Twenty-three years ago…

The runes on the manager’s door seethed as Sienna approached, the complex wards runed into the scrollwork around the doorframe visible to her even through a top-notch masking effort. Not that anyone who reached this door without authorization wouldn’t have been dead six layers of security ago. But the man in the office had a reputation for discretion, in a Guild already famous for their secrecy.

When the runes recognized her as an authorized Guild member, they went dark again, fading to quiescence by the time she raised her hand to knock on the door.

“Enter.”

The Manager of Special Finances, Bastia Branch kept a spartan office, compared against the rest of the Merchant’s Guild.  It held only a plain writing desk, some unremarkable guest chairs, some ledgers, and a nondescript bookcase. Nothing openly displayed in his office carried so much as a rune or spark of enchantment.

The man himself was the focus of his office, in clothing that was all embroidered gray velvets and silks. His beetle-black eyes peered at Sienna over half-moon spectacles, with the dour dignity of a judge.

“You sent for me, sir,” Sienna said, careful to keep any hint of a question out of her voice. Not a question. It’s a fact, and he expects it to be stated as such. Be as precise as possible. Give him no reason to ever doubt a word that leaves your lips or pen, and you’ll have a long and satisfying career.

“I did, Consul. Sit.” Folding his hands on his desk, he regarded Sienna with a long, measuring stare.  “You’ve settled in well this past year, Consul. Your supervisor has no complaints, your conduct has been satisfactory, and as of this morning, you’ve been cleared for solo fieldwork.” His eyebrows rose a fraction as he leaned back in his chair. “And as it happens, there’s fieldwork for you to do.”

He opened a drawer, and extracted a thin folder, and slid it across his desk towards her. She noted he was careful not to put his fingertips anywhere but the edge of the folder. “The details are in here.”

Sienna reached forward, and halted as the ward on the seal, not keyed to her, came to life with the sort of dull red glow. The pattern twisted and blurred in front of her eyes, and the pulsing red light of the rune made Sienna certain if she were to ignore it, the folder would be burned in a heartbeat, along with her fingertips. If she was extraordinarily lucky, that would be where her injuries ended. She glanced up at her manager, to find only his bland, incurious stare.

Sienna pursed her lips. So this is how it is, then. Cleared for fieldwork, and still being tested. Very well, sir.

The rune was a relatively simple one, once past the web of obfuscation that was drilled into any Guild mage until it became reflex. A randomized pattern of conjured Air and Light disguised the actual mechanisms of the rune. Breaking the circuit would trigger the defenses, but with some fine probing she discovered that stretching the distortions out of the way was allowed. Underneath was nothing more than a simple fire rune, powerful enough to ensure she’d have spent a day in the infirmary.

With a few small gestures over the spine of the folder, the remaining flows parted like a blooming flower, draining away into motes too faint to be seen by normal vision.

The manager nodded once, and as Sienna picked up the folder, he began his briefing.  “Two days ago, the Imperial Army suffered a theft of four crates of seeker bolts. They did not disappear in transit, but from the Army’s depot in Colline-Rouge.”

“Sir?” Sienna ventured. “That sounds like an internal affair for the Imperial Army. How does this pertain to the Guild?” There was a flicker of disappointment in the manager’s eyes, giving her the sinking feeling that she’d made her first misstep.

“By itself, the theft would have almost nothing to do with the Guild, Consul. The serial numbers for the ammunition were forwarded to the Guild for general distribution. Part of the routine arms control procedures for stolen military goods. Yesterday, a Guild caravan was attacked by bandits, an hour outside of Heisui. Six seeker bolts were pulled from the wagon and corpses. Their serial numbers matched those reported stolen in Colline-Rouge.”

“I see,” Sienna said, as a slow chill rolled down her spine. Stolen military arms transported to a different continent within 24 hours. They couldn’t have gotten that far, unless they were teleported.  Someone’s cracked the secret, again. “The arrows were verified Imperial issue?”

