The crow flapped from perch to perch, pausing atop lamp posts, fences and eaves to look back at the four Bishops as they struggled to keep up before flittering off into the gloom again. In the darkness and oppressive drizzle, the black bird was all but invisible except when it moved; keeping it in sight was a challenge.
“Once again,” Basra growled under her breath, “this had better be her. If we are chasing some random crow across the city…”
“Crows are clever enough to play complex games like this,” Andros noted, “but a mundane bird would not be out at this hour, or in this weather.”
“She could’ve said something instead of pulling this cockamamie pantomime,” Basra complained, then raised her voice. “Oi! Beaky! Do all elves lack basic social skills or just the creepy shamans?”
“Shaman,” Branwen said.
“It’s ‘shaman.’ The plural is the same as the singular.”
“Are you sure?” Darling asked. “I always thought it was ‘shamen.’”
“I’m pretty certain—”
“Nobody cares!” Basra shouted. “Antonio, if this turns out to be a bust I’m blaming you.”
“Me?! What did I do?”
“She’s your elf.”
“She is not my elf! I’m pretty sure she’d object strenuously to being called anybody’s elf.”
“Yeah, well, you found her for us.”
“Actually, she found him,” Branwen said helpfully. She wasn’t quite panting, but was having more trouble with the pace than the rest of them, between having the shortest legs and roundest figure in the group.
“Whatever, don’t care,” Basra said, now grinning wickedly. “Blaming you. I’m permitted to be irrational. Woman’s prerogative.”
A silence fell while the other three exchanged glances. Hearing misogynistic jargon repeated by a ranking Avenist cleric was…jarring.
“Where is she leading us?” Andros demanded after a moment. They rounded a corner at high speed, Branwen slipping on the slick paving stones before Darling caught her.
“Hear that?” Darling said. “That snapping noise in the distance? Those are antennae. We’re in the northern factory district. They’re supposed to shut down in the rain—bad things can happen when you discharge lightning into a watery atmosphere. But it’s still just drizzling, and some industrialists will push every rule they can to the very limit. Anything to scrounge a copper.”
“It’s well past midnight,” Basra huffed. “Who the hell is still running a factory anyway?”
“Every copper. Production would shut down when they had to burn lamp oil, but fairy lights are practically free to run.”
They came to an abrupt stop, their guide having done likewise, perched atop a lamp post. Branwen leaned against it, catching her breath, while the other glared up at the crow.
“Well?” Basra demanded, planting her fists on her hips.
The crow turned around to point its beak dead ahead and let out a hoarse caw.
The street ended about a block in front of them, where another street running perpendicular fronted another row of factories, with one dead ahead. It was at this that the crow now stared. Like most of the buildings here, it was dark, though a faint residual glow wreathed the antennae atop the structure. As they watched a faint flicker of static sparked across one.
In some of Tiraas’s wealthier industrial zones, the factories were showpieces, architecturally pleasing, their interiors clean and spacious, often fronted by elaborate foyers through which common employees were not permitted passage. It was to these that visiting dignitaries were usually shown to be awed by the city’s sophistication and industrial prowess.
This was not a wealthier industrial zone. The factory toward which they were pointed was a squat, ugly building of reddish brick, four stories tall and most of its exterior lined by rows of square windows. That would be for light, the factory clearly having been built before fairy lamps were cheap and widely available; newer structures favored thicker, more solid walls that gave them better insulation. It was clean, at least. Only in the city’s poorest and shiftiest districts was filth and decay permitted to accumulate.
“I guess we’re here, then,” Basra said in a quieter tone. The crow ruffled its feathers, croaking softly in response. “Right, then. Standard tactics for fighting elves. Remember, they are faster, more agile and more stealthy than you, but not as physically strong. Do not engage them hand-to-hand; their speed and accuracy gives them a considerable advantage.”
“Speed and accuracy gives them an even greater advantage in ranged combat,” Andros growled. “Do you propose to bring down the Jackal with stern language?”
“Elves are faster, not better,” she replied, giving him a look of pure irritation. “Humans are stronger, as I said, and sturdier. Our main advantage is that the elvish frame is compact, has lighter bones, very little fat and less muscle. Plus, they heal at something like a fourth the rate we do. Not only are they quite prone to injury, but any injury is a much more serious matter to an elf. Thus, they are cautious. Don’t compete with him in finesse: use brute force tactics at a safe distance. Cause damage, scare him.” She grinned, waggling the wand she had taken from the Cathedral. “These little beauties make all the difference. Remember, we want him alive to answer questions, so shoot up the area around him. A consistently effective strategy is to create barriers of burning debris. Hem him in, make it more attractive to deal politely with us than get blasted.”
