Despite the intermittent freezing drizzle, Sweet was enjoying himself. For one thing, he was full of hot spiced tea (with just a smidge of brandy); for another, the weather was an excuse for him to peacock a little bit. His customary loud, slightly scruffy suit was augmented with a truly garish scarf, a ragged broad-brimmed hat trailing a patchy old feather halfway down his back, and a Punaji-style greatcoat. Also, he was wearing personal heating charms that kept the worst of the elements from troubling even his exposed face and fingers. Truly, modern enchantment was wonderful.
Mostly, though, it was good to be out and about, talking to people, tasting the air, being seen. He’d been making his rounds most of the morning, for the first time in more than a week—far too long. Sweet wasn’t meant to be kept in the safety of the Guild or Church, and no matter how he savored the high-stakes intrigues of Justinian and the Empire, he did get tired of associating only with the rich and well-bred. That was the Bishop’s turf. It was good to just be Sweet again. He needed to find or make time to do this more often; it kept him grounded.
Which was why he was annoyed when someone behind him cleared his throat and said, “Your pardon, Bishop Darling?”
He was passing through one of the city’s back alley markets—not of illegal goods, in this case, but simply the kind of place where the less-than-wealthy could acquire non-perishable items for less than the going rate, due to the fact that most had been damaged or worn out and shoddily (or not at all) repaired. And yes, well, some of them had probably fallen off the backs of various carts.
Sweet suppressed his annoyance and turned, putting on an amiable smile. His instinctive reaction was that nobody who ought to be talking to him would have called him that, here, in this getup, but that was just knee-jerk defensiveness; just because this fellow didn’t know his ways didn’t mean he had nothing worthwhile to say. Some of Sweet’s best tips came from people he wouldn’t have paid to shine his boots.
Upon finding himself face-to-face with an elf in a sharp suit, he immediately thought of the Jackal, but just as quickly dismissed that idea. This elf wore a startling emerald green shirt under his jacket, and had a diffident aspect totally unlike the assassin’s insouciance. Also, he was underdressed for the weather, and tensely hunched in on himself, though not quite shivering.
“Well, hi there,” Sweet said easily. “I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure. What can I do for you?”
The man smiled thinly at him. “I’m afraid I must take up a certain amount of your time, Bishop Darling. You have something which belongs to my master, Khadizroth.” He stopped, gazing significantly at Sweet with the distinctive expression of someone who has just dropped an important name and awaits the awed recognition thereof.
“Oh?” Sweet replied. “Can you narrow that down for me?”
The elf’s smile faded. “I think you know.”
“Sonny Jim,” Sweet said condescendingly, “I’m a ranking priest of the god of thieves. I make it a point of principle not to own anything that didn’t use to belong to someone else. So no, seriously, I need you to be a lot more specific about several details. Is it…bigger than a breadbox?”
The elf glanced furtively about, and Sweet wanted to roll his eyes. This one was clearly a newcomer to illicit dealings—but the fact that he betrayed his nervousness of onlookers revealed that his business was, at minimum, illicit. Still, nobody was paying the two of them the slightest attention. Just because the people selling wares in this alley were on the right side of the law didn’t mean they were strangers to seeing shady deals unfold. Everyone present had the good sense to vigorously mind their own business, especially when an agent of the Guild was involved.
“I am referring,” the man said in a lower tone, all but glaring now, “to the two women. Lianwe and Shinaue.”
Sweet coughed to poorly cover a chuckle—and skillfully conceal his sudden unease. “Buddy, you may want to reconsider your terminology. This city is crawling with Avenists. We don’t refer to women as ‘somethings’ around here, nor imply that one can have ownership of them. Also, neither name rings a bell.”
“Enough,” the elf snapped. “I know you have them. Two teenage elves; you’ve hardly been secretive about the fact that they live in your house! My master has a prior claim to those girls.”
“I see,” Sweet said slowly. “Well…how about that. And here I thought they were free range.”
“That was my master’s impression,” said the elf, calming slightly. “Which is why he sent me to approach you as a gentleman, and discuss a deal. You have clearly made an investment in them, unaware that you were poaching in his territory. To demonstrate that there is no ill will, my master has authorized me to discuss fair compensation for your trouble, once they are returned to him.”
“Mm hm,” Sweet said seriously, wearing a thoughtful expression. “I see, I see. Well, if he’s willing to be reasonable about it, perhaps we can do business. So your master—Khadgar, was it?”
“Khadizroth,” the elf said peevishly.
