’ Hell. I would take a hit to the operation’s efficiency if I could just get those number monkeys to enjoy their jobs a bit more. But no, as soon as I get somebody who’s got an actual gift for the work, they get shipped off to head up the financial operations in another Guild post the gods know where. What’d you need, Sweet?”

They were in a smaller, irregularly lit room lined with file cabinets. One of the fairy lamps had gone dark, and another was flickering; this place evidently didn’t see much upkeep.

“Want you to have a look at this,” Sweet said, handing him the folder, “and then I’d like to check it against our own files.”

“Ah, Prin,” Odds chuckled, accepting it and noting the name on the cover. “World’s perkiest butt attached to a personality like a malicious honey badger who thinks she’s funny.”

“You’ve met her?”

“Once,” the accountant said distractedly. “It was enough. More’n one reason I was glad to see her walk away…” He trailed off, frowning at what he was reading, and Sweet held his own silence to let him.

Odds was a fast reader, unsurprisingly. He made it about halfway through the stack of papers in a couple of minutes before lifting his head. “I’m just gonna assume the rest of this is more of the same. Or is there a surprise toward the end?”

“It’s all like that,” Sweet said, shaking his head. “What do you make of it?”

“It’s bullshit,” Odds said without hesitation. “Anyone pulling off this stuff would be making more dough than the Boss, easily. Prin’s a low-end performer. Or rather, she was before she got put on guard duty in Last Rock. Since then she’s been drawing a salary, not doing jobs and contributing tithes. Not a big one, either.”

“And you don’t think she could be embezzling?”

“Sweet, did you read this thing? This is like the adventures of Foxpaw and Eserion himself if they lived in a more exciting world than this one. No, even apart from the fact that this is a crazy pile of fiction, you don’t skip your tithes. That never goes unnoticed.”

Sweet grunted. “And yet, Style tries to shake me down for skimping every time I set foot in here…”

“Style tries to mug me for lunch money three times a week, despite drawing a salary that’d buy her into the lower nobility if she wanted. That’s what happens when you keep one of the world’s best leg-breakers cooped up in here on administrative work. Seriously, though, you steal from the Guild, the Big Guy himself notices. It doesn’t fucking work. Where’d you get this pile of lies?”

“It’s a copy of the file the Sisters of Avei have on Principia.”

Impossible as it seemed, Odds’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Now just why in the hell do the Sisters have a file on Prin?” Notably, he didn’t seem curious how Sweet had acquired such a thing.

“You probably haven’t heard, but Prin has a daughter. Just turned eighteen.”

“I hadn’t heard that, no. Sort of wish I still hadn’t. It’s a frightening thought.”

“No kidding, especially considering that Principia’s daughter is the new Hand of Avei.”

Odds stared at him for a moment.

“Seriously?”

“I’m afraid so.”

He shook his head. “You ever get the feeling the gods are just fucking with us?”

“Only when I’m awake,” Sweet said dryly. “Anyway, that is why the Sisters have been making note of Prin’s exploits; they’re worried about her corrupting the girl, I think. So these aren’t lies; this is operational data used by the world’s most established military force. Either they know something—a whole hell of a lot of somethings—that we don’t, or for some reason they mistakenly think Principia’s been doing all this.”

“All right, well…” Odds looked around, scratching the back of his neck with the head of his cane. “I agree, that’s worth looking into, seeing how dramatically it fails to add up. And you’ve got the rank and clearance, so I guess we better crack open Prin’s file.”

He crossed over to one wall, tracing a finger along labels. “Let’s see, these are currently active agents…. Enforcers, special ops, cats, cutters, informants… Con artists, here we go.” He tugged open a long drawer and began paging through the dusty files therein.

“You keep a separate category for the type of work a person does?” Sweet asked with interest. “That’s crazy. A lot of our people don’t have just one specialty.”

Odds spared him an annoyed glance. “See, this is why I was glad when you got kicked over to the Church. You never took an interest in this stuff, Sweet. I’d try to explain our methods and your eyes’d just glaze. Tricks, now, he makes sure to know how everything works. Yeah, some folks’re into more than one basket of fruit, so it can take a while to figure out which section they’re filed under. Specially since different people are in charge of each category and aren’t permitted to compare notes.”

“What?” Sweet boggled at him. “Odds, this is the filing system of the damned. Never mind being able to find anything in here, what the hell is keeping everyone honest?”

“We have a god to do that,” Odds replied, glancing up at him again, this time with amusement. “Like I was saying earlier, you don’t steal from the Thieves’ Guild. Nobody who tries it is after money; that’d be stupid. Some, though, get a bug up their butts about something or other the Boss does and thinks they’re going to stick it to us. Every time somebody tries, the Big Guy lets the Boss know who to call down for it.”

“That…never happened while I was Boss,” Sweet said, frowning. “Shit. Was I so bad he didn’t want to talk to me?”

“Nah,” Odds said distractedly. “Tricks is an operations guy; you’re a people guy. He may run a more profitable Guild, but he doesn’t have your knack for keeping everybody happy.”

Sweet narrowed his eyes. “How much more profitable?”

“Solid fifteen percent, across the board.”

“Are you fucking—”

“Here we go!” Odds straightened up, pulling out a file. “Locke, Principia. Let’s see what you’ve been up to, darlin’…” He laid the file open atop the others filling the drawer, paging through it. “Pretty skimpy. Yeah, this is all stuff we knew about. It’s not a fraction of what the Avenist file claims. Let’s see, narrowing it to the last twenty years… Yeah, there’s that one big job, the blackmail thing. Heh, she actually got herself pregnant for that? Now that’s dedication to the craft. Also explains where the kid comes from, I guess. But the rest of this is small time hustling. The Sisters’ records are full of epic stuff. Look at this last entry, they claim she posed as an elvish shaman to enter the house of a dwarven smith clan whose heir had a rare wasting disease. Then stole a bejeweled mithril rapier, then traded that to the king of the Punaji for freedom for a friend of hers who was going to be executed for trying to rob his vaults… And disappeared before the dwarves figured out she’d poisoned their boy in the first place.” He paused for breath. “You could make a novel out of that one alone. The Sisters have a seriously exaggerated idea of what Prin’s capable of.”

Sweet sighed softly. “So…is there any chance they’re right about any of this?”

“Just a second,” Odds mumbled, frowning. He now had both files open and was leafing through them, back and forth. “I dunno… It is fishy. They’ve got notes on a lot of the little stuff, too, the same things we have records of. Some of ’em they missed, I guess they haven’t managed to follow her around all the time. It’s crazy, though. If Prin was pulling small jobs and big ones and only reporting the small… Well, that’s classic embezzlement, and the Big Guy would call her down for it. Nothing like that’s happened.”

“Hm. You’ve been doing this for years, Odds, trust your instincts. Does anything about those files jump out at you as suspicious?”

Odds chewed his lower lip for a moment. “I’d have to go over ’em in a lot more detail, build a comparison chart… Huh, it is kinda strange about the name.”

“Name?”

“Locke, Principia.” The tapped the name scrawled on the Guild file with one long forefinger. “They’re supposed to have all relevant nomenclature right there on the front. It should have her tag, too, but it’s just last name, first name. Probably only means somebody was in a hurry when they filled this out, or it was a new kid doing it. Only thing that leaps off the page at me as out of place, though.”

A prickle ran down Sweet’s spine. “Hm… Check under K.”

“Under K?” Odds frowned at him. “What am I looking for under K?”

“Keys. It’s her tag.”

“You think she has two files?” Odds squinted thoughtfully into the distance for a moment, then shrugged. “I dunno what that would explain, but it’s not impossible, I guess. Yeah, gimme a minute.” He lifted the thick Avenist file off the drawer and began rooting through the pages several inches up from where he’d found Principia’s Guild file. After only a few moments, he suddenly stopped. “Well, as I live and breathe. Here we are, under Keys.”

Sweet crowded in closer as he pulled out the new file and laid it open atop the other. “Let’s see… Yeah. This is more little odd jobs of the kind she’s known for, but also… Also a couple of bigger ones.” Odds’s frown deepened. “Set herself up as a money launderer for some non-Guild group, stole their entire haul from a stagecoach robbery and then arranged for them to get nailed by the Sisters while she made off with the gold. Here, joined an adventuring party to loot an abandoned old Avenist temple…once again, turned on the group, set them up for the Sisters to nab. This time, she actually made an offering to Avei at another temple, gave back all the treasure. Which explains how she managed not to get on that goddess’s shit list. Paid the tithe to the Big Guy, though, apparently out of her own pocket.” He raised his eyes to meet Sweet’s. “Both of those are in the Avenists’ file, too.”

Sweet rubbed his chin, frowning in thought. “…where’s P?”

“Excuse me? You need to go? You know where it is.”

“What are you, nine years old?” Sweet scowled at him. “P, the letter P. In the filing system.”

“Oh! Right. Next drawer up.”

“Watch your fingers,” he said, pulling the indicated drawer open and beginning to shuffle through its contents. Odds barely managed to snatch the open folders from the top of the one they’d been working on, muttering a curse. “Also, why in hell’s name is the alphabet arranged in ascending order here?”

“Well, ex-Boss, there are characteristics of our system that suit the unique needs of the Guild, some that encourage snoopers to get themselves lost, and some that are just out-of-touch fuckery perpetrated by our forefathers, some of whom clearly couldn’t spell. Like I said, we don’t have to worry about embezzlement around here. We mostly worry about people having too much access to other people’s info. A corrupt accountant some decades back actually dug into this for blackmail material. That’s why we keep different people assigned to different divisions, so nobody has access to everybody’s records.”

Sweet stopped suddenly. “Odds…look at this.”

Odds leaned in, peering at the indicated file. “Principia Locke. Holy monkey fuck, she has three? And why the hell is it under her first name? Even our system isn’t that obtuse.”

“Probably to keep it away from the other two so nobody noticed…” He pulled the file loose, set it atop the open drawer, but then suddenly stopped, frowning.

“Problem?” Odds asked.

Abandoning the third file, Sweet took a step to his right, patting another filing cabinet. “What’s in here?”

“That one? Those are records for the enforcers.”

“Good.” He pulled open the drawer which corresponded to the one in the con artist cabinet containing the letters K and L.

“Sweet, what are you doing? I didn’t bring you here so you could rummage around in everybody’s records. If Keys is an enforcer, I’m the Empress.”

“You’d look smashing in a ball gown,” Sweet said distractedly.

“Nah, I don’t have the ankles for it. Hems this season are just too high. That’s the moral decay of our culture for you.”

“I refuse to ask how you know that.”

“And maybe that’s your problem, buddy. If you took an interest in fashion, perhaps you wouldn’t walk around looking like an unmade bed. And that’s after that Butler of yours works on you.”

“Locke.” Sweet yanked out a file. “Principia Locke.”

Odds stared. “She’s in the enforcer cabinet?” he finally said softly. “Why?”

Sweet stepped back into the center of the room, holding Principia’s enforcer file. He turned in a slow circle, studying the rows upon rows of file cabinets. “Odds, my man, I think we’ve got some serious digging to do. We may wanna call the Boss in here.”


“All right, Sweet, let’s hear it,” Tricks said grimly, stepping into the record room. Style entered on his heels, tugging the door shut behind her. Today she was in some kind of maroon military uniform (belonging to no army that actually existed), bedecked with huge golden epaulettes, braided piping and a ludicrous number of shiny medals.

“Ah, you’ve had a chance to look over our little gift from the Avenists, I see,” Sweet said cheerfully, noting the thick file in Tricks’s hand.

“Yeah, and for future reference, if you want to get my attention you can just send over the jaw-dropping evidence in the first place,” the Boss said sourly, “instead of wasting time sending imperious demands via messenger.”

“Well, someone’s in a mood.”

“No more’n usual,” Style muttered.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” said Tricks, scowling. “I’m never not ass-deep in administrative bullshit these days, and this was a shock my delicate constitution didn’t need. Exactly how the hell did you get your hands on the Sisterhood’s records? Surely you didn’t manage to impress Rouvad that much.”

“No, this came to me by the same phenomenon which is the undoing of all really great cons.”

Tricks raised an eyebrow. “Sheer bloody happenstance?”

“Bingo.” Sweet nodded. “Justinian has us looking into independent operatives who might be behind the cleric murders; he had Basra get into the Sisterhood’s records and draw up a list of everyone in the Empire who’s a free agent too powerful to be ignored. Imagine my amazement when Prin turned up on the roster. Basra let me keep that copy, and here we are.”

“Here we are,” Tricks repeated grimly. “You’re telling me this stack of fairy tales is accurate?”

“That and more,” said Odds from behind. Sweet moved out of the way, allowing Tricks and Style a clearer view of the accountant. He had pulled a folding table out of the corner in which it had been stashed and was sorting through stacks and stacks of files—all of them carrying some variant of Principia’s name. “They didn’t catch everything. I’ve confirmed each of these jobs from the reports she submitted herself. She’s reported and paid tithes on quite a few pieces of work that aren’t mentioned in the Sisters’ notes. Not more than one or two were in any single file, and they’re cushioned with smaller jobs, the kind that make her look like strictly small potatoes.”

“What do you mean, any single file?” Style demanded. “Everybody’s supposed to have one file of listed jobs. How the hell many does Locke have?”

“At least thirty-eight,” Odds said solemnly.

“What?” She gaped at him. “What the buttfucking what?!”

“At least three under each classification of agent,” Sweet clarified. “Filed under first name, last name and tag. She may have others that we haven’t thought to check for.”