“Yes,” the man said. “You will rendezvous with your Army special liaison in Colline-Rouge, and the two of you will find what traces you can. Then, you’ll go to the Guild offices in Shiroi Hana and proceed from there. Ambassador Soreille has been called upon by the governor of Heisui to explain the use of Imperial military-issue weapons by bandits. You will report your non-sensitive findings to the ambassador.”

Her manager opened another drawer, and laid a small octagonal tile on the desk. The uncharged runes at its center were ominous in their simplicity. “I expect you know what this is for, Consul.”

Sienna nodded, carefully. “I’m to locate their means of transport. Charge, and activate it, sir. I’ll have ten minutes to get to safe distance.”

“You have all the makings of a competent field agent for Special Finances, Consul Sienna,” her manager said, his eyes locking to hers. “If you need more than ten minutes, it would be a tragic waste of the Guild’s investment in you.”

My training, room, board, outfitting? Nearly ten thousand peaks in cost. All turned to glass along with most of the surroundings if I’m not at minimum safe distance, Sienna thought.

“I’ll not give the Guild cause to regret my selection, sir,” she said.

“See that you don’t,” the manager said, and returned his attention to his ledger. Knowing a dismissal, Sienna saw herself out.

***

The ammunition depot at Colline-Rouge was less impressive than most Imperial fortress-towns. The bulk of the staff were engineers and maintenance personnel, with a platoon of infantry on guard duty. The support town that survived off the soldiers’ leave was three kilometers away, owing to the need for the Army to safeguard its equipment. All of which cemented Sienna’s suspicions that Colline-Rouge was rarely an exciting posting.

The lean, grinning officer that met her at the airship mooring elevator, however, seemed anything but bored. He had the look of the sort of spoiled noble’s brat with more leisure than sense. The Goldbrace crest on his collar caught the waning afternoon sun as he dipped a courtly bow.

“Ah, Consul!” he said, his voice fairly dripping with cool insincerity despite his merry expression. “I cannot tell you how pleased I am to be working with the Merchant’s Guild.”

“Can’t you?” Sienna answered, unable to keep a note of asperity out of her voice.

The noble raised his head, all wide-eyed innocence. “As classified as this investigation is?  How could I?”

Sienna managed not to scowl at the nobleman’s joke. “You’re my special Liaison, my Lord?” Despite her urge to snap at the man, his nobility forced her to remember her proper address. We’re partners in this investigation, and the Guild doesn’t owe allegiance to any one nation. But as long as we’re on the Emperor’s land, an Imperial noble can pull more local strings than I can.  Also the Army might take it amiss if I smothered one of their officers for talking about this in public.

“Specialist Lieutenant Lord Corbin Goldbrace, Third Imperial Brigade, Drake Company, at your service. For values of ‘service,’ anyway. And you would be?”

“Consul Sienna, my Lord.”

“That’s all? I would have thought someone with the rank of Consul would have more titles to share with me.”

“The Guild tends to be less concerned with ceremony than results, my Lord.”

“Well that’s dull,” Corbin said with a snort. “How would you know when you’re supposed to be impressed by someone, if you’re not tripping over their name as they pass by?”

“You wait for them to do something impressive,” Sienna replied, a small line forming between her eyebrows. She wasn’t easily nettled, but the man’s breezy insouciance to the severity of the situation was affecting her. “You’re less likely to be wrong that way, my Lord.”

Corbin’s regarded Sienna sidelong, eyebrow raising. “I think I may like you after all, Consul.”

“I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear that, my Lord,” Sienna said, half a heartbeat before she regretted the insolence.

To her relief, his only reaction was a bark of laughter, and silence until the elevator settled to the ground. Gesturing for her to follow, he set off for the depot at a brisk walk. “I’ll have you know the local Captain is rather out of sorts,” he said in a low voice. “Less about the seeker bolts. They may be valuable ammunition, but four crates is a drop in the Army’s bucket. But the idea of smugglers under his command, able to get past the wards and vanish unseen with such a heavy load, well, it’s an embarrassment. The sort of embarrassment that destroys a man’s career.”

“Understood, Lord Goldbrace. I take it the Captain is a particularly career-minded man.”

“Wise, beautiful, and clever,” Corbin mused, tipping Sienna a wink. “I think I’m going to enjoy our time together!”

