“Sounds like quite the adventure,” Vandro said genially when Tallie had finished the whole story.
By that point, they were comfortably ensconced on the leather furniture in his drawing room, and had been served hot tea, sandwiches and cookies by Wilberforce, Vandro’s silent and efficient Butler. Their host himself had not joined them, either in sitting or eating; he stood near the fire, smiling down upon them with patrician goodwill. Wilberforce had refreshed his cocktail, but Vandro so far hadn’t so much as sipped the new one, apparently just keeping it in hand for gesticulatory purposes. Gimmick, or Saduko, stood so silently unobtrusive by the door that Schwartz, at one point, jumped in startlement when she spoke, apparently having forgotten she was there.
“And the worst part is, we didn’t even get what we came for,” Tallie said sullenly. “Any of us. Now, apparently, Schwartz is as out of luck as we are with regard to that magic shop, and we have no idea what Private Covrin was trying to tell us.”
“Well, as to that, I may have a few thoughts,” Vandro said lightly, wearing his characteristic easy smile and idly swirling his drink. “The Legionnaire’s mind, of course, is inscrutable to me; I rarely manage to figure out what women are thinking when they’re right in front of me explaining it! But in the context of your little dwarf problem… Yeah, I bet I can help you there.”
“Oh?” Darius said, perking up visibly. Most of the assembled apprentices did, though Jasmine frowned pensively and Schwartz chewed on his lower lip, Meesie chittering softly to herself in apparent displeasure.
“Hold your horses,” Vandro instructed. “We’ll get to that in a moment; first of all, I have to disagree with your assessment of what the worst part was. Tell me, at least, that you kids understand exactly how you fucked up in dealing with Ironeye?”
“Well,” Darius drawled, “punching one of her subordinates was probably not the best idea anybody in this room has ever had.”
“I know for a fact it was far from the worst,” Tallie shot back.
“That woman’s a thug and a bully,” Ross said flatly. “Some Eserite, picking on people like she does.”
“We didn’t do anything to her,” Rasha added. “Sending us into that trap when we asked for help was an asshole thing to do, no matter how you slice it.”
“That it was,” Vandro agreed. “Vanda Frost is an asshole when she wants to be, just like any good enforcer. The point, there, is what you kids do and do not have the prerogative to slice. Let’s consider the strange case of Glass Alley.”
“Yeah, what the hell is even going on in there?” Darius demanded, scowling. “I get that it’s a slum, but…”
“Well, first of all, there’s Frost’s little operation,” Vandro said, beginning to pace idly in front of the fire as he talked. “Now, full disclosure, I’ve only been back in the city a few months; I was theoretically retired to sunny Onkawa, and I keep telling myself I’ll go back there when my business is concluded, but hell, I love the game too much to leave it a second time.” He paused to wink at them. “So, Frost. Here she’s set herself up as the uncontested slum queen. Her word is law, and apparently she’s wearing Imperial badges like some kind of orcish chieftain to show how little she fears the Empire. Legally speaking, this behavior suits the criteria for rebellion. The good folk of Sarasio learned the hard way not to try that shit last year; doesn’t it strain credulity, kids, that she’s getting away with it right here in the Imperial capital?”
A pause ensued, in which his audience frowned in thought.
“You’re suggesting the Empire approves her actions there?” Jasmine asked finally.
Vandro laughed. “Approves, nothing. It’s doubloons to donuts the Empire is running this show behind the scenes; there’s no way they’d allow it if they didn’t have some kind of control. I’ll bet you anything Glass Alley is crawling with Imperial spooks, all gussied up as gutter trash.”
“Why?” Rasha asked.
“In a moment,” Vandro said. “Then, on the other hand, there’s the Guild. See, Frost has put together an actual gang, a group of Guild thieves who are loyal to her before the Guild itself—you met a few of them, I understand. No harm in that so far. But then, she’s used that gang to take and hold territory, enforce her own rules on non-Guild persons, and dictate how other Eserites are to behave in her turf. That, kids, is a capital no-no. Eserion prizes freedom and independence, but there’s a line; an organization like the Guild can’t afford to tolerate competition from within, much less open rebellion. Only times that’s happened it was because a sitting Boss had been acting up and needed to be removed, which is something Tricks would be well aware of. And yet, all we hear from the him with regard to Ironeye’s operation is thundering silence. Neither the Guild nor the Empire is doing a thing to dislodge her when they both have clear reason to.”
