The unforgiving sun made midday naps a venerated tradition in Onkawa—at least during the summer. Now, in winter (such as it was), the climate was mild enough that Shook had no trouble bearing the heat with nothing but a wide-brimmed hat to shield him. He was sweating, of course, but that didn’t bother him overmuch.
Vandro’s palatial residence truly had it all, including a shooting range. Shook stood in the long, shaded alley between the rear of the villa and the defunct city wall it abutted, firing bolt after bolt of light into the targets eighteen yards away. A whole bank of sizeable power crystals supported the shielding charms over them; these could have stood up to artillery fire. There were also golem logic controllers that would make the targets move. Much as it galled him to acknowledge it, he wasn’t up to that just yet.
He was getting pretty good, though. After a fourth consecutive bullseye, his concentration was momentarily disrupted by a cheer and applause from Kheshiri.
Shook glanced over at her, annoyed but keeping his features carefully schooled. She was off to the side, lounging on a low divan shaded by a huge parasol. She had, as usual, draped herself to show off her figure, lying on her side in a way that emphasized the curve of her hip, twisting her torso so as to make the arch of her breast stand out. Since she’d been around, he had been paying close attention to her wiles, and had incidentally picked up a few things about women that he’d never bothered to know. For instance, that unnatural position, mouth-watering as it was, must put an excruciating strain on her lower back. Or at least, it would have on a real woman’s. He also knew that the tight, colorful Onkawi robe she wore didn’t contain the kind of undergarments that would make her bosom stand out that way when she was reclining, which meant she was using her shapeshifting to cheat.
He had told her first thing, in their very first meeting: he was not stupid. Still, her games didn’t particularly surprise him. She thought she was leading him along, into some trap down the road, wearing down his alertness, earning his trust. He was rather looking forward to brutally disappointing her. Shook had already decided he’d be keeping Kheshiri, even after he’d straightened out Principia and got himself back in the Guild’s good graces, as he deserved. This was looking like it’d be a long-term project, though; plenty of time to break her in properly. Even knowing she was trying to undermine him, the succubus was enjoyable to have around. Not just sexually, either. She had a biting sense of humor, an appreciation of malice that was gratifying when he was dealing with somebody who needed to be taken down a peg, and a knack for easing his tensions that was no less effective because he knew she was using it to manipulate him.
Seeing his distraction, she took the opportunity to ooze upright, daintily picking up one of the tall glasses of iced punch that sat on a tray on the ground nearby, and slinked over to him, offering it. “A cold drink, boss? You need to be careful in this heat.”
“Mm,” he said noncommittally, picking it up and taking a sip. Damn fruity concoction, not at all to his taste, but using chilled drinks as everyone here did to beat the heat, it would have been a bad idea to go for the hard stuff he preferred. Even he wouldn’t have been able to hold that quantity of liquor.
“Good shooting, my boy,” said Alan Vandro, strolling forward. Shook managed, barely, not to jump; he hadn’t noticed the man there. Kheshiri, of course, was clearly not surprised, though she positioned herself behind him, peering demurely at their host over Shook’s shoulder. Their cover story was that she was a Shaathist, not particularly devout, but into the cult because she enjoyed being told what to do and occasionally slapped around by her man. This explained their dynamic, but necessitated some change in her public address of him; even for an alleged Shaathist, “master” would have raised eyebrows. He didn’t much like abusing Vandro’s hospitality by deceiving him, but a captive succubus was something he didn’t fancy trying to explain—to anyone. “You’re enjoying my little gift, then?”
“It’s anything but little, Alan,” Shook replied, tilting the wand skyward to study it. Not a proper enchanter wand; he hadn’t a spark of magic in him and couldn’t have used one. Still, this was a top-of-the-line model, hand-crafted using the finest materials by a master enchanter. It packed a significantly stronger punch than its mass-produced cousins, would last longer between rechargings and had several useful enhancements. Vandro had given him two of these, along with a proper wandslinger’s belt which held extra power crystals and components, plus grounding and shielding charms to repel incoming wandfire. “I’ve gotta say… Part of me hates the necessity. Seems like there’s no honor in the old profession any more. If you’re gonna kill a man, or just rough him up, you should be able to see the look on his face when you do it.” He sighed, lowering the weapon and slipping it back into its holster. “But that’s the world, now. It’s becoming clear to me I’ve been living in the past; failing to make use of the resources available is part of the reason for my current troubles. This was…timely. And they’re beauties. I can’t thank you enough, Alan.”