“How,” Tricks asked quietly, “is that remotely possible?”

“It’s actually pretty easy,” Odds admitted. “She’d just have to know the names of everybody who handles the files, and send in different reports marked to each of them specifically. Privacy protocols mean they won’t compare notes. Lots of our people do this, for various reasons, mostly having to do with wanting some kind of special treatment from somebody they’ve buttered up. This way nobody has any notion of the volume or quality of the jobs she’s been doing.”

“How in fuck’s name did we not know this was going on, but the motherfucking Sisters of Avei did?!” Style demanded, snatching the file from Tricks and furiously paging through it.

“That much, at least, I can understand,” Tricks said slowly. “Running a con on someone has little to do with how smart they are; if they’re dumb enough, you pretty much don’t even need to con them. It’s all about finding out what people expect to see, and then showing them that. So they don’t look beyond it to what’s really there.”

“Exactly,” Sweet said, nodding. “Prin’s spent decades making sure nobody wants to be around her by being an aggravating pest whenever anybody is. She pisses off Guild members left and right, turns in reports and tithes for piddly little jobs, so naturally her reputation is as an underperforming bitch. Not even worth keeping track of. So we weren’t keeping track of her, but the Avenists were.”

“I guess it wouldn’t be necessary for her to throw them off,” Odds commented. “The Guild and the Sisterhood don’t exactly sit down for tea and conversation.”

“Yeah, it was just dumb chance that set me onto this track,” Sweet admitted. “She moves around a lot, does her little cover jobs in the cities where the Guild has a presence, then heads out to do the big stuff in relative isolation. Assuming we didn’t compare notes with the Sisters was safe; they dislike us almost as much as they do the Black Wreath. If it weren’t for a serial killer in Tiraas and Justinian’s twisty, underhanded response to it, we’d never have found this out.”

“I’ve put together a sort of map,” Odds added. “She’s been slowly migrating up and down the continent for over a century. With this big a territory to work and her lifespan, she can set the proper pace, rob a place fucking dry and move on to the next, and by the time she’s back where she started there’s basically a whole different generation of people living there. It’s…brilliant.”

“What is she even doing?” Style asked, clenching both hands on the file until the thick cardboard binding crackled in protest. “Is this embezzlement?”

“No,” said Odds, shaking his head, “it’s pretty much the opposite of that. Anti-embezzlement. She’s set all this up to make sure the Big Guy always gets his cut of every job she does. In fact, several of these she didn’t even profit from, and paid the tithe out of her own funds. But with her records spread across all these files, nobody notices just how effective a thief she is. She fulfills all her responsibilities and dodges the credit.”

“Why?!”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Tricks sounded almost weary. “If you’re too good, you get promoted. Be honest, Style, do you enjoy working here in the casino more than you did being out there cracking heads? I’m run ragged most of the time, and Sweet looks and acts a lot healthier since he got moved from his desk job to being back in circulation in the city. Prin, apparently, is another like us; she wants to be out there doing the work, not in here running the Guild.” Gently, he took the folder back from her. “And with a record like this, plus an indefinite lifespan? There’s no way she could’ve dodged a promotion. An immortal master thief would be the perfect Boss.”

“But she always pays her tithes,” Sweet said softly. “Always. And we know enough of her movements to know she’s not spending this money on herself. I mean, Omnu’s balls, she has to have pulled in more than the average noble House’s treasury in a given year, but you’d never know it from her lifestyle.”

“All but the last three years,” Odds added. “It stops since she went to Last Rock. Apparently she really has been sitting on her hands out there.”

“What the fuck is she buying, then?” Style exclaimed.

“You’re missing the point,” Sweet said, shaking his head. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the work, about our purpose in life. She steals to test her skills and humble the powerful, not to enrich herself.”

“She’s faithful. A true believer,” said Tricks. “Hell, apparently a model Eserite.”

“Well…fuck.” Style drew in a deep breath and blew it out. “I feel increasingly shitty about us sending an apparent rapist to ride her tail.”

Sweet and Tricks cringed in unison.

Odds’s eyebrows shot up. “We did what?”

“Obviously, this changes the whole tone of the matter with her and Thumper,” said Sweet.

Tricks nodded. “You’ve got that damn right. We may be looking at the best, truest Eserite alive, here. No way she’d have turned on the Guild after centuries of this kind of faithful service without seeking personal advancement—unless she was driven to it. Specifically, in this case, by my stupid mistake.”

“Mistakes,” said Style. “There’s a plural there.”

“Thank you,” he said acidly.

“Got your back,” she replied, grinning, then sobered quickly. “So…what do we do about this?”

“First thing’s first.” Tricks stepped forward and gently laid the folder down along with the other files on Odds’s makeshift desk. “Sweet, burn this. Odds, you put the rest of those right back where they were, let her continue on as she has been. I’m calling a Hush on this whole thing. None of you ever breathes a word of it to anyone. Forget you even know of it.”

“Yeah, I know what a fucking Hush is,” Style said sardonically.

“It’s for rhetorical effect,” Sweet said, grinning. “The man knows how to give a speech. Let him work.”

“This is a fucking masterpiece,” Tricks said solemnly. “The con to end all cons, perpetuated on the very people who ought to have known better. This is the highest practice of our craft I’ve ever seen, heard of or imagined. I would sooner take a sledgehammer to the bicentennial stained glass gallery in the Cathedral than mess this thing up for her. It’s a work of art, a thing of beauty. We’re gonna leave it alone. Got it?”

Odds nodded; Style grunted affirmatively. “Agreed,” said Sweet.

“More immediately,” Tricks said, then sighed. He turned away from the table and began pacing; the cramped space didn’t give him much room to do so, and he had to turn around every four steps. “Obviously, I’m no longer seriously entertaining the notion that Prin’s a traitor. Consider that warrant canceled. Style, put out the word to all your enforcers, everywhere: the hunt is off. Prin is considered a member in good standing; she’s welcome to come home safely, at any time.”

“No…no. Overcompensating.” Sweet shook his head emphatically. “That says something has changed. If you want to protect her secrets, it’s gotta be more subtle.”

“Excuse me,” Style said pointedly, “but you do not get to bark orders around here anymore, ex-Boss.”

“Right,” he said, chagrined. “Sorry. This is why I shouldn’t take apprentices; I get used to ordering people around and it goes right to my head.”

“He’s right, though,” said Tricks. “And the day I refuse to listen to advice from my top people is the day you need a new Boss. Mind the tone, though, Sweet. You do that in front of the rank-and-file and I’ll have you cutting purse strings in Glass Alley for a week.”

Sweet stood at attention and saluted. “Sir, yes, sir!”

“Can I hit him?” Style asked. “Pretty please?”

“Heel, girl.” Tricks shook his head. “And back on subject, yes, it’d blow Prin’s operation if we reveal we know about it. And…well, she’s still a person of interest, isn’t she? We need to debrief her about all this business, even if she’s not in trouble. All right, this is what you tell your enforcers: She’s not wanted or suspected of any offense against the Guild, but if seen she’s to be ordered to return here to report. They don’t force her, but make it clear it’s not a request.”

“Got it. And if she refuses that not-a-request, which we both fucking know she’s gonna do?”

“Then she’ll be wanted for an infraction against the Guild, albeit a much more minor one than we’ve been discussing, and we’ll deal with that.”

“I wouldn’t assume she’ll bolt, though,” Sweet said ruminatively. “She has too much invested in the Guild. A little reassurance that we’re not gonna nail her ears to the wall may be all it takes to bring her home.”

“Right, well, just for your information my people haven’t even seen her,” said Style. “Anywhere. In weeks. All this is well and good, but we don’t know where the fuck she is.”

“Or doing what,” Odds remarked, already busily replacing Principia’s various files in their proper cabinets. “If she’s getting back to the Big Guy’s business, though, I bet she sends in a report and a tithe as expected.”

“And that leaves the other party implicated in this brouhaha,” Sweet pointed out, raising an eyebrow.

Tricks sighed, his expression grim. “Yeah. Style, tell your enforcers this as well: I want Thumper’s ass back here yesterday. This goes beyond needing his perspective on the matter. The fuckery he’s apparently been up to is going to make us all look bad in the best case scenario, and we all know better than to count on that being the scenario that happens. If he’s ignoring orders to return, then he’s to be considered fugitive. Collar him and bring him home. Alive…” He scowled. “Or whatever’s convenient.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

3 – 6

<Previous Chapter                                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

“You did what?!”

“I’m pretty sure you heard,” Fauna said somewhat testily. “Do you really need us to go over it again?”

Darling took two steps backward and slowly sank down into his plush desk chair, staring at them. “…girls. When I was a lad, I once got a little too high-spirited in a library and the cleric in charge shushed me so hard I could hardly speak above a whisper for a week. Right in front of a girl I was trying to impress, too. It was embarrassing. And I’m pretty sure that was the worst thing any Nemitite has ever done to anyone. Did I not tell you to only kill people who deserved it? I could swear I remember saying that very specifically. It was kind of central to the whole idea.”

“She met the criteria,” Flora said defensively. “Involvement in the Church’s shady dealings, defenses light enough we could get through without revealing we were more than just warlocks. There aren’t a lot of people who are both! And that really was an awful program. They’re separating children from their families to indoctrinate them. Some were just for some cleric’s revenge against suspected diabolists.”

“How, exactly, did you find out about this program if the records were locked away in a sealed vault?”

The two elves exchanged one of their long, significant looks. “The spirits…have ways,” Flora said at last. “They can gather information from sources that aren’t exactly available through normal means. We asked them for help finding the right place to strike.”

For a long moment, the only sound in the study was the ticking of the grandfather clock.

“Are you telling me,” Darling finally said, “that I sent you out on an extremely delicate mission to disrupt the political situation in this city with a surgical strike, and you let the omnicidally insane voices in your head pick the target?”

Flora winced. “Well, when you put it that way…”

“Those are the resources we have, so they’re what we used,” Fauna said, folding her arms. “Of course they have their limitations. Drawbacks. This entire pact is the world’s bitterest drawback, frankly, but we make do as best we can.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “the good news is this should have exactly the effect we intended, in spades. The handy thing about committing appalling atrocities is they make people good and mad. And…I suppose if they were voluntarily covering up the Church’s operation…”

“No,” Fauna said quietly. “I was there, Sweet, and I can’t make myself think that librarian deserved that. Don’t rationalize.”

“There something you want to get off your chest?” he asked mildly.

“Take it from someone who knows: if you make a deal with a monster, things will only get worse as long as you try to deny that’s what you’ve done.” She spread her arms, a gesture that was at once helpless and frustrated. “This is what it is. What we are. It’s the best we can do, and it’s a horrible travesty. It’s…it’s just all we’re good for anymore.”

“Don’t do that,” he said sharply. “What have I been training you for, then? You have the potential—”

“And we’ll still be monsters! We can’t not kill—it’s all we can do to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. To try to use the power where it’s necessary. But even if we only ever killed people who needed to die, we’re still just killers. Do you think there’s anything we haven’t tried?” She stared at him, almost pleadingly. “I’m not being rhetorical, I’m asking. If you have any ideas for keeping the spirits under control, we’ll take anything not to have to keep doing this.”

“We…we came to Tiraas for this reason,” Flora said quietly, miserably. “It was a compromise. The spirits wanted to strike at the Empire and grew more agitated the more we tried to keep away from humans. We figured…here in this city there had to be thousands of people who at least deserved to die. We thought maybe we could…sort of, incidentally, do some good. But it’s never that simple.”

“It always ends up like this,” said Fauna wearily. “Something always goes wrong, someone always gets hurt who doesn’t deserve it. The only reason we haven’t picked a fight with the Empire and gotten ourselves put down is we can’t make the spirits go down easily. We’ve talked it over in detail. If we could hand them a win… But it’ll be a fight, and lots of people will die for wanting to defend their homes. You’re right: the spirits are insane. We know this Empire has nothing to do with the government that destroyed Athan’Khar, but that doesn’t matter to them. Lots of people will die. So…” She sighed heavily. “If you don’t want us around anymore, that’s fine. Just…please don’t turn us in, unless you know how to put us down quietly. We don’t want to kill any more good people.”

Flora nodded silently, and they both stared at him as if waiting for the axe to fall.

Darling held his silence for a few moments, then sighed in turn. “Well. I guess I owe you two a big apology.”

The elves blinked in unison. “Um…pardon?” Fauna said.

“Here I’ve been using your talents for my plans and not doing anything to help you get a grip on your situation, which is exactly the opposite of what I promised when I took you on. So, yes, I’m sorry. I’ve been thoughtless, and I guess we’re lucky the collateral damage wasn’t worse. I can’t just put the world on hold, girls, and I’m afraid I can’t do this without your help. But you have my word, I will be thinking much harder about how to help you.”

“You can’t help us,” Flora said gently, wearing a sad little smile. “Nothing takes away the pact, not as long as we’re alive.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” He held up a finger. “I can’t cure you, that’s probably true. But there is a huge yawning gulf between that and not being able to help. I will, as I said, think on it. For now, let’s focus on the present, though. Why didn’t you tell me? If you were having trouble finding deserving targets, I would much rather have pushed back the timetable than let something like this happen.”

They glanced at each other, and then down at the floor. “It was getting…bad,” Fauna admitted. “If we go too long without a hunt, the spirits get… Well, ‘restless’ doesn’t quite capture it. We’ve learned not to let it go too far. Eventually they’ll get out of control, and then there will be massive collateral damage. In the city…it would be unthinkable.”

