1. Wizard Weather
It was raining when Amarelle Parathis went out just after sunset to find a drink, and there was strange magic in the rain. It came down in pale lavenders and coppers and reds, soft lines like liquid dusk that turned to luminescent mist on the warm pavement. The air itself felt like champagne bubbles breaking against the skin. Over the dark shapes of distant rooftops, blue–white lightning blazed, and stuttering thunder chased it. Amarelle would have sworn she heard screams mixed in with the thunder.
The gods–damned wizards were at it again.
Well, she had a thirst, and an appointment, and odd rain wasn’t even close to the worst thing that had ever fallen on her from the skies over Theradane. As she walked, Amarelle dripped flickering colors that had no names. She cut a ghostly trail through fog that drifted like the murk beneath a pink and orange sea. As usual when the wizards were particularly bad, she didn’t have much company. The Street of Pale Savants was deserted. Shopkeepers stared forlornly from behind their windows on the Avenue of Seven Angles.
This had been her favorite sort of night, once. Heavy weather to drive witnesses from the streets. Thunder to cover the noise of feet creeping over rooftops. These days it was just lonely, unpredictable, and dangerous.
A double arc of silvery lights marked the Tanglewing Canal Bridge, the last between her and her destination. The lights burned within lamps held by rain–stained white marble statues of shackled, hooded figures. Amarelle kept her eyes fixed on her feet as she crossed the bridge. She knew the plaques beneath the statues by heart. The first two on the left, for example:
NOW I SERVE THERADANE ALWAYS
NOW I SERVE THERADANE ALWAYS
The statues themselves didn’t trouble her, or even the lights. So what if the city lit some of its streets and bridges with the unshriven souls of convicts, bound forever into melodramatic sculptures with fatuous plaques? No, the trouble was how those unquiet spirits whispered to passers–by.
Look upon me, beating heart, and witness the price of my broken oaths.
“Fuck off, Bolar,” muttered Amarelle. “I’m not plotting to overthrow the Parliament of Strife.”
Take warning, while your blood is still warm, and behold the eternal price of my greed and slaughter!
“I don’t have a family to poison, Camira.”
Amarelle, whispered the last statue on the left. It ought to be you up here, you faithless bitch.
Amarelle stared at that last inscription, just as she promised herself she wouldn’t every time she came this way.
SCAVIUS OF SHADOW STREET
NOW I SERVE THERADANE ALWAYS
“I never turned my back on you,” Amarelle whispered. “I paid for sanctuary. We all did. We begged you to get out of the game with us, but you didn’t listen. You blew it.”
You bent your knees to my killers before my flesh was even cold.
“We all bought ourselves a little piece of the city, Scav. That was the plan. You just did it the hard way.”
Some day you will share this vigil with me.
“I’m done with all that now. Light your bridge and leave me alone.”
There was no having a reasonable conversation with the dead. Amarelle kept moving. She only came this way when she wanted a drink, and by the time she got off the bridge she always needed at least two.
Thunder rolled through the canyons of the streets. A building was on fire somewhere to the east, smoldering unnatural purple. Flights of screeching bat–winged beasts filled the sky between the flames and the low, glowing clouds. Some of them tangled and fought, with naked claws and barbed spears and clay jars of explosive fog. The objectives the creatures contended for were known only to gods and sorcerers.
Gods–damned wizards and their stupid feuds. Too bad they ran the city. Too bad Amarelle needed their protection.
2. The Furnished Belly of the Beast
The Sign of the Fallen Fire lay on the west side of Tanglewing Street. Was, more accurately, the entire west side of Tanglewing Street. No room for anything else beside the cathedral of coiled bones knocked down fifteen centuries before, back when wild dragons occasionally took offense at the growing size of Theradane and paid it a visit. This one had settled so artistically in death, some long–forgotten entrepreneur had scraped out flesh and scales and roofed the steel–hard bones right where they lay.
Amarelle went in through the dragon’s mouth, shook burnt orange rain from her hair and watched wisps of luminous steam curl up from the carpet where the droplets landed. The bouncers lounging against eight–foot serrated fangs all nodded to her.
The tavern had doors where the dragon had once had tonsils. Those doors smelled good credit and opened smoothly.
The Neck was for dining and the Tail was for gambling. The Arms offered rooms for sleeping or not sleeping, as the renters preferred. Amarelle’s business was in the Gullet, the drinking cavern under the dead beast’s ribs and spine, where one hundred thousand bottles gleamed on racks and shelves behind the central bar.
Goldclaw Grask, the floor manager, was an ebony–scaled goblin in a dapper suit woven from actual Bank of Theradane notes. He had one in a different denomination for every night of the week; tonight he wore fifties.
“Amarelle Parathis, the Duchess Unseen,” he cried. “I see you just fine!”
“That one certainly never gets old, Grask.”
“I’m counting glasses and silverware after you leave tonight.”
“I’m retired and loving it,” said Amarelle. She’d pulled three jobs at the Sign of the Fallen Fire in her working days. Certainly none for silverware. “Is Sophara on bar tonight?”
“Of course,” said Grask. “It’s the seventeenth. Same night of the month your little crew always gets together and pretends it’s just an accident. Those of you that aren’t lighting the streets, that is.”
Amarelle glared. The goblin rustled over, reached up, took her left hand, and flicked his tongue contritely against her knuckles.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be an asshole. I know, you paid the tithe, you’re an honest sheep living under the bombardment like the rest of us. Look, Sophara’s waving. Have one on me.”
Sophara Miris had mismatched eyes and skin the color of rosewood, fine aquamarine hair and the hands of a streetside card sharp. When she’d paid her sanctuary tithe to the Parliament of Strife, she’d been wanted on three hundred and twelve distinct felony charges in eighteen cities. These days she was senior mage–mixologist at the Sign of the Fallen Fire, and she already had Amarelle’s first drink half–finished.
“Evening, stranger.” Sophara scrawled orders on a slate and handed it to one of the libationarians, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the contents and locations of all the bottles kept the bar running. “Do you remember when we used to be interesting people?”
“I think being alive and at liberty is pretty damn interesting,” said Amarelle. “Your wife planning on dropping in tonight?”
“Any minute now,” said Sophara, stirring equal parts liquor and illusion into a multi–layered concoction. “The self–made man’s holding a booth for us. I’m mixing you a Rise and Fall of Empires, but I heard Grask. You want two of these? Or something else?”
“You feel like making me a Peril on the Sea?” said Amarelle.
“Yours to command. Why don’t you take a seat? I’ll be over when the drinks are ready.”
Ten dozen booths and suspended balconies filled the Gullet, each carefully spaced and curtained to allow a sense of intimate privacy in the midst of grand spectacle. Lightning, visible through skylights between the ribs, crackled overhead as Amarelle crossed the floor. Her people had a usual place for their usual night, and Shraplin was holding the table.
Shraplin Self–Made, softly whirring concatenation of wires and gears, wore a tattered vermilion cloak embroidered with silver threads. His sculpted brass face had black gemstone eyes and a permanent ghost of a smile. A former foundry drudge, he’d taken advantage of the old Theradane law that a sentient automaton owned its own head and the thoughts therein. Over the course of fifteen years, he’d carefully stolen cogs and screws and bolts and wires and gradually replaced every inch of himself from the neck down until not a speck of his original body remained, and he was able to walk away from the perpetual magical indenture attached to it. Not long after that he’d found klepto–kindred spirits in Amarelle Parathis’ crew.
“Looking wet, boss,” he said. “What’s coming down out there?”
“Weird water,” said Amarelle, taking a place beside him. “Pretty, actually. And don’t call me boss.”
“Certain patterns engrave themselves on my ruminatory discs, boss.” Shraplin poured a touch of viscous black slime from a glass into a port on his neck. “Parliament’s really going at it tonight. When I got here purple fire was falling on the High Barrens.”
“That’s one advantage of living in our prosperous thaumatocracy,” sighed Amarelle. “Always something interesting exploding nearby. Hey, here’s our girls.”
Sophara Miris had one hand under a tray of drinks and the other around Brandwin Miris’ waist. Brandwin had frosted lavender skin that was no magical affectation and thick amber spectacles over golden eyes. Brandwin, armorer, artificer, and physician to automatons, had the death sentence in three principalities for supplying the devices that had so frequently allowed the Duchess Unseen’s crew to evade boring entanglements in local judicial systems. The only object she’d ever personally stolen in her life was the heart of the crew’s magician.
“Shraplin, my toy,” said Brandwin. She touched fingertips with the automaton before sitting down. “Valves valving and pipes piping?”
“Fighting fit and free of rust,” said Shraplin. “And your own metabolic processes and needs?”
“Well attended to,” said Sophara with a smirk. “Shall we get this meeting of the Retired Folks’ Commiseration and Inebriation Society rolling? Here’s something phlegmatic and sanguine for you, Shraplin.”
She handed over another tumbler of black ooze. The artificial man had no use for alcohol, so he kept a private reserve of human temperaments magically distilled into asphaltum lacquer behind the bar.
“A Black Lamps of Her Eyes for me,” said Sophara. “A Tower of the Elephant for the gorgeous artificer. And for you, Your Grace, a Peril on the Sea and a Rise and Fall of Empires.”
