Tag Archives: Wilberforce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about no,” Ross growled.

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

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

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

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

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

“Thank you,” Tallie said fervently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your allergies acting up?” Darius said snidely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Tallie demanded.

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

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

“Hey,” Ross protested, frowning.

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

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

Rasha scowled, but then shrugged fatalistically, saying nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

“That was not the point!” Tallie shouted.

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

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

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

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

Tallie folded her arms, grumbling sullenly.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meesie chittered reprovingly at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Move it!” Tallie barked.

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

With some notable exceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smart boy,” said Casethin.

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

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

“It’s Rasha.”

“I know what I said.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And,” Darius prompted, “you are…?”

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

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

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

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

“What rumor?” Rasha demanded.

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

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

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

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

“Jasmine, please punch her.”

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

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

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

Gimmick coughed discreetly. “Actually…”

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

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

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

“Not just you,” Ross muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tallie!” Jasmine protested.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 -29

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Most people were automatically on their best behavior in the presence of the Silver Legions, whose by reputation didn’t embrace any kind of tomfoolery. Reporters, it seemed, were made of stiffer stuff—or less mentally balanced stuff, perhaps. The dozen notebook-wielding men milling around in the street tried to interrogate everyone they came across, with varying degrees of politeness. The residents of Lor’naris who had gathered to watch the show were happy to be interviewed, but were mostly left alone as the newspapermen quickly discovered they knew nothing. It was at the Legionnaires standing guard that they directed most of their energies, seeming to take the troops’ stoic refusal to respond—and increasing hints of irritation—that they were hiding something.

The vacant shop which had been appropriated by the Third as a makeshift command post now had a small platform erected in front of it, hastily constructed of planks laid over shipping crates. A Legionnaire stood at either end of this, as well as in a loose formation sectioning off the bit of street in front of the shop. They made no moves to impede anyone coming and going, simply making it clear by their presence that this patch of land was currently under their protection. The only other apparently noteworthy individuals present were a couple of soldiers in Imperial Army uniform, standing with the Lorisians waiting for the show to start, and a dwarf woman on the platform in the white robes of a priestess of Avei. The Imps were as willing to talk as the citizens, and as quick to reveal their ignorance. The Sister didn’t bother to refuse to answer questions; she had Legionnaires to shoo nosy reporters away. For all intents and purposes, she was in a kind of meditation, standing still and in silence, staring across the crowd with a calm smile.

Finally, late enough in the morning that several of those present had begun to think about slipping away for lunch, the door of the shop opened and a blonde man in the robes of a Bishop stepped forth, smoothly mounting the improvised platform. Immediately the gathered reporters brought up notebooks and pencils, fixing their eager attention on him.

“Gentlemen, thank you for joining us,” Darling said with a beatific smile. “I apologize for keeping you waiting, but I do promise that you will be glad to hear what you are about to hear, as will your editors. I mentioned this to each of you when inviting you to be present, but let me repeat: this will be a simple address. Questions will not be taken. And with that and no more ado, allow me to introduce to you the Hand of Avei.”

He stepped smoothly to the side, standing next to the priestess, over whom he towered. A stir went through the onlookers as the door opened again and out stepped a slender blonde figure in striking silver armor over a winter coat, battered sword hanging at her hip and her eagle-marked shield on her back. There was a smattering of applause from the residents of Lor’naris, but the reporters only stared hungrily.

She strode to the center of the platform and fell automatically into parade rest, feet braced and hands clasped behind her. For a moment, she panned her gaze around at the modest crowd, expression unreadable, then cleared her throat and began.

“Gentlemen, thank you for coming. My name is Trissiny Avelea.” A soft swell of murmurs and the frantic scratching of pencils followed the lack of a title given, but Trissiny pressed on. “I will come to the point: there has been a lot of uncertainty and many questions about events in this district in the last few days. I’ve been told there is a lot of general curiosity about me, as well. For the record… I don’t really consider myself that important. I’m here to serve, not to court attention. But some answers need to be given about events in Lor’naris.

“Briefly, there have been several abuses of power by members of the Imperial Army tasked with patrolling this district. I understand you’ve all been given many of these details already, so I won’t bore you; any further questions should be directed to the Army, which I am assured has the matter well in hand. The guilty parties have been apprehended and are awaiting justice, and no aspersions should be cast upon the character of the Army, nor of the regiment responsible for this part of the city. In fact, the officer in command of Barracks Four, Captain Nassir Ravoud, has done a great deal to help calm the tensions all this has caused. I myself have been a signatory to a letter of commendation to General Panissar on his performance, along with a member of the Narisian House Awarrion and the Hand of Omnu.”

