Tag Archives: Bird Savaraad

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Inefficiency and waste were not tolerated in Toman Panissar’s army. Inefficiency and waste were inevitable in armies in general, but at the very least, they did not occur where he could (or was likely to) see them. As such, the headquarters of Imperial Command ran like dwarven clockwork. Uniformed troops and formally-attired civilians moved constantly here and there, but briskly and in an organized fashion, with an absolute minimum of talk and zero loitering. Everything was spotlessly clean, everything exactly in its place, everyone clearly acting purposefully and on specific business.

It was sort of amazing that she made it that far.

The door to the outer administrative complex swung open, as it did a thousand times a day, and a woman in business attire strode rapidly in, clutching a thick folder of papers under her arm. That, in and of itself, was not unusual. Her pace was a touch too rapid, though, and the folder bulged with scraps and stray corners of paper, which did not suit the tightly ordered aesthetic of the complex. She made a beeline for the guarded doors to the inner offices, ignoring all activity around her. The guards saw her coming and shifted to face her directly, but she was intercepted before making it even that far.

“Can I help you?” a tall soldier asked, stepping swiftly out from behind his desk and planting himself in her path. She practically skidded in order to stop in time, which didn’t cause him to flinch.

“Are you General Panissar?” the woman demanded.

“No, I am not,” he replied wryly. “Are you attached to the Army?”

“I’ll speak with the General,” she said curtly, trying to step around him.

He moved to obstruct her. “If you have an appointment, you can proceed to the receptionist on the second floor and wait. Otherwise, you’ll have to make an appointment, and depart in the meantime.”

“This is not a secured space,” she shot back. “Public presence is allowed.”

“This is Imperial Command,” he said, unimpressed. “No one is allowed to wander around at liberty. If you have specific business and a reason for being here—”

“I am legal counsel for soldiers of the Imperial Army pursuing action against ImCom at the highest level,” she barked. “Per the Writ of Duties, they are permitted to present their grievance directly to the requisite authority, which in this case is the General in command of the Army entire, as adjudged by a Grand Magistrate of the Tiraan Empire, and I am in fact obligated to present said case to said individual in person at the earliest possible date and hour in order to protect my clients who are adjudged to face undue hardship and/or danger in the course of presenting themselves in person, also according to said Grand Magistrate. Ergo, I shall now see the General, and you shall shove off out of my way!”

He finally drew back slightly, staring at her in something like awe. That entire monologue had been delivered almost too rapidly to follow, and she had paused for breath exactly once.

“Be that as it may,” the soldier said stiffly, “this is the headquarters for the entire army, and security requires—”

“Sued!” she thundered, ripping a sheet of paper from her folder and slapping it against his chest, where he caught it mostly out of reflex. “Obstruction of justice and interfering with a duly appointed agent of the law in the prosecution of her sworn duty! I’ll see you in court, asshole!”

At that, he was finally too flummoxed to evade her, and she managed to wriggle past him with the aggressive slipperiness of a particularly hungry eel. By that time, the eyes of nearly everyone in the vicinity was on her. Seemingly unperturbed by this, she resumed her course at a rapid trot toward the double doors to the secured section of Command. Both soldiers guarding the opening had now stepped in front of the doors directly, with weapons lifted and aimed at her.

“All right, boys, you want a piece of this?” the woman demanded, stomping to a halt directly in front of them. “Cos I brought enough for the whole class!”

“What the hell is going on out here?”

Soldiers throughout the vicinity snapped to attention, saluting, and the intruder whirled to face the rather diminutive, silver-haired man who had approached from the front of the room, likely through the same doors she had used to enter.

“Panissar!” the woman exclaimed, thrusting a hand into her folder to rummage. “My name is—”

“Bird Savaraad, attorney at law,” he interrupted, expression skeptical. “You’re known around here, ma’am. I asked what is going on.”

Savaraad had found the object she sought, apparently, a thick envelope, which she now whipped out of the folder (dislodging a few errant sheets) and wagged at him. “We will discuss the maltreatment of soldiers under your command who have retained me to handle their case!”

“That’s fine,” he grunted. “There’s a department to handle that. Sergeant Traas will escort you there and make an appointment. Excuse me.”

“Hold it right there!” she roared as he turned his back. “Per the judgment of Grant Magistrate Seluvid, I am authorized to present this matter to you in person!”

“Then make an appointment.” Panissar stopped, half-turning to give her a gimlet eye over his shoulder. “A Grand Magistrate’s order doesn’t authorize you to barge in here on your own damn schedule, or I’d be hearing of it from an Imperial courier, not you. You are disrupting operations in Imperial Command. Behave yourself, or be arrested. Your choice.”

The General turned back toward the exit and made one step before she bellowed again. “This matter will not wait on your bureaucracy, Panissar! Privates Andrew Finchley, Thomas Rook and Jacob Moriarty have an urgent case pertaining directly to treatment by a Han—”

“Take that woman into custody!” Panissar barked, whirling on her. Immediately, the two door guards stepped forward, seizing her by both arms. Two more soldiers smoothly rose from nearby desks to assume their position flanking the inner doors.

“Don’t even try it!” Savaraad shouted, not bothering to struggle except to tighten her grip on her folder. “People know where I am, General! You can’t hush up—”

She broke off as Panissar drew a wand from its holster at his belt and stepped forward, aiming the tip barely a foot from her nose.

