Tag Archives: Tricks

11 – 22

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“This looks…complicated,” Tallie said skeptically a few minutes later, watching the Guild’s currently on-call healer work. “Can’t you just, y’know, make with the whoosh and the flash and fix everything?”

Mesmer wasn’t a man who’d be taken for a medic at first glance. He was dressed like a shabby street tough, in an old suit that had been of middling quality at best before being worn threadbare and ripped in multiple places. He was handsome to the point of dashing, though, and both his perfectly-trimmed hair and handlebar mustache had clearly been oiled into place with far more care than he took with his wardrobe. He had the healer’s attitude down, though, as he now demonstrated by ceasing his careful work on Jasmine and turning to Tallie, arching one supercilious eyebrow.

“Would you like to try?”

“This is normal,” Jasmine said hastily and a tad thickly; she still had some bleeding in her mouth where her cheek had cracked against the floor, as evidenced by the ugly, blossoming bruise spreading across half her face. “You never just inundate someone with divine magic. You can fix bones or organs in the wrong place, which means a slow death at worst.”

“Well, I’m glad at least one of you has cracked a book at some point in her life,” Mesmer said more affably, turning back to her and resuming what he’d been doing. This consisted of closing his eyes, laying one hand on her forehead, and gently applying very small sparks of golden light to her abdomen with the other.

“And she knows how to do divine healing, as well,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Let me guess, you’re also a priestess.”

Jasmine started to sigh, as well, then winced. “Ow. And…no. I am not a priestess.”

“It’s not like that’s some kind of clerical secret,” Mesmer said without opening his eyes. “Like I said, kid. Books: not just for propping doors open.”

“All right, then, doctor—”

“Whoah, whoah!” He broke off his work again, turning to scowl at Tallie. “The tag is Mesmer. I did not cleverly avoid eight grueling years of medical school to run around being called doctor, thank you very much!”

Tallie blinked at him in bafflement, but Jasmine grinned, showing blood in her teeth.

“Okay,” Tallie resumed after a moment, in which he returned to what he was doing. “What’s all this, then? Why just heal a little bit at a time? And what’s with the hand on her face? You did it to me, too; is it only the girls who get fondled?”

“I’d actually feel better if you let him concentrate,” Jasmine pointed out.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Mesmer said absently. “Could do this in my sleep; you’re not a complex case. The hand on the head is one of the lesser-used aspects of divine magic. It’s akin to telepathy, gives the caster a sense of a person. With enough skill, it’s a crucial diagnostic tool. With more skill, you can actually get into their minds, which is creepy as all hell and consequently I’ve never studied the method.”

“So it’s like divination,” said Tallie.

“Sure. In that it only works on people and only if you’re touching them and thus is in no way like arcane divination, yeah, it’s exactly like that. As for the little bits at a time part, I’m scanning for and fixing major issues. Concussion, loosened teeth, organ damage, internal bleeding, all that good stuff. And actually I didn’t find any, but I’m healing some internal bruising anyway, because you do not mess around with that crap. The rest, you get to keep, you lucky duck, you.” Apparently finished, he lifted his hands from Jasmine, then grinned and playfully tweaked her nose. “Since you got this collection of bruises from Style, they are considered an object lesson. Letting ’em heal the long, slow way is all part of your education.”

“Well, that answers my next question,” Tallie muttered, absently rubbing at her own stomach where Style had punched her. Upon their arrival, Mesmer had placed a hand on each of their heads, then told Tallie she was fine and set to work on Jasmine.

“And on that note,” the healer added, “while you can nip out and buy yourself a healing potion or just walk into any Omnist temple and get a thorough cleansing, I advise against it. Soon as Style sees you without your hard-earned bruises, she’ll just put ’em right back.”

“Well, that may not be an issue,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “Since I guess I won’t be around much longer.”

“Why, you’re quitting?” Style snorted, striding into the curtained-off examination room from the open lobby beyond. “I thought better of you than that, kid.”

Jasmine met her with an unfriendly stare. “Well, after all that, I expect to be kicked out. Right?”

“For what?” Style folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “Standing up to authority? Defending someone weaker? That’s exactly the entire fucking point of everything we do here, Jasmine. You just did it in the wrong way, at the wrong time, over the wrong issue. Teaching you how to pick your battles and win them is the point of you being an apprentice.” She grinned mirthlessly. “Kicking the shit out of you when you fuck up as badly as you just did is meant to deter you making the same dumbshit mistakes twice. The technique I can teach, kid; instilling someone with the drive to take action like you did is a lot harder.”

“Hmp,” Jasmine grunted noncommittally, probing at her bruised face with her fingertips.

“Oi!” Style turned to shout back through the curtain. “The Boss told you three to come with. What’re you doing lurking out there?”

“He said to stay out while girls were being examined!” Rasha protested rather shrilly from outside.

Style turned to Mesmer with a scowl. “I can’t help but notice a complete lack of anybody with their shirt off in here. Why would you even need them undressed if you can do that creepy brain thing you do?”

Mesmer, who had stepped over momentarily to a nearby cabinet, now shrugged placidly before handing a bowl and a bottle of water to Jasmine. “I just hate being crowded when I’m working. Here, swish and spit. You look like a vampire with a goat’s table manners.”

“Get your butts in here!” Style barked.

The boys trooped single-file through the curtain, all three looking uncharacteristically nervous. Tallie gave them a smile; Jasmine waved, while obediently swishing water around her mouth. The space was not exactly cramped, but it was beginning to fell that way, with so many bodies present.

“The Boss said he’d want to talk to you,” Style said, giving them all the gimlet eye. I doubt he’ll want to shout back and forth across a curtain. This is as good a place as any for a chat, so you all just sit tight.”

“Uh huh,” Mesmer said dryly, taking the bowl and bottle from Jasmine and stepping over to the nearby sink to pour and wash them out. “Sure, fine, whatever. Just so you know if another injured dumbass comes in, I’m kicking you all out.”

“Oh, are you,” Style drawled.

“Let me put this in terms you can understand,” he said, turning back to her with a grin and placing a hand on his own chest. “Me medic. You thug. That means in the presence of a patient, I outrank you, Tricks, his Majesty, and the Big Guy himself. Savvy?”

“Actually she’s rather loquacious,” Ross commented. Everyone turned to stare at him, and he shrugged defensively. “Aside from the cussing, I mean.”

“One of her more charming qualities,” Tricks said breezily, striding in, and paused to wink at Rasha, who had jumped. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on ya. Though maybe I should install curtains all over this place. They’re great for dramatic entrances.”

“Ooh!” Darius said brightly. “What about those bead curtains that form a mosaic? Stylish, dramatic, and they make a pleasant rattling sound!”

“Hey, now that’s using the old noggin!” the Boss said, grinning and pointing at him.

“Boy,” Style said darkly, “I can deal with you shooting off your yap in front of the mortal head of our faith, because that’s practically a divine obligation in this cult. But so help me, if you start giving him ideas, I will use you for a toilet plunger.”

“That’s extremely flattering, ma’am,” Darius said sincerely, “but Tallie has dibs.”

“All right, cool it,” the Boss ordered. “I do enjoy a spot of banter and you kids seem talented, but as usual I have far too much crap to do, so let’s proceed directly to the point. Mesmer, I think one of your other rooms could use some tidying up.”

“Excuse me,” Mesmer declared, “but every facet of my infirmary is in flawless order as always. Really, Boss, if you want me to go the fuck away, you can say so without insulting—”

“GO THE FUCK AWAY!” Style roared, pointing at the door.

Mesmer heaved a dramatic sigh and flounced out. Tricks waited for the sound of the outer door closing before he continued.

“So! What, pray tell, is all this I’m hearing about dwarves?”

There was a beat of silence, in which the apprentices glanced nervously at one another.

“None of this is our fault!”

“That guy Pick—”

“I think the Silver Legions—”

“They’ve been following us around since—”

Style slammed a fist into the cabinet hard enough to rattle some of its contents loose, to judge by the muted crash that occurred within.

“How about this,” she said flatly. “Pretend you can communicate like human beings.”

“Only half-human,” Jasmine said, raising a hand. She shrugged, unperturbed, at Style’s furious stare. “For the record.”

“You’re the talker, right?” Tricks said calmly, winking at Tallie. “How about you give it to us from the beginning?”

Tallie drew in a deep breath, wincing and placing a hand on her belly, then nodded. “Uh…okay, sure. Guys, feel free to chime in if I skip anything. All right, so, a few days back Darius here got us a job doing grunt work for Pick at that weapons swap…”

She actually did not forget anything, efficiently running through the whole thread of events which had followed from the warehouse, and how they had quite accidentally come to be involved with the mysterious dwarves, the Silver Legionnaires, the gang running Glass Alley, and finally Alan Vandro and Gimmick.

“And then we got back here and Style went apeshit on us,” Tallie finished, then shrugged. “I figure you guys remember that part.”

Style, by this point, had narrowed her eyes to slits, but it was a thoughtful expression; even as new to the Guild as they were, they had learned to watch for her displeasure. The chief enforcer turned expectantly to Tricks, who was gazing pensively into the distance, slowly tapping one finger against his chin.

“Well, now,” he mused after a long moment of contemplation. “What a goddamn interesting week you kids are having. Felicitations and condolences both.”

“Thanks,” said Ross. Style shot him a look.

“Since you didn’t mention our Ms. Jasmine’s excursions to visit Glory,” the Boss continued, “I gather that was unrelated?”

“I would be amazed if Glory has anything to do with Pick or dwarves,” Jasmine answered, “and probably very little involvement with the Legions. I’d been planning to talk to her about all this after today, though. She ended up not wanting me for an apprentice, but she said I could visit and seek advice. She’s certainly smart enough to make it worthwhile.”

“As smart a cookie as was ever baked, that one,” Tricks agreed.

“I like the sound of that,” Tallie added. “Gotta say, not that I didn’t appreciate the sandwiches and the lift, but I’m less than comfortable with our main source of info and connections being Vandro.”

“Good,” Style grunted. “Trust those instincts. And while we’re at it, whatever else you end up doing about all this, you watch your ass if you have to deal with Principia Locke any further. In fact, I’d say just don’t, if you’ve got any better option.”

“Why?” asked Rasha.

“Webs is a schemer,” Style replied. “He’s a pile of agendas and he will use you in them, but that doesn’t necessarily have to bring you harm. Hell, he’ll probably go out of his way to be helpful to apprentices. Keys, though, is just an asshole. Her career path has been to ruin everyone’s day who has anything worth stealing, and her hobby is to piss off fellow thieves whenever one is unfortunate enough to meet her. The fuck if I know what she’s doing in the Legion, but if it ends up with her in a noose, which I more than half expect, not a fucking soul alive will shed a tear. She will string you along into trouble just because she thinks it’s funny.”

“Not me, she won’t,” Jasmine said simply.

Style gave her a long look, then frowned and glanced at the others. “What, is this not a secret?”

“I asked her for advice,” Jasmine said with a shrug. “They asked me why. It didn’t seem worth concealing. Anyway, I’m not banking on our relationship to ensure Locke deals fairly with us. If she gives me that kind of trouble I will go down there and beat her into the ground, and she knows it. I’ve already seen the inside of one Silver Legion cell this week and frankly it wasn’t all that uncomfortable.”

“Damn,” Darius said, grinning. “And I thought my family was messed up.”

“I’m absolutely sure they are,” Tallie assured him.

“Hn,” Style grunted, then smiled almost grudgingly. “Kid, you’ve got the makings of a top-notch enforcer. Assuming I don’t have to literally kill you in order to beat some common sense into that skull.”

Jasmine’s expression fell at the back-handed compliment, and she averted her eyes, fidgeting.

“Anyway, that’s our deal,” Tallie said, now frowning at Tricks. “Look, I get that we’re expected to solve our own problems here, and we’re working on it. But you cared enough to ask about all this, and now you know. So…what’s your plan?”

“You have an unknown party stalking some apprentices,” Darius agreed. “Surely the Guild has a stake in that.”

“Mm hm,” Tricks mused. “Too right, we do. But if you’re expecting me to come swooping to your rescue, here, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”

“I…” Rasha glanced quickly around at the others. “…don’t think anybody’s actually going to be disappointed, then.”

“Good man,” Tricks replied with a grin, though his face immediately sobered. “There are factors that restrain me a bit, kids. First of all, all these dwarves appear to have done is track you. That’s creepy and borderline hostile at least, but the truth is, being followed around is a fact of life for Eserites. Law enforcement is just the beginning; potential marks and past marks, those who have the resources, will often stalk thieves. Avenists and Shaathists tend to do it just on general principles if they happen to learn what cult you’re in. For that matter, there’s a great deal of competition within the Guild itself, and some of the prank-playing barely toes the line short of infighting. Your fellow thieves will frequently make it their business to know what you’re up to. Dealing with this, and countering it, is something you’ll be expected to know how to do. Nobody in this Guild is going to rally to your aid just because someone is keeping tabs on you.”

Ross sighed heavily; none of them found anything to say in response.

“Now, granted, there are some mitigating factors there,” Tricks continued. “You’re apprentices, which means we don’t expect you to have the same capabilities, and you get a measure of protection. And this stalking is pretty obviously a forerunner to the real show, whatever that is. Depending on what it is, we may end up having to intervene after all. For that reason, I’m glad to be in the loop on this, finally.”

