Darling rarely got much use out of his dining room, but he couldn’t help noticing how much louder the whole house seemed with guests. Generally, he did his socializing elsewhere, but for several reasons—most of them having to do with his colleagues’ lack of private living space—he had ended up hosting this meeting. Now the other three bishops sat around the long oak table in the dining room, and he was mentally composing an apology to Price, whom he had gently mocked on several occasions for her determination to keep the room spotless despite the lack of action it saw.
Price, currently, was supervising the “housemaids,” standing at attention near the door to the kitchen. She might have been a wax statue except for her eyes, which followed every motion the two elves made. They hadn’t been best pleased at this assignment, but Darling had approved of it; the ability to blend in and assume another identity was a vital skill for a thief, and considering what these two were, would be especially vital for them if they hoped to survive long. This was good practice. Unfortunately, they were already getting more practice at self-control than anyone had expected or wanted.
As Flora leaned forward to place a small tray of cookies on the table, Andros eased back in his chair to cast an eye over her backside. For just a moment, Darling feared he would pat her and something would happen that he would be very hard pressed to explain away. It wasn’t quite that bad, luckily, but Andros apparently couldn’t resist a comment.
“Not bad,” he rumbled approvingly, nodding at Darling, who sat at the head of the table. “A tad scrawny for my tastes, but there’s something to be said for the exotic.”
Flora straightened, her face utterly impassive, and eased back from the table with the precisely controlled gait of someone repressing a physical urge.
“Let’s speak respectfully to and of my staff, please,” Darling said quietly. “In general, but especially in their presence.”
“You feel there is a lack of respect? I assure you, Antonio, that’s a simple doctrinal difference.” Andros raised one bushy eyebrow. “It was a compliment on your taste. I don’t doubt your women are talented in many ways, but a woman is meant to be decoration as well as utility and personality, just as a man has his own role to play in a household.”
Basra and Branwen were sitting very still, both looking at him sidelong. The cults of Avei and Izara had deep conflicts over the role of women and the very nature of femininity, but they held in common the belief that the Shaathist approach to both was purely abhorrent. Neither seemed about to jump in, though. Basra, in fact, appeared to be repressing a smile. Darling found that more than a little alarming.
Andros actually smiled; his beard mostly hid his mouth, but the crinkling at the corners of his eyes suggested the expression was sincere. “I rarely am hosted in a home outside my faith which is so correctly run. Your girls are admirably well-behaved—especially impressive, given how difficult it is to housebreak elves. We should discuss training methods sometime, man to man, when we don’t have more pressing work.”
The man couldn’t possibly be this daft. Elves were thought in popular culture to be savage and unpredictable; more enlightened minds knew them to be dangerous for entirely other reasons. He was also delivering this speech in front of a skilled swordswoman who didn’t particularly like either of them, but would surely take Darling’s side on this issue. No… This, Darling realized, was a test, not stupidity. It was an utterly Shaathist thing to do: no sooner step into another man’s domicile than begin feeling out the situation, trying to determine who was alpha male here.
He hadn’t a shred of interest in such games, which unfortunately meant he needed to win this one decisively and immediately or Andros would never let it drop.
“Leave,” he said softly.
Andros raised his eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me just fine. Remove yourself from my home.”
The humor had faded from the Huntsman’s face; now his eyes narrowed into a glare. “My presence is commanded. We are here on the orders of the Archpope himself—”
“And when you go whine to him about it, be sure to explain that I threw you out for insulting and harassing my domestic staff,” Darling said evenly. “You’ll look a lot less foolish than if he has to hear it from me after the fact. Now are you going to walk out with some dignity, or shall I have my Butler toss your ass bodily into the street?”
Flora and Fauna had drifted against the back wall and were standing stiffly in an approximation of the demure pose Price had taught them. Price herself was expressionless as ever, but everyone at the table tensed slightly. Andros held Darling’s gaze for a few seconds…pushing it. Just when Darling was about to back up his threat, the Huntsman pushed back his chair and stood.
