Tag Archives: Corporal Hayes

Bonus # 17: Judgment and Justice, part 4

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Selim’s cell had a better view than some drow families, which both provided a way to get him out and presented the largest obstacle. Extracting him through the house itself was not possible, not without explaining what he was doing with the slave (which he couldn’t), so they would have to go through the window. The family’s apartments in House Vyendir’s hold were along the wall overlooking the agricultural cavern, a position which had long been Vrashti’s greatest source of pride, at least until she acquired the human. The cells were below the family’s chambers, but still several stories above the cavern floor. Also, while it might be night for the Imperials, it was just the second dayshift for Narisians, and personnel from House Dalmiss and who knew what other visitors were about in the agricultural caverns, where they would surely observe someone climbing a wall and breaking open a barred window.

No amount of wracking his brain produced any means of climbing the wall and opening the window unseen. As the Gray Cleric had suggested, Tazun approached the problem from the standpoint of the tools and abilities he could secure and use easily. His first thought was stonecloth, which as an established crafter he could obtain from the markets without arousing interest. It was just that: a form of cloth which resembled stone enough to fool even elvish eyes—when draped. This was commonly used as a backdrop for various displays, and he already owned some small swatches. He could maybe hide the window with it, but could think of no use for that, and it would be no help in reaching the window. A patch of stone shaped like a cloaked person climbing a wall would probably bring soldiers faster than just the sight of a man doing so.

Unfortunately, his ideas only went downhill from there, to the point that he was seriously considering making a couple of stonecloth cloaks and hoping nobody in the entirety of the agricultural caverns happened to so much as glance at the entrance, where Houses Vyendir and Dalmiss bracketed the main path from the city proper. In which case it was starting to look like his best option would be to just climb the wall and throw himself off.

Distracted by his ruminations as he paced through the streets, Tazun quite literally stumbled upon the answer. Not paying attention to where he was going, he had to bring himself to an awkwardly sudden halt to avoid plowing into a city drudge refreshing the glowstalks lining a market street. He apologized effusively, as his carelessness demanded, and the woman answered him with a diffident nod and murmured acknowledgment, as was proper given their respective stations and the circumstance.

And he suddenly realized that there was more than one kind of invisibility. The eyes of elves were hard to fool, but Narisians were accustomed to deliberately ignoring one another—so long as the person they saw was doing what they were expected to do.

In the end, Tazun had to practically beggar himself, unloading all his finished pieces to a wholesaler at well below their value for the sake of making the sale quickly, and even to part with much of his stock of raw materials and, more painfully yet, tools.

Much as that hurt, the reality was that he would be all but finished in Tar’naris once this business was done with,anyway. He hadn’t yet gotten as far in his thinking as planning what to do next, in large part because he was afraid to consider it. To betray one’s mother and family in this manner merited disownment at the least; Vrashti was not cruel, but she could be temperamental, and he wasn’t sure how much it would matter that he had been heavily coerced into this. To her, or to him, since his own conscience supported freeing Selim, and he didn’t think he would be able to lie to her during the inevitable confrontation. Maybe he could go to House Awarrion and demand some compensation for the hardship. Nahil, he suspected, would lack sympathy, but Matriarch Ashaele had a reputation as a reasonable woman, as did her elder daughter Heral. Or, forgotten hells, maybe he should just go to live with the humans. A mother betrayer would find Tar’naris a hostile place to live once word spread.

Obtaining clothes suitable for a workman was easy and inexpensive; what demanded most of his worldly resources was the scaffold. A traditional one would take far too long to erect, assuming such was even physically possible for one man working alone. Quite apart from the deadline set upon him by Sidewinder, the longer he was messing about on the wall, the likelier a patrolling soldier or agent of House Vyendir would come along and demand to know what he was doing and who had authorized it—and many of the second group would recognize him. Thus, he had to rent a levitating work platform, an import from the surface. The good news was that it doubled as its own cart; the bad was the price. Tazun was keenly and irritably aware that he was paying, with his life’s work and savings, for novelty and transport costs. The thing had probably cost a lot less for some enchanting factory in Tiraas to make than the wood and metal of a standard scaffold would have in Tar’naris.

At least it was easy enough to control. Before he could believe it was happening, he and his rented platform—piled not only with the tools and supplies he needed but some loose masonry he had picked up to complete the disguise—were at the base of the wall outside House Vyendir’s residence, peering upward to count windows. He blessed the peace and cooperation of Tar’naris. In any Scyllithene city, and in many human ones from what he’d heard, a noble House would have such guards on its premises that getting near any exterior window, much less a prison cell, would require nothing less than a full-scale invasion. As it was, his main concern was ensuring he had picked the right cell to which to ascend. There weren’t so many that were walled by bars, and after living here his entire life, he could identify the one by mentally reconstructing what the window arrangement in his family’s apartment would look like from the outside. If he was wrong, he was about to have an embarrassing encounter—and hopefully no worse than that.

He’d been right, though, about invisibility. Two patrolling soldiers passed him while he was maneuvering the scaffold into position under the window; both glanced curiously at him, but didn’t address him or even slow. He was half surprised they couldn’t hear the thudding of his heart. Another woman came by in the opposite direction almost as soon as they were gone, a member of House Vyendir from a family who lived not far from Tazun’s own. He had known her his whole life, albeit not closely, and she would certainly have recognized him, had she bothered to look at his face. She did not. A man in low-caste clothes doing base work clearly did not merit so much as a glance. Grateful as he was, Tazun was beginning to feel remorseful for how he’d treated drudges all his life.

The device rose smoothly and slowly once directed by the control rune, the soft hum of its levitation charms rising in intensity until it would probably be audible even to a human. Despite his initial unease, it did not wobble, list, or in any way indicate that it wasn’t moving on solid rails, and Tazun found himself impressed as he had never been with human enchanting work. It didn’t rise quickly, of course, but that was probably for the best. Reaching the level of the cell window took only a few minutes.

Then he was there, and it was time.

He was just just pressing his face to the bars to verify that this was the right place when Selim’s eyes appeared right in front of his own, startling him so badly that for a moment he feared he was about to fall.

“Whoah, take it easy,” the human said in some alarm when Tazun slumped against the outer wall, panting and pressing a hand to his heart. “Also…hi? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could swear the door’s on the other side of the room.”

“Yes, yes, you are hilarious,” Tazun growled. “I’m breaking you out, obviously. Get back from the bars. The only silent way to remove them involves acid, which you do not want to touch.”

Selim obediently move back, but his dark eyes remained fixed on his rescuer while Tazun very, very carefully moved the bottle of stone softener he had purchased into place. Its mouth was designed for precise pouring, and he set about very carefully dabbing it around the base of each of the five vertical bars set in the open window. The stone immediately began to sizzle and steam; he had been assured the resulting gas was not toxic or dangerous, but averted his face anyway. Safety aside, the smell was sharp and unpleasant.