“Right, yes, sorry. I have the most terrible memory, though in my defense, that’s barely even a name. Anyhow! I think we can establish a starting point for negotiations.” Smiling blandly, he held out his hand. “Can I ask you to carry a message to him?”
“I—if necessary,” the elf said reluctantly, very slowly moving to clasp Sweet’s hand in his own. “My master is not to be lightly bothered; I have full authority to negotiate on his behalf—”
Sweet wasn’t a fighter by specialization and didn’t oversee most of his apprentices’ combat training, but in the course of their education he’d managed to pick up a few points about sparring with elves. They were devilishly fast, agile, and impossibly coordinated, but not very strong at all. The key was to get your hands on them. Once the sparring match turned into a wrestling match, the advantage was the human’s.
He gripped the elf’s wrist, whirled and took off at a run. His momentum kept his gasping prisoner trailing along behind him, too off-balance to even keep his feet, much less launch an attack, his meager weight barely even a consideration. Sweet dashed a couple of yards till he found a particularly slick stretch of pavement and dived into a controlled slide, still dragging his flabbergasted hostage. Pushing forward with a foot every once in a while, he kept going until they approached the mouth of another alley running across this one, its mouth on one side filled with a heap of broken, half-rotted barrels that smelled of the ancient memory of fish and decomposition. Then he hopped to the side, onto a patch of cobblestones that gave his feet better purchase, spun the elf in a full circle, and hurled him bodily into the trash.
It probably wasn’t hard enough to damage him seriously, but elven physiology being what it was, the poor fellow was dazed, winded, and carrying a collection of bruises and scrapes that were going to be with him for a good while, unless he went to a healer to have them dealt with.
Sweet glanced around to make sure everyone nearby was pointedly not seeing any of this—as they should be—then stepped over to him and knelt next to the elf’s head. The man blinked, glassy-eyed, up at him.
“Be sure you convey that message exactly,” he said cheerfully. “So much nuance is lost in translation, you know? Oh, and a little addendum. Those girls are apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild. They aren’t his, and they aren’t mine.” He let the good-humored facade drop and stared grimly down at the fallen elf. “They belong to Eserion. Your boss should think about picking on somebody his own size.”
With that, he turned and strolled away.
Back the way he came, though, rather than on to the rest of his customary rounds. It seemed that, once again, his usual habits would have to yield to the newest crisis.
“You wouldn’t have to hold it closed like that if you’d just get a coat like a normal person.”
“Oh, shut up. You’re just jealous because I’m stylish.”
“Stylish? Stylish? You are the only person in this century who wears a cloak!”
“Well, yeah! What did you think ‘stylish’ meant?”
Price arrived while the two elves, grinning and bickering amiably, finished hanging up their outer garments in the hall.
“Good afternoon, girls,” she said. “He’s waiting for you in the study.”
“Uh oh,” Flora said, grinning. “Not the study.”
“Nothing good ever happens in the study! Are we about to get spanked?”
“Oh…ew. Gross. You are such a freak.”
“You love it.”
Price stood, watching them expressionlessly as they climbed the stairs, then followed at a distance.
Fauna rapped twice on the study door before pushing it open and ducking her head in. “Hey there! What’s up, Sweet?”
He was sitting in the overstuffed chair behind his desk, gazing moodily at the far wall. At her entrance, he looked up, but didn’t smile. “Ah. Girls. C’mon in.”
They slipped inside, their own cheerful expressions growing more solemn. Sweet’s distant, thoughtful attitude didn’t exactly promise disaster, but it was sufficiently out of his normal character to be cause for concern.
“Is everything okay?” Flora asked.
“That’s a good question,” he said seriously. “Here’s a better one: Who’s Khadizroth?”
In the following silence, they both went rigid.
Sweet regarded them for a moment. “You’ve made excellent progress in the last few months, girls. It’s gotten almost impossible to shock you off your cool, and you’re turning into very competent little liars. So, based on this reaction, I’m going to assume whatever’s going on is a big damn deal.”
“Where did you hear that name?” Fauna whispered.
Sweet shook his head. “I haven’t pried into your history because you’ve the right to keep it to yourselves if you want. Matters become different when your history shows up in my city looking to collect you.”
“He’s here?” Flora squalled in alarm.
“I don’t know!” Sweet exclaimed. “But some poncy elf in a green shirt who claims to work for him told me today that you two are considered missing property.”
“We’ll go,” Fauna said tremulously. “We don’t want to involve you or the Guild in this. We’ll take—”
“Shut. Your. Mouth.”