“Sorry,” Tallie muttered. “We didn’t figure you’d…”

“No worries, it’s only a few days in,” he assured her. “Whatever crisis this is leading to hasn’t happened yet, and now I’m forewarned. That’s what matters. Second problem, though: I’m constrained from rushing to your aid over a minor problem by the fact that you’re all plotting against me.”

Tricks let their babbled protestations of shock and innocence carry on for a few seconds before holding up a hand for silence. When silence did not immediately ensue, Style helped.

“SHUT IT. And you.” She turned her scowl on the Boss. “I know you like your little jokes, but leave the kids alone. Some of ’em aren’t that bright.”

“Hey,” Darius protested. “What’d she mean by that?”

“Tell you when you’re older,” Ross rumbled.

“All right, fair enough,” Tricks said easily. “Relax, guys, you’re in no trouble with me. And Style’s right, that was a little joke on my part…somewhat. But the fact is, after today, you’ll be associated with Alan Vandro’s camp in the eyes of those in the Guild who care about such things, and that is a potential issue.”

“Camp?” Rasha said shrilly. “There’s a camp? Nobody told us about any camp!”

“We probably wouldn’t have stumbled into it if he had,” Tallie said sourly. “Which would be why he didn’t.”

“Exactly,” said Tricks, nodding. “Innocent or not, though, that’s where we stand. How this looks is one of the bullshit things I have to think about in order to lead the Guild. If some of our apprentices are in some kind of danger, then sure, protecting them with all necessary resources is just part of the job. If I move to aid a group of Vandro’s underlings just because they’re in an uncomfortable situation, that’s different. It means I’m either insecure enough to try to woo away members of his faction, or overtly hostile toward him in a way that’ll start sparks flying, as people who support him, me, or other parties take the cue to get more aggressive.”

“That is horseshit,” Rasha spat with uncharacteristic vehemence. He then paled slightly and hunched his shoulders, but a moment later forced himself to straighten up again, glaring at the Boss.

“You’re completely right,” Tricks said with a sigh. “It’s politics. And the really shitty thing about politics is that you don’t get to abstain from it. Not just me, because I have to consider these things in order to get anything done around here, but everybody. It happens, and it’ll roll right over you if you don’t pay attention to it and involve yourself. It’s obnoxious as hell, but…there it is.”

“What are these factions, though?” Darius asked. “I mean, what’s everybody after?”

“There’s not really any competition for power in the Guild,” said Tricks. “Competition for jobs, credibility, and just because we like to compete, sure. But in a religion whose central premise is that people who seek power are not to be trusted, we just don’t have all that many positions of authority, and they always end up getting kind of thrust on people who don’t really want them. Anybody in one of those positions who started acting like they enjoyed it too much would find themselves…” He grinned, dragging a finger across his neck. “Retired.”

“We have joined a cult of crazy people,” Tallie said wearily. Style grinned at her.

“Point being,” Tricks continued, “most Guild members really aren’t interested in factional politics at all, and those who go in for it do so over doctrinal issues—how they feel the Guild should be run, and how Eserites should behave. Webs isn’t aiming for my job; I know for a fact he doesn’t want my job, and very few people do.”

“He keeps trying to fob it back off on Sweet,” Style added, smirking, “who is far too slippery for that to work.”

“What Webs wants,” Tricks said, giving her a sour look, “is change within the cult.”

“What change?” asked Ross.

“That’s actually a good thing to ask about and something you should know,” the Boss replied, “but it’s a diversion I really don’t have time for. Find Lore at your earliest opportunity and ask about all this; teaching you the Guild’s codes and philosophy is his job, after all. For now, we have the issue at hand to finish addressing.”

“The issue being,” Tallie said bitterly, “we’re fucked and you won’t help.”

“There you go, jumping to conclusions,” Tricks said with a gentle smile. “Here’s the core problem: who are these dwarves? What’s their agenda? What organization do they represent? What are some of their names? Where do they live?”

He let the silence stretch out, smiling knowingly, and then winked at them.

“And without knowing any of that,” the Boss finished, “what is it you expect me to do?”

“All right, that’s fair,” said Jasmine, shifting on the exam table and then wincing. “We—errh—need to find all that out, anyway.”

“Just get me a starting point,” said Tricks in a more serious tone. “Bring me anything. Because while politics may constrain me from acting overtly in your favor, I want to have people looking at these dwarves as soon as I have a direction in which to look. There’s a potentially important factor here that you guys seem to have missed.”

“Oh?” Darius raised his eyebrows inquisitively.

“Style.” Tricks turned to his head enforcer. “Last info I had, Pick is still AWOL and hasn’t paid this group for the work they did?”

“And that’s still correct,” she grunted. “I had my people do a quick sweep of the city, which turned up nothing, so I put out the word to all our chapter houses to watch for him. Didn’t bother with a thorough search, though; he’s small fry on his best day. Why, you want me to crack down on him?”

“Not necessarily,” Tricks said, frowning. “Pick has a somewhat infamous record; we’re all so accustomed to thinking he’s a useless little shitstain that when he turned up missing just as the apprentices he ditched needed to be paid, well, there’s a pretty neat and obvious little narrative there, huh? However, it’s now turned out that we have some outside faction aggressively pursuing these same kids over business related to that deal and those weapons—business that Pick was knee-deep in. I don’t actually know who he was working with or where the hell he got those gadgets, so he may be the only person who can answer those questions. And just as the dwarves start moving in, he’s nowhere to be found.”

“Holy shit,” Darius breathed, going pale. Style’s face, by contrast, reddened, an she clenched her fists in fury.

“Now, nobody go and do anything rash,” Tricks warned them. “We need answers before taking action; we’re dealing with smart people, and just about the worst thing you can do when smart people are moving against you is lash out. But if it these dwarves have managed to disappear a Guild member…oh, you’ll get your support, kids.” He smiled coldly. “They really hate thieves up in the Dwarnskolds; it’s one of the few places where Eserites have really no presence at all. So maybe it’s time we reminded all of dwarfkind that you do not fuck with the Thieves’ Guild.”

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11 – 21

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None of them were totally surprised to be ambushed as soon as they returned to the Guild. Once inside the subterranean passage complex, but long before they reached the Pit, two blonde figures materialized out of a side corridor as if by magic.

“So!” Flora said, raising her eyebrows archly. “We hear you’ve had quite an afternoon.”

“Oh, come on,” Darius protested. “Were you guys just waiting here for us to get back?”

“Oh, please,” Fauna said disdainfully. “You think we have nothing better to do with our time?”

“The ears are decorative,” Flora added, winking, “but not only decorative.”

“We heard you coming as soon as you hit the casino.”

“All right, that’s just ridiculous,” Tallie scoffed. “How sharp can elven hearing possibly be?”

“It’s not the sharpness of the blade, but the skill with which it is wielded,” Flora said sententiously. “Also, you’re ducking the question.”

“You didn’t ask a question,” said Jasmine. “But on the subject of them, what exactly have you heard?”

The elves exchanged a wry glance.

“Well, she’s got us there,” Fauna admitted.

“The word going around,” said Flora, “is that you lot went to Glass Alley, got in a fight with Ironeye’s people, and then somehow fell in with Webs and his little faction.”

“Wait, faction?” Rasha exclaimed. “And who is Webs?”

“Vandro,” Fauna replied. “So…is that not true, or did he just not mention his tag?”

“’strue,” Ross grunted. “What faction?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s infighting,” Flora said, frowning, “but Alan Vandro is of a theological mindset that puts him at odds with the Boss on many subjects. This is dangerous ground for apprentices to stumble into, guys.”

“With regard to that,” Darius said sharply, “you two were right there when Covrin told us to go find that magic shop. Since you know so damn much about this, a word of warning would have been nice!”

Again, the elves glanced at each other.

“Okay, seriously now,” said Fauna sardonically. “The tip was to go to Glass Alley, find the Finder’s Fee, and ask Sparkler about how dwarves might be tracking you.”

“It’s a big leap from that to getting into an altercation with Vanda Frost and her cell!” Flora added pointedly.

“And quite frankly we’d love to hear that story because how in the hell did you manage that?”

“And why?”

“If you guys have some kind of collective death wish, there are cleaner ways!”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Tallie said wearily. “Stuff just…happened.”

“Uh huh,” Flora said skeptically. “Well, if you’re gonna be a thief, you can’t be the kind of person stuff just happens to.”

“What nonsense is that?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “Things happen to everyone. The world is just like that.”

“An Eserite,” said Fauna, “is in control. We cultivate our skills, but more importantly, the mindset to use those skills.”

“You can’t just careen around reacting to stuff,” Flora continued. “You need to have a plan, and the ability to make a plan and enact it quickly, under pressure.”

“If you had been planning, I’m pretty sure you would not have ended up on Vanda Frost’s shit list after one encounter.”

“We’re crediting you with a certain amount of basic common sense, there, but hey, if we’re wrong…”

“Isn’t it cute how they can be assholes even when they’re been helpful and commiserative,” Darius said wryly.

“Kind of an Eserite thing, innit?” Ross grumbled.

“Well, look, anyway,” said Fauna, “we’ll wanna hear this whole story straight from the source, as it were, but you’d better not put off facing the music.”

“Style is gonna have things to say to you,” Flora said ominously. “It’ll be that much worse if you make it seem like you’re avoiding her or trying to weasel out of it.”

“Go right up to her, take your lumps, and don’t complain.”

“For the gods’ sake, don’t act submissive or meek, she’ll really tear into you if you show that kind of weakness.”

“But if you just take responsibility like grown-ups and don’t make excuses, Style won’t be any harder on you than she feels she has to be.”

“She’s ham-fisted and has zero patience for bullshit, but she is fair, and all the stuff she puts apprentices through has a purpose.”

“That’s why she’s given such an active role in apprentice training. That’s not a traditional duty for the head enforcer.”

“Hm,” Jasmine mused. “I’ve noticed that about really good teachers.”

“Like alchemy teachers, for example?” Tallie said sourly.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yeah, well… Much as I’m sure you ladies would love to stand around bickering, I say we respect the wisdom of elves. In all the stories, people who don’t listen to elves end up royally screwed. Right, Ross?”

“Wisdom of elves,” Ross grunted. “Plain common sense, more like.”

“That’s the spirit,” Flora said with a grin, patting Rasha on the shoulder.

“To the gallows with head held high!” Fauna crowed, saluting them.

“That’s extremely helpful, thank you,” Jasmine grumbled as the group filed past them, continuing on their way to the center of the complex.

Despite the apprehension which hung over them, the sounds of the Pit were pretty much the same as always for the time of evening. It was semi-quiet, a good number of the apprentices being in the dining hall, whose open doors contributed most of the ambient noise. There were people training, though, as was nearly always the case. And, as usual, a handful of Guild members were about, either passing through on some business of their own or loitering to watch the apprentices.

Several glanced at the five of them as they approached, and one even offered a nod of greeting, but their expressions were disinterested. If any of them had heard any rumor regarding this one group of apprentices, they gave no sign.

“I guess that’s positive,” Rasha mumbled as they filed down the steps to the base of the Pit. “I half expected everybody to be anticipating our demise.”

“What a delightful turn of phrase you have, Rasha,” Darius said with a sigh.

“No reason they’d all show it overtly,” said Tallie. “Weren’t you listening to the elves? Eserites are supposed to be controlled and careful.”

“Eserites are frequently assholes,” Rasha countered, “if you haven’t noticed. Somebody would be gloating if there was reason to.”

“Yep,” Ross agreed. “Wasn’t really our fault, anyway. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

“WELL WELL WELL.”

No sooner had they reached the bottom than Style appeared at the top of the stairs opposite, glowering at them, and began stomping down. She was attired today in an actual chain mail tunic, with heavy leather gauntlets and boots, her belt bristling with pouches, weapons, and tools; it was an obvious nod to the wandering adventurers of yesteryear, floppy hat and all. Her expression, however, did as much as her booming voice to bring a halt to all conversation and activity in the Pit.

“And just when I was thinking my brand-new ass-kicking boots haven’t had a chance to be properly broken in,” she said loudly, stalking across the floor toward them, “lo and behold, I’ve got a gaggle of apprentices trying for the intramural stumbling fuckwit championship. Truly, the gods are goddamn beneficent!”

“You jinxed us,” Darius hissed, jabbing Ross with an elbow. “You, of all people!”

“There are certain formalities to be observed,” Style said, coming to a stop right in front of them and folding her brawny arms. She was taller than any of them, even Jasmine, and more powerfully built than any but Ross; the sheer physicality of her presence would have been intimidating even were it not for her glare, which looked like it could shatter glass. “Before we get to the yelling and smacking that we all know is coming, I’m going to offer you a chance to spin your side of this. Just in case it turns out you don’t all deserve to get your bells rung, and because none of you little bastards are crafty enough to weasel your way out of this with wordplay. So?” Her glower intensified by an order of magnitude. “Explain.”

“Uh…” Darius winced, and glanced aside at the others. “What have you heard?”

Style’s bulky physique made it seem she should only have been able to move slowly; this was clearly not at all the case. She clapped Darius hard on the side of the head with an open-handed swat that sent him staggering before it seemed possible for her to have un-folded her arms.

“I’d really hoped it was obvious from context,” Style growled, “but this is not the time for you to be getting clever. I’m not gonna repeat myself; if you don’t have a masterful fucking explanation for this towering cock-up, we’re gonna proceed straight to the entertaining portion of the evening.”

