“Anyhow,” Darling said, strolling casually along the stone lip surrounding the roof, “a Hush means the subject isn’t even to be discussed. There are exceptions involved in patron-apprentice privilege, if the subject Hushed is relevant to your education. However, if it gets back to Style or Tricks that I’ve told you about this, I’ll have to explain why it’s relevant… Which involves the fact that I’ll need your help if Prin ever resurfaces, which I’d rather not have a conversation about. So…”
“Got it,” said Fauna.
“Mum’s the word,” Flora added.
“Why are you telling us, though?” Fauna asked. “I mean, I appreciate the trust, but it’s not clear to me how we factor into this.”
“Two reasons,” he replied, then turned and leaped across the gap in front of him, sailing over an alley and landing on the next roof over, a distance away that would have been impossible for him to jump except his landing spot was a good six feet lower. Darling savored the thrill that rushed through him as the four story drop passed by underneath. It wasn’t often, anymore, that he got to do stuff like this.
The two elves, of course, appeared almost to float across, alighting soundlessly on either side of him with barely a flex of the knees to betray any difficulty in the jump. By the gods, they were going to make fantastic thieves.
“Prin is still on that list of Basra’s, though she’s not considered a target or a suspect at the moment.” He set off at a right angle to the path they’d been taking before, again strolling along the decorative lip of stone rimming the roof. All the buildings in this, a newer and fairly rich part of town, were made in a style that proved very convenient for rooftop work. Flora and Fauna followed him on the actual sloping roof, appearing to have no trouble keeping their footing on slate pitched at forty-five degrees. “The list is about more than that, though. Justinian wants people to work for him, and this business of hunting the mysterious priestkiller sounds like an excuse. I think a big part of what we’ve been sent to do is to recruit anyone on the list who’s willing to serve the Church, and use them to take out the rest, giving him a monopoly on formerly independent operatives. It’s a good ploy in his position, since the priestkiller in question,” he grinned over his shoulder at them, “has beautifully succeeded in undoing his work in setting the Wreath and the Empire against each other. All my intel points to the same; the cults are more suspicious than ever of the Church, and any hostility the Wreath held toward the Throne has been handily redirected. Brilliant work, ladies.”
“Serial killer,” Flora said primly.
He paused and turned back to them, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Pardon?”
“A priestkiller is a kind of demon,” said Fauna. “A gnagrethyct, in the infernal tongue.”
“Nasty critter,” Flora added. “Not a pleasant thing to have associated with you.”
“Duly noted,” he said dryly. “I’ll try to keep it in mind. The point is, even if Principia isn’t a target for elimination, she is a target for recruitment, and that would be a huge problem. Either Justinian might actually suborn her, which, given what I learned looking through her files, would be a nightmare, or we’d need to protect her from him. Which, frankly, I don’t think we can even do.”
“Bet we could,” Fauna said, grinning.
Darling snorted and turned to continue along his path. “A day may come when I set you loose upon the Church openly, but if it does, know that the end is near. That, girls, would be the very definition of a last, desperate act. No… I want your ears to the ground, physically and metaphysically. Don’t go hunting after Prin—there’s no need to create a trail that anyone else might be able to follow, especially since we don’t know what divinatory methods Basra or Justinian may have. But if she does turn up again, we need to know first, and be positioned to redirect any Church attention away from her.”
“Got it,” said Flora.
“Second reason,” he continued, “is that this actually is an educational opportunity. Consider what we found and how the Guild’s leadership reacted. Principia has clearly been conning the Guild itself on an unprecedented scale, and…no response. Thoughts on that?”
“Well, it’s like you said,” Fauna replied slowly. “It’s…a pretty epic con. I can see why the Guild would respect that too much to mess it up.”
“Uh huh, and I told you that right out. That’s a hint I’m not looking for you to spit it back to me as a critical thinking exercise.” He gave her a smile over his shoulder to take the sting out of the words. “Think deeper, broader. Think implications. What have I told you about cons and how they fail?”