Above, the crow squawked, ruffling its feathers.
“Yup, that’s how we take down elves,” Basra said, grinning savagely upward. “Want a demonstration? Oh, but you’ve probably seen it a time or two, haven’t you?”
“Don’t antagonize her,” Darling said firmly. “This guy’s already way up the list from what we started out tonight prepared to take on. Let’s not have two angry elves to deal with. Bas, the main problem with your strategy is it involves busting into somebody’s factory and shooting it to hell.”
“These places are all insured to the rafters,” she said with a shrug. “Besides, we answer only to the Archpope, and this business is in defense of the realm. We’re fine.”
“All the people who work there won’t be fine when their jobs are wrecked tomorrow,” Branwen said worriedly.
“Eh. Omelets, eggs, you know how it goes. Forward march, people.”
“Keep a divine shield around you at all times,” Andros rumbled, a glow springing up about him as he suited his words with action. “We will not be able to sneak up on him anyway. If he cannot strike back against us, he’ll have little option but to surrender.”
“Or flee,” Darling pointed out. “Let’s not just charge in there. How many entrances are there?”
“Come on, do you see those windows?” Basra said. “It’s pretty much one big entrance. The Jackal has killed one priest tonight, and my files on him suggest an aggressive temperament. If he runs, there won’t be much we can do about it. I’m betting, though, he’ll think he can take us.”
“Antonio is right,” Andros said, his glow winking out. “It would be wise to reconnoiter.”
“For what?” she demanded, exasperated.
“To plan for more than the best case scenario,” Darling said. “Look, I know this district. Behind that row of factories is a canal. At this time of year the water level will be too low for him to jump into; it’s a painfully long drop into not enough water to cushion the fall. We should at least check out the factories to either side, see where the convenient entrances are. If the Jackal’s holed up in there, he’ll have scouted already; knowing where the bolt holes are will tell us which way he’s likely to run, so we can better stop him from doing it.”
“We don’t have—oh, fine,” Basra said with poor grace, throwing up her hands. “Do what you want. Ten minutes, no more, and for the gods’ sake keep quiet. Elves can hear like rabbits.”
“I will investigate the factory to the left, you take the right,” Andros said, nodding to Darling. “The women will wait here.” He strode off into the dimness without waiting for a reply.
“The women can make decisions, too,” Branwen said, frowning after him.
“Oh, leave him alone,” Basra snorted. “He thinks he’s being the alpha male. Let him, it’ll be funnier when he finds out how wrong he is.”
Darling didn’t bother to reply, already striding off toward the other building. He did, indeed, know this district, in the general way he knew all the city’s streets, but had never had occasion to familiarize himself with these factories in particular. In fact, his information network tended to encompass the highest and lowest elements of the city; factories were so uniform, so uninteresting, little enough went on there that mattered to him. They were useful for all manner of dealings when closed—as the Jackal had clearly found—but functionally interchangeable for that purpose. The people who ran them usually had interesting secrets, but those were better investigated in their homes and the places where they went to play.
There were no convenient fire escapes, external stairs or even drain pipes to shimmy up. That was annoying; he much preferred the vantage of rooftops for getting a good look around. These factories were so square and unadorned there was hardly anything to climb. The brick walls were too smooth to ascend without the proper enchanted tools, and anyway, he wouldn’t even care to try that with everything as rain-slick as it was tonight. While this wasn’t good for his view, it was tactically advantageous for this specific situation. Darling was no elf, but he knew how to monkey his way around an urban landscape. If he couldn’t find a way to ascend, the Jackal likely couldn’t, either.
The alley between the two factories wasn’t broad, but it was also clean. Darling slowed his pace as he entered; it was even darker in here, without the benefit of the city lamps, but enough dim glow filtered through for him to make out where to put his feet. Clearly, though, this had been deliberately cleaned, and likely that very day. There wasn’t so much as a broken bottle. He mentally filed this away to investigate later; keeping alleys spotless had certain advantages, but it was a resource-intensive task, and didn’t seem characteristic of the fat cats who owned these factories and paid their workers just enough of a living wage to keep them coming back every shift.
