Tag Archives: Amanika

5 – 28

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“Sir,” Wilberforce murmured, leaning close to Vandro’s ear. He already had his employer’s undivided attention, having arrived far more quickly than his usual efficient but decorous pace. Unusual behavior from Wilberforce was a cardinal sign that something had gone wrong. “We have visitors from the Thieves’ Guild in significant numbers. I have taken the liberty of activating the golems; if you move now, you may be in time to greet them at the gates.”

Vandro nodded, turning back to his erstwhile conversation partner with a rueful smile. “Terribly sorry, m’lord, but it seems I have to go put out a fire. The perils of hosting, you know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the aristocrat replied with a lofted eyebrow, looking somewhat bemused. It always came as a surprise to his type that lowly commoners found something more important than themselves on which to focus.

Thanks to Wilberforce’s warning, Vandro made it to the broad, well-lit pathway between the gates and the house that formed the party’s center of mass just before the Guild made their entrance. He wasn’t quite in time to pose front and center and be waiting languidly for their arrival, but it would have to do. Pacing and presentation mattered in these affairs.

Six entered first, fanning out to either side of the path in a reverse arrowhead formation. Though swift and coordinated, no one would have mistaken the ragged bunch for soldiers; they wore clothing in dark colors and advanced states of scruffiness, ostentatiously displayed clubs and knives, and menacing expressions. The guests drew back from them, conversation disintegrating into nervous whispered all over the gardens, followed by chilly silence as the thieves took up positions, apparently if not actually controlling the estate’s entrance.

Of course, all that was for show, as well. Most of these people dressed comfortably and casually when at their real work, and quite a few slept on silk. A good thief was someone who did not stand out in a crowd; they usually had to go out of their way to properly menace the normals, including dramatic changes in costume and demeanor.

Vandro narrowed his eyes slightly at the next wave to enter, but carefully held his neutral posture. Four more Guildmembers came forward, pushing a pair of bound prisoners before them. They stopped a few yards into the estate, ignoring the gasps of the onlookers, and forced the captives to their knees. Jeremiah Shook merely looked furious, if somewhat rumpled; Amanika had clearly been worked over. Her clothes were torn and stained with both dirt and blood, one of her eyes was swollen shut and a dried trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth still decorated her chin. She slumped to the ground, head lolling.

Finally, another pair entered with the last three armed thieves behind them. The well-dressed man, a dark-featured Onkawa local, was slim, tall and stately, wearing an intolerably self-satisfied smirk. On his arm, looking stupefied and as tense as a plucked guitar string, was Saduko.

“Forgive the overly dramatic entrance, Webs,” he said airily. “It seems someone forgot to deliver my invitation.”

“Why, that’d have been me, Toss,” Vandro replied easily. “I confess I plumb forgot to want you at my party. Things start to slip the mind, when you get to my age.”

Toss, the leader of the local Guild’s chapter, grinned at the frisson of nervous conversation that swept through Vandro’s crowd of well-heeled guests at the sound of his tag. He was known in the city.

“Ah, but how could I let this occasion pass unremarked? I confess I’ve had cause to be worried about your loyalties of late, but our dear Gimmick, here, has put my mind to rest.” He patted Saduko’s hand where it lay on his arm; she flinched. “And to think we thought she was spying on you. Instead, you have oh-so-deftly rooted out the subversive elements within our local chapter and delivered them into our hands. Along with the fugitive Thumper! Truly, this is a great night for the followers of Eserion, and we owe all this success to you, Webs. Bravo,” he said, drawing out the last word in a silky drawl.

Vandro studied Saduko idly, his mind whirling. Her, Guild? Possibly. He’d checked out her credentials, but those were so very fakeable, especially coming from overseas as they did. He had also studied how she thought and acted while his guest, and found her generally self-contained and a skilled walking poker face as long as she had time to prepare, but easy to rattle and throw off her game. Right now she looked good and rattled, and clinging to her equilibrium by a ragged fingernail.

That was one plot uncovered, then; Saduko had been sent to observe and possibly interfere with his and Amanika’s undercutting of the Guild, but she was either a far more advanced player than he believed, or her own scheme had come unraveled. There was no reason to assume the former when he knew the latter could be explained by yet another actor whose full play had yet to be revealed.

Kheshiri. What could she hope to gain by all this?

“Son of a bitch,” Shook spat, his voice soft. Vandro gave him a warning look, and was met with a venomous glare. He suppressed a sigh. Jerry was a good kid, when he used his head, but that damn temper of his reliably made him stop using it, exactly when he needed it most.

“Seems you’ve been a little rough with our friends, there,” Vandro said mildly. “I mean, if you’re gonna work someone over, sure. Dragging valuable prisoners all over the city, though, letting one apparently bleed herself half to death? Truly, the complexity of your plots is over my head.”

Amanika lifted her face a fraction, and the look she gave Vandro was fleeting, but icily calculating. Not so dazed and beleaguered as she appeared, then, and apparently not taking this turn of events at face value. Good girl; if only she’d been a trifle less homely he’d have looked for reasons to have her around more often.

“I think the time has come for a clearing of the air,” Toss proclaimed, smiling with immense self-satisfaction. “There has been too much suspicion and discord, do you not think so? Let all of Onkawa see that the Thieves’ Guild stands united. Let them see what befalls those who seek to undermine Eserion’s people.”

Vandro shrugged and took a sip of his cocktail. “Your funeral.”

Toss’s smile did not diminish in the slightest. “Why, Webs, I could very nearly take that as a threat. And on the heels of your very valuable assistance to your Guild, too! Surely you cannot have meant that the way it sounded.”

He made a swift motion with his free hand and the six thieves forming his advance guard began moving slowly forward, their gazes coldly intent upon Vandro.

Then Wilberforce glided forth out of the crowd to stand at Vandro’s shoulder. The enforcers instantly halted in their tracks, staring at the Butler. Two glanced uncertainly back at Toss; the rest were studying Wilberforce, clearly mentally calculating whether they could take him on.

They couldn’t, which was beside the point as far as Vandro was concerned. He couldn’t afford to let this come to blows. To say nothing of the risk to his guests, it was blindingly obvious that Toss wanted a confrontation. Whether or not he believed that Vandro was behind the ensnaring of Shook and Amanika (he hadn’t got that from Saduko; why would Kheshiri promote that particular notion?), he knew a rival when he saw one. If Vandro fought the Guild openly, whether he won or lost the battle would be irrelevant in the long run.

“This is why I don’t invite you to parties, Toss,” he said genially. “Nor do I intend to stand here all night bantering with you. Honestly, I don’t give you a thought when you’re not right in front of my face. No point, really; you’re not gonna be in charge long.”

Toss’s smile became a hungry grin. “Oh, I think you’ve grown a little too flushed with your recent success, Alan Vandro. You challenge me openly? In front of all these—”

He tried gamely to keep on talking, but the sheer volume of Vandro’s booming laugh made it pointless. Vandro had practiced that laugh, honed it for that very effect.

“Challenge you?” he chortled, wiping at his eyes. “You silly, sad little man. If I were to challenge you, in the best case scenario I’d end up having to do your tedious job. Nah, what could I possibly gain by going to the trouble? I mean, look around you. Look at this!” He indicated them all, the enforcers, the prisoners, with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. “This very public display of force, this airing of Guild laundry in the faces of all the finest folk in the city? This just isn’t how we do business, Toss, and it’s inconceivable to me that a chapter house head hasn’t figured that out at by this stage in his career.”

“Don’t you point at my—”

“And that’s another thing,” Vandro went on merrily. “This here thing you’re doing, this attempt to use social pressure to force me to either confront you or bend knee? Well, Toss, this is just plain clumsy. I almost hate to tell you, my boy, but you suck at this game. Challenge you? Please. Tell you what I’m gonna do. Since I’m retired and all, I’m gonna sit here in my villa, enjoying the ill-gotten fruit of my lifetime of labor, throwing ridiculous parties and hobnobbing with all my fancy friends, and generally ignore you. I don’t have to challenge you, y’moron. Hell, I don’t think I could save you if my own life depended on it. It’s a damn miracle you’ve lasted this long.”

Toss’s grin had become a decidedly less controlled baring of his teeth; his grip on Saduko’s arm was clearly hard enough to bruise, now, though, she bore it without complaint. “You are one more careless word from—”

“All systems are corrupt,” Vandro said, projecting from the diaphragm and completely overwhelming Toss’s growling delivery. Tragic, how few thieves studied public speaking; it was a priceless skill in their line of work. “We all know the catechism, Toss. You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to prove it.”

