Tag Archives: Velvet

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Trissiny privately thought that House Araadia’s ancestors would be disgusted. The current head of House clearly didn’t know what a perimeter was, much less how to maintain it; getting in had been quite literally a walk in the park. Specifically, the small private park which had a secret entrances leading both into the manor and the alley behind the estate. Once through the outer defenses—to apply the word very loosely—navigating the manor itself wasn’t any more difficult. It was unfair, she knew, to cast such aspersions when this was actually helping her, not to mention that she was getting inside using intel provided by an actual member of the Araadia family, and the path had been opened by agents planted within the family’s servants and secured by Thieves’ Guild enforcers by the time she even got there.

But still, it was the principle of the thing. There had been a time when a noble House was meant to be a defensible political unit; on paper, at least, they still had the obligation to protect those within their employ. Hostiles should not be able to just walk in. Hell, she, Gabriel, and Yasmeen weren’t even the worst of it; Toby had literally gone in the front door and bluffed his way through using sheer rank.

“And this is a feature common to ballrooms owned by Houses, or facilities which cater to them,” Yasmeen narrated quietly, leading the way to the balcony rail which overlooked the dance floor a story below. “An architect’s duty is to provide a grand public space where people can mingle and be seen, balanced with liberal access to private corners where they can disappear to canoodle and/or plot skulduggery. Wraparound balconies such as this aren’t the only way to achieve this result, but they’re a particularly efficient one, and thus popular. Note the position of the fairy lamps on the outer sides of the support pillars, and lack of any lighting on the balcony itself! This, coupled with these strategic climbing vines—not easy to cultivate indoors—and the high, outward-leaning rail, make it all but impossible for those below to observe those above, while we can see them with perfect clarity.”

Trissiny touched Gabriel on the shoulder, tugging lightly; he had gone right to the rail and been about to lean out over it. At her silent urging, he pulled back, giving her a wry look.

“The Guild has secured this spot for now,” Trissiny said in a low voice, “but the longer they keep people out, the more likely someone will notice and make an outcry.”

“That’s inevitable, anyway,” Yasmeen replied at the same volume, “given that this is far from the only spot they are pinning down. Timing will be the key; the pieces are already in motion, and you must move at the right moment. It will be best if your moment comes before the guests realize they are encircled by thieves, but it should work regardless.”

“There’s a Butler down there,” Trissiny noted. “Guild enforcers are not going to stand up to that.”

“He’s accompanying Lord Taveshin,” Yasmeen reassured her. “Lady Araadia doesn’t have one. Wilkes will only act to protect his client, not secure House Araadia.”

“How many of those women with swords know how to use them?”

“I would say roughly half. But really, it won’t come to that, I assure you.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted skeptically, studying the guests. It wasn’t quite as easy as the design of the ballroom was meant to make it from up here; the place was dimmer than it would ordinarily be, with much of the light provided by glowing illusory trees and vines which had been conjured around the walls, climbing the support pillars, and overshadowing the buffet tables. The effect was dizzyingly beautiful, but did no favors for visibility.

She looked up to find Gabriel watching her sidelong, wearing an amused little smile.

“What are you smirking at?” she demanded.

He shook his head, smile widening, and turned his gaze back to the scene below. “I’ve missed you.”

That was so far from what she had expected that she could only stare at him, mouth slightly open. At least he was no longer looking in her direction, or she’d never live that down.

“Ah, looks like Toby’s already struck out before we arrived,” Yasmeen murmured, pointing.

“Struck out?”

“Baseball term,” Gabriel explained. “Didn’t you play baseball growing up?”

“Ball games aren’t huge in Viridill. Martial arts and war games, mostly.”

“Let me guess,” Gabriel said, narrowing his eyes to peer closely at Toby down below, “that’s this Lark character I’ve been hearing about.”

“The same,” Yasmeen confirmed.

Oliver Lark was the Vidian cleric who was apparently a key player in city politics, and a large part of the reason for their intervention here. To judge by his name and fair coloring, he was of frontier stock; most of the nobles assembled below were local, the Calderaan being the same dark-haired and olive-skinned ethnicity as the Tiraan, by and large. Lark and Toby stood off to the side, conversing quietly, which meant that Toby’s first intervention with Lady Araadia had failed. Both of them stood out somewhat, being in formal clerical robes, Lark’s a dashing ensemble of black and white (Vidians did not have an official costume, exactly, but borrowed elements from other cults to create whatever impression circumstances required), while Toby wore plain and simple brown which contrasted powerfully with the glittering outfits all around him. Trissiny had never seen him wear robes before. In fact, he looked rather stately in them.

Unlike the last time she had crashed a high society party, she was just in her silver armor, not having bothered with a dress uniform. She wasn’t here to impress these people—at least, not favorably. The armor’s disappearance from the grove might worry Lanaera, which she regretted, but a shaman of her grandmother’s skill could doubtless verify that she was well; fae magic was good for information gathering, provided it was gathered by spirits with whom the shaman had a good relationship. Gabriel hadn’t dressed up, either, though he had at least brushed clean his dark green overcoat and combed his hair, for once.

Glancing at him, she did a surreptitious double take. When had he started carrying his spine so straight? She remembered him with a permanent awkward hunch. It made him look taller.

“Now, that’s the one we’ll want to watch,” Yasmeen said, stepping up to the rail, and pointing. “Lady Irina Araadia is the one in blue, with half her tits on display like a burlesque dancer. As soon as Velvet makes her move, you’ll need to make yours.”

“I see her,” Trissiny nodded. “And it’s really not necessary to shame another woman for either her body or sexuality, Yasmeen.”

“Trissiny, please! A little credit!” Yasmeen turned to her, putting on a faux-wounded look. “I am fashion shaming. Do you note, glancing about, that decolletage is not a widely used component of current styles? Clothing is communication. It is a powerful way to send a message, to express the very identity one chooses to cultivate. I know you are aware that the greatest effect of that silver armor is not its ability to protect you from arrows. It reveals a great deal about a woman if the only thing she can think to express is ‘hey, look at these!’”

“Heh,” Gabriel muttered, grinning. “Reveals.”

Trissiny gave him a long-suffering look. “And you almost got through a conversational mention of breasts without making an ass of yourself.”

“I know, right? Close save!”

“How dare you!” The shrill exclamation was loud enough to cut through the general pattern of lively conversation among the party-goers and drift up to the balcony above. In the sudden silence below, a path opened as socially-attuned aristocrats melted out of the way of Lady Araadia and the dark-suited figure of Velvet, the local Guild Underboss, who had appeared next to the tables and was in the process of selecting a canape.

“And that’s our cue,” Gabriel said, pushing back from the rail. “Wish us luck!”

“You don’t need it, my dears,” Yasmeen assured them with a smirk of pure mischief. “Just be yourselves.”

He gallantly offered Trissiny his arm. “My lady?”

“I’m only not smacking you because I want your hair still relatively presentable when we get down there,” she informed him, turning and making for the main stairs, in the opposite direction from the discreet servant’s staircase by which they had reached the balcony. He laughed, falling into step beside her.

The sound of the ongoing row faded as they descended the stairwell, then grew again when they were closer to the bottom floor. While on the stairs, Gabriel withdrew the twisted black wand from inside his coat and extended it to its full length, using the scythe like a walking stick. Somehow, the rhythmic thump of its shaft against the floor was ominous even to her.

The stairs came out at a landing where a grand hall led from the front of the manor, right before a pair of wide doors which opened onto the ballroom itself—or rather, onto a short flight of steps descending to it, giving those assembled within a perfect view of anyone entering. A stately-looking man in Araadia livery stood beside the doors, there to facilitate exactly that purpose. He was very studiously ignoring the loud spectacle of his head of House shouting at an intruder, but the sudden appearance of the two of them managed to surprise him visibly.

“General Trissiny Avelea,” she declared before he could challenge their presence, “Hand of Avei.”

“Gabriel Arquin,” he added right on her heels, “Hand of Vidius.”

The herald quickly marshaled his expression, bowed to them, and turned to face the ballroom. While Trissiny and Gabriel descended the stairs, his voice rang out, announcing their identities.

This, naturally, caused a stir—but a muted one, the party attendees’ attention being divided between them and the ongoing spectacle of the Lady of the House and her long-lost sister. That, of course, had been the entire point: arranging for the two paladins to corner Irina under circumstances in which she had no chance to seize control of the ensuing conversation. There was a time not long ago when Trissiny would have rolled her eyes and called Princess Yasmeen’s entire plan here a grandiose waste of time, but in the last few months she had learned a great deal about the importance of social maneuvering—and how the lessons of military strategy applied to it. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this gambit was how readily Velvet had agreed to it. A noble by blood she might be, but one did not become a Thieves’ Guild underboss without being hard-nosed and pragmatic.

“My tolerance was frayed to begin with, Cardassa,” Lady Irina was snarling at Velvet as they approached. “If you are going to disrupt my social life merely to taunt me, I will yet see you disowned and banished from the city!”

“I would honestly like to see you try to get me banished, Irina,” Velvet said with a light sigh. She had picked up some kind of delicate-looking puff pastry which glowed, tiny blue motes of light seeming to coalesce out of the air and form a scintillating glaze over its surface. “Are you actually feeding this to your guests? You’ve never seen someone suffering from mana poisoning, I take it.”

“Those were handcrafted by the— No, I will not be baited into another of these exchanges. Remove yourself from my house immediately, and I will spare you, one last time, the indignity of being bodily hurled into the street.”

“The guards are too afraid of me even to try that, and you know it. You’ll have to forgive my sister,” she added past Irina’s shoulder to Trissiny. “She’s still tetchy because I trashed her art collection.”

“The complete Fire Lilies collection by Avistaan of Anteraas!” Irina raged. “Those paintings were priceless!”

“Priceless is the same as worthless,” Velvet retorted. “Those paintings were neither. They were beautiful, and art is wasted on someone who values it only for how expensive it is. You keep doing things like this, Irina, despite my repeated warnings. A point is coming where I won’t be able to protect you anymore.”

For a moment, Lady Irina physically quivered, as if gathering herself to lunge at her sister. Instead, she drew in a deep breath, forcing herself back under control, and pointedly turned her back on Velvet, facing the paladins. Evidently she had heard their introduction, despite herself shouting over it; at any rate, her eyes flickered between them with no evidence of surprise. The fact remained, though, they had come upon her in the middle of a yelling fit, hardly befitting the dignity of a head of House.