Applying a liquid would not work on the upper surface, so a different approach was necessary to remove the bars at the top. After considering his options, Tazun had ultimately decided not to. Rather than working on their stone housing, he once again resorted to Tiraan enchantment. The charm torch was something he had been eying with envy for quite a while, but could never justify the expense as it was clearly designed for larger applications of very hard metals, and thus not particularly useful to a jeweler. Its heatless flame would reduce metal temporarily to a malleable state. Really, with gadgets like these available, the things humans must be able to build now…

But it wasn’t time for that yet. Once the stone softener was all correctly applied and the bottle securely (very securely) re-corked and set aside, he began setting up the poles and tarp that would shield the scaffold from outside view. People would not bother with a workman mucking about on the wall, but somebody climbing out of a barred window would raise an outcry if anyone in the cavern below happened to notice it.

“Why are you doing this?” Selim asked quietly, and Tazun sighed. Well, it was an obvious question, after all.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said simply, keeping his eyes on his work. The scaffold was cleverly designed, with slots along its side and base meant to hold poles for various purposes. Assembling the improvised awning wasn’t difficult at all.

Selim left him alone for half a minute before responding, in such a tone that Tazun could hear his grin. “The Guild got to you, didn’t they?”

“My people are not as hard of hearing as yours,” Tazun retorted. “The less talking, the better.”

“All right, all right,” the human said peaceably. “Look…whatever they did or didn’t do, I’m still grateful as hell for this. I’m pretty sure you bringing me the food was all your own idea, right?”

Tazun sighed as he lashed the last edge of the tarp in place. “Yes. And yes, the Guild reached me. Them and House Awarrion.” Satisfied it was solidly in position, he turned to meet Selim’s curious gaze. “And it is still the right thing to do. I am only shamed that it took outside pressures to spur me into acting.”

Selim nodded. “I get that. Look… Respect for your mother is a big deal in your culture, right?”

“The biggest deal,” Tazun said, sorely tempted to let some of his emotion past his public face, just to slap the man with it. “Some might argue the only deal.”

He nodded again, his own face serious. “Then what you’re doing is a hell of a thing, in your position. Seriously, my friend, I will owe you hugely for this. I’d shake your hand, but…y’know.” He grinned, stepped back, and bowed. “I’m Selim Darousi.”

“Also known as Squirreltail, I’m aware,” Tazun replied, bowing back. “Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir. Possibly the last time I will be able to introduce myself as such… All right, stand back, please.”

The stone softener was no longer smoking, which was supposed to signal that its work was done. With an awl he had acquired more for camouflage than because he expected to use it, Tazun prodded at the base of one iron bar, and found that it was set in a clumpy mixture of sand and dust.

“Hey, that is a neat trick,” Selim observed, sounding fascinated.

“Indeed,” Tazun agreed, picking up the charm torch. “This one is neater. Assuming it works.”

“Let’s hope for that, yeah. What’s it do?”

Rather than answering, he held its nozzle in place and pressed his thumb to the rune atop its handle. The nozzle glowed. Supposedly, that was all it should be doing, but it seemed wrong; there was no visible change in the state of the iron at the top.

After a few seconds, though, he deactivated the torch, grasped the bar, and pushed. It shifted inward easily, the loosened base giving away without effort and the point at the top where he’d applied the charm flexed like a mushroom stalk.

“You, sir, are a genius,” Selim marveled.

“Whoever designed this device was a genius,” Tazun corrected. “I am a craftsman. To my mind, that’s just as good.”

“Man, from my position I’m not about to argue.”

“All right, we’ll bend the bars inward, not out; less likely they’ll be noticed that way, at least until someone comes to check on you. I’ll use the torch, you pull; the faster this is done, the better.”

“You got it.”

It turned out he had been overly generous with the charm torch. With Selim pulling on the bars as soon as he applied it, they started shifting almost immediately—not as easily as the first one, but the iron became flexible enough after only a second’s application for the human’s superior strength to bend it. Between them, they had the rest of the bars out of the way in barely a minute.

Defacing ironwork in House Vyendir. Someone was likely to take this as a personal insult. Well, someone in addition to his poor mother.

Tazun chanced a glance down at the floor of the cave through one of the thin gaps in the folded tarp. He could see people moving about in the cultivated fields beyond, but no one was nearby.

“The stone softener should be inert by now,” he said, “but all the same, try to grip the edge away from the places where it was used.”

“There’s not much away to grip,” Selim said doubtfully. “My hands are bigger than yours.”

“Ah. Here.” Tazun swiftly pulled off the heavy work gloves he’d worn to protect his own hands from the acid. They were overlarge and bulky on him, enough that they fit the human’s hands adequately.

Selim’s exit through the window was utterly human: he had significant upper body strength and had no problem hoisting himself up and over, but wriggling through was so awkward it almost hurt to watch, and he tumbled gracelessly to the platform once past the opening. Fortunately the scaffold’s hovering charms were top quality; it remained as steady as the living rock of the cave. Nonetheless, Tazun glanced worriedly at the glass tube of enchanting dust next to the control runes. Still mostly full. The thing was designed to stay up all day, after all.

The Eserite was back on his feet in a bound, though, grinning hugely and drawing in a deep breath through his nose. “Freedom!”

“Not nearly,” Tazun said curtly. “And keep your voice down. That was the easy part; the city won’t be as simple to escape.” He opened the lid of the large tool chest he had purchased, which was sitting, empty, next to the pile of unused stone.

“Please tell me you have a plan for getting out of town,” Selim said, his expression suddenly worried.

“I don’t,” Tazun replied, “but I’ve made arrangements to get you to the Imperial enclave. I have friends among the soldiers there. They will have to get you the rest of the way; I assume they have the resources. Getting there will be the fun part. Into the box, please.”

Selim winced, staring at the open chest. “Oh…hell. Just when I thought I was done being cooped up…”

“Maybe you’d like it back in your cell?”

“All right, all right, I’m going.” Despite his grudging tone, the thief grinned at him as he clambered into the chest. “Did you remember to poke air holes in this?”

“The lid isn’t airtight, I checked,” Tazun said. “Hurry, please, you need to be out of sight before I can pull the tarp down.”

“You really do think of everything, huh?” Selim replied. “Seriously, this is a well-planned job. You’d make a pretty good thief.”

“I am a craftsman,” Tazun retorted, indulging in the smallest measure of audible rancor as he pushed the lid down on the folded human. At least Selim was flexible; he’d been a little worried about cramming him into the chest, but it stood to reason that a thief would be able to bend.

He worked as quickly as he could without impairing his hand-eye coordination, or seeming to be in haste. There was no good reason for a mason performing wall repairs to be in a hurry, and he didn’t want attention. Even so, it was only a few minutes later that they were drifting to rest at the base of the wall, the scaffold’s hover charm bringing it a few feet short of the ground.

Tazun was beginning to worry about Selim; there was no sound of protest from within the chest, but it occurred to him that at the speed this thing moved, the trip to the Imperial enclave might be worse than merely uncomfortable. He couldn’t check on his passenger at the moment, though, because a drow man was approaching along the wall, hands folded demurely at his waist and moving in a stately glide that suited his expensive robes.

Tazun didn’t recognize him as a member of House Vyendir, but obviously he didn’t know them all; he stepped back off the path to the side of his scaffold and bowed low, both in keeping with his role of a low-caste workman, and to hide his face.

The man stopped in front of him, and his heart plummeted. Keeping his face neutral as always, he straightened up. “Well met.”