“Simpler is better,” Flora said immediately. “The more possible ways a con has to fail, the more likely one of them is to happen.”
“Bingo, you’re on the right track. Now consider what Prin was doing. How huge it was, how many things had to line up for it to work. You’re seeing the discrepancy?”
“Yeah,” Fauna said, growing excitement audible in her voice. “She’d had to have bribed basically all the accountants, there’d be no way to ensure none of them would compare notes if they were just filing reports as always…”
“That’s still really complex,” Flora said thoughtfully. “Ooh! What if it was just one accountant she got on her side? I bet slipping things into the files is a lot easier than taking things out.”
“Simpler,” Darling conceded, “but still missing details. Girls, if anybody had come to me proposing this con I’d have refused to have anything to do with it. The records are far from the only thing she’d have to control. Think how many people might send in reports about her, how many places she’s been, how many of her schemes could have crossed someone else’s and provoked a response… It’s just too damn huge.”
“I give up, then,” Fauna said testily. “How did she do it?”
Darling shrugged, not looking back. “Your guess is as good as mine, I expect. Like I said… I could never have plotted out something like this, much less carried it out. There’s a reason we were all so damn impressed.”
“I, uh, think you lost us,” said Flora hesitantly. “What’s the lesson here, then?”
“Think,” Darling admonished. “We have this massive scheme, clearly indicating the Guild’s inner enforcement has been compromised on multiple levels by one of its members, most of them completely unknown, and the Boss not only refuses to investigate… He forbids anyone else from doing so, either.” He stopped and turned to face them. “Why?”
They exchanged a glance. “The Boss is in on it?” Fauna suggested.
Darling shook his head. “It’s all about motivations, about values, girls. Even I think Odds’s record system is ridiculous, but I totally understand where he’s coming from. The fact is, girls, though we do stand for certain principles, the kind of folk who are attracted to join the Thieves’ Guild are not necessarily good people. They are very rarely nice people. We don’t all get along, and a good many of us work together only under duress. So what’s holding this Guild together? The rules?”
“What’s the opening of the catechism?” he countered.
“All systems are corrupt!”
“All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power!”
He held up a hand to stop them there, suppressing a grimace. They even did that in tandem. Well, at least the answer was satisfyingly prompt, and enthusiastic.
“Exactly right. All laws. All governments.” He stared at them intently. “All systems.”
In unison, their eyes widened, his implication sinking in.
“But…” Flora sounded almost betrayed. “But the Guild?”
“What your fellow thieves will rarely tell you,” he said, beginning to move forward again, “is that systems, laws and governments are a necessary evil. Without them it’s just anarchy, the strong preying on the weak—exactly the thing we don’t want. Remember, though, that the Guild itself is one of those necessary evils. In order for Eserites to be effective as a group, we need some organization. But we never place our faith in systems, in structures. Be very cautious about placing faith in people—only specific people who have earned your trust and respect, never people in general. I told you the Assumption of People?”
Fauna cleared her throat and recited, “The average person’s stupidity and incompetence is the only thing holding their malicious intentions in check.” Her grin was audible, even from behind.
“Exactly. You can have faith in the Big Guy himself, so long as you don’t expect him to solve your problems for you. What you should have faith in is yourself, and your skills. Never the Guild or any organization. And that is what the lesson of Principia Locke so abundantly demonstrates. The fact that she twisted and abused and weaseled around the Guild is not only not a hostile action against her fellow thieves, it is damn well laudable. It’d earn her a standing ovation if we let it be known.”
He hopped over a much smaller gap onto another roof, this one flat, and cut straight across it. “That’s how it is in the Guild. People are always trying to get around the rules, not to mention conning each other. Or, depending on the branch in which their skills lie, cracking each other over the head, so to speak. We expect, understand and even depend on that friction; it’s a big part of what keeps us all sharp. Over time and with exposure, you’ll build rep and gain respect, assuming you make yourself worthy of it—which I have every confidence you will. You’ll make friends who you can count on to have your back. But I expect you to become very familiar with the Guild’s codes governing what you are and are not allowed to do to fellow members. Partly so you’ll know where to place your own steps, but largely so you’ll understand where the lines are drawn and don’t get taken by surprise when somebody screws you over while still obeying the letter of the rules.”