This time, she did pause to let the muttering die down a bit, frowning vaguely as if gathering her thoughts. “These things…happen. Troubles come and go. I’ve played an…incidental part in all this, which I don’t think is important. What I asked you here to speak about is a matter that has been increasingly troubling me as I’ve come to know the people of Lor’naris.

“This is a district of outcasts. In this street live half-bloods of various mixtures, including, I am told, a handful of half-demons. Dwarves, elves, lizardfolk and gnomes reside in Lor’naris… As do drow. The drow are here in the greatest numbers, of course, and have become sort of iconic. What the residents of this street have done here is nothing short of amazing: in a mere decade, they have converted a slum to a clean, safe, productive district. At this point, they stay here because they have invested so much in it. This is their home, and everyone here has more than earned her or his place.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her frown deepening. “But they came here for very different reasons, for the simple reason that they were not wanted anywhere else. That the Lorisians are mostly content to remain in this district does not change the fact that they would be heavily pressured to do so if they attempted to spread out through the city. Or the Empire. I consider this a significant problem.

“The Pantheon have long been known as the protectors of humanity. Humans do not enjoy the innate benefits many of our neighbors do. We haven’t the sturdiness of dwarves, the agility of the elves, or the long lifespans of either. We are not so hardy as lizardfolk, as strong for our size as gnomes… We don’t compare to dragons by any measure. What we have is the protection of our gods, and our…resourcefulness, our adaptability. If there’s a consistent strength of humanity throughout our history, it is our skill at making our way wherever we land, storing up skills and knowledge to pass on to the next generation, leaving our descendents stronger and better-equipped than those who’ve come before. Our strength, in short, is cumulative, and has been building for these eight thousand years. Finally, a tipping point has been reached, and passed. Humans are now the dominant force among mortal races by a wide margin. In becoming so, we’ve changed the very world around us.”

Trissiny glanced over at Bishop Darling. “It was recently pointed out to me that Rail lines and scrolltowers represent connection. The world is drawn closer together by our advances, and this, more than our new weapons and modern conveniences, has changed the way we live. The other races aren’t distantly-glimpsed figures of legend anymore. They are everywhere. They come forth to partake of what we’ve created, bringing their own ways and cultures, and there has been some pushback against them because of it. That reaction is quite understandable.

“However, I think it is a serious mistake.”

She let that sit for a moment, staring out over the crowd. “Right now, too many Imperial citizens think of the other races as the same distant oddities their ancestors did, which doesn’t work when these people now live next door, open shops to sell their traditional foods in human cities and play their music on street corners. They are here, and we need to figure out what to do about this. Accept and embrace the foreigners, or…out of some belief in human ‘purity’…attempt to expel them? In this, as in all things, my advice is to look to the gods for guidance.”

Trissiny swallowed, stiffened her shoulders and raised her chin. “I cannot speak for the other cults, of course, nor for the Universal Church. But I believe Avei has made her view clear by selecting a half-elf as her Hand.”

Instant pandemonium exploded. Reporters shouted questions, waving their hands frantically to get her attention, scribbling in their notebooks so vigorously that some were tearing pages. Trissiny stood firm and silent through the onslaught, drawing a long breath in slowly through her nose.

Bishop Darling stepped to the front of the platform, raising his hands and gently making soothing gestures at the crowd. “Please! Peace, everyone. Calm yourselves. Gentlemen, this is most unbecoming. You’re adults.” It took him several repetitions even to become audible over the hubbub, but eventually the gathered newsmen complied with generally ill grace. “I said we would not be taking questions. Now, kindly hear General Avelea out.”

Trissiny nodded to him in thanks as he moved back to his position. “I have been speaking about these matters with High Commander Rouvad; any further questions may be directed to the Temple of Avei after we’re done here. What I called you here for was to see what steps the Sisters of Avei are taking to adapt to the changing world we live in. My first day here in Lor’naris, I was taken to task—quite justifiably—by a woman who, despite our pledge to protect all women in need, was not served by the Sisterhood when she most needed help. We have, and have always had, dwarves, elves and gnomes among our ranks, and even a few in the Silver Legions. All, however, sought us out, with great effort and often, significant personal risk. Each non-human among every cult of the Pantheon represents an exceptional story. Not all, I am not proud to admit, have been accepted. And we have never made an effort to reach out to them.