Amarelle hefted the latter, a thick glass containing nine horizontal layers of rose–tinted liquors, each layer inhabited by a moving landscape. These varied from fallow hills and fields at the bottom to great cities in the middle layers to a ruin–dotted waste on high, topped by clouds of foam.
“Anyone heard from Jade?” she said.
“Same as always,” said Shraplin. “Regards, and don’t wait up.”
“Regards and don’t wait up,” muttered Amarelle. She looked around the table, saw mismatched eyes and shaded eyes and cold black stones fixed on her in expectation. As always. So be it. She raised her glass, and they did likewise.
“Here’s a toast,” she said. “We did it and lived. We put ourselves in prison to stay out of prison. To absent friends, gone where no words nor treasure of ours can restore amends. We did it and lived. To the chains we refused and the ones that snared us anyway. We did it and lived.”
She slammed the drink back, poured layers of foaming history down her throat. She didn’t usually do this sort of thing to herself without dinner to cushion the impact, but hell, it seemed that kind of night. Lightning flashed above the skylights.
“Did you have a few on your way over here, boss?” said Shraplin.
“The Duchess is dead.” Amarelle set her empty glass down firmly. “Long live the Duchess. Now, do I have to go through the sham of pulling my cards out and dealing them, or would you all prefer to just pile your money neatly in the center of the table for me?”
“Oh, honey,” said Brandwin. “We’re not using your deck. It knows more tricks than a show dog.”
“I’ll handicap myself,” said Amarelle. She lifted the Peril on the Sea, admired the aquamarine waves topped with vanilla whitecaps, and in two gulps added it to the ball of fast–spreading warmth in her stomach. “There’s some magic I can appreciate. So, are we playing cards or having a staring contest? Next round’s on me!”
3. Cheating Hands
“Next round’s on me,” said Amarelle an hour and a half later. The table was a mess of cards, bank notes, and empty glasses.
“Next round’s IN you, boss,” said Shraplin. “You’re three ahead of the rest of us.”
“Seems fair. What the hell did I just drink, anyway?”
“A little something I call the Amoral Instrument,” said Sophara. Her eyes were shining. “I’m not allowed to make it for customers. Kind of curious to see what happens to you, in fact.”
“Water off a duck’s back,” said Amarelle, though the room had more soft edges than she remembered and her cards were not entirely cooperating with her plan to hold them steady. “This is a mess. A mess! Shraplin, you’re probably sober–esque. How many cards in a standard deck?”
“How many cards presently visible in our hands or on the table?”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Amarelle. “Who’s not cheating? We should be pushing ninety. Who’s not cheating?”
“I solemnly affirm that I haven’t had an honest hand since we started,” said Brandwin.
“Magician,” said Sophara, tapping her cards against her breast. “Enough said.”
“I’m wearing my cheating hands, boss,” said Shraplin. He wiggled his fingers in blurry silver arcs.
“This is sad.” Amarelle reached behind her left ear, conjured a seventy–ninth card out of her black ringlets, and added it to the pattern on the table. “We really are getting old and decrepit.”
Fresh lightning tore the sky, painting the room in gray–white pulses. Thunder exploded just overhead; the skylights rattled in their frames and even the great bone–rafters seemed to shake. Some of the other drinkers stirred and muttered.
“Fucking wizards,” said Amarelle. “Present company excepted, of course.”
“Why would I except present company?” said Brandwin, tangling the fingers of one hand in Sophara’s hair and gracefully palming an eightieth card onto the table with her other.
“It’s been terrible all week,” said Sophara. “I think it’s Ivovandas, over in the High Barrens. Her and some rival I haven’t identified, spitting fire and rain and flying things all over the damn place. The parasol sellers have been making a killing with those new leather and chainmail models.”
“Someone ought to stroll up there and politely ask them to give it a rest.” Shraplin’s gleaming head rotated slowly until he was peering at Amarelle. “Someone famous, maybe. Someone colorful and respected. Someone with a dangerous reputation.”
“Better to say nothing and be thought a fool,” said Amarelle, “than to interfere in the business of wizards and remove all doubt. Who needs a fresh round? Next one’s still on me. I plan on having all your money when we call it a night, anyway.”
4. The Trouble With Glass Ceilings
The thunder and lightning were continuous for the next hour. Flapping, howling things bounced off the roof at regular intervals. Half the patrons in the Gullet cleared out, pursued by the cajoling of Goldclaw Grask.
“The Sign of the Fallen Fire has stood for fifteen centuries!” he cried. “This is the safest place in all of Theradane! You really want to be out in the streets on a night like this? Have you considered our fine rooms in the Arms?”
There was a high–pitched sound of shattering glass. Something large and wet and dead hit the floor next to the bar, followed by a shower of skylight fragments and glowing rain. Grask squawked for a house magician to unmake the mess while the exodus quickened around him.
“Ahhh, nice to be off duty.” Sophara sipped unsteadily from a tumbler of something blue and uncomplicated. The bar had cut her off from casting her own spells into drinks.
“You know,” said Amarelle, slowly, “maybe someone really should go up there to the High Barrens and tell that old witchy bitch to put a leash on her pets.”
The room, through her eyes, had grown softer and softer as the noisy night wore on, and had now moved into a decidedly impressionist phase. Goldclaw Grask was a bright smear chasing other bright smears across the floor, and even the cards on the table were no longer holding still long enough for Amarelle to track their value.
“Hey,” she said, “Sophara, you’re a citizen in good standing. Why don’t we get you made a member of Parliament so you can make these idiots stop?”
“Oh, brilliant! Well, first I’d need to steal or invent a really good youth–binding,” said the magician, “something better than the three–in–five I’m working now, so I can ripen my practice for a century or two. You might find this timeline inconvenient for your purposes.”
“Then you’d need to find an external power locus to kick up your juice,” said Brandwin.
“Yes,” said Sophara, “and harness it without any other hazard–class sorcerers noticing. Oh, and I’d also need to go completely out of my ever–fucking head! You have to be a dead–eyed dirty–souled maniac to want to spend your extended life trading punches with other maniacs. Once you’ve seized that power, there’s no getting off the merry–go–round. You fight like hell just to hold on or you get shoved off.”
“Splat!” said Brandwin.
“Not my idea of a playground,” said Sophara, finishing her drink and slamming the empty glass down emphatically.
An instant later there was a horrendous shattering crash. A half–ton of dark winged something, its matted fur rain–wet and reeking, plunged through the skylight directly overhead and obliterated their table. A confused blur of motion and noise attended the crash, and Amarelle found herself on the floor with a dull ache between her breasts.
Some dutiful, stubborn fraction of her awareness kicked its way to the surface of the alcoholic ocean in her mind, and there clutched at straws until it had pieced together the true sequence of events. Shraplin, of course—the nimble automaton had shoved her aside before diving across the table to get Sophara and Brandwin clear.
“Hey,” said Amarelle, sitting up, “you’re not drunk at all!”
“That was part of my cheating, boss.” The automaton had been very nearly fast enough, very nearly. Sophara and Brandwin were safe, but his left leg was pinned under the fallen creature and the table.
“Oh, you best of all possible automatons! Your poor foot!” Brandwin crawled over to him and kissed the top of his brass head.
“I’ve got three spares at home,” said Shraplin.
“That tears it,” muttered Amarelle, wobbling and weaving back to her feet. “Nobody drops a gods–damned gargoyle on my friends!”
“I think it’s a byakhee,” said Brandwin, poking at the beast. It had membranous wings and a spear protruding from what might have been its neck. It smelled like old cheese washed in gangrene and graveyard dew.
“I think it’s a vorpilax, love,” said Sophara. She drunkenly assisted her wife in pulling Shraplin out from under the thing. “Consider the bilateral symmetry.”
“I don’t care what it is,” said Amarelle, fumbling into her long black coat. “Nobody drops one on my card game or my crew. I’m going to find out where this Ivovandas lives and give her a piece of my mind.”
“Haste makes corpses, boss,” said Shraplin, shaking coils and widgets from the wreckage of his foot. “I was just having fun with you earlier.”
“Stupid damn commerce–murdering wizards!” Goldclaw Grask arrived at last, with a gaggle of bartenders and waiters in train. “Sophara! Are you hurt? What about the rest of you? Shraplin! That looks expensive. Tell me it’s not expensive!”
“I can soon be restored to prime functionality,” said Shraplin. “But what if I suggested that tonight is an excellent night for you to tear up our bill?”
“I, uh, well, if that wouldn’t get you in trouble,” said the goblin, directing waiters with mops toward the growing puddle of pastel–colored rainwater and gray ichor under the beast.
“If you give it to us freely,” said Sophara, “it’s not theft, and none of us break our terms of sanctuary. And Shraplin is right, Amarelle. You can’t just go berate a member of the Parliament of Strife! Even if you could safely cross the High Barrens in the middle of this mess—“
“Of course I can.” Amarelle stood up nearly straight and, after a few false starts, approximately squared her shoulders. “I’m not some marshmallow–muscled tourist, I’m the Duchess Unseen! I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE—”
“I know,” said Sophara. “I was there.”
“… and then I went back and stole all the Death Spiders!”
“That was ten years and an awful lot of strong drinks ago,” said Sophara. “Come on, darling, I mixed most of the drinks myself. Don’t scare us like this, Amarelle. You’re drunk and retired. Go home.”