The enforcers were all watching Toss, now, their expressions a lot more thoughtful. Vandro knew most of them personally, knew there was nothing personal against him in their presence here, merely the execution of what they saw as their duty. A duty he’d just called into question by turning Toss’s attempted trap around on him.

He glanced at the prisoners; Amanika was smiling, keeping her face angled downward to mostly hide it. Shook still glared at Vandro, his expression a mask of betrayal. Hopefully he could calm the boy down long enough to explain…

In that moment, he understood Kheshiri’s plan. All this had been arranged, his plans subverted, Saduko’s deception turned against her, Toss’s ambition and cruelty manipulated, to create this scene, where Vandro was accused of betraying Shook, and couldn’t afford to deny it. Amanika could read between the lines well enough, but Shook and Toss were thugs who’d made good through hard work and judicious brutality. Shook had heard Vandro tacitly admit having set him up for a fall and the reward, and wouldn’t look beyond that. Unless he could separate Shook from Toss’s custody now, the boy’s trust in him would be completely severed. Leaving him alone in the world with the Guild and the law after him, no one he could trust…except his demon.

He also realized that his understanding had come a moment too late. Because that was the moment, and he was totally unprepared to take advantage of it.

Vandro opened his mouth to press his case, to begin working around to a demand that Shook and Amanika be released to his custody, knowing he wasn’t going to have enough time.

Sure enough, the winged form melted out of nothing right behind Toss, reached around with a large knife and slashed Saduko across the throat.

The screams and panic that followed broke what remaining order there was among the Guild enforcers. Toss stared at the woman now dangling limply from his arm, convulsing as she helplessly pressed a hand to her neck, completely failing to stifle the gushing of her blood. The three enforcers at the rear rushed forward, their swings missing the demon as she went aloft with one powerful beat of her wings. One of them actually struck Toss, sending him and Saduko crashing to the ground.

Kheshiri descended on the two men holding Shook, stomping directly on the head of one and launching herself off again, swooping about them as all four guards abandoned their charges to swipe at her. Released, Amanika turned and struggled frantically over to Saduko as best she could with her arms bound behind her, already glowing with healing light.

In the confusion, the succubus slashed through Shook’s bindings; he rolled forward, coming nimbly to his feet, and bared his teeth in a snarl at Vandro, reaching into his coat. Did he still somehow have his wands? Toss, that damned idiot…

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro began.

“Save it!” Shook spat, bringing out his weapons. He glanced at Wilberforce and very deliberately did not point them at Vandro.

“Protocol: activate!” Vandro’s voice boomed across the garden, considerably louder than a human throat could actually have spoken. Unsurprising, as it came from Kheshiri, who was now perched atop a palm tree. “Execute program: great escape!”

They unfolded on all sides: benches, wastebins, pieces of decorative statuary, picnic tables. The various heavy stone accents decorating Vandro’s garden slid apart in pieces, revealing their interior metal frames and the blue glow of the arcane magic that made the golems run. Re-sorting themselves swiftly into more or less humanoid shapes, they took form and stepped forward, raising the wands that had been concealed within them.

Vandro sighed. His own security commands prevented them from revealing those weapons except in a case of utmost emergency. Outfitting golems with wands was extremely illegal; this was gonna cost him a fortune in bribes.

“Now, when did you find time to do that?” he asked, a note of admiration in his tone.

Kheshiri smirked down at him. “I suggest you all listen carefully,” she said, still boomingly loud, but in her own voice. Silence fell at her command, the guests and Guild enforcers staring up at her in horror. In that tense moment, the only sounds were the canned music still playing throughout the garden and Amanika’s furiously whispered prayers as she attempted to heal Saduko without the use of her hands. “The program these golems are acting on means they’ll destroy anyone who attempts to interfere with my master or myself as we make our departure. It also locks you out from issuing further commands, Alan, so don’t bother.”

“Simple, but effective,” he said, nodding. “As a professional courtesy, I hope you’ll leave me the counter-code to discover after you’re safely away.”

“Oh, there’s no counter-code,” she said sweetly. “You’ll have to shut them down the hard way. Whatever that may be.”

“Those were expensive, Shiri.”

“You can get more golems, Alan. I only have one master.”

Vandro sighed, turning his gaze to Shook. “Jerry, my boy, think this over carefully. You are being played, here.”

“How stupid do you think I am, Alan?” he snarled, convulsively raising his wands.

Wilberforce tried to step in front of Vandro; Vandro gently pushed him aside. “Watch it, boy,” he said firmly. “Right now, that question has an answer.”

“Master, run,” Kheshiri urged. “I’ll stay here and make sure nobody tries anything.”

“Just think on it, first chance you get,” Vandro said firmly, his eyes boring into Shooks, willing him to understand. Damn it, boy, think!

Shook stared back at him, and beneath the raw fury in his expression, Vandro saw the hurt. Hurt, he knew, was at the bottom of all rage. This was going to damage the boy, maybe beyond what could be fixed.

“Go, master. Please.”

Shook steeled himself, directing his eyes upward at his thrall. “Right. I’ll meet you at—”

“Don’t say it! Don’t give them any clues. Just go, be safe, hide. I can find you anywhere.”

Shook turned without another word, and set off for the gates at a run. In seconds he was out of view around the corner.

“Now then,” Kheshiri purred, turning back to grin down at Vandro. “Since we’ll be together for a while, I see no reason for the party to end here. How about you give us a little jig, Vandro.”

“You can’t be serious,” he said dryly.

“Can’t I?” She grinned with near maniacal glee. “I own your golems, Alan. I can demolish these Guild lackeys and your own security with a word. That means I own you. So…dance for me. Now.”

“You played a good game, Shiri,” Vandro said. “I respect skill. If you’d been willing to be professional, I’d have let you leave here safely. You need to learn when to quit, girl. Wilberforce, power up.”

None of the onlookers could see Wilberforce apply his thumb to the master control rune in his pocket. They only saw the entire estate explode.

Only the magical appliances therein, of course, but in a fully tricked-out modern rich man’s home like Alan Vandro’s estate, that might as well have been the whole thing. Every reserve power crystal in storage spontaneously poured its full load of energy into all the active devices; suddenly channeling several orders of magnitude more power than they were designed to contain, every apparatus on the grounds that used arcane energy burst apart in a series of booms and flashes. The whole house was lit up, windows blazing as if lightning had struck within; the gardens hosted a ferocious shower of sparks and explosions as light fixtures, music boxes, food fresheners and security golems disintegrated, flinging sparks and fragments in all directions.

The screams trailed off a few seconds after the explosions, leaving behind shocked quiet. It was darker, but not totally dark; the levitating party lights operated under their own power, and cast shifting, eerie patches of colored illumination in the absence of the estate’s main lighting. The smell of smoke and ozone hung heavily over everything. Small fires flickered in dozens of places.

The golems slumped, inert and smoking, emitting small sparks and most missing pieces.

“What say we play a different game?” Vandro suggested cheerfully. He lifted high his cocktail glass in Kheshiri’s direction as if toasting her. “Friends and neighbors, servants and gatecrashers, fellow acolytes of Eserion! For one night only, I’ll be paying the sum of one hundred decabloons to whoever brings me that demon’s corpse!”

Kheshiri took one look at the sheer number of those present who turned out to be carrying wands, and vanished.


 

Snow had begun falling, a soft counterpoint to the ominous quiet that filled the street.

The soldiers were hard-eyed, but disciplined, holding their ranks as they marched into the district. The full regiment seemed to have come; they filled the entire avenue, offering no path of escape past them.

Opposite them, residents of Tar’aris, bundled against the cold, had begun melting out of doors and alleys, staring equally hard-eyed at the approaching troops. Quite a few of them were openly carrying wands. They began to form a loose crowd blocking off the street as well.

Silver Legionnaires in their concealing winter gear stood at attention at intervals, several patrols having stopped and positioned themselves along the sidelines between the two groups. They stood firm and rigid, offering no move in either direction.

The students of the University wormed their way out of the crowd, where they had been trying to talk with various members of the community. Teal and Shaeine parted from Avrith, Bob and the small knot of citizens they had accompanied, stepping forward to meet the others in the middle. Ruda appeared out of an alley, Fross darting about above her head. Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel arrived in more of a hurry, having had a longer walk from the inn; they were accompanied by two Legionnaires and Bishop Darling. The latter was leaning close to Trissiny as they walked, whispering urgently into her ear. The paladin appeared to be listening closely, deep in thought.

A startled motion rippled through the watching crowd as Juniper arrived from a nearby rooftop, hitting the ground with a solid thud that left cracks in the pavement. She straightened up, brushing at her ill-fitting dress, and stepped up to join her classmates.