“That, now, will change.” Trissiny nodded firmly, as if someone had questioned her. “I am hereby announcing the formation of a new arm of the cult of Avei: the Silver Mission. The building behind me will form its first outpost, and given the Mission’s purpose, it is perfect that it be here, in Lor’naris. This will not be a cloistered order like the Sisterhood, nor a heavily disciplined one like the Legions. Each outpost shall be administered by a small core of priestesses—in many cases, no more than one or two—and an equally small detachment of Legionnaires, if any. The Mission will be staffed by un-ordained volunteers. Its purpose shall be to serve the priorities of Avei in whatever community it inhabits; it shall be open to all, and welcoming to any who offer their aid. In short, the lay worshipers of Avei will be given support and the means to advocate their faith and do whatever good they might in the world, so long as they are willing to bring outsiders into the fold. Outposts of the Silver Mission will be placed, at least at first, in areas with high concentrations of foreigners, aliens and any considered ‘undesirable’ by human society at large. And,” she added, her brows lowering challengingly, “in the interests of accommodating all who are willing to serve, these outposts will be unconsecrated, so as to provide for the needs of demonbloods.”

All Darling’s hard work went up in smoke as the reporters again devolved into a question-shouting melee. However, they were silenced this time by Trissiny herself. Golden wings sprang forth from behind her, stretching to their full, awesome span above the crowd. Stunned silence fell as the visible presence of Avei loomed over them all.

“Justice is for everyone,” Trissiny declared, her voice booming across the street as if amplified. “Avei calls all who will support it to her side. All. No one who comes in good faith will be turned away.”

The wings faded; she blinked twice, as if rousing from a dream, then squared her shoulders again. “With me is Aeldren Yrrensdottir, the priestess who will oversee this first outpost of the Silver Mission. I will now turn the floor over to her; she can better explain the Sisterhood’s intentions here, and answer any questions you have.

“Thank you for coming, gentlemen. Walk in the light.”

Aeldren smoothly stepped forward as Trissiny backed away, then turned to duck back into the building, Darling right on her heels. A couple of reporters attempted to follow her and were politely but inexorably dissuaded by the Legionnaires.

Inside, she let out a breath and slumped backward against the wall. “Oh, goddess, I think I’m going to faint.”

“You did great, kid,” Darling said, amused. He glanced at the closed door, though which the voices of the crowd were still audible. “Seriously, that was a stellar performance. If you want to keep your mystique, though, we should keep moving. Won’t be long before those vultures find the rear entrance.”

She drew in a deep breath, then another, shuddering. “Why on earth is that so hard? I’ve been trained to face demons and warlocks and battle of any kind… Public speaking, though…”

He laughed. “Well, you may complain, but you’re a natural.”

“I’m a what?” she asked, aghast. “How can you say that? I’m just grateful I didn’t shake hard enough they could see.”

“Maybe,” he said, still smiling. “But you gave that speech from memory, without notes. You kept on point, didn’t ramble, and showed a nice turn of phrase.”

“You wrote it,” she grumbled.

“The bulk of it, yes, but you improvised quite a few lines, and improvised well.”

She groaned, dragging a shaking hand over her face.

“That’s a good thing,” Daring said gently. “It’s like you just said out there: the world is small and connected, now. You can’t solve every problem with your sword the way your forebears did. Get used to fighting with words, Trissiny. Those are the weapons of the future.”

“Never thought I’d miss the centaurs,” she muttered. “I know what to do with centaurs.”

“Hey, I’m just a telescroll away,” he said, patting her on the pauldron. “If you ever need advice, consider me at your disposal. Probably not for the rest of today, though; I’ve got an unexpected load of houseguests to attend to, along with continuing to untangle the snarl of Barracks Four and Lor’naris, on top of my usual run of being too busy to breathe.”

Trissiny nodded, took another deep breath, and straightened up, adjusting her sword belt and shield almost absently. “I…appreciate that. If it’s all right… Someday when I have more time to think about it, I may ask you about…Principia.”

He nodded, starting to move toward the back of the shop; she unconsciously fell into step alongside. “Of course. When you’re ready, I’ll tell you what I can.”

“You…do know her, then?”

“Not intimately, but yes.”

“What…in broad terms, I mean… What do you think about her?”

“I don’t like her,” he said frankly.

Trissiny turned to stare at him. Then, surprising herself, she burst out laughing.


 

“How’re the numbers looking?” Vandro asked, gazing down at the workmen replacing shattered fairy lamps in the garden. This particular balcony didn’t give him the best view of the grounds, but for that very reason it was more secure.