“We went to Glass Alley,” Tallie said quickly, “following a tip from a Silver Legionnaire that the magic shop there could provide some insight into how a group of dwarves has been following us around. Just about as soon as we got there, we met a friend of ours, Schwartz, who’s a Salyrite…um, fae user. He was getting attacked by some, uh, local residents.”

“Go on,” Style said grimly.

“Well, we were gonna jump into that,” Tallie continued, “but…it sort of became unnecessary. Ironeye showed up with her entourage and kicked everybody’s ass. And we talked to her briefly and since we weren’t doing anything wrong, she let it go without even saying much of anything to us, so, you know, we figured that was pretty much that.”

She paused, glancing at Rasha, who looked like he was preventing himself from shrinking into his own pockets by sheer force of will. “And then Rasha asked her for directions to the Finder’s Fee.”

“You asked,” Style enunciated carefully, turning the full weight of her baleful stare on Rasha, “Ironeye. For directions.”

“…seemed like she’d know the district,” he said hoarsely.

Style smiled thinly without actually diminishing the strength of her frown, which was a terrifying thing to behold. “Rasha, there’s a point to be made here about common goddamn sense, but I have to say, this is evidence that you do not lack for balls. Quite frankly I was beginning to be concerned about that. Irrespective of any other destruction I have to heap on you, here…kudos for that.”

“Well…great,” he muttered.

“Anyway.” Style turned her attention back to Tallie. “Since you’ve designated yourself the narrator, continue. You asked Ironeye for directions.”

“Right,” Tallie said, nodding. “And then she sent us into a fucking trap. We got locked in a room. So…we broke out of it. And Rumor and Gimmick were right outside, and we left with Gimmick.”

“Hmmm.” Style dragged out the grunt until it was nearly a hum. “All right, well. This is why I ask questions before cracking heads together—take note, those of you who’re going into the enforcement business. What I’ve heard is from Rumor, which was a deliberately incriminating pile of hints and vagueness about you causing trouble in Glass Alley. Nothing that actually contradicts this account, she merely implied otherwise—which was kind of what she does. If your story is true, for Ironeye to throw you in a cell just for being on her lawn was way over-the-top, and I’m gonna have fucking words with her about the treatment of other people’s apprentices. If I have to go down there and find out that this story is not true, the world of hurt you little shits are in for will make what I planned for tonight look like the gentle fondling of your virgin true love. So, with that established…” She tilted her head back, staring down her nose at them. “Would you like to modify your story any?”

“That’s what happened,” Tallie said stubbornly, clenching her fists. “Ask her. If she tells you otherwise, ask Gimmick.”

“And Herschel Schwartz,” Jasmine added quickly. “You can find him through the College of Salyrene pretty easily, I bet.”

“Mm hm,” Style said, still staring down at Tallie. “And is there anything you, in particular, would like to add?”

“Oh.” Tallie winced. “Well, uh, you know. When we got out, Rumor was, um, standing around outside the place where we’d been locked up. And I sort of punched her.”

They were reminded of the presence of multiple onlookers by a general in-drawing of breath and one low whistle. It was a startling reminder, to judge by the way Rasha jumped; Style had a way of dominating the scene to the exclusion of all else.

“Uh huh,” Style replied in a very even tone which was far more terrifying than her previous shouting. “Wanna explain your thought process, there?”

“Well,” Tallie said defensively, folding her arms, “by that point I was sick of getting the runaround from assholes, and she was continuing to be a smug, aggravating pain in the ass.”

“And that,” Style said calmly, “in your mind, is grounds for a sucker-punching.”

“She was party to what you admitted was abusive behavior toward us,” Tallie said, her voice climbing half an octave. “Aren’t we supposed to not take shit from people abusing their power? That’s the whole point of this cult, isn’t it?”

“Child,” said Style, “as an enforcer I am, among other things, a student of human behavior. Your posture and tone show me very clearly that you know you’re in the wrong, here; indignation over unjust treatment looks very different. Since you’ve been here less than two weeks, I’m not gonna call you down for your sad fucking lack of a poker face. However, keep in mind that I am a highly-ranked officer in this cult. Now, do you really think standing in front of me and twisting Eserion’s sacred principles around in a way that gets you off the hook for your own dumbfuckery is a smart thing to do?”

“Uh.” Tallie outright cringed. “Well—”

Again, Style unfolded herself almost too fast to observe. Her fist slammed into Tallie’s midsection, doubling the girl over and sending her staggering backward, where she would probably have fallen had Jasmine not caught her. Before Jasmine could get a good grip, however, Style seized a handful of Tallie’s hair and hauled her away from the group, unceremoniously tossing her toward the open center of the Pit.

Tallie staggered, wheezing and bent over with both arms wrapped around her middle, but she kept on her feet.

“I’d have hoped most of this was obvious, but since I was clearly wrong, I’m gonna explain,” Style growled, stalking toward her. “In detail. First, revenge is a science, which you will be expected to understand and master before you’re done getting trained.”

Tallie tried to straighten up, at which moment Style jabbed her hard in the collarbone with the heel of her hand, sending her staggering again.

“The purpose of retaliation,” the enforcer continued, “is to influence the future behavior of someone, and not necessarily the person being retaliated against. That means you need to approach it strategically: set out your goals, form a plan, and enact it carefully. Lashing out at someone who’s offended you is inbred orc behavior, not at all befitting a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”

This time, Tallie had enough wind back and the presence of mind to raise her forearm to try to block the slap Style aimed at her head. With lightning precision, the larger woman switched to her other hand, clapping Tallie across the ear and sending her crashing to the ground with a yelp.

“Second, if you have a problem with the way a Guild member corrects your behavior, you come to me. If you’re whining and wasting my time, you’ll suffer for that, but if you have been legitimately abused, they will. I’ll not have assholes mistreating my apprentices. That is my prerogative.”

She folded her arms again, staring coldly down at Tallie, who huddled on the floor, seemingly afraid to try getting up again. “And finally, you do not assault members of this Guild who outrank you. Once you’re initiated and tagged, you have a lot of free reign in this cult. We’re not big on ranks in general. Your dipshit little friend Pick could walk up to the Boss himself and ream him out, and while that kind of numbnuttery has consequences, there’s no official protocol or mandatory ritual punishment. But that’s for people who have earned their way into Eserion’s Guild. You are just some kid. We’re seeing if you’re worth elevating to membership, but right now? You have no privileges here. You will treat Guild members with respect…”

She unfolded her arms and began stalking forward. “Or I will treat you like a fucking kickball!”

And suddenly, Jasmine was between them.

“That’s enough.”

Style halted, staring almost quizzically at her. “Kid. I am disciplining an apprentice, here. Only one person present gets to decide when it’s enough. You wanna venture a guess who that is?”

“This isn’t discipline,” Jasmine said flatly. “This is you picking on someone weaker than yourself who can’t fight back.”

“This is the consequences of her insubordination, thoughtlessness, assault, and general wasting of my time,” Style replied in the same tone. “And you are getting some leeway here because standing up to power and supporting your fellow thieves are things we want to encourage, but you had better think about what the consequences will be for you if you fail to butt out.”

“I keep hearing Eserites talk a big game about standing up to bullies,” Jasmine spat. “But I keep seeing Eserites being the biggest bullies themselves! From Pick treating apprentices like poorly-trained dogs to Ironeye using magical ordnance on impoverished—”

“That’s your problem, Jasmine,” Style interrupted calmly. “You fail to discern the difference between those things—and whatever other examples you’re about to spit out, including this situation right here. Pick is a smug fuckhead who will be disciplined for his behavior. Ironeye has earned credibility and the benefit of the doubt, and even not knowing the story I know her well enough to be certain whatever she did was deserved by whoever she did it to. Your new best friend Webs doesn’t sharpen his claws on people who don’t have it coming, either, and believe me you’ve no idea the cruelty that man is capable of. We do what’s necessary, and when we fuck up, we get held accountable. Just like you’re about to be.”

“Necessary,” Jasmine sneered. “It’s funny how it’s always necessary for you to throw your weight around, isn’t it?”

“Jas, don’t,” Tallie whispered, reaching up to grasp her leg.

“You’re smarter than this,” Style said evenly. “I get that you came here to work through some of your own stuff, but I expected you to know better than this. You’re picking a fight you don’t need, girl. This is not the place for cries for help. Now get out of my way, Jasmine.”

“It’s okay,” Tallie wheezed, dragging herself back to her feet. “It was my fuckup, I’ll take it. C’mon, don’t make this an issue…”

“Don’t do that,” Jasmine said, turning her head to give Tallie a sidelong look. “You deserved that first punch, Tallie, not this. Don’t make excuses for someone who outranks you to kick you while you’re down. That wouldn’t make you much of an Eserite, would it?”

“Child,” Style said almost sadly, shaking her head, “you don’t know what ‘down’ is. I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to be the one to show you. You and me are gonna talk about this, Jasmine, and that’s not a euphemism. This shit needs to be worked through, and I’ve got time and the ears to lend you. But right now you need to back off.”

“Then,” Jasmine said, turning back to face her fully and shifting to a more balanced stance, “you need to back me off.”

The silence in the Pit was absolute; no one even breathed. Even the cafeteria had gone still, apprentices clustering in the door to stare out at the scene unfolding.

Style sighed heavily. “Aw, kid… You just had to.”

She lunged with the same impossible speed, but Jasmine was not Tallie. Lacking Style’s size and muscle, she didn’t try to deflect the punch fully, instead stepping inside the reach of Style’s arm with the same blinding agility, pushing the attacking hand just slightly off-course and launching a counter-jab at Style’s throat.

Style seized her wrist and swiftly spun in a full circle, tearing Jasmine out of her balanced stance and finally hurling her aside. Apprentices scattered out of the way as Jasmine careened into the wall by the pickpocketing dummies. Despite the disorientation she’d been subjected to, though, she remained adroit on her feet, instantly regaining her poise and actually kicking off the wall to lunge back at Style.

In the intervening second, though, Style had continued forward and met Jasmine head-on with a haymaker which the smaller woman barely avoided taking full in the face. Style’s fist grazed her skull, but even as she staggered past, she managed a knife-handed jab directly into the enforcer’s armpit. It was an excellent strike, the kind of blow that could possibly have rendered her right arm temporarily numb and useless, had Style not happened to be wearing chain mail.

It was Jasmine who let out a yelp of pain.

She retreated as Style came relentlessly after her, deflecting another jab and aiming a kick at Style’s knee. The enforcer merely shifted just enough that Jasmine’s boot struck her on the thigh instead, which didn’t slow her a whit.

Her next punch caught Jasmine hard on the jaw. She reeled, her martial skill suddenly useless in a blind daze, but Style didn’t give her even those seconds to regain her equilibrium. Grabbing Jasmine by the hair with her left hand, she hauled her around and past herself, at the same time bringing her other fist up in a vicious uppercut that landed square on Jasmine’s solar plexus. The air went fully out of her in a hoarse croak, and she dropped.

The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.

“You assume a lot of things,” Style said coldly to the girl kneeling at her feet, presently unable to breathe. “For example, that I’m in my position for reasons other than my ability to kick ass. You’re good, kid—amazing, even. I am better. This was not the way you should’ve learned it.”

She grabbed Jasmine’s hair again, hauling her upright, and once again slammed a fist into her belly, then hurled her to the stone floor.

“Stop it!” Tallie shouted fruitlessly.

Jasmine was too dazed even to catch herself, hitting the floor in a disjointed heap. She was only there for a moment before Style’s boot impacted her ribs, flipping her fully over.

“I legitimately hate this,” Style snarled. “Beating down some fucker who deserves it? Oh, that’s satisfying. But you, kid, you just had to push me, in public, in the worst way. This is all so fucking pointless.”

At the final word, Style stomped hard on Jasmine’s upper back, slamming her down into the floor just as she’d been trying feebly to rise. Jasmine let out a croaking sound and spat a mouthful of blood.

Tallie arrived in a clumsy slide, hurling herself bodily over her fallen friend.

“Enough!” she shrieked. “What’s wrong with you?! You’re killing her!”

“No.”

Everyone’s gaze shifted at the speaker, a new arrival on the scene.

Tricks, the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild and high priest of Eserion, was descending the steps into the Pit. He was a diminutive and plainly-dressed man who’d not have garnered a second look from any random passerby on the street, but those present knew who he was.

“Style is too good at her job to kill someone who doesn’t need it,” he said calmly, striding over toward his chief enforcer. “Or to hurt them one bit more than she intends.”

He came to a stop, gazing down at Jasmine and Tallie. Jasmine coughed, spraying a few more droplets of blood onto the stone floor, and the Boss sighed, then lifted his head to pan his gaze around at the silent apprentices standing on all sides.

“So. Who can tell me what our Miss Jasmine did wrong, here?”

More silence followed. Style folded her arms again, her expression pinched and unhappy.

“She challenged Style,” said Darius, his voice startling against the quiet. He was pale and looked shocked, but his tone remained even. “Publicly, in front of the people whose respect she has to keep. Against the chief enforcer, who can’t be seen as soft. And she refused multiple offers to back down.”

“Well done,” Tricks said with an approving nod, pointing at him. “We are thieves, my apprentices, but not just thieves. What we do is for a purpose, and we cannot achieve that purpose merely by redistributing wealth. That’s been tried, and it simply never goes anywhere. Eserion’s cult is about understanding what moves people, and using that understanding to move them. We’re as heavily invested in social comprehension as the Izarites or Veskers. As such, you cannot afford to act rashly. You must identify a need to act, form a plan, and proceed toward its completion with a cool head. Otherwise…”

He sighed sadly, again turning to gaze down at Jasmine, who had been helped to her hands and knees by Tallie and seemed not to have the strength or wind to rise further. “Quite apart from failing your god, you will very often find yourself bleeding on the floor.”

