Twenty-three years ago…
“Honestly,” Corbin sighed as they stepped through the Sending Gate, “as much work as goes into a Sending, you’d think your Guild could do something about the smell.” A well-manicured hand rose to press against his belly, the complaint made hollow by his undiminished grin. “Really, would it be too much trouble to cover the whole thing in a hint of lavender? Incense, even.”
“Yes, m’Lord,” Sienna said, stepping off the dais and dipping her head to the Guild mage standing on station. “In fact it would, as delicate and complicated as the flo–”
“Moving on,” Sienna snapped, striding quickly across the plaza, towards the street. A brief glance over her shoulder told her that not only was the infuriating noble not having difficulty keeping up, but that he was waiting for her to look back. Sienna squared her shoulders. “I hope, m’lord, that you’ve learned the local language?”
“The bits that matter most, at least,” Corbin replied. “I assure you I’ll not be embarrassing us both in front of the Governor.”
“I will hold you to that, my Lord,” Sienna said.
A small airship, no bigger than a carriage, hung inches from the ground before the Sending Gate’s plaza. Sienna strode toward it without hesitation. Two words barked in the native tongue, and a gesture of her badge, and the pilot let them board.
“Oh my, I’ve never been whisked off by a fair lady on an airship before. I didn’t take you for a romantic, Consul.”
“You’re cheaper to bill the ride as ballast than to hire you a carriage.”
That sent a sharp laugh through Corbin, and he leaned over on her side of the cabin, to stare over the side with her. The city of Shiroi Hana spread out beneath them. Pagodas reached for the heavens, the green and black of rice paddies stretched past the moat and walls of the city. A silver strip of river wound through the city towards the coast, the western horizon dominated by the setting sun and ocean.
She pointed to a walled compound ahead of the bow of the airship. “There. Governor Yilo’s compound.”
“There,” replied Corbin, pointing to the coastline. “Warehouses, all over that district. Ten gold peaks says that’s where our goods landed.”
“Not a bet I’d take,” admitted Sienna. “What’s your reasoning, m’Lord?”
“Isolation, mostly. You can put anything in the middle of a warehouse, and dampen the arcane with runes enough to keep eyes and ears from knowing what you’re up to. And most smugglers and honest importers alike keep some basic dampening security up to discourage thieves. And if anyone waltzes out of a warehouse with a pallet of something to load on a mule or automaton, well, nobody would ever think twice.”
“That’s my thought as well, but I won’t know until I rendezvous with local resources. Which should happen at the Governor’s house.” Sienna clicked her tongue against her teeth. “We’ll have to dress appropriately for the evening. It’s the seventh moon, tonight. Auspicious, and a local holiday. There’ll no doubt be a party at the Governor’s.”
“And here I brought only my fourth fanciest pair of trousers,” Corbin said with a moue. “I may have to compensate if you’ve any fancy blouses in my size.”
Sienna snorted and looked away, but not before Corbin’s finger had pointed to her face, having caught the start of a smile.
“Oh, can’t you be serious for one minute, Lord Goldbrace? Given what’s at stake?”
“I surely can,” he said. “But I would rather not be so grim as the fates I face. You’re a Consul for Special Finances. I am a special liaison for the Imperial Army, of the sort that gets assigned to such dreadfully dire, sensitive matters as these. Are your days not usually filled with adventures this grim and paperwork so dull?”
He doesn’t realize this is my first assignment, Sienna thought. And then stifled her irritation at the realization that the thought pleased her. First or thousandth, I get the results the Guild expects of me.
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” she said.
“Well, I can,” Corbin said. “If a man must face what’s to come in only his fourth fanciest pair of trousers and a stolen blouse, he ought to try to smile about it.”
“You’re ridiculous! You will not steal one of my blouses, Lord Goldbrace,” Sienna said, before clamping down around a threatening smile.
“Very well, Consul,” Corbin sighed, placing a hand over his heart and closing his eyes. “Out of the deepest respect for a Consul of the Guild, and upon the honor of House Goldbrace, I swear I will not steal your clothes.” One eye cracked open. “…But surely I could rent one?”
The question caught Sienna off-guard, startling a whoop of genuine laughter out of her. Corbin chuckled along, pleased with his successful joke, then cleared his throat. “You see, Consul? If we’re to face such a grim crisis together, I’d much rather face it smiling with you.”