“Sounds…stressful,” Flora murmured.
“Would you rather be bored?” he said airily.
“What keeps people honest, then?” Fauna asked. “Or loyal, anyway. You make it sound like everybody should be at each other’s throats, but the Guild’s always seemed… I dunno, kinda warm and open, to me.”
“At the end of the day, we are a cult. We serve a living, active god. Odds told me that it’s Eserion himself who warns the Boss of attempts to embezzle Guild funds, which I hadn’t known. It didn’t happen under my leadership. But I certainly did know that the Big Guy steps in whenever real treason is brewing. He knows what’s in your heart, girls. You don’t need to worry about that; he’ll keep it to himself…unless you turn on the Guild. Then, expect the Big Guy to send your fellow thieves after you.”
“Huh,” said Flora. “Well, that just makes this whole mess harder to understand.”
“Yeah,” Fauna chimed in, “If the Big Guy spots traitors and tells the Boss, how come Tricks seemed to think Principia was a traitor and then changed his mind?”
Darling had just hopped another small gap and nearly lost his balance as he landed. Flora arrived next to him and grabbed his collar; she didn’t have the upper body strength to lift him, but he only needed a momentary steadying. He nodded thanks to her, but distractedly so.
“That,” he said slowly, “is an excellent question.”
Bloody hell, it really was. Something didn’t add up, and more than the missing details of Principia’s scheme. What was Tricks playing at? Ruefully, Darling reminded himself to pay attention to his own advice about Guildmates. Tricks hadn’t earned his tag by being straightforward.
“Well, in any case, here we are.” He forced himself to push the matter to the back of his mind, pointing at the next building over. “You know your instructions. Take up your positions, ladies; you won’t be able to keep an eye on me directly, but you’ll spot my accomplices first, followed by the target.”
“On it!” Flora said cheerily, and they both bounded away, seeking good vantage points from which to view the surrounding alleys.
Darling marshaled his thoughts as he pulled out the thin packet of fabric from within his coat. The slippery material of the cloak folded beautifully; it could be reduced to a truly tiny package. He had led them to a point a little bit distant from his eventual goal, but this rooftop had a perfect exterior staircase, which would spare him the indignity of shimmying down a drainpipe. He strolled calmly down the steps, swirling the cloak around his shoulders as he went and vanishing from view.
Looking like he did, it wasn’t often that Oz had such good luck with the ladies. Usually, he had to go to a Temple of Izara in order to get his hands on a woman, and he tried not to make a habit of that. The priestesses had a way of getting a man to talk about what was on his mind…more than he might with any bedmate, even. And sacred duty or no, some of them might feel the need to report some of what he admitted in the afterglow to Imperial authorities. Granted, that had only happened once and in the long run he’d been more let down by the look on the girl’s face than the minor (and familiar) inconvenience of having to skip town barely ahead of the Marshals, but the whole experience had been enough to make him wary.
Still, it was the fact that priestesses of Izara were the only real love he’d sampled in many a year that drew him toward this girl—even more than her pretty face and build. Well, maybe not more than the build. She had just about the most impressive bust he’d ever seen, and framed it in a dress that was pleasingly tight and far from excessively high-cut. Still, though, it had been her brooch that was the clincher, the pink lotus sigil that marked her as a devotee of Izara. Probably not a very good one, considering that she was clearly wearing makeup, but still. Izarites, laypeople or clergy, were all about openness and love. And hell, if she was hanging around in a dive like this, she probably wasn’t stodgy enough to go for the constables if he let down his guard a little.