The drow grinned broadly and winked at him, replying in Tanglish. “Well, right back atcha, Taz. See, I knew you could do it! You just needed a little push, is all.”

He could only gape at him.

The lid of the chest rose a few inches. “I know that voice,” Selim said from within, peeking out. “Sidewinder? You’re the one who leaned on this poor guy? You should be ashamed.”

“Aw, don’t be like that,” the drow with Sidewinder’s voice said cheerfully. “You don’t even know what I did. Does he?” he asked, turning to Tazun, who just stared.

“I don’t need to know,” Selim retorted. “You should always be ashamed. General principles.”

“Well, I can’t really argue with that, I guess!”

“What are you doing here?” Tazun hissed, finally finding his voice. He glanced furtively up and down the wall. No one was within drow earshot.

“Oh, come on, you didn’t really think I was going to leave you to handle something like this all on your lonesome,” Sidewinder replied with a total lack of remorse. “Actually, I’m quite impressed with the plan you put together, kid. This is almost Guild-quality work—you’ve got care and a good eye for detail. But I made damn sure to be nearby in case you needed backup, just the same. But enough about that!” He stepped up onto the platform and knelt, holding out a silver ring to Selim. “Squirreltail, will you marry me?”

“Aww,” Selim cooed, grinning madly, “you always did know how to make a lady feel special!”

Tazun stared at them, nonplussed. Based on their jocular tone, this had to be human humor. In Tar’naris, a man referring to himself as a lady was asking to be kicked in the jewels. Tazun didn’t bother to dwell on that, though, watching in disbelief as Selim slipped the ring onto his own forefinger and transformed instantly into another well-dressed drow man.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t forget you,” Sidewinder said to Tazun, offering him another identical ring.

He didn’t move to take it. “But…I’m already a drow.”

“Yes,” Sidewinder said patiently. “You are a specific drow, who will quite shortly be much sought after to give explanations that I’m sure you don’t want to. For now, and until we reach the enclave, were just three perfectly ordinary and anonymous Narisian lads out for a walk.”

“Take it,” Selim advised, climbing down to street level. “He’s right, this’ll draw much less attention than this hover-cart. I don’t think these things are all that common here. Honestly, they’re not even that common topside.”

Tazun sighed, but accepted the ring and put it on. The illusion had no physical sensation, but looking down at himself was discomfiting nonetheless. His illusory identity was much wealthier than he, to judge by the quality of his robes… But Tazun was comfortable with his own body and identity. He’d felt it under enough attack lately without turning against it like this.

But it was what it was, and the humans were right. This was a better extraction plan than his own.

As they made their casual way toward the gate back into Tar’naris proper, he glanced back once at the hovering cart, abandoned at the base of the wall. It would quickly reveal exactly what had happened here, and also this was a breach of his contract with its owner. But more than that, it represented everything Tazun had ever had.

Everything he was leaving behind.


The response was indeed swift, but not swift enough.

“Tazun d’what, now?” Corporal Hayes asked innocently. The door to the antechamber of the barracks had been left cracked just wide enough that those inside could hear the conversation without. Other soldiers chattered and went about their business in the background, obscuring any small sounds Tazun’s group might make. As he understood it, it was yet early for the soldiers to be up; he didn’t know what relationship the Thieves’ Guild had with the military, but clearly the squadron were very sympathetic to Selim’s plight.

He, Tazun, Elin, and Sidewinder all clustered as silently as possible against the wall behind which Hayes sat at his desk, dealing with the House Vyendir representative who had appeared only moments previously, just barely too late to catch them.

“Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir,” the drow said tonelessly. “Vrashti’s son; she is also the owner of an escaped slave who is being sought. He might answer to the name Salaam Drushti. The diplomatic officer on duty in the main compound suggested you might know something of this.”

Selim rolled his eyes; Sidewinder grinned so widely it appeared he might hurt his face.

“Oh, do you mean Selim Darousi?” Hayes said innocently. “Sure, he’s here. Poor guy’s had kind of a hard day, as I understand it. I don’t know anything about any Tayzon, though, sorry.”

“That man is a duly tried and convicted criminal,” the Vyendir representative said calmly. “Per the terms of our treaty, you are obligated to immediately return him to his purchaser’s lawful custody.”

“Per the terms of our treaty,” Hayes replied, “he is entitled to contest his conviction and sentencing and have the matter reviewed by Tiraan diplomats. Apparently he was not only specifically denied this right at trial, but by some unfortunate mix-up was moved around so quickly afterward that the ambassador’s office wasn’t able to track him down to his current location. How very fortunate that he turned up here, eh? We wouldn’t want Miss Vrashti to be owning a Tiraan citizen under improper circumstances. How very embarrassing that would be.”

There was a short pause.

“All transfers of slave contracts are thoroughly reviewed by House Vyendir’s solicitors before being ratified,” the representative said finally. “If any impropriety occurred, it is not the fault of Vrashti or her House. Unless the slave is returned, she will require and is entitled to expect monetary compensation for his loss and for all associated inconveniences.”

“Well, that’s fine,” Hayes said equably. “She can file a grievance with the ambassador’s office. I’m reasonably confident there will be no unfortunate mix-ups with that paperwork. Our clerks are very dedicated to taking proper care of rich drow who clearly think of our entire species as cattle. Meanwhile, Selim Darousi is under the protection of this embassy, and no one’s getting a brass penny for any inconvenience they’ve suffered by abducting him.”

“Please be careful, Corporal,” the drow said tonelessly. “An accusation of abduction can have serious consequences.”

“An abduction itself can have serious consequences,” Hayes replied gravely.

“Corporal, I find that you are being unnecessarily confrontational about this matter, and will be discussing that with your superiors in the embassy, as well.”

“I wish you the very best of luck with that.”

“I strongly advise, sir, that you cooperate with the law and treaty. If Vrashti does not receive satisfaction in one form or another, she may well pursue this matter in person. I assure you, sir, you do not want that.”

“I assure you, sir, you are mistaken.” Hayes’s voice had suddenly gone cold. “This Vrashti has deliberately abused the spirit of the treaty to even more personally abuse a Tiraan citizen for her own personal gain. I would love nothing more that for her to show her face here. After I’ve punched her in the teeth, she can learn firsthand about crooked trials where witnesses only saw what they’re told to have seen. I think that would be a valuable lesson in empathy for her.”

Selim looked serenely smug, while Sidewinder was physically struggling to control his laughter. Elin, though, had reached over to grab Tazun’s wrist, squeezing it comfortingly and gazing up into his eyes, her expression serious and sympathetic. He had, in fact, made a reflexive jerk toward the door at the direct threat to his mother, but just as quickly got himself back under control. With a soft sigh, he nodded to her, and did not pull his hand away.

“Threatening a well-ranked lady of Tar’naris can have very severe consequences, Corporal,” the representative said in the same even tone. “I assure you, I will be reporting every detail of this conversation to the requisite authorities in both your government and mine.”

“I’m sorry, threatening who?” Hayes asked innocently. “Private Shaffar, did you hear someone threatening a lady of Tar’naris?”

“Sorry, sir,” the other soldier present replied, her tone overtly smug. “Didn’t catch that. You know how poor human hearing is.”