“Hell with that, you’re family, my boy,” Vandro said, waving him off. “And don’t sweat your missteps. What matters is you learn from your mistakes and survive to apply the lesson. Isn’t that right, honey?” he added, winking at Kheshiri.
“If you say so, sir,” she said demurely, lowering her eyes.
“It’s not all tactics and equipment, you know,” Vandro went on, watching Shook’s face closely. “Ever think you might have made some errors in how you behave? Who you trust?”
Shook narrowed his eyes. “What are you getting at, Alan?”
“Think about it, boy. You’ve always been a faithful man of the Guild… And yet, here you are. They want you dragged back kicking and screaming, and the bitch who set it up is apparently lounging on her sofa, eating bonbons and having a giggle at your expense. Something sure as hell ain’t right about this. How’d you manage to get so thoroughly taken for a ride? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should happen if everything in the Guild is being run as it should.”
Shook frowned, but didn’t comment, finding nothing he could say to that.
“So, say you clear your name,” Vandro went on, still studying him carefully. Kheshiri, now, was watching him just as closely. “What do you gain? Your name should’ve been clear to begin with. Someone aside from Principia fucked you over—or at the least, she took advantage of failures in the Guild’s leadership. How long before it all happens again? Will throwing her ass in an oubliette somewhere really solve the problem?”
“Well, what the fuck do you expect me to do?” Shook demanded, flinging his arms out in a furious shrug. “I can’t just leave this like it is! What’s the point of anything if I can’t get my life back?”
“The problem isn’t you, my boy,” Vandro said, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. “Never was. All I’m saying is, it looks like the problem runs deeper that you may have realized. I’m glad to see you’re lookin’ beyond the immediate future, expanding your repertoire, so to speak. Here’s the question: how far are you willing to expand it?” He glanced significantly at Kheshiri, and Shook felt a moment of unease. “How many things are you willing to consider you may have been wrong about?”
“I know when something’s being hinted at,” Shook replied. “Get to the point, Alan. This kind of pussyfooting around isn’t like you.”
Vandro threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, fair enough, my boy, fair enough. C’mon, there are some folks I think you should meet. I was just about to have a discussion with ’em myself; you should come along, see if you can’t learn anything useful.”
“All right,” Shook said, nodding. He was far from certain where all this was leading, but Vandro had more than proven his trustworthiness, many times in the past and more recently as well. “Shiri, I’ll be back later. Stay out of trouble.”
“Nonsense, bring her along!” Vandro said glibly, slapping him on the shoulder. “I bet you can find a use for her in all this, too.”
Shook frowned again, saying nothing, but let Vandro lead him off into the main house. He had a feeling about this… Not a bad feeling, but not a comfortable one. The two men stepped into the shade, Kheshiri trailing obediently behind them.
The villa was even larger than it looked; more than half its interior volume was under ground level, carved from the massive slab of granite on which Onkawa sat. Underground living was another adaptation against the heat which was widely practiced in the city, or at least was among the wealthier classes. The effort of actually carving out subterranean chambers discouraged many.
Vandro led them to a long, narrow lounge two levels down. It was lavishly appointed, as was everything in the villa, lit by sun crystals rather than fairy lamps, which enabled potted ferns and a dwarf fig tree to flourish in the corners.
The meeting, it seemed, was already in session when they arrived. Vandro’s party doubled the population of the room. On a wicker chair against the far wall sat a young Sifanese woman who rose on their entry, bowing politely. Two others, locals by their dark coloration, stood beside the room’s small bar, holding cocktails. The man wore a fairly cheap suit and a nervous expression; he was of average height, but very powerfully built, making him look almost squat. The woman was tall, bony and rather gawkish, though her manner was stately. She wore a simple tunic and slacks, in a style that wasn’t quite Tiraan or Onkawi.
“Here we are!” Vandro boomed, holding out his arms as he stepped into the room as if to embrace everyone present. “All finally gathered. Thanks for waiting, everybody, I hope it wasn’t too long. Damn it, Kamari, I told you you don’t have to serve drinks! You’re a guest here.”