“Again,” he said, “why didn’t you tell me? If you’re having trouble, I expect to be kept in the loop. Especially about something like this.”

“What would you have done?” Flora said bitterly. “Gone out and found somebody deserving for us to kill?”

“You say that like you think it would be hard,” he said dryly. “This is the greatest city in the world, ladies. It’s absolutely crawling with assholes who need to be scrubbed out of the gene pool.”

“You can’t just feed us like throwing steaks to a tiger in a zoo,” Fauna said, twisting her lips. “The spirits need to hunt. They need prey that’s both challenging and deserving. Or what they think is deserving. Mostly they’ll take any human. We had to seriously twist things around to make them satisfied with killing Missy.”

“Good to know,” he mused. “But even so, my point stands. We have royally fucked this up: me by making assumptions and failing to prepare you properly, you by acting without letting me know what’s going on. Now we’ve got innocent blood on all our hands, and who knows what the after effects of this will be? Henceforth, girls, you will keep me informed. We can’t afford to screw around with this or it’s likely to be worse next time. I don’t care how sensitive or embarrassing it is, if it has to do with your pact and your ability to function, you will tell me before it becomes an immediate issue. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” they chorused meekly.

Darling sighed heavily and dragged a hand down his face. “Right then. Meantime… We’ll continue operations. But!” He held up a hand. “For the time being, no killing. You’ve just been…ah, sated, so you should be fine for…what, a few weeks?”

“On average,” Fauna said slowly. “A few weeks, usually. Maybe longer than last time; this was a much better hunt than…the last one.”

“Right. Let me know when you feel the twinges coming on. But for now, I want you to move to intelligence gathering. Use whatever powers you’ve got, prowl among the Church and the cults without being seen or leaving evidence. Can you do that?”

“Of course we can!”

“Good. Get me lists of targets. Obviously, we’re not going to rely on your spirits to pick them. Ever. Again. Find me clerics, be they cultists or Church officials, who are into bad stuff, specifically stuff that impacts the Church or the Wreath. Ideally both. The point here is to create hostility between the Church and the Black Wreath, and hopefully make the cults reconsider their support for the Church in the process. You’re both smart; if you find anything like that, you’ll know it. Above all, remember we’re looking for people who the world is better off without. There’ll be no shortage of them; we just have to find the ones who are positioned in the right place that killing them will have the effect we want.”

“Please don’t hate me for saying this,” Fauna said meekly, “but…why does that matter so much? It seems like this business is bigger than a few lives.”

“It’s not for us to decide what a life is worth,” he said firmly. “We have to be better, Fauna. Have to. Right now, we may make mistakes, we may have to do some unsavory things, but we’re working toward something. It’s about caring for the world and making it better, and it’s not our goals that keep us on that path but the principles that rule out certain means of achieving them. Without those principles… Then we’re just another faction of assholes muddying the water, just to improve our own position. You, especially, can’t afford to surrender the moral high ground. Most people are on a slippery slope; you two are walking a tightrope over an abyss. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” they said again.

Darling held their gazes for a moment, then sighed. “All right… That’s your orders for now. Sorry to rush out on you, but I’ve been summoned to the Guild, and I’m really hoping it’s not to discuss anything related to this business. Remember, we can’t involve the Boss or the rest of the Guild in this. I know it looks shifty, but if this goes wrong, it’ll only bring us down. So long as they don’t know what we’re doing, they have deniability. We can’t sink the Guild.”

“Got it,” Flora said, nodding. “If…if Tricks is onto you, anything we can do to help…”

“Pshaw, you let me handle Tricks. I’m good at weaseling out of trouble. For now, you’ve got practice to get to. Go on, off you go.”

He had prepared for the night’s errand (with Price’s help) before calling them in, and once they had left the study had only to open the clock and slip down into the tunnels, and from there make his way toward the Guild. His thoughts were a shifting vortex, distracting him from his usual task of getting properly into character as Sweet.

He hadn’t said it to them, but he was deeply trouble by their cavalier attitude about the killing. It wasn’t that they seemed cold or remorseless, but rather, they were clearly growing all too used to the guilt. It wasn’t affecting them as strongly, and that was a big problem. It would be a short, direct walk from there to using their powers and brute force against any problem that arose. They’d be completely out of control unless he did something about this. They had to be shown that this wasn’t acceptable. They had to be made to feel it.

But how the hell did one discipline a pair of unstoppable avatars of destruction? It wasn’t as if he could spank them, or rub their noses in the corpse.

It wasn’t just they who needed discipline, either. He’d sent killers to do an assassin’s job without considering the large difference between the two. This whole disaster was his fault; he should have been more careful, given them better instructions, made an effort to understand how they worked before sending them out. In hindsight, he could identify a dozen steps he ought to have taken which… Well, they might or might not have prevented this, but they added up to sheer bloody carelessness on this part. And the price for his carelessness was just too damn high.

Gods, that poor librarian. He was pretty sure Elilial had reserved seating in Hell for people who did things like this…

It took him a lot longer than usual to get his thoughts in order, and they never did get ordered all the way.


 

The mood in the accounting room below the casino was more dour than usual, and Sweet didn’t find it encouraging that he wasn’t the worst offender in terms of bad vibes. He still didn’t know why he’d been called here urgently, but it was hard not to suspect that the slaying at the Steppe Library was a factor, despite the fact that there should have been nothing connecting that to him. He hadn’t made it this long by brushing aside the worst case scenarios.

Nobody was seated when he arrived. Style looked grouchy, which was unusual; usually when she was authentically upset, she looked murderous. Tricks, though, just seemed tired, and that was downright unsettling.

“Omnu’s breath, Sweet, you look like you’ve not slept in days due to your dog dying,” the Boss said when he entered. “Those two apprentices keeping you up? Cos, just sayin’, that’s allowed, but it won’t do your rep any favors.”

“You should talk,” Sweet shot back, managing a grin. “Here I find you without a disguise or a prank prepared to greet me. Exactly how terrified should I be?”

Tricks sighed heavily. “Yeah… Guess it’s a stressful time all around. Seriously, though, what gives? You don’t look like yourself.”

“Stress. Fatigue. Maybe taking on apprentices wasn’t such a great idea, with me having to handle the Church and the Empire on top of everything else. They’re damn quick, though, I’ve never once had to tell ’em something twice.”

“I’ve noticed that too,” Style said, peering at him with an analytical glint in her eye. “Answer the question, Sweet. Are you porking those elves? ‘Cos you’ve stuck it in some exotic peril, I know, but that would take the fucking cake.”

“No, I’m not sleeping with Flora and/or Fauna in any combination,” he said in some annoyance. “Not that they aren’t cute and all, but you said it. I’d sooner cuddle a bear trap.”

Tricks chuckled dryly, then stepped over to one of the desks and picked up a single sheet of paper. “Well, I won’t drag out the suspense any longer. I got the most fascinating piece of correspondence today. I think you should read this.” He held out the paper and Sweet stepped forward to take it.

He scanned it quickly, frowning at the signature, then went over it again more slowly. Then a third time. Finally he lifted his gaze from the page to find Tricks and Style watching him with matching grim expressions. He let out a low whistle.

“Well… Damn. This would explain some stuff, assuming it’s true. How safe an assumption is that?”

“That is what I was hoping you could tell me,” Tricks said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “You’ve known Principia longer than I have, and you actually had to handle her while you were Boss. The whole time I’ve been running the show, she’s been dicking around in Last Rock, not bothering me, and I liked it that way.”

Sweet drew a deep breath and let it out in a rush, ruffling the letter. “Well, for starters, she’s never written a letter before. Or confessed to anything. Or just generally…laid her cards on the table like she appears to be doing here. Yes, she’s a weasel with a knack for twisting things around to her benefit, and yes, all of this very neatly makes everything not her fault.”

“All that sounds like the preamble to a great big ‘but.’”

“But,” Sweet agreed, “yeah…I could see this being the truth. Especially with her explanation for what she wanted in Last Rock to begin with. Damn, though, that’s a surprise. I can’t see her having a kid, somehow.”

“You don’t have a kid unless you raise it,” Style grunted. “Any fuckhead can squeeze one out.”

“At minimum,” Tricks said wearily, “that’s a detail we can verify. At least in theory. The Sisters of Avei undoubtedly have records of who this Trissiny’s parents are, though fuck if I know how we can convince them to clue us in.”

“Prin’s not the only variable that fits, here,” Sweet mused, frowning at the letter. “I also have absolutely no trouble seeing Shook pulling shit like she describes.”

“Me either,” Style said grimly, a muscle working in her jaw. “I’ve been asking questions and twisting arms. Seems nobody’s surprised at the prospect he might try to manhandle his way into somebody’s pants as soon as he was out from under the Guild’s thumb.”

“And you didn’t know about this?”

“Neither fucking did you, so don’t fucking start with me.”

“Let’s nobody start with anybody,” Tricks said soothingly. “That, at least, isn’t anyone’s fault. We’ve always had trouble staying on top of bad behavior in the ranks.”

They both nodded in agreement. Members of the Thieves’ Guild had a low opinion of snitching under any circumstances; nobody ever reported anything without significant incentive. If there was a problem with a member of the Guild, the leadership were usually the last to learn of it.

“Have you asked Thumper his take on this?” Sweet inquired. He glanced back and forth at their faces. “Oh, boy. Those aren’t optimistic expressions.”

“I’m afraid,” Tricks said with a wince, “I’ve gone and done something clever.” Style snorted.

“Omnu’s balls, do I have enough time to flee the city?”

“Just button it and listen, wiseass. I put Thumper on a probation, told him every detail of Prin’s apparent betrayal as we got it from that girl in Puna Dara—”

“Peepers,” Style supplied.

“—and broadly suggested to him that if he were to drag her back here under his own initiative it’d go a long way toward mitigating the disaster he was involved with in Last Rock.”

“That…actually is pretty clever,” Sweet said after a pause. “Solve the problem and save face by not having to send official street soldiers after her. Elegant, I like it.”

“Thanks.”

“Unless, of course, Principia is telling the truth and you pretty much forced her into this corner in the first place, in which case you just compounded the problem exponentially.”

“Thanks.” Tricks rubbed at his temples. “Thank you, yes, I did manage to put that together myself.”

“I helped,” Style said with a grim smile.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance Thumper’s still in the city?”

“What do you think the first thing I did was?” Tricks sighed. “Your information network still functions beautifully. I know exactly when he left Tiraas: thee days ago. By Rail. To Calderaas.”

“Which means,” Sweet finished, “he could be goddamn anywhere by now. Do we have any hints what leads he was following?”

“Keys is inherently better at this game than Thumper. She doesn’t leave leads. I just wanted him to be out there, making ripples and getting rumors back to her that she’s being hunted by worse than the Guild, figured maybe she’d be more amenable to throwing herself on our mercy.”

“My goodness, what a magnificent fuck-up this is,” Sweet said in awe.

“Yup.”

“Leaving aside our need to deal fairly with Prin and Jeremiah…holy shit, we’ve gotta smooth things over with the Avenists somehow. If they get wind of this… She could set the Sisters on us with one more of these letters.”

“Um, what?” Style frowned at him. “She actually said right out that she went for Trissiny in Last Rock because the Sisters told her to stay the hell away. Which she obviously hasn’t done. I can’t imagine she’s in favor with them right now.”

“Style,” Sweet said wearily, “the Sisters of Avei are basically militant and militarized feminists.”

“I know who the fuck they are, thank you, Sweet.”

“So think this through,” said Tricks. “Assuming Prin’s told us the truth… We just deliberately sent a would-be rapist to hassle the mother of their long-awaited, brand new paladin.”

“Oh…fuck.”

“And then,” Sweet went on grimly, “let him off his leash to chase her down on his own time.”

“Fuck.”

“Whether she’s in favor isn’t really gonna be a factor. This is the kind of thing for which they’ve been known to drop everything, put aside their differences and send a Silver Legion to collect the heads of everyone involved.”

“Fuck, all right! The point is made, you don’t have to keep pounding on it.”

“All of which is secondary,” Tricks said, sounding more tired than Sweet had ever heard him. “I mean, yes, it’s a practical consideration we do need to pay attention to, but there’s more at stake. If Prin’s story is true, then the Guild fucked her over hard. Thumper in particular, but we set it up to happen. We can’t have shit like this; it’s respect and trust in each other that keeps this Guild functioning. We don’t create pointless hell for faithful members, or what are we?”

“Don’t get too weepy on Prin’s account,” Style said. “This wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t invested years in being such a pest that her word doesn’t count for anything around here. Which, by the way, brings us back to the very important question of whether there’s any truth to this story of hers.”

“Which is why we need to get both of them back here and answering questions,” Tricks agreed grimly. “One way or another, we’ll get the truth that way. But that isn’t likely to happen in the near future. We may or may not be able to lay our hands on Thumper, but I’ve got a suspicion if he gets wind that we’re pulling him back in for questioning, he’ll bolt. And Keys is a whole other matter. I frankly am not sure we have the capacity to find and apprehend her if she’s really opposed to that happening. So, though it’s a backward case of priorities, we’re likely gonna have to deal with the Avenists first. Both to keep them off our case and to get intel on Prin’s relationship to this paladin of theirs.”

“Hm.” Sweet rubbed his chin with one hand, frowning in thought. “As to that… It’s a little unconventional, but I think I have an idea.”