Another silence fell.

“Thank you for your time, Corporal.”

“Drop by anytime!” Hayes said brightly. “The door is always open to our very good and trusted friends in House Vyendir!”

Sidewinder managed to wait until the heavy outer door had boomed shut after the representative before collapsing in laughter. Selim just sad back on one of the soldiers’ bunks, smiling beatifically.

“You okay, Taz?” Elin asked softly, still holding his wrist and watching his face.

“Not really,” he admitted. “All right…not even remotely. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me know… But, for all of that, I feel…very satisfied.” He looked over at Selim, who nodded deeply to him. “This was a good thing. I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

A warm smile spread across Elin’s face. It was the most beautiful thing he recalled seeing in the last week.

“Well, I’m glad you’re all enjoying yourselves,” Hayes said dryly, pushing through the door into the barracks. “Right now we need to make some plans concerning what to do with all of you. Darousi, how quickly do you think you’ll be able to travel?”

“Can’t wait to get rid of me, huh, Corporal?” Selim asked with a grin.

The soldier grunted, but his expression remained amiable. “I’ve checked in with a few sympathetic ears in the diplomatic corps while we were waiting to see if you lot made it back. They’re reasonably confident there’s no risk of you having to be returned to this Vrashti, now that you’re back in Imperial hands, but with bureaucrats it’s always better safe than sorry. Once you’re out of Tar’naris, that drops to no chance. Even if House Vyendir is willing to pursue the matter past the borders, House Awarrion won’t help, and the Imperial authorities would completely blow off a claim like this. So, the sooner you’re out of town, the safer.”

“Right,” Selim said, getting to his feet. “In that case, I feel ready to embark on my next adventure this very moment!”

“You may want to scrounge up a shirt, first,” Elin said wryly.

“Bah, they’ve got shirts in Fort Vaspian,” Selim said cheerfully, turning back to Tazun. “Well, my friend, it seems Sidewinder and I are going to be out of your hair before I have the chance to pay you back for this. Don’t think that means I’ll forget it, because you have my word, that’ll never happen. I owe you big.”

“Actually,” Sidewinder said lazily, “you’ve got that the wrong way ’round. I still have some business in Tar’naris, but our good buddy Taz will be heading back to Tiraas with you.”

Selim blinked. “Oh?”

“What?” Tazun frowned at him. “I am? Since when?”

“Well, guess this is as good a time as any,” Sidewinder said, straightening up from his slouch. “C’mon, Taz, let’s have a quick word somewhere private.”

“Um…”

“You don’t have to do anything, Tazun,” Elin said firmly. The look she directed at Sidewinder made him reconsider the relationship between the Guild and the military.

“Now, what do you take me for?” the thief said reproachfully. “Taz here has just gone way out on a limb to do an Eserite an enormous favor, at considerable risk and cost to himself. The hell we’re just gonna throw that away! The Guild takes care of its friends, but, you know how it is. There are some aspects of our business that aren’t for audiences.”

“I don’t know if I like the sound of that…” Tazun said, frowning harder.

“You should be fine,” said Hayes, glancing between them. “It’s usually best to hear Eserites out when they want something, Tazun, and even if he meant you harm, he wouldn’t do anything here. You gentlemen can borrow the sarge’s office for a bit.”

“Nobody has any faith in me,” Sidewinder complained. “That’s what’s wrong with the world.”

Elin shifted her grip to Tazun’s hand, and squeezed it, looking questioningly up at him. He squeezed back, nodded to her again, and somewhat reluctantly let go.

The office was at the opposite end of the barracks; the other soldiers glanced at them curiously in passing, but didn’t address them. Moments later, Sidewinder was shutting the door, closing them into the small, neatly organized space.

“Now, here’s the slightly awkward fact of the matter,” the thief said in a cheerful tone, strolling around behind the sergeant’s desk and helping himself to a seat. “Getting Squirreltail out was a big part of the operation, yes, but not the whole deal.”

“What’s the whole deal?” Tazun asked suspiciously.

“Well, you see, our good friends over at House Awarrion are very concerned with this slave trade; they want to lean hard on the people benefiting from it. And that aligns very nicely with the Guild’s own goals. Eserites, you see, don’t just steal; we have a religious obligation to deliver humility and comeuppance to people who abuse their power or wealth at the expense of others. Stealing your mother’s prized possession was only half the response to her enslaving a member of the Guild. The other half is delivering pain.”

Tazun clenched his fists, taking an impulsive step forward and glaring openly. “If you even dare—”

“Shut the hell up.” Sidewinder had his feet propped up on the desk, now, and his hands behind his head, but despite his lazy posture, his face was suddenly hard and cold. And something in his eyes warned Tazun not to attempt what he’d been about to. “Let me make this clear to you, kid: you are not being asked for anything. I’m tellin’ you how it is. And how it is is this: your mother is going to suffer for what she did. Now, it seems to me the easiest and most convenient way is for her to lose her son. So, you will be going back to Tiraas with Squirreltail, where the Guild will make good on its debt to you by helping you settle in as generously as possible, and Vrashti will be told that we’ve brought you to an excruciating end. While she mourns that, the story will leak across the whole city, and even before we start working on the next knife-eared fucker who thinks humans exist for their amusement, people will start reconsidering this whole ‘slaving’ thing.”

“You can’t possibly think I’ll help you in this,” Tazun snapped. “There is nothing you can say or do to make me hurt my mother!”

Sidewinder actually laughed at him. “Ahh, you poor, dumb kid. I kinda love how you drow have grown up not knowing about the Guild; there’s a freshness to this whole experience. Did you know, Tazun, that there’s actually a slave trade in the Empire? It’s true. And it’s pretty much exactly like the one in Tar’naris in every particular. We’ve got industry, enchantment, golems…nobody needs slaves for any legitimate purpose. Only people who have ’em are rich fuckheads who just get off on the power of it. Collectors…mostly of the rare, and exotic.” He smiled blandly. “Do you know what a well-bred, attractive drow woman—like, oh, let’s say, your sister Syraal—is worth on the right market?”

Tazun stared at him in frozen horror.

Very slowly, Sidewinder straightened up, lowering his hands and tucking his feet back under the desk. His expression fell flat again, until he was staring up at Tazun with eyes as predatory and unfeeling as a snake’s.

“I do.”

He held Tazun’s gaze for another long moment, then stood and stepped back around the desk to pass him and grasp the doorknob.

“Go to Tiraas, Tazun,” he said calmly. “Start your new life. Enjoy it. As thanks for your help, I’m giving you the opportunity to help us stick it to your mother without actually harming your family. If you don’t want to accommodate me in that, well…” He shrugged, again wearing that friendly smile. “I’ve gotta tell you, I don’t care all that much one way or the other.”

Sidewinder opened the door and strolled out, whistling.

By the time Tazun collected himself and returned to the others, Sidewinder had been and gone, and somebody had given Selim a shirt. Elin was watching him approach with open worry; he double-checked his public face, and found it mostly intact. Enough to pass general muster in Narisian society, but…

“What happened?” Elin demanded as soon as he was close enough for conversation. “What did he say?”