Just as clearly, the two buildings had been designed in tandem. They shared the same spartan architectural sensibilities, and the lack of any windows facing one another showed their designers had known there would be no natural light to be had from this angle. Still, he traveled the full length of the alley, giving due diligence to his task. There was one door in the side of the factory in which the Jackal was allegedly holed up, and two in the other, all three of them firmly locked.
Darling reached the end and poked his head out; a chest-high wall was all that separated him from the drop into the canal below. Both factories were built right against the edge, with no space on which to stand above the canal.
The factory on the right was a good story taller, so even if he made the roof, the Jackal couldn’t jump it. No climbing, no usable entrances… Their quarry wouldn’t be escaping in this direction. It was good to know, but Darling couldn’t shake the feeling he’d just wasted a chunk of time.
Turning to head back, he froze. Mary stood blocking his path, her form mostly in shadow.
“It seems,” she remarked, “I don’t strictly need to know which of your companions you find trustworthy. Perhaps we shall let them demonstrate for themselves, hm?”
“Is this really how you want to do this?” he asked mildly. “I enjoy gamesmanship as much as… Well, okay, a good deal more than the next man, but really, do we need to cultivate a hostile relationship?”
“If we had a hostile relationship, I would have removed you from consideration already.”
“Well, isn’t that reassuring.” He moved a step closer; she didn’t back away. “You know what I mean. You’re clearly interested in forming some kind of understanding. How about we agree to stop playing these games with each other?”
“You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”
He hesitated. She already had him over a barrel, given what she knew about Flora and Fauna. It would be so easy for her to explode his entire world… It made him instinctively reluctant to give her more information. On the other hand, that one secret was so potentially devastating she hardly needed more knowledge to scuttle all his plans, so what did it matter? On the third hand, it was a measure of control, giving her intel that she could use against him for lesser effect than completely wrecking his cover, and her “help” this far had been openly manipulative, verging on coercive. On yet another hand, trust was earned, and someone had to make the first overture…
Mary chuckled softly, and he realized he’d ruminated a second too long. “That is our dilemma, is it not? So let us see how this night plays out, Darling, and go from there. I will not betray you, you don’t turn on me. If we can trust one another this far…we’ll see.”
“Should we really be talking here?” he said, tilting his head to tap one ear significantly. “You lot have really sharp hearing, I’m told.”
“Oh, you needn’t worry about the Jackal,” she said dismissively. “He knew you were coming long before you did.”
The crow fluttered back down the alleyway, completely invisible in the darkness. Once its wings were out of earshot there was no sign it had ever been there.
“Right,” he muttered. “That’s a great way to build trust.”
Andros was already there when he jogged back to the others. The crow was not.
“The left flank is extremely porous,” the Huntsman said by way of greeting. “Two unsecured exits from our target’s nest, one into the building beyond.”
“Then we know which way he’ll go if he runs,” Darling replied. “The opposite side is a proverbial duck’s butt. Everything’s locked up tight.”
“Too convenient,” Basra noted. “Sounds like he’s set things up that way. A trap?”
“That’s worth considering,” Darling said, nodding. “I just had a little visit from our taciturn guide; she said the Jackal knows we’re coming.”
“And how does he know?” Andros growled.
“Maybe you made too much noise?” Basra said sweetly.
“No, he’s got a good point,” said Darling. “I don’t get the feeling Mary’s betrayed us, but…that’s just a feeling. She is most definitely working some angle here. We’re gambling that it’s in line with our own.”
“Um,” Branwen said hesitantly, “when the stakes is us walking into a probable trap with a dangerous enemy waiting… Maybe we should consider, uh, not doing it? Is anything about this urgent enough that we have to do it tonight?”
“Just that the Jackal is likely to get away if we don’t move now,” said Basra, then scowled. “Assuming the Crow isn’t in league with him. It wouldn’t be in character; they both work alone, according to my intel. But who knows with elves? Even normal elves, and these two are all kinds of trouble.”
“The Crow has no reason to play such elaborate games,” Andros rumbled. “If she wished us harm, she would simply do us harm. Her power is beyond ours. Besides, she swore an oath, and such as she do not do so lightly. It makes more sense to conclude she is sincere in her desire to help.”
“Into the trap, then,” Darling said grimly.
“Just so,” Andros nodded, then lit up again. “Shields.”