Darling peeled off and Trissiny directed the Legionnaires away with a simple hand motion. The rest of the students gathered with them, placing themselves between the soldiers and the citizens. The eight students—nine, including Vadrieny—represented enough offensive power to seriously damage that regiment, if not to smash through it entirely. Fortunately, they didn’t look like it; the soldiers didn’t see the threat, and thus didn’t react as if threatened. At least, not so far.

The man marching in the lead held up a hand. “Halt!” Behind him, the troops came to a stop in unison, their boots thundering once upon the pavement.

For a few moments, all was still. The groups stared at one another across the uncomfortably small open space in the street between them.

It was Captain Ravoud who finally spoke up.

“I see a lot of Silver Legionnaires in this district, General Avelea. May I ask what your intentions here are?”

Trissiny glanced at Darling; he nodded encouragingly at her.

“There has been serious misconduct on the part of a few of your troops, Captain,” she said firmly, her voice echoing in the silent street. Several soldiers shifted at her words. “That has given rise to a lot of rumor and ill feeling. Silver Legionnaires are known to be women of good character, also trained to understand military actions, and to see and report accurately on tactical details. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know they are here to observe.” She paused, then added more pointedly. “Whatever transpires here, there will be no unjust accusations of misconduct against your soldiers. We’ll see to that.”

Ravoud stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, General.”

She nodded back, then began stepping backward toward the sidewalk. Toby was the next to move, widening his arms and silently ushering the rest of the students along with them. Ruda snorted disdainfully, but let herself be herded. As a group, they shifted out of the way, taking position at the edge of the street and clearing a direct path between the soldiers of Barracks Four and the citizens of Lor’naris.

Ravoud squared his shoulders and took one step forward. Two figures emerged from the crowd; Bob and Avrith paced forward to come nearly within arms’ distance of him.

“Corporal Robert Hollander,” Ravoud said, his voice pitched loud enough to be clearly audible to all present. “And… Avrith, isn’t it?”

“You may call me Mrs. Hollander, Captain, if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ravoud’s lips thinned. “I thought it was the women of your kind who determined the family name.”

“As a rule, yes,” she said, her voice mild. “My family, however, do not care for me to use their name so long as I choose to bind myself to a human. Bob’s family are my family, his home my home. His country my own.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravoud said firmly, “I have received intelligence that there is an armed insurrection forming in this district. You will immediately surrender any weapons being gathered for the purpose of rebellion against His Majesty the Emperor and submit any persons responsible for this action to Imperial custody.”

“Yep,” Bob said laconically, pulling a wand out of his pocket and holding it out to Ravoud, butt first. “Here you go.”

The Captain stared at him, open-mouthed.

“This has only been going on the last day or so,” Bob went on. “Folk none of us knew, making very pointed suggestions in taverns and the like. Several of us got together and decided on a course of action: we took to meetin’ with these chumps, tried to encourage them along a bit. I wish I had better to tell you, but we got nothing out of ’em but these gifts. If I have some of my friends come forward carrying arms to turn in, Captain, will you kindly refrain from having them shot?”

Ravoud blinked twice, then visibly steeled himself. “If… As long as they approach slowly, with hands in plain view and those weapons held pointed down.”

“All right, you heard the man,” Bob said more loudly, half-turning to address those behind him. “Slow and polite. Let’s not make the lads any more nervous than they already are.

A dozen people melted out of the crowd. Drow and human, male and female, they all held wands by the hafts, hands nowhere near the clickers, tips aimed at the pavement below their feet. Ravoud watched them approach warily, then turned his head to issue an order of his own. Two soldiers stepped forward and began collecting the wands, looking somewhat bemused.

“We have examined those weapons and unfortunately found nothing that seems useful,” said Avrith. “They are mass-produced and of middling quality. Perhaps the resources of the Empire can find out more about them than we, but I fear they were meant to be untraceable.”

“Everyone you see here was personally present at a meeting with at least one of these agitators,” Bob added. “Well, I mean, those of use stepped forward, here. The rest of those folk back there are just curious about the commotion, I think. We’re all happy to recount everything we saw and heard.”

“The men in question took pains to be anonymous,” said Avrith. “I cannot prove the use of disguise charms, but it would not surprise me. They offered no names and refused to reveal any patron, or the source of those weapons. However, several of us are soldiers, of both Tiraan and Narisian extraction, and two of the witnesses are trained diplomats. We met with them with the specific intention of gathering information. It is my hope that some of our recollections will prove useful to you in tracking them down and putting a stop to this.”

Ravoud just continued to stare at her, seeming at a total loss for words.

“Tiraas is our home, Captain,” Avrith said more softly. “This city has offered us a place when our own would not. We will protect and serve it in any way we can, as fervently as any other citizen. All of us.” Bob took her gloved hand in his.

“I…” Ravoud trailed off, then swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “I…thank you for your cooperation, citizen.”

“Great,” said Bob wryly. “D’you mind if we have the rest of this discussion someplace a bit warmer? We can go to your barracks, if you’d like, or there are spots closer where we can set up and do interviews.”

“None of us have any appointments,” Avrith added. “Consider us all at your disposal.” There were agreeing nods from the rest of the individuals standing alongside her.

“I…think a local place would do fine,” Ravoud said slowly. “No need to drag this out any more than it must be.”

Trissiny cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Captain, the Third has set up a command post in an unoccupied shop nearby. You may consider that at your disposal.”

“Thank you, General,” he said, nodding respectfully to her. “In fact, that would be perfect. Your Legionnaires can continue to…observe.”

“Of course. Soldier, show him where it is.”

The nearest Legionnaire saluted her before stepping over to Ravoud. She patiently stood by while he turned and issued orders to his men; shortly, the bulk of the regiment had turned and were marching back out of the district. Quite a few looked mystified, but they kept their ranks and their discipline. A small detachment of Imperial soldiers remained with the Captain and the citizens who had stepped forward to be interviewed, and in short order they, too, were departing, led by the woman in armor toward the Legion’s command center.

Darling drew in a deep breath and blew it out dramatically as the street finally began to clear of onlookers. “All praise be to whoever the hell is watching over us and willing to take credit for that. And I mean that in my official, ecclesiastical capacity.”

“Wait, so…that’s it?” Ruda demanded. “All that work, all that skullduggery and gathering tension, and it all ends like that? Just a few words and everybody’s friends again?”

“It is a little anticlimactic,” Fross agreed.

“Yes, Ruda, that’s it,” Toby said firmly. “And I, for one, will be spending a great deal of the rest of the night giving prayers of thanks. This is the best ending to all this we could possibly have hoped for.”

“I don’t know how much credit any of us can take,” Trissiny added grimly.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Darling, patting her on the back. “You’ve just successfully refrained from igniting a civil war. It was a good day.”

“Great,” she muttered.

“And no, Princess, everyone’s not friends,” he added more seriously. “There’s a long way yet to go… But the going has begun, and will continue. The hard part was always getting us through this confrontation.”

“But…we didn’t do anything,” said Gabriel.

The Bishop grinned at him. “No, you didn’t, did you? If you remember nothing else about this mess, Mr. Arquin, remember that. Good people taking care of their own affairs are always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes, people need saving, that’s true. Most of the time, though, a hero is just somebody who reminds everyone at large to be their own best.”

“Aw,” said Fross. “Now, that’s uplifting! How come Professor Tellwyrn never gives us lessons like that?”

“Combination of complex factors,” said Ruda. “Mostly stemming from the fact that Tellwyrn’s a rotten bitch on her best day.”

They began drifting back in the direction of their inn, letting off tension in the form of good-natured bickering as they went.

Behind them, leaning against the wall of an alley, Professor Tellwyrn stood in silence, wearing a calm smile. She simply watched until the students were nearly out of sight around the curve of the street, then straightened, brushed off her tunic, and vanished with a soft pop that barely disturbed the falling snow.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

Advertisements

5 – 8

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“Oh, hey!” Fross cried suddenly, and zipped off toward the door of the cafe, leaving her classmates staring after her, mystified. The door opened a few inches, untouched, and she swerved through the gap into the street outside.

“Uh…” Gabriel looked down at his sandwich. “Are my table manners that bad?”

“Yup,” said Ruda lazily, then belched. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Uncouth fucker.”

The door swung open again, fully this time, and Teal stepped back, holding it for Shaeine, who passed through with a smile. They made straight for the other students’ table, Fross buzzing excitedly around their heads.

“Hey, guys!” Ruda said cheerfully, waving a breadstick. “How’ve you been? Seen Juno and the boys?”

“We have not encountered them since this morning,” Shaine said, “though we’ve been outside the district.”

“Oh?”