Still, Lady Irina straightened her spine and inclined her head to each of them courteously. Dressed in a shade of blue which perfectly matched the arcane light that filled her ballroom, she was a beautiful woman in her forties, her face unlined and elaborate black coif untouched by silver. Younger than her sister, if Trissiny was any judge, which would mean Cardassa had abdicated the high seat of House Araadia. Or perhaps the socialite just devoted more effort to preserving her looks than the Eserite.

“What an unexpected honor this is,” Irina said with a tight little smile which did not entirely conceal the anger still simmering beneath it. “I hardly expected even one paladin to appear at my little soiree, much less all three!”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “Soiree?”

“It’s Glassian,” Gabriel explained. “Very trendy, so I understand. The lightworks are truly impressive, Lady Araadia. Keyed to a single spell lattice, I believe? Not very efficient, but it would give the caster a more total control over the whole effect. I see how that would be a benefit. Whoever did this is as much an artist as enchanter.”

“Ah—an enthusiast,” she said, smiling coquettishly at him, a little of the tension easing from her shoulders. “So little is known of you, Lord Gabriel. I am surprised to learn the world’s most famous Vidian is also something of a Salyrite!”

“It’s just Gabriel,” he said nonchalantly, picking up one of the glowing pastries and inspecting it critically.

“I understand all this is thematic,” Trissiny stated, deliberately keeping her tone and expression flat. “Something about a museum?”

“The Araadia Institute of Arcane Enchantment,” Lady Irina replied, nodding her head again, her face suddenly wary. “The founding of which is the event which this humble gathering has been called to celebrate.” Velvet snorted loudly, which Irina pretended to ignore, despite the reddening of her cheeks. “It will serve as a permanent exhibition of the productive science which has come to fuel so much of the industry of our great city. The cutting edge of enchantment, constantly updated and displayed for the edification of all citizens, and as a badge of pride for Calderaas!”

This brought a smattering of applause from the onlookers, which Trissiny talked right over.

“Yes, and I understand it’s going to take a substantial endowment from the Sultanate’s education budget. What was it those funds were earmarked for, before you came along?”

“Schools,” Velvet interjected before Irina could reply, casually tossing the luminous pastry from hand to hand and watching the light trails it made. “Eight new primary and secondary schools, to be constructed in the city’s poorer districts. Calderaas has been lagging behind the Tirasian Dynasty’s mandates on public education for two Emperors, now. Fucking Shaathvar has a more up to date school system.”

Trissiny turned an openly scornful glare on Lady Irina. “Really? Really.”

“Yes, I thought I saw where this was going,” Irina retorted, the pretense of friendliness gone from her own features now. “Your colleague made a far more persuasive appeal to my better nature, I must say.”

She glanced at Toby, who had stepped up to the group with Oliver Lark still in tow.

“I take it he overestimated your better nature, then,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful. “Toby tends to do that.”

“Tell me you aren’t actually eating that,” Trissiny said in exasperation.

“I’ll save you one,” Gabriel promised, swallowing and holding up the remaining half of his arcane pastry. “Seriously, lightshow aside, this is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth that wasn’t yelling my name.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Gross, Gabe.”

“As I attempted to explain to Tobias,” Lady Irina interjected in a tight voice, “the administration of a society demands a more complex, more nuanced manner of thinking than does traveling the land and smiting demons. One must consider the intricacies of the situation, and especially the future, and determine what best serves the interest of all Calderaan.”

“Mm,” Gabriel grunted, licking his fingers. “Big, fancy museum’s a much more prestigious thing to have your name on than a handful of elementary schools.”

“Not to mention,” Trissiny said grimly, “that it benefits a certain element of society more than the masses who work in that element’s factories.”

“I do say I am surprised at this level of attention,” Irina snapped. “Are there no open hellgates, no ongoing plots by the Black Wreath? Is our entire Empire, the very world, so blessedly free of evil that you three are at liberty to crash my social events? I have never heard of such a thing as three paladins intervening in a simple budget allocation. I must beg your forgiveness if I seem less than sympathetic, madam and gentlemen, but following on the heels of my sister declaring that harassing our House is her warped Eserite idea of protecting me, I am even less receptive to the appeals of religious people than your frankly inexplicable priorities would leave me ordinarily.”

“It makes sense, though,” Toby said in a quiet voice which seemed to balm the mounting tension, “if you understand how Eserites think, my Lady. If you persist in acting in a way which demands punishment, she protects you by taking it out on your possessions rather than your person. I don’t endorse that view,” he added, nodding politely to Velvet, “but understanding is the beginning of all compromise.”

“Regardless,” Irina said stiffly, “the discussion is academic. The matter is done and settled, hence this event to celebrate, which you all have now thoroughly ruined. I hope that fact brings you some satisfaction, because that is all you shall get from it.”

Lark diffidently cleared his throat. “With the greatest respect, most honored Lady, that is not necessarily so. The allocation of funds is the result of, as you know, many influences. It has been my honor to lend the weight of the Church and the cult of Vidius to your cause, but circumstances being as they are…”

“You would not dare,” she whispered.

He gave her a gentle smile and an ostentatiously helpless shrug. “In all aspects of my work, my Lady, I endeavor to navigate the complex currents of Calderaan society to achieve the end which seems, to my imperfect perception, the best for the city overall. Just as you yourself so eloquently explained. Clearly, the open opposition of every living paladin is a factor which changes a great many other variables. I am forced to reconsider my position. As, I fear, will be others present.”

“Well, look what a reasonable fellow you are,” Gabriel said lightly. “And here I was planning to threaten you with my scythe and everything.”

“Yes, so I assumed,” the priest replied, the smile fading from his face. “Your performance at the temple in Last Rock is already legendary, Gabriel.”

“Lark,” Irina hissed, “you intransigent little eel.”

“I am impressed that you are courageous enough to brazenly oppose the three primary gods, my Lady,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I am a man of far lesser inner strength, myself.”

She bared her teeth at him, then abruptly whirled to glare at Velvet. “You planned this.”

The Eserite shrugged and finished chewing, having finally taken an experimental nibble of the mana pastry. “Credit where it’s due, little sister: this actually is delicious. But really, the glowing? Blue sugar icing would have been thematically adequate. You wouldn’t keep finding yourself in these embarrassing situations if you knew the meaning of restraint.”

Irina had to draw in another deep breath, this one wavering audibly, to gather enough calm to apparently work past an aggressive urge which would surely not have ended well for her. Instead, the turned slowly back around, and sketched an impressively sarcastic bow in Trissiny’s direction—a maneuver made risky by the unusually low cut of her bodice.

“Well, then, I congratulate you,” Lady Irina said icily, straightening up again and tilting her chin back to stare down her nose at Trissiny. “I only hope no one was sacrificed to summon a demon while you were slaying the vile threat of my political aspirations. Since you care so deeply for the plight of the working class, I will take the liberty of directing the laborers who would have been contracted to build a proud edifice to the Sisterhood of Avei for work. Are you satisfied, now?”

“No,” Trissiny replied, and punched her in the jaw.

It was a simple right jab, but Lady Irina dropped like a bag of turnips. It was a good thing she had decided not to haul off and throw her whole weight into it; that might have killed the woman.

Naturally, pandemonium immediately erupted. Screams and shouts rang out, accompanied by more than one metallic hiss of a sword being unsheathed. Trissiny had noted on the way in that only about half the women present wore Imperial-style gowns; others were in more traditional Calderaan costume, which included bejeweled shamshirs belted over their baggy trousers. Cavalry swords, to be sure, but she had seen enough Narisian fighting to know that a person with a long saber didn’t need to be on horseback to be exceedingly deadly.

Trusting the Guild enforcers to do their jobs, she ignored all the hubbub and bent to seize Lady Irina by the hair with her right hand. The noblewoman had been felled but not rendered unconscious, and was in the process of woozily getting to her hands and knees; she had enough presence of mind to shriek in shock and agony at being unceremoniously hauled upright by her scalp.

On the buffet table was a large crystal bowl of punch. Blue punch, which put off a faint, scintillating light—whether from the liquid itself or the glowing patterns being traced across its surface by some enchantment on the punchbowl, she couldn’t tell and didn’t care. Trissiny dragged the hostess bodily over to the table, shoved her face into the punchbowl, and held her there.

“Her Ladyship is correct,” she said, projecting from the diaphragm to cut across the hubbub, and ignoring the bubbles rising from the punch and Irina’s hands frantically scrabbling at her gauntlet. “This is beneath me. I resent having to come here and deal with this nonsense. It’s not as if there is nothing in the world more urgent and better suited for my skills. But at the end of the day, a paladin is called to serve an ideal—in my case, justice. And injustice is injustice, whether it is dealt by a bunch of smirking vultures conniving in a back room to cheat thousands of people out of the benefit of their tax money, or some warlock trying to summon a demon he can’t hope to control. The difference is that warlocks rarely suffer the delusion that they won’t face consequences.”

She hauled Irina’s face up out of the punch, in the process upending the whole bowl. It tilted, teetered, and finally rolled off the table, shattering upon the marble mosaic floor and splashing arcane-tinged punch across Trissiny’s boots, though she was already liberally speckled with it after Irina’s struggles. The Lady choked, gasped, and sprayed blue droplets everywhere as she fought to breathe, but impressively given her condition, she managed to shout (albeit in a somewhat gargled voice).

“G-guards!”

“Ah, yes,” Trissiny agreed far more clearly. “Guards?”

More gasps and shouts ensued, and now the gathered aristocrats began clustering together in the center of the ballroom, away from the perimeter, where two dozen Thieves’ Guild enforcers had begun melting out of the shadowed alcoves and servant entrances, grim-faced, shabbily-dressed, and visibly armed. The kept their weapons at their sides and made no move save to block anyone from fleeing. Still, this situation could explode into violence very easily; there were, at Trissiny’s quick count, nine women now holding up swords, and all had placed themselves around the perimeter of the gaggle of aristocrats, facing down the enforcers. She noted that every armed person was female, and she could tell at a glance which were potentially a problem; some held up weapons that were clearly nothing but expensive costume props, literally quivering. Even they hadn’t hesitated to the fore, though, and they were the minority. More than half were stone-faced, with correctly braced stances and practically radiating menace. Clearly, the nobility of Calderaas lacked neither spine nor skill.

“I understand,” Trissiny said loudly, tightening her grip on Lady Irina’s hair but allowing the coughing noblewoman to slump across the now-stained table. “It’s not so simple as that, or so you tell yourselves. There are a thousand compromises to be made every day, deals to be struck to get anything done. A more privileged position means greater responsibility, and why should you not enjoy the prestige and luxury that makes it all tolerable? Really, I do understand. It’s not even that the basic premise is wrong. It only becomes a problem when you take it too far.”

