Darling threw his bag to the parquet floor, shoved the door shut with his entire body and then leaned heavily against it, closing his eyes and letting out a long, melodramatic sigh. For a much longer moment than usual he just leaned there, savoring the quiet and the dimness of his entryway.
He opened his eyes just in time to catch Price’s disapproving look at the discarded bag of luggage before she returned her gaze to his, schooling her features. That was undoubtedly intentional; her timing in all matters was preternaturally precise.
“Welcome home, your Grace,” she sad serenely. “I trust your trip was satisfactory?”
“A rousing success,” he said with a sour grimace. “We got the Archpope exactly what he wanted, and a dash extra.”
“I am sorry to hear it, your Grace. Brandy and scones are prepared in the downstairs parlor.”
“Bless you, Price,” he replied, heaving himself fully upright and striding past her.
Naturally, she made a point of stopping to collect his luggage before attending him, but Darling had far more pressing things on his mind than Price’s nitpicking, or scones, or even brandy, no matter how badly he felt the need for one.
The Wreath and the Archpope chased each other endlessly around in his head. Just who was Embras Mogul? It could be a false name, though Darling couldn’t fathom a reason for such deceit since he had only hunches concerning the man’s identity and purpose. Clearly he was highly ranked in the Wreath. Maybe Elilial’s own high priest? Justinian seemed to think so, which brought him to the other question of just what the Archpope was up to with the little circle of Bishops he’d assembled. They’d been sent there with oddly specific yet unexplained orders—why did it matter so much that they not identify themselves as agents of the Church? Not to mention that details of the Wreath’s (alleged) understanding with the other cults had been withheld from him. Did all of that add up to enough to warrant the attention of the Wreath’s high priest? What did it add up to?
Lost in his own mind, he had crossed half the parlor toward the table on which the tray was set before realizing the room wasn’t unoccupied.
Price had no doubt enjoyed dressing the two elves. Their slim, modest black frocks were of the very latest fashion for the servants of the well-to-do, and he noted immediately that their demeanor much better suited the uniforms than last time he’d seen them make the attempt. Both girls stood to one side of the room, expressions carefully blank and hands clasped demurely in front of them.
“Well, well!” he said. “You two look positively harmless; how delightful. I gather Orthilon’s lessons have been going well?”
“Indeed, your Grace,” Fauna said softly. Clearly, Price had also drilled them on the separate forms of address for his different identities.
“As did his partner, who runs the theater,” Flora added. “The acting lessons have been most instructive.”
“As has the incidental education in carpentry,” Fauna said without a hint of accusation. “Your Grace will be pleased to know that Lor’naris now has a functioning and fully open theater.”
“Well, that’s very good to hear,” he said solemnly. “I’m afraid developments have gone quite sour on my end. It seems I’ll have to terminate both your employment and your apprenticeships. It’s a very good thing you’ve picked up the beginnings of another trade.”
Neither of them reacted overtly, though the corner of Flora’s eye twitched.
“If that is meant to be some manner of test,” Fauna said, “your Grace will have to do better. Orthilon has been giving us worse.”
“On an hourly basis,” Flora chimed in, with merely the faintest hint of asperity.
“For the last week.”
“He has quite the imagination.”
“Ooh, that’s perfect!” Darling squealed, applauding with a girlish, fluttery motion of his hands. “So self-contained, with just the right soupcon of derision. And after only a week! Last time I saw you I swear you couldn’t have lied to a blind Omnist monk. You two are positively gifted! Don’t worry, there’s no way in Hell I’m letting such a pair of talents get away; you’ve got a place here as long as you want it.” He crossed to the table and poured himself two fingers of brandy, feeling an almost paternal satisfaction at their pleased smiles. “That’s something you’ll have to watch for, by the way; people will set you up to reveal something, you’ll spot the trap, and then when you’re feeling good about yourself with your guard down, zing! There comes the real trap.”
The smiles vanished; Fauna failed to repress the tiniest annoyed grimace before their blank masks settled again.
Darling flopped onto the settee just gently enough to avoid sloshing his brandy and took a sip. “Ah, that was so very needed. In seriousness, ladies, I hope it hasn’t been too bad. It’s intensive training, I know, but it’s better than practically any other apprentices get—which, by the way, is why you were asked not to mention it to them. I think you’ve a bit longer to go, but the last thing we want is for you to be burned out. We don’t drill our learners into the ground like bloody Avenists around here. You’re bearing up all right?”