“We actually went to see Imperial Square, and Shaeine had to stop by the Narisian embassy on the way,” said Teal, holding out a chair for Shaeine.

Trissiny looked up from her ruminations at that. “Official business?”

“Of a sort,” the drow replied, calmly folding her hands in her lap. “I anticipate no further need of my presence at the embassy, but it was necessary to present my compliments and offer my services to the Ambassador.”

Trissiny frowned. “Why’s that, if you don’t think you’re needed?”

“It is a question of status,” she explained, smiling at Teal as the bard sat beside her before returning her gaze to Trissiny. “As the matriarch’s daughter, my hereditary rank in House Awarrion considerably exceeds hers. As an appointed ambassador to our most important ally, however, her earned position considerably exceeds mine.”

“So how do you decide who’s top dog?” Ruda asked.

“That is precisely the issue. Those two things do not correlate in any way. So long as the matter was left unaddressed, my presence in the city would throw the social calculations of all resident drow into disorder; leaving the matter that way would be considered an openly hostile act on my part. Quite apart from the fact that my mother would seal me in a spider box for doing such a thing, it would be incredibly irresponsible to so disrupt Narisian operations in the city.”

“Well, yeah,” said Ruda, grinning. “Hence the spider box.”

“You guys actually do that?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I thought that was a joke!”

“Presenting myself to the Ambassador,” said Shaeine, disregarding the byplay, “and publicly placing myself at her disposal, resolved the issue. I acknowledged myself to be subordinate, and thus her authority remains unquestioned.”

“When I was growing up,” said Teal, “my parents always told me that social rules and customs were arbitrary and often silly, but it was important to respect them in order to get along with people. Going to social events and dealing with the nobility, it always seemed to me they were dead right. The more I learn about Narisian culture, though, the more elegant it all seems. Purposeful.” She smiled at Shaeine. “Everything they do has an immediate reason behind it.”

“You think spider boxes are in any way reasonable?” Gabriel said, grimacing.

“Narisians are extremely courteous and responsible from a very young age,” Shaeine noted serenely. “How has your morning been?”

“We found some trouble,” Trissiny said dourly. “I don’t know if it’s what Tellwyrn brought us here to do, but it’s not something I think we can afford to just leave alone.”

“Oh?” Teal frowned. “What’s up?”

“It seems the guard have been pressuring the residents of Lor’naris. They don’t seem to like the idea of the locals providing their own neighborhood security.”

“I suppose,” Shaeine said slowly, “that is not entirely unreasonable. Tiraas is a military power; the thought of foreign citizens establishing a militia in its capital might be seen as hostile.”

“Those people are not a militia,” Trissiny said firmly, scowling. “They have no armor, no weapons. They don’t even have a chain of command! There’s barely even a schedule, they just show up and keep an eye on things. There are never more than six on duty at one time; four to watch the entrance to the district and two more to walk up and down the street. All they do is walk and watch; if there’s an actual problem, they call for help from the rest of the citizens. I think I know a little about military matters, and I’m here to tell you the Lor’naris volunteer watch is a complete and total non-threat. They wouldn’t pose a hazard to an actual militia, much less to the world’s highest concentration of the world’s largest and best-equipped military.”

“What kills me,” said Ruda, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms, “is the goddamn stupidity of it all. Doesn’t the local guard benefit from people keeping their own shit together? The less trouble there is, the better they look.”

Gabriel drew in a deep breath and blew it out in an explosion that was barely a sigh; Fross, hovering silently over the middle of the table, was actually pushed back a few inches. “You guys are missing the point. Tiraas is a human power.”

Everyone stared at him.

“Yes,” said Teal. “And?”

“And,” he said, frowning at her, “right here in its capital, in the very jewel of the Empire, a bunch of weird-ass foreigners show up—no offense, Sheaine—move into a slum district that even the local guard had given up on, and whip it into shape in just a couple of years. Suddenly the place where you could always go to get knifed or robbed is full of people taking their kids to school, all clean, orderly and increasingly prosperous. It’d be a slap in the face to the guard if Tiraan citizens had done it. The Narisians made them look bad.”

“That’s fucking idiotic,” Ruda snorted. “The guard made themselves look bad. I’m sorry, but if a bunch of outsiders who don’t know the culture show up out of nowhere and make a better go of it than you were, the issue is that you suck.”

“Yeah?” Gabe said wryly. “Why don’t you go explain that to the soldiers. See what happens.”

“Soldiers?” Shaeine tilted her head. “I thought the problem was with the civil guard.”

“They’re—” Trissiny and Gabriel started to speak at the same moment and broke off, staring at each other. He bowed his head, gesturing for her to continue.

“In the capital, they’re the same,” she said. “Tiraas is Tiraas. In many respects, the city is the Empire, at least in miniature. There’s no mayor or distinct municipal government; the Emperor is the local head of state, and Imperial offices run the city directly.”

“Holy shit,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “And stuff actually gets done?”

“Well, the relevant Imperial offices have separate departments for managing the city,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Otherwise, no, nothing would get done. But yeah, among other things, there’s no civil guard as such. The Imperial Army provides military police.”

“So it’s the Lor’narisianites against the Army?” Fross chimed in distress bobbing up and down. “Wow. Oh, wow. They’re really not gonna win that.”

“So far it hasn’t become a ‘versus’ issue,” said Trissiny, “and hopefully it will not.”

“Well, hell, if it comes to it, Trissiny can just call in the Legionnaires, right?” Gabriel suggested, grinning.

“I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting I set the Silver Legions into armed conflict with the Imperial Army in the heart of the Empire,” she grated, glaring at him. “Yes, they would muster if I called them, unless their officers invoked the long-standing precedent we have of disregarding unethical or incredibly stupid orders. And then, once Avei got through ripping my hide into strips, High Commander Rouvad would take her turn.”

“Was just a thought,” he mumbled.

“I thought you had the same rank in the Imperial Army?” Teal asked.

“That…is a courtesy, as I understand it,” Trissiny said more calmly. “A concession to Avei’s authority and the influence of the Sisterhood, based on the logical presumption that a Hand of Avei is well-trained in matters of strategy and may at any time be involved in campaigns that might necessitate the aid of soldiers. Those men are not spontaneously harassing the locals on a whim; someone is ordering it. If I start countermanding them… Well, I would pretty much have to go to whatever barracks is responsible for securing this area and take it over. That would also cause endless trouble.”

“But, uh, what are you gonna do, then?” Fross asked. “It sounds like you’re taking this pretty seriously.”

Trissiny sighed. “I got the name of a commander and am going to send him a letter. If it continues, I’ll go down there and speak with him personally.”

“Fear the Hand of Avei!” Ruda crowed. “For her wrath is terrible and her boots are shiny!”

Trissiny scowled. “And what’s your idea to help, then?”

“Me?” She snorted and took a swig of her drink. “Hell no, I’m staying out of this.”

Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “What? But I thought…”

“Look, it’s not that I don’t sympathize with the people here,” Ruda said. “I’m always gonna side with the people keeping their own shit together over uniformed assholes trying to push them around. But, first of all, I am not convinced that us butting into this is a great idea at all. Folks in Lor’naris are, as I said, capable of dealing with their own issues. It seems to be pretty much their defining trait.”

“But—”

“Furthermore,” Ruda went on firmly, “let’s keep in mind that I am heir to the throne of the Punaji nation. I can let my hair down in Last Rock and nobody gives a damn. This is different. Me sticking my sword into an internal security matter in Tiraas would cause an even bigger shitstorm than you calling in the Legions.”

“That…kind of goes for me, as well,” Teal said nervously. “I mean, my family aren’t royal, or even noble, but anything I do in the capital will reflect on Falconer Industries. Me butting into the Army’s affairs is… Well, we can afford to lose some business, frankly, but it’s not just about the bottom line. Damaging my family’s credibility could put a lot of good enchanters out of their jobs. At minimum.”

“Opposite problem.” Gabriel raised a hand. “First rule of being a half-demon in Tiraas: keep your head the fuck down. This city is full of people who barely need an excuse to blast it off, and have the authority to do that.”

“Pfft, you can count on me, Trissiny!” Fross declared, zipping back and forth. “Apparently nobody takes pixies seriously around here. We’ll just see about that!”

“I’m not asking for any rash action, Fross,” Trissiny said quickly. “I still don’t know what needs to be done. I’ve spoken with the residents at some length, at least those who serve in the watch, but I don’t yet have the Army’s perspective on the matter.”

