Bishop Antonio Darling smiled and nodded to his neighbors as he glided along the sidewalk toward his home in the last glow of twilight. The nod was nuanced and practiced; a full-body gesture containing just a hint of a bow and more than a suggestion of ecclesiastical benediction. He kept his pace to a modest stroll that allowed him to appear almost to float, and did not cause the white robes of his office to billow dramatically in his wake. Some priests went for that, but he favored restraint. Darling’s image was carefully cultivated, from his emptily cherubic smile to his exquisitely coiffed hair, to his ever-so-slightly effeminate hand gestures.
Everything precise, everything calculated.
The neighborhood reflected his own facade, with its towering brownstones behind shallow, beautifully cultivated gardens, only hints of which could be seen through stone and wrought iron fences. Darling opened his unlatched gate, closed it behind him and smoothly traversed the path to his front door, observing the perfection of his little garden with pleasure. His door, too, would be unlocked. No thief in this city would dare have a go at his home, no matter how tempting it might be.
Pausing on his step only to return a polite wave from Lady Ansovar across the street, he finally slipped inside and pulled the door shut, blocking out the city. Darling took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, savoring for a moment the quiet gloom. His foyer was narrow and shallow, but two stories tall, crafted of marble and mahogany with only weak light filtering in through the sole window high above. There were wall sconces, of course, but the fairy lights were left inert; Price knew how much he enjoyed this little respite in the dimness. It was both a break from the overstimulation of his life, and a line of demarcation between two pieces of it.
His Butler, of course, was waiting for him, her timing precise as always. “Good evening, your Grace,” she intoned quietly, standing at the other end of the foyer. “Everything is in readiness in the study for your evening appointment. I have taken the liberty of providing a meal.” It was positively magical, how she could convey a whole conversation’s worth of disappointment and reproach without altering her expression or voice in the least. Of course, she knew he’d not bothered to eat. Price was of the opinion he didn’t take nearly enough care of himself.
The Bishop leaned back against his heavy front door for half a moment longer. Just a little indulgence, a few seconds’ peace and quiet… Then, smoothly and suddenly as if he had never stopped moving, he levered himself back upright. “Splendid, thank you. Whatever would I do without you, Price?”
“I shudder to think, your Grace.”
Whistling, he bounded past her into the hall and up the stairs, this time moving at a pace that did set his robes to billowing. There was nobody but the Butler here to see, though. Darling took the steps three at a time, grabbed the banister to slingshot himself around the corner at the top, and flew down the hall to his study. Price followed at a more sedate pace, though she managed to keep very nearly on his heels without appearing to exert herself in the slightest.
He inhaled deeply of the lovely fragrance filling his study without pausing. His clothes for the evening were laid out upon his big, excessive mahogany desk, with a sandwich rolled in pita bread for portability set beside them. The sandwich, he noted with amusement, occupied the exact center of the desk. Off to the side, a steaming carafe of coffee perched on an end table, providing the aroma that suffused the room.
Ah, coffee… How mystifying that something which smelled so divine could taste so much like axle grease steeped in hate. Darling had used the mind-enhancing drug as a secret weapon for several years now, being careful to indulge only at need and not build up a tolerance, much less a dependence. It gave him a boost he needed on the days like this one when his double life disallowed the possibility of enough sleep. Best of all, it was a purely natural drug, not magical or alchemical and thus not detectable by ordinary means. He had heard, recently, that one could buy the stuff in some of the more upscale tea rooms these days. He’d have thought it a more appropriate addition to the menu of shroom dens.
Darling roughly pulled off the rich, flowing robes of his office, grumbling to himself as he dragged what always felt like yards of cloth over his head. He tossed it carelessly in the general direction of an armchair; Price swooped over, intercepting the robe and deftly arranging it so that it draped over the back of the chair without wrinkling. Such little concessions pained her; he knew she’d have it properly tucked away in his wardrobe the moment her presence was not immediately needed.
He continued discarding his inner garments, which she similarly rescued. Darling stripped down to his skivvies without self-consciousness, though it had taken time for him to grow that comfortable in their relationship. One’s Butler was, in some ways, more intimate than family; she had seen every inch of his skin at one time or another, and cleaned and sewed up a number of punctures and tears in it. Somewhere along the line he’d gotten over the fact that she was a fairly attractive young woman. It certainly never seemed to have occurred to her.