“I…” Tazun paused, swallowed heavily, and squared his shoulders. “He, um, made a pretty good case. What with the trouble I’ll be in here, going to Tiraas is probably my best bet. He said the Thieves’ Guild would help me, you know, settle in.”

“Hell yes they will,” Selim affirmed, nodding emphatically. “I will personally pull every string I can reach to make it happen—but honestly, Tazun, it won’t be hard. For the kind of favor you did for me, and for us, the Guild won’t be skimpy with its gratitude. Hell, I’ll talk with the Bishop, he loves helping interesting new people.”

“Tazun.” Elin’s voice was both insistent and gentle. She stepped forward, taking both his hands in her own. “Are you okay?”

“I’m. I.” He swallowed again, and forced a smile. “Of course I am. I mean, apart from…that is you know…”

“I know,” she said softly. “But you look less okay than when you went in there with that man.”

“It’s just,” he said lamely, “the stress…”

“Threatened your family, didn’t he?” Selim said. Tazun whipped his gaze to the thief, and he sighed. “Yeah… Sidewinder is a creatively vicious piece of shit, Taz. Soon as I saw he was the one they’d sent, I had a feeling this was gonna end very badly for someone.”

“Oh, my gods,” Elin whispered, eyes widening.

“Let me guess,” Selim continued grimly. “You get to go peacefully to Tiraas and he tells your mother we slit your throat, right? To punish her. Otherwise someone’s actual throat gets slit.”

Tazun clenched his jaw, not trusting himself to form words. He managed to nod.

And then suddenly Elin was in his arms, her face buried in his shoulder, squeezing him firmly.

Selim shook his head. “He’s got the Guild’s backing and I can’t contradict him here. But I’ll tell you what. Soon as we hit Tiraas, we’ll have a telescroll sent to Fort Vaspian and make sure your mother’s notified you’re okay.”

For the first time in all this madness oddly, Tazun found himself wanting to actually cry. “You’d do that? Go against your own Guild, for…”

“Not for her,” Selim said firmly. “I mean no offense, but I’ve got ample reason not to give a damn about that woman.”

“I can certainly understand that,” Tazun agreed.

“But,” the thief continued, reaching past Elin’s shoulder to place a hand on Tazun’s, “for you, my friend? If I can do it, you name it.”

“Thank you,” Tazun managed, nodding.

Elin finally pulled back, looking up at him earnestly. “All right, look. My tour’s up really soon, just three months. I was going to re-enlist, but screw it. I’ll come back to Tiraas.”

“Elin,” he protested, “please don’t upset your career! Your own life—”

She had to stand on her toes to kiss him, but he found himself as firmly silenced as he had ever been in his life. And, also, suddenly keenly conscious of her scent, of the feel of her in his arms…

Selim cleared his throat after a few long (but not long enough) moments, and finally they parted.

“Sometimes,” Elin said softly, giving him a brilliant smile and reaching up to lay one hand on his cheek, “you have to do the reckless thing.”

“I think,” he replied, allowing himself to smile right back, “I’ve recently learned that lesson very well.”

“It’ll be great!” Selim said cheerfully. “We’ll arrange a place for you in Lor’naris—not that you have to live there in particular, but it’ll probably be the easiest place to start when you’re getting settled in.”

“Lor’naris?” Tazun said, turning to frown quizzically at him. He’d never heard that contraction before; it translated as “faraway home.”

“The drow district in Tiraas,” Elin explained.

“There’s a drow district?” he exclaimed.

“Sort of,” Selim said, grinning. “I’ll give you the whole history on the ride there. But yeah, we’ll set you up with a place and whatever you need to get started as a jeweler there. Hell, you’ll be richer than me within a year—I bet they don’t see a lot of authentic Narisian jewelry in the capital.” His smile relaxed slightly, becoming a less enthusiastic but warmer expression, and he squeezed Tazun’s shoulder. “This is a hell of a thing right now, I know, but I promise you, friend. You’re going to be okay.”

Tazun subtly tightened his grip on Elin, feeling her squeeze him back even as she gave him that blinding smile he had come to love so much. “You know… I think you’re right. I actually will.”

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Bonus # 16: Justice and Judgment, part 3

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By the time he had detoured home yet again to collect what he needed and made the trek to the royal palace at the center of Tar’naris, Tazun had recovered enough of his equilibrium to avoid shaming himself publicly, at least. Only his strict Narisian upbringing enabled him to keep it in place. At least he hadn’t been called upon to enact any kind of elaborate plan; going for help, the only help he could think of, had been his first and only thought, and seeing that through had at least given him an attainable goal upon which to focus, rather than the mounting panic of his situation.

Or rather, he had been called upon to not only enact an elaborate plan, but somehow think of one first. He was doing this instead.

Situated on an island in the center of the lake around which the city was built, the palace was both highly defensible and a thing of beauty. Carved from a huge formation of living rock into a roughly pyramidal shape bedecked with terraces and angular spires, its walls were still adorned by the native crystals which had been all over this immense cavern when the drow had first moved in. Over millennia of conservative mining, never taking more than they needed both for crafts and to clear the way for construction, Tar’naris had cleared out much of the glittering gems, while leaving others strategically placed and cut into facets while still in their native housing, frequently augmented with nearby luminescent mushrooms to make them sparkle bewitchingly. The walls of the Queen’s palace held the greatest concentration by far, of both intact crystals and luminous fungus, and the island resembled a massive jewel itself.

Clutching his sample case, currently replete with the very best of all his available work, Tazun made his way across the long bridge toward the palace, nodding respectfully to the soldiers as he passed. They ignored him, mostly, though a few gave him very direct looks. In theory, he had a perfect right to be here and wasn’t about to try setting foot anywhere that was off-limits to the likes of him, but most of those who visited the Queen’s home were far more richly dressed than he—or, in the case of Imperial visitors, at least more exotic. Here, all the guards were female. Only the unequivocal best served this close to the Queen.

Upon reaching the island itself, he immediately went to the right, to the temple of Themynra situated against the base of the edifice. An unprepossessing structure, it had an open front with no visible door (though he knew there had to be mechanisms to secure it in the event of attack), and a statue of the goddess in its small courtyard. Themynra was depicted in the usual fashion: robed, her cowl drawn forward over her eyes, head lowered in contemplation and hands folded before her.

House An’sadarr soldiers stood to either side of the temple’s entrance; one glanced at him as he passed, but neither spoke or moved to intercept. It was at the latter part of a dayshift, and traffic was light, so at least he had the place mostly to himself—along with the undivided attention of its denizens, which was somewhat less comfortable. Inside, two more women stood vigil bracketing the door, these in the pale gray robes of the clergy.

Of all the necessary functions which served Tar’naris, the worship of Themynra alone was not affiliated with any House. Each raised priestesses from within its own ranks, and provided them for training here, at the central temple. The goddess approved Queen Arkasia’s division of the city’s infrastructure among the Houses as a highly functional system, but insisted that no House should control access to her clerics.

“Welcome,” said the priestess on the left as Tazun paused inside, glancing around.

“Well met,” he replied, stepping forward and turning so that his deep bow of respect could be directed at both of them. “If it is not troublesome, I seek an audience with a Gray Cleric.”