“I will speak with Ambassador Shariss about this,” said Shaeine. “It clearly is a diplomatic concern if Narisians are being abused by the Army in the capital—though in acknowledgment of Ruda’s point, the fact that the residents of Lor’naris have not already sought aid from the embassy is telling. They would take such action if they deemed it necessary. However, with regard to your plan to talk to the Army… Perhaps it would save time to go over the heads of the local barracks? Seek out a higher authority? You have the explicit rank, not to mention the prestige.”

“It isn’t that simple,” Trissiny said glumly. “I think you may underestimate how much bureaucracy is involved in running an army. It’d take me longer to get an appointment with a highly-ranked official than we’ll probably be in the city. I could barge in, but that’s an excellent way to guarantee they don’t listen to a thing I tell them, particularly when they’ll probably resent me butting into their business in the first place. The local barracks captain is my best bet. I do have enough authority to get to him and make him listen.”

“You realize that’s probably the guy whose idea all this is,” said Gabriel. “Some outsider forcing her way in and telling him how to run his barracks is likely just gonna make him dig his heels in.”

“Yes,” she snapped, “I do realize that, thank you.”

“Perhaps there is another option,” said Shaeine. “As part of my introduction at the Narisian embassy, I was informed of major social events occurring in the city during the course of my projected stay. I did not think any such would likely be relevant to me at the time, but I do recall that General Toman Panissar, the commander of the Imperial Army, is hosting a very lavish party at his home tomorrow night.”

A momentary silence fell.

“You’d need an invitation to get into that,” Teal said at last, frowning.

“Oh, the hell you would,” Ruda replied with a grin. “C’mon, look who’s at this table. We’ve got foreign royalty, foreign nobility, the heiress to the biggest non-noble name in the Empire and the freakin’ Hand of freakin’ Avei. One or two of us might be able to gatecrash. Three, they probably wouldn’t turn away. All four? No chance, they wouldn’t fucking dare tell us we couldn’t come in. And hey, Fross is a curiosity! Extra points right there.”

“Yay! I’m curious!”

“What about me?” Gabriel demanded.

“Gabe,” Ruda said condescendingly, “what the hell would you do at a fancy society party? Do you even know which one is the shrimp fork?”

“Really, now?” he said sourly. “What would most of you do at a society party? I can see Shaeine fitting in there, but… Do you know which one is the shrimp fork?”

Ruda grinned. “Yup. The shrimp fork is the one with which I stab the shithead who tells me I’m using the wrong fucking fork.”

“I shall consider my point made,” he said.

“I don’t know about this,” Teal said nervously. “I mean… I try to avoid parties. That means dresses, and I really do not have one. And tomorrow night? That’s kind of late to…”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Ruda said breezily. “A good tailor with the right enchanted equipment can do a rush job, set us up with suitable duds overnight. That shit ain’t cheap, but let’s be honest, we can afford it.”

“Okay, you want me to come out and say it?” Teal grimaced. “I hate wearing dresses.”

“Then don’t,” Shaeine said quietly. Teal turned to her, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “I have seen Imperial formal wear, and… You would look positively stunning in a well-fitted tuxedo.”

Teal flushed slowly, but said nothing, merely holding the drow’s gaze. They stared into one another’s eyes in silence.

“Ugh,” Ruda groaned, throwing her head back. “People are still eating in this room, you two.”

“I don’t have a dress uniform with me,” Trissiny murmured, “but I could get one easily enough at the Temple. And… Gabriel isn’t wrong; I can’t imagine being anything but profoundly uncomfortable at a society event. But it would get me in a room with General Panissar.”

“Yup,” Gabe said fatalistically. “And that can only end well.”


Silence held sway in the room.

Amanika stared at Kheshiri, blank-faced. Saduko and Kamari glanced uncertainly at once another, at Vandro, at Kheshiri and Shook. Vandro himself simply stood there, holding his drink and smiling complacently. Kheshiri kept her gaze on Shook, who had tensed to the point that his hand quivered on the glass it held, the other clenched in a fist at his side.

“Shiri, honey, we’re waiting,” Vandro prompted gently.

At last, she cut her eyes to him, expression blank. “You don’t command me.” She returned her gaze to Shook.

After a tense moment, he nodded slowly. “Do it.”

She sighed, shrugged…and changed.

Warm brown skin bleached white in two seconds—not pale as some strains of humans were, but white, an icy matte color that didn’t belong on flesh. The broad features of a pretty Onkawi girl lengthened into more sharp-edged shapes; her black hair uncoiled itself from its braids, taking on subtle highlights in unnatural colors. Dark eyes faded to crystalline blue-violet, her tail uncoiled behind her, and finally, in acknowledgment of Vandro’s initial command, a pair of spiny wings stretched into existence, then stretched further, extending until they brushed the walls.

Kamari dropped his glass.

“Aiya,” Saduko whispered, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.

“Now, let’s nobody go an’ do anything abrupt,” Vandro said cheerfully. “My boy Jerry has full control over her. Ain’t that right?”

Shook nodded curtly, glancing at Kheshiri. The succubus dropped her eyes demurely. Then, moving with a sinuous grace and far more sway than necessary, she stepped over to him, descended to crouch on the ground at his feet and wrapped her arms around his leg. Cheek pressed to his thigh, she stared smugly at the others in the room.

Shook rested his free hand on her head after a moment, twining his fingers in her hair.

“So you see,” Vandro went on, swirling his daiquiri idly in one hand, “just what we have attending to stealth and security. You have nothing to worry about, my friends. Anybody trying to put pressure on you will be very capably dealt with.”

“And,” Saduko said quietly, “any betrayal from us will be punished beyond the mercy of death.”

“My dear,” said Vandro, shaking his head sadly, “I am very nearly hurt. I only hope in time I can reassure you that I don’t deal so heavy-handedly with my business associates.”

“Bringing this thing here was not a step in that direction,” she said evenly.

“We’re running a complicated job,” he replied with a grin. “We’ll make use of every available resource—particularly the ones nobody expects we have. To that end, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway for thoroughness’s sake: the demon is a secret. Not a word of this is to be breathed to anyone outside this room. Clear?”

He waited for them to nod before carrying on, beaming. “Jolly good! Now, I beg your forgiveness for hustling you along, but I need to clear up a few things with Jerry in private. Of course, you are all honored guests here; avail yourselves of any amenities my villa has to offer. Kamari, I’m afraid you’ll have to do so in the private areas, as we don’t want to getting around that you have any association with me just yet. Still, there’s plenty for you to do. Wilberforce will see to it you don’t lack for entertainment.”

“Thank you, sir,” the burly servant said nervously. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Kheshiri yet.

They filed toward the door in silence, all three stepping well out of their way to avoid the spread of the demon’s wings, now somewhat furled and closer to hip level. As soon as the door clicked shut behind Saduko, the last to leave, Shook whirled on Vandro.

“Just what the hell—”

“First of all,” Vandro said calmly, “I am not upset at you bringing a demon into my home, Jerry. It’s apparent you do have her restrained, and hell, in light of our earlier conversation I’m glad to see you reaching at unconventional resources. You’re gonna need that if you mean to run down this Locke bitch and straighten out the elements in the Guild that’ve turned on you. But boy, you have got to be more careful. She was spotted the first day here.”

“How?” Kheshiri demanded, scowling.

Shook swatted her on the side of the head. “You keep your mouth shut till someone asks your opinion, whore,” he growled without looking at her. “It’s a good question, though, Alan. How? Who?”

“Jerry, my boy, you were just in a room with a priestess. You had a demon within arm’s reach of her; you really think any magical disguise would’ve fooled someone soaked in the light of the gods? Come on, now. Amanika’s in and out of this estate all the time; she spotted your little pet immediately.”

“She did? She is?” Shook frowned. “I never…”

“Never noticed her?” Vandro said dryly. “No, I’ll just bet you didn’t. No rack or ass to speak of, face of a billy goat, dresses like she’s trying to convince all the other dykes to bow down before their queen. Boy, I have told you about this, time and again. Women are trouble, every last one of ’em, but most are not in any way stupid. That’s exactly why they’re trouble. You have got to start paying attention to the women around you. There are much more important calculations to be made about a woman than the likelihood and desirability of nailing her. The pretty ones use beauty as a weapon; the homely ones make use of the fact they’re basically invisible. If Amanika didn’t happen to be more indebted to me than the local Guild chapter…well, guess how that would’ve ended for you. She’ll keep your secret because I vouched for you.”

He stopped and sighed; Shook actually lowered his gaze, abashed.

“Anyhow,” Vandro went on, “Amanika assures me you’ve got no more infernal magic in you than the piddly residue you’d get from spending time around this critter.” He leaned down and ruffled Kheshiri’s hair. “So either you’re one of the most powerful warlocks alive, or not a warlock at all, and having trained you myself I pretty much know which. So I busted out the scrying equipment and observed you have an object of considerable infernal and arcane power on you. That’s the mechanism, I take it.”

