The garden was lit up like a dream from a fairy tale, and Shook wasn’t appreciating any of it. Floating lamps drifted about, some trailing intangible sparkles, trays of food hovered aimlessly through the crowd in lieu of waiters, submerged lights gleamed in the pool, soft but cheerful music played everywhere, and mysterious little flickers evocative of pixies (but thankfully not the real thing, as evidenced by the lack of destructive elemental invocations) darted among the greenery. The guests certainly seemed to be having a good time. At least, they were eating, drinking and talking to each other. A few were dancing. It was all rather subdued, but then, it was early. A good party got progressively more interesting as everyone got progressively more drunk. He could have resented the fact that he wouldn’t get to participate in that, were he not too tense to enjoy himself anyway.
Kheshiri hovered nearby, watching the guests with avid interest and occasionally dropping broad hints that she would like to circulate, which Shook ignored. They lurked at the edges of the garden, in a relatively shadowed corner—quite a few of those were scattered about, left deliberately out of the network of magical party lights. Vandro, being a thoughtful host, had made sure to provide semi-private canoodling cubbies at convenient intervals. This, too, was wasted on them; Shook held a mostly untouched whiskey in one hand and kept the other hovering near his holstered wand, seeming uninterested in putting his succubus to use.
She was, in her way, as tense as he, though for very different reasons. And unlike Shook, Kheshiri was enjoying the tension.
Shook eased slightly out into the light, noting their host approaching. Vandro moved deftly among the guests, navigating social currents like a salmon swimming up a river; Kheshiri had to admire his skill. He nodded, smiled, laughed, told jokes, putting just enough sincerity into each interaction to place his targets at ease, but not allowing himself to be slowed. Engaging without being engaged, leaving no resentments in his wake. For a moment, she considered longingly what might have happened had Vandro come into possession of her reliquary rather than a meathead like Shook. She might have been content to stick around longer, in that case; the fun they could have.
“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro said more quietly, coming abreast of them. “We may have a problem.”
Shook’s tension increased all but imperceptibly. “How big a problem?”
“Not sure, yet. The plan can’t go forward without access to Om’ponole’s estate, which is Kamari’s job.” He glanced idly about, looking completely nonchalant, but verifying that no one was within earshot—and that no one within eyeshot have pointed ears. “He was supposed to send a message via courier with countercharms and shield frequencies for Saduko to get you inside the gates; they’re changed daily. That never showed.”
“Well, if we can’t get in…” Shook let his statement trail off.
“Anything might have happened,” said Vandro. “Not all of the possibilities kill the plan, and I’m not willing to waste this much preparatory work if we can help it. I need to borrow your girl, here.”
“Wanna work off a little stress?” Kheshiri asked flirtatiously. Shook shot her a glare.
“Down, girl,” Vandro said, amused. “I need you to do some scouting. It’s a while yet before we’ll have to move, but time is tight; you can get across the city fast enough on those wings, and you can get close enough to get some intel with your other gifts. If Kamari was caught, it’s all over, but if he was just delayed or unable to send a message, you can get the codes from him and we can proceed.”
“How’s she supposed to get in, if we don’t have those codes already?” Shook demanded.
“There’s nothing shielding the estate from directly above,” said Vandro, grinning. “I checked.”
“Also nothing shielding this estate from above,” Kheshiri noted.
“Yeah, and don’t think I won’t be correcting that first chance I get.”
Shook nodded. “All right, sounds like time’s of the essence. Get going, girl. And be careful.”
He gave her a pat on the butt that was half affectionate and half shove to get her moving. She tittered and grinned at him, but set off through the crowd as commanded.
She was just one more festively-dressed girl, hardly worthy of note. More people were coming than going, this early in the evening, but there was enough back-and-forth at the gates that her departure wasn’t attention-getting, either. Kheshiri slipped outside, strolled casually around a corner, and faded into invisibility as soon as she was hidden from view of the street between a bush and the outer wall of Vandro’s estate.
She patted the pocket in which was hidden Kamari’s missive, which she had intercepted earlier in the day. That had been her only opportunity to get out during the last-minute preparations, and her plans required some careful timing—the first step was now, and Vandro, predictably, was clever enough to see the solution she offered to the problem he didn’t know she’d created. Much better than dealing with Shook, to whom she often had to propose maneuvers while letting him think they were his own ideas. That was usually just the kind of challenge she enjoyed; it was mostly just annoying, now, as many times as he’d made her do it. Variety was the spice of life.