“Ms. Savaraad,” he said quietly, “I strongly advise you to shut your mouth before you step in it and break something. You wanted my attention? You have it. Men, bring her to my office. You, keep the bellowing to a minimum. I am hardly going to disappear you from under the noses of hundreds of people, unless you create an unassailable pretext for doing so, which you’re about halfway to doing.”

The whole office was uncharacteristically silent, watching the soldiers ushering an also uncharacteristically silent Savaraad off after Panissar toward the stairs along the east wall of the huge chamber. At their foot, the General suddenly stopped and turned to glare across the assembled troops and attached personnel.

“Are you all bored?”

Instantly, there resumed a flurry of motion as everyone present rushed back to their work. Panissar grunted and continued up the stairs, followed by the lawyer and her guards.

The only man who remained still was the sergeant who had intercepted Savaraad in the first place, staring at the sheet of paper in his hand.

“Hey, Traas.” Another soldier leaned out from behind her own desk. “Did she actually subpoena you?”

Traas blinked at the paper bemusedly, then turned it so she could see its face. “This is a receipt from a housecleaning service.”


“Thank you, gentlemen,” Panissar said to the two soldiers. “Dismissed. Shut the door.”

Both released Savaraad, saluted, and quickly trooped back out, closing the office door behind them as ordered.

The lawyer herself peered quickly around the room through narrowed eyes. It suited Panissar’s reputation: orderly, utilitarian, and neither as large nor as grandiose as his high rank would entitle him to have. Any mid-level bureaucratic functionary might have worked out of this space, save for the room’s only decorations, which consisted of weapons both bladed and modern in glass cases hung along the walls.

“Your reputation precedes you,” Panissar said, stepping around behind the desk and seating himself. Notably, there was no chair in front. “I’m missing lunch with my wife right now because fortunately, someone thought to warn me when you came stomping into the building as if you planned to slay a dragon. So far, you’re every bit as annoying as rumor suggests.”

“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said grimly, brandishing the envelope at him.

“You are also reputed to be a damn good lawyer,” he continued, staring flatly up at her, “and to care in all sincerity for the outcome of your cases and the well-being of your clients. So I have to ask, Savaraad, what the hell were you thinking blurting out details about those three in the middle of a public space where anyone could hear?”

“I was thinking,” she said smugly, “that ImCom’s interest here is to hush up the whole affair, and threatening to poke a hole in that was the best way to motivate you off your ass. I don’t make idle threats or bluffs, by the way. This case will not go away if I suddenly do. In fact, I’ve taken steps to ensure it will get swiftly and dramatically more difficult for you to handle, should that occur.”

“You’re thinking of Imperial Intelligence,” he grunted. “Believe me, if I were in the habit of using wands and oubliettes on idiots who waste my time, this city would be significantly depopulated. So, those three boys are tired of cooling their heels in Last Rock, is that it?”

“You bet your stars, bucko.” She slapped the envelope down on the desk. “In light of the immediate and significant threat to their well-being posed by their own chain of command, Grand Magistrate Seluvid has issued the orders you see before you, including that the matter is to be brought directly to the highest commanding officer of the Army, and may be kept classified in spite of your wishes if I, as their designated legal counsel, should deem it necessary. I want those men honorably discharged from the Army and relieved of all military obligation to the Silver Throne, effective immediately, with retirement benefits suitable for—”

“It’s no surprise you took this to the Grand Magistrate least sympathetic toward the military,” he interrupted. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you got this done so quickly, either. But much as I may frequently want to stuff Seluvid up his own overfed ass—and you may feel free to quote me next time you see him—the man is in no way corrupt. I could only wish he had something like that for me to hold over him. So I have to ask, Savaraad. Exactly what cock-and-bull story did you feed him to get this rushed through? That post may be career suicide, but it’s the cushiest one in the whole damn army. If those boys were in any danger from Tellwyrn or her brats, they’d have noticed it long before now.”

“Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty have offered no complaint about their post, their hostess or their duties until the events of the last week,” she snapped. “Don’t try to deflect me, Panissar, I weave webs around savvier bastards than you before I’m properly awake in the morning. This is related to the sudden pattern of threats to them by the Hand of the Emperor on site.”

Panissar suddenly narrowed his eyes, his face otherwise blank. “What threats?”

“Everything is right there in—”

“Lady, it’s a slow day when I can be arsed to read the paperwork I actually have to read. You’re here, you know the case. Tell me what the Hand did to those soldiers.”

Savaraad actually blinked, taken aback by the sudden intensity in his tone. “He… Do I infer, General, that you are actually unaware of—”

“Do you want to go in an oubliette? Because I actually do have them. Might as well put the space to use if you’re just going to chap my ass.”

She sneered, but answered. “The Hand of the Emperor present at Last Rock, in addition to suddenly exhibiting a pattern of inappropriately aggressive behavior, has attempted to blackmail Professor Tellwyrn into complying with him by threatening harm to my clients. This is obviously a gigantic breach of—”

“So that explains the bluster and shenanigans,” Panissar grunted. “You have no case. A Hand of the Emperor can do whatever the hell he likes with Imperial soldiers, period.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find—”

“Unless,” the General said, “someone puts a stop to it. Through the kind of backroom dealing you came in here to try to pull.” He leaned backward in his chair, peering at her through narrowed eyes. “Hmm. All right, first things first. Honorable discharge with commendations for extraordinary service to the Silver Throne. In fact, I’ll arrange for the Golden Crescent for each of them. That’ll ensure an officer’s pension despite their brief enlistment and low rank. It’s not going to be enough, though.” He abruptly leaned forward, stabbing one finger down onto the desktop. “I assume you’ve got those boys somewhere secure? Tell me they’re not still at Last Rock.”