“It’s actually been kind of fun,” Flora admitted, allowing her smile to creep back into place. “Exhausting, yes, but it’s satisfying to learn something new.”
“Satisfying to find out we’re good at it,” said Fauna, nodding. “And Orthilon isn’t so bad. He’s not gentle, but he seems to have a good instinct for knowing just how far to push. It only gets really annoying when he tries to play us against each other, but I think we’ve taught him not—” She broke off as Darling sat bolt upright, choking on his brandy.
“Against,” he coughed, then cleared his throat and slammed the glass down on the coffee table. “Play us against each other! Augh!” He threw himself backward, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes and kicking both feet in the air. “It was right there in front of me the whole damn time! I am so very, very stupid!”
“I’m sorry to hear that, your Grace,” Price intoned solemnly, entering the parlor empty-handed after having done something with his bag. He didn’t actually know where in the house it lived. “Shall I arrange for a private tutor? Perhaps a stay in a sanitorium?”
“Fauna, you bloody little genius!” Darling bounded to his feet and across the room, seizing the surprised elf by the waist and spinning her around in the air twice. Fauna, to her credit, refrained from kicking him senseless, which was assuredly within her capabilities. She staggered slightly when he thunked her back down, but didn’t seem annoyed, merely bemused. “That was exactly the clue I needed—I know what Justinian’s doing! It was a false flag operation!”
He stared at them expectantly, grinning. Price raised an eyebrow; the elves exchanged one of those loaded glances of theirs.
“Sir?” Flora said hesitantly.
“That’s why we weren’t to reveal we were from the Church. I mean, it wouldn’t be hard to find out who the four of us are, but all of us have other allegiances—individual cults, and all except Basra have worked for the Empire in some capacity.” He began to pace up and down the carpet. “Elilial made her move directly against the Empire, but we know it was a diversionary measure, or the first stage in a more elaborate plan. The one simple thing about her is her goals are a foregone conclusion: she wants the Pantheon brought down, and has never done anything with anybody on the mortal plane that wasn’t part of a scheme toward that end.”
“Right,” Fauna prompted when he fell momentarily silent.
Darling paused before the window, staring out while he formed swirling thoughts into sentences. “So the Church, being an extension of the gods, is definitely her enemy, and the Empire is at least momentarily so. They should be allied against her. But! Not only does the Church have a central interest in thwarting Elilial, but Justinian has been angling for more political power since he took office, often against the Empire itself.”
“It’s a triangle, then,” Fauna said, frowning.
“Exactly! And Justinian is trying to fill in its third side! The Wreath has to know at least some details of their goddess’s plan, but they probably have even less direct guidance from her than most cults do—she’s usually not even on this plane of existence, so it’s not like they can run to her for confirmation on every little thing. They know the Empire isn’t the real target, and the plan has to take the Empire’s inevitable responses into account—Elilial is definitely clever enough to lay a scheme that elaborate. But if the Empire appeared to be escalating the conflict beyond what they expected, turning their sham war into a real one while Elilial has her fingers in some other pie…”
“Then the Wreath and the Empire would be at each other’s throats,” Flora said, her eyes widening. “It’s the oldest gambit in war: if you have two enemies, pit them against each other!”
“Yes!” Darling whirled to face them. “And so we were sent there, ordered not to reveal we were with the Church—and of course the Empire is the only other logical culprit for such an action—and not told to respect the ceasefire in place. Escalation of hostilities, and both Wreath and Empire would feel themselves the attacked party because neither was the one truly doing the attacking! Oh, Justinian, you magnificent bastard!”
“Then…everything’s explained,” Flora said slowly.
“Nothing’s explained!” Darling crowed, throwing his arms wide. “I still don’t know who that Wreath guy we met really is or what he was doing there. I don’t know whether this little cabal Justinian’s put together are trusted agents he can send into the field with incomplete intel or patsies he can afford to lose on a suicide mission, which means I don’t know where I stand with him, and therefore I don’t know what I can get away with or what I need to do with regard to him.” He had to pause for breath. “I have no fucking clue what Elilial’s plan actually is, much less how to begin unraveling it! This whole thing is an ungodly mess!”
“Congratulations, your Grace,” Price said serenely.
“His Grace is most at home under adverse circumstances,” she explained to the elves, who looked more baffled by the minute. “He tends to wilt under serenity.”
“I do know one thing, though, and that’s enough to start,” Darling went on, his maniacal grin fading to a grimmer, more cynical expression. “Ladies, it’s early yet, but I’m afraid your talents are about to be called upon.”