 

His personal shrine was in the basement of his home. Ironically, it wasn’t accessible from the sewers; he had to climb all the way up to his study and then down the interior stairs. Darling didn’t encounter any members of his household in the process, but between elven hearing and Price being Price it was a given that they knew he was home.

He shut the thick door of the room behind himself and knelt before the statue of Eserion and its little bowl of water, enchanted to prevent it going stagnant or scummy. Taking a decabloon from an inner pocket of his coat, he rolled it back and forth across the backs of his knuckles for a few moments, thinking, then sighed and tossed it into the bowl. It drifted down and sat there with the rest. Eserion was a god of action who didn’t encourage too much prayer and reflection; he expected his followers to solve their own damn problems. As such, there weren’t all that many coins in the bowl, though Darling had left them untouched since he’d put the shrine in upon moving into the house.

It was still a tidy little fortune, every one of them decabloons. When one had means, tithing a pittance to one’s god was just asking for a divine spanking.

“I fucked up, Big Guy,” he said quietly. “Bad, this time. I know, I know, we all make mistakes and you expect us to deal. Don’t worry, I’m dealing. But this one… This one hurts. I went and got somebody killed because I was cocky and careless, somebody who was completely harmless and probably a gift to the world. I don’t even know what to do with that, y’know? I’m still sorta numb. You know how it is; we thieves learn not to feel guilty. But then, we thieves don’t do shit like this as a rule.”

He stared into the bowl of water and coins in silence for a dozen heartbeats.

“When you screw somebody over, you pay them back. There’s… I mean, there’s just no way to do that when it’s their life. No offense, you know I’ve got your back, but your cult doesn’t exactly prepare a person to deal with something like this.

“And not just my moaning and weeping, I mean, I’ve still gotta fucking figure out something to do with those two girls… Gods, they’re like a couple of kids. Does that make any sense at all? Pair of terrifying spirit-addled monstrosities and I mostly feel like I gotta teach ’em how to live so they’ll be okay once I’m gone. How messed up is that? I just want them to have a chance to be okay. I’ve mostly been okay, because I had people—your people—who showed me how to live when I was in a bad place. But it doesn’t change the fact that they’re fucking dangerous.

“And… Man, this thing with Prin and Thumper, I’ve got a terrible feeling she told us the truth in that letter. Which means we’ve all fucked her over and basically rewarded him for spitting on the bonds that hold this Guild together… It’s bad, is what I’m saying.”

He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “And…yeah, I know, I’m pretty much just whining. Sorry. I’m dealing, okay? I never stop thinking and moving. I just…needed to take a moment to vent. Thanks for listening, Big Guy.”

Darling sat back on his heels, raising his eyes to study the faintly smirking face of the idol. “Shit’s getting serious, and we’ve had too many screwups, too close together. I have to face it: we might not win this one. If it all goes as bad as it can go, remember when I get up there that I’m trying my damnedest. We all are. If we fail, it’s not because we were lazy.”

He stood, bowed to the statue, and backed away. “Talk to you later, Big Guy. Looks like I’ve got work to do.”

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3 – 1

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Tricks would have felt more comfortable in one of his disguises. More than keeping in practice, more than having fun with his subordinates or even making a constant effort to keep them sharp, it was a way for him to defray the stress of his position, drawing on another face, another identity. He’d never discussed this with anyone, though he suspected Style had an inkling. She was oddly perceptive at times, for being so bullheaded.

But this business required his own original face as the head of the Guild, and so he waited in the office just off the training pit, wearing a plain, unprepossessing suit, lounging in the room’s one padded chair.

Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait. The office door opened and Style entered, a quietly seething Jeremiah Shook on her heels. Despite his glower, he was self-possessed enough to shut the door behind them while Style paced down the carpeted center of the room, past the rows of accountants’ desks, to come stand behind Trick’s shoulder.

“Thumper!” he said genially, beckoning the man forward. “Good to see you back safely.”

“Boss,” Thumper replied, making an effort to get his expression under control. Well, the man had due cause to be upset. None of that, as far as Tricks knew, was directed at him. Still, on top of the failure of his job in Last Rock, it was always humiliating, having to be extracted from the clutches of the law by the Guild’s attorneys. At least they’d gotten to Shook before he’d been handed over to Avenists. The cults of Avei and Eserion had a…complicated relationship.

“First of all,” Tricks said, “I want to reassure you up front that you’re not being called down on the carpet. What happened in Last Rock was patently not your fault. You were dealing with a foe extremely well-positioned and practiced at outmaneuvering opponents.”

“We should deal with that asshole McGraw,” Thumper all but snarled, his self-control fraying. “Our rep’s on the line. We can’t have people thinking they can spit in the Guild’s face and walk away.”

“All in good time,” Tricks said mildly. “He’s not the foe I was speaking of, however. One of our people in Puna Dara spotted McGraw less than a week after the events in question.”

“Doing what?” Thumper demanded.

Tricks grinned, well aware that it was an unpleasant expression. “Having dinner,” he said, “with Principia Locke. Apparently they went upstairs together afterward. Our agent heard enough of their conversation to confirm that Prin was the individual who hired McGraw to interfere in your operation.”

For a moment, Thumper just stared at him, completely nonplussed. Then his eyes tracked to one side, then the other. Tricks could almost see him making connections, considering events in light of this new information. Slowly, his posture stiffened until the man was practically vibrating. Fists clenched at his sides, he failed to maintain the mask of calm, his face twisting with rage.

“That little. Fucking. Whore.”

“Here’s the thing,” Tricks went on, feigning a casual air but watching Thumper carefully. The man was clearly on the verge of a complete blowup; it would be preferable if Style didn’t have to beat him compliant. “That operation of hers? Brilliant. One of the more elegant cons I’ve seen, and that is saying something. If she’d just had you roughed up or killed, the Guild would have sent along another, more dangerous agent, escalating the stakes and the risk. No, she had to generate complete chaos, turn the whole mission into such a complete and utter tits-up-in-the-rhubarb debacle that we have no choice but to withdraw all our attentions from the town. That succeeded brilliantly. Any new arrivals in Last Rock for the next little while are going to be examined very carefully, both by the local law and likely by Tellwyrn, which we risk the identity of any of our people we send back in there. And that leaves me in an awkward position. If it were anything simpler—going to the law, hiring an outside thug to take out a Guildmate—you know exactly what we’d do.”

“Drag her ass back here and beat it purple,” Shook snarled.

“For starters,” Tricks said with a faint grin. “But the point of that is to demonstrate to all the the Guild is still in control, that we’re not to be made fools of. In this case… Well, Thumper, we’ve been made right fools of, and no mistake. Keys made you and I look like complete idiots. Only reason she hasn’t managed to make a mockery of the Guild itself is nobody outside this room knows the extent of what she pulled. And it’s going to stay that way. You keep your mouth shut about this business, understand?”

Thumper forgot himself so far as to take a step forward, raising both fists. “You’re actually going to let the little cunt get away with—”

“Settle,” Style said quietly. Thumper stopped, collected himself, and nodded sharply, evidently not trusting himself to speak.

Style yelled, cursed and generally blustered as a matter of course, but as her enforcers quickly learned, when she whispered, people tended to die.

“So,” Tricks continued, “I’m giving you a little time off from your duties. It’s going in the records as a suspension related to a recent failed job. Consider it a well-earned vacation.”

Shook physically twitched as though struck. “You said,” he replied, clinging to a frayed thread of restraint, “I wasn’t to be punished.”

“You’re not,” Tricks said gently. “It’s like this, Thumper. I obviously cannot let Keys get away with turning on the Guild like this, and I cannot afford to spend any more resources going after her without further undercutting our credibility. If it comes down to it, I’ll suck it up and chase her down with whatever we’ve got, but first, I’m going to hope for her to magically find herself back here under completely other circumstances so I can straighten her out and make it look like we were all of us in full control the whole time.”

Thumper’s sneer eloquently said what he thought of that. “And she’ll come back here because…?”

“Hypothetically speaking,” Tricks said, “if an off-duty member of the Guild were to find and bring Keys here… Well, that person would gain quite a bit of rep for exposing and collaring a traitor when they weren’t even supposed to be at work. Naturally, if there were any recent blemishes in such a person’s record, they’d be quite overshadowed. Hell, I could probably see my way to removing such black marks entirely.”

Slowly, visibly, Thumper grew calmer as understanding dawned on him. His face didn’t quite relax completely, but there appeared something in his eyes that hinted at a very cruel sort of smile. “I see.”

Tricks grinned. “Enjoy your vacation.”

“You got it, Boss,” Thumper said, nodding first to him and then to Style, then turned to go.

Tricks let him get the door open and start to step out. “Oh, and Thumper.”

He turned back to look warily at his two superiors. “Boss?”

“In this hypothetical scenario, anybody bringing Keys back here had better be mindful of the condition she’s in. I can’t make an example of a corpse.”

“In this hypothetical scenario,” Thumper replied, “I would know exactly how to teach an uppity bitch some humility.” He nodded to them again, stepped out, and shut the door behind him.

Just like that, Tricks let the mask fall, slumping down in his chair and covering his eyes with a hand. “Ugh…what an absolute cock-up. I still can hardly believe all this, Style. Principia’s disrespectful and ornery, but she’s always been faithful to the Big Guy. I just…didn’t see this coming. Before the end of this, I’ve really gotta find out what it is she wants so badly in Last Rock that she’s willing to cross the Guild to get it.”

“This is why I wish you’d let me deal with my enforcers directly,” she replied. “Before sending Thumper off, I’d rather have spent some time finding out what he did to set her off that way. Yeah, I know my man. You can bet he did something. People don’t just up and turn on their cult on a fucking whim.”

He twisted around and leaned his head back to look up at her. “Do you think he tried to hand her off to the Wreath or something? To Tellwyrn?”

Style shook her head slowly, her expression troubled. “No…not that. Shook’s stuffed to the skull with rage and he’s got bad habits around women… Sweet tried to teach him some self-control, and ended up just teaching him to repress, which has not been helpful. But the Guild is his whole life. Even more than Prin, I can’t see him betraying a member to our enemies.”

“Then it doesn’t matter what he did, it matters what she did about it,” Tricks said firmly. “I will not have treason, Style. It’s not to be tolerated. Anything else we can deal with, work around, forgive if need be. Anybody who turns on the Guild is an enemy, simple as that.”

She drew in a deep breath and blew it out all at once. “You really think Thumper has a chance of collaring Prin in the wild? He’s a kneecapper; she’s a conwoman, and a damn good one. She’s already manipulated the hell out of him once.”

“Of course not. He’ll flush her out, though. Principia settled down in some nest with her defenses up is something I don’t fancy trying to root out. Principia fleeing across the countryside with that asshole at her heels… Well, if we play this right she might still be persuaded to come home voluntarily. After all, Thumper’s not working on my orders here, now is he?”

Style shook her head. “Well, let’s just hope this works out better than your last clever idea.”


 

Emperor Sharidan preferred a simple breakfast. When he had first ascended to the Silver Throne, moving into the harem wing and to a staff of servants who didn’t yet know his ways, he’d been greeted in the morning by a veritable feast, enough to feed a small village, from which he was expected to graze lightly, letting the rest go to waste. Over a dozen servants were posted about the room, ready to dash forth and pander to his merest whim.

He had quickly made his opinions about this known.

Now, breakfast in the Imperial harem was a small, almost cozy affair. He sat at a little round table in the parlor outside his bedroom, only four other people present, none of them servants. Milanda Darnassy, the young lady with whom he’d spent the night, was serving as hostess, pouring tea for those present. Sharidan never slept alone, and this duty always fell to his consort of the evening—which, these days, was more likely than not to be Milanda. In truth, he’d have welcomed her to sit down at the table, and while the other girls usually did, she preferred to keep a respectful distance from the rest of his company. This consisted of his wife, Eleanora, and sometimes a minister of some department or another called to deliver reports. Having breakfast with the Emperor was considered not so much an honor as an occasional duty. Today it was Lord Quentin Vex, who was in the process of running down a list of events he deemed important to bring to the Emperor’s attention, all but ignoring his pastry and braised swordfish.

Vex was more Eleanora’s creature than Sharidan’s, to be truthful, but she made a point of never receiving reports from the man except in his presence. The nature of their partnership was that she handled many of the more aggressive aspects of the Throne’s duties, chiefly espionage and military matters, but she was insistent that Sharidan be kept fully in the loop.

The fourth person in the room, and the reason no guards were present, was a black-coated Hand of the Emperor. Barring another attack by a deity, guards would have been quite superfluous.

“Nothing will come of it, as usual,” Vex was saying. “The orcs are always rattling sabers at us, but even if they did manage to land a raiding party on Tiraan soil they’d be obliterated by our forces. Even that is practically impossible; they’d have to get through the Tidestriders or the Punaji first.”

“We know this very well, Quentin,” Eleanora said with a hint of reproof. “The question was how this new round of saber-rattling will affect our relationship with the kingdom of Sifan.”

“Your pardon, Majesty, but the Sifanese are as aware of the situation as we. If any orcs actually launched an attack from their shores, it would be considered an act of war by them. They’ll never allow it, and the orcs know this very well. It’s all just talk.

“Nonetheless,” said Sharidan, “talk is the first step in every kind of interaction between nations, and there are things far short of war that could more than merely inconvenience us. I think it’s time to arrange a state visit to Sifan. With gifts suitable to express the great esteem in which we hold them.”

“Conveyed by warships,” Eleanora added, smiling at him. “The carrot and the stick.”