She drew her sword, causing an overall increase in tension. Two shamshir-wielding women turned to face her directly, blades upraised, and Trissiny couldn’t help feeling a trickle of approval. Backed into a corner, they were still willing to cross swords with a being they had to know could demolish them all with little effort. This group was far from useless; Calderaas might even be in good hands, so long as they took to heart the point she had come here to make.

“Three paladins didn’t come here because of Calderaas’s education budget, or Araadia’s museum. We are here because this has become a pattern. Because you, the lot of you, seem to have forgotten some important facts. Not one of your lives is more fundamentally important than the meanest laborer stacking crates in one of your warehouses. You are certainly not invincible, or impervious to repercussions.” She emphasized her point but wrenching her fist in Irina’s hair, twisting the woman’s neck and eliciting a scream which made several of those before her flinch. “Noble blood spills just as easily as any other, and runs just as red. Remember that, and recite it to yourself next time you find yourself contemplating cheating masses of people out of a basic necessity so you can enjoy another luxury.

“Because I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, I care about your privileges even less than you care about the fates of the poor. The difference between us is that I actually can shrug off any vengeance you try to impose. Remember that, and don’t make me come back here. Because the next time I have to come and carefully unravel the intricate webs you weave…”

Abruptly, she hauled Irina upright again, spinning her to face the crowd, and drove the pommel of her sword into the woman’s sternum. Irina’s shriek was cut off in a whoosh of expelled breath, and she tried to double over on herself—impossible, due to Trissiny’s grip on her hair, but she did cross her arms over her midsection, which was the point.

The ancient sword had a visibly scarred blade; it wasn’t nearly as dull as it looked, but Trissiny still channeled light into it, making the blade glow like the sun and honing its edge to a razor’s keen, before slashing it deftly through the inch between her fingers and Lady Irina’s skull.

Irina collapsed to the floor, weakly sobbing, the sodden mass of her once carefully-styled hair remaining in Trissiny’s fist.

She kept it aloft for a moment before tossing it into the puddle of punch and crystal shards.

“I won’t.”

The oppressive silence was marred only by the broken whimpering of the party’s hostess. Trissiny roved her eyes slowly across the crowd, taking the time to directly meet the gaze of everyone present who didn’t flinch from her stare, a trick taught to her by a Guild enforcer back in Tiraas. A lot of them glared right back. Fine; she didn’t need them cowed into submission, just aware of their limits.

Finally, she turned her back on the group. Toby stood nearby, Lark having beat a judicious retreat; he looked tired and mournful. For some reason, that irritated her. Gabriel was leaning his rear against the table over which she had so recently thrown Lady Irina Araadia, his arms folded and the haft of his scythe tucked into his elbow with its wicked blade gleaming above.

“Anything to add?” she asked dryly.

Gabriel shook his head, straightening up. “Threats are the province of war.”

Taking his scythe in hand, he casually swept it through the air overhead. A blue spark ignited along the blade, as if it had slashed through something invisible, and suddenly the room was plunged into dimness as every illusory vine and tree in the place winked out. This, finally, prompted more gasps and small shrieks, though not enough to drown out Gabriel’s finishing statement.

“Death…just happens.”

Toby turned and bowed toward the assembled aristocrats, hands folded before his midsection. “Thank you kindly for the hospitality. It was a lovely party.”

All three of them turned and strode toward the doors, Trissiny flanked by the boys. They walked without speaking, their footsteps unconsciously falling into a matching rhythm. Not a word was said until they had passed beyond the great entry and the wide-eyed herald, into the more well-lit hallway beyond which led to the manor’s front door.

“So that thing cuts enchantment, even?” Trissiny asked finally.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel murmured, eyes ahead.

Toby heaved a sigh. “I can’t make myself be happy about this night’s work.”

“Yeah, well, you should.” They all slowed, turning in surprise, while Velvet caught up with them. “That was the whole point of you going in first to ask nicely, Caine. Next time an Omnist makes a polite request of any of those people, they will damn well listen. Now that they know they don’t want any of what comes along after. Believe me, that’s for the best. The whole world can’t be run by people like me and Thorn; if a society is kept in line by nothing but fear, it’ll tear itself apart. You may not like how I do things, but I really prefer if people like them listen to people like you before I ever have to become involved.”

“You sure you just wanna leave?” Gabriel asked her. “Seems like your sister could really use a friendly hand right now…”

Velvet shook her head. “She’s already never going to forgive me for the part I played in that; every second I stick around and witness her humiliation will only make it worse. This business has effectively neutered House Araadia’s political ambitions for a generation, I hope you realize.”

“Sorry,” Trissiny said, not trying overly hard for a sincere tone.

Velvet didn’t exactly smile, but the look she gave her was sardonic and not at all reproachful. “They’ll get no sympathy from me. Aristocrats are like church bells: expensive, pretty, and only useful when regularly struck. You did a good thing here tonight, kids; ugly, but necessary. If Yasmeen is able to come up with a play like this, she’ll make a hell of a Sultana when her time comes.”

Gabriel cracked a grin at that, but Toby just sighed.

“Well. I suggest we all move along before our welcome wears out any further. No offense meant to Calderaas, Velvet, but I find I am suddenly eager to find the Princess, collect our trinket, and get out of this city.”

No one had any objection to that.

 

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14 – 3

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Both men immediately began babbling over each other, talking so rapidly and loudly their words were all but indistinguishable. They also started struggling against the bindings, prompting Rooter to roughly yank them both back into place.

Velvet had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise. “Flash?”

The other man grinned at her and raised a hand. In the air beside him, a second hand formed from arcane blue light. He made a slashing motion, and the construct followed, sweeping across the two prisoners and swatting them both upside the head, finally dislodging Ezekiel’s hat.

“Since it’s coming back to you now,” Velvet said to Trissiny in the ensuing quiet, “just who are these clowns?”

“Just a couple of randos, as far as I knew,” she replied. “I bumped into them on my first stop in the Rail station here, two years ago. The dumb one tried to pick me up. Pretty aggressively.”

“Which one’s the dumb one?” Rooter grunted.

“That would be him!” Ezekiel growled, giving his brother a hard look.

“Damn, girl,” Ringer commented, folding her arms. “I’m amazed you remember that at all.”

“I actually don’t get pestered by men all that much,” Trissiny said vaguely, deliberately not mentioning the Legion armor which was the likely cause of that. “And it was my first time away from home. The incident sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Uh huh,” Velvet said dryly. “Well, I’m sure they do things a certain way in Viridill, but while you’re in my city I’d better not hear of you taking cudgels to people over piddly crap like that. You said someone sent you,” she added, directing herself to Ezekiel. “Who?”

“Ain’t tellin’ you jack—”

“Goddamn it, Jeb, shut up!” Ezekiel barked. “That said, lady, he ain’t all wrong. What makes you think we’re gonna—”

“Flash,” Velvet said in a bored tone.

The glowing hand reappeared and slapped them again, then cut backward and hit them another time the other way. After its third pass, Jebediah tried to throw himself to the ground, which didn’t work as Rooter was still holding one end of the rope that tied his wrists.

“Would you cut that out!” Ezekiel shouted. “Land’s sakes, slapping? C’mon, what is this, finishing school?”

“As the only person here who has attended one of those,” Velvet said pleasantly, “I can assure you they aren’t this gentle. Lucky for you two, I find you rather amusing. Still, I obviously cannot have people thinking they can just burst in here with impunity—nor send lackeys to do so. Anyone I considered a real threat would have better sense, so you can be assured your boss won’t get worse than a talking-to and perhaps a good, solid slap of his own. Regardless, I do require a name. None of us are going anywhere till I get one.”

Ezekiel looked mutinous. “Yeah, well, I bet I can take this as long as—”

“Rainwood!” Jebediah squalled.

Velvet heaved a sigh. “Flash, I think it’s time to get more inventive.”

“Wait wait come on I’m serious!” Jebediah yelled frantically. “His name’s Rainwood, he asked us to come find the girl! He’s a—”

“I know who he is, honey,” Velvet said condescendingly. “That’s why I don’t believe you.”

“Fuck it, he didn’t say nothin’ about the Guild,” Ezekiel growled. “He’s right, ma’am, we was sent by Rainwood. He gave us ten doubloons each, I dunno where he got ’em from, man looks like he ain’t slept indoors in a year. But we’re between proper jobs an’ Jeb wanted to see the paladin again, so… Shit, though, we wasn’t paid to fight gawd dang Thieves’ Guild street soldiers!”

“This is your idea of a fight?” Ringer asked with a broad grin.

“Who’s this guy?” Trissiny inquired, turning to Velvet.

“Some elf,” the underboss said dismissively. “He used to a some kind of big-time adventurer, back when that was a real thing people did. Now he sleeps on a bench in a park. I have a hard time crediting that he would want to talk to a paladin, or be willing to cross the Guild for it. Or has twenty doubloons,” she added, giving the Jenkins brothers a sardonic look.

“Hm.” Trissiny frowned down at them; for the moment, both were keeping judiciously quiet. “He did say they weren’t told about the Guild. Apparently this elf just wants me for some reason, and I happened to be here.”

“That’s horseshit,” Rooter grunted. “Everybody knows the Guild’s here.”

“Are you kiddin’?” Ezekiel demanded. “I didn’t. Why the fuck would I? Maybe everybody important knows where the Guild is, but ain’t no honest workin’ folks got any business with you assholes.”

“I sorta have to give him that one,” Ringer said lightly.

“What can you tell me about this Rainwood?” Trissiny asked, turning to Velvet. She got a long stare in reply. “Boss,” she added belatedly, in a deliberately respectful tone.

“I just did,” Velvet replied after letting the silence hang another moment to make her point. “I do not keep tabs on every park-dwelling hobo and washed-up has-been in Calderaas, Thorn, I have plenty of my own business to worry about. I only know of this one at all because he’s sort of distinctive. You don’t see a lot of elves in that situation, and hardly ever an elf with black hair. Okay, what is it now?” she demanded when Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes.

“…I think I had better go talk to Mr. Rainwood,” she said resignedly, slowly dragging the hand down her face. “Boss, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to be the one to address the matter of him sending people to harass the Guild. I’m pretty sure I can make your point about that. And if not, I’ll come right back here and notify you he needs further correction.”

“Well, I certainly don’t doubt your ability to make points,” Velvet said, raising an eyebrow. “What’s your stake in this, suddenly?”

“It’s family business, as it turns out.”

Velvet subtly narrowed her eyes. “…are you by any chance close to a conwoman called Keys?”

“I have refrained so far from shoving my boot up her butt,” Trissiny said flatly. “So, yes, I figure that makes me as close to her as anyone alive.”