Savaraad snorted and folded her arms, cradling her thick folder in front of her chest. “Please, this is hardly my first case. Of course I have them safe. Why are you suddenly so accommodating?”

“Because I will not have my men thrown away,” he snapped. “I’ve stuck my neck out for those boys once already, and I didn’t do it so they could just run afoul of Imperial politics. They’re shitty soldiers by any reckoning, but they’re good men, and fiercely loyal to their Emperor. In my military opinion, the latter two traits are more important overall to society than the first one. And that’s our problem, Savaraad; getting them out of the Army won’t be enough. If that Hand has his eye on them, his authority will be only slightly diminished by them being out of the service, and his resources not diminished at all. Once they’re honored and discharged, there’ll be a trail he can follow right to them.”

She narrowed her own eyes. “This is some serious monkey business, Panissar. What makes you think a Hand of the Emperor would do something so petty, and why are you willing to work against him on behalf of three enlisted nobodies?”

“You have no need for those details, Savaraad,” he said curtly.

“Oh, no you don’t. My clients are already in jeopardy because of Imperial politics, as you call them. I’m not about to let—”

“Savaraad, do you have the faintest idea why those men were quartered at the University at Last Rock in the first place?”

“Omnu’s balls, do you never tire of interrupting people?” She let out a sharp huff of irritation. “And no, they only said the matter was classified.”

“Sealed to the Throne, in fact,” he said grimly. “So is the matter you are now trying to butt into. I told you, I don’t disappear people for irritating me. I am, however, fully capable of getting rid of someone who is presenting an authentic threat to Imperial security, which you are in danger of doing. So let me warn you right now: any business pertaining to Hands of the Emperor is not to be discussed outside the details of this case, and then only with your clients and with me. Test me on this, and I will immediately hand you off to Lord Vex, and I can’t honestly promise that he doesn’t disappear people who annoy him. For now,” he added in a less intense tone, relaxing back into his chair again, “I’ll need to be in touch with Intelligence anyway with regard to those boys. Vex isn’t going to consider this a priority, but I will ride his ass in whatever way necessary to get it done.”

“You plan to have Imperial Intelligence hide my clients?” she asked skeptically.

Panissar shook his head. “I mean to have them put a watch on those men’s families.”

“Surely you don’t think they are in danger.”

“I don’t think that, no, but I’m also not ready to rule it out, and in no mood to take risks with this business. And I’m serious, Savaraad—you need to stop asking questions about this, for your sake and that of your clients. As for them, they’ll have to be hidden through non-governmental means if they’re to be kept safe; any other means will leave a trail for…whoever may be after them. If you’re confident of your own security, they may stay where they are till this matter resolves itself, which should be soon. However…” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “As I recall, the privates in question tested as high on devotion to their Emperor as they did low on overall competence. That’s more or less the starting point of all their problems. Does that agree with your own impressions?”

“They’ve made quite a point of it, in fact,” she said pensively. “Moriarty insisted on having affidavits affirming their loyalty to the Emperor included in those documents you’re so determined to ignore. They make a point of emphasizing that taking this action is a last resort, and that they mean no reflection against the Emperor or the Army by it.”

Panissar looked at the envelope lying on his desk, then back up at her. “Of course, you could draw up something like that in an afternoon.”

“Please, there’s no need to be insulting,” she said scornfully. “Ten minutes, and that because I hadn’t had my coffee yet.”

“It’s still a legal service, and it brings up a valid question. You don’t come cheap, Savaraad, nor does anyone in your firm. What it would cost to have someone like you kick up this kind of fuss is more than those three collectively make in a year. Who’s paying for this?”

She raised a supercilious eyebrow. “I’m sure you are aware, General Panissar, that such details are kept strictly private. You will require the order of a Grand Magistrate to have them divulged, and even then, the matter is subject to appeal by both my clients and their financier before it can be executed.”

“So they do have a financier.”

“Oh, please, don’t act like you scored a point,” she said disdainfully. “Of course they do, you said it yourself. Those three definitely don’t have the money to engage someone of my caliber.”

He grunted. “Fine. As I was saying, then. We’ll need to have protective measures in place before putting their discharge through. Before we do that, though, I want you to take a message back to your clients; the answer will determine how, exactly, we proceed.”

“I’m listening,” she said warily.

“If they just want to be hidden, I can arrange that, or they can stay wherever you’ve got them, if you’re certain it’s secure. However, right now there happens to be a need for men loyal to the Throne who are engaged through no agency that the government itself can trace. This work is directly relevant to the mess that’s put them in this pickle: I want to make it very clear up front that it will be dangerous. That’s the question you need to put to them, Savaraad. There’ll be no condemnation from me if they just want to hide, all things considered. But.” He folded his arms on the desk, gazing seriously up at her. “Just because the Army doesn’t need them does not mean their Emperor doesn’t…if they are still willing to serve.”

“You want to put those three into some kind of…secret service?” she asked skeptically. “Far be it from me to belittle a client in good standing, but I think it’s a matter of record that none of them are particularly impressive specimens.”