“Is this the part where I’m to swoon at your feet, my Lord Goldbrace?” Sienna asked, amusement coloring her voice. “You’ll find I’m not so easily charmed as your court Ladies.”
“Very true,” Corbin chuckled, leaning against the airship’s railing. “You’re interesting.”
Sienna cast him a frosty glance. “You’ll have to try much harder than that, Corbin Goldbrace.”
“Duly noted,” he replied with a grin.
The Governor’s party was held in the largest building of the compound, an opulent ballroom meant to impress visitors with its warm grandeur. The floors were dark polished wood, the walls lacquered crimson and inlaid with brass in large geometric patterns. Ornamental pots in autumn colors stood on low pedestals every couple of meters, shining under warm yellow mage-lights.
Half the cost of the compound had to have been sunk into this room, Sienna noted as she stepped onto the floor. No doubt this is where the Governor conducts all his public business, so the discerning can approve of his taste, and the common folk can be awed. Thinking back to her cultural training, Sienna mentally slipped into the frame of mind best suited for business in Hanshu. Never be direct if you can possibly help it. Approach everything from the outside circling in. Make a formal dance of compliments, regrets, and solicitude. Hope to the Saints that Corbin knows what he’s doing, and can keep his mouth shut.
The Lord Goldbrace had refrained from rifling through her clothing for something suitable. Instead, he had sought out the nearest tailor to their landing point, and exchanged his Army garb for something more locally fashionable. Most Imperial men would probably balk at wearing a bathrobe and skirt, Sienna thought, a smile tugging at her lips as she glanced at the man at her elbow. Trust a capering jester like him to throw on the local costume when the opportunity presents.
He’d paid the premium for rushed work without comment, and to handsome effect. The jacket and skirt were the precise shade of crimson found on the Goldbrace family crest. The sash and undershirt were a honey yellow that came close enough to resemble gold that the family’s honor would be satisfied. A brooch pinned to the right side of his jacket displayed the Goldbrace coat of arms.
A round-faced Imperial woman with blond hair done up in intricate braids separated from a nearby conversation, approaching them with open arms. “My Lord, Consul, I’m so glad you could come.” Taking Sienna’s hands, the woman leaned forward to kiss the air by each of the Consul’s cheeks. “I’m Ambassador LaFontaine,” she murmured, “and I’ve been briefed. The Governor’s waiting for you.”
“You’ve read him in on the situation then, Ambassador?” Sienna asked.
“You’re the neutral party,” LaFontaine replied, shaking her head. “You’ll be taking point. I’m just here to vet the Lord Goldbrace’s credentials, and smooth things over after the dust settles.” Her eyes moved past the pair, resting on an approaching man in intricately detailed blue and violet robes. “And there’s the Governor now,” she said, stepping back.
Governor Yilo was a thin, spider-like man, with a wide mouth that curled up in a gracious smile as he approached them. “What a unique surprise,” he said in his native tongue, speaking quickly. “Rare is the night when the Western Empire crosses my door, and on such a portentous evening. And of course we are always pleased to welcome the House of Coin, honored merchant, may your coffers never empty.” Arms upraised, the skinny man bowed deeply at the waist.
Clever, Sienna thought, now if something untoward happens, everyone here has seen and heard the Governor welcome an Imperial with open arms. So any trouble is certain to become the sort of international incident that Hanshu is sure to get leverage from. In answer, Sienna placed her palms together at heart-height, bowing just a bit more deeply than the Governor. Left hand down, right hand up. We bring no duplicity with us, but do bring friendship and courtesy. And place the master of the house above us in station.
Corbin’s eyes flickered briefly, eyebrows pulling together for a moment. He wasn’t joking when he said he wasn’t fluent, Sienna thought, sighing inwardly. When the Lord bowed, however, he made sure to copy Sienna’s hands, and dropped the angle of his bow a fraction further than Sienna’s. But he is smart enough to keep himself the subordinate, here. Good.
“We’re grateful beyond words to be welcomed to your celebration, Governor Yilo, son of the Jade Lion.” Sienna’s smile quirked at the corners, as she noted the fractional rise in the Governor’s eyebrows. Mentioning your General of a father ought to give you an idea of why we’re here. Looks like it got your attention, at least.