He paused, smiling down at them with vague smugness, clearly awaiting the obvious question.
Schwartz eventually obliged him. “What’s their motive to tolerate this?”
“Search me,” Vandro said with a grin and a shrug. “I mean, the actual nature of the agreements and interactions Ironeye has with the Empire and the Guild, those I could only guess at. Maybe someone more established here in town would have more intel on that, but frankly I don’t think that’s the relevant point to the likes of you and me. As for motive, consider the state of that district and what she’s doing there. Glass Alley has had a reputation for years as the place you can go to get sleazy shit that’s not trafficked in where civilized people dwell—and probably get robbed and murdered for your trouble. The rumor mill hasn’t really caught up with the times; it still has that rep, but matters are different since Frost took over. She’s running that place according to Eserite rules. It’s a rough patch of turf, still, no mistake about that, but the effect of Frost’s brutality has been to make it overall safer. She gets a cut of all illegal business that goes on, and uses it to pay as many of the local non-Guild thugs as are interested to serve as her enforcers. She even has a dress code for ’em! Then she uses them to lean on anybody who doesn’t wanna play her game. There are rules in Glass Alley now: no unsanctioned robbery, no unnecessary assault, no rape, no destruction of property.”
“Ah, excuse me, point of order,” Schwartz said with a scowl, holding up a finger. “All I did was ask for directions, and they set on me like starving wolves.”
“It’s almost like I can tell at a glance which of you kids isn’t Guild,” Vandro replied, grinning, while Schwartz’s scowl deepened. “Honestly, boy, you walked into a neighborhood like that and asked for directions? But consider what happened after that, and how Frost responded. Who bore the brunt of her thuggish displeasure, eh? Aside from that little prank with the self-locking room, she didn’t lay a finger on you kids.”
Schwartz blinked, comprehension dawning on his face, though Meesie still muttered sullenly to herself in his hair.
“That hints at the roots of all this,” Vandro continued, contemplatively swirling his drink now. “Despite what the nobles like to sneer at each other, poor folks do not behave like wild animals as a rule. What you saw in Glass Alley, the way they ganged up to attack like that—unless you’re party to an actual war of some kind, that’s desperation. And that’s what Glass Alley has been like. Tiraas has its share of slums, of course, but most of ’em are at least a little nicer. Glass Alley is where people ended up if they had nothing left, and no hope of functioning anywhere else.”
“So that’s who Ironeye chooses to pick on, is it?” Tallie growled.
Vandro shrugged, finally taking a sip of his cocktail. “Under Ironeye’s watch, three free clinics and four food pantries have opened in Glass Alley. She has her enforcers keeping watch over ’em round the clock, to prevent what would inevitably happen if she didn’t. To bring all this to a point, kids… This is a project, and a long-term one. Frost is profiting from her gig, as all slumlords do, but she’s also trying to help. If she seems brutal and overly theatrical—and I mean, come on, that outfit—it’s because that is what it takes to get through to the kind of people who live there, at least at first. She’s probably the only person they’ve ever had try to get through to ’em; most authorities treat people like that pretty much like rats. I understand her logic. It’s not the way I would’ve gone about it, but hell, I wouldn’t attempt a job like that anyhow. Nah, the real test’ll come when and if she manages to elevate that place to the point it doesn’t need her anymore.” He grinned sardonically. “Eserites aren’t mean to be in charge; our methods do not work for running an actual society. Be interesting to see if ol’ Vanda gives up power once she’s got a taste for it.”
“Huh,” said Darius. “Well. How ’bout that.”
“So that’s Glass Alley,” Vandro said, smiling down at them. “A big, extremely complex running job, backed by both the Guild and the actual Tiraan Empire, with the lives of however many hundreds of people live there in the balance. If this thing works out, it could set a whole knew paradigm for rescuing troubled places from themselves via Eserite principles—that’s a real game-changer, right there. All in all, it’s exactly the kind of place nobody wants a bunch of untethered apprentices bumbling into. No sponsor or trainer would have sent you there or let you go if they knew what you intended. Is it any wonder Frost reacted poorly to finding the lot of you involved in an altercation right in the middle of her grand project?”