How lovely, Sienna thought, breathing slowly and pushing her emotions beneath the surface. I’m here to neutralize a threat not only to the Guild’s exclusive magical services, but also the security of every nation and their interests. Lives are depending on our competence, and he’s here for the novelty.

“Before we go in,” Corbin said, pulling up short at the door to the armory. “You should know, the Imperial Army is less than happy with hosting a Guild representative in our weapons storage. I’m sure you understand. Do keep in mind that while you’re being allowed to enter, and have a look about?  Nothing inside will react well to you touching it, or inspecting their runes. So as a favor for us both, do try to avoid that?  You’ll thank me later.”

As if you and your Army knew the slightest thing about proper rune security, Lord Goldbrace. I’ll thank you not to treat me like a too-curious child, Sienna thought, and arranged her expression into a smile. “Of course, my Lord. Thank you in advance.”

The warehouse was much like any other security-minded warehouse Sienna had ever found herself in. The only difference here was every crate was girded in a warded steel belt, constrained flows of trap runes writhing against their cages.

Guild runes would be all but impossible to decipher, Sienna thought, as she eyed the crates. Part of the mystique of the Guild’s security is not knowing what will happen to you is its own deterrent.  The Army seems to like it better that people know exactly what will happen, and how many bits you can expect to be in after. Point this side of rune towards enemy.

Corbin led her toward the scene of the theft. As they rounded a corner, Sienna found a trio of soldiers, two expressionless infantry flanking a seething, florid-faced man in a slightly fancier version of Corbin’s uniform.  “What is this woman doing here, Lieutenant?”

Sienna narrowed her eyes, disliking all of the implications that followed along behind the officer’s choice of words. Why is the ranking Captain asking what I’m doing here? This is a cleared operation, above-board. Isn’t it?

Before she could speak up, Corbin smoothly stepped in front of her, his grin widening.  “Captain Deveraux, what a pleasure it is to see you again—”

“You just saw me yesterday, you superci—”

“—and I know you’re a busy man,” Corbin said, as if the Captain hadn’t spoken. “Which is why General Vaquelin has asked me to take over investigating this little matter. Consul Sienna here is a special liaison with the Merchant Guild, and she’s here at the General’s request.”  

Grinning, Corbin waved his hand in Sienna’s direction, who merely nodded once, holding her peace.  “Rest assured, Captain, this matter is well in hand. The General wants nothing more than for you to get back to your regular course of duty, forthwith.”

“Lieutena—”

“Forthwith!”

“Lieutenant Goldbrace, shut up or I will see to it that you are drummed out of this post! Then expelled from the Empire’s service by cannon!” The Captain’s face had nearly gone purple, and green and yellow motes of wild magic danced from his nose with each gusting breath.

At this, Corbin’s grin only widened, his voice dropping to a low, silky murmur. “Then I wish you joy of explaining that to Mother at the next gathering, dear cousin.  All joking aside, the investigation is already properly underway. So long as you let us do our duty, there’s no reason to believe this will come down anywhere near your head, Captain. We’ll have it taken care of. It’s out of your hands and off of your head.”

Captain Devereaux subsided, slightly.  “See that you will, Lieutenant, and then get the hell out of my depot.” With a sharp gesture, he stalked out of the aisle, leaving the infantrymen to take up positions by the main walk, out of their way.

Sienna glanced sidelong at Corbin.  “Not to pry, m’lord—”

“Oh, I love when people say that,” Corbin murmured.

“—but I thought the Army rather frowned on insubordination?”

“Ordinarily? Indeed, and I rather think anyone else who tried to talk to him that way would deserve every last thing that happens to him.” Chuckling, Corbin turned, approaching the empty space where four crates full of runed crossbow bolts should have sat. “But occasionally, the flow of House politics allows a certain, hm.” The lord rolled his hand, searching for the proper word. “Flexibility, you could say, in the rules of decorum. I won’t bore you with the details. But I never can ignore an opportunity to enjoy myself at the expense of my kin and you’re not even listening anymore, are you.”