“And my house is made all the more prosperous by your visit,” Yilo replied, inclining his head. “Come, be welcome, there is food and drink enough for all.” Gesturing for them to follow, he began to cross the room toward the banquet tables set up at the back. Threading his way through the knots of celebrants, he made certain to greet each by name.
“Do you know, Consul, Lord, the significance of the night?” Yilo asked.
That it’s bad luck to break the peace of the seventh full moon of the year, Sienna thought. Even street crime goes down tonight, if historical figures are accurate. “The seventh moon, if I recall, is the Moon of Himito, is it not?” As the three arrived at the banquet table, Sienna took the plate offered to her by a servant with a short dip of the head. “The night when all Hanshu gives thanks for for peace with its neighbours and friends, and under hearth and home.”
“Very good, Consul. A night for the making and mending of peace,” said Yilo.
Taking up a pair of tapered silver sticks, Sienna began transferring bits and bites from everything on offer to Corbin’s plate, then her own. “Our Guild believes it wise to understand the history and culture of all nations it expects to conduct business in, Governor Yilo. Empress Himito decreed an end to a war spanning five full generations. We value peace, and it is far more profitable than war. With your assistance, we will assuredly succeed in sustaining that peace.”
Governor Yilo’s face went ashen at the subtext of Sienna’s words, and glanced towards Ambassador LaFontaine. She made a gentle gesture of her hand, reassuring, and nodded to Sienna, who said, “It reminds those who study history, that in time all peace must give way to war, and all war must give way to peace. A valuable philosophy, and one that all people would be richer for knowing.”
Placing the last of the banquet foods on Corbin’s plate, Sienna nodded to him, indicating the food. A wry smirk crossed his face, but he nodded briefly and accepted his momentary position as her food taster. For a moment, Sienna caught a glimmer of mischief in his eye and was positive he meant to act like one bit or another was indeed poisoned. but he simply ate, keeping silent and letting her do the talking.
“Governor Yilo,” she said between delicacies that demanded she recognize the art of their preparation. “While my fellow Guild merchants in your city may know your lands well, I have not been blessed with the opportunity to spend much time in Hanshu. In that little time, I’ve never yet seen the wonders of Shiroi Hana. If I may beg your indulgence, would the Governor do us the honor of allowing us to view his gardens? I’ve heard they are the most splendid of all save the Immortal Palace.”
The compliments, following the thin attempt at indirect apology, seemed to help the Governor recover his composure. He bowed stiffly. “It would be my honor, Consul. Come, this way.” Folding his hands on his sleeves, the Governor led the pair down a side hall. Halfway down, he opened a clever sliding door that had been built to seem simply another wall. On the other side, the full moon cast the garden at the center of the compound in an ethereal, silvery light. Closing the door carefully behind him, the Governor turned onto a path picked out in black-veined marble hexagons.
He chose his steps with care, footfalls landing in a peculiar pattern. Silence enfolded them, the noise of the evening and the party muffled, and vanishing, as the runes laid a path of silence around them.
When the Governor spoke again, his voice trembled faintly. With anger, or with fright, even Sienna couldn’t say. “Does the Empire seek to repay old debts?”
Sienna was surprised when Corbin spoke up, his words picked with the care of a man walking in unknown woods at night. “No, Governor. I am a soldier, but I do not come as a soldier to your city.”
Sienna nodded, and continued. “Lord Goldbrace is special liaison with the Imperial Army, Governor. He’s here tonight, to assure you and the Guild that the Empire is fully committed to appropriate recovery and reparations for foreign military weapons on your soil. Ambassador LaFontaine will verify this. Lord Goldbrace is with me, because the matter that brings me here is a theft that began in the Empire. A theft that has become a Guild matter.”
The answer was met with a long sigh, and the Governor bowed his head to press a folded cloth against his brow. “It is pleasing to know that there will not be another war, Consul, Lord, Ambassador. It is less so, to know that the needs of the Guild have brought you to my home. Tell me of this matter.”
Sienna nodded to Corbin, and stepped back, allowing the officer to tell the tale. Corbin’s facility in the language was rudimentary, and so he spoke simply. “Two days ago, Imperial small arms, seeker bolts for crossbows, were stolen from a depot in our homeland. Yesterday, a Guild caravan on a road in your province was attacked and robbed. Our stolen crossbow bolts were used against the caravan. We’ve cause to believe these arms arrived here directly. Based on the available facts and evidence, all signs point to this being an exceptionally sensitive matter of security and diplomacy.”
