He strolled along the cobbled road without a care in the world. It was dim, nearing or just following sunset; the towering structures that filled Tiraas could make it hard to tell, to say nothing of the lightning discharges from the industrial districts and the near-constant cloud cover. Mist shrouded the road, making the passing walls murky, turning the distance before and behind into vague shadows and the fairy lamps into golden blossoms of thin light, seemingly hovering on their own.
To some, it would be a spooky scene, even threatening. But he knew this stretch of road. He knew all the roads. This was Tiraas, his city. Sweet knew her like the back of his hand—better, as he rarely gave the back of his hand any attention. She’d never turn on him.
He whistled as he walked, enjoying the quiet, the momentary solitude, the familiarity with his city. Everything was just wonderful.
For some reason, that nagged at the back of his mind.
Up ahead loomed a quaint stone footbridge, arcing over a small canal. Darling ambled up to this, fishing a silver coin out of his pocket as he went and flipping it in the air, over and over. Below, mist swirled above the surface of the water, obscuring it completely. He paused at the apex of the bridge, leaning back against one of the thick stone rails, tossing his coin and just soaking in the ambiance. When was the last time he’d allowed himself a moment to just…be? He needed to do this more often.
It was a little dimmer in the middle, but the path leading onto the footbridge was fairly well-lit. Two lamp posts bracketed the road at each end. While Sweet stood there, a crow winged out of the mist and settled atop one of the lamps. It let out a desultory caw, fluffing its feathers once, then hunkered down, staring at him.
“Hello there,” he said airily. “Hm… Sorry, I don’t have any crumbs for you. But, hey, crows like shiny things, right? Here you go.” He flicked the coin up at the bird.
His thumb didn’t have nearly the power to send a silver coin that far, but it flew amazingly well, arcing straight at the crow. She caught it out of midair.
It was the oddest thing; Sweet didn’t notice any transformation, per se, it was more as if she’d been sitting there the whole time and he had suddenly realized he was looking at a black-haired elf in fringed buckskins, perched improbably atop a lamp post.
“I appreciate the thought,” she said, palming the coin. “Hello, Darling.”
“Hey, honey,” he replied airily, and laughed. He hadn’t used that old joke in years, but it had been one of his standbys as a younger man. When had he grown so stodgy?
She tilted her head; it was a fittingly birdlike motion. “My name is—”
“I know who you are, Mary. My girls mentioned you were lurking about.”
“That isn’t my name,” she said, seeming faintly amused. “But I suppose you are more comfortable dealing with masks and false faces. Do you prefer to be called Sweet?”
“It all depends,” he said, producing another coin from inside his sleeve and rolling it across the backs of his fingers. “What are we if not a selection of masks? No one is the same person in every situation. With our lovers, with our children, with colleagues, we put on different faces. Are any of those faces false?” He tossed the coin to the other hand, watching the way the dim lamplight flickered across it as it continued to roll. “Wear a mask long enough, and you become the mask. It becomes part of you. A collection of masks is what we each are, in the end.”
“Intriguing,” she said, folding her long limbs so that she sat cross-legged atop the lamp. Even as slight as elves were, it was an impressive feat of balance. “That sounds like Vidian theology. Not what I’d have expected from you.”
“You expect what I want you to expect,” he said with a wink.
“Is that so.” Her tone was quiet, even, and then he suddenly realized how old she looked. She was only the second black-haired elf he’d ever met, and this one was nothing at all like Principia, who tended to behave like a teenager. Age didn’t show on Mary’s face, of course, but she was visibly old in the way that old elves often were. There was a stillness to her, something ponderous in her movements, an almost palpable gravitas that hung around her like a cloud of perfume. “What, then, do you want me to expect? I am very curious when I will receive my visit from your Archpope’s little posse.”
“Never,” he said lightly, tossing his coin back and forth.
“Come on, we aren’t idiots. The list is the list; Basra rounded up the names of every significant player she could find.”
“It was an impressive achievement,” she noted. “The tauhanwe by definition are difficult to track.”
“But,” he went on, “by the very nature of the thing, some of those people are just not to be messed with. The dragons, the dryads, the Zero Twenties. We’re sure as hell not recruiting Tellwyrn, either.”