Sienna had already circled around Corbin, crouching down and peering at the faint discoloration of the stone, in the empty space.  “Hm?  Sorry, my Lord.  Results, remember?  Come look at these markings, here.”  Edging over, Sienna made room for Corbin to join her, careful not to brush against the warded crate near her knee. “That blotch, there. It doesn’t look like the rest of the stone. It’s been discolored. A little bit of fine surface melt.”

Corbin dropped down next to Sienna, nose wrinkling almost immediately. “Consul, that is certainly the stink of old magic. Rather irritating, too.  Like summer lightning, dirty snow, and burnt onion and gunpowder.  Not the most appealing bouquet, but I’ve drunk worse.”

“As you say, my Lord,” Sienna said.  “Any chance you could see if you still smell it further down the aisle?”

“If you insist,” Corbin said. He rose back to his feet and walked down the aisle, taking an experimental sniff here and there.  “No, nothing that I can tell.”

“And the other side?”

Corbin trotted to the other end of the aisle, once more taking a few sniffs. “Only the smell of a terrible card player,” he said, clapping the shoulder of one of the infantrymen.  “But nothing like before.”

That settles it, Sienna thought, rising to her feet and brushing off her knees. Confirmation is about all we’re likely to get, but they do seem to have a working Sending rune. Crude, if there’s thaumic leakage scoring the floor, but they calculated their arrival with precision. “I’ve seen what I need to, my Lord. Let’s take our leave.”

“Where ever to, Consul?”

“To the Guild office in town,” Sienna said, doing her best not to roll her eyes. “We’ve contacts to question on the other side of a Gate.”

She waited until they were out of the depot, and mounted up on horses for the ride into town, to pick at her trail of thought. “If I may ask, Lord Goldbrace, why did you really needle the Captain?”

“Simple,” Corbin said, waving a hand, but lowering his voice to keep it from carrying. “I’ve known him some time, and when he’s in that mood? He tends toward sitting in the road and not budging like a mule throwing a tantrum. That’s why I said it was best to let me deal with him. With you he’d have tried to bully and bluster and barely let you get three words in edgewise, and that’s not conducive to our work. So I gave his temper a more tempting target.”

Sienna frowned. “And all the rest you’d said, about family politics?”

“Also true, and quite handy when I want to keep my skin intact after some gross insubordination.”

***

The Guild halls differed little from town to town. Striding toward the Colline-Rouge hall, Sienna was faintly surprised to find Corbin dropping back, taking up a position a pace behind her right hand. Setting himself up as my protector, she thought, faintly pleased. Trust a noble to have a firm grasp of decorum, at least.

As they approached the desk, Sienna slipped a small badge out of her sleeve, tilting her hand to show it to the clerk at the front desk with a smile.  “We’d like the use of the secure room, please, and arrangements made to travel to Shiroi Hana, Hanshu. The Bastia branch will have cleared us.”

The clerk’s eyes widened at the badge, but his composure returned before Sienna had replaced it in her sleeve. Special Finances was not to be trifled with, after all. “Certainly, Consul. It’ll be half an hour before confirmation is complete, and Room Ten is open and ready.”

“That was refreshing,” Corbin murmured behind her ear as they passed the desk to the main hall. “I’d assumed we’d be dickering about for the next few hours, Consul. I can’t recall any business I’ve had with the Guild running so expeditiously.”

“Results, my Lord,” Sienna replied, allowing herself a small smile as they came to a halt in front of a heavy iron-bound oak door, the metal finely etched with inactive runes.  “Here we are.  After you?” she said, pushing the door open and sweeping a hand within.

“How gallant,” Corbin said, ambling into the small room.

“Security procedures, my Lord,” Sienna corrected, stepping in and pushing the door closed, blowing a soft puff laden with Air and Ice flows over the topmost binding. The runes flared alight, subtle forces pulling on the metal latch and locking the door tight. To Sienna’s eyes, the room became wrapped in a shell of wards set to muffle sounds, blind scrying attempts, and more. “There. Now we can talk freely.”

“How clever,” Corbin noted dryly, fishing a handkerchief from his sleeve and pressing it to his nose. “I wasn’t aware there was much to discuss, Consul.”