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Jebediah said almost diffidently. “Sorry to interrupt, but… Seriously, could we stand up? Or, hell, lie down. It’s just, I ain’t never kneeled this long at a stretch, not even in church. It’s a bitch an’ a half on the knees, ma’am.”

“Well,” Velvet drawled, “as it turns out, Thorn, we have here a pair of boobs who can take you right to Rainwood. Since you’re amenable, you have my blessing to go give him what he wants, and see how much he likes it.”


“So uh!” Jebediah burst out at the top of his lungs, making Ezekiel jump and mutter a curse. His efforts to try for a nonchalant expression were downright funny; the man had clearly been working up to this all the way across the city, chewing the inside of his cheek and shooting Trissiny increasingly nervous glances. It had taken him this long, and now they had almost reached the park; the crowns of huge trees were visible above the next row of townhouses. Jebediah cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m, uh, glad we had the opportunity to…um.”

“Meet you again,” Ezekiel finished from up ahead. He was facing forward, away from them, but his voice held barely-suppressed laughter.

“Uh, yeah, that.” Jebediah removed his hat and began turning it restlessly in his hands, watching Trissiny as though half-expecting her to take a swing at him. “When that elf guy said he wanted… Well, that’s sorta why I took on the job, ma’am. I, um, I’m glad of the chance to…apologize.”

Trissiny came to a stop, turning to face him. Behind her, the sound of Ezekiel’s boots on the sidewalk also halted. Jebediah actually shied back a half-step, but she made no move toward him.

“For?” she asked evenly.

He swallowed. “Um. For speakin’ to you in such a disrespectful manner, ma’am. I swear by Omnu’s name I didn’t mean no harm. Truth be told, I wouldn’t’a talked to a lady like that but… I, uh, sorta figured you could take a…um, direct approach.”

“Direct.” Slowly, she raised an eyebrow. “If by direct you mean pushy, rude and borderline predatory…”

“Now, I didn’t mean nothin’ like that,” he protested, his voice rising in pitch. “It’s just… Dang it, Zeke, help me out, here!”

Ezekiel huffed a derisive laugh, but stepped back over to join them. “All right, in truth, ma’am, the spirit meant well but the social skills were lackin’. Jeb’s learnt a bit since then about how to approach women. An’ more important, how not to,” he added directly to his brother, making a face.

“It’s just, it was the armor,” Jeb said almost desperately. “I thought… I mean, Legionnaires got a certain reputation, y’know?”

Trissiny stared at him, at a loss. The only sexual stereotype she had ever heard about Silver Legionnaires claimed that they didn’t like men at all.

“What I mean is,” Jeb babbled, clearly sensing he was getting nowhere, “they’re…tough. That’s the word. Brave, an’ kinda…no nonsense. See, part a’ the reason me an’ Zeke came here to the city is there ain’t a lotta girls out on the ranch. We was both lookin’ to settle down, not, y’know, chase skirts or nothin’. An’ Maw always told us, find a woman with a heart, a spine, an’ guts, cos a man can’t make do with only one a’ each.”

“So,” she said slowly, “you like strong women, and your solution to expressing this was to irritate the first one you met who had a sword?”

Zeke burst out laughing, earning a dirty look from his brother.

“All this is almost too ludicrous to discuss further,” Trissiny said, “but out of sheer morbid curiosity, I have to ask. Why the change of heart?”

“Oh, that’s simple enough!” Ezekiel chortled. “He tried that on another Legionnaire, when I wasn’t there to drag his ass away.”

Jeb grumbled and kicked the pavement.

“And got some manners drubbed into you with the flat of her blade?” Trissiny finished in her driest tone.

“Trust me, ma’am, an ass-kickin’ don’t get through Jeb’s skull,” Zeke said merrily. “I been tryin’ that since he could walk. Ain’t made any progress yet!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jeb muttered. “She took me down to the Temple of Avei an’ got me a sit-down with a priestess. I got stuff…explained to me.”

“I’ll bet,” Trissiny replied.

“Not that way,” he said hastily. “I mean, I been yelled at an’ got my ears boxed more times’n I can count, an’ it don’t make much of an impression, y’know? All a body gets outta that is pissed off. Naw, Sister Shiri actually talked t’me. ‘Splained a lot about what bein’ a woman is like in this world, an’ how it comes across when some galoot comes up all in her space, makin’ faces an’ suggestions, an’… An’, ma’am, I just felt so ashamed. I truly only meant the best an’ I had no idea I was bein’ such an asshole about it. That’s why I jumped when a weirdo elf asked me an’ Zeke to find the Hand of Avei. I needed ta get that off my chest, an’ if you put a sword in me over it, well, so be it. But you’re here now, so, I’m sorry.”

He finished with a limpid stare, clutching his hat before him in both hands. Zeke had crossed his arms and was watching with a faintly amused smile.

“Well,” Trissiny said after a moment, “apology accepted. I’m glad you learned something. And I was hardly going to stab you over that. But I didn’t come to Calderaas to rehash that of all things, so if there’s nothing else…?”

“Right!” Jeb stuffed his hat back onto his head and hastened past her, beckoning with a broad gesture. “Right you are, ma’am, this way! We’re almost to the man hisself!”

While falling into step behind him, she gave Zeke a mystified look. He grinned and tipped his hat to her.

Around the next corner, the park opened up behind a gateway consisting of stone pillars supporting a wrought iron arch; it actually reminded her of the University’s entrance. It could apparently be closed, likely at night, but for now the broad iron gates stood open. As they passed the columns, she perused a sign warning that the park was heavily patrolled, and that horses and enchanted vehicles were not permitted. Beyond that, the cobblestone street became a much less carriage-friendly path of old rounded stones with thick moss growing in the gaps between them.

The park was clearly old, if not historic; the trees, to judge by their size, were centennial at least. Directly ahead of them was a fountain surmounted by a statue of an armored woman, likely a long-ago Sultana to judge by her headdress. Aside from a pair of trees flanking the path just before this, it was a clear area, with open lawns spreading out from the fountain. It seemed a popular place, with people strolling, chatting on benches, and a group of young men playing football.

Jeb led down a winding path which grew narrower as it entered a more tree-heavy region. Even as the canopy grew close enough together to interfere with the sunlight, it never came to resemble a grove. The ground was too flat and the underbrush nonexistent, the grass neatly trimmed—to say nothing of the benches, fairy lamps, and rubbish bins. After a few minutes of walking, as they were nearing what looked like the edge of the park itself, Jeb turned off the path and led them through a stand of towering bushes. In fact, they looked from a distance like a solid thicket, but up close there were paths easily broad enough for a person to get through. In a Guild-trained corner of her mind, Trissiny noted that such a spot was so perfectly designed for discreet assignations that some city planner had to have had that specifically in mind.

She put that aside, however, focusing on the person they were there to meet.

Rainwood really did give the impression that he lived in the park. Even for an elf, he looked wild; his clothing was shabby and appeared worn almost to the point of falling apart, and his black hair had evidently been hacked short with a dull knife and then repeatedly slept on. Nearby, to judge by the leaves in it. Though he was in his shirtsleeves at the moment, a ratty old coat was laid out across the park bench nearby, with a bulging knapsack tucked at one end to make an obvious if improvised bed.

Despite his ragged appearance, the man’s eyes were keen and alert; he was sitting up and watching as they approached, doubtless having picked out the sound of their footsteps long before they drew close.

“There she is!” Rainwood cried with an exuberant grin. “Well done, boys! So this is Principia’s kid. C’mon, cousin, come closer! Let’s have a look at you.”

“You can listen while you look, cousin,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. She had to school startlement from her features, having suddenly remembered where she had seen this man before. “I’m going to leave aside the matter of you peremptorily summoning the Hand of Avei whenever you like. Personally, I don’t much mind, but I won’t speak for what the Sisterhood might do if you interrupt its business. But a man with your history should certainly have better sense than to send hirelings to intrude on the Thieves’ Guild. Right now, Underboss Velvet seems more amused by this than angry, but that might change, depending on what I tell her next.”

Rainwood’s grin had faded, and now he transferred his incredulous stare from her to Jeb and Zeke, who stood nervously off to the side.

“I sent you,” the elf said slowly, “on a simple errand. Find the Hand of Avei and ask her to come see me. Simple. I even gave you the aid of a spirit guide to bring you right to her. And somehow, you turned that into me now owing the Thieves’ Guild an apology. Boys, there is screwing up, and then there’s you two.”

“Now, just a goddamn minute!” Jeb exploded. “We followed your dang floaty light thingy right to where it led us! An’ she was there, all right. So was a whole buildin’ full of Eserites. They jumped us as soon as we got in the door! Coulda taken ’em, too,” he added sullenly, “but they came from behind, an’ there was three of ’em, an’ one was a mage—”

“Don’t do that,” Trissiny said wryly. “You two aren’t a match for one good Guild enforcer. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about losing a fight to more dangerous opponents.”

“You didn’t happen to notice you were in the Black Market?” Rainwood said incredulously.

“Now, why in Omnu’s name does everybody keep expectin’ us to know what the fuck that even is?” Zeke demanded. “Who the hell is it y’all talk to who’s just expected to know where the Thieves’ Guild hangs out? We’re a couple a’ country boys who’ve been doin’ warehouse an’ factory work the last couple years, why the fuck would we know jack all about thieves?”

“He has a point there,” Trissiny observed. “Where’d you find these two, anyway?”

“Same way I find most things,” Rainwood said with a shrug and a sigh. “I consulted my spirit guides, and they directed me to these as the proper messengers for this task. I’m wondering why, now.”

“Oy, we did your fuckin’ job, ya smug knife-ear,” Jeb snapped, pointing accusingly at him. “You wanted the paladin, there she is. Anybody oughta be pissed off, here, it ain’t you! We was the ones who got sent inta the damn Guild with no warnin’!”

“Forgive me,” Rainwood replied, smiling sardonically, “but when I sent you off to follow a spirit guide through the city, I expected that if it led you to something dangerous, you would come back here and tell me so rather than charge headfirst into it.”

“Enough,” Trissiny interjected. “I don’t have time for this bickering. You were all negligent. Now what am I going to tell Velvet about this?”

“Oh, Velvet’s too much a professional to fuss over spilled milk,” Rainwood sighed. “I’ll go down there and say my sorries, and give her something sparkly from my collection. That’ll put that mess neatly to bed. But that brings us back to the question which most intrigues me: what were you doing in the Thieves’ Guild headquarters? And how does it come about that you’ll be the one reporting on my behavior to the Underboss? Hands of Avei and Eserites usually only talk with sword and clubs.”