Darling and Branwen weren’t practiced at using the light for that purpose, but they managed. Basra and Andros took the flanks; they approached the factory side by side. Even considering the hour and the weather, the streets were eerily quiet. Between Mary and the Jackal, it seemed likely someone had cleared this area of people. By what means, he didn’t care to contemplate.
They had to break their impromptu formation to enter; the double-wide doors weren’t expansive enough to accommodate four people walking abreast. They opened, though, as soon as Branwen tugged the handle.
“Um,” she said quietly, “is it…normal for factories to be left unlocked after hours?”
All three of them looked at her.
“Right,” she mumbled. “Just checking.”
The lobby inside was as modest, utilitarian and generally ugly as the building itself: scratched and pitted hardwood floor, brick walls, a large old wooden desk just across from the entrance, behind which towered rows upon rows of pigeonhole shelves, most stuffed with papers of one kind or another.
Darling stepped forward and tapped the bell sitting on the desk. Its high, thin sound resonated through the stillness. Nothing happened in response, though.
He turned and smiled at the others, shrugging. “Worth a try.”
“Idiot,” Andros muttered. Basra just shook her head and led the way toward one of the doors along the back wall on either side of the desk.
They had to pass through this in single file, but beyond, they found themselves on the main factory floor. The space was cavernous, intimidating in the darkness. Half-seen shapes loomed around them, marching into the distance; the golden light the four of them put off was the only illumination present, and it only lit up their immediate environs, which largely consisted of boxes stacked against the front wall. Some dim light filtered in through the many rows of windows, but it did nothing to brighten the space, serving only to outline the windows themselves in a sullen glow.
They stood, looking about them, just inside the door, the only sound their breathing…painfully aware that their enemy could detect them clearly. Darling wondered if the Jackal could even hear their heartbeats.
“What does this place even make?” Basra asked. Her voice was impressively even.
Darling stepped to one side, picking up one of the boxes. “Looks like… Toasters.”
“They toast bread. Heh, that’s actually pretty nifty. ‘No muss, no fuss, perfect toast every time.’ I kinda want one, now.”
“Who needs a whole device to make toast?” Andros growled. “Do people in this city not have fire?”
“Are they expensive?” Basra asked.
Darling turned the box this way and that, studying its labels. “Hm, suggested retail is two doubloons. Not bad! Think I’ll get one for my Butler if we don’t all die in here.”
“Well, that’s something, anyway,” she said, grinning. “We’re already about to learn the limits of the Archpope’s power to get us out of trouble. Breaking and entering, and I foresee a heaping helping of property damage in our near future.”
“We didn’t break,” Branwen said defensively. “It was open.”
“Bran, love, I’ve yet to meet a judge who was impressed with that line,” Darling said with a wink.
“You would know,” Andros rumbled.
“My, my, does Justinian know how absolutely precious the four of you are?” They stiffened, peering this way and that; the voice echoed unnaturally in the vast space, seeming to come from every direction. “Did he select you for your vaudeville skills? But no, he’d have you on pulpits if you were only good for dramatic effect, not skulking around in the dark. Pity.”
“Show yourself!” Andros barked, the light around him intensifying.
A cold chuckle echoed through the darkness. “Well. Since you asked.”
Light bloomed all about them. Above, a row of hanging fairy lamps burned to life, illuminating the first few yards of the factory floor. Then another beyond them lit, then the next, and so on, light expanding from the front of the room to the far distance in a silent march. Half-glimpsed shapes became even stranger in the illumination; Darling recognized conveyor belts, towering glass tubes filled with enchanting dusts and hoses connecting them to various structures, and simple golems positioned to turn the belts and provide motive force in other places, but that was about it. The stacks of metals and other raw materials were fairly obvious, but the rest of the equipment, great abstract sculptures of brass and rune-carved iron, glass and exposed wires, was a mystery to him. Apparently making toasters was complex business.
A row of metal walkways lined the factory’s edges, two stories up. Immense chimneys, connected to every large piece of equipment by pipes and wires, would lead to the antennae atop the factory. The conveyor belts ran in two long rows down each side of the building, lined by equipment and stations for workers, with a long open space between them. At the far end of this stood the Jackal.
Darling was keenly aware of the disparity between human and elven vision. From where they stood, the Jackal was just a slender figure with blonde hair and a dark suit, but he could doubtless tell the color of their eyes. As they squinted at him, their eyes still adjusting to the sudden brightness, he spread his arms wide. Again, his voice echoed unnaturally through the chamber.