Tricks let the lesson sink in for another second before continuing.

“Tallie, take her to the doc. And the rest of you,” he added, turning to where Rasha, Ross, and Darius were clustered at the foot of a staircase, “go with them. I’ll be wanting to speak with you kids before you turn in tonight. Style, I’ll talk to you in a bit. I need to tend to something before finishing this.”

He patted the towering woman on the upper arm; she gave him a curt nod, then resumed watching Tallie help Jasmine slowly to her feet. The enforcer’s expression was unreadable, but her broad shoulders shifted gently in a sad sigh.

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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6 – 13

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“Well, I don’t know what surprises me more,” Tricks said dourly. “You bein’ here on the orders of the Church, or the fact that you’d accuse me of such a thing right to my face.”

“Whoah,” said Sweet, taking a step back and staring at him in consternation. “Where did that come from?”

Behind Trick’s shoulder, Style grimaced, tightening her crossed arms, and Sweet’s bad feeling intensified. There was something very off in the vibe here. They were meeting, as usual, in the counting room beneath the Casino, but there the routine ended. Tricks looked worn out and bitter, Style was being uncharacteristically silent, and now he was on the defensive.

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he said more quietly. “And this is much less about the Church than it is about the Guild. They’re just questions, and let’s be honest, pretty obvious ones. What’s happening, Boss? You have to know you played right into the Wreath’s hands, sending out the enforcers that way.”

Style let out a lungful of air through her nose, her grimace intensifying, and Sweet started to actually worry. Not about himself—she’d be glaring at him if he were in trouble—but about the whole situation. As the least emotionally contained member of the group, Style was something of a barometer, and her unhappiness was infectious.

“You’re right,” Tricks said wearily, slumping back into the overseer’s chair and propping his head up with one hand. “Sorry, Sweet, that came out more confrontational than it needed to. Yeah, I know. It was pretty damn obvious what the Wreath was playing at; that move was subtle by the standards of the general public, but not by their standards, or ours. If anything, it was weirdly aggressive.”

“So…” Sweet frowned. “…you were weirdly aggressive right back?”

The Boss stared up at him in silence for a moment before speaking. “You’re worried the Guild has been infiltrated.”

“Tricks, I’m almost positive the Guild has been infiltrated, and that’s got little to do with the current crisis. That’s a standing assumption and you know it. The Guild is decentralized enough that it’s not usually a major concern; there’s a limit to the damage a given spy can do. I’m worried that the Wreath’s infiltration has got far enough in to start affecting policy. And now you tell me this wasn’t due to anyone’s influence, but entirely your idea? Boss…you didn’t walk into their trap, you charged headlong.”

“And that makes me Wreath?”

“Dammit, Tricks…”

“No, no, I know. Sorry. You’re right.” Tricks waved a hand as if shooing away gnats. “I’m sorry. This has been… Y’know, you once told me that this had to be the cushiest job of its rank among any of the Pantheon’s cults, because the Guild all but runs itself and the Big Guy basically never has any orders to hand out. Remember that?”

“Sure,” Sweet said hesitantly. “Is that somehow relevant to…”

“I’ve gotta ask, Sweet.” Tricks leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and stared up at him almost pleadingly. “Were you just fucking with me? Was that some kind of tradition I have to pass on to the next poor asshole?”

“…Tricks, what’s going on?”

The Boss just stared at him. Style looked down at Tricks, her forehead creased in consternation, but held her silence.

“No,” Sweet said finally. “It was the plain truth as I experienced it. The whole time I was Boss I had to seek out the Big Guy’s opinion exactly twice, and got orders from him three times, in that entire span of years. None of it was hugely complicated, though it was never pretty.”

Tricks grimaced, leaning back again. “Well. Dunno if that makes me a better Boss than you were or a shittier one. And no, don’t ask; the Big Guy’s edicts are private, as you damn well know.”

“I think…it may or may not have to do with you,” Sweet said slowly. “There’s also the situation. Shit’s going down, Boss. Justinian’s making a play, Elilial’s making a play, Tellwyrn’s butting the fuck in, the Empire is faltering on multiple fronts… And then there’s shit like Principia’s whatever-she’s-doing. I think you just have bad timing.”

Tricks grunted sourly. “You want your fucking job back?”

“I really, really do not,” Sweet said fervently. “…but, man… If that’s a sincere offer, I think I might have to take it. Dunno if I’d cope any better than you are, but you’re scaring me, Tricks. I hate seeing you like this.”

Style gave a wordless grunt that conveyed emphatic agreement.

Tricks just heaved a sigh. “Nevermind me, I’m just bitching. It’s been two days since I slept and I’m overdue for lunch.”

“You’re overdue for fucking breakfast after the day you skipped lunch,” Style said quietly.

Tricks blinked, twisting his head around to look up at her. “What day is it? No, never mind, doesn’t matter. Soon as we’re done here I’ll eat something, get drunk, find someone to boink my brains out and get some sleep, I promise.”

“You better,” she warned. “I will enforce that. I’d do it myself, but damn…look at you. I’d break your spine.”

“You never have learned to be gentle, huh?” Sweet asked with a faint grin.

She smirked at him. “You will never know.”

“To drag this back in the general direction of the original point,” said Tricks, straightening in his chair, “no, Sweet, this was not my idea. This came down from the highest level. That much you may feel free to take back to Justinian.” He folded his arms loosely in his lap. “Whatever Wreath have wormed their way into the Guild are not in control. But in the short term… Eserion operates much the way Elilial does, and I can say without breaching his confidence that while he doesn’t take care of our business as a point of principle, he is willing to stir himself to deal directly with her. You said it, Sweet: shit’s going down.” He shook his head slowly. “This is not the first time I’ve been directed to play along with a Black Wreath ploy, and I would love to tell you I expect it to be the last, but I’m just not that optimistic.”


 

“Master Jenkins, you have a visitor.”

Joe carefully finished tucking the last throwing knife he had just pulled free from the target board into his palm before turning to fact the house. He hadn’t actually cut himself yet, but his introduction to the world of bladed weapons had begun with a long lecture on the safe handling thereof, delivered by two elves who were casually playing with knives like a pair of circus performers the whole time. As in most cases, he had decided the safest policy was to compliment Flora and Fauna on their artistry and then take them at their word.

On the other side of the small, walled garden, Price stood at attention next to the townhouse’s back door, from which Longshot McGraw was emerging, giving him a friendly grin.

“Joe, my boy,” the old mage said amiably. “How’re you holding up?”

“In all honesty, chafing under my house arrest,” Joe replied with a matching grin. “I feel entirely as good as new. What brings you by, Elias?”

“Oh, this is an attempt to ferret information out of our employer, clumsily disguised as a social call,” McGraw said blithely. “But, as the good Bishop appears to be out, I’m glad enough to actually socialize. You get to be my age, and the glittering attractions of the big city start to look less attractive and more annoying; give me a quiet drink with a friend any day. Unless, of course, I’m imposing.”

“Not in the least, I’m goin’ stir-crazy myself,” Joe replied, strolling back over to him. “Sit a spell, Bishop Darling’s stated on record that you and the others are always welcome.”

“Indeed,” said Price. “If you gentlemen would care to make yourselves comfortable, I shall bring refreshments.”

“Very much obliged, ma’am,” McGraw said courteously, pausing in the act of taking out his cigarette case to nod to her.

Price flicked her gaze briefly but deliberately to the case. “It is rare that we have such pleasant weather in Tiraas. By all means, don’t waste the opportunity to pollute the air outdoors instead of in.”

She slipped back inside, leaving McGraw staring after her, not moving.

“I do believe I’ve just received a hint,” he said ruefully, tucking the case away.

“Nah, that just means she likes you,” said Joe with a smile, pulling out a chair from the small wrought-iron garden table set up on Darling’s back patio. “It’s an expression of familiarity and comfort, or so I’ve chosen to believe. I knew I was part of the family the day I left muddy boots in the hall and received a four-second passive-aggressive character assassination that plumb drove the breath outta me.”

“Well, call me overcautious, but I’ve met enough Butlers in my time that I’ve developed a policy of playing it safe around ’em,” said McGraw, seating himself as well. “Learning a new trick, are we?”

Joe sighed, setting the knives carefully on the table. “The girls were kind enough to show me the basics. I’ve been getting in some practice. I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without practicing with my wands, but…”

“I don’t reckon the neighbors would much appreciate that,” McGraw noted.

“Exactly,” Joe nodded. “The Bishop is a generous host; I rather suspect he would supply me with a magically shielded target if I asked, but… My wands are quieter than the mass-produced variety, but not silent, and there’s really no way to dampen the flash. Besides, you never know who in the surrounding houses might be an arcanist or witch, and would sense the discharge. All it’d take is one of the idle rich to learn some kid was shootin’ off weapons behind the Bishop’s house and there’d be no end of trouble.”

“Indeed,” McGraw said, a twinkle in his eyes belying his grave tone, “you might have to tell ’em all just which Kid you are and become a local celebrity.”

“Only in my nightmares,” Joe muttered.

“You know, Tiraas does have shootin’ ranges. Not my scene, but I’ve had occasion to visit a few, here and there.”

“I’m aware,” Joe said with a sigh, “and I do plan to frequent them if we’re to stay in the city over the long term. Sadly, my caretaker deems that an unsuitable degree of excitement for me. It’s not so bad, really. Turns out I’ve got a knack for throwing knives, too. The more skills a body has, the better.”

“That’s true, and a wise observation,” the wizard said, nodding. “I must say you seem hearty enough. Why the short leash, if you’ll pardon my askin’?”

Joe shrugged. “Believe me, I’ve asked the same thing. And it’s not like Mary’s shy about explainin’ herself. It’s just…she gets going, and I get lost. I have worked out from context that ‘cardiovascular’ refers to the heart and blood vessels. A cardiac arrest means a heart attack, which apparently I’m still at risk for, or so she claims. There’s also ‘pulmonary,’ which I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.”

“Seems to me there’s a simple enough solution to that,” McGraw said mildly.

“Yeah,” Joe replied, grimacing. “But when she first started in on it, I was too prideful to admit ignorance in front of the legendary immortal. By the time I got more comfortable around her, well… At what point can you fess up to playin’ smarter than you really are for weeks?”

McGraw actually laughed. “These things have a way of runnin’ away with you, I’ll grant. Forgive me for exercising an old man’s prerogative to dispense advice, kid, but the sooner you get over choking on your pride, the happier you’ll be in the long run.”

“I believe you,” he said ruefully. “But it’s not as if I’m under poor care. I grew up a stone’s throw from an elven grove. In my experience, elves know what they’re talking about, especially the elders, and most especially a shaman. Soon as I’m free to roam, I think I’ll go pester the Nemitites for some definitions.”

A soft croak commanded their attention; both turned to behold a crow perched on the garden wall, watching them.

Joe grimaced. “…ah.”

The bird launched itself into a shallow dive, and then Mary landed lightly on the grass, her moccasins making no sound.

“’Pulmonary’ refers to the lungs and their operation,” she said with a faint smile. “Ask questions, Joseph. Ignorance is a fault only if you refuse to correct it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, chagrined, and only belatedly remembered to stand. By that point she had reached the table, and placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently back down.

McGraw half-rose, doffing his hat to her. “Ma’am,” he said respectfully. “Always a pleasure. I’ve been makin’ a point of keeping in touch with the others, but I hadn’t run across you since we reported back from the mountain.”

“I make it a point not to be run across unless I have specific reason,” she said mildly. “But I, too, have been keeping watch over all of you, and over our host. You came here to inquire when we will be expected to move, yes?”

“That was the idea,” he said with a faint grimace. “I don’t personally feel a great urgency to go out and cross wands with whatever passel o’ horrors we’ll be called on to deal with, but there’s only so much sittin’ around I can take. Most particularly when I know what I now know about what’s loose in the world.”

“I have seen many apocalypses come and go,” she said, calm as ever. “These things happen. Darling is being diligent in his pursuit, but it is, at this stage, a waiting game. To rush it is to court ruin.”

“I think we all understand that,” Joe said with a sigh. “Doesn’t mean it’s driving me any less crazy. Seems like I went straight from being cooped up in a bordello for weeks to being cooped up here. If this is gonna be the pattern…”

“You were cooped up where?” McGraw asked in a tone of great interest.

“Oh, that’s right, I hadn’t told you the story. That was Billie; she’s come to visit every few days. Well, a while back I had occasion to meet the new paladins, along with an assortment of other mightily interesting folk…”

The back door of the house opened at that moment, and Bishop Darling himself strolled through, looking more tired than usual. “You should be glad for your currently limited amount of social contact, Joe; you seem to attract interesting people. They won’t always come with the likes of Tellwyrn or myself to keep them in line.”

“Interesting people do have a way of tearin’ up the scenery,” McGraw said gravely.

Darling pulled out one of the remaining chairs and plopped himself down in it. “Elias, good to see you. Why do I suspect you didn’t bother to come in through the door, Mary?”

“At a guess, because you are a swift learner,” she said serenely. “Welcome home. Have you learned anything interesting?”

Price had emerged from the house behind him, carrying a laden tray. She set this down on the patio table and began pouring tea and parceling out cucumber sandwiches in silence while they talked.