“That is good to know, I suppose,” she murmured. “Or perhaps not. If I’m not mistaken, the pretext for all this was to track down the tauhanwe killing off corrupt priests in the city. Of course, there are two of you involved who know very well that none of those on the list are the culprits.”
“Who is to say who knows what?” Sweet said cheerfully.
“You are an interesting case.” She smiled, and it wasn’t a threatening smile, but also wasn’t a warm one. “Loyal priest of Eserion, loyal agent of the Empire, loyal Bishop of the Universal Church. Obviously, you cannot be all of these things. One, at least, is a lie. Probably two, possibly all three. Yet you juggle these conflicting loyalties with consummate skill, a better deceiver than most I have met. Perhaps you, too, belong on that infamous list.”
The crow took flight in a flurry of dark wings, and then she was standing at the foot of the bridge, studying him with her head tilted. “A practical action for me would be to simply kill you now.”
“That’s one approach,” he agreed. “Can’t say I’m too worried, though.”
“You’re too smart for that,” Sweet said, winking at her. This was fun; he loved conversational games. Still, something wasn’t quite right… He brushed that thought aside. “Whatever you know, you know you don’t know all of it, and you’re not reckless enough to stick a knife into the heart of this web without knowing what kind of spiders may be knocked into your hair.”
“I have noticed an odd trend, over my many years,” she said, smiling again. “Thieves with a streak of poetry in their souls tend to cause me a disproportionate amount of trouble.”
“I do what I can,” he said modestly, tucking his coin into his palm and executing an elaborate bow at her.
“You are correct, though. You walk a path scarcely a hair’s width, dealing with those two eldei alai’shi. Much, there, confounds me, and all interests me.” She began pacing back and forth like a caged cat, swiveling her head with each turn to keep her gaze on him. With each pass, she drew a little closer. “At the risk of seeming arrogant, I take it upon myself to punish those I find abusing elves. However, men have tried in the past to harness the power of the headhunters; that is a hubris that leads to its own punishment with no need of my help. Yet…here you are, months later, seeming to prosper from your association.”
“They really are sweet girls,” he murmured. “You don’t know how murder wears on the soul till you look someone in the eye who’s had to kill to live.”
“And there we have it.” She came to a stop again, in the center of the bridge, now not more than six feet from him and staring intently. “I’ve seen the stress weighing upon men who have seized a monster by the tail and dare not let go. Then again, I have seen the stress of a man whose daughters are not yet ready to take on the world without him, yet may soon have to. They are dissimilar enough that I am unlikely to confuse them.”
Sweet barked a startled laugh. Something about the sheer ridiculousness of it all jostled him to his core; what was even going on here? “I think you’ve leaped to an incorrect conclusion,” he said wryly. Then, immediately, wanted to kick himself. If she believed something that made him less of a target, then damn it, let her. Why was he so off his game?
What was wrong with this situation?
“You are one of the better liars I’ve ever met,” Mary said, openly amused now. “Less so when you lie to yourself.”
He wasn’t listening anymore. He was noticing that sourceless alarm kept rising up in his mind, then drifting away; he was so very content, having so much fun with this. That was what was wrong. He didn’t brush off alarm when it reared up. And as for contentment… Contentment was a moment standing in the dimness of his foyer after a long day in the noisy streets, the look of delight on Flora and Fauna’s faces when they mastered a new skill he was teaching them, a snifter of brandy and a cheap novel in the night as he was going to sleep. Contentment was like a holiday season: if you had it all the time, it wouldn’t be enjoyable anymore.
This was wrong.
Sweet was a good Eserite and didn’t trouble his god for help when he could deal with his own problems; on the other hand, a good Eserite honed and then trusted his instincts, and now, his instincts insisted he needed the support. Without thinking, he reached into that well of energy that normally lay just beyond his attention, and golden light blazed up around him.
Mary narrowed her eyes slightly against the glare, but didn’t back away by an inch, or otherwise react.