“There’s poorly,” Rasha protested, “and then there’s locking us in a closet!”
“How d’you figure?” Vandro asked mildly.
“I thought that was rather a harsh response, too,” said Schwartz.
“Yeah, but what’d she actually do to you?” their host insisted. “Were you harmed in any way, or just…inconvenienced? It sounds like she even sent someone along to keep an eye on it. Frankly, I suspect you’d have been let out of there and sent on your way within a couple of hours.”
“What makes you so certain?” Jasmine asked quietly.
“Ah, ah, ah.” Grinning, Vandro held up a chiding finger at her. “I said ‘suspect;’ it’s a jump from there to ‘certain.’ But that’d be pretty standard. You are apprentices, and while any Guild member has the prerogative to discipline you for sticking your noses into a job they’re running—hell, a good many’d take it as a moral obligation to do so—no member of the Guild is gonna bring you to any actual harm, or allow you to suffer it if they can prevent it. The Thieves’ Guild can be a rough place, yeah, and if you haven’t figured that out by now you’ve probably got no future here. But like all successful entities, it assiduously protects its younglings.” He winked. “Good ol’ Vanda herself sounds like she went mama bear on your behalf. Or do you think she customarily says ‘hello’ with rockets, ice bombs, and electrified harpoons? Nobody’d still be in that district if there was an armored boogeyman stomping around doing that shit over every little thing.”
A thoughtful silence descended while they digested both the insight and the sandwiches.
“That was quite the set-up she’s got, though,” Darius said eventually. “I mean, with the armor and the glowing eyes and Omnu’s balls, how many weapons has she got in that thing? It looked like she could take on a strike team.”
Saduko sniffed disdainfully. “Do not mistake the belt of badges for anything but a theatrical touch permitted by the Empire. Ironeye is a skilled enforcer, in that she rules through fear and psychological warfare. Her armaments are designed toward that, not combat effectiveness. They are only tricks and gimmicks, both mechanical and magical.”
“And word has it you’d know a thing or two about gimmicks,” Vandro chuckled.
She smiled, very faintly. “I am most curious where she obtained that runeblade of hers. That is the real thing, and by a wide margin the most dangerous weapon in her possession. The rest…? Frost could not stand against a skilled spellcaster of any school, much less a strike team. I have my doubts how effective she would be against an enforcer of comparable experience not encumbered by impractical armor. Mr. Vandro’s point is well-taken. Despite how it seems, she is allowed to continue because neither the Guild nor the Empire see fit to extinguish her. Both could do so without difficulty.”
“Sooo,” Rasha said slowly, “she gave us, basically, a slap on the knuckles…”
“And then,” Darius finished, growing a shade paler, “we wrecked one of her places and assaulted one of her people. Shit.”
“Whoah, whoah!” Ross protested, pointing accusingly at Tallie. “We didn’t assault anybody.”
Tallie drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh. “Worth it.”
“Was it?” Jasmine asked dryly. “I may ask again after you’ve had a talk with Style.”
Tallie placed a hand over her eyes, leaning against the back of the couch. “…I don’t suppose you’ve got anything a little stronger to put in the tea?”
Vandro let out a jovial, booming laugh. “Well, as long as you learned the lesson, that’s what matters. I can’t do a thing about the ass-kicking you lot are gonna get from Style when you head back to the Guild, much less the grudge Ironeye is probably gonna carry. For now, though, I’ll consider my duty to the younger generation done.”
“I, um…” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “I’m sorry, I made it clear I’m not a Guild apprentice, right?”
“Consider it a free education, sonny boy,” Vandro said with a genial wink. “Won’t do you any harm to understand a bit about how Eserites think, and if you’re gonna keep hanging around with ’em, it just might do you a world of good.”
Meesie hopped down from Schwartz’s head to his shoulder, patting his cheek insistently and squeaking in agreement.
“So with that out of the way,” Vandro continued, “and if you’ve all had enough nibbling to hold body and soul together, come with me. I wanna show you something that’ll shed some light on your dwarf problem.”