“I don’t need them to march in formation or shoot straight,” he replied. “They’ve already proven their ability to keep their mouths shut and survive ridiculous catastrophes. In fact, that’s pretty much the point.” He smiled thinly. “There are well-trained, powerful people already working on this, but we can’t all be heroes. Even in the darkest hours, when extraordinary efforts are demanded of those who can offer them, somebody needs to fetch and carry.”

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“Still sore?” Jasmine asked sympathetically.

Tallie immediately removed her hand from her midsection,which she had been rubbing while wincing. “Eh. I’ve been bruised a lot worse after falling off stuff.”

“If you’re worried about Style, I have it directly from her own mouth that Mesmer was full of it.” Jasmine pointedly touched the now-unbruised side of her face. “We can find a temple or an alchemy shop…”

“It’s not bad enough to be worth the effort or time,” Tallie said quickly. “Let’s just get to the station before something even worse happens to Rasha.”

“Can’t walk much faster,” Ross pointed out, “or we’ll be knockin’ people over. Then he won’t be the only one in a cell.”

“Honestly, I’m rather disappointed,” Darius said to Jasmine, grinning. “I thought you went out and got your face fixed specifically to tweak Style. This is a big wrench in my plans, you know. I was gonna sell peanuts to your next go-round, make myself some quick pocket change.”

“Boy, are you in the right cult,” Jasmine muttered.

“Aw, aren’t you sweet to notice!”

They didn’t have very far to travel; Rasha had apparently been arrested right outside the Casino, and consequently taken to the nearest police station. The military police in Tiraas being what they were, the building was actually a fortified barracks which, they observed upon drawing closer, had actual mag cannons positioned on top of its corner turrets. Soldiers patrolled the battlements and stood at attention outside. Their eyes followed the four apprentices, but none of them looked particularly shifty—or particularly interesting, being generally dressed like working-class young people. They blended easily with the crowd streaming in and out of the broad doors.

Inside, the place looked less military and more like a government office. People milled about the marble-floored open space inside the doors, talking with one another and in one case shouting at an unimpressed-looking soldier with a battlestaff leaning on his shoulder. Two more troopers were escorting a woman with a black eye toward a rear door; based on their scowls and her limp, the way she accommodatingly followed instructions was a recent development.

Tallie immediately led them across the room to the first open desk they saw; the entire side wall was lined with counters behind which stood a row of soldiers, positioned so that they were at least head and shoulders above those in the main floor. They were behind iron bars with small windows cut out, and behind them stood a couple of other soldiers, conspicuously carrying firearms and watching the lobby closely.

“Help you?” offered the woman Tallie had selected in a weary tone which suggested she was nearing the end of her shift.

“Yes, hello,” Tallie said briskly, placing her hands on the counter and ignoring the way the fresher-looking soldier in the back immediately turned his stare on her. “We’re with the Thieves’ Guild.”

The corporal behind the bars just heaved a long-suffering sigh and gave her an expectant look.

“A friend of ours was arrested last night,” Tallie continued. “His name’s Rasha. We’re here to see him.”

The woman sighed again and shook her head. “What else you got? He have a last name? What’s he arrested for? Basic description? Kid, I’m gonna need details if you want me to dig this guy up. You have any idea how many knuckleheads pass through here in chains?”

“He’s a Punaji boy,” Jasmine said hastily as Tallie scowled and opened her mouth to argue. “We were told he was in for assault…” She glanced at the others. “…possibly of a dwarf?”

“Now, hang on,” Darius protested. “We don’t know anything about that…”

“Who else?” Ross grunted.

“Oh, I remember that guy,” the corporal said before the conversation could degenerate further. “Little fella, looked almost too depressed to walk. Didn’t give anybody a second’s trouble. Yeah, he’ll be in the Tank—double doors on your right, there, follow the hall straight to the main desk and the sergeant on duty will know where he is. Visitation’s allowed.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Jasmine said politely, stepping back and pulling Tallie gently by the elbow.

“What’d you tell her we were Guild for?” Darius asked as they followed the soldier’s directions into a wide hallway beyond the main lobby. “That had to make everything more difficult…”

“Actually, probably made things easier,” said Ross. “Guild’s got strict codes for dealin’ with cops; Guild thieves are prob’ly a lot less trouble than shroomheads and drunks. ‘sides, you don’t wanna be more difficult with the Guild than you have to, or they come back with more.”

“What he said,” Tallie agreed. “Honestly, Darius, what do you hear when Lore talks to us?”

“The soothing sound of rain on a tin roof.”

“I’m telling him you said that.”

“You’re a bad person, Tallie.”

She made no answer. They had arrived at a T intersection in the hall, which continued on ahead, but the side hallway branching off to the right was lined with cells. Tallie picked up her pace, dashing past the desk in the intersection behind which sat another officer, to grasp the bars of the first cell across the way.

“Rasha! Are you okay?”

He was very much as the corporal out front had described. Sitting on one of the thinly-padded bunks in the cell, he slumped with his head down, as if trying to collapse inward into a puddle. At Tallie’s voice, he shifted slightly, then only after a long moment raised his head. His face was haggard, eyes bloodshot and set in darkened pits.

“Oh. Hey, Tallie. Hi, guys.”