Instead of moving toward the door, however, he turned to face the two elves and bowed deeply, and then did the same to Price. “I ask your pardon, ladies. I am accustomed to things being done a certain way, and at times I fail to remember that not everyone lives as Shaath commands. Truly, my words were meant to convey respect, and I regret my failure to show proper courtesy as a guest.”
Price, of course, didn’t respond. Fauna and Flora glanced at each other.
“I’m sorry, sir, did you say something?” Fauna asked sweetly.
Price cleared her throat very softly and Darling winced; Basra grinned wickedly, and Branwen failed to repress a giggle behind her hand. Obviously, Price would be having words with them later, but Darling found himself torn. A good servant did not sass her employer’s guests no matter how they behaved, but on the other hand, a good Eserite did not take crap from a stuck-up windbag who couldn’t actually do anything to her.
Andros looked back at him, expectant, but silent, and not pushy. His apology hadn’t sounded in the least forced or resentful, which was rather striking as it was possibly the first thing Darling had ever heard him say that wasn’t forced or resentful. Darling simply nodded and gestured with one hand to the chair, and Andros seated himself again.
“I didn’t realize you served theater along with brunch, Antonio,” Basra said, smirking.
“Well, I hate to let an opportunity go to waste. When we reach a stopping point I plan to bring up marriage customs and the proper treatment of apostates, just to see what happens.” Branwen groaned and covered her face with a hand, but Basra laughed.
“Anyway,” Darling said, “I believe you brought props, Bas?”
“Indeed,” she replied, patting the stack of thick folders sitting on the chair next to her. Darling sat at the head of the table, with the others occupying the seats nearest him. Basra fished out four small sheafs of paper—the newer, more expensive, almost-white paper, he noted—and handed them out to each of them while the two elves slipped out of the room and shut the door behind them. Despite the sensitivity of their conversation, none of the Bishops objected to Price’s continued presence. A Butler’s discretion was sacrosanct. “These are copies of the basic list I’ve assembled of agents who meet the Archpope’s criteria and are known to be active.”
“Agents?” Branwen wrinkled her brow, removing the clip holding hers together and leafing through it. “I thought most of these people were unaligned.”
“They are. It’s just a technical term, dear,” Basra said condescendingly. “It’s as complete a registry as I could put together based on the information the Church and the Sisters have. If anybody knows of a name I haven’t got here, by all means sing out. Not all of these are going to be equally relevant, though. The entire first page are people we can rule out immediately.”
“How confident are you of that?” Andros asked.
“Quite confident, though I’ll gladly explain my reasoning if you need me to. At the very top, of course, are Arachne Tellwyrn and Gravestone Weaver, both of whom are more or less permanently stuck in Last Rock, at that University of hers.”
“Tellwyrn still moves around,” Branwen noted, frowning at her list. “Even I’ve heard details of some of her…trips.”
“Right, yes, but keep in mind what we’re looking for: suspects, possible agents for the Church to recruit, and especially people who might be both. Tellwyrn is pretty obviously neither. Whoever’s been assassinating clerics is very discreet, very stealthy. If Tellwyrn had been doing that, she’d have blasted in the doors of every temple she visited, autographed the corpse she left, instructed at least six terrified bystanders to spread her legend and then personally barged in on the Archpope in his bath and dared him to do something about it. I’m glad I amuse you, Antonio.”
“You do! Have you ever been on stage?”
Basra rolled her eyes, but continued. “In addition to method, there’s the question of motive. Whoever’s doing this is either acting on a personal vendetta or in the employ of someone who has one. Tellwyrn has no reason to do something like this; she’s known to be on civil terms with most deities and to be personally friendly with several. And she definitely isn’t for hire. So, no, I don’t consider her a prospect.”
“And this Weaver?” Andros asked.