“Yeah,” Shook said slowly, nodding. “She’s bound to a reliquary. I can put her in it, when I get tired of her mouth. It’s vintage Black Wreath work, but I had it modified with some modern enchantments to secure her more thoroughly and bind it to me.”

“Good man,” Vandro said, nodding approvingly. “This is why you’re still my favorite student. You’ve got your blind spots, Jerry, but you use the ol’ noggin more than most enforcers can be bothered to. Still, you’re pushing your luck. What was spotted once can be spotted again. I’m gonna hook you up with my magic guy in the city; he can mod this reliquary of yours to help keep your pet concealed. Long as you take a little more care about who you rub elbows with, it should prevent another slip-up like this.”

“This guy’s trustworthy?” Shook asked tensely.

Vandro burst out laughing. “Boy, if you’re gonna ask dumb questions…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shook muttered.

“Boris has never let me down yet. He does infernal and arcane work; between the two, you can spot pretty much any type of magic if you’ve got the right equipment. Or, more importantly, you can stop any school of magic from spotting what you want hidden.”

“There’s always a bigger fish,” Kheshiri murmured.

“I see you’re forgetting your manners, bitch,” Shook said, staring coldly down at her. “We’ll discuss that in private, later.”

“Sorry, master,” she said, a quaver in her voice.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Vandro said, beaming in approbation. “If only you could shut the real kind up as easily. But yeah, she’s got a point; you get her in a room with an archmage or paladin and the jig’ll be up no matter what kind of precautions you take. Still, shouldn’t be too hard to stay away from those. Now, then, about the plan. She can do it, I trust? Shapeshift to mimic us and secure our alibis?”

“Answer him, girl,” Shook said.

“Changing shape is simplicity itself,” the succubus said promptly. “Mimicry… That’s all about acting. To really sell the role, I’ll have to spend time around each of them, enough to properly observe their mannerisms. I don’t think they like me, though.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” said Vandro, waving a hand. “At the party you won’t be spending enough time around anybody to need to sell the illusion. You’ll have to do for all six of us, remember. The point is to be seen here and there. Don’t waste time conversing with people, just make sure you’re spotted with each face on.”

“Then yes, sir, I can do it,” she said, waving her tail. “Easily.”

“Attagirl,” he said with a grin, and turned his face back to Shook. “And now, of course, the real, ultimate question. How is she in the sack?”

Shook stared at him silently for a moment, then slowly, a smile stretched across his face. He lightly stroked Kheshiri’s hair with his fingertips. “Absolutely, incomparably magnificent. She’s a handful sometimes, but I’ve got to say, the bitch knows what she’s for, and she takes pride in her work. Justifiably.”

“Ah, my boy,” Vandro said, shaking his head, “I think this is divine compensation for your run of bad luck lately. What I wouldn’t have given for a girl with a body like that who’d shut up on command at your age… Hell, I’d give a lot more for one now.”

Shook looked contemplatively down at Kheshiri, then gave her hair a gentle tug. She rose smoothly to her feet.

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Shook said with a faint grin. “Why don’t you try her out?”

Vandro raised his eyebrows. “You’re joking.”

“Alan, it’s like you said: we’re family. Besides, you’ve been more than generous with your hospitality. I’m serious, borrow her for the night. And don’t worry about bringing her back in the same condition; she heals up fast, and she’s an experience you won’t wanna hold back with. Now, Kheshiri,” he went on, turning his stare to her, “Alan is the man to whom I owe everything I know. I expect to hear you’ve given him the greatest night of his life, or I’m gonna take it out of your ass. Clear?”

She looked thoughtfully up at him for a moment, then turned her considering gaze on Vandro, and smiled. “Mm… He strikes me as a man who’s sampled innumerable pleasures over a very full life. That’s a tall order, master.”

Shook chucked her gently under the chin. “You’re a tall girl.”

“I won’t embarrass you, master,” she said, waving her tail, then gave him a wicked little smile, gazing up through her lashes. “And afterward, if I bring back a favorable review… Can you still take it out of my ass, please?”

“Okay, damn,” said Vandro. “I want one.”

“No, you don’t,” Shook replied. “Enjoy the good and don’t worry about the headaches involved with keeping her reined in. My gift to you.”

“Well, of course,” Vandro said easily, grinning as Kheshiri stepped over to him and snuggled under his arm, draping a wing around his shoulders. He wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her rump. “It’s like I’ve always said; if it’s got tits, it’s trouble. Best you can do is find one that’s no more trouble than she’s worth.”

The demon smiled.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

5 – 7

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

The unforgiving sun made midday naps a venerated tradition in Onkawa—at least during the summer. Now, in winter (such as it was), the climate was mild enough that Shook had no trouble bearing the heat with nothing but a wide-brimmed hat to shield him. He was sweating, of course, but that didn’t bother him overmuch.

Vandro’s palatial residence truly had it all, including a shooting range. Shook stood in the long, shaded alley between the rear of the villa and the defunct city wall it abutted, firing bolt after bolt of light into the targets eighteen yards away. A whole bank of sizeable power crystals supported the shielding charms over them; these could have stood up to artillery fire. There were also golem logic controllers that would make the targets move. Much as it galled him to acknowledge it, he wasn’t up to that just yet.

He was getting pretty good, though. After a fourth consecutive bullseye, his concentration was momentarily disrupted by a cheer and applause from Kheshiri.

Shook glanced over at her, annoyed but keeping his features carefully schooled. She was off to the side, lounging on a low divan shaded by a huge parasol. She had, as usual, draped herself to show off her figure, lying on her side in a way that emphasized the curve of her hip, twisting her torso so as to make the arch of her breast stand out. Since she’d been around, he had been paying close attention to her wiles, and had incidentally picked up a few things about women that he’d never bothered to know. For instance, that unnatural position, mouth-watering as it was, must put an excruciating strain on her lower back. Or at least, it would have on a real woman’s. He also knew that the tight, colorful Onkawi robe she wore didn’t contain the kind of undergarments that would make her bosom stand out that way when she was reclining, which meant she was using her shapeshifting to cheat.

He had told her first thing, in their very first meeting: he was not stupid. Still, her games didn’t particularly surprise him. She thought she was leading him along, into some trap down the road, wearing down his alertness, earning his trust. He was rather looking forward to brutally disappointing her. Shook had already decided he’d be keeping Kheshiri, even after he’d straightened out Principia and got himself back in the Guild’s good graces, as he deserved. This was looking like it’d be a long-term project, though; plenty of time to break her in properly. Even knowing she was trying to undermine him, the succubus was enjoyable to have around. Not just sexually, either. She had a biting sense of humor, an appreciation of malice that was gratifying when he was dealing with somebody who needed to be taken down a peg, and a knack for easing his tensions that was no less effective because he knew she was using it to manipulate him.

Seeing his distraction, she took the opportunity to ooze upright, daintily picking up one of the tall glasses of iced punch that sat on a tray on the ground nearby, and slinked over to him, offering it. “A cold drink, boss? You need to be careful in this heat.”

“Mm,” he said noncommittally, picking it up and taking a sip. Damn fruity concoction, not at all to his taste, but using chilled drinks as everyone here did to beat the heat, it would have been a bad idea to go for the hard stuff he preferred. Even he wouldn’t have been able to hold that quantity of liquor.

“Good shooting, my boy,” said Alan Vandro, strolling forward. Shook managed, barely, not to jump; he hadn’t noticed the man there. Kheshiri, of course, was clearly not surprised, though she positioned herself behind him, peering demurely at their host over Shook’s shoulder. Their cover story was that she was a Shaathist, not particularly devout, but into the cult because she enjoyed being told what to do and occasionally slapped around by her man. This explained their dynamic, but necessitated some change in her public address of him; even for an alleged Shaathist, “master” would have raised eyebrows. He didn’t much like abusing Vandro’s hospitality by deceiving him, but a captive succubus was something he didn’t fancy trying to explain—to anyone. “You’re enjoying my little gift, then?”

“It’s anything but little, Alan,” Shook replied, tilting the wand skyward to study it. Not a proper enchanter wand; he hadn’t a spark of magic in him and couldn’t have used one. Still, this was a top-of-the-line model, hand-crafted using the finest materials by a master enchanter. It packed a significantly stronger punch than its mass-produced cousins, would last longer between rechargings and had several useful enhancements. Vandro had given him two of these, along with a proper wandslinger’s belt which held extra power crystals and components, plus grounding and shielding charms to repel incoming wandfire. “I’ve gotta say… Part of me hates the necessity. Seems like there’s no honor in the old profession any more. If you’re gonna kill a man, or just rough him up, you should be able to see the look on his face when you do it.” He sighed, lowering the weapon and slipping it back into its holster. “But that’s the world, now. It’s becoming clear to me I’ve been living in the past; failing to make use of the resources available is part of the reason for my current troubles. This was…timely. And they’re beauties. I can’t thank you enough, Alan.”