The priestess who had spoken quirked one eyebrow almost imperceptibly, then glanced at her companion, who remained impassive.

“Of course,” she said after a bare moment. “Follow me, please.”

“My thanks,” he said, bowing again, then had to hurry after her; she had set off at a stately glide without waiting for him to fully straighten up.

Here, again, he had a perfect right to seek out a Gray Cleric, but doing so was generally the province of the nobility, to the point that his presence here would inevitably be odd to the priestesses. Not suspicious, probably, but a curiosity. The Gray Clerics answered directly to Queen Arkasia, and formed an integral part of the careful political system by which she kept Tar’naris stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Anything the Gray Clerics learned, Arkasia would learn, and they provided advice, information, and blessing to most political maneuvers in the city. In the end, most nobles went to them before attempting anything ambitious simply because if they did not, their opponents might, and to create the impression that they sought to cut the Queen out of their manipulations could be fatal. Tar’naris, it was said, was a web with Arkasia at the center, and not a thread was plucked whose vibration she did not feel.

As the priestess led him through the temple, Tazun couldn’t help feeling all this was getting him even more over his head, not less. But it was all he could think of.

Their destination was a small stone room deep enough within the carved island to have no windows. It contained nothing, in fact, but simple insets in the walls carved to make convenient if uncomfortable benches. There was a door, at least, standing open when they arrived.

The priestess stopped outside, gesturing him through; Tazun paused to bow again to her before obeying.

“Whom may I tell the Gray Clerics has come?” she asked quietly.

He bowed again, feeling slightly foolish but preferring to err on the side of courtesy. “Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir.”

“Be welcome, Tazun,” she said, inclining her head fractionally. “You will be attended shortly.”

“My thanks.”

She turned and glided away with no more ado, and he was left alone in the small room. It really was bare; one bench on each side, the whole place barely wide enough for two people to sit facing each other without intruding on personal space. Glowstalks had been cultivated in small alcoves along the ceiling; it was well-lit, anyway.

Seating himself on one, he carefully arranged his sample case in his lap and opened it, just for something to do. Within were his best pieces—the fullest selection the case could hold of the best he had ever produced, not simply his primary stock of silver work that he had been trying to sell at the Imperial enclave. Several of these were items he hadn’t planned to part with at all; early works of his, first attempts in a variety of styles and materials that he had found satisfactory, most with sentimental value. But, desperate times demanded desperate measures, as the saying went.

If only he could keep the times from becoming any more desperate…

“Greetings, Tazun.”

He had barely the mental wherewithal to securely close his sample case before shooting to his feet and bowing. That was remarkably fast; he had really expected to be left dithering for a good while before one of the Queen’s own priestesses found time for him.

The woman who stepped into the little chamber was not physically remarkable in any way; her skin was perhaps a shade darker than his, but only the most ancient drow cared about that at all. Narisians came in a variety of shades of gray, due to millennia of interbreeding with surface folk; while stark black complexions were a sign of pure drow blood, it was also heavily associated with the Scyllithenes, who had no surface contact, and thus was not considered desirable. This priestess had her hair cut at chin level, which was unusual as it was a style associated with warriors…but then, he did not know her story. Aside from that, she wore the gray robe of a Themynrite cleric, her order indicated only by the black armband with Queen Arkasia’s spider sigil embroidered in white.

“Thank you very much for seeing me,” Tazun said, lowering his eyes demurely after getting a look at her. “I shall try not to take any more of your valuable time than absolutely necessary.” He bowed again, proffering the sample case. “I realize my offerings are doubtless lesser in quality than the Queen is accustomed to, for which I apologize. This is the best of my work.”

The priestess smiled faintly, lifting one eyebrow, then turned and pulled the door shut.

“There,” she said. “We are private; please, Tazun, relax and be yourself. Everyone has the right to see a Gray Cleric, as I’m certain you know.”

She reached out and, without taking the case from his hands, unlatched it and lifted the lid, studying its contents. Tazun was somewhat taken aback by this; he remained in a bowed position, beginning to feel his back stiffen, while she examined his work. After only a few moments, however, the priestess carefully picked up a single item from the case.

He chanced a glance upward to see which. Ah, but of course, she had chosen the amber. The smoothly polished stone was apparently fossilized tree sap, and thus unavailable in Tar’naris. Even better, this one had an ancient spider embedded within it. Tazun had obtained the gem from a minerals trader who clearly had failed to realize the rarity of what he had in the Underworld; apparently amber was a less-valued substance on the surface, only pieces containing insects or other things being prized at all. Even so, it had cost most of Tazun’s free money at the time, and yet he had still not brought himself to part with it. The white gold setting was unobtrusive, yet very carefully worked to resemble tangled cobwebs, a pleasing association with the spider within. It was his favorite piece.

“A most generous offering,” the priestess said, lifting the pendant and admiring it in the light before tucking it into her hand. “Your modesty is becoming, Tazun, but I believe the Queen will quite like this. It is not often that I am presented by a petitioner with a selection; most presume to know her Majesty’s tastes and pick a gift accordingly. They are mostly wrong.”

“Ah…forgive me,” he stammered. “I apologize, but… I had meant the entire case to be an offering. I am not unaware that most who solicit an audience are far wealthier…”

“And for exactly that reason, it would hardly serve Tar’naris, Themynra, or Queen Arkasia to beggar a talented young artisan,” she said gently. “Someday, Tazun, I believe you will be quite famed for your craft, if this is your early work. If you seek us out again at that time, perhaps a more opulent offering will be appropriate. For now, this is most generous. Now please, sit. Be comfortable. You need not be public with me.”

“I…see,” he said slowly, sinking back down onto the bench as she did the same on the other. Indeed the woman’s expression was clearly not a public face, though her smile wasn’t particularly effusive. Well, it wasn’t as if he’d given her much to smile about. “I’m sorry. I’d never realized that one was expected to be private with a Gray Cleric. Forgive me, it never occurred to me that I would need to know the protocol.”

“It speaks well of you that you don’t presume above your station,” she said, still with a kind smile. “Clearly, something very serious must be troubling you, to bring such a modest young man here to seek us out. Speak at leisure, Tazun; I have all the time you need.”

That served as a reminder. She might have time, but he didn’t.

He drew in a deep breath, allowing his expression to set itself in what he hoped looked like determination, and began.

“All right. Well… To begin with, for some time I have been cultivating friendships and business contacts among the humans at the Imperial enclave.”

“Yes, I know.”

He blinked, permitting himself to show surprise, though he wasn’t yet entirely sanguine at letting his public face lapse with this highly-ranked stranger. “You do?”

“The attendant asked your name for a reason, you know,” she said with a faintly wry smile. “None of us know every detail of the city’s doings, but between my sisters and I, we know most. I, personally, am acquainted with your House’s affairs, and your family’s. That is why you are speaking with me, and not someone else.”

“I see,” he said, frowning.

The priestess tilted her head back slightly, her expression growing more serious. “Is this by chance related to your mother’s recent acquisition of a human slave?”

Well, perhaps this wouldn’t be as hard a conversation as he’d feared, if she already knew the high notes.