“Interesting,” Darling said with a sigh, “in the sense of raising more questions than answers, and answers only of the alarming variety. Joe, I know you’ve been somewhat forcibly isolated from events. Are you all aware of the recent ruckus in the city?”

“I do read the paper,” said Joe, nodding. “Several, in fact, to get a balance of editorial slants. I’ve gotta say, it seems out of character, how the Legions acted. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up over it.”

“To say nothing of the Guild’s actions,” Mary added, watching Darling closely.

“That’s not spoken of as openly,” said McGraw, “and certainly not in print, but I’ve not managed to escape the rumors myself. Can’t say I’ve managed to overhear much that’s in favor of the Black Wreath, but a number of the major cults have smudged their good names in comparison recently.”

“I’m operating on the assumption you’re all intelligent enough to work this out for yourselves, but I’ll spell it out anyway,” Darling said grimly. “This—all of it—is a Wreath plot. It’s not yet unfolded enough that I can see where it’s going, but the early stages suggest an effort to discredit the Pantheon’s cults. What troubles me is I can’t envision an endgame to this. In the long term, there’s just no way Elilial can win back the hearts and minds of the general public. If that were on the table, she’d have done it at some point in the preceding eight thousand years.”

“She has, in fact, done so several times,” Mary noted, “sometimes on a fairly considerable scale. I agree, however, that in the current climate, such an outcome is highly unlikely. Which suggests that this is not her long-term goal, but a more immediate one.”

“Which means,” Joe said slowly, “there’s something else coming. Something big.”

“That’s where we’re at, yeah,” Darling agreed, scowling. “And I’ve got Justinian doubtless trying to spin this to serve his own plots, the Guild and the Sisterhood having royally embarrassed themselves, and no one apparently reliable to back up counter-Wreath efforts but the bloody Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“The provincial attitude of the Huntsmen has often overshadowed their effectiveness,” Mary noted. “This would not be the first time the Wreath has underestimated them, either. If I may point it out, you also have us.”

“You lot are, indeed, an ace in the hole,” Darling agreed. “But we are all left in Joe’s position at the moment: stuck waiting. In order to make good use of this massive collection of firepower I’ve so carefully lined up, I need a target, and an environment in which I can safely fire at it. Otherwise I risk furthering the Wreath’s agenda yet again. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t know about the five of you, but I’m not naïve enough to bank on that assumption.”

“Wise,” Mary said, nodding.

“In my experience,” said McGraw, crossing his legs and lounging back in his chair as he sipped his tea, “the defensive is a bad place to be. Being stuck in a waiting position is the proper time to look into unconventional ways to seize the initiative. Something the enemy won’t anticipate.”

“I am, in fact, exploring several possibilities,” said Darling. “Once again, there is you lot; shifty situation or no, you may end up being the tiebreaker. It’s also a good time to research new skills. How’s your knife-throwing coming along, Joe?”

“I daresay I’m very nearly enough to have another contest with Fauna and not quite as severely humiliate myself,” Joe said gravely.

“Mm.” Darling gave him a sidelong look. “Just for your edification, if she finds out you let her win, she’s gonna kick your ass.”

Joe froze, blinking. “Um…pardon?”

“I know only the broad strokes of how your ability works, but it’s not at all a leap to figure out that knife-throwing of all things would come as naturally to you as breathing.” Darling grinned at the Kid’s abashed expression. “Anyhow, I’m looking into branching out myself. It was recently pointed out to me that the Church has a holy summoner program, and training is available. With the Wreath bopping around, maybe a little demonology would be worth picking up.”

“You as a warlock?” McGraw mused. “…I could almost see that.”

“Thanks,” Darling said dryly. “Anyhow, not a warlock, obviously. I’m not much with the divine flash, but I’m still a priest. Too much holy magic stored in the aura makes that impossible.”

Instantly they all turned their heads to him, identical frowns falling across their faces. Darling looked from one face to another and back, his eyebrows climbing in surprise.

“What? What’d I say? What’s that look for?”

“Who told you that?” Mary asked evenly. “About holy magic in the aura.”

“Someone who’d taken advantage of the aforementioned training,” he said slowly. “Why?”

She raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid they misled you.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s just…startling,” Joe said carefully, “hearin’ that from a priest. Usually magic-users of any stripe are better versed in the Circles of Interaction.”

“I’m an Eserite,” Darling said, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. “My god does not encourage the use of magic when mortal skills will suffice. Would someone care to explain the issue, please?”

“You two mind if I take this one?” McGraw asked, setting down his tea and straightening. When they both nodded to him, he turned to face Darling. “Specializing in one form of magic can inhibit you in learning the others, but not to any great degree. Except in very rare cases, magic is something you do, or have, not something you are. All four schools have in common that magical power grows with time and use, which is why the older casters are nearly always the stronger. But the nature of that barrier is different for each school. What you describe, storing power in the aura…that’s arcane magic that works that way. Storage capacity’s like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s flexed. With divine magic, the barrier’s in handling the power safely.”

“Users of holy magic do not store or produce it themselves,” Mary said, “but rather channel it from an outside source. The divine burns if drawn upon too deeply. You build up a tolerance, not a capacity, and that tolerance does not inhibit the use of other schools. I have seen Scyllithene priestesses hurl shadow blasts from behind sacred shields, and call upon divine light to heal their wounded demon thralls.”

Darling’s frown had grown progressively deeper as she spoke, and he switched his gaze from an abstract contemplation of the distance to her face at that last. “You meet a lot of Scyllithene priestesses?”

“Hardly a lot,” she said calmly, “but I have lived a long time, and been many places.”

“Whoah, hang on,” Joe interjected. “Doesn’t holy magic kill demons by nature?”

“You confuse nature with source,” she said. “The holy magic to which you are accustomed would, because it is channeled through the gods of the Pantheon. Their rules demand that their power be harmful to demonkind. Clerics of other gods, for example Themynra, have fewer restrictions. Then, too, the dwarves are often able to call on divine energy without the aid of any god. There are many ways to drink from that well.”

“So…that might not have been completely wrong?” Darling asked thoughtfully. “Given the source of the power I’d be using, having it around could inhibit using infernal magic?”

“Only if you tried to use them concurrently,” said Mary. “And by the way, while I do advocate a broader understanding of demonology, I strongly suggest you stick to learning theory and whatever practical applications you can use via divine methods, which are several. Please do not attempt to handle infernal power directly.”

“I’m not an idiot, Mary.”

“No,” she said evenly, “you are a man who has safely picked up weapons that others feared to touch in the past. The infernal is not a weapon, it is a poison. The barrier to its use is, as with divine magic, in handling it safely.”

“That’s why you never meet an elderly warlock,” McGraw said with a grin. “You can pull down any amount of hellfire you want on your first try, provided you’d bonded with a powerful enough demon. It’s just that you’ll find your body and spirit so badly twisted by the effort you may not be able to feed yourself afterward, much less bust out more magic. Difference is, the gods’ll usually stop their servants from burning themselves out. Demons are typically divided between those who don’t care if their warlocks riddle themselves with cancer and mutation, and those who find it hilarious when they do.”

“I am beginning to rethink this whole enterprise,” Darling said solemnly.

“Do,” Mary agreed, nodding. “At the very least, until you acquire more accurate information. It might also be worth determining whether your source intentionally set you up for that fall. If not, they themselves may be in danger.”

“Mm…” he mused. “I doubt Justinian would let one of his favored servants make that kind of mistake. On the other hand, I can’t think of any motive Bishop Snowe would have for letting me do so, especially when…”

“You know Bishop Snow?” Joe cut in, straightening up and smiling. “Think you could get me her autograph?”

Darling stared at him. “…I’m sorry, what?”

“I didn’t realize y’all were acquainted,” McGraw added. “That’s one sharp lady. You hear she’s got a book coming out?”

“What?!”

“Of course, I read her column,” Joe said, nodding. “Planned to get a copy, assuming I’m allowed to visit something as exciting as a bookstore.” He gave Mary an accusing look.

“Bookstores are not, generally speaking, stimulating environments,” she said calmly. “Matters become different when a local celebrity is launching a debut book.”

Darling could only gape at them.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

4 – 7

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

It was almost odd to find the Guild’s counting room full of accountants. During his tenure as Boss, of course, Sweet had seen this sight many times, but more recently he’d only been down here to meet with Tricks and/or Style about matters that weren’t for general consumption, and the counting room made an excellent spot due to the passive enchantments on the space which ruled out any attempts at eavesdropping. Not that anyone was likely to try eavesdropping on the Guild’s leadership, but thieves did not succeed in life by skipping obvious precautions.

Now, the rows of desks were occupied by men and women, most of them younger and a lot still apprentices. The majority of the accounting staff were there for the dual reasons that they provided the Guild with free labor, and their sponsors found this an excellent way to teach apprentices to handle money properly—a surprisingly important skill, which few people outside the merchant and banking guilds and the cult of Vernisalle bothered to learn. Some few, though, were number people by inclination and made this their whole career with the Guild.

It was to the foremost of these that Sweet made a beeline upon entering.

“Odds!” he called, grinning. Three nearby number-crunchers started violently, one dropping his pen; a few others gave him irritated looks. “Sorry,” he added contritely in a lower voice.

“Hey, Sweet,” said the master of the counting room, waving. “What brings you to my lair?”

Where many Guild members went out of their way to look as little like what they were as possible, Odds might as well have been an artist’s conception of the chief numbers man for a guild of thieves. Short, slight, dark-skinned and clean-shaven—even on top of his head—he wore round spectacles and a stylish, tailored suit. The avuncular look was ruined by a yellow silk tie embroidered with purple and scarlet diamonds, tucked into a waistcoat of the same screamingly insane pattern and held steady by a gaudy, bejeweled tie pin. He also carried an entirely useless cane of polished dark wood, topped by an enormous faceted crystal.

“Wonder if I could have a word with you in private,” Sweet said, holding up the thick folder he carried. “In the record room?”

Odds raised his eyebrows, but shrugged. “Sure, I can spare you a few minutes. Stay on task, people.” Rapping his knuckles on one of the desks in passing, he strolled over to the far wall and pulled aside a tapestry, revealing a hidden door. He ducked inside, followed by Sweet, and shut it behind them, sealing off the soft but busy sounds of the accountants at work.

“Do they normally throw a party when your back is turned?”

“Not nearly often enough,” Odds grunted. “Some of those kids I have to deal with act like they’re in freakin’ Hell. I would take a hit to the operation’s efficiency if I could just get those number monkeys to enjoy their jobs a bit more. But no, as soon as I get somebody who’s got an actual gift for the work, they get shipped off to head up the financial operations in another Guild post the gods know where. What’d you need, Sweet?”

They were in a smaller, irregularly lit room lined with file cabinets. One of the fairy lamps had gone dark, and another was flickering; this place evidently didn’t see much upkeep.

“Want you to have a look at this,” Sweet said, handing him the folder, “and then I’d like to check it against our own files.”

“Ah, Prin,” Odds chuckled, accepting it and noting the name on the cover. “World’s perkiest butt attached to a personality like a malicious honey badger who thinks she’s funny.”

“You’ve met her?”

“Once,” the accountant said distractedly. “It was enough. More’n one reason I was glad to see her walk away…” He trailed off, frowning at what he was reading, and Sweet held his own silence to let him.

Odds was a fast reader, unsurprisingly. He made it about halfway through the stack of papers in a couple of minutes before lifting his head. “I’m just gonna assume the rest of this is more of the same. Or is there a surprise toward the end?”

“It’s all like that,” Sweet said, shaking his head. “What do you make of it?”

“It’s bullshit,” Odds said without hesitation. “Anyone pulling off this stuff would be making more dough than the Boss, easily. Prin’s a low-end performer. Or rather, she was before she got put on guard duty in Last Rock. Since then she’s been drawing a salary, not doing jobs and contributing tithes. Not a big one, either.”

“And you don’t think she could be embezzling?”

“Sweet, did you read this thing? This is like the adventures of Foxpaw and Eserion himself if they lived in a more exciting world than this one. No, even apart from the fact that this is a crazy pile of fiction, you don’t skip your tithes. That never goes unnoticed.”

Sweet grunted. “And yet, Style tries to shake me down for skimping every time I set foot in here…”

“Style tries to mug me for lunch money three times a week, despite drawing a salary that’d buy her into the lower nobility if she wanted. That’s what happens when you keep one of the world’s best leg-breakers cooped up in here on administrative work. Seriously, though, you steal from the Guild, the Big Guy himself notices. It doesn’t fucking work. Where’d you get this pile of lies?”

“It’s a copy of the file the Sisters of Avei have on Principia.”

Impossible as it seemed, Odds’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Now just why in the hell do the Sisters have a file on Prin?” Notably, he didn’t seem curious how Sweet had acquired such a thing.

“You probably haven’t heard, but Prin has a daughter. Just turned eighteen.”

“I hadn’t heard that, no. Sort of wish I still hadn’t. It’s a frightening thought.”

“No kidding, especially considering that Principia’s daughter is the new Hand of Avei.”

Odds stared at him for a moment.

“Seriously?”

“I’m afraid so.”

He shook his head. “You ever get the feeling the gods are just fucking with us?”

“Only when I’m awake,” Sweet said dryly. “Anyway, that is why the Sisters have been making note of Prin’s exploits; they’re worried about her corrupting the girl, I think. So these aren’t lies; this is operational data used by the world’s most established military force. Either they know something—a whole hell of a lot of somethings—that we don’t, or for some reason they mistakenly think Principia’s been doing all this.”