“Just so.” He returned her grin. “We have no objection to the Sifanese allowing orcs to dwell in their lands. It doesn’t hurt to remind them, now and again, why they don’t want us to develop objections.”

“Very good, your Majesty,” Vex said with an approving nod. “Then, there are only a couple more domestic issues, related to each other. I have…been in touch with Professor Tellwyrn regarding the Elilial matter.”

There was a moment of stillness at the table. Even the Hand tore his gaze from his perpetual survey of the room’s entrances to look over at them. This was a subject the Emperor did not prefer to discuss.

“Define ‘in touch,’” Eleanora ordered, her voice cold.

“I took the liberty of notifying her of Elilial’s re-entry to this plane, and the fact that she has worked out a way of doing so without tripping the alarms thought to be inherent in opening hellgates.”

“And you did this…why?” the Empress asked quietly. Vex appeared unruffled by her razor stare. He was one of the few who could manage it.

“With respect, your Majesty, managing Tellwyrn is something of an art form. I have been reviewing my predecessors’ notes on her, and the point that jumped repeatedly out at me is that she is usually reasonable and amenable to working with others, even with enemies, if treated with respect. If she feels someone is trying to manipulate her, well… At that point, people begin to vanish and things start exploding. I’ve not come out and said I’m using her to run interference with Elilial, nor will I, but it seems she is inclined to do that anyway, and I’d rather she not get the impression I’m doing anything at her expense.”

“That woman is unreliability given flesh,” Eleanora said with a sneer, but let the matter drop, turning back to her fish. Sharidan held his tongue. He had not asked about the details of Eleanora’s brush with Arachne Tellwyrn, as it had obviously happened before they had met, and hoped he would never have to. His wife’s dislike of the elf was clearly personal.

“In any case,” Vex went on smoothly, “I received, finally, a reply from the Professor. It read, in its entirety: ‘I’ll talk to her.’ Hopefully she will extend the same courtesy in appraising me of the broad strokes of that conversation, if or when it happens.”

“Can she actually do that?” Sharidan asked with interest. He told himself the interest was purely tactical, that he had no hope or desire of ever having another conversation with the woman he’d known as Lilian Riaje. He told himself this every time Elilial came up, in the hope that he would eventually start to believe it.

“That is impossible to know,” Vex said with an eloquent shrug. “I would say that if anyone can, though, it’s Tellwyrn. She is possibly the world’s leading expert on getting audiences with deities. That was the main thrust of what she’s done with her life since she appeared on the scene three thousand years ago. Whatever she wants with the gods, she’s managed to get a personal audience with every single one known, then vanished for thirty years, then showed up again to found that University of hers. I rather suspect this will be just like old times for her.”

“Don’t put us in a position where we must rely on her,” Eleanora said sharply.

“Your pardon, Majesty, but I would never do that,” he said politely. “I will, however, make use of every tool that presents itself. The other thing is tangentally connected. Last week, a Black Wreath cell was uprooted and obliterated in the village of Hamlet in Calderaan Province.”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “I thought the cell in that village was already wiped out. By Tellwyrn.”

“Yes, well…it would appear she missed a spot. The fascinating thing is that this was done by four Bishops of the Universal Church, in civilian clothes, who did not identify themselves as such to the locals, though they did not use assumed names. The Imperial Marshal in residence was under the impression they were there on the business of the Throne.”

The Empress’s eyes were onyx slits. “Which four?”

“Basra Syrinx—” This brought a snort from Eleanora, which he ignored. “—Andros Varanus, Branwen Snowe…and Antonio Darling.”

The Hand looked over at them sharply. Vex met his eyes and nodded. This particular Hand was the one who also sat on the security council, of which Vex and Darling were members.

“Isn’t that absolutely fascinating,” Sharidan mused, while Eleanora glared holes in the far wall. “It fairly well has to be Church business, does it not? Those are four deities whose followers tend to try to strangle each other when they come into contact.”

“Perhaps the time has come to have another conversation with dear Antonio,” Eleanora suggested grimly.

“With respect, your Majesty,” said Vex, “my recommendation at this point is to leave him alone and watch what he does. He is, after all, doing more or less what you told him to.”

“While misrepresenting himself as an agent of the Throne!”

“He is an agent of the Throne, even if he wasn’t officially on Imperial business. Consider that the man is balancing loyalties to the Throne, the Church, and the Thieves’ Guild; several of those loyalties are inherently contradictory. I think it would be a mistake to call him down before we learn which of them truly has his heart. If, indeed, any of them do. He’s the kind of man who juggles impossibly complex games for incalculable stakes because anything less would bore him. I am, however,” he added, “placing his home under surveillance over a different matter.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.

“It seems Bishop Darling has recently hired two housemaids.”

Sharidan knew Vex well enough to assume that this apparent non sequitur was going somewhere relevant. “I thought I remembered that Darling had a Butler?”

“He does,” Vex nodded.

“And his home,” Eleanora said slowly, “is big enough to need additional servants?”

“It is not, your Majesty. The girls in question are both elves. They are both former prostitutes at the establishment whose proprietress was recently murdered in the headhunter attack.”

He paused, giving that a moment to sink in.

“Go on,” Eleanora said.

“The perpetrator of that homicide was caught and dealt with—or so we assume, as no further incidents have occurred, and it’s not in the nature of headhunters to lie low. The thing that catches my attention about this chain of events was how instrumental Darling’s help was in identifying and apprehending the elf responsible. Who, as an interesting point, was a member of the Thieves’ Guild. It appears that these two elves are now apprenticing at the Guild. Directly under Darling himself.”

“You surely don’t think one of those elves is a headhunter,” Sharidan said slowly.

“There are innumerable other explanations which are more likely,” Vex replied, nodding. “Elves are quick, agile and deft; they make fantastic thieves, and yet are rarely inclined to become so. I can well imagine Darling snapping them up as apprentices. Then, too, he would hardly be the first wealthy man to arrange for a couple of exotic prostitutes to be exceedingly grateful to him. To look at it from another view, headhunters are solitary creatures and rarely evince an excess of self-control; the fact that there are two of these girls suggests neither is one. It is unlikely both would still be alive in that instance.”

“But?” Eleanora prompted.

“But.” He nodded to her. “If there were anyone ambitious enough and reckless enough to think he could keep a headhunter under control… Well, I have no trouble imagining Darling trying to play that game. It’s enough of a possibility, however remote, to justify a few basic precautions. Surveillance, and notifying you—nothing further at this point, but I’m sure I need not tell your Majesties that a headhunter loose in the city is an absolutely unacceptable outcome.”

“Is it possible that he could manage to control a headhunter?” Sharidan mused. “Or two…or more? Think what someone could do with an entire force of those things.”

Lord Vex cleared his throat. “I…do not presume to speak toward what is magically possible, your Majesty. But what you suggest… It is in the category of every reclusive mage who sits in a tower ranting about how he’ll show everyone who mocked him. We simply can’t afford to take all such threats seriously. An army of headhunters under intelligent control is… It’s like a spell to drop the moon on one’s enemies. The odds of such a thing being achieved are not even worth calculating, and if it were somehow to happen, well… There is simply not much that could be done about it.”

Sharidan turned to regard the Hand, who was looking at him steadily. What the two of them knew that no one else in the room did—even Eleanora—was that Vex had also just neatly described the process by which Hands of the Emperor were created.

“The possibility, as you say, is enough,” he said to Vex, and then to the Hand, “begin preparing countermeasures.”

The Hand nodded, a deep gesture that verged on a bow.

Eleanora gave him a look; he gave her one back, and she quirked an eyebrow but turned back to Vex, letting it go. For all that their marriage was a sham as marriages went, the two of them were closer than he had once imagined he might ever be with another human being. The amount of trust between them was enough to permit his occasionally taking actions she did not understand, even to do so without explaining them to her, despite her suspicious nature. He accepted the same from her in turn. Neither had ever given the other cause to regret it.

Vex seemed quite unperturbed at being tacitly contradicted, but then, he rarely seemed perturbed by much. “That settled, then, nothing that remains is a significant interest to the Throne, in my opinion. There are a few minor intrigues among several of the Houses which you may wish to keep abreast of going forward. House Madouri has effectively withdrawn from the city…”


 

The little attic apartment had never been much of a home. She’d only spent three years there, which in an elf’s lifespan was hardly enough time to make unpacking worthwhile—not that she’d ever owned enough to fill the space anyway. Even so, there was something sad and hollow about the sight of the long room cleaned up and emptied of the touches that had made it hers.

The bed, small table and single ladderback chair had come with the space—“furnished,” indeed. Her rug, bed linens and quilt, and the thin little cushion on her chair had all been disposed of. The meager rest of her possessions were on her person in her bag of holding; they really amounted to little but clothes, toiletries and her enchanting supplies. All that was left out was a small disc of crystal, which currently sat in the middle of the floor, in the center of a diagram scrawled on the hardwood in enchantment-grade chalk.

Projected above it was a translucent model of Clarke Tower, glowing a dim blue that illuminated the room better than the late afternoon sun; that window was in the worst possible position for light. The model flickered occasionally, usually accompanied by a tiny spark from the chalk below as some of it burned out. It had grown progressively dimmer the whole time she’d been watching, though even still, she could clearly see the tiny golden eagle, the only object picked out inside the tower. It had been moving around all afternoon, since it had re-entered the tower—since Trissiny had come home from class. Now, it stayed relatively stationary in the upper room.

Principia sat on the uncovered mattress, her back against the wall, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, staring at the glowing little tower. She sat thus, unmoving, as the last of the light faded outside, true night fell and the only thing brightening the room was her magical model. Not until the little eagle had remained completely still for nearly an hour did she stir.

It was the work of a moment to scrub out the diagram, causing the tower to vanish and true dark to fall over the room. It would have been dark to a human, anyway; her eyes had no trouble picking out the details of the attic. She picked up the crystal disc and tucked it into a pocket, then turned without a backward glance and left her room for the last time, leaving behind nothing but a smudge of spent magical chalk on the floor.


 

Lianwe clawed at her sheets, having long since given up on sleep. It was bad tonight.

Mostly the spirits let her be. She could always hear them—except it was more feeling than hearing, for all that she clearly perceived the words—but usually in the distant background, not distracting her. They had at least that much pragmatism, that they avoided disrupting her actions or putting them all in danger. If they were going to act up, it would be when all was quiet, when she was trying to rest. It had rarely been this bad before. But then, she had rarely gone this far without indulging them.

They were a torrent, a cacophony, yet she clearly heard each voice. Some screaming incoherently, some screaming for vengeance, for blood. Insistent voices urged her to hunt, to glory in the chase, the kill. Others whispered advice—one even was trying to calm her. She appreciated the thought, at least.

It wasn’t the voices that bothered her, disturbing as they were. Much as it seemed such things might be enough to drive one mad, something about the transition she had taken on when she’d embraced the spirits had left her able to cope. No, the problem was that one of them—possibly more, she couldn’t tell—had grabbed at the powers, and she clenched and trembled with the effort of controlling them.

She was no mage, no warlock, witch or priest to have picked a magical path in life and learned a deep control and understanding of it. She knew what the powers did intuitively, but it was different each time they came. They always provided what she needed in a given situation. Or what the spirits thought she needed, anyway. She did not need what they were trying to do now.

Infernal spells to rip open portals in reality and slide through the streets of the city. Elemental fireballs. Fae magic to pull thorny vines from the ground and ensnare prey. Lightning, ice… Pain. Lianwe clung to her control.

So intent was she on this that she didn’t even hear Shinaue rising from her own bed on the other side of their small room, didn’t notice her until the other elf climbed into her own bed and wrapped her arms around her. Soft murmurs, gentle hands stroking her hair. Just like that, the spirits began to calm, the powers sliding back into the void from which they sprang. Something in them responded to the spirits in the other woman. They had gone to the dark place together, come out together. The things inside them knew each other. In some ways, they were all one.

Lianwe relaxed, burying her face in Shinaue’s neck gratefully. Soon enough, she knew, it would be the other who risked a loss of control, and it would be she who offered relief. Eventually, if they didn’t give in to what the spirits demanded, no relief would be enough.

It wouldn’t come to that point, though. They would kill before then. Once had been enough to teach them never to let it come to that.

But this time… Things were different now. This time, they had purpose. Prey who deserved, needed to die. This time, Sweet would tell them who to kill.

As she drifted to sleep, Lianwe wondered if it was wisdom or cowardice, letting him make that decision for them. Before the darkness drifted over her, she decided it did not matter.

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2 – 5

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Sweet waited deep within the belly of the Guild. Off to one side of the training pit, perpendicular to the exit and the door to the Treasury with its shrine beyond was the Map Room, a chamber whose function was immediately obvious. The Guild had an institutional fondness for simple, descriptive names. Waist-high shelves lined two walls, filled with rolled up or folded maps which could be spread out on the circular table in the center of the chamber. Above the shelves, every stretch of wall was covered with permanently hung maps. The city, the province, the Empire itself, and various detailed portions of each were all depicted. The far wall, before which Sweet stood, was covered floor-to-ceiling by an incredibly detailed map of the city of Tiraas.

Legs akimbo, hands folded behind his back, head lifted to study the map, he made an impressive sight from the door, even (perhaps especially) in his slightly scruffy suit. That was the whole reason for his position. Truthfully, he was starting to get a crick in his neck; it was taking longer than he’d expected for those he’d summoned to arrive.