“Much the same: no motive, not his method. Also he hasn’t left Last Rock in the preceding five years. I don’t know exactly what kind of leash Tellwyrn has him on, but hey, whatever works. Next… Can we all agree that the Hands of Avei and Omnu aren’t reasonable prospects? Good. The next seven names are dragons, and of them, only Zanzayed the Blue even might do something like this, and it’d be a departure for him. Also, like the rest of the dragons there, his whereabouts are known and have been for several years; the Empire and the Sisters both keep very careful tabs on them. He’s in Onkawa, working on some noblewoman.”
There was a brief pause, filled by a round of grimaces and a delicate shudder from Branwen. The mating habits of dragons weren’t a subject for polite conversation.
“Below that is Tethloss the Summoner… This isn’t common knowledge, but I trust you can all be discreet. He’s actually dead and has been for at least a year.”
“What?” Andros looked up at her, frowning deeply. “Huntsmen at the lodges in Thakar Province regularly report that his territory is still unsafe.”
“Yes, but what your Huntsmen don’t know is that his minions and constructs are now operating on their own, with one or more of the intelligent ones controlling the operation. At least one of those is a demon, so clearly that can’t be allowed to flourish. But with the Summoner himself dead and no functional hellgate in the vicinity, they can’t get reinforcements. The Fourth Silver Legion is en route as we speak to mop that up.”
“That’s good to hear,” Branwen murmured.
“On page two,” Basra went on, turning over the first sheet of her packet, “we come to some names that I do consider very viable prospects. Antonio, I understand your people recently had a run-in with one Elias ‘Longshot’ McGraw.”
“A thankfully brief one,” he said offhandedly, unsure how much she knew, given Principia’s involvement.
“Who is this Longshot?” asked Andros.
“An adventuring wizard of the old school, though he uses a lot of the affectations of the modern frontier wandfighter. The man’s got a sense of drama. He’s mercenary, in both senses of the word: work for hire, and known to be ruthless once contracted. So that’s motive taken care of. And while this suite of murders is more ambitious than anything he’s known to have done, the fact that he’s an arcane mage is suggestive. A powerful enough warlock could bash through a temple’s defenses, maybe, but a powerful enough wizard could slip in, carry out a kill and slip out, nullifying the defenses and leaving no trace. That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
“Says here he was last seen in Puna Dara a few weeks ago,” said Darling.
Basra nodded. “He’s known to have a permanent residence in Calderaas; I have no up-to-date intelligence on that, however. If we can agree this man’s a suspect, I can get Church personnel on it immediately. I’d have to explain something to Commander Rouvad if I wanted to have Sisters look into it.”
“Of course,” said Darling. “I think that’s a good idea.”
“Splendid, we’ll consider that done. Next up is also a very good prospect: Mary the Crow.”
Branwen frowned. “Who?”
“My goodness,” Basra said with clear amusement, “you Izarites really do live in satin-lined ivory towers, don’t you?”
“Let’s please not resort to maligning each other’s faiths,” Darling said hastily as an uncharacteristic scowl settled across Branwen’s features. “In this group, that could get out of hand before any of us realize what’s happening. Bas, just assume we’ve all been living in a basement somewhere and know nothing about anything. This isn’t a subject most of us have had reason to research.”
“I have,” Andros disagreed under his breath, but thankfully didn’t pursue the matter.
“Fair enough,” said Basra with a shrug. “The Crow is… Well, think of Arachne Tellwyrn without the whimsy, and a witch instead of a mage. She’s dangerous enough in practice that several people have assumed she’s a headhunter, but in truth she predates the fall of Athan’Khar by centuries. Reliable reports place her back as much as six hundred years ago, but more legendary accounts predate the founding of the Empire.”
“So…she’s an elven witch? A shaman?”
“Yes, Branwen. She is at least centuries and possibly millennia old, and with that long to practice her craft, she is damn good at it, scary enough to take on just about any other name on this list and walk away, if not win.”
“Hm,” Andros rumbled. “Think she could handle Tellwyrn?”
“There’s no telling. I know what you’re thinking, and don’t. Neither of those women take orders, and trying to manipulate them is a staggeringly bad idea. But no, if she’s even met Tellwyrn we have no record of it. A lot of the older names on this list seem to deliberately avoid each other, in fact. Which is probably good sense.”