“Step into my parlor.”
Adros began moving instantly, striding forward at a good clip, with Basra next. The other two followed a touch belatedly, making their ranks a little uneven until they caught up.
“You will answer for the murder of the priest Hernfeldt,” Andros boomed, glaring at their prey.
“Well, yes,” he replied calmly. Rapidly closing on him, they could see him smiling now. He didn’t look like much, just an elf in a nice suit; he wasn’t even carrying any visible weapons. “Spend enough time in the dirty business, and you eventually have to accept that at some point, everyone answers for all they’ve done. The question we are here to decide is this: will I answer to you, tonight? Or will the four of you just become one more thing for which I must answer later?” He rolled his shoulders and adopted a wider stance, still watching them come.
Darling’s skin was fairly crawling. This was wrong; it made no sense for the elf to let the four of them, invulnerable behind their divine shields, get this close. He slowed his pace, finding the others doing likewise. Branwen was visibly frightened; Basra and Andros were glancing about, in between keeping tabs on the Jackal, clearly looking for the trap they all knew had to be there.
Focused as they were, only Branwen jumped when the great arcane furnaces hummed to life. Around them, conveyors began moving as the golems began turning their cranks. Almost immediately, toaster components started piling up into impromptu junk piles and magical machinery sparked and hissed, all of it operating without any of the people who should be there to oversee the process. In seconds the pieces sitting on the conveyors had been swept into heaps at the far end of the lines, and thaumaturgical equipment was casting a variety of charms directly at the empty belts, mostly to no effect. Things at various points started to spark and smoke, however.
“Is this all you’ve got?” Basra sneered. “Planning to burn the place down around us?”
The crackle of arcane energy was all around them now, unfocused. Darling was no enchanter, but he couldn’t help thinking all this stuff was working faster than made sense; at the speed those belts were turning, it would be prohibitively hard for even a well-trained team to assemble anything moving along them, and the charm-dispensing equipment was starting to emit shrill sounds of protest. Yes; watching, he could clearly see them accelerating. Why overclock the works? To what end?
“That must be it, yes,” the Jackal said equably, smiling at them.
“Surrender,” Andros barked. “You have no avenue of escape. You will be destroyed if you are encircled and give us no reason to hold our fire.” He raised his wand menacingly.
Something flickered through Darling’s perception, a peculiar sensation to which he was quite unaccustomed; it was like a momentary flutter in the divine light coursing through him. Branwen lifted her head, glancing about at the same moment. She had felt it too.
Sudden realization crashed down on him, and he slammed to a stop.
Encircled. The Circles of Interaction.
Even as he realized he was surrounded on all sides by an increasingly unfocused haze of pure arcane magic, he felt the flutter again, stronger; the sensation of divine energy faltering as it was gradually neutralized.
“Back up!” he shouted. “Away from the equipment!”
It was, of course, entirely too late. They were halfway down the length of the whole factory, right between two long corridors of arcane-powered equipment, which was running at an exponentially faster rate as the sabotaged golems cranked them ever more furiously. Sparks and crackles of lightning flashed across the aisle behind them, now; static filled the chamber, lifting their hair and snapping at their clothes.
Andros and Basra both fired simultaneously. Bolts of lightning arced away to the sides, smashing into chunks of machinery. The wands wouldn’t even shoot straight in this. As Darling began frantically backpedaling, dragging a frozen Branwen with him, his shield failed entirely. Hers had already vanished; Andros’s was flickering, and Basra’s had visibly weakened until it was barely discernible in the increasing haze of arcane blue light around them.
Then, finally, the Jackal flew into action.
Darling had, of course, seen elves moving at speed; he was in the process of training two. It had never happened with his life on the line, though, nor with an almost painful concentration of static tugging at him from all sides and lightning beginning to arc between pieces of machinery and various metallic structures all around. The Jackal was a black-and-blonde blur, darting among them. Darling had his grip on Branwen ripped away, then she went tumbling head-over heels with a yelp a split second before something slammed into his solar plexus, driving the breath painfully from his body.
He slumped to his knees, doubled over. Then Andros stumbled backward over him, bearing both of them to the ground, and Darling was effectively blinded, not to mention stunned and dazzled.
Well. This really wasn’t how he’d expected to go out. He’d have preferred something less…ridiculous.
