Schwartz shivered and rubbed his upper arms once he made it inside. Late as he was, a moment to let the warmth of the restaurant soak in was necessary; the temperature had plummeted quite suddenly, as if Tiraas had been abruptly reminded what season it was supposed to be. Luckily—or perhaps deliberately, warm winter or no—two large braziers flanked the entryway, doing a great deal to cut the chill that drifted inside.
The Great Hall served Stalweiss food, and its décor was clearly meant to be evocative of the Stalrange in all its mostly mythical barbaric glory. Set up to resemble a warlord’s feast hall, it was decorated with tapestries and stuffed heads, the tables hewn from coarse-looking wood, the waitresses dressed in furs that were far more flattering than practical. Schwartz wondered offhandedly, as he scanned the lunch crowd for his “date,” if this wasn’t all rather offensive, ethnically speaking. He himself was Stalweiss by blood, but like a lot of such nowadays, had his roots in the prairie and little real affinity for the old country. Still, the “barbarian” mythos that clung to the Stalrange didn’t do its inhabitants any favors. Even now, a century after Horsebutt’s disappearance, those were still the poorest provinces in the Empire.
“G’day, sir,” said the young woman in a low-cut dress behind the hostess’s desk. “Table for one?”
“I’m, ah, actually meeting someone,” he said, still shuffling his feet to restore the blood to them. He wore the heavier version of his cult’s robes, but no actual coat. If it kept up this way he’d have to use spells to make it back to the Collegium without getting frostbite… “Have you seen a—”
He blinked in confusion at the blonde girl who had slipped out of the crowd and taken his arm, frowning up at him. That voice…
Of course. Embarrassingly, it had taken him a couple of seconds to catch on, but now, looking closer, he could perceive the disguise spell. Commercially available, that; even not being an arcane specialist, any Salyrite would be able to recognize the most common enchantments. The voice matched, though, as did her eyes. Jenell had brown eyes just the faintest bit lighter than usual, like molasses swirled with a hint of honey…
Her cheeks colored slightly under his intent gaze—really, that was a good charm she’d picked up if it conveyed that, a lot of the cheaper ones blunted such subtle changes—and she tugged at his arm. “I have a table and tea. Haven’t ordered food yet; I was starting to fear they’d throw me out before you showed up. Where’ve you been?”
“I’m sorry,” he said with a wince as she led him to a secluded corner table. This place wasn’t terribly well-lit, and its booths seemed to have been designed with privacy in mind. He was beginning to feel depressingly familiar with all the places in Tiraas that offered such discreet nooks, what with one thing and another. “I had a, ah, bit of a mishap with a spell I tried… Ami had to fetch one of my superiors to straighten it out, and then she insisted on dressing me down for being careless before she’d let me go. Um, she being Archon Stross, not Ami.”
Jenell had slid into the bench opposite him while he spoke, but had frozen. “Ami?”
“Oh, right, I guess you didn’t know…” He smiled feebly. “She’s, um…helping.”
“Helping…with what?” she demanded.
Schwartz made a helpless gesture. “Everything? All this? What I, you know, assumed you’d want to talk about…”
He watched her disguised face closely, but her expression gave nothing away now. Of course, he had forced himself to assume all this was about Syrinx, but a large part of him refused to abandon the hope that she’d just wanted to see him.
After a moment, Jenell sighed, seemingly forcing herself to relax.
“All this. Right. Well.” She raised her eyes to his again, and now the very faintest smile appeared on her lips. If he wasn’t imagining things, it seemed almost as hesitant as he felt. “So…how’s Meesie?”
“Meesie is fine,” he said, grinning in spite of himself. “Not much keeps her down. I’m a little surprised you’d ask, though. Your message specified not to have her out when I came…”
“Herschel, I’m trying to be discreet, here,” she said with fond exasperation, and he felt his hopes climbing again, despite his better judgment. “Meesie is…attention-getting. Of course I don’t have anything against her, she’s adorable. Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to tell her so in person.”
“I would like that,” he said, then made an effort to control his foolish smile. “I mean, uh, I’m sure she would like to see you too. She misses you.”