Both their eyes widened at the ice in his tone. Sweet glared up at them, leaning forward and planting his hands flat on the desk. “You’re Guild; we don’t abandon our own. You’re my apprentices, and that means I protect you, I don’t give a shit who or what is after you. Goddammit, we’re family. If you have a problem, I have a problem, and straightening out problems is what I do. I don’t want to hear any more talk like that, understand? Ever.”
“Okay,” Flora said in a small voice, smiling despite the sheen of tears in her eyes. Fauna only nodded, biting her lip.
“Okay,” Sweet repeated, leaning back and relaxing slightly. “With that out of the way, my original and increasingly pertinent question remains. Who is this Khadizroth?”
They looked glumly at each other.
Fauna drew in a deep breath, visibly steeling herself. “Khadizroth the Green is the dragon who basically raised us. We took the headhunter pact to kill him. Obviously, we failed.”
Sweet stared at them silently for a moment, then drew in a breath slowly threw his nose and blew it out in a huff.
She entered, calm as always, carrying a tray bearing a glass of brandy.
“Ah. Thank you.” He took it from her and had a sip. “How do you always know?”
“Sir, it’s me, Price,” she said, deadpan. Sweet grimaced and took another drink.
“All right…stick around, I suspect you’ll need to be kept in the loop. Girls, sit. No, over there on the loveseat, might as well be comfortable. All right, let’s have it from the beginning, shall we?”
Once ensconced on the little sofa, the two elves looked at each other again. He couldn’t tell if they were silently communicating in the way they sometimes did, or just stalling.
“I believe it’s Flora’s turn to speak,” he said dryly.
She sighed, then did so. “Our parents were from the Cobalt Dawn tribe.”
“Dammit!” They both looked up at him in surprise. He shrugged. “I owe Style a doubloon. Sorry, go on.”
“I take that to mean you know what happened to the Cobalt Dawn,” Fauna said with some annoyance.
“Tried to fight the full power of the Imperial Army, yeah. It’s not exactly a state secret. Honestly, though, nobody’s seen or heard from any member of that tribe in more than a decade. The Army claims to have all but obliterated them. I always figured the rumors of holdouts were just fanciful nonsense.”
“They were,” Flora said, nodding. “There was a group of survivors, but… We were kept under tight control. I guarantee no rumors escaped.”
“After the Army routed the tribe,” Fauna continued, “Khadizroth rounded up what survivors he could. Only nine adults, all badly injured. Badly. Aside from broken bones and organ damage, they had lighting burns, mana burns… The kind of wounds that mean you need constant care. He also manged to find the tribe’s children, though.”
“All eight of us,” Flora chimed in. “We’d been sent away with the tribe’s youngest shaman before the battle. He ended up being the last grown member with an intact body.”
“We…were the oldest of the kids.”
They fell silent, staring at the carpet, and Sweet glanced at Price. Her face, as always, gave no hint what she thought of all this.
“What did a green dragon want with a bunch of elves?” he prompted after a moment.
Flora drew another deep, steadying breath. “He… Offered his protection. He would safeguard and provide for the remainder of the Cobalt Dawn tribe, make sure the wounded lacked for nothing. That we young ones would have a chance to grow up, safe from the Empire.”
“Generous,” Sweet said skeptically.
“Oh, there was a price,” Fauna said bitterly. “I assume you know how dragons reproduce?”
“Gnh.” He grimaced.
Flora nodded. “Of the surviving warriors…well, nobody was in adequate shape, nor likely ever would be again. But six of the young ones were girls.”
Sweet twisted his lips in revulsion, then frowned. “Wai, six? That’s…uncharacteristic. Dragons have always gone after one woman at a time. It’s their whole shtick.”
“Khadizroth wasn’t doing it for the pleasure, or the chase,” Fauna said grimly. “He had a plan.”
“He was concerned about the ascendancy of the Tiraan Empire, and the human race in general. What he wanted…was his own force to challenge them. A force of his own offspring.”
“That was the deal,” said Flora, looking suddenly exhausted. “The survival of the last of our tribe, and in exchange… We were to give him children, when we were old enough.”
“As many and as often as we could.”
“That,” Sweet said weakly, “is very nearly as terrifying as it is abhorrent. Gods, an army of dragons? But why did he need captive elves for that? Even when they go after one woman at a time, dragons sometimes resort to brute force rather than persuasion. Seems like he could just collect a harem from whoever was handy.”
“Well, it wasn’t as if he wanted to raise his own spawn,” Flora said venomously. “No, taking in a group of orphans was ideal. He would raise us, make sure we were loyal to him, then entrust us with bringing up…” She broke off, turning her head to glare at the wall.
“Sounds like that didn’t quite work out,” Sweet noted quietly.
