Bonus #39: Curse the Darkness, part 2

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Macraigh thought as rapidly as he ever had in his life, and talked while doing it.

“I’m a scholar as much as a wizard,” he babbled, “and this whole thing started with my search for the source of arcane magic. Naturally that directed me to look into the histories of the Elder Gods, such few as still exist.” Well, he had to give them something. That meant convincing them, first, that he had something to give, and then… Omnu’s breath, he’d been so certain he could do what he needed and be gone before the two had stopped squabbling and even looked for him; their legendary brawl at Mathenon had taken the better part of a day. “I haven’t found it, obviously, or even any promising leads, but quite by chance I have uncovered some very good prospects for countering infernal magic.” Planning on the fly while talking to cover his chain of thought and stall for time was an acquired skill, but this wasn’t his first try, and as usual he found a good hook in his own babbling: Arachne, at least, had fought in the last Hellwar and might be sympathetic to this angle. “That actually started by accident when I had to fend off a few Black Wraiths, and had the opportunity to study their casting a lot more personally than I wanted. I had already gathered a good deal of historical notes on the lost magics of the Elders, and—”

Zanzayed’s snort was a blast of wind that nearly knocked him down, and smelled bafflingly of brimstone and peppermint. “Do we look like your biographers, little man? Get to the point.”

“The chronicle of your adventures is interesting only to you,” Arachne added flatly, planting her fists on her hips. “You said you can figure out how to use shadow magic. And presumably it has something to do with this?” She shifted, giving a curious look to the recently-unearthed structure looming out of the ground nearby.

Right. Well, he’d known too many mages to find it a surprise that the greatest of their kind currently living were purely self-interested creatures. “Ah, yes, of course. Well, to cut a long story short—”

“Already too late,” the dragon grumbled.

“…I have tracked down detailed descriptions of the methods used by some of the Elder Gods to keep Scyllith contained. It seems she wasn’t any more well liked in their day than now. Specifically, those of their magics, which seem to still exist in trace amounts, which could be used to shape, isolate, and safely handle what we now call the infernal. I have confirmation that Elilial’s servants use some of these techniques, to judge by the interest the Wraiths have taken in my research.”

Zanzayed heaved a mighty sigh. By Nemitoth’s quills, how many mint plants would that dragon have to chew to make it smell like that? “So when you said you could unlock the secrets of shadow magic, you meant you’ve probably found one very specific use for it.”

“Much more than probably,” Macraigh said quickly, clutching his bag of holding in front of himself, “and multiple uses!”

“All having to do with infernomancy, though.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Do I look like a red dragon?” he asked disdainfully. “You’ve got nothing. And that brings us back to the matter of—”

“Shut your jaws for once in your existence, Zanzayed,” Arachne ordered. “You, first of all. Reach into that bag and I’ll see to it your hand doesn’t come back out.”

“Um, I was going to say,” Macraigh offered timidly, “I have books in here. Very rare ones, not to mention all my own research. If you’re going to squash me or something, please preserve my books.”

“Fair,” she said with the ghost of a smile. “More importantly, you are talking about seizing the one advantage that makes the Wraiths what they are.”

“Poppycock,” Zanzayed snorted. “The Wraiths have Elilial’s own protection, everyone knows that. Demons are suffused with the infernal, dragons are too inherently magical to succumb to the corruption, and Elilial’s servants have her blessing. No one else can touch it safely.”

“Anything everyone knows is automatically wrong,” she snapped, “even if it happens to be correct, which that isn’t. When was the last time you had a conversation with a red dragon?”

“When did you?” he countered. “They are some of the least pleasant company imaginable.”

“Well, I can assure you there is more to Wraith technique than the Dark Lady’s personal touch. They have secrets which they guard jealously. If there is a shred of truth to what our young friend here has claimed—” She barely paused for Zanzayed’s incredulous snort. “—he’s talking about using shadow magic to get around them.”

“Actually, shadow magic is what they use,” Macraigh said. “At least in part.”

“And you know this how?” the dragon demanded, positively dripping skepticism.

Macraigh drew in a breath. The Inquisitor would probably be here in minutes; now that these two were no longer tearing up the countryside, they were a veritable lighthouse that would draw the attention of anyone looking for anything out of place. And she was stubborn enough, brave enough, and more than reckless enough to make a beeline for a dragon and an archmage instead of avoiding them like any sensible person would. He needed to get himself barricaded inside the ancient shrine before she arrived; he was too close to his goal to risk having her intercept him now. It was time to take some risks.

“I have a Wraith Codex,” he said.

Both of them blinked, which given the disparity in their sizes would have been comical under other circumstances. Dragon and elf looked at each other, then back at him.

“Bull,” Zanzayed enunciated crisply, “shit.”

“If I might be permitted to reach into my bag?” he asked, as submissively as he could manage. Arachne twisted her lips slightly, but then nodded. And why not—they both knew if he tried to pull out anything with which to fight them it would end swiftly and not in his favor. Her previous threats were mostly formalities.

He slipped one hand into the bag, instantly closing it around the item he wanted, and pulled out the book. Its rough leather cover was black, and marked with a spiky sigil which carried a sullen orange glow. Both of them stared at it in disbelief.

“I’m willing to, ah, donate this,” Macraigh said, despite the pang he felt at the prospect. He had paid dearly for that book. “I don’t actually need any secrets of infernomancy and I’ve taken plenty of notes on everything relevant to my research. I’m afraid you’d have to share, though. There’s only the one copy.”

“How did you get your hands on that?” the elf asked quietly. She was just staring at it, and Macraigh shifted infinitesimally toward her; the dragon was gazing down at him with a truly frightening expression of greed.

“It seems people acquire them with some regularity,” Macraigh explained, “but the Wraiths are very assiduous about eliminating them and everyone involved. They, ah, are under the impression they did so in this case, as well. But anyway, it does detail some of the methodologies by which shadow magic can be used to safely manipulate infernal magic. The problem is, all of these require some sort of initiation, like the divine or fae. A person can’t grasp the shadow schools without guidance from someone who already knows how, so there’s only so much a book can do to show the way.”

“And down in that thing,” she said, glancing again at the metal door, “is someone who can do this for you?”

“I have ascertained—that is, yes.” Macraigh slipped the book back into the Bag of Holding, on which their eyes remained fixed for a moment after it was gone. In theory, nobody but he should have been able to extract anything he had placed in the bag, but if anyone could crack that enchantment, it would be these two. If he had gambled wisely, they would prefer to take the risk he had more to offer them than just lift the bag from his corpse. “So, if you’d like to accompany me into—”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Zanzayed chided, lowering his head again and grinning that deeply horrifying grin. “Immortality is an active practice, you know, not a passive trait. Just because your species doesn’t suffer senescence does not mean you get to live forever. You accomplish that by not screwing around with things which are very likely to kill you.”

“And relics of the Elder Gods are very likely to kill you,” Arachne continued, folding her arms. She really wasn’t what Macraigh had expected from her reputation; she reminded him oddly of several teachers he’d had. “Even us. A conservative ninety percent of what the Elders did was insane and/or pointlessly sadistic, and that includes their leftovers. I am not going in there.”

“Nor I,” Zanzayed agreed, his grin stretching even wider.

“I…see,” Macraigh said, again thinking as fast as he could manage. The plan he had just hurriedly cobbled together hinged on coaxing these two to serve as a shield, ideally with them under his eye; could he afford to just leave them up here to detain the Inquisitor if—no, when—she caught up? He wasn’t sure about the outcome of letting that unfold outside his control. What if one or both of them sided with her? That didn’t seem likely, but…

“Also,” the dragon continued, “none of this explains why you felt the need to play your little prank on us.”

Well, if there was ever a time for some strategic honesty, this was it. “Well, you see, there was a convocation called at Mount Tira…”

“What, that plateau over the falls?” Zanzayed interrupted. “Nobody uses that for anything, the humans in the Tira Vales think it’s cursed.”

“If you ever paid attention to anything but girls and food,” Arachne said disdainfully, “you would be aware that there are bridges to it and temples built in the center now. The Pantheon cults have been using it for decades as a neutral site to meet and discuss…whatever it is religious people need to talk about.”

“Right,” Macraigh said, nodding, “and the last time, one of those subjects was forbidden magic. The Avenists named an Inquisitor to hunt the Black Wraiths, and she’s sort of got it into her head that I’m one of them or something, so…”

“Oh.” Zanzayed reared suddenly upright, causing Macraigh to shy reflexively away from him, and then emitted a boom of laughter. “So you prodded the two biggest menaces you could find into having a brawl right on top of your own target so your enemy wouldn’t dare chase you here! Arachne, the balls on this guy!”

“I do sort of grudgingly respect that,” she agreed with a wry little smile. “Nearly as much as I’m annoyed by it.”

“And it’s not so much that she wouldn’t dare follow me,” Macraigh added, “because I guarantee she would and did. I just figured you two could make it more or less impossible. So, if you’re not interested in helping me down in the Elder shrine, I’ll need to ask you to prevent her from entering after me.”

The dragon lowered his head again, this time to look down his long nose at Macraigh. “Careful, boy. Those balls can get too big for you to drag around.”

“I will share anything I learn with whoever stays up here to repel her,” he said quickly, “and you can have my Wraith Codex.”

“Hn,” Arachne grunted. “You do what you like, Zanza, but I consider that offer worth the affront to my pride, small as it was. It’s easy loot, too. Just teleport this Inquisitor into the sea…”

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Macraigh said earnestly. “I have gone well out of my way not to harm her or any of her allies the whole time she’s been after me.”

“Then you’re a sentimental nitwit,” she stated.

“Arachne, your astounding lack of people skills is one of the great mysteries of the world,” Zanzayed chuckled. “Just because you can easily eliminate someone who annoys you does not mean you ought.”

“That might be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Actions have consequences, you little blonde clot! The poor boy has to clear his name at the end of this, after all. Don’t you see his gambit? He goes back to this convocation at Tira with all the secrets of the Black Wraiths and his proven track record of not harming any of the Pantheon’s servants, and they’ll pretty much have to embrace him as a hero.”

“Ah, I see,” she mused, turning an analytical stare on Macraigh. “But why do we need to care about that?”

“She’s just bluffing now,” Zanzayed informed him. “Arachne’s entire hobby is getting personal interviews with gods; even she doesn’t mishandle Pantheon clerics without a very good reason.”

“You said this Inquisitor is an Avenist?” the elf inquired. “Because I’ve already talked with Avei and quite frankly I relish the chance to tweak her nose.”

“Ignore her,” the dragon instructed. “So you knew the invocation to raise this entrance, that much is clear. How do you plan to get in there?”

“Ah.” Clearing his throat, Macraigh stepped over to the metal door. “That, as it happens, is the easy part.” So saying, he reached out and touched a finger to the center of the symbol emblazoned on its surface.

Nothing happened.

It really would be ironic, he reflected under their combined stare, if this was the point at which his research failed him. Leading him all this way to be blocked by something as pedestrian as a locked door. The thing looked like it was made of mithril; even if he could persuade these two to help, it was unlikely all of them combined could force their way in.

Then, after an excruciating pause, the metal panel shifted. A hiss of air emerged as it lowered fractionally, opening a crack at its top. There came a soft grinding sound, and then quite suddenly the entire thing slammed downward, opening the metal-lined shaft. A flight of stairs descended into shadow just beyond the entrance; as they all stared, magical lights flickered into being, illuminating the mithril corridor plunging down below the hillside.

“Very well, little mage,” said Zanzayed the Blue, shifting around and seating himself in a long arc that nearly encircled the entrance in a wall of cobalt-scaled flesh, “you have yourself a deal.”

“Fine, agreed,” Arachne huffed. “But keep in mind I fully expect whatever is in there to kill you in the most agonizing way possible. I’m not sticking around here one minute longer than my patience holds out; there is really no point. So be about your business quickly.”

“I thank you both from the bottom of my heart,” Macraigh said, bowing to each of them in turn. “And…you have my sincere apologies for tricking you. I didn’t think you’d be so reasonable about all this, or I’d just have approached you directly for—”

“Yes, yes,” Zanzayed interrupted lazily, shifting his head to gaze back in the direction of the road. “Presuming the contingent of armed people heading this way is your Inquisitor and friends, you’d better get a move on.”

And so he did.

He had journeyed into a number of ancient ruins in the course of his work. This one was by far the oldest, and easily the least ancient-looking. The whole thing wasn’t mithril, but it was mostly metal. Some segments of the walls gleamed like highly polished silver, while the floor was a matte black which he could only tell was metallic by touching it. Macraigh was no more of a metallurgist than being a general-focus mage required, and so couldn’t even recognize any of these alloys save the mithril of which the entrance stairwell was made. He had a feeling no one currently alive would have recognized all these materials, though.

The architecture also incorporated glass tubes like pillars around the walls, half-filled with some dark purple material which he could only tell was liquid (or had been at some point) because one of them had cracked and spilled a quantity of the sludge down its side; Macraigh stayed far away from that goop. That was the only sign of visible damage to the place. None of the metal had rusted, the air was on the stale side but breathable, and while there was dust over everything it did not seem like enough to have accumulated after all the thousands of years he knew this place had been buried.

Clearly some manner of enchantment had been at work to preserve the shrine. Just as clearly, it had failed with age.

A discovery like this deserved to be examined carefully and in the greatest detail, but Macraigh had to be mindful of his purpose and the uncertain time limit under which he labored. He was safe for interruption only as long as the patience of his two newfound benefactors held out—one of whom was notoriously irascible and the other an infamous pleasure-seeker, and both of whom had reason to be annoyed with him. Much as the need pained him, he simply could not afford to dawdle.

Nor, unfortunately, could he make much sense of the shrine. The Elder Gods weren’t much for iconography, and so he presumed the objects which lined the walls at waist height served a purpose, but he could not discern it. They were a series of flat black panels extending outward in metal frames, which did not respond to being touched. Probably magical in nature, and clearly out of power.

Well, something in here had to still be actively charmed. The lights had appeared when he entered, after all.

Macraigh examined the obelisk in the center of the floor; it was of the black metal, topped with a pyramid that looked to be a solid piece of glass, and was totally inert. With mounting worry that all of this would end up being for naught, he turned to the final interesting feature in the place, a larger fixture positioned against the wall of the circular chamber directly opposite the entrance. It was a bulky protrusion rather like a tombstone in shape, taller than he, made of mithril, and with another of those dark panels set into it at chest height.

This one also did not respond to being touched. He started to channel a tiny spark of arcane magic into it, then thought better of it. That might end up being his only recourse, but it was also an excellent way to trigger traps, curses, or cause every remaining enchantment in the place to spectacularly collapse.

So far, he had managed to see all of these effects only from a safe distance, and that only by dumb luck.

“Well, now what?” he asked aloud in frustration.

At his voice, the panel in the large protrusion turned white and began to glow. Macraigh bent forward to stare, and after a moment, several lines of text appeared upon it. Unfortunately, they were in the dead language of the Elder Gods, of which he had encountered only bits and pieces. None of what he now saw meant anything to him.

As he stared, the panel flickered in intensity, and the image wavered as if seen through rippling water, then stabilized. A sharp crackle sounded, causing him to hop backward, followed by a buzz. And then, finally, a voice. Unfortunately, it only spoke a few seconds of gibberish.

“Hello?” Macraigh said uncertainly. “My name is Laran Macraigh, of the Collegium of Salyrene. Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

An odd little chiming sounded, and some more inscrutable text appeared upon the magic panel.

“Dialect id-identified: Gaelic, sixteenth century. Transcension interlink n-n-n-not found,” it said. The voice was feminine, flat, businesslike, and resonated strangely as if it came from a great distance. Or as if more than one woman were speaking simultaneously. It was hard to tell; he had never heard a similar effect. Also, she appeared to have a stutter. “Av-avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. Facil-cil-cility power at two percent. Please res-restore the traaaaaaaaa—” She broke off with an ungodly screech, then resumed in a steadier tone. “Please restore the transcension interlink to charge the facility’s power banks and enable the Avatar user interface.”

“Who are you?” he asked more directly, frowning in confusion. The words were familiar, mostly, but he still could not make sense of what she was saying.

“The facility’s sub-OS is active, user Laran Macraigh. Please restore the transcension interlink.”

“I’m…sorry, uh, Sub Ohess, but I don’t know what that means, much less how to do it.”

More chiming, then a pause. “If the transcension inter-in-interlink caNNNNNN.” Again, she broke off with a shriek that clearly did not come from any human throat, then resumed. “If the transcension interlink cannot be restored, most facility functions will be unavailable. Please state your query, user Laran Macraigh.”

He drew a breath, and straightened his shoulders. “I seek initiation into the ways of shadow magic.”

This time, he thought the chime sounded annoyed. “Avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. The sub-OS is not designed for intuitive sapient interaction. Please state your directives clearly and concisely.”

Macraigh blinked twice. He had had enough bizarre experiences over the course of his mission that talking with some kind of ancient servitor spirit wasn’t hugely out of his depth, but being told by such an entity that it was too stupid for normal conversation was an entirely new kind of experience.

“Um…how to put this? I am researching the schools…that is, the kinds of magic that were personally created by the Elder Gods Druroth, Araneid, Rauzon, and Caraistha. Specifically, the applications of these magics that were used to counter and contain the personal magic of Scyllith. Ancient writings have led me to this spot as the likeliest source of this knowledge. Can you help me?”

“Th-this facility is designed for spec-spec-specialized tranNNNNNNN. Specialized transcension acclimation and training. This documentation is available to all users on request. Please insert a data crystal.”

Though the protruding structure in which the spirit apparently resided seemed to be all one seamless piece, an indentation suddenly appeared alongside the glowing panel.

“A data crystal?” Macraigh asked helplessly. “I don’t have anything like that. Are there any books available?”

“Printing,” she said tersely.

“Printing?” he repeated in fascination. “You mean you can actually print one, right now?”

For answer, another slot appeared, this one below the screen at of the same size. Within was a stack of papers some eight inches tall.

Hands trembling with reverence, Macraigh reached inside, finding that the stack was actually four books, bound in some thin material cut the same dimensions exactly as the pages—which were a crisp white paper unlike any he had seen before. They were printed, he found, flipping through the first, in easily legible Tanglic.

“Thank you very much, Sub Ohess,” Macraigh said fervently while loading the books into his Bag of Holding for later study. She chimed wordlessly in acknowledgment. “And…what about initiation? Ah, I think that is what you meant by acclimation, perhaps? You see, I already know some of the lore of shadow magic, but the ability to access it must be conferred directly, and you simply can’t get that from text alone…”

“Correct. Warning: these transcension fields are operating at minimal power. Ascended members of the Infinite Order responsible for them cannot be reached. Ac-acclimation is not advised at this time.”

He wasn’t about to tell this helpful spirit that her gods were dead. “I understand the risks, Sub Ohess. But if you are able to help me, I must embrace them.”

“There is insufficient facility power to guarantee com-completion of the acclimation process, user Laran Macraigh. The spec-specif-ified transcen-scen-sceiounnnNNN— The specified transcension fields are not operable at sufficient power to guarantee the completion of the acclimation process. An attempt will exhaust this facility’s power reserves entirely; a second will not be possible. Have you completed the pre-acclimation course of preparation?”

Macraigh blinked. “The what?”

“Unprepared sapients are at risk of serious complications. Common side effects of improperly administered acclimation are temporary psychosis and permanent, progressive dem-dem-dementia.”

He inhaled slowly. The Inquisitor was closing in, Arachne and Zanzayed were going to run out of patience soon… And if that happened, them leaving him to his own devices was the best case scenario. They might very well decided to add to his problems; he had certainly antagonized them enough. And to cap it all off, it turned out the shrine had only enough magic left to perform a single initiation.

This was his life’s work, everything had been leading up to this moment. Risks be damned, walking away now was just not an option.

“Are you prohibited from helping me, then?” he asked quietly.

“You have been not-notified of the potential hazards. Proceed at your own risk, user.”

“What…will happen to you, if we try?”

“This sub-OS will be inactive until power is restored.”

Macraigh closed his eyes. What was this spirit? Could she be considered a living being? If he understood, he was effectively asking her to sacrifice her life for this. She seemed oddly unperturbed at the prospect… Perhaps because she thought she could be restored when more power was delivered from the Elder Gods, and did not realize that could never happen.

It all came down to that question. One chance, one possibility only, demanding the destruction of this shrine, the death of its guardian, and the possible loss of his own sanity. And for all that, there was no guarantee it would even work. How could he possibly accept such a bargain?

And…how could he not?

“Forgive me,” Macraigh whispered, then opened his eyes. “I swear I will remember your sacrifice, Sub Ohess. Please forgive me, but I must do this. I ask that you proceed.”

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Bonus #38: Curse the Darkness, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Travis Foster!

She probably would have got him, had she not tried her ambush while he was actively siphoning mana.