Gasping, trying to force the breath back into his body, he couldn’t spare enough concentration to even try to get a grip on his surroundings—which mostly consisted of Andros’s considerable weight, anyway. But when the Jackal began barking curses in elvish, he did finally realize that the fierce crackling of arcane energy around them was starting to diminish.
He forced himself to breathe as Andros staggered to his feet. Yes, the machinery was shutting down, the power dissipating much faster than it had gathered. He lifted his head, blinking tears from his vision, in time to see the Jackal, standing on a conveyor belt that was slowing to a crawl, his face clenched in a snarl, holding a knife aloft in the act of hurling it.
Darling still couldn’t manage even enough breath to cry out.
Then another black blur sped across his vision, intercepting the blade. The Jackal stared, frozen in momentary surprise, which cost him; yet a third slim figure slammed into him from behind, pitching him forward off the belt.
Darling pushed himself laboriously upright, turning in a painful circle to take stock.
Basra was slumped against a conveyor, in the process of dragging herself up right and looking murderously angry. Andros had his feet again and was now aiming a wand at their foe. Branwen was still down, huddled on the floor with her arms over her head and her rump in the air, which might have made for a pleasing sight in less tense circumstances. Hell, it was a pleasing sight anyway, but he hardly had time to enjoy it.
The fight was already over by the time he managed to focus on it again. The Jackal slumped on the floor, dazed, while Flora efficiently tied his arms behind him and Fauna held his confiscated knife at the ready.
“More elves?” Basra spat, finally straightening herself up. “This is getting downright stupid. Did somebody plant a grove in this city without telling me?” She looked frightful, her short hair sticking up in all directions. Andros was likewise a sight, his already-bushy beard puffed up from static like a scared cat’s tail. Darling discreetly swept his hands over his own coif, smoothing it back into shape.
“How very curious,” Andros rumbled, turning to glare at him, “to find your housemaids here, Antonio.”
“What?” Basra turned to squint at Fauna, who grinned at her. “How can you… Holy shit, they are.”
“Is it over?” Branwen asked tremulously, lifting her head.
Darling sighed and helped her to her feet. “Well. Everyone, you remember Flora and Fauna, my apprentices.” He divided a grim look between them. “With whom I will be speaking later about blowing their cover.”
“You’re welcome,” Flora said acerbically.
“There is no cause for condemnation,” Andros said firmly, turning his stare on Darling. “They performed well, and their eagerness to protect you, even against your orders, speaks to your virtues as a teacher.” He dragged a hand over his beard, pushing it into a semblance of formation, and turned back toward the three elves. “You, however, should remember that you owe your master obedience. What if he had planned an operation that could be botched by well-meaning intervention? You would have ruined everything.”
They gave him matching sardonic stares, and Darling rolled his eyes. Andros’s repeated attempts to position himself as the patriarch of this group were getting annoying. It wasn’t going to work, for the simple reason that nobody here would have taken orders from a self-appointed patriarch, but he’d have to find time and a method to deal with it nonetheless. Andros wasn’t the type to give up just because his project was equally pointless and foolish; when this failed to work, he’d start looking for control in some other manner.
“Thanks for the help, girls,” Darling said, releasing Branwen to step over to them—and keeping a wary eye on the Jackal, who was now tugging experimentally at his bonds. Flora appeared to have mummified his arms together behind his back with a considerable length of thin cord; Fauna cleared her throat and brandished the knife as he shifted his legs. “Orders aside, you really saved our bacon. How’d you know how to shut down the machines?”
“Everything’s pretty clearly labeled,” Fauna said cheerfully.
“You guys actually walked past the master controls on the way in.”
“At first we thought this was some counter-strategy…”
“But then we realized, no, you’d just blundered into the trap.”
“So, sorry it took so long, we weren’t sure you needed help.”
“Next time we won’t give you so much credit!”
“Oh, goddess, they talk in tandem,” Basra groaned.
“Precious, isn’t it?” said the Jackal dryly, then shook his head. “I always suspected it’d be somebody cute who did me in. You four made me nervous enough; the addition of these two bits was the last nail in the coffin, I suppose.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Basra stalked over to him and kicked him in the chest, bowling him over backward.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Fauna protested, glaring. “Easy, lady!”
“Keep it in your pants,” Flora added, tugging the gasping Jackal back upright. “Elves are delicate. How’s he gonna talk if you smash his lungs?”