“We were too old,” Fauna said, her voice uncharacteristically quiet, almost meek. “We…played along. It was the only way to survive. The younger ones bought into his cult of personality, but… We remembered our real families, we knew what it was he expected of us and what it meant. And as we got old enough to…to…”
“To start our duties,” Flora whispered, her eyes still averted. Fauna draped an arm around her and pulled her close.
“You ran,” Sweet said.
“We ran.” Fauna nodded. “But not just to get away. We went to Athan’Khar.”
“It…was the only thing we could think of.”
He let them compose themselves in silence. It took a couple of minutes, but Sweet simply kept his expression open and calm. Finally, Fauna drew in another breath.
“Well… We waited until he was away to come back. Then we…abducted the rest of the tribe. In small groups, using arcane and infernal teleportation.”
“The older ones were cowed, broken, dependent… The younger ones thoroughly invested in Khadizroth. He was their whole world. None of them would have left willingly.”
“We took them to other tribes, split them up across as wide a space as we could, explained to the elders and shaman what was going on.”
“They wouldn’t let us stick around,” Flora said bitterly. “We were eldei alai’shi. But they would certainly protect imperiled elves from a dragon. Even if it meant dealing with a certain amount of…”
They shared one of those long looks.
“Needless to say, he wasn’t happy when he got back.”
Sweet resisted the urge to whistle. A dragon against two headhunters? That had to have been a cataclysmic fight. It must indeed have happened deep in the Golden Sea, or everyone would have heard about it.
“It didn’t happen the way you’re probably thinking,” Flora said with grim amusement. “We ambushed him. Even with our powers, he’s still a dragon. Giving him a fair fight would have been suicidally stupid.”
“Apparently, though, he realized what we’d done, and didn’t think a fair fight against two headhunters was in his interests, either. So he fled.”
“After that… We roamed around a bit. We were free, but… Alone. No elves would let us near them, and the spirits…”
“We’d traded a bad situation for a worse one.”
“Eventually, we came to Tiraas, and…”
“And we’re pretty much caught up,” Sweet said firmly. They both looked up at him as he stood and came around to the front of the desk. “All right, on your feet, both of you.”
They stood, watching him with obvious trepidation. He stepped forward, wrapped his arms around them both, and held them close.
“I am just so goddamn proud of you girls. The initiative, the sacrifice, the sheer bloody willpower to get through that… You’re fucking amazing. Don’t let anybody try to tell you different.”
After a moment’s stiff resistance, they slumped, then melted, burying their faces in his shoulders. He just held them there while they quivered with silent sobs.
“We destroyed our own family,” Fauna said at last, muffled.
“They were furious…betrayed. They’ll never forgive us.”
“You destroyed nothing,” he said firmly. “Your family were drafted into a war. No matter how this dragon’s plans went, any confrontation with the Empire would have been messy as hell. Honestly, I can’t imagine what his endgame could have been. If he’d attacked the human race with a force that could have significantly threatened us, he wouldn’t just be dealing with the Empire. The Pantheon would have stepped into that; they’ve done it before, with things like demon invasions. A marauding dragon army would certainly have been serious enough. He was going to get what remained of your tribe killed. You saved their lives, not to mention the countless others who would have died in the conflict. Hell, you girls saved the whole bloody world, and look what you’ve given up to do it. No paladin who ever lived has anything on you for heroics.”
They finally pulled back enough to smile up at him. Weakly, through tears, but genuinely. He grinned back, gently ruffling their hair.
“The elf you say you spoke to…” Fauna said. “Did he look…scarred?”
“Was he really young?”
“No,” Sweet said, frowning. “He was an adult. No scars on his face or hands, and he didn’t have any trouble moving around. Or at least he didn’t before I threw him into a pile of driftwood.”
Their eyes widened. “You…did what?”
“Hey, the asshole was talking about you two like pieces of luggage, and clearly expected me to do the same. I chose to take exception.”
They glanced at each other, suddenly scowling. “Vannae,” said Flora.
“So-called shaman who was supposed to have been looking after us,” Fauna spat, finally pulling away from him. Flora followed suit.
“He was the one who campaigned for Khadizroth’s deal, got the other survivors to agree to it.”
“We stuck him with a forest elf tribe as far from the Golden Sea as we could get without crossing the ocean.”
“We figured even he would be grateful to get out from under the bastard’s scaly green thumb.”
“Apparently he’s managed to become actually loyal to Khadizroth after all these years.”
“And here we just thought he was a sycophant.”
“He did have that indefinable air of the brown-noser,” Sweet agreed solemnly, getting a pair of grins in response. “Well. That brings us to the here and now.”