It was a very small ley nexus in the middle of the woods, of course; even in a backwater country like Thacaar any nexus of significance would already be claimed by some wizard and likely the site of a tower. It would do, however, to recharge his power crystals and replenish his powder supply. Macraigh had spent a cold night camped in the forest, not daring a fire, before laboriously navigating to this spot via pendulum, his charmed compass having been broken in a recent tussle with the Inquisitor’s forces. Now, having laid out the siphoning circle (a design he himself had innovated, enabling him to both gather dust and charge crystals simultaneously at the cost of slowing both processes), he was hunched over the collection hourglass in which ambient arcane energy was coalescing into enchantment-ready powder, holding a coarse breakfast of hardtack in one hand and a brass rod in the other. The rod was for regularly tapping the hourglass to loosen dust as it formed and prevent clumps.

So far he had only forgot himself and smacked it with the hardtack twice. It had been a long night.

Macraigh paused in chewing, frowning at the hourglass. The dust had begun drifting notably against the side nearest him, and just as he lifted the rod to tap it loose, the thin stream of glittering blue powder materializing from the upper chamber shifted. As if nudged by a breeze, which of course was impossible inside the glass.

Carefully not moving anything but his eyes, he glanced around the circle at the three quartz chunks he had set up to charge, two of which were only barely within his peripheral vision. Those two gleamed brighter than the third, and were also flickering subtly. Coupled with the direction of the powder’s drift—there it came again—they revealed the direction of whatever was disrupting the ley lines.

There was very unlikely to be a fairy closing in on him from the front; the kind of fairies who charged at arcane workings did not hide their approach. More likely the ley lines were being tugged from the other direction. That meant either a warlock or demon absorbing power, or a subtle use of divine magic causing a slight natural vacuum toward which loose arcane energy would be drawn.

And he certainly knew which was most likely to be hunting him.

Carefully avoiding any sudden moves, Macraigh dropped his hardtack to the dirt and reached as slowly as he dared into the front of his robes, where he had a pouch of charms at the ready for just such occasions as these. Enchanting it to deliver to his fingers specifically the one he desired with no need for rummaging had been a major working that took him the better part of half a year, and which he had not once regretted.

Especially not now, as the two crystals suddenly gleamed brighter just as a particularly strong surge splattered the dust practically sideways within the hourglass. He half-spun, half-flopped backward (even mages who led lives as active as his rarely had time for athleticism) and hurled the slow charm in the direction of his attacker.

By Salyrene’s grace, he caught her mid-leap. Macraigh lay sprawled on his side, panting with adrenaline and staring up at her. There had been no sound, not even a quieting of the birds and cicadas nearby. If only she had waited for him to finish, that would have been the end of his quest. She was good; this was one of his closest scrapes by far.

The Silver Huntress hovered a foot off the ground, one leg extended gracefully behind her from her leap and an arm upraised with a knife ready to strike downward. Omnu’s breath, had she been planning to kill him? Even the Inquisitor was insistent on bringing him in alive, but this one might not have been fully briefed. He’d never seen her before; she was a local Thacaari, her tea-brown skin making her silver eagle tattoo seem even more luminous.

“Oh!” he said suddenly, eyes widening in alarm, and scrambled up to a kneeling position, reaching into his charm pouch again. This time there was some short fumbling, as he hadn’t a specific charm for what he needed, but making do on the fly was the mark of a skilled wizard, which Macraigh considered himself to be. A couple of seconds’ frantic thought brought him a small square of enchanting vellum and his pre-dusted quill, with which he scrawled a hurried set of runes before hurling the scrap at the Huntress.

It zipped forward as if caught in a wind to adhere to her chest. She drew in a loud, desperate gasp, able to take her first breath in real time since being hit by the slow trap.

“Nemitoth’s quills, I’m sorry about that,” Macraigh said nervously. “I usually use that for demons and the like, wasn’t expecting a real person. You all right there? You can breathe okay? Please say something if you feel any numbness or tingling in your extremities, I think I prevented that but—”

“Release me, warlock!” she spat. In Pashu, of course, but his language pendant translated adequately as always. To his knowledge, the Inquisitor spoke Tanglic; either she had significant local contacts or…what? By Vesk’s own fiddle, he was not cut out for all this skulduggery.

“I’m not a warlock,” he said wearily, more for form’s sake than because he thought anything useful would come of starting that argument again. “And don’t worry, I will release you. When I’m a good distance away. Considering you came at me with a knife I think that’s a reasonable compromise.”

Her eyes narrowed—his hasty modification to the slow charm had freed her head and vital organs, that was it—and she showed enough presence of mind not to bother quibbling over the obviously futile. “Warlock, mage, whatever. You dabble in forbidden magics. The Goddess has demanded your end.”

“You know what I find interesting?” he said testily, beginning to gather his equipment back into his Bag of Holding. This was less crystal charge and accumulated enchanting powder than he’d hoped for, but even with her trapped he didn’t fancy finishing his work under her gimlet stare. “I’ve yet to hear a word on this that suggests your goddess is even aware of me. All this comes from people, Huntress, mortals as flawed as you or I. People who decide what magics to forbid without bothering to understand them and then won’t hear discussion on the subject. If anything, your friend the Inquisitor is on shakier footing with the gods than I. Salyrene charges us to seek knowledge and advance understanding, whereas if she’s telling you this business comes down from your goddess she’s taking Avei’s name in vain. To be frank I’ve never heard of an Inquisitor in Avenic lore before she started in on me; the whole thing sounds made up. And I never dabble,” he added haughtily, straightening up to look around for anything he’d forgotten. Ah, yes, his hardtack. Macraigh picked it up and brushed off dirt on the front of his robes. “My research is exhaustive and my precautions exacting. Goddess, spare me the stubbornness of religious people. And yes, I’m aware of the irony.”

She couldn’t seem to think of a response to that, which did not surprise him unduly. Macraigh had accumulated some unfortunate experience with religious fanatics in recent years, and found that when confronted with common sense they would either fly into an incoherent rage or freeze up entirely. More down-to-earth sorts like the Silver Huntresses tended to be in the latter group.

“Anyhow. I am sorry about all this,” he said, pulling a stick of smoothed rowan wood engraved with basic runes and jamming it upright in the ground in front of her. More materials squandered, but at least these were basic enough that they could be replaced without undue onus.

“You’re sorry,” she spat, still frozen in the air before him.

“Yes, I am,” he said simply, winding a length of embroidered ribbon around the stick and carefully balancing a glass bead atop it. Once the assembly was in place the charm ignited, causing the ribbon to twist in a slow spiral around the stick while the bead shone a brilliant arcane blue.

It also produced a tremendously unpleasant buzzing noise, causing both of them to cringe.

“Sorry about that, too,” he added, raising his voice above the racket. “It’ll keep the animals away, though. I’m sure you know there are bears hereabouts, and I wouldn’t want you stuck there helpless. The charm will wear off…well, after a while. Just kick over the stick when you’re free, the noise will stop as soon as it’s disarranged.”

She was frowning at him in familiar puzzlement. Not for the first time, Macraigh considered that he could probably argue his case successfully before the High Commander if the Inquisitor ever succeeded in getting her hands on him; he had certainly left behind a trail of Avei’s minions inconvenienced but very carefully not harmed, or even spoken to harshly. It wasn’t their fault they were being told by a pigheaded extremist that he was some kind of maniac. Unfortunately, the nature of his work kept him moving, which meant there was always a new set of fresh faces for the Inquisitor to hurl at him. It was a shame the Hand of Avei was off crusading at Valgorod. Macraigh rather fancied he could talk sense to her. Soldiers were pragmatic folk.

“If you’d like,” he offered, “I can apply a charm to you that will deaden your hearing for a while. It’ll be less uncomfortable—”

“Don’t you touch me!”

“Right, I thought not,” he sighed, turning away. “Good luck to you, then.”

Macraigh stepped almost to the edge of the small clearing before thinking better of setting off straight. He made a show of taking out and consulting his (broken) compass, then turned and trotted off into the woods in an entirely different direction than he was actually heading.

He finished off the hardtack during the half hour in which he laid a false trail in the wrong direction; it didn’t taste notably worse for having fallen on the ground, and it wasn’t as if this was his first time ingesting trace amounts of dirt. Upon reaching a creek, Macraigh stopped ankle-deep in the water, fishing out another charm from his pouch. Stepping very carefully to the opposite edge of the creek bed, he reached over and laid it upon the mossy bank without personally touching dry ground, then backed away a few steps and retrieved a crystal-tipped rod from his Bag of Holding.

One flick of the wand, and the enchanting vellum disintegrated into a puff of smoke, which streamed off into the woods, leaving behind a damp trail of Macraigh’s footprints. That was a good charm, one he had laboriously devised himself and which ought to fool even expert trackers who knew to be wary of Allister’s False Footsteps. This one even carried his scent and would break twigs and disarrange underbrush in passing. Obviously she’d figure it out when it came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere, but at least that would give him a leg up while she had to double back.

He turned and slogged off down the creek as fast as he could without sacrificing his footing in the running water. Putting miles between himself and pursuit was only part of his need to hasten. Macraigh’s ultimate destination was almost near enough he could taste it, and he had been forced to arrange the most thorough of cover to keep the Inquisitor and her lackeys off his back while he finished his work. It was going to kick the whole country into a furor, not to mention what would happen to him if the great powers he had deliberately poked figured out what he’d done, but the Inquisitor was the single most stubbornly obsessive person he had ever had the misfortune to encounter; nothing short of an act of the gods was going to distract her.

Well, an act of the gods was more than Macraigh could conjure up, but he’d found pretty much the next best thing. He only hoped it would be enough.

Even above the gurgle of the stream, he heard the road long before reaching it; there was an awful lot of traffic, to judge by the shouts of people and bellowing of oxen and donkeys. As he drew closer to the edge of the forest, Macraigh winced guiltily, having heard a moment of audible weeping from someone. It was a safe bet these people were sensibly fleeing from what he had set in motion.

In the end, it would all be worth it. That, or he would be in no position to see the aftermath.

He left the creek bed before emerging from the treeline, deciding not to try sneaking under the bridge up ahead. The road was definitely busier than it ought to be, though it couldn’t be called packed. A steady stream of people were passing by, heading south toward Nijendieu. Locals, all of them, dark-skinned Thacaari in the simple but colorful robes and turbans favored by their peasantry. Nearly all were carrying possessions; over half rode laden pack animals or ox-drawn carts.

Just his luck, there was a small group of actual soldiers in bronze armor crossing the bridge right as Macraigh approached the road, clambering up the incline out of the creek bed. Naturally, they stopped in unison, turning to give him a thorough once-over. He sighed softly, and did not slow. By that point, thanks to the Inquisitor, Macraigh was practiced in not drawing official attention, and he’d learned that the quickest way to make soldiers think you were up to something was by deliberately trying to look innocent. It wasn’t as if he was going to blend in with the locals no matter what he did.

The man in the lead, to judge by the feathers on his helmet, gave him a single long, considering look before coming to the obvious conclusion. “Adventurer?”

Macraigh had denied that out of sheer surprise the first time. Thereafter, he’d embraced it. There was no more convenient excuse for an obviously foreign wizard to be wandering around, and it was one of the least likely to draw suspicion. It was one thing in cities, where heavily-armed profit-minded loners were a serious and recurrent problem; out on the roads, nobody paid attention to adventurers.

“Yep,” he said laconically. “Heard there’s a—”

“Look, it’s your own business,” the officer interrupted, “but this one’s over your pay grade, wizard. I suggest you head south like everybody else. There’s a—”

He was prevented from revealing what there was by a sudden demonstration of it. The roar seemed to split the very skies, and all up and down the road, people screamed and dived for the scant cover of the ditches. Including two of the soldiers.

The titanic shape whipped past directly overhead, hardly more than a dozen yards in the air; even with its immense wingspan, the sinuous form of the dragon was gone almost before its passing shadow could be consciously registered. The sudden wind of its passage grabbed at Macraigh’s robes and then the sapphire behemoth was winding away toward the northwest.

In that direction, he saw for the first time the shape of the tower, just barely visible against the horizon with its massive crystal roof glowing in the sun like a lighthouse. The dragon banked in its direction and exhaled a mighty blast of flame whose roar was audible even at that distance.

The famously well-defended wizardly tower retaliated with a burst of pure arcane energy that lit half the horizon for a split second. Its attacker had adroitly shot upward, escaping the worst of it, though the great beast tumbled slightly from the aftershock before regaining its smooth glide and then circled off toward the west.

“Thank you, gentlemen, but I know what I’m about,” Macraigh said politely, scraping mud off his boots at the edge of the stone bridge.

The officer looked at him, then back in the direction of the tower, then shook his head. “Your funeral.” He set off down the road again with no more ado, which suited Macraigh just fine.

He followed the road for a hundred yards or so, winding his way around people and animals heading the other direction—or, in some cases, people trying to coax their terrified animals to behave. It wasn’t strictly necessary, since none of these folk cared enough to give him a second glance, but the last few years had taught him the virtue of caution, and so he made a show of following the road toward the trouble until the soldiers had disappeared to the south before abruptly stepping off it and heading northeast through the patchy tallgrass.

The moment he was out of sight of the road over a small ridge, Macraigh stopped and released another false trail charm, going north parallel to the road, then applied a trail-concealing one to his own boots. He tried not to overuse such measures—that would only make them less effective in the long run as the Inquisitor’s people learned to watch for them—but he was so close to his destination. This was no time to become complacent.

He cringed and hunched his shoulders involuntarily when the dragon passed overhead again, roaring in frustration, but it wasn’t interested in him. In fact, he knew what the great beast was looking for, and a single wandering mage wouldn’t pose a distraction. Macraigh’s only worry was that the blue would recognize him in particular. Unlikely; he had taken every possible precaution. But with a dragon, you never knew.

At any rate, it soon found what it was actually after.

Macraigh had stopped to peruse his map, studying the luminous icons indicating his position and that of his goal. It was a very thorough enchanted map, and warned him of the dragon and the other interested party he had summoned to this area. He was close; it was just up ahead, should be hidden within a little dip in the rolling terrain with no obvious features to mark it. Also, he noted that they were converging on this general area, which made it seem wise to get a move on. And it seemed the Silver Huntress was free again, a few miles back, though so far she was still following one of his false trails. The Inquisitor was closing on him, though. She had followed the road, so he’d inadvertently made her job a little easier by cutting across it and leaving behind a swath of witnesses who wouldn’t even think of lying to a Viridi cleric.

Just as he was stuffing the map back in his Bag of Holding, the dragon arced past directly in Macraigh’s field of view and slammed into an invisible barrier at a speed which folded up its entire length like a spring. The beast tumbled from the sky with an undignified but still mighty squawk.

Macraigh gritted his teeth and set off again at a near-run. Just his luck; they’d finally run across each other, and instead of at the tower they did it practically on top of him and his destination.

The blast of fire which seared a swath of the prairie to his immediate north wasn’t close enough for him to feel the heat, but it started a grass fire that was going to become his problem sooner than later, unless the wind shifted in his favor.

The counterstroke was even more worrying; a colossal sigil appeared in the very sky and spewed forth an indiscriminate volley of arcane missiles around the entire region.

“Sloppy,” Macraigh muttered aloud, and then was hurled off his feet as one smashed into the ground not ten yards distant.

He gathered himself up as quickly as possible, deliberately not staring at the brand new crater, and hustled on. This time he made it almost ten minutes before something, somewhere, impacted a magical barrier with a force that made his subtler senses jangle with alarm exactly three seconds before a massive shockwave flattened the tallgrass—and him.

A wizard persevered. He pulled himself up, double-checked his map, put his head down and pushed onward. All this mess had landed a lot closer than he had anticipated or wished, but at least it would be having the desired effect. Even the Inquisitor wouldn’t be trying to press her hunt through this chaos.

Surely she wouldn’t. Right?

Lightning flashed out of a cloudless sky, peppering the ground not too far away, and Macraigh threw himself flat. Natural lightning would go right toward an upright figure alone on a prairie; fortunately, this had clearly been aimed at someone else. He scrambled back to his feet and redoubled his speed.

On he pressed, on that last harried leg of his years-long journey, while chaos unfolded all around him. He couldn’t even see either of the archmages whose duel he was rushing through, and he couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse. The dragon, at least, he had a general sense of, as the beast kept roaring and emitting blasts of fire—luckily not too close to Macraigh. The pair of them were certainly making a grand mess of the countryside. Fire, lightning, wind, bursts of sheer kinetic force, ice meteors, and those were only the spells he could identify. There was no end of constant noise and light effects whose actual purpose thankfully didn’t hit close enough for him to discern. The constant haze of extremely potent arcane magic practically blinded his own subtler senses.

Luck finally shone upon him, though, as the brawl shifted away to the south just as he arrived at his destination. Macraigh had to spend the last paces of his journey with his map out, watching the icons for himself and his target more than where he was putting his feet, as he paced back and forth, looking for that sweet spot. Both symbols were pretty much on top of each other on the map; he meandered this way and that, all around a small dip in the terrain, until quite suddenly the two combined and began to flash.

He stuffed the map away, his heart thrumming with excitement. This was the spot. There was absolutely nothing to reveal to his eyes that anything was here, but this had to be the spot.

There came a distant roar and a flash of fire, a good distance to the southeast, which he ignored.

Macraigh drew in a deep breath and spread his arms wide. The incantation he had pieced together from two different sources and wasn’t totally certain he had conjugated the dead language of the Elder Gods correctly; his pendant did nothing for a language no living person could speak. Well, if not, there was a lot of digging in his near future.

“Malfermita,” he declaimed to the sky. “Rajtigo. Naiya!”

A distant boom of thunder from the battling wizards. A faint breeze ruffled the tallgrass closer at hand. And that was all.

He lowered his arms. “Oh, bloody hell.”

Then the ground in front of him began to crumble.

Macraigh stumbled back as something rose up through the very dirt, displacing tallgrass left and right. A wedge-shaped protrusion rose up from within the earth, forming a line that seemed to lead right into the side of the tiny hill right in front of him. Sod and grasses tumbled off its sides, revealing a flat panel of pale metal directly facing him, marked with a sigil he had encountered repeatedly in his research.

Macraigh bit his lower lip and practically danced in place. This was it. He was here!

Then the entire earth shook so violently he was thrown off his feet.

Macraigh didn’t know exactly how much a dragon weighed, but he discovered that day that when one hit the ground in a steep dive the results could quite reasonably be described as an earthquake.

He rolled over onto his back and momentarily froze, staring up at the colossal sapphire shape looming above him. Then, propelled by sheer terrified reflex, he began trying to scuttle uselessly backward.

That lasted for about two seconds, and then he was levitated bodily off the ground. Macraigh instinctively reached for his own magic to counter the charm, and found it blocked.

Mana filtration; an analytical portion of his mind couldn’t help being impressed, despite his panic. There weren’t many wizards who could manage that. Then he was rotated about in midair to stare at one of those who could.

She was exactly as he remembered: blonde, green-eyed, sharp-eared, and scowling.

“Yep,” Arachne said sourly, “I remember you, y’little pest. This the one, Zanza?” She twirled a finger, spinning him around in the air to face the dragon.

Macraigh just barely managed not to pee in his robes when the great beast’s head, large enough to make a bite of him, lowered and twisted till he was staring at one smooth sapphire eye from far, far too close.

“Oh, that’s him all right,” the dragon rumbled. “I didn’t see him before, but he smells the same. Right down to that rather pedestrian charm he’s trying to disguise his scent with.”

“Oh, is that what that is? I thought his spell components were going bad.” She twirled him lazily back around, and he noted that her scowl, ominously, had deepened. “Credit where it’s due, boy, that was a nice trick. Hunt down Arachne and Zanzayed, tell each that the other’s found a way into Odomo’s Tower and is planning to seize the treasure. Real cute. In hindsight, I’m a little surprised nobody’s tried something like this before. Of course, now we have to make sure nobody does something this irritating ever again, which means making a truly grandiose spectacle of your demise.”

Macraigh tried to say something in his defense. The shrill croaking noise he produced was not one of his proudest showings.

“We have a little wager going, though,” Zanzayed the Blue added, reaching out with one massive claw and very delicately turning Macraigh back around to face him. The dragon was grinning, and almost certainly did not misapprehend that that was a reassuring sight. “I’m betting that for you to try this, you must be after something that’ll really be worth our time. I have to warn you, though, this is a second wager. In the first place, I bet her that you’d set this up because you’d found a way into the Tower and wanted us good and distracted. Needless to say, it’ll go that much the worse for you if you make me lose two wagers in the space of ten minutes. So for all our sakes, I really hope you’ve got something good—”

“I can unlock the secrets of shadow magic!” Macraigh squealed.

For a few moments, there was only the faint wind over the prairie. He wasn’t at all certain that his heart was still beating. Zanzayed shifted his head to look past the captive mage, sharing a silent communication with the elf.

And then, Macraigh was dumped unceremoniously to the ground, where he blinked up at both of their faces.