“All right, well…” Odds looked around, scratching the back of his neck with the head of his cane. “I agree, that’s worth looking into, seeing how dramatically it fails to add up. And you’ve got the rank and clearance, so I guess we better crack open Prin’s file.”

He crossed over to one wall, tracing a finger along labels. “Let’s see, these are currently active agents…. Enforcers, special ops, cats, cutters, informants… Con artists, here we go.” He tugged open a long drawer and began paging through the dusty files therein.

“You keep a separate category for the type of work a person does?” Sweet asked with interest. “That’s crazy. A lot of our people don’t have just one specialty.”

Odds spared him an annoyed glance. “See, this is why I was glad when you got kicked over to the Church. You never took an interest in this stuff, Sweet. I’d try to explain our methods and your eyes’d just glaze. Tricks, now, he makes sure to know how everything works. Yeah, some folks’re into more than one basket of fruit, so it can take a while to figure out which section they’re filed under. Specially since different people are in charge of each category and aren’t permitted to compare notes.”

“What?” Sweet boggled at him. “Odds, this is the filing system of the damned. Never mind being able to find anything in here, what the hell is keeping everyone honest?”

“We have a god to do that,” Odds replied, glancing up at him again, this time with amusement. “Like I was saying earlier, you don’t steal from the Thieves’ Guild. Nobody who tries it is after money; that’d be stupid. Some, though, get a bug up their butts about something or other the Boss does and thinks they’re going to stick it to us. Every time somebody tries, the Big Guy lets the Boss know who to call down for it.”

“That…never happened while I was Boss,” Sweet said, frowning. “Shit. Was I so bad he didn’t want to talk to me?”

“Nah,” Odds said distractedly. “Tricks is an operations guy; you’re a people guy. He may run a more profitable Guild, but he doesn’t have your knack for keeping everybody happy.”

Sweet narrowed his eyes. “How much more profitable?”

“Solid fifteen percent, across the board.”

“Are you fucking—”

“Here we go!” Odds straightened up, pulling out a file. “Locke, Principia. Let’s see what you’ve been up to, darlin’…” He laid the file open atop the others filling the drawer, paging through it. “Pretty skimpy. Yeah, this is all stuff we knew about. It’s not a fraction of what the Avenist file claims. Let’s see, narrowing it to the last twenty years… Yeah, there’s that one big job, the blackmail thing. Heh, she actually got herself pregnant for that? Now that’s dedication to the craft. Also explains where the kid comes from, I guess. But the rest of this is small time hustling. The Sisters’ records are full of epic stuff. Look at this last entry, they claim she posed as an elvish shaman to enter the house of a dwarven smith clan whose heir had a rare wasting disease. Then stole a bejeweled mithril rapier, then traded that to the king of the Punaji for freedom for a friend of hers who was going to be executed for trying to rob his vaults… And disappeared before the dwarves figured out she’d poisoned their boy in the first place.” He paused for breath. “You could make a novel out of that one alone. The Sisters have a seriously exaggerated idea of what Prin’s capable of.”

Sweet sighed softly. “So…is there any chance they’re right about any of this?”

“Just a second,” Odds mumbled, frowning. He now had both files open and was leafing through them, back and forth. “I dunno… It is fishy. They’ve got notes on a lot of the little stuff, too, the same things we have records of. Some of ’em they missed, I guess they haven’t managed to follow her around all the time. It’s crazy, though. If Prin was pulling small jobs and big ones and only reporting the small… Well, that’s classic embezzlement, and the Big Guy would call her down for it. Nothing like that’s happened.”

“Hm. You’ve been doing this for years, Odds, trust your instincts. Does anything about those files jump out at you as suspicious?”

Odds chewed his lower lip for a moment. “I’d have to go over ’em in a lot more detail, build a comparison chart… Huh, it is kinda strange about the name.”

“Name?”

“Locke, Principia.” The tapped the name scrawled on the Guild file with one long forefinger. “They’re supposed to have all relevant nomenclature right there on the front. It should have her tag, too, but it’s just last name, first name. Probably only means somebody was in a hurry when they filled this out, or it was a new kid doing it. Only thing that leaps off the page at me as out of place, though.”

A prickle ran down Sweet’s spine. “Hm… Check under K.”

“Under K?” Odds frowned at him. “What am I looking for under K?”

“Keys. It’s her tag.”

“You think she has two files?” Odds squinted thoughtfully into the distance for a moment, then shrugged. “I dunno what that would explain, but it’s not impossible, I guess. Yeah, gimme a minute.” He lifted the thick Avenist file off the drawer and began rooting through the pages several inches up from where he’d found Principia’s Guild file. After only a few moments, he suddenly stopped. “Well, as I live and breathe. Here we are, under Keys.”

Sweet crowded in closer as he pulled out the new file and laid it open atop the other. “Let’s see… Yeah. This is more little odd jobs of the kind she’s known for, but also… Also a couple of bigger ones.” Odds’s frown deepened. “Set herself up as a money launderer for some non-Guild group, stole their entire haul from a stagecoach robbery and then arranged for them to get nailed by the Sisters while she made off with the gold. Here, joined an adventuring party to loot an abandoned old Avenist temple…once again, turned on the group, set them up for the Sisters to nab. This time, she actually made an offering to Avei at another temple, gave back all the treasure. Which explains how she managed not to get on that goddess’s shit list. Paid the tithe to the Big Guy, though, apparently out of her own pocket.” He raised his eyes to meet Sweet’s. “Both of those are in the Avenists’ file, too.”

Sweet rubbed his chin, frowning in thought. “…where’s P?”

“Excuse me? You need to go? You know where it is.”

“What are you, nine years old?” Sweet scowled at him. “P, the letter P. In the filing system.”

“Oh! Right. Next drawer up.”

“Watch your fingers,” he said, pulling the indicated drawer open and beginning to shuffle through its contents. Odds barely managed to snatch the open folders from the top of the one they’d been working on, muttering a curse. “Also, why in hell’s name is the alphabet arranged in ascending order here?”

“Well, ex-Boss, there are characteristics of our system that suit the unique needs of the Guild, some that encourage snoopers to get themselves lost, and some that are just out-of-touch fuckery perpetrated by our forefathers, some of whom clearly couldn’t spell. Like I said, we don’t have to worry about embezzlement around here. We mostly worry about people having too much access to other people’s info. A corrupt accountant some decades back actually dug into this for blackmail material. That’s why we keep different people assigned to different divisions, so nobody has access to everybody’s records.”

Sweet stopped suddenly. “Odds…look at this.”

Odds leaned in, peering at the indicated file. “Principia Locke. Holy monkey fuck, she has three? And why the hell is it under her first name? Even our system isn’t that obtuse.”

“Probably to keep it away from the other two so nobody noticed…” He pulled the file loose, set it atop the open drawer, but then suddenly stopped, frowning.

“Problem?” Odds asked.

Abandoning the third file, Sweet took a step to his right, patting another filing cabinet. “What’s in here?”

“That one? Those are records for the enforcers.”

“Good.” He pulled open the drawer which corresponded to the one in the con artist cabinet containing the letters K and L.

“Sweet, what are you doing? I didn’t bring you here so you could rummage around in everybody’s records. If Keys is an enforcer, I’m the Empress.”

“You’d look smashing in a ball gown,” Sweet said distractedly.

“Nah, I don’t have the ankles for it. Hems this season are just too high. That’s the moral decay of our culture for you.”

“I refuse to ask how you know that.”

“And maybe that’s your problem, buddy. If you took an interest in fashion, perhaps you wouldn’t walk around looking like an unmade bed. And that’s after that Butler of yours works on you.”

“Locke.” Sweet yanked out a file. “Principia Locke.”

Odds stared. “She’s in the enforcer cabinet?” he finally said softly. “Why?”

Sweet stepped back into the center of the room, holding Principia’s enforcer file. He turned in a slow circle, studying the rows upon rows of file cabinets. “Odds, my man, I think we’ve got some serious digging to do. We may wanna call the Boss in here.”


“All right, Sweet, let’s hear it,” Tricks said grimly, stepping into the record room. Style entered on his heels, tugging the door shut behind her. Today she was in some kind of maroon military uniform (belonging to no army that actually existed), bedecked with huge golden epaulettes, braided piping and a ludicrous number of shiny medals.

“Ah, you’ve had a chance to look over our little gift from the Avenists, I see,” Sweet said cheerfully, noting the thick file in Tricks’s hand.

“Yeah, and for future reference, if you want to get my attention you can just send over the jaw-dropping evidence in the first place,” the Boss said sourly, “instead of wasting time sending imperious demands via messenger.”

“Well, someone’s in a mood.”

“No more’n usual,” Style muttered.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” said Tricks, scowling. “I’m never not ass-deep in administrative bullshit these days, and this was a shock my delicate constitution didn’t need. Exactly how the hell did you get your hands on the Sisterhood’s records? Surely you didn’t manage to impress Rouvad that much.”

“No, this came to me by the same phenomenon which is the undoing of all really great cons.”

Tricks raised an eyebrow. “Sheer bloody happenstance?”

“Bingo.” Sweet nodded. “Justinian has us looking into independent operatives who might be behind the cleric murders; he had Basra get into the Sisterhood’s records and draw up a list of everyone in the Empire who’s a free agent too powerful to be ignored. Imagine my amazement when Prin turned up on the roster. Basra let me keep that copy, and here we are.”

“Here we are,” Tricks repeated grimly. “You’re telling me this stack of fairy tales is accurate?”

“That and more,” said Odds from behind. Sweet moved out of the way, allowing Tricks and Style a clearer view of the accountant. He had pulled a folding table out of the corner in which it had been stashed and was sorting through stacks and stacks of files—all of them carrying some variant of Principia’s name. “They didn’t catch everything. I’ve confirmed each of these jobs from the reports she submitted herself. She’s reported and paid tithes on quite a few pieces of work that aren’t mentioned in the Sisters’ notes. Not more than one or two were in any single file, and they’re cushioned with smaller jobs, the kind that make her look like strictly small potatoes.”

“What do you mean, any single file?” Style demanded. “Everybody’s supposed to have one file of listed jobs. How the hell many does Locke have?”

“At least thirty-eight,” Odds said solemnly.

“What?” She gaped at him. “What the buttfucking what?!”

“At least three under each classification of agent,” Sweet clarified. “Filed under first name, last name and tag. She may have others that we haven’t thought to check for.”

“How,” Tricks asked quietly, “is that remotely possible?”

“It’s actually pretty easy,” Odds admitted. “She’d just have to know the names of everybody who handles the files, and send in different reports marked to each of them specifically. Privacy protocols mean they won’t compare notes. Lots of our people do this, for various reasons, mostly having to do with wanting some kind of special treatment from somebody they’ve buttered up. This way nobody has any notion of the volume or quality of the jobs she’s been doing.”

“How in fuck’s name did we not know this was going on, but the motherfucking Sisters of Avei did?!” Style demanded, snatching the file from Tricks and furiously paging through it.

“That much, at least, I can understand,” Tricks said slowly. “Running a con on someone has little to do with how smart they are; if they’re dumb enough, you pretty much don’t even need to con them. It’s all about finding out what people expect to see, and then showing them that. So they don’t look beyond it to what’s really there.”

“Exactly,” Sweet said, nodding. “Prin’s spent decades making sure nobody wants to be around her by being an aggravating pest whenever anybody is. She pisses off Guild members left and right, turns in reports and tithes for piddly little jobs, so naturally her reputation is as an underperforming bitch. Not even worth keeping track of. So we weren’t keeping track of her, but the Avenists were.”

“I guess it wouldn’t be necessary for her to throw them off,” Odds commented. “The Guild and the Sisterhood don’t exactly sit down for tea and conversation.”

“Yeah, it was just dumb chance that set me onto this track,” Sweet admitted. “She moves around a lot, does her little cover jobs in the cities where the Guild has a presence, then heads out to do the big stuff in relative isolation. Assuming we didn’t compare notes with the Sisters was safe; they dislike us almost as much as they do the Black Wreath. If it weren’t for a serial killer in Tiraas and Justinian’s twisty, underhanded response to it, we’d never have found this out.”

“I’ve put together a sort of map,” Odds added. “She’s been slowly migrating up and down the continent for over a century. With this big a territory to work and her lifespan, she can set the proper pace, rob a place fucking dry and move on to the next, and by the time she’s back where she started there’s basically a whole different generation of people living there. It’s…brilliant.”

“What is she even doing?” Style asked, clenching both hands on the file until the thick cardboard binding crackled in protest. “Is this embezzlement?”

“No,” said Odds, shaking his head, “it’s pretty much the opposite of that. Anti-embezzlement. She’s set all this up to make sure the Big Guy always gets his cut of every job she does. In fact, several of these she didn’t even profit from, and paid the tithe out of her own funds. But with her records spread across all these files, nobody notices just how effective a thief she is. She fulfills all her responsibilities and dodges the credit.”

“Why?!”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Tricks sounded almost weary. “If you’re too good, you get promoted. Be honest, Style, do you enjoy working here in the casino more than you did being out there cracking heads? I’m run ragged most of the time, and Sweet looks and acts a lot healthier since he got moved from his desk job to being back in circulation in the city. Prin, apparently, is another like us; she wants to be out there doing the work, not in here running the Guild.” Gently, he took the folder back from her. “And with a record like this, plus an indefinite lifespan? There’s no way she could’ve dodged a promotion. An immortal master thief would be the perfect Boss.”