The others filed carefully past the desk, watching the other people present, whom Tallie had ignored. The sergeant behind the desk was observing all this with long-suffering patience, and the other soldier at this post had just resumed her position near him, having started to lunge for Tallie upon her rush to the bars and been called back by her superior.

Also present was a well-groomed, if somewhat tired-looking, redheaded dwarf with a neatly-trimmed beard, watching them with a smile which could only be described as smug.

“Are you hurt?” Tallie demanded. “Are they treating you all right? You haven’t been abused, have you? YOU!” She stuck her whole arm through the bars, pointing at Rasha’s cellmate. “You better not have laid a finger on him!”

“HEY,” barked the uniformed woman by the sergeant’s desk. “Get the hell out of that cell!”

“I beg your pardon, little missy,” the old man in the cell answered in an affronted tone while Jasmine and Darius dragged Tallie away from the bars. “Just whaddaya take me for? I’m in fer vagrancy an’ loitering! Ain’t never harmed so much as a flea!”

“That’s for damn sure,” the sergeant said dryly. “We’ll be pickin’ ’em out of that cell for weeks. And you’re in for trafficking, Cletus. As usual.”

“Bah! A man’s gotta make a livin!” He looked like a homeless person—filthy, dressed in layers of ragged old clothes, and as he demonstrated by grinning at the sergeant, with his few remaining teeth stained blue by glittershroom use.

“So you’re friends of our terrifying, monstrous back-alley strangler, eh,” the sergeant continued, eyeing them all over without shifting from his seat. “Good thing you came along. We were afraid he was gonna bust out of there. Just bend the bars apart and smash his way out of the station through a wall.”

“Sergeant Prynne is having a little jest at my expense,” the dwarf said blandly.

“I don’t get it,” Jasmine replied, staring him down.

“Well, you see, Jas,” Darius explained condescendingly, “this asshole here would be the person Rasha assaulted—”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Rasha’s shroom-trafficking cellmate raised a finger warningly. “Allegedly assaulted! Don’t never admit nothin’ to the fuzz! Ain’t you kids never been arrested before?”

“We’re rusty,” Tallie muttered. “It’s been a couple of days.”

“I can’t believe this is even happening!” Jasmine exclaimed. “Dwarves are almost the sturdiest people in existence—Rasha’s not physically capable of harming him! Look, he’s not even scratched!”

“Yes, Jasmine, that would be the joke,” said Darius. “Glad you could join us.”

“Be that as it may,” the sergeant said flatly, “I have two witnesses who saw Mr. Rasha-with-no-surname physically attack Mr. Rogrind. Being non-inducted employees of the Thieves’ Guild, they are considered trustworthy witnesses, as the Guild has and enforces very strict policies against lying to law enforcement. Which I suspect you know. The lack of any significant injury done will doubtless be reflected in his sentencing, but that’s up to whatever magistrate has to deal with this waste of time. A credible charge of assault has been brought and the accused is being held as per the law.”

“In the Tiraan Empire,” the dwarf explained pleasantly, “the victim of a crime has prosecutorial discretion. Charges will be pressed by default—unless, of course, I should decide not to press them.”

“Let me just stop you right there,” Tallie snarled, stomping up to him. She towered over the dwarf, who tilted his head back to look up at her without the slightest indication of unease. “The answer to your next insinuation is, as always, fuck off!”

“Actually, young lady, I had intended to discuss the matter as frankly as possible,” he said politely, taking a step back. “Too much insinuation, I feel, has led us into this series of misunderstandings. And are you sure you should speak for your companions?”

“I am perfectly okay with that,” Jasmine said grimly, folding her arms. Ross grunted in approval.

“Ehhh…” Darius made a waffling motion with his hand. “I feel that rejection didn’t contain nearly enough obscenities. But I’ll give her points for the spirit of the thing.”

“Honestly,” said the dwarf—Rogrind, apparently—with a disarming shrug, “your obstreperousness is amazing to behold. You kids have never even indulged me in a proper discussion.”

“Are you saying you’ve been repeatedly told by these people to leave them alone and have refused?” Sergeant Prynne cut in dryly. “Because that verges on harassment.”

“He’s a blackmailer!” Tallie said shrilly, pointing at the dwarf. “Arrest him!”

“Whoah,” Darius said, coming up behind her and placing his hands on her shoulders. “Let’s not go telling soldiers in their own police station who to arrest, kay?”

“I would be careful, Miss Peuterschmidt,” Rogrind said with a smile. “Bringing false charges is a punishable offense under Tiraan law.”

“The burden of proof on that is virtually impossible,” Prynne noted. “You would have to prove that the accused knowingly and deliberately acted with malice aforethought. In twelve years working municipal law enforcement, I’ve never once seen that successfully prosecuted.”

“Yeah!” Tallie shouted, dramatically brandishing a finger inches from the dwarf’s nose. “Suck on that!”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Rogrind said wryly.

“Pleasure,” Prynne replied with a sunny smile. The uniformed private standing by his desk made a half-hearted effort to repress a smile.

“In fact,” the dwarf added, “forgive me, but I seem to have noted a general pattern of hostility toward me from the moment the accused was brought in. Is this, perhaps, a racial issue?”

“No,” the sergeant said evenly, “it’s an issue of you bringing me a member of the Thieves’ Guild and adamantly refusing to drop charges. You either don’t comprehend the headache you’ve insisted on dropping on my desk, or don’t care. Neither prospect predisposes me positively toward you.”