“Yes, priestess, that is the beginning of it.” Tazun hesitated a moment longer, marshaling his thoughts, which had resisted efforts to be organized the whole way up here. She simply watched calmly, waiting for him to continue. “I… From the beginning, I was very troubled by that. It bothered me so much I couldn’t find rest, and had to seek counsel from a friend. Mother is very proud of the acquisition, and clearly put a great deal of effort into it. She believes it will be a source of great prestige and ultimately social advancement for our family. I…wanted to agree. I trust my mother implicitly, please believe that. The last thing I would ever want to do is challenge her judgment, or her word.”

He had to pause again, there; having allowed emotion onto his face, it now required a little extra effort to keep under control. So it was with feelings; given an inch, they took a mile.

“But you didn’t agree, is that it?” the priestess prompted.

He sighed. “No, I… No. I was very troubled, as I said. Perhaps it’s because I have grown to know humans as individuals. To many, I think they are seen as exotic curiosities, not really people. And the worst part is what I know of how human slaves are acquired. I mean, in theory, enslavement is only inflicted as a due punishment for a justly convicted crime, but…”

“But,” she said, her expression now sober and faintly angry, “the punishment has enjoyed a startling renaissance since the Imperial Treaty, after having been all but unused for centuries. And even now, it remains a striking rarity when it is imposed upon a citizen of Tar’naris. Yes, Tazun, I know of this, as does the Queen. It is a serious problem, and a constant threat to our relationship with Tiraas—and thus, a threat to our newfound prosperity. Her Majesty tolerates this trade only because she is not yet able to extinguish the demand for human slaves. And so long as that demand exists, the desperate and greedy will rise to meet it. Destroying the existing traffickers would force their heirs into hiding without ending the practice itself. As it is, House Awarrion is able to extract many of the unfortunates ensnared, and the Imperial and Narisian governments are able to warn human visitors of this, and offer advice for avoiding entrapment. This can only be done while it goes through legal channels. If banned outright, it will change into secretive abduction without oversight or recourse.”

“I see,” he murmured. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind of demanding to know how the Queen could continue to allow such a thing, but he most certainly had wondered. The priestess’s explanation made a weary kind of sense. Nobles and the rich always got their way through the law. At least this way, the law could provide a countermeasure. He knew nothing at all of black markets or how feasible it was to exterminate them, but logically, it must not be possible to do completely, or they wouldn’t exist.

“I have a suspicion,” the priestess said after a moment, “this is not the only thing troubling you?”

“I—yes, forgive me, I was lost in thought,” he admitted. “This is pursuant to the same matter, but it grows worse. Today I was visited… Well, no, the word is cornered. I was cornered by Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion and a human whom she called Sidewinder, who is a member of the Thieves’ Guild. Apparently, so is Mother’s new slave. And from what Nahil said of the cult of Eserion…”

“That places your mother and your whole family in immediate danger,” the priestess said, her eyes widening. He had come here expecting to see only a placid public face on whatever cleric met with him; the sight of open alarm was even more dispiriting because of that. “Can you warn your mother of this?”

“That wouldn’t help,” he said miserably. “I was ordered not to, and besides, Mother would never back down from a threat. She would only petition our House and possibly even House An’sadarr for more protection. And…in the long run, that would backfire. The Guild doesn’t quit. More importantly, they aren’t just operating here with one man and whatever resources he has. She did not admit it openly, but Nahil made it quite clear the Eserites are backed by House Awarrion in this. She’s using the thieves to attack the slave trade. And my family is caught in the middle.”

“I see,” the priestess said softly.

Tazun had to swallow a lump rising in his throat. “Before they let me go, Sidewinder ordered me to get Selim—that’s the slave—out of my family’s custody by tonight. Or there would be…consequences, he said. And with Awarrion’s connections and wealth backing him, there’s almost no limit to what he could do. So I either have to steal my mother’s most prized possession, and aside from all the horrible problems with that I haven’t the faintest idea how to break someone out of a cell! And…I mean, or. Or something terrible will happen to someone I care about. He didn’t say what.”

“The mind boggles,” she said grimly. “I have studied the surface cults. Eserites can be vicious when riled. Far less chaotic than Scyllithenes, but their match in cruelty if they think it needful.”

“I don’t believe I wanted to hear that,” he moaned. “This whole situation… I have no way out. I can’t even tell my mother! Sidewinder warned me that would only bring down their punishment, and anyway, Nahil was right; mother would just do exactly the thing that would make all this worse. I’m not someone who can protect my family from a threat, and I’m not someone who can defy my mother and wrangle a jailbreak! I’m the wrong person for this! Maybe if I were a warrior or something, I could…at least…” He had to stop and swallow heavily again, gazing pleadingly at the priestess. “I…I know everything in these sessions is taken to her Majesty’s ears, if you deem it needful…”

The cleric sighed regretfully and shook her head. “Tazun… I will definitely inform the Queen of this, and as soon as she is free to hear it. The matter is clearly of concern to her interests and the welfare of Tar’naris. But I must tell you, in my judgment, it is very unlikely that Arkasia will see fit to intervene. Your pain and your family’s danger are most regrettable, but the Queen is tasked with the welfare of society as a whole. Her life is filled with painful choices, and the abandoning of some for the greater good. And from the perspective of her Majesty’s aims, Nahil’s ploy is an excellent one. By using the Thieves’ Guild to directly attack the purchasers of human slaves, in a way against which they have no defense or recourse, she attacks the market itself. Without that market, the marketers will vanish without having to be leaned upon. It is cunning, elegant, and if successful, for the good of all.” She shook her head. “I am sorry, Tazun, but your problem remains your own to deal with.”

“I see,” he whispered, crushed. He couldn’t even complain. Well, not about this; the situation itself was unfair to the point of cruelty, but every Narisian grew up with the knowledge that those in power had to make painful choices. Even with the prosperity brought by the Empire, even when people were very unlikely to be left to starve by a bad turn of luck, they sacrificed to the greater good. It was the only way their society could endure.

“That does not mean your visit here is wasted,” the priestess said, leaning forward and speaking more gently. “People come to the Gray Clerics not just to attain the Queen’s attention, but for insight and counsel. Those I have for you.”

She paused, waiting for him to raise his head, and continued when he did so.

“First of all, Tazun, I think I can give you some moral clarity. Even without the pressures upon you to act, you are confused and conflicted by your role in this, is it not so?”

“It certainly is,” he mumbled.

The priestess nodded sympathetically. “I believe you have been tricked by the variety of factors at play here into seeing a variety of pressures which are not there. The dilemma, as is often the case, is simpler than it appears when you are caught in the middle of it. Not easier, to be sure, but simpler. On the one side is your respect for your mother. On the other,” she said more firmly, “is everything else. The Guild, House Awarrion, the perspectives of your human friends, your concern for your family’s safety, the needs of Tar’naris. And your own conscience, which is more important than I believe you realize. All of these things tell you it is wrong to keep that human a slave. Matters of good and evil are easy, Tazun, even when they’re painful. It’s when our virtues are tested against each other that we are truly tried. Your loyalty and respect for your mother reflects very well on you, but when it is in conflict with every other factor, it seems clear to me which virtue you must abandon.”

“But…” He spluttered, barely able to find words for a thought that no drow should even need to articulate. “But she’s my mother! I’m just—I’m a man, I’m barely an adult, who am I to challenge her judgment?!”