The governor bowed his head very slightly. “I extend my sincerest regrets, and I assure you all, Lord, Consul, and Ambassador, that I and my people have no hand in this.”
Ambassador LaFontaine spoke gently. “My Emperor is inclined to believe you, Governor. All facts point to independent players in this matter. An embarrassment to be quickly, and quietly, cleaned up.”
Governor Yilo drew himself upright with the regality that had earned his father’s appellation. “A matter of great embarrassment, yes. And one in which we will speak of appropriate political reparations at another time, Ambassador.”
The ambassador inclined her head. “When the crisis is past, I will return at your convenience, Governor.”
Yilo accepted the words with a nod, and turned then to Sienna and Corbin. “Lord Goldbrace, Consul Sienna. In the meanwhile, you have the support of my office in matters official. I trust unofficial matters will see discreet reparations prepared. You have my permission to resolve this matter appropriately, Consul.”
“Thank you, Governor. The Guild will assist your province with itemized invoices for presentation to the Ambassador. At no charge for the service, for your inconvenience,” Sienna said smoothly.
“Then I thank you all for this illuminating company,” Yilo said, gesturing back to the door. “I will order my men to cooperate in full. Good hunting.”
The meeting room of the local Guild office differed from the last one Corbin had visited, only by the wood of the table.
Sienna tapped open the envelope, scanned the letter in her hands once, and then flicked a nail across a rune. The paper flashed to ash. “My team has confirmed a triangulation point,” she said.
“Am I ten gold peaks richer?” asked Corbin.
“You would have been, if I’d taken that bet,” Sienna said.
“I take it we’re not going to simply round up the local constabulary on this one, and invite them to provide us with sensible backup and assistance.”
“If only,” Sienna said, allowing herself a sigh, and flashed Corbin a wry look. “Maximum discretion, m’lord. A single operative. In and out job.”
Corbin pursed his lips. “My orders are to see it through personally, Consul. I can do that at your side, or I can do that independently, but I’m duty-bound. The general wants my personal assurances on this affair. That, or he wants me dead. I think he might be delighted by either outcome, really.”
“This is an infiltration, m’Lord. The site is active. At least forty people recorded coming and going from the warehouse today.”
“And I’m trained for infiltration and special operations, Consul, and a tasseled swordmaster. I’m going, Consul. Those are my orders.”
Sienna folded her arms. “Your orders are in place as much for intelligence reasons as operational ones, Lord Goldbrace.”
“Probably,” allowed Corbin. “But they’re my orders. Operationally, the matter is too delicate to leave to just one operative, and too sensitive to delegate. I’m trained and fit for the mission, and–” He gave a twist of his thumb across one of his rings, and the tailored and colorful clothing around him turned from stylish to a dull, matte blue-black. “–now I’m dressed for it, too.”
He twisted the ring again, and the color vanished as if it had never been, leaving his clothes unstained.
Sienna grunted. “Conjured dye? There’s a classic. Fine. You’re with me, we do this fast and quiet. Get in, verify our target, set the rune, and get out. Unseen.”
An hour of preparations later, and with the moon setting low in the sky, they walked from the Guild hall to the Sending Gate plaza. Sienna passed the attendant mage a slip of paper, and without a word the guildsman set the runes of the gate to work.
The world around them blinked, and resolved from an open plaza to a small room of a small house, wood-paneled on all sides. The runes inscribed in the wood on the floor immediately vanished into a line of sawdust, obliterated by their activation.
“Lord Goldbrace, follow me. Don’t touch the door, it will kill you,” Sienna said tersely. “We’ve sixty seconds to leave this building before sanitization.”
Corbin looked around, and nodded. “I keep myself clean enough, thank you,” he said in agreement. “This room smells like a great deal of impending doom.”
“Neat and tidy,” Sienna agreed, and opened the door. The room was unfurnished, as was the hallway and house it led into. The Consul did something with a button on her clothing that Corbin didn’t see. In the time it took to glance up at her, her clothing had changed to a black linen suit, conservatively cut and not many shades from the night sky outside. Corbin gave his ring a twist, and followed Sienna down the stairs. They stepped out the door, and into a street gone quiet with the aftermath of a holiday.
“Your team’s work, that?” asked Corbin. “It’s not going to catch fire in our wake, is it?”
