Tricks would have felt more comfortable in one of his disguises. More than keeping in practice, more than having fun with his subordinates or even making a constant effort to keep them sharp, it was a way for him to defray the stress of his position, drawing on another face, another identity. He’d never discussed this with anyone, though he suspected Style had an inkling. She was oddly perceptive at times, for being so bullheaded.
But this business required his own original face as the head of the Guild, and so he waited in the office just off the training pit, wearing a plain, unprepossessing suit, lounging in the room’s one padded chair.
Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait. The office door opened and Style entered, a quietly seething Jeremiah Shook on her heels. Despite his glower, he was self-possessed enough to shut the door behind them while Style paced down the carpeted center of the room, past the rows of accountants’ desks, to come stand behind Trick’s shoulder.
“Thumper!” he said genially, beckoning the man forward. “Good to see you back safely.”
“Boss,” Thumper replied, making an effort to get his expression under control. Well, the man had due cause to be upset. None of that, as far as Tricks knew, was directed at him. Still, on top of the failure of his job in Last Rock, it was always humiliating, having to be extracted from the clutches of the law by the Guild’s attorneys. At least they’d gotten to Shook before he’d been handed over to Avenists. The cults of Avei and Eserion had a…complicated relationship.
“First of all,” Tricks said, “I want to reassure you up front that you’re not being called down on the carpet. What happened in Last Rock was patently not your fault. You were dealing with a foe extremely well-positioned and practiced at outmaneuvering opponents.”
“We should deal with that asshole McGraw,” Thumper all but snarled, his self-control fraying. “Our rep’s on the line. We can’t have people thinking they can spit in the Guild’s face and walk away.”
“All in good time,” Tricks said mildly. “He’s not the foe I was speaking of, however. One of our people in Puna Dara spotted McGraw less than a week after the events in question.”
“Doing what?” Thumper demanded.
Tricks grinned, well aware that it was an unpleasant expression. “Having dinner,” he said, “with Principia Locke. Apparently they went upstairs together afterward. Our agent heard enough of their conversation to confirm that Prin was the individual who hired McGraw to interfere in your operation.”
For a moment, Thumper just stared at him, completely nonplussed. Then his eyes tracked to one side, then the other. Tricks could almost see him making connections, considering events in light of this new information. Slowly, his posture stiffened until the man was practically vibrating. Fists clenched at his sides, he failed to maintain the mask of calm, his face twisting with rage.
“That little. Fucking. Whore.”
“Here’s the thing,” Tricks went on, feigning a casual air but watching Thumper carefully. The man was clearly on the verge of a complete blowup; it would be preferable if Style didn’t have to beat him compliant. “That operation of hers? Brilliant. One of the more elegant cons I’ve seen, and that is saying something. If she’d just had you roughed up or killed, the Guild would have sent along another, more dangerous agent, escalating the stakes and the risk. No, she had to generate complete chaos, turn the whole mission into such a complete and utter tits-up-in-the-rhubarb debacle that we have no choice but to withdraw all our attentions from the town. That succeeded brilliantly. Any new arrivals in Last Rock for the next little while are going to be examined very carefully, both by the local law and likely by Tellwyrn, which we risk the identity of any of our people we send back in there. And that leaves me in an awkward position. If it were anything simpler—going to the law, hiring an outside thug to take out a Guildmate—you know exactly what we’d do.”
“Drag her ass back here and beat it purple,” Shook snarled.
“For starters,” Tricks said with a faint grin. “But the point of that is to demonstrate to all the the Guild is still in control, that we’re not to be made fools of. In this case… Well, Thumper, we’ve been made right fools of, and no mistake. Keys made you and I look like complete idiots. Only reason she hasn’t managed to make a mockery of the Guild itself is nobody outside this room knows the extent of what she pulled. And it’s going to stay that way. You keep your mouth shut about this business, understand?”