Finally, he thought as the door creaked open behind him. All the doors in the Thieves’ Guild creaked, otherwise people would tend to inadvertently sneak up on each other, which could result in…accidents.

He turned, slowly, starting with the legs but keeping his face aimed at the map for another second or two; it acknowledged those entering (initially ignoring them didn’t suit the image he wanted to project) while creating the impression that weighty matters occupied his attention, warring with his desire to greet them. Everything precise, everything calculated. When Sweet started really putting on a show, he often ran the risk of becoming distracted by how good he was.

Two elves slipped into the room, followed by a glowering Style. They still slipped and crept everywhere, as if afraid they were going to be thrown out; it had only been a couple of weeks and though Flora and Fauna were starting to settle in, there was a process. They had more to adjust to than most of the human Guild members. Dressed in simple shirts and trousers for training, better rested and more well-fed than when he’d first seen them, and best of all, smiling, they’d already come a long way from the two miserable streetwalkers he’d encountered outside the Pink Lady.

Well, aside from certain little details like what they were here to discuss.

“Ladies,” he said warmly, coming around the table to greet them. His smile was careful: he needed to be glad to see them, but not too chipper, in light of what was coming. The elves smiled back at him with a lot more enthusiasm. He was, after all, the one who’d not only sponsored their apprenticeships in the Guild but helped them settle in for the first few days. If not for Sweet, they would still be turning tricks in the Glums. That gratitude was real and counted for a lot. Or so he devoutly hoped.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you more often,” he went on. “They’ve got me running all over the city doing the work of three men. How are you getting along? Anything you need help with?”

“We are very well,” Flora said, still beaming up at him. “There’s a lot to remember, but the work is not arduous.”

“Training is good,” Fauna added. “Very satisfying. It’s good to flex minds and muscles again.”

Still they smiled in simple delight at seeing him. After some initial uncertainty, he had decided there wasn’t a crush developing there. Among other things…well, they definitely weren’t twins, upon closer inspection, and probably not even sisters. When nobody was paying close attention, they sometimes gave off a vibe that was very much not sisterly.

“They have potential,” Style grunted from behind them, folding her arms and not relaxing her glare. She was dolled up in an Eastern barbarian outfit that was even more revealing than her Punaji phase of last month. It was all boiled leather, with brass studs and fur accents; above the waist all she had on was a kind of thick leather brassiere such as barbarian women were often shown wearing on the covers of penny dreadfuls and pretty much never in real life, because it was a stupidly impractical garment even in a much warmer climate than the Eastern mountains. Some women bared skin to be alluring; Style bared her square shoulders, trunklike arms and craggy abs to discourage people from giving her backtalk. It worked.

“I’m glad to hear it. And I mean it: I may not be around much, but if you need anything, you can get a message to me.” Sweet let the smile slip from his face, leaving his expression grave. “For now… I asked Style to bring you in here because I’m afraid I have some pretty bad news. You may want to sit down for this.”

The pair exchanged a glance, but at his gesture, slowly lowered themselves into chairs beside the map table, Fauna pulling one over so they could sit side-by-side. Behind them, Style pushed the door shut and positioned herself in front of it, then folded her arms and resumed glaring. This earned her a couple of glances from the elves, but Sweet quickly recaptured their attention.

“I know you weren’t exactly close, but I thought you should be informed that Missy, from the Pink Lady, died last night.”

“…oh,” said Flora when he paused. They didn’t glance at each other this time; in fact, both girls looked rather nonplussed.

“I’m afraid it was pretty bad,” Sweet went on, eyebrows creased together in his best expression of Bishoply solicitousness. “Really quite brutal, in fact. Her digestive tract was strung all around the room, without having been, ah, disconnected, first. There were glyphs of some sort written on all the walls, floor and ceiling in her blood and…well, other fluids. And,” he added gravely, “her head was missing.”

“How awful,” Fauna said, gazing up at him without expression. Her tone tried at regret without much effort. Oh, the rain isn’t letting up. Oh, it’s okra stew for lunch again. Oh, Missy was savagely butchered.

“As per the terms of her will, Rose gets the property and the business.”

“That’s good,” Flora said with a bit more enthusiasm. “Rose cares about the girls. She tried to help us. As much as…possible.” She trailed off, looking away; Fauna reached over to squeeze her hand.

“I’m sorry to have taken so long to get to you about this,” he said sincerely. “I’ve been out all day dealing with it.”

At that, their eyes widened a fraction and they did exchange a glance. “You had to deal with it?” Fauna asked, sounding more actually concerned now.

“Well, surely you don’t think someone like Missy actually left a will, do you?” He gave them a very careful hint of a grin, conveying a touch of gallows humor without undercutting the gravity of the situation. “Putting those girls in Rose’s care seemed the best thing I could do for them, since I can’t exactly move them all into the Guild.”

“Ah,” Fauna said.

“I’m afraid that little matter took longer than it ought to have, since I wasn’t able to give it my full attention. There was the rather more urgent issue of dealing with the Imperial interest in the case. Even in the Glums, a murder that, ah, extravagant draws their interest. I don’t mean to imply that the Imps give a damn about anybody living down there, but you just can’t have people doing things like that while you’re trying to carry on a civilization. It’s bad for business, you see.” He sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, the whole city’s in a tizzy over it, now.”

“It is?” Flora asked faintly.

He nodded. “The papers got wind of it. Now everyone’s in a panic about there being a headhunter in Tiraas.”

Both of them stiffened. It was slight, but perceptible. They very obviously did not look at each other.

“Headhunters are a myth,” Fauna said tersely.

“That’s right,” Sweet agreed, nodding. “The official stance of the Church and the Empire has always been that elven headhunters do not exist. Just a scary bedtime story mothers use to make their little ones behave. Of course, interestingly enough, Imperial Intelligence somehow knows exactly what a headhunter attack looks like, and has protocols in place to deal with it.”

“…they do?” Flora croaked.

“Keep that to yourself, though,” he went on. “I probably shouldn’t have told you. I am the Church’s liaison to the highest level of Imperial government; I learn the most fascinating things on busy days like today. Let me tell you, it kept me on my toes, working this thing around to keep the Imps from busting in here to haul you two little rascals away. Quite apart from the sanctity of our temple, I’m kinda fond of you.”

“Now, wait a minute,” Flora protested. Both of them had gone quite rigid.

“Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of. I was able to deflect attention to Rake. Elowe something or other…what was his last name, Style?”

“I always called him Treefucker,” she grunted.

“I guess it doesn’t matter now. He’d been passing information on our jobs to the authorities for months. A known traitor is actually a fabulously useful thing to keep around, ladies; you can feed them false intel to throw your enemies off the scent, and when a situation comes up where you need to throw somebody under the carriage—like today—you’ve got a ready-made scapegoat on hand. So the Guild is down one elf, and I’m sure poor Elowe was more surprised than anyone to learn he’s secretly a headhunter, but…so it goes.”

“We don’t have to listen to this,” Fauna snapped, leaping to her feet; Flora was a split second behind her. Both of them braced themselves as if for a fight. “You can’t just accuse someone of—”

“Girls,” Sweet said firmly, raising his hands in a peaceable gesture. “Please, think. I’ve just stated I believe you’re among the most dangerous creatures in existence, and were doing something unspeakably vicious about this time yesterday. Now, would I put myself in a room with you if I intended to piss you off?” He gave that a second and a half to sink in, then went on in a more soothing tone before they could begin forming more objections. “I am trying to help you. Please, sit down.”

They did, slowly, looking warily at him, around the room, and at Style, who was still leaning against the door.

“Now,” he continued, straightening up and folding his arms behind his back. “I hope you understand the problem we have here?”

The two exchanged another telling look. “We don’t have a problem with anyone in the Guild,” Flora said quickly. “Mis… That woman snared us into…into utter debasement. So she could make money. It was personal, and justified. We don’t want trouble with anyone else.”

“Ah,” he said, and shook his head. “I feared not. The issue is…how shall I put this…”

“You scrawny, knife-eared, pants-on-head psycho DUMB FUCKING TWATS!” Style roared, stalking toward them. Flora and Fauna again leaped out of their seats, backing against the table. “Do you ever stop to fucking think before you act?! This is not whatever fucking tree you swung down out of, this is motherfucking Tiraas! Did you actually think you could just strew someone’s guts around a room like she was a scarecrow and not bring the fucking Imps down on you? Down on all of us! So help me, if you ever put my Guild in this kind of danger again—”

“Style,” Sweet said sharply. “Enough. Please. Mistakes happen, we deal with them. These are apprentices; we’ll teach them, not box their ears. Girls,” he went on, again gentling his tone, “again, please, sit. You’re not in any danger here. I won’t say you’re not in any trouble.” He put on a more dour expression. “This is exactly the kind of thing we can’t just let pass; next time, you could do significant damage to the Guild.”

They looked at each other, then spoke in unison. “I’m sorry.” He believed it; both looked quite crushed as they slid carefully back into their seats.

“To begin with, I had to spread quite a bit of coin around today. That is being added to your apprenticeship debt. If you prove as skilled as I’m confident you will, you’re looking at probably an additional year of heavy tithing to the Guild after your elevation.”

“A year?” Flora said.

“Again, it was quite a bit of coin. I didn’t add anything for having spent an entire day of my time straightening this out, but you should know that next time you force a high-ranking member of the Guild to fix a mess you made…well, the consequences will depend on the situation, but they will be significant. Do you understand?”

They both nodded, then lowered their eyes to the ground. Between those big eyes, their pointed features and the presently downcast expressions, they seemed almost childlike. It was ironic; for all he knew, they were older than he. That, and they had spent last night festooning Missy’s entrails around her room like tinsel. From what he’d read about headhunters, in and around his various other tasks of the day, she had likely still been alive for part of that.

“Right…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t want to make any prejudiced assumptions about elves…”

“Can I?”

“Enough, Style. But it’s obvious you two aren’t very familiar with city life. So, I am going to assume you’re more comfortable with the world of nature and try to spin a metaphor from that. I apologize for any insult given; it’s not intended.”

“It’s not insulting,” Flora said softly.

“Good, that helps me to know. Girls, you seem to regard Tiraas as a sort of hunting ground, that you can prowl through, strike your prey and retreat when you’re done. That about right?” He paused for them to glance at each other again and nod mutely. “It isn’t that you’re entirely wrong…but the matter is more complex. Hunting is an excellent description of much of what the Guild does, but… Well, think of the city as a spider’s web. Every touch you make resonates across the entire thing. Light enough touches to avoid attracting anything dangerous should be your goal. It grows more complicated from there, however. It isn’t just a matter of avoiding the attention of the very large, very hungry spider in the center. There are multiple spiders of various sizes, operating at cross purposes; multiple powerful organizations and agendas at work in the city, and you need to be intimately familiar with each before you go traipsing through their hunting grounds. The Guild is one such spider, one of the bigger ones, and that affords you some protection…but only some. You are also competing with millions of other little bugs, all doing the same dance, all trying to hunt one another without growing tangled in the web itself or attracting the attention of the spiders.”

“I think this metaphor is getting away from you, Sweet,” Style commended with a mirthless grin.

“Oh, shut it, I think I’m doing fine.”

“I think so too,” Fauna piped up. “It…explains some things. We…” She glanced over at Flora. “We didn’t think anybody would care. Nobody ever cared about any of us, or anything else that happened in the Glums.”

“And that is why you cannot just run around and do things,” Sweet said firmly. “You don’t understand who is active and powerful in this city. You don’t know what they care about, what will or won’t provoke them to take action. That’s not a criticism, ladies, it’s an analysis of your situation, and part of the purpose of your apprenticeship will be to rectify that ignorance. Until you have achieved this knowledge, though, you are two bugs with unusually big stingers which won’t do you a damn bit of good if you don’t know which are the sticky strands or where the other predators lurk. In fact…it’s those big stingers of yours that cause us some problems, now.”

“Can we stop with the bug metaphors?” Style groaned.

“Fine, I’ll speak more plainly. Flora, Fauna, you’re dangerous. I promise you, however, that you are not the most dangerous things lurking in this city. The Church and the Empire both have powers under their control that could crush you. If you act carelessly, if you give them a reason to do so, they won’t hesitate. And you are members of the Thieves’ Guild, now; your actions both reflect on us and involve us. Nothing you start up with a rival faction will affect only you. Today you got Elowe killed. That’s no great loss; he was, as I said, a traitor. Next time, it could be me. Or anyone else.” They both looked up again at that, alarm registering broadly on their faces. “Now do you understand the problem?”

Both nodded. “We won’t do anything else without your orders,” Fauna promised.

“Let’s not be too hasty,” he said, holding up a hand. “The worship of Eserion heavily emphasizes a love of freedom; you don’t want to be bound too restrictively to the Guild. This is a relationship; you’re not servants. But while you are still apprentices, I will hold you to that promise. And you will stay apprentices at least until I—and your trainers—am confident that you don’t absolutely need to be held to it anymore. Clear?” They nodded again.

Sweet leaned back against the edge of the table, folding his arms and turning his head to speak to them sidelong. “Now, as a rule, the Thieves’ Guild does not dispense death. It’s messy, irrevocable, draws very persistent attention from the authorities… It’s a lot of the things we most ardently avoid, is what I mean. However, if there is one truth all thieves can embrace, it’s that rules are not meant to be absolute things. There are times when…well, let me just say that people of your unique talents are useful to have around. Again, I don’t want you doing diddly dick out there in my city until I’m reasonably sure you’re not going to inadvertently screw the pooch again. To get us to that point…it looks like you’re going to need a somewhat more refined curriculum of training than most of your fellow apprentices.”