“There’s a reason we housed him in the end cell, there, by the exit,” the other soldier added with a grin. “Makes what comes next generally a lot less fuss and bother.”

“Oh?” Rogrind said dryly. “If I am not mistaken, the laws of the Tiraan Empire trump the influence wielded illicitly by the Thieves’ Guild. What is it that you believe comes next?”

“They don’t have Guild chapters up in the mountains, Sarge,” Darius confided. “Bear with the old sot, he’s new at this.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” Prynne complained. “I had a moment of hope when you kids turned up, but you’re clearly not the right professionals, no offense. Never thought I’d be glad to see one of those sharks, but this whole goddamn thing is a waste of my time and cell space.”

“Aw, hell, I don’t mind!” Cletus said cheerily. “Politest roommate I ever had!”

Rasha sighed heavily, again staring at the floor between his feet.

“Sharks?” Rogrind arched one bushy eyebrow. “I was under the impression you act, in this context, backed by the full force of the Imperial government. What Guild shark are you—”

“THAT WOULD BE ME.”

The woman who appeared on the scene arrived like a storm, strewing loose papers from the bulgingly overstuffed folder tucked under her arm. She wore an expensive leather duster over a rumpled but tailored men’s suit, with spectacles perched precariously on her nose and her hair coming loose from what had at one point been a tidy bun. In her other hand was a large thermos, which she brandished upon skidding to a stop in the intersection, having arrived at a dead run.

“Oh, great,” Prynne muttered. “This one.”

The new arrival slammed the thermos down on the corner of his desk and flung out her hand at the startled dwarf; with a flick of her wrist, a business card manifested in her fingers, and was then flung contemptuously at Rogrind.

“Bird Savaraad, attorney at law,” she barked at such a rapid pace that her syllables nearly blurred together. “On retainer for the Thieves’ Guild of Tiraas and thus responsible for this nonsense right here that you’re doing and you may thank whatever the hell it is you people worship that you’re dealing with me and not Guild personnel proper and may I respectfully suggest in a strictly personal and non-professional capacity that you drop this shit before it gets to that point.”

She paused to snatch her thermos off the desk, slapping down the thick folder and tilting it up to drink deeply from whatever was inside.

“Bit early in the morning, isn’t it?” Darius said, raising an eyebrow.

“Not for coffee,” Bird Savaraad chattered. “Never too early, too late or too anything. Now then!” After rummaging in her open folder for a moment, she whipped out a long sheet of paper which had become inadvertently dog-eared where its upper edge stuck out of its housing on the way over. “It is my understanding, Mr. Rogrind if that is in fact your real name, that you intend to press charges against one Rasha, apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild, for the alleged crime of assault?”

Rogrind, who had been staring at her in apparent bemusement, at this turned to the other apprentices with an expectant expression.

In unison, all four folded their arms and glared at him.

“Hello!” Savaraad snapped, flapping the paper at him. “Yes? No? Maybe? This requires your input! If you fail to render a position it shall be assumed that you decline to press charges!”

“You can’t actually do that,” Prynne commented.

“Silence, minion!” the lawyer barked at him. He rolled his eyes.

Rogrind cleared his throat, regaining her attention. “Yes, I intend to press charges, Ms. Savaraad.”

“That’s great, fine and dandy, finally we can move on with this. I am authorized by my client to extend to you a compromise under the following terms: instead of pressing charges, you will not do that, and we can all go home. Do you acquiesce?”

“No, I don’t believe so,” Rogrind said sardonically.

“Splendid!” She grinned wolfishly, had another swig of coffee, set her thermos back down on the desk and advanced on him with the paper upheld in both hands. “I have here, Mr. Rogrind, a notarized affidavit from multiple credible witnesses who for reasons of fear for their personal welfare choose to remain anonymous but whose identities and contributions have been documented and will should this come to trial be presented confidentially to the magistrate overseeing proceedings stating that you, Mr. Rogrind…” She paused here, nearly doubled over, and drew in a loud gasp of air, before continuing at the same breakneck pace, “have been observed engaged in activities including but not limited to trafficking in illegal weaponry, assault of Imperial citizens, trafficking in drugs, animal cruelty, sale of pottery without a duly issued municipal permit to conduct commerce, tax evasion, loitering, jaywalking, arson, pushing an old lady into traffic, and negligent defenestration.”

“Is this…some manner of joke?” Rogrind demanded, turning to the soldiers, both of whom were grinning broadly enough to provide an unspoken answer to his question. “Those charges are entirely spurious, and frankly absurd!”

“And what the hell is negligent defenestration?” Darius asked in a fascinated tone. Tallie reached up to put a hand over his mouth.

“Let me break it down for you, my little lost lamb,” Savaraad barreled on. “I’m a lawyer for the Thieves’ Guild. In one hour, if I so desire, I can have a notarized statement signed by ten noble witnesses that they saw you murder the Empress. Not that would hold up in court, of course, and bringing something like that before a judge is asking to get charged with contempt, but Imperial law being what it is, standards for prosecuting offenses are very different from those required to file certain papers.”

“Hey, now,” Sergeant Prynne protested. “Let’s please refrain from discussing committing fraud right in front of me, Bird.”