“All right,” said the world’s greatest sorceress, folding her arms, “we’re listening.”

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Bonus #37: Divine Right, part 4

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The great double doors were limned in white destruction for an instant before crumpling under the onslaught. Very fortunately they were too heavy to completely disintegrate, but burst violently inward, one sloughing off its hinges in the process. Even so, several shards of wood flew across the room and a couple of the thieves cursed, one doubling over in pain.

Theasia flinched at the sudden violence, and was immediately annoyed at herself for it. An Empress could not afford to evince such basic human weaknesses; a Princess should already be rising above them. Of course, behind her, Asfaneh squealed in terror, which made her feel a little better by comparison.

The horses still hitched to her carriage liked all this least of all, screaming and rearing against their bonds. Someone was trying to calm them, probably the same diminutive woman who’d taken over their care, but Theasia did not turn to look, even as panicked equine bellowing and the clatter of abused hitching continued. Her attention remained on what came through the door.

They were very professional, if she was any judge. The soldiers streamed in through the opening they had forcibly made two at a time, immediately peeling away to both sides with their staves raised and trained on the arc of Eserites, establishing a firing line across the front of the warehouse. Eight of them in total, men in Madouri crimson and gray, who moved with the fluid precision of experienced or at least well-trained troops.

She did note, though, that the Duke had let his armorers fall behind the times. These men carried the same heavy thunderbusses used in the Enchanter Wars, thick staves with cumbersome charging levers attached to their clicker mechanisms, exposed power crystals in their hafts, and copper tracings along their etched runes to help direct electric currents. Multiple points of potential failure, those; the things were finicky and tended to malfunction unless maintained with the most exacting care. But there were a lot of them still around after the wars, and in addition to being cheaper than newer staves which offered more reliability and a better rate of fire, the old models still hit harder per shot. Theasia had only contempt for any commander who felt this tradeoff a good bargain. These were the same weapons which had failed utterly to stand up to Horsebutt and his mounted archers.

“Easy,” Catseye murmured, and the Princess wasn’t sure who she was talking to. Between the pounding boots of invading soldiers and the ongoing panic of the horses, only she and the few nearest thieves were able to hear the quiet admonition.

A cloud of dust drifted through the warehouse, concentrated at the doors from whose ruin it came, and obscuring the street outside; the glow of the streetlamps and the feebler lamps inside made an eerie fog of it. The soldiers were standing right in it with uncovered faces, but they neither coughed nor closed their eyes even momentarily. Theasia had never had occasion to see House Madouri’s troops in action, but obviously they were soldiers worthy of the name. A number of House Guard forces were either ceremonial props or glorified brigands. She took note of this.

“Secure!” barked one man, and Theasia marked him as the commander. Nearest the door on the right, no visible insignia. That was standard procedure; Imperial codes of war forbade the targeting of officers as their lack turned a force of troops to a general menace to civilians and the countryside. In scuffles between Houses, the killing of officers was common for exactly that reason.

Two more silhouettes appeared out of the swirling dust—quite dramatically, Theasia had to admit. At the fore was the Duke himself, dashing as always in a long tailored coat in his House colors, wearing a grim expression and with a shamshir bared in his hand. He strode boldly into the warehouse with his weapon upraised, then spoiled his posturing by squinting and heaving an involuntary cough against a mouthful of dust.

She managed not to smirk.

“Princess, are you unharmed?” he asked. She had to give him credit, the tone was perfect. Sharp and commanding without being brusque, the voice of a noble in control of himself and the situation. Without doubt he’d had actual bards coach him on how to posture in front of others during a crisis. She had.

Theasia lifted her chin infinitesimally. “I was only just brought here, my lord Duke, and have not been mishandled. These thieves are…oddly personable.”

“I’m sure,” he began with exactly the wry tone she expected, just like the hero in a chapbook would have. Theasia had seen enough plays and read enough novels, both modern and classical, to be able to recite the entire next five minutes of conversation in advance, complete with stage directions, and was not looking forward to it. Thus, she found herself actually grateful when Asfaneh went shrilly off script.

“Oh, thank the gods you’ve come, your Grace!” the lady squalled, barely visible behind a rank of now-bemused thieves, except that she was hopping up and down and waving one hand. This flailing spooked one of the horses which their current handler had only just begun to calm.

Theasia did not miss the tiny flicker of annoyance that passed across Ravaan’s expression, and had to firmly expel amusement from her own. Poor fellow, he so wanted his dramatic moment. Unfortunately for him, this was not his play.

She did take advantage of the distraction to glance past him, taking in his companion without letting her gaze linger. Casper Scheinrich, in the final analysis, made for a more striking presence than the dashing young hero his liege was trying to be, which she suspected would have been unwelcome news to them both. Taller by half a head, he had his blond hair slicked back in a way which made his pale features even sharper; his own lack of coloration was a stark contrast to the tight, sweeping black coat he wore, the traditional garment of a Vidian priest.

Unintentionally, she met his blue eyes directly. The man inclined his head to her in a respectful gesture, then resumed sweeping his gaze back and forth across the assembled thieves.

“I am beyond relieved to find your Highness in good health,” Ravaan said with ostentatious sincerity. “It is only by the grace of the Gods I learned of this. Fortunately, I keep an ear to the ground—I’ve found it a good habit to cultivate, when one is trying to uproot a stubborn nest of bandits.”

“I’ll. Just. Bet,” Catseye drawled. There were a few snickers from her companions.

Ravaan fixed his gaze on her, along with a disapproving scowl. “Are you in charge of this rabble then, woman?”

“This is a posse, boy,” she said sardonically. “Arguably a band, if you like the classics. A rabble doesn’t stare you down when you level weapons. But sure, if you’ve got something to say, you can say it to me.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” he quipped, even quirking his eyebrow. Gods, he’d apparently seen all the same plays she had, and wasn’t that a stinging indictment of her own tastes? “Very well, to business. I assume you people have done this for what you think is a good reason, but obviously whatever you hoped for is now off the table. You will immediately release the Princess to my custody.”

There came a shrill whimper from behind the group, and Theasia cleared her throat pointedly. Not that she would have admitted it, but she was starting to enjoy this just a little.

“And her companion, of course,” Ravaan added, almost managing not to look miffed.

Catseye blinked languidly, glanced back and forth along the ranks of his stony-faced soldiers, and then tilted her head like an inquisitive feline. “Or?”

For a span of three seconds, he actually looked taken aback. Scheinrich’s ever-moving eyes fixed on Catseye momentarily, then upon his master, before resuming their vigil.

“Come, now,” Ravaan said, gathering himself and frowning in patrician reproach. “I have a rank of military battlestaves leveled at your…what was it? Ah, yes, your posse. Excuse my befuddlement, but in the circles in which I move it is considered gauche to render overt threats of violence, so one strives to make them unnecessary. Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I leered and blathered something about your own charred corpse.”

“Now, son, the last thing I want is to criticize your sense of drama,” Catseye said, folding her arms, and Theasia could tell she was definitely enjoying this. “That was a hell of an entrance. One of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that. But you don’t seem to have considered the strategic implications of all this. For starters, you’ve got the Princess right in the line of fire your boys have laid out, there. Yourself, too, by the way.”

Ravaan hesitated, mouth slightly open, and his aristocratic self-mastery wavered. He shifted minutely backward, and went so far as to turn his head as if to glance at Scheinrich for support, though he quashed the gesture. Too late; the damage was done. It was the clearest confirmation of what Lord Shavayad had told her: the Duke was not the one making the plans in that pair. The slight lapse further revealed that Ravaan didn’t improvise well. He had come here expecting things to play out according to a certain script, had taken care to set it up thus, and at the first departure from it he was at a loss.

Scheinrich’s eyes had narrowed slightly, though. In what befuddled Ravaan, he saw meaning; the thieves were not sticking to the agreed upon plan, which meant they must have their own design. Theasia allowed herself to watch him directly now that he had focused his attention upon Catseye. Her right hand clenched unconsciously, rings and chains shifting against each other.

“So it is a stalemate,” he said aloud while Ravaan dithered, his Stalweiss accent slight enough to be barely perceptible. Clearly he had spent most of his life in Madouris, but had apparently come from his people’s home country, unlike the small clusters of local Stalweiss who were effectively just pale Tiraan. “Let us all do nothing hasty—these situations can suddenly resolve themselves in unforseeable ways.”

“Do tell,” Catseye simpered at him.

“Listen, you lot are lucky it’s me who found you first,” Ravaan said, and already he was reduced to blustering, puffing his chest out and raising his shamshir as if that were more threatening than the eight primed battlestaves. “As soon as the Emperor gets his hands on you, what he’ll do will redefine the Thieves’ Guild’s understanding of pain.”

“Seems to me we won’t have to worry about that if we’re charred corpses,” Catseye said with good cheer. “But since, again, your firing line is also facing the Princess, you might.”

“Now, look here,” he said peevishly. “You’ll get no possibility of mercy from the Silver Throne for this. Deal with me and it’ll go a lot better for you.”

“Ohh,” she mused. “So…you are offering us mercy, then.”

Theasia remained silent and as calm as she could manage, and was glad of it when Scheinrich’s unblinking gaze suddenly fixed upon her. There was no courteous nod this time; he smelled a rat.

“It is a prospect,” the Vidian said. “You can take no action while our weapons are upon you, and we cannot afford to harm the Princess. Clearly, we must come to some manner of arrangement.”

“You would really parlay with treasonous reprobates who have endangered my well-being?” Theasia asked, folding her hands primly before her. She immediately regretted that gesture, but neither Scheinrich nor the Duke appeared to notice it, and thus did not have occasion to note and wonder about her unusual jewelry.

“I must say I don’t care for the taste of it either, Princess,” Ravaan said with such perfect well-bred reluctance that it was clear he was back on a script he recognized. “Your own welfare is paramount, however. I will embrace an unseemly compromise if that is what it takes to save you.”

Theasia slowly drew in a breath, steeling herself for what must come next. All this, she had to acknowledge, was procrastination on her part, born of fear. This entire discussion was pointless, a chance for her and Catseye to amuse themselves at the Duke’s expense, and while that might be good enough for a Guild ruffian, she should demand better of herself. All that mattered had been getting them here. It was done, now it should be finished with.

Catseye had notice her inhalation, and was looking at her now.

“Got what you need, Princess?”

“That should be sufficient, yes,” Theasia replied as graciously as she could manage. On cue, all the thieves reached into their own coats.

The soldiers took a step forward in unison, raising their weapons higher. Ravaan peered at Theasia in open befuddlement.

Scheinrich’s eyes narrowed to blue slits.

“The lesson here, my lord Duke,” Theasia said, lifting her chin, “is not to reach too eagerly for low-hanging fruit. When your first overture to the Guild was rebuffed, you should have considered it final. When they later reached out to you in turn, you should have been far more suspicious.”

“Your Highness?” Ravaan raised his eyebrows quizzically. “With respect, I believe you may be confused as to—”

“Stop,” she said disdainfully. “Refrain from wasting my time, Ravaan. If it is not painfully clear to you already, this is not your scheme—it is mine. You are guilty of conspiring to abduct the Princess of Tiraas. That you planned to immediately return me safely home and take credit for the rescue does not make it any less treasonous.”

“How dare you!” he retorted, quite clearly aghast and insulted, and with none of his previous uncertainty or blustering. That fact might have made it more believable, had he not been a noble. This was precisely how they reacted to being fairly caught in their own lies: with completely sincere outrage at the idea that their actions might have consequences.

“Your Grace,” Scheinrich said quietly, “with respect, do not offer her the satisfaction. It is pointless; clearly this has been her plan from the beginning.”

A puff of air escaped Catseye’s nose and her shoulders jerked once in a silent little chuckle. “All this time, everybody thought the Princess was a piece to be moved on the board, when it turns out she’s a player. We live in interesting times.”

“You are a roguishly charming sort, Catseye,” Theasia said lightly. “I rather look forward to hearing your testimony.”

“I’ve got a simple rule about going to court, your Highness. Well, less a rule than a word: don’t. Still…testifying for the prosecution? That’d be a gas. Might be worth it just for the novelty.”

“All right, see here,” Ravaan said quickly, his voice beginning to rise in pitch. “You have nothing to gain by harming me, your Highness, and you already know I intended nothing but for you to be treated with the utmost respect. As you are clearly eager to step out of your father’s shadow, I see every prospect for us—”

“It’s too late, your Grace,” Scheinrich said, barely above a whisper, then raised his voice. “Sergeant at arms.”

Ravaan froze, then turned to him, already shaking his head. “No, Casper. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s out of the question.”

“There’s no compromise to be made here,” Scheinrich insisted softly. “Treason is treason. The degree of the offense matters less than who witnesses it.”

“Absolutely not!” Ravaan said vehemently. “You can’t even consider—”

“Ravaan,” the older man said, his tone oddly gentle. “It’s them, or us. Her life or yours.”

The Duke stared at him in silence for a drawn-out beat, then quite abruptly turned his back on the Princess and the thieves, his shoulders hunching in shame.

“This truly will mean dark days for the Empire.” Scheinrich’s own aspect was cool and collected as he turned instead to face them, meeting Theasia’s gaze without flinching. “But House Madouri will survive. Sergeant at arms, you may fire at will.”

“M-my lord?” the man said uncertainly. Disciplined they may be, but even House Madouri’s most trusted troops balked at orders to assassinate the heir to the Imperial throne. Interesting, and worth knowing.

Theasia was already raising her fingers to her brooch, but despite previous orders that they would wait for her signal, she wasn’t the first. A luminous sphere of blue light flashed into place around one of the thieves, kicking off a chain reaction. Each charm in succession activated, each personal shield flickering alight and then merging into a single long bubble, putting of sparks and a constant crackle of arcane power.

Upon reviewing Professor Araani’s early designs, she had responded to his request for further direction with orders that the charms should be suitable for soldiers fighting in formation, and thus could not interfere with one another at close range. Quite the contrary, the design he had finally produced would connect to any identical charm within its radius, forming a single arcane shield. According to Araani, this had the added effect of strengthening the overall defense, as stress upon any point would be distributed across the entire network, giving it effectively no single weak spot. In order to break it through brute force, an enemy would have to overpower every linked charm simultaneously.

That immediately proved highly relevant.

The House troops had no idea what they were seeing, but a soldier had one instinctive reaction to enemies at close range suddenly lighting up with unfamiliar magic.

The thunderbusses discharged very nearly in unison, a volley of high-powered lightning capable of splitting stone walls at that range slamming into the Guild’s defenses. The shields sparked, whined, and blazed nearly white, but they held.

Theasia did not begrudge herself a tiny gasp of relief.

“Drop ’em!” Catseye bellowed above the noise of Asfaneh’s shrill keening and the renewed panic of the horses, and Theasia, in unison with the thieves, reached up to switch off her shielding charm. The barrier flickered unevenly out of existence.

One of the charm’s weaknesses was that weapons could not be fired through it from the inside (yet; the Professor was optimistic that that could be overcome). That made this second the most dangerous part of the whole encounter, when they stood exposed before their enemies, but those lever-action thunderbusses had weaknesses of their own, including that they had to be manually recharged before they could be fired again. Well-drilled troops could fire a shot every four seconds. Four seconds was less time than the thieves needed to whip out wands and return fire.

Their mismatched collection of little sidearms didn’t even approach the firepower of the soldier’s staves. At that range, there was no reason they needed to.

Scheinrich stepped in front of the Duke even as lightning blazed all around them, the shield of golden light with which he wreathed himself and his master rippling as it was clipped by wandshots. The thieves had been specifically instructed not to kill the Duke, but in such a tumult, accidents happened. Even if some of them had been inclined to make an accident happen, Theasia had expected this outcome; the average priest’s divine shield could stand up to multiple hits from an average lightning wand.

Silence did not fall, though every single Madouri soldier did. The horses had had absolutely enough of this and appeared to be trying to tip over the carriage, and Asfaneh was wailing ceaselessly as if she had been shot, which Theasia knew was impossible. The room stank of smoke, ozone, and a surprising meaty smell. It took her a couple of seconds to realize, with abject horror, that no one nearby was barbecuing at midnight. That was charred human flesh.

That was not a useful emotion, so she crushed it down.

“So,” Theasia said, stepping forward out of the Guild’s formation and raising her right hand, “it’s treason, then.”

Scheinrich released the Duke to turn back to her, though he kept the golden shield up around them both.

She moved the fingers of her left hand to place the tips of the middle two against the sapphire positioned in her palm, activating the enchanted device. Light blossomed in the sapphires set into the gems along her right hand, accompanied moments later by tiny arcs of loose electricity. The network of enchantments included what Araani called a grounding charm, creating a sympathetic connection to the earth through which any electricity which escaped the weapon’s innate directional charms would be redirected without passing through her body.

Scheinrich stared her down, secure behind the power of his god, as Theasia stalked toward him. She was not deterred; the well of divine magic might be infinite, but the amount one man could draw was not.

Theasia raised her right hand and pressed it flat against the bubble of the shield, causing it to ripple and spark. Then she added the tip of her little finger to the crystal on her left palm.

Power surged, her entire hand crackled with renewed arcs of contained lightning, and Scheinrich’s shield turned white under the abuse. A high chiming noise rose in the air around them, sounding like nothing so much as a bell in pain. Arcane pounded divine toward a conclusion the Circle of Interaction made foregone.

The cleric’s shield fizzled, and he stumbled back, both he and the Duke receiving a nasty shock from the burst of suddenly uncontested magic. Not a lethal one, just disorienting; channeling enough power to crush the shield at a single blow would have instantly burned out her weapon, which was why she had instead worn it down over time.

Scheinrich retained enough presence of mind to push Ravaan roughly away from himself, throwing his arms wide to block him from Theasia. Ineffectual, but revealing. Even in the last extremity of danger, he did not flee or try to sacrifice his master. Conniving and self-serving the man might be, but ultimately, his loyalty was real.

Not that it mattered.

Theasia took two steps to her right, re-positioning herself so that her line of fire at Scheinrich would not arc through him onto Ravaan, and added a fourth finger to the crystal on her left hand.

The power which raged from her fingers was not like the single, neat shot of a battlestaff. It was a constant torrent, a storm of wild arcing bolts that surged over the priest’s body, consuming him in searing arcane light. He was hurled the entire width of the warehouse to impact the wall and then slump to the ground, unmoving.

That was also as much as the weapon itself could handle. Even as Theasia withdrew her fingers from the activator crystal, its output was fading to desultory little crackles; glancing down, she could see that several of the sapphires were cracked, and patches of the gold had corroded where it had been partially transmuted under the strain to something which wasn’t quite gold. Ah, well. She had known beforehand that the device was only good for one shot. That was not what occupied her mind now.

Theasia Tirasian’s entire life had been predominated by a feeling of weakness. Even the trappings of Imperial power which festooned her at all times only served to underscore the fragility of it all. The rule of House Tirasian was, at best, tolerated, and that only because her father was exceptionally good at playing the Houses against each other. She herself was a frail creature, sick with something for which no possible cure existed, doomed to a short life spent in bouts of intermittent pain and illness.

Yet at that moment, standing in the dark heart of her city with a fistful of lightning, an enemy charred to ruin before her and another cowering at her feet, she had a vision of the future. Her future, and that of the Empire.

Her Empire.

Ravaan had staggered to his feet, staring at her with eyes wide as the moon. When she turned to face him, he stumbled backward reflexively—and then, belatedly, noble pride reasserted itself and he straightened his spine. At some point he had dropped his sword and now had nothing with which to face her except his own hauteur. That he drew around himself like a suit of armor, tilting his head back to look coldly down his nose at what he must think was his approaching death.

Theasia stepped within arm’s reach, raising her hand and its enchanted weapon, and straightened his tie.

The Duke’s eyebrows drew together in an uncertain little frown. The Princess smiled up at him through her lashes, putting on the insipidly simpering smile she used to beguile men at court who were too stupid to be worth bothering with but too powerful to ignore.

The glacial cold of her voice stood in stark contrast to her expression.

“No one will believe you.”

It was satisfying in a way that was almost sexual, seeing so close the naked fear which peeked through his aristocratic composure.

Oh, there was going to be no end of cleanup necessary after this night’s work. Shavayad would help immensely—but then, he was something upon which she would also need to get a grip, him and whatever angle he was working. Handling Ravaan after this was going to be dicey; an enemy under control was in many ways more useful than an ally, but that was a path fraught with countless risks. She had not only drawn the very personal interest of the Theives’ Guild but handed them advanced enchantments to play with, which she had better see distributed to the Imperial Army posthaste lest they fall behind. And her parents. They were going to eat her alive.

For the first time in her life, Theasia felt not a hint of doubt that she would handle it all.

“And now, my lord Duke, let us discuss the future.”