“This smelly thing could have killed all of us,” said Amarelle.
“Well, thanks to a little luck and a lot of Shraplin, it didn’t. Come on, Amarelle. Promise us you won’t do anything stupid tonight. Will you promise us?”
5. Removing All Doubt
The High Barrens, east of Tanglewing Street, were empty of inhabitants and full of nasty surprises from the battle in progress. Amarelle kept out of the open, moving from shadowed arch to garden wall to darkened doorway, stumbling frequently. The world had a fragile liquid quality, running at the edges and spinning on previously unrevealed axes. She was not drunk enough to forget that she had to take extra care and still far too drunk to realize that she ought to be fleeing the way she’d come.
The High Barrens had once been a neighborhood of mansions and topiary wonders and public fountains, but the coming of the wizard Ivovandas has sent the former inhabitants packing. The arguments of the Parliament of Strife had blasted holes in the cobblestones, cracked and dried the fountains, and sundered the mansions like unloved toy houses. The purple fire from before was still smoldering in a tall ruined shell of wood and brick. Amarelle sidestepped the street–rivers of melted lead that had once been the building’s roof.
It wasn’t difficult to find the manse of Ivovandas, the only lit and tended structure in the neighborhood, guarded by smooth walls, glowing ideograms, and rustling red–green hedges with the skeletons of many birds and small animals scattered in their undergrowth. A path of interlocked alabaster stones, gleaming with internal light, led forty curving yards to a golden front door.
Convenient. That guaranteed a security gauntlet.
The screams of terrible flying things high above made concentration even more difficult, but Amarelle applied three decades of experience to the path and was not disappointed. Four trapped stones she avoided by intuition, two by dumb drunken luck. The gravity–orientation reversal was a trick she’d seen before; she cartwheeled (sloppily) over the dangerous patch and the magic pushed her headfirst back to the ground rather than helplessly into the sky. She never even felt the silvery call of the tasteful hypnotic toad sculptures on the lawn, as she was too inebriated to meet their eyes and trigger the effect.
When she reached the front door, the golden surface rippled like a molten pool and a sculpted arm emerged clutching a knocker ring. Amarelle flicked a collapsible baton out of her coat and used it to tap the ring against the door while she stood aside. There was a brief pause after the darts had hissed through empty air, and then a voice boomed:
“WHO COMES UNBIDDEN TO THE DOOR OF THE SUPREME SPELLWRIGHT IVOVANDAS OF THE HONORABLE PARLIAMENT OF THERADANE? SPEAK, WORM!”
“I don’t take shit from doors,” said Amarelle. “I’m flattering your mistress by knocking. Tell her a citizen of Theradane is here to give her a frank and unexpurgated opinion on how terrible her aim is.”
“YOUR ATTITUDE IS UNDERSTANDABLE AND NONETHELESS THOROUGHLY OFFENSIVE. ARCS OF ELECTRODYNAMIC FORCE WILL NOW BE APPLIED TO THE LOBES OF YOUR BRAIN UNTIL THEY ARE SCALDED PULP. TO RECEIVE THIS PRONOUNCEMENT IN THE FORM OF UNIVERSAL PICTOGRAMS, SCREAM ONCE. TO REQUEST MORE RAPID SENSORY OBLIVION, SCREAM TWICE AND WAIT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS.”
“The name is Amarelle Parathis, also known as the Duchess Unseen. Your mistress’ stupid feuds are turning a fine old town into a shitsack misery farm and ruining my card games. Are you going to open up, or do I find a window?”
“AMARELLE PARATHIS,” said the door. A moment passed. “YOUR NAME IS NOT UNKNOWN. YOU PURCHASED SANCTUARY FROM THE PARLIAMENT OF THERADANE TWO YEARS AND FOUR MONTHS AGO.”
“Attadoor,” said Amarelle.
“THE MISTRESS WILL RECEIVE YOU.”
The sculpted hand holding the knocker withdrew into the liquid surface of the door. A dozen others burst forth, grabbing Amarelle by the throat, arms, legs, and hair. They pulled her off her feet and into the rippling golden surface, which solidified an instant later and retained no trace of her passage.
6. The Cabinet of Golden Hands
Amarelle awoke, thoroughly comfortable but stripped of all her weapons and wearing someone else’s silk nightgown.
She was in a doorless chamber, in a feather bed floating gently on a pool of liquid gold that covered the entire floor, or perhaps was the entire floor. Ruby shafts of illumination fell from etched glass skylights, and when Amarelle threw back her covers they dissolved into wisps of aromatic steam.
Something bubbled and churned beneath the golden pool. A small hemisphere rose from the surface, continued rising, became a tall, narrow, humanoid shape. The liquid drained away smoothly, revealing a dove–pale albino woman with flawless auric eyes and hair composed of a thousand golden butterflies, all fluttering elegantly at random.
“Good afternoon, Amarelle,” said the wizard Ivovandas. Her feet didn’t quite touch the surface of the pool as she drifted toward the bed. “I trust you slept well. You were magnificent last night!”
“Was I? I don’t remember… uh, that is, I remember some of it… am I wearing your clothes?”
“Shouldn’t I have a hangover?”
“I took it while you slept,” said Ivovandas. “I have a collection of bottled maladies. Your hangover was due to be the stuff of legends. Here be dragons! And by ‘here,’ I mean directly behind your eyeballs, probably for the rest of the week. I’ll find another head to slip it into, someday. Possibly I’ll let you have it back if you fail me.”
“Fail you? What?” Amarelle leapt to her feet, which sank awkwardly into the mattress. “You have me confused with someone who knows what’s going on. Start with how I was magnificent.”
“I’ve never been so extensively insulted! In my own foyer, no less, before we even adjourned to the study. You offered penetratingly savage elucidation of all my character flaws, most of them imaginary, and then you gave me the firmest possible directions on how I and my peers were to order our affairs henceforth, for the convenience of you and your friends.”
“I, uh, recall some of that, I think.”
“I am curious about a crucial point, citizen Parathis. When you purchased sanctuary from the Parliament of Theradane, you were instructed that personal threats against the members of said parliament could be grounds for summary revocation of sanctuary privileges, were you not?”
“I… recall something with that flavor… in the paperwork… possibly on the back somewhere… maybe in the margins?”
“You will agree that your statements last night certainly qualified as personal threats?”
Smiling, Ivovandas produced a humming blue crystal and used it to project a crisp, solid image into the air beside the bed. It was Amarelle, black–coated and soaked with steaming magic rain, gesturing with clutching hands as she raved:
“And another thing, you venomous milk–faced thundercunt! NOBODY drops a dead vorpilax on my friends, NOBODY! What you fling at the other members of your pointy–hatted circle jerk is your business, but the next time you trifle with the lives of uninvolved citizens, you’d better lock your doors, put on your thickest steel corset, and hire a food taster, you catch my meaning?”
The image vanished.
“Damn,” said Amarelle. “I’ve always thought of myself as basically a happy drunk.”
“I’m three hundred and ten years old,” said Ivovandas, “and I learned some new words last night! Oh, we were having such fun, until I found myself personally threatened.”
“Yes. So it would seem. And how were you thinking we might, ah, proceed in this matter?”
“Ordinarily,” said Ivovandas, “I’d magically redirect the outflow of your lower intestine into your lungs, which would be my little way of saying that your sanctuary privileges had been revoked. However, those skills of yours, and that reputation… I have a contract suited to such a contractor. Why don’t you get dressed and meet me in the study?”
A powerful force struck Amarelle from behind, knocking her off the bed, headfirst into the golden pool. Rather than swimming down she found herself floating up, rising directly through the floor of Ivovandas’ study, a large room full of bookshelves, scrollcases, and lacquered basilisk–skin paneling. Amarelle was suddenly wearing her own clothes again.
On the wall was an oil painting of the bedroom Amarelle had just left, complete with a masterful rendering of Ivovandas floating above the golden pool. As Amarelle watched, the painted figure grew larger and larger within the frame, then pushed her arms and head out of it, and with a twist and a jump at last floated free in the middle of the study.
“Now,” said Ivovandas. “To put it simply, there is an object within Theradane I expect you to secure. Whether or not your friends help you is of no concern to me. As an added incentive, if you deliver this thing to me quietly and successfully, you will calm a great deal of the, ah, public disagreement between myself and a certain parliamentary peer.”
“But the terms of my sanctuary!” said Amarelle. “You got part of my tithe! You know how it works. I can’t steal within the boundaries of Theradane.”
“Well, you can’t threaten me either,” said Ivovandas. “And that’s a moot point now, so what have you got to lose?”
“An eternity not spent as a street lamp.”
“Admirable long–term thinking,” said Ivovandas. “But I do believe if you scrutinize your situation you’ll see that you’re up a certain proverbial creek, and I am the only provisioner of paddles willing to sell you one.”
Amarelle paced, hands shoved sullenly into her coat pockets. She and her crew needed the security of Theradane; they had grown too famous, blown too much cover, taken too many interesting keepsakes from the rich and powerful in too many other places. Theradane’s system was simplicity itself. Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.
“Have some heart, Amarelle. It’s not precisely illegal for me to coax a master criminal back into operations within the city limits, but I can’t imagine my peers would let the matter pass unremarked if they ever found out about it. Do as I ask and I’ll gladly smash my little blue crystal. We’ll both walk away smiling, in harmonious equipoise.”
