“So, we’ve got that hangin’ over us all fuckin’ summer,” Ruda groused. “Come back for our sophomore year and immediately get put to work scrubbing mulch and basting doors and whatever the hell housekeeping tasks Stew thinks up until Tellwyrn gets tired of our suffering. Hoo-fucking-ray.”
“Scrubbing mulch?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Have you ever cleaned anything in your life, Princess?”
“Arquin, you will never be demonic enough or divine enough that I will refrain from kicking your ass. Bring the skeevy dude in the hat down here and I’ll kick his ass, too.”
“Sorry to interrupt your blasphemy,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “but I won’t be joining in your mulch-scrubbing this fall. I’m staying on campus over the summer.”
“Yup!” Fross chimed, bobbing around them. “Professor Tellwyrn is letting us do our punishment duty over the summer and get it out of the way. It’s pretty accommodating of her! We broke a lot of campus rules.”
“Considering she’s still punishing us for obeying a direct command from the gods, I’m not gonna get too worked up about her generosity,” Gabriel muttered.
“To be technical,” said Fross, “she’s punishing Trissiny and Toby for obeying a direct command from the gods, which is actually not at all out of character given her history. The rest of us don’t really have an excuse. I mean, if she’s not gonna accept a divine mandate as a good reason, citing friendship probably isn’t gonna help. Anyhow, I’ve gotta go finish cleaning up the spell lab I was using. Nobody leave campus before I can say goodbye! Oh, Ruda, looks like your dad is here. See ya later!”
The pixie zipped off toward the magical arts building in a silver streak, leaving the others staring after her.
“What?” Ruda demanded. “My—what? Oh, shit.”
It was a characteristically sunny day, with a brisk wind across the mountain cutting the prairie heat. The campus of the University was teeming with people, despite the fact that many of the students were already gone. Parents, friends and family members were everywhere, picking up their kids and being shown around on one of the few occasions when non-initiates of the University were welcomed there. A few curiosity-seekers had also snuck in, though they seldom lasted long before Tellwyrn found and disposed of them. Professor Rafe had already been informed that if he didn’t remove the betting board set up in the cafeteria speculating on where various journalists and pilgrims had been teleported to, he himself would be walking home from Shaathvar.
Now, a sizable party of men and women in feathered hats, heavy boots and greatcoats were making their way up the avenue to the main lawn, on which the six freshmen had just come to a stop. Toby and Juniper had both departed that morning, leaving the rest to make more leisurely goodbyes as they still had time.
Trissiny touched Ruda’s shoulder lightly from behind. “Are you okay? Do you need—”
“No,” she said quietly. “I have to face this. Guys, if I don’t get to talk to you again, enjoy your summer.” Squaring her shoulders, she stepped forward, striding up to the group of oncoming Punaji.
They stopped at their princess’s approach, parting to let the towering figure in the middle come forth. King Rajakhan was a looming wall of a man, a bulky mass of muscle who would have looked squat due to his build if the proximity of more normally-sized people didn’t reveal that he was also hugely tall. The bushy black beard which was the source of his nickname did not conceal a tremendous scowl. He stepped up, folding brawny arms across his massive chest, and stared down at his daughter.
Ruda, uncharacteristically subdued, removed her hat respectfully and stopped a mere yard from him. The onlooking pirates watched, impassive and silent; the remaining freshmen edged closer.
“The news I hear has impelled me to spend from our people’s treasury to have portal mages bring me here,” he rumbled. “I am pleased to see you whole, daughter. Less pleased by the report I have from Professor Tellwyrn. I understand that you were given an order to evacuate, and you disobeyed it. Through magical subterfuge. This is true?”
“My friends—my crew—had to stay, by orders of the gods,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t raised to leave people behind in danger.”
“I hear your justifications, but not the answer I asked for,” Blackbeard growled.
Ruda stiffened her shoulders slightly. “This is true, sir.”
He snorted. “I further understand that you slew three shadowlord demons and uncounted buzzers yourself, placing your own life in danger.”
“Yes, sir,” she said woodenly. “Alongside eight of the best people I know.”
“I further understand that you were stopped only because you somehow ingested the poison blood of your enemy.”
“Yes, sir. We grappled too closely for swords. I bit its throat.” Her lips twisted in remembered disgust. “They have very tough hides.”
He slowly began drawing in a very deep breath, his huge chest swelling even further, then let it out in one explosive sigh that made his beard momentarily flap like a banner. Somehow, it occurred to nobody to laugh at what would otherwise be a comical sight.