While Price reassembled his flurry of cast-off cloth into a neatly folded stack, he plucked the evening’s suit from across the desk, carefully not disturbing the sandwich in the process. He could do without her passive-aggressive throat-clearing while getting himself into the proper mindset for the other half of his life.
She had pressed the slacks, in defiance of his explicit orders. The shirt, too, was new, a pale pink silk that he had never seen before. Well, it wasn’t worth starting an argument over, particularly as arguing with a Butler was a tragically unsatisfactory experience. At least they were his old slacks, well-worn and bearing faint stains that were all but invisible against the black, yet added texture that was part of their character. The old tuxedo jacket was his as well, a little too loose across the shoulders and too long in the arms, exacerbating the effect of its frayed cuffs. Price had laid out his favorite waistcoat, the one in a black-on-maroon paisley pattern that managed to be screamingly tacky and understated at the same time. The final touch, the cravat, he draped around his neck, letting its ends hang untied down his shirt front. This one was powder-blue and pale orange; it clashed with everything else in the outfit. In fact, it clashed with everything on the planet, including itself.
He kicked off his preposterously expensive loafers, plopped down in the room’s other armchair, pulled over his worn old leather boots—they were of high quality, sturdy despite being more scuff than black at this point—and began lacing them up while Price stepped over and saw to his hair. It was a simple enough job, though he was always impressed that she managed to do it while he bobbed his head about in the process of tying his boots. Plus, the position prevented her from looking longingly at the discarded shoes, lying haphazardly against the far wall.
They finished their tasks at nearly the same moment, thanks to the rhythm of repeated practice. He stood, and she stepped back, holding up a hand mirror for his inspection.
The transformation was complete. From scuffed boots to shabbily loud suit, to a nearly invisible layer of stubble and blonde hair that was now heavily greased down and slicked back, he looked almost a different person. It was as much in bearing and mannerism as attire, however, that personality was expressed. He stood loosely, his posture slouched and lopsided, lips always pulling toward a faint smirk.
“Smashing. Thanks, Price.”
“Of course, sir.” She set down the mirror and turned to retrieve a tray while he strolled over to the end table and picked up his carafe of coffee. It was always “Your Grace” when he was the Bishop, but simply “sir,” now. She understood.
He gagged slightly as he forced the concoction down. It had to have been some joke of the gods, that such a useful and potent tonic had to taste so foul. Thanks to Price’s typically precise timing, the coffee was cool enough that he could get it down in a series of gulps without having to unintentionally savor any, but it was not yet growing cold. For some reason, it was even worse cold. He felt the warmth in his stomach immediately; the growing alertness in his mind and senses would kick in about ten minutes hence. None too soon; he could feel the weariness of the already long day wearing down on him.
Turning back around, he found Price waiting, the tray held in front of her. He deftly snatched up the variety of items proffered: several different coin pouches, two decks of cards (playing and tarot), a couple of flowers, knives for eating, throwing and stabbing, lock picks, magnifying lens, vials of alchemical solutions, odds and ends. Each he tucked away deftly in its proper place about his person.
With this final step done, he was ready to go. Casually tying his cravat into a lopsided knot that didn’t resemble anything commanded by the creed of fashion, he turned to the grandfather clock.
Price cleared her throat loudly. “You will find the pita sandwich eminently portable, sir, wrapped as it is in butcher’s paper.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” he said glibly, snapping his fingers and leaning over to snatch up the sandwich. “I’ll leave my head behind one of these days.”
“You are far too fond of it, sir.”
“Love you too. Don’t wait up, darling, it’s gonna be a long night.”
Busy rescuing his loafers from against the wall, Price didn’t trouble to dignify that with a response. He turned the hands on the clock to 3:13 AM, stepped back as the entire thing swung away from the wall with a soft hiss, then ducked into the dim space beyond, lit only by a single fairy lamp. With the ease of long practice, he began descending the wall-mounted ladder down a deep shaft, not at all inconvenienced by having only one hand to use. Bites of the sandwich disappeared as he climbed down. Above, once he was past the lip, the clock slid shut, sealing him in.