“What do you want me to secure for you?”
Ivovandas opened a tall cabinet set against the right–hand wall. Inside was a blank tapestry surrounded on all sides by disembodied golden hands not unlike the ones that had hauled Amarelle across the threshold. The hands leapt to life, flicking across the tapestry with golden needles and black thread. Lines appeared on the surface, lines that rapidly became clear to Amarelle as the districts of Theradane and their landmarks: the High Barrens, the Sign of the Fallen Fire, the Deadlight Downs, and a hundred others, stitch by stitch.
When the map was complete, one hand stitched in a final thread of summer–fire crimson, glowing somewhere in the northeastern part of the city.
“Prosperity Street,” said Ivovandas. “In Fortune’s Gate, near the Old Parliament.”
“I’ve been there,” said Amarelle. “What do you want?”
“Prosperity Street. In Fortune’s Gate. Near the Old Parliament.”
“I heard you the first time,” said Amarelle. “But what do you… oh, no. You did not. You did not just imply that implication!”
“I want you to steal Prosperity Street,” said Ivovandas. “The whole street. The entire length of it. Every last brick and stone. It must cease to exist. It must be removed from Theradane.”
“That street is three hundred yards long, at the heart of a district so important and money–soaked that even you lunatics don’t blast it in your little wars, and it’s trafficked at every hour of every day!”
“It would therefore be to your advantage to remove it without attracting notice,” said Ivovandas. “But that’s your business, one way or the other, and I won’t presume to give you instruction in your own narrow specialty.”
“It. Is. A. STREET.”
“And you’re Amarelle Parathis. Weren’t you shouting something last night about how you’d stolen the sound of the sunrise?”
“On the right day of the year,” said Amarelle, “on the peak of the proper mountain, and with a great deal of help from some dwarves and more copper pipe than I can—damn it, it was very complicated!”
“You stole tears from a shark.”
“If you can figure out how to identify a melancholy shark, you’re halfway home in that business.”
“Incidentally, what did you do with the Death Spiders of Moraska once you’d taken them?”
“I mailed them back to the various temples of the spider–priests who’d been annoying me. Let’s just say that confinement left the spiders agitated and hungry, and that the cult now has very firm rules concerning shipping crates with ventilation holes. Also, I mailed the crates postage due.”
“Charming!” cried Ivovandas. “Well, you strike me as just the sort of woman to steal a street.”
“I suppose my only other alternative is a pedestal engraved ‘Now I Serve Theradane Always.’”
“That, or some more private and personal doom,” said Ivovandas. “But you have, in the main, apprehended the salient features of your choices.”
“Why a street?” said Amarelle. “Before I proceed, let’s be candid, or something resembling it. Why do you want this street removed, and how will doing so calm down the fighting between you and your… oh. Oh, hell, it’s a locus, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Ivovandas. Her predatory grin revealed teeth engraved with hair–fine lines of gold in arcane patterns. “Prosperity Street is the external power locus of the wizard Jarrow, my most unbeloved colleague. It’s how he finds the wherewithal to prolong this tedious contest of summoned creatures and weather. Without it, I could flatten him in an afternoon and be home in time for tea.”
“Forgive me if this is a touchy subject, but I thought the nature of these loci was about the most closely–guarded secret you and your… colleagues possess.”
“Jarrow has been indiscreet,” said Ivovandas. “But then, he understands the knowledge alone is useless if it can’t be coupled to a course of action. A street is quite a thing to dispose of, and the question of how to do so absolutely stymied me until you came calling with your devious head so full of drunken outrage. Shall we go to contract?”
The cabinet of golden hands unstitched the map of Theradane, and in its place embroidered a number of paragraphs in neat, even script. Amarelle peered closely at them. They were surprisingly straightforward, describing a trade of one (1) street for one (1) blue crystal to be smashed, but then…
“What the hell’s this?” she said. “A deadline? A year and a day?”
“It’s the traditional span for this sort of arrangement,” said Ivovandas. “And surely you can see the sense in it. I prefer Jarrow de–fanged fairly soon, not five or ten or some nebulous and ever–changing number of years from now. I require you working with determination and focus. And you require some incentive other than simple destruction for failure, so there it all is.”
“A year and a day,” said Amarelle, “and I deliver the street, or surrender my citizenship and worldly wealth to permanent indenture in your service.”
“It would be a comfortable and exciting life,” said Ivovandas. “But you can avoid it if you’re as clever as I hope you are.”
“And what if I were to quietly report this arrangement to the wizard Jarrow and see if he could do better for me?”
“A worthwhile contemplation of treacherous entanglement symmetrical to my own! I salute your spirit, but must remind you that Jarrow possesses no blue crystal, nor do you or he possess the faintest notion of where my external locus resides. You must decide for yourself which of us would make the easier target. If you wish to be ruled by wisdom, you’ll reach into your pockets now.”
Amarelle did, and found that a quill and an ink bottle had somehow appeared therein.
“One street,” she said. “For one crystal. One year and one day.”
“It’s all there in plain black thread,” said Ivovandas. “Will you sign?”
Amarelle stared at the contract and ground her teeth, a habit her mother had always sternly cautioned her against. At last, she uncapped the bottle of ink and wet the quill.
7. Another Unexpected Change of Clothing
The usual tumult of wizardly contention had abated. Even Ivovandas and Jarrow seemed to be taking a rest from their labors when Amarelle walked out of the High Barrens under a peach–colored afternoon haze. All the clocks in the city sounded three, refuting and echoing and interrupting one another, the actual ringing of the hour taking somewhere north of two and a half minutes due to the fact that clocks in Theradane were traditionally mis–synchronized to confuse malicious spirits.
Amarelle’s thoughts were an electric whirl of anxiety and calculation. She hailed a mechanavipede and was soon speeding over the rooftops of the city in a swaying chair tethered beneath the straining wings of a flock of mechanical sparrows. There was simply nowhere else to go for help; she would have to heave herself before her friends like jetsam washed up on a beach.
Sophara and Brandwin lived in a narrow, crooked house on Shankvile Street, a house they’d secured at an excellent price due to the fact that it sometimes had five stories and sometimes six. Where the sixth occasionally wandered off to was unknown, but while it politely declined their questions about its business it also had the courtesy to ask none concerning theirs. Amarelle had the mechanavipede heave her off into a certain third–floor window which served as a friends–only portal for urgent business.
The ladies of the house were in, and by a welcome stroke of luck so was Shraplin. Brandwin was fussing with the pistons of his replacement left foot, while Sophara sprawled full–length on a velvet hammock wearing smoked glasses and an ice–white beret that exuded analgesic mist in a halo about her head.
“How is it that you’re not covered in vomit and begging for death?” said Sophara. “How is it that you consumed three times your own weight in liquor and I’ve got sole custody of the hangover?”
“I had an unexpected benefactor, Soph. Can you secure this chamber for sensitive conversation?”
“The whole house is reasonably safe,” groaned the magician, rolling off the hammock with minimal grace and dignity. “Now, if you want me to weave a deeper silence, give me a minute to gather my marbles. Wait…”
She pulled her smoked glasses off and peered coldly at Amarelle. Stepping carefully around the mess of specialized tools and mechanical gewgaws littering the carpet, she approached, sniffing the air.
“Something wrong, dearest?” said Brandwin.
“Shhhh,” said Sophara. She rubbed her eyes in the manner of the freshly–awake, then reached out, moved Amarelle’s left coat lapel aside, and pulled a gleaming gold thread out of the black wool.
“You,” she said, arching her aquamarine eyebrows at Amarelle, “have been seeing another wizard.”
Sophara clapped her hands and an eerie hush fell upon the room. The faint sounds of the city outside were utterly banished.
“Ivovandas,” said Amarelle. “I ran off and did something stupid last night. In my defense, I would just like to say that I was angry, and you were the one mixing the drinks.”
“You unfailingly omni–bothersome bitch,” said Sophara. “Well, this little thread would allow Ivovandas to eavesdrop, if not for my counterspell and certain fundamental confusions worked into the stones of this house. And where there’s obvious chicanery, there’s something lurking behind it. Take the rest of your clothes off.”
“Do it now, Amarelle!” Sophara retrieved a silver–engraved casket from a far corner of the room, clicked it open, and made urgent motions while Amarelle shed her coat.
“You see how direct she is?” Brandwin squeezed a tiny bellows to pressurize a tube of glowing green oil within Shraplin’s leg. “We’d never have gotten anywhere if she’d waited for me to make the first move.”
“You keep your eyes on your work,” said Sophara. “I’ll do the looking for both of us and give you details later.”
“I sometimes think that ‘friend’ is just a word I use for all the people I haven’t murdered yet,” said Amarelle, hopping and twirling out of her boots, leggings, belts, vest, blouse, sharp implements, silk ropes, smoke capsules, and smallclothes. When the last stitch was discarded, Sophara slammed the casket shut and muttered spells over the lock.
As a decided afterthought, smiling and taking her time, she eventually fetched Amarelle a black silk dressing robe embroidered with blue–white astronomical charts.
“It seems to be my day to try on everyone else’s clothes,” she muttered.
“I’m sorry about your things,” said Sophara. “I should be able to sweep them for further tricks, but Ivovandas is so far outside my weight class, it might take days.”