Jenell actually blushed again, then straightened her posture and cleared her throat. “Well. Um. I actually did want to talk to you about more serious things than catching up. Herschel, the information I have is thirdhand, but it says you’re pursuing some kind of vendetta against Bishop Syrinx. Please tell me I have it wrong?”
Schwartz felt the smile slip away from his face. “I… Well. I prefer not to think of it in those terms. Revenge has never much appealed to me, you know? But…yeah, I guess that’s a word.”
Again she sighed, more heavily this time. “Herschel. Why the hell would you try something like this?”
He stared at her. “How can you even ask me that?”
The silence which followed was painfully awkward. Fortunately, it was soon interrupted.
“Ah, he arrives!” the waitress said cheerfully, materializing next to them with a sunny smile and a pencil poised over her notepad. “What’re we having, friends?”
“Roast quail,” Jenell said immediately and a little abruptly. Schwartz opened his mouth and only belatedly realized there was a menu lying on the table, now under her hand. Well, there had probably been nothing else to read while she’d been waiting for him. “And the peppered potatoes.”
“Good choice!” the waitress said cheerily. “That’ll feed two—anything you want to add, sir?”
“Actually, no, that sounds rather good,” Schwartz said lamely. He didn’t eat out much and had definitely never lived in a style that involved people serving him; ordering food from waitstaff was sufficiently unfamiliar to feel awkward.
“And anything stronger than the tea to drink? Or a fresh pot?”
“No, thank you,” Jenell said primly. “That will be all.”
“Very good! I’ll be back before you know it.” The girl smiled quickly at them both, then sashayed out of sight. Schwartz let out a soft breath of relief.
“Herschel,” Jenell said quietly, staring at him, “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re doing. Basra Syrinx is dangerous.”
“No, you don’t,” she snapped. “You have no idea what she’s capable of.”
“Excuse me, but in fact, I do. I didn’t just come haring off to Tiraas to try and poison her toothbrush or some such nonsense; give me credit for a little sense!”
“Very little,” she said skeptically.
“Look,” he retorted, nettled now, “if I’d done anything to attack the Bishop, you would know. And yes, that probably would have ended quickly and poorly for me. Don’t forget, I have seen her in action. I am being careful, Jenell. All I’m doing right now is making preparations.”
“Preparations to do what?”
“Well…that’s the question, isn’t it?” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m gathering information, skills, and allies. Ami was already after Syrinx—apparently the whole reason she stayed with us in Viridill was to study the Bishop in action. She was only pretending to be fooled by Syrinx’s explanation of their last encounter; being strung up for Huntsmen wasn’t an experience she was going to forget quickly. And I’ve been making friends in the Thieves’ Guild, not to mention Sergeant Locke.”
“Oh, yes,” she said darkly. “That. Herschel… The fact is, if you were ready to play this game, you wouldn’t be casually spilling these details to someone you know works for Basra. How can you be sure I’m not going to go straight to her with all this?”
“Principia has told me things,” he said quietly. “About how you helped her squad before. She says you can be trusted. But…maybe you’re right, or at least in what I think you’re driving at. I do trust you, Jenell. And…maybe just because I choose to, not because it makes sense.”
Again, she blushed, then quickly cleared her throat and pressed on. “I do not need to be rescued, Herschel.”
“I know,” he said simply.
“Then why are you doing this?”
Schwartz heaved a sigh of his own. “I guess… I do want to help you, Jenell. Not to sweep you away or anything, I know you have your reasons. You wouldn’t be putting up with the Bishop otherwise. But… Look, I don’t know the details, but with what I do know, I can read between the lines. Syrinx was in Viridill as some kind of punishment for something, wasn’t she? Maybe what she did to Ami and Principia and the others, I guess the timing would be about right. Fixing that mess was how she earned her way back here. And I helped her do it. Whatever she does next…I have some responsibility there.” He raised his eyes back to hers, squaring his shoulders. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any delusions about being some kind of hero. Principia is a lot smarter and a lot better at this stuff than I. For that matter, so is Ami, and I get the feeling so are you. I’m just…helping. Because I need to. I owe…everyone…that much.”