“So what’s Mary’s deal?” Darling asked.
“The short version is she has a vendetta against the Empire. We don’t exactly know over what; the few times she’s talked with anyone, she wouldn’t say. But she has stated explicitly that her aim is to see the Tiraan Empire fall. For all that, she’s not reckless or stupid; her exploits have varied from wiping out inconsequential border forts to infiltrating major operations and causing significant damage, but she treads a very careful line. When the attention gets too pointed, she’ll vanish for years or decades to let it die down. She knows exactly how dangerous the Empire is, with all its resources, and she doesn’t piss it off enough to put herself at the top of a kill list. Elves, as a rule, can afford to be patient, and this one knows exactly how long the human generational attention span is.”
“So…smart, hostile, has a sense of perspective, subtle…” Darling whistled. “Damn. Yeah, I’d say we’ve got a match. Anything we can glean from those reports of her past doings that might be helpful?”
“I’ve given them a look over, but you’re welcome to try yourself.” Basra pawed the stack of folders next to her, pulling out an especially thick one after a moment and thunking it down on the table. “The problem is she’s smart enough to change up her methods. Still, when she pops up she makes for a distinctive figure. A black-haired elf sticking her nose into things and generally causing a ruckus, that lingers in people’s minds. Of course, matters become a bit more confused in the last two centuries when there have been two women of that description active, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about that.”
A prickle ran down his spine. “Beg pardon?” he said politely.
Basra grinned. “Page three, fourth name from the top.”
Darling flipped the page over and looked down at it, then had the rare experience of needing to focus quite hard to keep his facial expression under control as he zeroed in on the name.
“Who’s this?” Andros asked, having also followed Basra’s directions.
“One of Antonio’s people,” she said lightly. “But don’t worry, I don’t consider her a prospect either. Not only would a killing spree be totally out of character, I find no reason to think she has the physical capacity.”
“So this is a thief?” Branwen asked.
“For all intents and purposes,” Basra said with a grin, “the Queen of Thieves.”
Darling very nearly fell out of his chair, and devoutly hoped his years of constant play-acting were keeping his shock mostly invisible.
“Then why be in a hurry to dismiss her?” Andros frowned. “We’re looking for someone who slips through defenses without a trace. A skilled thief is exactly the right kind of target, I would think.”
“She’s not that kind of thief,” Basra said.
“Prin’s a con artist,” said Darling, grasping for some control. He was relieved to hear his voice come out as light and unaffected as always. “She doesn’t take things; she creates elaborate intrigues to trick people into giving her things.”
“And she’s been active all but non-stop at a very high level, preying on the richest and most powerful people alive, for a good two hundred years,” Basra continued. Darling listened intently, managing to keep calm despite the way his urge to boggle at her was renewed with every word. “The Sisters have only been keeping tabs on her specifically for the last eighteen, though. Locke also happens to be the new biological mother of Trissiny Avelea.”
Andros frowned again. “Who?”
“The new Hand of Avei,” Branwen supplied.
“Oh,” he said dismissively.
“Since we’re already talking about her,” said Basra, “I’ll say that Locke is a possibility for someone to tap for the Archpope, if we can find her, but no, I don’t consider her a suspect.”
“That,” Darling said carefully, “is an exceptionally bad idea. She doesn’t like authority any more than Tellwyrn, but instead of blasting everyone in sight she just creatively misinterprets orders and plays extravagant, vicious practical jokes until everyone gives up on trying to make her behave.”
“There are ways to cure a woman of that attitude,” Andros growled.
“You’d have to catch her first,” Darling said dryly. “Better than you or I have tried, and embarrassed themselves. Basra, this is a little off topic, but would you mind if I have a look at those files on Principia? I find it pays to keep aware of what she’s up to.”