And indeed, she hadn’t turned away when he approached, even giving him a warm smile and a flirtatious look up through her lashes. She really did have the prettiest blue eyes. Furthermore, she actually seemed to be into him—mashed nose, scarred face, cauliflower ear and all. Oz didn’t even remember the cheesy line he’d used to get her attention. He’d been into the whiskey for a good two hours already by that point, and it wasn’t one of his better ones, but it was for precisely that reason that he was encouraged when it didn’t immediately scare her off.
Branwen was, indeed, an Izarite, and seemed fascinated to hear the details of his life. He had no shortage of exciting stories—Oz the Beater’s reputation was well-earned, and with her encouragement, he’d gone into details he normally wasn’t in a hurry to share. Brushes with the law, stints in prison or work camps, run-ins with wild elves and frontier witches, excursions into old temples and occasional jobs working with members of the Thieves’ Guild, or sometimes outlaw bands (while they lasted before the Guild crushed them). He’d led an exciting life, after all. And since it hadn’t made him any richer, why not use it to cash in with the ladies, when one seemed interested?
He’d lost track of time and how much he’d spent on drinks, but it was going very well. Branwen was snuggled neatly up under his arm, one hand on his broad chest, looking up at him more adoringly with each anecdote. Oz was very much aware of her full breast pressing against his side, under the ribs—she was pretty short—but somewhat oddly for him, he was almost enjoying her attention more than the thought of how much further he was going to get tonight. Sure, she was a lovely bit, he hadn’t had a woman in far too damn long and he had possibly never gotten his hands on a pair of tits like that, but still… Oz would never have admitted it, but being liked by a pretty girl was, in its own way, as satisfying as getting laid. Harder to achieve, too. He couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. If it ever had.
The other patrons in the dimly lit bar were giving him his space. Even those who didn’t recognize him or know his reputation knew well enough to let a man alone when he was working a girl. At least, a man of his size, with the kind of face that told of brawls beyond counting. The bartender was clear at the other end of the room, engrossed in a penny dreadful by the light of an oil lamp—this run-down hole was too cheap for fairy lamps, even the flickery old-fashioned ones. Oz and Branwen had a little island of relative privacy at one end of the bar.
Coming to the end of a story, he basked in her delighted laughter, but let the silence drag on a bit afterward. Gulping the last of his whiskey to cover for it, he inwardly cursed at himself. What the hell was this? Was he nervous? He was Oz the Beater—he was afraid of nothing! But… Damn it, he liked this girl. Still, he didn’t aim to spend the whole night serenading her with old stories in a dive bar.
“So, uh,” he said, then trailed off, cleared his throat and tried again. “I got a room, not too far from here.” Slowly, almost gingerly, cursing his sudden inner weakness, he let the arm draped around her slide downward, finally letting his fingers graze her butt. “You, uh, maybe wanna…”
Branwen grinned up at him, and suddenly there was something warm, something heated in her eyes that caused his head to go even fuzzier than the whiskey made it.
“I’ve been waiting for you to ask for the last half hour,” she purred, slowly rubbing her hand up and down his chest. “Not that you don’t tell great stories, Oz, but you should learn to tell when you’ve got a girl’s attention.”
“Well, ya got me,” he admitted easily. Emboldened by the sudden elation coursing through him, he squeezed her bum firmly; when she giggled and snuggled in closer, he gave her a quick, one-armed hug. “Hope you’ll excuse me bein’ a little slow, honey. Ain’t every day I meet a lady as pretty as you. Hell…ain’t any day. I keep thinkin’ you’re gonna wise up any minute an’ ditch me for somebody in your league.” Too late, he clamped his mouth shut. Stupid. Why’d he have to go and say a thing like that? Now she was gonna—
Branwen reached up to place her fingers over his lips, and suddenly there was a simple sincerity in her expression that made his heart ache oddly. “Don’t,” she said softly. “Don’t do that. You deserve happiness just like anybody else.”
Maybe the gods had a few rays of light to shine on old Oz after all.
He cleared his throat roughly. Despite the whiskey lubricating his tongue, words just weren’t there. “Well, uh… Shall we, then?”