A pump of her wings sent her invisibly skyward; deftly navigating the winds, she followed the pattern of streets she’d memorized days ago, going nowhere near the Om’ponole estate. Following Amanika directly had been out of the question, as she wasn’t quite willing to trust her new enchantments to hide her demonic aura from the priestess’s senses. Luckily, Vandro had dealings with other members of the Thieves’ Guild; identifying them among his rotating roster of houseguests had been the only tricky part. From there, learning the location of their headquarters in Onkawa had been simplicity itself.
She set down in another darkened alley, double checked that it was empty, then faded back into view, adjusting her features as she did. When Kheshiri stepped out into the street and began walking toward the dilapidated drug den under which lurked the local Guild chapter, she wore the appearance and mannerisms of the Sifanese Eserite, Saduko.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” she murmured to herself, passing a few huddled tramps in various states of inebriation—most genuine druggies, several definitely Guild lookouts. “A succubus, an archmage, a dragon and a whole bunch of thieves walk into a party, and only one walks out happy.”
She didn’t permit herself to giggle; that would have been out of character. Besides, Saduko’s mysterious little smile suited her mood just fine.
Tellwyrn stood on the balcony, watching over the party like a gargoyle and feeling about as festive. She had refused offers from the servants of food, drink and entertainment, and met the tentative suggestion that she might enjoy socializing with the other guests with a chilling stare that had warded off any further overtures. Standing still in one spot while close to a hundred people immediately below enjoyed themselves wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time, but a good time was not what she’d come here to find. In three millennia of life, she had learned plenty of patience, for all that she didn’t usually care to exercise it. Anyway, this was far from the most uncomfortable vigil she had ever kept.
A stir began at the gates, and she zeroed in on it. This balcony wasn’t positioned to give her a clear view; a whole stand of ornamental palm trees thrusting out of an island in Vandro’s ridiculous little garden pool obstructed the details. However, around the periphery, she could clearly see people edging away from whoever (or whatever) had just walked into the grounds. The crowd rippled, looking from above exactly like a pool in which something had been dropped. She could hear, over the music and the general hubbub, some of the shocked whispers beginning to dart back and forth, including some which contained the all-important word.
A discreet little cough sounded behind her. “Professor Tellwyrn, the guest for whom you were waiting appears to have arrived.”
“Remarkably swift work, Wilberforce,” she said politely, nodding to him. “Thank you very much.”
“Of course, madam.”
With no further ado, she vaulted over the balustrade, dropping to the garden below and causing no small stir herself, which she ignored. Tellwyrn strode forward through the crowd, making a beeline for the gates and disregarding the protests of those she darted around. Pushing people out of the way better suited her temperament, but archmage or no, an elf was still an elf; shoving a bunch of humans would have required magic, which elevated it from rudeness to a misdemeanor. Even bothering to speak to Wilberforce had been more time than she’d wanted to spend, but there was absolutely nothing to be gained from alienating a Butler.
She was antsy to get this dealt with and get back to Tiraas; the gods only knew what those kids were up to. Leaving them unattended had been part of her strategy for the lesson she meant them to learn, otherwise she’d have popped back to check up every two hours. That didn’t make the anticipation any easier to bear.
Tellwyrn darted rudely between a conversing couple, swatted a floating tray of cocktails out of her way (and into the pool), squirmed through tiny gaps in the denser crowd now ringing the gate, and finally stepped forward into the clear space, gaining her first sight in several years of Zanzayed the Blue.
They preferred the shapes of humans or elves—Astratirox the Red walked around as a gnome—but the humanoid form of a dragon was always unmistakeable. There was the aura around them, the indefinable quality of magnetism and majesty, but universal as that was to their kind, it wasn’t conclusive or distinctive; lots of mortals were charismatic. The monochrome hair in improbable colors could have been the result of alchemical dye. No, what truly gave them away was the eyes. Pure, solid expanses of color, devoid of pupils, irises or any features at all, glowing intensely enough to light up a room, yet not so bright that one couldn’t comfortably gaze into them from inches away. Nothing else had eyes like a dragon.