Thumper forgot himself so far as to take a step forward, raising both fists. “You’re actually going to let the little cunt get away with—”
“Settle,” Style said quietly. Thumper stopped, collected himself, and nodded sharply, evidently not trusting himself to speak.
Style yelled, cursed and generally blustered as a matter of course, but as her enforcers quickly learned, when she whispered, people tended to die.
“So,” Tricks continued, “I’m giving you a little time off from your duties. It’s going in the records as a suspension related to a recent failed job. Consider it a well-earned vacation.”
Shook physically twitched as though struck. “You said,” he replied, clinging to a frayed thread of restraint, “I wasn’t to be punished.”
“You’re not,” Tricks said gently. “It’s like this, Thumper. I obviously cannot let Keys get away with turning on the Guild like this, and I cannot afford to spend any more resources going after her without further undercutting our credibility. If it comes down to it, I’ll suck it up and chase her down with whatever we’ve got, but first, I’m going to hope for her to magically find herself back here under completely other circumstances so I can straighten her out and make it look like we were all of us in full control the whole time.”
Thumper’s sneer eloquently said what he thought of that. “And she’ll come back here because…?”
“Hypothetically speaking,” Tricks said, “if an off-duty member of the Guild were to find and bring Keys here… Well, that person would gain quite a bit of rep for exposing and collaring a traitor when they weren’t even supposed to be at work. Naturally, if there were any recent blemishes in such a person’s record, they’d be quite overshadowed. Hell, I could probably see my way to removing such black marks entirely.”
Slowly, visibly, Thumper grew calmer as understanding dawned on him. His face didn’t quite relax completely, but there appeared something in his eyes that hinted at a very cruel sort of smile. “I see.”
Tricks grinned. “Enjoy your vacation.”
“You got it, Boss,” Thumper said, nodding first to him and then to Style, then turned to go.
Tricks let him get the door open and start to step out. “Oh, and Thumper.”
He turned back to look warily at his two superiors. “Boss?”
“In this hypothetical scenario, anybody bringing Keys back here had better be mindful of the condition she’s in. I can’t make an example of a corpse.”
“In this hypothetical scenario,” Thumper replied, “I would know exactly how to teach an uppity bitch some humility.” He nodded to them again, stepped out, and shut the door behind him.
Just like that, Tricks let the mask fall, slumping down in his chair and covering his eyes with a hand. “Ugh…what an absolute cock-up. I still can hardly believe all this, Style. Principia’s disrespectful and ornery, but she’s always been faithful to the Big Guy. I just…didn’t see this coming. Before the end of this, I’ve really gotta find out what it is she wants so badly in Last Rock that she’s willing to cross the Guild to get it.”
“This is why I wish you’d let me deal with my enforcers directly,” she replied. “Before sending Thumper off, I’d rather have spent some time finding out what he did to set her off that way. Yeah, I know my man. You can bet he did something. People don’t just up and turn on their cult on a fucking whim.”
He twisted around and leaned his head back to look up at her. “Do you think he tried to hand her off to the Wreath or something? To Tellwyrn?”
Style shook her head slowly, her expression troubled. “No…not that. Shook’s stuffed to the skull with rage and he’s got bad habits around women… Sweet tried to teach him some self-control, and ended up just teaching him to repress, which has not been helpful. But the Guild is his whole life. Even more than Prin, I can’t see him betraying a member to our enemies.”
“Then it doesn’t matter what he did, it matters what she did about it,” Tricks said firmly. “I will not have treason, Style. It’s not to be tolerated. Anything else we can deal with, work around, forgive if need be. Anybody who turns on the Guild is an enemy, simple as that.”
She drew in a deep breath and blew it out all at once. “You really think Thumper has a chance of collaring Prin in the wild? He’s a kneecapper; she’s a conwoman, and a damn good one. She’s already manipulated the hell out of him once.”
“Of course not. He’ll flush her out, though. Principia settled down in some nest with her defenses up is something I don’t fancy trying to root out. Principia fleeing across the countryside with that asshole at her heels… Well, if we play this right she might still be persuaded to come home voluntarily. After all, Thumper’s not working on my orders here, now is he?”