“Refined, how?” Flora asked.

“To begin with, you’ll be working closely with Style here.” They gave Style a very careful look; she grinned back in a way that showed far too many teeth to be friendly. “The finer points of causing pain you clearly have down; she’ll teach you about the blunter ones, which are more generally useful to our sort of people. She will also teach you how to carry yourselves so as to create the impression you need to for any given circumstance, and I guarantee you’ll find no better trainer in that art anywhere.”

“Your flattery isn’t getting you any closer to my bed, Sweet.”

“Baby, I quit fantasizing about that after you broke that guy’s back. Additionally, girls, I am going to break with my usual policy and take you under my personal tutelage.” At that, their heads snapped around in unison and smiled bloomed on their faces. “The reason I don’t take on apprentices is, as I mentioned earlier, I quite simply have too goddamn much to do. You’ll get a better idea how I spend my time as we go forward, because if you’re going to be underfoot demanding my attention, I assure you, you’ll make yourselves useful in the process.”

“We will,” Fauna promised.

“I know. That’s going to mean a change of sleeping quarters, I’m afraid, since it’s going to be a lot easier for you to commute to the Guild for daily training than it will be for me to get down here to train you. As such, you will be moving into my home. The cover story will be that you’re housemaids; I have a civilian identity to keep up, after all. My Butler will show you that particular set of ropes.”

“Your…a servant?” Fauna asked, frowning. “Can he be trusted with…Guild business?”

Style brayed in amusement, earning a pair of annoyed looks.

“Guild business, she says.” Sweet shook his head. “Girls, I’m a high-ranking priest of Eserion. I don’t employ anybody who’s not a member of this Guild in good standing. Don’t worry about that, you’ll get to know her in good time. For now, I want you to concentrate on training. What you’ll be learning from me is the subtle art of being a spider. Knowing where the strands are, how to navigate them, pluck them, make the web itself serve your needs. Tiraas is a living thing, girls. She breathes, she feels; she has moods. You have to romance her.”

“That would be disturbing even if you didn’t segue into it from more spider talk,” Style said, grimacing.

“I intend,” he went on, ignoring her, “for you to gain a sense of perspective. You’re going to learn how to get by in this city without dealing out death…and how to do so, if the need arises, with such circumspection that it doesn’t come back to bite you—and the rest of us—on the ass.”

Again, they exchanged a long glance, then Fauna looked back up at him with a particularly inscrutable expression.

“You want us to kill for you.”

“No. No.” He straightened, turning to face them directly and staring down with more intensity. “I want you to use your skills for your own best interests. As your sponsor and trainer in the Guild, that means my task is twofold: I need to prepare you to do so in this extremely complex world without causing unforeseen havoc, and I need to help you understand why the Guild’s interests are your own. Ours is not an authoritarian cult, ladies; the Guild retains the loyalty of its members because it earns that loyalty. In time, you’ll understand why, but for now, I just ask that you trust me, and trust the Guild, to have your back when you need it.”

“Like today,” Style snapped, “when Sweet ran his ass ragged all over the fucking town to fix your fucking screw-up, when we should’ve just given your fucking heads to the Empire, gift wrapped.”

“My ass is not ragged, thank you,” he said wryly. He words had their effect, though; the elves looked very suitably abashed. “But she’s not wrong. We look out for each other here. Now, do you have questions about any of this?”

Flora bit her lip and looked at the ground, but Fauna raised her eyes to gaze at him seriously. “Eldei Alai’shi,” she said, “what you call headhunters… It’s a very specific path. It involves…bargains, rituals, contracts with powers that… What I mean is, there’s reason we’re not welcome among our tribe, or any tribe. None of this is done lightly, and there are costs. Whatever happens in the future, you cannot expect us to serve as assassins. The spirits demand purpose, and challenge. The prey must be worthy—either because it deeply deserves to suffer, or because it will not fall easily. Preferably both.”

“We do not and cannot kill at a whim,” Flora added, “or none of those…men…would have survived laying hands on us. We cannot kill for…for business. It may not be possible for us to serve you the way I think you expect.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he mused. “It sounds to me like you may be precisely the thing I need.” Sweet glanced over at Style; behind the elves’ back, she grinned broadly at him. They’d done this routine enough times to have it down pat. Once, he had jokingly suggested that he could be the bad cop for a change; she’d laughed for nearly a full minute, then punched him. “As I said, the Guild doesn’t kill lightly. Ideally, not ever, but we’re not exactly idealists here. No, there are exceptional circumstances afoot, growing more exceptional faster than I can get a handle on them. I have something specific in mind that your spirits might find to their liking.”

“You don’t know the spirits,” Fauna remarked, and there was both bitterness and sour humor behind her voice.

“Perhaps,” he said. “Let them be the judge. Tell me… Have you two ever heard of the Black Wreath?”

Again, the two looked at each other, but this time much more slowly. Faces blank, they held gazes for a very long moment, communicating on some level he couldn’t grasp. Then, just as slowly, they both turned their heads face him again. Identical smiles blossomed across their faces.

There was nothing childlike about them now.

He smiled back.

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1 – 17

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It was a thing of beauty, really.

Not the Imperial itself. All white marble, gilded furniture and red plush carpeting, accented by stained glass and actual frescoes, it was a faux-royal monstrosity on the inside, albeit an unusually loud and bawdy one. Sweet had little use for such ostentation; when he’d run the Guild, he had frequently hammered home the point that anyone who flaunted their wealth was a mark whether they knew it or not. A thief who acted that way was looking to change places on the food chain.

Its business was another matter. A gambling den of any kind was a standing long con: a use of illusion and social pressure to part people from their money without resorting to any kind of force, which (best of all), relied on the greed of the victim to work. People who were content with their lot, who had no inclination to get something for nothing or take an apparent opportunity to put something over on a fellow citizen, were all but impossible to con. The richest class of the Imperial capital were almost terrifyingly easy. Night after night they came, frittered away impossible sums of money on games that didn’t even have to be rigged to offer them no realistic chance of winning, and every night they came back. It was beautiful. For the sheer elegance of it, Sweet could forgive the casino’s ostentation.

Besides, this place pretty much funded the Guild’s operations by itself. They were thieves, disciples of Eserion; they stole as a way of life, as a spiritual discipline, and to an extent because their presence kept more dangerous criminal elements from arising. They weren’t necessarily very profitable.

Sweet strolled casually across the gaming floor, navigating around roulette wheels and tables hosting a variety of card and dice games, smiling and waving to people he recognized. Well-dressed citizens who doubtless thought themselves his social betters politely stepped out of his way, and pulled aside newer patrons who apparently didn’t know yet how the Casino worked. He noted familiar faces and unfamiliar ones, and out of sheer force of habit kept an eye out for trouble. The Casino wasn’t his to run anymore, but he couldn’t help doing a quick visual sweep to ensure everyone was doing their job.

Only some of those present and working were members of the Thieves’ Guild. The men and women running the tables, definitely, as well as the girls chosen for their looks who changed money for chips behind barred windows along one wall. The cocktail waitresses sashaying through the crowd and the girls in lingerie gyrating on a stage near the bar were employees; Guild members were expected to have more pride than that. Many a thief had paid for his or her apprenticeship on a series of mattresses, just…not out in public. The guards were a mixed bag. Burly men in dark suits or the Imperial’s red-and-gold livery kept watch throughout the building; they were mostly hired on, with a leavening of actual thieves among them to keep them on their toes. Several doors and sensitive locations had other sorts loitering near them, however, more shabbily-dressed men and women who had in common a lean and hungry look that did not belong among the Imperial’s clientele, some openly carrying weapons. The choice of different kinds of guards helped the patrons differentiate doors they weren’t supposed to enter from doors they absolutely did not want to try entering.

“Care for a drink, sir? On the house.”

Sweet drew up short, startled, as a tray of cocktails was thrust in front of him by a winsome, dark-haired young woman who fluttered her eyelashes at him. Not one he knew, of course, or she wouldn’t have gotten in his way while he was obviously going somewhere. Like all her fellow servers, she wore a low-hemmed and high-collared sleeveless dress that was almost painfully tight; it kept the waitresses from being visual competition with the dancers while making them nearly as alluring. More so, in his opinion. Still, he had no time for flirting this evening.

“Not tonight, love,” he said with a wink, sliding a doubloon out of his sleeve and setting it on her tray. “People to do, things to see, you know how it is.”

Grinning delightedly, she bobbed a skillful curtsy without disturbing her tray and turned, swishing off into the crowd. Sweet gave himself a moment to watch her go, then resumed his own trek.

In a shadowy alcove disguised as a small grove of artificial trees—really, the décor in this place was way over the top—two men lounged on either side of an unimpressive wooden door, the bigger one cleaning his fingernails with a knife so elaborately evil-looking Sweet was sure it would break in half if he actually tried to stab somebody with it.

“Thumper!” Sweet said cheerily to the other man, who resembled nothing so much as a salesman in his fancy but inexpensive suit and slicked-back hair. “They still letting you work here?”

“Eh, give it a week,” he replied easily, but Sweet did not miss the momentary tightening of his eyes, the slight flare of nostrils. Still a lot of anger in this one, and very likely still enough to impair his performance. Well, it wasn’t Sweet’s problem anymore. “They’re expecting you, go on through.”

The bigger man had straightened quickly at his approach, and now appeared somewhat tongue-tied. Sweet recognized him, vaguely, a kneecapper who’d been only just raised to the most junior level of Guild membership at the time he’d left his position for the Church.

“I, uh, yeah, it’s an honor to… I mean, go on through, Mr. Sweet, sir,” he added unnecessarily, sketching a clumsy bow.

“At ease, soldier,” Sweet said sardonically. Thumper grinned with actual humor this time.

“Yeah, he’s new. I’ll work with ‘im.”

“Glad to hear it. Stay sharp, gentlemen.” Pulling the door open, he slipped between them and through, into a dimmer, quieter space.

Sweet strolled through the darkened halls more quickly, now that there was nobody around for him to interact with. At this time of night, not many people would be in the Guild’s headquarters on business; night was when thieves were out in the city, hard at work. The relatively few who actually lived here were mostly at work on the casino floor, and most who used these offices to do business kept that to daylight hours. Here and there he came upon an open door with merry or muted sounds of activity beyond, or exchanged greetings with someone hurrying past on a similar errand, but for the most part it felt like he had the sprawling place to himself.

Along an exterior hallway, hang a left, cut through a small meeting chamber, down another stretch of hall, then down two flights of steps. A couple more turns and he was at his destination.

Down here, the stone halls were rough-cut and rounded from their great age. The Imperial was an old building, only repurposed by the Guild within the last century, but even it had been built upon the foundations of a much older temple. Exactly how old the lowest levels of the Guild’s headquarters were nobody seemed to know, but the stonework was as worn as anything in Tiraas and the iron accepts corroded in some places almost to nothing. Down here, torches provided the only light. They could certainly afford fairy lamps, but in the Guild’s heart of hearts, the thieves did not try to make things easy or comfortable for themselves. That would have made for weak thieves.

The chamber he entered was huge, opening before him and plunging twenty feet to the floor, with an unrailed rim of stone surrounding its upper edges. Below, novices and some very junior Guild members practiced a variety of skills; climbing, sparring, opening locks, all under the watchful eyes of more experienced trainers. Sweet smiled fondly down at the spectacle, but didn’t descend the narrow stone steps to the training floor or pause to watch. He moved swiftly around the perimeter of the upper level to a door directly opposite the one through which he’d entered.

This room was longer and narrower, and also more cluttered. The ancient stonework was all but concealed by maps, charts and wall hangings; pigeonholed desks lined its edges, interspersed with bookcases containing ledgers and scrolls by the dozen. It was considerably better lit, with fairy lamps hanging from the ceiling, and even had a long stretch of mismatched bits of carpet along its center, between the rows of desks. Most of these had been worn to an embarrassing state by years of foot traffic.

Now, the room was unoccupied, save for one person.

“Look who finally showed up,” Style said sharply, rising from the overseer’s chair (the only one with any padding, or armrests) in which she’d been lounging and swaggering over toward him. “Afraid to show your face around here while you’re behind on your tithes?”

“Style, we gotta do this every time? The Big Guy gets the first cut of every copper I bring in. You know it, he knows it, the Boss knows it. When have you ever succeeded in skimming off me? Save it for the newbies.”

“It’s the principle of the thing,” she said with a grin, then swept him into a hug as soon as she got close enough. “Good to see you around again, Sweet. Damn, though, you’re all gristle and bone. Doesn’t that Butler of yours feed you?”

“Well, gods know she tries,” he replied, matching her grin as he pulled away. Style was dolled up today in the Punaji fashion, with a heavy leather overcoat and preposterous wide-brimmed hat which bristled with feathers, plus giant clunking boots. Underneath she wore only a pair of harem pants in a screamingly loud pattern and several yards of ruffled silk wound around her breasts. It was a new look for her, but then, all her looks were knew. He’d wondered many times in the past how she managed to feed herself, given how much she spent on clothes. It definitely worked out for her, though; Style was a horse-faced woman and brawny as any dockworker, but had no trouble at all finding men to share her bed. Living proof that it wasn’t what you had that mattered, but how you worked it.

“Seriously, though, I’m not late. Not very early, either, which begs the question: where the hell is the Boss? He’s usually lying in wait for me.”

“Usually is, yeah.” Her grin widened, and he began to smell a rat.