“In all the nations on land or sea,” the Pirate King said with a faint tremor in his voice, reaching out to place one enormous hairy hand on Ruda’s shoulder, “there has never been a prouder father.”
“Papa!” Ruda squealed, launching herself into his arms. Rajakhan’s laughter boomed across the quad as he spun her around in circles, the pirates around him adding their cheers to the noise (and half of them brandishing weapons).
“As I live and breathe,” Gabriel said in wonder.
“I feel I have just gained a better understanding of Ruda’s upbringing,” Shaeine said softly, “and some of what has occurred thereafter.”
“Hey, Teal,” Tanq said, approaching the group but watching the loud pirates curiously. “Does your family own a zeppelin?”
Teal abruptly whirled toward him, growing pale. “…why do you ask?”
“I just wondered. There’s a little one moored at the Rail platform down in town; I saw it when I was sending a scroll… It’s got the Falconer Industries crest on the balloon. I just wondered if it was a company craft or if FI was making them now. Pretty sweet little rig, if I’m any judge.”
“Oh no,” Teal groaned, clapping a hand over her eyes. “Oh, no. I told them… Augh!”
She took off down the path at a near run.
Tanq blinked, staring after her, then turned to the rest of the group. “What’d I say?”
“Teal laboriously made plans regarding our travel arrangements from the campus,” Shaeine replied. “I gather they have just been abruptly modified. Excuse me, please? If I don’t see you again, my friends, I wish you the best over the coming months and look forward to our reunion.” She bowed to them, then favored them with one of her rare, sincere smiles, before turning and gliding off after Teal.
She was about to unleash Vadrieny and swoop upward for a better view when a fortuitous gap between buildings happened to give her a view down onto Last Rock, including a familiar silver shape perched at its edges, with an even more familiar sigil emblazoned on its side.
“Why!?” she groaned. “Why would they do that? I had everything arranged!”
They care about you, and this campus was recently the site of a major crisis. Which we jumped into the middle of. Makes perfect sense to me.
“Oh, whose side are you on?” she snapped. Vadrieny’s silent laugh bubbled through her.
It’ll be all right, Teal. They’ll understand.
“I know how to deal with them. I was gonna have time to explain things on the magic mirror, and then they’d have had the carriage ride to get used to it… Oh, gods, this is gonna be so awkward. Damn it, why don’t they ever listen?”
So they may not understand as quickly, or as easily. They will, though.
She whirled at hearing her name, beholding two well-known figures striding quickly toward her from the direction of the upper terrace.
“Speak of the demon,” she said fatalistically.
“Well, that’s a nice way to greet your parents,” Marguerite Falconer said, trying without success to look annoyed. Beside her, Geoffrey grinned in delight, not even making the effort.
“This place is somehow smaller than I was imagining it,” he said. “But so…gothic. With all this grandiose architecture and these overgrown paths, I almost can’t believe it’s only fifty years old. We actually managed to get lost, if you can believe that!”
“I can believe it,” Teal said in exasperation. “What are you doing here with that airship? I made plans! Everything was arranged!”
“Well, excuse us for jumping the wand,” Marguerite replied, raising her eyebrows and pushing her spectacles back up her nose. “What with our only child, who has already suffered far more than her fair share of disasters, being stuck in the middle of a hellgate, we were just a little anxious to see you again.”
“C’mere,” Geoffrey ordered, stepping up and sweeping Teal into a hug. She hugged him back, despite her annoyance, relaxing into the embrace as her mother joined it from behind.
“It’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” she mumbled into her father’s cardigan. “I just wanted to… I mean, I had a plan. There was some stuff I wanted to, uh, get you ready for before it, y’know…”
“Oh, Teal,” Marguerite said reproachfully, finally stepping back. Geoffrey released her, too, ruffling her hair. “Dear, it’s all right. It’s not as if this is some great secret. You know we’re fine with it.”
“I mean, for heaven’s sakes, our best friend is an elf,” Geoffrey added with a grin. “You said you were bringing someone special home for the summer holiday. We can manage to put two and two together.”
“I’m sure we’ll love her. Our daughter can only have good taste!”