Style shook her head. “Well, let’s just hope this works out better than your last clever idea.”
Emperor Sharidan preferred a simple breakfast. When he had first ascended to the Silver Throne, moving into the harem wing and to a staff of servants who didn’t yet know his ways, he’d been greeted in the morning by a veritable feast, enough to feed a small village, from which he was expected to graze lightly, letting the rest go to waste. Over a dozen servants were posted about the room, ready to dash forth and pander to his merest whim.
He had quickly made his opinions about this known.
Now, breakfast in the Imperial harem was a small, almost cozy affair. He sat at a little round table in the parlor outside his bedroom, only four other people present, none of them servants. Milanda Darnassy, the young lady with whom he’d spent the night, was serving as hostess, pouring tea for those present. Sharidan never slept alone, and this duty always fell to his consort of the evening—which, these days, was more likely than not to be Milanda. In truth, he’d have welcomed her to sit down at the table, and while the other girls usually did, she preferred to keep a respectful distance from the rest of his company. This consisted of his wife, Eleanora, and sometimes a minister of some department or another called to deliver reports. Having breakfast with the Emperor was considered not so much an honor as an occasional duty. Today it was Lord Quentin Vex, who was in the process of running down a list of events he deemed important to bring to the Emperor’s attention, all but ignoring his pastry and braised swordfish.
Vex was more Eleanora’s creature than Sharidan’s, to be truthful, but she made a point of never receiving reports from the man except in his presence. The nature of their partnership was that she handled many of the more aggressive aspects of the Throne’s duties, chiefly espionage and military matters, but she was insistent that Sharidan be kept fully in the loop.
The fourth person in the room, and the reason no guards were present, was a black-coated Hand of the Emperor. Barring another attack by a deity, guards would have been quite superfluous.
“Nothing will come of it, as usual,” Vex was saying. “The orcs are always rattling sabers at us, but even if they did manage to land a raiding party on Tiraan soil they’d be obliterated by our forces. Even that is practically impossible; they’d have to get through the Tidestriders or the Punaji first.”
“We know this very well, Quentin,” Eleanora said with a hint of reproof. “The question was how this new round of saber-rattling will affect our relationship with the kingdom of Sifan.”
“Your pardon, Majesty, but the Sifanese are as aware of the situation as we. If any orcs actually launched an attack from their shores, it would be considered an act of war by them. They’ll never allow it, and the orcs know this very well. It’s all just talk.
“Nonetheless,” said Sharidan, “talk is the first step in every kind of interaction between nations, and there are things far short of war that could more than merely inconvenience us. I think it’s time to arrange a state visit to Sifan. With gifts suitable to express the great esteem in which we hold them.”
“Conveyed by warships,” Eleanora added, smiling at him. “The carrot and the stick.”
“Just so.” He returned her grin. “We have no objection to the Sifanese allowing orcs to dwell in their lands. It doesn’t hurt to remind them, now and again, why they don’t want us to develop objections.”
“Very good, your Majesty,” Vex said with an approving nod. “Then, there are only a couple more domestic issues, related to each other. I have…been in touch with Professor Tellwyrn regarding the Elilial matter.”
There was a moment of stillness at the table. Even the Hand tore his gaze from his perpetual survey of the room’s entrances to look over at them. This was a subject the Emperor did not prefer to discuss.
“Define ‘in touch,’” Eleanora ordered, her voice cold.
“I took the liberty of notifying her of Elilial’s re-entry to this plane, and the fact that she has worked out a way of doing so without tripping the alarms thought to be inherent in opening hellgates.”
“And you did this…why?” the Empress asked quietly. Vex appeared unruffled by her razor stare. He was one of the few who could manage it.