He backed up and perched on the edge of his desk. Flora and Fauna didn’t sit back down, standing close together with arms around each other’s waists, watching him. Price looked on, cool as a cucumber.
“Even a dragon wouldn’t attack a whole tribe of elves,” Sweet said, frowning into the distance as he thought out loud. “Nor would a tribe of elves allow your compatriots to get away until they were sure they’d undone the damage of their upbringing.”
“The Empire finished off a tribe of elves pretty effectively,” Fauna said, scowling.
“With all due respect to your kin, the Cobalt Dawn picked a fight they failed to understand. It’s not widely known, but tribes out of the Golden Sea have skirmished with Imperial forces since then, too, and the results are a lot more even. By maximizing their advantages they do pretty well. This is still a massive shift; for most of history, any armed conflict between humans and elves was a decisive elven victory, which is probably why the Cobalt Dawn thought they could actually conquer a slice of Imperial territory. Anyhow, the point is, elves know how to deal with dragons, and it doesn’t usually involve fighting. I think it’s best to assume your buddy…Vannae, was it? He went back to the Big K on his own. Until we learn otherwise, the most logical conclusion is the rest of your people are still where you left them. It might not hurt for you to discreetly check up on them in the next week or so, though.”
They nodded in unison.
“The tribes won’t stand for us hanging around,” said Flora, “but they’ll probably be reasonable if we make it clear we’re just checking that our kin are all right.”
“So the issue is, what does Khadizroth want with you now?” Sweet stood and began pacing back and forth. “His dream of a dragon army is effectively wrecked. Revenge?”
“That would be like him,” Fauna said darkly. Sweet was already shaking his head, though.
“No… Doing it this way, he’s inviting your attention. Unless it’s to lure you into some kind of trap, that’s not a winning move on his part. You’re dangerous enough to give him pause. If he wanted to end you, he’d try what you tried: an ambush. So why let you see him coming?”
Sudden realization showed on their faces. “He wants to know who we’ve told!” Flora blurted.
“Bingo!” Sweet grinned. “Here we’ve got a green dragon who was actively plotting a massive campaign against the Tiraan Empire. Here the only people who know of it and have proven willing to resist him are hanging around Tiraas itself. He needs to find out who knows what before silencing you.”
“So…what do we do with that information?” Fauna asked hesitantly.
“For the time being, you leave it to me.” Sweet nodded, his expression firm. “The nature of his interest means he’ll be cautious; we have a little time to maneuver. All right… You two head off to dinner. I’ll be along shortly. I just need to think a bit.”
“Sweet,” Flora said, staring at him worriedly, “he’s a dragon.”
“It’s not that we lack respect for your skills, please don’t think that…”
“But don’t try to take Khadizroth on. Please.”
“What, are you two somehow under the impression you’ve been training with the Silver Legions all this time?” Sweet grinned at them. “We’re thieves. We don’t take people on. Sure, if they’re small fry, maybe we bust their kneecaps, but for a worthy foe? This calls for plans, traps, and tricks. This is the perfect time for a really good con. You let me work on this for a bit, okay? Trust me, we’re gonna be fine. Now seriously, you head down and get fed.”
Impulsively, they both rushed forward and hugged him again.
“Thank you,” Fauna whispered.
After they had left, he slowly paced back around to his chair and sank down, frowning into space. How did one go about conning a dragon? He needed a lot more information on this Khadizroth…
Immediately the thought of the Chamber of Truth sprang to the forefront of his mind, and just as immediately he dismissed it. He wasn’t sure, yet, whether Justinian had some means of keeping track of what was researched in the hidden library, and wasn’t about to take the risk of pulling the Church into this. Justinian and his schemes were enough of a nightmare without giving him a dragon to play with. Besides, he had several very good reasons for wanting to avoid bringing Flora and Fauna to anyone else’s attention. No, far better to keep those two pieces of his life strictly separated for now.
Of course, he realized, he did know someone who was likely well-acquainted with dragons and any other major players operating in the world. Of course, their interactions had always been pointedly at her initiation, not his.
“Price,” he said, a grin stretching across his face.
“I want you to find, buy, steal or build a scarecrow.”
“A…scarecrow, your Grace?”
He nodded vigorously. “And then place it on the roof.”
Price was still and silent as a tombstone for a second and a half, which was what she did because she was far too proper to dramatically sigh. “May I suggest that if your Grace desires to antagonize the neighbors, there are more elegant ways?”
“You’re hilarious, Price. Seriously, hop to. I’m gonna need to call in some major help with this one.”