Teal sighed heavily, staring hopelessly at them. At a glance, nobody would take the Falconers for two of the richest people in the Empire. They were a matched set, both with mouse-brown hair cut short, which looked almost boyish on Marguerite and rather shaggy on Geoffrey. He had a round, florid face decorated by a beard in need of trimming, while her pointed features had been described as “elfin,” but they shared a preference for comfortable, casual clothes in a masculine style. Even their glasses were identical.
“Well, I did try,” she said finally. “Give me credit for that much, at least, when this is all falling out.”
“Oh, Teal, I’ve missed you,” Marguerite said fondly. “Dramatic streak and all.” Geoffrey snorted a laugh.
“Teal? Is everything all right?”
Teal heaved a short, shallow sigh, then half-turned to smile at Shaeine as the priestess glided up to them. “Well, that remains to be seen. Mom, Dad, may I present Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. Shaeine, these are my parents, Marguerite and Geoffrey Falconer.”
“It is an honor and a pleasure,” Shaeine said, bowing deeply to the Falconers. “Your daughter is a great credit to your lineage.”
“My, isn’t she well-mannered,” Marguerite said with a broad smile. “Teal, I can only hope the rest of your friends are such a good influence.”
“I gather you have not introduced them to Ruda yet,” Shaeine said calmly. Teal snorted a laugh.
“Ruda Punaji?” Geoffrey said with a grin. “I’m curious to meet that one, after your letters. But maybe in a more, you know, controlled environment.”
“Oh, stop it,” Marguerite chided, swatting him playfully. “It’s lovely to meet you, Sheen. Don’t mind my husband, he belongs in a workshop, not among civilized people.”
“That was an excellent try,” the drow replied with a smile. “It’s actually Sha-ayne.”
“It’s all one vowel,” Teal added. “Just changes pronunciation partway.”
“Really?” Geoffrey marveled. “I fancy I speak a smidge of elvish. Not as well as Teal, of course, but that’s a new one.”
“Don’t be an ass, Geoff, she’s Narisian. Of course they have a different dialect. Shaeine, yes? How did I do?”
“Perfect,” Shaeine replied, smiling more broadly. “You have an agile tongue, Mrs. Falconer.”
“I’ll say she—”
“Don’t you dare!” Marguerite shrieked, smacking her husband across the back of his head. He caught his flying glasses, laughing uproariously. Teal covered her eyes with a hand.
“Anyway,” Marguerite said with more dignity as Geoffrey readjusted his glasses, still chuckling, “I’m sure we’ll be glad to meet all your classmates, honey, but we should see about getting your luggage together.”
“We saw that crazy tower you’re apparently living in,” Geoffrey added, “but I guess it’s not open to visitors. Inconvenient, but a fine policy in my opinion! I remember my own college days. Barely. It’s also a fine policy that this is a dry campus.”
“Will your girlfriend be meeting us there?” Marguerite asked. “I’m just about beside myself with curiosity! Don’t look at me like that, it’s a mother’s prerogative.”
Teal closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her teeth, and let the breath out through her nose, trying to ignore the hysterical mirth echoing in her mind from her demon counterpart. Shaeine half-turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow.
The silence stretched out.
Suddenly Marguerite’s face paled in comprehension, and she settled a wide-eyed stare on Shaeine. “Oh.”
Geoffrey looked at his wife, then his daughter, then shrugged, still smiling innocently. “What?”
“So, is this the new thing?” Trissiny asked, pointing at the sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt opposite his new wand, which rested in a holster. “You’re a swordsman now?”
“Oh…well.” He shrugged uncomfortably, placing a hand on Ariel’s hilt. “I just… I don’t know, I find it kind of comforting, having it there. Is that weird?”
“Taking comfort in the weight of a sword is certainly not weird to me,” she said with a smile. “I’m a little surprised you would enjoy it, though.”
“Yeah, I kind of am, too,” he said ruefully. “It’s just… The whole world just got turned upside-down on me, you know? I’ve only had Ariel here for a couple months, but it’s still something familiar. Something I can literally hang onto.”
“I do, know,” she said quietly. “I remember the feeling all too well. It was a very different circumstance, of course… I couldn’t begin to guess whether that would make it more or less shocking to experience.”
He laughed. “Less. Much less. Modesty aside, Triss, you’re pretty much a model Avenist. Me, I’m not even Vidian. I never even thought about whether I’d want to be. It’s not as if I ever prayed, after that one time. Burned my goddamn tongue, and I mean that as literally as possible.”
Trissiny nodded. “There’s… I guess there is just no precedent for what you’re having to deal with. I’ll help if I can at all, though. Anything you need to talk about, just ask. And not just me, of course. Do you know how soon Toby is coming back to campus?”