“With respect, your Majesty, managing Tellwyrn is something of an art form. I have been reviewing my predecessors’ notes on her, and the point that jumped repeatedly out at me is that she is usually reasonable and amenable to working with others, even with enemies, if treated with respect. If she feels someone is trying to manipulate her, well… At that point, people begin to vanish and things start exploding. I’ve not come out and said I’m using her to run interference with Elilial, nor will I, but it seems she is inclined to do that anyway, and I’d rather she not get the impression I’m doing anything at her expense.”
“That woman is unreliability given flesh,” Eleanora said with a sneer, but let the matter drop, turning back to her fish. Sharidan held his tongue. He had not asked about the details of Eleanora’s brush with Arachne Tellwyrn, as it had obviously happened before they had met, and hoped he would never have to. His wife’s dislike of the elf was clearly personal.
“In any case,” Vex went on smoothly, “I received, finally, a reply from the Professor. It read, in its entirety: ‘I’ll talk to her.’ Hopefully she will extend the same courtesy in appraising me of the broad strokes of that conversation, if or when it happens.”
“Can she actually do that?” Sharidan asked with interest. He told himself the interest was purely tactical, that he had no hope or desire of ever having another conversation with the woman he’d known as Lilian Riaje. He told himself this every time Elilial came up, in the hope that he would eventually start to believe it.
“That is impossible to know,” Vex said with an eloquent shrug. “I would say that if anyone can, though, it’s Tellwyrn. She is possibly the world’s leading expert on getting audiences with deities. That was the main thrust of what she’s done with her life since she appeared on the scene three thousand years ago. Whatever she wants with the gods, she’s managed to get a personal audience with every single one known, then vanished for thirty years, then showed up again to found that University of hers. I rather suspect this will be just like old times for her.”
“Don’t put us in a position where we must rely on her,” Eleanora said sharply.
“Your pardon, Majesty, but I would never do that,” he said politely. “I will, however, make use of every tool that presents itself. The other thing is tangentally connected. Last week, a Black Wreath cell was uprooted and obliterated in the village of Hamlet in Calderaan Province.”
Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “I thought the cell in that village was already wiped out. By Tellwyrn.”
“Yes, well…it would appear she missed a spot. The fascinating thing is that this was done by four Bishops of the Universal Church, in civilian clothes, who did not identify themselves as such to the locals, though they did not use assumed names. The Imperial Marshal in residence was under the impression they were there on the business of the Throne.”
The Empress’s eyes were onyx slits. “Which four?”
“Basra Syrinx—” This brought a snort from Eleanora, which he ignored. “—Andros Varanus, Branwen Snowe…and Antonio Darling.”
The Hand looked over at them sharply. Vex met his eyes and nodded. This particular Hand was the one who also sat on the security council, of which Vex and Darling were members.
“Isn’t that absolutely fascinating,” Sharidan mused, while Eleanora glared holes in the far wall. “It fairly well has to be Church business, does it not? Those are four deities whose followers tend to try to strangle each other when they come into contact.”
“Perhaps the time has come to have another conversation with dear Antonio,” Eleanora suggested grimly.
“With respect, your Majesty,” said Vex, “my recommendation at this point is to leave him alone and watch what he does. He is, after all, doing more or less what you told him to.”
“While misrepresenting himself as an agent of the Throne!”
“He is an agent of the Throne, even if he wasn’t officially on Imperial business. Consider that the man is balancing loyalties to the Throne, the Church, and the Thieves’ Guild; several of those loyalties are inherently contradictory. I think it would be a mistake to call him down before we learn which of them truly has his heart. If, indeed, any of them do. He’s the kind of man who juggles impossibly complex games for incalculable stakes because anything less would bore him. I am, however,” he added, “placing his home under surveillance over a different matter.”
“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.
“It seems Bishop Darling has recently hired two housemaids.”
Sharidan knew Vex well enough to assume that this apparent non sequitur was going somewhere relevant. “I thought I remembered that Darling had a Butler?”
“He does,” Vex nodded.