Mist burned away in their immediate vicinity, the divine energy melting through her fae magic like fog in the sun. More importantly, the cobwebs vanished from his own mind, the false sense of security that had made him reckless and talkative, and suddenly Sweet was keenly aware that he was alone, in a place of her choosing, with a being powerful enough to qualify as a demigod at least, who had every reason to be hostile toward him. Adrenaline spiked through him, sharpening his senses and mind further—but of course, he didn’t let so much as a hint show on his face, keeping his easy, slightly daffy smile in place.
Now this was more like it. This was living.
“Nothing personal,” he said lightly. “It’s not that I object to a spot of mind control between friends. It’s good form to go over ‘no’ lists and establish safewords first, though, however harmful that may be to the spontaneity of it all. And quite frankly, I expect to be wined and dined a bit first.”
“Are you taking me to task for being hostile?” she said mildly. “Ensnaring the senses, arranging a quiet place to talk… All that takes effort. It would have been much simpler to use the same opening to just kill you. That is, after all, what you intend to do with me.”
“Dear lady, why in the world would I want to kill you?”
“Did you not say you don’t intend to recruit me?” She smiled again, coldly. “And that leaves…what? Your Archpope will have all the world’s tauhanwe either serving him or destroyed. You, Darling, and even your fellow Bishops…even your Church’s entire might, are not enough to bring me down. But you with an army of tauhanwe at your beck and call? Hm. I cannot swear that that wouldn’t do it. It’s hard to know, of course, what all their capabilities may be, much less how well they will work together. Obviously, I can hardly stand back and allow this plot to reach fruition.”
“And yet, here we are, talking,” he countered, rolling the coin across his knuckles again. “Well, my cards are on the table. Thanks for asking first, by the way. Suppose you share with me just what deal you’re thinking of making?”
Mary began to pace again, slowly, this time in a circle. Sweet matched her, in a slow dance around the center of the wide bridge.
“I said there are two parties involved who know the Empire’s adventurers are not behind these murders. You, obviously, because you’ve set your apprentices to do the work. But there is also the Archpope.”
“Oh?” Sweet kept his tone and expression mild despite the frisson that coursed through him. “And just what does he know?”
“Who is to say who knows what?” She grinned mockingly. “I doubt he knows who is behind the killings, or you would have much more immediate problems than me. But it may behoove you—and your fellow Bishops—to find out what he is doing before you take this campaign any further.”
“And what, pray tell, is he doing?”
“Ah, ah.” She wagged a finger at him. “That knowledge is what I have come to trade.”
“I see. What would you like in return? I can bring you some breadcrumbs next time, if you’ll just bother to let me know in advance where you’ll be.”
She came to a stop, and so did he. “You know nothing I would care to learn. All you have that I might require is…assurance.”
“That you won’t be targeted for elimination?” He shrugged fatalistically. “You surely have to know I don’t have the authority to guarantee that.”
“Pity,” she mused. “I guess I’ve no need for you to be alive, then.”
“Oh, don’t be melodramatic,” Sweet said, grinning. “I’ve been threatened by scarier things than you.”
“If you believe so, those things lied to you.”
“We both know I’m your in. I’m the only member of our little cabal who’s likely to give you the time of day.” He tossed the coin to his other hand and spun it on a fingertip, grinning. “You want to meet with… No, not the Archpope, not if you intend to warn us what he’s up to. The other Bishops, then?”
“Don’t think yourself too indispensable,” she warned. “For each, there is an approach that will work. I began with you because you intrigue me… And because your very clever scheme with those eldei alai’shi shows you are not firmly on the Archpope’s side. If not you, I can deal with one of the others.”
“You could,” he agreed, smiling. “Would you like to know, before you try, which of them is firmly in Justinian’s camp, and which could be turned against him?”
She stared at him thoughtfully for an endless moment. He had the impression of being watched by a wolf trying to decide how hungry it was.
“That card will have been played anyway as soon as you arrange a meeting,” she said. “You will have to warn me which of them cannot be trusted.”
“Just so! Consider that a gesture of good faith, then, when we come to it.”
Mary cocked her head again, then smiled. “It’s a start. You take good care of those girls, Darling. They take care of you.”