“Never let a wizard get their hands on your clothes,” said Brandwin. “At least not until she promises to move in with you. It ought to be safe to talk now.”
“I’m not entirely sure how to say this,” said Amarelle, “but the concise version is that I’m temporarily unretired.”
She told the whole story, pausing only to answer Sophara’s excited questions about the defenses and décor of Ivovandas’ manse.
“That’s a hell of a thing, boss,” said Shraplin when Amarelle finished. The clocks within the house started chiming five, and didn’t finish for some time. The city clocks were still sealed beyond Sophara’s silence. “I thought we were up against it when that shark tears job landed on us. But a street!”
“I wonder how Jarrow figured out it was a locus.” Sophara adjusted the analgesic hat, which had done her much good over the long course of Amarelle’s story. ”I wonder how he harnessed it without anyone interfering!”
“Keep it relevant, dreamer.” Brandwin massaged her wife’s legs. “The pertinent question is, how are we going to pull it off?”
“I only came for advice,” said Amarelle hastily. “This is all my fault, and nobody else needs to risk their sanctuary because I got drunk and sassed a wizard.”
“Let me enlighten you, boss,” said Shraplin. “If you don’t want me to follow you around being helpful, you must be planning to smash my head right now.”
“Amarelle, you can’t keep us out in the cold now! This mischief is too delicious,” said Sophara. “And it’s clearly not prudent to let you wander off on your own.”
“I’m grateful,” said Amarelle, “but I feel responsible for your safety.”
“The Parliament of Strife craps destruction on its own city at random, boss.” Shraplin spread his hands. “How much more unsafe can we get? Frankly, two and a half quiet years is adequate to my taste.”
“Yes,” said Sophara. “Hang your delicate feelings, Amarelle, you know we won’t let you… oh, wait. You foxy bag of tits and sugar! You didn’t come here just for advice! You put your noble face on so we’d pledge ourselves without the pleasure of seeing you beg!”
“And you fell for it.” Amarelle grinned. “So it’s agreed, we’re all out of retirement and we’re stealing a street. If anyone cares to let me know how the hell that’s supposed to work, the suggestion box is open.”
8. The Cheap Shot
They spent the first two days in measurement and surveillance. Prosperity Street was three hundred and seventeen yards long running north–south, an average of ten yards wide. Nine major avenues and fifteen alleys bisected it. One hundred and six businesses and residences opened onto it, one of which was a wine bar serving distillations of such quality that a third day was lost to hangovers and remonstrations.
They struck on the evening of the fourth day, as warm mist curled lazily from the sewers and streetlamps gleamed like pearls in folds of gray gauze. The clocks began chiming eleven, a process that often lasted until it was nearly time for them to begin striking twelve.
A purple–skinned woman in the coveralls of a municipal functionary calmly tinkered with the sign post at the intersection of Prosperity and Magdamar. She placed the wooden shingle marked PROSPERITY S in a sack and tipped her hat to a drunk, semi–curious goblin. Brandwin emptied three intersections of PROSPERITY S signs before the clocks settled down.
At the intersection of Prosperity and Ninefingers, a polite brass–headed drudge painted over every visible PROSPERITY S with an opaque black varnish. Two blocks north, a mechanavipede flying unusually low with a cargo of one dark–haired woman crashed into a signpost, an accident that would be repeated six times. At the legendarily confusing seven–way intersection where the various Goblin Markets joined Prosperity, a sorceress disguised as a cat’s shadow muttered quiet spells of alphabetic nullification, wiping every relevant signpost like a slate.
They had to remove forty–six shingles or signposts and deface the placards of sixteen businesses that happened to be named after the street. Lastly, they arranged to tip a carboy of strong vitriol over a ceremonial spot in the pavement where PROSPERITY STREET was set in iron letters. When those had become PRCLGILV SLGFLL, they gave the mess a quick splash of water and hurried away to dispose of their coveralls, paints, and stolen city property.
The next day, Ivovandas was less than impressed.
“Nothing happened.” Her gold eyes gleamed dangerously and her butterflies were still. “Not one femto–scintilla of deviation or dampening in the potency of Jarrow’s locus. Though there were quite a few confused travelers and tourists. You need to steal the street, Amarelle, not vandalize its ornaments.”
“I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” said Amarelle. “I just thought we ought to eliminate the simplest approach first. Never lay an Archduke on the table when a two will do.”
“The map is not the territory.” Ivovandas gestured and transported Amarelle to the front lawn of her manse, where the hypnotic toad sculptures nearly cost her even more lost time.
9. Brute Force
Their next approach took eleven days to plan and arrange, including two days lost to a battle between parliament wizards in the western sectors that collapsed the Temple–Bridge of the God of Hidden Names.
The street signs had been restored at the intersection of Prosperity and Languinar, the southernmost limit of Prosperity Street. The sunrise sky was just creeping over the edge of the city in orange and scarlet striations, and the clocks were or were not chiming seven. A caravan of reinforced cargo coaches drawn by armored horses halted on Languinar, preparing to turn north. The signs hanging from the coaches read:
NUSBARQ DESISKO AND SONS
HAZARDOUS ANIMAL TRANSPORT
As the caravan moved into traffic, a woman in a flaming red dress riding a mecharabbit hopped rudely into the path of the lead carriage, triggering an unlikely but picturesque chain of disasters. Carriage after carriage toppled, wheel after wheel flew from its hub, horse team after horse team ran neighing into traffic as their emergency releases snapped. The side of the first toppled carriage exploded outward, and a furry, snarling beast came bounding out of the wreckage.
“RUN,” cried someone, who happened to be the woman in the red dress. “IT’S A SPRING–HEELED WEREJACKAL!”
A heartbeat later her damaged mecharabbit exploded, enveloping her in a cloud of steam and sparks. The red dress was reversible and Amarelle had practiced swapping it around by touch. Three seconds later she ran from the cloud of steam dressed in a black hooded robe. Shraplin, not at all encumbered by seventy–five pounds of fur, leather, and wooden claws, merrily activated the reinforced shock–absorbing leg coils Brandwin had cobbled together for him. He went leaping and howling across the crowd, turning alarm into panic and flight.
Twenty–two unplanned carriage or mechanavipede collisions took place in the next half–minute, locking traffic up for two blocks north of the initial accident. Amarelle didn’t have time to count them as she hurried north in Shraplin’s wake.
Another curiously defective carriage in the Nusbarq Desisko caravan cracked open, exposing its cargo of man–sized hives to the open air and noise. Thousands of Polychromatic Reek–Bees, scintillating in every color of the rainbow and fearful for the safety of their queens, flew forth to spew defensive stink–nectar on everything within buzzing distance. The faintest edge of that scent followed Amarelle north, and she regretted having eaten breakfast. Hundreds of people would be burning their clothes before the day was through.
All along the length of Prosperity Street, aural spells prepared in advance by Sophara began to erupt. Bold, authoritative voices ordered traffic to halt, passers–by to run, shops to close, citizens to pray for deliverance. They screamed about werejackals, basilisks, reek–bees, Cradlerobber Wasps, rabid vorpilax, and the plague. They ordered constables and able–bodied citizens to use barrels and carriages as makeshift riot–barricades at the major intersections, which some of them did.
Amarelle reached the alley after Ninefingers Way and found the package she’d stashed behind a rotten crate the night before. Soon she emerged from the alley in the uniform of a Theradane constable, captain’s bars shining on her collar, steel truncheon gleaming. She issued useless and contradictory orders, fomented panic, pushed shopkeepers into their stores and ordered them to bar their doors. When she met actual constables, she jabbed them with the narcotic prong concealed on the end of her truncheon. Their unconscious bodies, easily mistaken for dead, added a piquant verisimilitude to the raging disquiet.
At the northern end of Prosperity Street, a constabulary riot wagon commanded by a pair of uniformed women experienced another improbable accident when it came into contact with the open fire of a careless street fondue vendor. Brandwin and Sophara threw their helmets aside and ran screaming, infecting dozens of citizens with disoriented panic even before the rockets and canisters inside the wagon began to explode. For nearly half an hour pinkish–white arcs of sneezing powder, soporific smoke, and eye–scalding pepper dust rained on Prosperity Street.
Eventually, two parliament wizards had to grudgingly intervene to help the constables and bucket brigades restore order. The offices of Nusbarq Desisko and Sons were found to be empty and their records missing, presumably carried with them when they fled the city. The spring–heeled werejackal was never located and was assumed taken as a pet by some wizard or another.
“What do you mean, nothing happened?” Amarelle paced furiously in Ivovandas’ study the following day, having explained herself to the wizard, who had half–listened while consulting a grimoire that occasionally moaned and laughed to itself. “We closed the full length of Prosperity Street down for more than three hours! We stole the street from everyone on it in a very meaningful sense! The traffic didn’t flow, the riot barriers were up, not a scrap of commerce took place anywhere—”
“Amarelle,” said the wizard, not taking her eyes from her book, “I applaud your adoption of a more dynamic approach to the problem, but I’m afraid it simply didn’t do anything. Not the merest hint of any diminishment to Jarrow’s arcane resources. I do wish it were otherwise. Mind the hypnotic toads, as I’ve strengthened their enchantments substantially.” She snapped her fingers, and Amarelle was back on the lawn.