“Hell with that, you’re family, my boy,” Vandro said, waving him off. “And don’t sweat your missteps. What matters is you learn from your mistakes and survive to apply the lesson. Isn’t that right, honey?” he added, winking at Kheshiri.

“If you say so, sir,” she said demurely, lowering her eyes.

“It’s not all tactics and equipment, you know,” Vandro went on, watching Shook’s face closely. “Ever think you might have made some errors in how you behave? Who you trust?”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What are you getting at, Alan?”

“Think about it, boy. You’ve always been a faithful man of the Guild… And yet, here you are. They want you dragged back kicking and screaming, and the bitch who set it up is apparently lounging on her sofa, eating bonbons and having a giggle at your expense. Something sure as hell ain’t right about this. How’d you manage to get so thoroughly taken for a ride? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should happen if everything in the Guild is being run as it should.”

Shook frowned, but didn’t comment, finding nothing he could say to that.

“So, say you clear your name,” Vandro went on, still studying him carefully. Kheshiri, now, was watching him just as closely. “What do you gain? Your name should’ve been clear to begin with. Someone aside from Principia fucked you over—or at the least, she took advantage of failures in the Guild’s leadership. How long before it all happens again? Will throwing her ass in an oubliette somewhere really solve the problem?”

“Well, what the fuck do you expect me to do?” Shook demanded, flinging his arms out in a furious shrug. “I can’t just leave this like it is! What’s the point of anything if I can’t get my life back?”

“The problem isn’t you, my boy,” Vandro said, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. “Never was. All I’m saying is, it looks like the problem runs deeper that you may have realized. I’m glad to see you’re lookin’ beyond the immediate future, expanding your repertoire, so to speak. Here’s the question: how far are you willing to expand it?” He glanced significantly at Kheshiri, and Shook felt a moment of unease. “How many things are you willing to consider you may have been wrong about?”

“I know when something’s being hinted at,” Shook replied. “Get to the point, Alan. This kind of pussyfooting around isn’t like you.”

Vandro threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, fair enough, my boy, fair enough. C’mon, there are some folks I think you should meet. I was just about to have a discussion with ’em myself; you should come along, see if you can’t learn anything useful.”

“All right,” Shook said, nodding. He was far from certain where all this was leading, but Vandro had more than proven his trustworthiness, many times in the past and more recently as well. “Shiri, I’ll be back later. Stay out of trouble.”

“Nonsense, bring her along!” Vandro said glibly, slapping him on the shoulder. “I bet you can find a use for her in all this, too.”

Shook frowned again, saying nothing, but let Vandro lead him off into the main house. He had a feeling about this… Not a bad feeling, but not a comfortable one. The two men stepped into the shade, Kheshiri trailing obediently behind them.


 

The villa was even larger than it looked; more than half its interior volume was under ground level, carved from the massive slab of granite on which Onkawa sat. Underground living was another adaptation against the heat which was widely practiced in the city, or at least was among the wealthier classes. The effort of actually carving out subterranean chambers discouraged many.

Vandro led them to a long, narrow lounge two levels down. It was lavishly appointed, as was everything in the villa, lit by sun crystals rather than fairy lamps, which enabled potted ferns and a dwarf fig tree to flourish in the corners.

The meeting, it seemed, was already in session when they arrived. Vandro’s party doubled the population of the room. On a wicker chair against the far wall sat a young Sifanese woman who rose on their entry, bowing politely. Two others, locals by their dark coloration, stood beside the room’s small bar, holding cocktails. The man wore a fairly cheap suit and a nervous expression; he was of average height, but very powerfully built, making him look almost squat. The woman was tall, bony and rather gawkish, though her manner was stately. She wore a simple tunic and slacks, in a style that wasn’t quite Tiraan or Onkawi.

“Here we are!” Vandro boomed, holding out his arms as he stepped into the room as if to embrace everyone present. “All finally gathered. Thanks for waiting, everybody, I hope it wasn’t too long. Damn it, Kamari, I told you you don’t have to serve drinks! You’re a guest here.”

The burly man had already begun mixing three more daiquiris. His teeth were large, even and very white; his grin was almost luminous in his black face. “This is Onkawa, Mr. Vandro. Guests are family, and family do for each other.”

“Cheeky bastard,” Vandro said with a grin, gesturing Shook and Kheshiri in. “Everyone, this is my old apprentice, Jeremiah. I’ve told you about him. And that’s his ladyfriend, Shiri. Jerry, the fellow who won’t get it into his head he’s not a servant here is Kamari; take advantage while you can, he makes the best damn cocktails I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Only glad to serve,” Kamari said cheerfully.

“Over there is Saduko, a visitor from Sifan. Hands off, now, m’boy, she’s an honored guest. And this, of course, is Amanika, priestess of Eserion and something of a muckety-muck in the local Guild chapter house.”

Shook froze, staring at the woman. She inclined her head to him, politely but distantly. “That’s the first time I have been called that, exactly. Hm, I might just keep it, though. Has a nice ring.”

“You should get business cards printed up,” Vandro said, winking.

“Alan,” Shook said warily. “I’m not sure if…”

“Relax, my boy, nobody here is gonna snitch on you. Yes, Amanika knows the orders about you, but you’re in my place, and I vouch for you. We’ve already had this conversation. Isn’t that right, Nika?”

“Quite,” she replied calmly, peering first at Shook and then Kheshiri. “All is as I told you.”

“See? There you go, all friends here.” He handed Shook a daiquiri. “Nobody’s gonna turn you over to the Guild. Hell, nobody here is turning anything over to the Guild. The fact is…we’re here to plan a job. I want you to be part of it.”

“I’m…honored,” Shook said carefully, holding the icy drink but not sipping. Kheshiri had accepted another from Kamari. “That’s problematic, though. My situation being what it is, it’d raise all kinds of eyebrows if I sent in my tithe on a job.”

Vandro sipped his daiquiri, watching Shook with a knowing little smile. “Now, Jerry, what did I just say? We’re not giving the Guild shit.”

Shook stiffened, his hands clenching on the glass. “Alan… You know you’ve been like a father to me, and I owe a lot to your generosity. But I can’t be party to shafting the Big Guy. Eserion does not let people get away with that, even if I were willing to turn against him. Hell, you of all people—”

“Now, Jerry, there you go making assumptions,” Vandro interrupted, grinning. “Nobody’s gonna try to stiff the Big Guy. Even Kamari and Saduko have agreed to pay the proper tithe, despite the fact they aren’t Eserites. No, Eserion gets his cut, as always; this is not negotiable. We’re just not giving it to him through the Guild.”

There was silence in the room, while Shook scowled and others sipped their drinks, or in Saduko’s case, just stood with an impassive expression.

“Go on,” Shook said finally.

“It started three Bosses ago,” Vandro said, beginning to pace up and down. “Catseye was…just too damn ambitious. She pulled off some epic jobs, yeah, and that bought her a lot of cred, which is how she got away with all she did. She organized us far too heavily, personally mobilizing large groups on large jobs. Made the Guild more centralized than it used to be.

“Then came Sweet, the ultimate people person. Honestly, I liked him, and I’d have been all right with his style of leadership if he hadn’t followed Catseye…or if he’d been willing to dismantle her bureaucracy. He didn’t; instead, he used it. Kept his eyes everywhere, stuck his fingers into everyone’s business. Again, nobody complained, even though he never pulled down the kind of income Catseye did, because Sweet was all about keeping everyone happy. Not much of a Guild leader, in short, but he was a kickass high priest. A lot of us owe him a great deal.”

“Yours truly included,” Shook said, finally sipping his fruity drink and grimacing at the taste. “Sweet was the first person aside from you who took an interest in me, made sure I got a fair chance.”

Vandro nodded. “Which brings us to the current situation. Tricks is another Catseye, an operations fellow. And he, again, built on what those before him created. Catseye’s ops protocols, Sweet’s information network, and his own cunning and knack for planning cons. Once again, everybody seems fine with this state of affairs; he doesn’t keep the Guildmembers as happy as Sweet did, but damn does he rake in the gold.”

“I’m not seeing the problem, here,” Shook said.