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” replied Sienna. “But no. Fire’s for sending messages, m’lord. If there’s watching eyes, they saw us both leave the city by the sending gate. Quiet, let’s move.”
They strode through alleyways and down streets gone quiet. The warehouses were far away from anywhere drunks and decent folk alike would bother with being at any hour past midnight. Not so much as a dog’s bark or an alarm rune’s chirp interrupted their passage.
“There’s the target,” Sienna said, five minutes into the walk. “Warehouse. Blue Heron shipping, number five.”
“West side. Second story. I’ll get the fence and runes. You’re eyes and ears on point when mine are busy. We’ll pick a window and see if it’s safe to drop in.”
Sienna knelt next to the heavy black iron bars of the fence around the warehouse yard. The thumb and forefinger of her left hand wrapped around the base of the bar, and again with her right hand at the top of the bar. Two quick breaths, dense with flows of Ice, froze the metal. The wrought iron went so cold and brittle that a sharp twist of her hands was enough to snap the bar free, with little more noise than a pebble thrown against a rock wall. Setting the chilled metal aside, she repeated the motion on the next closest bar. “Done,” she whispered as the hole was made. “Quickly.”
They slipped through the hole in the fence, stealing across the open ground to the warehouse wall. Their eyes both went to the nearest window, and Corbin’s nose wrinkled just as Sienna spoke. “Burglary wards on these windows. Decent ones.”
“Then we’ll try from above,” Corbin murmured, stepping back as he narrowed his eyes at the warehouse roof. There was a faint glimmer of weak flows in Sienna’s vision, and a moment later a dull black ladder lay against the roof where Corbin had conjured it. “After you, my dear?”
Coated with rubber, to minimize the noise, Sienna assessed, as she climbed up it. Good. Not a total dolt.
The moment Corbin joined her on the roof, he released the flows, and the ladder vanished. Sienna crept toward the smaller windows on the upper floor and examined the wards. With satisfaction, she saw right away that the wards were older, far simpler than the ones at ground level. Enough that picking them apart was the work of a few moments’ concentration. When that was done she leaned up, and spat conjured oil over the window’s hinges. Extracting a thin metal shim from her sleeve, she carefully eased the latch free, opening the window.
Corbin was the first onto the catwalk on the other side of the window, easing it closed once Sienna had joined him. From below they could hear the sounds of activity on the warehouse floor. Some drunken singing floated up from nearby shelves, workers off the clock. Every guard they could see walked straight and sober, eyes darting down every aisle they passed. Sienna looked over her shoulder to catch Corbin’s gaze, and nodded to the ground, then pointed to her eyes, and held up two fingers. Receiving an answering nod, she pointed to the far left wall of the warehouse, then settled down to watch the guard movements on her half.
Two minutes later, she felt the tickle of Corbin’s breath on her ear. “That is a good many guards,” he whispered. “I count at least thirty men and women in this building. Have you found a way in on your side?”
“I count forty-one. Those two,” Sienna whispered back, gesturing to the pair of men standing guard a few paces in front of the side door. “They’re the only ones stationed at a fixed point. Probably where they’ve got the bolts stashed. But these thugs aren’t smart enough to keep them in constant view. We’ll have about a thirty-second window to get down and get them out of sight.”
Corbin nodded his assent, and the two ghosted across the catwalk. When they reached the end, Sienna stretched out flat on the metal flooring, easing her head under the railing and taking in a deep breath.
The guards had wards stitched into their jackets, cheap and common protection designed to blunt the speed of incoming objects and magic. Useless for what Sienna had in mind. “We need rope, m’Lord,” she whispered. “One for each of us. Be ready to catch one of them the moment we touch ground.”
Corbin raised an eyebrow, then held up a hand, glancing down at his palm. Wanting the rope in his hand was enough. It appeared, thin black silk, braided and strong. He passed the thin coil of black rope over, then conjured a second coil and began securing it to the railing. Once they were both ready, Sienna nodded, and they dropped toward the ground beside the guards with only the faintest whisper of sound.
Curling her lips over her teeth and making a hollow with her tongue activated the spell, flows of Ice and Air filling her mouth. The sound she made was barely louder than a whisper, easily mistaken even at close range for someone spitting watermelon seeds. The effect was a good deal less innocuous, however. A chunk of ice the size of her fist conjured itself into being directly in the middle of the skull of each guard. Ice instantly displaced brains, ending their lives in less than a heartbeat’s time.