“And his home,” Eleanora said slowly, “is big enough to need additional servants?”
“It is not, your Majesty. The girls in question are both elves. They are both former prostitutes at the establishment whose proprietress was recently murdered in the headhunter attack.”
He paused, giving that a moment to sink in.
“Go on,” Eleanora said.
“The perpetrator of that homicide was caught and dealt with—or so we assume, as no further incidents have occurred, and it’s not in the nature of headhunters to lie low. The thing that catches my attention about this chain of events was how instrumental Darling’s help was in identifying and apprehending the elf responsible. Who, as an interesting point, was a member of the Thieves’ Guild. It appears that these two elves are now apprenticing at the Guild. Directly under Darling himself.”
“You surely don’t think one of those elves is a headhunter,” Sharidan said slowly.
“There are innumerable other explanations which are more likely,” Vex replied, nodding. “Elves are quick, agile and deft; they make fantastic thieves, and yet are rarely inclined to become so. I can well imagine Darling snapping them up as apprentices. Then, too, he would hardly be the first wealthy man to arrange for a couple of exotic prostitutes to be exceedingly grateful to him. To look at it from another view, headhunters are solitary creatures and rarely evince an excess of self-control; the fact that there are two of these girls suggests neither is one. It is unlikely both would still be alive in that instance.”
“But?” Eleanora prompted.
“But.” He nodded to her. “If there were anyone ambitious enough and reckless enough to think he could keep a headhunter under control… Well, I have no trouble imagining Darling trying to play that game. It’s enough of a possibility, however remote, to justify a few basic precautions. Surveillance, and notifying you—nothing further at this point, but I’m sure I need not tell your Majesties that a headhunter loose in the city is an absolutely unacceptable outcome.”
“Is it possible that he could manage to control a headhunter?” Sharidan mused. “Or two…or more? Think what someone could do with an entire force of those things.”
Lord Vex cleared his throat. “I…do not presume to speak toward what is magically possible, your Majesty. But what you suggest… It is in the category of every reclusive mage who sits in a tower ranting about how he’ll show everyone who mocked him. We simply can’t afford to take all such threats seriously. An army of headhunters under intelligent control is… It’s like a spell to drop the moon on one’s enemies. The odds of such a thing being achieved are not even worth calculating, and if it were somehow to happen, well… There is simply not much that could be done about it.”
Sharidan turned to regard the Hand, who was looking at him steadily. What the two of them knew that no one else in the room did—even Eleanora—was that Vex had also just neatly described the process by which Hands of the Emperor were created.
“The possibility, as you say, is enough,” he said to Vex, and then to the Hand, “begin preparing countermeasures.”
The Hand nodded, a deep gesture that verged on a bow.
Eleanora gave him a look; he gave her one back, and she quirked an eyebrow but turned back to Vex, letting it go. For all that their marriage was a sham as marriages went, the two of them were closer than he had once imagined he might ever be with another human being. The amount of trust between them was enough to permit his occasionally taking actions she did not understand, even to do so without explaining them to her, despite her suspicious nature. He accepted the same from her in turn. Neither had ever given the other cause to regret it.
Vex seemed quite unperturbed at being tacitly contradicted, but then, he rarely seemed perturbed by much. “That settled, then, nothing that remains is a significant interest to the Throne, in my opinion. There are a few minor intrigues among several of the Houses which you may wish to keep abreast of going forward. House Madouri has effectively withdrawn from the city…”
The little attic apartment had never been much of a home. She’d only spent three years there, which in an elf’s lifespan was hardly enough time to make unpacking worthwhile—not that she’d ever owned enough to fill the space anyway. Even so, there was something sad and hollow about the sight of the long room cleaned up and emptied of the touches that had made it hers.
The bed, small table and single ladderback chair had come with the space—“furnished,” indeed. Her rug, bed linens and quilt, and the thin little cushion on her chair had all been disposed of. The meager rest of her possessions were on her person in her bag of holding; they really amounted to little but clothes, toiletries and her enchanting supplies. All that was left out was a small disc of crystal, which currently sat in the middle of the floor, in the center of a diagram scrawled on the hardwood in enchantment-grade chalk.