“Just a couple of weeks, actually. He needs to spend some time with the Omnists and the Universal Church over the summer, but apparently shepherding my clumsy ass is also a significant priority.”
“I have the same duties,” she said solemnly. “But I’m not making my trips to Tiraas and Viridill until later in the summer. I guess I just drew the first Gabriel shift.”
“Har har.” He stopped walking, and she paused beside him. They were in a relatively shady intersection of paths, with the bridge to Clarke Tower just up ahead. Towering elms, swaying and whispering softly in the gentle wind, shielded them from the direct sun. “Triss, I am scared out of my fucking mind.”
“I know.” She squeezed his shoulder. “I know. Look, Gabriel, it’s… It’s just a hell of a thing, okay? But…and I mean this sincerely…you will be all right. I truly do believe you can do this. I would never have predicted it in a million years, but in hindsight, it makes a great deal of sense. This will work. You’ll be fine.”
“That…” He swallowed painfully. “Hah. That means a lot, Trissiny. Especially from you. More than from anyone else, maybe.”
“Well, there’s that, too,” she said, smiling. “Whatever else happens, Gabe, you can always count on me to let you know when you screw up.”
“Well, sure. It hardly even needs to be said, does it?”
She laughed softly. “Well…anyhow. I’ve got to head inside here for a minute. You’re going to be in the cafeteria for dinner?”
“Along with the other losers who are staying over the summer, yup.” He stuck his hands in his coat pockets. “I do need to visit the Vidians at some point, but they’re coming here. So’s my dad. Apparently there’s kind of a controversy around me at the moment. Can’t imagine why.”
“Probably best not to have you in circulation just yet,” she said with a grin. “Well… I guess I’ll see you around campus, then?”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling back. “See you around.”
Gabriel watched her go, until she passed through the gate onto the bridge itself, then shook his head, still smiling, and resumed his slow way along the path.
“That girl has a powerful need for your approval.”
“What?” He laughed aloud. “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And considering what recently—”
He stopped, frowning and staring around. There was no one nearby.
“Granted, I only know what I’ve heard from conversations around you, but didn’t she try to murder you once? That would weigh on the conscience of anybody who has one. The more she gets to know you as a real person, rather than the imaginary monster she was reacting to at the time, the uglier that whole business must look to her. Of course, a properly spiritual person could recognize all this and deal with it, but… Let’s be honest, Avei doesn’t go out of her way to pick deep thinkers.”
He had spun this way and that, growing increasingly agitated as the voice droned on, finally resting his hand on the sword’s hilt. Through it, he could feel something. Not quite energy, but the potential for it; the same feeling he was used to experiencing when working with raw magic.
“You… You’re the sword!”
“’The sword.’ That’s lovely, Gabriel, really charming. It’s not as if you don’t know my name. Look, I suggest you find a relatively private place to sit for a while. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
Tellwyrn was grumbling to herself, mostly about journalists, as she kicked the door shut behind her and strode toward her desk. She hadn’t gotten three steps into the office before her chair spun around, revealing a grinning figure in a red dress perched therein.
“Out of my seat, Lil,” she said curtly.
“Ooh, have I told you how much I love this new schoolmarm thing you have going on?” Elilial trilled, giggling coquettishly. “So stern! So upright! It’s very convincing, dear. A person would never guess how much fun you are in bed.”
The chair jerked sideways and tipped, roughly depositing its occupant on the carpet.
“Oof,” the goddess of cunning said reproachfully, getting back to her feet and rubbing her bum. “Well, if you’re going to be that way…”
“What do you want?” Tellwyrn demanded, stepping around the desk and plopping down in her recently vacated chair. “It’s not as if I ever see you unless you’ve just done something terrible or are about to. You’re just as bad as the others in that regard. Though in this case I guess there’s rather a large elephant in the room, isn’t there?”
“All right, yes, that’s true,” Elilial allowed, strolling casually around to the front of the desk. “I do owe you an apology. Believe me, Arachne, boring new hellgates onto your property is most definitely not on my agenda. It seems one of my gnagrethycts took it upon himself to assist in that idiotic enterprise, which I consider a breach of my promise not to bring harm on you or yours. I am humbly sorry for my negligence.”
“Mm,” the Professor said noncommittally. “I heard you were down to seven of them.”