The long basement room to which he escorted them was clearly an enchanting workshop. It was extremely organized in layout, lined by neat rows of shelves containing bottles of sparkling dusts, stacks of parchment of different types, and an impressive selection of inert power crystals. There were several tables strewn with projects clearly in progress, and in one corner stood a sizable rack of various wire and glass components for the physical construction of enchanted equipment.
Schwartz paused at the door, took one look around, then plucked Meesie off his shoulder and whispered a few words to her. The little fire-mouse squeaked once in farewell before vanishing completely.
“You kids are in luck,” Vandro said jovially, leading the way into the workshop. “Gimmick, here, is one of the best security-specialized enchantresses around. This is her personal working space—and on that note, kindly keep your hands firmly to yourselves at all times. Not that I don’t trust you, of course, but it seems to me you’ve already offended enough Guild members for one day’s work. This way!”
As they all trickled into the room, their host headed straight across it toward the display at the far end, while Saduko took up a position by the door, watching them all with hawkish intensity. No doubt, she shared Vandro’s concern for having anything in this chamber trifled with, and probably with a great deal more personal investment.
Against the far wall was a peculiar apparatus consisting of a large-scale map of the city, set in an extremely thick metal frame. Attached to the top of this on hinges were several framed panes of glass, each supported by spring-loaded arms that enabled them to be lowered over the map, or raised above it.
“Here, as you can see, is our fair city,” Vandro began, tapping a finger against the map with the hand not still holding his drink. “Nothing special. But when I do this…”
Moving carefully with one hand, he lowered the first pane of glass into place over the map, then touched one of the runes marking the edge of its metal frame.
Immediately, a riot of glowing blue burst into being above the map. It was difficult to make out at first glance, but upon closer, more careful inspection, the haze of blue light revealed itself to be a profusion of circular shapes, a few with crisp outlines but most fading outward into dimness, where their edges were obscured by the innumerable other blue circles covering the glass pane. The circles were all translucent, adding a layer to the map without hiding any of the markings upon it.
“Whoah,” said Tallie in an unimpressed tone. “Shiny.” Darius nudged her with an elbow, whereupon she elbowed him right back.
“Let me continue and see if you can guess the theme,” Vandro said with a grin and a wink, already reaching to lower the second pane of framed glass.
This one, once activated, added another layer of the increasingly complicated display, this one of golden circles. There appeared to be far fewer of them than of the blue ones, but the sight of all of them together began to be rather confusing.
“It’s magic!” Rasha said suddenly.
“Well, of course it’s magic,” Darius sneered. “Generally speaking, when you see glowy shit attached to a device in a magic workshop—”
“Oh, shut it, Darius. I mean, it’s a map of magic in the city! Look, see how the biggest cluster of yellow circles is around Imperial Square? That’s the Grand Cathedral, and the Trinity’s three temples that are there. Look, there’s the Casino! And the rest of those are temples and shrines, I bet.”
“Oh,” said Tallie. “Oh, wow. If the blue ones were arcane, no wonder they were all over the place. This damn city’s practically sparking with the stuff.”
“Good eye,” Vandro said approvingly. “See, I knew you’d get it.”
“I’ve actually seen devices like this before,” Schwartz said with a trace of smugness. “I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone, though.”
“Sure,” Ross grunted.
“Yep, and the Finder’s Fee has one as well; most well-equipped magic shops in the city do. Now, you’ll note there are a lot fewer fae energy fields in the city,” Vandro said, sliding the third pane down and activating it. “Reacts poorly to the presence of so much arcane magic, and anyhow, it’s not as widely favored among human civilizations.”
“Uh, why is the biggest concentration of it around the Square, as well?” Rasha asked, pointing. Indeed, of the relatively few circles of glowing green on the map, the only one of significant size overlapped with the central golden glows of the Church and adjacent temples.
“That,” said Vandro, “is actually centered on the Imperial Palace, and in answer to your next question: I don’t know, I don’t wanna know, and neither do you. The secrets of Emperors are rarely useful and always dangerous. And just for the final touch…”
He lowered the last frame into place, switched it on, and revealed a series of orange circles scattered across the city. There were more of them than green ones, but they were without exception tiny, some little more than pinpricks.
“There are that many fields of infernal energy active in Tiraas?” Jasmine demanded, aghast.
“More,” Saduko said calmly from the door behind them. “I rarely find a use for the last pane. The only infernal magic users worth knowing about are, almost by definition, not trackable.”