She was quiet for a long moment, staring at the table, before lifting her head to meet his gaze. “All right. Okay. I…” Jenell paused to swallow heavily. “Ami’s smart, that’s true, and she’s a bard; I know a bit about what they teach them. Locke… Basra has files on her, things she pulled for some project of the Archpope’s some time ago and brought out again the first time Locke started causing her trouble. Honestly, Herschel, I’m not sure how you got mixed up with Principia Locke, but that woman just might be more dangerous than Basra.”
“She was a friend of my father’s,” he said. “And—”
“And she’s useful to know, and she has plenty of reason of her own to want Basra taken down,” Jenell said, nodding. “Just…be careful. You never know what’s going on between those pointy ears. You do know that Basra’s aware you’re after her?”
“Yes, that’s all according to plan,” he said quickly, another smile breaking across his face. “Principia said she put that out in front of Basra to make me seem harmless, so I can maneuver around without having to worry about being spotted. If I am, she’ll thinking nothing of it. Plus, if she does anything to me, for any reason, she’ll be called down for it by the High Commander. I do say it was all rather clever.”
“It is, at that,” Jenell mused. “Yes…I see how having Locke in could be a help. I’ve never been able to approach her, even when she offered. Basra doesn’t give me that much leeway, and Locke is close enough to the Sisterhood I felt it wasn’t worth the risk… All right, all this could work out. With the lot of us working together, perhaps we can bring her down. And between you and Ami, maybe I can actually coordinate with Locke…”
He nodded eagerly. “Yes, that’s what—”
“But.” Jenell’s gaze snapped back to his, and there was something purely ferocious behind her eyes. “I want it clearly understood, by all of you. I will be the one to finish this. When the time comes, she’s mine.” Her hands on the table clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms. “I’ve damn well earned that.”
Schwartz nodded. “I…um. Yes. I’ll back you up on that. And I’ll tell them.”
“Good.” She drew in a calming breath and let it out slowly, relaxing her hands. “All right…good. Now, more practically speaking, did you visit the magic shop I told you to in my note? I also sent some Eserites there who you’ll find it useful to know, but I guess it’s too much to hope they came by at the same time…”
“Oh, um, well, actually…” He grinned weakly. “I did meet them! Those are the Eserite friends I was telling you about. But, um…none of us made it to the shop.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“Well, there was a bit of a…an altercation, you might say. The Guild underboss for that district got involved, and that got us mixed up in Thieves’ Guild politics, and what with one thing and another… We, uh, never actually got to see the Finder’s Fee. And, um, all of us are effectively banned from Glass Alley now.”
Jenell clapped a hand over her eyes. “Those idiots!”
To no one’s particular surprise, having Layla along dramatically increased the amount of pleasantries and formalities involved in the whole process. Upon arriving at Glory’s townhouse, she had swept to the head of the group and insisted upon taking the lead conversationally as well, directing the Butler to announce them formally. Despite the general disinclination of Butlers to take direction from anyone but their contract holder, he seemed to approve of this. At any rate, he bestowed upon Layla a very subtle smile of approbation, mild enough not to be a departure from protocol but still clear—really, Butler training must be something else—and obliged her by announcing all six of them, by name, in the order in which they arrived.
Layla had made a point of introducing her brother by full name and title; he rolled his eyes and grimaced, but didn’t bother arguing.
The wide upper room of Glory’s house in which they were received was clearly the space in which she held her larger gatherings, and the lady of the house greeted them as gracefully as befit her position, perhaps picking up Layla’s cue. At any rate, there was no hint of mockery or condescension in her voice or bearing as she made an especial point of welcoming the Lady Layla. There followed what seemed like absolutely no end of small talk.
It was just such an honor for Layla to have the opportunity to call upon Miss Sharvineh, oh but not at all, it was she who was honored by an unexpected visit from such an esteemed young lady, and Layla simply must join one of Glory’s parties in a few years when she was old enough that this wouldn’t cause a scandal, and of course Layla would be simply delighted beyond words to oblige, and so on, and so forth. Moments became minutes, and the apprentices’ patience began to fray. Darius, perhaps prompted back into old habits by the sudden presence of his sister, managed to look bored and annoyed, yet too well-bred to reveal that he was bored and annoyed. Jasmine had fallen into a parade rest stance, then immediately shifted out of it and into a deliberately casual pose that just made her look more uncomfortable. Tallie, Ross, and Rasha were left to peer around at the rich furnishings and generally feel awkward.
“Please, everyone, come in,” Glory said smoothly, finally finding what she deemed a suitable segue from Layla’s effusive introductions. “I’ll not have guests standing around uncomfortably. Smythe, some tea, please. Will you say for lunch?”
Rasha cleared his throat suddenly, pushing himself forward past Tallie. “Uh, ma’am, I’m Rasha… I was the one in jail, that your lawyer got out. I just wanted to say thank you. Really, thank you. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me otherwise, or why you would help, but…I appreciate it. Very much.” He paused to swallow heavily. “I, uh, don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you back, but I won’t forget.”
“Now, wait just a moment, there,” Glory said with a warm smile. “Who said anything about paying?”
Rasha squared his shoulders and raised his chin. Even visibly haggard from lack of sleep, he found a spark of Punaji independence to fan alight. “I don’t like being in debt.”
“Now that is what I like to hear,” she said approvingly, smoothly tucking a hand behind Rasha’s arm and steering him toward an arrangement of sofas and chairs around a low table. With her other, she beckoned the rest of them to follow. “It’s a very Eserite mindset. You should also consider the nature of debts, though. If there were some form of agreement or contract in place, well, that would be another thing. In its absence, any good turn done for you is a favor, nothing more.” Smiling playfully, she tapped the tip of Rasha’s nose with a finger before nudging him into an overstuffed armchair. “Get used to abusing generosity, Rasha. Not so you can abuse it, exactly, but to prevent it being done to you. People will try to trap you into paying them debts you don’t owe them; leaving a fingerhold for that kind of ploy is very risky, for a thief.”
“I see,” he said slowly, frowning in thought.
“We all appreciate you helping out, Glory,” said Tallie. “So please don’t think I’m being ungrateful, because I’m not, at all. But I have to wonder why you would spend the money and effort on it.”
“That is also good,” Glory replied, nodding to her. “Question everything, and be especially wary of unearned generosity. To answer your question, there are multiple factors at play.” She settled down into a chair at the head of the little formation of furniture, languidly crossing her legs and draping her arms over the sides in a way that subtly emphasized her figure. “On a basic level, it’s expected that Guild members will look after apprentices up to a point. On a slightly less basic one, I’ve developed a friendship with our Jasmine, here, and thus I consider myself to have at least a slight interest in what befalls her friends.” She winked at Jasmine before continuing. “But what you want to know about is my ulterior motive. I do have friends in the Guild who keep me up-to-date on interesting events. That, of course, is how I learned of Rasha’s predicament—and how I’ve learned of other things that have befallen you recently. I’ll refrain from laying out all the sordid politics of the situation, but in brief: it seems that any favor I don’t do for you, Alan Vandro will. And I object, on principle, to him gaining footholds.”
Ross sighed heavily. “Man, these politics. I don’t even understand what these factions want.”
“Oh, I don’t have any objection to Webs’s political or religious philosophies,” Glory said sardonically. “Quite frankly, he has some excellent points. But the man, personally, is a sleazy, manipulative abuser. I don’t know why he is back in the city; he had allegedly retired to Onkawa some years ago to be Toss’s problem. Whyever he is here, so long as he’s in my city, he does not need to be gaining influence.”
“I don’t get that,” Ross said, still frowning. “He was nice to us. Even gave us those charms.”
“He wants something from us,” Tallie retorted. “This is not the first time we’ve heard to watch ourselves around that guy, either. I’d say that’s starting to sound like good advice.”
“Sure,” Ross agreed, “I’m not stupid. But we’ve got nothing but people’s word for anything. What’s he ever done that’s so terrible?”
“I’ve been pondering that too, since this morning,” Jasmine said slowly. “Bird Savaraad said he was a misogynist. Honestly, I’m probably more sensitive than most to that attitude in men, and I didn’t see it from him.”
“Apparently, his head henchman is even a woman,” Darius added.
“Vandro is nothing if not a professional,” Glory said, grimacing. “And not all misogynists are cut from the same cloth, Jasmine. A man can have the basic self-control to work with women, even speak respectfully to them, and still think of them as inherently lesser. It comes out in small ways, no matter how carefully he behaves—and sometimes, in not so small ones. I don’t know what sort of hold he has on Gimmick, but I would under no circumstances wish to be in her shoes.”
“Honestly,” Layla sniffed, giving Darius an accusing stare. “Have you deliberately sought out the worst possible people with whom to associate?”
“Yep,” he said dryly. “That’s exactly what I’ve done. Just to piss you off, Layla.”
“Kindly keep a civil tongue in your head,” she snapped. “Remember we are in good company and you represent our House!”
“I assure you,” Glory said with clear amusement, “my sensibilities are not so easily ruffled. Quite frankly, I’m finding you kids rather refreshing. It’s been…well, more years than I will admit since my own apprentice peccadilloes. Though I must say you’ve managed to attract more trouble and faster than almost any group of young people I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah,” Tallie sighed. “It’s a gift.”
“Webs, if anything, is the least of our worries,” said Jasmine. “We’ve apparently made an enemy of Ironeye…”
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” said Glory. “That may cost you, but so long as you stay out of Glass Alley, she is unlikely to trouble herself with you any further.”
“We’re a lot more concerned about dwarves right now,” Rasha muttered.
“Ah, yes,” Glory said seriously, then smiled at her Butler as he set down a tray on the table and began pouring tea. “Thank you, Smythe. It’s not only the Guild to which I pay attention; my primary activities do keep me in the know with regard to all manner of important issues concerning the Empire and the world as a whole. I am glad you all came to see me in person; there is something that I think you should know, and consider.” She accepted a cut of tea from Smythe, still gazing at them seriously. “When I contacted Bird and outlined the situation, she indicated that in her professional opinion, these dwarves pestering you are likely to be government-affiliated actors.”
“She said the same to us,” Darius said slowly.
“Well, surely that’s a good thing, is it not?” said Layla. “I mean, representatives from one of the Five Kingdoms will doubtless be more civilized in their behavior than any group of random layabouts.”
A tense silence fell.
“She’s kind of adorable,” Tallie said after a moment. “Annoying, sure. But in a cute puppy kind of way.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” Layla said haughtily.
“Government agents,” Glory said quietly, “are among the absolute worst people to have after you, Lady Layla. They are totally without scruple or restraint, and are backed by the greatest powers possible short of a major cult. If persons answering to one of the Five Kingdoms—and actually, it is only likely to be one of three—are pursuing you, then the only powers which will or can protect you if it comes to a contest of force are the Guild and the Empire. And therein lies the problem.”
“One of three?” Ross said. “I don’t get it.”
“Ah, well.” Glory’s face lightened and she leaned forward, speaking now in a tone animated by interest. “The Five Kingdoms really aren’t at all monolithic. Of them, three would certainly take an interest in those very curious weapons the Silver Legions confiscated from you, but two have not suffered all that badly from the Narisian Treaty and its aftermath, and would be more inclined to stay the course and not provoke the Empire. The more depressed states have little to lose and a desperate need to reposition themselves, but matters in Rodvenheim and Isilond are far more stable. Isilond produces crafted goods far more than raw minerals, and with the shake-up in the metals market they have, if anything, prospered. The few native Isil mining operations were bankrupted, but they are now able to buy their raw materials at quite a discount. And Rodvenheim has always been the most magically-inclined of the Kingdoms; their trade with the Empire has continued unabated, minerals not having been as much a part of their economy. Additionally, Rodvenheim is positioned very close to Puna Dara, and as per the Empire’s treaty with the Punaji, no Imperial tariffs can be imposed on trade crossing overland from Puna Dara to Rodvenheim and vice versa. They are the only dwarven state on the continent heavily involved in maritime trade, which has also bolstered their economy.”