“She, uh, wasn’t bein’ held prisoner,” Ezekiel offered. “Fact, the boss lady seemed to speak to ‘er pretty respectful-like.”

“Damn dirty thieves don’t want that kinda trouble,” Jeb scoffed. “They’re cowards, is what they are. They’ll rough up the likes o’ us, but a paladin? Pfft.”

Trissiny gave him a brief glance, while deftly producing a doubloon from inside her sleeve, where she kept it for that purpose in a little pocket. She turned her eyes back to Rainwood and rolled the coin back and forth across her fingers, saying nothing.

“Well,” the elf breathed, his gaze fixed on the doubloon, “what do you know. The times really are changing, aren’t they.”

“Lots of things change,” Trissiny said, making the coin disappear back into its hiding place. “Now, if your curiosity is satisfied, let’s move on to mine. What do you want?”

“Why, to help you in your quest!” he proclaimed with a smile which made him look uncannily like Principia, and threw his arms wide.

Trissiny rolled her eyes.

“I know, I know, I don’t look like much,” Rainwood said cheerfully. “It suits me, for the time being! But, believe it or not, I have more than one connection to you. Aside from family business, I’ve been—”

“You were an adventuring companion of a Hand of Avei,” she said. “Yes, I know. Dailah, wasn’t it?”

He blinked, lowering his arms. “Huh. The Sisterhood really does educate you well, don’t they?” She kept silent, deciding it was probably best not to mention Kuriwa’s vision quest to him; Trissiny had had relatively little contact with the elvish side of her family, but so far every Crowblood she’d met had reacted negatively to every other one. Including the dragon. “Anyway, actually, I’ve palled around with three of your predecessors, including Dailah. I was going to say Arjen would vouch for me, but I guess you’re already in the know. How’s my boy, by the way? Please tell me you give him apples? Apples are his favorite snack.”

“He likes apples,” Trissiny corrected. “His favorite snack is peppermints.”

Rainwood looked affronted. “What? Who told you to do that? What kind of degenerate would give a horse candy?”

“All right, that does it,” she snorted, turning to go. “Deal with Velvet in your own time, then, but don’t dally; I’m not leaving Calderaas without reporting to her. And tell Vesk to take his nonsense and shove it—”

“Ooh, you’re on a Vesk quest!” The elf sat bolt upright, his whole face positively lighting up. “Fantastic! Those are the best ones!”

Trissiny paused. “If you’re not working with Vesk, then what’s this noise about helping me with my quest? I’m not even doing his fool errand, I’m just going to extract Toby and Gabriel from whatever mess he’s gotten them into.”

“If Vesk is involved, it’s not going to be that simple,” Rainwood warned, smirking, “and your efforts to make it so will only lead you into grief. But to answer your question,” he continued hastily when she drew a deep breath, “you’re not the only person bopping around with a destiny, Trissiny. I make a point of regularly consulting the spirits. You know, seeing which way the wind blows. I, myself, am soon leaving Calderaas; it seems I’ve an important quest to fulfill out west. But as I was reaching out through the vast web of magic, I discovered that you had just arrived! My long-lost half-blood cousin and the heir to the legacy of some of my closest departed friends. How could I not interrupt my business to help you out?”

She hesitated, peering suspiciously at him. “That’s it? You just want to help?”

“I can see you’ve had a hard time of it, if you’re already so mistrustful of free help,” he replied, shaking his head. “Even Dailah took a few more years to get that hard-nosed. Who is it who’s let you down, Trissiny? Elves? Shaman? Adventurers? Family? People in general?”

“Yes, for starters.”

He laughed. “Ah, the all-knowing despair of youth.”

“Have I mentioned I attend Arachne Tellwyrn’s school?” she said pointedly. “If I want to be condescended to by smug elves, I have a long-term source of that. Not in the market, thanks.”

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he said, raising his hands peaceably. “Back to your quest, then. How can I help you?”

Trissiny let the silence hang for a moment, staring at him. Rainwood just gazed back with a placid smile. Well, Lanaera had made the point that while their lineage found one another generally exasperating, they wouldn’t harm a family member unless that person made it absolutely necessary, which they all tried very hard not to do. And he had been a friend of Dailah; even if she chose to be suspicious of his claim to have worked with two other Hands, she had seen that much herself.

“I’m looking for the Hands of Omnu and Vidius,” she said at last. “According to Vesk, they set out on this idiot quest of his, and somehow ended up being held by the Empire, somewhere here in Calderaas. I’m trying to find them to straighten this out, but I have no leads. The local Guild doesn’t know where they might be; Velvet could only say that it was unlikely the Empire would actually detain them, which I already knew.”

“That is some funny business,” Rainwood mused. “Coming from any source but a god, I would dismiss it out of hand. Even Vesk doesn’t tend to straight-up lie to people’s faces, though. I warn you, however, he does tend to tell people things in a way that makes them hear something other than what’s the truth, and leaves him wiggle room to claim he didn’t deceive them when they complain later.”

“Yes,” she said sourly, “I’m not good at that trick but I’m familiar with it. I’ve been assuming this was one of those.”

“And you probably ought to find those two Hands anyway, just to make sure,” he said, nodding. “I see where you’re coming from, now. Well!” The shaman clapped his hands together and then rubbed them briskly, grinning. “This is good news! I was half-afraid involving myself in your business would get me in real trouble, but this couldn’t be simpler. Paladins tend to create ripples just by existing. Should be the easiest thing in the world to dip my fingers in the pond and get a sense of where they might be. Stand back!”

Zeke and Jeb obediently shuffled backward several steps; Trissiny, who was already a few yards away, just folded her arms and watched. Rainwood didn’t seem to object to her presence, focusing on what he was doing.

The hand motions he made reminded her more of a street magician performing than any actual casting she’d ever seen. He was clearly a potent shaman, though, calling up raw magic itself without the use of any of the rituals or components that usually marked fae craft. Rainwood appeared to summon swirling dust out of thin air, shaping and stirring the cloud as it coalesced with broad, sweeping gestures. It whirled, faster and faster, condensing in one spot until he suddenly jerked his hands apart and, with a tiny spray of excess powder, the dust formed into a solid shape on the ground in front of them.

It was a house. By its tall and narrow construction, one of the rows of townhouses which were built right up against each other, though this image showed only the one and not its neighbors. It was apparently a rich one; its facade and the garden wall in front of it included an arrangement of pillars topped by gargoyles. The effect was almost a faux temple, though Trissiny had never seen any Pantheon sanctuary incorporate gargoyles into its décor. Rich people had strange tastes.

“Huh,” Rainwood grunted, slowly lowering his hands. “That’s disappointing.”

“Was it supposed to do more than that?” she asked dryly.

“No, no, it worked perfectly,” he assured her. “That is where your friends are, right in that house. I was just hoping they were someplace more…distinctive. That could be any one of a hundred noble’s city homes in Calderaas. I suppose it narrows things a bit. There’s only a few ritzy neighborhoods where a place like that could be tucked away. Well! Don’t worry, I’m not thwarted yet. It’ll be a little trickier than sending one after you, since I’ve no personal connection to those guys, but I’m confident I can persuade a spirit guide to lead—”

“Hey, I know that place,” Jeb said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him. He was nodding as if to reassure himself, and pointed at the illusion of the townhouse on the ground between them. “Yeah, yeah, I recognize that! Ain’t never seen another place looked quite the same. That’s where Dolly used ta work. You remember Dolly, don’cha, Zeke?”

“Course I do. That girl was too good fer you, Jeb.”

“She surely was,” Jeb said with a dreamy sigh, lifting his eyes to gaze reminiscently at nothing.

Trissiny and Rainwood cleared their throats in unison.

“Right, yeah!” Jebediah snapped his attention back to the present. “Anyway. Dolly used t’be a maid, worked for the Sultanate, an’ that’s one o’ their properties. Ain’t no guards or nothin’, it’s a discreet sorta place where they, y’know…keep folks.”

Trissiny frowned. “Political prisoners?”

“Uh, no. Not that kinda keep.” Jeb cleared his throat awkwardly. “You know, people the royal family, uh…likes to come…visit. Personally.”

“Oh.”

“So, anyway, yeah,” he barreled on hastily. “Princess Yasmeen had a boyfriend she let stay there. But the Sultana found out an’ threw a fit. He got sent outta Calderaas, an’ the whole staff was dismissed. Dolly ended up goin’ home to Veilgrad, an’…well, we stayed here.” He trailed off, looking forlorn. Zeke placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s amazing,” Trissiny observed, “the degree to which my business in this city is being defined by your bad luck with women.”

“Good on you fer noticin’ early,” Zeke said dryly. “It sneaks up on ya, otherwise, like a big silent tornado o’ Jeb drama. Next thing ya know, everything an’ everybody around is sucked up in it. Omnu’s balls, if this cowpoke ever manages to get hisself hitched there’s gonna be a gawd damn recession.”

“One o’ these days I am really gonna kick your ass, boy,” Jeb growled.

“Well, there you go,” Rainwood said grandly. “And to think I was actually wondering why the spirits would send me these two when I sought the right help. Once again, they knew even more than I anticipated! And now you have the perfect guides.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh.


It took over an hour to find the place. Jebediah’s memory turned out to be accurate…eventually. Luckily, neither of the two occasions on which he got them lost occurred in this neighborhood. The three of them looked badly enough out of place that Trissiny feared they would be stopped by police if they wandered around. Scruffy vagabonds were high on the roster of things the very wealthy did not want to see out their front windows. At least Rainwood hadn’t come. The addition of a half-savage-looking elf would probably have gotten them picked up the moment they set foot on this street.

“See, I told you I knew the place!” Jeb said loudly, coming to a stop in front of the house. “There it is, jus’ like in—”

Trissiny already had her back to them, studying the gate, but to judge by the thump and ensuing scuffling which cut off Jeb’s loud pronouncement, Zeke had swatted him upside the head. She’d barely spent a couple of hours with these two and it was already a familiar sequence of sounds.

“Fighting on the street isn’t a whole lot more discreet than shouting our business for the neighbors to hear,” she commented in a low voice, opening the gate and striding up the path. “Thanks, boys, I can take it from here.”

She sighed and gritted her teeth at the sound of boots shuffling along after her, all the way up to the front door, but did not turn around. Arguing with the brothers Jenkins might or might not have been a pointless activity, but at the moment it was certain to draw unwelcome attention.

“Don’t you worry none, Ms. Trissiny,” Jeb said fervently in a stage whisper, coming to huddle behind her. “We got your back! Zeke, keep watch fer assassins!”