“Sure, help yourself,” she replied, fishing out another thick folder and sliding it down the table at him. “Those are copies; you can keep it if you want. Glad to be of service. Anyhow, moving back to where we were: top of page two, third entry. Tinker Billie is included here on the strength of reputation, but these attacks are not at all her pattern, and frankly well beyond the scope of her skills. I’m not sure I’d suggest bringing her in as a contractor, either, but we can discuss that in more detail after we go over…”
Darling let her voice wash over him, trying sincerely to pay attention but more fully aware of the thick folder now under his hand, begging to be opened and read on the spot. But no, that would have to wait. One job at a time. He just couldn’t get over the shock of it, though. Prin was a modestly performing thief at best, too much of a nuisance to be tasked with important Guild missions and utterly lacking in initiative. Could the Avenists be mistaken about who they were following? Surely they were.
On the other hand, he realized with a sinking sensation, maybe it was the Guild that was mistaken. They simply had never bothered to pay much attention to one irritating, mid-level member who paid her dues and rubbed people the wrong way whenever she was close enough to do either.
For not the first time in the last ten seconds, he forced his attention back to Basra’s recitation, and away from the growing suspicion that resting under his hand were the details of what might be the greatest con in history.
“Lunch!” the girl sang out, holding up her basket as she stepped into the Imperial Law office.
“Cassie!” Behind the desk, Marshal Task set looked up from the form at which he’d been scratching with a battered old pen, grinning delightedly. “Girl, you’re gonna spoil us.”
“We could maybe do with a little spoiling,” said Lieutenant Veya with a smile. “Hi, Cass. Are you sure it’s okay for you to keep doing this? It’s the third day in a row; we do get paid enough to eat, you know.”
“Oh, it’s no expense,” Cassie said, tittering coquettishly—but not too coquettishly, no sense in irritating the two Legionnaires. “The bakery gives us these extras for free, and if I don’t get rid of them somehow, Uncle Ryan will just eat them all himself, and the poor man doesn’t need all that bread junking up his system. He has enough troubles,” she added conspirationally, setting her basket down on the corner of the Marshal’s desk and beginning to pull out cinnamon buns.
“Well, I’m sure gonna be disappointed when y’all leave town,” said Task, reaching for a bun. “How long’re you planning to stay?”
“Maybe a few more days?” She screwed up her face in an expression of intense thought, one that suggested this was an unfamiliar labor for her. “Uncle Ryan isn’t sure. He gets crabby when I ask, just tells me his wares will sell when they sell.”
“He’s not…mean to you, is he?” asked Tirouzi Shavayad, the other Sister present. She was a lean, tawny-skinned ethnic Tiraan, unlike the Veya and Task, who were dark-complexiond Westerners from this region.
“Oh! Oh, nothing like that,” Cassie said hastily. “My goodness, you mustn’t think that! He just gets so worried, and it makes him cranky. Uncle Ryan wouldn’t hurt a mouse. Anyway, this is a good trip; he always complains, but his fabrics are selling quite well. I guess that means we’re not around for much longer,” she added wistfully, then held out a bun to Tirouzi. “Here you go!”
“We’re on duty,” the senior Legionnaire said firmly, but with a smile. “But thank you for bringing them, Cass. We’ll have some later. Assuming the Marshal leaves us any,” she added, raising an eyebrow at Task, who was already on his second.
“Hey, don’t look at me like that,” he said with his mouth full. “I can’t eat like I used to, y’know. Sides, there’s plenty. Our girl here doesn’t skimp on her generosity.”
“Oh, you,” Cassie giggled, perching on the edge of the desk and kicking her legs. The position was perfect—the childlike demeanor to play to Tirouzi’s maternal streak, the pose that gave Veya tantalizing glimpses into her cleavage and Task a splendid view from behind of the way her slender waist flared into womanly hips. They were all either actively eating or hungry—in other words, distracted—and each presented with just what they wanted to see, in such a way they never imagined the contradictions in how each of them beheld her. Damn, but she was good.
“I know that look, young lady,” Veya said with a try at firmness, but she spoiled the effect by smiling. “Now, what ulterior motive does a traveling merchant’s niece have in hanging around the Marshal’s office so much?”