“This is all quite fascinating,” Rasha said wearily, “but I think we’re wandering off the point…”
“All things are interconnected,” Glory replied, giving him a look of amusement. “The high and the low. The fact is, you kids are very immediately and personally affected by these issues of global economics, and had better start paying attention. Specifically, the Empire is in the middle of trade negotiations right now with representatives from Svenheim and Ostrund, both of whom are attempting to draw Stavulheim into the deal.”
“Trade negotiations?” Darius straightened slightly in his seat. “What do they have that we want?”
“Metal,” said Glory, “the same as they have always have. Part of it is an attempt to repair relations between the Kingdoms and the Empire. They are not militarily a match for Tiraas by any means, but there are innumerable reasons it is better for nations to be on good terms with those bordering them. Also, one effect of the Narisian Treaty is that the Imperial economy is heavily dependent upon Tar’naris. I’ve heard whispers that relations with the drow are cooling—faint enough that I don’t place any stock in them, but it may be beside the point. It is simply wiser policy to diversify one’s options. The Silver Throne is looking to begin importing sizable quantities of metal from the dwarves again, both to put directly into the economy and to stockpile against some future trouble. The Empire is very prosperous right now, which makes it a good time to invest and hoard non-perishable resources.”
“Oh,” said Darius, wide-eyed. “Oh, shit.”
“Darius, really,” Layla exclaimed.
“Uh…” Tallie glanced at Darius, then at Glory, and then at Jasmine, who also looked alarmed. “Okay, I’m still lost. What’s all this got to do with us?”
“If the Empire feels a need to placate the dwarves,” Jasmine said quietly, “and the dwarves after us are representatives of their governments… The Empire is not going to side with a handful of scruffy would-be thieves if all this escalates into an incident.”
“Exactly,” Glory said, nodding. “What’s worse, they may very well side against you, should anything which befalls become public enough to force an official response. In fact, things being as they are, I would advise you to prevent, if you can, matters from coming to that point. If the Empire begins to actively consider you a nuisance that needs to be silenced…”
“Whoah, now, hang on,” Tallie protested. “We’re Guild. Just apprentices, but still! The Guild exists to fight unjust power. If they tried something like that…”
“Then,” Glory said grimly, “Boss Tricks would remember, and see to it that the specific parties eventually suffered for it. Whether he would be able to protect you is another matter. The Guild has not thrived for thousands of years by charging blades out at every power which showed a hint of corruption, Tallie. And specifically, the last time the Guild openly assaulted Imperial interests was during the Enchanter Wars, when we acted in concert with an overt military action by the Sisters of Avei and a widespread propaganda campaign by the Veskers. And that was when the Empire itself was already reeling and more than half broken. Now? Tricks would have to be very careful indeed. The Empire would not risk moving in force against the Guild, there are too many other factors at play. A lot of those factors would be silenced, however, if the Guild seemingly struck first and Imperial Intelligence bloodied its nose in response. And trust me, if the instigating issue was an apparently unrelated squabble between dwarves and you, it would seem that the Guild struck first.”
“What you’re saying,” Rasha said in a tone of soul-deep exhaustion, “is that we’re on our own with this.”
“That is probably taking things a little too far.” The look Glory gave him was nearly as concerned as Tallie’s. “This is a situation, not a doom. There are still avenues to exploit. I just want you to understand all the facts before you act. It’s your best chance to avoid a blunder you can’t afford.”
“Well, we’re doing what we can,” said Jasmine. “As I mentioned, we know the name of one of those dwarves now. It’s probably a fake name, but our witch friend Schwartz may still be able to track it back to something.”
“Yeah,” said Tallie, grinning aggressively. “And ol’ Rogrind did not like hearing that.”
Glory abruptly straightened in her seat, setting aside her teacup. “You said this in front of this Rogrind?”
“Not deliberately,” Jasmine replied. “He came up behind us during it, though.”
“And this Schwartz. Did you mention him by name?”
Jasmine paled. “I…yes, I did.”
“Ohhhh, crap,” Tallie whispered.
“I think,” Glory agreed grimly, “you had better find your friend Schwartz. Quickly.”