The burly man had already begun mixing three more daiquiris. His teeth were large, even and very white; his grin was almost luminous in his black face. “This is Onkawa, Mr. Vandro. Guests are family, and family do for each other.”
“Cheeky bastard,” Vandro said with a grin, gesturing Shook and Kheshiri in. “Everyone, this is my old apprentice, Jeremiah. I’ve told you about him. And that’s his ladyfriend, Shiri. Jerry, the fellow who won’t get it into his head he’s not a servant here is Kamari; take advantage while you can, he makes the best damn cocktails I’ve ever had in my life.”
“Only glad to serve,” Kamari said cheerfully.
“Over there is Saduko, a visitor from Sifan. Hands off, now, m’boy, she’s an honored guest. And this, of course, is Amanika, priestess of Eserion and something of a muckety-muck in the local Guild chapter house.”
Shook froze, staring at the woman. She inclined her head to him, politely but distantly. “That’s the first time I have been called that, exactly. Hm, I might just keep it, though. Has a nice ring.”
“You should get business cards printed up,” Vandro said, winking.
“Alan,” Shook said warily. “I’m not sure if…”
“Relax, my boy, nobody here is gonna snitch on you. Yes, Amanika knows the orders about you, but you’re in my place, and I vouch for you. We’ve already had this conversation. Isn’t that right, Nika?”
“Quite,” she replied calmly, peering first at Shook and then Kheshiri. “All is as I told you.”
“See? There you go, all friends here.” He handed Shook a daiquiri. “Nobody’s gonna turn you over to the Guild. Hell, nobody here is turning anything over to the Guild. The fact is…we’re here to plan a job. I want you to be part of it.”
“I’m…honored,” Shook said carefully, holding the icy drink but not sipping. Kheshiri had accepted another from Kamari. “That’s problematic, though. My situation being what it is, it’d raise all kinds of eyebrows if I sent in my tithe on a job.”
Vandro sipped his daiquiri, watching Shook with a knowing little smile. “Now, Jerry, what did I just say? We’re not giving the Guild shit.”
Shook stiffened, his hands clenching on the glass. “Alan… You know you’ve been like a father to me, and I owe a lot to your generosity. But I can’t be party to shafting the Big Guy. Eserion does not let people get away with that, even if I were willing to turn against him. Hell, you of all people—”
“Now, Jerry, there you go making assumptions,” Vandro interrupted, grinning. “Nobody’s gonna try to stiff the Big Guy. Even Kamari and Saduko have agreed to pay the proper tithe, despite the fact they aren’t Eserites. No, Eserion gets his cut, as always; this is not negotiable. We’re just not giving it to him through the Guild.”
There was silence in the room, while Shook scowled and others sipped their drinks, or in Saduko’s case, just stood with an impassive expression.
“Go on,” Shook said finally.
“It started three Bosses ago,” Vandro said, beginning to pace up and down. “Catseye was…just too damn ambitious. She pulled off some epic jobs, yeah, and that bought her a lot of cred, which is how she got away with all she did. She organized us far too heavily, personally mobilizing large groups on large jobs. Made the Guild more centralized than it used to be.
“Then came Sweet, the ultimate people person. Honestly, I liked him, and I’d have been all right with his style of leadership if he hadn’t followed Catseye…or if he’d been willing to dismantle her bureaucracy. He didn’t; instead, he used it. Kept his eyes everywhere, stuck his fingers into everyone’s business. Again, nobody complained, even though he never pulled down the kind of income Catseye did, because Sweet was all about keeping everyone happy. Not much of a Guild leader, in short, but he was a kickass high priest. A lot of us owe him a great deal.”
“Yours truly included,” Shook said, finally sipping his fruity drink and grimacing at the taste. “Sweet was the first person aside from you who took an interest in me, made sure I got a fair chance.”
Vandro nodded. “Which brings us to the current situation. Tricks is another Catseye, an operations fellow. And he, again, built on what those before him created. Catseye’s ops protocols, Sweet’s information network, and his own cunning and knack for planning cons. Once again, everybody seems fine with this state of affairs; he doesn’t keep the Guildmembers as happy as Sweet did, but damn does he rake in the gold.”
“I’m not seeing the problem, here,” Shook said.