“Six, now,” the goddess said with grim satisfaction. “Demons get agitated if you lean on them too hard; I do try to let them have some leeway. But there are some things I simply will not put up with.”
“A gnagrethyct, or anything else—even you—couldn’t rip open a dimensional portal without having someone on the other side to work with,” Tellwyrn said, leaning back in the chair and staring at the goddess over the tops of her spectacles. “And nobody on this campus could have pulled off such a thing without tripping my wards…unless they were an initiate of my University. Any thoughts on that?”
“I may have a few ideas, yes,” Elilial purred. “What’s it worth to you?”
“You are having a deleterious effect on my already-strained patience.”
“Oh, Arachne, this is your whole problem; you’ve totally forgotten how to enjoy life. Yes, fine, I may have given a helping hand to some of your dear students.”
“You promised to leave them alone, Lil.”
“I promised to bring them no harm.” Elilial held up a finger. “In fact, I went one better and did the opposite. You know I caught a couple of those little scamps trying to summon a greater djinn? I cannot imagine what possessed them to think they could control such a thing. Pun intended. Really, you should keep a closer eye on your kids; I can’t be saving their lives all the time.”
“You haven’t spent much time around college students if you believe they think before doing shit,” Tellwyrn growled. “Did they at least try to hide in the Crawl first? If any of those little morons did that in one of my spell labs I swear I’ll visit them all at home in alphabetical order and slap their heads backwards.”
“Yes, yes, you’re very fearsome,” she said condescendingly. “But enough about that, why don’t we discuss the future?”
“Oh, you’re already going to tell me what you actually want?” Tellwyrn said dryly. “That has to be a record. Are you in a hurry for some reason?”
“Don’t trouble yourself about my problems, dear, though I do appreciate the concern. But yes, I am interested in, shall we say, tightening our relationship. We’ve worked so well together in the past, don’t you think?”
“I remember us working well together once.”
“And what a time that was!” Elilial said with a reminiscent smile.
“You called me a presumptuous mealworm and I goosed you.”
“A whole city left in flames and shambles, panicked drow fleeing everywhere, Scyllith’s entire day just ruined. Ah, I’ve rarely enjoyed myself so thoroughly. Don’t you miss it?”
“I have things to do,” Tellwyrn said pointedly. “Teaching my students. Looking after their safety. Getting tangled up with you is hardly a step in pursuit of that goal.”
“I think you’re wrong there, darling,” the goddess said firmly, the mirth fading from her expression. “This weeks little mess was but a taste. No, before you get all indignant, I am not threatening you. I am cautioning you, strictly because I like you, that the world is going to become increasingly dangerous in the coming days, and the wisest thing a person can do is develop a capacity to contend with demons. And lucky you, here you have an old friend who is the best ally a person could have in such matters!”
“Oh, sure,” Tellwyrn sneered. “And all I’d have to do to achieve that is make an enemy of the Empire on which my campus is built, not to mention that crusading spider Justinian.”
“Well, there’s no reason you have to tell them about it, you silly goose.”
“Mm hm. And in this…partnership…you would, of course, be telling me the total, unequivocal truth about everything you’re doing, in all detail?”
“Now you’re just being unreasonable, Arachne. I’m still me, after all. I can’t function without a few cards up my sleeve.”
“This sounds increasingly like a bargain that benefits no one but you,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “I can’t help thinking I’m better off with my current allies. None of them are invested in ending the world.”
“You know very well I have no interest in ending the world. Merely the deities lording over it. Really, I am very nearly hurt. You of all people know me better than that.”
“I do indeed, which is why I’m declining your very generous proposal.”
“Are you sure?” Elilial asked with a sly smile. “You’re not even a little bit curious to know which of your little dears are opening hellgates and fooling about with dark powers beyond their ken?”
“You could just tell me, you know. It would be exactly the kind of nice gesture that might have led me to consider your offer if you’d made a habit of making them before now.”
“Now, now, giving something for nothing is against my religion. I’m just saying, Arachne, I’m a good friend to have. In general, and in your case, very specifically.”
“So the world at large is about to have demon trouble, is it?” Tellwyrn mused, steepling her fingers. “And I’m likely to see my students imperiled as a result, yes? Well, I now know who to blame if they do suffer for it. You have my word, Elilial, that if that happens, I will be discussing the matter with you. Thoroughly, but as briefly as possible.”
The goddess’s smile collapsed entirely. “Only you could be so bullheaded as to turn this into an exchange of threats so quickly. I came here in good faith to propose a mutually beneficial partnership, Arachne.”