He watched the crow flapping away through the gathering dark. What mist there had been left had dissipated, leaving him alone on the footbridge. With Mary gone, taking whatever geas or glamour she’d used with her—he wasn’t up on witchcraft—the noise of the city intruded again. This was a quiet street, but he could hear the traffic from the main avenue up ahead, and now people were starting to walk toward him. A well-dressed lady gave him a flirtatious smile, which he automatically returned with a gallant bow, though his mind was firmly elsewhere.
It appeared to be early evening, and he was completely hell and gone from where he’d been. How much of that was the Crow’s magic? Had she walked him the whole way here? No, she had to have done something unnatural to get him away from his apprentices and the other Bishops. Witchcraft didn’t have any answer to teleportation or shadow-jumping… It was great for manipulating emotions, though, as he’d just seen demonstrated. He definitely needed to read up on it.
Sweet set off for home. The Church he could deal with later; his girls would be worried.
“Sweet!” Flora actually pushed Price aside, throwing her arms around him and burying her face in his chest. Fauna arrived a second later, adding herself to the pile from a slightly awkward angle.
“Girls!” he protested, patting them both on the back. “Omnu’s breath, you’d think I was back from the dead. How long was I gone?”
“We lost you right after Basra killed that thug.”
“Mary the Crow was there, we knew she had to have been responsible.”
“We were about to start hunting her!”
“And how,” he asked mildly, “did you know I wasn’t just under the invisibility cloak?”
They pulled back in unison and exchanged a guilty glance.
“You can see through it, can’t you,” he said resignedly.
Flora winced. “Um…no?”
“Now see here,” Darling said severely. “I’m not about to get on your case for keeping secrets, especially not after what I was telling you earlier tonight about dealing with Guildmates. If I insisted on knowing everything, there’s a lot I’d have wanted you to tell me before now. But damn it, I will not have you lying so clumsily! Do I need to send you back to Orthilon?”
“Sorry,” Fauna said, though she wasn’t the one being reprimanded. “We were just so worried. It’s been awful, not knowing what happened to you.”
“And I appreciate that,” he said more gently, patting them both again. “But you can’t relax your standards over something like that. It’s precisely in an emotionally tense moment that you need to lie convincingly.”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused, looking abashed.
“Anyhow,” Flora went on, “I was telling the truth. We can’t see through the invisibility cloak, but we can see when it’s in use. When it vanished…that was worrying.”
Price cleared her throat. “Might I suggest a more comfortable place to continue this discussion?”
“Ah…quite right,” Darling said. They were still huddled in the narrow foyer. “And Price, I’m going to need a brandy.”
“Very good, your Grace.”
In relatively short order, they were ensconced in the drawing room. Stories were swapped fairly quickly; the elves hadn’t much to explain, and he didn’t bother to completely retrace his conversation with Mary, just hitting the high points. After everyone was up to speed, he took a moment to savor the smooth burn of the expensive brandy while the elves frowned into the distance, thinking over what he’d told them.
“How dangerous is she, do you think?” he asked at last. “And yes, I know roughly what her capabilities are. I’m asking for an elvish perspective.”
“What,” Fauna said dryly, “because you think we all know each other?”
He gave her a look.
Flora prodded her with an elbow. “It’s a fair question. Yes, we do know of her. All elves know of the Crow.”
“Mm hm. So she’s…what? Some sort of boogeyman?”
“Not quite like that,” Fauna said carefully. “She isn’t…well thought of. She’s seen as probably the greatest elvish tauhanwe, her and Arachne Tellwyrn.”
“She kept using that word, too,” he said, swirling his drink. “I have a feeling if it just meant ‘adventurer,’ as I’ve been told, you could’ve used the Tanglish word.”
“It doesn’t mean ‘adventurer,’” Flora explained, “it’s our word for ‘adventurer.’”
“Oh, thank you. That clears everything up.”
“It’s the connotation,” said Fauna, grinning. “To call someone tauhanwe gives them a certain amount of credit for skill, but also heavily implies they’re… Let’s say antisocial and leave it at that.”
“A trouble-making pain in the ass, according to my uncle,” Flora said cheerfully.
“Right.” Fauna gave her an exasperated look. “Anyhow, the Crow is known. We’re warned about dealing with her. She’s not outcast like we are… Some groves and plains tribes both have hosted her, and considered it something of an honor, even.”