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Bonus #36: Divine Right, part 3

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Teenagers sneaking out of their houses at night were a cliché so ancient the trope was well-represented not only in the modern chapbooks Theasia had been able to sneak, but in the staid old bardic sagas her mother approved for her. She had always rather resented those fictional kids their freedom. As it turned out, sneaking out of a palace secured by a sizable army, a corps of sorcerers, and an invisible network of spies leavened among the very servants was slightly less of a prospect for a teenage girl than tunneling out of a prison using a spoon. She had given up on it by age sixteen, when she had never once made it to the outer walls, let alone past them, and the repercussions of getting caught had started to eat significantly into her already scant freedoms.

Amazing how much easier it was when she was abetted by Imperial Intelligence itself.

“Oh, your Highness, I really think this is a bad idea,” Asfaneh fretted even as the carriage emerged from the courtyard into the street running alongside the Palace, totally unchallenged. “Please, can’t we go back? This is extraordinarily dangerous, how can it possibly be worth it?”

“I appreciate you coming with me, Asfaneh,” she said with a kind smile. Her mother had taught her not only the smile, which was as carefully constructed as a suspension bridge, but the trick of “addressing” the concerns of subordinates by politely failing to address them. Truthfully, she didn’t much like Lady Asfaneh Sakhavenid, but it was only because of the woman’s personality; she had no moral objection to her and no cause to complain of her service. Quite the contrary.

An Imperial Princess obviously needed ladies-in-waiting, a need which was complicated by Theasia’s medical condition. She had to be accompanied by nurses whenever possible, without letting it be known that she was. Her parents had found a solution by carefully fostering a few insignificant noble families like House Sakhavenid, which (like House Tirasian until very recently) only barely qualified as nobility and were treated with disdain by wealthier and more influential Houses. It was useful for many reasons to have a core of smaller Houses scattered around the Empire who were both grateful to House Tirasian and aware that the rug could be yanked out from under them if they displeased; just one of the benefits was the supply of noble daughters who could be trained in medicine and sworn to secrecy. The prospect that fidelity to the Tirasians might provide access to the capital and the Palace for their youngest generation could then be dangled in front of more recalcitrant Houses as well. Not that any of those would ever have a member placed close to the Princess, but as her father had explained to her, a political action should serve multiple purposes, or not bothered with.

Asfaneh was an Izarite priestess of low rank and ability, but a competent nurse with an encyclopedic knowledge of the various medicines, alchemical and mundane, which Theasia’s condition might require, and what symptoms called for the application of each. She was also a feather-headed puff of fluff who sighed at handsome boys, obsessively read execrable poetry, and generally behaved like the worst stereotype of an Izarite—but she was also the only one of Theasia’s attendants who had gone so far as to intercede with the Empress to argue that Theasia needed more freedom more than she needed coddling. In the face of that loyalty, Theasia was very careful never to let slip how much Asfaneh’s personality annoyed her, and took pains to see to it she was well-rewarded for her service. In fact, she felt rather guilty about involving the poor woman in this escapade, but she had not been willing to risk this without the accompaniment of one of her nurses, and the nature of the adventure required the one she trusted most.

Now, the tightening of Asfaneh’s mouth indicated that she had noticed Theasia’s little trick and didn’t appreciate it, but she looked mutely out the carriage window instead of arguing. Theasia continued to smile blandly, despite her nervousness which she felt like an electric charge buzzing in her limbs.

All this had been carefully arranged. It was practically scripted; if all went well, she would have accomplished everything she set out to and be back in her bed before her parents ever marked her absence. But so much could go wrong…

She looked down at her hands folded in her lap, watching the shifting light of passing street lamps gleam upon the jewelry there where it managed to penetrate the curtains. It was a more florid piece than she favored, a construct of jeweled rings connected by loops of worked gold and stretches of twisted golden chain, all linked to a sizable sapphire in a golden setting sewed right into her fingerless satin gloves at the back of each hand. More dangling chains tied each jewel to lavish bracelets, and the rest was thankfully hidden by the wide, lacy sleeves currently in vogue. In fact, those wires twined all the way up her arms and around her upper body, where they were linked to less extravagantly designed crystal settings hidden beneath her dress. Having this thing made had been the main reason for the delay, and even so it had been very rapid work for a jeweler; Shavayad’s man in the city clearly was accustomed to strange projects and discreet orders. It was impressive enough that he had re-worked Araani’s cumbersome gauntlet into this, let alone so swiftly.

Two weeks after their conversation in the Araanis’ basement, everything had finally been arranged. Now came what the spymaster had called “the fun part.”

Theasia had firmly steeled herself against reacting to that statement.

“What unusual pieces, your Highness,” Asfaneh commented, having noticed the direction of Theasia’s gaze. “I never saw you wear those before. In fact… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”

“Exotic, aren’t they? It’s a Sheng design,” the Princess lied with her bland smile firmly in place. “To be quite honest, I don’t think it is to my taste, but I find myself curious whether I can spark a fashion. How many times do you think I need be seen in public wearing these before all the ladies in Tiraas absolutely must have a set?”

Asfaneh pursed her lips for a moment. “Your Highness, I don’t wish to overstep,” she said with the hesitant condescension of someone who intended to widely overstep, “but I’m growing more and more concerned about you with everything I learn tonight. The jewelry is one thing, but…sneaking out to a party? These diversions are growing dangerous, and you mustn’t let them become a pattern. Believe me, your Highness, I understand about wanting to test boundaries! I was your age once, after all.” She was exactly two years older than Theasia, still not old enough to legally work as a secretary in a government office. She’d been younger than Theasia was now when they had met. “But one must be mindful of consequences! The damage to your reputation is the least of what could go wrong with an…an adventure like this. Princess, please take no offense, but you have been very sheltered and I begin to wonder if you’re truly aware of the concept of danger.”

This was one of those times when Lady Asfaneh’s proven track record of devoted loyalty was all that stood between her and a slapping. On average Theasia smiled through at least one such event a day.

“I’m aware of more than you realize, Asfaneh,” she said pleasantly. “As always, I appreciate your willingness to accompany me despite your own misgivings.”

“I wish you would stop doing that,” the lady said with overt annoyance for the first time in their relationship, and Theasia blinked. Now, how to go about encouraging more of that? She found it both more likable and more worthy of respect than all her years of simpering.

The carriage rocked slightly as if something had impacted it, then came to a stop, one of the horses whickering in confusion.

“What’s happening?” Asfaneh asked in alarm. “Why are we stopping? This is the middle of nowhere!”

This was close to the center of Tiraas, barely four blocks from the Palace itself, the absolute minimum distance they had to travel to reach a spot where there would be nobody on the street even in the middle of the night.

The carriage door abruptly opened and a man in a ragged black coat stepped swiftly inside. “Good evening, ladies!”

Asfaneh screamed and scrabbled away from him—but rather than retreating to a corner, she stumbled awkwardly across the space to plant herself in front of (and half on top of) Theasia. “Get out! Get out!”

She went silent when he raised a wand, a thick shaft of wood as long as his forearm, deeply engraved with enchanting symbols along its length and with a softly glowing power crystal protruding from its angled handle. Theasia noted it was a newer model with no charging lever attached to its clicker mechanism, meaning it could be fired as fast and as frequently as its wielder desired, at least until it overheated. The man did not point it at them, at least, but its presence was a firm enough message.

“I apologize for this interruption,” he said, grinning, his gravelly voice suiting his scruffy attire and thick stubble perfectly. “I’m afraid you’ll be late to your party. But don’t you worry, ladies, this evening should be plenty diverting.”

“Do you have any idea who—”

“Course we do,” a woman interrupted Asfaneh, climbing into the carriage from the other side. She was as roughly-dressed as the man and otherwise unremarkable in appearance, except for her vivid green eyes, a shade of viridian that seemed almost to glow in the dim light. “And may I just say, it’s a real honor to make your acquaintance, Princess! And you too, miss, of course.”

Asfaneh was still trying to block Theasia with her body, which involved a lot of awkward shifting and wiggling now that she had to do it from two directions. Theasia gently took her by the shoulders and pushed her aside onto the seat.

“Her title is ‘Lady,’” she said with the driest aloofness she could muster. “I hope my driver has not been harmed?”

“Course not, whaddaya take us for? Some kinda thugs?” The rough-looking man grinned as if this were a fantastic joke, pulling the carriage door shut and settling onto the seat across from them.

There came a muffled slap of reins and the vehicle started moving again, the green-eyed woman shutting her door even as they took off into the night.

“You will suffer for this, I promise you,” Asfaneh spat. “Once the Emperor learns what you’ve done, it’ll be your heads on pikes!”

“Young lady, this is the twelfth century,” Green Eyes said with a smirk. “Nobody uses pikes for any reason, much less for heads.”

“Might put our heads on plates,” her companion mused. “Whaddaya think? A nice silver platter? I think that’d set off my chiseled features pretty good.”

“Sarsamon’s too soft a touch for that, way I hear it,” she said amiably. “’Sides, beheading’s for traitorous nobles. Couple of trash like us abducting a member of the Imperial family, that’s a hanging.”

“Oh, well that’s no good,” he grumbled. “All that swingin’ around, how’m I supposed to keep my good side to the audience?”

“You’re insane,” Asfaneh blurted.

“Shh,” Theasia soothed, patting her shoulder and causing her jewelry to rattle. “Please compose yourself, Lady Asfaneh. They would have harmed us if they intended to.”

“That’s right, ladies,” the woman said airily. “You just sit back and relax, leave the work to us. We’re gonna go for a ride and have a little stopover. So long as everybody stays polite and professional, there’s not a single reason anybody should get so much as their hair ruffled. I promise we mean you no harm.”

“As if I would believe that!” Asfaneh snapped.

“Let’s not provoke them,” Theasia murmured, patting her again. “Just do as they say and remain calm. And when all this is over, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’ It’s something to look forward to, is it not?”

Her lady-in-waiting gave her a truly indescribable look. But at least she fell quiet.

Their new destination was a warehouse in one of the rising industrial districts, with a large door easily wide enough to admit the carriage. Torches and oil lamps lit the space, barely adequately; when the carriage doors were opened and they were directed to disembark, Theasia looked out upon a cavernous chamber whose ceiling and corners were lost to shadow.

All according to plan. Practically scripted. She was in control. She repeated this like a mantra as if it would ease the mounting speed of her heartbeat. Theasia could control her expression with practiced ease, but the doctors had warned her against stressing any of her organs excessively. One had admitted, when she pressed, that a heart attack would very likely be her cause of death, and that was practically optimal, considering how much faster it was than death by failure of the liver or kidneys.

“Princess, run!” Asfaneh abruptly screamed as soon as they were out of the carriage and surrounded by scruffy Thieves’ Guild reprobates. The lady bodily shoved the nearest thief away from Theasia, a gesture which proved totally ineffectual.

Theasia, of course, did not move, and would not have even had she not been here by her own design. Run where? They were shut in and surrounded. She was progressively revising her opinion of Asfaneh, who had considerably more courage than she had realized, but even less sense.

The man she had tried to body-slam stood a head taller and twice as broad; he was barely jostled, but turned a scowl on the young lady and raised a hand.

“Hey, Brick,” said the green-eyed woman, emerging from the carriage last. “You want your fingers broken in any particular order, or should I improvise?”

He hesitated, grimaced, and then lowered his hand and bowed to Asfaneh, to her visible amazement. “Beggin’ your pardon, miss, my apologies. Force o’ habit. We’re just simple thieves, after all, an’ not used to such…esteemed company.”

She squeaked and scurried over to Theasia, where she clung to the Princess’s arm.

“Welp! Here we are,” Green Eyes said, sweeping a grandiose bow and flinging out one arm to gesture around the empty warehouse and the gaggle of thugs. Theasia quickly took stock; the thieves were watching her mostly with a kind of bemusement, which was encouraging. She had expected leering. There was no sign of her driver, but a thin woman even younger than herself was tending to the horses. That was all she could take in with a single glance, but the woman kept speaking so the Princess quickly resumed meeting those eerie eyes. “Welcome to this miscellaneous spot in the manufacturing district! Please don’t bother memorizing the location; the poor sap who owns this joint doesn’t know we’re here and wouldn’t be happy about it. We aren’t quite daft enough to bring you to a real hideout.”

“Drat,” she said neutrally. “I shall have to re-work my escape plan entirely.”

That earned her several grins, including from the speaker, who seemed to be in charge. “I will be your host this evening; you can call me Catseye. You know Spiff, of course.” The ragged fellow from the carriage ride grinned and tipped his hat, winking at Asfaneh. “And despite Brick’s little lapse, rest assured you’re not here to be roughed up in any way, shape, or form. I’d introduce everybody else, but you don’t care and a lot of the lads prefer their anonymity.”

“Catseye?” Asfaneh said incredulously. “Spiff? Those can’t possibly be names!”

“This Empire was recently brought to its knees by someone called Horsebutt,” Theasia pointed out.

“Bit of Imperial propaganda, that,” Catseye said amiably. “Heshenaad translates more as ‘the space behind the horse;’ it’s an old equestrian term from Calderaas, referring to how not to handle horses. You don’t ever wanna approach them from their blind spot. The Empire misnamed him on purpose to make him sound ridiculous, which pretty much backfired when we then got our heshenaads kicked by the guy with the silly name.”

Theasia raised an eyebrow. “Our?”

“Hey, we may be thieves,” Catseye said, raising one of her own, “but we’re all Tiraan here.”

There came a muffled throat-clearing from a young woman in an overlarge coat, with a scarf hiding all of her face save her black hair and almond-shaped eyes.

“Except Wakizashi,” Catseye said with a sigh, “who would like to remind everyone that we are a brutish and savage people with a history no longer than the fall of last autumn’s leaves.”

Wakizashi bowed.

“Wakizashi,” Theasia said, tilting her head. “That’s a Sheng term, is it not?”

There came a beat of silence, in which the Sifanese woman’s glare turned murderous, followed by uproarious laughter from every other thief in the warehouse. Asfaneh pressed herself against the Princess amid the tumult, wrapping an arm around her protectively.

“Kid, I like you,” Catseye said, grinning at Theasia.

“How charming. Finally, something worth noting in my diary.”

“Well, timing being what it is, we’re gonna be here a little while,” the thief said, and clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s have some damn hospitality, already, you louts are making us look bad! Come on, roll out some seating and let’s bust open the refreshments.”

“What are they waiting for?” Asfaneh whispered while the thieves busied themselves fetching things from crates. Theasia just shook her head and patted her companion’s hand comfortingly.

“Luxury accommodations, as requested!” Brick proclaimed, setting down the second barrel a few feet behind them. The big man whisked off his coat and draped it over the two upright barrels, forming a makeshift bench.

“Good evening, ladies!” said another thief, approaching with a grin, a tin of salted fish and a box of crackers. “Tonight’s menu is herring, caught in the majestic waters of our very own Gulf of Punamanta, probably at some point in the last six months, chased by a local specialty: machine-formed nautical biscuits, made right here in Tiraas, the very jewel of our Empire. I recommend putting a little fish on each cracker, it makes it harder to taste both. And here’s Spangle with the wine list!”

The gestured grandly with the cracker box at another man, this one a lean Westerner with his hair up in braids threaded with beads and metal charms, who was holding a visibly dusty jug.

“You are in luck, your Highness,” he declaimed. “Tonight we feature a particularly amusing Calderaan corn moonshine. I find this a surprisingly oakey vintage, with the most delicate notes of wheat and citrus, with an almost playfully presumptuous finish. It is, of course, white, as the main course is fish.”

Asfaneh whimpered and squeezed Theasia tighter.

“That’s very kind,” the Princess said politely, “but no thank you.”

“As you wish,” Catseye said amiably. “We have a bit of a wait ahead of us, though, and I’m afraid luxurious accommodations aren’t even adjacent to our list of priorities. This is a big nuisance for you girls at absolute best; I don’t mean to make it any more uncomfortable than necessary.”

Theasia gave Asfaneh’s hand a squeeze before the girl could say anything. Either she got the message or hadn’t been planning to chime in that time; at any rate, she stayed quiet, and Theasia turned her attention fully to Catseye, disregarding the offered “amenities.”

“What made you decide to become a thief?”

That, finally, pierced the veneer of conviviality, not just from Catseye but from the room at large. Smiles faded and the Guild members grew still, turning suddenly contemplative stares on her. Asfaneh squeaked softly at the attention.

Catseye, after a pause, tilted her head back, looking defiantly down her nose. “What made you decide to become a princess?”

“Hmm.” Despite the stress of the situation and the risk she was taking by effectively poking at this woman, Theasia couldn’t help being actually interested. All her life, the Thieves’ Guild had been presented in her social circles as a monster that lurked in every shadow. Yet obviously, these people had their own perspectives and reasons for the things they did. They certainly did not act quite like anyone else she had ever met. Thieves in stories were altogether more…menacing. “So you imply that all our lives are scripted, our fates preordained?”

“That’s more grandiosity than I would give to anything, ever,” Catseye said in a drier tone, tucking her hands into the pockets of her ratty longcoat. In the faded golden lamplight, her vivid green eyes seemed practically to glow; it was clear (and even a little unimaginative) where her nickname derived from. “Life is about what you do with what the gods hand you. You got a palace, an education, and a shitload of responsibilities nobody sane would ask for, with all the lavish luxuries to match. Me, pretty much the opposite. Same goes for most of those here. Either of us could’ve chosen to be resentful and make a general pest of ourselves. Or, we can take life seriously, stifle our complaints, and see how much we can get done in the situation we’ve got to work with.” She shrugged, quirking one side of her mouth in an ironic smile. “I know what I chose. After this night’s work, I’m getting increasingly curious about you.”

“Oy, Catseye!” Theasia was spared having to respond to that by the voice from the rafters; a scrawny boy who could hardly have been more than fifteen had appeared, balanced precariously on a beam in the upper darkness near the window through which he had just clambered. “We got incoming, looks like our mark. Two swells in fancy suits and six guards with swords and staves, just like he promised.”

“He’s early, though,” Catseye murmured, meeting Theasia’s gaze. “Nobles never can wait their bloody turn… All right, Selim, good work. Get back up there and sing out if anything unexpected happens, but remember to stay quiet about the rest of what’s planned.”

“I’m not stupid, Cat,” he snorted, shimmying back out into the night.

“Curtain’s rising! Places, everybody!” Catseye clapped her hands and the various thieves flowed into motion, arranging themselves in a menacing half-ring around their leader, the Princess, and Lady Asfaneh, who was trembling so hard Theasia was partially holding her up by now. “Ladies, this marks the last portion of the evening where I can personally guarantee that everyone involved will remain polite. You may wanna discreetly remove yourselves to behind the carriage over there.”

“You know very well that isn’t an option for me,” Theasia replied. “Asfaneh, here.”

It was easy, in light of her peculiar hand jewelry, to miss the relatively simple sapphire brooch she had pinned to the throat of her gown. Now, she withdrew an identical one from the cunningly hidden pocket in her skirts and carefully affixed it to Asfaneh’s own dress, to the woman’s clear confusion.

“Princess, what—”

“Lady Asfaneh,” she said, firmly but gently. “I want you to stand behind the thieves until I tell you otherwise. If at any point you feel you are in physical danger, grab this brooch and press down on the sapphire until it clicks. But not unless you actually discern a threat. Is that clear?”

“Your Highness, no,” she said, forgetting protocol. “I’m not going to leave you!”

“I’ll be right here,” Theasia insisted. “This is important. I will make it a command if I must, but I would rather you trust me.”

Asfaneh peered at her, wide-eyed, then glanced around at the watching thieves.

“I know what I’m doing,” Theasia said softly.

“I’m very much afraid you know less than you think, Princess,” the lady whispered.

“There is simply not time. Go, Asfaneh. Now.”

She drew in a deep breath and scrunched up her face, and for a moment Theasia feared she would have to ask the Guild to manhandle her attendant. But Asfaneh finally let out a tiny noise of dismay and turned, scurrying off through a gap in the thieves’ loose formation.

“You ready for this, Princess?” Catseye asked her quietly as she turned back to face the door.

Theasia shook her head. “Is anyone ever—”

Lightning flashed and the huge warehouse door exploded inward.

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Bonus #35: Divine Right, part 2

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“Why are we circling back?” Theasia asked, leaning toward the carriage’s window as it swung to the left through the traffic on Imperial Square.

“Ah,” Lord Shavayad said in a satisfied tone, and sidled along his bench to look outside. “I gave the driver instructions to veer toward Duke Ravaan’s retinue should it still be visible. There is someone I would like you to see, Princess.”

“Oh?” She also shifted closer to the window, but did not bring her face into view of it, simply watching through the curtains. Invisibly sneaking a good vantage was a necessary skill in the Imperial court. The anonymous mode of transport was an asset; she was accustomed to touring the city either in a full procession with her parents, or in her private carriage—a brand-new horseless model which hummed with enchantments, and was accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting (in her case, nurses in disguise), two drivers (a backup in case one were incapacitated), four guards riding atop the vehicle and six mounted soldiers surrounding it at all times. By comparison, the unmarked two-horse carriage Shavayad had provided was virtually invisible in its anonymity. Oddly, in the spymaster’s competent presence, she did not feel particularly vulnerable.

“The tall man alongside him, with the blond hair,” Shavayad murmured, both of them peering through the curtains now.

Ravaan was just emerging from the Palace himself, and seemed in no hurry to step into the carriage emblazoned with House Madouri’s coat of arms, drawn by a truly excessive six white horses. A fop like the young Duke loved nothing more than to strut and pose in the middle of Imperial Square to be gawked at, and now was apparently provided ample excuse by a conversation with the man Shavayad had indicated. Actually, Theasia noted an odd resemblance between this individual and Shavayad himself. Not a physical one; this man was so pale it was almost creepy, with hair a very light gold and sharp features—in fact, now that she looked closely, she suspected he might be a half-elf. It was in his demeanor and style, though. He wore the same kind of old-fashioned black suits, with a rigidly upright posture and superciliously dignified cast to his features.

Then their path brought the Madouri carriage between them and the two men, and both Princess and spymaster leaned back into their own seats as they were carried on through the city.

“Who is he?”

“Casper Scheinrich,” Lord Shavayad said, regarding her with a faint smile which did not quite disguise the hawk-like focus of his eyes. He was studying her, watching for something. “A priest of Vidius and, as of shortly after the late Duke’s passing, Ravaan Madouri’s closest and most highly-placed lieutenant. His ideas do much to shape House Madouri’s actions; Ravaan prizes his counsel above all others. I suspect his hand in the escalation of the bandit attacks on our treasury caravans in Tiraan Province. Mental acumen aside, he is a very dangerous man, a veteran of the Enchanter Wars in which he served as a combat healer with the Madouris militia. He has fought Silver Legions, drow, the Imperial Army, and Horsebutt’s raiders. Handy with sword and wand and extremely skilled with divine shields.”

“So Ravaan’s right-hand man is Stalweiss,” she mused. “How odd.”

“I hope your Highness does not subscribe to that claptrap about the Stalweiss being genetically prone to barbarism.”

“Nonsense, they are a people from a resource-poor region whose recent warlord very predictably took advantage of the Empire’s weakness. We must not ascribe to congenital defect that which is explained by circumstance.” Shavayad nodded approvingly at her recitation of one of her father’s aphorisms. “I meant, pursuant to that, the Stalweiss have been particularly out of favor throughout the Empire since the war. It would be difficult for one to attain such a high rank in this political climate, and expose both him and House Madouri to potential risk.”

“Just so, your Highness. Scheinrich is also capable of playing a long game. After the war, he attached himself to Ravaan as a mentor, passing up multiple opportunities for promotion and personal enrichment. Understand that young Ravaan’s childhood was not unlike your own, Princess. He was barely an infant when his siblings were slain in the war, following on the heels of the entire Mathenon and Veilgrad branches of House Madouri being massacred. The old Duke was extraordinarily protective, treating his last son very much like a delicate greenhouse orchid. Scheinrich endured years of being dismissed as a glorified nursemaid to be the only man who always took Ravaan seriously, and as his reward, now effectively determines Madouri policy on almost everything.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, but was staring past him in thought. “What do you think is his ultimate goal?”

“Since he was a glorified nursemaid for so many years, I’m afraid Intelligence was lax in studying him until very recently. So far, the man is difficult to read. The reputation of Vidian clerics for byzantine intrigues is somewhat inflated, mostly by themselves; they are not more canny on average than any intelligent, motivated player of the great game. But they are frustratingly hard to predict. The Doctrine of Masks is based upon psychological principles that apply to everyone, but Vidians take it to an extreme such that they effectively have different personalities in different situations. He might be working toward a higher ambition, serving what he believes is a moral cause, or simply playing the game for love of playing it. Or any combination thereof, alternately or even simultaneously. What we know is that his presence lends Duke Ravaan much greater cunning and competence than he natively possesses.”

“Hmm…” Theasia focused her eyes on Shavayad’s own; he was still watching her with that sharp, almost expectant look. “And his relationship with Ravaan is a close one? Irreplaceable?”

“An interesting choice of words,” Shavayad said mildly. “Yes, you could put it that way. May I ask why you inquire, Princess?”

“A pillar of strength becomes a crippling weakness once knocked down. If this Scheinrich is so precious to Ravaan, removing him will leave a vacuum which Ravaan won’t be quick to fill. If he even can.”

The spymaster nodded once, mutely.

“That is the kind of observation my father would chastise me for making,” she said with a sigh, settling back against the carriage bench.

“Your father is a wise and far-sighted man,” Shavayad replied, his expression especially inscrutable. “It has served his rule well to think in terms of connection rather than destruction.”

“Rule demands both.”

“For every task its own tool,” he agreed.

And he had wanted to brief her on this Scheinrich’s importance. Why? The truth hovered between them in the carriage: her father would not have considered eviscerating House Madouri’s ambitions by depriving Ravaan of such an asset. Her father dealt with the Houses by maneuvering them such that their desires aligned with his. Theasia had grown increasingly aware of the risks and flaws in that strategy as she had matured, and it occurred to her now that if anyone in the Imperial government might prefer a more hawkish approach to keeping the nobles in line, it would be the head of Imperial Intelligence.

Exhilarating as it was to finally be treated as a valued equal by someone with real power, she felt keenly aware of her own inexperience. Shavayad was undoubtedly working toward a goal of his own, here. What was he after? What would it mean for her, for her father, and for the Empire?

Social instincts honed by court life told her that he felt that conversation finished and would deflect further queries on this matter, which suited her for now as there was a more pressing topic for them to discuss.

“Now that we have time to talk, Lord Shavayad, perhaps you could explain where we are going, and why?”

“Of course, Princess,” he said with a courteous inclination of his head. “This matter began with an investigation into the embezzlement of Imperial funds. I realize your Highness is rather hands-off with financial matters, so it may come as a shock to learn that it was your own salary being skimmed.”

Uh oh. Theasia kept her expression blank and inquisitive despite the tangible weight of unease which had suddenly manifested in the pit of her stomach. “I see. You found those responsible?”

“Unfortunately a number of accountants would be in a position to have done this, your Highness. At present we are watching all who handle your finances. Sometimes it is better strategy to let a plot unfold, under careful supervision. There are risks, of course, but also the prospect of catching more than the small fish whose maneuvers first drew attention. Strike too quickly and you may snare only a lackey who has nothing of value to offer; too late and a potentially dangerous scheme may reach its ruinous fruition. Finding the right moment is as much art as science.”

“I see,” she murmured. “I will consider that.”

Shavayad nodded politely again. “In this case, what we are still missing is the identity of the person who organized this ploy. I am pleased to say that we have learned its purpose. It is that which we are now going to investigate.”

She had a very bad feeling about this. “Is that wise, Lord Shavayad? I mean, is it customary policy to involve the heir to the Throne in an ambush?”

“I assure you, your Highness, the area is secured and the subjects pacified,” he said smoothly. “I promise I would never expose you to serious danger. But I believe you may have insights to offer, once you have personally inspected the scene and the subjects. As they are drawing funds from your own coffers, it may be that some of this is familiar to you.”

“I see,” she said as offhandedly as she could manage, hoping the racing of her heart was not evident to him. His face revealed nothing, but then…it wouldn’t.

“This is a mistake!” Professor Araani protested for at least the third time since they had entered the room, sitting on a bench against the wall with his arm around a weeping young woman. Two agents of Imperial Intelligence in gray coats with silver gryphon badges stood before him, wands in hand; the weapons were aimed scrupulously at the ground, but the message was clear. “Please, you must believe me! I am no criminal or traitor, I am operating on orders from the Silver Throne itself!” His voice hitched, and he shifted position to put both his arms around the young woman’s shoulders. “I…I thought I was. I was so sure, we were instructed to keep everything in the strictest confidence, but my orders came with the Imperial seal—”

“Professor,” Shavayad finally interjected, apparently tiring of waiting for the man to run out of spark. “I am Lord Tariq Shavayad, director of Imperial Intelligence.”

The girl’s crying grew louder and she buried her face in the Professor’s jacket. Araani glanced at Theasia, who had not been introduced; to someone unfamiliar with her face, she might have been any richly-dressed young woman, which made her presence here understandably curious.

Theasia made a show of scanning the room. The large basement of this townhouse, clearly a converted wine cellar, was set up as an enchantment laboratory, strewn with components, equipment, and projects in various states of completion. Whatever order there was in the layout was apparent only to the Professor himself. This was her first time seeing it in person, otherwise she might have spoken to him about the apparent chaos.

The question which chiefly occupied her mind now was how to get out of this mess without having what little freedom she was allowed permanently eclipsed. At this point, she took it as given that Shavayad knew more than he had told her, perhaps everything. But why do it this way? He could have ratted her out to her parents easily enough…

“Our investigation is ongoing,” Shavayad said to Araani. “Your cooperation will do much to determine the shape it takes from here, Professor. I will tell you that at this time, it is my inclination to regard you as a victim of fraud, rather than a perpetrator.”

The girl lifted her head, eyes wide with apprehension; the Professor drew in a short breath, straightening his back slightly.

“My people will need to interview you in detail, of course,” Shavayad continued, “as well as your daughter. I assure you, Intelligence is not in the habit of extracting information through force; these will be civil conversations. If you will kindly go with these agents, show them any documents you have received alleging to be from the Imperial government and answer any questions they have, I’m confident we can settle this matter with a minimum of further disruption. So long as you have been truthful, you need fear nothing.”

“Yes,” Professor Araani said hoarsely. “Yes, I…I thank you very much, Lord Shavayad. I am a loyal subject of his Majesty. We both are. If we have been misused against his wishes… That is, yes, we will gladly tell you everything we can.”

“The Silver Throne appreciates your cooperation,” Shavayad said with a bland smile. “Umunti, Dazaar, please escort Professor and Miss Araani to a more suitable room and see they are provided with some material comforts. It has been a trying day for them. I’m sure we shall have no further trouble.”

“We shall not, indeed,” Araani agreed, getting slowly to his feet and rubbing his daughter’s back with one hand. “Come, Lacey, it will be all right.”

Shavayad and Theasia both stepped aside to allow the agents and their prisoners to climb the stairs back to the kitchen, Agent Dazaar pausing to shut the door again at the top and enclose the two of them in the now-silent workshop.

“The good Professor was understandably somewhat irascible when we first imposed upon him this morning,” Shavayad commented, idly pacing over to a table upon which were displayed a rack of matching charms, expensive-looking objects each consisting of a rune-etched disc inset with polished gemstones. “Of course, he and the young lady have spent the day under the supervision of my agents while I reported to your parents and then brought you here, your Highness. They were not mishandled, I assure you. I find I get the best results through subtler pressures. Harm someone and they will expect more harm and act out of fear; treat them gently while encouraging their own minds to conjure up all the harm they might do, and they will often become eager to cooperate.”

“Thank you for the lesson in strategy,” she said evenly.

“Of course,” Shavayad went on with his back to her, picking up one of the charms and turning it over in his fingers, “all this began with the document which I am confident Professor Araani will now produce from his safe. Not only does the Imperial seal carry a magical signature which court sorcerers are able to track, but the stationary used for Imperial edicts is watermarked and serialized. When a blank document goes missing, it can be quickly traced. At least, that has always been the theory; this is actually the first such incident since we instituted this system, and I am gratified to learn that it works so well.”

She closed her eyes. Obviously, had she known any of that in advance, things would have been very different.

“Of course, there are very few people who even potentially have access to the Emperor’s seal and stationary. As I was explaining earlier, Princess, it is often wisest to let a plot unfold. I have been watching the Professor’s progress with great interest these last three months. I feel that once we learn who—”

“All right, enough,” she said curtly. “This game is not amusing, Shavayad. Why did you really bring me here?”

He turned to face her, still idly rubbing his thumb across the charm in his hand.

“It’s as I told you, Princess. My job is to curate the information which reaches his Majesty. Right now, I am…determining whether this is something he needs to know.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“It was an amateurish effort,” he observed, “but shows some inherent talent. Clearly you were unaware of the ways through which your maneuvers could be tracked, both magical and mundane. There is a science to moving illicit funds, Princess, in which you lack experience. My curiosity was in what you would hire a down-on-his-luck enchanter to design. These efforts appear rather…unfocused.”

“I gave him free rein to experiment,” Theasia said, grimacing. “I wouldn’t know what to ask him to build, and the point was to come up with something, anything, that nobody else had.”

“Within, that is, a certain theme.”

“A certain theme,” she agreed quietly.

Shavayad pinned the charm to his belt and pressed the jewel in its center. The light in the basement shifted as a translucent sphere of blue energy flickered into place around him, accompanied by a faint buzzing noise and the lifting of the fine hairs on her neck at the accompanying static.

“Personal shielding charms,” Shavayad marveled aloud, raising one arm and watching his private bubble shift along with it. “This was supposed to be impossible.”

“As I understand it, energy shields are actually quite simple. The tricky part was modulating it to let air, sound, and light pass through, and clip through the ground to let the subject walk while still protecting them from subterranean attack. The personal shields of a wizard or paladin avoid these shortfalls by being conscious workings.”

“The man is clearly a genius,” Shavayad agreed, pressing the gem again and switching the shield off. “Quite a find, Princess, I compliment you. And that magical-magnetic rail system in the corner. A mode of transportation?”

She glanced at the rack of metal he indicated. “Hardly. That’s a tiny prototype; a full-sized version would accelerate cargo to several times the speed of sound. It would probably be lethal to put people in it. Araani didn’t invent that, it was a theoretical design of Magnan’s that he never got around to experimenting with.”

“And so the lethality becomes the very purpose. Imagine, artillery with a range of miles. Not to mention this little beauty.” He picked up a metal glove, heavily engraved with runes, embedded with gemstones and trailing lengths of gold wire attached to more crystals and filaments. “Oh, what I could do with these, if only the materials weren’t so prohibitively expensive. A matched pair for every agent and we could make so many problems disappear…”

“Their power consumption is heinously inefficient, though,” she demurred. “Each is good for one use, two at the most, and it’s not a question of recharging them; it suffers catastrophic damage in the process.”

“Pity.” Shavayad carefully set the device back on its table and turned to her again. “You understand, Princess, why magical weapons research is practically a taboo in this day and age?”

“I am hardly going to have a nice old man and his daughter build a new Enchanter’s Bane in their basement,” she said acidly.

“There’s the matter what when an heir to a monarchy begins surreptitiously building weapons, an assassination generally follows,” he pointed out.

“Never!” Theasia snapped, clenching her fists and taking a step toward him. “I would die before I allowed harm to come to my father!”

“I believe you,” he said simply. “Though it is my job to, among other things, prevent that outcome. The Empire needs you as well as your father, Highness. And you are correct; what you’ve enabled here is hardly a path back to Magnan’s folly. This is a question of perceptions, though. Of how it would look to the public and to House Tirasian’s enemies to find the Imperial government researching sparkly new ways to kill people. You do understand this, I hope?”

“Of course I do,” she said curtly. “I am inexperienced, Tariq, not an idiot.”

He titled his head slightly. “Then I am curious, Princess, why you juded it worth the risk?”

Theasia turned her head to stare at the wall in front of which the Araanis had sat minutes before. Shavayad waited in silence for her to gather her thoughts.

“I cannot do it the way my father does,” she whispered, finally. “You know of my…condition. He has to spend every moment on his ploys and schemes. You know this, you’re the man who orchestrates half of them. Father is a vigorous man and still the burden of constantly playing the Houses and the Empire and the Punaji and everyone else against each other exhausts him. I don’t have the strength, Shavayad. Simply not the physical strength. And I cannot afford to show the weakness that would be revealed if I drive myself to collapse.”

“So you will strike first,” he said quietly.

“No.” Theasia turned her face back to him, shaking her head once. “Too much aggression begets retaliation, it would lead to the Enchanter Wars all over again. But they must know that I have the ability and the will to strike them. An example must be made of someone, to bring the rest in line. Whoever gives me a reason first. It has not escaped my notice that the only thing in living memory which has forced the Houses, even temporarily, to behave like civilized people was the near collapse of civilization itself. An orcish invasion, a drow invasion, a Stalweiss warlord’s invasion, and in the middle of that a handful of concurrent civil wars. All to furnish proof that their noble blood spills as easily as anyone’s. Then, the moment they felt it was safe, they went right back to their self-serving plots. ‘The bastards will stop when they are stopped, and not before.’”

“Foxpaw,” he said, quirking one eyebrow in the strongest expression of surprise she had ever seen from him. “I never imagined your mother would have allowed you to read the Exploits, your Highness.”

“My mother knows me too well to limit my leisure activities to books and then expect that I will adhere to her curated bibliography.”

“It is perhaps for the best, then, so long as she doesn’t catch you quoting Eserite dogma.” A fleeting smile passed across his features. “And so. You had no specific plans for these devices?”

She shook her head again. “Merely preparedness. The squeamishness after Magnan’s fall doesn’t serve us, Shavayad. Magic is the future, and those who control it will rule. The Sapphire College is diminished but not gone; we may all dismiss Syralon and the Wizards’ Guild as laughingstocks, but they are growing slowly stronger, and will only grow more so. And I don’t believe for a moment that Tellwyrn is dead. A woman like that comes and goes as she likes, and would never have the courtesy to perish conveniently out of sight. I will be Empress, however briefly. I have to be prepared. And… And my parents have not only failed to prepare me, in their good intentions they are trying to prevent me from being ready.” Theasia lifted her arms to gesture helplessly at the laboratory. “I need options.”

Shavayad studied her in silence for a moment, then suddenly stepped toward her. Theasia stiffened, but refused to retreat at his approach. To her surprise, he simply extended his arm to hand her the shielding charm he was still holding.

“My agency has received word of a plot against your Highness’s well-being,” he said abruptly.

Theasia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Mine?”

“Not much of a plot,” he said. “One which has zero realistic prospects of succeeding, and frankly is quite unlikely to get off the ground as the persons behind it I judge far too intelligent to take the risk. Unless…” Tilting his head again, he studied her face thoughtfully, now with a knowing little smile. “They might be encouraged to do so, with the proper incentives.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, running her own thumb over the charm. It was warm, whether from its magic or his hand. “Incentives which you could provide.”

“Unfortunately not,” he said. “Certain individuals have been making discreet inquiries about an attempted abduction, your Highness. No one who is capable of such a feat would be foolish enough to attempt it, nor would they respond favorably to an overture from me. If approached by a rebellious Princess who quotes Ashner Foxpaw and finances secret weapons labs, however…”

“My father would summarily dismiss you from your position even for suggesting this,” Theasia said softly.

“You have never given your father enough credit for ruthlessness,” the spymaster replied lightly. “He would have me jailed, at the very least.”

Of course she understood what he was doing. Now they each had a secret to hold over the other—and he had had no reason at all to offer her one. This was an offering not only of peace between them, but alliance. Which begged the question…

“Why would you propose this?” she asked.

“Because,” he said, meeting her gaze, “in my professional opinion, Princess, you need this. You need the experience and the guidance. And you need to vanquish an enemy, both for your sake and to make it known that you can.”

Being practiced chiefly at repressing her anger, boredom and frustration, the smile of excitement caught her off guard and crept onto her features before she could successfully stifle it. “What, exactly, did you have in mind, Lord Shavayad?”

He smiled in return, glancing down at the shielding charm in her had. “Well. First of all, I want to introduce you to a jeweler…”

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Bonus #34: Divine Right, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Digitize27!

Wanting to punch his Grace the Duke of House Madouri in the throat was not even the worst part. His duplicious ilk were merely the background noise of her existence, and he was far from the lowest specimen of his kind. Her whole family had to put on polite smiles and solicitous manners when dealing with the menagerie of treacherous nobles who circulated through the Imperial court, but Theasia’s lot was far worse than that of her parents. They might be frustrated, but the worst thing happening to them was the progress of age.

Princess Theasia’s army of secretive healers had not come right out and said violent outbursts would be harmful to her health, but to parents who not only doted on a sickly daughter but feared for the Empire if the Tirasian bloodline were suddenly extinguished… These looming disasters were further complicated by the need to keep her condition a secret. If it became known that the future Empress suffered from the Banefall, the ever-circling vultures of the court would swoop in as one.

Constant monitoring, daily checkups, and regular applications of medicine whose value would have beggared some of the lesser Houses and magics so rare as to be borderline taboo all meant that Theasia went through her life with no greater hardship than an enforced limit on her degree of physical activity and the occasional twinge of pain. She had suffered the first symptoms of incipient organ failure at fourteen and received the diagnosis soon thereafter. Four years later, she was not particularly bothered, anymore, by the specter of death hovering constantly over her; it was amazing what a person could learn to live with.

To her parents and the Empire, however, Theasia Sabah Tirasian might as well have been some elven sculpture of butterfly wings and lily petals. Thus, not only could she not excoriate Duke Ravaan for being a slithering waste of blood for fear of the political trouble it would cause her father, she could not even vent to her parents later in private. Based on past experience, her mother would have her confined to bed for twenty-four hours to be certain her “episode” had caused no lingering effects.

So she refrained from glaring, but did not manage to smile. That much should give no offense; the young Princess had a reputation for being dispassionate in public. Encounters like this were the lion’s share of why.

“I share your concern about this issue, your Majesty,” Duke Ravaan said gravely to her father the Emperor about an issue of which he was almost certainly the cause. “I have just requested additional personnel from the Imperial foresters—this was only today, your Majesty may not have been yet informed—but to be frank, I consider it mostly a formality. The lands around Tiraas and Madouris are recovering well from the war, but it takes more than twenty years to re-grow a forest. I simply don’t think the woods provide enough cover to shelter bandits.”

“You make a good point, your Grace,” Emperor Sarsamon replied, his face solemn and attentive. Glancing over, Theasia noted with amusement that on his other side, her mother had not managed anything more than blank detachment in the face of Ravaan’s dissembling. The Empress was a serene soul by nature, but did not have her husband’s knack for pretending to like despicable people to their faces. “And yet, these ambushes continue. The banditry not only exists, but shows a distinct preference in targets. Perhaps you have some insight into the cause, if it is not brigands lurking in the forests?”

How she wished her father would just demand the boy account for his failure to secure the roads in Tiraan Province. They were even holding a private audience in a smaller chamber in the Palace, the only concession to Ravaan Madouri’s lesser stature being that he had not been offered a seat; there were none in the chamber save the ornate chairs on which the royal family sat. Had Theasia her way, this conversation would be held in the throne room, in full view of the court, while the young Duke stood below the Silver Throne like the worm he was to explain why Imperial revenue collectors kept being ambushed in his lands.

“There have been enough of the incidents now that it cannot be a coincidence,” Ravaan agreed, nodding with such a perfectly convincing expression of thought that Theasia itched to lunge from her chair and claw it off his face. She contented herself with drumming her fingers once on the armrest. “And in that time, the culprits have avoided apprehension. That, to me, suggests a political motive. Were they simply opportunists, and foolish enough to think the greater riches of an Imperial tax caravan worth the risks involved, they would have been destroyed by now.”

“Yet they remain free,” Empress Tamar said quietly. “They have weaponry and training sufficient to challenge Imperial soldiers, and appear to vanish.”

“There are no shortage of veterans and hardware still at loose ends, as your Majesties are of course aware,” said Ravaan. “It seems to me the only possibility is that they are blending into the populace.”

Or they’re being funded and hidden by a powerful interest, such as House Madouri, for example, Theasia did not say. Her parents did not require that she remain silent during such audiences, but anything openly suspicious or combative from her would result in lectures at best.

“Or perhaps,” her father said mildly, “someone with means is providing them shelter.”

Thank you, Father.

“There are no entrenched powers in Madouris or Tiraan Province who would dare openly defy the Silver Throne,” Ravaan replied with an unctuous smile. “Of that much I can assure your Majesties. There have been…difficulties…since my father’s passing. It was sudden and I fear he did not reveal everything he knew to me about the state of the province; I have been struggling, during this last year, to solidify my position while numerous interests within my domain vie to take advantage of the confusion. Perhaps your Majesties can relate?”

He dared compare himself to her father while knowingly contributing to the very travails about which he complained? Theasia gripped the arms of her chair for a moment before forcing her hands to relax. Ravaan, fortunately, did not seem to notice. Sarsamon simply acknowledged him with a magnanimous gesture of one hand, and the young Duke continued.

“I am deeply embarrassed to say that there is a significant well of anti-Imperial feeling in Tiraan Province left over from the war. Not enough to threaten the public order, but sufficient that even a few ambitious malcontents would have no trouble finding, at the very least, accomplices. Uprooting such diffuse troubles as public sentiment is a perennial challenge. I have even attempted to make overtures to the Thieves’ Guild. That…went nowhere.”

All three royals nodded once in understanding. Though they all knew the little beast was lying through his teeth—Imperial Intelligence prioritized sniffing out any whisper of rebellion and there was none in the vicinity of the capital—the intractability of the Guild was a matter on which all aristocracy was in harmony. Her father’s friendly overtures over the years had resulted only in (relatively) gentle reminders from Boss Rider of the role the Guild had played in toppling his predecessor.

“I am sympathetic indeed to your plight, your Grace,” Sarsamon said in a kindly tone, earning a smile from the young man before him. “You are correct; it is a most familiar feeling you describe. I realize that things have become strained between our Houses since the war and its aftermath, but I well recall the aid your father lent both to me and the Empire in our darkest hour, and have long regretted that the growing coldness between us deprived me of opportunities to make my gratitude known. Perhaps, in this shared trouble, we can begin to mend that breach.”

“There is nothing that would please me more, your Majesty,” Ravaan said, bowing and smiling with the overt triumph of a nobleman who had just gotten away with something. “It was in exactly this hope that I came before you today.”

“I am glad,” Sarsamon replied, folding his hands in his lap and continuing to bestow a fatherly smile in return. “As you have provided such valuable insight into this difficulty, I shall be pleased to lend the aid of the Throne to its resolution. Let us spare the foresters any needless risk and labor; it will surely not take long for Imperial Intelligence to locate and subdue our bandits once I direct its full attention to Madouris.”

Though young, Ravaan was at least good enough not to let his smile falter; the split-second freeze as he realized how he had outsmarted himself might have been invisible to any but a fellow politician.

“I am humbled and grateful for your Majesty’s attention,” he said, bowing again—more deeply, this time, which hid his expression for a precious second. “And I apologize most sincerely for putting the Throne to such trouble on my behalf.”

“Don’t worry, Ravaan,” Sarsamon said pleasantly. “I remember being in your position. Is it not better for the Empire to work as one? We must ever stand ready to aid each other at need.”

Impatient as Theasia often was with her father’s gentle way of handling the nobles, at times like this she had to acknowledge he was Emperor for a reason. No matter how many times he reminded them, they just kept forgetting that Sarsamon Tirasian was nobody’s pushover.

“My only concern,” Ravaan said, putting on a pensive expression, “is whether such an action might exacerbate existing anti-Imperial sentiment.”

“The public’s feelings must of course be considered,” Sarsamon agreed, nodding. “What would you suggest we do about this prospect?” As good as forcing to young snake to come out with whatever it was he was angling for. Theasia still would have preferred putting the boy firmly in his place, but she couldn’t deny her father’s methods got results.

“As we have discussed, your Majesty,” Ravaan replied earnestly, “the Houses of Tirasian and Madouri share both goals and difficulties, and the state of the Empire as a whole begs for greater unity. Our enemies both within and without our borders smell weakness and watch for openings. There is the additional similarity that both our Houses were diminished to a single branch by the depredations of the war. A single accident now could end the thousand-year history of House Madouri, or the hard-won stability of the Empire itself. With the greatest humility, your Majesties, it has inevitably occurred to me that these problems might have a single solution.”

Theasia’s blood went cold, so noticeably that she momentarily feared she might be having some new kind of attack.

“Are you suggesting,” Empress Tamar asked in deathly quiet, “a union of our Houses through marriage?”

“I merely submit the idea to your Majesties for consideration,” Ravaan replied, bowing to her. “I believe it has merit—for the Empire, for Tiraan Province, and for us all. Such a unified power block would be positioned to withstand almost any domestic challenge, and with that established, the Empire could make far more rapid progress in restoring its prestige and prosperity.”

How much did it cost to have a man killed? Surely she could afford it. That wasn’t the real problem; where did one go about finding an assassin? The Empire had people, of course, but there was no way to use them without it getting back to her father…

“You think very highly of yourself, your Grace,” Theasia said aloud, earning a sidelong glance of warning from her mother.

“I confess that I do, Princess,” Ravaan replied, having the audacity to smile warmly at her, “though in truth, not so highly as I do of you.”

Her iron self-control must have faltered slightly, because he took one look at her expression and immediately changed tactics.

“Please understand, your Highness, that despite the immense personal esteem in which I hold you, I am not attempting an approach out of flirtatiousness. Though I do believe you and I have every possibility of developing great mutual respect, even fondness—else I would not raise the idea—in the end this is a political solution to political problems.”

“It is an idea of merit,” Sarsamon said quietly. “Though not without its drawbacks, as well. You understand, your Grace, we must consider all of these carefully—both as rulers, and as a family.”

“I understand all too well, your Majesty,” Ravaan agreed. “Such is the delicate balance required of those the gods have designated to rule.”

“I thank you for your time, and these…very interesting thoughts you have raised, my lord Duke,” the Emperor stated, straightening subtly in his chair. “You may be assured that we will consider them with the greatest of care.”

“I could ask for nothing more, your Majesties, and am ever grateful,” Ravaan intoned, bowing in reply to the polite dismissal. “By your leave, then.”

The three of them sat in silence for several long seconds even after the doors had shut behind him.

At last Sarsamon let out a sigh, and reached over to take his daughter’s hand. “Well, the obvious fact must be stated: it would solve a lot of the Empire’s current problems.”

Theasia squeezed his fingers, closing her eyes for a moment. He was right, of course. The power of the Silver Throne had been so weakened after the war that only her father’s status as a hero to the people kept House Tirasian in power, for now. The alliance of House Madouri, House Aldarasi and the Universal Church which had conspired to place him on the Throne as a virtual puppet had shattered when Sarsamon managed to wrangle actual power out of Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign and the need for a united Empire in the face of it. The Aldarasis still stood firmly with them, both because the Sultana was too canny to take being outplayed personally and because her own daughter was now Empress. Archpope Vyara, ever the pragmatist, had grown cool toward House Tirasian since the war, and neither made herself helpful—often—nor actively caused them trouble—for the most part. The old Duke of House Madouri, however, had been embittered and furious at being cheated, as he saw it, and made himself a constant nuisance right up until his death last year. By uniting Houses Tirasian and Madouri, that alliance would be restored and, as Ravaan had pointed out, the triumvirate of Tiraas, Calderaas and Madouris would have enough pull to force the rest of the Houses back into line.

“How certain are we,” she asked, “that there are no other surviving branches of House Madouri?”

“Very,” her father said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “That was most of the reason the old Duke supported placing me on the Throne. Facing the possible extinction of House Madouri, he grabbed for power in the only way available to him.”

“So,” she said thoughtfully, “if I were to marry Ravaan and something unfortunate immediately befell him, I would be in control of—”

“Theasia!” her mother exclaimed, aghast. Sarsamon’s lips twitched with barely-suppressed amusement.

“I…suppose the boy isn’t all bad,” Theasia allowed grudgingly, fumbling for something positive to say. “He’s never once groped me with his eyes, which is better than I can say of half the nobles of our generation.”

With a diffident little cough, Lord Tariq Shavayad emerged from behind the decorative screen which had hidden him during the audience. The head of Imperial Intelligence was a tall, silver-haired man who wore discreet stateliness like a second suit.

“Given his late father’s protectiveness and the brevity of his rule thus far,” the spymaster said, “we are still assembling a dossier on him, and the portrait thus painted is yet incomplete. House Madouri has always been adept at guarding its privacy. I have ascertained, however, that all of his Grace’s romantic dalliances to date have been with men. I can say with reasonable certainty that his interest in the Princess is purely political.”

“Well,” Theasia said after they digested that in silence for a moment, “I do believe I have never been so simultaneously unflattered and yet relieved.”

Her father squeezed her hand once more and then released it. “What are your impressions overall, Lord Shavayad?”

“It is, as your Majesty observed, a valid political maneuver,” Shavayad said neutrally. “And, of course, his Grace would not propose it unless he believed himself able to position himself in control of both the relationship and the Empire. It would not be the first time someone technically relegated to the Swan Throne held authority in truth over a weaker-willed spouse.”

Theasia was very glad she was no longer holding her father’s fingers; her grip on the arms of her chair was painful enough for her. The upholstery was going to have permanent marks if people did not cease pointing out such repulsive facts in her presence.

“And the matter of the banditry?” Sarsamon added in a dry tone.

“It was, at the very least, not Ravaan’s idea,” Shavayad replied. “Simply by dint of the timing. The attacks have grown more brazen lately, but they began before he took power. I was not able to verify definitively that his father instigated them, and at the time they were but an occasional and minor nuisance. Shall I make good on your Majesty’s offer, and divert resources to Madouris?”

“Do,” Sarsamon said, allowing himself to display a predatory satisfaction he carefully hid from the nobility, the public, and his enemies. “I rather suspect the mere knowledge that it’s coming will cause Ravaan to hastily dismantle the program, if he has any control over it. Anything you find, though, is something we can hold over him.”

“Is it possible that he was telling the simple truth?” Tamar inquired.

“It is…possible,” the spymaster allowed. “I assure your Majesties there is no significant rebellious sentiment in the core provinces. Not enough to mount an insurgency, but it is not unthinkable that disaffected former rebels might find sufficient armament and numbers to execute bandit raids of this kind. His Grace’s theory is plausible. Forgive me, your Majesties, but there is nothing I distrust more than an aristocrat with an agenda and a plausible excuse.”

“Quite,” Sarsamon agreed. “Do what you can, Tariq, but do it as discreetly as the situation allows. The damnable truth is that we cannot afford either the lost revenue or the loss of face any further, and we may not be able to endure the backlash that would result from marching troops into Madouris.” He paused, then sighed heavily. “I suppose I also can’t afford to rid myself of that little pustule, either.”

“Sarsamon,” Tamar said reproachfully. He reached over to take her hand.

“I advise against it, your Majesty,” Lord Shavayad said in the same calm tone he doubtless used to order lunch. “The elimination of a high-standing lord who caused you trouble would provoke severe retaliation from numerous Houses. Especially after what happened to Lord Turombi, even in the absence of proof the suspicion of your involvement would be enough. Duke Ravaan, inconvenient as he may be, is probably more manageable than the chaos that would result from the sudden extinction of House Madouri and the resulting power vacuum in Tiraan Province, which House Tirasian is unfortunately not in a position to fill. There is also the matter that I could not guarantee with certainty that an assassination would succeed. House Madouri has not endured for a thousand years by taking chances with its security, and they have accumulated unknowable resources in that time. The closer the bloodline is to petering out, the more avidly it will be defended.”

“It was just a passing thought,” Sarsamon said, not without a hint of bitterness. “Well. Ravaan and his proposal require consideration and discussion in detail, which I’m afraid we will have to postpone.”

“Ah, yes,” Tamar said with a sigh, rising from her chair. “Lord Dufresne and Lady Leduc will arrive for their audience presently, and if I am not there to mediate before they meet it’s likely one won’t leave the room alive.”

“Take no prisoners, my dear,” Sarsamon intoned, standing and raising her hand to his lips for a kiss. The Empress did not reply verbally, but gave him a look of wry fondness before turning her attention to her daughter.

“How do you feel, Theasia?”

She knew better than to say she was fine. “Irked, to tell the truth,” she replied honestly. “I believe I shall take a book to my garden this afternoon. I would rather be in a calmer frame of mind when we discuss this in earnest.”

“Very good,” Tamar agreed, nodding and smiling. Her mother approved of such passive pastimes for her frail daughter. A moment later, though, the smile faltered, leaving her staring at Theasia with a worried expression that was subtly unlike her usual worried expression. She stepped over and took her daughter’s hands as Theasia rose to meet her. “It isn’t such a terrible thing as you are probably imagining, little bird.”

While Theasia was still blinking at her in surprise, she turned and glided from the room.

She was aware that her parents’ marriage was a political one. They cared deeply for each other, but Theasia had garnered enough hints over the years to be fairly certain that had developed after the wedding. Of course, such talk as this would resonate with them in a way to which she couldn’t quite relate. It also meant she had best restrain herself even further than usual in discussing it. To express honestly the revulsion she felt at the idea might be an outright insult. As much as Theasia bridled at their over-protectiveness and their passive style of rule, she loved her parents deeply and held great respect for everything they had accomplished for the Empire. The thought of causing them hurt was intolerable.

Sarsamon turned to his daughter and gathered her into a hug, which she gratefully returned, ignoring Lord Shavayad standing discreetly nearby.

“I’m afraid my conversation with the generals is going to be less boring that I’d like,” he said, releasing her. “I had better not tarry, either. We’ll talk about all of this over dinner, Theasia.”

“Of course, Father,” she replied, smiling up at him. “Just don’t invade anyone without me, I would like to watch that.”

“It’s a promise,” he said, lightly tweaking her on the chin with a finger. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Theasia sighed, watching him stride from the room, then turned to nod politely to the spymaster. “Lord Shavayad, I bid you good afternoon.”

“Your Highness,” he said suddenly, “I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a moment of your time.”

She had started to turn toward the door herself and froze. Shavayad had never asked her for anything, nor treated her as more than an accessory of her parents, to be frank. No official of the Imperial government had, thanks to her mother’s insistence that she was not to be unduly burdened. For all that Theasia was encouraged to be present and observe the functions of government, her only actual duties to the Empire had been social thus far. Most days, she felt less like a princess than the invalid ateenage daughter of some industrialist.

“What can I do for you, my lord?” she inquired as evenly as she could manage around the surprising surge of excitement she felt. If this turned out to be something about an upcoming ball or some such rot…

“My people have tracked an illicit operation which I think you ought to be informed of, Princess. In detail.” His expression was totally inscrutable. Well, the man was spymaster for a reason.

“I?” she replied, raising one eyebrow. “And not my parents?”

“As head of Intelligence, the core of my duty is to curate information, your Highness. Your father the Emperor cannot be burdened with every detail of everything which transpires in the Empire. I must choose carefully what to bring before him, what to ignore, and what to deal with quietly on my own initiative. In this matter, it is my assessment that you are the appropriate person to whom to bring the issue.” He hesitated for a split second, and undoubtedly deliberate pause for emphasis. “I beg that your Highness will forgive my presumption, but it is my opinion that you are more than intelligent and mature enough to begin participating in statecraft, Princess, and that the health of the Empire requires that you begin acquiring experience. Your mother’s laudable concern for your well-being has made this process somewhat slower than it might otherwise have been.”

Flattery. Skillful and subtle flattery, but there nonetheless. Even seeing him do it did not quite quash the surge of satisfaction she felt at being acknowledged. Offered the chance to do something for the Empire.

Of course, the question remained…why?

“And what is this issue, precisely?” she asked, as deadpan as she could manage.

“To an extent, you will have to be shown rather than told,” he said apologetically, “but I will brief you to the extent that I can on the way.”

“The way?”

“Yes, your Highness. This will involve an excursion into the city. I can promise you both absolute discretion and the greatest security my agency can provide. Be assured, I would take no risks with your Highness’s well-being.”

Her heart was practically pounding, so vividly she instinctively reached for the vial of medicine concealed in her dress—which had been tailored for that specific reason, as ladies’ fashions otherwise suffered from an aggravating lack of pockets. A chance to leave the Palace, to go out into the city, on Imperial business. To help.

Shavayad was up to something, of course; all of this was too sudden and too unconventional. But then, he was never not up to something. He was the spymaster, that was literally what they paid him for. And he had the absolute trust of her parents.

Well, if the man was a traitor, they were all doomed anyway. She had lived her entire life without being allowed to take risks. This seemed a good place to start.

“Of course, Lord Shavayad,” Princess Theasia said, barely controlling an eager smile. “Lead the way.”

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Bonus #33: Mister Nice Guy

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Istralith!

At least he wasn’t in jail for long.

“Well, there she comes,” the officer who had arrested him said unnecessarily, turning to the door of the cell block. Even through the unholy noise of the place, the constant clamor of people in jail for reasons which usually boiled down to booze and brawling compounded by the echoing stone construction of the station house, Tony had heard her coming. Her voice had a distinctively coarse, piercing quality even when not raised in that cackling laugh of hers, which it was as she neared.

She was always laughing about some damn thing or other. Leave it to Rags to find somebody to josh with while walking into a police station to extricate her own apprentice.

“All right, where’s my—there we go,” Rags was declaiming even as she stepped into the cell block. Another uniformed soldier peeked in behind her, but then turned to leave, deciding she needed no further escort. The old woman shuffled across the dingy hallway, ignoring the soldier on duty for a moment to squint at Tony. “Hello again, chucklehead. Well, y’managed a whole three days this time! At this rate I’m gonna forget what you look like without bars coverin’ yer face.”

“I’m told the vertical lines are very slimming,” Tony said, striking a pose and turning his head to the side. “What about in profile, does it work with this haircut?”

“Boy, nothin’ works with that haircut.”

“I’m not even gonna point out the obvious,” Tony said to Sergeant Aradjev, who grinned.

“Sassing your boss’s style isn’t a smart play in your position, kid. I can’t say I mind all that much,” he added to Rags, folding his arms and lounging against the wall by his desk. “I’d be annoyed about having to pick him up twice a week, but at least the boy doesn’t bite me, or stink, or shit on the floor. Hell, he’s even funny when he stops being a little prick.”