Darling had been so proud, when he’d had it installed, of his sewer-access escape route leading to the second-floor study. How original, how cunning! Nobody would think to look for a tunnel to the sewers from the second floor. He had fairly quickly come to the realization that no one would think of it because it was a damn fool thing to do. Anybody doing a thorough search of his home would find it anyway, and any parties likely to be up to such a thing in the first place would probably know exactly where it was going in. He had simply outsmarted himself and guaranteed a long, dark climb at the beginning and end of each of his outings.
At the bottom, he set off down the path, as familiar with the tunnels as he was with his own chambers, and waited till he was around the first corner to toss the mostly-uneaten sandwich into the vile-smelling water. Not that Price was likely to come down here and see it—and click her tongue disapprovingly—but one couldn’t be too careful. Honestly, had she really expected him to eat while walking the sewers? The stench pervaded everything except his own boots, which had been alchemically treated to prevent it from clinging. He’d be able to taste nothing but the offal of the whole city.
Situated as it was on an island right at the mouth of a river, Tiraas had an incredibly expansive sewer system. As long as it wasn’t flooding, there was ample space to walk along the banks of the channels which flushed its detritus out to sea. This made it a popular means of traveling, storage and other less savory business for those citizens who didn’t care to explain their movements to the constabulary. They were left mostly to themselves, observing a strict code of not seeing one another, even should they happen to pass close enough to step out of each other’s way. Only Imperial agents were met with hostility in this underworld, which was a big part of the reason they stayed out.
He let his mind turn, getting into the proper state for tonight’s business, paying little attention to where he walked. His feet knew the way.
It was dim around the sewer gate, rather than simply dark, where the lights of the city filtered in and the residents of the little shantytown lining the broad tunnel had installed a few (almost certainly stolen) fairy lamps. Made of scraps of wood, metal and canvas, its architecture changed totally a few times a year, depending on how often the sewers flooded. During these times, its residents fled to more temporary shelters above, gradually trickling down to their gloomy home once the waters receded—those who weren’t taken by surprise by the deluge. It was a sad and hardscrabble existence, a life lead only by those who had no better options, or believed they didn’t. They looked up, noting his passing, but without the sullen hostility these cast-offs showed toward most outsiders. He garnered a couple of respectful nods and even one smile on his way to the gate.
The guard was one he’d never seen before, a girl probably in her early twenties, but with a grimy, hollow-eyed face marked by acne scars and one obvious burn. She carried an improvised polearm consisting of a jagged scrap of a tin can bent around a mop handle and affixed with twine; this she leveled at his chest as he approached.
“There’s a toll t’use our gate,” she growled. “Three coppers.”
“Of course, love,” he said agreeably. The toll was and had always been two coppers. He flourished one hand, making a whole silver piece appear in his fingers, and tossed it through the air. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
The sewer girl nearly dropped her weapon, fumbling to catch it, but managed. She squinted at it, then bit it, showing the blue-stained teeth of a glittershroom addict, then peered up at him with a predatory glint in her eyes, blissfully unaware of all the opportunities she had just given him to disarm and disable her. “If you c’n throw silver about, may’aps you’ve got more t’spare, eh?”
He put his hands in his pockets, shifting his weight to one side, grinned at her, and repeated himself. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“No!” barked a hoarse voice, and another woman stomped up, an ambulatory heap of old leather and scraps of fabric sewn together into a crude cloak with a soot-stained face and gnarled hands peeking out. “Beggin’ y’pardon, Sweet, she ain’t been here long. You don’t hassle Sweet none when he comes through, girl! He’s good folk.” She snatched the shoddy polearm away; the younger woman let it go, frowning first at the bag lady, then at him.
“Sweet?” she said incredulously.
“As cherry pie,” he replied with his best grin, stepping closer, “and just a little tart to keep it interesting.” He moved smoothly into her personal space, despite her backpedaling, but only manifested a silk rose from inside his sleeve and tucked it into her greasy hair behind one ear before hopping nimbly back and turning to bow politely to the older woman. “How’s business, Mags?”
“Can’t complain.” She spat to one side. “No point. Been some work lately. Bout due for a run-off, though.”
“We survive, eh?”
He winked at the young woman, who was prodding at the rose with her fingertips, her expression stunned. He left her that way, swaggering through her gate out into the lower slums of Tiraas.