“Don’t you?” Vandro’s stare bored into him. “You, of all people? Boy, just how the hell do you think Principia managed to get her tentacles into the Guild’s structure and use it against you the way she has? The Guild is not supposed to have a fucking structure, at least not one like this. We all know the catechism. All systems are corrupt. The Thieves’ Guild has lost its way, become an institution. It is behaving exactly as institutions do: accumulating power, developing new rules and traditions, and gradually twisting everything around till all its actions are about prolonging its own existence, instead of pushing the Big Guy’s principles.”

“Omnu’s balls, Alan,” Shook breathed. “You’re talking about rebelling against the Guild!”

“No, no, Jerry.” Vandro shook his head emphatically. “Come on, you’re smarter than this. You overthrow something, well, then you’re stuck with the unenviable task of running whatever you just took over. Hell no, we’re not rebelling. That’d just put us in power, which isn’t what we want or what the Guild needs. The problem isn’t that the Guild needs a regime change; it’s that the Guild needs to not have a regime.”

Shook frowned into his drink, pondering. Amanika spoke into the ensuing silence.

“We do not propose to replace the leadership of the Guild; merely to undermine it. To introduce the random elements that should be the norm for those in Eserion’s worship.”

“It’s about setting a precedent,” Vandro agreed, gesticulating with his glass. “What we do here will be carefully spread around the continent and beyond, whispered of until others try it—with, perhaps, a little help from us. One by one, jobs will start being sponsored that cut the Guild out of the action, making the Boss look impotent and foolish and depriving the bureaucracy of tithes. Eventually the Boss will go back to being the figurehead and spiritual leader he’s supposed to be. Not a man who’s knee deep in everybody’s damn business.”

“I can…see your point about undermining respect for the Boss,” Shook said slowly. “But you’re not about to starve the Guild. Trust me, I worked security at the Imperial Casino for years. The Guild could run itself on that place alone. Indefinitely.”

“One thing at a time, my boy,” said Vandro, grinning. “One thing at a time. The relevant question in the here and now is this: are you in?”

Shook glanced around the room. Vandro was grinning, as was Kamari. Amanika studied him with a calm yet intent expression; Saduko was impassive as a statue. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder at Kheshiri. She nodded slowly.

“Hell with it,” he said. “What’s the job?”

“That’s my boy,” Vandro crowed. “All right, we’re still in the early planning stages, but I’ll run you over the basics. Our target is one Chief Om’ponole.”

“They still have chiefs here?” Shook demanded, curling his lip.

“We have chiefs in the way that the lord governor of Calderaan Province styles himself a King,” said Amanika with a faint smile. “Nations that joined the Empire willingly enjoy certain privileges. At the end of the day, though, there is only one law under Tiraan rule.”

“Om’ponole doesn’t even have any political clout,” agreed Vandro. “What he has are business interests. In short, he’s a rich asshole of exactly the kind that we exist to teach a little humility to.”

“All due respect, Alan, what’s that make you?” Shook asked, smiling wryly. “I mean…this place.”

“You’re not wrong, boy,” Vandro said with a grin. “That’s our in, though. As far as the rest of the hoity-toity types in Onkawa know, I’m a rich asshole just like them. That means I get invited to all their bullshit parties, and they come get shitfaced on fruity booze here in my humble abode when it’s my turn to pass out invitations. You would be amazed how much I learn about all their various palaces this way.”

“Alan is hosting one such party fairly soon,” said Amanika. “Om’ponole will be here, as will everyone who fancies themselves important. While this is going on, we will liberate the contents of his personal safes.”

“Everybody has a role,” said Vandro. “Kamari, here, is a servant on Om’ponole’s estate—a servant who isn’t paid a living wage, nor given so much as a ‘thank you’ or solstice bonus. Classic rich asshole mistake; you keep this in mind when you’re my age and have your own nest egg, Jerry. Everyone working on these grounds is well provided for. I don’t employ people with drug addictions, gambling habits, or chronically sick or imprisoned relatives. No cracks for somebody to get their claws in. I know all their names and ask about their day; I damn well say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they water my plants and fetch my slippers.”

“Mr. Vandro has very generously offered me employment on his estate,” Kamari said with his infectious grin. “I am only too glad to help him arrange a proper resignation for me from the Chieftain’s household.”

“Hell, I’d run more than a job to get this man on my staff,” Vandro chortled. “So help me, if I could slap a pair of tits on this daiquiri I could get rid of all the damn girls always cluttering up my gardens; I’d have no more need of them.”

“You give me far too much credit, sir,” Kamari laughed.

“Needless to say, Kamari’s our inside man. He gets our team into Om’ponole’s estate, and Saduko gets us into his valuables.”

“She’s a safecracker?” Shook asked, turning to regard the young woman.

“I am an arcanist,” she said calmly. Her Tanglish was good, but carried more than a hint of a lilting accent.

“Saduko comes to us from the University at Kiyosan,” explained Vandro. “In fact, she’s a specialist in creating magical security—exactly what we need to defeat it. Unfortunately, she has found that Onkawa isn’t exactly the melting pot that Tiraas is, and in any case, the lucrative avenues of legitimate employment are typically granted to citizens over foreigners, even when the foreigner is the better man—or in this case woman—for the job.”

“So it is everywhere,” Saduko said philosophically. “The economy in Sifan does not support many persons of my skill set at present. I gambled that life would be better in the Empire. When one gambles, alas, one must expect eventually to lose.”

“Don’t you worry, darlin’,” Vandro said, grinning. “You help us through this and I guarantee I’ll have plenty more work for you.”

“No more stealing,” she said stiffly. “That was our arrangement.”

“I’m a man of my word, Saduko. One job to prove your skills, and after that… Well, you’ve seen my place. I have plenty of perfectly legal uses for a person of your profession.”

“I, for my part, will handle the Guild end of this,” said Amanika. “Ensuring that the Big Guy receives his cut without going through Guild channels. That will require some creative laundering and the aid of someone with a close spiritual connection to our god.”

“The fact that Amanika’s on board with this is a sign of Eserion’s favor,” said Vandro smugly. “You know how many people there are with exactly that skill set?”

“I will also, as needed, act to direct the Guild’s attention away from us,” added the priestess with a faint, mysterious smile.

“Sounds solid so far,” said Shook slowly. “What is it you need me for?”

“You and the girl,” said Vandro. Shook raised his eyebrows sharply.

“Shiri? What the hell do you expect to do with her?”

“Now, now, my boy, don’t be modest!” Vandro smiled beatifically, turning back to face the rest of the group and holding his daiquiri for all the world like a scepter. “Jeremiah, here, is one of the best enforcers the Guild has. He and the girl are providing security. I’m gonna have to level with you all, and I hope you won’t take offense: for a job like this, when we Guild thieves employ outside contractors, security is needed not only for our protection during the heist itself, but also…afterward. There are all kinds of pressures that can fall on a person to rat out their partners, and for those of you who don’t enjoy the Guild’s direct support…well, extra measures are needed to keep you safe. Should you have any trouble with authorities, or anyone, Jerry and Shiri will see to it they get off your back. In addition to getting you through the job itself without getting shot, stabbed or imprisoned.”

“And,” Saduko said, twisting her mouth distastefully, “should we decide to reveal what we know to any outsider, they will silence us.”

“Now, darlin’, I’m not even considering that possibility,” Vandro said kindly. “I respect your intelligence far too much; you both know very well which side your bread is buttered on. In theory, yes, that could happen. I’m sure we don’t need to worry about it, though. Do we?”

“No worries, boss,” Kamari said, nodding emphatically. “I’m with you all the way.”

“I keep my word,” Saduko said coldly.

“I think you’ve got the wrong idea about Shiri,” Shook said, glancing at her. She was doing a marvelous impression of demure confusion. Even he was nearly fooled. It seemed Kamari was likewise puzzled by her inclusion in this, though Saduko was unreadable and Amanika wore a knowing expression that he didn’t like at all.

“Well, now, we have two uses for your little pet, there,” Vandro drawled. “There is the matter of after-the-fact enforcement. She’ll be marvelous for tracking down anybody who needs to be hushed up, not to mention getting close to them. During the job itself, though, she’ll be providing our alibis.”

“What are you talking about?” Shook said sharply.

“We’ll all be at the party,” said Vandro. “We will be seen there, by innumerable witnesses of unimpeachable character. Since we, obviously, will in fact be across the city at Chief Om’ponole’s palace, this will be a perfect job for a shapeshifter.”

“A…a shape…” Shook stared at him.

“Absolutely,” Vandro said, grinning broadly. “You know what they say: when life gives you demons, make demonade. How’s about a little demonstration, first?” He turned to Kheshiri and winked. “Darlin’, show us those pretty wings.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >