“Oh, you asshole,” Sweet murmured, grinning down at the spectacle below. “Look, he’s looping ’em back now.”
“Before you go giving anybody too much credit,” said Fauna, “he could just be lost.”
“He of all people knows how not to get lost in Tiraas,” Sweet disagreed, proceeding along the edge of the rooftop at a pace which matched the slow amble of Danny and his increasingly twitchy entourage. “Especially since they’re supposed to be heading toward the Palace. Just go uphill. Nope, he’s deliberately leading them in circles, after picking the most switchbacking route through alleys he could find so they don’t immediately notice.”
“I’m a little surprised somebody who lives in the Palace would even know how to do that,” said Flora.
“I was just getting started late in Theasia’s reign, but even then there were persistent rumors about how Sharidan liked to sneak out of the Palace and have little adventures. I dunno what a crown prince would have wanted in a neighborhood like this, but I also wouldn’t assume he doesn’t know his way around the city.”
“That’s actually kind of a good thing, isn’t it?” Fauna mused.
“Yeah,” Flora agreed, nodding. “Better to have a ruler who’s at least been in touch with the people.”
“Course, based on that one’s rep, could’ve just been a lot of being in touch with the pretty people’s butts in bars.”
“Doubtful,” said Sweet. “He likes his women, but he likes them eagerly willing. I’ve never once heard a suggestion the Emperor has so much as pinched a chambermaid. But back to the matter at hand, I still don’t understand what I’m seeing here. Why’s he want to ramble around the city with nobody but those clowns to watch his back? Sharidan is less cautious than either Eleanora or Vex, but this is just bull-goose reckless, and that doesn’t fit his pattern at all…”
All three lifted their heads at the hoarse cawing of a crow. They listened till the pattern completed itself, then Sweet nodded once, and Flora mimicked a starling call in reply.
“Why crows for this job?” Fauna muttered. “Every damn time, I half think it’s gonna be her until the whole code is complete…”
“She wouldn’t announce herself,” Flora said, grinning.
“Because crows are easy to mimic,” Sweet replied, again watching the foursome they were tracking below, “because I let Duster set the ground rules since she’s in charge on the ground this time and she can do a crow, and because apprentices who aren’t given something to bitch and whine about get bored and do stupid things. Everybody wins.”
“You’re a jerk,” Fauna said affectionately, patting him on the back.
A shape swung nimbly up the nearby edge of the roof, moving more like a circus acrobat than someone who should be concentrating on their stealth.
“What’s the word, Bounce?” Sweet asked.
Despite his characteristically ebullient way of moving, the lanky man wore a frown. “The word is trouble, Sweet. Duster’s pulled Rake, Chesty and Grimoire back to keep an eye; we got a big group of Black Wreath forming up.”
Sweet straightened up fully, frowning at him. “Excuse me, a who?”
“So far, least twenty,” Bounce said. “Clearly staging for something. People in those gray robes, being shadow-jumped into an empty apartment one at a time. Your guy an’ his pals are gonna pass not too far from ’em, at this rate.”
“Bullshit,” Sweet said bluntly. “The Wreath has nothing to gain and way too much to lose.”
“Hey, did I say I’d personally analyzed the situation?” Bounce asked irritably. “I see robes, I see shadow-jumping, Duster tells me go warn Sweet the Wreath’s here, my job is done. She figured you’d wanna get a look before they do…whatever.”
“Damn right,” Sweet said, now frowning deeply. “Girls…stay on our target. And remember.” He leveled a stern finger at them. “Whatever else is going on here, eyes are on us, including probably those of Imperial Intelligence. Best. Behavior.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” they chorused, snapping to attention and saluting.
Sweet shook his head. “All right, lead on, Bounce. Double-time.”
“You’re spending too much time at that Church, man,” Bounce complained even as he vaulted over the ledge onto a balcony below. “Starting to talk like an Avenist…”
“Being shadow-jumped, he said,” Flora murmured. “Don’t all the Wreath know shadow-jumping?”
“Remember, most of the Wreath is just dilettantes, they only recruit trusted people for actual missions.”
“You know what I meant.”
“Yeah…they wouldn’t need to be shadow-jumped anywhere, and shadow-jumping means they don’t have to group up before staging an attack.”
“And, of course, any bunch of assholes can put on gray robes. You remember—oh ho, what have we here?”
They both leaped across the next alley, then crouched by the edge of the roof, peering over at the scene below.
“What timing,” Fauna muttered. “Sweet had to take off right before someone he’d definitely wanna see happens along…”
“Why, hello! Fancy meeting you here!”
“Danny,” the youth replied, returning his wave with a quizzical frown. “Fancy meeting you out. Something happened?”
“Ah, yeah, you might say that,” Danny said ruefully. “I’m moving to new accommodations.”
“Are Lakshmi and Sanjay all right?”
“Yes. Safe, unharmed, and…rather annoyed, I’m afraid. It was my fault, and for now, I’ll have to leave it at that; we can have the whole sorry story later. Ah, but forgive me! Joe, this is Andrew, Thomas, and Jacob. Guys, this is Joe.”
“Pleasure,” Moriarty said curtly.
“Did we tell him our first names?” Rook asked, nudging Finchley with an elbow.
“Wait, your name’s Andrew?”
“Is…everything all right?” Joe asked warily.
“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” Moriarty said stiffly. “Your—My—Mr—”
“Danny,” Rook prompted.
Moriarty gritted his teeth. “Is this boy trustworthy?”
Danny gave him an amused look. “More than most people. This is quite fortuitous, though, Joe; I imagine I can guess what would bring you to this neighborhood, but this particular back alley?”
“Wait, back alley?” Finchley demanded. “You said this was a street to—oh, for crap’s sake, you’re leading us in circles, aren’t you.”
“Behave yourself!” Moriarty hissed, turning to glare at him. “A little respect!”
“Yeah, that much ain’t a coincidence,” Joe replied, still wearing a pensive frown. “It’s barely dark an’ the neighborhood is quiet. That’s far enough from normal to make me feel suddenly curious. I was headin’ to drop in on the Sanjakars before they turned in, but instead I’ve been wanderin’ around, havin’ myself a listen.”
“Hear anything good?” Rook asked sardonically.
“Mostly just quiet,” Joe said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t figure. You wouldn’t know anything about this, Danny?”
“Anything about what?” Moriarty demanded in exasperation. “Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean…anything. Does it?”
“Did you notice anything in particular, Joe?” Danny asked, all jocularity gone from his tone now. “I realize you’re an exceptionally gifted young man…”
“I don’t hear like an elf, if that’s what you’re askin’,” Joe said with a wry half-smile. “An’ the movements of groups of people ain’t exactly my strong suit—just the opposite, you might say. But I’ve gotten used to this city enough to notice when there’s not the same activity there oughtta be. So, that’s my answer, an’ I note I’m still waitin’ on yours.”
“He doesn’t have to tell you anything,” Moriarty snapped, stepping in front of Danny.
He was immediately pushed aside—gently, but insistently, but a hand on the shoulder. “Jacob, please,” Danny said calmly, “Joe is a friend. And he’s right; this is an odd situation. Anybody would be curious.”
“More pertinently,” Joe said, “I remember you bein’ on the run from somethin’. Now, it occurs to me that one thing that could quiet a neighborhood is word goin’ around that folk would be better off goin’ inside. Places like this, I know the Thieves’ Guild can clear the streets pretty quick, for example.”
“We should be so lucky,” Danny muttered. “The Guild has no quarrel with… Ah, forgive me, Joe, I’m not trying to put you off. No, I don’t know what’s happening, but…it’s not impossible that it has to do with me.”
“That being the case,” Finchley gritted, “perhaps we should resume moving toward Imperial Square? Without detours this time, perhaps.”
“Mind if I tag along?” Joe asked with deceptive mildness.
“Actually, that would be fantastic, if you don’t mind,” Danny said smoothly. “Andrew’s right—if this is about me, best I remove myself from a residential area where others might be caught up in it. And if not, it’s none of our business and we don’t need to be caught up in it.”
“Good idea,” Rook grunted, gently nudging him from behind. “Forward march, if you please, sir.”
“I’m thinkin’ this might be a good time to break the traditional urban reserve,” Joe said, falling into step beside them as they proceeded up the alley toward the street ahead. “I ain’t troubled any o’ the few people I’ve passed, but next one, I reckon I’ll stop an’ ask what’s up.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Moriarty grumbled.
“It’s not a bad one, Joe,” Danny said. “Trust your instincts.”
“I trust my skills an’ my brain,” Joe replied. “Instinct’ll get you killed.”
“Some nice wands you got there,” Finchley said rather skeptically. “Can you use ’em?”
Joe grinned at him. “I get by.”
They emerged into the street proper, and paused. It wasn’t merely quiet; it was almost deserted. As Joe had said, that was eerily abnormal for a city the size of Tiraas, at this hour. They were now standing on one of the curving avenues which orbited the city’s heart; in the distance in both directions there was the sound of traffic from one of the larger radial streets between Imperial Square and the outer walls, but the arc of this street hid that from view. Nearby, though, it was virtually silent. Doors were closed, windows shuttered, and the only person out was a well-dressed woman gliding up the sidewalk toward them.
“Ma’am,” Moriarty said politely, even as he shifted his grip on his staff.
They made a most peculiar group: three men in nondescript clothes, carrying weapons; one man in a cheap suit; one armed teenager in a clearly expensive suit. If she found any of this odd, however, she made no sign, merely giving Moriarty a polite little smile in reply.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” Her bearing and inflection matched her expensive dress and fox-trimmed coat, marking her a woman of wealth, if not aristocracy.
Joe subtly moved one hand near a wand. “Pardon me, miss, but would you happen to know if anything…unusual is goin’ on in this neighborhood?”
At that, she paused, arching one eyebrow superciliously. “Young man, do I look as if I reside in a place like this?”
“With the greatest respect, ma’am, you do not,” he replied, in a carefully polite tone. “As such, it’s a mite peculiar to see a lady of your obvious quality alone, in a place like this, at this hour.”
She glanced quickly at each of them in turn. “Oh, dear. Are you planning to mug or assault me?”
“Of course not!” Moriarty exclaimed.
“Now look, Joe, you went and scared her,” Rook said reproachfully. “Shame on you.”
The woman’s eyes fixed on Danny’s; he regarded her right back, face impassive. Despite her question, she seemed perfectly at ease, and in fact, now smiled coquettishly.
“Boys,” Joe said quietly, “circle up. This ain’t right.”
“Correct as usual, Joseph,” she said, stepping forward again. “In your analysis, not your plan. Keep moving, boys, we need to be out of here.”
“Okay, whoah,” said Rook, frowning and tightening his own grip on his staff. “Just who are you? Friend or foe?”
“Dicey question,” she said with a smile. “Enemy, temporarily on your side. You are about to be attacked; keep in a group around…” Her eyes flicked up and down Danny’s form, and her smile stretched into an outright grin. “…your friend, here. And seriously, keep moving. There’s going to be a big mess; our best bet is to get to a busier street where there’s law enforcement.”
“Who are you?” Joe demanded, drawing a wand.
“If I told you, you’d just shoot me,” she said in exasperation. “And seriously, move! Are you all—”
She broke off, whirling at the sound of running feet. A figure in a gray robe had burst out of a nearby shop door and now dashed toward them, brandishing a knife.
Moriarty and Finchley both fired their staves, mostly by reflex, managing to destroy a street lamp and seriously damage a parked carriage with lightning bolts. The robed figure made it another three yards closer before Joe put a clean beam of light through his head.
“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” the woman said, deadpan. “Electricity arcs toward conductive bodies. How the hell did you miss at that range?”
“Lamp posts are metal,” Moriarty said sullenly.
“Aw, shit—move!” Rook barked, now rudely shoving Danny back into the alley. More people in ash-gray robes suddenly began streaming out of the open door, all charging right toward them and brandishing a collection of knives and clubs. Aside from the pounding of their feet, they moved in eerie silence.
“Not in there!” the woman shouted fruitlessly. “Go toward the—oh, for hell’s sake!”
She followed Rook, rudely shoving past Finchley and Moriarty, who had turned to fire at the oncoming mob. They managed to hit the crowd, at least, but aside from tripping over the bodies, none of their attackers seemed fazed by the fact they were charging into a barrage of electric death. Joe backed up after the woman, leveling much more careful shots.
It was over with shocking suddenness; where there had been a charging mob, there was abruptly just a street littered with smoking corpses. At least a score of them, the nearest of which had almost reached the alley.
“What the fuck,” Finchley demanded in a tremulous voice. “The Black Wreath?”
“This is not the Wreath,” the woman said firmly. “The Wreath is competent and quiet. They make convenient villains, though; lots of people like to frame them, especially since it’s as easy as throwing on a cheap robe before committing crimes. I don’t know who these clowns are, but they’re hopped up on some kind of berserker drug, if the one I knifed earlier is any indication. Look, boys, that light show will draw official attention fast, which means whoever planned this has got something bigger to play. I don’t know who can pull an army out of their butt like this, in Tiraas no less, but they wouldn’t do so just to waste it. We’ve gotta get your boy into the arms of Imperial protection now.”
“Or,” said Rook, still with a protective hand on Danny’s shoulder, “we sit tight and wait for that Imperial protection to show.”
“Use your head,” she snapped. “Our enemy knows the situation just as well. We were herded in here. This is where the real blow will fall, and it will fall quickly before the soldiers arrive, so will you fucking move already?!”
“She’s right,” Joe said tersely, “we gotta get movin’, back up the street toward Imperial Square. And while we are movin’, you can explain just who the hell you are, an’ how you know me.”
“Oh, we’ve heard a lot about one another’s exploits,” she said with a broad grin, and winked at him. “Now come along, boys, before—”
“Too late,” said Finchley, backing up into the alley.
“More,” Moriarty reported, following suit. “…lots more. Oh, hell. The whole street—”
“Gods fucking damn it,” the well-dressed lady hissed incongruously. “And we continue to be herded! This is what I get for working with groups. Well, go if you’re going! Too risky to fight our way out through a crowd, head back the other way.”
Joe pushed ahead of them, leading the way back up the alley, which kinked and curved in several places to accommodate the neighborhood’s idiosyncratic architecture. Rook stayed behind him, with the other two men and their new companion bringing up the rear.
“Somebody had better start explaining to me just what the hell is going on,” Rook growled as they scampered back toward the next nearby street.
“I have to say, this is not what I expected,” Danny remarked. “Your pardon, madam, but I don’t believe we caught your name?”
“She said Joe would shoot her if she told it,” said Finchley. “I take it you two have met?”
“Oh, not in person,” she said with a throaty little chuckle. “We’re aware of each other, though. Mutual friends. You know how it is.”
“Sadly, that doesn’t narrow it down much,” Joe grumbled. “I can’t think of anybody I’d wanna shoot on sight, ‘cept—”
Suddenly, he skidded to a halt, whirling, and leveled a wand at her face.
“Whoah!” Rook exclaimed. “Being chased, here, I don’t think we have time for this!”
“Aw, he guessed it. Truce,” she said, raising her hands. “All right?”
“Your word ain’t worth a thing,” Joe said coldly.
“That, bucko, is for damn sure,” she said with a smirk. “However, I am here on business, not pleasure. Today’s business is to get your buddy there back safely home.”
“Are you alone?” he demanded.
“Course not, you think the big boss would send me out unsupervised? My team’s nearby, trying to contain this. The Thieves’ Guild outsmarted themselves, as usual; clearing people away from the streets kept most of the resident rabble safe, but it’s also cut way down on official response time. Gods only know how long it’ll take somebody to run for the Imps, because the Eserites sure as hell aren’t going to.”
“The Guild is here?” Danny asked.
“Uh, someone is coming up this alley,” Finchley said nervously.
“I’ve got my boys fully occupied trying to prevent us from being flanked,” she continued. “Shoot me, and at least one of them is going to assume the truce is dropped. So, if you don’t actually care about your friend here getting home alive and don’t mind the thought of Jack and Jerry springing out at you from the shadows, I guess, knock yourself out, kid.”
Joe’s eyes cut momentarily to Danny. “If we get outta this alive, I’m gonna insist on findin’ out why you’re so damn important, Danny.”
“Oh, that is just priceless,” she breathed. “You don’t know? If this whole thing wasn’t just a complete clusterfuck I’d be loving the hell out of this…”
“Why are we not moving?” Finchley demanded.
“Fair point,” Joe snapped. “New formation, though. She goes in front, an’ the second I give the word, or you think it’s appropriate, or you get so much as a hunch, blast her.”
“A gal could take this personally,” the lady said with clear amusement.
“I don’t overmuch care how you take it,” Joe replied flatly, keeping his wand trained on her. “Move, please, an’ no funny stuff, Kheshiri.”