“But she always pays her tithes,” Sweet said softly. “Always. And we know enough of her movements to know she’s not spending this money on herself. I mean, Omnu’s balls, she has to have pulled in more than the average noble House’s treasury in a given year, but you’d never know it from her lifestyle.”

“All but the last three years,” Odds added. “It stops since she went to Last Rock. Apparently she really has been sitting on her hands out there.”

“What the fuck is she buying, then?” Style exclaimed.

“You’re missing the point,” Sweet said, shaking his head. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the work, about our purpose in life. She steals to test her skills and humble the powerful, not to enrich herself.”

“She’s faithful. A true believer,” said Tricks. “Hell, apparently a model Eserite.”

“Well…fuck.” Style drew in a deep breath and blew it out. “I feel increasingly shitty about us sending an apparent rapist to ride her tail.”

Sweet and Tricks cringed in unison.

Odds’s eyebrows shot up. “We did what?”

“Obviously, this changes the whole tone of the matter with her and Thumper,” said Sweet.

Tricks nodded. “You’ve got that damn right. We may be looking at the best, truest Eserite alive, here. No way she’d have turned on the Guild after centuries of this kind of faithful service without seeking personal advancement—unless she was driven to it. Specifically, in this case, by my stupid mistake.”

“Mistakes,” said Style. “There’s a plural there.”

“Thank you,” he said acidly.

“Got your back,” she replied, grinning, then sobered quickly. “So…what do we do about this?”

“First thing’s first.” Tricks stepped forward and gently laid the folder down along with the other files on Odds’s makeshift desk. “Sweet, burn this. Odds, you put the rest of those right back where they were, let her continue on as she has been. I’m calling a Hush on this whole thing. None of you ever breathes a word of it to anyone. Forget you even know of it.”

“Yeah, I know what a fucking Hush is,” Style said sardonically.

“It’s for rhetorical effect,” Sweet said, grinning. “The man knows how to give a speech. Let him work.”

“This is a fucking masterpiece,” Tricks said solemnly. “The con to end all cons, perpetuated on the very people who ought to have known better. This is the highest practice of our craft I’ve ever seen, heard of or imagined. I would sooner take a sledgehammer to the bicentennial stained glass gallery in the Cathedral than mess this thing up for her. It’s a work of art, a thing of beauty. We’re gonna leave it alone. Got it?”

Odds nodded; Style grunted affirmatively. “Agreed,” said Sweet.

“More immediately,” Tricks said, then sighed. He turned away from the table and began pacing; the cramped space didn’t give him much room to do so, and he had to turn around every four steps. “Obviously, I’m no longer seriously entertaining the notion that Prin’s a traitor. Consider that warrant canceled. Style, put out the word to all your enforcers, everywhere: the hunt is off. Prin is considered a member in good standing; she’s welcome to come home safely, at any time.”

“No…no. Overcompensating.” Sweet shook his head emphatically. “That says something has changed. If you want to protect her secrets, it’s gotta be more subtle.”

“Excuse me,” Style said pointedly, “but you do not get to bark orders around here anymore, ex-Boss.”

“Right,” he said, chagrined. “Sorry. This is why I shouldn’t take apprentices; I get used to ordering people around and it goes right to my head.”

“He’s right, though,” said Tricks. “And the day I refuse to listen to advice from my top people is the day you need a new Boss. Mind the tone, though, Sweet. You do that in front of the rank-and-file and I’ll have you cutting purse strings in Glass Alley for a week.”

Sweet stood at attention and saluted. “Sir, yes, sir!”

“Can I hit him?” Style asked. “Pretty please?”

“Heel, girl.” Tricks shook his head. “And back on subject, yes, it’d blow Prin’s operation if we reveal we know about it. And…well, she’s still a person of interest, isn’t she? We need to debrief her about all this business, even if she’s not in trouble. All right, this is what you tell your enforcers: She’s not wanted or suspected of any offense against the Guild, but if seen she’s to be ordered to return here to report. They don’t force her, but make it clear it’s not a request.”

“Got it. And if she refuses that not-a-request, which we both fucking know she’s gonna do?”

“Then she’ll be wanted for an infraction against the Guild, albeit a much more minor one than we’ve been discussing, and we’ll deal with that.”

“I wouldn’t assume she’ll bolt, though,” Sweet said ruminatively. “She has too much invested in the Guild. A little reassurance that we’re not gonna nail her ears to the wall may be all it takes to bring her home.”

“Right, well, just for your information my people haven’t even seen her,” said Style. “Anywhere. In weeks. All this is well and good, but we don’t know where the fuck she is.”

“Or doing what,” Odds remarked, already busily replacing Principia’s various files in their proper cabinets. “If she’s getting back to the Big Guy’s business, though, I bet she sends in a report and a tithe as expected.”

“And that leaves the other party implicated in this brouhaha,” Sweet pointed out, raising an eyebrow.

Tricks sighed, his expression grim. “Yeah. Style, tell your enforcers this as well: I want Thumper’s ass back here yesterday. This goes beyond needing his perspective on the matter. The fuckery he’s apparently been up to is going to make us all look bad in the best case scenario, and we all know better than to count on that being the scenario that happens. If he’s ignoring orders to return, then he’s to be considered fugitive. Collar him and bring him home. Alive…” He scowled. “Or whatever’s convenient.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

3 – 6

<Previous Chapter                                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

“You did what?!”

“I’m pretty sure you heard,” Fauna said somewhat testily. “Do you really need us to go over it again?”

Darling took two steps backward and slowly sank down into his plush desk chair, staring at them. “…girls. When I was a lad, I once got a little too high-spirited in a library and the cleric in charge shushed me so hard I could hardly speak above a whisper for a week. Right in front of a girl I was trying to impress, too. It was embarrassing. And I’m pretty sure that was the worst thing any Nemitite has ever done to anyone. Did I not tell you to only kill people who deserved it? I could swear I remember saying that very specifically. It was kind of central to the whole idea.”

“She met the criteria,” Flora said defensively. “Involvement in the Church’s shady dealings, defenses light enough we could get through without revealing we were more than just warlocks. There aren’t a lot of people who are both! And that really was an awful program. They’re separating children from their families to indoctrinate them. Some were just for some cleric’s revenge against suspected diabolists.”

“How, exactly, did you find out about this program if the records were locked away in a sealed vault?”

The two elves exchanged one of their long, significant looks. “The spirits…have ways,” Flora said at last. “They can gather information from sources that aren’t exactly available through normal means. We asked them for help finding the right place to strike.”

For a long moment, the only sound in the study was the ticking of the grandfather clock.

“Are you telling me,” Darling finally said, “that I sent you out on an extremely delicate mission to disrupt the political situation in this city with a surgical strike, and you let the omnicidally insane voices in your head pick the target?”

Flora winced. “Well, when you put it that way…”

“Those are the resources we have, so they’re what we used,” Fauna said, folding her arms. “Of course they have their limitations. Drawbacks. This entire pact is the world’s bitterest drawback, frankly, but we make do as best we can.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “the good news is this should have exactly the effect we intended, in spades. The handy thing about committing appalling atrocities is they make people good and mad. And…I suppose if they were voluntarily covering up the Church’s operation…”

“No,” Fauna said quietly. “I was there, Sweet, and I can’t make myself think that librarian deserved that. Don’t rationalize.”

“There something you want to get off your chest?” he asked mildly.

“Take it from someone who knows: if you make a deal with a monster, things will only get worse as long as you try to deny that’s what you’ve done.” She spread her arms, a gesture that was at once helpless and frustrated. “This is what it is. What we are. It’s the best we can do, and it’s a horrible travesty. It’s…it’s just all we’re good for anymore.”

“Don’t do that,” he said sharply. “What have I been training you for, then? You have the potential—”

“And we’ll still be monsters! We can’t not kill—it’s all we can do to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. To try to use the power where it’s necessary. But even if we only ever killed people who needed to die, we’re still just killers. Do you think there’s anything we haven’t tried?” She stared at him, almost pleadingly. “I’m not being rhetorical, I’m asking. If you have any ideas for keeping the spirits under control, we’ll take anything not to have to keep doing this.”

“We…we came to Tiraas for this reason,” Flora said quietly, miserably. “It was a compromise. The spirits wanted to strike at the Empire and grew more agitated the more we tried to keep away from humans. We figured…here in this city there had to be thousands of people who at least deserved to die. We thought maybe we could…sort of, incidentally, do some good. But it’s never that simple.”

“It always ends up like this,” said Fauna wearily. “Something always goes wrong, someone always gets hurt who doesn’t deserve it. The only reason we haven’t picked a fight with the Empire and gotten ourselves put down is we can’t make the spirits go down easily. We’ve talked it over in detail. If we could hand them a win… But it’ll be a fight, and lots of people will die for wanting to defend their homes. You’re right: the spirits are insane. We know this Empire has nothing to do with the government that destroyed Athan’Khar, but that doesn’t matter to them. Lots of people will die. So…” She sighed heavily. “If you don’t want us around anymore, that’s fine. Just…please don’t turn us in, unless you know how to put us down quietly. We don’t want to kill any more good people.”

Flora nodded silently, and they both stared at him as if waiting for the axe to fall.

Darling held his silence for a few moments, then sighed in turn. “Well. I guess I owe you two a big apology.”

The elves blinked in unison. “Um…pardon?” Fauna said.

“Here I’ve been using your talents for my plans and not doing anything to help you get a grip on your situation, which is exactly the opposite of what I promised when I took you on. So, yes, I’m sorry. I’ve been thoughtless, and I guess we’re lucky the collateral damage wasn’t worse. I can’t just put the world on hold, girls, and I’m afraid I can’t do this without your help. But you have my word, I will be thinking much harder about how to help you.”

“You can’t help us,” Flora said gently, wearing a sad little smile. “Nothing takes away the pact, not as long as we’re alive.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” He held up a finger. “I can’t cure you, that’s probably true. But there is a huge yawning gulf between that and not being able to help. I will, as I said, think on it. For now, let’s focus on the present, though. Why didn’t you tell me? If you were having trouble finding deserving targets, I would much rather have pushed back the timetable than let something like this happen.”

They glanced at each other, and then down at the floor. “It was getting…bad,” Fauna admitted. “If we go too long without a hunt, the spirits get… Well, ‘restless’ doesn’t quite capture it. We’ve learned not to let it go too far. Eventually they’ll get out of control, and then there will be massive collateral damage. In the city…it would be unthinkable.”

“Again,” he said, “why didn’t you tell me? If you’re having trouble, I expect to be kept in the loop. Especially about something like this.”

“What would you have done?” Flora said bitterly. “Gone out and found somebody deserving for us to kill?”

“You say that like you think it would be hard,” he said dryly. “This is the greatest city in the world, ladies. It’s absolutely crawling with assholes who need to be scrubbed out of the gene pool.”

“You can’t just feed us like throwing steaks to a tiger in a zoo,” Fauna said, twisting her lips. “The spirits need to hunt. They need prey that’s both challenging and deserving. Or what they think is deserving. Mostly they’ll take any human. We had to seriously twist things around to make them satisfied with killing Missy.”

“Good to know,” he mused. “But even so, my point stands. We have royally fucked this up: me by making assumptions and failing to prepare you properly, you by acting without letting me know what’s going on. Now we’ve got innocent blood on all our hands, and who knows what the after effects of this will be? Henceforth, girls, you will keep me informed. We can’t afford to screw around with this or it’s likely to be worse next time. I don’t care how sensitive or embarrassing it is, if it has to do with your pact and your ability to function, you will tell me before it becomes an immediate issue. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” they chorused meekly.

Darling sighed heavily and dragged a hand down his face. “Right then. Meantime… We’ll continue operations. But!” He held up a hand. “For the time being, no killing. You’ve just been…ah, sated, so you should be fine for…what, a few weeks?”

“On average,” Fauna said slowly. “A few weeks, usually. Maybe longer than last time; this was a much better hunt than…the last one.”

“Right. Let me know when you feel the twinges coming on. But for now, I want you to move to intelligence gathering. Use whatever powers you’ve got, prowl among the Church and the cults without being seen or leaving evidence. Can you do that?”

“Of course we can!”

“Good. Get me lists of targets. Obviously, we’re not going to rely on your spirits to pick them. Ever. Again. Find me clerics, be they cultists or Church officials, who are into bad stuff, specifically stuff that impacts the Church or the Wreath. Ideally both. The point here is to create hostility between the Church and the Black Wreath, and hopefully make the cults reconsider their support for the Church in the process. You’re both smart; if you find anything like that, you’ll know it. Above all, remember we’re looking for people who the world is better off without. There’ll be no shortage of them; we just have to find the ones who are positioned in the right place that killing them will have the effect we want.”

“Please don’t hate me for saying this,” Fauna said meekly, “but…why does that matter so much? It seems like this business is bigger than a few lives.”

“It’s not for us to decide what a life is worth,” he said firmly. “We have to be better, Fauna. Have to. Right now, we may make mistakes, we may have to do some unsavory things, but we’re working toward something. It’s about caring for the world and making it better, and it’s not our goals that keep us on that path but the principles that rule out certain means of achieving them. Without those principles… Then we’re just another faction of assholes muddying the water, just to improve our own position. You, especially, can’t afford to surrender the moral high ground. Most people are on a slippery slope; you two are walking a tightrope over an abyss. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” they said again.

