Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright December 27th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Polly stood quietly. Rias sat at his desk, listening to a report whispered into his ear. Like any self-respecting organized crime family, the Jaspers rarely wrote anything down. They continued the practice even in this lawless part of the world.
The servant left. Rias turned to face her.
She took a breath. She was a master thief, but a poor liar.
She tried to place the emphasis on the “yet.”
Rias stood up. Polly braced herself.
“You were given a second chance for a reason. Do you know what that reason was?”
Polly tried not to shake. Rias could order her death on a whim. She’d betrayed the syndicate and she’d been caught. Everything after that was borrowed time. He seemed to know everything they’d been up to: She and Azarelle, Valis’s apartment, the meetings, everything. And if he knew, the others knew for sure. It was amazing they were still alive.
Polly suspected that Lon had intervened on Azarelle’s behalf. As for her…well, she had a job to do.
Rias wanted to know the details of what Valis was planning. He’d given her three days to find out. Polly had already learned the answer, but if she gave it up she and Azarelle would both have outlived their usefulness. She’d decided to stall, hoping her friend would come up with something in the meantime. She hadn’t told her. There was no reason to stress her out, yet.
Rias was still waiting for an answer.
“You needed information.”
He corrected her.
“Need. We need information. You were supposed to get it.”
“I am getting it. I just need more time. That’s all.”
He shrugged and came around the desk.
“I gave you three days.”
He leaned down into her face.
He nodded to the guards and they escorted her out. Maybe Azarelle was right. Maybe the Jaspers were too ruthless to be counted on. Maybe it would be better to help Valis and hope for the best.
She took a breath in the hall.
What a mess.
Azarelle was meeting with the newcomers. If they were lucky the five of them together would be able to get out from under this business. Back home she would have already have left town. When someone gave you two days to live, if you were smart, you used them to get away.
She left. Azarelle was right about one thing.
They were running out of time.
They sat on their beds. Azarelle stood by the door. She hadn’t told them about the augury yet. For the moment she was just a concerned academic looking for a few new partners.
Still, the vision had been quite clear, especially at the end. The armies of Tormar would conquer the city, the syndicate volunteers would be defeated, Lon and the Jaspers would be killed, and in the end it would be Valis who interceded on their behalf.
They would survive.
She’d told Polly it wasn’t just about the invasion. She’d told her they needed allies so they’d have a backup plan in case everything went south, but the truth was, the more she thought about the augury, the more she was sure that if they backed Valis their situation would be secure.
But to succeed, she would have to convince these people to help. She’d outlined Valis’s plan, though she hadn’t given them his name. Their de-facto leader, a half-elf named Nathanius, now sat at the foot of the bed, hands folded in front of his face, thinking. He’d been sitting like that for more than ten minutes. It was almost a surprise when he spoke.
“Why should we believe you?”
She gave him a stern look.
“Why would I lie?”
He looked up.
“This could be a test. Lon might have sent you to test our loyalty. Word around the house is that the two of you are together. I find it hard to believe you would go behind his back.”
“You’d be surprised.”
The musician spoke up. Her name was Ellyn. She didn’t know the human’s name yet.
“If you’re willing to double-cross him, how do we know you wouldn’t be willing to double-cross us?”
Azarelle turned to her.
“I suppose you don’t, but for the moment we all want the same thing: to be in the best position possible to survive.”
The human in the corner bobbed his head at Nathanius.
“You said we needed a backup plan.”
Azarelle lifted an eyebrow.
Nathanius looked up at her and nodded, grudgingly.
“We were discussing it. But having a backup plan is a long way from actively undermining the syndicate. And who’s to say we would be any better off with Tormar?”
“I told you. I’ve been given assurances.”
“By your friend, I know. The operative. I’m sure he’s trustworthy.”
“He’s kept to his word so far.”
“They always do, until it’s too late.”
Nathanius thumbed in the musician’s direction.
“It’s true. How do you know you’re not being manipulated?”
Azarelle frowned. Maybe there was no way to avoid telling them. You never knew how people would take an augury. Some believed in it; others ranked it somewhere between snake oil and rain dancing.
“I have foreseen it.”
The human raised an eyebrow.
“In an augury. The Jaspers wanted to know whether or not an invasion was on its way. I told them it was.”
Nathanius leaned forward.
“But you didn’t tell them everything.”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t, because the whole truth is that they’re going to lose, and we only stand to lose by helping them.”
Ellyn gave her a sceptical look.
“We only have your word on that.”
Nathanius stood up.
“Ellyn’s right. We’ll have to give it some thought, and if we decide to pursue this we’ll need to meet your friend.”
“I think I can arrange that.”
He opened the door for her.
“We’ll talk again. After that, if your story checks out, we’ll see if maybe there’s some way we can help each other.”
She’d hoped for more, but they hadn’t said no. She walked confidently back to the house, safely hidden by an enchantment she’d constructed using a portion of Valis’s delivery. The second installment had come. She’d left it at his apartment until Polly could swing by and pick it up. In the meantime, she’d taken away a few choice reagents. Her long cloak now gathered shadows like broom gathered dust. In darkness, she was almost completely invisible. The enchantment would last for months.
It would be a late night. She still had to finish the stove for Lon. She chuckled. No rest for the wicked. She just hoped things would go well from here on. Her plans—not to mention her future—would not easily withstand another reversal.
Valis sat back. His trusty viewing lens popped and fizzed as one of its few remaining gems burned out. The meeting at least appeared to have been a success. Azarelle was on her way back to the house. He climbed down from his perch and went inside. Good news. He would soon have more guests.
Only two bottles left, but he wouldn’t need them. Azarelle was responding admirably to her new sense of purpose. It had pained him to use the gods’ magic on her, but at least now she was on task.
Further, the decision to modify her memory had almost certainly saved her life.
His suspicions about her were correct. Absent the halfling’s overriding suspicion and impressed with his ability to procure the reagents and tools she needed, it had been comparatively easy to convince her to share a hot drink, as long as he made it in front of her.
The perks of using an invisible potion. You couldn’t see it in the glass.
Of course, allowing the fire to burn low hadn’t hurt. It was freezing.
“I know. Give me a moment for gods’ sake.”
He threw a bundle of logs on the fire and fanned the flames. No need to conserve fuel. In a few days this would all be done, and his masters’ hearth did not require wood.
He sat in front of the fireplace.
“No, I do not regret it.”
“No, I will not get in trouble!”
“Will you be quiet!? I’ll contact them later.”
Nexus was beginning to get on his nerves. The bird had been full of flippant remarks from the moment he’d made his decision.
That part was true. He’d taken a risk by sparing her life. When the time came he would have to ensure she had the means to disappear.
Perhaps she would be grateful.
He stared into the fire.
Again true. But she would never know about that.
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