“Don’t you?” Vandro’s stare bored into him. “You, of all people? Boy, just how the hell do you think Principia managed to get her tentacles into the Guild’s structure and use it against you the way she has? The Guild is not supposed to have a fucking structure, at least not one like this. We all know the catechism. All systems are corrupt. The Thieves’ Guild has lost its way, become an institution. It is behaving exactly as institutions do: accumulating power, developing new rules and traditions, and gradually twisting everything around till all its actions are about prolonging its own existence, instead of pushing the Big Guy’s principles.”
“Omnu’s balls, Alan,” Shook breathed. “You’re talking about rebelling against the Guild!”
“No, no, Jerry.” Vandro shook his head emphatically. “Come on, you’re smarter than this. You overthrow something, well, then you’re stuck with the unenviable task of running whatever you just took over. Hell no, we’re not rebelling. That’d just put us in power, which isn’t what we want or what the Guild needs. The problem isn’t that the Guild needs a regime change; it’s that the Guild needs to not have a regime.”
Shook frowned into his drink, pondering. Amanika spoke into the ensuing silence.
“We do not propose to replace the leadership of the Guild; merely to undermine it. To introduce the random elements that should be the norm for those in Eserion’s worship.”
“It’s about setting a precedent,” Vandro agreed, gesticulating with his glass. “What we do here will be carefully spread around the continent and beyond, whispered of until others try it—with, perhaps, a little help from us. One by one, jobs will start being sponsored that cut the Guild out of the action, making the Boss look impotent and foolish and depriving the bureaucracy of tithes. Eventually the Boss will go back to being the figurehead and spiritual leader he’s supposed to be. Not a man who’s knee deep in everybody’s damn business.”
“I can…see your point about undermining respect for the Boss,” Shook said slowly. “But you’re not about to starve the Guild. Trust me, I worked security at the Imperial Casino for years. The Guild could run itself on that place alone. Indefinitely.”
“One thing at a time, my boy,” said Vandro, grinning. “One thing at a time. The relevant question in the here and now is this: are you in?”
Shook glanced around the room. Vandro was grinning, as was Kamari. Amanika studied him with a calm yet intent expression; Saduko was impassive as a statue. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder at Kheshiri. She nodded slowly.
“Hell with it,” he said. “What’s the job?”
“That’s my boy,” Vandro crowed. “All right, we’re still in the early planning stages, but I’ll run you over the basics. Our target is one Chief Om’ponole.”
“They still have chiefs here?” Shook demanded, curling his lip.
“We have chiefs in the way that the lord governor of Calderaan Province styles himself a King,” said Amanika with a faint smile. “Nations that joined the Empire willingly enjoy certain privileges. At the end of the day, though, there is only one law under Tiraan rule.”
“Om’ponole doesn’t even have any political clout,” agreed Vandro. “What he has are business interests. In short, he’s a rich asshole of exactly the kind that we exist to teach a little humility to.”
“All due respect, Alan, what’s that make you?” Shook asked, smiling wryly. “I mean…this place.”
“You’re not wrong, boy,” Vandro said with a grin. “That’s our in, though. As far as the rest of the hoity-toity types in Onkawa know, I’m a rich asshole just like them. That means I get invited to all their bullshit parties, and they come get shitfaced on fruity booze here in my humble abode when it’s my turn to pass out invitations. You would be amazed how much I learn about all their various palaces this way.”
“Alan is hosting one such party fairly soon,” said Amanika. “Om’ponole will be here, as will everyone who fancies themselves important. While this is going on, we will liberate the contents of his personal safes.”
“Everybody has a role,” said Vandro. “Kamari, here, is a servant on Om’ponole’s estate—a servant who isn’t paid a living wage, nor given so much as a ‘thank you’ or solstice bonus. Classic rich asshole mistake; you keep this in mind when you’re my age and have your own nest egg, Jerry. Everyone working on these grounds is well provided for. I don’t employ people with drug addictions, gambling habits, or chronically sick or imprisoned relatives. No cracks for somebody to get their claws in. I know all their names and ask about their day; I damn well say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they water my plants and fetch my slippers.”
“Mr. Vandro has very generously offered me employment on his estate,” Kamari said with his infectious grin. “I am only too glad to help him arrange a proper resignation for me from the Chieftain’s household.”
“Hell, I’d run more than a job to get this man on my staff,” Vandro chortled. “So help me, if I could slap a pair of tits on this daiquiri I could get rid of all the damn girls always cluttering up my gardens; I’d have no more need of them.”