“Financially, this episode has been a dismal one,” said Wilberforce, studying a clipboard. He didn’t need it, nor the papers on it, having every relevant detail committed to memory, but he enjoyed his props. “Between damage to the estate and the resources funneled into the Om’ponole job, which has ended up yielding no revenue, it has been an unmitigated loss. Not more than we can bear, of course. Indications are that we shall not need to dip into the investment capital to recoup this over time. The widespread damage to the villa does, in fact, afford us the opportunity to make some upgrades, including to the security system.”

“That was already supposed to be beyond state of the art.”

“Yes, sir, when we installed it, six years ago. Advances have been made. In particular, it may now be possible to apply a life-force lock to the control runes that will prevent another event like that caused by Kheshiri.”

“Life-force lock? That’s witchcraft. You can’t work that into an arcane enchantment network.”

“According to a source in Calderaas, it is now possible. I will investigate this carefully before recommending we spend any money, of course.”

“Hm. Of course, that means anyone wanting to do what she did will have to secure my ass instead of the runic controls.” He grinned. “Heh…I like that. If they have to involve me, they can’t keep me from playin’ ’em. Look into it.”

“Consider it done, sir.”

“Good.” He sighed. “And in the future, no matter how clever I think I’m being at the time, I have a new rule: no more goddamn demons.”

“Yes, sir.”

Vandro half-turned to raise an eyebrow at him. “Go on, you can say it. An ‘I told you so’ here and there isn’t a violation of your contract.”

“That will not be necessary, sir, as you clearly recall that I did. In any case, barring further mishap, the financial loss from this venture should not increase. We appear to have reached the limit of the bills, and can begin laying plans to recoup.”

“Mm. Is that estimate including the bribes and whatnot needed to keep Trigger off Om’ponole’s shit list?”

“Indeed, sir, though that is proving more problematic than anticipated. I have sent overtures, making it clear that we commissioned the fireworks and taking full responsibility for the regrettable accident, but it appears there was pre-existing bad blood between the two. Hence Trigger’s willingness to participate in the first place. Also, Chief Om’ponole is not so abysmally stupid that he has failed to deduce your hand in the incursion on his estate. He seems inclined to be obstreperous.”

Vandro snorted. “Pompous dickhead. If he won’t take the carrot, apply the stick. I got into his estate once; I can get into his bedroom while he sleeps.”

“I shall so remind him if need be, sir.” He flipped a page on the clipboard. “Amanika has sent her compliments. Toss is, in her opinion, not long for the chapter’s leadership, following the events of last night and your masterful verbal destruction of his character.”

“See, Wilberforce? Nothing’s ever a total loss, if you look carefully enough!”

“As you say, sir. Amanika would previously have been a front-runner for the post once Toss is removed from it, though following the revelation of her involvement with you, her credibility is badly damaged. It will likely take years to recover, denying her this chance at the leadership.”

“Ah, well. It was a hell of an omelet; wish I could’ve picked the eggs more carefully.”

“Saduko-san is stable and expected to recover in good health, though the clerics say she will almost certainly lose the use of her voice.”

“Mm…” Vandro swirled his omnipresent cocktail, frowning into the distance. “…no, she won’t. Somewhere, there’s a healer who can fix that. Find them. Send out feelers to Tiraas, Svenheim, the Green Belt… Hell, Tar’naris. Who knows what mojo the darklings are brewing down there.”

“Yes, sir. That will be a considerable expense, of course. And Saduko-san was spying on you, possibly with the intent to sabotage your plans.”

“Yes, yes, for the Guild.” Vandro sipped the drink, not looking up from his intense perusal of the near distance. “In any war, Wilberforce, the greatest of all tactics is to turn the enemy’s soldiers into your own. Saduko’s heard my views on the Guild and its failings, and spy or no, I know my reasoning is sound and its presentation compelling. She was just paraded about like a puppet by the Guild and got a slit throat for her trouble; I will be the one to selflessly undo all that damage and make sure she gets her life back.” He chuckled sardonically. “She’s a smart girl; she’ll figure out where her best interests lie. They say you can’t buy loyalty like that; in my experience, that’s exactly how you get it.”

He froze, staring down at the knife which had appeared under his chin, attached to a hand reaching over his shoulder. “…why, hello, Shiri. You’re late. Punctuality not one of your—”

Vandro was cut off by a blue flash as the knife plunged toward his throat and rebounded off his shielding charm. In the next instant, she was yanked bodily away from him.

He turned leisurely in his chair, careful not to spill his drink. Kheshiri was now on the opposite side of the balcony, glaring; she darted forward again, to be repelled by a lightning-quick spear-hand strike from Wilberforce to her throat. The succubus staggered backward, gagging and clutching her neck.