“Just tell us what you need.” Instantly, all training forgotten, both were on point, with matching expressions that put him in mind of a pair of cats about to pounce.
“I hope everybody’s feeling patriotic,” he said, rubbing his hands together and grinning fiendishly. “Looks like we have to save the Empire.”
The first hints of a storm were blowing in, and the citizens of Puna Dara were out in force to greet it. Everything was tied down and secured, loose objects brought inside and shutters and doors sealed, but while the inhabitants of most port cities would hide themselves away indoors when bad weather was coming, the Punaji became almost gleeful. There was a downright festive atmosphere in the streets, with knots of people standing around chatting excitedly, hawkers desperately peddling wares ahead of the downpour that would shortly drive them into shelter, and knots of children racing about underfoot.
It wasn’t a large city—it couldn’t be, with essentially no farmland, framed on three sides by stark cliffs and the harbor on the fourth, its only sources of fresh water a few mountain springs. Positioned at the northeasternmost corner of the continent, Puna Dara was accessible by land only through ancient dwarven tunnels, wide enough for merchant trains and used by such, but most of the city’s commerce was by sea.
There were some few mansions of the wealthy and privileged against the cliff walls, built on high above their poorer neighbors and well back from the dangers of the ocean and its fickle winds—and fickle goddess—just as the wealthy and privileged set themselves up everywhere, and had for all of history. At the very edge of the water, however, jutting into the harbor itself, stood the Rock, the massive square fortress in which had lived for centuries the family for whom Punaji was a name as well as an ethnicity. They lived in the very teeth of the storm, always the first to launch themselves into the sea, and the last to retreat from it—which, to date, they never had. The Punaji were a fierce people, and demanded fierce rulers.
The Mermaid’s Tail, like most of the structures in the city, was solidly built of stone and well able to withstand the onslaught of the elements, which was necessary as it was perched practically on the docks themselves.
The common room of the tavern was loud and stifling tonight, what with the press of people seeking shelter within, and the fact that the windows had been shuttered against the encroaching weather. The same carnival atmosphere reigned in the taproom as out in the streets. People talked, sang, joked and drank, men and women alike in heavy boots and long greatcoats over baggy trousers and brightly-colored blouses. It was a perfectly middle-of-the-road tavern: rough and rowdy enough that any sort of person might wander in and most would not look out of place, but not so much that one needed to worry about watching one’s pockets—or back.
It was McGraw’s favorite spot in the city. He always stayed here when he was in Puna Dara, and preferred to conduct his business here if the other party was amenable. The staff knew him and had managed to get him his usual circular table in the corner under the stairs, despite the hefty crowd.
He much preferred to be seated and out of the way, standing out as he did among the Punaji. His skin was as dark as theirs, but lacked the bronze undertone they had. Plus, they ran toward sharp features while he was obviously a broad-nosed Westerner, and stood head and shoulders taller than most of them. His coat and broad hat suited their fashion up to a point, though the suit beneath was clearly Imperial in style. It wasn’t that he minded standing out, exactly, just that when one was meeting with a business partner, it paid not to draw attention. Especially given the kind of business he usually conducted.
The waitress brought him his order, a platter of fried squid with a dish of curry sauce, big enough for two. He thanked her with a smile, and she accepted her tip with a flirtatious wink—which was all part of the job—and a grin of authentic friendliness, which was not. Getting on the good side of serving girls was as simple as showing respect, tipping well and not letting one’s eyes or hands wander. It constantly amazed him how few men seemed to manage it.
McGraw had ordered for two and gently nursed his rum, nibbling now and then on the squid. Curry wasn’t exactly his favorite thing, but he did love fried squid, and you just couldn’t get it inland. For the most part, though, he steeled himself to leave it alone, along with the second glass beside the rum bottle. Wouldn’t do to seem inhospitable. He didn’t bother trying to scan the crowd; in this press of bodies, he’d never see anyone approach before they were right on top of him. So he waited, ready to offer a polite smile or a barrage of fireballs, depending on what came out of the crowd at him.
Thus, despite the lack of forewarning, he was not particularly startled when Principia Locke materialized from a tiny gap in the press of bodies and slid into the seat across from him.
“Ma’am,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Not that it ain’t a pleasure, but this is a long way from where we last met.”
“Oh, you can cut that out already,” she said with a grin, pouring rum into the empty glass. “The job’s over, and we are hell and gone from Last Rock. You can speak plainly.”