She was all smiles and giggles again when he helped her into her coat, even when he fumbled slightly with the differences in their height, but he had to chortle along with her. Some girls would’ve laughed at him—well, okay, most girls—but she made him feel included. He felt so on top of the world he was barely conscious of anything but her as they stepped out of the bar and into the dank alley leading to it. Hopefully he could remember the way to the room he’d rented…
“Oswald Terrence Chamberlain.”
The voice out of the shadows up ahead jolted him to a stop. He hadn’t even seen them; two people stood on either side of the alley, not blocking the way physically, but clearly presenting themselves as a barrier. A slim, dark-haired woman and a bearded man, taller even than he, though not as burly. Oz blinked, refocusing his vision, but the spectacle refused to change. She wore a white robe with a bronze breastplate over it, not full Legionnaire uniform but the light armor they sometimes used on non-combat missions. The man was in fur and leathers, carrying a longbow and with the bow-and-wolf pin prominently displayed at his shoulder.
A Huntsman of Shaath and a Sister of Avei? Together? That was insanity. Surely he wasn’t that drunk.
“More commonly known as Oz the Beater,” the Sister continued, eying him over and looking unimpressed. “Might we have a word?”
“No,” he growled. “I’m busy, as if you couldn’t fucking tell.” He patted his girl on the hip. “Now move outta the way. You’re crowdin’ the lady.”
“We insist,” the Huntsman growled back. Oz noticed that he was carrying a ceremonial longbow, but hadn’t lifted it. Well, the thing wouldn’t do much good in these close quarters anyhow… But the traditional leaf-bladed short sword he now realized the woman had was another matter.
“If you know who I am,” he snarled, “you know don’t nobody fucking insist with me. Now get your asses outta my way!”
“Wait.” Branwen spoke soothingly, placing her hand against his chest as if to hold him back. “Just listen to them. It’ll be worth your while.”
He looked down at her, confused. She didn’t seem alarmed at being accosted, nor even surprised.
Oz wasn’t really a thinker at the best of times, and he was a little drunk… But after a few seconds’ deliberation, even he got it. The most surprising thing was the little ache that opened up in his chest.
“Oh…Bran,” he sighed, and carefully removed his arm from around her. Funny thing how he didn’t even want to punch that pretty face, which was what he usually did to people who manipulated him. Well, this’d teach him, good and proper. Maybe a man could trust a woman, generally speaking, but a man who looked like him probably couldn’t trust a woman who showed him any interest.
“Wait,” she pleaded, and seemed so genuine he had to harden himself anew. “Please, Oz, just listen. We can still…pick up where we left off. But this is important.”
“Nah,” he said gruffly,” shaking his head. “Think I’m done. No hard feelin’s, honey doll, you gotta do what you gotta, but I—”
“How’d you like a job?” the Sister interrupted.
He blinked, then squinted at her. Those were words he’d learned to value. “What…kinda job?”
“Long-term,” she said, smiling. It was not a pleasant smile, made him think of the tense half hour he’d once spent eye-to-eye with a rattlesnake, afraid to move, till one of his companions had come back to camp and shot the creature. “In fact, you might say we’d like to put you…on retainer.”
Oz narrowed his eyes. “I don’t work for no man. You got somethin’ needs doin’, we can talk, but ain’t nobody gonna put a shackle on me.”
“Well, see, that’s a problem,” she said, still with that chilling smile. “If you’re not with us, you’re…maybe not against us. But a loose end.”
“The time of adventurers is over,” growled the Huntsman. “There’s a new order rising, one that doesn’t tolerate armed loners and malcontents stirring up trouble. This is charity we’re offering you, boy. Join the future, or be crushed underneath it.”
“I don’t take well to threats,” he rumbled. “I’m outta here. Now are you movin’, or am I movin’ you?”
The hand that appeared around his shoulder came literally from nowhere. It seemed actually disembodied…or, more likely, as if the body to which it was attached was invisible. Oz didn’t spare this phenomenon much thought, however, being more concerned with the knife clutched in that hand, which was pressed firmly against his jugular.