“Jerry mentioned you didn’t recognize the Butler uniform,” Vandro said conversationally. “You’ve been in that bottle a long time, haven’t you, girl? Yeah, I guess the Service Society sprang up during the interim. No matter how clever you are, this just isn’t your world anymore. You don’t know how things work.”

Kheshiri gulped, grimacing in annoyance, and pulled a wand from behind her belt. In the next instant she dropped it with a gasp; no fewer than four small throwing knives were embedded in the pale skin of her arm, black ichor beginning to well up around them. Wilberforce calmly readjusted his sleeves, clearly preparing to produce more weapons if needed.

“You played a good game, and protected your own interests,” Vandro went on. “I respect that. No hard feelings on my part.”

The succubus beat her wings once, darting sideways and diving for Vandro from out of Wilberforce’s reach. The Butler, moving with impossible speed, flashed across the gap between them, seizing her by the uninjured arm. What followed was a blur of motion, culminating in Kheshiri being bodily tossed back across the balcony with an audible crack of breaking bone.

She didn’t cry out, just leaned backward against the railing in shock, both arms now dangling uselessly.

“Business is business, but business isn’t everything,” said Vandro, pausing to take a sip of his drink. “You do anything to harm my boy Jerry… Well, that I will take very personally. It’s a new world, Kheshiri; a smaller one, a wonderfully interconnected world. It ain’t nearly big enough for you to hide from me.”

He held her gaze, his own eyes boring relentlessly into hers. Kheshiri drew in a ragged breath, then slowly straightened up, rolling her shoulders. As they watched, the four knives slid out of her flesh, clattering to the floor; her other arm rippled, its sickeningly wrong angle straightening out. Moments later, she shook both arms, flexing her fingers.

“Thanks for the party, Alan,” she cooed, blowing him a kiss. “I had a great time.”

The demon turned, bounding nimbly onto the railing, and launched herself into space. There came an outcry from below as she was spotted by the workmen, followed by another when she vanished in midair.

“Did she just use shapeshifting to heal herself?”

“So it appears, sir.”

“I thought that was supposed to be impossible.”

“When last I read up on magical theory, it was deemed theoretically achievable, but too complex in practice to be done under normal circumstances.”

“Hnh. She’s a piece of work, that one.”

“Quite so, sir.”

Vandro stared thoughtfully after the departed succubus, idly swirling his drink. Behind him, Wilberforce discreetly cleared his throat.

“Given what we know of Kheshiri and her intentions, sir, it seems probable that she will act to make this matter, as you say, personal.”

“Personal?” Vandro leaned forward, shifting to hold his cocktail in both hands and glaring out over the railing. “Oh, we are well beyond that point, Wilberforce. I promised Kamari a job, a home and a life here. Thanks to her, all he got for his good faith in my service was an unkind death.” He heaved a deep, mournful sigh, shaking his head. “That man could mix a cocktail that’d make Izara herself cream her skirts. It’s just… It’s a senseless fucking loss to the world. Besides which, he was mine, or would have been.” Vandro stood, setting his glass down on the railing, and leaned on it with both hands. “And as you well know, Wilberforce, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stomach, it’s a presumptuous whore messing with my things.”

“Quite so, sir,” the Butler said calmly. “Her efforts do seem calculated at securing Master Shook’s ear. It may prove challenging to separate them.”

“Nothing worth having is less than a challenge to get, Wilberforce. Right now, getting the estate back in shape and securing what’s left of our allies in need—Trigger, Saduko and Amanika—is your priority. But, time permitting, I have another task for you. Something more long-term.”

“I am, as always, at your disposal, Mr. Vandro.”

“This one is going to be difficult. And more than a little risky.”

“Indeed, sir, and I appreciate your willingness to accommodate my aversion to boredom.”

Vandro turned to look at the Butler over his shoulder, a wicked gleam in his eye. “I want you to start the process of arranging for me to have a sit-down with the Black Wreath. One of their bitches has slipped her leash and made a mess on my lawn; I intend to chain her up again. All I need’s the right kind of collar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you point at my—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro began.

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

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

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

Vandro sighed. His own security commands prevented them from revealing those weapons except in a case of utmost emergency. Outfitting golems with wands was extremely illegal; this was gonna cost him a fortune in bribes.

“Now, when did you find time to do that?” he asked, a note of admiration in his tone.

