Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.
The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.
His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.
The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.
He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.
The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.
It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.
A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.
“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”
“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”
“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”
“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”
“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”
“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”
He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.
“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”
“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”
Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”
“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”
“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”
Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”
“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.
“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”
“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”
“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”
“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.
“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”
He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”
“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”
“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”
“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”
“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”
The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”
“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.
Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”
“Can that be done?”
“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”
“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”
“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”
“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”
“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.
Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”
“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”
“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”
“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”
“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”
“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”
The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.
Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.
“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”
“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”
“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”
Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.
Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”
She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”
Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”
“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”
He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”
“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.
“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.
Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”
“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”
“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.
“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.
Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”
“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”
“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”
“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”
“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.
“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”
“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”
“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”
“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”
“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”
“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”
“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.
“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”
“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”
“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”
Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”
Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”
“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”
“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.
Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”
Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”
“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”
“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”
Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”
“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”
“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.
“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.
Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”
“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”
“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”
“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”
“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”
Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”
“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”
“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”
“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”
“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.
“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”
“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”
“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”
“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”