“You came here to use me,” Tellwyrn shot back. “I don’t particularly mind that. I don’t even much object to being lied to about it. I might actually have been amenable to the idea, except that you want to use my University and my students in the process. That will not happen, Elilial. I strongly advise you not to try.”
“Do you truly believe yourself equal to the task of opposing me?” the goddess asked coldly.
Tellwyrn clicked her tongue. “And now come those threats you didn’t come here to make…”
“If you insist on relating in those terms, I’ll oblige. You’re a blunt instrument, Arachne. Oh, you were clever enough in the distant past. Your deviousness in Scyllithar was inspiring, and I mean that sincerely. I was deeply impressed. But you have spent the entirety of the intervening three thousand years swaggering around throwing sucker punches and fireballs until you’ve forgotten how to do anything else. It’s gotten to the point that all I have to do to aim you in the direction I want you to look is scrawl a warning outside your door telling you not to. That barely even counts as manipulation, Arachne. It’s embarrassing to both of us. And you think you’re going to set yourself up against me? In the wide world, with all its subtleties and illusions waiting to serve as my props?” She snorted. “Please.”
“Well, perhaps you have a point,” Tellwyrn said placidly, shrugging. “After all, I’ve spent three millennia trying to get close to all the various gods, seeking their help. You, meanwhile, have been trying devotedly to destroy them for more than twice that time. Tell me, since you’re so much more dangerous than I…” She smiled sweetly. “How many of them have you killed?”
They locked eyes in silence, neither wavering by a hair.
Finally, Elilial let out a soft sigh through her nose. “I think you just enjoy being difficult for its own sake.”
“Well, no shit, Professor.”
“I’ll repeat my offer, Arachne,” the goddess said mildly, stepping back from the desk. “But not often, and not infinitely. You’ll have a limited time in which to come to your senses.”
“That’s fine, if you insist. But I’m not any more fond of repeating myself than you are, Lil. Really, if you want to save yourself the bother, I won’t blame you in the slightest.”
Elilial smiled slightly, coldly, and vanished without a sound. Only the faint scent of sulfur remained behind her.
Tellwyrn just sat without moving, frowning deeply in thought.
“Yes, we’re sure,” Fauna said testily. “It’s not really ambiguous.”
“Or difficult,” Flora added. “Took us all of half an hour to sift through the records.”
“The Nemetites organizing the thing are extremely helpful. The nice lady was able to pull the public record for us and explain what all the legalese meant.”
“It’s held through a dummy company, you see, but she knew the legal and cult codes to identify the buyers. So yeah, we had the answer pretty quickly.”
Darling swiveled in his office chair, staring at the unlit fireplace. “Not the trap she was expecting,” he whispered.
“Oh, gods, now he’s muttering to himself,” Fauna groaned.
He returned his gaze to them. “All right, sasspants, since you’re so smart, interpret what you found for me.”
“Oh, come on,” Flora said.
Darling held up a hand peremptorily. “Let’s not forget who the apprentices here are. No matter what the question, whining is never the correct answer.”
Fauna sighed dramatically, but replied. “It wasn’t truly hidden. We were able to get the truth in minutes, using entirely legal means. The means provided by the library itself, even.”
“So, not a secret,” Flora said. “But… Meant to look like a secret.”
He nodded. “Go on…”
“A message, maybe?” Fauna continued, frowning as she got into the exercise. “Either a barrier only to the laziest of inquirers…”
“Or a hidden signal to someone smarter,” Flora finished. “Or possibly both.”
“Very good,” he said approvingly, nodding. “That’s the conclusion to which I came, too. Of course, your guess is literally as good as mine.”
“So you’re in the dark, then? Why was it so important to find out?”
“And no more of your shifty bullshit,” Flora said pointedly, leveling a finger at him. “Damn it, we’ve had enough of that this week. None of this ‘I’ll tell you when it’s time’ crap.”
“Yeah, you sent us to deal with something you could’ve sniffed out yourself in less than an hour; we’re entitled to know what’s going on, here, Sweet.”
“Why is this important? What does it mean that the Thieves’ Guild owns Marcio’s Bistro?”
Darling turned his eyes back to the fireplace, staring sightlessly while his mind rummaged through possibilities. He was quiet for so long that Flora, scowling, opened her mouth to repeat her demand before he finally answered.
“I don’t know.”