Kheshiri smirked down at him. “I suggest you all listen carefully,” she said, still boomingly loud, but in her own voice. Silence fell at her command, the guests and Guild enforcers staring up at her in horror. In that tense moment, the only sounds were the canned music still playing throughout the garden and Amanika’s furiously whispered prayers as she attempted to heal Saduko without the use of her hands. “The program these golems are acting on means they’ll destroy anyone who attempts to interfere with my master or myself as we make our departure. It also locks you out from issuing further commands, Alan, so don’t bother.”

“Simple, but effective,” he said, nodding. “As a professional courtesy, I hope you’ll leave me the counter-code to discover after you’re safely away.”

“Oh, there’s no counter-code,” she said sweetly. “You’ll have to shut them down the hard way. Whatever that may be.”

“Those were expensive, Shiri.”

“You can get more golems, Alan. I only have one master.”

Vandro sighed, turning his gaze to Shook. “Jerry, my boy, think this over carefully. You are being played, here.”

“How stupid do you think I am, Alan?” he snarled, convulsively raising his wands.

Wilberforce tried to step in front of Vandro; Vandro gently pushed him aside. “Watch it, boy,” he said firmly. “Right now, that question has an answer.”

“Master, run,” Kheshiri urged. “I’ll stay here and make sure nobody tries anything.”

“Just think on it, first chance you get,” Vandro said firmly, his eyes boring into Shooks, willing him to understand. Damn it, boy, think!

Shook stared back at him, and beneath the raw fury in his expression, Vandro saw the hurt. Hurt, he knew, was at the bottom of all rage. This was going to damage the boy, maybe beyond what could be fixed.

“Go, master. Please.”

Shook steeled himself, directing his eyes upward at his thrall. “Right. I’ll meet you at—”

“Don’t say it! Don’t give them any clues. Just go, be safe, hide. I can find you anywhere.”

Shook turned without another word, and set off for the gates at a run. In seconds he was out of view around the corner.

“Now then,” Kheshiri purred, turning back to grin down at Vandro. “Since we’ll be together for a while, I see no reason for the party to end here. How about you give us a little jig, Vandro.”

“You can’t be serious,” he said dryly.

“Can’t I?” She grinned with near maniacal glee. “I own your golems, Alan. I can demolish these Guild lackeys and your own security with a word. That means I own you. So…dance for me. Now.”

“You played a good game, Shiri,” Vandro said. “I respect skill. If you’d been willing to be professional, I’d have let you leave here safely. You need to learn when to quit, girl. Wilberforce, power up.”

None of the onlookers could see Wilberforce apply his thumb to the master control rune in his pocket. They only saw the entire estate explode.

Only the magical appliances therein, of course, but in a fully tricked-out modern rich man’s home like Alan Vandro’s estate, that might as well have been the whole thing. Every reserve power crystal in storage spontaneously poured its full load of energy into all the active devices; suddenly channeling several orders of magnitude more power than they were designed to contain, every apparatus on the grounds that used arcane energy burst apart in a series of booms and flashes. The whole house was lit up, windows blazing as if lightning had struck within; the gardens hosted a ferocious shower of sparks and explosions as light fixtures, music boxes, food fresheners and security golems disintegrated, flinging sparks and fragments in all directions.

The screams trailed off a few seconds after the explosions, leaving behind shocked quiet. It was darker, but not totally dark; the levitating party lights operated under their own power, and cast shifting, eerie patches of colored illumination in the absence of the estate’s main lighting. The smell of smoke and ozone hung heavily over everything. Small fires flickered in dozens of places.

The golems slumped, inert and smoking, emitting small sparks and most missing pieces.

“What say we play a different game?” Vandro suggested cheerfully. He lifted high his cocktail glass in Kheshiri’s direction as if toasting her. “Friends and neighbors, servants and gatecrashers, fellow acolytes of Eserion! For one night only, I’ll be paying the sum of one hundred decabloons to whoever brings me that demon’s corpse!”

Kheshiri took one look at the sheer number of those present who turned out to be carrying wands, and vanished.


 

Snow had begun falling, a soft counterpoint to the ominous quiet that filled the street.

The soldiers were hard-eyed, but disciplined, holding their ranks as they marched into the district. The full regiment seemed to have come; they filled the entire avenue, offering no path of escape past them.

Opposite them, residents of Tar’aris, bundled against the cold, had begun melting out of doors and alleys, staring equally hard-eyed at the approaching troops. Quite a few of them were openly carrying wands. They began to form a loose crowd blocking off the street as well.

Silver Legionnaires in their concealing winter gear stood at attention at intervals, several patrols having stopped and positioned themselves along the sidelines between the two groups. They stood firm and rigid, offering no move in either direction.