Zanzayed was half-elf in aspect, which was unique among the dragons she’d met; he could have passed for a human in general body shape, albeit a tall and lanky one, but for the subtle points of his ears. His hair and gem-like eyes, of course, were cobalt blue. As usual, he was excruciatingly overdressed, in flowing multilayered robes of blue, silver and white, somewhat akin in style to a Sifanese kimono but far too heavily embroidered and surmounted by an oversized mantle that made his shoulders look absurdly broad for his lean frame. The delicate, jewel-encrusted slippers that peeked out from under his hem were pointed, curling up extravagantly at the tips; he actually had some kind of giant white fluffy thing like a feather boa draped decoratively over one shoulder, wrapped around his waist and trailing behind him. His long blue hair was tied back in a simple tail, but bedecked with white ribbons and bejeweled combs. The overall effect was breathtaking, which had more to do with his draconic aura than his sense of style. He was dressed like a particularly pretentious wedding cake; anyone else in that outfit would have looked idiotic.
“Arachne!” he cried in apparent delight, spreading his arms and striding toward her. Despite her rush to get to him, she stopped, folding her arms and awaiting his approach. Of course, the polite thing would have been to let their host greet such a distinguished guest first. Naturally, she didn’t care about that in the slightest. “Whatever brings you out to this corner of the world?” the dragon asked, coming to a stop before her and grinning. “I must say I was starting to think nothing would coax you down off that mountaintop of yours. Well, in the last decade or so, that is. Before that I was wondering how long it’d be before you lost interest in that whole ‘school’ thing. Really, Arachne, you, an educator? I can’t imagine it.” He reached out to chuck her under the chin.
“Zanzayed,” she said calmly. “You’re at least partially right; this isn’t my scene. In fact, I came here looking for you.”
“Oh, no!” he exclaimed in mock horror, placing a hand—each finger sparkling with rings—against his chest. “Are we going to have one of our celebrated duels? Let’s please don’t; I quite like this villa. It’s so delightfully tacky!”
The muttering among the onlookers had intensified when he spoke her name; at the word “duel,” the crowd began dropping its pretentions and trying in earnest to get away from them.
“I’m so glad you like it!” Alan Vandro boomed, approaching. “See, this is why I enjoy your visits, Zanzayed; you get me. I like to think I’ve started a trend here, and ‘delightfully tacky’ will soon be the go-to style for the rich and tasteless all over the Empire.”
“Inviting Arachne to your little soirees isn’t a solid strategy for living to spread your legend, Vandro,” Zanzayed said, smirking. “She does so love to break things.”
“How do you know that’s not just when you’re around?” Tellwyrn asked dryly.
“I read the history books, darling.”
“Why, you two are just like an old married couple,” Vandro said cheerfully. Around them, the other party guests seemed tentatively to be calming, taking note of the genial mood and Vandro’s presence and clear lack of alarm. “I gather you don’t get many chances to catch up?”
“Indeed, I find I must take every possible opportunity to enjoy Arachne’s company!” the dragon said, stepping up next to Tellwyrn and draping an arm around her shoulders. She raised an eyebrow. “After all, this is the future mother of my children you’re looking at. We have an arrangement.”
“We have a bet,” Tellwyrn corrected firmly, “and you haven’t won.”
“I will, though.”
“You’d better hope not. If it starts to look like you’re going to, I’ll simply kill you.”
“Darling, if you had the capacity to kill me you’d have done it centuries ago.”
“I’ve never tried in earnest, Zanza. I’m willing to risk my life in dealing with you, but not my ass.”
“And yet, we have that bet.” He grinned down at her.
“Because you’re not going to win. In any case, I didn’t come here to discuss that, either. Step inside with me; we need to have a talk.”
Zanzayed sighed dramatically. “Honestly, for such a rambunctious hellraiser you are such a drag sometimes. It’s a party. I just got here. We can discuss business after I’ve hobnobbed a bit and eaten Vandro here out of house and home.”
“Let’s kindly keep that to the metaphorical sense,” said Vandro with an easy grin. “I can’t exactly get a new house catered.”
“I have already spent more time on this than I wanted to,” Tellwyrn snapped.