Cassie blushed and ducked her head shyly, then glanced from side to side. She leaned forward a bit more, not missing the way Veya’s eyes darted to her bodice and back up, and whispered. “Well… I was talking to Deputy Tonner last night…”
“That damn fool boy,” Task muttered behind her, reaching for another roll. “Can’t keep his mouth shut for five minutes.”
“Oh, but he didn’t tell me a thing!” she said sincerely. “Not on purpose, anyway, and he clammed right up when he thought he’d let something slip.” She lowered her voice to a nervous whisper. “Is it true there’s a rapist loose in this town?”
The two Legionnaires exchanged a dark look.
“No,” Task said firmly, “it’s not true. That’s…misrepresenting the facts. Which, by the way, you don’t need to stick your pretty little nose into, kid.”
“She has a right to know,” Tirouzi said with a hint of belligerence, then met Veya’s warning look fiercely. “Well, doesn’t she? Every woman deserves to know something like that.”
“But that’s not what…ah hell, it ain’t classified,” Task grumbled as Cassie scooted herself around, changing position to keep all three of them in view of her rapt gaze—a pose which lifted one leg onto the desk, incidentally tugging her skirt well above the knee. She affected not to notice their glances, but a thrill of amusement rippled through her. It was just so easy.
“He’s not a rapist,” Task said, folding his hands on the desk top and giving her his stern I Am The Law look. “Just a man wanted for questioning in connection with such a case. And this is a warrant put out by the Sisters, so it doesn’t have legal force, but of course the Emperor’s agents are always glad to help out in Avei’s work,” he added with a respectful nod for the Lieutenant.
“In connection with a rape case?” she breathed, her face a perfect blend of horror and morbid fascination that looked so perfectly natural on her innocent young features.
“No such has been committed,” Veya said firmly. “He’s only accused of threatening it, and we have only rumor that he’s been sighted in Tallwoods. From a fairly good source, though it’s hard to imagine what a city slicker like that would want in a town like this.”
“To hide, maybe,” Tirouzi muttered darkly.
“Anyhow, hon, you’re perfectly safe,” Veya added to Cassie in a more gentle tone, then spoke with increased firmness. “And this business isn’t common knowledge, so don’t you be spreading it around.”
“Yes ma’am!” she said, nodding eagerly. “I mean…no, ma’am! I mean… I won’t.” Veya softened under her limpid gaze. Really, this was almost too easy. In the back of her mind, she found herself planning out a seduction. The woman was older and liked her position of authority; well, she’d had plenty of practice lately playing the submissive role. It would be so simple, she could just run the hesitantly intrigued ingenue routine from start to finish: curious about the rumors concerning Silver Legionnaires, not quite believing but fascinated despite herself, let the woman think she was the one coaxing the eager young innocent into her first taste of feminine love… And just like that, much of the interest went out of the matter for her. Too routine. Nobody in this little podunk town had enough imagination to offer her any real fun.
“All the same,” Veya added firmly, “if you meet or hear of any man called Jeremiah Shook, you come get the Marshal or one of the Legionnaires. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am!” she replied, nodding. “I will. I better get going now, though,” she added regretfully, hopping down and treating them all to a minor show as she smoothed the dress down over her hips. “Uncle Ryan gets worried if I spend too much time at the market. But I’ll see you all again, at least once! We’re not leaving tomorrow, I know that much.”
“You take care, darlin’,” said Task, gesturing with his fourth roll. “And be sure you do come say goodbye before you leave, understand!”
“You bet I will!” she said cheerfully, breezing out through the door and pausing only to wiggle her fingers flirtatiously at them. “Bye!”