The students of the University wormed their way out of the crowd, where they had been trying to talk with various members of the community. Teal and Shaeine parted from Avrith, Bob and the small knot of citizens they had accompanied, stepping forward to meet the others in the middle. Ruda appeared out of an alley, Fross darting about above her head. Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel arrived in more of a hurry, having had a longer walk from the inn; they were accompanied by two Legionnaires and Bishop Darling. The latter was leaning close to Trissiny as they walked, whispering urgently into her ear. The paladin appeared to be listening closely, deep in thought.

A startled motion rippled through the watching crowd as Juniper arrived from a nearby rooftop, hitting the ground with a solid thud that left cracks in the pavement. She straightened up, brushing at her ill-fitting dress, and stepped up to join her classmates.

Darling peeled off and Trissiny directed the Legionnaires away with a simple hand motion. The rest of the students gathered with them, placing themselves between the soldiers and the citizens. The eight students—nine, including Vadrieny—represented enough offensive power to seriously damage that regiment, if not to smash through it entirely. Fortunately, they didn’t look like it; the soldiers didn’t see the threat, and thus didn’t react as if threatened. At least, not so far.

The man marching in the lead held up a hand. “Halt!” Behind him, the troops came to a stop in unison, their boots thundering once upon the pavement.

For a few moments, all was still. The groups stared at one another across the uncomfortably small open space in the street between them.

It was Captain Ravoud who finally spoke up.

“I see a lot of Silver Legionnaires in this district, General Avelea. May I ask what your intentions here are?”

Trissiny glanced at Darling; he nodded encouragingly at her.

“There has been serious misconduct on the part of a few of your troops, Captain,” she said firmly, her voice echoing in the silent street. Several soldiers shifted at her words. “That has given rise to a lot of rumor and ill feeling. Silver Legionnaires are known to be women of good character, also trained to understand military actions, and to see and report accurately on tactical details. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know they are here to observe.” She paused, then added more pointedly. “Whatever transpires here, there will be no unjust accusations of misconduct against your soldiers. We’ll see to that.”

Ravoud stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, General.”

She nodded back, then began stepping backward toward the sidewalk. Toby was the next to move, widening his arms and silently ushering the rest of the students along with them. Ruda snorted disdainfully, but let herself be herded. As a group, they shifted out of the way, taking position at the edge of the street and clearing a direct path between the soldiers of Barracks Four and the citizens of Lor’naris.

Ravoud squared his shoulders and took one step forward. Two figures emerged from the crowd; Bob and Avrith paced forward to come nearly within arms’ distance of him.

“Corporal Robert Hollander,” Ravoud said, his voice pitched loud enough to be clearly audible to all present. “And… Avrith, isn’t it?”

“You may call me Mrs. Hollander, Captain, if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ravoud’s lips thinned. “I thought it was the women of your kind who determined the family name.”

“As a rule, yes,” she said, her voice mild. “My family, however, do not care for me to use their name so long as I choose to bind myself to a human. Bob’s family are my family, his home my home. His country my own.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravoud said firmly, “I have received intelligence that there is an armed insurrection forming in this district. You will immediately surrender any weapons being gathered for the purpose of rebellion against His Majesty the Emperor and submit any persons responsible for this action to Imperial custody.”

“Yep,” Bob said laconically, pulling a wand out of his pocket and holding it out to Ravoud, butt first. “Here you go.”

The Captain stared at him, open-mouthed.

“This has only been going on the last day or so,” Bob went on. “Folk none of us knew, making very pointed suggestions in taverns and the like. Several of us got together and decided on a course of action: we took to meetin’ with these chumps, tried to encourage them along a bit. I wish I had better to tell you, but we got nothing out of ’em but these gifts. If I have some of my friends come forward carrying arms to turn in, Captain, will you kindly refrain from having them shot?”

Ravoud blinked twice, then visibly steeled himself. “If… As long as they approach slowly, with hands in plain view and those weapons held pointed down.”

“All right, you heard the man,” Bob said more loudly, half-turning to address those behind him. “Slow and polite. Let’s not make the lads any more nervous than they already are.

A dozen people melted out of the crowd. Drow and human, male and female, they all held wands by the hafts, hands nowhere near the clickers, tips aimed at the pavement below their feet. Ravoud watched them approach warily, then turned his head to issue an order of his own. Two soldiers stepped forward and began collecting the wands, looking somewhat bemused.

“We have examined those weapons and unfortunately found nothing that seems useful,” said Avrith. “They are mass-produced and of middling quality. Perhaps the resources of the Empire can find out more about them than we, but I fear they were meant to be untraceable.”

“Everyone you see here was personally present at a meeting with at least one of these agitators,” Bob added. “Well, I mean, those of use stepped forward, here. The rest of those folk back there are just curious about the commotion, I think. We’re all happy to recount everything we saw and heard.”

“The men in question took pains to be anonymous,” said Avrith. “I cannot prove the use of disguise charms, but it would not surprise me. They offered no names and refused to reveal any patron, or the source of those weapons. However, several of us are soldiers, of both Tiraan and Narisian extraction, and two of the witnesses are trained diplomats. We met with them with the specific intention of gathering information. It is my hope that some of our recollections will prove useful to you in tracking them down and putting a stop to this.”

Ravoud just continued to stare at her, seeming at a total loss for words.

“Tiraas is our home, Captain,” Avrith said more softly. “This city has offered us a place when our own would not. We will protect and serve it in any way we can, as fervently as any other citizen. All of us.” Bob took her gloved hand in his.

“I…” Ravoud trailed off, then swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “I…thank you for your cooperation, citizen.”

“Great,” said Bob wryly. “D’you mind if we have the rest of this discussion someplace a bit warmer? We can go to your barracks, if you’d like, or there are spots closer where we can set up and do interviews.”

“None of us have any appointments,” Avrith added. “Consider us all at your disposal.” There were agreeing nods from the rest of the individuals standing alongside her.

“I…think a local place would do fine,” Ravoud said slowly. “No need to drag this out any more than it must be.”

Trissiny cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Captain, the Third has set up a command post in an unoccupied shop nearby. You may consider that at your disposal.”

“Thank you, General,” he said, nodding respectfully to her. “In fact, that would be perfect. Your Legionnaires can continue to…observe.”

“Of course. Soldier, show him where it is.”

The nearest Legionnaire saluted her before stepping over to Ravoud. She patiently stood by while he turned and issued orders to his men; shortly, the bulk of the regiment had turned and were marching back out of the district. Quite a few looked mystified, but they kept their ranks and their discipline. A small detachment of Imperial soldiers remained with the Captain and the citizens who had stepped forward to be interviewed, and in short order they, too, were departing, led by the woman in armor toward the Legion’s command center.

Darling drew in a deep breath and blew it out dramatically as the street finally began to clear of onlookers. “All praise be to whoever the hell is watching over us and willing to take credit for that. And I mean that in my official, ecclesiastical capacity.”

“Wait, so…that’s it?” Ruda demanded. “All that work, all that skullduggery and gathering tension, and it all ends like that? Just a few words and everybody’s friends again?”

“It is a little anticlimactic,” Fross agreed.

“Yes, Ruda, that’s it,” Toby said firmly. “And I, for one, will be spending a great deal of the rest of the night giving prayers of thanks. This is the best ending to all this we could possibly have hoped for.”

“I don’t know how much credit any of us can take,” Trissiny added grimly.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Darling, patting her on the back. “You’ve just successfully refrained from igniting a civil war. It was a good day.”

“Great,” she muttered.

“And no, Princess, everyone’s not friends,” he added more seriously. “There’s a long way yet to go… But the going has begun, and will continue. The hard part was always getting us through this confrontation.”

“But…we didn’t do anything,” said Gabriel.

The Bishop grinned at him. “No, you didn’t, did you? If you remember nothing else about this mess, Mr. Arquin, remember that. Good people taking care of their own affairs are always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes, people need saving, that’s true. Most of the time, though, a hero is just somebody who reminds everyone at large to be their own best.”

“Aw,” said Fross. “Now, that’s uplifting! How come Professor Tellwyrn never gives us lessons like that?”

“Combination of complex factors,” said Ruda. “Mostly stemming from the fact that Tellwyrn’s a rotten bitch on her best day.”

They began drifting back in the direction of their inn, letting off tension in the form of good-natured bickering as they went.

Behind them, leaning against the wall of an alley, Professor Tellwyrn stood in silence, wearing a calm smile. She simply watched until the students were nearly out of sight around the curve of the street, then straightened, brushed off her tunic, and vanished with a soft pop that barely disturbed the falling snow.

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5 – 26

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

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

“Indeed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, the whole world blew up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently at least one guard had run for the shed.

They weren’t alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At him alone, not at Saduko.

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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


 

The crowd oohed and aahed satisfyingly at the fireworks display.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite right, Wilberforce, quite right.”

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

Vandro grunted. “What the hell now?”

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

Vandro turned to face him. “…parts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you say, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

“…activate them, sir?”

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

“Of course, sir.”

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

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

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

“I…see. Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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