10. The Typographic Method
Sophara directed the next phase of their operations, resigning her place as mage–mixologist indefinitely.
“It was mostly for easy access to the bar anyway,” she said. “And they’d kiss my heels to have me back anytime.”
A studious, eye–straining month and a half followed. Sophara labored over spell–board, abacus, grimoire, and journal, working in four languages and several forms of thaumaturgical notation that made Amarelle’s eyes burn.
“I keep telling you not to look at them!” said Sophara as she adjusted the analgesic beret on Amarelle’s head. “You haven’t got the proper optical geometry! You and Brandwin! You’re worse than cats.”
Brandwin prowled libraries and civic archives. Amarelle broke into seventeen major private collections. Shraplin applied his tireless mechanical perception to the task of rapidly sifting thousands of pages in thousands of books. A vast pile of notes grew in Brandwin and Sophara’s house, along with an inelegant but thorough master list of scrolls, pamphlets, tomes, and records.
“Any guide to the city,” chanted Amarelle, for the formula had become a sort of mantra. “Any notes of any traveler, any records of tax or residence, any mentions of repairs, any journals or recollections. Have we ever done anything less sane? How can we possibly expect to locate every single written reference to Prosperity Street in every single document in existence?”
“We can’t,” said Sophara. “But if my calculations are anywhere near correct, and if this can work at all, we only need to change a certain critical percentage of those records, especially in the official municipal archives.”
Shraplin and Brandwin cut panels of wood down to precise replicas of the forty–six street signs and the sixteen business placards they had previously tried to steal. They scraped, sanded, varnished, and engraved, making only one small change to each facsimile.
“I have the key,” said Brandwin, emerging from her incense–filled workroom one night, bleary–eyed and cooing at a small white moth perched atop her left index finger. “I call it the Adjustment Moth. It’s a very complex and efficient little spell I can cast on anything about this size.”
“And what will they do?” said Amarelle.
“They’ll become iterating work–enhancers,” said Sophara. “It’d take us years to manually adjust all the records we’re after. Enchanted with my spell to guide and empower them, we can send these little darlings out to do almost all of the work for us in one night.”
“How many do we need?” said Shraplin.
Nine nights later, from carefully–selected points around the city, they loosed 3,449 of Sophara’s Adjustment Moths, each of which fluttered into the darkness and thence into libraries, archives, shop cupboards, private studies, and bedside cabinets. The 2,625 Adjustment Moths that were not eaten by bats or appropriated as cat toys located a total of 617,451 references to the name ‘Prosperity Street’ and made one crucial change to each physical text. By sunrise they were all dead of exhaustion.
Amarelle and her crew replaced the forty–six street signs and sixteen business placards under cover of darkness, then pried up one of the (restored) ceremonial iron letters sunk into the pavement. PROSPERIT STREET, the survivors said. PROSPERIT, read the signs and placards. PROSPERIT STREET read the name of the place in every guidebook, private journal, lease, assize, and tax record in the city, save for a few in magically–guarded sanctums of the Parliament of Strife.
Overnight, Prosperity Street had been replaced by its very close cousin, Prosperit Street.
“Amarelle,” said Ivovandas, sipping daintily at a cup of molten gold she’d heated in a desk–side crucible, “I sympathize with your agitation at the failure of so original and far–ranging a scheme, but I really must stress the necessity of abandoning these fruitlessly metaphysical approaches. Don’t steal the street’s name, or its business, or its final ‘Y.’ Steal the street, wholly and physically!”
Amarelle groaned. “Back to the lawn?”
“Back to the lawn, my dear!”
11. After Amarelle, the Deluge
Twenty–seven days later, one of the natural storms of summer blew in from the west, a churning shroud of dark clouds looking for a brawl. As usual, the wizards of parliament preserved their individual territories and let the rest of Theradane fend for itself. It was therefore theoretically plausible that the elevated aqueduct that crossed Prosperity Street just north of Limping Matron Lane would choose that night to break under the strain.
Prosperity Street was already contending with plugs of debris clogging its sewer grates (these plugs granted unusual thickness and persistence by the spells of Sophara Miris) and with its own valley–like position at the foot of several more elevated neighborhoods. The foaming rush from the broken aqueduct turned a boot–soaking stream into a rather more alarming waist–high river.
Amarelle and her crew lurked in artificial shadows on a high rooftop, dutifully watching to ensure that no one, particularly children and goblins, suffered more than a soaking from the flood. The city hydromancers would eventually show up to set things right, but they were no doubt having a busy night.
“This is still a touch metaphysical, if you ask me,” said Sophara.
“It’s something of a hybrid approach,” said Amarelle. “After all, how can it be a street if it’s been physically turned into a canal?”
“No,” said Ivovandas. Amarelle was returned to the lawn.
13. Instructive Measures
Half a year gone. Despite vandalism, riot, werejackals, clerical errors, and flood, Prosperity Street was more worthy of its name than ever. Amarelle strolled the pavement, feeling the autumn sun on her face, admiring the pale bronze leaves of Prayer–trees as they tumbled about in little clouds, inscribed with calligraphic benedictions for anyone whose path they crossed.
There was a stir in the crowds around her, a new cacophony of shouting and muttering and horse–hooves and creaking wheels. Traffic parted to the north, making way for a rumbling coach, half again as high and wide as anything on the street. It was black as death’s asshole, windowless, trimmed with engraved silver and inlaid nacre. It had no horses and no driver; each of its four wheels was a circular steel cage in which a slavering red–eyed ghoul ran on four limbs, creating a forward impetus.
The singular coach moaned on its suspension as it swerved and lurched to a halt beside Amarelle. The ghouls leered at her, unbreathing, their flesh crisply necrotic like rice paper pressed over old oozing wounds. The black door flew open and a footstep fell into place. A velvet curtain still fluttered in the entrance to the coach, concealing whatever lay inside. A voice called out, cold as chloroform and old shame.
“Don’t you know an invitation when you see one, citizen Parathis?”
Running from wizards in broad daylight without preparation was not a skill Amarelle had ever cultivated, so she stepped boldly into the carriage, ducking her head.
She was startled to find herself in a warm gray space at least forty yards on a side, with a gently curving ceiling lit by floating silver lights. A vast mechanical apparatus was ticking and pulsing and shifting in the middle of the room, something along the lines of an orrery, but in place of moons and planets the thin arms held likenesses of men and women, likenesses carved with exaggerated features and comical flaws. Amarelle recognized one of them as Ivovandas by the gold eyes and butterfly hair.
There were thirteen figures, and they moved in complex interlocking patterns around a model of the city of Theradane.
The carriage door slammed shut behind her. There was no sensation of motion, other than the almost–hypnotic sway and swing of the wizard–orrery.
“My peers,” said the cold voice, coming now from behind her. “Like celestial bodies, transiting in their orbits, exerting their influences. Like celestial bodies, not particularly difficult to track or predict in their motions.”
Amarelle turned and gasped. The man was short and lithe, his skin like ebony, his hair scrapped down to a reddish stubble. There was a scar on his chin and another on his jawline, each of them familiar to her fingers and lips. Only the eyes were wrong; they were poisoner’s eyes, dead as glass.
“You have no fucking right to that face,” said Amarelle, fighting not to shout.
“Scavius of Shadow Street, isn’t it? Or more like ‘wasn’t it?’ Came with you to Theradane, but we never got his sanctuary money. Blew it in some dramatic gesture, I recall.”
“He got drunk and lost it all on a dice throw,” she said, wetting her lips and forcing herself to say: “Jarrow.”
“Pleased to meet you, Amarelle Parathis.” The man wore a simple black jacket and breeches. He extended a hand, which she didn’t take. “Lost it all on one throw? That was stupid.”
“I’m not unacquainted with drunken mistakes myself,” said Amarelle.
“And then he went and did something even more stupid,” said Jarrow. “Earned a criminal’s apotheosis. Transfigured into a street lamp.”
“Please… take some other form.”
“No.” Jarrow scratched his head, shook a finger at her. “That’s a fine starting point for the discussion I really brought you here for, Amarelle. Let’s talk about behavior that might get someone transfigured into a street decoration.”
“Sure, kid. Look, there’s a very old saying in my family: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is another wizard fucking with you.’ You never spent much time near Prosperity Street before, did you? Your apartments are on Hellendal. South of Tanglewing Street. Right?”
“About the location of my apartments, of course.”
“You’ve got iron in your spine, Amarelle, and I’m not here to prolong this or embarrass you. I’m just suggesting, to the room, if you like, that it would be a shame if any more unusual phenomena befell a part of Theradane that is of particular sentimental value to me. This is what your sanctuary money gets you. This is me being kind. Are you pretending to listen, or are you listening?”
“Here’s a little something to further sharpen your hearing.” A burlap sack appeared in Jarrow’s hands and he threw it to her. It weighed about ten pounds, and the contents rattled. “The usual verification that I’m serious. You know how it works. Anyhow, in the best of all possible worlds, we never have to have a conversation like this again. What world do you want to live in, Amarelle Parathis?”
The air grew cold. The lights dimmed and receded into the corners of the room, vanishing like stars behind clouds. Amarelle’s stomach tumbled, and then her boots were on pavement, the sound of traffic was all around her, and Prayer–tree leaves brushed her face.