Outside in the street, she set off with a bouncing stride, passing the citizens of Tallwoods with cheerful smiles and greetings, enjoying how many of them failed to keep eye contact—and how many of the women were visibly annoyed. Her dress was modest in cut and quite plain, but very flattering, and of course the figure it flattered was exceptional. That was all easy, though, practically cheating. A challenge, now, was to pose as someone plain, ordinary, and still coax an unsuspecting person into heights of pleasure they’d never dreamed of, followed by a slide into the most delicious depravity…
She caught herself licking her lips slowly and giving the bedroom eyes to a passing workman who allowed his gaze to linger on her bust. No, no…focus. That kind of thing wasn’t at all in character for Cassie, the innocent merchant’s niece. She affected a blush and modestly downcast look when he grinned and winked at her, which hopefully would repair some of the damage. Still… It would be the easiest thing in the world to drag him along, glances and glimpses making as firm a lead as any chain, till she could lure him into some dark alley, close enough for a kiss… Close enough for a knife across the throat.
And then what? The Tiraan Empire had gotten markedly more sophisticated since she’d last been here, and she wasn’t about to tangle with law enforcement until she was certain what its capabilities were. The could do things with enchantments now that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago. Plus, there was an entire Silver Legion currently camped just outside the town. Those never failed to be a problem, if they found out who and what she was.
She did slip into the first convenient alley, however, making sure she wasn’t followed. No sooner was she out of sight of the street and certain of the absence of prying eyes than she rippled and vanished entirely from view. Behind her invisibility, the arrangements of features that made Cassie melted away. Her true form was very much the same, only with different coloration, different attire, and very different features. A more total disguise was more effective, obviously, but she enjoyed dancing on the razor’s edge. Besides, who around here would have ever seen her before, or ever would again?
Humming to herself in satisfaction, Kheshiri pumped her wings once, shooting skyward, and sailed invisibly out over the roofs of the town. She veered sharply in the opposite direction from the Fourth Silver Legion’s camp; the clerics wouldn’t be likely to spot her unless they were specifically looking, which they had no reason to be, but it didn’t pay to take chances with Avenists.
She zipped along, low enough to the ground that she could have sailed under the branches of the trees in the oak forest, though she skirted its edge. Flying in there would be an amusing challenge, but also a waste of effort and likely to end with an embarrassing pratfall.
Even staying low and taking the roundabout route at the edge of the woods, it still took her only ten minutes or so to cover the distance. In short order, she was settling to the ground outside the dilapidated little shack. All was quiet. The birds and squirrels had fallen silent at her approach, but slowly resumed their noise as she stood there.
Kheshiri paced around the shack twice, noting the closed door and boarded windows. No signs of anything having been tampered with… Well, they had no reason to suspect anyone know they were out here. She faded back into visibility and strolled right up to the front door, then knocked.
The quiet from within stretched out so long she very nearly knocked a second time, then the door was abruptly yanked open and she found herself staring down the shaft of a wand.
Kheshiri put on a look of relief. “Master,” she said breathily, and threw herself forward, pushing past the weapon to wrap her arms around Shook and bury her face in his chest. It wasn’t the way he’d instructed her to greet him when they were alone—honestly, the man seemed to think he was a Stalweiss chieftain in how he expected women to behave around him—but she was finding that she could get away with a lot if her transgressions were cloaked in a hint that she actively enjoyed his treatment of her. Shook was another man who was almost too easy to be fun to play with.
“You took your goddamn time,” he growled, but didn’t reprove her further, wrapping his free arm around her and tugging her inside, then kicking the door shut. Kheshiri grinned into his coat as he slid his hand down her back to pat her butt. Easy…but still amusing.
“I get so worried every time I come back,” she said, lifting her head to nuzzle at his throat. “I’m always afraid this will be the time I’ll find you gone or in chains and a bunch of Avenists standing around with swords…”
He gripped a handful of her hair and pulled her roughly away, and she immediately toned it down, looking up at him meekly but without a hint of flirtation. The last thing she wanted was for him to start associating her moments of warmth toward him with suspicion. Slow and steady, that was what did it…it had to look like a real attachment. They took time to unfold.
“We’d have a lot less to worry about if you could find out what I keep sending you into that town to learn,” he said coldly.