Darling held their gazes for a moment, then sighed. “All right… That’s your orders for now. Sorry to rush out on you, but I’ve been summoned to the Guild, and I’m really hoping it’s not to discuss anything related to this business. Remember, we can’t involve the Boss or the rest of the Guild in this. I know it looks shifty, but if this goes wrong, it’ll only bring us down. So long as they don’t know what we’re doing, they have deniability. We can’t sink the Guild.”

“Got it,” Flora said, nodding. “If…if Tricks is onto you, anything we can do to help…”

“Pshaw, you let me handle Tricks. I’m good at weaseling out of trouble. For now, you’ve got practice to get to. Go on, off you go.”

He had prepared for the night’s errand (with Price’s help) before calling them in, and once they had left the study had only to open the clock and slip down into the tunnels, and from there make his way toward the Guild. His thoughts were a shifting vortex, distracting him from his usual task of getting properly into character as Sweet.

He hadn’t said it to them, but he was deeply trouble by their cavalier attitude about the killing. It wasn’t that they seemed cold or remorseless, but rather, they were clearly growing all too used to the guilt. It wasn’t affecting them as strongly, and that was a big problem. It would be a short, direct walk from there to using their powers and brute force against any problem that arose. They’d be completely out of control unless he did something about this. They had to be shown that this wasn’t acceptable. They had to be made to feel it.

But how the hell did one discipline a pair of unstoppable avatars of destruction? It wasn’t as if he could spank them, or rub their noses in the corpse.

It wasn’t just they who needed discipline, either. He’d sent killers to do an assassin’s job without considering the large difference between the two. This whole disaster was his fault; he should have been more careful, given them better instructions, made an effort to understand how they worked before sending them out. In hindsight, he could identify a dozen steps he ought to have taken which… Well, they might or might not have prevented this, but they added up to sheer bloody carelessness on this part. And the price for his carelessness was just too damn high.

Gods, that poor librarian. He was pretty sure Elilial had reserved seating in Hell for people who did things like this…

It took him a lot longer than usual to get his thoughts in order, and they never did get ordered all the way.


 

The mood in the accounting room below the casino was more dour than usual, and Sweet didn’t find it encouraging that he wasn’t the worst offender in terms of bad vibes. He still didn’t know why he’d been called here urgently, but it was hard not to suspect that the slaying at the Steppe Library was a factor, despite the fact that there should have been nothing connecting that to him. He hadn’t made it this long by brushing aside the worst case scenarios.

Nobody was seated when he arrived. Style looked grouchy, which was unusual; usually when she was authentically upset, she looked murderous. Tricks, though, just seemed tired, and that was downright unsettling.

“Omnu’s breath, Sweet, you look like you’ve not slept in days due to your dog dying,” the Boss said when he entered. “Those two apprentices keeping you up? Cos, just sayin’, that’s allowed, but it won’t do your rep any favors.”

“You should talk,” Sweet shot back, managing a grin. “Here I find you without a disguise or a prank prepared to greet me. Exactly how terrified should I be?”

Tricks sighed heavily. “Yeah… Guess it’s a stressful time all around. Seriously, though, what gives? You don’t look like yourself.”

“Stress. Fatigue. Maybe taking on apprentices wasn’t such a great idea, with me having to handle the Church and the Empire on top of everything else. They’re damn quick, though, I’ve never once had to tell ’em something twice.”

“I’ve noticed that too,” Style said, peering at him with an analytical glint in her eye. “Answer the question, Sweet. Are you porking those elves? ‘Cos you’ve stuck it in some exotic peril, I know, but that would take the fucking cake.”

“No, I’m not sleeping with Flora and/or Fauna in any combination,” he said in some annoyance. “Not that they aren’t cute and all, but you said it. I’d sooner cuddle a bear trap.”

Tricks chuckled dryly, then stepped over to one of the desks and picked up a single sheet of paper. “Well, I won’t drag out the suspense any longer. I got the most fascinating piece of correspondence today. I think you should read this.” He held out the paper and Sweet stepped forward to take it.

He scanned it quickly, frowning at the signature, then went over it again more slowly. Then a third time. Finally he lifted his gaze from the page to find Tricks and Style watching him with matching grim expressions. He let out a low whistle.

“Well… Damn. This would explain some stuff, assuming it’s true. How safe an assumption is that?”

“That is what I was hoping you could tell me,” Tricks said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “You’ve known Principia longer than I have, and you actually had to handle her while you were Boss. The whole time I’ve been running the show, she’s been dicking around in Last Rock, not bothering me, and I liked it that way.”

Sweet drew a deep breath and let it out in a rush, ruffling the letter. “Well, for starters, she’s never written a letter before. Or confessed to anything. Or just generally…laid her cards on the table like she appears to be doing here. Yes, she’s a weasel with a knack for twisting things around to her benefit, and yes, all of this very neatly makes everything not her fault.”

“All that sounds like the preamble to a great big ‘but.’”

“But,” Sweet agreed, “yeah…I could see this being the truth. Especially with her explanation for what she wanted in Last Rock to begin with. Damn, though, that’s a surprise. I can’t see her having a kid, somehow.”

“You don’t have a kid unless you raise it,” Style grunted. “Any fuckhead can squeeze one out.”

“At minimum,” Tricks said wearily, “that’s a detail we can verify. At least in theory. The Sisters of Avei undoubtedly have records of who this Trissiny’s parents are, though fuck if I know how we can convince them to clue us in.”

“Prin’s not the only variable that fits, here,” Sweet mused, frowning at the letter. “I also have absolutely no trouble seeing Shook pulling shit like she describes.”

“Me either,” Style said grimly, a muscle working in her jaw. “I’ve been asking questions and twisting arms. Seems nobody’s surprised at the prospect he might try to manhandle his way into somebody’s pants as soon as he was out from under the Guild’s thumb.”

“And you didn’t know about this?”

“Neither fucking did you, so don’t fucking start with me.”

“Let’s nobody start with anybody,” Tricks said soothingly. “That, at least, isn’t anyone’s fault. We’ve always had trouble staying on top of bad behavior in the ranks.”

They both nodded in agreement. Members of the Thieves’ Guild had a low opinion of snitching under any circumstances; nobody ever reported anything without significant incentive. If there was a problem with a member of the Guild, the leadership were usually the last to learn of it.

“Have you asked Thumper his take on this?” Sweet inquired. He glanced back and forth at their faces. “Oh, boy. Those aren’t optimistic expressions.”

“I’m afraid,” Tricks said with a wince, “I’ve gone and done something clever.” Style snorted.

“Omnu’s balls, do I have enough time to flee the city?”

“Just button it and listen, wiseass. I put Thumper on a probation, told him every detail of Prin’s apparent betrayal as we got it from that girl in Puna Dara—”

“Peepers,” Style supplied.

“—and broadly suggested to him that if he were to drag her back here under his own initiative it’d go a long way toward mitigating the disaster he was involved with in Last Rock.”

“That…actually is pretty clever,” Sweet said after a pause. “Solve the problem and save face by not having to send official street soldiers after her. Elegant, I like it.”

“Thanks.”

“Unless, of course, Principia is telling the truth and you pretty much forced her into this corner in the first place, in which case you just compounded the problem exponentially.”

“Thanks.” Tricks rubbed at his temples. “Thank you, yes, I did manage to put that together myself.”

“I helped,” Style said with a grim smile.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance Thumper’s still in the city?”

“What do you think the first thing I did was?” Tricks sighed. “Your information network still functions beautifully. I know exactly when he left Tiraas: thee days ago. By Rail. To Calderaas.”

“Which means,” Sweet finished, “he could be goddamn anywhere by now. Do we have any hints what leads he was following?”

“Keys is inherently better at this game than Thumper. She doesn’t leave leads. I just wanted him to be out there, making ripples and getting rumors back to her that she’s being hunted by worse than the Guild, figured maybe she’d be more amenable to throwing herself on our mercy.”

“My goodness, what a magnificent fuck-up this is,” Sweet said in awe.

“Yup.”

“Leaving aside our need to deal fairly with Prin and Jeremiah…holy shit, we’ve gotta smooth things over with the Avenists somehow. If they get wind of this… She could set the Sisters on us with one more of these letters.”

“Um, what?” Style frowned at him. “She actually said right out that she went for Trissiny in Last Rock because the Sisters told her to stay the hell away. Which she obviously hasn’t done. I can’t imagine she’s in favor with them right now.”

“Style,” Sweet said wearily, “the Sisters of Avei are basically militant and militarized feminists.”

“I know who the fuck they are, thank you, Sweet.”

“So think this through,” said Tricks. “Assuming Prin’s told us the truth… We just deliberately sent a would-be rapist to hassle the mother of their long-awaited, brand new paladin.”

“Oh…fuck.”

“And then,” Sweet went on grimly, “let him off his leash to chase her down on his own time.”

“Fuck.”

“Whether she’s in favor isn’t really gonna be a factor. This is the kind of thing for which they’ve been known to drop everything, put aside their differences and send a Silver Legion to collect the heads of everyone involved.”

“Fuck, all right! The point is made, you don’t have to keep pounding on it.”

“All of which is secondary,” Tricks said, sounding more tired than Sweet had ever heard him. “I mean, yes, it’s a practical consideration we do need to pay attention to, but there’s more at stake. If Prin’s story is true, then the Guild fucked her over hard. Thumper in particular, but we set it up to happen. We can’t have shit like this; it’s respect and trust in each other that keeps this Guild functioning. We don’t create pointless hell for faithful members, or what are we?”

“Don’t get too weepy on Prin’s account,” Style said. “This wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t invested years in being such a pest that her word doesn’t count for anything around here. Which, by the way, brings us back to the very important question of whether there’s any truth to this story of hers.”

“Which is why we need to get both of them back here and answering questions,” Tricks agreed grimly. “One way or another, we’ll get the truth that way. But that isn’t likely to happen in the near future. We may or may not be able to lay our hands on Thumper, but I’ve got a suspicion if he gets wind that we’re pulling him back in for questioning, he’ll bolt. And Keys is a whole other matter. I frankly am not sure we have the capacity to find and apprehend her if she’s really opposed to that happening. So, though it’s a backward case of priorities, we’re likely gonna have to deal with the Avenists first. Both to keep them off our case and to get intel on Prin’s relationship to this paladin of theirs.”

“Hm.” Sweet rubbed his chin with one hand, frowning in thought. “As to that… It’s a little unconventional, but I think I have an idea.”


 

His personal shrine was in the basement of his home. Ironically, it wasn’t accessible from the sewers; he had to climb all the way up to his study and then down the interior stairs. Darling didn’t encounter any members of his household in the process, but between elven hearing and Price being Price it was a given that they knew he was home.

He shut the thick door of the room behind himself and knelt before the statue of Eserion and its little bowl of water, enchanted to prevent it going stagnant or scummy. Taking a decabloon from an inner pocket of his coat, he rolled it back and forth across the backs of his knuckles for a few moments, thinking, then sighed and tossed it into the bowl. It drifted down and sat there with the rest. Eserion was a god of action who didn’t encourage too much prayer and reflection; he expected his followers to solve their own damn problems. As such, there weren’t all that many coins in the bowl, though Darling had left them untouched since he’d put the shrine in upon moving into the house.

It was still a tidy little fortune, every one of them decabloons. When one had means, tithing a pittance to one’s god was just asking for a divine spanking.

“I fucked up, Big Guy,” he said quietly. “Bad, this time. I know, I know, we all make mistakes and you expect us to deal. Don’t worry, I’m dealing. But this one… This one hurts. I went and got somebody killed because I was cocky and careless, somebody who was completely harmless and probably a gift to the world. I don’t even know what to do with that, y’know? I’m still sorta numb. You know how it is; we thieves learn not to feel guilty. But then, we thieves don’t do shit like this as a rule.”

He stared into the bowl of water and coins in silence for a dozen heartbeats.

“When you screw somebody over, you pay them back. There’s… I mean, there’s just no way to do that when it’s their life. No offense, you know I’ve got your back, but your cult doesn’t exactly prepare a person to deal with something like this.

“And not just my moaning and weeping, I mean, I’ve still gotta fucking figure out something to do with those two girls… Gods, they’re like a couple of kids. Does that make any sense at all? Pair of terrifying spirit-addled monstrosities and I mostly feel like I gotta teach ’em how to live so they’ll be okay once I’m gone. How messed up is that? I just want them to have a chance to be okay. I’ve mostly been okay, because I had people—your people—who showed me how to live when I was in a bad place. But it doesn’t change the fact that they’re fucking dangerous.

“And… Man, this thing with Prin and Thumper, I’ve got a terrible feeling she told us the truth in that letter. Which means we’ve all fucked her over and basically rewarded him for spitting on the bonds that hold this Guild together… It’s bad, is what I’m saying.”

He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “And…yeah, I know, I’m pretty much just whining. Sorry. I’m dealing, okay? I never stop thinking and moving. I just…needed to take a moment to vent. Thanks for listening, Big Guy.”

Darling sat back on his heels, raising his eyes to study the faintly smirking face of the idol. “Shit’s getting serious, and we’ve had too many screwups, too close together. I have to face it: we might not win this one. If it all goes as bad as it can go, remember when I get up there that I’m trying my damnedest. We all are. If we fail, it’s not because we were lazy.”

He stood, bowed to the statue, and backed away. “Talk to you later, Big Guy. Looks like I’ve got work to do.”

<Previous Chapter                                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

3 – 1

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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.

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