Vandro cleared his throat in the grim silence that ensued. “Yeah, well, speaking of things better off left alone… But in any case, my purpose here is to make a point, not to help you find anyone in particular. Just look at all the magic running around loose in this town!”
Indeed, according to the augmented map, there wasn’t an inch of space anywhere in Tiraas not swamped by magical energy; almost all of it was under a haze of arcane blue, and much buried in overlapping arcane fields. But between that, and the fae and divine spheres as well, the city had total magical coverage.
“The subject at hand, of course, is surveillance,” Vandro intoned, idly swirling his drink again. “Specifically, how those dwarves are doing it—because they’re obviously tracking you in some way, to know so accurately and quickly where you are. Now, both conventional and magical surveillance ought to be impossible with you at the Guild, which is not only warded to hell and back but not the kind of place it’s smart to hang around, gawking at apprentices. Obviously, they’ve found a way around this—one way or the other. Your new buddy Private Covrin makes it pretty clear which.”
“How’s that?” Ross asked.
“Well, she found you the same way, if I’m not mistaken! And then sent you to the Finder’s Fee, which has one of these little beauties, to spill the beans. Saduko, hon, wanna take it from here? You’re the expert, after all.”
Expressionless, she nodded to him in a gesture that was nearly a shallow bow before turning to the apprentices. “Any statement about what is and is not possible with magic should be followed by the implied qualifier ‘in theory.’ In theory, the Guild’s wards should not be penetrable, at least not without tripping them and earning the direct attention of the Guild’s employed mages.”
“The Guild employs mages?” Rasha exclaimed.
“Hell, the Guild has mages,” Vandro replied, grinning. “Eserion teaches a philosophy, kid. It’s true we don’t favor magic-users as a rule, but you really think there are no casters out there who don’t find our worldview appealing? But we digress. Gimmick was in the process of explaining your predicament.”
“Indeed,” she said. “The purpose of showing you the map display is to reveal how very many overlapping magical fields are in effect in Tiraas. All permanently placed spells must be calibrated to account for this. To say nothing of the interactions that can occur between intersecting fields of arcane magic, the presence of divine, fae, and especially infernal energy in various places creates complicating factors which must be carefully considered when establishing a permanent enchantment of any significant size—which includes defensive wards over a region the size of the Imperial Casino and its underground offices. And where there are so many intersecting forms of magical radiation, there are…variables.” She smiled thinly. “These variables can be exploited, by one with the necessary skill. I have often done so myself. Most places in Tiraas where significant magic is done are warded—the temples, government and military offices, even banks and major factories. All of those wards are vulnerable to careful incursions, which can be hidden from detection by the background haze of other magical resonances. The only reliable way to counter this is to have a sapient caster, and preferably more than one, actively monitoring the wards at all times.”
“Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of wards?” Darius asked, scratching his head.
“Not entirely,” Saduko replied. “But more to the point, there are very few organizations which have the budget and skilled personnel to do this. Mostly just the Imperial government and Salyrite temples. The Guild does not.”
“Which means,” Vandro concluded in a satisfied tone, “if you’re relying on the Guild’s standing wards to protect you from magical tracking… Well, somebody persistent enough may just be able to disappoint you. Now, once you understand that, it should be obvious what you need to do to compensate, yeah?”
“It…should?” Tallie asked, blinking, and turned to look questioningly at the others. Most of them shrugged.
“Personal wards,” Schwartz said, suddenly grinning. “Tracking deflector charms are commercially available! They’re, uh, not cheap. But they’re available.”
“Won’t those have the same problems?” Darius asked.
“On the contrary,” said Saduko, “because a person is mobile and constantly moves through the different overlapping energy fields of the city, there is no way to use those fields to exploit ward vulnerabilities. Such techniques rely on knowing the position and composition of every relevant magical influence; they are only useful on stationary targets.”
“So, uh…” Tallie turned to Schwartz. “Exactly how not cheap are we talking, here?”
“Umm,” he winced. “Well, I guess… If you had a really good job…or an inheritance…”
Rasha sighed heavily. “Typical.”