She whirled on him, flapping the notarized list of accusations against Rogrind menacingly. “Don’t even think about it, buttercup! The preceding statement was clearly hypothetical and not to be construed as either a threat or offer of services, and any attempt by you to press the issue will be met with a lawsuit for wrongful prosecution at the end of which I will have your badge, your pension, your apartment, and just because I’m a vindictive asshole, those crisply-pressed slacks!”

Prynne sighed and leaned his head over the back of his chair to stare at the ceiling. “Would you kindly just get on with this and get out?”

“Gladly.” Savaraad whipped back around to point menacingly at the increasingly baffled Rogrind. “I have all the requisite paperwork drawn up and ready to be handed of to the requisite Imperial functionaries, at which point an investigation of your activities will begin. Considering some of the specific charges involved, the quality of the witnesses and evidence I have arranged will result in a direct and thorough perusal of your person, residence and activities byyyyy…” Again grinning unpleasantly, she leaned forward until her eye level was almost the same as his, and her nose inches from his face, and spoke in a menacing drawl totally unlike her previous rapid delivery. “Imperial Intelligence. All up in every. Little. Part. Of your personal business.”

Bird held Rogrind’s eyes for another moment, then abruptly straightened up and turned to the fascinated apprentices. “Y’see, kids, all systems as they say are pretty much corrupt. Laws in the Empire, as in basically every advanced society, are structured such that people who can afford the services of individuals like me can avoid trials where they will inevitably be found guilty of something simply by pushing papers around, which is why there’s a vast catalog of motions which can be filed to stall legal proceedings. Of course, in this case we don’t really need to stall, just to bring the eyes of the Empire directly onto this guy, whereupon they will discover things which while irrelevant to our business will result in him no longer being the Guild’s problem, or yours. Well?” She turned back to Rogrind, folding her hands behind her back and twisting her upper body coquettishly. “How ’bout it, big guy? What’s the word?”

Rogrind was staring at her quite evenly now. Another beat passed, wherein his seemed to consider his next words. Then he cleared his throat and turned to the desk.

“Sergeant Prynne, upon consideration, I have decided not to press charges against the accused.”

“Yyyeaaaaahhh,” Bird drawled. “I had a feeling.”

“Welp, you heard the man, Private,” Prynne said with a smirk. “Let the kid out.”

“Well, butter my butt an’ call me a biscuit!” Cletus cackled, slapping his knee, while the soldier unlocked the cell and beckoned to Rasha. “Now that there’s a perfessional! Darlin’, I’d ask you to represent me, but a body gets tired a’ bein’ told by women that he cain’t afford ’em!”

“I know what you mean,” Bird said sympathetically.

“Rasha, are you okay?” Tallie said worriedly, rushing to him as he was brought out of the cell. He shrugged.

“Hey.” Jasmine placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed until he looked up at her, then smiled. “Not your fault. Okay?”

“Course it’s his fault,” the lawyer scoffed. “Goddamn it, I realize you kids are new, but don’t attack people in front of witnesses! Now c’mon, we’re not going to discuss this in front of the yokels. Come on! Shoo shoo march let’s go!”

“Always a pleasure, Bird,” Sergeant Prynne said, waving languidly as she snatched up her effects and ushered the five of them back up the hall. Rogrind simply stood with his head slightly tilted, watching them go.

“All right, I’m an independent contractor, not strictly Guild, so I can’t do a thing about what Style does to you over this,” Bird continued as she harried them across the lobby toward the station’s front doors, her chatter nearly drowned out by the noise and press of humanity they passed. “But for now, you’re off the hot seat legally, and my retainer here covers legal advice, the bulk of which I just gave you, but just to repeat because it bears repeating, pick your battles, dammit!”

She had come to a stop on the steps outside the station, and turned to scowl at Rasha.

“Hey, go easy on him,” Tallie said, taking his shoulders from behind. “He’s had a rough—”

“Would you stop!” he burst out, shrugging her off. “Dammit, I’m not a pet, and I’m not a kid! I fucked up, all right? As usual.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Darius said. “Ease up there—on her, and on yourself. So the fucker baited you into making a mistake. I’m getting the impression this is not that guy’s first rodeo. He’s probably gonna be trying this on all of us, and I bet he knows exactly what runes to push. Okay?” He stared firmly around at the others. “Rasha had the bad luck to be first, but this isn’t over. We need to remember that.”

“Exactly,” Bird said approvingly.

Rasha heaved a sigh, shrugging his shoulders. “Well. Guess after Style gets through punching the shit out of me, I can look forward to lawyer fees being tacked onto my apprenticeship debt.”

“Actually I wasn’t summoned by the Guild,” Bird corrected. “A private individual paid for this. Far as I’m concerned you kids are off the hook; I wasn’t instructed to discuss payment with you, and were that an issue I probably would have been.”

“Oh, just let me guess,” Tallie sighed. “Alan Vandro?”

Bird wrinkled her nose. “Vandro? Ew. That arrogant misogynistic wart? Please, I’d sue him into a puddle of remorse just for making eye contact with me. No, I was contracted by Tamisin Sharvineh, whom you may also know as Glory.”

Jasmine blinked. “Really.”

“And I heartily recommend you all toddle over there at your first opportunity and express effusive thanks,” Bird added. “For now, whatever it is that dwarf wants with you, here’s a word of warning: he’s almost certainly a government agent.”

“Wait,” said Darius, frowning. “Why would a government agent be intimidated by Imperial Intelligence?”

