“You did what?!”
“I’m pretty sure you heard,” Fauna said somewhat testily. “Do you really need us to go over it again?”
Darling took two steps backward and slowly sank down into his plush desk chair, staring at them. “…girls. When I was a lad, I once got a little too high-spirited in a library and the cleric in charge shushed me so hard I could hardly speak above a whisper for a week. Right in front of a girl I was trying to impress, too. It was embarrassing. And I’m pretty sure that was the worst thing any Nemitite has ever done to anyone. Did I not tell you to only kill people who deserved it? I could swear I remember saying that very specifically. It was kind of central to the whole idea.”
“She met the criteria,” Flora said defensively. “Involvement in the Church’s shady dealings, defenses light enough we could get through without revealing we were more than just warlocks. There aren’t a lot of people who are both! And that really was an awful program. They’re separating children from their families to indoctrinate them. Some were just for some cleric’s revenge against suspected diabolists.”
“How, exactly, did you find out about this program if the records were locked away in a sealed vault?”
The two elves exchanged one of their long, significant looks. “The spirits…have ways,” Flora said at last. “They can gather information from sources that aren’t exactly available through normal means. We asked them for help finding the right place to strike.”
For a long moment, the only sound in the study was the ticking of the grandfather clock.
“Are you telling me,” Darling finally said, “that I sent you out on an extremely delicate mission to disrupt the political situation in this city with a surgical strike, and you let the omnicidally insane voices in your head pick the target?”
Flora winced. “Well, when you put it that way…”
“Those are the resources we have, so they’re what we used,” Fauna said, folding her arms. “Of course they have their limitations. Drawbacks. This entire pact is the world’s bitterest drawback, frankly, but we make do as best we can.”
“Well,” he said slowly, “the good news is this should have exactly the effect we intended, in spades. The handy thing about committing appalling atrocities is they make people good and mad. And…I suppose if they were voluntarily covering up the Church’s operation…”
“No,” Fauna said quietly. “I was there, Sweet, and I can’t make myself think that librarian deserved that. Don’t rationalize.”
“There something you want to get off your chest?” he asked mildly.
“Take it from someone who knows: if you make a deal with a monster, things will only get worse as long as you try to deny that’s what you’ve done.” She spread her arms, a gesture that was at once helpless and frustrated. “This is what it is. What we are. It’s the best we can do, and it’s a horrible travesty. It’s…it’s just all we’re good for anymore.”
“Don’t do that,” he said sharply. “What have I been training you for, then? You have the potential—”
“And we’ll still be monsters! We can’t not kill—it’s all we can do to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. To try to use the power where it’s necessary. But even if we only ever killed people who needed to die, we’re still just killers. Do you think there’s anything we haven’t tried?” She stared at him, almost pleadingly. “I’m not being rhetorical, I’m asking. If you have any ideas for keeping the spirits under control, we’ll take anything not to have to keep doing this.”
“We…we came to Tiraas for this reason,” Flora said quietly, miserably. “It was a compromise. The spirits wanted to strike at the Empire and grew more agitated the more we tried to keep away from humans. We figured…here in this city there had to be thousands of people who at least deserved to die. We thought maybe we could…sort of, incidentally, do some good. But it’s never that simple.”
“It always ends up like this,” said Fauna wearily. “Something always goes wrong, someone always gets hurt who doesn’t deserve it. The only reason we haven’t picked a fight with the Empire and gotten ourselves put down is we can’t make the spirits go down easily. We’ve talked it over in detail. If we could hand them a win… But it’ll be a fight, and lots of people will die for wanting to defend their homes. You’re right: the spirits are insane. We know this Empire has nothing to do with the government that destroyed Athan’Khar, but that doesn’t matter to them. Lots of people will die. So…” She sighed heavily. “If you don’t want us around anymore, that’s fine. Just…please don’t turn us in, unless you know how to put us down quietly. We don’t want to kill any more good people.”
Flora nodded silently, and they both stared at him as if waiting for the axe to fall.
Darling held his silence for a few moments, then sighed in turn. “Well. I guess I owe you two a big apology.”
The elves blinked in unison. “Um…pardon?” Fauna said.
“Here I’ve been using your talents for my plans and not doing anything to help you get a grip on your situation, which is exactly the opposite of what I promised when I took you on. So, yes, I’m sorry. I’ve been thoughtless, and I guess we’re lucky the collateral damage wasn’t worse. I can’t just put the world on hold, girls, and I’m afraid I can’t do this without your help. But you have my word, I will be thinking much harder about how to help you.”
“You can’t help us,” Flora said gently, wearing a sad little smile. “Nothing takes away the pact, not as long as we’re alive.”
“Ah, ah, ah.” He held up a finger. “I can’t cure you, that’s probably true. But there is a huge yawning gulf between that and not being able to help. I will, as I said, think on it. For now, let’s focus on the present, though. Why didn’t you tell me? If you were having trouble finding deserving targets, I would much rather have pushed back the timetable than let something like this happen.”
They glanced at each other, and then down at the floor. “It was getting…bad,” Fauna admitted. “If we go too long without a hunt, the spirits get… Well, ‘restless’ doesn’t quite capture it. We’ve learned not to let it go too far. Eventually they’ll get out of control, and then there will be massive collateral damage. In the city…it would be unthinkable.”
“Again,” he said, “why didn’t you tell me? If you’re having trouble, I expect to be kept in the loop. Especially about something like this.”
“What would you have done?” Flora said bitterly. “Gone out and found somebody deserving for us to kill?”
“You say that like you think it would be hard,” he said dryly. “This is the greatest city in the world, ladies. It’s absolutely crawling with assholes who need to be scrubbed out of the gene pool.”
“You can’t just feed us like throwing steaks to a tiger in a zoo,” Fauna said, twisting her lips. “The spirits need to hunt. They need prey that’s both challenging and deserving. Or what they think is deserving. Mostly they’ll take any human. We had to seriously twist things around to make them satisfied with killing Missy.”
“Good to know,” he mused. “But even so, my point stands. We have royally fucked this up: me by making assumptions and failing to prepare you properly, you by acting without letting me know what’s going on. Now we’ve got innocent blood on all our hands, and who knows what the after effects of this will be? Henceforth, girls, you will keep me informed. We can’t afford to screw around with this or it’s likely to be worse next time. I don’t care how sensitive or embarrassing it is, if it has to do with your pact and your ability to function, you will tell me before it becomes an immediate issue. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” they chorused meekly.
Darling sighed heavily and dragged a hand down his face. “Right then. Meantime… We’ll continue operations. But!” He held up a hand. “For the time being, no killing. You’ve just been…ah, sated, so you should be fine for…what, a few weeks?”
“On average,” Fauna said slowly. “A few weeks, usually. Maybe longer than last time; this was a much better hunt than…the last one.”
“Right. Let me know when you feel the twinges coming on. But for now, I want you to move to intelligence gathering. Use whatever powers you’ve got, prowl among the Church and the cults without being seen or leaving evidence. Can you do that?”
“Of course we can!”
“Good. Get me lists of targets. Obviously, we’re not going to rely on your spirits to pick them. Ever. Again. Find me clerics, be they cultists or Church officials, who are into bad stuff, specifically stuff that impacts the Church or the Wreath. Ideally both. The point here is to create hostility between the Church and the Black Wreath, and hopefully make the cults reconsider their support for the Church in the process. You’re both smart; if you find anything like that, you’ll know it. Above all, remember we’re looking for people who the world is better off without. There’ll be no shortage of them; we just have to find the ones who are positioned in the right place that killing them will have the effect we want.”
“Please don’t hate me for saying this,” Fauna said meekly, “but…why does that matter so much? It seems like this business is bigger than a few lives.”
“It’s not for us to decide what a life is worth,” he said firmly. “We have to be better, Fauna. Have to. Right now, we may make mistakes, we may have to do some unsavory things, but we’re working toward something. It’s about caring for the world and making it better, and it’s not our goals that keep us on that path but the principles that rule out certain means of achieving them. Without those principles… Then we’re just another faction of assholes muddying the water, just to improve our own position. You, especially, can’t afford to surrender the moral high ground. Most people are on a slippery slope; you two are walking a tightrope over an abyss. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” they said again.
Darling held their gazes for a moment, then sighed. “All right… That’s your orders for now. Sorry to rush out on you, but I’ve been summoned to the Guild, and I’m really hoping it’s not to discuss anything related to this business. Remember, we can’t involve the Boss or the rest of the Guild in this. I know it looks shifty, but if this goes wrong, it’ll only bring us down. So long as they don’t know what we’re doing, they have deniability. We can’t sink the Guild.”
“Got it,” Flora said, nodding. “If…if Tricks is onto you, anything we can do to help…”
“Pshaw, you let me handle Tricks. I’m good at weaseling out of trouble. For now, you’ve got practice to get to. Go on, off you go.”
He had prepared for the night’s errand (with Price’s help) before calling them in, and once they had left the study had only to open the clock and slip down into the tunnels, and from there make his way toward the Guild. His thoughts were a shifting vortex, distracting him from his usual task of getting properly into character as Sweet.
He hadn’t said it to them, but he was deeply trouble by their cavalier attitude about the killing. It wasn’t that they seemed cold or remorseless, but rather, they were clearly growing all too used to the guilt. It wasn’t affecting them as strongly, and that was a big problem. It would be a short, direct walk from there to using their powers and brute force against any problem that arose. They’d be completely out of control unless he did something about this. They had to be shown that this wasn’t acceptable. They had to be made to feel it.
But how the hell did one discipline a pair of unstoppable avatars of destruction? It wasn’t as if he could spank them, or rub their noses in the corpse.
It wasn’t just they who needed discipline, either. He’d sent killers to do an assassin’s job without considering the large difference between the two. This whole disaster was his fault; he should have been more careful, given them better instructions, made an effort to understand how they worked before sending them out. In hindsight, he could identify a dozen steps he ought to have taken which… Well, they might or might not have prevented this, but they added up to sheer bloody carelessness on this part. And the price for his carelessness was just too damn high.
Gods, that poor librarian. He was pretty sure Elilial had reserved seating in Hell for people who did things like this…
It took him a lot longer than usual to get his thoughts in order, and they never did get ordered all the way.
The mood in the accounting room below the casino was more dour than usual, and Sweet didn’t find it encouraging that he wasn’t the worst offender in terms of bad vibes. He still didn’t know why he’d been called here urgently, but it was hard not to suspect that the slaying at the Steppe Library was a factor, despite the fact that there should have been nothing connecting that to him. He hadn’t made it this long by brushing aside the worst case scenarios.
Nobody was seated when he arrived. Style looked grouchy, which was unusual; usually when she was authentically upset, she looked murderous. Tricks, though, just seemed tired, and that was downright unsettling.
“Omnu’s breath, Sweet, you look like you’ve not slept in days due to your dog dying,” the Boss said when he entered. “Those two apprentices keeping you up? Cos, just sayin’, that’s allowed, but it won’t do your rep any favors.”
“You should talk,” Sweet shot back, managing a grin. “Here I find you without a disguise or a prank prepared to greet me. Exactly how terrified should I be?”
Tricks sighed heavily. “Yeah… Guess it’s a stressful time all around. Seriously, though, what gives? You don’t look like yourself.”
“Stress. Fatigue. Maybe taking on apprentices wasn’t such a great idea, with me having to handle the Church and the Empire on top of everything else. They’re damn quick, though, I’ve never once had to tell ’em something twice.”
“I’ve noticed that too,” Style said, peering at him with an analytical glint in her eye. “Answer the question, Sweet. Are you porking those elves? ‘Cos you’ve stuck it in some exotic peril, I know, but that would take the fucking cake.”
“No, I’m not sleeping with Flora and/or Fauna in any combination,” he said in some annoyance. “Not that they aren’t cute and all, but you said it. I’d sooner cuddle a bear trap.”
Tricks chuckled dryly, then stepped over to one of the desks and picked up a single sheet of paper. “Well, I won’t drag out the suspense any longer. I got the most fascinating piece of correspondence today. I think you should read this.” He held out the paper and Sweet stepped forward to take it.
He scanned it quickly, frowning at the signature, then went over it again more slowly. Then a third time. Finally he lifted his gaze from the page to find Tricks and Style watching him with matching grim expressions. He let out a low whistle.
“Well… Damn. This would explain some stuff, assuming it’s true. How safe an assumption is that?”
“That is what I was hoping you could tell me,” Tricks said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “You’ve known Principia longer than I have, and you actually had to handle her while you were Boss. The whole time I’ve been running the show, she’s been dicking around in Last Rock, not bothering me, and I liked it that way.”
Sweet drew a deep breath and let it out in a rush, ruffling the letter. “Well, for starters, she’s never written a letter before. Or confessed to anything. Or just generally…laid her cards on the table like she appears to be doing here. Yes, she’s a weasel with a knack for twisting things around to her benefit, and yes, all of this very neatly makes everything not her fault.”
“All that sounds like the preamble to a great big ‘but.’”
“But,” Sweet agreed, “yeah…I could see this being the truth. Especially with her explanation for what she wanted in Last Rock to begin with. Damn, though, that’s a surprise. I can’t see her having a kid, somehow.”
“You don’t have a kid unless you raise it,” Style grunted. “Any fuckhead can squeeze one out.”
“At minimum,” Tricks said wearily, “that’s a detail we can verify. At least in theory. The Sisters of Avei undoubtedly have records of who this Trissiny’s parents are, though fuck if I know how we can convince them to clue us in.”
“Prin’s not the only variable that fits, here,” Sweet mused, frowning at the letter. “I also have absolutely no trouble seeing Shook pulling shit like she describes.”
“Me either,” Style said grimly, a muscle working in her jaw. “I’ve been asking questions and twisting arms. Seems nobody’s surprised at the prospect he might try to manhandle his way into somebody’s pants as soon as he was out from under the Guild’s thumb.”
“And you didn’t know about this?”
“Neither fucking did you, so don’t fucking start with me.”
“Let’s nobody start with anybody,” Tricks said soothingly. “That, at least, isn’t anyone’s fault. We’ve always had trouble staying on top of bad behavior in the ranks.”
They both nodded in agreement. Members of the Thieves’ Guild had a low opinion of snitching under any circumstances; nobody ever reported anything without significant incentive. If there was a problem with a member of the Guild, the leadership were usually the last to learn of it.
“Have you asked Thumper his take on this?” Sweet inquired. He glanced back and forth at their faces. “Oh, boy. Those aren’t optimistic expressions.”
“I’m afraid,” Tricks said with a wince, “I’ve gone and done something clever.” Style snorted.
“Omnu’s balls, do I have enough time to flee the city?”
“Just button it and listen, wiseass. I put Thumper on a probation, told him every detail of Prin’s apparent betrayal as we got it from that girl in Puna Dara—”
“Peepers,” Style supplied.
“—and broadly suggested to him that if he were to drag her back here under his own initiative it’d go a long way toward mitigating the disaster he was involved with in Last Rock.”
“That…actually is pretty clever,” Sweet said after a pause. “Solve the problem and save face by not having to send official street soldiers after her. Elegant, I like it.”
“Unless, of course, Principia is telling the truth and you pretty much forced her into this corner in the first place, in which case you just compounded the problem exponentially.”
“Thanks.” Tricks rubbed at his temples. “Thank you, yes, I did manage to put that together myself.”
“I helped,” Style said with a grim smile.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance Thumper’s still in the city?”
“What do you think the first thing I did was?” Tricks sighed. “Your information network still functions beautifully. I know exactly when he left Tiraas: thee days ago. By Rail. To Calderaas.”
“Which means,” Sweet finished, “he could be goddamn anywhere by now. Do we have any hints what leads he was following?”
“Keys is inherently better at this game than Thumper. She doesn’t leave leads. I just wanted him to be out there, making ripples and getting rumors back to her that she’s being hunted by worse than the Guild, figured maybe she’d be more amenable to throwing herself on our mercy.”
“My goodness, what a magnificent fuck-up this is,” Sweet said in awe.
“Leaving aside our need to deal fairly with Prin and Jeremiah…holy shit, we’ve gotta smooth things over with the Avenists somehow. If they get wind of this… She could set the Sisters on us with one more of these letters.”
“Um, what?” Style frowned at him. “She actually said right out that she went for Trissiny in Last Rock because the Sisters told her to stay the hell away. Which she obviously hasn’t done. I can’t imagine she’s in favor with them right now.”
“Style,” Sweet said wearily, “the Sisters of Avei are basically militant and militarized feminists.”
“I know who the fuck they are, thank you, Sweet.”
“So think this through,” said Tricks. “Assuming Prin’s told us the truth… We just deliberately sent a would-be rapist to hassle the mother of their long-awaited, brand new paladin.”
“And then,” Sweet went on grimly, “let him off his leash to chase her down on his own time.”
“Whether she’s in favor isn’t really gonna be a factor. This is the kind of thing for which they’ve been known to drop everything, put aside their differences and send a Silver Legion to collect the heads of everyone involved.”
“Fuck, all right! The point is made, you don’t have to keep pounding on it.”
“All of which is secondary,” Tricks said, sounding more tired than Sweet had ever heard him. “I mean, yes, it’s a practical consideration we do need to pay attention to, but there’s more at stake. If Prin’s story is true, then the Guild fucked her over hard. Thumper in particular, but we set it up to happen. We can’t have shit like this; it’s respect and trust in each other that keeps this Guild functioning. We don’t create pointless hell for faithful members, or what are we?”
“Don’t get too weepy on Prin’s account,” Style said. “This wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t invested years in being such a pest that her word doesn’t count for anything around here. Which, by the way, brings us back to the very important question of whether there’s any truth to this story of hers.”
“Which is why we need to get both of them back here and answering questions,” Tricks agreed grimly. “One way or another, we’ll get the truth that way. But that isn’t likely to happen in the near future. We may or may not be able to lay our hands on Thumper, but I’ve got a suspicion if he gets wind that we’re pulling him back in for questioning, he’ll bolt. And Keys is a whole other matter. I frankly am not sure we have the capacity to find and apprehend her if she’s really opposed to that happening. So, though it’s a backward case of priorities, we’re likely gonna have to deal with the Avenists first. Both to keep them off our case and to get intel on Prin’s relationship to this paladin of theirs.”
“Hm.” Sweet rubbed his chin with one hand, frowning in thought. “As to that… It’s a little unconventional, but I think I have an idea.”
His personal shrine was in the basement of his home. Ironically, it wasn’t accessible from the sewers; he had to climb all the way up to his study and then down the interior stairs. Darling didn’t encounter any members of his household in the process, but between elven hearing and Price being Price it was a given that they knew he was home.
He shut the thick door of the room behind himself and knelt before the statue of Eserion and its little bowl of water, enchanted to prevent it going stagnant or scummy. Taking a decabloon from an inner pocket of his coat, he rolled it back and forth across the backs of his knuckles for a few moments, thinking, then sighed and tossed it into the bowl. It drifted down and sat there with the rest. Eserion was a god of action who didn’t encourage too much prayer and reflection; he expected his followers to solve their own damn problems. As such, there weren’t all that many coins in the bowl, though Darling had left them untouched since he’d put the shrine in upon moving into the house.
It was still a tidy little fortune, every one of them decabloons. When one had means, tithing a pittance to one’s god was just asking for a divine spanking.
“I fucked up, Big Guy,” he said quietly. “Bad, this time. I know, I know, we all make mistakes and you expect us to deal. Don’t worry, I’m dealing. But this one… This one hurts. I went and got somebody killed because I was cocky and careless, somebody who was completely harmless and probably a gift to the world. I don’t even know what to do with that, y’know? I’m still sorta numb. You know how it is; we thieves learn not to feel guilty. But then, we thieves don’t do shit like this as a rule.”
He stared into the bowl of water and coins in silence for a dozen heartbeats.
“When you screw somebody over, you pay them back. There’s… I mean, there’s just no way to do that when it’s their life. No offense, you know I’ve got your back, but your cult doesn’t exactly prepare a person to deal with something like this.
“And not just my moaning and weeping, I mean, I’ve still gotta fucking figure out something to do with those two girls… Gods, they’re like a couple of kids. Does that make any sense at all? Pair of terrifying spirit-addled monstrosities and I mostly feel like I gotta teach ’em how to live so they’ll be okay once I’m gone. How messed up is that? I just want them to have a chance to be okay. I’ve mostly been okay, because I had people—your people—who showed me how to live when I was in a bad place. But it doesn’t change the fact that they’re fucking dangerous.
“And… Man, this thing with Prin and Thumper, I’ve got a terrible feeling she told us the truth in that letter. Which means we’ve all fucked her over and basically rewarded him for spitting on the bonds that hold this Guild together… It’s bad, is what I’m saying.”
He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “And…yeah, I know, I’m pretty much just whining. Sorry. I’m dealing, okay? I never stop thinking and moving. I just…needed to take a moment to vent. Thanks for listening, Big Guy.”
Darling sat back on his heels, raising his eyes to study the faintly smirking face of the idol. “Shit’s getting serious, and we’ve had too many screwups, too close together. I have to face it: we might not win this one. If it all goes as bad as it can go, remember when I get up there that I’m trying my damnedest. We all are. If we fail, it’s not because we were lazy.”
He stood, bowed to the statue, and backed away. “Talk to you later, Big Guy. Looks like I’ve got work to do.”