“Of course,” he said. “Pardon me, I figured it was safer to let you lead. You seemed determined to maintain the facade back at the town, even when we were alone.”
“When a job involves both a thief and an archmage, I don’t make assumptions about who’s in a position to overhear what,” she replied, pulling out a small leather bag and tossing it across the table. “Here you go, as agreed. Your performance was absolutely perfect.”
“Thanks,” he replied, catching it and tucking it inside his coat without bothering to count the coins within. “And I suppose that’s a wise policy. Now, with regard to the other part of my payment we discussed?”
“Hmm?” Principia dragged a fried tentacle through the curry sauce and raised her eyebrows innocently at him. “If you’d care to inspect the bag, you’ll find every copper accounted for.”
McGraw had been at this too long to bother getting annoyed. Some folk just liked to drag things out and be difficult; it was usually easier to indulge than oppose them. “You were going to tell me how you managed, on such very short notice, to bust into my scrying mirror, despite all my wards, and send me a message. I’ve been pretty anxious to get my hands on that little bit of spellwork.”
“Ah, yes,” she purred, then popped the bit of squid into her mouth, chewing smugly. Just to drag out the tension. McGraw waited, wearing a faint smile of amusement until she finished. “Well, as with most of a thief’s best tricks, it was all about strategy and had little to do with fancy tools. I’m a fourth-rate enchantress; you have to know there’s no way I could power through your magic.”
“That was my presumption, yes. Hence my curiosity.”
“The trick was that I’d set all that up far in advance, and it took the better part of a year. I’d been thinking I’d use you to get Arachne off my tail if things in Last Rock went sour. But then the Guild set Shook on me and I had more urgent concerns, so I had to blow my little failsafe.”
McGraw shook his head ruefully. Of course; he really should have thought of that. Anybody could crack any ward given enough time and persistence, which was exactly why it was smart to change them up regularly. He did have the unfortunate habit of leaving his unmodified for far too long. At his age, the enthusiasm for attending to piddly menial tasks just wasn’t there.
“So you were going to aim me at Tellwyrn?” he said mildly, letting the other matter drop. “That sounds downright…unfriendly.”
“Oh, don’t make faces at me,” she said with a cheeky wink, “it’s not as if I was plotting your demise. Honestly, there’s not a damn thing I could’ve offered you that would make you do something as daft as try to take on Arachne in a head-to-head fight, correct?”
“You better believe it. I’m way past having pissing contests with dragons.”
“Trust me, Arachne’s not so hard.” She chewed another bite of squid, face twisting in an annoyed grimace. “She isn’t subtle. If you understand how she thinks and have the right leverage, it’s fairly simple to distract her, or maneuver around her. I know her, and you could’ve provided the leverage. Not now, of course, since we’ve both gone and pissed her off. But those are the breaks.”
“It does seem you burned a few bridges over the course of this business,” he noted after taking a sip of his rum. “Feel free to shut me down if it ain’t my place to ask, ma’am, but is it wise to turn on your Guild like that? I can’t imagine they’d appreciate you bringin’ in an outside contractor to get rid of one of their enforcers.”
“No, that is pretty explicitly against the Guild’s codes,” she said wryly. “The penalties would be…significant. What the Guild doesn’t know won’t hurt me, though.” Principia stared at her glass, her expression sobering. “I do enjoy my little pranks and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not one to respect authority unless there’s something in it for me, but I’ve always been loyal to the Guild. Faithful. This…is a first for me, and I don’t mind telling you it sits poorly. No matter how necessary it was.”
“I didn’t get the impression Mr. Shook was an easy fella to work with.”
She laughed bitterly. “No, I decided he and I weren’t going to develop a solid working relationship about the time he declared his intention to rape me into submission if I didn’t get results fast enough.”
McGraw straightened in his chair, all the humor draining from his expression instantly. “Is that…typical policy for the Thieves’ Guild?”
“That’s the best part.” Principia lifted her eyes; her grin was utterly devoid of amusement. “Hell no, it isn’t. Last time one of our members did anything like that, our chief enforcer bent him in half so he could suck his own dick, stuffed him in a barrel that way and sent him over the Tira Falls. But, there is the issue of credibility. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a bit of a wild card and happily so. Shook, on the other hand, has built a career keeping his shittier tendencies in check when important people are looking, and hanging around the central offices of the Guild enough to have built up a solid rep.” She shrugged fatalistically. “I had no way to win. If it came to his word against mine, I would’ve lost that by default. It was either turn on the Guild or let that asshole treat me like his personal…” She cut off, turning her head to the side to glare at nothing. “Well. Let’s just say you were the lesser evil and leave it at that.”
“I’ve been fairly called much worse things,” he replied, taking a sip. “If my opinion holds any weight with you at all, ma’am, I’d say you handled the situation well. Truthfully, I was impressed by your ability to play a part. Ain’t often I’ve had such a professional to work with.”
“Ah, yes, the whole world knows of Longshot McGraw’s weakness for pretty girls in peril.” She turned back to him with a grin, her dour mood of the moment before apparently forgotten.
He coughed. “Yes. Well. S’pose it’d be disingenuous to deny it at this juncture in my career. Truth be told, I had it in mind to decline monetary compensation once we were settling up accounts… But there at the end, I did have to expend a very rare elemental evocation on your behalf. Had that sucker waiting for an emergency for years.”
“Yes, Mabel has that effect on everybody’s plans,” she said wryly.
“Well, all things considered, I’m just happy to have been of—” He broke off in shock, feeling a slippered foot slowly slide up his calf under the table.
Principia had leaned her elbows on the tabletop, resting her chin on her interlaced fingers and batted her eyes coquettishly. “Well, drat. With everything all paid for, I can’t use my line about thanking you properly. Now I have to be baldly forward like some kind of hussy.”
McGraw coughed again, for the first time in a long while finding himself utterly at a loss. “I, uh… I don’t… Ma’am, I’m not sure if…”
“You can call me Prin, you know,” she purred. “There are, in fact, a lot of things you can call me. We can go over that at some length, if you want.”
He gaped at her for a long moment, then jumped as her foot made contact with him again, even higher this time. Finally finding his tongue, McGraw decided to go with the simplest statement he could. “I am confused.”
“Let me tell you something about good-looking boys,” she said, still gazing up at him through her lashes. “By and large, that’s all there is to them. It takes time and experience to make a man into something interesting… Experience of a kind that leaves its own mark. I learned a long time ago to look past a lined face; learned a somewhat less long time ago to appreciate the face itself. Give me interesting men; they’re the only ones worth the effort.”
“I, um. Just to be clear, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but you are talking about…”
“Oh, Omnu’s breath,” she said, visibly amused. “Yes, Elias, I am offering to go to bed with you. Asking, even. If you’re having trouble with that, you can assume I’m trying to trick or swindle you or something. You can keep a wand pointed at my head the whole time if you like… That I’ve not done for a while. Might add a certain spice.”
“I’m…having a little trouble with this,” he admitted frankly. “You’re, uh… Well, a strikingly attractive young lady. It’s been a longer time than I care to acknowledge since any such found me worth…um, spending the time with.”
“Well.” She smiled, a catlike expression. “It’s something to do.”
McGraw had to laugh. “Well then, Prin… There, you’re speaking my language.”
Heading up the stairs, they passed the waitress who had brought the platter. She grinned and winked at McGraw, laughing when he actually ducked his head bashfully, before heading back down to collect their dishes and sweep them off to the kitchen. Like any good waitress, she had seen the signs of a pair of customers about to leave and made sure she was on hand to clean up promptly. At least, that was what she’d planned to tell the tavern owner if he gave her an earful for loitering on the balcony right above them.
She swished into the kitchen, casually deposited the dishes, and made her way over to the corner where a boy of nine sat on an upended barrel, shelling clams.
“Sanjay! How’s my favorite brother?”
“Your favorite brother knows very well when you want something. You’ve gotta work on that subtlety, y’know.”
“Fair enough,” she said, grinning. “I need you to run down to the wharfmaster’s office and carry a message to Rajur for me.”
“Storm’s coming,” he said, finally lifting his gaze to hers and matching her grin. “And I’m not your errand boy, Lakshmi.”
“Fine.” She stepped closer, lowering her voice and dropping the smile. “I need you to go take a message to Fang from Peepers. It’s urgent.”
“Oh ho! That’s another matter!” Sanjay’s grin widened and he hopped down. “Sounds like it’s worth some compensation, if you’re gonna be dragging me into Guild business.”
“Don’t get smart with me, little brother, you will always owe me for changing your diapers.” She leaned in closer, letting her smile return slowly. “There’ll be compensation for everybody; enough rep for both me and Fang to move up the ranks, maybe even to sponsor you an apprenticeship. This is gonna go right to the Boss in Tiraas.”
“That good?” He grinned up at her expectantly.
“That bad. It seems we have a traitor among us.”