“Every part of that question is wrong, you doorknob,” the attorney said in exasperation. “Everyone is intimidated by the goddamn secret police, especially functionaries who live and work right within their easy reach, and I didn’t mean our government! Look, culturally speaking, dwarves think of thieves the way people in the Empire do of warlocks. The Theives’ Guild is the kind of horror with which they threaten their children when they won’t eat their vegetables or go to sleep on time. Most of the dwarves active in the Empire and especially the capital are either permanent residents or merchants, the kinds of people who don’t make waves because they cannot afford to. Of the relatively few organizations in the Five Kingdoms which are active in the Empire, there are none besides government spies and the Order of the Light who would be willing to go toe-to-toe with the Guild, and this is not how the Order operates. You kids are a soft target, relatively speaking, which has to be why they’re after you so relentlessly, but they have to know that if they push it, the Guild will push back, and the Guild is not known for pushing gently. That man is indisputably a highly skilled, hardened professional who will stop at nothing to achieve whatever his goal is, and has the resources of at least one of the Kingdoms backing him. Watch your asses, clear?”

Ross let out a low whistle.

“Well, there y’see?” Darius patted Rasha on the back. “You got played by a professional spy. Could’ve happened to anybody.”

“Somehow,” Rasha said in a strained voice, “that doesn’t help!”

“Calm,” Jasmine urged. “This has been a mess, but we’ve actually made progress today.”

“Such as?” Tallie asked skeptically.

Jasmine smiled. “We have a name. Rogrind.”

Bird cleared her throat. “Well, with our business here concluded I really need to be shoving off, but in parting let me just verify that there is no possible way that’s his real actual name, and you know this, right? Right?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” said Jasmine. “For mundane detective work or even arcane scrying, it’s practically nothing to go on, true. But it’s a name he uses, and for the purposes of the right kind of fae magic, that’s a connection that can be followed back to him.” She grinned. “In addition to visiting Glory to pay our respects today, I say we head to the College of Salyrene and find our friend Schwartz. I’ll bet he can help us narrow this down to something we can tell Boss Tricks.”

“An interesting approach,” Rogrind said, joining them on the steps with a smile. All five jerked back from him, Ross momentarily losing his balance on the stairs and having to be steadied by Darius. “Let me just remind you all that up to this point, I have made every effort to gently illustrate my capability to get results, and tried to offer you more than fair restitution for your help in gaining what I need. I still much prefer those terms, and I think you’ll find that I can offer you a great deal. If you insist on making this confrontational, you should take care to be very certain you know what you’re getting into.”

“Carefully phrased,” said Bird, “but still a threat. Welp, I’m not paid enough for this. Cheerio, kids.”

She took off down the sidewalk at a brisk walk, still dripping papers from her thick folder.

“I hope none of those are important,” Darius mused, watching her go.

“She’s right, though,” said Jasmine, staring at the dwarf. “He’s threatening us, now.”

“I’m sure you misconstrued what I said,” Rogrind demurred with a pleasant smile. “And I’ll remind you that we are standing in front of an Imperial military police station, and any violent action—”

“Oh, shut your fucking gob, you piece of shit,” Rasha snarled. “Lesson learned. Next time we have to shut you up, you won’t see it coming and there won’t be witnesses.”

Rogrind sighed. “You kids really are out of your depth, aren’t you? Now, that was a threat, and right in front of—”

“How did you know my last name?” Tallie asked quietly.

The dwarf gave her a mysterious smile. “One picks up interesting bits and bobs here and there. All it takes is listening.”

“Yeah,” said Rasha. “He was also vague after he talked about my sisters.”

“Ohh, that is not a game you want to play,” Darius whispered.

Jasmine snorted. “Please, track down my family. I wish you all luck with it.”

“Ah.” Rogrind looked past them at the street. “Well, speak of the Dark Lady, as you Imperials say. A pleasure as always, my friends. I’ll talk to you soon; for now, I should leave Darius to attend to family business.”

“What?” Darius barked, whirling. “What are—”

He fell silent, staring at the street, where an expensively lacquered carriage had just pulled up to the curb in front of the police station. Rogrind strolled down the steps and away along the sidewalk, but they weren’t watching him anymore. The carriage wasn’t enchanted, but drawn by matching black horses groomed till they glowed, and had a House coat of arms on its door.

“Aw, hell,” Darius groaned.

A footman had dismounted from the rear of the carriage and approached its door, but before he reached it, the door burst open and a girl of no more than sixteen leaped out, heedless of her expensive dress.

“Darius!” she shouted, pointing accusingly at him.

He sighed heavily. “Hi, Layla. Let me guess, a dwarf told you I’d be here.”

“I don’t even want to know what manner of unsavory people you’re associating with now,” the girl seethed, stalking up the steps to him and utterly ignoring the bystanders who had stopped to gawk at her and her carriage.

“Hey,” Ross protested, and was ignored.

“Have you any idea how worried we’ve been?” Layla demanded, jabbing Darius in the chest with a finger. “Mother is positively beside herself! You shall be lucky if Father doesn’t disinherit you entirely!”

“Guys, this is my little sister, Layla,” he said resignedly. “Layla, may I introduce—”

“I refuse to become acquainted with your pack of guttersnipes!” she seethed. “Lord Darius Ahmad Sakhavenid, you will stop this nonsense and come home this instant!”

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