“That has never happened,” Tony said earnestly.

“Yep, favorite customer right here,” Aradjev drawled. “One of these days I’m actually gonna charge his ass with something so we can keep him around. Beats having any of the rest of these air-wasters in the front cell where I have to look at ’em. Omnu’s balls, the last guy in there was surrounded by an actual cloud of fleas.”

This commentary brought a round of shouted curses from the denizens of the closest cells. Tony just edged to the center of his and concentrated on not touching anything.

It didn’t need to be pointed out that Rags looked more like she belonged in the drunk tank than Tony did. As usual she wore a bulky, ratty coat two sizes two large and stuffed with who knew what underneath so she resembled a misshapen ogre. A scarf that was more patches than scarf was wound around her head, hiding just enough of her gray hair that the escaping wisps only hinted at the chaos that must hide within. No two articles of clothing on her matched, even her shoes.

“How come you’re still down here mindin’ the drunk tank, Daoud?” she asked the sergeant, her leathery face creasing in a yellowed grin. “The place ain’t burned down yet, what more does a body gotta do to get promoted in this dump?”

“Oh, don’t get me started,” he grunted. “It’s a goddamn trap, is what it is. I mean, same’s true in reverse. How do you get promoted out of fucking guard duty? It’s not like there’s a lot of opportunity for distinguished service in manhandling shroomheads.”

“Now, that’s no good,” Rags cackled. “Next time you tell the story, it’s cos you banged the captain’s wife.”

Sergeant Aradjev obliged her with a booming laugh. “Maybe in another unit! If it got around I’d messed with Captain Mafaneh’s husband that wouldn’t be good for my own love life. And she’d break her foot off in my ass.”

“Oy!” Tony stepped forward to the bars, grabbing them with both hands. “Not to heckle you kids or anything, but I’m still—”

Rags’s whole routine was making people forget that she was a veteran of the Thieves’ Guild and not just some bag lady. She was good at it—so good that even her own apprentice was sometimes taken in. Like now, when her hand flashed through the bars toward his face with the speed and precision of a hunting eel.

The next moments were a whirlwind of shock and pain. Only in the aftermath, while Aradjev howled with laughter, did Tony manage to sort out that she’d grabbed him by the nose and yanked, banging his skull against the bars. Also, he was now sitting on the floor.

“Did I hear right?” Rags said, ignoring him again. “The little clown was picking on the Topaz College this time?”

“It was two warlocks,” Aradjev chuckled. “And we all know who started it but I can’t rightly say he was the one doing the picking.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.”

“Oh, he managed not to get himself hexed into a puddle, as you can see. Lucky for his ass there were officers on the scene before that got as ugly as it really should have.”

Tony, belatedly finding a measure of wisdom, kept his mouth shut. He even deliberately moderated his expression, doing his best to smile and look vaguely amused by all this and not as resentful as he felt. It got progressively harder as their inane chitchat carried on. Omnu’s breath, she stood there gossiping with the soldier while he stewed in a cell! For at least ten minutes!

They had done this song and dance enough times that he knew better than to complain. Or to betray impatience when the sergeant finally sauntered back to his desk, in no great hurry, and retrieved the keys to let him out.

“Hey, look at that, you finally taught him to heel,” Aradjev said amiably while opening the cell, nearly provoking Tony to lose his temper again—which was so obviously deliberate that Tony clamped down on the impulse and managed a grin at him as he stepped out into the hall. “Welp, here we are again. See you in a week, Mr. Darling.”

“I’ll bring the sparkling wine next time,” Tony said, winking. “Wear something sexy for me, sugar.”

“You know why I don’t mind letting you outta here so easy every time, kid?” Aradjev replied, his expression suddenly more serious. “Because if this is the way you talk to police, you are going to be dead faster than it would take for the courts to process you. It was warlocks this time, you little dipshit. I’m seriously amazed you haven’t eaten a lightning bolt yet. Go on, get outta here.”

“Say hi to the boys for me, Daoud,” Rags said cheerily even as she steered Tony toward the door.

“You take care out there, Maggie,” the sergeant replied, and then they were stepping out into the public area of the station.

He kept his peace at least until they were out on the street in Tiraas’s perennial drizzle.

“Thanks,” Tony said, jamming his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders. “…again.”

Rags grunted, not looking at him. “Fishing your ass outta the pokey’s all part of the job, boy. If I resented it, you’d damn well know by now. I want you to think about somethin’ next time you get impatient when I stop an’ chat with the guards, though.”

“I’m all ears,” he said, not trying for sarcasm but not making an effort to repress it.

“You have no criminal record, Tony, despite being in and outta that cell for a litany of petty offenses that should have you in a labor unit by now. Why? Not cos a’ your boyish good looks, that’s for damn sure.”

“It’s because you’re friends with the guards,” he grumbled. “I know, I know.”

“You know jack shit. It’s ‘cos I’m friends with everybody. And I ain’t gonna be around forever. Hell, long before I ain’t around anymore I’m gonna run outta patience with pulling your chestnuts outta the fire. It’s high time you started makin’ friends, too.”

“Oh, I dunno, I think I’m wearing Aradjev down,” he said cheerfully. “Two, three more arrests, tops, and I’ll have him eating out of my hand!”

Rags finally glanced up at him, her expression inscrutable. “What’re you so mad about, boy?”

“Me? Mad?” Tony stretched his arms wide, raising his face to the clammy precipitation. “What could I possibly be upset about, free as a bird as I am on such a lovely day?”

“You’re too nice a guy to be constantly gettin’ in the fights you do,” she said. “Specially with who you keep gettin’ in fights with. Ain’t gonna be much longer before somebody at the Guild notices we got an apprentice who seems to have a problem with the priests of other cults. How long d’you reckon your ass’ll last then? Yeah, you’re mad about somethin’. You got an ax to grind. Wanna tell me why?”

Tony kept his eyes forward, letting his face collapse into a scowl. Somewhat to his surprise, she didn’t press the question, and in fact didn’t speak again until they reached an intersection.

“Hang a left here.”

“Guild’s up ahead,” he pointed out. “Where are we going?”

“The Collegium,” she grunted. “Got business there.”

“And you need me along for that?”

“Damn right, bein’ as it’s your business. First off, you’re gonna deliver an apology at the Topaz College, an’ you better convincingly pretend you mean it. Don’t you make faces at me, boy. Absolute last thing you need is fuckin’ warlocks with a grudge on you, I don’t care which goddess they follow.”

“…yeah, yeah,” he muttered. “Fair enough.”

“An’ then we’re gonna see a friend o’ mine at the Emerald College an’ get you a thorough cleansing.”

“What? Why—oh, for fuck’s sake, Rags, they didn’t actually cast any infernal magic at me.”

“Ah, ah!” She raised one gnarled finger. “You didn’t see ’em cast any infernal magic! Ain’t the same thing by a long shot. Mess with that shit an’ you may not realize it’s happened for ten years, and then your organs start turnin’ to mulch. You ever watched somebody die o’ bone cancer, boy? Cos I have. You do not fuck around with warlock shit. We’re gettin’ you cleansed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said sullenly.

Rags flashed him a grin. “Trust me, you wanna be in top form tonight. Ain’t every day I let you off the leash to do a solo job. An’ you, Tony, are gonna need all the help you can get.”

Evening found him in much more socially acceptable company. Not better; the well-heeled people gathering at this fashionable townhouse were exactly the sort the Guild regarded as both predators and prey, highly-placed vultures fond of looking down their noses at the masses who did the actual work that supported their lifestyles. No, these popinjays might have things he could want, but at least he respected Rags.

Anyway, if all went well, Tony wouldn’t be here long.

He got in with no trouble; though there was a servant in livery at the door, he was just taking coats and not demanding to see invitations. Tony had come dressed in a (borrowed) suit that didn’t leave him looking out of place here, though he didn’t know any of those present. He slowly circulated through the connected parlors and drawing room where party guests mingled, doing his best to meet inquisitive glances with what he hoped was a mysterious little smile and moving on before anybody could engage him in conversation.

Tony actually did feel guilty about all this. Oh, not for the planned heist; the rich man throwing this effete shindig could afford the loss of some of the jewelry with which he bedecked his young trophy wife. No, the twinge of his conscience was over the fact that he actually didn’t intend to rob the place, despite the plans he’d laid out for Rags’s approval.

It wasn’t that he feared being called out on it, but simply the principle of the thing. Rags was a good mentor and looked after him, even beyond having to extract him from jail semi-regularly. It didn’t feel good, putting one over on her. He had no worry about getting away with it, though. Jobs didn’t pan out for all sorts of reasons, and Rags herself had warned him it was better to abort one if necessary than face excessive risk, should there be unexpected complications. And if worse came to worst, he could just cop to being distracted by a pretty girl. As his mentor had taught him, the best lies were verifiable truths with a few important details omitted.

And speak of the Dark Lady, there she was.

“I was starting to worry, silly boy,” Anora murmured, manifesting out of the crowd at his side in that bewitchingly mysterious way she had. She slipped an arm through his and fell seamlessly into step with him.

“Oh, you should know better than that,” Tony replied, patting her hand. “What could possibly happen to me in a place like this?”

“Specifically,” she said, giving him a warm look up through her lashes, “I half expected you to have been challenged to a duel by now.”

“I am shocked,” he intoned. “Utterly shocked. Dueling is highly illegal! That you would think I’d engage in such a thing wounds me to my core.”

“Not at all, Antonio, not at all,” Anora purred, leaning subtly into him. “If someone challenged you to a duel, you’d respond by punching him. And then I would be known as the fool who invited a lout with no social graces to a party!”

“Hmm…yes, I see your point,” Tony said seriously. “That’s a real concern. Perhaps we’d better get me out of here before somebody ends up with a black eye. Or worse, a blackened reputation!”

Again she looked up at him, and it was perfect. The mischief in her little smile, the way it accentuated her dimples, the angle of her head that emphasized her eyelashes and the lines of her heart-shaped face. There were pretty girls whose beauty lay in their own seeming unconsciousness of it; Anora Nazaar was not one of those. She knew exactly what she was doing, had it down to a science. It made Tony inherently wary of her, even as he played along.

Which didn’t preclude him from enjoying the offered view, of course.

“Don’t worry, we have plenty of time,” she murmured in a much lower tone, keeping her playful expression in place for the sake of the other party-goers but her voice pitched for his ears alone. “This way, but don’t rush. Try not to look like you’re up to something.”

“You needn’t worry about me,” he replied at the same volume, likewise maintaining the amiable grin of any youth flirting with a pretty girl at a party. “You’re talking to a guy with actual formal training in exactly that.”

Anora gave him another of those coy, subtly heated smiles, and he replied with a broadening of his grin and a wink, even as he inwardly steeled himself. Tony wasn’t in danger of actually falling for her—he knew too much to trust her that well. Still, she was good at this game, and he could easily imagine her persuading him to make any number of big mistakes.

They moved unhurriedly through the guests, maintaining inconspicuous chitchat while working progressively toward the back of the house. There was nothing unusual about that in and of itself; even if they were spotted slipping out of the public areas, that was something couples did at parties. No one should suspect what they were actually up to.

She ducked into the kitchen, and he followed. Anora swept right past the surprised-looking cooks toward the basement stairs in the back, and Tony trotted obediently on her heels, offering friendly smiles and nods to the servants. Mentally he counted this as more evidence for his theory that she was noble. There was no House Nazaar, but names could be changed like hats, and even the nouveau riche were not so blind to the very existence of working people. Eserites knew well the significance of servants and the importance of not being seen by anyone when up to no good. Aristocrats tended to regard the people who worked for them as furniture.

At least the cooks did not attempt to waylay them, and moments later they were in the cool dark of the wince cellar. Anora made for one wall where, instead of racks of bottles, there was a row of huge casks such as a winery might have. Pausing to give him a smile that verged on a smirk, she grasped and twisted the tap protruding from one.

The entire front of the enormous barrel swung out on silent hinges.

“Nice,” he said appreciatively.

“Isn’t it?” she replied with a wink. “Now, at the risk of affronting your gentlemanly manners, I think I should go first.”

“But of course, my lady,” he replied gallantly, offering her a hand up into the barrel. “Allow me.”

“My thanks, kind sir! Do tug the lid closed after us; it will latch by itself.”

The cask, of course, opened onto a hole in the basement wall, which became a tunnel. Once he had shut them into the darkness, light flared, and Anora held up one of those pricey new handheld fairy lamps, again favoring him with that knowing little smile. He followed her without complaint into the shadows beyond.

Tony was no stranger to the expansive sewer system beneath Tiraas; this was a level above that, but at least he was accustomed to moving through cramped, dark spaces. Until you were used to it, the experience could be quite oppressive. He simply followed her, minding his step on the damp floor and ignoring the mildewy smell of the air. If nothing else, the way she backlit herself with her lamp gave him a pleasantly artistic view of her slim figure cutting through the darkness.

Anora led him through a hatch in the floor at the end of this tunnel—which, by his calculations, would have passed under the street and through what should have been the cellar of the house beyond, indicating that whoever lived there was also in on this secret, though he couldn’t spy another door in the dimness as they passed. The hatch took them down into the sewer system proper, where she continued on purposefully, taking turns without hesitation. If she expected him to be disoriented, she had underestimated him, or so he hoped. Thanks to his training with Rags and others from the Guild, Tony kept track of their course and the time it took, comparing it to his own mental map of the city in which he had grown up. He did not recognize any of the subterranean scenery, not having explored much of the sewer system yet, but by his projections their twenty-minute hike through the darkness brought them into an industrial district. When she finally stopped and directed him to ascend a ladder, he anticipated that it would lead to the basement storage of a factory.

“Ah, this is our final destination, then?” he inquired, smiling at her in the cold blue lamplight. “Or at least, you don’t want to lead the way any further?”

“Tony,” she replied with just a hint of wry patronization in her smile, “I am a lady. And I am wearing a dress. No, young man, you can climb up the ladder ahead of me, I think. And lift the heavy trapdoor while balancing atop it, incidentally.”

He had to laugh at that. “Well, you have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

“Yes, I have. The secret, I find, is to make sure I am always right.”

“Now that sounds like hard work,” he said, already clambering up. The iron rungs were damp, as was everything down here, and he didn’t rush, especially when pushing the heavy wooden door up at the top. It wasn’t onerously difficult, however. “Nothing’s going to jump out at me, I hope? After all, we are meeting your…what’s the word, cell?”

“’Circle’ is more commonly used,” she said with amusement from below. “Don’t worry, I would hardly spring you on them unannounced. You’re anticipated. Go on, Antonio.”

“I’m going as on as I can,” he grunted, levering his body halfway up through the opening and planting one hand on the stone floor beyond to finish lifting the trapdoor with his other. It was dark in the large space he entered, unsurprisingly, and he didn’t miss the fact that her lamp had spoiled his dark vision, giving whoever was waiting up here the drop on them, should they choose to use it.

It would be fine, he mentally assured himself, finally clambering out of the opening to lay the trapdoor down flat for her. The Black Wreath recruited through coy little games like this all the time, and no new prospect would be introduced to anything truly dangerous. New members could expect to be around for years before being trusted with anything beyond silly secret handshakes and meaningless rituals that resulted in no actual magic.

Tony straightened up, stepping aside to leave room for her, and squinted into the blackness. He couldn’t even tell how large this basement was. Were those shapes in the dark, or just his mind playing tricks?

Without warning a warm body was pressed against him, a strong arm pinned both of his at his sides, and a blade was pressed against his throat. Tony froze, obviously.

“Hey there, sailor,” a man’s voice whispered sibilantly beside his head. “Got a light?”

Tony wanted to swallow nervously, but the line of cold steel on his neck made him refrain. “Hold your horses, she’s coming up with the lamp,” he said, trying for nonchalance.

Very, very carefully, his shifted his head just enough to the side to get a sidelong look at his captor’s face, and with a sinking feeling began to suspect he’d gotten himself into real trouble this time.

The purplish highlights in the man’s black hair might have been a visual artifact of the bluish arcane lamp that was now rising into the room as Anora climbed through the opening. The bone-pale skin, while odd enough, could have just been that of someone who hadn’t gotten any sun in years. But those eyes… The irises were an impossible shade of mauve, and clearly faceted, glittering like jewels.

As if to confirm Tony’s fear, a single bat-like wing stretched into his peripheral vision before withdrawing again. He had, obviously, never seen an incubus in person, but the description was unmistakable.

The demon laughed at him, and he found it in himself to be annoyed as well as terrified.

“This is the one?” said a new voice. A woman emerged from the darkness into the blue circle of Anora’s lamp, tall and a tad sharp-featured, but otherwise almost aggressively unremarkable in appearance. Tiraan, middle-aged, wearing a simple dress and a skeptical expression. She eyed Tony up and down critically. “Hm. I don’t know what I was expecting. Someone…scruffier.”

“Well, he was attending a formal evening,” Anora replied, stepping around in front of Tony with the light, and his hopes fell further. The flirtatiousness was gone from her, leaving a coldly analytical look. “I assure you, Guild apprentices are quite scruffy indeed. This is…a costume.”

“Now, that’s a little strong,” he said, clinging to insouciance like a life raft. “So, uh, who else is coming? This seems like a pretty meager little cell. Sorry, circle.”

Neither woman replied, just studying him in silence.

Gingerly, Tony cleared his throat. “Say, buddy, would you mind awfully easing up just a little? A guy’s gotta breathe.”

“Oh, I like him,” the incubus giggled, which was considerably more unsettling than if he had sneered and snarled like a chapbook villain. “Let’s keep him!”

“We’ll see,” the older woman said flatly. “All right, Antonio Darling, you’re here. Why are you here?”

“Would, uh, would I be correct in guessing that at this moment I’m not exactly welcome to leave?”

“You can be as clever as you want if it makes you feel better,” she said. “I wouldn’t begrudge you that. I assure you up front, however, you will tell me everything I wish to know. You will do so thoroughly and accurately. These are foregone conclusions. What it is within your power to determine is how difficult this process is, and what befalls you afterward.”

“I don’t mean to criticize your technique, but you really oughta ask the questions before you start in on the threats, ma’am. Gives the mark an opportunity to be cooperative up front. Also, you’ll want a good guard to balance out the bad guard. Anora there should be keeping up the coy ingenue routine already established. Seriously, this is just wasted opportunity.”

Anora actually smiled at him. It looked genuine. That, he was more aware than ever, meant less than nothing.

“I did say you could be clever,” the woman replied in a dry tone, “but that doesn’t mean my patience for empty blather is long. What is your objective in infiltrating the Black Wreath?”

Tony blinked, not having to feign his confusion. “To…join? Did I not make that clear? Is…is this not the usual procedure?”

“Wrong answer!” the incubus said with truly alarming eagerness. “Now I get to—”

“Behave,” the elder warlock said curtly. “And you, resist the urge to prevaricate. We get no shortage of members from the ranks of the Pantheon cults, and a regular stream of clumsy attempts by the Sisterhood and the Topaz College, among others, to place agents in our numbers. We very rarely have prospects from the Thieves’ Guild. Can you guess why?”

“At a guess? I’d say you guys don’t have a monopoly on resentment of the unfairness of the cults.”

“There is also the matter that the Guild, more than any of the others, produces people who make very good double agents, when they have a mind to. Therefore, Eserites we inherently regard with deep suspicion. And now, here you are, apparently relying on the Dark Lady’s servants to be fumbling nincompoops if you thought it was going to be this easy. So what I want to know, first of all, is whether Catseye herself is behind this, or one of her underlings is getting ambitious. Because I know you didn’t think this up yourself, apprentice.”

“Whoah, whoah, you seriously have the wrong idea,” Tony said as earnestly as he could. “I mean, seriously. The Guild absolutely does not send apprentices to do delicate work like infiltration; I’m just barely allowed to do simple heists without supervision. If the Boss knew I was here she’d be helping your buddy skin me. Come on, you just said the Thieves’ Guild is good at this game. You can’t honestly think they’d try to use an apprentice to penetrate the Wreath?”

“Well, look at you,” she said, deadpan. “Clever, silver-tongued, and charming. Unfortunately, Antonio, I already have someone whose job it is to be clever, silver-tongued, and charming. Vathraen, I think it’s time for you to get a little…territorial.”

“Oh, thank heavens,” the incubus cooed, unwrapping his arm from around Tony’s midsection even as he pressed subtly harder with the blade. “I was starting to think you mooks were gonna drag this out all night!” He grabbed Tony’s left hand, his skin a touch warmer than the human norm.

“Hey, now,” Tony said, not fully disguising the nervousness in his voice. “Whoah with the hand-holding! That’s second date stuff.”

“Oh, you’re just precious,” Vathraen giggled, and then, to Tony’s revulsion, pressed a big smooch to his cheek.

Then he grabbed the first two fingers of his hand and wrenched them backward. Both bones snapped audibly. Tony did not begrudge himself the shrill sound he made; in truth he felt rather proud of himself for confining it to the back of his throat.