Projected above it was a translucent model of Clarke Tower, glowing a dim blue that illuminated the room better than the late afternoon sun; that window was in the worst possible position for light. The model flickered occasionally, usually accompanied by a tiny spark from the chalk below as some of it burned out. It had grown progressively dimmer the whole time she’d been watching, though even still, she could clearly see the tiny golden eagle, the only object picked out inside the tower. It had been moving around all afternoon, since it had re-entered the tower—since Trissiny had come home from class. Now, it stayed relatively stationary in the upper room.
Principia sat on the uncovered mattress, her back against the wall, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, staring at the glowing little tower. She sat thus, unmoving, as the last of the light faded outside, true night fell and the only thing brightening the room was her magical model. Not until the little eagle had remained completely still for nearly an hour did she stir.
It was the work of a moment to scrub out the diagram, causing the tower to vanish and true dark to fall over the room. It would have been dark to a human, anyway; her eyes had no trouble picking out the details of the attic. She picked up the crystal disc and tucked it into a pocket, then turned without a backward glance and left her room for the last time, leaving behind nothing but a smudge of spent magical chalk on the floor.
Lianwe clawed at her sheets, having long since given up on sleep. It was bad tonight.
Mostly the spirits let her be. She could always hear them—except it was more feeling than hearing, for all that she clearly perceived the words—but usually in the distant background, not distracting her. They had at least that much pragmatism, that they avoided disrupting her actions or putting them all in danger. If they were going to act up, it would be when all was quiet, when she was trying to rest. It had rarely been this bad before. But then, she had rarely gone this far without indulging them.
They were a torrent, a cacophony, yet she clearly heard each voice. Some screaming incoherently, some screaming for vengeance, for blood. Insistent voices urged her to hunt, to glory in the chase, the kill. Others whispered advice—one even was trying to calm her. She appreciated the thought, at least.
It wasn’t the voices that bothered her, disturbing as they were. Much as it seemed such things might be enough to drive one mad, something about the transition she had taken on when she’d embraced the spirits had left her able to cope. No, the problem was that one of them—possibly more, she couldn’t tell—had grabbed at the powers, and she clenched and trembled with the effort of controlling them.
She was no mage, no warlock, witch or priest to have picked a magical path in life and learned a deep control and understanding of it. She knew what the powers did intuitively, but it was different each time they came. They always provided what she needed in a given situation. Or what the spirits thought she needed, anyway. She did not need what they were trying to do now.
Infernal spells to rip open portals in reality and slide through the streets of the city. Elemental fireballs. Fae magic to pull thorny vines from the ground and ensnare prey. Lightning, ice… Pain. Lianwe clung to her control.
So intent was she on this that she didn’t even hear Shinaue rising from her own bed on the other side of their small room, didn’t notice her until the other elf climbed into her own bed and wrapped her arms around her. Soft murmurs, gentle hands stroking her hair. Just like that, the spirits began to calm, the powers sliding back into the void from which they sprang. Something in them responded to the spirits in the other woman. They had gone to the dark place together, come out together. The things inside them knew each other. In some ways, they were all one.
Lianwe relaxed, burying her face in Shinaue’s neck gratefully. Soon enough, she knew, it would be the other who risked a loss of control, and it would be she who offered relief. Eventually, if they didn’t give in to what the spirits demanded, no relief would be enough.
It wouldn’t come to that point, though. They would kill before then. Once had been enough to teach them never to let it come to that.
But this time… Things were different now. This time, they had purpose. Prey who deserved, needed to die. This time, Sweet would tell them who to kill.
As she drifted to sleep, Lianwe wondered if it was wisdom or cowardice, letting him make that decision for them. Before the darkness drifted over her, she decided it did not matter.