Ezekiel half-turned, crouching on the other side of the entranceway from his brother and peering surreptitiously around. The two of them could not have more ostentatiously looked like they were up to no good. At this point, it wasn’t a matter of whether police were going to come, but when.

“You need help bustin’ in the door?” Jeb asked out of the side of his mouth.

“Don’t be any stupider’n you can help, Jeb, we’re doin’ this discreet-like,” Zeke retorted. “Mebbe we can pick the lock? Or, I dunno, if them paladins ain’t actually in trouble, we might just knock—”

Trissiny turned the latch. The unlocked door swung open on well-oiled hinges.

“Huh,” Jeb remarked behind her as she slipped inside. “Well, that don’t seem right. Maw always said, you gotta lock your doors if you live in the city.”

She seriously considered shutting it in his face, and refrained only because it would have created an even greater outcry than their continued presence.

Beyond a short entry hall was an expensively furnished sitting room, with an open doorway leading off into a hallway on one side and a polished wooden door directly ahead. Trissiny stepped warily forward, peering around, the Jenkinses huddling right behind her. The house was quiet, but not silent; from the closed door came the muffled sounds of conversation. She moved carefully, as taught by the Guild, her supple boots (quite distinct from the armored ones she had been in the habit of wearing) making barely a sound on the marble floor tiles.

Given the shuffling and stomping which occurred right behind her, she probably needn’t have bothered.

Before she could hush them, the door opened, and a man slipped out. He wore a dark suit with a long coat which, though it resembled the uniform of the Imperial Guard and Hands of the Emperor, didn’t quite constitute a uniform. Regardless, his eyes widened at the sight of the three of them, and he raised a wand.

Trissiny surged forward, a golden shield flaring alight around her. With a brilliant flash, her sword materialized in her hand, though she did not summon her armor just yet. Two clean beams of white light impacted on her energy shield before she closed with her opponent—that was a proper enchanter’s wand, not a cheaper lightning-thrower. That weapon could burn down even her divine shield if she let him get in too many shots.

She kept the sword behind her, turning sideways at the last moment to impact the guard with her shoulder. That was pure muscle memory; wreathed as she was in a sphere of hard light, it didn’t much matter how she hit him. Fortunately for them both, the door opened inward. He was slammed back through, hurling it wide, and she actually bounced off, the edges of her shield impacting the door frame on both sides.

“Trissiny?”

Catching her balance, she blinked at the scene beyond the guard she had just knocked down. It was a dining room, well-lit and every bit as pricey as the living room behind her. A long table had been laid for a meal; three men were seated around it, while a shocked-looking woman in a maid’s uniform stood against the far wall, all of them staring at her in the doorway. The middle-aged man in the center, who wore a nondescript dark suit, had half-risen, one hand dropping to his side where he doubtless had a weapon concealed.

The other two she knew.

Toby had been sitting with his back to the door and now turned around in his chair, blinking at her. It had been he who’d said her name.

“Uh, hi, Triss,” Gabriel added from the other side of the table, carefully wiping his mouth with a fine linen napkin. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but… What the hell are you doing?”

Trissiny let her shield wink out, straightened up, and lowered her sword.

“That damn bard.”

 

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14 – 2

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A lot had changed in just two years.

The Rail caravans were less utilitarian in design, now, the spartan steel and glass construction clearly influenced by the aesthetics of modern carriages, painted in Imperial black and silver and with much more plush seating in a deep wine red. Gone were the (barely) padded benches within, too; each compartment had designated seats complete with armrests—and most importantly, heavy canvas harnesses which passengers could use to fasten themselves down.

Even the need for those was somewhat lessened. Discreetly glowing sigils decorated metal plates lining the baseboards and ceiling of the compartments, and for one who had traveled the Rails before they were installed, the effect was obvious: the violent slinging that occurred when the caravans navigated curves at faster than the speed of sound were significantly mitigated. Not completely; it was still a rough enough passage that everyone took advantage of the harnesses. Apparently the state of the art wasn’t yet up to neutralizing forces like that—or, more likely, such potent enchantments weren’t economical. Regardless, it was progress, clear and welcome.

The lawyers had been busy, too. Both the warning signs posted on Rail platforms and the fine print on the tickets cautioned, in addition to statements that Rail travel was dangerous and passengers accepted sole responsibility, that persons who for medical, religious, or any other reason should not be exposed to arcane enchantment should not ride the Rails.

Preferring not to draw attention, Trissiny had bought a ticket in Saddle Ridge rather than pulling rank for a free ride. Her armor, for now, remained back at the grove with Lanaera. She could easily summon it to her at need, but the idea was to avoid such a situation if possible.

Even with the improvements, a Rail ride wasn’t a gentle experience, especially for those not used to it. She ended up being the last off the caravan, just because the rest of her fellow travelers were in a much greater hurry to get themselves out of it, and she didn’t see fit to contest them.

The great Rail station of Calderaas, aside from its expanded warning signage, looked very much as she recalled from her previous visits. Some effort had been made to improve the place visually: there were now small trees in heavy pots located in discreet corners. They would require careful watering, of course, but the huge glass roof would provide plenty of sunlight. Still, after coming directly from an elven grove, she thought the poor things looked downright emaciated. More strikingly, banners had been hung from the arched roof high above, affixed to the steel supports directly. The Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field, alternated with Calderaas’s own rearing horse in gold over red.

She didn’t make for the station’s doors right away. There was bound to be at least one example of what she was looking for here; the trick was finding it without drawing attention, and thereby trouble.

Trissiny kept an eye out while walking among the Rail platforms, as she’d been taught in Tiraas. Face forward, gait purposeful, eyes constantly moving. First, she made her way to Platform 9, the same one upon which she’d waited for her caravan to Last Rock on her first visit here. There was still an elf selling tea from a stand on one of the attached spaces, under her sign labeled Platform 9¾. Trissiny bought a paper cup of the herbal brew, then headed away from the Rail platforms themselves toward the broad indoor avenue at the front of the station, lined with more permanent shops and people browsing, or moving to and from the Rail lines. There, she made a show of craning her neck to read shop signs before heading toward a notary and stationer, where she picked up a cheap street map of the city.

All the while, she carefully kept an eye out, as unobtrusively as possible, for what she sought. The first few minutes of this were discouraging, but she spied a likely prospect almost immediately upon stepping down from the platforms to the shopping court. A skinny girl was moving through the crowds, hawking newspapers, and several key details of her performance were off. She was carrying barely half a dozen papers, moving erratically through the crowd rather than picking a spot as a vendor usually would, and not trying nearly hard enough to draw attention to her wares. Suggestive, but not definitive. Trissiny wasn’t sure until she re-emerged from the notary’s just in time to see the paper girl collide clumsily with a well-dressed gentleman and stumble away, cringing and stammering excuses.

Trissiny tucked her map under her arm and waited until the mark had stalked off on his way before approaching the young woman.

“Morning,” she said in a pleasant tone, casually rolling a doubloon across the backs of her fingers. “You look like information is your business! Spare a few moments for a curious voyager who’s just tumbled off the turnip cart?”

The girl scarcely glanced at the coin, fixing her eyes on Trissiny’s face. “Time’s money, love, but moments and pennies I can spare. You hunting something in the city?”

“Not here to hunt, no. Just passing by and looking to be a courteous guest.”

“Righto!” With a broad grin, she began casually backing toward the wall; Trissiny followed along, and in seconds they had positioned themselves out of the flow of traffic, against a spot between two small storefronts.

“Pinkie,” the girl said, tugging the brim of her cap.

“Thorn,” Trissiny replied, repressing her reflexive query. You didn’t get snarky about another thief’s tag unless the goal was to start a fight. “Sorry to take you from your own hunting, I won’t be long.”

“Eh, it’s not much of a hunting ground,” Pinkie said lightly, waving away her apology. “Just collecting the Unwary Tax here and there; no proper fun to be had in a place like this. What can I do you for, Thorn?”

“I’m just arrived; it’ll be my first time in Calderaas, or at least first time stepping outside the Rail station. Can you direct me to the chapter house?”

“Got specific business?” Pinkie asked in a deceptively disinterested tone. Getting that nosey was borderline rude, but Trissiny opted not to make a thing of it. She was the stranger here, after all.

She shook her head. “Just looking to make myself known to the local boss, and get the lay of the land. I don’t plan to be in town long, but I may be long enough to look for a job or two, and last thing I need is to step on anybody’s toes. I can do without getting my butt kicked for not knowing who does the kicking around here.”

“I hear that, sister,” Pinkie replied with a broad grin. “You want the Black Market, it’s easy to find. Head north toward the palace, hang a left when you reach the statue of Sultana Alizara, and follow Briar Street west till you reach the Theatre District. It’s a bit of a maze and you’ll have to wander a little, but any street or alley with black paper lanterns strung over its entrance leads into the Market. You’ll find it pretty quick if you’ve got eyes in your head.”

Trissiny couldn’t help raising her eyebrows. “It’s…actually called the Black Market?”

“This really is your first time in Calderaas, huh,” Pinkie said, grinning even wider. “Ours is an ancient city, steeped in tradition. We appreciate the classics around here. Where’d you roll in from, then?”

“Trained in Tiraas,” she said nonchalantly, “but I’m from Viridill.” One of Style’s basic rules: the less you lied, the less you’d have to remember.

“Ooh, Avenist country,” Pinkie said with a sympathetic wince. “I can see why you’d leave.”

“Yeah, I prefer not to spend any more time in a Legion cell. They have no sense of humor.”

They were already ambling back out into the shopping court, refraining from lingering too long in surreptitious conversation, and at that Pinkie laughed aloud. “Well, I hope you didn’t come here looking for a place less political than Tiraas. The local Houses love their so-called Great Game. Everybody’s a pawn, far as they’re concerned.”

“Thanks for the tip, and the directions.” Trissiny flicked the doubloon, which Pinkie deftly snagged out of the air. “Avei’s blessings upon you, sister!”

That earned another loud laugh, and the thief waved broadly as Trissiny turned to head for the doors. “Welcome to Calderaas!”

She made it barely another dozen steps before being intercepted by a man in a dark coat, with a silver gryphon badge pinned to the lapel. He planted himself directly in her path, fixing her with a flat stare.

“I don’t want any trouble out of you,” he rumbled, pointing one thick finger at her, almost close enough to touch.

“I don’t want trouble out of me, either, Sheriff,” she said politely. Had the coin roll been too brazen? Actually, a man responsible for the law in this station probably knew who the pickpockets were, and could guess what it meant when a stranger engaged one in private conversation. Fortunately, talking to police was one of the basic skills without which you didn’t earn a tag in the Guild. “I’m just passing through town to look up some old friends; I expect to leave within a day or two.”