“Tazun,” she said softly, “judgment is an action, not a passive thing. It is not something you just have. It’s something you have to do. And, by the same token, sometimes the best of us do it poorly. I don’t want to insult you, because you are torn enough over this and I admire how dutiful you are to her, but I could go on at some length about how your mother’s judgment in this matter is severely lacking.”

He bit back a bitter reply. The priestess smiled sympathetically.

“Themynra doesn’t expect anyone to be infallible, Tazun, and she certainly does not demand that you subordinate your own judgment to your mother’s, the Queen’s, or anyone’s. There are sometimes more urgent matters than right and wrong, times when we must accept the dictates of those above us even if we cannot agree with them. But Themynra insists of all her people that we think. Your mother cannot think for you. You shouldn’t wish for that.”

He nodded weakly, unable to squeeze out words.

“And you know, don’t you, what you must do,” she prompted.

“I have to free Selim,” he said reluctantly. In truth, she was right: the clarity that came from facing the fact did a great deal to alleviate his inner torment. But it also cast the rest of his problem—the bigger, more solid part of it—into a starker light. “I just have absolutely no idea how.”

“Well, as to that, I may be able to offer you some perspective, as well,” said the priestess, smiling encouragingly. “You seem to be thinking of this as some kind of adventure, something you would need to be a warrior or spy to do. But no warriors or spies have been called on to handle this, Tazun; you have. And so you must meet it as what you are: a craftsman.”

“So,” he said slowly, “I should…craft an escape?”

“Exactly,” she said with a warm smile. “And as with any craft, it begins by establishing what you have to work with. What are your materials? Your workspace?”

“And,” he whispered, “my tools.”


The light was dimmer in the Imperial enclave than usual. It was the lower dayshift, corresponding to night on the surface, and the humans mostly chose this time to sleep, rather than dividing themselves into shifts as Narisians did. It had always struck Tazun as a weird habit to maintain underground, and painfully inefficient, but there was nobody in evidence around the enclave except the soldiers stationed on guard duty. The gates were still open, of course, and there would be personnel awake to address the needs of any later-shift Narisians who chose this time to visit, but most of the enclave’s population was inert, and even their fairy lamps had been shifted to a lower light level, and a bluer shade.

Not that the lower light was any problem for drow eyes. If anything, it made the place more comfortable for them, and he actually saw more drow about than he usually did during the humans’ customary business hours. He was the only one waiting in the front room of the barracks, though, the uniformed man behind the desk studying him with naked speculation. His partner had gone into the barracks proper to see to Tazun’s request, to his relief. He had half expected them to tell him to shove off and come back at a more decent hour.

“Tazun?”

He whirled to the door at the familiar voice. Elin emerged, golden hair tousled and eyes bleary. She was dressed in loose cotton drawers and a tight pullover shirt, and it occurred to him suddenly that while she was smaller and slimmer than most of the humans here, by elvish standards she had a very lush figure indeed. He swiftly and ruthlessly quashed that line of thought. Really, of all times…

“What’s going on?” Elin asked, seemingly more awake, and he realized he had simply stood there, staring embarrassingly at her.

The man behind the desk cleared his throat pointedly, a smile tugging at his lips. “Y’know, Ralstrind, if you wanna carry on with the locals there’s no regulation against it, but could you train your boy not to wake up the whole barracks?”

“Up yours, sir,” she said without rancor, frowning at Tazun. “It’s not like you to bend your schedule, Taz. Hell, you even look worried. What’s wrong?”

He paused, glancing between her and the other man, before answering. “Elin… Do you trust this man?”

“Hayes?” She glanced at him. “Sure, he’s part of the unit.”

“I don’t mean in a general sense,” Tazun insisted. “Do you trust him. With matters of life and death, or things more…sensitive?” He had no idea how rude he was being, by their standards. By Narisian etiquette, Corporal Hayes had cause to demand a duel for such insinuations.

“My squad is like family,” Elin said, now wide awake and clearly concerned. “We weren’t just brought together to sit on our hands down here—we’ve done frontier duty at the Deep Wild. At a post that ate an entire regiment sixty years ago. Yes, I trust Hayes and all the others. Tazun, what is going on?”

He drew in a deep breath, glancing at Hayes, who was also frowning at him seriously, now. “I’ve come here because I need help.”

“With what?” she demanded.

Here it was. He glanced around. The doors were shut, and deliberately designed to be thick enough to baffle elvish senses; he could hear no one outside. There were no drow positioned to overhear.

“My family recently acquired a human slave.”

Instantly, both of their expressions went hard. Elin opened her mouth to speak, but Tazun pressed on.

“I’m sure you know that this is done through deceit and abuse of the law. Well… All right, it’s a long, complicated matter, and I’ll tell you the whole thing someday, but what’s important right now is that I’m going to break him out. And I need a place to take him, or he’ll just be sent right back, and me along with him. If I bring an Imperial citizen who’s been in trouble with the law here, can you shelter him?”

“That depends on the trouble,” Hayes said, now studying him with clear speculation. “Did this guy actually hurt someone, or do anything that would deserve getting locked up like this?”

“No,” Tazun said immediately.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he insisted. “People who commit actual crimes get fair punishments. Those who hand out sentences of slavery are corrupt, and in league with the people doing the entrapping. I don’t know exactly what he was convicted of, but the fact he was sold into slavery is sufficient evidence that it’s a thin and dishonest charge.”

“That squares with what I’ve heard,” Hayes agreed, nodding, and glanced at Elin. “Then hell yes, we can shelter him. The only concern would be that the diplomats might send him back if the local law came asking. If he was an actual, dangerous criminal, they’d pretty much have to.”

“The law won’t come asking,” Tazun assured them both, his eyes on Elin. “Representatives of my family probably will.”

“And in that case, the diplomats will very politely tell them to fuck off,” Hayes said with grim pleasure. “Meanwhile, we can get your boy on an official transport back to the surface. With military escort, if need be.”

Tazun sighed softly in relief. “Good. All right…good. Then that was the last thing I needed to be sure of. All right, I’m going to go do this—time is a factor. It’ll be tonight. A few hours, if that. Please be ready.”

“We will,” Elin promised, staring at him. “I’ll get some of the others up and ready. Is there anything else we can do besides just wait?”

“No,” Hayes said firmly. “Butting into Narisian affairs like this will bite you on the ass, Ralstrind. You know better.”

“He’s right,” Tazun agreed before she could protest. “I have plans for everything else; all I needed was a place to come with him. Look…to you, and to me, this is a matter of moral necessity, but legally I am just stealing an incredibly valuable object from my own mother. This will go very badly for me if we’re caught. So…” He swallowed, but rushed on when Elin opened her mouth again. “If you don’t see us back here tonight, it…didn’t work. And in that case, Elin, I… I have enjoyed our conversations very much. I will miss them.”

He bowed to her, then turned and strode for the front door, pulling it open and slipping through.

“Tazun, wait,” she called, but he didn’t. He could not; there was far too much to do, and too little time.

It had been an optimistic thing to say, anyhow. If this all went as badly as it very possibly could, he might end up in no position to miss anything.

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