“For values of ‘discuss,’ my Lord. Welcome to your briefing. Your weapons smugglers have obtained their stolen weapons through teleportation magic. Which is a great deal more serious a situation than you seem to be aware.”  

Crossing her arms, Sienna began to pace, counting her steps in the small room to help keep a handle on her growing irritation. “The Guild understands that every power around the world wants the power to teleport. But they want to deny that ability to their enemies more than they want it for themselves. Because they correctly assume the first thing their enemies would do with it is attack them in ways that would be impossible to defend against.”

“Wise thinking all around, then,” Corbin said. His tone was as serious as he seemed able to be, but his grin widened just a bit.

Sienna closed her eyes tightly, feeling the beginnings of a headache in her temple.  “This is why the Guild’s existence and tariffs are tolerated, m’Lord. We hold the keys to armageddon in escrow. Therefore, the Guild has a responsibility to see to it that nobody else learns this secret. Can you imagine what would happen if these smugglers got it in their heads to think larger than simply peddling seeker bolts to bandits and mercenaries?”

“Oh, I’m quite sure I don’t have to,” Corbin answered, leaning against the wall.  “It seems that you’d be more than happy to spell it out for me. Do go on.”

Sienna stopped her pacing, snarled at the grinning Lord. “Will you please take this seriously? The last thing the Empire needs is to find its throat cut by Hanshu while it’s looking to the Thousand Kingdoms!”

“The possibility had occurred to me, Consul,” Corbin said, his smile shrinking as his gaze flattened.  “As well as the possibility that one of the Thousand Kingdoms might be trying to take the secret for themselves.  Which would lead to a fine and bloody end to the war, and Bastia forced to try and repel invaders from all sides. Or simply litter the city with all manner of horrid weapons. Or any number of other rather apocalyptic outcomes.” By now, his grin had faded to a bare crook at one side of his mouth. “More to the point, these things occurred to me the moment I was sent to the depot to meet you.”

He had the satisfaction of Sienna’s expression slipping into poleaxed surprised. “They had?”

“The swift arrival of a Consul in response to a low-key theft of army materials, and coming in person instead of simply sending for us? The Guild doesn’t just do that. We both know the Guild guards its secrets like a dragon guards its eggs. Couple that with a theft of four crates of seeker bolts that not a single guard witnessed or reported occurring? With nobody in or out of the security cordon? The conclusion was obvious. The moment I first spoke to you, I knew what it could mean that we’d be instructed to work together.” His grin returned, his expression slipping back to that of the bored, amused young noble. “I am much more than a pretty face, my dear Consul.”

Sienna folded her arms. “Are you done?”

“Almost,” allowed Corbin. “Now that we’re somewhere secure, let’s talk about politics for a moment, if you don’t mind. I’ve been tapped for this assignment, which means that someone in my command chain sees a political concern in this affair. Between you and I and the wards on the walls, we both know damn well the Guild isn’t the only group with the capability for teleportation magic. If it was that difficult to do, mysterious fires wouldn’t occasionally occur, and the Guild wouldn’t be smiling like the cat that caught the canary every time it happens. So it can be safely presumed that the Guild is not the only power who can work a Sending.”

Sienna’s blood ran to ice. “Speak very carefully on this topic, m’lord. And never outside warded walls.”

He knuckled his brow in a show of mock obedience. “Of course, Consul. It’s a matter of consequences. Like you said; the first thing that happens with a tool of war that powerful is, if you use it, your enemies may use it too. And using a Sending to steal Imperial war material is a provocation so enormous, and stupid, that doing so is both wasteful and suicidal. Four crates of seeker bolts isn’t worth going to war for. Much less for the escalation and proliferation of war that the use of teleportation magic and Sending would result in.”

Sienna sat down across the table from Corbin, and spread her hands. “I won’t go into specifics that you may not be cleared for, Lord Goldbrace. But there are agreements in place by those who tender the services of the Guild, at the highest levels, concerning the proliferation and use of that magic and weaponized uses. Sober minds recognize they would rather have the worst excesses of war held by an apolitical, neutral party.”