“She helps elves who are in trouble, when she finds them,” Flora added. “It’s just seen as kind of… Inappropriate, having anything to do with her.”
“Not outcast, but not welcome.”
“Hm.” He took another sip. “And here she is in Tiraas, despite the fact she’s known to hate humans.”
They frowned at him.
“She doesn’t hate humans,” Fauna said.
“Where’d you get that idea?”
“I, uh…was told she’s obsessed with destroying the Empire.”
“Well, yes, but that’s the Empire.”
“For an elf to hate humans… They’d probably be regarded as crazy. Or at least stupidly naïve.”
“You can’t judge an entire race, that makes no sense. Individuals and cultures make a huge difference.”
“Hating the Empire doesn’t translate to hating all Imperial citizens. In fact, there are a lot of humans who hate the Empire.”
“Well, there’s that much explained,” he said, “but that still means if she’s hanging around the Imperial capital, she’s not here for anything good.”
“She’s here for you and your Bishops,” said Fauna. “She explained that.”
“And how did she learn about that?” He shook his head. “That’s all developed much more recently. She may have been here already, up to something… Or she might have come to investigate those murders. Is there a chance she might be able to spot headhunter attacks even if you covered your tracks well enough to fool the Empire and the Church?”
Flora chewed her lower lip. “Not sure,” she admitted. “A shaman can do…interesting things. And she’s an old and incredibly powerful one.”
“Well, we’ll have to deal with that when the time comes.” He finished off the brandy, then leaned forward to stare intently at them, cradling the empty glass in his fingers. “More immediately, girls, how did it look when she grabbed me? Maybe we can pick up on something to be on guard against in the future.”
“We…didn’t see it.”
“That’s why it scared us.”
“Didn’t see?” He frowned. “I can believe she could redirect the other Bishops’ attention—she sure did a number on me. But you two are supposed to be… I mean, what are those spirits good for if they can’t spot magic that powerful being thrown at you?”
“Misdirection,” Price said suddenly.
“Hm?” Darling looked up at her. She was standing at the ready as always, beside the door.
“You said you were engaging with the Crow herself right before the disappearance?”
“That’s right,” Fauna acknowledged.
“Don’t look for magical explanations where mundane ones will suffice. She caught your attention, made you take your eyes off him.”
“That was just for a moment!” Flora protested.
“You’re thieves; think like it,” Darling said severely. “A moment is more than plenty. She’s right. She usually is; it’s infuriating.”
“I guess so,” Fauna said slowly. “I keep forgetting you’re Guild-trained, too, Price.”
“Good,” said the Butler calmly.
“Then that’s something we’ll need to work on,” Darling continued. “If you two are going to work in tandem, you have a built in advantage when it comes to keeping a lookout. Your target should never not be under someone’s eyes.”
“Sorry,” they chorused, looking stricken.
Darling smiled and waved away the apology. “I haven’t trained you on surveillance. What the student doesn’t do is her own fault; what the student doesn’t know is the teacher’s. All right then!” He stood with a grunt. “It’s late and I doubt the other Bishops have had cause to worry yet… But it’ll be important to keep them in the loop on this. The last thing I need is for it to look like I’m letting Mary play me against them. That means I need to haul my ass downtown and report all this lah-dee-dah pronto. Price, another?”
“Nuh uh,” Flora said firmly, shaking her head. “Have another as you’re going to bed. Don’t start associating alcohol with alleviating stress. That’s how you acquire a nasty habit.”
“Yes, mom,” he said scathingly. She just gave him a prim, self-satisfied smile. “All right, fine. You two run along to your own beds, I’ll not have my apprentices running themselves into the ground. Off you go.”
“I’m glad you’re home,” Fauna said feelingly, Flora nodding enthusiastically in agreement. They let themselves be shooed out, though.
Darling stood there, gazing after them in thought for a long time after they were gone. “Price, you ever think about having kids?”
“If that is a proposal, sir, I must inform you that that duty is not included in my contract.”
“Oh, don’t be vulgar,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Well, back to the streets for me. I should’ve known it was gonna be one of those days…”