Quickly, Corbin looped one arm around his guard’s neck, guiding the body backwards into his grip. Her own arms sought her guard’s waist and shoulder, and barely daring to breathe, they eased the corpses to ground. Without a word, they began to drag the bodies behind a row of filled shelves.
As Sienna arranged the limbs of her victims to ensure a stray foot or hand wouldn’t be immediately noticed, she caught Corbin leveling a measuring stare at her back. Raising one eyebrow in question and receiving a shake of the head, she gestured further down the shelves, tapping her nose to signal his need to keep his magical senses alert.
They had crept thirty feet into the room when Corbin came to a halt in front of her, head tilted upward. He gave a curious sniff, and another, then breathed in deep, and nodded, pointing down the aisle of shelves in front of him. Circling around him, Sienna crept along the stone floor, eyes roaming over every crate she could see.
Four shelves back from the far end of the the aisle, she found what she was looking for on a stack of wooden crates secured with a heavy steel band. The teleportation rune stamped into the metal was crude and low-yield. It was likely that a box of Imperial ammunition was close to its tolerance limits, but there could be no doubt it was her target.
Drawing the octagonal tile from her pouch, she flashed five fingers at Corbin, then again, holding her free hand up as she brought the tile up to her mouth. Gathering her determination around her tongue, she blew a soft, steady flow of Fire and Air into the rune, charging it. The little piece of ceramic began to make her eyes ache with its brightness as she fed it.
The rune was still half-charged, when a rough Hanshu woman’s voice cut through the relative quiet. “Shiro! Ren! Where did you bastards go?”
Sienna, still breathing across the rune, traded a panicked glance with Corbin as footsteps pounded toward the door. An alarmed cry went up as the guards discovered the bodies.
Sucking in another lungful of air, she continued to charge the tile. From the direction of the office, a loud, gravelly voice rang out through the warehouse. “Spread out and find them! Use the crossbows. I don’t want them getting away!”
Scowling, Corbin slipped to the shelving across the aisle from Sienna’s position. Steel whispered against felted leather as he eased his sword from its sheath and stared down the aisle.
Finally the rune in her hands would hold no more, and Sienna raised her head in relief. Just then, a guard stepped into view. There was a moment of frozen horror on both sides, broken by the telltale low ping of a seeker bolt locking onto its mark.
“Found them!” the guard shouted, pulling the trigger.
Sienna and Corbin both moved on instinct. Sienna flattened herself against the ground, and Corbin dove in front of her. The crossbow bolt curved in flight, seeking Sienna’s body. Momentum carried the heavy, steel-tipped bolt into Corbin’s hip instead.
As Corbin fell to the floor, he thrust his sword out, snarling. A searingly bright stroke of lightning leapt from the weapon’s tip to strike the guard’s throat. The hapless guard fell back against the floor as Corbin curled around the bolt lodged in his hip.
“Is the damn thing charged?” he grated, hands closing around the bolt, then letting go as if burned. “Ah! Damn it. Damn thing’s punctured bone.”
“Yes, let’s go!” Sienna pitched the tile deep under the shelving, where it would be difficult to reach. The glow of the Fire and Air weaves trapped in the rune was searing. As an afterthought, she dragged one of the pallets away from the shelving, giving them at least a bit of cover.
Corbin clutched the shelving, dragging himself up to his knees as pounding feet closed on their position. “They’ll find it,” he said between clenched teeth. “I could smell that thing from a kilometer away. Someone has to be a bigger priority than a bit of tiling.”
“My Lord, with all–”
“–due respect, my favorite–”
“–that is a stupid idea and you know it!”
“Consul,” Corbin said, the smile dropping away from his face entirely, his eyes still and serious. “Listen very closely. My duty is to lay down my life for the Empire, should it have need. Yours is to serve the interests of your Guild. A dead agent profits your people nothing, does it?”
Before Sienna could reply, there came a shout from the mouth of the aisle. “I found them! Lock and fire!” There was a another low pinging noise, and then a guard’s bolt dug deep into the crate, its shaft grinding against the edges of the hole it made as it kept trying to travel toward its target.
Corbin turned, sweeping the point of his sword in a circular, vaguely whiplike motion. Following his movements, a brilliant arc of lightning lashed out, scoring a deep, smoldering circle over the warehouse’s plank walls. A surge of his frustration fed the thrust that followed, and a blast of compressed air blew a man-sized hole through the warehouse wall.