The sun was high and warm, and the black coach was nowhere in sight.
Amarelle shook the sack open and cursed as Shraplin’s head tumbled out. The edges of the pipes running out of his neck were burnt and bent.
“I don’t know what to say, boss.” His voice was steady but weak. “I’m embarrassed. I got jumped last night.”
“What the hell did they do?”
“Nothing technically illegal, boss. They left my head and the contents intact. As for the rest, let’s just say I don’t expect to see it again.”
“I’m sorry, Shraplin. I’ll get you to Brandwin. I’m so sorry.”
“Quit apologizing, boss.” Something whirred and clunked behind the automaton’s eyes, and he gave a garbled moan. “But I have to say, my reverence for these high–level wizard types is speeding in what you might call a southerly direction.”
“We need more help,” whispered Amarelle. “If we’re going to put the boot to this mess, I think it’s high time we got the whole band back together.”
14. The Unretirement of Jadetongue Squirn
She was tall for a goblin, not that that meant anything to most other species. Her scales were like black glass, her eyes like the sudden plunge to blue depths beyond a continental shelf. Her pointed ears were pierced with silver rings, some of which held writing quills she could reach up and seize at leisure.
They all went together to see her in her shadowed cloister at the Theradane Ministry of Finance and Provision, a place that stank of steady habits, respectability, and workers who’d died at their desks with empty in–boxes. She was not best pleased to receive them.
“We’re not what we were!” Jade hissed when Amarelle had finished telling most of the story, safely inside the goblin’s office and Sophara’s sound–proof bubble. “Look at you! Look at the messes you’ve made! And look at me. How can I possibly help you? I’m an ink–stained functionary these days. I scribe ordinances and design engravings for bank notes.”
Amarelle stared at her, biting her lip. Jadetongue Squirn had been jailed six times and escaped six times. You could walk nearly around the world by setting foot only in nations that still sought her for trial. Smuggler, negotiator, procurer of bizarre supplies, she was also the finest forger Amarelle had ever met, capable of memorizing signatures at a glance and reproducing them with either hand.
“We’ve missed you at our drinking nights,” said Brandwin. “You were always welcome. You were always wanted.”
“I don’t belong anymore.” Jade’s voice was flat and she clung to her desk as though it could be a wall between herself and her old comrades. “I’m like a hermit crab that’s pulled an office over itself. Maybe the rest of you were only kidding yourselves about retiring, but I’m the real thing. I haven’t been coming out to see you because you’d expect Jadetongue Squirn, not this timid little person who wears her clothes.”
“We’re like a hand with a missing finger,” said Amarelle. “We’ve got half a year to make three hundred yards of street vanish and we need that slick green brain of yours. You said it yourself—look at what a mess we’ve made so far! Look what Jarrow did to Shraplin.”
Amarelle reached into a leather satchel. The automaton’s head bounced on Jadetongue’s desk a moment later, and she made a rattling noise in her throat.
“Ha ha! The look on your face!” said Shraplin.
“How about the look on yours, duncebucket?” she growled. “I ought to stuff you in a drawer for scaring me like that!”
“You see now why we have to have you back,” said Amarelle. “Shraplin’s the warning. Our next shot has to be for keeps.”
“Three funny bitches and a smart–ass automaton sans ass,” said Jade. “You think you can just walk in here, tug on my heartstrings, and snatch me out of my sad retirement.”
“Yes,” said Amarelle.
“We’re still not what we were.” She put a scaly hand on Shraplin’s face, then spun him like a top. “I’m definitely not what I was. But what the hell. Maybe you’re right, about needing help, at least.”
“So, are you going to take a leave of absence or something?” said Shraplin, when he’d stopped saying “Whaaaaargabaarrrrrgggh!”
“A leave of absence? Are you sure you didn’t damage the contents of your head?” Jadetongue glanced around at all the members of the crew. “Sweethearts, softskins, thimblewits, if you’re determined to see this thing through, the municipal bureaucracy of Theradane is the last asset you want to toss carelessly over your shoulder!”
15. Honest Business
“I haven’t asked you for anything to assist us in this whole affair,” said Amarelle. “Not once. Now that needs to change.”
“I’m not averse in theory to small favors,” said Ivovandas, “given that the potential reward for your ultimate success is so personally tantalizing. But do understand, most of my magical resources are currently committed. Nor will I do anything overt enough to harden Jarrow’s suspicions. He has the same authority to kill you outright that I do, if he can prove your violation of your sanctuary terms to our peers.”
“We’re starting a business,” Said Amarelle. “The High Barrens Reclamation Consortium. We need you to sign on as the principal stakeholder.”
“Because nobody can sue you.” Amarelle pulled a packet of paper out of her coat and set them on Ivovandas’ desk. “We need a couple of wagons and about a dozen workers. We’ll provide those. We’re going to excavate wrecked mansions in the High Barrens on days when you and Jarrow aren’t blasting at each other.”
“There’s some things we need to take,” said Amarelle with a smile, “and some things we need to hide. If we do it in our names, the heirs of all the families that ran like hell when you settled here and started shooting at other wizards will line up in court to stop us. If you’re the one in charge, they can’t do a damned thing.”
“I will examine these papers,” said Ivovandas. “I will have them returned to you if I deem the arrangement suitable.”
Amarelle found herself on the lawn. But three days later, the papers appeared in her apartments, signed and notarized. The High Barrens Reclamation Consortium went to work.
The Parliament of Strife ruled Theradane absolutely but were profoundly disinterested in the mundane business of cleaning the streets and sorting the paperwork. That much they left to their city’s strangely feudal and secretive bureaucracy, who were essentially free to do as they pleased so long as the hedges were trimmed and the damage from the continual wizard feuding was repaired. Jade worked efficiently from within this edifice. She pushed through all the requisite paperwork, forged or purchased the essential permits, swept all the mandated delays and hearings under the rug, and then stepped on the rug.
Brandwin hired their crew, a dozen stout men and women. They were paid the going wage for their work, that much again for the occasional danger of proximity to Ivovandas’ battles, and a triple portion for keeping their mouths shut. For a week or two they excavated carefully in the wreckage of once–mighty houses, concealing whatever they took from the ruins beneath tarps on their wagons.
Next, Brandwin and Shraplin spent a week refurbishing a trio of wagons as mobile vending carts. They extended wooden skirts around them to the ground, installed folding awnings and sturdy roofs, carved signs and painted them attractively. One of the wagons was kitted out as a book stall, the other two as food carts.
The labyrinth of bribes and permits needed to launch this sort of venture was even more daunting than the one that had preceded the excavation company. Jade outdid herself, weaving blackmail and intimidation into a tapestry of efficient palm–greasing. Whether the permit placards that hung from the vending carts were genuine articles or perfect copies was ultimately irrelevant. No procedural complication survived first contact with Jade’s attention.
With four months remaining, Amarelle and Sophara went into legitimate business for themselves. Amarelle peddled books on Prosperity Street until noon, while Sophara plied her precision sorcery for appreciative breakfast crowds on Galban Street. She cooked frosted walnut cakes into the shape of unicorns and cockatrices, caused fresh fruit to squeeze itself into juice glasses, and made her figs and dates give rude speeches while her customers tried to eat them and laugh at the same time. In the afternoon, she and Amarelle switched places.
Some days, Brandwin would operate the third vending cart, offering sweets and beer, but for some time she was absorbed in a number of demanding modifications to Shraplin’s body and limbs. These modifications remained hidden in the darkness of her workshop; Shraplin never went out in public wearing anything but one of his ordinary bodies.
One bright day on Prosperity Street, a stray breeze blew one of Amarelle’s books open and fluttered its pages. She moved to close it and was startled to find a detailed grayscale engraving of Scavius’ face staring up at her from the top page.
“Amarelle,” said the illustration. “You seem to have an unexpected literary sideline.”
“Can’t practice my former trade,” she said through gritted teeth. “Money’s getting tight.”
“So you’re exploring new avenues, eh? New avenues? Not even a smile? Well, fine, have it your way. I ought to snuff you, you realize. I don’t know who or what prompted the weirdness of the previous few months—”
Amarelle fanned the pages of the book vindictively. The illustration flashed past on each one, and continued talking smoothly when Amarelle gave up.
“…but the wisest and cleverest thing would be to turn your bones to molten glass and take no chances. Alas, I need evidence of wrongdoing. Can’t just blast sanctuary tithers. People might stop giving us large piles of treasure for the privilege.”
“My business partners and I are engaged in boring, legitimate commerce,” said Amarelle.
“I know. I’ve been peeking up your skirts, as it were. Very boring. I thought we ought to have a final word, though. A little reminder that you should stay boring, or I can think of one story that won’t have a happy ending.”
The book slammed itself shut. Amarelle exhaled slowly, rubbed her eyes, and went back to work.
On the days wore, on the legitimate business went. The women began to move their vending carts more frequently, investing some of their profits in small mechanical equines to make this work easier.
With three months left in the contract, the carts that moved up and down Prosperity Street began to cross paths with carts from elsewhere in the city in a complicated dance that always ended with an unmarked High Barrens Reclamation Consortium wagon paying a quiet evening visit to one of the mansions they were excavating.
Another two months passed, and there was no spot on Prosperity Street that Amarelle or Sophara or Brandwin had not staked out at least temporarily, no merchant they hadn’t come to know by name, no constable they hadn’t thoroughly pacified with free food, good beer, and occasional gifts of books.