“You must appreciate the pacing, here,” the woman said pitilessly. Anora’s face was blank, rather than actively ruthless; could there be possibly real sympathy buried in there? He was keenly aware, through the stab of pain, that he was grasping desperately at any source of hope. “Vathraen is an artist. Ordinarily we could draw this out for days, if need be. He does like to start with the fingers, but the customary technique is to snap one joint at a time, with enough pause between for the victim to grow used to that amount of pain before adding to it. Two at once is downright hasty. You should take that as indicative of the time limit under which I am operating, and be aware that this can very quickly escalate to the most final outcome possible if I do not start seeing some cooperation from you.”

“Guild training is more than enough to slip out of a hold like that,” Anora commented. “He’s extending a little cooperation just by standing there. It’s hardly a hopeless case.”

“The knife helps, I’m sure,” the other woman said sardonically.

“There, see?” Tony panted, playing it up just a little bit. As pain went, broken fingers was a lot less than he’d dealt with in the past and once over the initial shock, he could cope with it. Better if they thought him more beaten down than he was, though. “Good guard! I told you that was a better approach. I feel more amenable already.”

“I really do like him,” Vathraen said with evident sincerity. “Can I cut him a little? I bet that’ll make him even funnier!”

“We’ll see,” said the warlock. “This is a simple question, Antonio. Whose idea was it for you to be here?”

Even through the pain and fear, he couldn’t help feeling contempt. This was why nobody professional used torture to extract information. The Guild didn’t, the Sisterhood didn’t, Imperial Intelligence didn’t. He’d told them the truth in the first place, and now he had to come up with a convincing lie to stop them from inflicting more pain. They had guaranteed they weren’t going to get anything useful from him no matter what happened. This was the work of the nefarious Black Wreath? This amateur hour blundering? He was beginning to think making contact with these people was a bad idea for reasons beyond the danger it had put him in.

Coming up with a name would be easy enough, and he quickly ran through a mental list of enforcers he knew who would fuck these clowns up backward and forward if they pressed the issue. Serve them right if he set them after that sadistic loon Grip, who he was pretty sure murdered stray dogs in her spare time. But there was also the issue of what someone like that would do to an apprentice who tried to throw her to the Wreath for a chew toy. Did he dare name someone higher up and truly dangerous, like Silence? Or even the Boss? The warlock had suggested Catseye herself as a possibility.

The real question was what answer would get him out of this room alive. And if, as he suspected, there was no such answer, how badly he could damage them through misinformation, if that was all he could manage to do…

Tony opened his mouth to hem and haw for more time, resigned to the likelihood of at least a few more broken fingers before he could cobble together a strategy, but before he could speak the incubus stiffened—causing him to do likewise as the blade nicked him. He felt blood well up all along its length.

“We have more visitors,” Vathraen announced in a much colder tone than before. The warlock turned, raising one hand to the side, and a swirl of orange flame materialized around it, adding a new dimension and intensity to the light in the large basement. In the augmented glow, Tony could finally see all the way to the wall, and the door at which they were all staring. Anora angled herself to keep both the entrance and Tony in her field of view, raising the fairy lamp.

Now the approach of footsteps was audible even to him. Whoever was coming down the stairs behind that door was sure making no effort to disguise their approach. In fact, that loud combination of shuffling and stomping…

No way.

The door was flung open, and Tony would have clapped his un-mangled hand to his forehead had he not been too afraid to move.

“Why am I not surprised,” Rags grumbled loudly, stomping into the room.

“Stay back!” the warlock snapped, raising her fireball.

“Aw, shove it, Doreen,” Rags retorted, not slowing. “Is that a fuckin’ incubus? Since when does your little club trust you to keep a critter like that on a leash?”

“Here, now,” Vathraen protested. “I’m sure we can all murder each other like civilized people without resorting to hurtful language.”

“Was this your idea, Maggie?” the warlock demanded shrilly. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking I better come rescue my dumbass apprentice, for not even the first time today,” Rags snorted. “My idea! My ass. I’d like to think you’d know by now I got better sense than to try something this pants-on-head moronic. Tony, exactly how fucked up are you this time?”

“Uh…” Tony lifted his left hand, glancing at it, and then instantly averted his eyes. The pain was well within what he could bear, but something about the sight of his fingers pointed the wrong direction made it considerably worse. “Y’know, all things considered, I’ve done worse to myself shaving.”

“Well, I got questions about what you shave with, then,” she grunted, finally coming to a stop a few yards away when Doreen raised her spell-channeling hand with the clear intent to throw that fistful of fire. “Fuck it, I ain’t even gonna claim the right of retribution on this one, that’s nothin’. That’s a bee sting! For an asshat scheme like this you deserve a lot worse. Daoud’s right, if there was any justice or goddamn sense in the universe you’d be dead three times over, already.”

“You…didn’t send him?” Doreen asked hesitantly, finally lowering her hand. The infernal flame wreathing it began to dim, flickering down to almost nothing. Anora backed away from the group, glancing rapidly between each of those present. “No, you wouldn’t. I know you’re smarter than this.”

“Damn right you do!” Rags huffed. “Take a hint from your demon-zombie fuckboy over there: you don’t gotta be insulting.”

“You know,” Vathraen mused to Tony, “that might be the most ironic thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Wow. I bet there’s some real competition for that title.”

“You have no idea.”

Doreen let the spell dissipate entirely, turning her attention back to Tony. “You actually were just looking to join?”

“Well, not now!” he exclaimed, pouring on the exasperation. “I mean this with all possible affection and respect, but fuck you guys. Except you, Anora. Since you’re a lady, you can merely get bent.”

“I believe I can accept that,” she muttered.

“Tony,” Rags said with a sigh, “for once in your life, shut your mouth. Doreen, call off your dog, wouldja?”

“Aw, c’mooooon,” Vathraen whined. “We never get to kill anybody!”

“I have half a mind to drown this place in hellfire and you two with it on general principles,” Doreen said tightly.

“I know, hon,” Rags replied in an incongruously sympathetic tone. “An’ I know the other half o’ your mind is well aware that I, not being my bonehead teenage apprentice who does his thinkin’ with the glands in his pants, did not come down here without both knowin’ there was warlocks afoot and makin’ sure people would come after me if I’m not out pretty damn quick. Look, this is a big, stupid cock-up all around, an’ everybody here oughtta be embarrassed to be part of it. Especially you,” she added severely, pointing at Tony.

“I wouldn’t mind so much if she wasn’t right,” he said aside to the incubus.

“Brother, I hear ya,” Vathraen agreed, still not moving the blade from his throat. It was starting to feel sticky where blood was drying along its edge.

“Now, you can go ahead an’ make it as much worse as you want,” Rags continued, making a wry face at Doreen. “But since that wouldn’t be eliminating witnesses so much as settin’ the entire Guild to hunt your ass down, you can’t kid yourself it’d be the smart thing to do. I say we all take our various young people home an’ deal with the embarrassment of all this by everybody agreeing to pretend none of it happened. That work for you?”

“It isn’t that simple, and you know it,” Doreen insisted.

“Oh, would you fuckin’ stop?” Rags said scathingly. “You an’ Tony there are the only ones acting alone. C’mon, I know the Wreath didn’t sign off on this shit-show. Your higher-ups ain’t gonna get into a dust-up with the Guild over this, not when they can just throw your ass to the wolves an’ cut their losses. Guild’s another matter. We can not have people takin’ a poke at apprentices. You know Catseye’s policy on that. And to fucking reiterate, I didn’t come here without telling people where I was goin’!”

Doreen drew in a deep breath through her nose and then let it out the same way. “Vathraen…”

“Aw, no,” he groaned.

“Aw, yes,” she snapped. “Put it away and let the kid go. We are going to…pretend none of this happened.”

There was a frozen moment when Tony thought the demon was about to slit his throat out of sheer spite. Vanislaad were known to be contrarian and unpredictable… But Vathraen huffed angrily and yanked the blade away from his neck, releasing him. He wasted no time in skittering out of the incubus’s reach, but the Vathraen seemed to be paying him no more attention, muttering a soliloquy of curses at the far wall and childishly stomping his foot.

“Of all the stupid bullshit,” Rags grumbled, shuffling toward Tony and reaching into her pockets. Doreen and Anora both tensed, but the old woman just pulled out a roll of cloth and a vial of red liquid, and they relaxed. “Kid, I like you, but there’s a limit to how much I’m gonna keep cleanin’ up after.”

“That’s fair,” Tony said weakly.

“All right, gimme that hand, let’s get you straightened out.”

“Uh…” He looked past her at the Wreath. “Should we maybe do that…later?”

“Sooner’s always better’n later with injuries, you sissy,” she grunted without sympathy. Behind her, Doreen jerked her head toward the door, and her party began moving in that direction—Anora immediately, the incubus with much pouting and flouncing. “First I gotta set those bones back in the right place, an’ that’s gonna hurt like a sumbitch. Figure you’d rather do that in an abandoned factory basement where there’s nobody to hear you screaming like a girl.”

“You don’t know I scream like a girl,” he said, offended.

“You seem like the type. Here, hold these. Oh, for the—with the other hand, numbskull, not the one I gotta work on!”

It happened bewilderingly fast. She was fussing over him like an old mother hen, but the second he awkwardly gathered the bandages and vial of potion into his free hand Rags smoothly spun to face the door and the departing Wreath cultists.

From that angle he couldn’t see the wands she produced from inside her sleeves, but their effect was unmistakable. The first two simultaneous shots struck Doreen and Vathraen in the back; the third which hit Anora was less than a second behind.

There was an instant of stunned silence while all three crumpled to the ground.

Then the faintest groan, and a weak twitch from Anora.

Tony opened his mouth on instinct to protest what he knew was coming, but again Rags was faster than he. She shot Anora again, and this time the girl lay still.

More methodically now, Rags turned both wands on the prone form of the incubus and fired six more bolts into his body. By the end of it, Vathraen was smoking and what was left of him had begun to flake away into charcoal.

In the aftermath, Anora’s fallen fairy lamp left the room dim and lit by a shifting glow as it slowly rolled away from her body across the stone floor. The stink of ozone, sulfur and burned flesh hung heavily on the air.

Saying nothing further, Rags just tucked away her wands and turned back to him. Tony was staring in shock while she took his injured hand in both of her own, and moved her fingers to the broken bones.

She was right about his screaming, too.

“We’re gonna get you another cleansing, of course,” Rags said suddenly after he had followed her through the city in silence for half an hour. “But we’ll be goin’ to a different friend of mine. This time you gotta settle for a back-alley hedge witch. While I sure as hell wanna know why you were fuckin’ around with warlocks twice in the same goddamn day, I don’t really care to have that talk with the Salyrites.”

“Okay,” Tony said quietly. “Is this…?”

“Nah, this is a little lounge a buddy owns,” Rags grunted, climbing the iron stairs to the third-floor door. “Strictly a daytime joint, but I got a key. Lets me do some business here at night if I wanna. That’s a pretty easy arrangement to set up, an’ you oughta keep it in mind. Lotsa honest shopkeepers’re glad to let you use their places after hours if you earn their trust. Once it’s known there might be Thieves’ Guild folk hangin’ around at night, guess whose joint absolutely does not get fucked with when the local kids are feelin’ rowdy?”

“Good idea,” he mumbled while she produced a key from somewhere in her voluminous coat and opened the door.

There was a single fairy lamp in the space beyond, one of the older kind that flickered unevenly like real fire and couldn’t be turned off. Or maybe the owner had just left it lit on purpose. It was a small lounge, nothing more than a bar, some chairs and a sofa, and a pool table. It had a good view, though. One wall was mostly windows, tall ones which looked out on the market street below.

“Here we go,” Rags said in a satisfied tone, shuffling over to the billiards table. “Let’s shoot some pool.”

Tony stared at her, then at his left hand, which was swathed in bandages. The vial of healing potion she’d made him drink had helped, but not tremendously. Rags ignored him, setting up the balls and selecting two cues from the stand in the corner. She meandered back over to him, holding one out.

“You break.”

Tony looked at the stick, then at her, then pointedly raised his bandaged hand.

“It ain’t surgery, y’big baby,” she grunted. “Won’t hurt ya any. Go on.”

Slowly, he took the pool cue from her with his good hand, but did not yet move to do anything with it.


“Why what?” Rags returned, her eyes glinting in the low light. “Why was I ready to swoop in an’ save your ass yet again? You better believe I checked out everybody you were dealin’ with when you laid out that heist. The mark an’ all his fancy-ass guests were run o’ the mill rich jackasses, but that cute little piece of tail you were workin’ for an in was another matter. Anora was her real first name, but she’s a by-blood of House Daraspian and a legacy Wreath kid. Big fuckin’ trouble. Why did I turn up right when you were in danger? Cos I had people watchin’ you at that party, too, an’ when the first fuckin’ thing you did was take your floozy an’ vanish, they came an’ got me. That entire kitchen staff you two sashayed right past was in my pocket. Why did I know where to find you? I’ve told you time an’ again, boy, I know everybody in this town. Including Doreen, me an’ her go way back. I know who Anora Daraspian was apprenticing under, I know who Doreen has connections with in the factory districts, an’ from there figurin’ out what place she’d use that’s easily accessible from that house party was just arithmetic.”

She paused, staring at him in silence for a moment, before continuing.

“Why did I kill them? Because right now, the only people who know that Antonio Darling tried to join the Black Wreath are either standin’ in this room, or lyin’ dead in that basement. Well, that incubus can be summoned again, but ain’t nobody gonna take his word for jack shit. Even the Wreath don’t listen to them, they’re made of lies an’ fuckin’ mischief even by demon standards. Why was I able to get the drop on two warlocks an’ a fuckin’ incubus on the fly when you did your best to plan your whole game an’ still got outfoxed by a teenage girl? Aside from me just bein’ better at this than you, I’m Rags. Good ol’ Maggie Maxwell. Everybody knows me, an’ everybody knows I’m harmless. Everybody knows it so hard it’s always a surprise no matter how many times I do shit like that.

“Which brings us to why I wanna shoot pool, an’ I’d hope you’ve seen the pattern by now. I know shit you don’t, Tony, an’ I know what I’m doin’. You’re gonna have to trust me a bit longer. Now break.”

Mechanically, he moved to the table. It was awkward indeed, but he finally just set his bandaged hand down on the felt surface, using it for a rough brace while he lined up the cue with the other hand.

The clack of balls echoed through the dim lounge, and Tony straightened back up, gazing abstractly down at the table, now with billiard balls strewn across it. He just stared, though, not even planning his next shot yet.

“Stop,” Rags instructed. “You ever think about pool, boy? About that first shot, how those little fuckers all just fly every which way. Whaddaya think of that?”

Tony shook his head. “If I say I haven’t thought about it, you’re just gonna get mad.”

“Bullshit. Nobody thinks about stuff like that. Well, nobody except weirdos. Like me, for example.” She grinned at him, leaning on her own cue. “Or a pal I got in the Sapphire College who’s into theoretical physics. He says that in theory, it should be possible to predict precisely where each ball will end up when you break ’em like that, but to do the math you’d need to know the mass an’ position of every single damn thing in the universe.”

“Math is not really my thing,” Tony acknowledged. “Or physics. Or magic. Or the universe.”

Rags grunted and leaned over the table, lining up a shot. It wasn’t her turn, but he didn’t care enough to say anything. She deftly sank three balls with one hit.

“An’ then there’s this part,” Rags continued, working her way methodically around the table, carefully picking her angles and dropping one ball after another into the pockets while she talked. “This part… Once the big random break is done, you can see the patterns. Shift the whole thing at once and don’t nobody know what the fuck’s gonna happen. One ball at a time, though? That you can predict, control. It gets simpler the fewer of ’em you have to work with. But to be good, you don’t do ’em one at a time. You sink as many in a shot as you can. That’s the funny balance you gotta strike, isn’t it? Ain’t possible to predict everything when all the balls are in play, it just ain’t. But bein’ good at this game means comin’ as close to that as you can.”

“I know a metaphor when I smell one,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about, but I know it isn’t pool.”

“You know why I picked you?” she asked, still shooting and not looking up at him. “It’s cos you’re such a sweet kid, Tony. You’re nice. You always do favors for people, you joke an’ know how to make everybody feel better. You’re a good listener. Everybody likes you, cos you deserve to be liked. You’re just a good guy, is all.”

“G’aww, I’m gonna blush.”

“’cept when you brush up against whatever it is that’s got you so mad, down deep in your core. Then you get mean, an’ pick fights with no regard for whether you can win. Now, I could tell right from the start you got anger in you, but shit, that’s as normal as it gets. Everybody who walks into the Guild lookin’ to apprentice is either enraged at some great injustice or lookin’ to commit one. An’ we always get the ones mad about some particular fuckery. People who are worked up at the injustice of the world in general go to the Avenists. Yeah, I knew you had a good mad on about somethin’, Tony. I remember bein’ young an’ I wasn’t gonna push ya on it, even when the pattern started to emerge. Tell ya what, though, you havin’ a bug up your ass about the other cults is one thing. When that turns into you tryin’ to sign on with the Wreath, I think I gotta ask you what’s the deal.”

She finally straightened up, and leaned on her cue again, meeting his as the last ball rolled into a side pocket.

“What are you so mad about, Tony?”

He turned his head, staring at the windows. “When I was a kid…” Tony paused, shook his head, tried again. “Have you ever seen something…something you shouldn’t? That threw everything into doubt, and…” He trailed off once more, closing his eyes.

“Tell me this, then,” Rags said, her voice gentle. “Is it the cults? Or is it the gods?”

“…they’ve lied to us,” he whispered. “I don’t even know about what, exactly. I definitely don’t think Elilial is right. But they lied. And they’re everything, you know? Every single thing that makes up human society comes from one Pantheon cult or another. If it’s all lies… I have to know. And knowing means…”

“Well, it’s a good thing you fucked up your chance to join the Wreath, then,” Rags said mildly. “Cos you ain’t never gonna get truth outta the Queen of fuckin’ Demons. The Wreath doesn’t give answers, Tony, they recruit soldiers. You’re either fanatically dedicated to their crazy-ass apocalypse, or they can’t have you knowin’ their secrets.”

He turned around and sat on the edge of the pool table, letting his head droop.

“Here’s the thing I want you to understand, Tony,” Rags said, coming over to sit beside him. “Your real problem is you got a false separation in your head. You got your own personality, your nature, that makes you the funny guy who’s everybody’s friend. And then you got that anger in you that makes you see an enemy an’ decide ‘that’s it, no more Mister Nice Guy.’ That second one needs to go.”

“How can you be an Eserite without being angry at what’s wrong with the world?” he asked plaintively.

“You can’t,” she said, poking his shoulder with her bony finger. “An’ that’s just it, boy. The anger is a motivation, a tool…not a way of makin’ decisions. You wanna take down your enemies? You stay Mister Nice Guy. Just ’cause you’re mad don’t mean you stop smiling!”

He turned to face her and blinked.

“Because the city is like a pool table,” she said. “The world is. You got no idea what’s gonna happen if you just exert force right into the goddamn middle of it. The only way to have any control is to judge the angles from every side. I have control because I know everybody, an’ everybody likes ol’ Rags. I got any number o’ people who’d do me a favor, or owe me one. Anything I need, I can reach out my hand an’ bam! There it is. All cos I’m Mister Nice Guy, too. It ain’t about power, boy. It’s about connection.”

Slowly, Tony began nodding his head. “That…makes a lot of sense. I’m sorta wondering why this is the first time you’re explaining it in those terms.”

“You ain’t my first apprentice, boy. People learn better when they watch and imitate an’ figure shit out for themselves. I was content to wait for you to do it in your own time, but then you started fuckin’ around with warlocks an’ it got urgent.”

“Fair enough,” he grumbled.

“I’m not gonna tell you to drop this idea you got,” she said, placing one gnarled old hand on his arm. “You wanna take on the gods? Well, nobody’s succeeded at that yet an’ you won’t either, but that ain’t the point. Bein’ Eserite means you don’t take bullshit from people who got power they don’t deserve. If you think that’s the Pantheon, well…so be it. But I want you to put it aside for now, Tony. Right now, you’re a cueball, an’ you keep getting smacked around to whatever end is decided by whoever’s turn it is to shoot. Shelve your crusade, an’ come back at it when you’re the guy holding the cue.”

“I don’t want to bring down the gods,” he said, looking at the floor. “…I just want the truth.”

“Then like I said, it’s a damn good thing you didn’t manage to join the Wreath,” Rags chuckled. “They woulda ruined everything that’ll give you a chance to get it. You stay free, stay sweet, an’ stay smart. You watch carefully an’ don’t make a move till you got yourself in the right position to do it. An’ then? Ain’t nobody gonna see you comin’. Maybe not even the gods.”

“Yeah,” he murmured. “Yeah, okay. You’re right. I can wait.”

“Wait,” Rags agreed. “But if this is truly what you believe is right, don’t wait forever.”

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