“Aim high, you idiots! They’re going to get away!” the smugglers’ leader shouted, elbowing his way to the front of the press. A sharp sweep of Corbin’s sword sent out a bolt of lightning that burst against the steel pillars of the shelves, sending them diving back into cover.
Then his hand was on Sienna’s shoulder, and with a rough push he propelled her toward the exit. “Tell my mother everything you can,” he said heavily, as she stumbled toward the hole in the wall. Another stroke of lightning cracked and scored the stone floor. The last thing Sienna saw as she ducked through the wall was Corbin, diving past the pallet and under the shelving.
It took two minutes to run to the extraction point, a rooftop of a building a few blocks away and uphill from the harbor. The diminishing noises of lightning and muffled screams from the warehouse followed her the whole way. She doubled over, gasping air into burning lungs, eyes frantically scanning the target site. Corbin was still alive. Even now, bolts of lightning squirmed around the windows. Electrical flashes elicited another scream lost to the night.
Thirty seconds before the explosive tile was set to trigger, the warehouse flashed once with complex magic, and then went dark and quiet. Sienna’s heart fell, and she clenched a hand tightly around the railing. That wasn’t your magic, Corbin. Someone just struck you down, didn’t they? Or sent you running. But that’s not enough time to get to safety, Corbin.
Helpless, she awaited the inevitable.
The explosion obliterated the warehouse. The first surge of fire was large enough to light most of the port city, and the shockwave blew her hair behind her. The fireball lumbered skyward, cooling until it was simply a cloud of black smoke, billowing up. Only when the roar of fire faded to a dull rumble, could the first tentative shouts of alarm be heard here and there across the city.
There weren’t any tears that spilled from her eyes, but a profound sadness swept her all the same. She closed her eyes against the orange light of the burning crater where the warehouse had stood.
“You damned idiot,” she muttered. Throwing yourself in front of a bolt with my name on it. Good luck finding someone in the Guild who’d have done so for me, she thought.
Then, alone, she allowed herself a shred of outward sentimentality. “Saints watch over your soul, Corbin.”
“Someone has to.”
Sienna managed to stifle the gasp that rose in her throat, but she couldn’t keep from flinching at the haggard sound in the voice. Wheeling in place, she stared levelly at the man standing, more or less, a couple meters away on the veranda.
The Lord Goldbrace was a royal mess. The conjured dye had disappeared, and his crimson skirt was nearly black on one side from the blood that had soaked in. His jacket and yellow undershirt were a mess of bloody tears and scorch marks, and his grin was made ghastly by a split lip that ringed his teeth in blood. “I’d say you should see the other man, but I’d not trust any three pieces to come from the same person.”
“Exactly how, m’Lord, did you get free in time?” Sienna asked, coolly.
Corbin held up the steel belt from the palette of bolts they’d taken shelter behind. The belt had been sheared messily, scorch marks and anodization showing where electricity had hastily cut through the metal. The rudimentary teleportation rune swung on the end of it, still glowing with charge from Corbin’s use. “It was just a matter of lighting it up, Consul, and knowing where to go.”
“And how did you know that?”
He gestured to the seeker bolt protruding from his hip. “Why as you can see, my dear Consul, my hips led me right back to you!”
Sienna’s mouth worked, as if unsure to pucker around a bitter seed or burst into laughter. Then she stilled her lips, eyes flashing mischief, and stepped around him. “Oh, that does look painful, Lord Goldbrace. Does it wiggle in your wound if I move over here? How about over there?”
“Yes! Yes it does thank you very much Consul. Now will you kindly help me quell the rune on it before I bleed to death?”
Her manager across the desk looked between them, his stern eyebrows scarcely rising since the beginning of her report.
“- and so under the circumstances, sir, Lord Goldbrace represents an exceptionally sensitive matter for us. He’s had access to and use of a rudimentary teleportation rune. I don’t think he could recreate it himself, not without years of study and refinement. But our ordinary security protocols aren’t suitable for a noble house Lord.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the man at the desk said. “As a special liaison to the Imperial army, he has a very direct intelligence pipeline. What he knows, his superiors will know. At least you recovered the rune. Anything interesting on it?”