“Now, now, let’s nobody panic,” Vandro said cheerfully. “You are, after all, in a room with one of the best in the business—I think I already mentioned that!” He winked at Saduko, who made no response. “Obviously, Gimmick’s time and talents are valuable. However, I might find it worthwhile to foot the tab for you, should you decide to employ them.”
“Uh huh,” Tallie said dryly. “And…what would that cost us?”
“Well, I’ve gotta be honest,” he replied. “None of you kids really have anything I want. However, I’m a big believer in the great chain of connection, y’know? We’re all in this rotten world together. Today, I find myself in a position to help you out. Maybe someday soon, you’ll be in a position to help me.”
“You are talking,” Jasmine said slowly, “about trading money today for an as-yet undetermined favor in the future. That is possibly the worst deal I’ve ever heard of. It’s almost a chapbook cliché. This is how loan sharks hook people.”
“Kid,” Vandro said, his expression suddenly serious, “you are just about as dead right on that as anybody has ever been, and it gives me hope for the future that you knew it without having to be told. Now, nobody disappoint me by answering this right now. You’ve got some thinking to do, and some research to do.” He grinned and winked again. “Tonight, I want you to head back to the Guild, take what you have coming from Style, and then consider whether you’ve got any better options than to take ol’ Alan’s deal. And most especially learn what you can about everybody involved, here. Me, Gimmick, Ironeye… In fact, while we’re at it, I suggest you ask around about Keys, whom you also know as Sergeant Locke. All of us have a rep, and you’d better know exactly who and what you’re dealing with before you start dealing. Be careful, be smart, and be sure.” He sipped his drink again, watching them acutely over the rim of the glass. “But don’t be too long.”
Alan Vandro was a man who enjoyed his comforts, but did not allow them to rule him. As such, while he spent lavishly on large, fancy dinners whenever he had someone to entertain, on quieter nights he often had nothing but a liquid supper. This was one such night. The house was quiet, with Wilberforce off driving the kids home. He stood in the drawing room, near the fireplace, pensively gazing out the window at the street. Night was falling on Tiraas, not that one could tell from this angle. The character of the light changed as sunlight gave way to streetlamps, but it never really got dark here.
“So,” he mused, swirling the last sip of his evening cocktail in the bottom of the glass. “Isn’t that interesting. Factions within the Sisterhood, they said. And here I’d started to think Keys had gone and made herself untouchable behind those ramparts.”
“Alan,” Saduko said quietly from across the room (she never stood close to him unless it was necessary, which he had noticed with amusement and never commented upon), “I have never presumed to advise you in your affairs unless asked, but if you are considering taking some kind of action against an active member of the Silver Legions…”
“No, don’t worry, I haven’t taken leave of my senses quite yet,” he said, turning to grin roguishly at her. “That’s the whole point, doll. Why take action my own little self when I can just…pick a side? Particularly if there’s a side that already wants more or less what I want.” He turned back to the window. “In your various travels through town, what have you heard about this Bishop? Syrinx, was it?”
“Nothing good,” she said immediately. “Basra Syrinx is respected, and in some quarters, feared. I have heard nowhere any hint that she is liked.”
“Good, good,” he murmured. “That gives us plenty to work with. All right, I need some more info before we go and do anything too proactive. Details on Syrinx, and also on this aide of hers, Private Covrin. Clearly, one or both of them has some connection to Sparkler and the Finder’s Fee, which by itself is just fascinating.”
“It’s going to be hard for me to maneuver in Glass Alley after today,” she said. “Ironeye will take offense at our intervention. She will not harm a fellow Guild member without cause, but…”
“Yes, but,” he agreed. “We both know there’s a lot short of harm that can make someone’s life difficult. No, Saduko, you keep well clear of her; I’m not about to risk getting those talented fingers of yours broken. Luckily, there’s no shortage of saps who can be sent into that rathole with simple assignments. See if you can round up a few, in and around getting some details on Syrinx and her girl.”
“These waters become increasingly hazardous,” she warned. “You know as well as I what Frost is like. And what I have heard about Syrinx is…troubling. She is a good politician and a poor Avenist, by all accounts. Ruthless, vindictive, devious. Unnecessarily cruel toward those who oppose her, it is said.”
“In short,” he replied, grinning out at the city, “an evil bitch.” Vandro tossed back the last of his drink, savoring the familiar burn as it went down. “Sounds like my kind of woman.”