“What, pray tell, is so very urgent?” Zanzayed asked in an aggrieved tone.
“It’s about Khadizroth.”
The dragon raised an eyebrow. “Oh, honestly, Arachne. What’d you do to him this time?”
“I’ve not been near him in four hundred years. It’s about what he did, and I’m not involved. I am passing on a message because I promised to do so.”
“Well, I haven’t spoken to him in nearly that long, and quite frankly I find him insufferably dull, so whatever—”
“Because,” she pressed on, “what he’s been up to is likely to mean trouble for all of your kind, and you’re the only one I can easily find and who I know will listen to me.”
At that, finally, Zanzayed’s expression sobered. “…all right, against my better judgment, you have my attention. I do hope you’re not planning to spoil my whole party experience, Arachne; Onkawa has been altogether a disappointment and I just don’t think my delicate constitution can take another blow. Vandro, you’d better have those delightful bacon-wrapped shrimp on hand.”
“In fact, I’ve got a reserved tub of them with your name on it!”
“Smashing! Whatever else happens, then, this night won’t be a total loss. Come along, my dear.” Zanzayed wrapped an arm around Tellwyrn’s waist and began leading her toward the main house; they moved effortlessly through a mobile open space, the other guests parting to let them pass like a school of fish making way for two sharks. “Let’s hear what my errant cousin has gotten into that you find so very pressing.”
“Hear that, everyone?” Vandro said genially behind them, grinning around at the onlookers. “Best sample the bacon-wrapped shrimp while there are any left. But for the love of all the gods, don’t eat them all before he gets back!”
Kheshiri caught his eye in passing, heading back for Shook’s corner; it would have looked a little suspicious for her to appropriate Vandro’s personal focus in the middle of the party. Anyway, even with them walking away, she wanted to stay as far as possible from Tellwyrn and that dragon. She had done her fair share of manipulating powerful and dangerous people, enough to know that she could, and also to know when she shouldn’t. Tellwyrn was a classic example of the kind of person to leave alone. Different people reacted in different ways to discovering someone was toying with them; she was prone to torching everything and salting the earth. That went double for dragons.
Shook had scarcely moved in the hour she’d been gone, if at all. He perked up at her approach, which was gratifying, even if his tone was typically curt. “Well?”
“Looks like the party’s back on, master,” she said softly, leaning in close. “You want the full report, or should we wait for Alan?”
He lifted his eyes from hers to glance around. “Mm… Just give it a moment. I’m sure he’ll be along pretty quickly.”
Indeed, Vandro was back within a minute, moving somewhat more quickly than previously. “Shiri, my dear, welcome back!” he said jovially.
She surreptitiously slipped a folded sheet of paper into his breast pocket. “All’s well, boss man. Kamari had it in his room along with an explanatory note; seems he’s in trouble on some trumped-up charge or other and has been on a heavily supervised extra shift all day, couldn’t find a moment to himself to engage a courier. But he apparently figured you’d be able to get someone in to check his things. Smart boy.”
“Smart boy who knows we have a succubus,” Vandro corrected. “See, Jerry? Intimidation value aside, this is why I wanted our partners to know what’s up. No plan survives contact with real circumstances; you can’t adapt on the fly if you don’t know the capabilities of the people you’re working with.”
“Appreciate the lesson, Alan, but I’ll leave you to handle the planning,” Shook said with a tense little smile. “Just point me at whoever’s head needs cracking.”
“Consider yourself pointed, my boy. Move on out; Saduko will meet you at the rendezvous spot in the city. You know the plan. Shiri, you’re up; just wait for them to get gone first. Oh, and Amanika’s at the Guild tonight, speaking of changing plans, so don’t make any appearances with her face.”
“Check and check.” Kheshiri gave him a mock salute.
“Showtime, kids,” Vandro said with a grin of pure delight, then turned and ambled off, calling a greeting to some acquaintance or other.
“All right, you heard him,” Shook said in a low tone. “Get in position. I’ll see you after the job.”
“Good luck, master,” she said, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek.
He smirked and reached behind her to squeeze her bum. “I won’t need it.” With that, he turned and swaggered off in the general direction of the gates.
“Of course not, master,” she said sweetly.