Sienna shook her head. “Rudimentary, sir. Not the least bit safe for anyone. Transportation department took one glance at it and scrapped it, said it was beneath any of their apprentice’s work.”
“Fine. As for Lord Goldbrace, what’s his house’s net value to our guild, per year?”
“A gross of thirty-four million peaks, sir. A tenth of that net profit,” Sienna replied automatically. “Projected growth-“
A gesture from the man cut her off. “With a loss of eighty percent if we were to murder the heir of the house for what he now knows. Too much. Make contact with the Lord Goldbrace. Advise him that, on the acceptance of certain appropriate and discretionary geases to the Guild, along with retirement from service to the Emperor’s armed forces, we’re prepared to extend to his house a competitive subsidy in Frostmoor. It’s isolated enough. Easy to contain. Rich enough to console him, and still profitable for us.”
Goldbrace Manor was one of the oldest of the noble estates in Bastia, and it commanded an impressive view of the city. When Sienna had written to the House asking to meet with Corbin, the matriarch of the House had needed four sheets of paper to properly enumerate every last thing she thought of Sienna’s company, character, and career prospects for the next fifty years. Corbin had only needed half a sheet to pen his reply, and had somehow managed to slip it into the envelope before his mother sealed it.
Mother occasionally pauses to sound out the exact right word for a message, you know. I had no idea she even knew some of those words.
Regardless, come by Tuesday for tea. I’ll have talked her out of the armory by then. I hope.
Best wear a suit of chain under your clothes, just in case.
True to his word, Corbin had managed to keep the Duchess Goldbrace from skewering Sienna on the spot. The Duchess’ demeanor was markedly chilly as she led the Consul to the patio, but Sienna counted no more than the usual amount of House guards. When the tea and sandwiches were served, she could find no poison in her tea or on the cup. The meeting very nearly promised to be a pleasant one, if Sienna could ignore the reason she’d come by.
“A competitive subsidy, you say?” Corbin asked over the rim of a teacup that smelled strongly of brandy. “I have to say I rather didn’t expect that.” The lord sat back stiffly, his rune-laced bandages unable to fully blunt the pain of his healing wounds. “And all I have to do is resign my commission, leave the city, and walk away from everything I’ve spent my life building toward? Well. Mother won’t be pleased, I can tell you that.”
“I’m sure I can understand why, my Lord,” Sienna said carefully. “But the offer is quite genuine, and the taxes alone would make up the cost of all your schooling and more, after the second year. A competitive supply contract with the Empire’s forces there would represent a very significant increase in your entire House’s coiffers. Doubly so when one considers the, ah, lenience, the Guild would be inclined towards unregulated trade.”
“Not a peak of which will stay her temper in the meantime, I’m afraid,” Corbin sighed. “And honestly, I almost can’t understand why the Guild would go through all the trouble for me.”
“Almost?” Sienna asked carefully.
“Well I’d have to be a fool not to see that the offer isn’t a patch on the money the Guild would lose if House Goldbrace declared vendetta on you lot,” Corbin said, shifting in his chair. “Which Mother assuredly would, were this offer not an option. Even though you and I both know I was duty-bound, my mother tends to be blind to such niceties when it comes to her own flesh and blood. But I think we can come to an arrangement. Do I have you to thank for this mountain of paperwork?” Setting his teacup in its saucer, he gestured to the warded and sealed contract in the middle of the table. “Here you’ve brought me something all nicely wrapped and ribboned. Only I didn’t get you anything in return…”
“That would be the Guild’s calculation as well, m’Lord,” Sienna answered, toying with a small bit of almond cake. “Given your status, and your family’s financial arrangements, this is simply the easy way. The top third of the contract, you can give to your seneschal to look over. The rest… is for your eyes and your hands only.”
“And that’s how the Guild works, is it? What you can’t kill, you buy away?”
“Well, m’Lord, there is a third option in some cases, but I doubt you’d enjoy that any better.”
“Oh, do tell.”
“We hire them.”
“No, you’ve got a point there. Frostmoor, eh? I’d always heard that was a miserable pit, unless you were a miner. Then it’s a miserable but profitable one.”
“There are more miserable pits in the world than Frostmoor, my Lord, and none so profitable for your House.”
“Very well, I shall tentatively accept. But on one condition.”
“And that is, m’lord?”
He winked at her. “I shall require proper supervision. I think I rate better than some common minder, don’t you?”
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