Three days before the contract was due to expire, a loud explosion shook the north end of Prosperity Street, breaking windows and knocking pedestrians to the curb. A mansion in a private court was found burning, already collapsing into itself. A huge black coach lay wrecked in the drive, its ghoul–cage wheels torn open, its roof smashed, its insides revealing nothing but well–upholstered seats and a carpeted floor.
The next day, Amarelle Parathis was politely summoned to the manse of the wizard Ivovandas.
16. Bottled Malady
“Am I satisfied? Satisfaction is a palliative,” said Ivovandas, gold–threaded teeth blazing with reflected light, butterflies fluttering furiously. “Satisfaction is mild wine. Satisfaction is a tiny fraction of what I feel. Delight and fulfillment pounding in my breast like triumphant chords! Seventy years of unprofitable disdain from this face–changing reprobate, and now his misery is mine to contemplate at leisure.”
“I’m so pleased you were able to crush him,” said Amarelle. “Did you manage to get home in time for your tea afterward?”
The golden wizard ignored her and kept staring at the glass cylinder on her desk. It was six inches tall and half as wide, capped with a ground–glass stopper and sealed with wax the color of dried blood. Inside it was wretched Jarrow, shrunken to a suitable proportion and clad in rags. He had reverted (or been forced into) the shape of a cadaverous pale man with a silver–black beard.
“Jarrow,” she sighed. “Jarrow. Oh, the laws of proportion and symmetry are restored to operation between us; my sustained pleasure balanced accurately against your lingering discomfort and demise.”
“So obviously,” said Amarelle, “you consider me to have stolen Prosperity Street in accordance with the contract?”
Jarrow pounded furiously against the glass.
“Oh, obviously, dear Amarelle, you’ve acquitted yourself splendidly! Yet the street is still there, is it not? Still carrying traffic, still hosting commerce. Before I retrieve your blue crystal, are you of a mind to indulge my former colleague and I with an explanation?”
“Delighted,” said Amarelle. “After all our other approaches failed, we decided to try the painstakingly literal. Prosperity Street is roughly three thousand, one hundred and seventy square yards of brick and stone surface. The question we asked ourselves was: who really looks at each brick and each stone?”
“Certainly not poor Jarrow,” said Ivovandas, “else he’d not find his bottle about to join my collection.”
“We resolved to physically steal every single square yard of Prosperity Street, every brick and stone,” said Amarelle. “Which yielded three problems. First, how to do so without anyone noticing the noise and tumult of our work? Second, how to do so without anyone objecting to the stripped and uneven mess made of the street in our wake? Third, how to provide the physical labor to handle the sheer volume and tedium of the task?”
“To answer the second point first, we used the High Barrens Restoration Consortium. They carefully fished through the mansions you two have destroyed in your feud to provide us with all the bricks and stones we could ever need.
“A large hollow space was constructed beneath each of our vending carts, which we first plied up and down assorted city streets, not just Prosperity, for an interminable length of time to allay suspicion that they were directly aimed at Jarrow’s locus.”
Jarrow banged his head repeatedly against the inside of his prison.
“Eventually we felt it was safe to proceed with our real business. The rest you must surely have guessed by now. The labor was provided by Shraplin, an automaton, whose meeting with Jarrow left him very eager to bear any trouble or tedium in the cause of his revenge. Shraplin utilized tool–arms custom–forged for him by Brandwin Miris to dig up the bricks and stones of the actual street, and to lay in their place the bricks and stones taken from the High Barrens mansions. At night, the detritus he’d scraped up by day was dumped into the ruins of those same mansions. As for why nobody ever heard Shraplin scraping or pounding away beneath our carts, all I can say is that our magician is highly adept at the production of sound–proof barriers to fit any space or need.
“All that was left to do,” said Amarelle, stretching and yawning, “was to spend the months necessary to carefully position our carts over every square foot of Prosperity Street. Nobody ever noticed that when we moved on, the patches of street beneath us had changed subtly from the hour or two before. Eventually, we pried up the last brick that was genuinely important, and Jarrow’s locus became just another city lane.”
“Help me!” Jarrow cried, his voice high and faint as a whisper in the wind. “Get me away from her! I can be him for you! I can be Scavius! I can be anyone you want!”
“Enough from you, I think.” Ivovandas slid his prison lovingly into a desk drawer, still smiling. She curled her fingers, and a familiar blue crystal appeared within them.
“You have suffered quite tenaciously for this,” said Ivovandas. “I give it to you now as my half of our bargain, fairly begun and fairly concluded.”
Amarelle took the glowing crystal and crushed it beneath her heel.
“Is that the end of it?” she said. “All restored to harmonious equipoise? I go on my way and leave you to your next few years of conversation with Jarrow?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Ivovandas. “While I have dutifully disposed of the crystal recording from last year’s intemperate drunken visitation, I have just now secured an even more entertaining one in which you confess at length to crimes carried out in Theradane and implicate several of your friends by name.”
“Yes,” said Amarelle. “I did rather expect something like this. I figured that since I was likely to eat more treachery, I might as well have an appreciative audience first.”
“I am the most appreciative audience! Oh, we could be so good for one another! Consider, Amarelle, the very reasonable bounds of my desires and expectations. I fancy myself fairly adept at identifying the loci in use by my colleagues. With Jarrow removed, there will be a rebalancing of the alliances in our parliament. There will be new testing and new struggles. I shall be watching very, very carefully, and inevitably I expect to have another target for you and your friends to secure on my behalf.”
“You want to use us to knock off the Parliament of Strife, locus by locus” said Amarelle. “Until it’s something more like the Parliament of Ivovandas.”
“It might not happen in your lifetime,” said the wizard. “But substantial progress could be at hand! In the meantime, I’ll be quite content to let you remain at liberty in the city, enjoying your sanctuary, doing as you please. So long as you and your friends come when I call. Doubt not that I shall call.”
17. The Work Ahead
Amarelle met them afterward on the Tanglewing Bridge, in the pleasant purple light of fading sunset. The city was quiet, the High Barrens peaceful, no fires falling from the clouds or screeching things sinking claws into one another.
They gathered in an arc in front of Scavius’ statue. Sophara muttered and gestured with her fingers.
“We’re in the bubble,” she said. “Nobody can hear us, or even see us unless I… shut up, Scavius, I know you can hear us. You’re a special case. How did it go down, Amarelle?”
“It went down like we expected,” said Amarelle. “Exactly like we expected.”
“I told you those kinds of sorcerers are all reflexively treacherous bags of nuts,” said Sophara. “What’s her game?”
“She wants us on an unpaid retainer so she can dig up the loci of more of her colleagues and send us after them.”
“Sounds like a good way to kill some time, boss.” Shraplin wound a crank on his chest, re–synchronizing some mechanism that had picked up a slight rattle. “I could stand to knock over a few more of those assholes. She’d save us a lot of work if she identified the loci for us.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” said Sophara. “Now hold still.”
She ran her fingers through Amarelle’s hair, and after a few moments of searching carefully plucked out a single curling black strand.
“There’s my little spy,” said Sophara. “I’m glad you brought me that one Ivovandas planted on you, Am. I never would have learned how to make these things so subtle if I hadn’t been able to pry that one apart.”
“Do you think it will tell you enough?” said Brandwin.
“I honestly doubt it.” Sophara slipped the hair into a wallet and smiled. “But it’ll give me a good look at everything Amarelle was allowed to see, and that’s much better than nothing. If we can identify her patterns and her habits, the bitch will eventually start painting clues for us as to the location of her own locus.”
“Splat!” said Brandwin.
“Yeah,” said Sophara. “And that’s definitely my idea of a playground.”
“I should be able to get some messages out of the city,” said Jadetongue. “Some of the people we’ve got howling for our blood hate the Parliament of Strife even more. If we could make arrangements with them before we knock those wizards down, I’d bet we could buy our way back into the world. Theradane sanctuary in reverse, at least in a few places.”
“I like the way you people think,” said Amarelle. “Ivovandas as a stalking horse, and once we’ve got the goods on her we dump her ass in the river. Her and all her friends. Who’s got the wine?”
Jade held out the bottle, something carnelian and bioluminescent and expensive. They passed it around, and even Shraplin dashed a ceremonial swig against his chin. Amarelle turned with the half–empty bottle and faced Scavius’ statue.
“Here it is, you asshole. I guess we’re not as retired as we might have thought. Five thieves going to war against the Parliament of Strife. Insane. The kind of odds you always loved best. Will you try to think better of us? And if you can’t, will you at least keep a few pedestals warm? We might have a future as street lamps after all. Have one on us.”
She smashed the bottle against his plaque, and they watched the glowing, fizzing wine run down the marble. After a few moments, Sophara and Brandwin walked away arm in arm, north toward Tanglewing Street. Shraplin followed, then Jade.
Amarelle alone remained in the white light of whatever was left of Scavius. What he whispered to her then, she kept to herself.
She ran to catch up with the others.
“Hey,” said Jade. “Glad you’re back! You coming to the Sign of the Fallen Fire with us? We’re going to have a game.”
“Yeah,” said Amarelle, and the air of Theradane tasted better than it had in months. “Hell yeah we’re going to have a game!”