“Hm,” he grunted, bushy eyebrows drawing together. The sheriff made no further comment, however, letting the silence hang heavily for another moment before stepping aside to let her pass.

Trissiny couldn’t help smiling wryly as she stepped out onto the street. It had been the same man who had greeted her so respectfully the first time she had set foot in the Calderaas station, two years ago. Tricks had been right; that distinctive silver armor protected her from more than physical harm. So long as it was there to be gawked at, most people wouldn’t even notice her face.


Her knowledge of cities worked against her, initially.

Tiraas and Vrin Shai had both been planned, and situated within highly defensible geographical features with regular shapes; the layout of their streets was downright mathematical. The same was true to a lesser extent of Veilgrad, the bulk of which had been built atop its distinctive rocky peninsula from the Stalrange over the prairie. Though it was less rigidly orderly, its position enforced a degree of regularity in its features.

Calderaas, by comparison, was a mess.

Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that it was a complete inverse of Tiraas. Positioned within a crater rather than on a mountaintop, it did have distinct boundaries, delineated by the ancient walls which lined the rim of the caldera, but the shape of Calderaas’s mountain was oblong and irregular. And even within that, its structures appeared to have sprouted up organically. The Royal Palace was near its center, and buildings had fanned out from it like the roots of an architectural tree, with streets forming haphazardly between them. The same had occurred in multiple places, from the city gates and major wall fortifications, from its Cathedral and main Pantheon temples, from the palaces of the original Houses who had first settled it—ancient bastions which had since changed hands multiple times. These features had extended a sprawl of urban growth until they overlapped and filled the caldera, forming the jumbled layout of the old city. And then had come the modern era, when the simultaneous rise of great factories and demolition of crumbling, unstable structures had repeated the process in miniature, resulting in a layout of streets that didn’t even try to make sense.

She had bought the map simply as cover while she scanned for a Guild member to ask for information, but now was grateful she had it. Even with the benefit of Pinkie’s directions, she would have swiftly gotten lost without it. Briar Street, for example, passed through no fewer than three intersections on the way to the Theatre District from which multiple streets branched off at weird angles and no signs indicated which one was still Briar Street.

It took over an hour, but she did get there. Ironically, navigating the Theatre District hadn’t been all that difficult, perhaps because she had been forewarned that it was a maze and by that point expected no different from Calderaan streets. Also, as the name suggested, it had a large number of theaters, which tended to be sizable buildings that made convenient landmarks and forced the streets into fairly regular patterns. It wasn’t long after entering the district that she found an alleyway with a string of black paper lanterns above it.

A few street performers were positioned next to the entrance, a young woman dancing while a boy played a spritely accompaniment on a violin. Past them, unobtrusive by comparison, was an old man seated on a barrel, whittling a block of wood with an excessively large knife. He sized Trissiny up as she stepped into the alley, but returned her polite nod and made no move to interfere with her.

The Black Market, as it turned out, was a single oval-shaped street in the center of the Theatre District, reached by a dozen different alleys and side streets. Every structure which faced it from the outside was considered Guild turf, though all were independently owned and mostly contained businesses which served the thieves and various unsavory types whose presence the Guild tolerated. The structures encircled by the round street were the Guild’s actual property and contained all of its directly owned interests.

All of this Trissiny learned during the judicious time wasting to which she devoted herself upon arrival. This was different from the Rail station; trying to deflect attention from what she was doing was not only a sure way to wear out her welcome, but was actually contrary to her intentions here. She was the unknown in this city, and getting anywhere with the local Guild meant making herself known, and making it plain that she wasn’t bringing trouble. As such, she meandered around, shopping and taking the excuse of those minor transactions to gossip with the Guild-aligned businesspeople she met. Dropping some coin didn’t hurt her position, either, and so she did.

By noon, she had had a decent lunch of kebab, followed later by a snack of cinnamon-sugared flatbread, acquired a set of lockpicks, a tough coil of rope, and a few basic alchemicals, and learned some interesting things about the city.

They had a very different relationship with the local nobility than did their counterparts in Tiraas, for example. While the Guild in the Imperial capital ran their ostentatious casino to openly and directly fleece the rich—in a way the rich didn’t even seem to mind, which Trissiny had always found rather brilliant—the Calderaan thieves regarded their own aristocrats with pure hostility. At the root of it were the different styles of local governance. The Silver Throne kept its nearby Houses at arm’s length, and between the presence of the Army serving as the capital’s police force and the much more fearsome specter of Imperial Intelligence, the scheming of nobles in Tiraas was kept at manageable levels. By contrast, the Sultana preferred (or was forced) to actively play politics with her own rivals, resulting in a hodgepodge of powerful Houses who engaged in perpetual, aggressive maneuvers against each other. These resulted in near-constant excesses which got bystanders involved, to their detriment, and that invariably brought retaliation from the Thieves’ Guild.

The nobles, being nobles, took this into account, and tried to trip each other up into antagonizing the Guild. Trissiny quickly discovered that the Eserites deeply resented being made to play a role in the Game of Houses, but saw no alternative; if not for them, hardly anything would keep the nobles in check. The Houses certainly didn’t fear the Sultana the way they did the Emperor. In fact, only the ruling House of Aldarasi regarded the Guild with any real respect, and rumor was that neither the Sultana nor the local Underboss enjoyed this irony.

All of which was mildly interesting, but Trissiny didn’t much care about local politics herself. However, her entire purpose here was to discreetly gather information about where, how, and why the Imperial government in Calderaas might be holding two paladins against their will—which, of course, she didn’t dare ask about directly. So local politics it was. Fortunately that appeared to be the topic of chitchat around here; getting people she met to talk politics was even easier than giving them her coin. Unfortunately, the picture she was painting in her mind of the situation in Calderaas only added to her questions without answering them.

There scarcely was an Imperial presence in Calderaas these days, and hadn’t been since the Enchanter Wars. House Aldarasi, together with House Madouri and the Universal Church, had conspired to place the previously-obscure House Tirasian on the newly-restored Silver Throne, in a gamble to control the resurgent Empire without becoming targets themselves. Sarsamon Tirasian had capitalized on Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign to seize the reins in truth, earning the enmity of his former sponsors—with the exception of Calderaas, which was the largest target of the Enemy’s depredations. The old Sultana, rather than choking on her pride, had thrown full and unconditional support behind House Tirasian and received it in turn, a policy her heirs had kept up.

The Sultanate being one of the Silver Throne’s closest political allies, Calderaas enjoyed more autonomy than any Imperial province save Viridill. The Imperial government didn’t operate as a distinct entity here; the Sultana was the Imperial governor, and all Tiraan business was conducted from her palace, by her hand. Even the local Army garrisons were positioned in fortresses outside the city, with only a single detachment holding the Royal Palace and another the city walls.

Noon found Trissiny standing in front of the local shrine to Eserion, consisting of a pool in which coins glinted in the sun, sourly munching her cinnamon bread and coming to the conclusion that she had taken completely the wrong approach, here. Calderaas had been heavily Avenist since before the Imperial period, and the entire Aldarasi family had attended Last Rock University since it was founded. She should have showed up in full armor, riding Arjen, and requested an audience with the Sultana.

No sooner had she made up her mind to go do exactly that than someone loudly and pointedly cleared his throat behind her.

Trissiny turned, unhurried, to find herself confronted by a truly enormous man with an iron-studded cudgel hanging from his belt. Two more obvious enforcers flanked him, a man and a woman—both smaller, and wearing holstered wands. All of them, for now, kept their hands conspicuously away from their weapons.

“Well, hi there,” Trissiny said mildly. What now?

“Hello, Thorn,” the big man replied, in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice for so burly a man. “Welcome to Calderaas.”

“Thanks,” she said, putting on a polite little smile. “It seems you have me at a disadvantage…?”

“And I think we both know that’s the only advantage I’ve got here,” he said, polite but making no secret of his unhappiness. That put Trissiny on alert. True, these three posed little physical threat to her, but there was no reason they should know that, unless… “The Boss wants to talk to you. Now.”

The Boss was in Tiraas. The local ringleader’s correct title would be Underboss. Something told her that pointing that out wouldn’t make this conversation any friendlier.

“That’s the best news I’ve had all morning,” Trissiny said, deliberately smiling harder. “I would love to talk with the Boss. Please, lead on.”

“Ringer,” the big fellow said curtly, directing himself to the woman at his right. She immediately opened her mouth to protest, then closed it at receiving a furious scowl from him. Hunching her shoulders in displeasure, she slouched past Trissiny with poor grace, one hand now hovering near her wand. At the big man’s gesture, she followed the woman, and the other two fell into step behind her. The formation indicated they perceived a threat here; the posture and nervous gait of the woman in the lead suggested she half-expected to be attacked from behind at any moment.

Oh, yes, they knew who she was—that, or had been told she was something even more dangerous than a paladin. Trissiny was leaning toward the first option, since they were at least treating her with a modicum of respect. That also explained why the local Underboss would summon her; they probably wanted an explanation for her presence and intentions.

While she had been about to give up using the Guild as an angle, she hadn’t been lying that this was a very positive development. The Underboss of Calderaas would be a great help, especially if she didn’t need to play coy with them about her identity. If, of course, they were inclined to be helpful. There was a lot a hostile Guild leader could do to make her life difficult if that was their intention.

She was escorted past the shrine and to a short flight of stairs which led up to an inconspicuous door in the large structure that predominated this end of the area encircled by the Black Market. By its entrance it might have been a slightly shabby townhouse, though it was too large. Trissiny deliberately refrained from guessing what she was walking into; uninformed theorizing could fog the mind and impair actual observation, according to her Eserite teachers.

Somebody emitted a sudden, loud laugh across the street, and the woman leading the way up the stairs jumped forward, spinning to fix Trissiny with a suspicious glare. Behind her, one of the men stifled a snicker.

“I’m not going to stab you or anything,” Trissiny said gently.

That didn’t seem to improve Ringer’s mood; she narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’re funny, Thorn?”

“Uh…no,” Trissiny said honestly. “Witty banter isn’t one of my gifts. Trying it just ends with me embarrassed, usually. I literally meant I’m not going to stab you.”

“Enough, Ringer,” the big guy said quellingly. “Go on, up to the Boss.”

Muttering rebelliously, Ringer turned back around and carried on up the stairs. At the top she opened the door and ducked through quickly, leaving Trissiny to follow.

She wasn’t given much time to take in the slightly dilapidated entry hall before being ushered up another flight of stairs. This place was laid out like a tenement or office building, with a stairwell in front and halls with stained and torn carpet leading away from each landing, lined with doors. There were fairy lamps, but spaced widely enough to leave general dimness and patterns of shadow.