Her face lit up with pleasure. “Oh, but master, I did! Finally, those women unbent enough to tell me a little; I was afraid I’d have to work on them all week. The Legion’s here after some rogue warlock or wizard a few miles to the north; they’re just waiting for their scouts to report back and will move out within a week.”
Shook nodded, some of the tension going out of his frame. “So they don’t know I’m here.”
“They don’t know,” she said, wincing. “I got a straight answer out of the Marshal, finally, too. You were spotted outside town that night, and apparently by someone who’d seen your sketch. They’re treating it as a prospect they have to take seriously, but nobody’s out looking. I don’t think they actually believe you’re in the area.”
His face settled into a scowl. “Fuck. That fucking bitch. When I find out how she managed to call down all this trouble, I…” He broke off, fixing his wandering gaze on her face. “What’s that look for?”
She quickly schooled her features. “Nothing.”
He struck quickly; even expecting the slap, she might have been hard pressed to dodge or deflect it. She did neither, of course, just rolling with the blow and then looking back up at him, wide-eyed with one hand pressed to her face where he’d hit her.
“What have I told you about lying to me, whore?” he said dangerously.
“It’s just…I just…” Kheshiri swallowed. “I don’t think you’d believe me. I didn’t want to make you mad.” She ended on a near whimper, obviously cowed.
“You don’t want me to be mad?” he breathed, still with one hand in her hair. He twisted it hard, wrenching her head back. “Then you answer a question when I ask it, and you tell me the fucking truth.”
“Yes, master,” she said meekly, dropping her eyes. “I… I just… I like it. When you talk about Principia.”
There was silence between them for a moment. The birds kept up their cheerful noise outside.
“You like it,” he said finally.
“It makes you so mad, and then you talk about what you’re going to do to her, and…” She trailed off.
“Go on,” he said coldly. She knew his voice, now, knew his every detail; this was the coldness of fire being held barely in check.
“It’s just, you’re so…” Kheshiri swallowed, finally lifting her gaze to his. “It makes you seem…powerful. Cruel. I am what I am.” She shrugged, a tense little motion, jerky enough to make her breasts wobble in their tight, inadequate confines. Naturally, his eyes shifted right where she wanted them, then back. “I’m a little drawn to that.”
“Is that so,” he growled, relaxing his grip on her hair and leaning back with a self-satisfied smile. “Well, then… Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”
Grinning, she eased forward and reached up to begin unbuttoning his shirt, while he slowly ran his hands up and down her sides, and over other spots. “Master?”
“You didn’t have to stop twisting, you know,” she said, making her voice a shade huskier. “I appreciate that you’re careful, but…you can hurt me, a little.”
Fingers glided up her neck, took her by the chin, tilted her face up. He wore the smug smirk of a man firmly convinced of his absolute control. “That so? Then is there something you want to ask for, my pretty little bitch?”
Kheshiri bit her lower lip, then said in a bare whisper, “Hurt me.”
He was on her like a pouncing wolf, then, and she played along flawlessly, suppressing the laugh that wanted to bubble up from her. Oh, so easy. Really, the man would be downright dull if she weren’t operating under such a massive handicap. It was the reliquary that made this game interesting, that and the extra spells he’d added to it. Getting out from under his thumb was going to be a long game at least, deliciously slow, determined by very careful attention to every detail. Oh, there was fun to be had, here. Still… Not as much as if he were actually smart.
As he threw her forward over the table and positioned himself behind her, she came to a decision. There was just too much downtime involved in this game; she’d go mad if she played it straight, without something else to occupy her energies. This Principia… Kheshiri hadn’t managed to unearth any information about her on her various scouting trips—yet—but she knew from Shook’s own descriptions and stories that the elf was a manipulator. Somebody worth playing against.
So be it, then—she could play two games at once. She was going to get rid of Shook, for the obvious reason that his ownership of her wasn’t acceptable, but before finishing with him, she’d at least help him attain his heart’s desire. Principia Locke would never know what hit her.
This was going to be fun. Thinking on it meant she didn’t have to entirely fake her moans.