“Movers and Shakers”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright March 27th, 2018
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.
Azarelle pulled off her hood.
The guards jumped. As she approached the darkness peeled off of her cloak, shedding into the shadows as she stepped into the torchlight. The guards watched her carefully, weapons at the ready.
This was never going to work.
She couldn’t get Polly’s comment out of her head. She hadn’t even really said anything, but still…it was caught like a splinter in her skin. She was forgetting something.
But now wasn’t the time. She had to focus her attention. Asterious’s half-baked idea was as simple as it was insane. She understood that this was normal for Asterious, but he at least seemed to think the solution to their problem was obvious. What’s the best way to get someone to leave their office and come to the door?
Azarelle half-expected the guards to slay her on the spot. She kept her hands up as she drew near and opened her mouth to speak.
“Go and get Lon, please,” she said. “Tell him Azarelle is back.”
Rias stepped quietly along the deep carpet that lined the hall. He frowned, uneasy. The guards had been required to wait at the front desk. He and his brothers had been asked to give up their weapons. In their lives, they had never been so exposed.
Kiel would have a knife. They hadn’t been searched, and he always kept one hidden, but in the event an altercation, the heavy cudgels of the dominaa’s guards would present a lethal challenge. They would have to tread lightly.
Besides, this was a friendly gathering.
The ladies’ organization was nearly as large as their own. They would need their help in the coming battle, and their support through the night would be invaluable. Almost any deal would do.
The first would be to get the ladies help to send a final message to the city before the night: the reach of the syndicate extends far into the dark.
Nathanius, Asterious, Azarelle, and Ellyn. A fresh row of flayed corpses outside the mansion would create a lasting image.
The guards led them into the concert hall.
The dominaa was seated at a broad, circular booth in the corner. The cushions were red and thick, and the table was set with a banquet of roasted vegetables and meat. She motioned for them all to sit. There were no guards at the table. They took places around her.
It was a fool who would conclude that they had her surrounded. The dominaa knew exactly what she was doing. The walls of the hall were lined with guards. The sloping balcony of the hall bristled with crossbows, and then there was the woman herself: a magic user, and far more than simply dangerous.
Wess spoke up.
“This all looks delicious. May we?”
The dominaa smiled. Her glance lit up the room, falling warmly on stone-hard faces.
“Oh, please do! Help yourselves to as much as you like. I think we won’t get another chance to meet like this for quite a while.”
Rias nodded. Ever the cheerful optimist, Wess grabbed a plate and immediately tucked in. The others waited quietly.
The dominaa uncorked a bottle of wine.
“Something to drink?”
She poured herself a glass and drank. Rias answered with a nod and she poured another for each of them in turn.
Wess reached for the bottle.
“Please, let me.”
She laughed and shook her head.
“Nonsense. You’re my guests. Let me host. I promise you won’t regret it.”
“Of that, dear lady, I have no doubt.”
Rias clenched his jaw. It was common knowledge that the dominaa insisted on her title, but she seemed to let it pass.
The wine poured. Rias sipped it politely. He wasn’t in the mood to enjoy himself. There was business to discuss.
The dominaa clapped.
Her command sang in a vibrato across the room. A pair of heavy red curtains on the stage pulled slowly apart, revealing a single empty chair.
Rias turned to the dominaa.
“I understand you’ve got a new performer?”
The dominaa smiled and leaned back, relaxing against the cushions.
Rias returned his eyes to the stage. A young elf woman emerged shyly from the wings, a long guitar cradled gently in her arms.
It was Ellyn. Rias kept a straight face.
“Is she talented?”
The dominaa sipped her wine and nodded.
Rias sipped his own.
“How did you come across her?”
The dominaa picked up her fork and daintily skewered a carrot.
“She arrived at my door a few nights ago. Ordinarily I wouldn’t take in someone new so close to the night, but she needed help and I owed her a favour.”
Rias raised an eyebrow.
“Did you? That’s rare.”
The dominaa smiled.
She at the carrot.
Ellyn began to play. Rias listened quietly. It was beautiful. He recalled her composition from when she had come into the house, alongside a warrior called Asterious and Nathanius, their old loose-ends man. They were a talented group. It was a shame that their situation had developed so poorly.
Though with Nathanius involved, not entirely unexpected.
The dominaa sat up.
“I suppose you’d like to get down to business.”
Wess set down a forkful of roasted onion.
“I’m afraid so, brother.”
He frowned and gently pushed his plate aside. Rias turned back to the dominaa. She was a good host, and skilled at disarming tension, but they had come here with goals.
His glance wandered darkly back to Ellyn.
It was time to see to them.
Lon got up from the desk and left the room at a brisk trot.
Asterious stared down through the glass.
He looked to his right. Polly wasn’t wasting any time. Her fingers moved like a spider’s legs. A moment later the lock popped open and she lifted up the glass.
“Grab the rope.”
He dropped it down. They’d tied it off to a clay stovepipe. If they were lucky it would the weight; otherwise when the time came to leave they would have to find a window somewhere and jump.
“How much time do we have?”
Polly got on the rope.
“Only a few minutes.”
Asterious furrowed his brow.
“Will that be enough?”
Polly shook her head.
“No way to know. Just hurry.”
She slid down.
The stove pipe held. Asterious put his weight gently on the rope after she was down. He could feel its fibres stretching as he descended.
The pipe started to crack about halfway to the floor.
Asterious let go of the rope. He fell, scrambling for some way to land quietly, but it was no good. It was twenty feet to the ground.
Polly caught him.
He looked down at her, one eyebrow peaked in surprise as she held him aloft.
She grinned, straining. He nodded.
“Well, alright then.”
Polly set him down, reached into her shoulder pack—which Asterious was beginning to think was genuinely bottomless—and drew out the object Azarelle had left with them.
They’d have preferred to bring her in. Had she been able to perform the casting once they were inside, they would have had at least ten minutes to search for the vault before the spell burned through its reagents. Instead she had to perform the casting outside; then they had to lower her back down into the alley so she could go around front. It had taken almost the entire duration for her to lure Lon out of the room.
Polly held it out.
Asterious had seen other spells like it. It looked like a kind of miniature bell shaped from silver wire. Hanging where the knocker would be was a tiny blue stone suspended by a silk thread. At the moment it was lifting itself slightly to one side toward the hall. He took a breath.
“Looks like it’s still going.”
“You go first. I’ll keep it steady.”
Asterious went to the door and pressed his ear against it. He didn’t hear anyone on the other side. He turned and nodded at Polly.
She nodded back. The silk thread trembled.
They slipped out into the hall.
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