They escorted her up four stories, down a hall to an intersection lined on one side by windows looking out over the Market. Opposite those was a single wooden door, more ornately carved than the rest in this building, flanked by once-fine but now slightly shabby couches. Upon their arrival, the apparent leader of this little troupe finally took pity on Ringer and stepped forward to rap on the door himself.

“Yes?” The voice from within, slightly muffled, was clearly feminine.

“It’s me, Boss,” he said. “Thorn’s here.”

“Well, send her in, send her in!”

He turned the latch and pushed it open, then stepped aside, nodding to her.

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, then deliberately nodded to Ringer, too. This earned her only a suspicious glare. With a soft sigh, she passed through the door.

“Be a dear and kick that shut, would you?” said the apparent Underboss of the Calderaan Guild, standing with her back to Trissiny. “No sense carrying on private business out in front of everybody.”

Rather than kicking it, Trissiny carefully pushed the door shut, while studying her new environs. It was an office, oval in shape with the entrance at a narrow end; there was a desk at the far side, but nearer at hand an arrangement of low couches, end tables, and comfortable chairs which seemed to encourage casual gathering. The walls were totally lined with bookshelves, all well-laden with a substantial library, and from the apex of the domed ceiling hung a chandelier which bristled with small fairy lamps in crystal settings. It more resembled a rich person’s private study than a thief’s office.

“Welcome to my little lair,” said the Boss, turning around and offering Trissiny both a smile and a glass of what she had just finished pouring. “I am Cardassa Araadia, but you can call me Velvet. Here, I know it’s a little early in the day, but I think you’ll enjoy this. It’s an elven vintage—hard to come by, but lighter and sweeter than most domestic wines.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Trissiny said carefully, “but I don’t drink.”

Velvet hesitated in the act of extending the glass of pinkish wine to her, then sighed softly. “Ah. Of course you don’t. Well, live and learn, I suppose.” Setting the glass on the desk behind her, she took a sip from the other one she had poured. She was a surprisingly diminutive woman, no more than shoulder-high on Trissiny, with hair as much salt as pepper but a face showing only the faintest lines around her eyes. Her clothing was clearly tailored, and not only because it was cut to flatter her figure; she had commissioned what would be considered a men’s suit had it not been made of colorfully embroidered silk like a noblewoman’s gown.

“Any relation to House Araadia?” Trissiny asked quickly, as much to steer attention away from her refusal of the drink as because she cared.

“Not that they’ll acknowledge it any longer, but yes,” Velvet said with a mischievous little smile. “I’m not actually disowned, either. Local aristocrats try not to provoke us too directly—right up until they do. In fact, there’s a veritable river of noble blood flowing through the Black Market. A lot of the people who are most sick of the Houses and their bullshit were raised by some of them. I understand you were trained alongside most of the next generation of House Sakhavenid, yourself.”

Well, if she hadn’t been sure already that her identity was known here, that confirmed it.

“Acquaintances of yours?” Trissiny inquired politely, refusing to rise to the bait.

Velvet grimaced around another sip of elven wine. “Sakhavenid? Hardly. They’re a tiny backwater House from rural Mathena; my relatives would dismiss them as jumped-up farmers. That’s neither here nor there. The Thieves’ Guild isn’t a very centralized organization, for obvious reasons, but there is a degree of communication among its chapters. Things the Boss in Tiraas makes sure his Underbosses know of. For example, there are certain tags we’re told to watch for, as the person in question is one who a local boss will want to be aware of when they show up at our doorstep. You had better believe Thorn is one of those.”

“Ah,” Trissiny said with mild chagrin. “That answers my next several questions. Good to know. It would have been nice to know before now,” she added irritably. “I could have spared us both some time and come right here.”

“Now, where’s the fun in that?” Velvet’s expression did not match her playful tone, now. “I like having a little time to watch what you do before having to demand to know, in person, what the hell you’re up to in my city. Especially since you’ve been floating around my Market for the last hour, asking pointed questions about the Imperial presence in Calderaas. Whether Imperial Intelligence or the Azure Corps has a local office. Where the Empire might be keeping important prisoners. Whether there’s been friction between the government and the cults. That paints an interesting picture, Thorn. I can’t quite make it out, but I’m starting to get the impression that when I do, I am not going to be happy.” She set the wineglass down on her desk hard enough that the remaining wine sloshed over the lip.

“That was fast,” Trissiny said, impressed in spite of herself. “You’re really on top of the news here.”

“That’s why I’m in charge,” Velvet said flatly, “and I’m letting that pass because you are known to be more likely to tell someone off than flatter them. Embrace that instinct, Thorn; my ego can take a pounding, but I have a special stiletto for people who try to butter me up. What the fuck are you doing in Calderaas, and how much of a mess am I going to have to clean up when you’re done with it?”

She hesitated barely a moment before answering. “Well. As you’ve probably surmised, it’s paladin business. I am on a mission given to me by Vesk.”

Velvet did not react overtly to this news. “Are you the Hand of Vesk, now, too? You’re really branching out, girl.”

“Vesk is a troublemaker,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Alone among the gods of the Pantheon I would probably decline one of his requests. But apparently, I am the last paladin he approached with this. According to Vesk, both the Hands of Omnu and Vidius are also in Calderaas, and have fallen afoul of the Empire somehow in the process of fulfilling his quest. He claims they are being held in Imperial custody, in secret. I am here to get them out. With that done…I’ll consider whether I want to go chasing Vesk’s fairy tales. Right now I’m leaning heavily toward no.”

The Underboss narrowed her eyes. “That’s the daffiest pack of lies I’ve ever heard. The Empire, holding paladins against their will? Omnu may be an old softy, but Vidius would personally kick down the Emperor’s door.”

“You see my problem,” Trissiny replied, nodding. “On the one hand, I have no less than a god telling me this; it’s not as if I can just brush him off. On the other…this is crazy nonsense. Something is going on here, and the only thing I can be sure of is that I haven’t been accurately told what. Hence my discreet approach, and attempt to gather information via the Guild before acting. Something’s seriously fishy about all of this. It’s not a situation in which I want to charge around swinging my sword.”

“Well, praise whichever of the old bastards is listening that you have that much restraint,” Velvet muttered. “This’ll teach me to complain about the nobles; I do not need the fucking gods playing checkers with my city as a game board. All right, let’s back up. What exactly did Vesk want you—”

A sharp knock came at the door, and Velvet broke off, her nostrils flaring in irritation. “I hope this is very important,” she called.

The door opened slightly, and the large man who had been sent to collect Trissiny leaned his head in. “Uh, I dunno about important, Boss, but… It seemed pretty relevant to your current business. We’ve got a couple guys out here who were trying to break into the place.”

Very slowly, Velvet blinked her eyes, twice. “…I’m sorry, Rooter, I seem to have gone momentarily deaf. Or perhaps insane. I could’ve sworn you just told me that somebody was trying to break in to the headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Uh, yeah, Boss. That’s why I thought you’d wanna know. I can knock heads on the street just fine, but what-the-fuck weirdness is your department.”

The Underboss rubbed her eyes with both fists. “Just who are these assholes? Please tell me they’re not Guild.”

“Never saw ’em before.”

Velvet looked accusingly at Trissiny. “Second piece of impossibility I’ve heard in the last two minutes. Are you going to pitch this to me as a coincidence?”

“Hey, I came here alone,” Trissiny said, holding up her hands. “I don’t know of anybody who’d—” She broke off suddenly, eyes widening.

“Yep, I know that look,” Velvet said grimly. “There’s somebody suddenly realizing how they screwed up. Spit it out, Thorn.”

“Um.” Trissiny turned to address Rooter, whose face was still peeking in around the door. “Is one of these guys a skinny blonde fellow with glasses, accompanied by a fire elemental shaped like a rat?”

“Huh?” He frowned at her. “Hell, no, they’re just a couple of galoots, look like factory workers. If there was magic involved that’d’ve been the first thing I said.”

“Well, all right then,” she said with relief, turning back to Velvet. “They’re not mine.”

“Actually, they are,” Rooter said.

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. Velvet just rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, they say they came here to rescue you.”

“Nobody who knows who I am would think I need rescuing,” she snapped. “Especially from the Guild!”

“All right, this is just a waste of time, now,” Velvet said curtly, striding forward. She brushed past Trissiny and yanked the door open, causing Rooter to beat a hasty retreat out of the doorway. “Spit it out! Who the fuck do you think you are and what’s broken in your head that made you think sneaking in here was a good idea?”

“Ain’t tellin’ you shit!” a man’s voice squalled from the corridor outside, immediately followed by a thump, a yelp of pain, and the sound of an abortive scuffle.

Trissiny slipped out and carefully squeezed around Velvet, studying the scene. Ringer and the other enforcer were present, standing guard over two young men who were kneeling in the middle of the hall with their hands bound behind them. Both were, as Rooter had said, dressed rather like factory laborers, in denim overalls over flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and mud-stained boots. One wore a battered cowboy hat; the other, who had apparently just been struck, was currently bare-headed, but a similar hat lay on the floor a few feet away.

“There you are!” the one not currently recovering from having his head smacked exclaimed. “It’s okay, miss, we was sent here to rescue you!”

“Well?” Velvet drawled, folding her arms and shooting Trissiny a look. “Care to bring me up to speed?”

“I have no idea who these are,” Trissiny said honestly, staring at the two in puzzlement.

“Then this is all pointless,” Velvet said dismissively. “Take these two losers outside, beat ’em purple and throw them in the canal. If you ever see either of them in the Market again, break their arms.”

“WAIT!” squawked the hatless man, straightening up with some apparent difficulty. “Waitwaitwait just a sec! Ma’am, you gotta remember us! It was two years ago, we met in the Rail station!”

Trissiny suddenly squinted, taking a step forward to peer more closely at him. “…hang on.”

Velvet held up a hand to forestall Ringer, who had clearly been about to follow her orders.

“Actually,” Trissiny said slowly, “…yes. I do recognize you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the other man said, nodding frantically. “I’m Ezekiel, an’ this here’s my brother Jebediah—”

“Jenkins,” she finished.

“Yes!” Jebediah crowed, then elbowed his brother as best he could with his arms tied. “See! I told you it was her! Didn’t I tell you?”

“Boy, you have got to learn when not to run your mouth,” Ezekiel muttered. “Always, is when, just so’s ya know.”

“So,” Velvet said with mounting impatience, “I take it you don’t want these two roughed up?”

“Oh, on the contrary,” Trissiny said flatly. “Rooter, may I borrow your cudgel?”

 

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