It wasn’t a disguise, not truly. Anyone who had seen him up close in either persona would recognize him easily in the other. Besides, his identity was a matter of public record—the Church knew exactly from where he had been promoted, and the cult of Eserion knew where he’d been sent. It was more about appearances, about mindset, and about keeping separate certain worlds which were mutually better off not interacting. Those who moved in the same circles as Bishop Antonio Darling would instinctively not deign to notice Sweet, the scruffy priest of the God of Thieves, while Sweet’s associates paid very close attention to the likes of the Bishop, but knew better than to mess with him. In the end, it was all for the devout and the wealthy, so they could interact with a high-ranking official of the Universal Church without troubling their effete little heads over just who and what was in their midst.
Sweet strolled through the slums, whistling, and though even his shabby suit was a mark of wealth in this environment, no one troubled him. He returned called greetings and smiles, winked flirtatiously at the women no matter how worn-down they appeared, exchanged respectful nods with toughs lurking in the mouths of alleys. It was all about reputation.
The Glums, as the Lower Western Ward was called by its inhabitants, was built right up against the edge of the island, in what had been a stone quarry over two thousand years ago, before Tiraas was a walled city. A thick lip of bedrock rose along the western edge of the district, with the city wall built atop that, and the road sloped gently upward from the sewer from which he’d entered. City ordinances prohibited building into or against the rock, for fear of undermining the stability of the walls, and this was just about the only law enforced in this poorest of districts. The result was that the narrow quarry, winding upward around the edge of Tiraas proper, had the feeling of a cavern, bound on one side by living stone and the other by towering tenements built into the rim of the quarry itself. Above, bridges arced overhead, both ancient stone structures that blocked out the light and the newer Rail lines which were a source of illumination as often as not. During the day, weak sunlight filtered down into the gloom; now, the Glums were suffused with a dim glow of arcane blue from the richer folk above. There were lamp posts, and even sconces for fairy lights instead of torches thanks to the progressive policies of Emperor Sharidan, but those lamps seldom lasted long without being smashed or stolen.
The Glums were practically next door to Darling’s house, their chasm part of the view from his windows between his wealthy neighborhood above and the city walls. It simply would not have done for him to be seen walking there, however. Nor, for that matter, would the sight of Sweet departing by the front door have been acceptable. He’d likely have been picked up by a passing constable.
It was a good twenty minutes’ walk at his brisk pace to the border of the district, and his first stop for the evening. There was a slanted netherworld at the lip of the Glums, in the last hundred feet or so before the rising road drew even with the rest of the city, where the homes and businesses were in slightly better shape, owing to their custom largely coming from those who dwelt above. It wouldn’t do to expose the finer Tiraan citizenry to the real hardships of slum life, and risk scaring them—and their money—away. His goal was three houses from the edge of the district, the first of the large structures to have its roof peek up above the lip of the city proper, but not close enough to the border that respectable folk might see it and have to be shocked. Close enough, still, that those who knew it could get there with little trouble.
The Pink Lady was the only pink building he’d ever seen; it was actually built of pink marble, not painted, though its once-fine stone was long since pitted, scarred and stained. If the sign hanging above the door, with the words of the establishment’s name worked into the form of a reclining, voluptuous woman, didn’t clearly indicate the nature of the business, the scantily-clad women loitering about its facade did. As Sweet approached, one of the furtive-looking men lingering in the area apparently concluded negotiations and hustled inside with a slender girl on his arm.
His arrival was quickly noticed.
“Sweet!” squealed a short, plump girl, hopping nimbly down from the bannister on which she had perched and sauntering toward him. The cry was taken up by others; they shifted en masse to meet him, like a flock of seagulls spotting food. Across the way, a couple of well-dressed young men who’d clearly been working up their courage to approach scowled.
“Ladies!” He swept off an imaginary hat and executed a ridiculously elaborate bow, to a reception of titters and coquettish smiles. The girls clustered about him, several babbling all at once while the less forward hung at the edges of the throng, and a few new one who didn’t know him watched, mystified, from the safety of the porch.
Sweet had never taken an apprentice, but if he had, one of the first lessons he’d have taught with regard to establishing one’s presence in a city was to befriend the whores. It was often as easy as showing them unfeigned respect and friendliness, and spreading around a little coin without making them work. From such a small investment came astronomical dividends.