“Should take the deal,” said a male voice from just behind his ear. Oz considered. He could probably clock the bastard with an elbow, but that would just push the knife into his own neck. He could grab the hand and pull it away… But could he do it fast enough? Damn it, he was too drunk for this bullshit…
“Three years ago,” the man behind him went on, deadly quiet. “Silver Falls, in Calderaan Province. You took a stagecoach job run by a member of the Thieves’ Guild. Faisal Alfarsi; you may have known him as Claws. He turned up a week later with a knife through the heart. We caught one of the other members of the gang, who was persuaded to tell us exactly how that happened.”
“What of it?” Oz growled. Yup, he remembered that. Always knew it was gonna bite him on the ass one day.
He grunted at the blow to his torso, staggering backward; the man caught him, struggling momentarily under his much greater weight, then pushing him forward again. Only then did he notice the sword sticking out of his chest, the woman’s hands still on its hilt.
Son of a bitch. He hadn’t even seen her move.
“I just thought you should know what that feels like,” the main said glibly, stepping away. The woman laughed, a low, throaty sound that might have been alluring under other circumstances. Then she gripped him by the shoulder to yank her sword out, followed by a gush of blood, and Oz found himself crumpling to his knees. His limbs wouldn’t work properly.
“This was disappointing,” the Huntsman growled. “This is what we’ve come to? Thugs in alleys?”
“Oh, don’t get your beard in a twist,” the Sister said dismissively. “You knew we were starting at the bottom of the list. This clown’s fully mundane, but he’s pretty much the top thug-for-hire in the Empire.”
Oz felt a very peculiar rush of gratification at the acknowledgment. Blood was pouring out of him at a really alarming rate, taking the strength from his limbs as it went. He’d seen too much death to have any illusions about what this was.
They continued to talk over him as if he weren’t there. Insulting, but he couldn’t really take it personally; he’d done the same enough times. Branwen, though, was looking at him, a hand over her mouth, real pain on her face. That made him feel good. It showed he did matter to her on some level. After all, why should she bother lying to him at this juncture?
He’d always known it’d be something like this, a blade in some alley, he reflected, his vision fading. But hell, they were worthwhile opponents, it was revenge for something he’d actually done… And there at the end, a pretty girl had cared about him for a while.
Yeah. This would do. This was pretty good.
The elves, watching from perches on either side of the alley above, drew back from craning their necks to peer downward, letting the tension ease from them. As with so many things, they did this in perfect unison.
“Messy,” Flora murmured, “and altogether unpleasant.”
“Doesn’t seem like much of a loss,” Fauna said with a shrug.
“Well, no. I just feel… That would be an appropriate thing for us. But he’s better than this. Is that weird?”
“A little,” Fauna acknowledged, then grinned slightly. “But I do feel what you mean. You’re not wrong. Keep in mind what he’s better at, though. Sometimes, you have to do unfortunate things.”
“I guess we should know that better than anyone, huh.”
“Yup.” Fauna lifted her gaze to stare at the third watcher. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
The crow studied them, tilting its head to one side, then ruffled its feathers and emitted a very soft croak.
“Fauna,” Flora warned.
“What? We see her, she sees us, and I’m getting tired of this game. Well?” she added directly to the crow. “Anything to contribute? If you’re not going to be sociable, I suggest you learn to stay out of our business.”
The crow made a guttural chuckling noise, and abruptly took flight. Both girls watched it flap away; it vanished quickly among the forest of chimneys in this district.
“That’s going to be trouble,” Flora murmured.
“Yeah,” Fauna said with a sigh. “I think we’d better warn Sweet as quickly as possible.”
“Agreed.” She leaned over again, then stiffened, staring at the three figures striding away from the alley, leaving the cooling corpse behind. Nowhere was the telltale distortion of the invisibility cloak, its inherent magic rendering it obvious to the spirits that watched from behind her eyes. “Wait. Where is he?”