Corbin arched an eyebrow. “But of course, not everybody gets the memo, do they?”

“Oh, they do,” said Sienna lightly. “Eventually. We have systems in place.”

“You knew about the theft before we did, didn’t you? Because of their use of teleportation. You’ve got a system in place to find them.”

“I couldn’t possibly comment,” Sienna said coolly.

Corbin’s nostrils flared. “By the smell of your breath, Consul, you’re speaking literally. You couldn’t possibly comment. Well, that’s rich.”

She refused to give him the satisfaction of covering her mouth self-consciously. He’s a Spellhound. He can smell the wards on me. Great, now not only do I have to be careful about what I say, but what I don’t say, she thought.

“Keep your nose out of my business, Corbin Goldbrace!” she snapped. “There are secrets in play that are worth more than your life.”

He leaned back in his chair, and smiled at her. “I know,” he said. “And they’re worth more than yours, too. My sincere apologies, Consul. I can’t help what my nose knows.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “There are things I will not tell you, Lord Goldbrace, and there are things I cannot tell you. The less you can distinguish between those two categories, the safer and happier we both shall be. Am I clear?”

It was his turn to narrow his eyes. “Crystal clear, Consul. I’ll speak hypothetically for the comfort of your wards and geases: If a power with the capacity for teleportation and Sending absolutely needed to exercise that power? They would want to choose a way that doesn’t result in terrible war and agreements broken.”

“Of course.”

“So I would expect that they would encourage an arm’s-length group to pursue their interests, in their stead. This group would have to be entirely deniable, and would be disavowed entirely if discovered. Ideally, they should be handled in a way that could never plausibly lead back to their minders in question.”

Sienna’s tongue twisted twice in her mouth, and so she only fractionally nodded. It took some internal negotiation with the enchantments that bound her, to say: “A very interesting hypothesis, Lord Goldbrace.”

He held up a finger. “So. Hypothetically, if that arm’s-length group were to use a Sending, accomplish the goal of their minder, and then be glassed from the face of the earth by the Guild’s terrible retribution? Everyone would be happy. Except the poor bastards who were caught in the mysterious fires, of course.”

“I believe you underestimate the Guild’s capacity for investigation and retribution, my Lord,” Sienna said. “The Guild isn’t here to sweep up after other people’s messes.”

“No, they’re not, but in the balance of global politics, some costs must be borne. Of course, in this case, this isn’t one of those arms-length groups that stole my Emperor’s seeker bolts, now is it?”

“Probably not,” Sienna said. Some of the rigid tension that had crept into her body relaxed. He’s been watching me from across this table the entire time, she realized. Some part of her felt a little flattered by his attention. The rest felt unease. He’s barely let the tension in his body change through all of this. He’s not giving much away.

Forcing herself to relax into her chair, she met his stare evenly, and said: “There was certainly some bit of inside work, and some low-level guardsman in your army was paid or duped into helping. But this is the work of criminals. Short-sighted, ignorant to the consequences of their actions. They knew what they were stealing, but what they were stealing was small arms.”

“Of the sorts more useful to raiders and mercenaries than military forces,” agreed Corbin. “There’s far more dangerous and destructive choices to be found in a depot. So. We’re dealing with a criminal enterprise that’s smart enough to move their stolen goods to a different continent overnight. Yet not smart enough not to use those stolen goods for a while. And ignorant of the roof that’s about to fall down around their ears.”

“Almost certainly, Lord Goldbrace. And it is critically important that you communicate that to the governor and ambassador, when we visit them tonight. You’ve got military weapons stuck in dead civilians, brought to Hanshu’s shores by Sending. As of now? The reason you’re accompanying me is to ensure that the consequences of this crime don’t become political. And that they don’t spread beyond the need-to-know.”

Corbin let his chin rest across the back of his hand, and smiled at her. “And, besides accompanying me to the Ambassador’s residence, what is it you’ll be doing?”

She laid the little octagonal rune down on the table between them. “Burning the problem out at its root.”


 

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Click here to read Chapter 8.0 – Verdict