“You give me far too much credit, sir,” Kamari laughed.
“Needless to say, Kamari’s our inside man. He gets our team into Om’ponole’s estate, and Saduko gets us into his valuables.”
“She’s a safecracker?” Shook asked, turning to regard the young woman.
“I am an arcanist,” she said calmly. Her Tanglish was good, but carried more than a hint of a lilting accent.
“Saduko comes to us from the University at Kiyosan,” explained Vandro. “In fact, she’s a specialist in creating magical security—exactly what we need to defeat it. Unfortunately, she has found that Onkawa isn’t exactly the melting pot that Tiraas is, and in any case, the lucrative avenues of legitimate employment are typically granted to citizens over foreigners, even when the foreigner is the better man—or in this case woman—for the job.”
“So it is everywhere,” Saduko said philosophically. “The economy in Sifan does not support many persons of my skill set at present. I gambled that life would be better in the Empire. When one gambles, alas, one must expect eventually to lose.”
“Don’t you worry, darlin’,” Vandro said, grinning. “You help us through this and I guarantee I’ll have plenty more work for you.”
“No more stealing,” she said stiffly. “That was our arrangement.”
“I’m a man of my word, Saduko. One job to prove your skills, and after that… Well, you’ve seen my place. I have plenty of perfectly legal uses for a person of your profession.”
“I, for my part, will handle the Guild end of this,” said Amanika. “Ensuring that the Big Guy receives his cut without going through Guild channels. That will require some creative laundering and the aid of someone with a close spiritual connection to our god.”
“The fact that Amanika’s on board with this is a sign of Eserion’s favor,” said Vandro smugly. “You know how many people there are with exactly that skill set?”
“I will also, as needed, act to direct the Guild’s attention away from us,” added the priestess with a faint, mysterious smile.
“Sounds solid so far,” said Shook slowly. “What is it you need me for?”
“You and the girl,” said Vandro. Shook raised his eyebrows sharply.
“Shiri? What the hell do you expect to do with her?”
“Now, now, my boy, don’t be modest!” Vandro smiled beatifically, turning back to face the rest of the group and holding his daiquiri for all the world like a scepter. “Jeremiah, here, is one of the best enforcers the Guild has. He and the girl are providing security. I’m gonna have to level with you all, and I hope you won’t take offense: for a job like this, when we Guild thieves employ outside contractors, security is needed not only for our protection during the heist itself, but also…afterward. There are all kinds of pressures that can fall on a person to rat out their partners, and for those of you who don’t enjoy the Guild’s direct support…well, extra measures are needed to keep you safe. Should you have any trouble with authorities, or anyone, Jerry and Shiri will see to it they get off your back. In addition to getting you through the job itself without getting shot, stabbed or imprisoned.”
“And,” Saduko said, twisting her mouth distastefully, “should we decide to reveal what we know to any outsider, they will silence us.”
“Now, darlin’, I’m not even considering that possibility,” Vandro said kindly. “I respect your intelligence far too much; you both know very well which side your bread is buttered on. In theory, yes, that could happen. I’m sure we don’t need to worry about it, though. Do we?”
“No worries, boss,” Kamari said, nodding emphatically. “I’m with you all the way.”
“I keep my word,” Saduko said coldly.
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea about Shiri,” Shook said, glancing at her. She was doing a marvelous impression of demure confusion. Even he was nearly fooled. It seemed Kamari was likewise puzzled by her inclusion in this, though Saduko was unreadable and Amanika wore a knowing expression that he didn’t like at all.
“Well, now, we have two uses for your little pet, there,” Vandro drawled. “There is the matter of after-the-fact enforcement. She’ll be marvelous for tracking down anybody who needs to be hushed up, not to mention getting close to them. During the job itself, though, she’ll be providing our alibis.”
“What are you talking about?” Shook said sharply.
“We’ll all be at the party,” said Vandro. “We will be seen there, by innumerable witnesses of unimpeachable character. Since we, obviously, will in fact be across the city at Chief Om’ponole’s palace, this will be a perfect job for a shapeshifter.”
“A…a shape…” Shook stared at him.
“Absolutely,” Vandro said, grinning broadly. “You know what they say: when life gives you demons, make demonade. How’s about a little demonstration, first?” He turned to Kheshiri and winked. “Darlin’, show us those pretty wings.”