Brothels were hardly a booming business in Tiraas, or in most parts of the Empire. People did not line up to pay for what they could get free. However, there were always those who, for one reason or another, weren’t welcome in a Temple of Izara, and where a market existed, someone would take advantage. Unfortunately for those in the business, it meant that the clientele of a brothel were almost always the worst possible kind of people. Prostitutes led a harsh existence, and all too often a tragically short one. Their misfortune, however, made them very useful. They were often the first to hear of it when something truly ugly was moving in the city, and were frequently privy to the most interesting sort of secrets.
The Pink Lady’s matron took care of her girls by the expedient of hiring only girls she could afford to take care of. She served a niche market, and thus managed to cater to wealthy patrons with particular kinks—and wealthy young patrons sowing wild oats, like the lads across the street—rather than the muddle of the drunken, diseased and depraved who frequented most such establishments. There wasn’t a human girl among the Lady’s stable; Sweet found himself towering over a throng of dwarves, gnomes, half-elves and even two full elves, both of whom managed to look depressed despite their best efforts at the industry’s mandatory coquettishness.
“You’ve got some nerve, mister, swaggering in here like you own the place after we’ve not seen a hint of you in weeks,” the dwarven girl declared, planting her fists on her hips. She smiled, though, and Sweet grinned back insouciantly. The others fell silent; she had seniority.
“Aw, Rose, you can’t hold it against me; I’m a busy man, people to see, stuff to steal. You know you’re the only one I love.” This brought a round of guffaws and cackles, but Rose only grinned up at him as he tucked another silk flower behind her ear.
Sweet continued handing out presents while he got the news. For the sake of goodwill, he had something for everybody; candies and paper flowers, if nothing else, but coins for those who had something worthwhile to tell him. It was a time-consuming process, slowed down by banter and chitchat, but that was all necessary. The girls were plenty accustomed to being bribed; taking the time to be nice bought him the extra consideration that was his bread and butter. He joked, flattered, flirted, handing out his little gifts with amusing sleights of hand, and never groped or made lewd suggestions. They loved him.
The big prize for the evening went to Elly, a gnome girl who reported that she’d been approached while out shopping by the followers of Shaath, trying to recruit her. Missy, the owner of the Pink Lady, had chased them off several times from pestering her girls, but she had less of a problem with them than the other brothels; the Huntsmen of Shaath didn’t favor non-humans, though they made exceptions for half-elves and dwarves. That they were interested enough in a gnome to try to catch her away from the aegis of her madame was very interesting indeed. He gave her a brooch, a tin thing shaped like a lily with a glass gem in the center and a cheap alchemical glaze that made it shine almost like silver. Anyone with a shred of taste in jewelry would have been ashamed to be seen with it. She beamed as if Solstice had come early.
Little else was of particular interest to him. He picked up tidbits about the movements of other cults in the Glums and the richer districts neighboring, some potentially useful leads to follow up concerning business deals both legitimate and not. Really, the things people let slip in the presence of whores. He’d pass that along to the Guild, serene in the knowledge that such careless players deserved to be robbed. The one bit of bad news was that Missy herself was entertaining a client, which meant he’d need to double back here later in the evening; he couldn’t afford to wait that out right now, and couldn’t risk her goodwill by hobnobbing with her girls and not paying his respects.
There was a certain necessary timing to these things; the girls couldn’t be away from their business too long, so he began making his goodbyes before Rose had to start hinting. As the others drifted back over to their stretch of sidewalk, waving and catcalling all the while, he caught the dwarf’s eye and tilted his head toward the corner of the building, receiving a wink in return.
Sweet strolled off, paused right at the edge of the next structure (a pawn shop where even he disdained to do business) and lounged against the brickwork. Some of the Pink Lady’s girls glanced curiously over, but knew better than to involve themselves, especially when Rose sashayed over to join him.
“I noticed your new arrivals,” he commented, nodding toward the two elves. They were huddled together in the shelter of the porch, miserably failing to be alluring despite the clearly borrowed dresses that overemphasized their assets.
“Aye,” Rose said, sighing as she followed his look. “The twins. Flora and Fauna.”
“Oh, get down off yer pedestal, Lord Fancy Pants,” she scolded, smirking. “My mam didn’t name me Rose, and yours sure as hell didn’t call you Sweet. Unless she was trying to set you up for a hard time.”
“Fair enough,” he said peaceably, raising his hands in surrender. Also, twins? They might have been, he supposed. He hadn’t spent much time around elves and didn’t find it easy to tell them apart. There was only so much possible variation within the spectrum of lean, blonde, sharp-featured and large-eyed. “They don’t seem terribly excited.”