“Care for a drink, Mr. Sweet, sir?”

He spun around, stepped back, and gaped. The pretty waitress who’d accosted him above stood smiling flirtatiously up at him, batting her lashes and proffering her tray, which still had his gold coin sitting amid the glasses.

“What the—” He shot a perplexed look at Style; how the hell had this girl gotten down here? Style, though, was trying and failing to contain laughter. He narrowed his eyes, peered more closely at the simpering girl, then swore. “Damn it, Tricks!”

Style let out a bray of amusement, giving up the fight, and the illusion melted. The girl’s posture and facial expressions subtly shifted and suddenly he was looking at a short, slender man in extremely skillful drag and a lot of makeup, grinning up at him. “That’s another one for me!”

“You are a pain the ass,” Sweet scolded. “We know you’re good, dammit, you don’t need to put on a show every time somebody comes to visit!”

“Oh, let me have my fun.” Tricks tossed the tray casually down on a nearby desk and pulled off his wig, further ruining the illusion. “I certainly don’t get much of it, what with trying to keep all you goons in line. It’s good to see you again, though. You know, you’re allowed to come visit, Sweet, you don’t have to wait till we’ve got business to discuss.”

“I know,” he said with a grimace. “You’re not the only one with too much on his plate, Boss. If I had the time…”

“Yeah, yeah, the time.” Tricks had unfastened the high collar of his dress as they spoke, and now reached behind his neck, grasping a string there, and pulled. In a swift, oddly disturbing display, the false breasts attached to it popped out of his neckline, and he casually tossed this apparatus to Sweet. “As always, it’s wasting. I will require you to hang out for a bit and catch up after business…but we better see to that first.”

He strolled off toward the closed door at the opposite end of the room, pulling a rag from within one sleeve and wiping makeup from his face as he went. Sweet draped the fake boobs around Style’s neck and followed, grinning at the swat he received in the back of the head.

They strode through in single file, Style pausing to shut the door behind them. This room was completely bare of furnishings or decorations, lit only but four fairy lamps, one in each corner. Its sole content was the towering statue of Eserion against the far wall, surmounting a small fountain which gurgled softly. Gold and silver gleamed faintly within the water. The three thieves approached solemnly.

Sweet pulled an Imperial decabloon from within his coat, pausing to press his lips against the golden gryphon inset into the platinum coin, then placed it gently in the fountain. Tricks touched his coin gently to his forehead before dropping it in; Style tossed hers, winking up at the statue as it splashed down. As one, they bowed to the idol, then stepped backward three times from it before turning to face each other again.

“All right, Sweet, what have you got for me?”

Sweet heaved a sigh. “Seriously, Boss, can you lose the dress? I can’t take you seriously like this.”

Tricks gasped in mock horror, fanning his face with one hand. “Land’s sakes, he just wants to see me in the altogether! A true gentleman wouldn’t stare so at my decolletage!”

“I’m keeping a wary eye on your decolletage, all right, otherwise Style’ll club me with it.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, this is like having kids,” Style growled. “Will you two settle down? Banter after the meeting, we’ve got shit to do.”

“Right, right,” Sweet said peaceably, winking at her, then his expression sobered. “Well, the news isn’t great. Things were proceeding more or less according to plan, but then a new player entered the game and everything’s gone to hell.”

Tricks frowned. “Who?”

“Elilial has officially made the opening moves of a campaign against the Empire.”

Style spouted off a few choice epithets, while Tricks’s expression grew grimmer. “You mean, more of a campaign than what she and the Wreath have been up to in general for lo these many years.”

Sweet nodded. “Planted herself in the Palace and got very close to the Emperor himself, then swaggered through a hellgate a few days later in a manner calculated to tip off Imperial Intelligence, and prevent the Hands from keeping it contained. There’s…um, more, but it’s Sealed to the Throne.”

“So?” Style snorted. “Spill.”

“Heel, girl,” said Tricks. “Sweet’s taking enough risks to keep us in the loop here. The Hands have some kind of fairy witchery up their sleeves; when something’s Sealed to the Throne, they’ll know immediately if somebody unseals it. Then we’ll be ass-deep in Hands within the hour.”

“And you’d need to find yourself a new inside man,” Sweet said dryly. “It’s a hell of a thing they’re sitting on, but shouldn’t affect us directly, any more than it will the rest of the Empire. I’ll do my best to warn you out of any danger if it comes up. Anyhow, I hadn’t even got to the best part, yet. It seems the Archpope was the one who warned Sharidan about Elilial being in the Palace, and provided the means to root her out. So the Church has counted coup, the Throne’s lost face, and now…”

“Oh, let me just fucking guess,” Tricks groaned.

Sweet nodded. “Justinian’s fondest desire is approved. The Universal Church is forming its own independent military.” Style’s swearing intensified; he had to raise his voice slightly as he continued. “They have permission for a small, elite force, adequate to defend the Church’s holdings and carry on some anti-demon operations. Not enough that the Church can take or hold territory, but… It’s something. The biggest immediate change will be that the Imperial Army isn’t going to be responsible for securing Church holdings anymore. Justinian is one step closer to being his own political entity. It’ll take him some time, at least a year, I’d think, to get this thing up and running smoothly, but it’s going to happen. I don’t see how it can be pushed back at this point.”

“There wasn’t anything you could do to stop this?” Style complained.

He sighed. “I greased most of the wheels myself. Remember, I’m Justinian’s inside man, too, and I’m good at making connections. Even with Imperial approval, there were roadblocks in place; I managed to disappear a few of them.”

“What the fuck?!” Style roared, her face darkening with rage. “What the incandescent donkey fuck? Isn’t this what we sent you in there to stop from happening? This specific exact thing? And now you go off and—”

“Settle, Style,” Tricks said firmly.

“But he—”

“Settle.” His voice grew sharper and she subsided, glowering. “Hon, you know I love you, but this is why you’re my enforcer and I’m the Boss. You don’t have a knack for subtle. If Sweet pitched in to help this thing along, that means there was nothing he could’ve done to stop it.”

“You didn’t have to fucking help it!”

“Yes, I did,” Sweet said grimly. “Because that game was over, we’d lost, and I had to think of the next one.”

Tricks nodded. “If he’d tried to get in the way, or even just refused to help, Justinian would know that Sweet doesn’t have his back, and that’d be the end of him ever learning anything useful or being in a position to take action. Now, he’s earned some trust, gotten closer to the Archpope, and might be able to throw the next round our way.”

She glared back and forth between them, then suddenly deflated, kicking the ground savagely with one booted foot. “Well…just… Fuck, is all.”

“Pretty much,” Sweet agreed. “The upside is my gambit did succeed. I’m getting more face time with his Holiness, and he’s hinted at involving me in something else he’s cooking up. But I’m afraid I just didn’t work fast enough or gain enough trust ahead of time to put a stop to this when it was still possible.”

“So what’s his next play?” asked Tricks.

Sweet shook his head. “Don’t know yet. I also don’t know what security he’s got. I do know he doesn’t have anything like the Hands have set up, to let him know automatically if he’s been betrayed. That’s fae business, and the Church refuses to have anything to do with it. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to make myself useful with smaller tasks that won’t affect the Guild or the Big Guy’s interests. Just basic brown-nosing, but it’s paying off. I want to be in the best position possible when the next big thing goes down.”

“Right,” said Tricks, still frowning. “Keep me posted.”

“Always.”

“Okay, wait,” said Style. “So Elilial’s up to something big, right? Can we use that? At the very least it seems like it’d keep the Archpope busy…”

Tricks was already shaking his head before she finished speaking. “It’s just one more hand stirring the pot. A clever operator, which Justinian is, can turn that to his advantage. Remember what I’m always telling you about running a con? Misdirection. Anything that creates chaos is potentially useful, if you know how to use it.”

“Feh. I’ll stick to breaking kneecaps, thanks.”

“The trouble is we don’t yet know the extent of Elilial’s plans,” said Sweet. “Not her timetable or even more than the broadest strokes of what she actually wants. She’s making a play for the Imperial government, sure, but my instinct tells me that’s a feint; she has always been obsessed with the gods of the Pantheon. Right now, though, everyone’s waiting to see her next move.”

“Right. So when she moves, we move, and hit the Church while they’re not looking.”

“Style,” Tricks said patiently, “we do not have the manpower or resources to ‘hit the Church.’ You’re talking about one of the most powerful institutions on the planet, with the backing of dozens of deities.”

“We hit Justinian, then. Don’t tell me that wouldn’t help; no other Archpope has been half the pain in the ass he is.”

“A direct attack on the Church is not happening,” he said firmly. “There are too many ways we can lose and no real way to win. This is a game of maneuver. We need to weaken Justinian and keep him weak until he goes away. You’re right that he’s the problem here, him and his ambitions.”

“And trying a sneak attack on someone right when they’re at their most alert for trouble is a horrible idea,” Sweet added. “Remember, everyone’s on tenterhooks, waiting to see Elilial’s next play. Maximum possible security by everyone, everywhere. No, we wait. When the next step of the game is in motion we’ll have to move fast, but it’d be a critical mistake to move too early.” He turned to Tricks. “With that in mind, wait till you hear about the possible other player getting involved.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” groaned Style. “Who else can possibly stick their nose into this that matters enough for you to worry about? Naphthene? Fairies? Orcish revanchists? Arachne Tellwyrn?”

He winced.

“…you have got to be fucking kidding me.”

Succinctly, he sketched out the history of the exploding girl phenomenon, including the presence of Elilial’s child in Tellwyrn’s camp and the evidence of Tellwyrn tracking the Demon Queen’s movements. “By the last meeting of the council there wasn’t a concrete plan in place, but it looks like the Empire’s leaning toward trying to passively use Tellwyrn to run interference with Elilial. She appears to be doing that anyway, so it becomes a matter of discreetly helping her along.”

“Risky,” Tricks said skeptically.

“Yes,” Sweet nodded. “But I think it’s actually a solid idea. If you look at her movements historically, Tellwyrn gets really aggressive with people who try to put something over on her, but I don’t think she’ll fly off the handle at a good faith offer of aid. In fact…I think we may want to look into it ourselves.”

“Too risky for my blood.”

Sweet held up a hand. “Hear me out. At the meeting I floated the idea of using the three soldiers who witnessed Elilial’s manifestation as a peace offering, and General Panissar went for it. The Empire is stationing them at Last Rock. On the grounds of the University itself.”

“They’re putting troops on Tellwyrn’s property?” Style said, aghast. “She’ll go berserk.”

“This isn’t troops, it’s three guys who apparently aren’t even any good at their jobs. They’re being placed there under an old law that allows the Empire to quarter soldiers in civilian institutions at the host’s expense during a crisis. Bad as that sounds, in practice it means these guys will have nothing but their staves and the clothes they’re wearing; they’ll be dependent on Tellwyrn’s hospitality for everything. In short, they are no threat to her. They’re a peace offering, a little gesture that the Empire wants to open a relationship.”

“And best of all,” said Tricks thoughtfully, “they’re an opportunity we can use. We can watch this to see how she reacts with no stake in the outcome. Nice work, Sweet.”

“I do what I can,” he said modestly.

“This means I’m gonna want someone reliable in Last Rock to keep an eye on things as they develop. The hell I’m leaving this up to Keys.”

“Why,” Sweet said dryly, “you mean you don’t find Principia just a joy to work with?” Style snorted loudly.

Tags were both a practical necessity for protecting a thief’s real name, and a spiritual rite within their faith. Upon elevation to full membership, a thief was tagged by their primary trainer in one of the Guild’s few actually religious rites; the working name thus bestowed would serve not only to identify them within the Guild, but signify their approach to Eserion’s service.

Keys had been so named for her nigh-preternatural ability to get into and then back out of places she was not supposed to be. And not just places, but situations, even arguments… She would pop in out of nowhere and deftly weasel her way back out once she had what she wanted. The utility of this trait for a thief was obvious and considerable, but occurring as it did in someone who was allergic to authority and usually working her own agenda, it made her a nightmare for whoever was responsible for keeping her under control. Principia’s assignment to Last Rock had been her own request three years ago, when Sweet was still running the Guild, and he’d been delighted to have her out of his hair. Plus, there was the hopeful prospect that she’d irritate Tellwyrn and cease to be his problem for good.

The Guild had a standing policy of not messing with powerful individuals who tended to be vindictive, so the only qualification for the Last Rock position was that the person holding it should be willing to not do anything, which suited Keys down to the ground. Now, though, they actually needed someone reliable on the scene, which complicated matters considerably. Based on the dark look Tricks was giving him, the current Boss had followed this thread of thought all the way to its logical conclusion.

“I’ll find somebody,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair, still mussed from the wig. “Got a couple of ideas… Anyhow. Unless you’ve got something else of crashing urgency to report, Sweet, there’s a little something I need to tell you.”

“Oh?” He glanced back and forth between them. “See, now Style is grinning. That makes me nervous.”

“As well it should,” said Tricks with some amusement of his own. “We’ve been approached directly by…an interested party. One who wants to open talks, and asked to speak with you specifically.”

“Me?”

“You.” The Boss grinned fiendishly. “And best of all, this request comes with an endorsement from the Big Guy himself.”

That brought Sweet up short. Eserion was a hands-off sort of god. On the rare occasions when he gave explicit instructions to the Boss of his Guild, it meant something big was brewing.

“I hope you’re well-rested, brother,” Tricks went on, “because you’ve got another appointment coming up.”

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