“Simple enough,” Basra said, holding out a hand. A warm glow extended forward, suffusing the fallen elf. “We can do this all night and he’ll still be fit as a fiddle when we’re done. Be a love and hold him up, I need to work off some frustration.”
“That is enough,” Andros growled.
“Yeah, leave off, Bas,” Darling agreed, noting but not responding to the significant look Fauna gave him. “Go out and get laid afterward like everybody else, we don’t have time for this.”
The Jackal actually laughed. “Ah, you lot really are just a rabble, aren’t you? Can’t even stand each other. It kills me how you’re dumb enough to think you’ll be the ones Justinian decides to keep around. There’s always a bigger fish, kids. Trust me, the final predators will be the ones who can work together without bickering or waltzing into obvious traps.”
“Let me clarify,” Darling said pleasantly. “It’s late, I’m tired, we’re all cranky, and nobody has any patience for your horseshit. You’re here to answer questions, succinctly and accurately, not to make villainous soliloquies.”
“Oh, by all means,” said the Jackal, grinning up at him. “Consider me humbly at your disposal.”
“Marvelous. To begin with, we know you had no reason to kill an Izarite priest of your own volition. Spit out the name of the person who hired you, and I’ll think very seriously about keeping you away from Basra until you’re safely in prison.”
“I never get to have any fun,” she muttered sullenly.
The Jackal was staring up at Darling. He looked… Actually, he looked shocked. Almost immediately, however, a grin blossomed on his face, and then he actually burst out laughing. Flora stepped back, glancing up at Darling uncertainly, as the Jackal fell backward, rolling about and kicking his legs in manic glee.
“I begin to see why this guy didn’t settle down to grow trees with the rest of his clan,” Basra said dryly.
“Oh come on,” Fauna protested. “Do humans really think that’s what we do?”
“Yeah, I’m done with this,” said Darling. “I take it back. Bas, kindly kick him in the nuts.”
“Wait, wait!” their prisoner gasped, laboriously forcing himself back upright. Basra, who had started moving in response to Darling’s request, paused with one leg upraised. “I’m sorry, it was just too perfect. You didn’t… You actually didn’t know!” He shook his head, still chortling, and grinned up at Darling. “Who hired me? You poor, stupid assholes, we’re on the same team. I was contracted by Archpope Justinian.”
There was a moment in which the only sound was the Jackal’s continued chuckling.
“You’re lying,” Branwen said finally. She didn’t manage to sound convinced.
“I guess I probably am, from where you’re sitting,” the Jackal said gleefully. “That’s the logical conclusion, right? I’m in your power, so the only thing left for me is to sow distrust in your ranks. Hah! Go right ahead and believe that. You’ll never really know the truth until the next time Justinian decides to eliminate a group of unreliable lackeys who know too much. That’s you guys, by the way.”
“Actually, the Archpope did not send them here. According to the itinerary he was given, they would not have gone anywhere near you.”
The Jackal’s mirth vanished instantly and he glared past them at Mary, who now sat atop a still-smoking heap of arcane machinery. “You. You did this?! What did I ever do to you?!”
“Not a thing,” she replied serenely. “You’re merely a means to an end. It’s worth considering that I might have moved to protect rather than use you, had you taken any of the several opportunities I’ve offered you to be of aid to your own people. Yet…here we are.”
He spat a string of words at her in elvish, cutting off only when Fauna slapped him across the back of the head.
“Watch your mouth,” she said sternly. He glared up at her, but fell silent.
“You knew,” Andros growled, turning to face Mary.
“Of course I did,” she said, calm as ever.
“You could have said something,” Darling complained. “Hell, there are a lot of things you could have just told us instead of setting up all this rigamarole.”
“Could I?” She tilted her head. “What reason would you have for believing me? Better that you discover the truth for yourselves. Now that you know it… Well, I imagine you have some decisions to make.”
“Oh, we most certainly do,” Basra said grimly. “You two! Chat and Chew, or whatever it is. Drag that asshole along. We are going back to the Cathedral to have a little conversation with the Archpope.”
“But…” Branwen actually swallowed when Basra turned a glare on her. “But we can’t see him. He’s in seclusion!”
“Can’t we?” Even Darling shied back from Basra’s expression. A grin stretched across her face, pulling her lips to their very limit and baring a lot of teeth. Her eyes, though… It wasn’t that the smile didn’t reach them, but that it reached too well. Her eyes were almost painfully wide, their pupils narrowed to pinpricks. “I think he’ll make time for us.”