Rose frowned, shooting another look at the porch. Their conversation was well within the range of elven hearing, but the alleged twins didn’t so much as glance their way. “…they aren’t gonna make it,” she said grudgingly. “It’s been almost two weeks now, time enough for even the most stubborn girls to start adapting. They won’t eat enough, they cry every night, and they’re scaring off the johns. Even the customers eager to get their mitts on a real elf will shrivel up if she’s obviously disgusted by ’em. Well, except for the few what’s into that, but them two sure as hell won’t play that up properly. Word’s gonna start getting around before much longer, and then Missy can’t afford to keep givin’ ’em beds. Fair breaks my heart, and me thinkin’ nothing could anymore. It’s like watching flowers wilt.”
“Mm. You still know how to get me a message at need, right?”
“You and that Guild of yours, aye.” She grimaced up at him. “You know my feelings about that, but…hell, Light knows there’s nothing else we can do for the girls, if they won’t shape up.”
He couldn’t tender this offer to any of the others; they would immediately want to know why he hadn’t offered them a place with the Thieves’ Guild. He actually had offered to sponsor Rose—she had a quick tongue and deft fingers—but she’d been mightily offended at the idea. Apparently, to dwarven sensibilities, whoring was a more respectable pastime than thieving. He’d been too mystified to be insulted.
“We don’t get many elves, but they’ve been some of our best,” he said. “Frankly, I’m amazed to see elves even willing to have a try at your line of work.”
“Dunno what they’re runnin’ from, but it must be a doozy,” she said thoughtfully. “Aye…your lot might be a better fit for ’em after all. But you know what Missy’ll say about you tryin’ to poach her employees.”
“Why, my sweet Rose, you wound me,” he protested, deftly tucking a silver coin into her cleavage. “I would never so much as dream of hiring away talent she’s actually using. If it comes to the point where she’s out to get rid of them, though… You might remind her that a pair of dead elves aren’t nearly so useful as a pair of thieves who think fondly of her as the one who first gave them a roof and a chance in this city.”
“I might at that,” she said wryly, adjusting her bodice. What they both immediately realized and that Missy would not was that a pair of prideful elves in a position of strength were far more likely to hold a grudge against her for snaring them into degradation. Missy was as canny as anyone in her business, but not terribly insightful or far-sighted.
He gave her a cheerful wink, politely declined the insincere offer of a “freebie,” which she’d have punched him in the balls for trying to accept (every society had its little rituals), and proceeded on his way as she turned back to her work.
The island of Tiraas was a craggy, shorn-off mountain rising from the very edge of the falls where the River Tira plunged into the Gulf of Punamanta. Rocky walls rose nearly a hundred feet directly from the waters to a gently rounded plateau, having been severed millennia ago during one of the wars between gods which had left a number of such features around the landscape, including the half-sunken mountain of Last Rock.
Now, man-made walls ringed the edges of the almost perfectly circular island, with bridges spanning the distance between them and the rim of the canyon walls to either side. The city was high enough that the roar of the falls, while constant, was not intrusively loud anywhere, and the river had never swelled high enough to reach the city’s deepest foundations. Due to the stone island’s poor drainage, though, the region’s heavy rainfalls periodically washed out the sewers, which had been dug deep and wide after a long-ago Emperor had grown fed up with regular flooding in the streets. In addition to the bridges to the east and west, the city was served by a river port in the north, and a small seaport to the south, hundreds of feet below the city itself. This was used only for Imperial business, as the spiraling tower of stone stairs connecting the wharf to the gate made for a nightmarish ascent, though the Empire took great pride in this architectural marvel. A naval base was located half a mile along the coast to the west, with most of the capital’s maritime traffic routed through the seaport at Anteraas, twice as far away in the opposite direction.
Within the walls, it was often said that the poor washed downhill with the rainwater. The highest point in the city was Imperial Square at the very center, flanked on all four sides by the Palace, the Grand Cathedral and the main temples of Omnu and Avei; the pavement in the Square itself was precisely even with the tops of the city walls. From there, districts grew progressively poorer as they sloped downward toward the edges, with the city’s slums crammed up against the walls themselves, several being dug partially into the ground like the Glums. Around the gates, finer neighborhoods were protected by heavy patrols of the city constabulary and even Imperial troops, so as to present the city’s best face to those entering. Aside from those four peninsulas of wealth, however, the periphery of Tiraas was mostly home to its dregs, with neighborhoods and populations growing more respectable as one climbed inward.
There had been a time when Sweet’s life consisted almost entirely of making his rounds throughout the city. Each night he would head out to a different district, adjusting the quality of his attire so as to stand out for his jarring style without offending the financial sensibilities of the residents. As his increasing duties within the Guild and then the Church had commanded more and more of his time, however, he’d drawn back his operations, and now focused on the Rim and the poorest neighborhoods, deciding that his time spent seeing to the Bishop’s business gave him as much exposure to wealth and power as he could stand.
He didn’t even have time or energy to go out every night anymore, and tonight he had someplace to be. Out of stubbornness and the fact that even his presence would help prevent his reputation from fading further, he kept his path to the Rim, circumnavigating half the city on his way to the Guild’s headquarters on the opposite side instead of cutting straight across. He was careful to be seen, but kept his interactions to a minimum of the most important cogs in the vast machine of the Tiraan underworld, rather than stopping at every pawn shop, whorehouse, back-alley moot, shroom farm, burlesque and hidden Eserite shrine, as he preferred to do. Just the sheer volume of greetings he received and returned threatened to slow him down, but he pressed on. Still, it took a few hours to make the full walk. By the time he neared his final destination, he could feel the boost of the coffee beginning to wear thin, and had decided to take the straight route on the way home.
It wasn’t truly dark anywhere, anymore, even in the gloomy slums. Many of them were sandwiched between the city walls and modern factory districts, where even at this late hour the lightning of magical discharges crackled from towering antennae, casting an eerie glow for blocks around and filling the air with their sullen snapping. Passing close to several of these, he felt the tingling along his skin and in his scalp, where even his greased-down hair tried to stand up. A brisk business was done in some such districts in anti-static charms of variable effectiveness. What impact all the loose energy had on the health of the inhabitants was hotly debated in certain intellectual circles, but for the Rim’s dwellers, it was just another fact of life. The poor had too many concrete worries to fuss about vague possibilities.
Sweet had to climb a few streets in, near the eastern edge of the city, for the Guild didn’t lurk in the deepest slums. That would have been beneath their dignity.
He arrived with a light but steady stream of more well-dressed patrons at a small cul-de-sac bordered on three sides by a sprawling structure of white marble that would have looked almost ecclesiastical if not for the brightly-colored banners and multi-hued fairy lights bedecking its surface. Though the people he passed on his way to the doors were mostly residents of even finer districts than this one and dressed in a manner that far surpassed his own in taste and quality, he received not so much as a disdainful glance. It was unlikely that any recognized him—though then again, some might. Regardless, anybody coming here knew very well what a shabby individual like himself would be doing in the place, and that it would be most unwise to antagonize him.
Sweet tipped a wink to the burly guard at the door, who only nodded respectfully to him and held the portal open, ushering him into the opulent interior without a word. The extremely well-dressed lord and lady who arrived at nearly the same time paused politely, allowing him to go first.
Organized gambling was technically illegal in Tiraas, thanks to pressure by the Universal Church and the preoccupations of a previous, more moralistic Imperial dynasty. The Thieves’ Guild had encouraged this for the sake of the monopoly it granted them. Even the Empire would not challenge the rule of a god on his own territory, no matter that it took place in defiance of its laws and on its very doorstep.
And so, there was exactly one place in the city where the wealthy and powerful could congregate to indulge publicly in several of humanity’s favorite vices, enjoying the style of luxury to which they were accustomed and without fear of any legal repercussion: the Imperial Casino, not-so-secret headquarters of the Guild and the central temple of Eserion, the God of Thieves.
Gambling, after all, was just stealing on the grandest scale when you ran the games.
Sweet swaggered in as if he owned the place, receiving respectful bows and smiles from the staff and curious looks from the patrons scattered about the atrium. He didn’t linger, though, setting out for the gaming floor, and none of the Imperial’s employees moved to intercept him, even to so much as offer a cocktail. They knew his ways well enough to anticipate at a glance whether he wanted to chitchat or get after his own business…even still. It had been over a year since he’d left his duties here to accept the role of Bishop, but these people were, after all, functionaries in a temple.
They didn’t quickly forget the habits of their onetime High Priest.